Interview | Sian Torrington

Hi Sian, great to have you back up in Auckland!  Your new show ‘Intimacy Stages /  Active Empathy’ is being held alongside works from your recent ‘We Don’t Have to Be the Building’ project. Can you tell us how the new work extends on the earlier project?

Some of the works in the new show are from We Don’t Have to Be The Building, which was a year long, embodied, passionate research project into queer female activism in the past and present. I used creative ways of working to tell and listen to stories; through archives, conversation, and also by drawing people. It’s very intimate to sit with a person for a couple of hours and draw them, and it’s vulnerable too, on both sides. I draw on the wall, so the person I drew could see everything. It was completely up to them how they sat or moved, what they wore, and what I drew. The whole project was based on a model of fully informed consent where you can say yes or no at any time. So we discussed how they felt about it all the way through. Traditionally the artist has a lot of power and dictates how the model poses, how long they sit or stand for, and so on. I wanted the agency to reside with the person being drawn, as it is their body, and whatever I draw is a gift to me, not a right.

There are also works that are from Self-Portrait, which I showed at Enjoy Public Art Gallery in Wellington, in 2015. This large scale work was a fluid gathering of genders and identities lived in my body. I wanted to show imperfection, fear, anger, and the shifts of living in a queer, female, gender queer, sexual body. These works are all about how it is to be in a body, rather than just to look at a body. My experience is that body can feel huge, or small, tight or expansive, unitary or fragmented. That it is not a simple place. The drawings are my way of representing this.

There are also new drawings here, and assemblage works. This is the largest drawing show I have ever made, and it brings together the figurative and abstract, as well as sculpture.

Your show is being held during the Auckland Pride Festival, and on Ponsonby Road – the heart of the Pride Parade. How important is it to you that your work is received in this context?

This project has been all about reaching out to my communities, and making offers. The offers are as generous as I can make them, and come with no expectations. The offers are a way of trying to be useful to my communities and to activism through being creative. As an artist I want to feel like I have a job in the world; one which is important. I think that job is about transformation, communication, presence and reflection. And making sure that the work is seen by the people who contribute to making it with their stories and bodies. I wanted to bring this work to Auckland to share it with people here, and the Pride Festival seemed like the perfect way to do that. The show will be open on the Saturday from 11am till 7, and I welcome people who are coming to the parade to come visit. By then the ten metre drawing that I will be making over the next three days of people who wish to be part of it will be finished. It will be a document of this Pride week, and the encounters and intimacies that have been formed through drawing here.

People are invited to take part in the new work by being drawn, you will ‘draw whatever the participant offers’ be it a small glimpse of a finger or something more revealing. Whether it is a significant ‘reveal’ or not, this is no doubt an intimate experience for your participants and yourself. What are the challenges for you as the artist in this type of scenario?

I think that it is always revealing regardless of which parts of the body are drawn. We tend to think of some parts as more significant than others, but in my experience of this project, for queer and trans* people participating, the act of being seen and the presence with each other is intimate in itself. Everyone I drew came for a reason, and it was meaningful for them to deliberately choose to be seen and drawn, as well as the incredibly brave act of consenting to those images being put on the street as a public art project.

For some participants it acted as a kind of blessing on their bodies that have shifted into their genders, or changed through surgery. To show me, to be included, to be seen and honoured in this way was a powerful experience. For me it was and is an incredible honour and responsibility to be trusted with peoples’ body and being to draw. It is challenging to make sure I do a good job, but also to let go of my expectations of what the drawing needs to be. The action is one of presence, and whatever the drawing is will be the right thing.

I decided not to alter the drawing in any way after the person left, which meant sometimes I wanted to keep drawing as we often do. So this act of acceptance of the drawing as it is, felt powerful and challenging too. Finally, I told all participants that no drawing would ever be shown unless they were happy with it. So there was a letting go of control or outcome in this. It felt like the only way to again, make the process consensual and shift the power of the artist towards the participant and their ownership of their body and image.

Lastly, how can people get involved in the project?

I have been taking bookings for drawings over the next three days and am now completely full! But people can come and see the show, and I will be drawing in the space. I will also have an event on Saturday pre-parade with music and dancing, all are welcome. The ten metre drawing will be finished, and we can share and celebrate it together. This will be from 5.30 on Saturday, come visit!

You can also invite me to come to your town with this project or poster the works up on your walls. I’m passionate about sharing this process and I visit!

The show is open Thursday Feb 23, 11am – 5pm

Friday Feb 24, 11am – 7pm

Sat Feb 25, 11am – 7.30pm

I am also showing all of the 16 works from We Don’t Have to Be The Building at Silo 7 in Silo Park for the next couple of weeks.

There is also a soundtrack to the works that are a Silo 7. This can be streamed or downloaded for free from

This project has been supported by GABA, studio one and Phantom Billstickers