CHRIS LARSON with Phong Bui
I’ve followed the artist Chris Larson’s work ever since my visit to the Twin Cities in February 2013 as the McKnight Visiting Critic. Chris was one of the four 2012/2013 McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship recipients. My trip began with a prolonged visit to his immense studio in St. Paul, where he had built a monumental structure which housed interiors made for his video works. The following day we continued our conversation about his life and work at Le Meridien Chambers. Finally, on the occasion of his recent exhibit The Katonah Relocation Project (March 29 – June 28, 2015) at the Katonah Museum of Art, we were able to continue where we left off over two years ago. The following is an edited version of our past and recent conversations.
Phong Bui (Rail): We once had a wonderful conversation about Giacometti’s sculpture, which you first saw when you were an MFA student at Yale. I’d like to begin by talking about your experience of one of his late surrealist pieces, “The Invisible Object” (1934 – 35), which is in the collection of Société Anonyme, donated to the Yale University Art Gallery by Katherine Dreier in 1941.
Chris Larson: Otherwise known as “Hands Holding the Void,” the figure suggests a suspended, invisible ball. This suggested movement, as opposed to the static structure that her quasi-geometric figure sits on, creates tension similar to that in my recent work, particularly in subtle happenings in the intimate interiors. Anyway, that piece was very important, especially the board set upon the figure’s feet in relationship to the architecture of its body, and the strange frame. But every object ever made is meant to occupy that empty space held by the two hands. Everything.
Rail: Yet, each part of that sculpture is essential. Do you think there is a degree of awkwardness and terror in that void?
Larson: Yes. And the board on her feet reminds me of Bruce Nauman’s “Slant Step” (1965), which suggests a certain but unnameable function. Similarly, the purpose of the board in “The Invisible Object” is very mysterious, although you could say that it braces not only the figure, but the space itself.
Rail: You may also think of it as a trapping device.
Larson: Yes. You know, Duchamp’s “Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics)” (1920), which is also in the same collection, has the same presence. You see this old motor, and even though it’s unplugged you still feel a sense of danger.
Rail: Definitely. This is an aspect that I sense in your work as well. There is an element of catastrophe, unforeseen destruction. Do you see this as a formal issue, as you just described the trapping of the feet in the Giacometti? Or is it something else?
Larson: Maybe it’s more existential. For example, the piece you saw at the Walker in 2013 was initially a black painting. I then shot it with a shotgun, blasting the surface to reveal what was behind it. Then I scanned it and printed it as a photograph. But, through that transformation, something happened. A similar thing happens in the video piece “Heavy Rotation,” shown in the last Whitney Biennial in 2014, where I drew in circles enough to affect the architecture, I mean the floor is cut out through the rotation and reveals the space below. It’s very physical yet psychological at the same time. Perhaps “The Invisible Object” lives in that similar space.
Rail: There’s definitely a strong relationship between them. It’s an ambiguous space where everything and nothing happens. At any rate, let’s talk about the initial impulse. How and where did it come about? Did it come as a vision or a dream or a thought?
Larson: I work through many of my ideas through my dreams and also in the wee hours of the morning when I am half dreaming, half asleep. It’s a time when my brain is unhinged, anything seems possible, and ideas are unedited. In 2011, I was invited to do a site visit to a new exhibition space called The View in Salenstein, Switzerland for a possible exhibition. The View is a contemporary art space situated in two 100-year-old underground former water reservoirs. As I walked through the reservoir’s underground, I looked up and saw a circular concrete cap in the ceiling leading to the space above. I then walked on top of the reservoir and found the same concrete cap in the earth. I had this great sensation of being in two places at one time, just through that portal. Inside/outside became one space. On the plane ride back to Minnesota, I made a simple sketch of stacked spaces, maybe 10 of them stacked on top of each other with a hole leading down into the next space, connecting them all simultaneously. When I got back to the studio, I started building the rooms stacked on top of each other with the idea that I would activate the space by drawing on the floor and, through this act of drawing, the floor would disintegrate allowing me to pass through to the next space.
Rail: You’re interested in the fluidity of space, not static space.
Larson: Yes, I’m interested in constant motion. That’s why I don’t have chairs in my studio. I’m always walking and moving around.
Rail: Right. How did you manage to make that circular gesture fluid, with some pressure, but not enough to cut a hole in the floor?
Larson: It’s movie magic. I mean, the hole was pre-cut before the paper was placed over it. Then I created the drawing on top of the paper while tabs held the cut-out circle in place. As I signaled to someone below, they pulled a cord and released the tabs.
Rail: Oh, I see. Movie magic!
Larson: But I think you sense that something is building up and about to happen.
Rail: How much did you have to plan ahead? The set itself is so expansive and spatially complex!
Larson: As I built, I acted it out in my head. I’d already played the scenario out in my head so many times, that the space was activated as the action was filmed.
Rail: Was the room intended to be that specific size?
Larson: I think the viewpoint of the camera makes the room seem a little larger than it is. But I wanted it to be a bit less than human size, so you felt that closeness of the space.
Rail: You mean claustrophobia [laughs]. And then when it finally went through to the floor below, when you climbed down on the ladder—
Larson: It’s a room within a wheel. The entire room is rotated upside down.
Rail: Which demonstrates a sense of gravity, and yet there’s a feeling of ephemerality or fragility about things that are unavoidably pulled down by gravity. I’m very curious whether this particular tension arises from earlier influences. In other words, can you speak of your upbringing?
Larson: I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and my family moved to Lake Elmo, a more rural part of Minnesota, when I was in second grade. I lived there until I went to Yale, which was the first time I had ever lived in an urban setting. I think I freaked out a little bit. The first thing I did was bring these gigantic logs into my studio.
Rail: Without knowing why?
Larson: Well, I think I was longing for something other than the urban. I started cutting these logs up with these joints. I was sort of building a brand new tree. Some of them went up on one end, made a circular loop like an arch, and then ended with branches at the bottom. It was made of hemlock pine, maybe three feet around at the base, so it was very heavy. I was afraid that it would just collapse, so I had a post supporting its center. One day, Richard Serra came as a visiting artist; he only spent 15 minutes in any one studio because everyone wanted to see him. As soon as he entered my studio, the gun went off. He said, “Chris, what’s the beam for?” I was like, “well, I don’t know, it’s holding it up.” He said, “pull it out!” I was like, “I can’t, the whole thing—it’s so much weight, I think it’s going to fall.” And he said, “come on.” So we both grabbed it at the bottom and yanked up and the whole piece sunk, then settled into space. Serra looked at me and said, “SAY WHAT YOU MEAN. MEAN WHAT YOU SAY.” Like, don’t mess around. Do what you intend to do.
Rail: In other words, he saw the structure as a prop, an unnecessary element.
Larson: Amazing. He saw right through what was in my head.
Rail: So you felt that was an important moment in which you had to place more trust in yourself?
Larson: That was huge. Don’t mess around. Be very direct. Mean what you say, and say what you mean. And in those days our studios were gigantic. I was in the old Hammond Hall, which was an old factory building. I literally worked 15, 16, 17 hours a day in my studio. It really taught me how to work and how to build a practice to sustain after I left. All of the faculty at that time were part-time. They would come in one or two days a week. The program was heavy on critiques. It was very important to just talk about your work. Then we had a constant flow of visiting artists coming through our studios, especially Robert Gober and Ursula von Rydingsvard, both of whom were very helpful in terms of material, and meaning, and action with the material.
Rail: So you would say that your two years at Yale were fruitful and fundamental to your practice as an artist afterward?
Larson: Absolutely, especially after that encounter with Richard Serra.
Rail: Then once you graduated, you were compelled, unlike most of your classmates who would move to New York to pursue their potential careers in the art world, to go back to St. Paul.
Rail: What was your reason?
Larson: While we were at Yale, we would take the train to New York as often as we could to see shows in galleries and museums. We would also go see artists in their studios. So I had a sense what was going on in New York. There were warehouses just filled with artists, and I found the whole tight-knit community a little overwhelming. I knew coming back to St. Paul I would have lots of both mental and physical space. Yeah, my whole class moved to New York and I came back to St. Paul.
Rail: Did you take any time off between undergrad and grad?
Larson: No. I went straight through, pretty much from grade school to grad school at Yale. No stopping. And it was amazing. As I fell in love with making things, I didn’t stop. I never stopped.
Rail: So what was it like when you came back to St. Paul in—
Larson: ’92. Even as an undergrad in St. Paul, I didn’t have a lot of contact with artists in the area. And I was anxious to get back, get a studio, and see what that felt like. I moved to one of the studios in downtown St. Paul. One of the tenants next door to the studio saw all of my tools and everything and they were like, “keep it down in there, okay?” It was not like, “how do you do? Welcome!” I’ve slowly developed close relationships with artists, but it was hard for the first 10 years.
Rail: When did you have the first impulse to make things?
Larson: It was right when we moved from St. Paul to Lake Elmo, deep in the woods. I would find old farm machinery, a lot of peculiar things that I would invent uses for. A lot of forts and whittling sticks, just manipulating material.
Rail: What about the impulse to make things with monumental scale?
Larson: That probably began when I worked on a farm, bailing hay for a couple of summers. Objects like the silos, or the barns, or the threshers became very monumental for me. As I was bailing, I’d get the sense of the season and things moving from being planted, to cut, to bailed, and then into the barn where the horses would eat and digest them. Then the cycle would start over again. Slow, but monumental. I should mention that I got a travel grant from Yale before I left. Peter Schjeldahl was on the committee and he really liked these machines I was making at the time. He said, go find these things, the real things. So as soon as I was given the money to travel, I headed to Scandinavia looking for these machines, mechanical devices, wooden contraptions, and so on.
Rail: Early structures.
Larson: Before the Industrial Revolution.
Rail: I assume that you find formal beauty in those structures.
Larson: I do. Actually, I got a book on them (Bernd and Hilla Becher: Pennsylvania Coal Mine Tipples [1991, Dia Center for the Arts]), where I learned how they were built quickly by coalmine bootleggers. They were there to collect leftover scraps of the coal. They would go in with whatever material they could get—tree branches and boards and stuff—so there’s this sense of urgency and necessity. They’re not trimming off edges to make things flush. It’s not about—
Larson: Yes. It’s about getting the coal out as fast as they can. And I absolutely love those structures. And I still have to remind myself: “don’t cut, there’s energy in things [when] they are raw and imperfect.” In fact, when I was making “Unnamed,” a bridge-like form that was severely smashed on each end, people would say, “Oh, it looks like you must have just whacked at it.” But it was very slow. One of the crew members at the Walker said that all the wild dip and splashing on de Kooning’s paintings was all rehearsed and intentional.
Rail: It’s human touch that separates one from another. De Kooning knew what was his. I’m also curious about how, in addition to your appetite for big forms, you seem to find equal pleasure in making small things like those minute, delicate architectural forms that you are making now in the small studio.
Larson: Those came out of paying attention to what happens as I’m doing something else. As I built the larger sets, things would be activated in the studio that I would normally just sweep up. But I felt there was energy in them, so I began to make these architectural floor plans out of plaster and then very simple little, tiny, minute actions carved out of plaster: little tiny plaster boards, smaller than tooth picks.
Rail: Which reminds me of Giacometti’s “No More Play” (1932).
Larson: I love those early Giacomettis! And I found the more I took things out, the bigger the room became.
Rail: Like the “Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)” (2001) video installation where the energy is all taking place on the floor.
Larson: I agree.
Rail: Now that you’ve made monolithic pieces that were very controlled, assimilated into different spaces, don’t you think that with this structure, which is constructed with different spaces that serve different functions, you should consider it a new challenge for the work—pushing both monumentality and intimacy at once for the first time?
Larson: I think so. I also know that if I don’t move, nothing happens. I’ve spent this last year moving around in my studio and making things. Even though a lot fails, it’s enough to know that I’m moving. If the pen never moves, nothing gets written, right?
Rail: And the acceptance of failure.
Rail: Your last book was entitled Failure.
Larson: [Laughs.] Yeah that was sort of tongue-in-cheek but still very true, yes.
Rail: I’d like to return to where we left off in my last visit to your studio in St. Paul, which essentially generated our conversation about fragility and strength of the void, how its negative power can suggest potential images yet, without the implications of the positive space, means very little. Only a few months after that conversation, you undertook the rebuilding of a Marcel Breuer house—one of the 100 houses that he built in Minnesota in addition to one of his masterpieces, St. John’s Abbey Church at the campus of Saint John’s University (1961)—only to set it on fire before thousands of spectators outside the Union Depot, along the Mississippi river front. Could you tell us your motivation for doing such a monumental project?
Larson: The project initially started as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Breuer house located on the bluff of the Mississippi river just three miles from my studio. I first learned about Breuer in 1986, when my sculpture professor took our class on a field trip to see the church for St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota designed by Breuer. Stunning interior space! My interest in architecture and Breuer deepened while studying with Vincent Scully at Yale University in 1990. More recently, I was talking with a curator about Breuer and she said, “you know, Breuer designed a house just down the river from your studio.” I went to visit the house and immediately knew that someday I would do a project based on it. I would later learn that Marcel Breuer built this house for Frank Kacmarcik, a monk he met and became good friends with while designing and building the church at St. John’s Abbey. In 2013, for the Northern Spark festival, I rebuilt the Breuer house to scale, installed it in downtown St. Paul, and then burned it down. The act of burning down the house was to see what was beyond Modern building. Fields are burned down in the spring in order to germinate new growth in the soil. I saw the burning/destruction of the Breuer replica not as an act of mourning, but as an act of hope.
Rail: As one thing dies another is born. It’s a natural cycle for sure. Anyway, having just seen your current exhibition, the Katonah Relocation Project, I felt there were several surprise elements that tied this new body of work to the previous one referencing Breuer, out of which a certain concern and continuity has evolved. For example, the huge structure that you built as a set for the video “Heavy Rotation” in your studio was re-adapted on a smaller scale for the museum’s interior space. Can you share with us how you came up with the concept and logistical strategy for the exhibit? Oh, not to mention the room filled with objects made out of soap?
Larson: About a year ago, Darsie Alexander, Executive Director at the Katonah Museum of Art, called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing a project outside the Barnes-designed museum in Katonah, New York. Darsie and I had worked together on a site-specific exhibition while she was chief curator at the Walker Art Center; another Barnes-designed building built in the early ’70s. I looked up Katonah online and the first thing that came up was a New York Times article that read “Destruction to Katonah.” I knew I had a project, and flew out to do a site visit. I initially planned a site-specific sculpture in the sculpture garden but, as I got deeper into researching the strange and fascinating history of Katonah and Barnes’s connection to Katonah—and excited by the energy of the approaching 25th anniversary of the KMA—Darsie decided that the project needed to expand into the entire museum. I was thrilled. The project took so many twists and turns and I appreciated the tremendous amount of trust and support that Darsie gave me with this project. Although I worked on this project the entire year and built a room full of sculptures for the exhibition, I decided to start over with only a month before the opening of the show. I called Darsie and told her about a dream I had about the gallery space and said that I wanted to make a new video and installation for the exhibition. She loved the idea and said go for it!
Rail: So it again refers to the idea of inside/outside becoming one space.
Larson: Exactly. This project also relates to two interwoven stories emerging from the history of the town of Katonah. Both relate to the idea of relocation and displacement. On May 5, 1703, Chief Katonah, on behalf of the Munsee tribe who inhabited parts of the county at the time, sold their land to Zachariah Roberts of Bedford for two gallons of rum, four pounds of gunpowder, four hatchets, five coats, two blankets, six shirts, and 10 pieces of eight, or Spanish pesos. This transfer of goods for land was the first of several exchanges and agreements. Katonah is now one of the most affluent communities in the country with residents such as Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren, and billionaire George Soros. Nearly two centuries later, New York City authorities condemned and purchased a parcel of land that would become the Cross River Reservoir, a major source of drinking water for the metropolis. A headline from an 1893 article in the New York Times reads: “Destruction to Katonah, Mr. Daly Orders its Removal from the Face of the Earth.” Rather than accept the destruction of their town, the residents of Katonah came together to move more than 50 of their buildings out of the condemned area using horses to drag the buildings along soap-timbered tracks to the current location of the town. The work on view in the Sculpture Garden is a full-scale replica of Edward Larrabee Barnes’s private home from Mount Kisco, just south of Katonah. It sits upon wooden cribbing that echoes the materials used to relocate Katonah for the reservoir project, and wraps around the 100-year-old pine trees that dot the area. In my continuing interest in the re-sighting of public and private architectural spaces, this work finds a new home amidst nature; inside the house moss grows in one of the bedrooms rooms, and objects inspired by those traded by the colonists appear as soap sculptures in the bathroom/kitchen area. In this way, time periods and histories collapse, bringing together the natural and the architectural, the personal and the public.
Rail: Does the impulse to replicate Barnes’s house among and around the tree trunks outside of the museum refer to the punctured holes in the video “Heavy Rotation?”
Larson: Ah, yes, the trees fill the void. I realized the connection to “Heavy Rotation” after we cut the holes in the floor to accommodate the 100-year-old white pine trees. The intent of piercing the trees through the house was to entangle the clean lines of modernism in nature, disrupting the symmetry for which Barnes was known. The trees connect all that is below to all that is above just as the holes did in the video “Heavy Rotation.”
Rail: Has your concept or reception of space changed at all after this exhibit?
Larson: The most significant change is in the way I approach my video work. I started out as a sculptor and I still consider myself first and foremost a sculptor in the way I use video and photography. Years ago, when I started using film and video in my work, the camera was used to film the objects and spaces that I built. Now I am building spaces and objects based on what I see though the eye of the camera.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.