5 for FIVE: Deborah Aschheim
The current exhibition at the Marjorie Barrick Museum, Five features paintings, sculptures, videos, installations, and photographs from contemporary artists based in LA and New York. Materiality, attitude, and wit tie their work together, as well as their past participation in the ongoing UNLV Artist-in-Residence Program.
I recently asked Alisha Kerlin and D.K. Sole if they would like to join me for a walk through the exhibition to talk about the show and create a list of questions for the five artists. Alisha Kerlin, Spring 2012 UNLV Artist-in-Residence, relocated to Las Vegas from New York and is currently serving as the Interim Director at the Museum. D.K. Sole joined the Barrick team in 2012. She leads educational tours and produces written material for the Museum. Many thanks to the artists, Kerlin and Sole for agreeing to participate in this current S + N series “5 for FIVE” and for sharing their unique insights into the work and its reception by the public. This first post shares our interview with artist Deborah Aschheim.
Memories — the establishment and disintegration of memories, the processes of neurological retention — have, for years, been the focus of Deborah Aschheim’s practice. The Marjorie Barrick Museum introduced her work to Las Vegas during her UNLV residency in 2015, when it exhibited a suite of 2-D ink and Duralar works that revolved around one of the most famously recalled events in twentieth-century US history, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Museum’s current exhibition, Five, brings her back to town with Threshold, a collection of landmark buildings reconstructed from memory in semi-translucent white corrugated plastic.
How did the Threshold project begin? How did you choose the buildings you were going to recreate?
DA: Threshold began when Beth Sellars, the curator at Suyama Space, a really great nonprofit artspace for installation in Seattle invited me to conceive an installation for 2013. Suyama Space has a mission that artists respond to the space- the physical site, or something about the history of the building which was a carriage house and an auto mechanics before housing an architecture firm. I had a show there in 2000, and I was thinking about how everywhere I’ve shown an installation is haunted for me by the work I installed– if I come back years later, I kind of still see a ghostly presence of my installation like a filter over my vision of the here and now.
So, Threshold was an extension of the themes of my work at the time: I had been working on a project called Nostalgia for the Future which had to do with the unexpected poetry of failed modernist buildings that seemed to promise a space age future of flying cars and robot butlers that never quite came to pass. (I mean, it did, we have video phones and cloning, but it still doesn’t seem like the glamorous sophisticated confident future that the 1960’s buildings are promising us.) I decided to lay out an installation in the footprint of my 2000 installation, but in the vocabulary of my new work. That idea doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you look at the two side by side. My 2000 installation, Evenflow, was a blown-up invented space of microbiology, so in that installation I was blowing up microscopically small things to the scale of the body, and for Threshold I shrunk down architecture from the scale of the city to more or less the scale of the body. (Erin Cosgrove says my sculptures are at “miniature golf scale.”) But the plan of the show is the same- Evenflow has six twisty forms anchored to the floor in front of a scrim wall, Threshold had six spindly towers (one of them, based on Seattle’s space needle, is in Five). Evenflow had a helix spiral covered with vitamin gelcaps, Threshold had a spiraling sculpture that is kind of a mash-up of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International and Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel at the same place in the gallery- that’s in the Barrick show, too.
I chose the buildings based on buildings that haunt my memory from traveling in America and Europe, so it was mostly buildings I had seen in real life but a few I had imagined, misremembered and not to scale, that gave me that haunting sense of failed utopia. They became something else in a way when I installed them in the Barrick, divorced from their original Suyama Space meaning. There they linger somewhere between an installation conceived for the space (the wall piece was recreated on site, and I made some new elements for the Las Vegas incarnation of it) and autonomous sculptures interacting with the other artists’ works.
Could you take us through the practical process of making one of these sculptures? Do you prepare drawings first, for instance; do you build maquettes?
DA: I almost never build any kind of maquette! Sometimes I will make a really crude cutout paper test to see if something I’m trying will work, but I really try to work in a fluid and improvisatory way. So I like materials that let me work additive- glueing stuff together- and subtractive, cutting stuff away. I use the intricate cutout sheets as templates for the subsequent cutouts…it seems to unify the cutout surfaces in a way that lets each one drift a little from the original, so they’re kind of templates for making everything slightly different, vs. templates for replicating something.
Sometimes I spend a long time building something, and it doesn’t work and I tear it out, but usually I try to work in a responsive way, where if I build something that starts looking super weird, I try to just pay attention to what’s happening and follow the logic. I think that’s what gives the pieces a slightly organic quality or when you see them in person, hopefully they don’t look too “engineered?” It definitely makes them off-kilter and tilted.
I make sketches to let the venue know what I think the project is going to look like in the space, and actually those are sometimes helpful to me. But just as often I misplace them, and then I find them later and realize the work came out looking a lot like the sketch. I encourage students to draw first before they make sculptures, though, so I’m afraid if anyone reading this was my student I have to admit to you that I think I gave you good advice that I don’t myself follow.
When we saw the works initially in photographs they seemed sharply pristine, but at close range we started to notice rough cuts and pencil lines. Could you talk to us about the ways you incorporate or think about imperfection in your work?
DA: One of the reasons I am really drawn to the futuristic 1960s buildings is that I believe the post WW2 era was the last great utopian project of imagining the future before computers came along and changed the way we think about and design architecture and urban space. I was talking to Richard Bradshaw, who worked as a structural engineer for Welton Beckett, the architect of LA’s Capitol Records building and one of the architects of the Theme Building at LAX (it’s that spaceship looking structure near the terminals.) He was telling me how back in the 60s they had engineers doing all the calculations on calculators, and they had to have two of them to check each others’ work. Whenever a client requested a change, they had to redraw all the drawings by hand. In this age of CAD and rapid prototyping and 3D printing I really love to look at the handmade models and drawings and blueprints of these modern architects.
I know when people see images of my work they assume it’s laser cut or CNC routed or something automated because that’s normal right now, to use machines to do things faster and more precisely. But when you see the work in person, I hope you notice not just the pencil lines but also the fact that no two windows are the same, nothing repeats. Slowly it should dawn on you the staggeringly horrifying amount of manual labor it took to make the sculptures by hand. Like the in-between-bodies-and-architecture scale of my work, the hand labor is something I hope will help you make a physical connection with the sculptures, with your body, that is different in an important way than seeing a picture of them on a screen. It’s kind of ridiculous and very expensive in terms of space, labor, time, but I want to put you back in your body and hopefully make you think about a real but unstable, shifting world conjured up by the sculptures, that shares some aspects with the real world but is not a model of empirical reality, it’s a model of something subjective, imperfect and a little dreamlike. In that sense, my work is not really about buildings.
There are themes that run through both Threshold and the works you exhibited at the Barrick last year in The Kennedy Obsession — not only ideas about memory but also the material properties of transparency, plastic, and light. The dissimilarities, however, are obvious and dramatic. Could you talk about the differences between the two bodies of work, and how the materials in each case facilitate the aspect of memory that you wanted to present?
DA: From about 2005-2010, I made work that investigated and talked about my own autobiographical memories. I embedded family home movies in webs of glowing fibers that mapped the intimate lattice of my neural networks of memory across the gallery. I collaborated with musicians to create sound sculptures based on my memory for language: each sprawling assemblage played a unique musical composition based on a word I never want to forget. Around 2010, I became interested in the possibility of collective memory, I decided to look at places where shared and private experiences intersect, so I started thinking about memory and place in the public spaces of architecture and history.
I am fascinated by mythologies of the recent past— the idea of “optimism” of the 1960s—that haunt our understanding of the present, and all the ways the worlds that we build in our mind don’t exactly line up with more “empirical” realities. So my recent work has two aspects: I am building “misremembered cities” that give form to the processes of forgetting and misremembering places; and I have been working with communities to weave illustrated, vernacular histories that consider the past as a story that is continually rewritten. (You can see these projects, Involuntary Memories: Marine Corps Station El Toro and the Nixon Years, and Bienvenidos los Presidentes, on my website.)
I guess the dissimilar aspects are, with the Threshold work, I want to make a subjective mental place, spaces that you and I have both experienced but have mapped and encoded and stored differently, and that resonate differently for each of us, into an immediate shared physical place that we can both walk through together. With the drawings, I want to trigger participants’ memories and reanimate past moments that people experienced personally as emotional and important even though in many cases, the image shows an event they didn’t experience personally. (A contemporary example is September 11, which most of us did not witness firsthand but we still remember as a personal experience, we share stories about where we were and how we were affected.) But some of the stories are partly forgotten, they may or may not be completely “accurate” in all the ways that memory can be unreliable. In the work about events, my drawings are more like links or nodes in a complex vernacular tapestry of collective memory. The drawings are not distorted or inaccurate to their original sources the way the buildings are (although they differ in subtle but significant ways from the source photographs.) It is the stories and memories they trigger that are shifting, conflicting and slippery.
Your practice has brought you into close contact with professionals who study memory and brain activity from a scientific angle. What have you learnt from them? What do you think they’ve learnt from you? How have they changed your work?
DA: From 2009-2011, I had the great good fortune to be the inaugural Hellman Visiting Artist at the Memory and Aging Center in the Neurology Department at the University of California, San Francisco, which is the medical school of the University of California. For two years, I got to work alongside doctors and researchers at UCSF and at UC Berkeley studying memory and forgetting in the brain, the acquisition and loss of language, the relationship between memory and the idea of the self. My musician collaborator, Lisa Mezacappa, and I got to do EEG (Electroencephalography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) experiments on our own brains, and we developed great empathy and admiration from interacting with patients and their caregivers. My experiences with UCSF and also collaborating with the Program in Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh changed my work and perspective in too many ways for me to go into here, so I’m going to refer you to these sites:
Deborah Aschheim is a multi media artist whose works explore the many permutations of memory as subject matter. Her delicately constructed architectural sculptures tower over the viewer with ghostly suggestions of familiar places. Aschheim lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. UNLV Artist-in-Residence Spring 2015. www.deborahaschheim.com
Five is on view at the Marjorie Barrick Museum on the campus of UNLV through September 10. For more information click here.
The Barrick Museum offers tours of Five by appointment. A checklist of the exhibition can be found here.
For more information about the UNLV Visiting Artist Program click here.
Posted by Wendy Kveck
title image: Deborah Aschheim, detail, Untitled (Chicago), Plastic and adhesive, 2012, 95″x 207″x 15.5″. All images courtesy the artist and the Marjorie Barrick Museum