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Daniel Day-Lewis spoke with poet, Eileen Myles in this 2002 interview. Photography by Terry Richardson.
 

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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
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DENNIS HOPPER
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DJ SPOOKY

Sturtevant, 2005

WITH PETER HALLEY

Sturtevant talked about her work with old friend Peter Halley in her Paris studio.

PETER: So what do you want to talk about?
STURTEVANT:
Oh you’re asking me. Well, that’s a reversal. [laughs] Well, we could talk about cybernetic imposition, or place in terms of space as objects. Or we could talk about final articulation of origins…

PETER: What is cybernetic imposition?
STURTEVANT:
That’s the reversal of hierarchies. Like, from object over image, to image over object. The finite over the infinite, for example. Very dangerous reversals like that.

PETER: How do you address that issue in your work?
STURTEVANT:
I made a video a couple years ago called The Greening of America, which, of course, I meant in the reverse sense. It’s a seven-scene discourse on excess, limitation, transgression, and exhaustion.

PETER: You’re so involved with making things. Do you like making your videos?
STURTEVANT:
I love it. It’s a real turn-on, Peter. In the videos I’m trying to articulate visibility, make action be thought, and make language an object.

PETER: I’m interested in your experience of working with an editor.
STURTEVANT:
Of course, I don’t work on editing until all footage is shot. Then I devise how I want to edit the video, and go to a top-notch editor. And then I make changes. The process is very exciting to me — to see it come out and have the force I want it to have.

PETER: Until you started working on the Kiefer lead airplane sculpture in 1990, you pretty much went into the studio and made paintings by yourself. Since then your projects have involved very complex collaborations.
STURTEVANT:
For the Kiefer plane, a technician and I made a small model beforehand to figure out the weight and so forth. Then, because of the size, I needed two sculptors to help me make it. Now that I’m making videos, I have to have a co-producer.

PETER: Is working collaboratively very different from making a painting?
STURTEVANT:
Well, yes and no. When I made the Kiefer and when I make videos, I still devise the whole thing by myself. That’s a very silent, lonely time.

PETER: Nowadays, do you use your studio time to do research and make decisions?
STURTEVANT:
No, I use my studio time to think. [laughs] Thinking, always thinking.

PETER: Is that what you did at your studio today?
STURTEVANT:
Oh, that’s a good question, Peter. I’m still very much behind from my show at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt. Absorbing that is still a very big block in my head.

PETER: Is that a positive or negative thing?
STURTEVANT:
Absolutely, positively, enormously exciting. I have to say that working with Udo Kittelmann at MMK was a big-time high. The man is totally brilliant. To take all those rooms and do a show that really worked was very impressive. It was an extraordinary experience for me.

PETER: I’m curious about how the show was laid out.
STURTEVANT:
Well, we had the ten-foot-high Warhol flowers, and the black Stellas, and an entire Duchamp room. The extraordinary thing about that show, Peter, was that it was not about the objects — it was about a totality. It was vastly beautiful, and it was about thinking. It really was.

PETER: Is that how you generally define what is important in your work — that which is about thinking?
STURTEVANT:
Absolutely. Absolutely.

PETER: Would you go back to the work you were making in the mid ’60s and describe how you came to those decisions?
STURTEVANT:
Well, that work was a result of very long-term thinking. It was not something that just popped in my head, that’s for sure. See, in the ’60s, there was the big bang of pop art. But pop only dealt with the surface. I started asking questions about what lay beneath the surface. What is the understructure of art? What is the silent power of art?

PETER: How did you translate that concern into making, say, your Johns Flag?
STURTEVANT:
If you use a source-work as a catalyst, you throw out representation. And once you do that, you can start talking about the understructure. It seemed too simple at first. But it’s always the simple things that work.

PETER: Going back to that Johns flag, how, specifically, does the work enable the viewer to think about the understructure?
STURTEVANT:
Technique is crucial. It has to look like a Johns flag so that when you see it you say, “Oh that’s a Johns flag,” even though there’s no force there to make it exactly like the Johns. Quite the opposite — the characteristic force is lacking. So when you realize it’s not a Johns, you’re either jolted into immediately rejecting it, or the work stays with you like a bad buzz in your head. You have to start thinking, “What is going on here?”

PETER: “Why did the artist do this?”
STURTEVANT:
Well, you might think that too.  But a better question would be, “How does this work?”

PETER: You’re not focused on authorship and intentionality as much as you are on the reading of the work.
STURTEVANT:
You’re absolutely right. Authorship becomes an issue, of course, but it has nothing to do with my initial thinking about the work.

PETER: So, when the viewer walks into the room we might expect him to think, “Why is this so similar to a Johns flag?” and, after that he might think, “What am I seeing in this work?”
STURTEVANT:
Oh, Peter, I have no idea how people think. Years ago, people used to say, “Oh my God, this is terrible, this is a copy, this is bad.”

PETER: There was intense controversy about your work in the mid-’60s.
STURTEVANT:
You know, five or six years ago I was in a seminar with some young students, and I was talking about how my work had engendered this horrendous hostility. They had no idea what I was talking about. It’s very far away for young artists.

PETER: But, if a young artist today made a painting, and then walked into an art gallery and saw a painting by someone else that was almost identical, I think he or she would react quite strongly. It opens up issues that still strike a nerve today.
STURTEVANT:
I’m not so sure about that, Peter. It finally took the appropriation artists to give me a negative definition of my work.

PETER: And appropriationism started in the early to mid-’80s, almost twenty years later.
STURTEVANT:
It really did push the work forward. Before then, there were no references, and that was a big impediment to discussion. Most art dealers and critics had severe blocks against understanding the work. Then, some people would just try to trap me in conversation. I used to say things like, “You’re too fucking dumb, I’m not going to talk to you.” And that took care of that. I was a very bad girl then, eh?

PETER: At that time you had certain allies and certain enemies.
STURTEVANT:
Did I tell you that funny story about when Rauschenberg had a show at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris? We were all going to have dinner after the opening and Michael, Ileana Sonnabend’s husband, said, “I will not go to this dinner if Elaine Sturtevant is going to be there.” I guess Ileana said, “Well, that’s your choice.” She came, of course, but he didn’t.

PETER: He must have thought you had crossed a moral boundary.
STURTEVANT:
I’m not even sure that morality came into it.  It was more about the market — which of course he didn’t have to worry about because I didn’t sell anything until maybe a couple days ago. [laughs] But it was a factor at that time. I was considered a very big threat.

PETER: Was it your intention to be subversive?
STURTEVANT:
Oh my God, no, Peter. To talk about the market would not be talking about what the work is about. You know, after my first solo show at the Bianchini Gallery in New York in ’65 some critics said, “Well it’s mega-pop,” and “She’s trying to surpass Warhol.” Of course I vehemently countered that, because that’s certainly not what the work was about.

PETER: You were primarily living in New York then, right?
STURTEVANT:
Oh, definitely. Living in a big way, Peter.

PETER: Then, in the early ’70s you stopped working for about ten years. Why?
STURTEVANT:
Well, in 1973 I had a gorgeous show at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York. There was a Duchamp room with the twelve-hundred coal bags, a Warhol room with only a Marilyn, and a Beuys room with all the felt sculptures. There was also another room with three films — the Beuys Dillinger series, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, and Warhol’s Empire — all running at the same time.

PETER: Wow.
STURTEVANT:
But the reviews for that show were the same as always — that I was reviewing history, or that the pieces were all copies, blah blah blah. I realized that if I continued to work and get that kind of critique, then the work would get diluted. So I decided to wait until the mental retards caught up. And, indeed they did.

PETER: What were your concerns during those ten years?
STURTEVANT:
Oh, I played a lot of tennis, Peter.

PETER: Then you moved to Paris in the early ’90s. Why did you decide to live in Europe?
STURTEVANT:
Well, I didn’t really decide. It sort of happened. I had a show at the Kunstverein in Stuttgart — that’s when I did the Kiefer plane. Then I had more shows in Europe. I kept going back and forth between Europe and New York. I got tired of making those trips.

PETER: Whenever I’ve spoken with you about your work, you’ve always been very rigorous about defining what it’s not.
STURTEVANT:
Negative definition is a very powerful philosophical position.

PETER: Today you’ve said your work is not about representation.
STURTEVANT:
Yes. But that’s changed now that I’ve gone from making paintings, which favor concept over image, to videos, which favor image over image. Now the exterior carries the whole burden of what the work tries to do, so resemblance is not a big factor.

PETER: How have you chosen the artists whose work you’ve drawn from over the years?
STURTEVANT:
I’ve never found a satisfactory answer to that question. A lot of it is totally intuitive. Intuition is the fire that triggers the intellect. 

PETER: Well, all the artists you draw from are very sober. There’s nothing playful or lighthearted about any of these guys.
STURTEVANT:
Yeah, and I’m not playful or lighthearted either, huh? One of the powerful things about the MMK show was that it showed the thread running through my work from 1965 to now. I think you have to have continuity to give the work any kind of power.

PETER: Each artist that you’ve worked with also has a very distinct involvement in the actual construction of his work. So, most of the things you make are hard to make. Stella described his black paintings as the most difficult paintings he ever made.
STURTEVANT:
Oh, they’re just incredible. But I’ve actually found the aluminum paintings more difficult. The paint’s very volatile so you really have to find a rhythm.

PETER: In some ways your work could be classified as conceptual, but you’re very different from many conceptual artists because of your hands-on involvement.
STURTEVANT:
I was up at MIT recently, and they kept trying to call me a conceptual artist. But conceptual artists say they do not make objects, despite the fact that they really do make objects. You have to differentiate between the conceptual art movement, and conceptual thinking. So I’m not a conceptual artist.

PETER: I’ve heard people refer to you not just as an artist, but emphasize that you’re an artist who’s a woman.
STURTEVANT:
Oh, Mon Dieu. To me that is medieval thinking. I just can’t believe people find that interesting anymore.

PETER: Being a woman doesn’t affect your work?
STURTEVANT:
No, not at all. See, that’s another reversal. You know, I like to use “Sturtevant” because it’s a strong powerful name. I don’t like to use “Elaine,” not because I dislike the name itself, but because it’s an interfering reference. Most people respect that, but recently everybody’s been saying “Elaine Sturtevant,” and it drives me totally mad! So I’m signing all my emails, even to my most intimate friends, “Sturtevant.”

PETER: I just saw your seven-screen video piece, The Dark Threat of Absence/Fragmented and Sliced.
STURTEVANT:
I consider that piece crucial to my work now. It’s very transgressive. I’m trying to talk about the vast barren interior of man, and the dark interiority of language. I’m trying to push articulation against visibilities, and make language an object. I’m trying to use sound and stills as time-images. It’s very complex for me.

PETER: There are seven video screens all playing at the same time.
STURTEVANT:
The one with the finger talks about sex and death. The one with money is about bringing the outside into the interior. But I don’t think its useful to break down the videos and say what each is about. They’re not separate units — they’re all highly related. The seven were really meant to address displacement and linkage.

PETER: Some of the imagery is based on one of Paul McCarthy’s video pieces.
STURTEVANT:
The elements come out of Paul McCarthy’s The Painter. But it’s been entirely transcended and totally transposed. That is the contradiction and the paradox.

 

© index magazine

© index magazine
All gallery images from Sturtevant's 2005 exhibition, courtesy of Axel Schneider at Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main.


© index magazine
Image courtesy of Axel Schneider at Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, 2005.
© index magazine
Image courtesy of Axel Schneider at Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, 2005.
© index magazine
Image courtesy of Axel Schneider at Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, 2005.
© index magazine
Image courtesy of Axel Schneider at Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, 2005.
© index magazine
Image courtesy of Axel Schneider at Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, 2005.
 
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