Thursday, May 31, 2012

Eric Orr: Making Art about Light and Death (1982)

We met Eric Orr at the Taylor Gallery in Taos one midmorning following his July 10 opening (the show hangs through August 8).  Looking to be in the latter stages of waking up, he is a shortish, stocky fellow, with closely cropped dark hair flecked with gray, dark eyes, in his forties, and dressed all in white.  We retreated to the kitchen at the rear of the gallery with Eric, accepted a cup of coffee and, while he discussed some details of his impending marriage and wedding with Howard and Mara Taylor, we wandered back into the gallery proper to have a final look before the interview.
Eric Orr has moved, from his first exhibited work at the University of Cincinnati in 1964 (a cocked Colt .45 at eye level  for a seated viewer two  feet away, trigger rigged to a treadle nestled comfortably under one’s right foot) to membership in a West Coast group called by critics, Light and Space or Phenomenological Artists.  Their focus was (and is) on the perceptual process itself, the way one perceives and the manner in which that process of “seeing” may be manipulated or altered.  He has explored techniques and possibilities that are suggested to him by both scientific and ceremonial / ritualistic traditions.
Some of the most arresting works have been his installations.  Sunrise, constructed in the Cirrus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1969, was a room whose outer dimensions measured 9 feet by 9 feet by 18 feet high, its exterior covered by a sheet of lead.  (The dimensions relate to those of the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid.)  On the interior wall of the back of the room, the light of the sun was reflected through a channel extending through the roof by a tracking device which followed the course of the sun from dawn to dusk.  Its Egyptian references, the perceptible change in atmosphere created by the lead sheathing outside, which created a “cosmic ray void”, and the room’s eerie silence (the interior walls were heavily insulated) produced a space in which one’s experience of one’s self, of the space, and of the world, was somehow changed, transformed, and altered. 
He has collaborated with Larry Bell on the design of The Solar Fountain, a project begun several years ago and soon to be constructed in Denver.  A bowl of glass some 34 feet in diameter and 10 feet high will sit in a 60 foot reflecting pool.  An agricultural spray system, situated in the middle of the gold coated bowl, produces a fine cloud of water vapor.  The sun reflects gold light onto the cloud and, because of the heat factor which causes a change in the molecular size of the water particles, creates rainbows within the cloud.
At once he rails against “art about art” and the making of art objects, paintings, and sculpture, yet makes them himself.  His efforts are far from ordinary.  The paintings are made from such elements as gold leaf, carbon, human bone, pulverized radio, and human blood, and the sculpture from fire, water, and gold leaf.  As he says, he is interested in “the thing itself.”  He wears his apparent contradictions as an actor wears his roles.  He is engaged and engaging, eager to discuss his work and, it seems, just about anything else.
We talked in the quiet gallery, in the midst of his show,  perched on the bancos around an empty fireplace.
You’re getting married on Sunday.
Getting married on Sunday!

 Why in Taos?
We come out here every New Year’s, pretty much, and we have some friends out here, and I’ve always considered this a kind of special place.  Not necessarily the kind of place I would live, but a place that allows me a certain sense of mind.  I like the environment a whole lot, I like the mountains and the weather.

 I’ve heard that one New Year’s here you did the The Nines . . .
That was the first year we were here, a whole bunch of years ago.  I went around to the trees and took the dead branches that were air-dried, and made a series of nine nines in a pyramid shape in front of Larry Bell’s place.  Then I used old-fashioned gasoline (laughter), poured it over the sticks so there’d be no question of the sticks burning – I always like things to work.

 Like at the Pueblo at Christmas Eve. (More laughter)
You want it to happen, you make it happen.  Then right at New Year’s, I lit ‘em off.  As soon as I lit them, it started to snow.  It was great.  They continued to burn, and there was this white, and The Nines came through.  That was an extra.  I didn’t know that would happen, but it looked great.  It was kind of a ceremony or whatever. 

Why nines?
I’ve always liked nine because it has that additive function.  Four times nine is . . . ?

Three and six are . . .?

Two times nine is eighteen, eight and one are nine. Nine is the only number that if you multiply it by itself, it will end up as nine.  It’s the only number that will do that, and it gives it an extra little edge, in my book.  I discovered that phenomenon myself (laughter), and of course everybody else in the world . . . you come across something in life and think, “Oh, boy, is this hot,” and of course, everybody else knows about it.  Because of that, I’ve always taken to nine.

 What does that signify to you?
Aamm, I like coincidences of any kind.  A coincidence in a number system is even better, even though I look askance at numbers to begin with.

 You’re not a numbers freak?
 I’m not, but when something really surprises me like nine does, I’ll go for it.

 When you light off nines on New Year’s Eve and it starts to snow, the coincidence and mystery of that . . .
Ya, and nines still appear, like on the Crazy Wisdom piece . . .

 They are nines and not sixes.
Ya, though nines and sixes are friends, and that’s another nice thing about them.  Of course, numbers didn’t appear in terms of Western man until about the 12th century with Leonardo of Pisa who introduced zero to ten.  Until then it was Roman numerals.  So the numbers we’re used to come very late if you look at the whole . . .

 They’re from Arabic?
Originally from the Hindu, and then they get to the Arabic, and finally (laughter) they get across the Mediterranean to Europe by the 12th century.  “You’re a little late guys.”

 That’s kind of like your own travels through art.
My experience with art is one – let’s stop for a moment.  (Orr leaves and returns  a moment later with copies of a statement he prepared for the Documenta exhibit last month in Kassel, West Germany.) . . . What I did was sort of one line statements.  If you read through it, maybe you get one line and it sticks and that’s about all you get from most statements anyway.

 Back to the Nines for a minute.
I’m trying to not be overly archetypal, but having a certain awareness that we’re all superstitious, in spite of knowledge, and information, and logic.  I prefer illogic to logic, for instance, just as a natural tendency, but not to ignore options.  I know that there are certain things that clue me in (he clicks his fingers)  and change my mind, irrespective of over-education, tremendous cynicism, tremendous whatever I have about life and a whole bunch of other things.  I know there are certain things that do make me register, and make me respond.  I try to signature those responses in myself, and then see if those responses are verifiable in other people. 

 What do you mean by “signature?“  Identity?
Identity.  That’s my modern use of the word, like a signature in computers.  And I like the indefiniteness, so these things (indicating the painting on the gallery wall) really relate a whole lot to indefinite space.

 Indefinite and definite at the same time.  Before we started I was looking at these things (the Mu Series) and I felt very much as if I were looking at a real religious painting.  Not an icon, but almost from a blessed place, looking through to an even more blessed place.  The gold frame has a very religious connotation, and then looking through that into something heavenly.
Ya.  My point of view, in terms of religiosity, is, one, I don’t believe in the soul, or the afterlife, or all those nice little things . . . it’s like not believing in Santa Claus when you say that.  And that’s because my tendency is close to the early Buddhist position – that’s Buddhism before you have the icon of Buddha appear – that period lasted for about 300 yearsin which there was no soul, none of the things that the Hindus had, and that’s why Buddha was such a reformer and such a relief from the bureaucracy of Hinduism.  He was addressing that bureaucracy and how rigid it had become and how rigid its ideas were.

 So it was a code of conduct rather than a religious dogma.
When the spiritual nature of man is taken hold of by a priesthood, most of the time it just becomes another bureaucracy.  They set up rules and regulations . . .

 And you’ve searched this out?
I’ve traveled a little bit in my life.  My major hobby is to travel the world.  I was not educated in art.  The way I educated myself was by apprenticing myself to some important artists.  That was after university education, and in terms of art history, I decided to see everything that I thought was interesting on the site.  So I’ve been to most of the major sites of artifacts in the world, and most of the museums.  So, I’ve seen  the real stuff (laughter) rather than the slides of it.  I thought that would be a better way to handle it – just hanging around it.

Who did you apprentice yourself to?
Mark di Suvero was one.  I was very idealistic at a certain point in my life, and he was working on the Peace Tower, and in my last year of university life I decided I better learn a skill (laughter).l  So I learned welding, right, and I started making sculpture, and I thought, “Man, this is it!  I can be paid to do something I like.”  So when I got to California and saw this Peace Tower being built, I went up to di Suvero and said, “I’m a welder, can you use me?”  Gradually we got to know each other pretty well and other stuff came out.

 Let’s go back to your mention of liking the indefinite.  I equated that with infinite and you didn’t object and yet, in reference to these paintings, you said you didn’t believe in the soul or the possibility of that indefinite state afterwards . . .
It’s not indefinite, it’s definite.

 And we ourselves are definitely finite.
(Pause)  Our . . . Ya, absolutely.

 And the idea of the soul is unhelpful, in terms of a person’s . . .
Reconciling death.  And life, which is a mirror of death.

"Crazy Wisdom, lead with human skull fragments, radio,
 blood, and gold,. 14 x 11 inches.
 I read a quote of yours that said death is your best friend.  Do you still believe that?
Oh, absolutely.  In my point of view, art really generated out of views of death.  All Egyptian art was made for the dead.  I was lucky enough, or foolish enough, to run down some shamans in Zaire.  I found myself using some curious materials, and I thought maybe I ought to check out the guys on the job right now.  And what they would do is make a little fetish object, not necessarily figurative, but having the essential ingredients to make the interlock to the afterlife.  They go into a trance and they talk to someone who’s recently dead, usually, and after the conference with the dead person, using the fetish as a guide they come back to straighten out the living.  There might have been a bad bride price, which there usually always is . . .

 A bride price?
You marry one of the family’s clan system to another, all these gifts are exchanged, and no one is ever altogether happy about what happened, and that continues throughout the rest of the person’s life.  So this guy will go into a trance and come back and say, “Well, this person ought to give that person such and such a gift,” and the thing will be settled and the dead guy will be comfortably dead in the afterlife.  I just find that the fact that art’s genesis comes out of the shamanic and then is taken over by religious organizations like the priesthood . . . To ignore the fact that art in the beginning dealt with death, I think it’s a big mistake.  Somehow I think we leech the system or soften its essential nature by doing this.

 What is the statement about death in these paintings?
The only statement about death is that that’s a dead person there (indicating the pieces of a human skull on Crazy Wisdom), and that’s a part of a dead person there (indicating his Mu Series of paintings).  In fact, all of these works have part of a dead person in them.  The color is just ordinary pigment, but here in the cracks (between the canvas and the gold frame) there’s human carbon from human bones.  So they all kind of ride on the surface of someone who is dead.  Someone, not an abstraction of someone.

 Using the object itself . . .
The objects themselves have a dead person in them.

 Whose blood is it?  I just noticed the band-aid on the inside of your elbow . . .
That was for the marriage license!  (Laughter)

 But do you go to the doctor occasionally and have a pint of blood drawn?
Not a pint.  I get these little vials that have anticoagulant in them, which is the saving thing for me in terms of application, and just lay on thin coats of lacquer, blood, lacquer, blood, and the use of those materials, like the stuff that backgrounds this, is only to appeal to the organ of the mind.  Not the eye, or the taste, or the feel organ, but the mental  organ. So it looks like red and it’s fine to me.  And if you find out it’s my blood, then that information has a certain appeal to the brain.

 The brain and then the gut.  When you look at a painting and then realize there’s blood in it, you go, “Where, why, how?”  It’s unsettling in the stomach, to me . . . emotionally. 
But it’s not to me.

 Do you have some shamanistic intent with these?  Are you trying to affect people in that same . . .
I’m trying to make a connection that is in an ancient tradition in art.  I’m going very light right now.  That’s a little heavier over there (Crazy Wisdom), but that’s got radio around it and that lightens it.

 What’s radio?
That’s where you take an AM/FM radio, and take a sander and turn it into dust, and then you put it in a bottle with a screen and shake it on the surface.  So that’s radio and human skull.

 You’re not calling yourself a shaman.
No, I just relate that to the group.  Their support base is so much wider than mine.  Mine is a very limited job description, enough to make you cry.  The job description of the shaman . . . he’s the guy who does rituals, he’s the doctor, he’s the psychiatrist, diplomat, lawyer, tons of things.  He’s the guy that engenders most of the things we think of in terms of professions.

 But is there the intent that these are, in some way, going to affect the viewer on an unconscious or…
Conscious level, in the sense that once you’re given the information, however you get it, that that in a way changes your way of perceiving the object.  Even though it’s not a retinal perceptual change, it’s a mental perceptual change.  I’m using that consciously as part of my art making.  And that in a way is what a shaman does when he puts in the different elements in his work.

 Are they recognizable by the tribe?
Boy, they know what’s in there.

 And your radio can be a very personal object, to me, even though it’s not my radio.  (Laughter)  It’s a common, communal object with an intellectual or conscious reference.
I made spaces (for museum installations) for a long time, and some of them would do what these objects do.  One of these, when you’re living around it, is a very peaceful kind of thing.  In spite of the fact that it’s got all of this other stuff, when you gaze upon it, it relaxes and calms you.  And a lot of the rooms I made did just that.  So, in a way, making these is being more succinct than making a whole room.  These have a longer time base, living around something like this in your home, and that’s something I totally ignored for years.  I thought all this painting and sculpture stuff was just totally quaint, a hangover from another period that didn’t seem to make much sense in this part of the century.  You would have expected art to have gone on, which it has in many areas, and which I attempted to take on myself in other works like room installations.  But then I started realizing that it’s all right here in the mind anyway.  The space you go into for a special kind of situation that you never had before, or something on the wall that has a long time base – if you look at both of them they might have the same effect.  So I started making objects.  Some higher options are set when you start making objects, in the sense that you can do a lot of different things.

 So you’ve come around in your thinking about what’s relevant?
I’ve come around in believing that both the object and the space exist in the memory, ultimately.   I come from a group of people, the Light and Space group in California (an informal group including Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Laddie John Dill, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and others), and some of them are just totally against making objects.  I’m a renegade in that system, because some of them think the way I thought.

 There was a comment in the Artforum article (Summer, 1982), in which you said it’s time to stop making art about art.
There’s a lot of art that just refers to art, like the new movement in Expressionism.  This show I was in in Europe (Documenta) had 125 yards of that stuff, and that’s a lot (laughter).  I thought we’d already gone through that period.  I hold a conceit, and it’s not more than that, that by using the real element and not using the metaphor elements, not using symbols, but using it that I’m closer to what I’m up to than imitating or suggesting with a symbol.  If I want elements that key into death, I use things that are one-to-one related to death.

 It’s like the Indians in their ceremonies using eagle feathers rather than  a pictures of eagles.
You bet.

 To change the subject for a second, I want to pose a question to you that you posed to yourself in your statement.
Oh, no!  (Laughter)

 “Does transient afternoon light look better than art?”
(Quickly) Yes!  You’re damned right it does.  That’s why many times I’ve made rooms in which you sit in silence.  At the end of this silent space there’s a bar of light that takes direct sunlight using a machine called a heliostat, that tracks the sun, focuses light down through the lenses, and at the end of that room you see natural light.  You view that transient light that I just hold in one place.

 It is futile, then, for a painter to try and paint a landscape, make it better than it is?  Is that possible?
Oh, that’s the Plato stuff.  He didn’t like the artists because  they were imitating life!  And he thought that was an imitation to begin with.  Forget it.  I’ve never understood that, when you know the landscape’s better than the painting any time.  It’s like dementia.

 Even more abstract than what you’re doing?
I’m trying to deal with mental sets, places that just relax your mind, so that if I’m able to come up with a thought and translate that thought into an object and it does what I want to do, I feel better about it.  Really, all my pieces are pictorial organization things to me.  It’s a matter of learning how to integrate these curious materials so that they do key in responses to me and others, that I know when I go at it.  And that takes time.  I don’t say, “This is it.”  This is beginning stuff.

 What was your major in college?
I majored in philosophy, economics, and ended up in history.  I didn’t get my graduate degree – I walked because I realized I was being groomed to stay on in the camp.  I started making artifacts and stuff, and I thought, now this is a crucial decision.  Where are you going to go?  I liked both a whole lot, but I thought making art I’d have more options in my life.  Alternately, I didn’t know if I wanted to hang around universities.  I loved universities, meeting people who knew a lot about their subjects.  I was really a sucker for the whole information system.  But I realized I liked art better, and decided to do that. 

 You grew up in Kentucky?
Lived there the first 18 years.  The only art around was horses and statues.  I guess my first exposure to art was hitchhiking to New York when I was about 17.  One of my rides dropped me off near the Philadelphia Museum.  I went in and I saw the Arensberg Collection, that was my opening to modern art.  Later on when I was in the university and I thought that maybe I should go to art school and get training and so on . . .

 Did you see the things in Philadelphia by Duchamp?
Yes, I did, and they certainly influenced a lot of my thinking in terms of what was allowed.

 Where do you think you got your capacity for breaking traditional mind sets?
I always thought I just didn’t know any better.

 And nobody ever drummed it into you that you had to know better?
No, it was just a natural inclination.  In reading about art, the first thing that appealed to me were the revolutionaries in art at the turn of the century, the Dada people.  They pretty much broke all the ground for 20th century art, except for conceptual art that occurs later on.  It was so close to my nature anyway, that breaking codes was as easy as not.  The whole thing in art is so chancy anyway, that to be conservative in art just doesn’t make any sense to me anyway.    Now that I’ve grown up a little more (laughter), I’ve found out that most of my colleagues are tremendously conservative, even though this is a group of people who are supposed to be the most creative and adventuresome – they hardly take any friggin’ chances at all.

 Early on you mentioned you were cynical.  What are you cynical about?
I’m cynical about the originality of the artists, about a group who supposedly are the most imaginative, speculative artists who actually are not that.  So they’re really just a part of another code system and are really manipulated tremendously by these fad things that just sweep through art.  Or out here the tendency of the region that just permeates the artifacts being made.  I mean we do write the book, we do have the license, and once you discover that you do have a license, you’re all right.

 You’re free.
That’s right, and then you find out that even though you think you’re free you’re really confined by your own thoughts and all that stuff that makes you not free.  So in terms of the system that I’m in, it’s very corny.  And I don’t know why, because artists most of the time don’t make any money anyway.  So for them to be conservative when they’re not making any money . . . I mean, come on, guys!  Certain European collectors actually purchase spaces, but there was no thought of that when I started making these things.  That, in a way, is why these people in California who started the Light and Space routine, got so far into it, because we weren’t making any money anyway, so you might as well go all the way.  There was no mercantile audience, there were other artists interested in that kind of stuff, but . . .

 Does your work surprise you much?
Not as much as it does when you write a great line.  You know how when you’re writing, “Jeez, I wrote that?” But there’s so much work, just labor, that has nothing to do with so-called art, so many hours of manual labor just to get the whole thing done, that the spark . . . is small.  The great thing about it is when it’s done, you can live around it.

 I guess that spark comes from somebody else’s response to it, and that’s another process in itself. 
Yeah, I get very interested in that in terms of trying to see what I actually do and then how it’s received.  I’m not ashamed of asking someone, pretending to be a neutral observer, “Is this shit art?”  I used to do that with the spaces because they were really going out on an edge.  But being antagonistic like that, I got some interesting responses . . .

 You’re very interested in that . . . That first piece you did of the gun in Cincinnati (Colt 45, see intro.), the use of blood and bones in these pieces elicit a very guilty response.  There seems to be in how one idea terrorizes another, an intent, almost aggressive position.
Well, the aggression of the gun was associated with youth, and like that first Dada work . . . This was more than 20 years ago, and the death and suicide issues, the Vietnam War, they all related in a curious way. And in that period, too, I was interested in the fact that death is the ongoing issue in life. To try and bury or ignore that kind of thinking is denying a very vital part of our existence. If an art object’s sole intention is to question your decisions on life and death,  that was the kind . . . that kind of work comes out.  But what happens many times is another option comes up and you think, well that might be better,  so I try to keep myself open to the other options because I’m always impressed by how you can give up your will to how you fix on an idea. Is that clear?

 Yes. I was just wondering how that objectifies itself in your work.
The blood and the human carbon and all that  are background information, and are not necessary to the viewing of the object. Once you know about it, it’s there, even though your retina doesn’t give you the information. And I like the mind giving you the information rather than the retina. It gives me another edge. I think to deny the senses is silly.

 Rather than just having eye baths, or extraordinary visual  experiences. You ‘ve got a good question in your written statement, referring again to Buddhism, having no soul, no after life, no transmigration. You end up by saying, “Who makes art for the soulless?” That’s a good question.
I know. Actually, I nominated myself. (Laughter) I don’t know how well I’ll do, but I’ll nominate myself. Let me give you one great example of art done by that group, and that is in Anuradhapura, in Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka. There’s a huge domed area right in the middle of this jungle--esque setting, made in that early Buddhist period, and it has nothing inside it. You cannot get to it, inside it. It’s just to hold the nothingness of the space of the interior. That is an example of art made for the soulless, to contemplate the nothingness. You can’t get to it, it’s only done through here (tapping his head).

 Are you political at all?
I was when I was young and idealistic. And now, upon more distant reasoning and reflection . . . No one’s going to stop war. I’m sorry. We haven’t really evolved as a species very much [somewhat nervous laughter], in ideation or action. We’re not that far along the evolutionary scale yet, and to take stands viewing man’s ignorance as a basic dumb activity is really kind of stupid. So when you find out there aren’t any good guys in politics, it really takes the edge off of it. So I’m avid in the reading of it and the knowledge of it because it’s like a book . . .

 Are you pessimistic about the future of mankind?
You mean are we going to get rid of the energy crisis by getting rid of most of the people on the planet? War is inevitable, it always has been. In respect to man’s activities, it’s like the rain.

 What would make that not inevitable?
Evolution of the species.

 When will that happen?
Maybe in 5,000. At our rate.

 And you don’t put much hope in science, either.
[More nervous laughter, sounding agitated]  I love science. I’m a quark fan, a black hole fan, a naked singularity fan, an event horizon fan, I’m a fan of the mythos, and the fact that science engages in more speculative thinking than in my own field, but the warrior still has the checkbook. The scientist works for the warrior in our society, so the best speculative thinking is going to the warrior class.

Opinions like that, which I think I share, can make you cynical and make you fatalistic. . .
Not necessarily, because I’m sorry, we are fatal anyway. In the next 80 years or so, 4 billion people will die of natural causes – that’s a lot of people right there. I just want to get to the birthday. I’d like to see the turn of the century, just because I think it would be a great birthday.

 So it’s like Walter Cronkite, “That’s the way it is”?
No, it’s with humor. It’s the humor of the tragic comedy. If you took the humor out of it, it would be just awful. It’s entertainment and humor, and I am being affected by it, and the conditions are like conditions that build up weather fronts. I’m not going to be able to change that high pressure area over the Pacific, or the one over the Middle East. It’s seeing the situation as I see it, not necessarily as it is. I mean, I’m beclouded by my own prejudices. I don’t feel like I have to demonstrate, or stop the war.

 Or sink into paralytic despair.
No. No despair. It’s no different than my own finite sense of myself. It’s as much a part of things as my own demise. But I have something that I love to do – I love to make the things that I make and I’m passionate about it, and that gives me tremendous amounts of energy and kicks, so I don’t despair about political shenanigans . . .

Or your own personal life?
[Pause] Hmmmm . . . Tragedies whip through your mind. They come and go, and that’s just part of your life. And as you get older, you get more [laughter], which is great. I’ve noticed that tragedies increase as age increases. All your friends around you die, and then you die.

--Stephen Parks, August, 1982