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I’m glad you brought up the arbitrary, because the more time I spend with your work, I realize there is an interesting hybrid of the technical and the subjective. But it never slips into that purely analytical mode; it’s always poetic, which I imagine is really important to you. I mean, as a viewer, I don’t feel you out there with the slide rule or something.
Yeah, I think it’s very odd. There’s a sense that I need to go and see something for myself, and that I feel really strongly. I guess it comes from a deep-seated distrust of any sort of secondhand opinion or other form of representation. And so in that way it is very direct. I also feel that all instruments lie; and whether that is a scientific instrument or my own perceptual apparatus, I feel that it lies. But rather than get angry about that, I think it’s sort of a beautiful thing, that slippage ... these gaps of translation.
Since I’m so interested in the work being related to the world, it’s not so much about my—I mean, it is, inevitably—but it’s not so much about my inner world, not so much about self-expression. It’s not really “channeling” (laughs), but it’s more like finding a way of looking at the world and representing it somehow. It is very important though, that things be as accurate as possible. But when you’re “drawing smell as accurately as possible,” there’s something sort of absurd about it. Or “drawing darkness.” I work very precisely, and, in a sense, do adopt the scientific method, which is trial and error, but there’s a lot of error in there. I keep the error, I think, and a scientist would throw it out. All those experiments that come out way off the graph are the great ones.
They’re clipping the ends off the bell curve, and you’re gathering them in.
I guess this may be one of those questions you get asked a lot: Which comes first, the idea of going to a place and then doing the piece, or having been at a place and then wanting to do a piece? Or, do you have to go back, deciding after an experience that you want to make a work out of it?
Sometimes I go back, but almost always the concept comes first. The idea, even before the place. I mean, some things, like with Emily Dickinson, I had this huge admiration for her, but I didn’t have any idea of doing something there. However, I did have this concept of a passing cloud; this idea, which is something I’ve loved that feeling of, ever since I was a kid, especially in summer: how a passing cloud can totally change everything. I didn’t know what to do with it. And then I was reading a lot of Emily Dickinson a couple of years ago, and it occurred to me that that was something she would be so attuned to and so sensitive to that I wanted to see what a passing cloud would look like in her garden. Because I wanted to see what she saw, really. So it was this sort of voyeuristic thing.
There’s a lot of content bound up in the choice of Emily Dickinson, her work, and the way that people feel about her. She may be one of the few people from her era that a lot of people will still point to and say that they know something about her. You’ve also made works in reference to places from history/mythology, like your sculpture Troy. Is the choice of Troy (as a site) coming out of a learned, “earned” historical tale that we carry around with us?
Yes, Troy was also taken from something that I wanted to do for almost 10 years. That actually came out of more modern poetry—people like Auden, who thought a lot about Troy, and used it. I was interested in the way that certain poets were able to reference those ancient texts, and also ancient actions and places, and make them modern, in a way. There’s this poem by Auden where he talks about the shield of Achilles, the design that Hephaestus put on the shield, and how horrible it is. Because it’s all about killing, and how this warrior who will not live long has this beautiful shield. But it’s all so brutal, and it’s so much about the world, but not the world that we wish it were about. I find it easier to speak about things indirectly that way, and also, when you’re doing it with history, it’s less topical. I find it somewhat dangerous to get too topical.