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Art In Conversation

Mary Lucier with Phong Bui

Photo by Cecelia Condit
Photo by Cecelia Condit

In the midst of preparing for her new video installation The Plains of Sweet Regret, which will be on view at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc. from March 10 through April 28, 2007. The artist Mary Lucier took time from her busy schedule to talk with Rail Publisher about her life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): Let’s start with your upbringing: When did you know that you were going to be an artist?

Mary Lucier: I grew up in a small Ohio town, in the northern part of the state, a very small place called Bucyrus. Both of my parents were artists of sorts. They were amateurs, and they taught all of us how to draw, and there were always paints and books and music around. There was a really favorable atmosphere in our home towards the arts. I think I actually made my first installation piece at about age five. I remember building thes¬¬¬e structures, piling up objects and balancing them against the wall, the railing posts, the banisters that led upstairs. I even gave them names. I would show them to my mother, feeling that this was really something.

Rail So you didn’t play with dollhouses like most girls of that age?

Lucier: Not at all. I just naturally loved building things, I went on to college at Brandeis University where I earned a degree in English and American Literature because, in those days, everybody was an English Major, and I came from a somewhat literary background, so it seemed like a natural inclination, but I was studying sculpture at the same time.

Rail And what sorts of sculpture were you making then?

Lucier: Well I started working in clay from the figure, but then moved rather quickly to welding and abstraction. Early influences ranged from Ibram Lassaw to Anthony Caro.

Rail So, as you were making sculpture, you met Alvin Lucier, the Avant Garde composer, who was teaching music at your school and had an impact on you as a young artist.

Lucier: Alvin’s whole circle of acquaintances and colleagues was very important to me. It’s hard for me to believe, but I was only 19–20 years old. Through Alvin, I met John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Christian Wolf, Robert Ashley, and many others on our occasional trips to New York. And David Behrman, Pauline Oliveros and that whole generation of Avant Garde composers, plus the audio installation artist Liz Phillips who is younger. I met artists like Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow, Carolee Schneeman. The whole ‘Happenings’ movement as well as the Judson Dance Group and other experimental and intermedia art forms were just getting going.

Rail So all of those experiences compelled you to give up sculpture and begin to make video and create performances. Was the transition a natural one, or was it difficult?

Lucier: I remember Cage coming into my studio and seeing one of my big figure sculptures in plaster and telling me what he thought I should do to it. It was already partly broken up, and he said, “Oh you should smash it up into pieces.” And he was so right. It was good that I was only 19 and that I could take his criticism so easily. Well, very soon after that I got involved in performance largely through Alvin and the Sonic Arts Union, and we used to travel together to Europe as an ensemble. There would be eight of us, the four composers, and their four wives who were all artists. One year there was myself, Barbara Dilley, who had been one of the premier Cunningham Dancers, Shigeko Kubota, who at that time was married to David Berman, and Mary Ashley, who was Robert Ashley’s first wife and was also a founder of the Once Group from Ann Arbor. So there we were, these four powerful women, traveling with the guys, and we would perform in all of the pieces together. That was really an extraordinary energy. This would have been 1963-64, through maybe 1968.

Rail That sounds exciting.

Lucier: Very exciting. We met European artists and composers like Jean Tinguely and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Somewhere along in there I also got involved in photography. I began to integrate photography into performance and, through Nam June and Shigeko, I got interested in video as another image source to accompany performance. Then in 1974 Alvin and I were separated, so I moved to NY and hit the ground running.

Rail Looking back, by 1960 TV became the dominant medium of mass-culture, which in turn compelled artists to respond differently in their work. There was Nam June Paik and Dara Birnbaum, who had their own issues with TV and the media in general…

Lucier: Dara Birnbaum got a lot of notoriety for the appropriation she did with Wonder Woman and other early tapes, but she came along much later than Nam June. First there was Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, and Joan Jonas; whose work I adored. She in some ways was my favorite artist of that period.

Rail Who was Richard Serra’s girlfriend at that time, and through her, Richard became very involved with the whole group around the Judson Church. He felt that they were catalysts for what became Process Art.

The Plains of Sweet Regret, 5-channel video and sound installation. North Dakota Museum of Art; Lennon,Weinberg Gallery.
The Plains of Sweet Regret, 5-channel video and sound installation. North Dakota Museum of Art; Lennon,Weinberg Gallery.

Lucier: The early video movement had one foot in the art world with the likes of Acconci and Peter Campus. And then there was the other sort of alternative guerilla TV wing that included Ira Schnieder, Raindance, and The Video Freaks, but somehow Nam June was always in the middle.

Rail How did you manage to get your work to emerge out of all these incredible activities around you, in that period especially with the dominance of body art? Some critics saw Dawn Burn as the counter-response to the masochism of Vito Acconci or Chris Burden.

Lucier: I think that it came more out of my involvement with the composers who were working in live electronic music or musique concrète because it was more about phenomena. My interests were about taking time and making it spatial. It was not at all about the physical body, or my personal body, certainly, even though I liked so much of that work. Dawn Burn was followed by other burn pieces like Fire Writing and Untitled Display System where I burned the vidicon tube with lasers. That was about exploring the limits of the technology. I went from performance back to a kind of Minimalism: an investigation of the foundations of the medium by reducing the art form to its essential elements. Then things started to build up again eventually towards a more theatrical kind of narrative structure.

Rail Did you have any contact with Structuralist Filmmakers, like Michel Snow or Hollis Frampton?

Lucier: Of course I used to hang out at Anthology Film Archives on Saturdays, and I was familiar with the work of Michel Snow. He was something of an influence, definitely, in the kind of singularity of vision and process involved in his work. But I was not interested in making films. That might have to do with the fact that I didn’t study film. I was never a filmmaker and didn’t come out of film. But most video artists of my generation didn’t. They came from literature and sociology, or sculpture and performance.

Rail Who were the artists you had a lot in common with in those days?

Lucier: David Gigliotti is no longer making video that I know of, but he did one of the first multiple channel landscape pieces that I ever saw. In one of the avant garde festivals he showed a piece called Hunter Mountain with three black and white monitors. Each was a different view of the mountain, so when they were shown together, it became a kind of panorama. Even though these were twenty-three inch black and white screens it was absolutely beautiful and I had never seen anything quite like that before. I think that in many ways his work and Beryl Korot’s had the strongest influence on the direction that I actually took in video. In retrospect, the work that really interested me was and still is about having a real eye and a strong sort of cerebral quality, as well as this thing about the sublime. It’s about being in the presence of simple but powerful phenomena.

Rail Can you talk a bit about Dawn Burn 1975, and Equinox 1979? One being the idea of presentation became more sculpturally-minded, the other was your first color piece?

Lucier: When I made Dawn Burn it was meant to be built into this huge seven part series of tall cabinets that attach to each other making an arc on the floor toward the viewer. As each element—including the monitors—get larger it makes a crescendo configuration.

Rail There’s a solemness to the piece.

Lucier: Absolutely. Partly because of the blackness of the form, and the black and white image of the seven monitors and the silence. Equinox, as you mentioned, was my first color piece. It was the first time I had ever worked with a color camera. I applied the same process that I had before with the black and white pieces but lightened up the physical structure a bit. It had a more open form— a metallic structure with just enclosures at the top to hold the monitors and it was very high off the ground. Shown in the CUNY Graduate Center mall on 42nd Street, it was an attempt to make a public art with video The idea that you could put video in a semi-open space and have it actually function as public art was still a new idea.

Rail So, the transformation from black and white to color seemed quite inevitable?

Lucier: Yes. I think it was Bill Viola who came back from Japan in 1978 with a bunch of cameras, Sony 1610s, and suddenly, boom! color became a big deal for everyone. What I did at first was to take the same ideas that I was working with in black and white and apply them in color. But the image was so different, it became rosy. Eventually, color really changed the way that I made and conceived work.

Rail How and when your collaborations with Elizabeth Streb get started? I’m curious mainly because your and her sensibility couldn’t have been more different.

Lucier: You know what I love about her work is that it reminds me of my early sculpture. Elizabeth’s work has gotten more playful in a way now but it used to be really tough and rather high-minded.

Rail And brutal [laughing]

Lucier: Brutally and mentally tough in terms of her fight against gravity and the way she was analyzing movement and relating it to physics. She just takes movement apart and then puts it back together in the most unlikely ways. It’s always fun and inspiring to be around her because she’s constantly producing ideas and she has such sensational energy. Elizabeth and I first met through the Viola Farber dance company (whom she studied with) actually, on the Staten Island Ferry, during a piece by Alvin Lucier. Elizabeth was carrying a boom box playing prepared sound. That was around 1974 or 75. ( Viola Farber had been a great Cunningham dancer and went off to form her own company.) At any rate, Elizabeth and I continued to be interested in each others’ work and eventually began our collaboration on a series of four pieces in the 80’s and up to 1990.

Rail So you’re saying that had you have not been a sculptor, the likelihood of you collaborating with Elizabeth Streb may not occur?

Lucier: I had not thought about it being a three-dimensional connection. I thought about it being more a sort of spiritual connection. Then, around that time, I became interested in to videotaping the body. I had videotaped dancers a lot anyway, since it was also a part of what I did to make a living, and I knew a lot of choreographers. I was already very interested in dance anyway because I thought that dancers and choreographers of the 60’s where in a way the most radical artists of the time.

Rail I definitely agree. In fact many paintings that are included at the wonderful show, “High Times Hard Times” at the National Academy Museum were inspired by dance and performances of that period.

Lucier: And of course both Merce Cunningham, who has been so enduring, and John Cage, who straddled all of these areas, probably influenced almost everybody of my generation no matter what kind of work we did. Cage is the one who set us all free.

Rail It’s true. Let’s shift to your synthesis of image sound. For instance, “Floodsongs” which I had seen at MoMA in 1999. Would you say that piece was one of the more complex in the interplay between image and sound or was there one before that?

Lucier: For some of the most ambitious sound tracks I’ve done, I have to credit Earl Howard, who I have worked with since 1983. We always try to construct as complex a music as we can. When it got to Floodsongs my whole idea about the way the sound ought to be in a piece like that was shifting. And instead of making a sound that would accompany an almost a narrative sequence of pictures, as in Noah’s Raven (1993), I felt that Floodsongs had to have a enveloping and immersive sound that the individual voices could play off, The voices are also embedded in that sound track. I had been working in that genre for a little while. I did a piece called House By the Water at the Spoleto USA Festival in 1997 using some speaking voices, and before that, Oblique House (Valdez) in 1993 and a piece called Last Rites (Positano) in 1995, where I used motion sensors to trigger as many as six processed voices.

Rail How you control the sound in relationship to the images is almost like figure/ground relationship.

Lucier: Absolutely. For instance, in Oblique House there are monitors that show the faces of the people who are talking and, the faces themselves are very slowed down while the voices proceed at a normal speed but are modulated so that they ring or sound like bells. As they build up in the room they create an ensemble that plays against the other more percussive sounds from the landscape images projected on the ceiling.

Rail Your last solo show at Lennon Weinberg, included a very powerful piece, Migration 2000, a portrait of John Lado Keni, a Sudanese man who was born deaf and who used his own invented language to tell his story. I thought it was so effective that by portraying him in ¾ profile—less confrontational, and with the white official background—you were able to bring out a subtle yet very powerful image. To me, it’s probably your most expressive piece in the sense that you rarely have done that kind of work with a single person who also can prolong that amazing sustainable time and space. How did that all come about?

Lucier: I met John Lado Keni in Des Moines, Iowa where I was shooting a group of people who were, for the most part, refugees—many from Somalia and in his case the Sudan, as well as other places around the world. Most were brought there by Lutheran social services from the refugee camps, and one of the men who was teaching them English said to me ,‘Oh, I know this fantastic fellow named John Lado Keni who is the most amazing storyteller,’ and so I met John who was a completely compelling and charismatic character. He hardly knew any sign language and neither did we, but his whole way of storytelling was so expressive and coherent. His gestures were a kind of pantomime accompanied by these vocal sounds that he was unaware of. Needless to say, I thought that this could be very controversial but that it was an amazing opportunity to videotape this individual who was such a natural performer, with a particular disability that completely shapes the way he tells a story. So I made an appointment and communicated to him about the project and he was happy to participate.

Rail I also thought that in the end of the piece when you allowed two images to overlap one another it certainly intensifies while enhancing the performative aspect as well as the complex gesture of his hands.

Lucier: Yes, I felt that he was, to some degree, locked inside himself, and in order to get out, he has to talk to himself in some way, but he is also trying very hard to communicate to others as well. So I overlaid the reversed image so that you see his own internal dialogue with himself.

Rail Like Floodsongs, The Plains of Sweet Regret is also commissioned by the North Dakota Museum of Art. Another ambitious project employing five channel synchronized video, surrounded sounds as well as a set of rescued old school chairs where the viewer can sit and watch and be taken into this incredible vast landscape of the west, a more or less predominant or recurring theme in your work. Wouldn’t it be fair to think this body of work is about the persistence of memory as well as the inevitability of decay or some form of erosion?

Lucier: Well, with Floodsongs the director of the North Dakota Museum, Laurel Reuter, called me up and asked if I would do a commission for a series of pieces she was planning to commemorate the flood of the Red River of the North in 1997. And I had just seen this incredible image of the city of Grand Forks underwater and on fire at the same time in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times, and I thought, ‘my God, that image is so apocalyptic,’ and then she called [laughing] so that’s how our collaboration got started. Then a couple of years later she called me again and said: ‘Would you consider doing another commission? I have this other idea about the emptying out of the northern plains and I’m commissioning a series of work from different perspectives about that.’ Having already worked with her once successfully, and since I was already familiar with the people and the land, I gladly accepted the second commission. _The Plains of Sweet Regret is not just about the abandoned artifacts and buildings in this vast and austere landscape; there are rituals that are a little more hopeful—though perhaps a bit ambiguous— like the birth of a calf and the rodeo.

Rail And Arabesque which I saw in a group show last summer, will be shown along with The Plains of Sweet Regret?

Lucier: Arabesque is basically the last segment of —the last seven minutes, which I extracted from the installation and made into a stand-alone single channel piece because I knew it would work well.

Rail Well, with George Strait’s song, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” pulsing with the overlappings and repetitions of the unfolding images right in the middle, I thought it’s both sexy and psychedelic at the same time. Let’s go back to the 1980’s when you did several pieces based on landscapes, which include light, reflections on water and so on.

Lucier: Well, many of them use reflection or water, with elements that overlay each other on the surface, and actually that’s a place where Bob Berlind, the painter and my partner, and I connect. We have both spent a certain amount of time looking at water and observing the details of the surface, the bottom, and the reflected sky in the same image or sequence of images. I always think of that as a template for layering and it has something to do with the way I do layering in Arabesque.

Rail Is it a big leap in time and space from Ohio at Giverny (1983) to The Plains of Sweet Regret which is even more far west than Ohio?

Lucier: Well it’s like my own life. I grew up in Ohio but spent time in Europe and New York before I ever saw the rest of the United States. Actually, I had not traveled anywhere west of the Ohio River until my early 30’s. Maybe what I’m doing in more of my recent work is catching up with myself. I turned west at some point and have been looking in that direction ever since I made the installation Noah’s Raven which was shot in Alaska and the Brazilian Amazon in 1992. To me these lanscapes are similar in an experiential way. One has the blinding field of whiteness of snow and ice, which can be very beautiful or very terrifying. And then the Amazon is a darker, denser environment of greenness which can be terrifying in a different way. Nevertheless, in both places people are trying to mine the land for oil or lumber or other minerals. I really thought that they were oddly alike in that their depths are inaccessible to people who don’t know how to maneuver through the terrain. I thought both were impenetrable and monumental in similar ways because of the natural landscape.

Rail I’d think the same way about the northern plains of North Dakota being monumental.

Lucier: I agree. There are only about 700,000 people in the entire state of North Dakota, and the distance that people live from one another is often incredibly huge, as is the emptiness that they all overcome in various ways. The whole idea of “sweet regret” isn’t about literally regretting anything, it’s really more about melancholy and longing kept at bay, like the echo of the past in your present or the loss of certain essentials that you will never regain, but you make a path forward anyway.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2007

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