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Tusk: Jessica Sarah Rinland on Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another

Jessica Sarah Rinland & Richard Sabin (Curator of Mammals at the Natural History Museum) with the replica elephant tusk (Photo by Thierry Bal)

When we enter a museum and engage with its objects, we might not think about the people responsible for making those experiences available to us. Behind the public walls of the museum, conservators, preservationists and historians work tirelessly to restore and preserve the artefacts that we as visitors ponder over. These undertakings are celebrated, explored and reflected upon in Argentine-British artist Jessica Sarah Rinland’s latest film, Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another. It’s an investigation that amplifies the tactile qualities of the many processes involved in repairing objects, fabricating copies and ensuring their long-term saving as historical records, presenting actions in close-ups filled with haptic energy.

Filming in multiple institutions across the globe, Rinland also uses the film as an opportunity to consider the place of the artist amidst these tasks by creating a replica of an elephant’s tusk on screen herself with the aid of conservators. Rinland’s corporeal presence within the film reconsiders the role of the artist within the schema of the subject explored—a consideration missing from conventional documentaries about craft where the filmmaker only observes. Apropos, Rinland’s practice as a whole involves close and long-term engagement with her subjects, affording a more proximate mode of seeing that also populated her prior film Black Pond (2018)—concerning the work of Natural History Society members – with so many memorable moments. Above all, there’s an imbued appreciation for the labor of those preserving history in Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another, which brings the viewer into dynamic meetings with ivory tusks, jewellery boxes, monkeys, pottery and more. Through Rinland’s film, we might reconsider the actions that draw the term “artist,” given that the practitioners she celebrates so often have to gain a deep understanding of the original crafter’s work in order to carry out their own. 

Prior to the film’s appearances at True/False, Cinema du Reel, FICUNAM and Glasgow International Film Festival, Rinland spoke about the research involved in the film, her own appearance within it, how conservation practice often mirrors the natural world, and the film’s extended life through her long term engagement with museum practitioners.

Filmmaker: Was there a specific preservation project that inspired you during the research stage? How did the film evolve?

Rinland: It started around 2015. A friend of mine was working at the V&A and had overheard a conversation about a cupboard filled with ivory in the conservation department. My friend later put me in touch with Nigel Bamforth, the director of furniture conservation there. I was interested in there being a cupboard filled with raw ivory at an art museum versus a natural history museum.

I’d go in every so often and chat with Nigel. He’s interested in other ways of thinking about conservation, so I ended up spending a lot of time with him and we talked about other museums doing this kind of work. The Natural History Museum is a museum I’d worked at a few times when working on previous projects with whales, and Richard Sabin—the curator of mammals—put me in touch with Lorraine Cornish, the head conservator there, so I spent a bit of time in the lab with her and her colleagues. When thinking about making the tusk replica, Richard and I chose a tusk from the Natural History Museum collection. I was then led to the facsimile technician at the British Museum, Mike Nielson, by another friend working at NHM.

I had funding to spend time in Brazil working with archaeologist Eduardo Neves, who introduced me to various museums across the country in Belem, Manaus, São Paulo and Rio. I had a residency at Harvard at the time, so the tusk went on to be made and conserved at the Straus Center for Conservation at Harvard Art Museums.

Filmmaker: And you appear in the film, making the replica of the elephant’s tusk. Your voice often informs us about the various technical processes. How did you fall into doing that practical work yourself?

Rinland: It was really through spending time with a lot of these people, not just conservators but archaeologists and curators as well. They were all conserving in one way or another. The work that they do is incredibly detailed, through making replicas and writing technical reports. A technical report by Tony Sigel from Harvard’s Strauss Cenre on a Bernini stucco he was restoring showed the whole process, including wedging of the clay in order to understand how to restore the original. The paper described specific things—not only how the clay was wedged, but also how the artist would use their pinky finger rather than their thumb to move the clay towards them rather than away from them. It’s these incredible details that you only really have when you’ve spent time with the objects, closely looking. 

I saw this as the conservator embodying the artist, and as an artist myself, I was interested in flipping the process around, myself embodying the conservator. That’s where the idea of making the replica tusk on screen came from. I wanted to use all the methods, like newer ways of replicating using 3D technologies, as well as more historical ways that are still used today in order to make the replicas—slip casting and plaster moulds and so on—and learn from the people you see in the film. I also worked with a sculptor, Joel Seidner, as I hadn’t worked with slip casting before. And Luis Arnías, a filmmaker, shot whilst my hands were on screen. It was really about exploring that relationship between artist and conservator.

Filmmaker: One thing that really struck me was how some of these processes mirror the way the natural world works. You say how slip casting mirrors how an ivory tusk would be fossilized, for example. Could you talk more about your interest in those parallels?

Rinland: Yeah, not all tusks become fossilized—mammoth tusks are held in colder temperatures, for example—but those coming from areas with warmer climates which have been fossilized go through this type of mold and casting. This parallel between the way that artists and the natural world works with the material is interesting to me. There always has been some kind of relationship between artists with materials extracted from the natural world. That’s what interested me about the ivory tusk, this link between ecological conservation and museological conservation. It’s the perfect link as well, because there is the important factor of value—what is the value within the natural world specifically to biodiversity, as well as in the museological world?

I explored that more in the sound, where I use a layer of manipulated recordings—natural sounds—on top of the foley. Not on the parts where I’m making the tusk, but in the scenes where the experts are working. I worked with Philippe Ciompi, who I usually work with on the sound design. We spoke a lot about the relationship between the materials the conservators were working with and wanting to link them back to the natural world. So, rather than looking at the box Nigel is fixing from the perspective of where that box comes from, we thought more about where the ivory itself comes from. So, the sound design links back to these external spaces from the lab setting.

Filmmaker: I noticed for example, in the scene where you’re using the extractor to reveal the 3D print, the audio sounds like breathing, and you have the hum of lights in some moments, as well as the songs from the radio in the background—it really gives you an audible understanding of those spaces. What was the process of building sound from the ground up like? Did you have that approach in mind from the start?

Rinland: In the scenes where I’m working with Luis and Joel, we were working long hours, so most of the time we just had a boom on a tripod, recording throughout. So, it’s the music that we were listening to and the conversations we were having at the time. Sometimes we’d talk about elephants or a specific material. Occasionally I’d ask Luis to tell me a story about something to do with replicating or copying—that’s how he told me about his childhood friend who would dress up in green to mimic a tree. Those elements are more naturalistic, diegetic sound, but the rest is foley and sound design.

The way I worked on this film was very much one thing after another and not a lot of pre-production planning. The sound design came later. I sat down with Philippe at the editing stage, and we laid down the foley I had done. We talked about there being a difference between the shots that I appear in – which are in 1.66 aspect ratio – and the other footage of the experts working, which are in 1.37. We wanted there to be a difference, but nothing that takes you out of the fil—a soft difference between the two, like how the aspect ratio change itself works visually. After we had laid down the foley it was just too stark between the two spaces. We spent a lot of time talking about it. Philippe would question the scene with the monkeys at the beginning, so I would explain the link to the natural world that I wanted to make—about conservation in the broader sense—and one day I realized that adding natural sounds on top of the foley was the way to do that. So, natural sounds and manipulation, which Philippe is really good at, that’s what we arrived at. It took quite a long time for it to get to that place. It was a lot of trial and error, I didn’t really have a script. I was, however, writing a book at the same time, thinking about how much information I wanted to give the viewer, or that the viewers need. And I usually work with voiceover, but I didn’t want to in this film. This book was explaining everything that I wanted to say and exploring how much of that information was necessary in the film to kind of, not tell the audience, but make them feel something—suggesting rather than telling.

Filmmaker: The close-ups you use are involved in that as well. It really gives the viewer a tactile investment in the work that people are doing. More recently, it feels like close-ups are increasingly excluded from documentaries in favour of full body shots and talking heads. Could you talk about approach the work through close-ups in that way?

Rinland: It was kind of instinctive. I’d spend a lot of time in these spaces and regularly went back, spending time in the lab with these people. I didn’t shoot much more than what you see in the film, so it was shooting mostly in close up, as I felt that that was what was necessary to replicate the closeness that the conservators had with the objects. I guess that in documentaries nowadays, and for a while, it has mostly been about wider shots, because you’re waiting for the action to happen and you want to be as wide as possible to capture the events. But when you think back to early BFI and Pathé documentaries, there were a lot of close-ups. I come from watching a lot of those early educational documentaries. I love watching them, I love having issues with them, I love subverting them. But there are more close-ups in those.

It’s down to the way that I like to work, really. I like getting to know people, and talking to people who know different things, learning different types of knowledge. So, that style of close looking, I think, comes from relationships. I’d shot part of the film before filming me making the replica, so I already had footage which I shared with Luis for continuity in the tusk replication part, and there was always the conversation where he’d say “let’s shoot one wide because you’ll need to establish location, at least so you have it,” but yeah, I did end up editing in only the close ups!

Filmmaker: Something that the film highlights so well is how many of these objects and processes exist in museums. Is there a hope on your end that viewers and artists will engage differently with museological institutions going forward?

Rinland: Well, Harvard Art Museums e-mailed me a couple of months ago. I’d gifted them a tagua nut, the vegetable ivory seed that you see in the film when the tusk is being x-rayed. Angela Chang, conservator at the Harvard Art Museums, e-mailed me to say they were testing the nut to restore ivory on a Pieta. It was an incredible outcome, that my project had influenced the way that they work with these objects.

It’s something I write about in the book, the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in museums when restoring objects, including non-human subjects. Before they start restoring, they might spend up to a year talking between the conservator, the art historian, the curator to work out whether or not the object should even be restored. I was thinking, “what if there was an artist involved in this process of restoration?” I realised how necessary it is. And it is happening to some degree—at the Harvard Art Museums they conduct recorded conversations with artists whose work they have acquired about how they’d like their work to be restored, so it is something being worked on with the living artists themselves, but I’m talking more about having artists involved in the restoration process. If you have an object and an artist is interested in one of the materials—like I am in ivory, for example—they come in and, through conversations and collaborations, everyone might work out a more innovative or ethical way of working with the collection. Bringing in a different knowledge system,people that have a different way of thinking or knowing into these conversations—that was a real interest and a huge part of this project, and, in a way, it was successful. 

This is not new at all, it’s something that’s come from Jorge Otero-Pailos’s “experimental preservation.” I was interested in infiltrating the museum and adapting ideas of conservation that have been developing slowly in the past few years. Conservation has always been historically varied: you can have two museums in the same city doing completely different things because the Head of Conservation has very different ideas about what conservation should be. That way of thinking was a huge part of the project, as well as exploring conservation through institutional critique. I developed a syllabus that I’ve taught a few times, which I’m teaching at UnionDocs in New York City in May, called “Moving a Still Artefact.” It’s an exploration of how film can subvert the way that we view or study museums, and how we can view museums and objects that live within them in turn.

The most concrete museum infiltration that I had planned since talking to Richard Sabin about making the ceramic tusk replica was its donation back to the Natural History Museum. It was donated last November and currently lives in their archive. It is accessible to the public via request. The process of applying to view the ceramic tusk is part of the work, as well as the viewer’s subsequent access to viewing more than 99% of the museum’s collection, which lives in the archive. 

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