That’s perfectly understandable. Let’s return to the topic of place, this time Red Hook. Of all the neighborhoods in New York City in which I can imagine you living and working, this one seems most appropriate. It’s the most weathered, it’s an aging industrial waterfront. Is that important to your practice?
Yes, totally. Like the Berkeley waterfront, it’s another site of American industrial decline, which fascinates me. The neighborhood is separate from the rest of Brooklyn, divided from it by a highway; it functions as a kind of hideout. I wasn’t looking, but when I found the building in which I now live I immediately thought, “OK, this is my house.” A close friend from Berkeley saw it and said, “You’ve moved back to Berkeley.”
If you moved to another part of New York would your work change?
Probably. I worry about moving. My materials are so much a part of this particular environment. My processes are also specific to the particular fabricators whose shops are in this neighborhood. I feel very attached to where I am.
Do you adapt your ideas to the skills possessed by the craftsmen you work with?
Yes, I would say so. It’s not just Red Hook, but New York more generally. I sometimes make sculptures that look like jewelry, and in the jewelry district here you can get any thickness of chain, or get something plated—almost anything I need I can find here. I can also sell my metal scrapes and use the money to buy new materials; metals are convertible commodities in New York.
Sometimes when people hear the word “psychic” they think “flaky.” I’m interested in means of apprehension that are not necessarily anti-analytic but that are not routed through the intellect.
Your process is beginning to sound like managing a series of flows. Materials sometimes literally wash ashore a few blocks away. Some get made into artworks and enter another circuit, and the leftovers are eventually recycled.
It’s not all movement; there is also a lot of … well, maintaining. I take in more than I need, and things sit around together for a while.
There’s another side to your work that many people discuss, an aspect that is derived in part from its references to spiritual seekers or guides.
Perhaps this ties in to what I said earlier about the ability of public artworks to engage a different part of a viewer’s consciousness, because it requires a different kind of attention. Sometimes when people hear the word “psychic” they think “flaky.” I’m interested in means of apprehension that are not necessarily anti-analytic but that are not routed through the intellect.
A pre-linguistic understanding?
Not pre-linguistic or anti-linguistic or anti-intellectual. Just non-linguistic. Sort of like the process my work has undergone in the last few years, moving away from the inclusion of—or direct reference to—printed material. There are still cultural references, but it’s not as easy to discern a particular one.
That shift is in part because I don’t want my work to seem like a research project. One is rewarded for being visually literate and knowing about the culture that this material emerges from, but it’s not a game of figuring out how the different references relate to each other. I prefer the idea of “irresolvability.” I want my works to have a shifting identity.
So the new works are more vague? Though perhaps without the negative connotations associated with that word.
I want to recuperate vagueness. Sometimes I imagine myself as the first viewer, and I look for elements that cause me to think, “I don’t get that,” or, “That doesn’t do anything for me.”
In past interviews you’ve mentioned the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the I Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Kama Sutra. Plus many of the pocket paperbacks in your early work were translations of books on sociology and psychology by European authors. How conscious are you of bringing to bear upon your work an intellectual heritage that isn’t American?
It’s important, but I’m also interested in the American filter. I feel that you’ve phrased the question as if these were active choices on my part, but the intellectual culture in Berkeley when I was growing up was very international, very assimilationist. Many people living there and then were looking to other cultures for meaning. It can seem now like an impulse to get rid of everything in American culture. Every aspect of American ideology was being reevaluated, although in retrospect I can see how a lot of the dominant culture was reproduced unconsciously.
My first big sculpture show, in 2003, was called “Experiment in Total Freedom.” That was a kind of joke about the era, or at least my experience of it. Adults seemed so permissive: “You can do whatever you want!” As a child, I wondered, “What does that mean?” I feel I actually need a structure in order to do something. There is something kind of limiting about total freedom.
Cultural inquiry of the kind that went on in the Bay Area in the ‘60s is a process, and it could still be very exciting. Becoming fully conscious, you know, would be a great thing.
That cultural moment didn’t lat long, nor does it continue in many places today. Perhaps it’s not sustainable.
I hate to generalize about the period, or about the place. I’ll simply say that cultural inquiry of the kind that went on in the Bay Area in the ‘60s is a process, and it could still be very exciting. Becoming fully conscious, you know, would be a great thing. It would be great for many people today to engage with that idea.
I want to ask you about the legacy of Surrealism. Do you feel that the ideas about consciousness animating it ever truly broke on these shores?
In California—Berkeley, San Francisco—there’s a tradition of found-object assemblage, stuff that is almost naively inherited from the Surrealists. There was a kind of beat culture, exemplified by Wallace Berman, that seems like Surrealism plus the Kabbalah, which is an interesting formulation. My early experiences with art-making were through that instantiation of Surrealism. I was attracted as a young person to Bruce Conner’s work. If Surrealism did find a home in the US, I feel like that’s where it went—to California.
On the other hand, I sometimes wonder whether Surrealism is too silly for us. I don’t mean that dismissively; I love Surrealism. I think there is a lot of it in American art, but people don’t want to call it that because it sounds too silly. We have an aversion to, a squeamishness about, the unseriousness of the unconscious.