The following is a transcript of a conversation between IFA PhD candidates Susanna Temkin and Katharine Wright and Master’s student, Caroline Barnett. Temkin and Wright are the co-curators of the Great Hall Exhibition program for the 2014-2015 academic year. The interview took place on October 27, 2014.
CB: So, tell us a little bit about the show. What can we expect to see?
ST: We’re going to be installing a total of eight works by the artist Marta Chilindron, three of which are large-scale. Chilindron creates manipulable sculptural works using transparent and multi-colored plastic-based material. For the show, we are installing works throughout the Great Hall. We wanted to make as much use of the space as possible, so they will be in the vestibule, the lobby space, and on the marble table on the platform right below the staircase. But, right now things are tentative. We’re giving this interview before we do the installation, so we will have to see how everything plays out.
CB: It’s appropriate that the installation is in flux – expanding and collapsing like the title.
ST and KW: Yes!
CB: What were the challenges of curating a show in the Duke House? I imagine it has a lot of limitations.
KW: One of the challenges is the nature of the space…there are a lot of things you have to work around. It’s a place of major circulation; everyone who comes in and out of the building has to go through there at some point – there are classrooms, offices, our lunch room. So that really hinders where you can exhibit things.
ST: This is not a traditional exhibition space. It’s challenging: we had no walls, we had to really respect the building, people have to be able to use it, it’s not climate controlled, etc., etc.
KW: But that’s why Chilindron’s work is so exciting because it dictates that kind of movement and manipulation of space; it can fill it or contract as need be. For example, right now we are involved in discussions about the work, Green Pyramid (2006). Depending on how we choose to install the piece, it can stretch from a hexagonal shape with a diameter of eight feet to a much more condensed, triangular form that uses about half of the floor space.
CB: You can’t change the lighting, can you?
ST: Yes! The building staff will help with spotlights. However, one thing that is important about Chilindron’s art is how the nature of the materials she works with – transparent acrylics and other plastics-based media – interacts with the light effects of the space. I’m really excited to see how the works we install near the staircase will reflect light filtering in from the Duke House’s skylight. For students, I think it will be nice to see how the works change throughout the course of the day or with the weather, for example.
CB: Are you two continuing the program into the spring?
KW: We’ve been tasked with organizing the spring exhibition. I should explain that we’re co-organizers and co-curators of this year’s Great Hall Exhibitions, but Susanna has taken the lead on this show in the fall, and I’m going to take the lead in the spring. We’re still in the process of negotiating what the next exhibition will entail.
Another aspect we have been focused our attention on is ensuring the Great Hall Exhibitions are on par with the scholastic level of the IFA. One thing we’re excited about producing for both shows is an e-catalogue. We want the catalogues to provide concrete evidence of the Great Hall Exhibitions program and the direction it’s going. We’re trying to make everything really sustainable, thoughtful, and professional. The catalogue will be downloadable online and will help elucidate a lot of the themes that we’re talking about here.
CB: Where did the idea for the e-catalogue come from?
KW: Well, we decided that if we were going to do all this work to put together a show, we wanted there to be a record of it. I think in one of the first classes we took with Edward Sullivan, he said, “If there’s no catalogue, the show didn’t happen.” That’s sad, but true.
A note about the scholarship: we wanted to make this a really academic endeavor. And I’m a graphic design nerd, so I was happy to lay out the catalogue once we put the texts together. Jason Varone has also been incredibly generous — lending his technical support and advisement, and creating an amazing promotional video for the show which has been posted to the Great Hall website and shared via social media.
ST: Katie created this beautiful layout, and the hope is that when we are no longer the Great Hall Exhibition curators next year, somebody will be able to take her template and adapt it. In an ideal world, we would have the funds to publish the catalogue in hard copy, but then again, we have realized that there’s a lot of versatility to doing things online.
KW: For the Chilindron show, what is also exciting about the online format of the catalogue is that we have to display many of the works in the gallery in a static position. But in the catalogue those same works can be illustrated in numerous different positions, which is integral to understanding how Chilindron’s sculptures move. We can also share videos online of the pieces being manipulated, thanks to Jason’s help.
CB: And for works like these, being able to zoom in and see the details of the hinges is really invaluable. I was also wondering if the artist considers the videos of her manipulations as part of the work?
ST: I’m not sure if she thinks about the videos as part of her work or if she conceives of them as documentation. She actually spent a brief period of her career creating more conceptual, performance-based works with the artist Eduardo Costa, but she really considers those works as independent from her sculptural practice.
She certainly considers the maquettes that she manipulates in many of the videos as part of her artistic practice. She creates these small, hand-held maquettes to figure out how her pieces will function, and then she expands the pieces from there. You can see a real difference between the maquette of Green Pyramid, for instance, and the video of Chilindron manipulating the full-scale Green Pyramid – it’s a completely different experience. To see the effort, the weight of the full-scale sculpture, compared to the maquette is really interesting.
CB: How long has she been making artworks like these?
ST: She’s been working in acrylic since 2000, but she’s been creating art since the 1970s if not earlier. She first started making paintings, and she has been working toward this sculptural practice since then. That’s something that I draw out in the essay in the exhibition catalogue.
CB: Has she cited any artists as major influences?
ST: She cites a vast range of sources, from philosophy, math, architecture, biology…she told me she went to a Louise Bourgeois exhibition at MoMA that really impacted her. She’s hesitant to ascribe herself to any particular tradition, but I think you can trace different strings from art history and the world around her in her pieces.
CB: Funny that you mention another woman. Chilindron will be the third woman of the three Great Hall artists thus far – was that a conscious choice?
ST and KW: No! But that’s really interesting.
CB: How did you arrive at Chilindron’s work for this semester’s exhibition?
ST: Last year, when the first Great Hall show opened, I walked in and was like…this space would be so perfect for her Chilindron’s sculptures! As we mentioned, the Duke House is a tricky space, but in terms of the themes of expansion, folding, and collapsing, her work allows for a certain amount of flexibility in their display. Also, the transparency and vibrancy of the materials she uses allows her art to work in such a diversity of spaces, and to really create a dialogue with the environment around it. In fact, her sculptures have never been shown in a historic, decorative space like the Great Hall, and I think it will be really beautiful to see the interaction between the architecture and her artwork, as compared to its typical setting in a white cube-type space.
CB: And it might even become more complex with each site, how that transparency overlays each structure.
ST: Exactly. I’m really excited to see it placed on the landing near the sculptural niche, for example.
CB: So maybe that ties into another question I have, which is: what have you learned about Chilindron’s work that you didn’t already know as a result of this process?
ST: Just the physical handling of her pieces…Chilindron is eager to have viewers understand the physical structure behind her sculptures and how they’re actually put together. This is something that I think we can all appreciate by looking at them, but for me, as I’ve been handling them and thinking about how they’re physically going to be installed, I’ve come to appreciate the architecture behind them, the mathematics behind them, as well as the different ways of exhibiting them. Ring (2013), for example, I had only seen on a pedestal. Then while I was trying to figure out where we could put her works in the Great Hall, I saw it exhibited hanging on a wall, which is the way we are now planning to show the piece. Also, viewers might at first notice that Ring doesn’t look like a ring because the way we are configuring it to hang it, the form is completely inverted. For me, this reinforces just how much you can play with the structure of her works.
KW: I think that’s really interesting. I didn’t know her [Chilindron’s] work at all prior to this project, and Susanna has had the pleasure of knowing her for some years now. First of all, she’s just an incredible person – she’s so wonderful to interact with, really fascinating. But the engineering and mechanics behind her work are what, in my opinion, make it so incredible. There aren’t a lot of contemporary artists I can think of who can conceptualize their work so three-dimensionally and with so much grace in movement.
I also think there’s an ersatz philosophical connection you can draw between her work and the Great Hall. The Duke House, in general, was built as a showpiece of a certain type of Beaux Arts architecture. While her sculptures are obviously very different stylistically from the ornate Great Hall, they share that same sense of structural perfection. For the Great Hall you can see that in its filigree and classical proportions, and for Chilindron that showmanship is evident in the perfect geometric relationships and pristine surfaces of her work. In my mind, these surprising discoveries—hidden points of parity and tension—are what makes this exhibition series really special.
CB: I watched a video of Chilindron talking about one of her pieces, and she seemed concerned with a lot of things you’ve been talking about, namely their materiality. How are you going to capture that in labels, or – will there be labels?
ST: We’re going to have a poster where everything will be captioned, since her works will be placed on the floor – wall labels don’t exactly work in the Great Hall, so this is one way we want people to be able to identify and understand the works. Also on the poster there will be a QR code that viewers can scan that will take them directly to our e-catalogue.
CB: Will visitors be able to handle the pieces on the table?
ST: We’re going to have multiple events where the audience will be able to work with the pieces themselves, but with the artist’s supervision so to speak. Chilindron will be present at our opening on November 4th, and will lead viewers to interact with the sculptures on display. She will also be bringing her maquettes to the opening. It’s interesting because the actual sculptures, while they’re meant to be manipulated, are so large that movement becomes cumbersome with some of them, but you can really get a sense of their kinetic nature through the maquettes.
We are hoping to be able to install Wall Cube (2014) hanging in the corner of the vestibule so that visitors will be able to open it and close it themselves, although that is dependant on how installation goes.
KW: And the student workshop will be a great opportunity, where students will come in and have a chance to talk to her about materials and the conservation issues that have come up with these plastics-based pieces. What’s so fabulous about them is the moment when you get them in your hands, you can’t help but play with them. There’s this mystery in the fact that they can transform so well; you can’t quite figure out how they do it until you manipulate them yourself. That is something she really brings alive in her demonstrations, but it will be really cool for people to experience it for themselves at these events.
ST: Which is another reason I’m excited about the student workshop. Like Katie was saying, we want to make the Great Hall Exhibitions a true scholarly experience, and one of my ways to achieve this is to bring both art history and conservation students in to talk with the artist. During the workshop we plan to talk about the conservation issues of her work and then actually consider her artistic process by handling the maquettes Chilindron creates in both paper and acrylic. Her work seems so magical, but she is actually really excited about explaining to people their structure, how they’re hinged together, and how they work.
CB: The technical aspects – people might say that robs them of their magic, but that’s not…
KW: No, I think it’s the opposite with her. Hearing her decision-making, when we met with her before, she talked about the aesthetic choices at play behind these acrylic hinges that she makes. Deciding whether or not one piece would have silver metal screws or acrylic screws to match the rest of the piece is an agonizing decision that also has to do with the sheer difficulty in constructing these works. I think that makes them more magical, because you realize that beneath the mystique or aura around each one is her creative process that seems very different from the traditional way we think of artists making art, putting a stroke of paint here and there, kind of mentally envisioning the composition throughout. She literally builds these out of thin air, and each tiny step is a serious consideration in making that magic happen. The works have an aura because she herself—her process and her creative decision-making—is magic.
CB: And then once they’re put together, to see if it actually works.
ST: Yes, exactly. That’s what’s so fascinating – when she first has an idea for a sculpture doesn’t always know exactly how they’ll move until she actually makes the pieces.
CB: Has Chilindron talked to you about conservation issues? It seems like an inevitable question.
ST: Yes. She works with these industrial plastics, which is an unusual medium in itself. It’s hard for her to acquire the materials sometimes because they’re usually made in huge industrial runs. So that’s a challenge. She’s also obviously concerned with the interplay of colors, so it’s not just what’s available, but what will actually work with her projects and vision. Sometimes a color she really likes is no longer available – for example, the mirror-like, radiant color of Ring is gone.
She works in both acrylic and twin-wall polycarbonate and she has to choose between those two materials depending on the scale of the sculptures – acrylic can be too delicate for some of the larger works. We have two works in polycarbonate in the show; the rest are acrylic. Her works can become scratched a bit from the manipulation of the viewers and that’s something I’m looking forward to hear her talk about with conservation students, because she herself grapples with whether or not she needs to replace panels or whether she should keep them as-is…in fact, one thing that I should note is that she sometimes takes apart older works to create new pieces. For example, Convertible Circle (2009-2014), which we’re hoping to display on the table, dates from 2009 to 2014 because she actually took apart two existing works she created in 2009 and put them together to create the work for the Great Hall Exhibition. This new work is somewhat of a hybrid piece that captures the contrast between yellow and blue hues.
CB: Are any of the pieces in the exhibit being displayed for the first time?
ST: Convertible Circle is new. And Wall Cube she created for this show.
I should also say that all of her pieces are unique works. She never repeats the same dimensions – the same shape and the same color. So there are multiple Convertible Circles, but there’s only one work with this combination of yellow and blue.
But one thing that’s really exciting to me is that we’re showing Cube 48 Orange (2014), which is this really large-scale work that she just created and showed in Art Basel Hong Kong in spring of this year. It’s a work that’s really so, so big that you need a space like the Great Hall to show it; for example, her gallery won’t be able to show it because it takes up the whole space when it’s pulled out. It’s something that can be condensed to a four foot by four foot cube, but, for you to really appreciate its kinetic possibilities, you need to be able to pull it out. We’re hoping to stretch it out a bit across the Great Hall. And the fact that viewers can go up the grand stairs at the Institute, and look down at its full configuration, will create a really nice vantage point, I think.
CB: How did that conversation with the Institute go, as far as installing that piece and ensuring that the space can still function that students and visitors use the building?
ST: Obviously, we want the works to be safe, and everyone needs to be able to enter the lecture hall, exits, etc. But I think the nature of Chilindron’s pieces is playful and we’ll experiment with some of these issues during the installation process. I have a feeling that Cube 48 Orange might “live” in a more condensed state and then at these different events, we might open it up. At the opening reception, we’re going to invite people to help us move the pieces. And actually, at Art Basel Hong Kong, the artist was there with the general public, literally moving her piece all day long.
CB: Will that be the only piece in the Great Hall, then?
ST: No – we’re going to display Cube 48 Orange near the Marble Room, and we’re hoping to have Green Pyramid closer to the two classrooms.
KW: And the rest will be on the landing.
ST: And we’ll use the marble table to show some tabletop pieces. There’s a pretty wide range in terms of scale.
CB: How did you decide on that configuration? And how are you hoping that the pieces cohere, or interact with each other?
ST: One thing that I’ve been thinking about as far as what we’re showing is that I see this play on angles and curves in her work. Both Wall Cube and Cube 48 Orange use right angles, but when Chilindron visited the space, she was so taken with the organic scrollwork on the staircase. And I know she kept thinking about that shape, so I wanted to see how we could capture this idea and I realized how much of her work is circular, or spherical; for example, the various works we plan to install on the table all invoke these curves. I think when people think about the geometric nature of Chilindron’s pieces, they tend to think of hard geometry and square shapes, but by showing these curved works, I hope people will be reminded that she works in all forms.
CB: That’s an interesting divergence from how the Great Hall exhibitions have most often been described, because it seems like there needs to be almost a tension, or a contrast between the art and the building. But what you’re describing sounds more like a consonance.
KW: I think that’s just looking at one sort of idea, in this case a visual idea, and how it’s treated differently over time. It seems like maybe if Chilindron were working, you know, two hundred years ago in a Beaux-Arts style, the marble staircase and iron railing might have been the material available to her. But now, she is afforded a contemporary material. It’s just like people referencing Roman or Greek art over and over again in the course of art history, there are certain things that are just core to the creation of visual arts. And her idea of working with the Golden Section or the Fibonacci sequence, these different mathematical proportions that make sense in geometry (like Chilindron’s work) and appear in architecture (like the Great Hall)…but they look so different, which is why it’s great to find these commonalities underneath.
ST: Chilindron always talks about how her works are inspired by nature. Some are very representational, for example she has a piece called Fire (2011) and it looks like fire, and a piece titled Grass (2010) and it looks like grass, and it’s very easy to see that one-to-one figurative influence. But even in some of the geometric pieces – she talks about being inspired by the folding of a cloverleaf – she extrapolates these organic folding forms into pure geometric shapes that are actually rooted in how the world is structured.
CB: The title of the show is EXPAND//FOLD//COLLAPSE//. Where did that title come from?
ST: I’m fascinated by the hinges Chilindron uses to connect the component parts of her sculptures, and I wanted to emphasize the importance of their structure in the title. So, in addition to talking about the movement of the pieces, I conceived of the slashes [between each word], to communicate that idea.
CB: And you get that sense, looking at the way the title is graphically written.
KW: And just to praise Susanna a bit, the essay she wrote does a brilliant job of laying out those parameters. One section is about the expanded understanding of her work, another section is about construction, etc.
ST: Thanks! Yes, I’ve divided the essay into three parts: considering Chilindron’s practice as an expansion of the canon by looking at her work from an art historical point of view; in the folding section I’m looking at the evolution of her hinged constructions; and for collapsing, I consider the fact that Chilindron is an artist who was born outside of the United States but has spent her entire artistic career in New York. There’s this tricky classification of her as a Latin American artist, what it means to have this label, and how that relates to her work. Personally, I don’t think it relates to her work at all. As a Latin Americanist, I don’t mean to diminish her cultural background, but just to say that sometimes I think it circumscribes discussions surrounding her art. I’m really excited to push her sculptures outside this box by bringing them to Institute and hopefully sharing her practice with an her audience that extends beyond such circumscribed classifications.
CB: It sounds like you make a great team, each bringing your unique strengths and contributing in your own way.
KW: The collaborative effort has been exceptional. Often times as students we become mired in our own individual research. This process has provided the perfect opportunity to work together on a different type of academic exercise. Even something like getting crates in the building: there’s a large staircase outside. That stuff gets really tricky once you start planning out the nitty-gritty. Having two people to be creative in thinking through these challenges has been really helpful.
And I think another reason this has worked so well was the support we had from the Cecilia de Torres gallery. Our colleagues there have been wonderfully accommodating.
ST: And I think part of this support is generated from the gallery’s commitment to scholarship. The Cecilia de Torres gallery always produces beautiful exhibition catalogues, with really rich research, and is open to working with young scholars, especially to help introduce some of their contemporary artists.
CB: Has Chilindron said herself what she hopes, or envisions, people will gain from her installation at the Institute?
ST: I think she’s really excited to meet a new audience, especially an audience of young scholars and conservators. I think the opportunity will help open new dialogues, and foster an appreciation of her artwork from new angles – I suppose, even literally!
The Great Hall Exhibition EXPAND//FOLD//COLLAPSE// opens on November 4, 2014.