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Incongruous Associations and Visceral Urges: An Interview With the Sculptor Fawn Krieger, by Karen Schifano, 2009

I’ve long admired the large ambition and seriousness of purpose underlying Fawn Krieger’s deceptively funky sculptural work. She is at home in a variety of scales and situations: crafting “product lines” for a “store” (COMPANY, Art in General), a room-sized installation and collaboration with musician Wynne Greenwood at The Kitchen, scale-shifting architectural sculpture shown both here and abroad, a storyboard for a film, and finally, a new “stage setting” at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in Oregon, opening this September. We conducted an online interview, after first viewing the exhibition “Stage Pictures: Drawing for Performance” at MoMA for inspiration.
 
Karen Schifano: Fawn, you’ve often recommended books to me that are about re-thinking architecture, utopian explorations concerned with designing new kinds of spaces for living, for example, A Pattern Language, Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, and Superstudio. Can you begin by talking about what those books mean to you, and how they might help to fuel your own quest to find out, as you ask in an earlier statement, “How can we build more room into our personal landscape? How can we craft choice and consciousness into the spaces we occupy?” What do you think about being called “‘utopian”?
Fawn Krieger: Well, first, I think every living thing is essentially utopian. And I don’t think inanimate things can have visions or beliefs — that they can exist as utopian — but things can be imprinted with beliefs and visions, and can help to carry and transmit them. I think matter is sort of like a recessive gene, or a sparkplug.
I don’t see the books of mine you mention as designing new spaces for living. I see them as analyzing the psychological and cultural infrastructures of what we’ve collectively decided to call architecture. The consciousness of these particular books — each quite different — expands my sensitivity of what it means to build and inhabit space.
This question of mine you raise asks me now how it is we move from the occupation of space to inhabiting it — the difference of living at others’ expense to the choice of living WITH others, and with otherness.
 
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HOVER (lake 5), 2005
Composite digital drawing; ink-jet print on sintra board
51 x 3 x 41 cm
 
KS: So is there a way of connecting these thoughts to your upcoming project in Portland? How did you come up with the idea for this piece?
FK: For my project at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, I will be making a US National Park that functions as a stageset. National Parks are one of many stages for the enacting of national identity. They are tourist destinations, which contradict their position of an untouched wilderness to one designed, however inconspicuously, for consumption. How do we make sense of the terrible injustices that are built into our American landscape? As an artist, and a sculptor specifically, I’m asking about our material history, and about how we inhabit and relate to the presence of physical truths — bodies (of land, of self, of community).
 
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Study for National Park, 2009
Composite digital drawing on family photograph
(Athabasca Glacier, BC-Canada, 1984)
 
The idea for the piece was sort of woven from a number of inspirational threads. For 5 years I’ve been working indirectly with some photos I found of a cross country trip I took with my family in 1984. They reveal intense psychologies of a family structure embedded within vast American landscapes. When I got obsessed with Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) last summer, I began to think more and more about frozen moments where multiple bodies stand within immense plateaus and clearings whose scales are so profound that they kind of alienate while containing. I wanted to create a series of tableau vivants in national parks, with actors reenacting my family photographs. But then felt it compromised the very distortions of intimacy that involve immediate and physically profound scale shifts, since the audience for the work would always see it remotely, as a video document. So my challenge became one of bringing the national park to them.
 
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Krieger with her father
Puerco Pueblo ruins
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
1984
 
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Screenshot from L’avventura (1960)
Michelangelo Antonioni
 
KS: Wow, I’m amazed at the ambition of this project! Barnett Newman spoke of “the sublime” as a subject matter for the Abstract Expressionists, influenced in part by the vast scale of the American landscape. What’s interesting to me is how you want to undermine the sublime, and play with shifts of scale to reveal what’s underneath the network of mythologies we’ve created. It seems like another layer of awareness, an opening into a larger and more complex notion of our individual and group identities as Americans, at this particular time in our history. The slippery feeling of the word “utopia” connects into the notion we were all taught in school about our “Manifest Destiny”. Although utopia has a long history as a concept, it almost seems as if America reclaimed it and branded it as it’s own possession.
Anyway, I’m wondering how you’ll physically create those “immediate and profound scale shifts” in your set. And how the theatrical aspect of your work, the stage set, is different than “installation”. In both, I’d imagine, the audience becomes a kind of actor, and so moves and experiences a created sense of place and time.
FK: I am very much having a conversation with the history of painting, but I’m less interested in the sublime and more drawn to a conflicted, paradoxical kind of place, between the heroic and utter failure. The Hudson River School is where it’s at for me — both first and second generation, but especially first because it’s less aware of itself, represents a radical departure, and marks the beginning of what we now call American art history, but which of course, was made centuries upon centures after so much incredible art had already been produced on this land. All the morality and entitlement, the embedded psychologies of gender, class wealth, race; notions of “wild,” “tamed,” “civilized”…  I stand in front of the Oxbow at the Met a lot, and I am just amazed by the weight Cole asks us to carry. Those works were tourist commercials, real estate advertisements, and instructions for erasure and hypocrisy. But it also can’t be denied that they offered us a departure from Europe, from what was known, an entrance into the cinematic, the environmental, and the opportunity to define ourselves as artsts and audiences of a new era.
I think these inspirations are so big — gargantuan and impossibly awkward — which is why I like them. I don’t mean to enter into their bigness, but to squish the monumental into the scale of the body. So we could hold them, and pay attention to the sensations they surface through embodiment.
When I was in art school in the mid-90s and I’d hear about an artist who makes installations, I just didn’t feel any association. The word felt contrived to me, like something was applied to a space instead of transforming it. It wasn’t until after I got out of graduate school, ten years later, that I was introduced to stage-set-making as artwork. It came through a collaborative project called ROOM, with Wynne Greenwood. We made domestic spaces as stage-sets in which her band, Tracy + the Plastics, would perform. The introduction of the idea of the “set” created lots of new questions that just felt completely inspiring to me.
First, there were questions about audience and performer safety, which I loved immediately. Then there were questions about communication and collaboration through building, that I found reinforced the conceptual principals within my work. Then there were questions about spectatorship, witness, interaction, experience, participation, and movement. I started to choose the term “audience” over the art term “viewer”, and found that within the act of becoming audience are mini practices of citizenship. More and more, I am finding there is no distinction between performer and audience, so the spaces I build often dismantle conceptual and structural hierarchies that would otherwise support this. I don’t imagine anyone will have to “act” in National Park. They are already part of the construction without entering it.
 
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ROOM, collaboration with Tracy + the Plastics (Wynne Greenwood)
The Kitchen, NYC, 2005
Installation view (detail)
Carpet, wood, foam, paint, fabric, paper, hardware, a/v equipment
Approx. 17 x 9 x 2.5 m
Photos © Paula Court, Courtesy of the Kitchen’s Archives
 
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ROOM, collaboration with Tracy + the Plastics (Wynne Greenwood)
The Kitchen, NYC, 2005
Performance view (detail)
Carpet, wood, foam, paint, fabric, paper, hardware, a/v equipment
Approx. 17 x 9 x 2.5 m
Photos © Paula Court, Courtesy of the Kitchen’s Archives
 
KS: It seems like some of these same considerations (in terms of audience/performer and citizenship) play a big part in your previous project, COMPANY at Art in General in 2007-2008.
FK: Totally. Kristan Kennedy (the Visual Art Program Director at PICA) invited me to do a commission in Portland after learning of COMPANY — a shop as work-of-art that existed in Art in General’s storefront space for close to a year. I began COMPANY with many questions about the “stage” of consumption, about desire, longing, value, ownership, and the commerce of art. Also about inspiration — how and why and when we work directly through it and likewise, depart from it. But by the end of that piece, my questions had moved more into ideas about roles (sesame, poppyseed, whole wheat…); about moments when our subjecthood becomes objectified through our position as consumers, and when objects take on identities and assume power beyond their inanimate proportions, as a part of this same mechanism. I became interested in this transference between subject and object, and how it informs the different characters within socialized structures implicitly tied to consumption.
Because it was COMPANY that inspired Kristan to approach me, I first began my discussions with her in thinking about how we could take COMPANY to Portland. What would it mean to make a stage for American consumption that is nomadic? That’s when I began to look into the history of American tourism, all around the same time I was thinking about those people on the mountain in L’avventura, and my family’s cross country photos. My questions have as much to do with notions of domestic movement, as they do with concrete challenges, like shifting my process of making objects framed within a structure — as I did with COMPANY — into making a structure that functions as one humongous object.
 
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COMPANY, 2007-8
Art in General, NYC
 
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COMPANY: pastrami on rye (Line 2), 2008
Foam, canvas, spraypaint
21 x 21 x 9 cm
 
KS: You seem so clear and articulate about the kinds of questions you ask yourself. Are there ever times when you’re surprised or thrown off and things derail, the process is murky and words fail you? Any stories to tell here?
FK: Always. Most of the time I feel overwhelmed with what I don’t know, and fear and doubt I have the strength to enter straight into it — that is my work…at least, that is what my work is for me. I feel my job as an artist is half to undo, to unlearn, to unknow, and the other half is to be accountable for it. I’m not sure what I’d do without the murk, but the painful part isn’t so much the murk but choosing the murk over its alternative. Again and again. That’s really where the blow is.
Words always fail. That’s part of what makes them beautiful, part of what makes them as brittle, malleable, and curious to me as cement, or the yellow craft foam Jo-Ann Fabrics insists on not selling anymore in its NYC locations for some unexplainable reason. This is another plea, Jo-Ann!
When I was in my last year of graduate school at Bard College, in 2004, I felt a need to build out instead of up, and to suspend weight and density atop vacant spaces. I was thinking a lot about the history of American architectures, and questioning what it meant to build as a white American woman — what my hand in the construction of this country meant, what I was building on top of, and what I was building to support. It was at this time that I first rediscovered those childhood cross country photos. Prior to that body of work, I had been making some terrible and some not-so-terrible sculptures with cut logs, and images of founding fathers, as well as drawings of cut slabs of meat.
When these architectures began to surface, I couldn’t see their connection to my previous work, and they all looked like failures, literally crumbling in front of me. Then I realized, fortunately right before my thesis board(!), that the work was really a set of inadequate domestic foundations, expressing both potential and obliteration, and linking itself directly to the word “founding”. The connection helped me to make a larger link between sacrifice and violence, between expectation and failure, between establishment and transgression, and between consumption and regeneration. I realized, not just that these were foundations, but that I had found my voice, and titled the work FOUND.
The arrival of words to my voice, is the remnant of fighting for my own truths, all of which must be translated into language, whether it’s material, verbal, or written.
 
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Bricks (from FOUND series), 2004
Bricks, concrete, wood
183 x 15 x 61 cm
 
KS: So let’s go from the verbal to making things and materials. I’ve heard that you once characterized your aesthetic as “Flinstone-ian”. I’m drawn to the accessible, hand-made, funky quality of your work, as it carries this seriously intellectual weight. Quite a tension there.
FK: It’s a strange sensation when someone asks you to define your aesthetic. For me, any response to that question will include transgression, and in this case, I was playing with the idea of ‘a canon’ of sculpture, sort of thinking about stone carving and pedestals, in relation to a canon of stone-age-ness.
 
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Constantin Brancusi
Le Baiser / The Kiss, 1908
Plaster, 58cm high
Philadelphia Museum of Art / © Artists Rights Society (ARS)
 
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Fred’s Monkeyshines
The Flintstones
October 17, 1963 (Season 4, Episode 5)
 
KS: Yeah, I can see that it’s strange to look at something you’ve done after the fact and try and describe it. I know that it’s the result of your process, and yet I’m still interested in how and why your sculpture looks the way it does, why you make the choices you make. Are you also thinking through your materials? Or do you choose materials and structures after you’ve researched and thought about a project? Or both? Maybe you could lead us through “how you use your hands”.
FK: I often work in series, or chapters. This is not something I try to do, it’s just the way I work. So what happens is that there’s a whole infrastructure of ideas and feelings happening at once…an obsession with The Love Boat, orange juice, furniture mail-order catalogues from the late 60s, my father’s hard leather jacket with patchwork leather buttons, oak veneer, Holly Hobby, and having a bad cold…let’s say. These incongruous associations combine with physical, visceral urges and emotional memories that are often associated with touch and necessity, like feeling a carpet edge at home, or poking my 3-year-old-finger in cellophane packages of ground beef. They are not thoughts; they are completely of the body.
My job is to get out of my own way at this point — to trust what I lean into completely, and to trust the interconnectedness of these pulls, all without question. My aesthetic, I suppose, is really a measure of moment. During this time it’s less that I intend to keep my process private than that I haven’t even identified it as process. It’s simply living. And what happens when a system of attractions begins to weave together, is that I sort of adapt an auto-psychoanalytic approach, to make sense — or meaningfulness — of those symbols that I feel sympathetic to. At this point, my job is to take ownership of my choices, by asking every conceivable question of their properties and interrelationships. I guess the relationship between my thinking and my hands is one of roles really, of becoming. It’s as though my role shifts from child to parent, in a way.
 
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Photo © Abe & Sofie McNally
 
KS: And are the materials that you work with, things that sometimes look like craft supplies or stuff from your kitchen, chosen partly as a response to those “physical, visceral urges and emotional memories”? There’s a direct, almost child-like presence to these materials and the way you put things together.
FK: The materials are another obsession happening simultaneously to the orange juice and Love Boat. They aren’t a response to necessities — they are part of them. Felt and concrete are both materials that have come up a lot in this way for me. As are leather, dyed canvas (with frayed/inside out edges), and silver mylar. It feels kind of like a craving. Like a thing that, when consumed, makes you feel whole or complete, or fully satiated. For a moment…
 
National Park will be on view at Washington High School in Portland, Oregon, from September 3 – October 18, 2009, as part of the Portland Institue for Contemporary Art’s Time Based Arts Festival.  A recently published catalogue on Krieger’s project COMPANY can be purchased here.
Karen Schifano is a New York City-based painter
All photos © Fawn Krieger, unless otherwise noted.
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