Michelle Stuart and Ann McCoy met at the Rail headquarters on a recent August afternoon to discuss the intersections of art, archaeology, exploration, and animism. Both daughters of the West, they also spoke about riding sidesaddle, synchronicity, and stupas. Drawn from Nature, Stuart’s current exhibition at the Parrish will be open through October 27 before traveling to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Her work will also be included in New Jersey as Non-Site, opening at the Princeton Art Museum on October 5.
Ann McCoy (Rail): This has been an exciting time for you, an updraft at 80! Your solo exhibition, Michelle Stuart: Drawn from Nature is currently on view at the Parrish Art Museum, and your work was purchased by and is included in the Land Marks exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Coming up, New Jersey as Non-Site at the Princeton University Art Museum, where you are one of two women in a field of 14 men.
Michelle Stuart: And Michelle Stuart: Drawn from Nature travels to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in January.
Rail: A catalogue/book accompanying Drawn from Nature has some excellent essays and interviews by Nancy Princenthal, Anna Lovatt, Julie Joyce, and others. Last, but not least, in 2011, Michelle Stuart: Sculptural Objects: Journeys In & Out of the Studio was published. I love the book because it gives us your notations on the pieces along with the photo documentation. The introductory essay by Lucy Lippard is a great piece of writing, she was a champion of your work before Overlay.
Stuart: I had a lot to do with the book. There were field notes that I had written about each place, that I wanted to have accompanying the artwork that referenced the experience. And I wanted Lucy, who understands the work, to do an introduction.
Rail: The book reads like a diary.
Stuart: I keep a diary only when I travel.
Rail: The book cover has a wonderful picture of you in this archaeologist’s kit with Jodhpur pants and boots, looking like Gertrude Bell of Mesopotamia. It’s a very romantic ideal, and also it’s interesting because there was a Victorian tradition of travel diaries and excavation reports.
Stuart: I read travel diaries. When people wrote travel books in the past, which were essentially diaries, it was the first time many of those places had been seen by anybody other than indigenous people and they usually had oral histories instead of written. Granted it’s generally a Western view, because these people were mostly traveling from Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. When Captain James Cook went to the South Pacific it was really the first time that an Englishman had sailed to Tahiti or New Zealand or the other places that he anchored, the Cook Islands and Hawaii. He had the mind of an anthropologist because he kept a log and explained the dances, the tattoos, and the sexual relationships of the cultures that he experienced, without value judgments. He brought with him the prudery from home, their taboos versus his taboos. But he also brought an artist.
Rail: I was just thinking of Sir Richard Burton’s prudish Catholic wife burning all of his diaries.
Stuart: Yes, yes, well fortunately the Admiralty kept Cook’s logs. As I recall he also kept another diary of his own.
Rail: In the spirit of Gertrude Bell, you are the lady archaeologist of the art world. Gertrude Bell also published diaries and discovered places that had not been seen by Europeans, like the Abbasid palace of Ukhaidir. Like Bell, it sounds as though you were camping out by yourself, and going places without a guide, a brave thing to do then or now.
Stuart: Oh, I did go without a guide, in most places. But it wasn’t quite as rustic as the 18th century or 19th century, Morocco being an exception.
Rail: You weren’t riding sidesaddle on a camel?
Stuart: No—I did ride on a camel in Egypt. [Laughs.]And an elephant in India;not sidesaddle. Pretty dangerous riding a camel, I saw a woman thrown from a camel in Nubia.
Rail: There’s a fantasy element, you named your dog after Gordon of Khartoum and have read field reports by the likes of W.B. Douglas and John Lloyd Stephens and Father Gabriel Lalemant of the Iroquois; do you feel a connection to these explorers and archeologists?
Stuart: Yes, I studied archaeology and anthropology at the New School years ago. Don’t you think artists are explorers?
Rail: Your “Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns” (1979) piece is haunting. When I first saw the photographs, I thought immediately of Native American medicine wheels. “Stone Alignments” was similar, yet different. You had chosen to celebrate the Spring into Summer solstice. Tell me about the site.
Stuart: Well, it was a perfect site. Initially I had chosen another plateau, but there were endangered plants, so at the last minute I had to lay out my photographs and look for another place overlooking the Columbia River. I called Mary Beebe, the director of Portland Center for the Visual Arts, and I asked her to ask the person who owned the site if I could situate this piece about time on his dramatic landscape. And she did and I could. So, literally the next day I flew out to Oregon to build it.
Rail: You camped out to get the alignment?
Stuart: Yes, absolutely—to build the piece and to get the correct alignments, with Mathieu Gregoire, my assistant. I had to clock the alignment at 4 a.m. each morning and at sundown. We hauled the rocks and boulders from another property at the Hood River.
Rail: This is certainly different from the land art guys like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, who rang up Virginia Dwan or Dia for big checks and got out the mechanical earthmovers. Women were not financed in this era.
Stuart: We were very fortunate to be able to use a gentleman farmer’s pick-up truck, and his river rocks. When he heard I was making the piece, he said that we could take out boulders from his stream to protect his horses. So we removed them, tons and tons of river shaped boulders. Also, to document at the end, one of the locals lent me his helicopter to photograph the piece.
Rail: You said something like 3,000 rocks—
Stuart: Well I didn’t count them, but an art writer from Portland apparently did. I think he got 3,400 or something like that. There were rattlesnakes all over the plateau and they never bit anyone. I made a pact with them when I got there: we will not cover a rattler hole. And we didn’t. We never put a boulder or a rock on top of a rattler hole. It was our compact with the rattlers.
Rail: You mentioned another synchronic event.
Stuart: Ancillary to the concentric circles and cairns of “Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns,” there’s a moon aura and a moon crater, both circular as well. In the moon crater part, unbeknownst to us, a bird made a nest, nestled in the boulders. On the morning of the solstice when the cairns aligned perfectly, you stood on one of these circles on the outside of the 100-foot circle, and you sited through the central cairn to another cairn on the rim, and that pointed to the exact spot in the Klickitat Mountains in Washington where the sun was going to rise. That morning the birds hatched—
Rail: Popped out.
Stuart: It was astonishing.
Rail: Native Americans believe very strongly in those synchronic events like the birds hatching on the exact morning, they’re omens. I was also thinking of stupas built on top of sacred relics. I love the fact that you buried rocks from other places along with the poems beneath the piece.
Stuart: Yes, I brought them with me. And they were buried underneath the central cairn along with two poems. I did that again later in the sculpture work on Noto Island in Finland. In that piece, which was named “Night Passage Signaling Two Suns”(1985), I wrote the poem and it was placed within a stone boat.
Rail: I found the Rudyard Kipling quote that was buried: “Many roads thou hast fashioned: all of them lead to the light.” What was the other quote?
Stuart: It was a Han-Shan quote from the Cold Mountain poems. I liked the idea of East and West because Kipling represented the West and Han Shan represented the East, of course. Oregon is a land at the edge of the West looking East. Actually that was my introduction to Oregon. I later spent six or seven years living on the coast of Oregon in the summers.
Rail: Mark Tobey also said that Oregon had a special light and was a kind of center between East and West. He was a Bahai.
Stuart: Well it fits, that’s how I imagined it. It felt as if right next to Oregon was going to be the East. There’s something about the dawn on the coast of Oregon, the dawn is extremely mysterious because of the fog. And the wind shaped trees.
Rail: We’re both La fanciulla del West. It’s very hard for an Easterner, who goes from village to hamlet within five minutes to understand what it’s like to be out on the highway where you may not see a town for 100 miles. We both had fathers who took us out into the land.
Stuart: Yes, I had a father who I traveled with out into the desert. There’s something about space in the West, that, when you’re from the West you don’t fear. People that are not from the West have a strange fear of travelling those flat, open spaces that the desert or plains has, with a big sky. You can see why people write about aliens, because I think the human being in that space, unless he or she is used to that space, is out of touch with something they can handle. The space is almost too much, even though to us it might be a very comforting space, almost. I find woods a little discomforting, but I don’t find big, flat space discomforting at all.
Rail: What I like about your work is it’s hands-on quality. I grew up in a neighborhood of archeologists like Joe Ben Wheat and Earl Halstead Morris, who did the reconstruction of the Great Kiva at the Aztec Ruins National Monument. Like an archeologist you’re sifting, hands on with the dirt. In the Southwest dirt plays such an important role. You have adobe architecture, and women come and put the slip (fine coating) on the walls every year. I think of this when I see your work.
Stuart: What interests me both about archaeology and making art, there are questions and mysteries and you’re trying to solve something. I think that’s what’s so interesting about a shard or any kind of item that you might find in an archeological dig, or even the form that some of the digs take. It’s mysterious, all signs that we are trying to read down through time. It’s very hard to capture that. I’ve tried to capture that many times to make palpable the time element that we all are a part of. We’re all a part of that big, long stretch of time [laughs], for a while.
Rail: When I saw a piece of yours called “Sacred Precincts: Nantucket Excavation” (1984) that has cast pieces, it looked very much like it came out of a dig—that wonderful cast whale and your book sculptures, and the paper drawings or scrolls, where the earth from a specific site is actually put into the object or scroll.
Stuart: But you know, you couldn’t open many of the first book objects. They were like a dig, like the strata in a dig. Each page was worked with earth and rocks by me, but then they were closed up so you couldn’t read the pages in the book: “the silence of time.”
Rail: Like stratigraphy, where you’re going layer by layer. Archeology can be a metaphor for excavation of the psyche. In one of your interviews you say, “I don’t know what time I’m in.” The thing that interests me about your work is that it seems to be about living in all of the layers at the same time.
Stuart: And I like that, it’s a comfort. I feel really at home with not knowing what time it is. I think if one feels comfortable in one’s own skin and one’s own time, they can allow themselves to be in any time.
Rail: There was a Bernese Swiss philosopher, named Jean Gebser, who wrote a book called The Ever-Present Origin. He talks about the different permutations of consciousness, and how the magic, archaic levels exist under the stratiform of our modern consciousness. This is why somebody like Werner Herzog can make Cave of Forgotten Dreams, or Pablo Picasso can see Lascaux and just be knocked out by it. Those animals still exist in the basement of our psyche.
Stuart: And they relate to the person that drew that animal. Last night I was thinking how difficult is it to talk about what it is to live with an animal with people who don’t live with animals. It’s a gift to have what humankind had for a long time with animals—primarily dogs and horses—especially dogs. It’s a relationship that’s almost indescribable. It’s based on something that is so pure it cannot be analyzed. Isn’t analyzable, if that’s a word. It can be written, but it’s difficult to put into visual language.
Rail: One of the pieces I found most moving was your owl piece; the piece with the owl feathers. Tell me about the owl.
Stuart: Well the owl essentially was a two-fold experience. I found a dead owl in absolutely pristine shape when I was out in the Four Corners area (Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona). I picked it up thinking it may have been stunned, but it was dead. I took it with me to where I was camping under some cottonwood tress, and I decided that I was going to make an homage to the owl. I very carefully started clipping its wings, then plucking its feathers. And it was—I couldn’t even explain the feeling that I got from this owl about the patterns in nature. It was so amazing. Each feather, virtually, had a variation of the same colors, but a different pattern. It was dark brown, almost black in some areas, dark tawny, rosy, creamy white, a kind of sienna. And flag shapes, dot shapes, little zigzag patterns, bigger patterns, and each feather had these variations—and I thought, you know, this is enough to make you believe in something bigger than all of us.
Rail: This sounds like an initiation experience.
Stuart: I suppose it was in a way. I know people have had feelings of awe with different experiences, and I had it with an owl. There was something about this experience that I thought, how could all this be formed by chance? But an aesthetic experience is about us as well.
Rail: Athena is sometimes shown with an owl on her shoulder, the owl helped her see in all directions. That owl gave you a type of expanded vision.
Stuart: Expanded, definitely. Each one of those feathers was later sewn onto a kind of linen canvas that is the cover of the book object, and then the book has pages that are rock crushed and rubbed, the color of the earth on which the owl lived. The whole piece was placed into an adobe box container that I made for it, which referenced the architecture of local structures.
Rail: Another one of your feather books resembles a Parfleche bag. The Plains Indians used them to preserve food, and their outer surfaces had map drawings. In some way, your piece both preserves and maps the site.
Stuart: You know, an interesting thing happened while I was making “Niagara Gorge Path Relocated” (1975). I had to climb the escarpment and dig here and dig there and make a path for the piece that I was making on top on the escarpment to enable it to follow the topography to the river. This was in upstate New York on the Niagara River. So while I was digging for the earth to smash the rocks and rub the earth into the paper, I found a curious, small object, buried in the earth. It had been a Five Nations site.
Rail: Is this the object that you took for your collection?
Stuart: Yes, it’s in my loft and I never opened it. I don’t know if it was Native American, but it was an earthen bundle that was tied with some sort of string. Maybe three inches high and two inches deep. And it is magical.
Rail: It probably was Native American. Medicine bundles are fascinating because they were made for the hunters. If they carried the medicine bundles when they went out, the animals would sacrifice themselves to be killed by the bundle’s owner.
Stuart: Some objects contain the possibility of energy, and we give them that energy. This container that I found had energy; was it my energy because I believed something about it, or was it somebody else that made it or needed that energy? That’s a conundrum about mysterious objects. I did a bronze sculpture called “Sacred Precincts Burial Cache”(1982).It could have been influenced by the container I found.
Rail: I love that piece! I coveted the whale. When I saw those early works of yours, from the Sacred Precincts and the Nantucket Excavation Cache, I found they had wonderful energy. I believe in animism and we don’t hear much about it in contemporary art writing.
Stuart: If you’re interested in history or the history of objects and archaeology, archaeologists and historians are always saying to an object, “You’re a this, or you’re a that, or this is…” And when they don’t know what it was used for it becomes a cult object. [Laughs.] So my idea behind that piece was to make a cult object, so the thing that looks like it could’ve been a hammer, couldn’t possibly hammer anything. And the product that looked like a fish was really a pipe. So it was kind of a joke about Ceci n’est pas une pipe, but also all these cult objects archaeologists find and say, “Oh my god, what is that? While I think about what it is, I’m going to call it a cult object.”
Rail: Your work was included in the contemporary section of the Primitivism in 20th Century Art exhibit (1984) at MOMA. There was a panel afterwards where Robert Ferris-Thompson was talking about how he’d taken pictures by Picasso and Georges Braque and showed them to tribal artists. The tribal artists said, “This picture was painted during a time of war,” etc. There was a very funny moment when Rosalind Krauss reprimanded him and said, “Robert, nobody’s interested in what these tribal people have to say about Picasso.” I see your work more in the tribal camp.
Stuart: Frequently in art criticism that kind of voyage is not taken.
Rail: There has been a process of occlusion, with a lot of very interesting voices, like Jack Burnham’s, wiped off the map. Wystan Curnow, with his writing on Aboriginal mapping, is another. I love your interest in diverse writers like W.G. Sebald, outside of the art field.
Stuart: W.G. Sebald! I see him as being in the art field more than meets the eye. His ability to explore time is inexplicable to me. He is so related to film and photography. I say this in the present tense, because for me he remains alive.
Rail: Your work has this link between archeology, poetry, and imagination, going back to Sir Thomas Browne.
Stuart: I don’t think I was particularly influenced by Sir Thomas Browne, but everybody that I felt like I walked hand in hand with was influenced by Sir Thomas Browne. I loved Jorge Luis Borges; I read Borges in the late ’60s and the ’70s and I was very influenced by him in terms of his labyrinthine way of thinking, one of his books is called Labyrinths. Herman Melville was interested in Sir Thomas Browne, and Sebald and Virginia Woolf.
Rail: I was thinking of Sir Thomas Browne when he was writing about the urn burials—his “Hydriotapia.” You also get that nostalgia in John Keats’s, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”
Stuart: I never thought about Percy Bysshe Shelley, but yes, you’re right.
Rail: But it’s a poetic interest in archaeology, in time, in placing yourself in this continuum—
Stuart: This is the reason I was making those wax sculpture containers on tables—the containers are a metaphor for what’s contained. You know, I did containers with earth and ashes and seeds and bones in the ’90s.
Rail: I recently reread Lucy Lippard’s Overlay, it’s an incredible document. It’s funny that now, there almost seems to be nostalgia for earthworks—maybe because we’re facing mass extinction, maybe because we’re really looking at things like radioactive poisoning of the earth.
Stuart: And that’s an interesting thought: that we’re trying to find something to hold on to by romanticizing the earth of yore, because we have not been good stewards of it. We’ve ruined it in fact.
Just say Ann McCoy is an artist and writer who lectures in the Yale School of Drama.