On a crisp fall afternoon in Greenpoint where she lives and works, Marsha Pels sat down to talk about her work. Over espresso, we discussed the war in Iraq and the relationship between art and politics, subjects Pels has been confronting in her work for over twenty years.
Megan Heuer (Rail): Could you begin by talking a little bit about the initial inspiration for your latest show, "Booty," at Schroeder Romero in Williamsburg?
Marsha Pels: I wanted to do something about the war when it started, but I had no idea what it would be. I was concerned by that subject because I didn’t want to make necessarily political work; I wanted the show to be seen, not as an anti-war statement, but as a meditation on war. I was inspired by Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others, and if you don’t mind, I am just going to quote from it because it made me look upon the whole history of what anti-war art was in relationship to suffering. She says, “The practice of representing atrocious suffering as something to be deplored and, if possible, stopped, enters the history of images with a specific subject: the sufferings endured by a civilian population at the hands of a victorious army on a rampage.” She talks about the insistence on the savagery of a conquering army. And then she goes into historically how it starts with this French printmaker Callot and culminates in Goya, the most obvious example. So it made me think about what happens to a civilization during a war. And then I saw the "Art of the First Cities" show at the Met, and that was my way in. I decided to use this sense of the rape of this civilization, that this was one of the most important civilizations going back to the cradle of civilization, and how all of the things in Mesopotamia were just being destroyed because we didn’t understand them; we were particularly ignorant of protecting them. It then made me think that every famous museum I have been to in the world, in Berlin and London—every museum is a booty archive. I was trying to follow what was being looted on the Internet. Still to this day I don’t think they know how many things are gone, but the numbers were from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. As the images were coming up, certain images were being repeated, like cuneiform tablets, because that is one of the easiest things that could be carried out—they were all in fragments already. So I decided I would make one series that was about these tablets, which also would kind of be wrapped up in the whole history of writing in that era, that kind of a narrative iconography. In terms of being a sculptor, I decided to concentrate on the jewelry, because that was the other thing that I kept seeing fragments of. In the jewelry, this famous King of Assyria kept coming up, Assurbanipal, and that is the image that you see on the announcement for the show.
Rail: In the past, have you addressed political subjects directly?
Pels: Well, the whole last series was about the Holocaust. Actually my entry into that subject matter happened really in 1985, when I was living in Europe on a Prix de Rome. I visited concentration camps and I went to the town where my family is from. I have really been directly confronting that for twenty years now, but not in a way that anyone really understands, because it was never about our culture. It was always about Germany. Then I won a Fulbright in 1997, so I spent a year in Germany. I was in the town of my paternal ancestors, this little fishing village on the North Sea on the border of Holland called Emden. I was teaching at the university in Oldenburg nearby. I was a Senior Scholar, so my role was to do research on my family in the hopes of proposing a Holocaust memorial to the town, which I ended up doing. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would come true. It hasn’t been built and it probably won’t be built, but it was an amazing experience. I spent a solid two years on that project, and basically that involved recreating the synagogue that was destroyed on Kristallnacht, life scale, so it is huge. It is the size of a building in photo-etched glass panels, using the one photograph of the synagogue, and it was in relationship to a World War II concrete bunker. My little town was famous for these huge megalithic bunkers that kept the people safe from the air raids. Hamburg, Bremen, that whole area is famous for these bunkers. What was difficult about my project is that I was bringing German and Jewish suffering together in one memorial, and that had really never been done before. It wasn’t just about the victimization of the Jews; it was also about the victimization of Germans. And that was very difficult for both Jews and Germans to envision together.
Rail: Could you say something about the making of these specific pieces in the exhibit? They are very beautiful and very violent in a way. They are intimidating objects.
Pels: Well, that is in a lot of my work; I have been dealing with that for years now. Not in all of my work, but in what I consider the mature work, which has really only been going on since the late eighties. Up until then my work was much more lyrical, and it was more involved with formal concerns, and I really was not happy with it. So in the early nineties, I started to confront certain narratives that I had been suppressing. One of the first ones was the latent feminism that came out. So first I came out of the closet as a feminist, and that allowed me this new language, that allowed me to talk about things that are taboo, that people don’t want to talk about.
Rail: What kinds of themes did you have in mind as being taboo?
Pels: I worked with babies a lot. I had a miscarriage and then there was a whole series of work that involved babies. And then there was a piece, “The Deconstruction of Motherhood”—you know, how motherhood is portrayed as this fantastic thing throughout art. Or sexual themes, like rape or violence. What happened with that is I have always been a consummate craftsman, and that has not been an issue with me in my work; I just accept that no matter what the subject matter. But the issue of beauty has been an issue in the idea of being a craftsman. When I decided to tackle darker subject matter, meaning the work wasn’t just about landscape, but was about miscarriage, then it became obvious to me that now I have a way for the beautiful quality of my work to not mirror but kind of balance out the strength of the imagery. A lot of it also had to do with the way I used glass. Glass is the most difficult material to work with. I went out to the Pilchuck Glass School as a Visiting Artist twice, I worked with all the glass people. A lot of glass “art” is just horrific, it is eye candy, it is horrible work, and yet glass has this incredible potential. Looking at all the ancient glass that I have seen in all my travels, there was a way that other people used it to look good and have meaning. So I have been trying to infuse that in the works. Bronze is considered an archaic dead material, there is so much bad work being produced in bronze you don’t even want to look at it. But I really am a bronze worker. I have been constantly dedicating my life to this material now for thirty years. I want to make it historically viable in the twenty-first century. So when this show came up, I realized that all the work about Germany is about glass, but now I have the possibility to really go to town with bronze again. I did a lot of work in Rome, Italy that was about the history of bronze, and that made sense. But now I am dealing with a culture that used this material, and there was a kind of stark reliable way that I could interpret these artifacts in a materialistic way that made sense with the way that I work, which was about patina, about aging things. Trying to make things look old and dug up, that is very important in this work. I don’t want it to look modern. So my whole sensibility in terms of being a bronze technician, it was just easy for that beauty thing to come in. But for me, that is one of the most important things about the work, because if these things were not beautiful, then people would not want to look at them. If the bracelet of skulls and phalluses was not a beautiful object, no one is going to want to look at that.
Rail: Maybe we should close by talking specifically about each piece.
Pels: I see the show as an installation. Having made many installations, I know that even if shows are specifically objects or series, they are perceived as an installation, so I wanted to flesh it out so that the whole thing worked. And as the centerpiece, of course, I started with the necklace. The necklace was the firstborn. And that did come from the memory of the charm bracelet I had as a child from my father, and then seeing everything on the Internet, all the things in Iraq that had been lost. Investigating what the beads should look like, symbolism on the beads, the spiral pattern I used is not just a universal pattern but it specifically started with this culture in terms of life/death/eternity. You see that in so much of the architecture. So the idea was that they were huge, that there was this over-scale thing. I knew from the beginning that the jewelry had to be scaled up at least ten times to make any sense. I wasn’t going to make these delicate little objects. I don’t know why I picked six, but I picked the six charms and I wanted to get this progression to things being destroyed through the ages, so I started with the Tower of Babel; I also thought the Tower of Babel was a good way to describe everything. And then of course there were the World Trade Towers, and then I wanted a Mosque, so I picked the Mosque in Baghdad. So those were the three architectural images of destruction. And then I wanted to flesh it out with three symbols. The statue of Saddam was an easy one for me. Then the head of King Ashurbanipal kept coming up, and the vase/urn. And then every other decision I made was about making it look old, making it look journeyed.