Walking and talking in the Meadowlands outside of New York City.
I met Bryan Zanisnik at a backyard Brooklyn barbeque party several years ago. Knowing nothing about his work, but quickly learning that he was from New Jersey, I almost immediately began telling him about an essay on the Meadowlands that I had just read on Triple Canopy. Coincidentally, he was the writer behind that essay. Subsequently, we became good friends.
For this interview, we decided to take a trip to the Meadowlands—a place I was aware of and had driven through many times, but had never intentionally visited. The morning of our outing, it was raining and my car had a flat tire. We went anyway. After driving through the Holland Tunnel, and the town of Kearny, we had almost arrived at our destination when we took a wrong turn and ended up at Disposal Road, a wide dirt and gravel path with a lone smoke stack at the end emitting bursts of flame every few seconds to release methane from the subterranean landfill below us.
When we did reach the parking lot we were looking for—next to a baseball field with suburban homes on one side and a body shop on the other—a lone car was sitting in the far corner with a man in the driver’s seat. “A lot of men come here to cruise,” Bryan explained to me in an attempt to assuage my sudden concerns about our adventure. Climbing over tree stumps, and walking through reeds littered with mini alcohol bottles and even a small sack of weed, we ascended an embankment and emerged at a set of abandoned train tracks along which we spent the afternoon walking and conducting this interview.
Sara Roffino People who aren’t from New Jersey don’t know so much about the Meadowlands.
Bryan Zanisnik Yeah, but you knew about it?
SR I knew about it because I’m from New Jersey and Newark was the airport I would fly in and out of when I was kid. When you land in Newark, the first thing you always see is the Budweiser building. It was the landmark to know I was home. I think that’s part of the Meadowlands, right?
BZ Newark is technically on the outer edge of the Meadowlands. The Budweiser Brewery is in Newark, but only a few miles north of the brewery the fields of reeds begin. I tell people that if they ever take a train from New York to Philadelphia, the Meadowlands is that swamp immediately outside of the city. Even people who don’t know the Meadowlands recognize that.
I’ve always been interested in Robert Smithson and the work he made about this landscape. I think a lot about the video Swamp, in which Smithson and his wife Nancy Holt crawl on their hands and knees through the Meadowlands. A few years ago I learned that Smithson’s grandfather was an ornamental concrete sculptor who worked on the tunnels for the first subways in New York City. He did this while he lived in an old house in the Meadowlands and that house is now the Meadowlands Museum. It has no connection at all to Smithson or art history. The museum primarily displays geological artifacts from the area.
SR Why did that house become the museum?
BZ Probably because it’s one of the oldest homes in the Meadowlands. What’s interesting to me about that story is that Smithson’s grandfather was living in a rural swamp in New Jersey, but commuting to nearby New York to help develop its transportation system. There’s always been a tension between New York City and the Meadowlands, as the city is a place of production and activity and the Meadowlands is a place of disposal. The original Penn Station was dumped here in the 1960s, and some of its columns can still be found outside of a truck depot in Secaucus.
SR Do you ever feel a little embarrassed telling people you’re from New Jersey? I’m always embarrassed about it. Whenever I have to tell people I’m from New Jersey, I immediately follow it by saying that my family doesn’t live there any more. (laughter) Do you feel any of that?
BZ I don’t think I particularly do. There are a lot of amazing things that come out of New Jersey, like Philip Roth and The Sopranos (laughter) and I wholeheartedly embrace these things. But if someone mistakenly thinks I live in New Jersey, I very quickly correct them and let them know I live in New York City.
SR So you would drive through here as a kid, and then at some point you started coming on your own. What were the particular things that drew you here, other than the fact that it was off-limits?
BZ Growing up in the suburbs can be uneventful. I was curious about what was beneath the surface of these endless rows of similarly designed homes. As a teenager I realized there were a lot of nearby abandoned buildings that were unexplored and even dangerous. For me, the Meadowlands were thirty-two square miles of unexplored territory. When I started coming here in 2002, I had to order satellite maps of the area because maps you would buy in the store would only mark the adjacent highways.
SR I think I’m not going to use the umbrella.
BZ You’ll be okay? Maybe we should walk on the rocks. It might be easier there and we can take a break at that underpass over there.
SR So, you were talking about the darkness and the unknown and how it doesn’t get deeper than infinitely sinking into the earth, like things do out here. That’s as dark as it can get, right?
BZ The landscape here nearly swallows up everything, primarily because it consists of eighteen stories of clay beneath the surface. A few towns over in East Rutherford there’s the American Dream, a giant entertainment complex with an indoor ski range, hotels, malls, and an amusement park that they’ve been trying to finish for a decade. It’s been delayed by the recession, and by different developers. It’s not even close to opening and parts of it have already sunk six inches into the ground.
SR It’s irretrievable. How does the idea of sinking, or more simply, darkness, relate to your practice in the studio?
BZ Is that a wire? Well, I’m not electrocuted yet, so—
A lot of my work is influenced by Freud’s writing. I think of the Meadowlands and its layers of subterranean clay as the murky unconscious of the surrounding suburbs and nearby New York City. Similarly, my parents’ basement is another underground realm that contains the artifacts from their past, now neatly organized in cardboard boxes. For Meadowlands Picaresque, my recent site-specific installation at Smack Mellon, I used objects collected from the Meadowlands alongside objects from my parents’ basement.
SR Is this okay? [Climbing over wooden planks, soaked and a bit softened by the rain. A few feet below the planks, there is a maze of metal beams and flowing water.]
BZ Yeah, I would say just put your foot down on one to test it before really stepping. See how it feels. Odds are if we fall, we’ll catch onto that metal.
SR I was sort of under the impression that you were moving away from the Meadowlands lately.
BZ I need to take a picture of this, it’s pretty amazing. [Arriving at an underpass with cars driving above. It’s covered in graffiti and framing the landscape in the distance.]
SR I want to take a pause under here to dry the recorder off. I think I’ll take a picture too.
BZ How are you doing? Are you okay? I know we’re roughing it.
SR I love it.
BZ That up ahead is Snake Hill, it’s one of the only natural elevations in the Meadowlands. You’ll see, we’ll get pretty close to it.
So, moving away from the Meadowlands—there’s this series of archives, or specific reference points that I’m always returning to, one being my parents’ home in New Jersey and what they have stored in their garage and basement. There are also certain childhood sports heroes, like Larry Bird, that I return to. I think of the Meadowlands as one of these reference points. It’s not in every piece, and a lot of work doesn’t touch upon it, but I always get pulled back here. In graduate school when I began to edit this found footage of my grandmother’s home movies, I was still coming out here to photograph, but I felt like I had to make a decision. Am I this artist who’s going out to this swamp and photographing it, or am I an artist who’s producing projects about his family? Right after grad school, I didn’t visit the Meadowlands at all because I felt like I was moving away from it. It’s only been in the past two years that I’ve found a way to bring the Meadowlands back into my practice because I saw a relationship between the objects that I was using in my installations and the objects that were being dumped here.
SR The basement would be where the uncanny resides in a home, if you’re thinking about uncanny as the un-home.
BZ Well, the German word for uncanny—unheimleiche—can also be translated as un-home-like.
SR Right, it’s familiar in some layer of your existence, but there’s that intangible part of it that isn’t familiar, or that’s off, that’s wrong, that’s unsettling and it’s present in all of your work. How do you create that feeling?
BZ I don’t overtly try to create the uncanny, because I don’t think that’s even possible. The performances I create with my parents feel really familiar, but it’s as if an alien civilization came to America, observed what was happening, and tried to recreate the scenarios.
SR That’s what I’m asking. How do you construct that? What specific sorts of processes or strategies do you employ to build that?
BZ It’s an extension of the way in which my mind functions. For an artist, I’m incredibly unobservant and I often exist within my own head. I think this comes from growing up as a shy and introverted kid. I learned how to entertain myself. The world around me was boring, but I was constructing scenarios in my imagination or acting them out with my grandmother that were really exciting, and which I controlled. It’s this constructed world that has influenced my work. I create these iconic, American tableau performances as I imagine them and not necessarily as I have observed them.
SR It’s like the physical manifestation of your interior processing. Ew, that was a bone.
BZ Oh yeah, definitely. Animals die out here. It probably died last summer and was eaten by vultures.
SR Gross. I did read that there are a lot of bodies out here.
BZ I never found one. This here used to be a cedar forest, hundreds of years ago, but all the cedar trees were cut down. Now just the stumps are left. At high tide you can’t see them, but at low tide, which is now, you see all these old stumps. In the 1980s, there was a dentist who was on the New Jersey Turnpike Commission and he drove by and saw these stumps and they reminded him of rotting teeth. He demanded that the state uproot all these trees because he thought it was an eyesore, which is funny because the whole landscape is an eyesore. They did try, but they realized it was nearly impossible.
SR What about the idea of lore? It’s present in a lot of your work. There’s that story about your great-grandfather who wrestled a wolf which has come up in several of your performances, and more recently you’ve been doing projects in the Pine Barrens, another area of New Jersey with a lot of lore around it, and even all the mobster stuff in your videos with your grandmother is really about lore.
BZ As humans, we’re so attracted to narrative. We turn everything into a story: relationships, success, there’s always an end goal or an outcome. A lot of my practice is about making work that obfuscates a narrative. I often think about Chris Burden’s Shoot piece. When I first saw that work as an undergraduate student I only saw an image of Burden clutching his arm with a little drip of blood and the story around the image loomed so large. A few years later, I saw the video of the performance and it’s incredibly anti-climactic. He doesn’t seem to be that hurt. The performance happens in a mere few seconds and after being shot Burden walks calmly out of the frame. I realized that the work is more powerful as an oral story, handed down from artist to artist, from professor to student.
SR Wow. I’m scared. [Arriving at the end of the path. Several highway overpasses are visible, a few small shack-like buildings, and large steel boxes of what looks like electrical equipment. Next to one of the shacks is a shiny black car.]
BZ We should go back.
SR The license plate is P-T-A-K-1 New Jersey. Small black sedan.
BZ How did that car get here? There must be another road. What I wanted you to see is that bridge. It’s an old turn-bridge where intersecting rail lines meet and the bridge would turn depending on which train needed to cross. It’s beautiful and you can walk out on it, but we can’t because someone’s out there. Amtrak owns most of this property. They don’t care about us. And see that cabin there? I’ve been inside of it, and there are old office materials scattered around from the ’70s and ’80s. There was also a thirty-year-old open bottle of champagne on a table. On the second floor are all the electronics for this whole bridge. It’s all abandoned now.
SR You never get scared out here?
BZ No, not really, but it’s the kind of place where you don’t want to run into people. We should walk back. We’re going to need to put the heat on in the car.
SR So, back to narrative, you don’t actually employ narrative in any of your performances, do you?
BZ I occasionally employ narrative but not in a linear or straightforward way. When I was an undergraduate student I became interested in James Joyce. The year after I graduated I read Ulysses and then I did two things: I went to Dublin for Bloomsday, the day in which Ulysses takes place, and I went with my mom to see the Broadway production of James Joyce’s The Dead starring Christopher Walken. Ulysses had a real impact on me because it is narrative, but the syntax is incredibly abstract. There’s one entire chapter without any punctuation, for example. That’s either a tampon applicator or a shotgun shell.
SR Or a chapstick!
BZ Ohhhh, or a chapstick! Okay. (laughter) So a lot of my works begin with a narrative when I conceive of them in the studio, but then they go through this Joycean abstraction where I recontextualize and merge images and the objects to see what new associations develop.
SR I’m curious also, since we’re talking about performance, about how you manage the personal. Your parents are a huge part of your work, and it couldn’t be more intimate in that regard, but it somehow doesn’t feel quite personal.
BZ I’ve never been interested in making diaristic work. Yes, I work with my parents, and I want people to know they’re my parents, but I don’t want the work to be read as the study of one particular family. I want the work to speak more broadly about the body as material, familial relationships and people living in America at this time in history. More than personal pathologies I’m interested in what my work says about broader human psychology. For example, in a lot of my work, I place myself in a submissive role. I’ve been dead over a bale of aluminum, trapped inside a miniature swamp, and beat up by boxers twice, to name a few instances. In most of these performances my parents play more dominant roles. For my installation A Woman Waits For Me at SculptureCenter I was trapped inside a display case and my father was leaning over it, staring directly at my protruding head. On one level there’s the appearance of me being submissive, and him being dominant, but in reality I constructed the performance and these psychological roles, so I’m in control. That’s the contract of masochism—that the one who submits is also the one who constructs the contract to begin with and is in control. It doubles upon itself, and these types of dualities were key ideas in Freud’s writing.
SR In the catalogue for Every Inch a Man, the character you perform is referred to as the beta-male, which I really got stuck on.
BZ You disagree?
SR I’m curious.
BZ I think there’s something I’ve always been attracted to about creating a character that is endlessly failing. On some level it may be a reflection of my childhood desire to be a professional basketball player, but never quite talented enough or strong enough to succeed athletically. It’s also a response to over-masculinized artworks that are all about empty aggression and spectacle.
SR What about the beta male? Is that the character you’re constructing? If so, what are the signifiers?
BZ When I was really young, I would often stay at home and constantly watch movies. Some were very violent gangster movies and others were slapstick comedies by Woody Allen or Charlie Chaplin. I think my character is a hybrid of aggressive Italian mobsters and pathos-inducing comedians.
SR When I mentioned the beta male, you quickly responded by asking if I disagreed. It seems like maybe you have more thoughts about that construction.
BZ The character came out of me quite naturally. I never had to sit down and strategically construct him. I learn more about this character from reading what people write about my work than I have from my own creation of him. In 2011 I had an exhibition at the Guangdong Times Museum in Guangzhou, China, and in the accompanying catalogue essay was one of the first written descriptions of my character’s physique—that he was skinny, not incredibly tough, and that Woody Allen was his cinematic reference point. It was the first time I realized that there are signifiers of this character.
SR A lot of people describe your work as commentary on consumption and consumerism and that’s clearly a part of it, but I think there’s more to the story. That stuff—the family archives, the buried detritus—is also how people create their own narratives and how they know who they are. In some ways it is consumerist garbage and in other ways it’s much more nuanced.
BZ Shot gun shell. Definitely. See, I told you we’d see one. [Pointing to a piece of bright green plastic on the ground.]
SR Oh yeah, my childhood neighbor used to come hunting here.
BZ Well, a lot of these materials, especially the ones from my parents’ home are objects my parents and I don’t want anymore: the comics, the baseball cards, the tchotchkes from twenty years ago. We don’t want them, but it feels insincere to simply throw them away. In bringing the objects to my studio and making work about them I believe that the objects and their nearly psychic qualities can live on in the artwork. I don’t embrace magical thinking in my personal life, but I think it’s okay to embrace supernatural thinking in an artwork. It’s a form of animism that I have always been attracted to and it’s freeing to realize that the rules of sanity and logic don’t necessarily apply to art-making. Look ahead—I think after this, we’re back.
BZ Yeah, we walked past this. This is the green swamp, remember?
Bryan Zanisnik's exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia opened May 14 and is on view until June 1, 2014 as part of the ICA's 50th anniversary. He will also present a new performance at LAXART in Los Angeles on July 5, 2014.
Sara Roffino is the managing editor of the Brooklyn Rail.