I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Maier and Day Jackson reflect on their most recent large-scale projects and on their shared interest in territory and space exploration.
Matthew Day Jackson We are having a conversation about our recent exhibitions. Yours:
Ati Maier The Map is Not the Territory at both Pierogi gallery and The Boiler in Williamsburg.
MDJ My show is called Something Ancient. Something New. Something Stolen. Something Blue. At Hauser & Wirth on 18th Street. There are a lot of recurring themes in our exhibitions, right?
AM Yes. We want to talk about those themes. The title of your exhibition, does it have something to do with marriage?
MJD Yeah. It’s about a marriage of material and form. I like to think that the show is a wedding of things that maybe hadn’t met each other before. Something Ancient is the language that we are speaking. You and I are caretakers of the language of art in this brief moment while we are here on planet Earth. That language is ancient. It has no trace. Something New is what we make, not just me but the things we make in this collision of materials and existing icons, which results in something new. Something Stolen is about irreverence in the way I reference things; I don’t believe that anything that I have developed is really totally mine. Nothing is made in a bubble Something Blue is Yves Klein. What is your title about?
AM The Map is Not the Territory is about space exploration and claiming territory. As Carl Sagan said, “Our understanding of the cosmos begins in the mind.” My whole show is about the moonwalk of the Apollo 11 mission. I use the line of man’s first walk on the Moon in my video and drawings. The video is taking place on two different planets where I follow this path on horseback.
MDJ There is so much information in your show. One sees two distinct spaces, and the way you have expressed travel between those two spaces is like galloping through outer space. Then, there is a third space and it’s not until you have been there for a while that you recognize that you’ve been there.
AM But there are actually only two different planets.
MDJ I disagree. I recognize that there are only two places, but one of the things I really like about your video (and its environment) is that it is so dense with information that by the time you have watched the loop twice, the division is nearly impossible to locate. I think it would have to loop a bunch of times to make the viewer really feel like they had been to either of the two spaces before.
AM Oh, OK.
MDJ So you are re-performing the moonwalk, riding a horse. Why?
AM I wanted to take that path somewhere else. I did the same in my drawings, where I used the line of the first moonwalk and then overlaid it with a drawing of the Eiffel Tower or the Columbia Space Shuttle, other high achievements of mankind and the cutting edge at these specific moments in history. In that sense we work similarly—bringing these milestones together on the same piece of paper, or in one sculpture.
MDJ Absolutely. When you’re re-performing this path on two planets that don’t really exist, it becomes a map for exploration of theoretical and imaginary spaces. There is a sense of sadness in that or a longing.
AM Yes, there is. I’m on a search. I am looking for a home or a homestead and I mark an uninhabited planet by planting my flag, on which I painted a symbol of the space rider. I am the space rider and the horse is my space ship, we are following a comet in the sky along the line of the first moonwalk. On the first planet, the flag is already planted. On the second planet I get off the horse and plant the flag, again referencing the Apollo 11 mission and playing with the relativity of time and space.
MDJ You are wearing an Ikea lamp on your head as a helmet and so does your horse. I went to the show with Everett, my three-year-old son, and he was immediately believing it. I did not find any humor or comedy in it and I think that is actually one of the greatest things about the work. You were able to go beyond that and into the actual pathos of sadness, or something akin to sorrow. It is deeper than a sort of melancholy.
AM Well, I am alone. It’s just me and the horse. That brings me back to your large bronze sculpture of the Burghers of Calais. What’s it called?
MDJ Magnificent Desolation. (laughter)
AM Tell me about it.
MDJ Theoretically, for millions of years, the dune buggy we left on the Moon will stay there covered with dust. There is a lot of stuff up there but all of this information that you and I are like talking about now will be gone at some point. Rodin’s Burghers stand in horror and defiance, sorrow and pain, for eternity severed from their historical impetus for existence.
AM I would like to talk about the loneliness in this piece.
MDJ There are several tiers of loneliness. There are the things that are stuck up there on the Moon—material examples of the very best human ingenuity representative of thousands of years of making stuff. The objects are also monuments to the spiritual and social bankruptcy of the specific missions and the subsequent technological fallout, which led to a deepening of our knowledge of how to more efficiently kill each other. Not to mention the fact that the Moon was not explored but rather conquered. And I think of the astronauts who lumbered, subservient to gravity, on Earth’s surface as celebrated heroes while their peers struggled, subservient to the physics of war, in and above the jungle in Vietnam. There is also the notion of what happens when you have gone that fast and far out of the envelope of common human experience. There is this level of longing that is left in every astronaut when they come back to Earth, which I believe artists (and many other practitioners) share.
AM Yeah, we feel this void—
MDJ We have gone far and to places that not many people have gone to. And we’ve found a way to report back on that experience.
AM So you re-made Rodin’s Burghers of Calais.
MDJ When Rodin made the Burghers of Calais, he didn’t sculpt the result of a motion, but the initial impulse, the beginning of the gesture—so that the viewer would then imagine the rest of it. The Burghers of Calais in the Hundred Years War marched to the King of England with the keys of Calais, with the noose around their necks, slogging through the mud to their imminent death. However, in the last moment their lives were spared because the Queen was having a baby and she felt that it would be a bad omen for the baby if they killed those men. So she saved them. Rodin sculpted these figures becoming the Burghers of Calais, placing them forever in purgatory, slogging indefinitely.
AM Like astronauts, they can’t go back. So you put the Burghers on the Moon, like their final destination?
MDJ Each of the Burghers is placed in correct relationship to the other based on the original sculpture but also in correct location as to where the lunar landings happened.
AM Did you also use the line of the moonwalk?
MDJ No, each of the Burghers was placed according to each of the landings, not to any of the maneuverings.
AM I see. The Burghers are all deformed, they look like they are melting.
MJD The way they are made is that we took smart-phone photographs of each of the Burghers of Calais and then used a free app that turns them into a 3-D matrix. When you close your eyes and think of the Burghers of Calais you remember their generalized form but you don’t remember the sculpture’s exact intricacies. You’re seeing them when you are in front of it but not when you are remembering the piece. There is this thing about memory in capturing.
AM And about time probably, too.
MJD Yeah. I’d like to think that we are at a pretty remarkable moment technologically, where the individual is having access rather than technology existing somewhere outside of our grasp. What is the material of your sculpture at the Boiler?
AM It is salt. I worked on it for about a week, just shoveling salt around.
MJD So it is not a lunar surface?
AM No, it’s not the Moon, it’s a different, non-existing planet. I retraced the first moonwalk but all you can see are hoof prints, not human footprints. That refers to the important role of the horse in our history, which is especially huge in the US and in discovering the West. Without the horse, nothing would have been possible. It was the main transportation back then.
MDJ Absolutely. Do you think of the moonwalk as a sort of labyrinth?
AM I take the horse into the future and turn it into an imaginary spacecraft. We trace the moonwalk in different locations, searching for something, maybe for a way out? It may be a labyrinth. I know the line of the moonwalk but I don’t know where it’s leading me and what I will discover.
MDJ You are a very experienced horse trainer and rider. People who know horses recognize that the horse in the video is not walking in its natural gait.
AM The horse is walking very carefully because it cannot see much. I trained it to accept the space helmet and to completely trust me going over rough and mountainous territory. In postproduction we slowed the video down a bit. We are on a different planet and there is different gravity.
MDJ Slow motion is really common in science fiction for insinuating otherworldliness but there is an implication in using a horse and playing with the histories of Western expansion, and not just of the United States, all on the backs of horses.
AM I train dressage horses and this very old German tradition goes back to the cavalry and even to the knights. Riding a well-trained horse gives you much higher chances than riding a horse that’s uncontrollable in battle. Horses are flight animals and their first instinct tells them to run away.
MDJ Do you think a horse would ever step on a body?
AM No, but again you can train them to do that.
MDJ I am very interested in artists who use their life as material and inspiration for their art. When you are training a horse you are still an artist. You bring an amazing awareness to that and it shows in the films. I very much like this “fluency” and I feel I am getting a very intimate look into the work because you know the “tools” so well.
AM This is the first artwork in which I’m using a real horse.
MDJ I’ve seen horses in art and I recognize the mastery, the idea of really knowing how to do something. I love seeing it in paintings, like Velázquez and Goya or other giants. My favorites are the Spaniards I guess. But painting has its own criteria. In painting you can’t really measure mastery in relation to horses. In your paintings there is an awareness of color and form and layering but I think with the real horse there is a measurable performance. Even if one doesn’t know about riding, one is kind of blown away by you being in control of that horse but then using that ability not to do dressage but to express yourself.
AM When I first went out west to Wyoming about 15 years ago, I was offered to use a cabin in the mountains and they gave me a horse and a gun. We were there for about two weeks, just the horse and I. This was before cell phones or anything. I got on the horse every morning and rode out into the mountains. I had no idea where I would go and what I would find. That was the first time I thought of doing a video like this and also the first time I was taken over by the thrill of exploration. I just loved it. I seriously felt like I was on a different planet. I would go as far as I could in a day. I would just pick a mountain in the morning and ask myself, How do I get up there? (laughter)
MDJ What were you using to navigate?
AM The horse would always find its way back.
MDJ If your horse forgot, you would be fucked. I think there is something really beautiful in that. Which mountain range were you in? The Tetons?
AM It was about 70 miles south of Cody, outside the Yellowstone National Park entrance on the Wyoming side.
MDJ So the Rocky Mountains.
AM Yeah. I was on a high plateau. There was a little creek and some old homesteads that were pretty much in pieces. You could still go into them and see old shoes and stuff. That was really creepy. It looked as if the homesteaders had left not too long ago and in haste, not taking anything along. Later I heard stories about the people who lived there, for example the son who shot his father. You know, horrible things happened in these desolated places. There was all this history—I would find American Indian arrowheads, and skulls of coyotes and other animals. There was a lot to explore for me and keep my mind busy. It was the first time that I was completely shut off from the rest of the world. But I wasn’t scared because I was with the horse.
MDJ You’re never scared!
AM I get scared, but there the excitement was larger than the fear.
MDJ Who taught you to ride horses?
AM I was four years old when I touched the nose of a horse for the first time. I had to stretch up all the way to be able to feel its soft nostrils. After that I was totally obsessed. But I grew up in the middle of Munich and only started to learn riding when I was 11. At some point I had to make the decision to either become a professional horse trainer or go to art school. I didn’t want to stop riding horses and I cannot stop doing art so I keep doing both. This is the first time that I’m bringing my horse training and my art together and I’m really excited about that.
MDJ With Burton snowboarding boots, a Patagonia layered jacket, and Ikea “helmets”… (laughter) But your body language and your relationship to the horse nullify any sort of comedy in that. You can feel that you and the horse are doing serious business.
AM Yeah, we are on a mission.
MDJ The other super-killer video in your show is that path in the horse arena. I see it in reference to Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci. The way you’re using the horse to make this path is not just in reference to lunar landings, but performance art. There’s something about Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen too, that awareness of the actor or actress in their performance. Once again, your relationship to the horse is what makes it really solemn. The path starts to make an impossibly tight turn. A horse can’t turn like that.
AM There is this Bruce Nauman video I saw in the ’80s, showing a cowboy training a young horse. I never saw anything like this before. It was probably boring for a lot of people, but not for a horse trainer. For my exhibition, I originally planned to do a performance on a real horse in the Boiler, but I decided not to do it, because it was not necessary, I had the video.
MDJ I like the idea of the work as a live performance. It would be great to bring it here to New York as so much of the subtext of the work revolves around the notion of civilization. One of the wonderful things about performance art is that it doesn’t have to follow the same kind of constraints as theatre and this work in particular would activate the city beyond the location of the performance. What would you call that performance?
AM I’d call it: Following the line of the first moonwalk on a space horse.
MDJ How far is that horse from here?
AM He is in Wyoming. His name is Rooster. The video is shot on the fairgrounds in Thermopolis.
MDJ Do you have a relationship with a horse near New York City that you could perform with?
AM I would have to train the horse.
MDJ How long would it take?
AM Every horse is different. It entirely depends on the horse’s temperament and character. Rooster was very tolerant. Most important was that he would trust me so I could put a helmet on him. It took only five days with him. I built the helmet around his head, starting on the top.
MDJ You have to be incredibly trusting of the relationship and trusting of yourself. You’re going to sit on the back of the horse and you can’t see either.
AM You cannot be afraid. As soon as you are fearful the horse feels it and becomes insecure too, which you must try to avoid.
MDJ You basically had two shows under the same title—The Map is not the Territory. I understand the paintings are a graphic representation of—
AM They are all ink and airbrush drawings and there is one animated video Goldilocks Moons at Pierogi gallery. It’s a 3-D animation drawn on a Maja program and it deals again with the same subject: searching for a habitable planet, a “Goldilocks Moon.”
MDJ It carries a similar tempo as the video in the Boiler. Going through space there is a relative stillness, things aren’t moving as quickly, which gives the viewer a floating feeling—until it’s speeding through a wormhole.
AM Speaking of speeding, what about the car in your exhibition and about your performing car races?
MDJ It’s drag racing.
AM What is it?
MDJ I’m drag racing a car. It’s a meditation upon Modern sculpture and ideas of material and process, thinking of Constantin Brancusi. So the car, which is a 235-inch McKinney Corp dragster, has rear brakes only. It’s supposed to go 1320 feet in 7.85 seconds at 173 miles an hour. And that’s all it’s meant to do.
AM But you showed the car in some of your exhibitions.
MDJ I’ve never shown the car as art. I’m showing a different car right now that my uncle designed and my cousin built. We fucked up and crashed it at Coast Speedway doing tests.
The drag racing car is absolutely a meditation in sculpture from the standpoint that all of its parts and pieces are absolutely, absolutely essential to its being. For me this as a continuation of thinking about Brancusi in sculpture: the material in relationship to the tool, the form in relationship to the material in relationship to the other materials and forms. This is modern sculpture.
This birth of modern sculpture took place in a craft person’s studio. Drag racing was mostly started by people who had come home from World War II with skills that they didn’t have before. They were exceptional machinists who could create in a sort of Promethean way, taking from “the gods” of the American automotive industry—taking the engines and other car parts and making them lighter and more powerful to achieve that thing called the hot rod, which was the birth of drag racing. And the corporation started to feed back on that. Then came the muscle car and America’s fascination with a particular type of performance: you know 3,2,1,GO,—a superfast straight line with extraordinary power.
AM Like a rocket launcher.
MDJ Yeah, and at the same time you had really radical developments in our aerospace history of going faster and faster, like hundreds of miles an hour in extremely short periods of time.
AM So the car you put in your show now is a sculpture?
MDJ No, the car that’s in the show now is a material example of familial history. My cousin and my uncle built the thing. We’ve been working hard to make the car street legal, which means we had to put bumpers, wipers, and tail lights and so forth. We put 12-inch tires on the rear because it has way too much power for the skinny hard, compound tires it had before. Anyway, the car is in the exhibition to pass underneath, to look at its undercarriage, its internal structure. It’s like an anatomical view of a car.
If you’re to think about the car in relation to the exhibition and how materials and process and form and iconography and imagery all come together, it’s the same thing. I was always really inspired by my cousin Skip. He made amazing things and then he would get in the driver seat (I think he still holds the track record in the Seattle Raceway) and drive the car to the edge of its capability.
There is something about the way you trained your horse that I’m trying to get to with the drag racing car. An attempt to get to that kind of awareness.
AM But the car is not a living thing. It’s a machine.
MDJ The machine isn’t just a machine. There’s a part of it that thinks for itself. Things happen that you’re not entirely sure why, and a lot of it is human error. It’s where the machine isn’t just a machine. It’s reflecting the fallibility of a human being. 400,000 people worked on the lunar missions. The amount of things that could have gone wrong is crazy! I also think of that on a micro level about being an artist.
AM Even just to do a show, 10 million things could go wrong.
MDJ And sometimes they do. Maybe to some extent those things are immeasurable. That’s why the car is in the show. I wanted it to be thought of as a sort of thesis on sculpture but also showing where some of the inspiration comes from.
You’re interested in the horse not only in relation to American history but to world history and how the claiming of territory is under the hooves of horses, right?
MDJ I’m interested in the motorcycle and what that means in relationship to navigating the road—the nearest road next to the cabin where you were exploring. It’s like the individual alone on the machine navigating this space, which is America.
AM Did you go on road trips with the motorbike?
MDJ I rode a superfast motorcycle when I was about 22. It was a 900RR that I rode from Seattle all the way down Highway 1 to Los Angeles. It’s basically a racing motorcycle with turn signals and lights. I wouldn’t do that again. The thing is that the machine is interesting because there is very little extraneous stuff. Everything is supposed to do something. I like that.
I like thinking about things first and then, when I decide that I am going to make the sculpture it’s still a total leap of faith.
AM It’s a place where only artists and explorers go.
I sometimes feel like a filter. Everything I experience goes through my brain and certain things get filtered out and become clear and important. That filtration is then being manifested in my art. In the age of super-information we have to select and sort out every second. It’s an unconscious process.
MDJ The way that people think about art is that it’s the object that is important. It’s not the in-between part.
AM For me the in-between part is more important.
MDJ I think that all artists would agree. Maybe some wouldn’t agree but then maybe they also wouldn’t be listening to us that long. (laughter) To keep it concise around exploration: there are cars and horses and I think that’s where the relationship is between our work. The body is starting to make a departure into something else.
For more on Ati Maier, visit her website.
Matthew Day Jackson is an artist based in Brooklyn.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee