Collapse and Equilibrium: Michelle Lopez Interviewed by Olivia Gauthier

Translating protest into sculpture.

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Installation view of Michelle Lopez: Ballast and Barricades. Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Eric Sucar.

In Michelle Lopez’s site-specific installation Ballast and Barricades, ladders, scaffolding, rubble, wood, and bits of rock are suspended and carefully placed on the floor of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in PhiladelphiaThe Philadelphia-based sculptor presents an urban, architectural landscape in flux. It features a suspended slice of a house, surrounded by what could be construction or demolition materials, some of which is also suspended. The whole installation suggests a moment of pause in the ever-shifting gentrification of cities. A sense of loss is met with unease as one circumvents the precariously placed ladders and scaffolding, bent and twisted into sculptural forms rendered ineffectual. Ballast and Barricades is emblematic of an environment like Philadelphia that is, like many current cities, riddled with construction and destruction sites that perpetuate the instability of urban landscapes as they are uprooted and made into precarious conditions for much of the population. 

Olivia Gauthier


Olivia GauthierWhen conceptualizing this project for ICA Philadelphia, what did you feel were the most urgent themes and ideas to address?

Michelle Lopez This project stems from a project I did in 2018 called House of Cards, which utilized industrial materials from construction to create a delicate scaffolding that had a quality of being on the verge of collapse. I established this balance and counterbalance using rubble that I found on the streets of Philadelphia, mostly of a size you can hold in your hand. I was trying to create a set of relationships of sculpture and architectural elements that could embody a potential violence. ICA then presented an opportunity to present these ideas in site-specific terms. 

The one thing I really wanted to think about in terms of sculpture was lines and drawing. I also wanted to engage with Minimalism, which is all about volume, but also about removal, and so I wanted to think about the removal of image and volume. I also wanted to investigate how much I can evoke solely through line, and how a line can become three-dimensional and sculptural. These lines are also potentially political, such as police barricades, flagpole lines, and the outline of a chain-link fence. These have to do with borders, construction, and things used to keep people out, and in this sense are related to gentrification. 

We all see this gentrification happening, and there’s a bit of a defeatist feeling like we are all participating in this. It’s clear that there’s a fracturing happening that feels more extreme than before, as well as a complacency. The premise of the show was that I wanted to take a fragment of a building being demolished in South Philadelphia and use it as a counterweight and really highlight the instability. 

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Installation view of Michelle Lopez: Ballast and Barricades. Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Eric Sucar.

OG The counterbalance of the demolished house surrounded by these suspended objects does invoke a feeling of anxiety. You’re balancing a tension, which is also present in the title Ballast and Barricades

ML My work has a lot to do with creating sculptures out of these wilted ideologies. You have a flag or flagpole, and there’s something just not right, or it’s exposing the mechanism of a system. I am trying to create an inversion of these different iconographies and have them collapse in on themselves and expose them so that we see contradictions because there are both negative associations but also moments of hope. Barricades are a way of engaging with a sense of frustration and deceit in relation to protest, a kind of malaise; that’s why they are bent and twisted. I’ve been having this experience the past few years where I can’t believe this is happening, and I wanted to translate this into sculpture while also proposing that we can create a whole other system and a sense of movement, that things are collapsing and also becoming something else.

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Installation view of Michelle Lopez: Ballast and Barricades. Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Eric Sucar.

OG Contradiction and ambiguity are poignant words for your work and also the current political situation. Your work cites the aesthetic strategies of both Minimalism and Arte Povera, two global movements that occurred in tandem during a moment of political tension and upheaval. 

ML I’m glad you brought up Arte Povera because it’s a very important influence and is directly related to these abject and forgotten materials which are then injected with a kind of weirdness. A lot of my work has been deeply influenced by my experience of 9/11. I did a very different kind of show at Deitch Projects that opened on September 13, 2001. It was a finish-fetish kind of show with discrete objects. When the World Trade Center came down I really began to think more deeply about what it means to be an artist and making objects when we are surrounded by the debris of technology and people.

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Installation view of Michelle Lopez: Ballast and Barricades. Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Eric Sucar.

OG In this specific installation you have a found house and you also have the ladders, scaffolding, and rope. If we’re talking about ethics and artmaking, I’m interested in how and where you are sourcing these materials. Especially if we’re thinking about the celebration or critique of American industry and questioning authorship in Minimalism.

ML All of the ladders and scaffolding for this particular installation were manipulated. The ladders were cut in half and the scaffolding was rusted when it was found, but I actually put all of the scaffolding in a vinegar bath to remove the rust and painted them construction-safety colors while leaving the other side rusted. There’s a facade of newness, but when you walk around the works you can see they’ve been transformed. The ladders are no longer functional; they’re only a fragment and have more vulnerability than is typical of Minimalism, a gesture which makes sense to me in terms of our contemporary landscape. I took a corner chunk of a building being demolished, which is really the weight holding the entire installation together. This is representative of seeing so much stuff coming down and history being removed. I would like there to be an experience of both delight and horror when beholding this relic that is also ominous. The whole installation was thinking about how we can build in reverse; the scaffolding is coming down, and the rope is holding it all up to keep it from collapsing around you. 

Michelle Lopez: Ballast and Barricades is on view at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia until May 10. (The ICA Philadelphia is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus.) 

Olivia Gauthier is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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