A Conversation with Sara Cwynar

By Darby Milbrath

Sara Cwynar (b. 1985 Vancouver, BC Canada) is an artist based out of Brooklyn, New York. Her work is inspired by nostalgia, kitsch and literature. She is represented by Cooper Cole Gallery in Toronto where she recently exhibited her series, Flat Death. She has also exhibited at Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam, Art Basel in Miami, and MOMA in New York. Through methodical collecting and categorizing of old images and materials, Sara reinvents and rearranges memories in contemporary tableaus. The publication of her second book, Kitsch Encyclopedia, is coming up this winter, 2014.



‘Contemporary Floral Arrangements’ 2013

 The theme of Death in your work comes up a lot. For example, the title of your latest series, Flat Death; your reference to DeLillo’s White Noise; the recurring clocks, skulls and kitsch in your arrangements, and the archiving of material possessions through photography as a way of confirming existence. What’s your relationship to Death?

Well, I’m definitely scared of it! I am really interested in this idea of making an external record of experience or a personal archive of sorts as a means of constructing a version or image of yourself that will outlast you – something made up of physical objects. At its most extreme you could think of this as a way to beat death. And this is what we’re doing every time we take a picture – making a reproduction of a fleeting event that will outlast the moment. But as Barthes reminds us in Camera Lucida, when you look at a photograph of someone, they are brought back to life in front of you through the image, at the same time as you are reminded that they are no more – literally dead in the case of really old photographs or at least altered from the version in the photograph. Every time you take a picture you are really making a mini-record.

I am always parsing through my own relationship to existential questions and how this might relate to a constant impulse that I have to save and to photograph. There is something really existential about saving and organizing everything you come across.

Time is Up (Darkroom Manual)

Our Natural World (Books 1)


 Last year I went a bit nuts and purged all of my belongings and moved into a white room. It reminded me of your piece Everything in the Studio (Destroyed). I felt liberated without any belongings. It was terrifying. Since you’re a self professed hoarder, how did this project make you feel? What is the state of your studio since then?

I have since accumulated more than enough stuff to replace everything I threw away! The project was actually cathartic in a sense – I was living in so much stuff it was really starting to weigh on me. But it was also hard to actually put it all in the garbage – some of it was really precious. I guess the thing is that I transferred it all onto a negative – I took a large format photo of it – so that is the one ultimate object that remains.

Don Delillo explains the psychology of needing to purge all your stuff better than I can. This is one of my favourite excerpts from him in White Noise:

 “I threw away picture-frame wire, metal book ends, cork coasters, plastic key tags, dusty bottles of Mecurochrome and Vaseline, crusted paintbrushes, caked shoe brushes, clotted correction fluid. I threw away candle stubs, laminated placemats, frayed pot holders. I went after the the padded hangers, the magnetic memo clipboards. I was in a vengeful and near savage state. I bore a personal grudge against these things. Somehow they’d put me in this fix. They’d dragged me down, made escape impossible”    (from White Noise by Don Delillo)

EverythingInTheStudio (Destroyed)

Everything in the Studio (Destroyed)

I was reading about nostalgia in the late 1600’s as a medical condition. At one point doctors thought there was a Nostalgic bone that could be removed to cure the pain and heartache it can cause. You use nostalgia in your art so much – what are you homesick or nostalgic for?

Yes! There is this awesome New York Times article from the 1800’s about this guy who had been “cured” of his nostalgia, which they define as a heightened state of longing for home, or something really beautiful and over the top like that.

I am, like anybody else, just nostalgic for all the times when I was younger, when things were different, though I know (at least for me) that now is the best time. But it’s sort of impossible to never feel nostalgic. And as a culture we tend to weed out the less pleasant parts of our history and repeat the more charming ones over and over again so everybody as a state ends up being kind of nostalgic for other times. Milan Kundera said, “everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” He means that because history can’t actually repeat itself, we romanticize things that wouldn’t be so great if we could examine them up close – if Robespierre were chopping off French heads in the revolution for all of eternity it wouldn’t be so overly romanticized (this is his example, not mine. I think this is an interesting thing to think about in terms of our relationship to history and to a larger cultural Nostalgia.)

What do you always carry on your person?

Usually a laptop, charger, external hard drive, some negatives (laughs). My friends always make fun of me for having tons and tons of stuff all the time. A Yashica t5 camera, three or so books, sweater, film, iPhone, headphones, the usual!





Color Studies

 Your work gives me an uncomfortable flashback of a girl’s house I used to go to after elementary school. So 70’s, orange couch, hair in the drain, damp smell, kitschy knick knacks, meatloaf for dinner again, Roseanne on the TV.   What is a memory you have?

My memory like that is of these massive junk drawers in my parents house. There was one that was all elastic bands and one that was “twist ties” and then a whole bunch that were just massive assortments of stuff. And my parents house is pretty tidy, but then you can just open these drawers of insanity that maybe give you a more truthful glimpse of the people whose house you’re in. I like the idea that everyone has their own archive in a way but for most people it is these knick knacks, this kind of throwaway junk that finds its final home in the junk drawer. For my latest series of photos, Contemporary Floral Arrangements, I was really trying to find a place for all this stuff, to present it as having art value, show a beauty in it using photography.

Are you excited to publish your Kitsch Encyclopedia? What’s up next for you?

Yes! I am super excited. I’ve been working on the book for three years so it is going to be very very cool to hold a real printed version in my hands. We are hoping to launch that at the LA Art book fair in the winter and I’m also working on some new photographs for a few projects. Lots of exciting things coming up!