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Tuesday 03.09.10

« talks | Main | yellow luck »

Interview with Bill Gilbert

Bill Gilbert

Bill Gilbert has been the Lannan Foundation Chair in the Land Arts of the American West program at The University of New Mexico since 2000 and is the author of Land Arts of the American West. He took time to answer a few of PORT's questions on the eve of his talk for The Museum of Contemporary Craft this coming Wednesday at PNCA:

Alex: Michael Heizer has indicated he'd like to fix Double Negative because it has deteriorated, isn't that the Land art equivalent of George Lucas redoing Star Wars? How do you feel about artists tinkering with their early earth art?

Bill: Heizer has gone back and forth on this one. I really appreciate his ability to be inconsistent and answer depending on how he’s feeling or who his audience might be at any given time in the over the forty years it has been since the piece was completed. We artists all have complicated relationships with our work. So, I understand the impulse and the difficulty of attaining detachment from your work once it enters the public sphere.

On the other side is the perspective expressed by John Link in his essay “The Hardness of Art”. He argues that all that matters to society is the art and artists are merely the necessary vehicle to deliver the work. So then the question is separate from Heizer and his ego and it becomes what is the essence of Double Negative as a sculpture in the public sphere. Is the work the actual clean walled geometric cut in the ground that needs to be maintained in perpetuity. Or is the work the sharp graphic image in the aerial photograph in Art Forum. If so, is the photograph sufficient? Or is the work the imposition of Heizer’s intentions on a landscape and the slow process of its erasure? What is the frame of the work? My interest is in the work as a site piece across time. I find the erosion taking place, the reclaiming of the site through natural forces to be quite beautiful. I don’t expect LA MOCA or Heizer to agree with me.

Spiral Jetty May 2009 (photo Jeff Jahn)

Spiral Jetty partially came about because the environmental standards around the Great Salt Lake were relaxed, now the water levels are threatened and the piece could become landlocked. What is your take on the preservation of Spiral Jetty?

I guess as the director of an Art Ecology program I should be interested in the “environmental standards” issue. But I’m not. It’s hard for me to see Spiral Jetty as a big environmental issue. The oil jetty next to it and the possibility of it being reactivated is of much more concern that some rocks piled in the water. That said the work is a jetty. It reaches out into the lake and interrupts the water flow across the lake shore, catches slit and will slowly be subsumed. What a smart piece!.... a work whose form is a symbol (The spiral) for the cyclical nature of existence that then acts out its own image, appearing on the lake, disappearing for decades under water, reemerging only to be covered by the silt its structure entraps. The piece is poetry, they should let it continue to speak through its absence as well as presence.

How does your training with Rudy Autio in Montana play into his current work with land arts of the American West?

Indirectly, Rudi was a great artist and teacher and a wonderful human being. His work came out of the western movement in ceramics led by his buddy Pete Volkous. They endeavored to bridge the gap between the craft history of ceramic vessels and contemporary art issues of painting and sculpture. While that’s where his interests were located Rudi never tried to get us to make work like his. I learned a lot from Rudi about artistic integrity, about the necessity of taking risks and following your own vision and that certainly effected my path to the Land Arts program, but we didn’t really ever talk about Land Art except in the sense that he understood that I was looking for my own way to build upon his generations’ efforts to take ceramics into contemporary art.

There is a quote on page 85 of your book Land Arts of the American West, “It’s about being conscious in everything that you do as a way of learning how to be in the world.” Could you speak a little bit about your holistic mentality of art and life?

Okay, that’s a big question. Let me take a deep breadth and dive in. Here goes, I hope it is coherent.

I got into art because of the Vietnam War and my sense that our culture had lost its bearings, its ethics, that it had become, on a certain level, unbalanced, insane. I was at Swarthmore College at the time and the inability of the intellectual left to stand up to the immorality of the war made me question everything about my education. The sciences were totally compromised by their association with the war effort, the Christian religious tradition in which I was raised seemed corrupt, so I turned to art as a methodology to pursue the truth in a more holistic way in the hopes that it might lead me to a more balanced life. I was searching for a reintegration of mind, spirit and body.

I had the good fortune to fall into Paul Soldner’s studio in Claremont. Paul very much operated on the basis of approaching everything in life as an artist, not just your studio practice. His studio was a community in which we lived, worked, ate and slept together. We made our own tools and kilns, cooked communal meals and danced and it was all a seamless expression of an artist’s life.

That idea of an integrated life got taken forward in my work with Mary Lewis Garica at Acoma Pueblo. I started teaching a course with Mary in which I took the students out to Acoma to study pueblo pottery. We spent the first half of the course gathering our materials. We’d go one Friday to a spot in Chaco Canyon to dig clay, another Friday to a hill by the Rio Puerco to search for paint stones, another Friday to an old sheep camp at Acoma to find pot shards. Each Friday Mary would tell us the stories that were attached to the specific place. Before long I came to understand that the pottery practice was a way for Mary to reinforce her identity as an Acoma woman and not just through the forms and designs on the pots but through her connection to place.

Each week we would share a communal meal. They would go on forever and I tended, at first, to become impatient, to want to get back to work. Mary would give me this stare and say “Bill you white people are always in such a hurry, slow down”. After a while I got it. Mary put as much attention into cooking the food for our meals, sewing leggings for her children to dance in the ceremonies, etc. as she did into her pottery. In her view, she isn’t a professional potter, she is an Acoma woman who makes pots, cooks, sews, etc. They are all an equal part of building a cohesive identity.

What are some of the connections between the ancient traditions of ceramics and the contemporary practices in land art?

We tend to think of art practices in mutually exclusive boxes. Michael Heizer and Mary Lewis Garcia belong to different traditions that are kept separate in our culture. Well they both work in direct response to the earth. When I got hired to teach Ceramics at UNM, I was operating in the zone of Environmental Art in my own work. I started looking around for a living tradition in ceramics of environmental artists and that lead me to the pueblo potters. Their work is completely place based. Their materials are all extracted for the local environment. They waste nothing. The earthworks artists superficially appear to be operating in a similar zone. Heizer’s Double Negative and Smithson’s Spiral Jetty are both site based, silica and alumina sculptures. Their interests are in fact quite different. Pueblo potters would never say that they work in Nevada because the land is cheap (Michael Heizer). The entire concept of the landscape as a blank canvas on which to inscribe your image is foreign to their thinking.

As Land Art has evolved from Earthworks to Environmental Art and Eco Art the connection to place, the reverence for the earth on its own terms has grown much stronger. Contemporary Artist such as Hamish Fulton, Basia Irland, Lynne Hull and even the Harrisons share a fundamental understanding of their practice in relationship to place with the pueblo potters though their work tends to be less object oriented in its final expression.

Paraphrasing Ann Reynolds, "The problem of return: It can be lamented as loss, or its limitations can be embraced to propose something new – a Smithsonian balancing act between loss and insight." How do you think about this problem as paradox or pattern and why?

Smithson’s concept of the site non-site relationship is a central concern to anyone working in response to place. It acknowledges that as soon as the site is detached from the audience (as in all the early Earthworks which most people know from their images in ArtForum not from actual haptic experience on site) the artist becomes involved in the role of translation. What Smithson postulated is that there is an inherent loss in this translation. The physical reality of the non-site is never the same as the physical reality of the site. What occurs in the non-site of the gallery is never a direct equivalent with what occurs on the actual site. The key in Smithson’s terms is to see this loss as an opportunity, a freedom to create a parallel expression rather than attempt a direct representation.

Acoma Pueblo, c1910 (source Charles Francis Saunders)

Land art is about experience yes? How would you describe the experience?

The Land Arts program experience centers around creating a mobile artist community to investigate/to become intimate with place. We provide students with direct, physical engagement with a full range of human interventions in the landscape, from pre contact Native America architecture, pictographs and petrogylphs to contemporary Earthworks, federal infrastructure, and the constructions of the US Military. We are looking at how culture has interacted with the environment of the desert through gestures both grand and small, directing our attention from potsherd, cigarette butt, and track in the sand to human settlements, monumental artworks, and military/industrial projects such as hydroelectric dams and decommissioned airfields.

We balance the investigation of cultural sites such as Chaco Canyon, Roden Crater, Hoover Dam, Wendover Complex of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Juan Mata Ortiz, Spiral Jetty and the Very Large Array with time spent in the variety of eco-niches that together make up the environment of the southwest. Land Arts gives students seamless time to explore the environment for over fifty plus days each fall. We have work sites in places such as the Grand Canyon, AZ, Grand Gulch, UT, San Rafael Swell, UT, Gila Wilderness, NM, Bosque del Apache, NM and Otero Mesa Grasslands, NM. Our current focus is on the issues of sustainability with a particular interest in food production and water use in the southwest. Perhaps most important, Land Arts is an experience in community. We live, work and travel together as a mobile arts studio. Each year we complete two collaborative projects bringing this communal aspect into our art practice, as well.

Is there a dialectic within ideas of local and international within land art? How does the global community interact with the specific sites?

I don’t see it as a dialectic. I see it as different layers. The local version is much more involved in an intimacy with the specifics of a site. As a result, this work has deeper vertical connections (roots) in community and environment. The international tends to operate more from the idea of place or site. The issues are broader, the connections to other communities and environments more evident, more web like, less rooted.

I see this as similar to the small local vs large national organic food question. My thought is that we need both.

I believe you started out with more of an intellectual approach to art – with more experience now in ceramic and land art where has the equilibrium fallen for you when it comes to intellectuality and action?

The great thing about starting out in ceramics is that it is physical. Ceramists are doers. It was a great way for me to begin with integrating body and mind. I see Western Culture as valuing the mind over the body and I talked earlier about the dysfunction that has resulted. That said, I happen to like ideas and I have certainly followed a conceptual course in the progression of my work, but the proof is still in the pudding for me. Don’t tell me about, do it. Bring the idea to life.

My path from ceramic pottery to ceramic sculpture to native material installation, to mixed media installation to Land/Environmental/Eco Art for me has a clear conceptual thread formed as I try to figure out my place as a human in this world, as I attempt to weave the social and environmental back together. While driven by intellect, the expression of that path has tended to require long hours of physical work. I tend to think with my body as well as my brain, to believe in body knowledge as a more grounded truth.

The Land Arts program has certainly thrown me a curve. From the start I saw it as a means to bring my role as teacher and artist together. It is imperative that I work alongside my fellow LandArtians. Being in the field for fifty days each year has required me to develop a new methodology in my work. I can’t take a lot of tools. I can’t cart around a lot of materials. So I have turned from native material installation to something that is more like performance. My body is now my tool. I take ideas about place as expressed in the mental abstraction of maps and attempt to act them out on the ground. In short, I walk, record what happens and then transpose my physical experience back onto the maps. The irony is that for every day spent walking the work requires ten days in front of the computer to complete.

Could you speak about your approach when it comes to the juxtaposition of native or naturally available materials and architectural [man-made] materials?

Early on in my work as an Environmental Artist I would pit the presence of native materials against architectural settings as a dialectic between man made and natural definitions of spaces. I soon realized that was too easy. Now I look for points of harmony or symbiosis. As Jerry Brown said there is no opposition between environment and technology. ”use satellites to track whales.” I like to combine low and high tech, to dig up my backyard to make forms that house digital videos. Culture and the environment are not involved in a dialectic. Culture is merely a small part of nature. Let’s start to see ourselves as conjoined.

Posted by Alex Rauch on March 09, 2010 at 7:01 | Comments (0)


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