Flotsam and Jetsam: Marie Lorenz by Jennifer Coates

Artist Marie Lorenz goes against the current with her recent body of work.

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I first met Marie Lorenz at the American Academy in Rome in 2008, where she was a Fellow in Visual Arts. We spent the year with about 40 other scholars, artists, composers, architects and their families living in a palazzo on top of the Gianicolo hill. One comes to know people differently by living, eating, and drinking together everyday in close quarters. Marie, it quickly became clear to me, and to everyone else, was an adventurer, a trailblazing kind of person. She was not too concerned about what other people thought and had an amazing ability to make things both more fun and more dangerous. She spent much of the year building a boat out of wood and carving it with ornate patterns. She would take people out on her boat in the Tiber and other bodies of water around Rome. All of her nautical adventures, from Rome and back in the United States, are documented on her website. I sat down with Marie, on the occasion of her recent show at Jack Hanley Gallery, to discuss garbage, funky smells and her relationship to the tides.

Jennifer Coates What is the most disgusting piece of garbage you have ever found on one of your boating trips?

Marie Lorenz That is such a good one. Well, I have never come across a dead body …

JC No parts?

ML No parts. But I always think about it when I’m out there because there are certain areas where bodies wash up, at a certain time of year. I’ve heard bodies wash up in a round bay where the New Town Creek enters the East River – there’s a confluence of currents.

JC It’s like a corpse gyre.

ML Yeah, it’s like the corpse gyre of the East River. It’s right around Greenpoint. I have never seen anything like that in the New York harbour. But there are areas that are just disgusting. The best most disgusting places are the Gowanus Canal and New Town Creek—they are tied.

JC Aren’t they the most toxic areas?

ML They are both Superfund sites. The New Town Creek is the more recent one. They both have massive oil spills, and they are both unflushed canals. The sediment beneath them and the water itself are putrid smelling and just awful looking. There is this section of the Gowanus that is a dead end covered over by a bridge. It’s this dark shallow end where it goes from water that you can paddle through, to deeper sludge, to just dense sludge. And that is truly disgusting because that is where I think I would come across a dead body.

JC Do you find yourself drawn to it?

ML Yeah, I want the boat to get more and more wedged in until I can’t move. (laughter) But then there is this area as you back out that is captivating. The oil is bubbling out of the earth into the water in this one particular area. The entire surface of the Gowanus is iridescent with pink and purple bubbles. It’s beautiful. As the boat moves through it, it creates these spirals of mirror shapes.

JC And it is all the result of poison.

ML Yeah, it is the oil or gas is bubbling out of the ground, and it smells. It will almost make you faint when you go. You actually feel light-headed when you are paddling over it.

JC I remember you saying about a mucky smell in the water, “I almost like it.” Is that how you feel about it?

ML That’s a little true. The Gowanus Canal is a little like that. The gas smell you know is killing brain cells. But the dirty water at low tide smell. I feel like I am coming home, because to me it always means adventure. The stuff I like to do is always in that smell. I will smell it when I’m in Savannah, Georgia, or San Francisco. I’ll get the low tide smell that will waft out, and I will be like, “Ahh.”

JC When you talked about the pink and purple bubbles and the oil spill … there is something I was thinking about in relation to you and the tide and how it spews up certain kinds of garbage in certain places. It started me thinking, is the tide some sort of oracle of garbage from civilization? I was thinking about the Delphic Oracle. They think that there was methane gas erupting from a fissure in the earth for over a period of a thousand years, and they would suspend women over this fissure, and they would breathe in all the chemical smell—the methane —and would hallucinate.

ML It’s hard not to see a set of these random occurrences and think that there is a message in there. Like when you see the stuff strewn around the beach, which has this incredible significance to us, but the ocean is just sorting it all out.

JC Maybe the ocean is trying to tell you something? When you are collecting the bits of debris, do you have a sense of why you’re picking up one thing over another? What is the logic behind that?

ML Usually I am looking for things that I can print, and it depends on how I have been printing lately. When I was printing through a printing press, I was looking for stuff that was flat, pretty small, and made of plastic so that it could get crushed through the press, so I wouldn’t be picking up bottles because I wouldn’t be able to fit them in. I was finding broken sunglasses, little baby shoes, these weird ripped up dolls.

JC Stuff that could be fossilized in the printing process?

ML Yeah, but then I started printing things in a different way, painting the ink on more three-dimensional forms and looking for things I knew the ink would stick to. Then for this show I was giddy with excitement, just dragging basically anything that would fit in my truck, because I had the idea to do a sculpture. There is so much crap out there that I could really just go for it and make this crazy bouquet.

JC So in the residency you did in Kansas, it seems like the stuff you were finding in the river was so different than what you were finding around here. I think I saw some underwear?

ML Yeah, that stuff was really cool because I would say it was evidence of a certain kind of activity down by the water. When they wanted me to come to Kansas to do the show, they said the river is so neglected, nobody pays attention to it, and it is a really important resource for the town. Your projects are for pointing people towards the water or thinking about it in a different way. But when I went there and explored it, I saw that tons of people use the water. People fish, teenagers hang out, there are kids swimming in it. It wasn’t as if people took baby strollers down there …

JC It’s not domesticated, it’s more a forbidden play zone?

ML Yeah, it’s where you go when you don’t want your parents to see what you are doing, and so I felt like I was gravitating towards sites where there was a huge pile of beer cans.

JC Bad behavior.

ML I was grabbing things that indicated bad or free behavior.

JC I like that idea that there are certain sites near the water that encourage disobeying the rules.

ML In the city it’s really as simple as the streets are here, the water is here, and there is this weird edge that faces away from the city that you cannot see from the street. I see a lot of people nude sunbathing when I am in the water. There will be a naked person that is literally ten feet from the West Side Highway but invisible to all the people passing. And I am quietly rowing by.

JC So you have this whole other view of human behavior. Some of the ruins of submarines and ships that you’ve photographed in the water around New York are kind of post-apocalyptic. You see all of the remnants of human civilization left to fester on the water. Do you prefer finding those sites where there are not that many people anymore?

ML My favorite stuff is where people are really close but are not seeing it. Like I love the areas right around Hell’s Gate because it is really close to Midtown, but it’s a crazy wilderness. I have so many favorite spots. There are these amazing little islands in the waterway that separate Staten Island from New Jersey, but that is a little more remote. I don’t know if you saw the photos of the massive ship graveyard out there?

JC Yeah.

ML That is remote. You have to travel a pretty great distance to get to that place. Whereas Millrock Island is like a crazy wilderness, but you will be looking at the ground and see the remnants of these nesting birds and some beer party from the ’70s. And Midtown is right there. You could shout at somebody standing on the road in Manhattan.

JC I was reading in one of your blogs, in your adventures of the Hudson, about your uncle. He is the one who gave you this adventure spirit when you were a kid.

ML My mom’s brother is a Benedictine monk, and he has a parish in Minnesota. He takes his parish kids into the Boundary Waters in Voyageurs National Park, and it’s just a wilderness area in northern Minnesota. It’s kind of tame. It’s a lot of kid’s groups, so it’s not like Kodiak country or something. When I went up there the other week, it was like someone’s back garden, but as a kid you really feel like you’re in the wilderness, and it’s totally insane. You go out there for five days and canoe this big loop, camp out on islands along the way. He was a big influence on me as far as exploring by boat.

JC So you weren’t scared? He just kind of neutralized that?

ML Yeah, definitely.

JC You are the most unafraid human I feel like I have ever met.

ML My dad was also really into canoeing and kayaking, and I was always in little boats. He made me feel comfortable around water and little boats.

JC How do you decide what kind of ornate stuff to put around the boat? When you’re making a boat you generally decorate the edges, right?

ML I have all of these practical considerations, like I have to be able to carry it myself, it has to be long enough to fit on the car, I have to be able to make it for a certain amount of money. I always think that it’s only practical, but then I succumb to the desire to decorate it. There is an aesthetic principal about how it is put together but I have forsaken all of that craftsmanship and invented my own version of putting it together, really crappily, and then decorating it in this weird way. I went to a boat-building school, and if they were to see the boats I make they would be horrified.

JC Really? They would be like a craft failure or something?

ML Yeah, according to that kind of building because I use fiberglass and plywood. The stuff that I make I end up fixing all the time. When I was at the boat-building school, I went to where they milled their own timber, used all hand tools.

JC Super precious … and you’re more like, “I need a boat for X amount of time.”

ML Yeah, but the stuff I make will be pieces of dust in a hundred years.

JC But in terms of the imagery you use, is that coming out of some boat-making tradition?

ML Well there have been three different times that I have used images on the boats, and two of them were when I carved the boats to be printed as part of a printing project , the other one was in Rome. The idea was, I would be traveling in this boat and make rubbings of stuff I was seeing along the way. I would be reconfiguring elements of the landscape in these collages that I would make along the way, like trees and bridges and little pieces of architecture that I could lay in. That was the idea with the Iselip boat too. The Iselip boat was the biggest boat I have ever made, 20 feet long. That boat was purely decorative. For printing.

JC I like this idea that you’re trying to reflect back the context you’re in. It’s like an animal camouflaging itself or something.

ML Right, that’s a good way to look at it. I guess I thought of it as a traveling studio or something where these things would sort of be at your disposal, but it ended up being much more of what you are talking about.

JC Did you feel like transporting your project to Rome made it mean something different?

ML Definitely. I went there thinking it was going to be really different. I don’t have the tide and I will be working more with that cleft in the land that the Tiber makes and thinking more about the Tiber right inside Rome and using that. But when I got there, I got more into the idea of exploring. I thought of sailing Italy, and then I had a sailing accident, and the boat capsized, and then everything changed. I would say Rome completely changed how I was thinking about things, because before that, I was carving and trying to represent the adventures I wanted to have pictorially with little boats, like people in waves, and create landscapes that are cartoony representations of adventure, and then when I capsized …

JC You actually had a real adventure.

ML Exactly. I have the video, which is crazy.

JC It’s so urgent and chilling … . I just watched it again this morning, and it makes the hairs on my arms stand up. You’re panting and it seems like you’re paddling and swimming for your life.

ML I was. It was really crazy. I lost the boat that day, but then it washed up two days later. Some friends helped me dig it out of the sand. It had been rolled in the surf, beaten against these rock jetties for two nights, and then became so buried in the sand that you could barely see it.

JC That could have been you.

ML Just my little arm sticking up … but we dug it out of the sand. It was basically one piece, but it was crunched, as if it had been chewed or something. I did a rubbing of the bottom of the boat and it was this black shape and had clear crunch marks in it. When I saw the rubbing, I thought, “This says everything.”

JC You don’t need to be illustrating it. That is the actual residue of what happened, and it has the extra realness factor.

ML Yeah, and I guess I realized that artwork usually comes with a story or a title or you’re standing next to it to explain it. Rarely does it go into the world unaided by you, and so I realized that this was enough. This was the piece that totally changed the way I thought.

JC So your work kind of changed after that point and became more about the actual—

ML —index of the actual object. It became an image of itself. How can I let the object speak for itself? What is the best way that objects can tell their own story?

Jennifer Coates is an artist, writer, and fiddler living in New York City.

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