M Museum’s Eva Wittocx on Sarah Morris

Curator Eva Wittocx talks to us about working on Sarah Morris’ (1967) new exhibition, Astros Hawk, showing now at M Museum Leuven. Eva talks on Morris’ painted ‘virtual architectures’ coexisting with her films – both serving to reveal the power structures and institutions of large cities.


Wendy Bowman © Parallax.

What were the starting points of the exhibition? Did you have any pre-conceived intentions / directions you wanted to give the show?

The starting point was to bring both the films and paintings of Sarah Morris together in a large-scale monographic exhibition. Morris sees the paintings and films as two sides of the same coin, both depict social space. Whereas the paintings are slowly produced and constantly evolving, the films are bursts of activity involving much negotiation and many individuals. The two temporal speeds enable the other to exist. Both forms of art show the coordinates of a city. The artist wants to reveal the power structures of cities, bureaucratic institutions, media and architecture. In her paintings her choice of colour is a careful articulation, from diverse elements she encounters while visiting and moving through a place. The exhibition wants to cover all these aspects in her work. I also wanted to include her latest film ‘Strange Magic,’ originally commissioned for the opening of the Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris, designed by Frank Gehry. The film surveys France’s production and manufacturing of luxury goods as the source of capital for the construction of the museum itself. Morris deconstructs the machinery behind France’s cultural currency – in this case, fashion, fragrance, champagne, and architecture – to probe its national identity and the inherent fantasy in the concept (and desire) of luxury.


Maqta [Abu Dhabi] (2015), M – Museum Leuven, Courtesy Sarah Morris, (c) Dirk Pauwels.

How does the exhibition’s name help to evoke its content?

Astros Hawk is the name of a certain rocket produced in Brazil. Sarah Morris came across this name while doing research for the film Rio, made in 2012. She also links the reference to a hawk, a bird that will be featured in one of her next films. Also, she was attracted by its sound, that it’s both funny and precise, a bit science fiction and as somehow related to hunting. The titles to her shows always function in this open way.


Sarah Morris. Film: Beijing (2008), 35mm, 84 min. 47 sec. Courtesy of Parallax.

As with the use of the word hawk, and the play on its possible meanings, do other titles of her works suggest via form and content the possible significations of the titles, and if so, how? 

The titles hold a specific but open reference to what is depicted or at the base of a certain painting, diagram or colour combination. These can be buildings in a specific city, a company, a certain system or structure. Works that are in M from the Rio series: Banca Alliança, refers to the façade of this bank/building, or Eletrobras, refers to the logo of the national Energycompany in Brazil: EletroBras. For every series, such as Rio, she carefully chooses a colour palette with which the paintings are made. The colours come from those that she noticed after spending so much time there (Rio), they come from buildings, advertisement, umbrella’s on the beaches, bossanova records, etc. Also the graphics are related to these elements.


Sarah Morris. Rose [Origami] (2014), Based on a crease pattern “Rose” by Nobory Miyajima, (c) Dirk Pauwels.

How would you describe the majority of the works in the show? In a more general sense, how would you describe the artist’s work, her approach and aesthetic? 

The exhibition brings several series of paintings and drawings, four films, including the most recent film, Strange Magic (2014), Rio (2012), Beijing (2008) and 1972 (2008), and a large-scale site-specific wall painting. Her works play with the architecture and psychology of urban environments (see above). Her abstract, diagrammatic paintings employ and create a ‘virtual architecture’ that play with notions of social space, identity, and capitalism. Morris incorporates a wide range of references including Oscar Niemeyer, perfume distillation, airports, crowd control, Olympic Games, advertising, prostitution, the Eiffel Tower, Romy Schneider and the Sambódromo, among many others. Her work is located at the crossroads of Pop, Conceptual art and geometric abstraction.


Vlnr: Sarah Morris. El Ultimo Testigo [The Parallax View] (2013) & 1976 [Rings]. (2008), (c) Dirk Pauwels.

In terms of approach, how did you go about producing the show? How involved was the artist? How closely did you work with him/her? Can you talk to us about the selection process? How easy, or not, was it to get hold of all the pieces? 

She and her studio Parallax were very involved, and there was close collaboration for all aspects of the show. The selection process was made based on the 7 monumental spaces available in the museum, and looking for a right rhythm and balance between having 3 film rooms (fully equipped, with high quality projectors and sound, carpet, benches, etc.), 3 rooms with paintings and work on paper, and a room with a large-scale, new, wall painting and a film.

As a curator, how important is your relationship with the exhibited artist?

It’s very important, you work together on making a selection of the works you show, and you try to mediate an exhibition for several audiences.


Sarah Morris. Film: Beijing (2008), 35mm, 84 min. 47 sec. Courtesy of Parallax.

From research to scenography, can you discuss the various people involved in the show?

The first stage is mostly a dialogue between the curator, the artist and the studio/assistants of the artist. We first came into contact towards the end of 2010. In 2013, when traveling in Europe, Sarah Morris came to visit the spaces. From then on we talked about specific dates and the selection of works. When the show became more concrete, when the selection was made, the full team of Museum M was involved in many ways; from the coordinator, to the production manager and the communication department. The new wall painting was made during a period of one month with a team of 5 people working under the supervision of one of Sarah Morris’ assistants. They painted the artist’s design on the walls of the museum; the first week they taped the geometrical shapes on the wall, then the painting happened in many different layers and colors. When Sarah arrived a week before the opening she changed some of the colors a little, finalizing the work.


Sarah Morris. Casa das Canoas [Rio], (2013). Friedrich Petzel Gallery, (c) Dirk Pauwels.


Vlnr: Sarah Morris. Eletrobas [Rio] (2013), Total Lunar [Rio] (2014), Cosan [Rio] (2013) & Il Coltello Nell’Acqua (2014), (c) Dirk Pauwels.

What do you feel is the exhibition’s main statement? And how do you feel it fits in with the artist’s oeuvre in a more general sense? 

The show gives an overview of the works she has made in the last 10 years; hence the exhibition says nothing different than what her work is about.


Sarah Morris. Film: Beijing (2008), 35mm, 84 min. 47 sec. Courtesy of Parallax, (c) Dirk Pauwels.

As a curator, how do you select the artists whom you’d like to exhibit? Would you say your shows all have somewhat of a common denominator to them?

It’s hard to say, I guess the artists I work with have the ambition to give both an insight into the world we live in, and to question it at the same time. I am not so much interested in images, but in artists that manage to work with the space and create an experience for visitors.

What do you hope viewers will get from visiting the show? 

I hope it will make them think, and look closer at the reality we are all part of. Perhaps to raise some skepticism towards the structures and networks that we are in and that surround us.


Vlnr: Sarah Morris. Esther [São Paulo] (2014) & Annual Solar Eclipse [Rio] (2014), (c) Dirk Pauwels.

Feature image: Portrait Sarah Morris (c) Karine Basilio.
Sara Morris: Astros Hawks
M Museum Leuven
Runs until the 20th March, 2016