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A Conversation Between Liza Lou, Contemporary Sculptor and Installation Artist and Tina Oldknow, Curator of Modern Glass

A Conversation Between Liza Lou, Contemporary Sculptor and Installation Artist and Tina Oldknow, Curator of Modern Glass

Tina Oldknow: I thought we would begin our conversation by discussing one sculpture in particular: Continuous Mile. How did the idea for this work come about?

Liza Lou: Continuous Mile is a meditation on process. It’s a project that is spread across seven different townships in KwaZulu-Natal. The idea for me was a way of holding hands across a community, and the way in which an art process can be a kind of lifeline for everyone involved. I could not have woven a mile-long rope on my own. When I install Continuous Mile, I often feel as though I am holding the hands of so many people: the factory that made the beads in the Czech Republic, Thandazile and Zanele, Nomalungisa and Nonhlanhla, Buhle, S’bonelo and Nomusa and all of my friends in South Africa who wove the piece with so much care. Installing it, I’m on my hands and knees for a mile and I’m thinking of them.

Oldknow: How long did it take you and your assistants to make Continuous Mile?

Continuous Mile by Liza LouLou: Over 50 people worked on Continuous Mile for a period of over a year. The process was integral to the piece. There wasn’t a rush for completion. The idea was to employ as many people as possible, using the slowest possible technique in order to engage a community, and to build homes in the process of making an art work.

Oldknow: Your early installations, such as Kitchen and Backyard, were made by yourself—with Backyard you had some assistance—but Kitchen you made by yourself. That project took you five years to make. You have described your method of working as Zenlike, meditative, being in the moment and in the process. How did you undertake these projects; how did you have the courage to complete them? I guess my question is—did you get into Kitchen thinking, “Oh, this might take, I don’t know, a couple of months,” and then realized, as time went on, that it was going to get bigger? Did you start with a small idea and grow it?

Lou: I thought that Kitchen would take three months to make, and it ended up taking me years and years—day jobs to support the project, and trying to figure out how to make it happen. I kept wishing that there was a how-to manual. At that time, I was not a patient person, and there I was, trying to cover a room-size kitchen with beads and a pair of tweezers.

Oldknow: When you were beginning your career—and setting out to study art in San Francisco—you traveled to Europe for a few months. You mentioned:

The cathedrals were a revelation. Suddenly, history became alive to me. I saw a handmade universe, every brick, every stone, laid by hand. I understood that history was a living thing, and something amazing emerged out of that awareness, which is that everything is God.

Tell me more about the handmade universe.

Lou: People get amazed when they hear that someone spent, say, five or ten years on a novel or a single work of art. Meanwhile, there is Antoni Gaudi’s basilica, La Sagrada Familia, that has been evolving for over one hundred years.  

I remember once counting all of the shops within a one mile radius from where I grew up: the Jiffy Lube, Genghis Khan Furniture, 7-11, Target, Von’s, Safeway, Ralph’s and on and on. You have these mega-shopping mall experiences with dripping water fountains, and they are the closest things many people will ever have to experiencing a sense of wonder.

Having a physical experience of the basilicas and cathedrals in Europe changed everything for me, from my idea about God to why we’re here on the planet. I wanted to come home and make a monument out of my suburban landscape, to create a kind of shrine out of every day schlock and what I knew first hand.

Oldknow: You also remarked that you try “to create a something that builds to create a sense of dread as well as wonder.” Is the sense of wonder central to your work?

Lou: Maybe it starts with becoming really interested in something and then you hope you’ll be able to bring other people along with you.

Oldknow: Did you ever question your decision to work with beads?

Lou: [Laughing] All the time. In order for me to make something, I need to have a feeling of absolute necessity to the point that I feel like I can’t live with myself unless I resolve that particular question, or at least do justice to the questions I’m asking.

I remember, one day I was working away on the Kitchen, and I kind of zoomed out, like a bird looking down on my life. I suddenly saw myself there glueing beads onto a frying pan. The whole enterprise just seemed ridiculous and also really heartbreaking.

Oldknow: But you did it anyway.

Lou: I felt a sense of necessity. I often meet people who tell me that they just love beads. Before, I would have said, “Uh, how nice for you,” But now, I want to tell them, "No you don’t; I love beads. You have no idea what we’ve been through together.”

Oldknow: As an aside, where do you acquire your beads?

Lou: I have them made in a factory in Japan and I also get them from the Czech Republic, India and China.

Oldknow: Just controlling the color, I would think would be a pretty huge factor.

Lou: I spend a lot of time working with the factories. Several years ago, I got really interested in finding the perfect tip. Minutia can get even more and more tiny, and when you focus on something small it gets even smaller.

Oldknow: Well the bead, it’s almost molecular. Like you’re just taking it down to the smallest element and building from it. It’s actually a very natural thing. It’s like a creation technology; it’s something that is a bit of a microcosm of how things are created, from that little element out, through space and time.

What has been the influence of South Africa on your work and process?

Detail of the beaded Continuous Mile by Liza LouLou: I’d been using glass beads in my sculpture for many years prior to being in South Africa. But since my time there, I have developed a deeper respect and reverence for the material. Beads have no art historical associations—the baggage beads carry has got to do with craft and with kitsch. I was interested in the latter and at first was using them in a tongue-in-cheek, ironic way. The question was, how to turn a banal scene—a kitchen, or a back yard—into a kind of shrine. Beads seemed to me to be the perfect fit: glittering, slightly sleazy, cheap and yet require prodigious amount of labor. The tension between the overblown zealous “wow” factor of a beaded room and the serious hairshirt kind of labor I was undertaking privately was very interesting to me, and galvanized my practice for over a decade.

Living and working in Africa, I’ve experienced the mystical aspect of beads, which are used in traditional ceremonies to speak to the ancestors, in funerals and religious ceremonies, and also in the day-to-day struggle for survival. As a result, my process has become more organic and it incorporates the struggle for survival, mistakes, chance. There is that quote from Frank Stella, wanting his paintings to look as good as the paint does in the can. Over the past several years, I’ve been thinking about the material and the process as being enough of a subject matter—no need to add much else—there is enough drama embedded there.

Oldknow: Do you find that you have had to teach your assistants how to make your sculptures and installations, which requires so much patience and commitment? In one of your interviews, you remarked:

The nature of this work can give you a nervous breakdown -- or teach you how to take life by the smallest detail and do it well. If you can do that, you've got it.

Lou: The people that I work with in Africa have a beautiful relationship to craft and to process. The concept of time is just much different than in the West; the team will be sitting around the table and weaving and laughing and telling stories and it’s not that they are weaving to get the job done. Weaving is a natural extension of everyday life, it’s not a separate activity. It’s this idea that what we make and what we do with our hands is a kind of journey. Because as you’re doing something labor-intensive and you’re talking, that conversation becomes part of the great distance that you travel together.

Oldknow: I like what you said when you said “I’m not particularly good at working with beads but I have a vision for them.” I think that you’ve removed beads from a purely decorative context, because—especially in pieces like Continuous Mile—the woven pieces actually become sculptural. Or like your Color Field, and especially those beautiful monochromatic paintings that you made. Those are just unbelievable. I see your moving the bead away from the decorative to become pure texture or sculptural form.

Lou: Lately, I’ve been working on a series of woven paintings; I hand out a single color to many people. It will be the exact same color—it’s made in Japan, so you know that color is colorfast, the same color from packet to packet to packet, it does not vary. And I hand it out to a team of 30 people within my family of making to weave them into these long strips. And each strip comes back and you cannot believe the differentiation in color. Some very dark, some with streaks, some with holes, and some with lines in it. The material becomes impregnated with the process of living and making in this place and in this way. And then we sew them together as one, and it becomes this field of one color that has these gorgeous striations that are just from the hand, just from touch.

So far, I haven’t been able to find another material that offers a relationship to craft and to practice and that shows evidence of the human hand in this particular way. I’m fascinated with the use of the needle and thread as a way to make a mark or a gesture that we normally associate with drawing or painting.

Oldknow: Making that invisible working process actually visible. Is there something you have dreamed of making, but have not been able to? Is there something you know you can’t do?

Lou: Early on, I sort of promised myself that no matter what, I’d find a way to make the work I wanted to make. It’s possible to live very frugally and find the freedom to do what you want to do. The hardest thing is making something when there is a sense of demand or expectation from other people.

Oldknow: You don’t want to make anything that someone is going to expect.

Lou: You always want to keep a pebble in your shoe. There’s this great song, Little Room by The White Stripes:

Well you're in your little room / and you're working on something good / but if it's really good / you're gonna need a bigger room / and when you're in the bigger room / you might not know what to do / you might have to think of / how you got started in your little room, da da da.

Published on February 6, 2014