Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
New York Live Arts presents
The captions for the works by Phyllida Barlow and Vincent Fecteau featured in the following pages might not tell you something essential about the images they describe: the views they offer can only be partial. Of course we know that about the reproduction of artworks in general. Yet when it comes to three-dimensional forms whose very essence consists of the interplay between process and materials (Barlow mentions knitting with steel), and between concave and convex surfaces—with their resulting protuberances and hollows, as in Fecteau’s faintly biomorphic shapes—even in the presence of the works themselves the best you can do is attain multiple partial views, all of them transient. Is this sculpture’s plight or sculpture’s victory over mediation? In the following email exchanges, facilitated by the 2013 Carnegie International team, the sculptors reflect on this matter, from London and San Francisco respectively, manifesting a playful, sensorial approach to their invented forms.
— Mónica de la Torre
Vincent Fecteau I’ve known of your work for several years (we were even in a show together last year: Sculptural Acts at Haus der Kunst in Munich) and I feel a strong sense of camaraderie with what you do, but, until now, it was only through images. I came across this quote by you in Artforum that I just love: “Image and the pictorial are my enemies. They are what I always want to escape, but I clearly fail to do so. Sculpture will always fail at this task.” I thought we could start with that. I’m curious about why you think sculpture fails at the task of escaping the image. I’ve always thought that it’s sculpture’s triumph that an image, or even a thousand images, will never replicate the experience of a sculptural work.
Phyllida Barlow Yes, sculpture refuses to replicate itself as a single image. Sculpture’s reality is its reality—being there with it and walking around it, stalking it. Every movement we make in relationship to a sculpture generates another point of view that is also another image. That’s what I mean by failing to escape the image. Our physical movement in relationship to sculpture’s stillness is the triumph of sculpture. Each fractional movement we make around a work generates an unending sequence of fleetingly experienced images that, as quickly as they are experienced, become forgotten. Hence, the tragic loss of that unperceivable totality, which can only be experienced by being there, in real time, in a sculpture’s own reality—materially, physically, and spatially.
Of course I am speaking from my own experience. It is probably different for anyone else. But the process of forgetting the sequence of images encourages the stalking process even more—round and round we go, seeking out what? Maybe it’s a quest to find an image in the sculpture, but sculpture persists in refusing to offer a single view. Unfortunately the images—the glamour shots—that adorn our catalogues, etcetera, become adopted as the work. Why is the so-called worst view of a sculpture—its most uncomfortable, fragmented, and least attractive—the worst view? Is it some dreadful convention that has been unwittingly adopted? And why don’t we want that view to be shown?
Deep down, I feel that “making” does not necessarily produce sculpture. Although pictorial object-making has been critically discussed in depth (supposedly), it has had an impact on sculptural language. Sculpture as image has a great historical trajectory, and I would include Bernini in that lineage. But sculpture as a language—sculptural language—is, for me, both ancient (as in Paleolithic) and more recent. Is Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe a declaration of sculpture as a language, the first of its kind in the 20th century? It is always imaged as a portrait—frontal, “best” view—but, in reality, it is not only a very small object, it is also unforgiving in refusing to offer a single, optimal view. It is an invented form, and as such, it brilliantly contends with the craft of mimicry, appropriation, found objects, and readymades.
Oh God, how pedantic this all reads! But I got to where I wanted in order to discuss something about invented form—which is what’s so compelling about your work—and the ultimate obstacle to both sculpture as image and how sculpture is imaged.
VF The way you pull apart the idea of sculpture from the idea of making is interesting. I wonder if the distinction could be expressed in terms of representation. So much art (abstract, representational, conceptual, etc.) simply represents something else—sometimes it’s even an idea of art. The alternative, which may be what you are proposing, is to try and make something that is, that exists in the world irreducibly and uncontainably. Could this be what you mean by a sculptural language or an invented form? It seems like we dove head first into the murkiest waters! I find these things very difficult to articulate, but if there is a reason to continue to make things I suspect it can be found within these ideas somewhere.
PB Yes, I am fascinated by the ongoing evolution of art that remakes art and whose aim is to re-present a particular art movement in the context of the present. It’s like remaking classic films, as if there were nothing left to say. It does indicate different attitudes toward making: making as demonstration and making as revealing, the latter being unhinged from telling but having more to do with showing.
Aren’t actors frequently requested to show and not tell? Actors and performers use body language to reveal the content of the text. There is an understanding that the text is only one part of the narrative. The performer’s bodily behavior and gestures are a non-verbal language as powerful and as subtle as the text. Can a tiny action be as loud as what is being spoken? Or vice versa—can a huge bodily gesture make its point known without the need for verbal language? Similarly, the formal qualities of sculpture show: Is it horizontal, vertical, suspended, leaning, small, large, high up, low down, plinthed, loose, contained, open, hidden, outside, or inside? And what do its other attributes say? Its materials? Is it designed, studio-built, factory-built, hand-made, manufactured, figurative, appropriated, non-representational, familiar, unfamiliar, readymade, new, or old? On the other hand, telling is, for me, embedded in such things as the title, and relates to the necessity to explore the work through a deconstructive trail that leads to an answer. Perhaps here I am referring to works that are subject-led, whose ideologies—political, autobiographical, social commentary—tell you what they’re about rather than allowing that to be discovered. Of course, both showing and telling can exist together!
Is sculpture the one visual art form that does not necessarily require sight? As such, does it have the potential to exist as its own physical thing? As you say, can it just be? I long for that. My contradiction is that remembering existing things is a great stimulus for me, because these things perform sculpturally. They are what they are and therefore beg the question as to why I should have to remake them—it seems a futile act. These are everyday things, banal and very visible: mountains, fallen trees, fallen buildings, fallen signs, broken chairs, broken walls, crashed cars, junk, street barriers, bollards, road works, buildings, banners, bags, bins, pins, clouds, spills, dust, heaps, mounds, rubble, rubbish, cups, containers, newspapers, hoardings, pillows, flags, fences, fields, floors. Things both natural and man-made, rural and urban, in an ambiguous state of decay or regeneration, and already sculptural. Things that are obstacles in that their behavior is incongruous or irrational. Despite their banality and familiarity, they block and interrupt how we experience our daily encounters with the world—whether within our own domestic environments, on the street, or beyond, as in nature.
I am excited by how sculpture is already in the world. I can appropriate it, but this process is flawed, because it ties the work to a source, and as such denies how shapes can arise from action. So I try to release the work from its origins through processes of production, although these origins usually remain there in the work as a phantom reference. I long for the shape to break free, and for a shape or form that cannot be likened to anything to emerge. Such a shape has a freedom from being named and, as you say, just is. However, the dreaded simile is always lurking: an invented form is vulnerable to being likened to this or that as a means to understanding, when no understanding is required. It’s irritating.
I understand sculptural language as being connected to our own physical behavior in relationship to the physicality of things that are not ourselves—be they other selves or inanimate objects. Therefore the idea of sightlessness offers direct physical awareness of what is in the world. I don’t restrict my notion of sculptural language to objects. We can be alert through our senses to things where sound, smell, temperature, texture, light, dark, and so on, all have powerful interruptive properties—such that our behavior toward these things will be affected, and vice versa.
But back to invented form: maybe all forms are invented, and my differentiations, in terms of making sculpture, are spurious. Invented forms are uncategorized, and are different from appropriated things, readymades, and found objects. Yet I dislike the moral implications that arise from establishing these distinctions: that there is something worthy and authentic about a form that has no recognizable, borrowed, pastiched, or copied component within it. I am as enthralled with the past as anyone. It is a resource, especially when it comes to invented form—a lot of postwar European sculpture is hideous, ungainly, ugly; but, for me, is absolutely compelling!
As for the desire to make: it was quite an upheaval for me to come to terms with making. It happened early on, when I was 17 years old. Making proved to be unbearably difficult and arduous. Nothing ever worked. Carving: ugh. Welding: impossible. Construction: nothing stood up. Casting: things got stuck and broken. What was I attracted to? I’m still trying to find out. Making was so different from painting, other than the extraordinary surface-y qualities of clay. The contrast between the weight of a raw lump of clay compared to its surface—always overreacting to anything that touched it, sort of like paint—was a magical revelation!
VF My relationship to materials has also always been rather fraught. I never took a sculpture class. I don’t know how to weld, cast, carve stone, or work with wood. I have an incredible amount of patience except when it comes to the very technical, and I’ve always made things. As a child it was crafty kinds of things: needlepoint, macramé (this was the ’70s!), decoupage… Then when I got to college I took some painting and drawing classes and was really interested in architecture. I thought I might try to be an architect, but in the end I didn’t have that particular kind of stamina. This is why my earlier works are very much like architectural models, and most definitely why I used foam core. Papier-mâché was the lowest tech, the cheapest way I could make larger, paintable forms. You work with what you have, and that includes the history you’re given. My work definitely references other art and periods, not to mention non-art objects or forms that already exist in the world. I don’t cultivate this aspect of the work, but it’s inevitable, and this irritates me at times. Non-objective forms in particular are a language that exists for us to use. Like you, I long for the form that exists free of so-called understanding and that operates in a purely abstract, maybe unconscious way. Yet this utopian desire hinges on an idea of abstraction that not only might be impossible, but in the end, might even be undesirable. Pushed to its logical conclusion, such form might end up like a kind of binary code stripped of any humanity. Maybe it is our humanity, in the end, that refuses the artificial distinction between abstraction and representation. I’m curious about your ideas of sight not being a requirement for sculpture. I’ve often fantasized about making a form that would be so incomprehensible that it couldn’t actually be seen. In the end I’m really interested in the energy or intention beneath the surface—in seeing the forms as a way of accessing something deeper and bigger—as opposed to the deconstruction or understanding of a form in art-historical or other terms. (Again, this isn’t to deny that they are there!) I believe that there are some essential and probably ultimately unknowable truths to being human that can be accessed through art-making. When I’m feeling good about things I’m working on, I see them as evidence of an attempt to locate and share this knowledge or belief.
Wow, I think I’m in pretty deep, and definitely in very murky water now. I keep imagining that we’re both underwater at opposite ends of a deep pond, swimming toward each other. That’s kind of what we’re doing, considering you’re in the UK and I’m in the US! Sometimes making work feels literally like a stab in the dark, hoping something will stick. And maybe that’s the blindness you’re referring to? Is it paradoxically a way to see more clearly?
To move in a slightly different direction: I’m curious about your thoughts on scale. People often ask me if I think of my pieces as maquettes for something much larger. I never do. Even my early works that clearly resemble architectural models were only so on a conceptual level. They were models of ideas or feelings. I’m interested in the literal, material object, and the way that it breaks down and complicates one’s understanding of space. I guess this is more of an intellectual and psychological process than a physical one. Or maybe it is a physical one on a more intimate scale?
I wonder if although we approach scale from different directions, we might arrive at a very similar place? I’m curious about the environments within which you work and live. Do you have a large studio that allows you to try out your large pieces before you install, or is the installation improvisational? Do you live with sculptures—made by yourself or others? I have a relatively small studio and live in a very small apartment with my partner. I like having things that interest me around, but they usually take the form of small non-art items, or artworks by friends, but not really sculptures. I never live with my own pieces. I work on them for so long that by the time they are finished it feels like we’ve both really said all there is to say to each other and it’s time for them to go.
PB No, I don’t have any of my work around apart from four forgotten small, woolen, crushed-paper and cane-woven objects (handicrafts) on top of a cupboard—they’ve been there since 1989! I don’t live with any sculpture by anyone else either, but there is a lot of art around by my husband and our children. The house and its contents are shambolic.
Your wonderful descriptions of how you make your work gives credence to the extraordinary processes of discovery brought about by realizing that making things is what one wants to do. And then figuring out the way one wants to make things can be extremely fraught, as you say. I’ve always felt that I have gotten it all wrong—the it is probably sculpture, sculpture with a formidable and overbearing capital S.
I am curious about your discoveries with making being rooted in handicrafts. The translation of handicrafts into the supposedly higher art form of sculpture is the ultimate excitement for me—it brings together intimacy and disclosure. Sculpture is unforgiving. It demands space in terms of where it can be placed and also in terms of how it delivers itself: it is performative, attention-seeking, and theatrical, even in its quieter modes. Therefore, regardless of the subject, when its materiality—for example, highly polished, shiny surfaces (say, bronze)—combines with huge monumentality, there is an authoritarian and usually very public message being delivered. However, if a sculpture’s processes and materials come from somewhere more domestic, more hand-crafted, more private and undemonstrative, then there is this magical clash of identities: sculpture’s inherent demonstrative characteristics are undermined by these intimate processes of production. Even the huge monumental shiny sculpture I just mentioned would become a very different and very eccentric object, if, for instance, it was hand-knitted. Yes, it would still be theatrical, spatially demanding, and very attention-seeking, but its monumentality and its authority would be subversive and contradictory. It would become anti-monumental.
There are ways of doing/making—knitting, weaving, sewing, pottery, macramé—which when manipulated can have radically atypical results. I’m thinking of knitting with steel, sewing with clay, making pottery from cement, whereby materials are pushed to the limit, and there is a loss of control.
I have never thought of your works as maquettes. I respond to their confidence as autonomous things that refuse being compared to anything else. Their size does not seem to be about scale, but is more of a fact: this is what they are, and this is how they exist. They are ruthless in their uncompromising sense of being. Once I am in their world—close-up, looking into, under, up, and through their folds and openings and gaps, at their doubling back on themselves—my curiosity is absolutely in the here and now.
At the beginning of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (I haven’t seen it for years), Kyle MacLachlan comes across a severed ear lying amongst the litter of leaves. An extraordinary filmic sequence follows which caught my imagination completely: the camera peruses the ear as a sculptural phenomenon. The mixture of the dead leaves and the fleshy severed ear was so materially compelling, so sculptural. Your two wall works in the exhibition at Haus der Kunst reminded me of this. I write from memory: One of them opened itself up with hybrid curved forms arching out from the top and bottom, with gaping cavities through which a heaving interior could be seen—very bodily but also the opposite. This work was a strange yellow-brown on its outside and dark inside—a half-remembered, redundant mechanical part, salvaged, but remaindered. The other wall work was dark in all respects. Its interior and exterior were fused as one, as if turned inside out. It was truly painful and uncomfortable, and unforgiving too. Slits and openings seemed arbitrary, as if this object were manifesting something in a state of reparation or recovery, but in the knowledge that it might not make it. An object in a state of limbo—its fragility a reminder that I was looking at myself. These amazing works exemplify my fascination for folded forms. By keeping themselves half-hidden they invite curiosity but refuse to yield up their secret interiors. They are erotic in their curling in on themselves, and innately visceral. They prompt the desire to touch and probe. But the only person who touches the sculpture is the artist—everyone else has to imagine those tactile encounters rather than fulfilling them, and this is such a vital part of the sculptural experience.
I, too, am much more interested in a psychological relationship with things than in a literal one. But my dilemma is that going there, so to speak, is getting into deep and murky water, to quote you. The way I attempt to understand what I do, and my relationship to materials, processes, and sculpture, is to recognize its subjectless identity. Its size, sometimes vast, sometimes small, is itself a kind of subject, but a physical one. As such, it is psychological; making things that reach beyond my own size excites me. I want the object to explore the space it inhabits. This action offers me, as the first viewer, ways of looking as a bodily experience. I look up, across, into, around, and become aware of the space as an integral, and a materially vibrant part of the sculpture, not as something separate. Is the sculpture looking at me as much as I am looking at it? This refers back to blindness—how am I experiencing the sculpture, and how is the sculpture experiencing me? I don’t consider my large sculptures to be big. They attempt to retain some kind of intimacy through their surface qualities and materials, which can then contradict their size and deny their monumentality. They are anti-monumental and emotionally pathetic. I relate to these large works as being without size and especially, without scale. Scale is an illusion; size is what things are.
To answer your question about improvisation: it is essential. With the large installations, the making processes require assistants. They need direction, which involves a lot of assemblage and re-making, building up and breaking down, in every sense. But I have a small studio where I live, and there I make smaller works: these involve testing out materials and concoctions of materials, and ways of fixing, and also drawing, which is a continuous activity. At the heart of all the processes is something close to chaos… a state of never quite knowing what is going to happen and how the work should and can develop. I have often referred to making as guesswork. I am always concerned that this chaos is very stressful for the assistants, and that it is difficult for them to follow my incoherent instructions. I usually demonstrate how I want something to be, and this proposes a whole other engagement with making. I have had to adopt a different approach to these works that are produced by assistants from my demonstrations and instructions. This has something to do with treating the resulting works and their components as quasi-found objects: hybrids that become resolved once the work is in its place, a gallery, museum, or location, wherever that might be. The smaller works are easy. They can wait, or they can be binned, they can be slow or quick. They have control over me and show me what to do next, even if it doesn’t work out. With the larger works, I have to be in control, and I don’t necessarily like that role, so it’s a battlefield! Getting to a resolution is performative, and the final result, regarding whether it works or not, is always on a knife’s edge.
VF I was in Pittsburgh in July to install my pieces for the Carnegie International. Unfortunately you were not there, but I had the distinct honor of watching two of your assistants install a rather large work. I was struck by the interior of the piece, a structure that no one would normally see. It was incredibly complicated, and painted, which suggested that the piece had been through various iterations. In fact what was covered up may have at one time been uncovered. I really appreciate the way you talk about your work being in flux. It was clear to me that your process requires a lot of trial and error and endless negotiations with the limits of materials. This engagement with material and the struggle it assumes is apparent regardless of the final form. “Hard won” is something I often think about as being the ultimate compliment of a work of art. I like knowing that something was struggled over, regardless of how so-called seamless it might appear on the surface. Do you ever think of your work as finished? How do you negotiate your interest in flux and ambivalence with the rather rigid way most of the contemporary art world thinks about change of, or within, a ork of art?
PB Oh God, sometimes revealing a work in its process of construction makes it acutely vulnerable, but it is wonderful that you saw it like this. Untitled: upturnedhouse was initially shown in New York, where it was installed in a very ad hoc way. This process had to be radically changed when it was agreed that it would be shown in the Carnegie. All its failings exploded into reality. The challenge was to retain its haphazard character, but to construct it as a permanent object. It was as if my love of the conflicting nature of making and un-making were being meticulously scrutinized as a badly told lie—I felt like a criminal whose devious activities were on trial. It was all for good, though; I have been giving my ways of making and un-making a tougher, mental acknowledgement. My works are now being shown more than once—something I do not have much experience with, since in the past my works have been shown and then destroyed, with some materials being salvaged for future use. Making more permanent works has made me more resilient and purposeful about my building and re-building methods. It can be grueling, and yes, the resulting works are hard won, not necessarily always in a good way. I’m still hanging onto an uneasy relationship with whether the works are ever finished or not, because it generates excitement and uncertainty. I never know if more should be added or removed. I don’t doubt what I am doing, but I want the freedom to change my mind and to be able to undo today’s job tomorrow, regardless of whether it turns out well or badly. I want a fluid thinking process to be realized in the material reality of the work itself, to try and narrow the gap between thought and action.
Also, I look at art with recurring curiosity: How do we know when something is finished? What is the last paint stroke on a Jackson Pollock, a Matisse, Picasso, or for that matter a Velázquez or a Goya? It’s all a wonderful and well-kept secret, something that could keep the art historians guessing for years to come: “The Last Mark.”
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby