In this new interview culled from email conversations surrounding Ortega y Gasset Projects recent exhibition, Imaginary Monuments, Sheilah Wilson and the exhibition’s curator Fritz Horstman speak with participating artists Aimée Burg, Mark Dixon, Thale Fastvold, and Emily Hass.
Sheilah Wilson: What is the condition of the monument? Is it heroic? Tragic? Both? Monuments embody such hopes for specificity of affective response. Yet, their fate as we pass by is, largely unnoticed. In his essay for the show Imaginary Monuments, Fritz Horstman quotes Robert Musil; “One considers them—like a tree—to be a part of the street, one would be immediately struck by their disappearance, but one does not look at them and one does not have the slightest idea whom they represent. . .”
Fritz goes on to describe Fort Couch, a monument to a battle that never occurred. His vivid description sent my mind wandering to the Indian Mounds of Heath, Ohio – mounds that I pass on my way to Chipotle, to get groceries, to get to Home Depot. The Mounds exist in a largely unnoticed way – a sedimentation of the past, another layer accumulating over more noticeable and ‘useful’ layers above. It grows dusty in the mind; yet it persists.
The mounds act as a portal to something much more ineffable than the solidity of the material suggests. It is one of the few things that hold value – through sheer presence in a public space. Monuments intend to remind us of principles. They give us a way to establish order in the present, often by establishing a debt to the past. Yet, this historical and emotional specificity can become obscured by the passage of time.
One of the curious things, for me, about the Indian Mounds of the Hopewell people is that their use evades and eludes firm designation. There are few bones buried; they were not used as dwellings. It has been discovered that the mounds line up with certain lunar trajectories and cycles, yet the greater intent remains a series of educated guesses. I love taking my students from Denison University there. In the end all that remains is the grandness of the scale of the effort, and the belief that created the forms. The paradox of the monument interests me as a metaphor for art making. This show, Imaginary Monuments, offers a place for further exploration of these ideas.
Fritz used this idea of monument to describe something running through all of your work. Do you accept the term or idea?
Mark Dixon: I’m interested in how our idea of monumentality has changed, like how there is an impotence to what was once considered monumental in figurative commemorative sculpture. There is an obscurity and invisibility to these things that are scattered all over American cities. But as soon as I noticed one, they just started popping out all over the place. Some hide in the shadows yet others are in plain view.
Thale Fastvold: I want people to believe in Hope and Mysteries, if you can call them ideas.
Aimée Burg: I like Thale’s answer – of believing in Hope and Mysteries. Hope through Mysteries maybe? I wouldn’t say I am interested in one event, and certainly not a specific person, but ideas . . . of connectivity between ideas that seem unrelated – and I focus on the mystery that is created between them.
Emily Hass: I’m not sure I can accept that term as a way to describe my work.
SW: Emily, instead of monumentalizing your subject, do you see the condition of your work being about a certain kind of remembering?
EH: More than remembering or forgetting, I see my work as an attempt to make what is invisible visible.
SW: Could you speak about this in relationship to the work that is in the show? I am curious about the specificity of materials chosen, and how it relates to the creation of symbols and forms. I am also interested in hearing about how these forms speak to domestic/work spaces, and whether you saw this as a forgotten space that needed to be made visible.
EH: The work in the show, the gouache pieces specifically, come out of my Berlin series that uses archival architectural records of the former homes of persecuted Jews, artists, and intellectuals. Invisibility is a theme that runs throughout the series: the subject matter, the research methods, the materials I work from, and the materials I work with. Many of these Berlin buildings are no longer standing but the original floor plans remain. The volumes themselves are dusty and hidden away out of sight. My choice to use salvaged scrapbook pages is a conscious echoing of the bound volumes in the archives. I work directly, and closely, with the archival materials. I select the shapes I find most interesting from the plans and elevations and represent them (always to scale) in a way that I hope tells a story – yes a sort of language of symbols and forms. My aim is to bring these shapes, these geometries of former lives, to light, but not to dictate a specific narrative. I like to think of it as an uncovering.
FH: Mark, do you see the condition of your work being about remembering or forgetting?
MD: It is about both, but maybe more about forgetting. Generally, it’s about memory. The monuments depicted are real and specific but their meaning is lost to the larger public – and to me for that matter – and I’m not trying to resurrect their histories. There is an undeniable romance to the paintings because I am depicting historical objects by making more historical objects, but I’m not necessarily trying to monumentalize past monuments as much as I am trying to put a viewer in a place to contemplate how they relate to monuments of all kinds. I ask this of myself, how do my memories relate to a broader historical moment?
FH: Mark, some of your paintings don’t depict existing statues or objects that are recognizably about monuments. What’s going on in those paintings?
MD: They’re about connecting a personal experience or memory to a public one, like making a monument out of a memento and vice versa. I had a friend in high school who was a drummer and had a sound proof room in his basement. I would hang out while he would play. This one time, I picked up a Big Gulp cup that was sitting on a shelf and he stopped drumming and told me to put it back, explaining that it was tied to a memory that he was hanging on to. This idea that an empty Big Gulp cup served to preserve a personal memory stuck with me. I’m also interested in the negative space, or actual space, that surrounds our monuments. The physical context of the monument becomes as important, or even more important, to the experience of the monument. What is left out or missing can be more unsettling than what is shown.
FH: What about you, Thale, what is the condition for your work?
TF: Definitely about remembering. I do look to the past when working with my projects, specifically in practical terms, like how people did various tasks before. I am concerned with how much the world has changed during the last century, how everything took much more time just some years ago, and now life is spinning faster and faster. I feel the need to slow down, touch the earth, and physically feel the soil with my hands in my studio when I work. Also I find it interesting to involve other senses than seeing in my work, for example, the sense of smell or taste are very strong bearers of memories.
SW: Are there historical haptics you are thinking about? I am curious to hear more about this idea.
TF: Philosophically, I am interested in the history of the senses. Artist Herman de Vries quotes the philosopher and theologist Pierre Gassendi, a contemporary of Descartes, having said in opposition to the well known Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am): Ambulo ergo sum – I walk therefore I am. Gassendi’s maxim went along the lines of “there is nothing in the intellect which has not been in the senses,” and when walking you actively sense the world around you. Going further back, I believe in Aristotle’s peripatetic schools, where students walked with him while he was teaching. Their discussions would be influenced by where they were and what they experienced on the walks. Practically, I acutely feel how influenced I am by this every day – in life and in my art practice. When walking into a room, you take in so many unconscious messages through your body, just how the air feels on your arms, the temperature, the humidity, and breathing in, you will experience something of the taste and smell of whatever else is or has been in the room before you. Living so much online and digitally as we do now, and maybe loosing physical experiences because of this, is something that worries me. A very practical example about remembering with senses connected to my life: my oldest daughter will start elementary school in August and we just had an information meeting with the principal, who very proudly told us parents that they completely digitalized the school and now they do not use chalk and chalkboards anymore. I am not so sure that is only a good thing! For me the memories of starting school and of learning to write and read are connected to the physical feeling of holding a chalk in my hand, the dry feeling and the white residue left afterwards, the sound of writing on a board, the smell of the wet sponge we used to wipe the chalkboard. So I guess I am trying to bring this into my art, to invoke memories with senses.
FH: Aimée, what’s your take on this?
AB: I think a lot of my work is about remembering and trying not to forget. And those combinations that happen when memories are blurred and become their own thing. I try to remember things that are important to me, and why and how I can share those things. I’m one of those people that have a hard time remembering what happens in a movie and even how it ends, but strongly remember the feeling I got from it. So it is this blurry understanding of things that I cling to and use in my work.
SW: You speak about objects as “basic materials that mimic ideas and icons from times past or times imagined.” How does the past inform your current formations of materials and relationships to one another in creating this affective response?
AB: I think there is an ease about more mundane materials, like plaster and wood and cardboard – the common characteristics make an access point to their story in a way. Having that easy material access, I think, helps with the convoluted memories that they hold. Also, allowing myself to be messy gives these materials a sense of the hand to them. And memories are not clean. They are messy and blurry. I have also been bringing back other techniques that I used when I was younger, and they themselves are memories from my childhood. For example, working with strings (for instance, in this piece there is a crocheted bowl). I have been noticing that I have been making a lot of bowls or vessels, and that was more an experiment to see how I liked the connection of the built in bowl. This idea of tables and bowls and workstations are sort of how I used to play house with my brothers in our shed growing up, and we’d make bowls and dig up this dirt that was super clay-ish from the side of the house, and make these forms of ‘food’ and pretend that we were adults who lived in the wilderness – so it is this early idea of what it means to be sufficient I think. I have also been playing with knots like the type used for friendship bracelets, papier maché, and using clays. These are all things from my childhood that, to me, have their own associations, and I am pulling that forward for those memories to join in with more newly acquired knowledge.
SW: Can you talk about what it means when these various objects inhabit the space together, for instance the table at OyG right now?
AB: It’s like a worktable, maybe an archeologist’s table. The scene that comes to my mind and is stuck there, so I will say it, is ‘Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land’. They take a look in his mind and it is a dusty, cluttered mess, and maybe that is what this table is, my cluttered mess. I think it also speaks to play, and to finding relationships between purposes. For instance, how can a lighthouse and a ray gun be the same thing? Or, another thing that also just popped in my head, which to me makes complete sense and is relevant and, I hope I can make it make sense to you too. We are from a time when you recorded things from TV onto VHS to watch over and over again, and we had this one VHS that was Star Wars and Indiana Jones. This combination that my brothers and I would watch over and over together for years, is stuck in my mind forever. This sci-fi and magical archaeological adventure combo could almost completely sum up the work I do.
This interview was published in partnership with Ortega y Gasset Projects.