Interview with Liz Glynn
Interview between Liz Glynn and Mark Allen on the occasion of her No Second Troy show at Pitzer Art Galleries.
View the pdf of this interview here.
Liz Glynn is a Los Angeles based artist and Mark Allen is the Founding Director of Machine Project and Professor of Art, Pomona College.
Mark: Your work often points to the plasticity inherent in what an artifact is and to different ways people can engage with it as a vehicle for ideas about history or aesthetics or culture. I’m also thinking about the piece that you did at LACMA, where the participants remade the papier-mâché pieces of antiquities in the museum’s collection. In addition to that, you also work a lot with performance. I’m interested in how you think about the relationship between the artifact and the performative.
Liz: Well, my interest in the artifacts is not the idealized artifact that is fixed in time, but the artifact as a way to trace history and politics. So I think performance, to some degree, is a way of drawing out of the objects, or putting it back into objects, the complexities and the points at which these objects have become contested or become a battleground by following their movement – because often when they are moved or altered, it’s through acts of war or export and not always under legal terms.
Mark: You’re suggesting that from the moment of the artifact’s creation it continues to accumulate a history: first it’s made, then 200 years later it’s buried; 1,000 years later it’s uncovered; 50 years after that, it’s transferred from one country to another as the result of a global conflict; and then even later it moves from country to country as a cultural artifact, legally or quasi-legally.
Liz: Interspersed with long periods of dormancy, too. They are not always in motion; there are thousands of years where they’re just under the ground and no one’s looking for them. I’m also interested in that loss. But for me it’s not about explicating official narratives. I’m not interested in finding some objective truth. I’m interested in the multiplicity of truths, stories, narratives, lies and justifications that have been told around the object. I think the artifact is quite literally a vessel. It gets filled up with what people put upon it. Attic pottery is a really great example, where some of the pots were used ceremonially. Later they were displayed mostly as evidence of human culture or the prowess of Greek civilization, and then later as fine art, but not until very recently, in the last 30 years or so. But once the narrative is disseminated in a certain context, it’s very hard to remove it, even if it is proven false. It acquires a mythology.
Mark: The postmodern take on that would be that the cultural narrative is where the meaning is located, so there is no recourse to a real fact behind it in the end.
Liz: That’s Britain’s argument for keeping the Elgin Marbles.
Mark: [laughs] How so? I don’t know anything about that.
Liz: That they’ve been in Britain long enough and become such an intrinsic part of British culture that they are no longer purely Greek.
Mark: What do you think about that?
Liz: I think you can’t restore them to their native state of significance, but that’s not really what the argument is about. I think what the Greeks are actually fighting for is cultural tourism and its economic benefits. I don’t think you can look at cultural values without also looking at the economics and political histories of the cultures. One thing that’s really interesting, actually, is looking at the difference between how the Trojan artifacts are displayed in Turkey – where they’ve jammed so many into the cases as evidence of human civilization – whereas if you see artifacts, literally from the same find, in the Neues Museum in Berlin, curators tend to put far fewer artifacts in the cases and separate them a lot more; they are treated as art objects.
But Germany invested a huge amount in these archaeological expeditions at the turn-of-the-century that actually brought a lot of the artifacts that populate their museums. Because of that investment and what that investment represents – a certain elite global power and cultural superiority – they’ve continued to invest in keeping the best artifacts in Germany and presenting them in the best conditions. Whereas in Turkey, the best of the objects have left; it feels like almost without a fight. When I was in Bergama, the museum there has images of the city’s Altar of Pergamon that is now in the museum in Berlin, with no critical text or suggestion that they would like someday to bring it back because it’s so clear from the size and the scale of the museum and the social structure of the town that there is really no possibility of doing that.
Turkey is a multicultural state, so the relationship between the Greek or Roman past and Turkey has been contested, and it changes depending on which political party is in power. Hence cultural values are more dynamic. In fact, the times during which most of the artifacts were removed from Turkey the territory was under control of the Ottoman Empire. They were less interested in preserving those objects as a representation of state power than they were in the capital return.
Mark: So there are different economic reasons, but also differences and changes in the symbolic role of the classical culture.
Liz: Yeah. That’s something I started to get interested in with the California Surrogates for the Getty, where I used trash from around California to make copies of antiquities in their collection. For me, that piece was about the tension between the way these objects are presented in museums here, and particularly at the Getty, as sort of perfect and infinite, and the fact that they’re actually going to decay unless someone does what the Getty does to those objects, with their massive conservation department – continually intervening, preserving. It’s like having a pet: you have to actively keep these objects alive. If you haven’t studied pottery that much, you might think those things just sort of came out of the ground like that, got dusted off and put in the case. And I think in Europe and the States we take for granted the idea that classical artifacts are the penultimate evidence of the origin of civilization and culture in a way that is almost mythic; that is not necessarily the case in the Middle East or Far East. In Turkey – and this is true of parts of Italy as well – they have a totally different educational structure, so the people who are doing the conservation, who are actually handling the artifacts, don’t necessarily have PhDs. Sometimes they just grew up in the town where the museum is and got into it that way. I think there is something poetic about the way these artifacts were repaired to the best of someone’s ability and means, which is to say not with laser technology and scanning to render the perfect shape of something, but with cement and rebar, because that’s what they had.
Mark: Right. Which seems like very much the way you are interested in working.
Liz: Yeah. By any means necessary.
Mark: So part of this project is about the movement of real people, real goods, and about how meaning is invested and transformed by those movements. How do you connect the extraction of the physical, and then the construction of its relationship to the mythic, with the movement of global capital, whether it be people or whether it be stuff?
Liz: Well, I’m actually less interested in the global movement than the personal movement. People move in ways that are irrational and clunky. I saw a guy move with a microwave in a suitcase once, just like this old, dirty microwave with all his clothes stuffed in the microwave, and the suitcase around it, but he was very happy to just be bringing a microwave. And actually, when you’re moving between places or between cities, you don’t necessarily pick the 100 things you most need that fit well into this bag. So you’ll see people moving with these taped-up boxes and a trash bag to carry their clothes because they don’t have another bag or something. Or you over-pack and bring stuff that just doesn’t make any sense at all – it’s incredibly subjective.
Mark: It’s not optimized.
Liz: No. And people bring tile, or other material things. There’s a German version of most of that stuff, and a lot of Turkish products are imported now and relatively easy to get, so you don’t have to bring it with you, but many people do. So for me, with the piece, part of actually bringing the objects to the site – and in some ways it’s a little bit indulgent to take this trip – is that I’m interested in the clunkiness and, let’s just say the stupidity of trying to construct this history and imbue these objects with meaning, in order to point to something that someone in the ’60s could have elegantly arrived at through conceptual work.
Mark: Yes, actually, I feel like this points to an important shift in how a number of artists are working now that is different from past modes of operating. With conceptual work, like with Kosuth’s chair piece – where there’s the chair, the photograph of the chair and the description of the chair – the idea is to articulate the relationship between a real object and an object that is constructed in a person’s imagination discursively or through representation. Whereas I think the work that you’re doing is more about actually doing something – returning the gold to Troy – to the extent that your personal circumstances allow.
Mark: Your personal circumstances don’t allow you to take the actual gold from Germany and bring it to Troy. But your personal circumstances allow you to make this replica and bring it there.
Liz: Actually, one of my favorite pieces, in relation to that idea of what you’re able to do, is by Gordon Matta Clark who was invited to the Berlin Biennial in 1970. He went to Berlin saying, “I’m going to go blow up the Berlin Wall.” The film that results is a black turtle-necked Gordon Matta Clark trying to wheat-paste posters on the Berlin Wall. And the paste isn’t sticking – it’s kind of a disaster. He gets stopped by the German police, and they do not care that he’s an American artist or that he’s in the Berlin Biennial. There’s the ambition on the level of blowing up the Berlin Wall, but in the context he was operating in, this action proved impossible. Instead, he was forced to do only what he could. The gap between the declaration and the resulting gesture points to an alternate reality that can never be. It makes that desire to do something palpable, and it also speaks to the limits of our ability to change our environment as one person operating autonomously.
With the Trojan Return, I couldn’t actually carry as much as I wanted to. It got to the point in Berlin where I had made way more Trojan artifacts than would fit in the bag in that I had, so a lot of them were left behind in the studio of Mariechen Danz, where I was working in Berlin. Over the course of the project, I became interested in structuring the piece around my own physical limitations, or the practical limitations of what can travel with me, or what I could get away with. One’s behavior in these sites is very controlled and under surveillance and access is limited. So part of the idea was that rather than trying to penetrate these boundaries – with the exception of the point where I jump the fence in the video in Troy – to accept those limits. If I accept that I’m not going to dig up another gold treasure in my lifetime, or fight with the German government to return these artifacts, what is there that I can do as an alternative? I can move myself and I can make more objects. One of the things that I don’t think I understood until taking this trip is the level of cultural capital that one might need as an artist to function above board. But if one ignores those limits, there is still quite a lot to do.
Mark: So then you’re sort of like the Schliemann of this situation?
Liz: I am interested in following the logic of Schliemann operating in a legal gray area. However, when I visited Alexander Troas, a lesser-known site, I came across a large pile of Hellenistic pottery fragments. The friend I was with asked me, “Do you want to take some? Do you want me to take some for you?” and I realized that I actually didn’t want to enter into the network of illicit movement directly. I am tracing it, but I don’t actually want to start trafficking antiquities.
Mark: Yeah, it’s not what your work’s about at all. You’re trafficking in, or performing, a continual series of translations about how meanings circulate. In terms of the performance aspect of this piece then – the fact that you actually bring these copies of the Gold of Troy that you made from Germany to the archaeological site in Turkey – I’m curious how you think about the relationship between the symbolic gesture and the real act of returning these artifacts that it sort of mimics or suggests. In your piece, it’s important that these things actually get delivered, right?
Mark: But you are not going and getting the actual artifacts from Germany and smuggling them back into Troy. So it’s operating both on the symbolic level in that it’s talking about this reparation, but also on a real level, that in order to talk about the symbolic with authority, there has to be some real action.
Liz: Right. I think about this notion of what is “real” with the material as well. With sculpture, particularly in postmodern sculpture, there were a lot of artists using the blood from this thing or the dirt from this site. This material specificity has emerged and imbued value into the work, similar to the way the Shroud of Turin functions. With my work, I sometimes think about if there’s something that I can’t get or don’t have enough of to finish a piece, what happens if I just say it is so? What happens if I’m mixing the trash from here with the trash from there in this piece? It somehow matters if I tell you what it is.
Mark: That tendency in art is evident in the work of somebody like Dario Robleto. It entirely depends on you believing that that’s actually where that stuff comes from. It’s almost like the fingernail of a saint or something.
Liz: Or thinking about all the chunks of the Berlin Wall that you can buy in Berlin as tourist souvenirs. They all have paint on one side. But the Berlin Wall was kind of thick, and all fragments that are less than an inch are not all going to have paint on them, you know? But you kind of have to paint one side of the rocks for it to mean that it’s part of the Berlin Wall. There’s this specter of this real thing standing behind it that holds it up and gives it value, but also I think there’s the desire on the part of the person buying the fragment of the Berlin Wall to say, “I was in Berlin. I stood in front of this wall” – maybe not when it fell, but trying to get as close as you can to this history that you actually in some way have no access to. I think about it actually a lot in California, where there are so few historic buildings; there is no old architectural history relative to what I grew up with. I think that completely changes your relationship to building, destroying, renovating, altering one’s own environment, because it seems like it’s all relatively recently constructed.
Liz: But I think there is something – something that isn’t just in the minds of manic-depressive billionaires – about the desire to own a little piece of the thing, but maybe especially if it seems like it wouldn’t be missed. With the Berlin Wall fragments, there’s this democratic idea that the thing was so big relative to the number of people; whereas if there was one artifact from Hitler’s Führerbunker you probably wouldn’t want to take that. That would be looting in some way. But taking a little piece of a building or something, or a tile, feels more anonymous, even proletarian.
Mark: I wonder if it’s that the larger something exists in our imagination or in terms of its cultural size, there’s some weird translation toward its infinite extendibility in terms of the number of pieces that are available. And so, that idea that the Berlin Wall is so huge as a cultural artifact and concept, one can infinitely divide it so that everyone in the world could have one piece of it. The other historical example of that is like the pieces of the True Cross, right? If you add up every piece of the True Cross, you have a redwood forest. But I think on a certain level just as a communion wafer is transformed into the body of Christ, there’s a certain understanding that that piece of wood has that transformative potential. It doesn’t really matter that somebody painted half of those pieces of the Berlin Wall.
Liz: No. I find that desire to possess the real thing so interesting. Actually, with the large concrete piece that will be the centerpiece of the show, I had this real crisis when I found the “original” – which is this pile of castoff flowers that had been left at the Soviet War memorial. It was just this nine or 12-foot-long pile of trash, three feet high, and I’m sitting there in front of it. And I sat on the park bench for a couple hours, thinking that this is the best war memorial ever, and I can’t take it with me. I went through the whole list of possible logistics, like: there’s the problem of not being able to pick it up; and well, I could cast it, or I could ship boxes back to the studio; I could get trash bags now but it’s just me on a Sunday afternoon in the park and I don’t know where to get trash bags… I was doing the math in my head, and finally realizing no, this is not actually going to happen. I had to sit there and come to terms with the idea that it’s more about the sentiment of the thing than the actual record of that physical material.
Mark: So in a way, the piece you’re making becomes your memorial to the memorial.
Liz: I guess it does. And it allows me to bring in other things. I wanted to make the piece out of concrete rather than stone, though the war memorial is made of stone, because concrete was the material used architecturally in a lot of the apartments that were supposed to house the German people in socialist East Berlin. Concrete had this utopian intentionality to house the masses that failed in its promise. And the monuments of the Sowietsche Ehrenmal in Trepower Park are on a post-human scale. Whereas, in part because of the technical challenges in casting, my piece is going to have to be cast in much smaller blocks, so it’s not this singular monument, but a fragmented, imperfect, movable, transient object.
In general with the work I make, I do the best I can, or do the research I can, but sometimes I get the scale wrong. If it’s not perfect, well, I think those mistakes are made all the time.
Liz: But I think it’s important that it’s always a sincere attempt to do something, even if you know that it is perhaps doomed. It’s always coming out of earnestness, rather than an irony, even if the initial conceit is stupid or ill-fated. It’s not so much about functioning as an authority figure in the work, but as a vessel for continued belief.
Mark: So some of the pieces that you’re doing for this show you’re making out of paper and painting gold, and then some of those, you’re casting in real gold. Can you talk about what that’s about?
Liz: I’m interested in the way that the copies of the Gold of Troy currently displayed in the Neues Museum in Berlin are terrible. They’re kind of poorly made and flimsy, and even if they’re the right shape, they don’t replicate the richness of the original. The surface quality isn’t very good. The copies are almost there as a placeholder reminding viewers that the Germans once possessed these objects; there is a request in the didactic wall text stating that they would like the originals returned from Russia.
Mark: Right, so they point to the absence of the original, rather than attempting to give the viewer as close a simulation as possible of seeing the thing.
Liz: Yes. I’m interested in the bad copy, or the thing that takes up enough space so that you know it was there, but doesn’t try to fool you, in a certain way. If you think about performance re-enactments, because I think it’s a good metaphor for these objects, the worst attempts to re-enact historic performances have been the ones where an artist or curator looked at the documentation and actually tried to recreate the photograph, as though that were the truth of the piece. A lot of the artists I’ve talked to in the context of the Pacific Standard Time project have pointed out that the political content of their work wouldn’t make any sense now – for example Nancy Buchanan’s piece If I Can Only Tell You How Much I Really Loved You, which was based on the Sandinistas. While the Sandanistas are no longer topical, doing a piece about psychological warfare is still completely relevant. But it requires a different kind of investment for an artist to re-imagine a piece that speaks to the current context in a similar way, or with the same resonance. Even in the tradition of figurative sculpture, the works that aspire to present a one-to-one copy are always devalued. Whereas I think the more powerful work tries to get at the gesture of the original while giving you a wink that says, “I’m not trying to replace this.”
Mark: I feel like we should rename the bad copy the honest copy in that it is more transparent about where it comes from.
Liz: And also I think the bad copy is also more accessible in terms of the idea that you too could make this copy, or anything else for that matter, by extension. Part of the proposition of the copy is that potentially infinite other copies exist. The proposition would be that one could have this object if one just stepped up and made it. In the tradition of sculpture, when someone didn’t have access to the valuable original, going from Greece to Rome, the Romans copied a lot of the Greek sculpture. What we think of as classical sculpture came out of Greece and into Rome. So I think, for me, the proposition is not only that you could make a bad copy, but that you can make the copy however you would like to make it. So in a sense you can literally re-materialize your own history. That’s more of what I’m interested with Schliemann – just the idea of him walking around and declaring things to be what they were, and that he somehow claimed this position of authority.
Mark: Do you think there is a certain kind of analogy between the action of someone like Schliemann and the way a museum might function or a curator might function or an artist might function, in terms of the transformation of nothing into something of great cultural value by those who are viewed to have a lot of cultural authority?
Liz: I think, looking back historically at Schliemann, you have this sense of him making things up. Whereas, with the museum now, I think we accept the narrative that’s presented on a didactic as true, or we assume a certain review process behind it in order to present an objective view.
Mark: Actually it seems like maybe it has a more fundamental connection with what an artist does. There is a manipulation of the physical, but the primary thing an artist does is to attach a narrative to an object.
Liz: Yes, and part of how objects acquire significance is that they are seen as having been made by an artist. Art objects are valued differently than, for example, a bunch of copies of something produced by my dad as a hobbyist.
Mark: But it’s not because of your skill as an artist, because we are in a post-virtuosic environment for everything. You can make a laser scan of something and the computer can make a perfectly rendered model in a way that an artist by hand couldn’t. So the difference between you and your father in this context is the cultural authority that you have. I sometimes feel like with someone like Damien Hirst that he has too much cultural capital – it’s a little like the Midas touch. Whatever Damien Hirst makes will circulate as a vehicle for global capital in a way that the work can’t really now talk about anything but its own existence as a vehicle for global capital. It’s like everything he touches turns to gold, but he’s not able to make anything…he can’t make a ham sandwich and eat it anymore. All he can do is make a ham sandwich that is a vehicle for global capital.
Mark: Whereas, if you have less cultural capital and you’re not authorized, you are acting on the margins of things, you can’t do anything you want. But you can also do some things that you couldn’t do in a position of more authority. Can you talk a little bit about the useful limits of not having endless cultural capital or economic capital?
Liz: What I have actually found is I feel like that opens up a lot, when I was denied permission to do things in very basic ways, like not being able to bring a tripod in, it forced me to figure out how to work right up to the margin of what I thought I could do and sometimes to just sort of push a little beyond that and see what was possible in that situation. In terms of the process of doing the project, I thought of it as functioning more just like a human out in the world than particularly as an artist.
Mark: I think that’s something that your work is always coming back to: it’s about the human scale, the scaled effort of one human being.
Liz: Yes. Any time I appear in the performances, I try to sort of function as a generic subject in a certain way. It’s important to be able to become invisible in the work or to be replaceable within it. Even with a structure like the 24 Hour Roman Reconstruction Project, I like that someone else could take the structure and execute it. I don’t have a particular specialized skill set. The work is constructed to have a level of technical finesse such that anyone could do it. It’s less about some kind of expressionistic artistic gesture than it is demonstrating the degree to which history is plastic or pliable if one chooses to engage it.
Mark: What I like about this work and thinking about your body of work as a whole is that the emancipatory potential of participation isn’t just assumed to be intrinsic. It’s articulated in a more complicated way, in terms of the relationship between the literal and the symbolic. If we think about the 24 Hour Roman Reconstruction Project, it’s about this literal idea that the people who come and participate build Rome in a day. Right? But it’s operating on the symbolic level of what that means to use this very phrase, which suggests something that can’t be done and have people actually do it. In this show, you – with whatever degree of agency you have to remake these things or to inject yourself into this history of the circulation of artifacts – stand in for the idea that anyone can rebuild their history or participate in the construction of cultural narratives in our society. You are sort of making this Rosetta Stone between powerful cultural figures like Hearst and Schliemann and the general public.
Liz: Yeah. I think one’s first impulse looking at a figure like Hearst or Schliemann is to be critical because of the wealth that’s associated with those practices. But there’s something really interesting about the way that they operated, free from conservation or archaeological piety, to reconstruct and create this material. With the piece I created for the Machine Project Field Guide to LACMA, I wanted to put that ability into the hands of the participants, to say “Yes, you too” can do what Hearst did – which is essentially that when he couldn’t buy it, he made it up. He couldn’t buy it for different reasons but if you don’t have a billion dollars, I think what he pointed to—and that can be extended metaphorically—is that there’s always another way to do it.