Conversations | Ursula von Rydingsvard with Martin Friedman part 1


The following interview took place at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library on February 4, 2008, following a screening of the Art:21 episode Ecology. Featured artist Ursula von Rydingsvard spoke with Martin Friedman, Director Emeritus of the Walker Art Center and lifelong curator, writer, and critic.

Martin Friedman: First of all, congratulations to Art21 on the most extraordinary choice of artists. They certainly managed to make the definition of “ecology” quite elastic. Which really brings me to the big question: Ursula, are you an ecologist?

Ursula von Rydingsvard: I’m not sure why I’m in this category. I’m the one who cuts the trees down. I do, however, work with a lumber company which does replant. I just do my artwork. I don’t think I’m an ecologist, no.

MF: Well, let’s see…in the simplest terms, “ecology” has to do with interrelated systems in nature that depend upon one another to change and evolve and so forth. And I think that Mark Dion’s work, as illustrated by that great sacred log, most approximates that definition. There are very few artists who I think would want to be described as ecology-minded; there’s something slightly pious about that.

UVR: Well, there are so many causes that are so good, but I have to make a decision as to what it is that I want to do with my life, and I made that 35 years ago. It’s just a commitment that can’t be partial. In a way, you go into some place where you can’t afford to worry about things that you have a very limited amount of control over. But beyond that, it’s having a need that seems to surpass other needs for me to make these objects.

MF: So all of this cedar comes trucked into the studio and trees have been cut down to make it happen. It’s not that you romanticize about where the wood came from. I mean it might as well be what? Might it be clay, might it be bronze?

UVR: I‚Äôve never used trees that one could clearly recognize as a tree. It‚Äôs almost like using the slice of beef as opposed to having the cow in front of you. I use a very abstracted form of the cedar. I have had the occasion, however, near Vancouver (which is where my trees come from) of watching them getting bathed. And it‚Äôs this enormous room that is totally covered with glass in which you can hear these huge bodies sort of tumble and bump against one another, deliberately so, so that all of their bark gets disintegrated and washed off. That‚Äôs the first process before they can send them away to the mill…what was your question?

MF: I’m not sure I remember it, but it basically has to do with the history of the tree. Does the history of the tree play any kind of role?

UVR: So those tumbling structures really did feel like bodies. You know they made the ground shake as they turned and hit one another. But what I get—and this is not even in any kind of defense of why I use it—is something that really is a four-by-four or a two-by-four. It’s a board. It’s flat, flat, flat, four flat sides. Pragmatically, this enables me then to do the stacking. And I have to have it milled to the closest 1/16th of an inch. Otherwise if there is too much of a differentiation, you can’t stack them so that you can glue each layer, because the pressure has to be tremendous going from top to bottom and going from side to side. There can be no air pockets between the layers because if there is, that’s the one that’s going to—if it’s an outdoor piece—catch the ice to unhinge it. Or even if it’s an indoor piece, that’s where the light’s going to go through.

I’m not pretending it’s not wood. I mean, somehow I have a tremendous affinity particular to this kind of wood. And I keep saying to myself, “Ursula, when your ship comes home, you’re going to get cedar with no knots in it.” And the knots are the things that sort of stare like eyeballs, and they become almost concretized. It’s a metaphor that I’m constantly working with. You can’t peg it as a leg that bends and these knots, they kill it for me. So I’m able to cut it in a way where I hide them. If I have to have knots, I hide them in the layers so you can’t see them.

MF: But you’re conscious always of wood as a malleable material. Why wood, though? Why do you work in wood as opposed to other materials? I am aware that recently you have been casting a number of things, as you showed in the bonnet piece that was in Madison Square Park. And you’ve also translated some wood into bronze. But why wood as the basic material? What is there about it?

UVR: When I answer questions like why I chose that material or even why I do what I do, I sort of get lost in a way. And in a sense that if I told you why—I don’t even know why—but if I told you why, I would be lying. Because when you try hard to say the truth, it’s really hard to do that. So what you do is you kind of dance around it. So maybe I can try to do that, particularly with cedar because I’ve used oak, I’ve used other materials, and they have this grain that I hate too. It’s kind of leaky and loosey. And one of the most awful things that I see in cabinets is a slicing of the wood in a way so that you get this kind of opposite. That there’s one grain here, there’s another grain here; that’s the opposite. They’re like twinning them. It’s like taking your own body, slicing it in half and showing here’s this slice and here’s this slice. Look, they almost match, they’re brother and sister. So this patterning drives me nuts. Cedar really doesn’t have much of a grain. In fact I could say it’s loaded with air and it hasn’t got much grain. It’s very fleshy, it’s soft, it’s sexy. And it’s malleable; I can take my fingernail and score it. It’s receptive to being. It’s horrible for carving but it’s great for cutting.

MF: Yeah, not much of a grain, not much of a brain, but it lends itself. On the other hand, you beat it up, you torture it. You are angry at it. What are you so angry about?

UVR: Oh my god. (laughs)

MF: We have some time.

UVR: He’s right, I torture it. We have something that we call a plunge cut.

MF: Is that the worst?

UVR: It’s pretty dramatic. All of this is with a circular saw. It’s not a chain saw. A chain saw is brutal; it eats a quarter of an inch away of whatever it is that you’re cutting. You can’t get the sensitive things going that you can with a circular saw. I have in fact two assistants here, my fabulous, fabulous cutters are in this room. And I am proud to say that if it was my aim to get into the Guinness World Book of Records for having the most sensitive, circular saw cutters, I think we could do it. But there are little lumps and bumps that we can do. You see, the circular saw is a flat blade and it turns around. It’s meant to only make straight cuts. And I never took a woodworking course, not that that would have made any difference. But I am not a right angle or a straight or engineer-oriented, measure-oriented person. My decisions are made in a way that’s very intuitive and very organic. And I try really hard to disrupt the orderly way with wood.

MF: So back to nature. We’re in nature. So what you create are forms that despite the fact that many a tree is given its life—

UVR: Do you like the way I avoided your question about anger?

MF: Well this is not unusual, but if you really want to take a moment, I’m sure that all of us would be fascinated. What are you angry at?

UVR: No, no, you started talking about nature.

MF: No, you’re not angry at nature and you’re not angry at the tree.

UVR: I don’t even know where to begin, but I have to say that there was a time when I got into an artist-in-residency program at Bear Mountain State Park. It was a camp for kids and I had one of the places where they had their bunks, with huge windows with no screens and sort of open to the outside. And I remember working in a place called Art Park. Where Niagara Falls washes into is a deep gorge, because obviously it carves with great force through the mountains, or the land it makes a trail through, in order to go wherever it goes. And I looked down at it and it’s too much. I can’t take it. You take it in with your focal vision, you take it in with your peripheral vision; it’s overwhelming.

So what I prefer often to do, as I did in this artist-in-residency, is to sit in the back of this little cabin and open the door. And I’d look through the door and sit in a different place every day and that framed, smaller image of nature, of the trees, I could understand. I could take it, I could believe. It didn’t overwhelm. And I can obviously say that which I find in nature is a tremendous teacher and I reap from it constantly. But I also reap from manmade things, from objects too. But maybe that’s an extension of nature.

MF: Well, that’s another question. Back to nature, as they say, and we’ll find out the source of anger at some point. But in any case, the work is just replete with allusions to nature. One can see in your sculpture whatever reference to nature one wants to see. And I see cliffs, I see mountains, I see endless terrain. I see desiccated land. I see the Grand Canyon. But I see objects that look as though they have been through an incredible kind of erosion, a kind of metamorphosis. I see objects that look as though they have just been dug up. They have a feeling about them of agelessness and timelessness and they’re hard to place. And which segues into the next point about objects and the role of objects, because I see objects morphing into natural forms and natural forms turning into objects. I think it’s an astonishing ability that you have to evoke familiar forms and at the same time, they appear within the extraordinary context of metamorphosis. They have a profound relationship to the forms in nature if the process is a growth, a decay. And I wonder if such thoughts go through your mind or you’re just in there sawing and torturing wood.

UVR: You speak so beautifully about my work, Martin.

MF: Well it’s easy to do, but you’re the one who’s on tonight.

UVR: Well, where you are is where I’ll be. You know the torture is a good part of the fun.

MF: Well, I mean let’s get past torture.

UVR: But the thoughts that I have while I‚Äôm making the artwork are never what you think they are. I know my guys hear me saying [things] under my mask, [like]…‚Äôfuck, shit, fuck, shit.‚Äô Or I say, to myself, ‚Äòyou know you‚Äôve got to do this, you‚Äôve got to pull it.‚Äô And it‚Äôs not verbal. You know it‚Äôs no more verbal than somebody that‚Äôs playing a jazz clarinet verbalizes to themselves why it is that they play the notes they play. It‚Äôs very instinctive and very intuitive. There is a pull that you have in a certain direction and the whys of the pull are as complicated as the whys of the anger. But you can‚Äôt possibly, while you‚Äôre making the artwork, start addressing the whys because there‚Äôs no point. It‚Äôs going to kill it. And the kind of good thing that comes with growing older is that you can trust the stuff. Not even that you can trust it more than you did before, but maybe you can. You know, maybe there are things that just surface in a way that‚Äôs very delicate, very light, very gentle [and] that you can allow more readily to surface and to act on. But they‚Äôre wordless.

MF: Let’s move for a moment to the issue of iconography and the fact that there are, what—eight, ten identifiable forms. Pick a number in your work that seems to mutate and change one another. I mean, there are containers. There are forms, there are bowls, and there are boxes. There are ladles. There are chests. There are houses. There are beds. These are all about as elemental a group of works of images as one can arrive at. You and I joked about referring to your art as a form of primitive domesticity. And then I thought, well, domestic primitivism has a ring to it. But why are these fundamental forms so prevalent, and [as] points of departure? When you start out, is it okay, I’m going to make a bowl, but it might turn into a box, or it might turn into a cave? I mean, how does it work? What’s the process like?

UVR: I think that both for the objects and for the wood there’s such a familiarity for me. It’s almost like if you grew up with two parents that did pirouettes on a tightrope in a circus, that would somehow be going through your blood. There are objects that I feel attracted to in part because they feel familiar.

MF: Humble objects or childhood objects.

UVR: Yes, that’s right. Well there are childhood objects and you’re right, that there is a kind of farmer-peasant orientation to these objects.
MF: Could you develop that a little bit? Specifically, I mean nothing gets finished. Everything seems in a state of being made or decayed. Things seem raw and basic, almost salvaged.

UVR: I’m so afraid of answering—not your question—but of answering things too completely in my artwork. I want so much to leave a kind of suspended…to develop something, you have to have something, you have to begin with something. But I don’t want it to have an answer. I guess one of my least favorite kinds of artwork is the kind that teaches.

MF: Yes.

UVR: You know, it’s pedantic. I hate being taught like that.

MF: Well, I remember looking at a series of bowls and there was a kind of fluttering movement through them. They seemed to be quite baroque in feeling. They were a lineup. And you said they were inspired by dance. You didn’t talk about bowls, you talked about—

UVR: That’s the Microsoft piece, right?

MF: Yes.

UVR: There were three things. I actually rented out the first automated cow-milking barn in the United States in a town called Ellenville, which is just north of us here. And we put a furnace into it. We were there in the middle of the winter building the project. And we had to have it done within three or four months, I guess. That was our limit. And so the three things I considered there…we‚Äôre talking about near where the Microsoft campus is; there was a group of Indians there. And a long, long time ago, I was able to get a hold of some of their boxes and some of their rattles. So that had something to do with what I put into the image.

MF: But it’s never one thing, it’s an experience.

UVR: Exactly.

MF: It’s not something you’ve seen, it’s a feeling. Is that what you’re saying?

UVR: Well it’s a feeling, but that feeling has to take some structure. And the other things I used for it are like little ingredients, not that you really put these ingredients in, because obviously there’s a lot other things. But the other thing is the handwriting of a woman that could hardly read and write. And when [she] writes, it’s very efforted. Actually my parents were both basically illiterate so I’m actually talking about my mother’s handwriting. It’s very concrete. She was able to sign her name, but very efforted, where each thing felt as though it were something more special than the glidey-slidey, fluid handwriting we all have. So that affected the form of the structure.

And then I had the dance with my guys, but it wasn’t a dance. I had them turn in a circle (all the guys that were working) but very quickly. And wherever they ended I made a plumb line from their elbows, from their wrists, and from where their feet were. And there’s a kind of awkward circle that also influenced the structure. But in the end, you would never know by looking at it that actually these three things affected it, because it still goes through the sieve of your mind and you make it not deliberately yours. It just comes out yours with some of these things affecting it.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2 and the conclusion of the interview.