In Conversation with Zorawar Sidhu and Rob Swainston
The woodblock prints by the artists Zorawar Sidhu and Rob Swainston at Petzel refer to recent harsh events that occurred in the United States and the way we perceive them through iconic media imagery. The prints specifically address 18 moments that took place between May 24th, 2020 to January 6th, 2021—marked by the COVID pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the ensuing protests, and the insurrection at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. The exhibition is on view at the gallery Upper East Side location through February 12, 2022.
The exhibition text describes Doomscrolling as the compulsive act of spending an excessive amount of screen time chasing and absorbing news of doom and gloom. Tell me about the genesis of this body of work.
We both spent a lot of time individually doomscrolling while in quarantine. Zorawar lost his home in Manhattan and had to move upstate. We had already been collaborating on images dealing with the protests in Hong Kong, and then it all happened here. In March, April, and May 2020 we were meeting regularly on Zoom to invent new technical processes newly possible in digital platforms for dividing images into color separation layers suitable for woodblocks. Then the protests started and many of the stores and institutions in Manhattan reacted in fear and boarded up almost overnight. Rob was at that point taking daily bike rides in Manhattan to document all this. This plywood appeared at the time we were looking at all these images of the protests, of the culture wars, and of covid. It was as they say ‘a no-brainer’. But getting the plywood was just a start. It gave us the material to make this project. The way that we look at images, the way we doomscroll with one image overlayed mentally over another overlayed over another is something we had to come to as we were planning images. We came across the idea of montage (as opposed to collage) where images sit on top of each other in literal conflict. This was a real break in the project and we saw this only after being oversaturated with doomscrolling the events of Jan 6, 2021.
The prints in this exhibition are heavily layered images of recent rollercoaster year – pandemic, George Floyd, protests, Kenosha, Trump, teargas. In your previous exhibition, Essential Services, you used found graffitied plywood (covering the Whitney and Moma Museums during protests) – how do you see the relationship between these 2 iterations?
That’s right, both projects use this repurposed plywood. The first project, Essential Services, was at 601 ArtSpace in September 2020. Essential Services came together very quickly while the protests were still going on. We proposed to board up the gallery with plywood that had been heavily graffitied at the Whitney during earlier protests that summer. We carved our own image into the ply drawn from a photo Rob took at protests. The final image was of protestors marching and carrying signs whose content was the graffiti originally on the ply. While this piece was up in the Lower East Side it collected further graffiti. In a way, this perpetuated the plywood’s role as an unintended voice of the people—unintended as the original purpose of this wood was as a shield from the people.
The second project, Doomscrolling, goes much further in its investigation of the media images we have consumed over the last few years. Both projects rely on this plywood as a very conceptually charged material that is in itself a part of this story. The plywood is almost a third collaborator. Materially the distressed wood both aids and interferes with the construction of the images in the show. We are also collaborating with the history of printmaking and art’s engagements with social movements. Woodblock is historically a voice of the people.
Your work documents and comments on socio-political urgencies. How do you see your roles as artists in this context?
All contemporary artists are involved with contemporary social-political urgencies whether they like it or not. What is understandable as ‘art’ in the field of contemporary art is largely politicized aesthetics. We recently participated in an interview for the Brooklyn Rail’s NSE with Andrew Woolbright where we unpack this relationship in depth. We are trying to slow down the read of these images. We don’t want the often unbelievable images from 2020-2021 to get stuck in the past. If they do, we will just repeat them and the social change that was possible in that moment will be lost. We want to keep these images in the public sphere, keep them ambiguous enough where the viewer can participate in decoding them, and to keep them present for the opportunity for a better future.
Tell me about your collaboration. How you started working together and how do you collaborate?
More artists should collaborate. On a meta-social level, we need to learn how to work better with each other. Collaboration is practice for being good global multi-cultural citizens. We’ve been collaborating for four years. This started as a sharing of technical knowledge and exploring new technologies for image making—particularly where it intersects with the older image technologies of printmaking. We also share an intense interest in art history and how color is used in both painting and printmaking.
With Doomscrolling, we collaborated on every aspect of the image, from the original drawings to the carvings, and to the printing. This is much slower than working alone. Everything needs to be verbalized and explained. In a way, the collaboration is a democratic process—the act of collaboration is in itself political. You can really see this in the images. If you know either Rob’s or Zorawar’s work independently of this collaboration, you will of course recognize ‘this is from Rob’, or ‘this is from Zorawar.’ But, when you see the complexity of these images, the numerous ways they function, the tensions in them, and the layers and layers of meaning, you see that it is not possible for just a single artist to make this one image—they are truly emergent.
Is this the finale of your project or are you working on additional iterations?
There are so many leads out of this project. It has been such a generative project and we see so many new things we could do. It’s almost overwhelming. However, we think this particular series is largely finished. In part because we have used up almost all of this plywood. Also, the timeframe for “Doomscrolling”—from May 24, 2020, to January 6, 2021—with these particular 18 image/moments seems to encapsulate this period. There are of course more we could do, more from this time. But these issues are still with us, and if we continue this project, it will be about now and the future, not about yesterday.
Rob Swainston and Zorawar Sidhu Doomscrolling at Petzel January 6 – February 12, 2022 35 E 67th Street