If the word becomes a trace: Sevana Holst

If the word becomes a trace: Sevana Holst

Sevana Holst is a writer and visual poet who explores the limits and aesthetics of language. Following her participation in Rea Art Fair (Milan 2021), she won the Superotium residency in Naples. She lives and works in Paris.

Sevana Holst, “Moments” 2023, Paris, series of 8 silver prints on baryta paper with penciled poems on paper, 21 x 29,7 cm, detail

Giulia Elisa Bianchi: What are you working on?
Sevana Holst: I am currently working on a new project with my friend and collaborator, the photographer Maria Estebanez, who also lives in Paris. Our work has many similarities, especially regarding the idea of ephemeral traces and intimate space. Her main medium is photography, while mine is visual poetry and concrete poetry. But we realised that we are able to collaborate together, which is great, because before my work was only based on paper and the limits of text on paper. I started working only with a manual typewriter, and then I evolved to other mediums. And one of the ways to do that is to collaborate with artists who use other mediums. We are currently working on territories and how to inhabit a space and trace territories.

Would you give me more details about this project?
We travelled around South America and I used the means of photography and writing. She used photography. Then we collaborated on a series called Les Cartes Mentales, which consisted of drawing these mental maps that we drew together once a week. From memory, we would try to draw the town or village we had been to and what we remembered. We made nine or ten of them. This took place over a period of nine or ten weeks. Now we are working on something similar: we are mapping a territory of France through sewing. What does this domesticated gesture mean? How is it different from using a pen or paper or a photograph to try to capture a moment and a space and to inhabit a space? It is on these questions that we are pondering.

Sevana Holst, “Moments” 2023, Paris, view of the installation, series of 8 silver prints on baryta paper with penciled poems on paper, each one 21 x 29,7 cm

How did you approach visual poetry?
I have always been an avid reader, I think my initial passion was literature, and I am a translator by trade. I worked in the theatre and did translation projects for theatres. My professional life started with translation work. Reading poetry eventually came to me by chance, and I came across concrete poetry. I had always written a lot and started experimenting on my own with the typewriter and on paper. I realised that what I was doing already existed, of course, and I fell down the rabbit hole.

How did you develop the visual part of your work?
AIn the beginning, as I said, I only used my Olivetti typewriter and I was really obsessed with the typographic aesthetics of the word: the letters, the different fonts and bodies, the repetition. It was like weaving or sewing on paper. I thought each letter was so beautiful. I was really obsessed with the typewriter and the computer. Now I still use the typewriter and the computer, but I actually use the pencil much more with handwritten words. In my last exhibition in Paris last April, I didn’t use a typewriter at all. Over time I think I have become less rigorous, but the visual element is still very important, because it is the aesthetics of the word that conveys the meaning of what I am trying to say.

Marie Estebanez & Sevana Holst, “Cartes Mentales” 2023, Buenos Aires, installation view, excerpts from series of 9 maps, black chalk and paper, 100 x 70 cm

What are your cultural references?
What is really interesting to me about concrete poetry is that it has appeared in different areas of the world, around the same time. There is something very universal in concrete poetry, and that is really funny. If I have to talk only about women in concrete poetry, I think of Ilse Garner (who worked with Pierre Garnier), Mary Ellen Solt, Giulia Niccolai, Susan Howe (who still does incredible work), Tomaso Binga.

Would you tell me about your residency experience at Superotium in Naples in 2021?
I was able to do this residency because I had previously participated in Rea Art Fair in Milan and was lucky enough to be chosen. I did not know Naples well before then, so it was an incredible discovery. My research for the residency was the use of words in the public space of Naples. I thought it was a question applicable to any city. But if I’m going to discover a new city, I might as well dedicate myself to it because it will help me. I mean, this is a great way to discover and bring myself out in this space. What I found, what was really beautiful, is the incredible layering of this city: one of the densest cities I have ever been in in my life. ..The word in public space was everywhere, it was littered from shop windows to the stalls of squatters.

Marie Estebanez & Sevana Holst, “Cartes Mentales” 2023, Buenos Aires, installation view, excerpts from series of 9 maps, black chalk and paper, 100 x 70 cm

How do you consider public space in your artistic practice?
Through the traces in time found on buildings, on monuments, on carved walls. Leaving an imprint or a trace, in a way, is what everyone tries to do, or is what is common to all. The interesting thing is to rediscover these marks.

How did you interface with the question of language and its translation?
The great thing about different languages is that everything is subject to interpretation, always. Being a foreigner in a new space is always an interesting experience. And being in Milan or Naples has opened me up to unexpected spaces of intimacy.

Would you like to tell me about the 2023 ‘Moments’ series? 
There is always a certain subjectivity in photography, but there is also the fixity of the frame. It was a new exercise for me to work from a fixed image and look back in my notes and say: ‘Oh, this photograph, I took it in this period, and it was two interpretations of the same experience’. This parallel play between two experiences that became one again was very interesting for me. It was also one of the first times I wrote directly on paper in my own handwriting. I really liked the mix of paper. It is a standard American size paper, very cheap. Using that paper and these photographs, which were developed and printed for me by a good friend of mine, Lucas Loiseau, a photographer, allowed me to question my interpretation of certain experiences. And this was a completely new exercise for me.

Sevana Holst, “Untitled_2” 2020, typewriter on roll of paper, 5,7 x 175 cm. Exhibition ReA! Art Fair, Milan, 2021

What about the work ‘Everything will not be saved’ from 2021?
At that time I only worked with a typewriter and on paper. I would write the texts in advance and then improvise on the page. There was a play and dance between improvisation and something I had spent time and thought on. The idea that adding a visual aspect to my written words added an extra layer of feeling was very new to me. I liked the game of blurring the words in this visual realm, because the words are harder to read. Does it really matter to read the text? Does the text really matter?

Do you think your language is political?
First of all, my work is very intimate, but the intimate is always political, because the moment you put something out there, it is no longer yours, and everything opens up to interpretation.



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