What is the installation at Invisible Dog based on?
The piece at the Invisible Dog is based on the 18 months of research I did into the idea of the messiah, so this is actually the messiah map. This is 3,000 years of the knowledge that I gained. When I started researching I knew nothing. I grew up Lutheran, I married a Jewish girl, and when I started I had a basic set of knowledge about Judaism, but it was like Sunday school knowledge. But there's this whole underlayer of history, theory, case law. The text is very much like case law, building one piece after another after another, all building their argument off of previous things that were written. But when I started, the first book I read took me six months, because I had to read it three times. I was trying to figure out who Jacob was; I was talking to this rabbi, and I said, "I'm just trying to figure out who Jacob was." And he's like, "Yes, who is Jacob?" He was talking metaphorically, but I'm just wondering who's Jacob related to, what did he do; there's Jacob and Joshua, and they sound very similar so I'm trying to keep them separate in my brain.
So that's where I came from, and I don't remember all of this, but when I start reading over it I start remembering bit of it and how they interconnect. but this is basically the data set that I gathered over that 18 month period and it's not perfect, I'm not a scholar, I'm an artist. It's accurate enough, and it's accurate through a specific kind of lens. One of the elements in here might be perfectly accurate to one person but then you talk to a different scholar and it's a completely different story. So it's a lens through which I gathered the information. Everything I gathered here I took from books. The Invisible Dog takes this slice, the 13th century, and it's going to be a fleece pod installation that'll fill the entire ground floor. You'll actually be able to walk under it, around it, through it, and there will be 118 pods. Some of them will be big—some of them will be person-sized—and some of them will be a little bit smaller. And each pod will represent a bubble on the messiah map. The map is built out like a Harvard outline, with subject, sub-subject, and then the item, so each pod is either a person, a category or an idea. And there will be a little QR code embedded on the pods that you can scan that will give you this information on your smartphone, if you have a smartphone.
Why did you choose the subject of the messiah?
I think if I had understood what it was that I was starting to research when I started to research, I'm not sure I would have done it. I picked Judaism for very specific reasons, but there are tons of concepts within Judaism that I could have worked with, but why the messiah? I was reading through this book What the Jews Believe, and there was a chapter on the messiah. And at the time I didn't think the Jews believed in the messiah, which I think is a pretty common misperception, which grows out of the ramifications of trying to deal with Jesus, he brings a lot of complications with him. But there was a Jewish messiah in the 17th century, Sabbatai Zevi, who depending on which meta-narrative you believe in Jewish history, a large percentage of Jews—some would say most—believed that this was it. The messiah had come, the world was going to be different, and then he converted to Islam. He was forced by the Turkish sultan to either die, or convert to Islam. So he converted to Islam and all these subsequent scholars were dealing with the fall-out of Sabbatai Zevi converting to Islam. There was such a powerful force happening in that moment in time with this guy that if he had chosen death, which we have a long history of martyrdom and how to deal with that—we've got narratives to put over the top of that that make it easy to move forward; Sabbatai Zevi chose a narrative that we have no prehistory for, I'm not aware of any other messiah who has ever chosen to convert to another faith. There were people in the early 1900s who still believed that Sabbatai Zevi was the messiah, and there were Jews living as either Christians or Muslims, leading these dualistic lifestyles. For two-hundred years there were Jews living in very isolated communities, being Muslim when they're out in the street and being Jews, not by force, by choice, to live a philosophy that was a result of Sabbatai Zevi converting to Islam. And these Jews were some of the founders of Reform Judaism. So the Judaism we have today is, to a large extent, a result of the fall-out from Sabbatai Zevi.
The one thing I am worried about is that I've never gone after a topic that was controversial at all—nobody's going to get upset over a sculpture of the Minneapolis-St. Paul bus system. But this is my first piece where I'm engaging with information that is slightly volatile, and I'm a little bit nervous about what that's going to be like. People do weird stuff about religion. But looking at this piece, all these people throughout history, they're all Jewish, or they influence Judaism somehow, and they believe very different things at different points in time, and I don't think there's a right. You can say you believe this guy more than this guy, but they were all Jewish scholars at different points in time, you're just picking. And I'm not picking, I'm giving you all of them that I've found and I learned about, but I'm not saying any of them are right, they're just all here and related to each other.
But some of my favorite things I discovered while working on the project are these really weird things, like, how will god bring back the dead in the resurrection? There's an idea that he will do it from the dew that falls from his hair, which I think is a fairly early idea. And then later comes that god actually gathers the spit that pours out of the mouths of rabbis who are studying when they fall asleep on the book, god is gathering that dew and that is the spittle that he's going to use to resurrect the dead. Awesome! Who thinks of that?!
Another of my favorites is about the utopian ideas of what the next world will look like, because there really isn't much in the Torah about the next world and what it would be like, so some people are just making it up. One of my favorites is that women will pursue men. This is old, from the 9th century or the 5th century, way back, which I just love because a lot of the things you realize are that these issues we're dealing with today in social interaction, they've been the same way since the beginning of time; men have always been dealing with this issue of trying to talk to a woman, and so this rabbi sitting there is like, I got it, in paradise the women go after the men! Those are some of the elements that, in the research, I found kind of beautiful and amazing, and that talked more about humanness. I think with the 2012 stuff that is coming up I think there's a lot of messianic kind of interest and talk—which I wasn't thinking about at all when I started this because I started in 2009—it's actually perfect timing. The world is hard; people are suffering, it's a difficult world that most people live in, and they're looking for something better, and there's such a universal idea and hope that the world is going to get better, or there'll be a rupture, or there's something to look forward to. A major takeaway from all of this is that that is a hope that's been there; that's what the messiah is, in a very vague and un-nuanced sense, it's a hope that someone will come along and make my world a better place. Is it someone? Is it people in general? What is it? Who knows. But people really want it to be better.
What attracted you to zip ties as a material in your smaller sculptures?
I really like making big things, I really like making installations. I also really like making very complicated things. I started making these zip tie pieces, and I started doing these drawings. I think the drawings are critical for the pieces as a whole. They play off of each other. Each drawing pairs with a sculpture, and they're sort of maps of each other. Like if you think about unfolding a box, same basic premise. That drawing is the unfolding of this sculpture in a very literal way. I think we've all seen the way tetrahedrons and those kinds of shapes unfold, and that's exactly what this is like. I'm really interested in this kind of translation between space. It's almost like this form that doesn't exist, but it exists in imagination space and this is the manifestation of that form through the lens of zip ties and O-rings and having to deal with gravity and physics; and this is the manifestation of that imaginary perfect form through the lens of architectural drawing, geometry, those kinds of things. In my mind they are the same, but they are very drastically different. For instance that sculpture is very creature-like, has an organic feeling, but this drawing is very sterile, it doesn't have that except maybe a little bit with the color, that vibrancy.
Did you always work that way, pairing the drawings and sculptures?
It took me a long time. This is one of those things that happens in the artistic practice; you come up with this idea, you start making things, and then along the way what you're trying to make changes. I was trying to make these zip tie and O-ring things be an installation, and they just weren't working at all. I tried for maybe two or three months to figure out how to make them an installation, and it just wasn't happening. The materials just didn't want to do that. But I was making these forms, and everyone was coming in and saying, oh, they look like sea creatures and alien shapes and caterpillars. And I was like, oh, I hate all of those things that you're saying. Because to me, when I look at them, I still see that perfect shape that doesn't have the zip ties all formed around it, I see that structure in there that doesn't have to deal with gravity and physics, because I fucking hate gravity and physics—such a bastard. There's something different happening here. People are seeing one thing and I'm seeing another thing; how can I bring this dialogue that I'm interested in out? And that's where the drawings came from. The drawings are the last thing I do because they're a real pain in the ass. I love the tediousness—I love all the crazy pencil lines—I use geometric constructions to make everything. They're a pain in the ass. So I don't make the final one of these until I have a shape done.
In fact, I made a pretty big one that stood up, and it just looked like a dog. And when you make abstract things, people always want to link them to something, which is fine, but I feel like the flaw is when everyone links it to the same thing—then it is just a dog. And I had actually made the drawing for it; it was a huge drawing, and I had to scrap both the sculpture and the drawing because I didn't want to make a fucking dog. That was probably a month's worth of work that went out the window. I learned, though, so that makes it worth it.
I think what I didn't like was that I had imagined it one way and it just wasn't turning out that way. And sometimes that's just the case, it's not a bad thing, but one thing that does pop up in my work a lot is this idea of secondary structures that happen because of the creation of the work. It's formed by its integration with the data, so it does have a very specific relationship to the piece, but it's this other secondary structure that forms as the piece itself tries to deal with trying to float and the space itself. So I think of the zip ties, I think of the pencil marks, and even to a certain extent I think of the rope in the fleece pieces as that kind of thing. Sometimes with the fleece pieces it really depends on how they're installed.
Your work, especially your installations, seems to be so concerned with information, communication and networks; how did that subject come about?
Up to the point I was making my first fleece piece I hadn't really been thinking about networks. But this rope network just happened through the creation of the piece itself, and it became a really powerful aspect of it. And that really started me down this road of thinking about networks and systems and those kinds of structures. Because up to that point I was really thinking about the stretching of these pods and making this fabric form rigid and that sort of thing. The ropes and how they formed without me really thinking about it—I just wanted to get these things to hang in the air—was a result of that. There are a couple underlying aspects to my work that I notice, and I have some ideas of where they come from, but they seem to pop up without my even trying. Like when I make sculpture, it always looks like organic things. Always. I would love to make geometric sculpture; I think I really want to make geometric sculpture. If you look at my drawings, I feel like that is how my brain wants to be, but my sculpture is how I am. I can really control because you don't have gravity and you don't have physics, but the sculptures just always end up having some kind of organic creature quality to them that I just can't stop. It just happens, and I've come to deal with it, that's just the way it goes.
I was recently talking to Risa [Shoup, curator of the exhibition at Invisible Dog] about my grandfather. When he died we found that he had taken all of these orange juice containers, the square vertical ones, and he folded plastic bags up into perfect squares, and then placed them in the dried out orange juice containers and stacked them up. So he had hundreds of these bags and maybe a dozen of these orange juice container boxes piled up with plastic bags inside them perfectly folded so they fit perfectly in that square. And I was talking about him to Risa, and saying how absurd that was, and Risa was like, "Have you looked at your own work? You don't think there's some kind of connection there? Ok."
Why did you decide to add the QR codes to the installation?
I was talking to a curator who brought up, how do you give access to someone who doesn't have a smartphone. You're creating this technology barrier. She definitely thought that was a negative. Especially coming from the museum's perspective. The museum's all about getting people in, making them feel comfortable with the work. But a lot of the funding for museums comes from old people, and old people don't know how to use smartphones and QR codes. I am really interested in this relationship between the information and being able to understand it and not understand it. We constantly are engaged with systems that we maybe don't understand. Like, I don't understand physics. There's a system there in place, it's a language that I don't know how to utilize, so I find it very confusing. I could go and learn it, and then have access to that set of data. And that plays into this idea that I'm interested in, about the barrier between this information and the viewer, and if you want to engage it's going to take a little work—if you want to engage with the data. You can engage with the work, there are plenty of things about the space, how the pods inter-relate to each other, and what that says about ideas and content without being able to have that data.
But why not just show the map instead of using QR codes?
Most people I talk to about exhibiting this piece, their first instinct is that they want me to show the messiah map as well. But I really don't want to show it. The piece "2am-2pm" (2006) is a three-dimensional bus map of the Minneapolis-St. Paul transit system from 2am to 2pm. You're not really given any of that information that I just told you, but I think that you can gather when you look at it that there's some kind of structure, some kind of subset of data or information or system that created the piece. The piece isn't haphazard looking. So it seems like there was some kind of play. What that plan was, well, if you go to the title it relates to time in some way, you know there's some digging you can do. But are you going to get to Minneapolis? Probably not. But is that important? I don't really think it is.
But that idea of wanting to show data and not wanting to show it; I put a lot of effort into gathering the data. You start to know what's important to you when people suggest things and you're like, ee, uh, that's just not gonna happen. I never say really no; I started as a potter, when you're in ceramics it's either ceramic sculpture or pottery, and there's this battle between those two worlds, it's very charged dialogue, within a subculture of a subculture of a subculture, but there's a lot there. But when I was making pottery I said, I'll never make clay sculpture. And then I started making clay sculpture and I said, I'll never make mixed-media sculpture. And then I did. And then, I'll never not use clay. And this is actually the first time I've used clay in eight or nine years, which was really uncomfortable. I used to be really, really good, and kind of arrogant, to the point where I found myself saying, I can do anything in clay. Then I stopped using clay, and when I started making these pieces it was really frustrating because it had been so long, your hands forget how to do it. And on top of that, I used to feel so confident about doing it, like I could do anything, and now I'm trying to make these little stupid fucking clay pieces, and I feel completely inept. It only lasted about two days, and now I'm feeling pretty comfortable again, but it was definitely a very weird three days. It is like riding a bike, you remember, and your hands start to remember that memory of touch and how you worked tools.
How difficult are your fleece pod pieces to install?
Well, you don't think about the weight of each one of those pods, because they're just fabric, but with tension pulling in the opposite direction and then the weight of a large fabric bulkiness pulling on them, it's really hard. But this installation at Invisible Dog is a lot more nuanced, it's a lot more about composition, how the pods interact with each other, how can you move underneath them, there's going to be a lot more tweaking. There are so many little elements and little compositions. There's a lot more interconnectivity, with pods pulling on each other, which I want to happen, I'm interested in the interconnectivity and that they're all pulling on each other, I'm interested that these ideas are all kind of torquing on each other to create each other. That's the concept that I'm interested in. It makes installing a little more difficult, but it's getting to the place that I want to get to. I think it'll be fun.