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
BOMBLive! Proteus Gowanus Gallery, Brooklyn Sunday, December 2, 2007
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Ellen Driscoll My favorite part of the early part of your ten minute sequence is the man’s description of the Guernica painting.
Anita Glesta Yeah.
ED … And the dissonance between his understanding of his own Guernica life, as a regular citizen of that place, and his sort of reckoning, I guess I would say, with the (scare quotes_) “famous” Guernica that the world knows through art. And to me it’s absolutely fascinating to watch the sort of slippery description going on, like, (_pantomiming) Well y’know if it had been a donkey that would be one thing but, you know, Then there’s that eye in the painting. I just love that sort of feeling of near and far away.
AG Really what he says there is the gist of what I have been trying to do in this Guernica work, which is juxtapose in a way fiction with reality and pose as a question what it means to us now, us meaning artists in fact, in this century of our own … . or the power of image making, and he himself, Luis, is a painter himself.
ED Oh really?
AG Yeah, and, so he was … What he said was spoken with great sensitivity but also sincerity, you know, they really did respond that way. You know, just, and again I could speak endlessly about just that and how both at White Box and in its public life this work is constantly about establishing relationships. Relationships with this century, with what happened in the aftermath of a bombing and survival, with, again, what we see as an icon of art now as political symbolism, with what in fact actually happened. But in the end—so I just mentioned all those things—those are many layers of this, but in the end, one of the things that is just interesting anecdotally is that Guernica as a village … Life has really not changed and it has, while there is Guernica the coffee cup, and Guernica the lunch mat, and everything else (laughter), placemat, there really continues to be the same life that people have experienced there pre-bombing as well, I mean, except for perhaps much more embitterment, but their lives continue in very much the same way and that also was very interesting to me in doing this work. And so, and you know, I just actually will say one more thing before I move back into you (gestures at Ellen) in terms of storytelling for me personally: I have a very complicated relationship with it because, and that’s also why I was really interested in talking to you more because of the density of your image making, mine always … my own practice always questions the image and I am inherently suspicious of being seduced by an image. That’s part of why, I guess, the juxtaposition of the Guernica painting with the people’s stories is so poignant for me. I really, really do question it a lot. I worry about it all the time. I worry about object making, it’s part of what draws me into working in the public in a much more physically interactive way. And so, yes, that is a part of this whole … His response to the Picasso painting and the eyes and the horse and the whole thing is that, you know: where did Picasso’s imagination go with this, how do we now interpret it, what does it all mean.
ED The public works always respond to a site. I think the plastic landscapes that I showed are, in some sense of the word, a kind of a non-site. They’re nowheres-ville landscapes. They could be anywhere and nowhere, which is, I think, you know, one reason why the use of scale, the tiny little oil rig and the sense of a sort of a distant perspective, I think, makes them more migratory, more nomadic in their way of being in the world, let’s say. And, literally, they are wandering: I wander to collect the material and then the pieces themselves wander. That’s totally different from having to sort of glue yourself to a wall in St. Louis and to sign on the dotted line, that it’s in perpetuity goddammit, you know. It’s like you’re under a legal contract to provide something that will last for a long time. And the two different ways of thinking, I think, kind of complement each other. And that’s a somewhat of a deviation from your question, but it does take in the question of time and how the work exists, you know, in time, really. And I think one thing I’d like to ask you is that the piece in lower Manhattan had a feeling of sort of monumentality in its materials, the bronze and the steel and so forth, and yet that piece was extremely short in its actual time in that space. So I would be interested in asking you about the use of those almost classical materials that signify long arcs of time in that very precise and bounded box of time in which those objects found themselves.
AG It was constantly transforming itself according to the site that we found. Originally, I wanted to do concrete feet that formed a path through lower Manhattan where you could hear the voices. And we were not able to procure whatever it was. We ended up at Chase Plaza, which was a great place to be, and I had actually proposed to them to put feet in the plaza, the people at Chase, and they said, Oh no people can trip (laughter). So, and that, let’s see this was ready to go for April and that was in January, when they discovered that people could trip. So, I had to really think about where to go next and so in terms of the choice of material, and the shape, and everything else I looked at those eight benches that were also planters and thought, Well there’s a place that I can place something that will have sound. And what that something was with sound seemed to make sense to be boxes because in one of the interviews that I have with one of the survivors she had mentioned radios being tossed into people’s yards and sewing machines and that radios were really the most important form of communication in the 1930s and so for me it was very poignant to use a radio as that … .
ED Tossed into people’s yards!
AG Well, when the villages were pillaged and burned they were … Houses were robbed and people’s radios, which were very sacred, and sewing machines, and other possessions, were thrown around. And so the radio itself seemed to make sense as a metaphor as also, or, as an object it was also going to give sound and I felt that if I could make it in a small, unobtrusive way: it would just sit there on the bench and people would then just maybe listen to it. And it was also a kind of a nice contrast to all the big phallic objects known as sculptures in lower Manhattan (laughs_) and this was a sculpture that really wasn’t and isn’t. And in terms of the permanence and its longevity: yes, it would be very nice if it were permanently somewhere (_laughs). It’s built to last.
ED It is built to last.
AG And it was built to take a lot of knocks as well, there. I mean, and people would jump on it and sometimes use it as chinese food trays for their lunch and, you know, it took, in that short one month of time, quite a bit of abuse but it withstood it. Throwing back to you and storytelling: I also wondered, in your process, looking at your drawings and how intensely narrative they are, to a certain extent, how you call those images and transform them into something like Revenant, for example, because I see … I saw bits and pieces of that in the whole group of drawings and wonder, how it was distilled.
ED Well, to some degree, I guess I would say that the drawings are a kind of expansion because the distillation is in the sculptures: they’re one material and that only. In the drawings, because drawing is really the greatest state of freedom, I think, that artists have, you can do whatever you like, you know, it’s … I think of the drawings as being more like rifts or samplers, you know. The oil tank can mix with the refugee encampment and then something spills over it and you don’t control the spill or the smoke or the fire or whatever it is. They’re very free and they’re quite loose and in some cases I’m sort of setting up an architect tonic vocabulary only to ruin it with my spillage, you know, to drool and drip and run it under the faucet and so forth and see what can happen. So they’re almost like their own little, you know, weather systems or something like that. I would say that the sculptures are more single-minded. They don’t allow themselves the same degree of freedom. And also the material itself is very restrictive, I mean, there’s not … You can’t get a plastic bottle to do anything, it will only do some things (laughter_). It’s only this big, you know, and the thing that there’s no limit on is that there’s absolutely no shortage of them. And, for those of you who are in this neighborhood, I probably have your bottles in this work, as you know, and I can get about a hundred bottles in forty-five minutes in three blocks. If you had any doubt of how much of it is out there, it’s just totally wild. We’re drowning in this stuff. So it’s the volume of it alone; it’s quite amazing, I think. And when I’m in my gleaner personality, and I think that gleaning is a really good sort of metaphor to talk about all the work … It is nomadic, but, you know, my eye becomes like a magpie building a nest, you know, half a block away I see my stuff in a bag and I’m there and when I’m in that mode it’s hard for me to walk down any sidewalk or past a hotel in Manhattan, I mean, I could be on my way to a party, but I see that stuff and it’s like (_makes veering sound), you know, so, you’re … You become a collector, a re-user, a re-maker, a, sort of a weird re-inventor. And one of my tasks when I’m on the street doing this … I did bump into Sasha one day and I was quite delicately embarrassed about the fact that I was going through her bag and I said, I’m sorry you’re not supposed to know me, but I’m doing this. But I try very hard to kind of normalize it because the way people look at me is that they avert their eyes and I am in that realm of homeless or marginal people who must do this. So, I’m … People have said, Why don’t you document yourself? And I’m like, You don’t have a camera crew in this delicate social environment. I greet everybody by looking them in the eye and I really try to normalize what I’m doing. And I don’t know if that answers your question, but I think that the gleaner is for me the active metaphor for both the drawings and the sculpture and to some degree the public work as well because it does have a really broad base to it.
AG Like Ellen, we both very often use new materials to explore a site, because a site will call for it. Like, I don’t know if you ever used that technology before, that you were using on Huntington Avenue.
AG But it’s like, Wow that’s pretty risky. And that’s going to be scary, and that’s, you know, I guess that’s a language in itself and that’s what I’m trying to answer, you know. New material is as much, and putting it in a new space is as much of an introduction of something kind of scary as entering as a foreigner into another land. You know, I think as an artist you’re always doing that as you grow in your practice. And how much you do that, I guess, depends on how crazy you are as an artist and the risks you’re willing to take. But it is so much about that risk taking. When we first moved to Australia I did a piece in the park there, and I was really thrilled to work in the public there for a lot of different reasons, but one is that I could really work with ephemeral materials in the public in a way that you can’t in New York. I mean, you know (sighs) there was no accident that it was steel and bolted down, and there, I … There was this temporary public art thing in the park in the middle of Sydney and I noticed that there were just absolutely gorgeous, gorgeous birds there. I mean, the birds were brazen. They’re brazen, they’re in your face. And there were Pigeons! You know, we’re talking, you know, not only Mynah birds, but those Cockatoos were just flying … It’s like seriously, intensely beautiful. And, so, I wanted to do something that again, you know, like, with all the work, allowed them to enter it, and so I made a gigantic … I guess it was a bird stall: there were two fences that I covered with coconut fiber, which is what the highways down there use for irrigation actually, and into that … I actually sewed pockets out of the coconut fiber, which incorporated bird seed and grass seeds so that the birds could actually move in and transform it. And they did. It was a temporary little, big, actually, it was forty feet long and people could walk through. People, in fact, in the park took their horses and they, whatever, rode through. It was so amazing because it was like, I can’t believe this is in the middle of the city. This is happening, you know, you like can’t do that in New York. The birds transformed it. And it was really great to work with birds and to have their beautiful nests. But then, sadly, I had to take it down. And I really felt evil (laughter), like I gave them a little home and then was like, Okay, out of here, next (laughter).
ED Eviction notice.
ED I think that one thing that’s really hard is to ever really know who the audience is because it’s …
AG Does that matter to you?
ED Well, it’s … It becomes part of the variable. It becomes part of the … On a good day it’s serendipitous that you don’t know who they are, and something good might happen, some, some … Somebody interprets your work in a way that you find very interesting and very rewarding. Naturally, years are going to go by where a hundred interpretations a day are occurring and you have no idea what they are. So I think one of the interesting things about working in the public realm is that, this part of it: the fact that you don’t really know how people are responding to what you’re doing. You’re out about it, and so is the rest of the world. In a gallery situation we have the illusion that we know how the work is being received. People come up at the opening. They go, Fabulous, Fabulous, you know, air kisses. And you get a written review and, you know, all that. And we walk away going, Well, I guess that show went pretty well. You know, in the public realm you have no idea. So, I think it’s true of the gallery world too, but it’s just more on the table in the public endeavor. And most of the contact … Since after you’ve installed your work at the train station or the public park you don’t sit there going, So how’d you like my public sculpture? You know, you don’t do that (laughs). Because, well, for a lot of reasons, maybe you’re afraid to hear the answer, or it just would seem to geeky, and so, you know, we kind of … I’ve been living with this idea that it’s like throwing a bouquet of flowers out a window, you know. I give it my best and I throw it out the window and I hope that the hundred flowers will land and some people pick them up and go, Hey, This great flower just fell on me! You know, but we don’t really know. So, I don’t know.
AG I was also struck by the use of plastic as the language and material in Hiroshima and why you chose to do that.
ED I had already started working on these plastic landscapes when the invitation to go to Hiroshima came along via my great friend and I thought about whether it was appropriate because the site in Hiroshima was so stunningly haunted and strange and it’s a very important building there. I learned when I got there that, as I said, very little had been changed. I mean, I’m assuming that a certain amount of cleaning has gone on, but the lighting and the whole feeling of the building is … . seems very much from that time. And I was thinking that the kind of global warming catastrophe that we seem to be accelerating into … And the reason I opened the talk with the image of the accidental fire on the Nigerian pipeline is that … And it’s not an exaggeration to say that future and present wars are being fought for our right to consume as we please. So, I was installing in the site of a historic war and I was essentially jump cutting to the material and the subject of present and future wars and that’s really how I saw the Revenant piece. And because it has such a ghostly presence it hovers, I would say, in a kind of indeterminate time frame: it’s neither past, present, nor future. It’s scale is strange, its material is wrong for something that’s an engineering miracle, that is to say, that kind of a bridge. Everything about it is much more dreamlike then real. And so … And frankly I have to say that building is a very public building. There are people coming in off the street every single day, it’s not a preselected art audience. They seem to really understand it. And it may be partly because post-war Japan is, I hesitate to say this, but it may be true, more in love with plastic than many other places on earth, and more creative, more inventive, more interesting in their use of it. So, they love it as a material and they embrace it. And, with that said, they don’t have anywhere near the kind of pollution or garbage problems that we have. They are much more stringent about recycling. So, I found myself in almost an embarrassed way describing what McMansions were, for example, and the patterns of American consumption and so forth. That is not Japanese. So there were dissonant aspects to installing something that was, in a sense, very American in that site. And yet, you know, the Japanese are consuming oil and so forth, perhaps not quite at our clip … They understood it as essentially a kind of work that had to do with war and peace…
AG And that’s what you wanted.
ED Yes, I did, yeah.
ED I use scale in my work, as I mentioned earlier. Some things are shrunken, other things are too big and I feel that, you know, using space and scale is my contemporary attempt to sort of play that keyboard and to release, in some cases, kind of collective memory. Memory, you know … Many of the people in this room just could barely recall what the First World War was. And yet, some people, like me, have grandfathers who fought in it and whatever. And human life is a chain of memory passed person to person for the most part. And so, sometimes in my work I’m trying to figure out how to trigger that chain in the accidental encounter of you, and you, and you, with something that you hadn’t planned to see but you just stumbled on.
Anita Glesta’s Gernika/Guernica, shown in Lower Manhattan in Spring 2007, juxtaposed the provocative abstraction of Picasso’s infamous painting with survivor accounts of the 1937 bombing of a Basque village.
Ellen Driscoll’s sculpture Revenant, a bridge made from hundreds of #2 plastic bottles, was recently installed at the Nippon Ginko Bank in Hiroshima, Japan, one of the few structures to survive the atomic blast.
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