Adam Gibbons: The sculptures we're talking about were constructed in relation to the space of La Vitrine gallery in Paris for a solo presentation [ Double Trouble , from December 2009 to February 2010]. I think we agree we can talk about this installation as if it were a single work.
Øystein Aasan: It was slimmed down to something that stays together.
AG: Aesthetically it has a kind of uniformity; the materials provide the sense that this is a series of sentences, operating in the same register. Within that there are different phenomena. Turning things into image seems to be something that happens repeatedly in your work, employing strategies for making image out of something that is not image. Another thing I would identify is associated with density, of meaning and of space; finding different ways for structures to function alongside one another, sometimes in opposition. This is particularly evident with the collage and the structure in front of it, which makes such a particular viewing circumstance.
ØA: I think it's also always a contradiction from the very beginning, this idea of a picture of how you deal with space, how you move around as a viewer or how you control; you lay some lines where the viewer would preferably go and at the same time all of them are kind of images. I really don't make sculptures that are three dimensional in the traditional sculptural way.
AG: How would you characterise that distinction?
ØA: At least how I imagine it is sculptures capture space, they occupy a specific space all the time and they have this three dimensionality which is very clear, but if I make a sculpture it's more or less 2 dimensional. I'm not interested in the space it occupies or volume, I'm totally ignorant towards this somehow. I'm only interested in how it controls the space, more like a barrier than a sculpture. It would force the viewer into specific situations in relation to the piece or the whole exhibition space for instance. The moment you have a three dimensional sculpture in a traditional sense you have 360 degrees of viewing points and I don't. I usually have at most 4 or 5, which are ideal situations for viewing the sculpture. So you reduce some of the possibilities that the viewer has relating to the work, but that means you also control it in a sense. It's the same thing with an image, with an image you don't have so many ideal viewing points. I was always very keen on this quote from Ad Reinhardt who said in a discussion with Donald Judd, 'sculpture is something you bump into when you back up from a painting', I think it's cool to have it the other way around too, you have to back up from a sculpture to bump into a painting!
AG: It's very much to do with determining the viewer's experience.
ØA: I think so, it's an integral part of how you make meaning in a work. It's something that comes from the theory we read at art school, which was the groundwork for what I worked with later on of course. We read 'Specific Objects' and a Laura Mulvey text that has just come back into print, 'Visual and Other Pleasures', where she uses a Freudian methodology to deal with two bodies of work by Victor Burgin and Barbara Kruger. She talks about language a lot, for example shifters in language and she talks about density and displacement and things that come straight from the Freudian textbook, and masculine and feminine and both of these bodies of work made that situation different, they turn it around somehow. What Mulvey says is that a work of art is always feminine because the viewer is always active so the viewer is always masculine so she tries to establish something that goes the other way around; that the work actually requires something from the viewer that makes the work active and masculine. This was something I thought about a lot with the collages, that I wanted them to really require something from the viewer, and I think it's a little bit the same with the sculptures as well that they... you would never be able to just walk into a room and see it and that's it. There's always some sort of trick that you have to involve yourself in.
AG: There has always been a dialogue around otherness in relation to the spectator and the (art) object and as soon as that becomes gendered it takes on another set of complexities.
ØA: In the Renaissance we spoke about an ideal perspective, for instance, or when people painted murals it was always a male perspective; the height of the male was always the ideal viewpoint. There's this whole discussion around the white cube that in terms of proportions it also favours men. When I make works they are related to my own physicality, which is obviously not female! I make the pieces for myself.
I'm extremely interested in images but I have a need to do sculptures and I think this is a biographical thing, somehow I need to build things. My father and grandfather were cabinetmakers. My great grandfather too, he was quite accomplished and had his own business.
AG: And you worked with your father?
ØA: All the time, also with my grandfather. He had a house next to my parents, he was there every afternoon to fix the house, have a cup of coffee, get away from his wife I suppose. (Laughs) So when I was a kid, not in school, I was with him. And he was quite good but not capable of making anything that looked elegant. Everything looked a bit too thick and a bit too massive, there was just too much volume. I've seen some of the furniture that my great grandfather made and it was very beautiful, my father's work is also very elegant.
AG: You get itchy hands?
I'm also very interested in this larger structure that surrounds the work. I think very closely about the larger things, why you make these works and how they feed into the next and so on. That's when I started the series of sculptures called 'display units'. Each is an empty structure, nothing in itself really, it's the plates in-between that actually matters and the material often comes from literature for instance, or from photography.
AG: Your sculpture pieces are a bit like a shelf or a frame: A way to contain the image or the idea.
ØA: Absolutely. When I work with text I very often work with things that are secondary to the main text, one text piece for instance is called Reading Hemingway Without Guilt but it doesn't quote any actual Hemingway, it's only critiques and theorises about Hemmingway's work. So it's again a secondary structure to the primary structure.
AG: There are strategies you use for demanding the attention of the viewer and making them invest in the work. With the slides work it's primarily about memory, which is inherently linked to photographic practices . You've set up this game like with the collage; you don't immediately encounter this image because it has been deconstructed in quite a physical way, deliberately.
ØA: I think that when you make a piece of work there should be one aspect you can understand without having any prior knowledge of the artist. There should be an entrance, and then there should be at least three or four other things in that piece that you could discover after a little while.
If I work with things that are physically related to the viewer, or optically so, there should be some mechanism built into every work or every exhibition that can be understand just from being present in front of the work. This would be the easiest way to access a work. You would feel or understand it right away and then I can start building small traps in-between.
AG: With the grids in the collage, you have to play a perceptual game in order for your senses to take the work in at all.
ØA: The way you approach the work physically and visually is your first experience of an artwork, before your brain starts to understand it. This is after all visual art. My work is dry, it's not fancy, it's not Popish in any way really, so you need this mechanism built in there.
AG: I was interested in this idea of game playing; you're asking the viewer to participate?
ØA: I make specific regulations for myself. It has more to do with trying to contain me than the viewer but then it comes out as a game because you have specific parameters and you don't make rules unless you're willing to break them. If you can see you'll get a better result by breaking the rules you're going to do that.
AG: It's a very narrative sort of architectural proposition in a way. It's effecting the viewer emotionally quite deliberately.
ØA: Every space does.
AG: As you've said before it's quite dry work but there is this evocation of emotion that takes place. I find that is to do with architecture, specifically, in terms of the narratives we understand in relation to it.
ØA: I think, if this is not too blunt or a simplification: When I work with collages this is kind of cerebral, but the way it will be in the space where it's installed, this can be more emotional, it's more about how you feel and relate to different spaces. When I look at a model I can see this space will close in on you here and open up there and you'll have this feeling... Maybe there's some kind of division between the brain part and the emotional part.
AG: Once you have an installation (and maybe this is why it's good to talk about the works together as one thing) as a viewer in the space you experience the cerebral and the emotional simultaneously. With the slide show, you have to wait for something to happen; maybe time is a material, quite deliberately, in building that feeling.
ØA: When I make pieces I think that it should require something, you shouldn't just see it and that's it, this is where the time aspect comes in, I think art can and should be demanding in a way, you should ask something from people, they are not there for a joyride or anything!
AG: Associated with time there's this circularity implied by Finnegan's Wake: the first sentence turning into the last sentence which is extended to the Adam and Eve story, presented via images of the sculptures by Tilman Riemenschneider, it makes for an undetermined beginning and end to the work.
ØA: ...And the mirrors as well; you see several reflections at once...
AG: The 'sculptures' made me think about Nauman's corridor as well, very powerfully determining how the individual feels and moves in a given space.
ØA: I wouldn't make a corridor but I'd maybe make other things that were more invisible. For me it's interesting to do things that are less obvious.
AG: It's quite a conventional control in a sense. In relation to institutional architecture, say in a museum where you're given a prescribed narrative in terms of how you pass through the building processionally; in a sense you're encouraging something similar to that even in the white cube space which more obviously has less interpretive elements and less rooms, none the less the structures are operating within that vocabulary.
ØA: This piece, Double Trouble , was originally made for a project space in Berlin called Corridor. It looks more or less the same apart from the project space was much smaller and the previous piece was going around a corner because the space was literally a corridor and it was very narrow and 'L' shaped and I thought it was one of the most interesting places where you turn.
I had a small printout from an architectural plan which became the blueprint for the sculpture, but considerably abstracted. The print was on the wall, at ground level, and the sculpture was in front of it, so you'd never have one clear view of the image, the resource material. The sculpture was a lot bigger so it had a completely different physical relationship.
AG: Does it have any other genesis apart from obstructing the viewer? There's nothing representational about it?
ØA: Not really, as I said, when you back up it closes in on you, it's like a monster that sneaks up on you. There's nothing representational, it's constructed with triangles and plates screwed face to face. It's quite modular. It was the only thing not set from the beginning. The way it's constructed is specifically to make sure you don't see everything on the other side of it. It was the most efficient way of making the sculpture: the formal qualities are purely for this reason. I looked at Japanese screens in connection to this, the semi-transparency of them.
It's like a negotiation; you have to have the space around to determine the shape it takes. I'm really not very interested in stability, I like pieces that can be reshaped or rebuilt, just by placing it differently you can have a completely different logic to it. I'm not so interested in these kind of finished works where you determine once and for all how things will be. Donald Judd for instance was very interested in permanence, if he installed a series of sculptures they were not to be moved. Paul McCarthy on the other hand, his pieces are never finished, even with huge installations which are sold there's a contract, he can come and rework it if he feels like it.
AG: Working with some of the same ideas over a period of time, there's this process of editing, be it the found material you use as a starting point or the parameters you make for the viewer. By the way it's displayed the viewer also goes through this editing process.
ØA: I've also shown things where you put so much work up it can be clear from the formal way in which work is presented that you will never get through it all, with Finnegan's Wake for instance it's quite obvious you're never going to read it all.
In this show the space was arranged around the fact that I particularly wanted to show the collage, then I tried hundreds of different variations. The display unit was the last thing I decided on, I had 2 or 3 other different solutions but for some reason I ended up with the display thing.
The big structure is kind of central, but it's kind of not a work, similar to a platform I built for a show called whatnot, goahead, wideawake at PSM Gallery in Berlin in 2008, by the entrance. I didn't consider it as a piece on its own, it was more like an architectural intervention. I would never consider selling something like this, it has a different function.
The structures are dependent on the other works being there, otherwise they're just boxes.
AG: With the three different works, the slideshow, Finnegan's Wake and then the collage, do you make particular connections between those three works? In a way they're all telling stories or referencing stories, I kind of see them as containers, vessels.
ØA: The source material, if it's a film poster or Finnegan's Wake, is not really important to me, it's not something I really burn for. There isn't any connection between the film poster and Finnegan's Wake, except that I chose them and started working with them. The way it has been worked with is the thing that binds them together. The memory game contains all of it because it has all of the ideas that I had for the show, photographed, but again re-worked.
AG: The slideshow is a key in interpretive terms.
ØA: There's also a note in one of the slides where it says 'clue work'. I wanted to regenerate that loss that the viewer would have if they took their time and watched the whole slideshow; they'd stand there and look at this slide and then suddenly it goes and you wait and you've probably already forgotten what it was. If you wanted to though you could stand there and watch and memorise every one and then you would have every clue for the exhibition and many more. I then thought this is interesting in terms of Finnegan's Wake which describes a situation which is like a beginning and an end in a circular way, and describes the situation before Adam and Eve, I thought this was important as well, before the beginning somehow. Specifically it talks about a river that runs past Adam and Eve, and I thought this was a nice metaphor. There's this Zen saying that the river always stays the same but the water always changes. The Devil's Canyon is different from those two pieces as it does not really deal with memory.
AG: If the viewer is going to make sense of Devil's Canyon they are very dependent on memory because the image has been dissolved, and you can't read the whole image in one go. If they want to see a cohesive image they have to negotiate the structure, but also the collage because you're making the image very difficult to be read in a conventional sense.
ØA: You have to piece it together so there is the risk the finished image doesn't really exist, only as an afterimage in your mind. Of course that has something to do with memory it's true.
AG: Apart from the collage: Devil's Canyon, you'd also talked about doing a film script from this material. Are these materials like toys for you, like starting points you can pick up?
ØA: Yeah it is like that, I think I pick things up out of pure fascination, I love Western films and that's why I bought the negative of the poster, because it's a B-Western...
With any art there are stories, you just choose things because they are fun or you're interested in them, you find specific uses for them, more than having a quality in themselves that you have to exploit, they can be like a neutral material that you can transform into something logical or something that has deeper meaning.
AG: Does that exist, the neutral material?
ØA: No, of course not, but sometimes you can at least find materials that don't have obvious references. I have this whole stack of press kit photos from Hollywood and most of them are actors that you've never heard of. They just become portraits and if you cut away the text you have no obvious reference to what it actually is. It could be that I have taken them myself. This I'm interested in, the meaning and the logic comes into how I process this thing, not the material itself. At some point I stopped taking pictures myself because the pictures that I wanted to take weren't really available, and the pictures I took never ended up as pictures.
I think of how many images we have around us now, if you go on Facebook you can look at anyone's pictures! Thousands and thousands of pictures. Most of it is completely anonymous, none of it ends up as an icon or a prized image, it just vanishes after a while. And it's the same in Hollywood, it's like a mechanism, the industry. This is one of the reasons I was interested in the copy negatives the collage is made from.
When you bring an image from this Hollywood machinery into an art machinery, the machinery has different sets of rules. When I then take one of these negatives and print it up and make a text next to it, I need to put in some rules, I'll make an edition of 5 and sign them and this wasn't necessary before. You replace the machinery with another machinery, you take one set of rules and disband them and make up another set of rules.
I think sometime it's very interesting to look at the negative spaces, something that is kind of overlooked or something you take for granted. But like everything it's what you do with it. It only makes meaning in the moment you rework it.
Øystein Aasan lives and works in Berlin, Germany.
Adam Gibbons is an artist and curator based in Berlin, Germany.
Exhibition view: Double Trouble, La Vitrine, Paris, 2010.
Images © Øystein Aasan
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