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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

"Don't waste!": Joshua Sofaer on Regulated Exhibition at Backlit Gallery

19 November 21 words: Marta Tavares

Cambridge-born artist Joshua Sofaer loves a bit of rubbish. So much so that in his latest exhibition Regulated Exhibition, currently on view at Backlit Gallery, Sofaer has transformed the gallery into a factory of sorts: a recycling sorting facility, science museum, and contemporary art gallery all rolled into one. In conversation with Leftlion arts correspondent Marta Tavares, Sofaer speaks about his passion for waste, the climate emergency, and his unending curiosity for the world we live in...

The world we live in is full of curiosities and mysteries with so many hidden reasons behind meanings waiting to be found. There is the art, and then there is the artist.

Joshua Sofaer, born in 1972 in Cambridge, England, is an artist who didn’t follow a straight path into the performance and installation which he works with now. He didn’t grow up aspiring to be an artist. The truth is that it took him a long time to call himself an artist.

“I am a person who is hungry for experiences and I’m curious about the world and people in it. I’m probably over sensitive to pretty much everything and often fighting with myself.” Within the first thirty seconds of our talk, Sofaer had offered a description of himself in the most candid way.

In his early years, Sofaer decided he wanted to be an actor. Studying his BA in Drama & English Literature at Bristol, a Postgraduate Diploma in Filmmaking, and later a MA in Fine Art at the Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, Sofaer’s academic journey eventually led him to a PhD from the Dartington College of Arts.

Sofaer believes that the way he found himself in the current practice of arts was a process of education, an elimination of realising what he wanted and didn’t want to do through different experiences. To the question what is an artist, many answers can come up; either all of them can be real or none, it is how each views the world and the word art and artist.

“Everyone can be an artist; an artist can be almost anything. You can inhabit different kinds of positions through art practice.”

To the person who doesn’t believe they can be an artist - due to the thought of the artist having to be someone with a disciplinary expertise - Sofaer would now argue differently to his past self.

Sofaer has grown through the experience of working with materials culture, as some of his previous work includes rubbish and false noses made from plastic and metal. It is the people that have crossed his path, getting a glimpse into the window of others’ lives - their journeys and their stories - that is what really feels different within his career. Not only does he travel geographically, but also through ideas.

“The thing that amazes me the most about the world is that it continually escapes comprehension, that it is always beyond your knowledge,” explained Joshua, expressing his personal fascination for the planet we call home. 

There is no greater inspiration behind the artist's work, there is no greater force or a shining light at the end of the tunnel; it is, Sofaer explains, “more like an itch, something that you scratch. It is about asking questions; what questions do I want to ask.”

Although Joshua became very disillusioned with theatre after achieving his BA in Drama & English Literature, he has always felt that it was fun to do, though always unbearable for him to watch. Behind every artwork, exhibition and event he’s part of is a desire to involve and engage his audience with his work. 

“Sofaer is concerned about people, and believes honouring materials is also a way to honour one another.”

Sofaer sees art as a way of doing, involving people intimately in the process and connecting to his audience and community. He describes his art in one word: curiosity.

That is the way he feels while creating it. Asking questions, wandering and getting some kind of provisional answer through the art, however always getting to the conclusion that the more you learn about something the more you realise that you don’t know. 

Sofaer has created art with ‘waste’ for 21 years now - a page on his website is simply titled “Rubbish”. Spending three months in Brazil, Sofaer followed “catadores”, human scavengers of rubbish, making him face and be in contact with a real problem. Trying to get close to those people was quite hard as he found not only language barriers but also the poverty and culture differences, complicating the idea of making human connections and getting directly involved in people’s lives.

Sofaer wasn't really interested in ecologic and sustainability problems at first; it was mostly about the materiality and a critique of galleries and art institutions, as well as the idea of the found object. The idea that gallery context made something accrue value was under fire from Sofaer, focusing his interests on how to turn this paradigm on its head. 

However, over the last 20 years, Sofaer has become more aware of the climate urgency, understanding that he also wanted to play an active role in it. 

His most recent exhibition, Regulated Exhibition, opened at Backlit Gallery on October 1st. Holding a longtime interest in Backlit, Sofaer now had the privilege of working with the gallery, having been offered the opportunity to work with the Environment Agency.

The main difference between doing the residency with the Environment Agency in 2019 and his previous waste works was the relation to people, not just to the materials. Having a sense of the life and personal perceptions of the people he shadowed in 2019, who worked with waste for a living, impacted Sofaer’s reality and experience around waste and the creation of the exhibition.

Within this exhibition, mixing waste and art, Sofaer wants to awaken and trigger the consideration towards the value of the materials we encounter on a daily basis.

Sofaer is concerned about people, and believes honouring materials is also a way to honour one another. 

“It’s not about ‘you better do recycling’, it’s about valuing materials and to think about it in quantity. The numbers involved in waste, you don’t know what a ton of waste looks like.” says Joshua. 

The exhibition is about measurements and weight, and how we think about scale. A ton of plastic waste is, quite literally, spread on the Backlit floor. The final design for this exhibition was shown on October, Saturday 30, where a live “body casting” of a person weighing precisely 98.66 kg, made of plastic, was presented to the public. It aimed to be a live realisation of how much is enough, and if it will ever be enough? 

What can be worse for an artist than being professionally misunderstood?

“I once had work absolutely embedded in the community which was a success. Later, whilst showing documentation of the work somebody compared it with Jeff Koons. I was flattered but it was so radically different from what actually had happened, that I realised one of the hardest things to talk about is how community is moved or changes values in a project afterwards.” 

Sofaer is someone whose goal is to feel okay with what has been done; to look back and to feel fine. Sofaer doesn’t feel the need to be proud of his work or life; the simplicity of feeling okay is enough to make him feel full as a person.

Haunted by questions of what is the right path to be on if he’s doing the right thing or if he should be doing something else - Sofaer views life as an “endless inner journey of punishment and reward that we inflict upon ourselves.” He goes further to say that life is “a personal journey that we’re all going on. No matter what we’re doing in the world, who we are or how we are as members of our family, as lovers, as friends or in our professional life.”

The reverse of climate change would be the thing to change about the world in his opinion; to avoid a catastrophe that future generations will be faced with. Through his exhibitions, Sofaer brings awareness, curiosity, emotions and hopefully interest and consideration on people’s mindsets, values and hearts.

“Don’t waste,” he implores. “With every meaning that it could mean - don’t waste!”

And that leaves people to think, to wonder, and to raise curiosity. How much waste have you been making in your life, and in which meaning of the word?

Joshua Sofaer: Regulated Exhibition is on view at Backlit Gallery until December 5.

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