Interviewed by Sarah Thibault
Zarouhie Abdalian and I met for drinks recently to discuss her current show MATRIX 249 at the Berkeley Art Museum, her project for the SFMOMA’s 2012 SECA Award and navigating the politics of space.
Sarah Thibault: When did you know you wanted to be an artist.
Zarouhie Abdalian: I guess I always did, since I was a little kid. We always had materials set up in the house that we could play with. Different bins for different types of junk basically, and lots of assemblage stuff. Painting and assemblage. Then I went to an arts high school in New Orleans, which was really great.
What kind of artists were they showing at the time, do you remember anyone standing out?
We went to shows at the local museums and I just remember a lot of Fabergé! It was part of the collection at the New Orleans Museum of Art, but there were also a lot of Impressionism shows. Degas, for sure, because he lived in New Orleans for a while.
It was pretty conservative. But the Joseph Cornell was one of the shows that I remember going back to. The New Orleans Museum of Art has this great little Joseph Cornell section. It’s been expanded recently, but it used to be in this tiny hallway in the contemporary section, which was pretty different from a lot of what else was there.
But I think the best show I saw at the museum was about crafts-people in New Orleans-ironworkers, builders- craft practices and certainly material art practices made up most of my early arts education. It informed a lot more of my art making there and certainly the focus of the programs that I did. I did my undergraduate in New Orleans too, and it was very materials based.
Interesting. Your work is so minimal now.
Yeah, but I devote quite a lot of attention to the different components—like in this last show, I was very concerned with the particular tarnish on the bell, you know, making sure that it looked just right. I probably care more about these little things because of my training. But also because of my grandmother.
She’s a gardener—a very creative person and has always had things just so. She did things around the house, or sewing projects, stuff like that and I think her sensibilities informed the way I work. The materials might be really simple, but they have to be treated just so to be seen as art, instead of just a thing.
At what point did you start working with sound?
The first work that involved sound was in 2008 and it was a collaboration with Joseph Rosenzweig, my boyfriend. It was a piece for projection with generative sound and video. It was the first work that involved sound. The project for SFMOMA is the first piece that I really consider a ‘sound piece.’
Yes, I suppose there is also Each envelope as before, which was conceived after Occasional Music. It involves sound, but I think of it more as sculpture. Whereas Occasional Music is just sound.
You brought up Joseph, your boyfriend. He’s a composer/artist and also works with sound in his work. Do you feel like you influence each other?
We’ve collaborated on some sculptures in the past and we share a studio space. He has certainly influenced me for sure. I think we would like to do more formal collaborations. We talk about all the projects that I do and the projects that he does.
Can you tell me about Sounding the Path of the Signal, the project that you worked on together for L@te: Friday Nights?
I was asked to do something for the night of the [MATRIX] opening for L@te and by doing something I mean, I just asked Joseph to do something. The initial idea was to think about sound and the specific site of its production. So the couple works that we both felt really strongly about including were Alvin Lucier’s Vespers and Marianne Amacher—some of her “Third Ear Music.” We ended up including “Dense Boogie 1” and “Chorale 1.” And the other pieces we chose were they’re site-specific works that were realized for that space. Particularly in the case of the Lucier, the work is only revealed because of the space in which these devices [sondols] sound. So you use these sonar devices to kind of make a picture of the space with sound. It was just great for the space of the Berkeley Art Museum, with those reflective concrete and glass surfaces.
I’m interested in the inspiration for your Ad libitum (If I Had a Hammer) piece. The museum text says that it’s inspired by the folk song, “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song),” which calls to mind daisy chains and acoustic guitars. But then when you see the piece, formally it’s very minimalistic, severe even. The opposition creates an interesting dynamic. Can you talk about how you developed the piece?
I actually wouldn’t say the piece, Ad libitum is inspired by the song. The song came after the idea for the materials and the form of the work. It’s the third piece that I thought of for the exhibition. I was thinking about wall text, which is maybe not even that big a part of the final work—but I was thinking about the gallery wall itself as a space for reading information. The materials are components of musical instruments. So you know, a brass wire that might be used on a stringed instrument, a tuner and bone saddles set up so there the five pitches that comprise the song are available along the length of the string. But it’s not articulated. – it’s not interactive. It’s mute.
I had this idea for a piece that would contain sounds for a song, and I wanted to use a song that viewers might already know. “If I Had a Hammer” seemed like a great song because it’s so familiar and it’s been covered by so many people and is really broadly known. It seemed like a great choice for that reason, but also the lyrics of the song sort of point to some other things that I’m thinking about or other materials that I’m using, such as bells. The second verse is goes “if I had a bell I’d ring it all over this land,” essentially. And nearby in the gallery space there is As a demonstration, this bell, which doesn’t ring, and then concurrently there is this other installation of bells ringing across a public space. So I hoped the song would be familiar enough to act as a bridge between the other works and as a way of pointing beyond them.
Seeing your show, I got a sense of the tension from what is being concealed or withheld from the viewer. There’s this frustration in looking at something that’s supposed to be making noise, but you can’t hear it. And then similarly to see something that you want to make noise with, but you’re not supposed to touch it. I also kept thinking about a bomb ticking. I saw the wire on the wall as this fuse connecting the two other pieces.
I guess another thing, not only did I want that work, [Ad Libitum (If I Had a Hammer)], to connect the two pieces- but also, the support for the work is the wall of the museum itself- it screws into the concrete wall. In a literal way, the museum forms part of this piece: the wall is the body of the instrument implied by the work. As you note, this sculpture is connected to the other two works sharing this space, so it might follow that the structure of the museum is part of all three of these works. In fact, I made a point of configuring the works so that they can be viewed in relationship to the museum as a structure.
While these pieces aren’t overtly political, it definitely seems like they are responding to some kind of socio-political tension- even if it’s not specific. There’s this energy of frustration. Plus the song you chose isn’t just any familiar pop song mentioning bells and hammers. It’s a Civil Rights anthem, originally performed to support members of the Communist Party who were on trial for trying to overthrow the US Government. More recently it was chosen as the “Wikileaks song,” so it still has a strong place in our social consciousness as a call to action. How did that factor in your titling of the piece?
I hope that I set up the works in a way that allows viewers to form various associations with the material configurations I present. The elements of the works are intentional, of course, including the installation of materials and titles given to the arrangement. But the meaning of the work is derived not only from its materials, but also its context—which is concrete and just as subject to politicization. I do not, however, see my work as topical or about politics. That way of thinking and working presumes that politics occurs in an entirely different realm from art or that art can happen in some other world than in the one we’re living in. If there are associations for some viewers between my work and specific social movements, great, but how can one ignore other parts of its context? Like the immediate physical and socio-political context of the work, which is the art museum?
Another work of yours that I love and that I connect to this piece is Flutter. To me these pieces are very related—they both point to energetic disturbances in their surroundings.
I think with Flutter I was definitely responding to a specific moment. The Mehserle verdict was coming out when I was making the piece so it was very much about Oakland at that time. It was 2010… that summer. Even with these works for BAM, I don’t think of them as being as context-specific as say that piece was. They are not really specific to a particular time, necessarily. If they are, it’s a much broader time, this decade or something. The site is important, but not as important as with other pieces. It could be in another museum space, for instance.
So the institutional context is really important to the pieces.
The structure of the museum is definitely important. I guess some of what I was saying before about using the vitrine as this device that in one case it keeps something out of view and in another it keeps sound in.
So it’s kind of about privilege?
Well, I think the museum environment is a rarefied environment. And I’m not totally cynical about museums, but I think there are limits within museum spaces. There are limits of audience and that’s certainly a big one. It’s a very specific audience and the environment itself is a rarefied environment and so the works all deal with that. When I was thinking about [the pieces], I was thinking about spaces really—different types of spaces. In the case of the piece with the vacuum chamber, the space inside the chamber itself is this kind of- it’s an environment that’s radically different from the space outside of it. There’s a vacuum.
If humans went in there they would die.
Yes, your lungs would collapse. (laughs) So you don’t want to squeeze yourself in that box. In space no one can hear you scream.
So that is part of the piece, the space inside the vacuum chamber of this vitrine that is isolated from everything that’s outside of it. I like that it’s positioned near the window and I proposed that it be in that location so that the outside is part of it- you can see past the pieces and out the windows.
Right, there’s this parallel between the containment of the museum space and of your vitrine “spaces.” And there’s an apparent divide between people who are and people who aren’t in the museum. They can feel that they’re not in the museum because they have to stare in the windows to see inside and vice versa.
I think they’re just looking at themselves in the reflection. (laughs) I was in there and I thought, wow, so many people look in this space. That’s so great! Then I walked by and realized you can’t see in very well, and I was like, oh people are just checking themselves out for the most part.
I am also guilty of that… I think I got away from the original question. Oh, you were asking about the political! Because I, I don’t know, it’s not like it’s not there. I don’t think artwork in politics is a politically effective tool, at all. It’s very ineffective.
Oh, you think it’s ineffective?
Yeah, I’m really cynical. But—
I don’t disagree with you. I feel like if you want to be really political, join the Ready for Hillary campaign for 2016—
Oh no. (laughs)
Which I am totally going to do. (laughs) You know what I mean? There are so many things you can do if you really want to make a difference.
Yeah, so it could be a tool, and I’ve said this before, it can be a tool, but it’s a really weak tool.
I think it depends on how much visibility you have too.
It can, but if you have more visibility it’s probably because your work sells for more and then you’re probably—
If you’re Bono and you’re talking about a cause at your concert—or Paul McCartney. I just saw him at Outside Lands, and you could meet him if you did all this stuff for Save the Arctic. So I was raving about the arctic and liking it on Facebook, only to meet him. But then I was like okay, it’s a big issue, and I got very informed. But I feel like—
(laughs) Did you meet him?
I didn’t. I didn’t win. Damn you, Paul McCartney! (laughs) So, preaching to the choir, art is not the best tool for political views.
Yeah, but, if the work is going to be—
But I also don’t think your work is using these overt political symbols-
No it’s not.
And I think that’s when it really fails, when it’s really heavy-handed.
Perhaps, but I also don’t set out—it’s not like I don’t think about how art might create some sort of change or at least shift the viewer’s experience. And I do care about that when I’m making a work. I think that’s probably where it’s political. It’s just where it resists something that is—I don’t know… even just resisting moving through a space in the same way that you have a hundred times or it’s difficult in some way for a viewer. That would be the political. It’s not so much about pointing to a specific movement or issue.
For some reason As a Demonstration made me think of the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This is attributed to George Berkeley and he wrote that thought experiment as part of his Subjective Idealism theory back in the 1700s. Two part question: Were you thinking about that at all when you made the piece, and do you think it makes a sound?
I wasn’t thinking about it, but I really, really love that you bring this up! It’s so great. I actually had not -and this shows my shortcomings—but I had not realized that Berkeley was named after [George] Berkeley. I mean it’s kind of great because the city wasn’t named after him because of his theory of Immaterialism- I read this on Wikipedia of course- but because of his ideas about westward expansion and civilization having this progress toward the west. But it’s kind of great because this anti-materialist, ‘everything is as you imagine it’ seems so stereotypically Berkeley! Oh man, I don’t know, do you hear it if it falls? Does it make a sound? The trees, the wood…
Can you describe your upcoming project for the SECA award?
Occasional Music, which will be an installation [opening in September] in downtown Oakland. That work consists of five bells that are out of view, but on rooftops near Frank [H.] Ogawa Plaza. The bells will ring once a day at a randomly pre-determined time of day. So every day it will be at a different time it will ring for several minutes and all five bells will ring simultaneously. They’re all the same, utilitarian ship bells and they have the same tone, but each will ring according to a unique and randomized set of accelerandi and ritardandos. So it’s just rhythm changes for randomized durations over the five-minute period and then it stops. And the buildings where these bells are installed are sort of unremarkable. They are not places where you would traditionally expect to find a bell, like a church or city hall, these types of places.
The work is very much a public piece. It’s also one of the few times when I thought about a piece and then picked a location where it made sense, made the work come together. I thought it really made sense in downtown Oakland, in part because it is a civic center where you might expect to hear bells. Its architecture is built for calling people together, and certainly the work, as the bells are positioned around the plaza, envisions the plaza as the center point in place for communing with others. Then outside the ring of this circle of bells you can hear the more individual sounds of the bell. But there is this imagined center. It’s imperfect because it’s in the space of the city and there are all these reflections on the buildings, but it’s the general starting point for the work.
This piece was conceived before the Berkeley project, which was conceived in relation to that work. They’re two separate projects for sure, but I think it’s interesting to think of them in relationship to one another, particularly the way they deal with very different types of spaces: downtown Oakland versus a museum in Berkeley. And you know, some of the materials are similar, bells for instance, and the rhythmic structures that are used. Each envelope as before and Occasional Music have a relationship in that [the sounds] are, in part, randomized. So I hope that people might think about the differences between those spaces and the effects on the materials within those spaces.
What was the process of developing the work for the Berkeley show after having developed such a different piece for SECA?
The SECA Award was about a year ago. I proposed it last fall, and it was pretty defined by the time I was invited to do the MATRIX show. I actually had two proposals for MATRIX and this is the second idea for the project. Apsara [DiQuinzio] was really great about that actually because I came in two months before the show like, “I have to completely change it.”
What was your first idea?
It was sculptural idea that didn’t really obey the laws of physics, I later realized, which is often a problem. Physics thwarts me at every turn!
Right, those laws. But it also didn’t directly relate to [Occasional Music] and I guess I was trying to think about how to make something that would be specific to the museum context. I couldn’t really work in the same way I had before with spaces, making some kind of minor alteration to them, but highlighting something about them… , because the architecture of the Berkeley Art Museum is so eccentric. And that space in the gallery, all of its features just feel so imposing already, and I felt I couldn’t make an alteration that would generalize beyond the space of that gallery.
Yeah, it’s a highly designed space.
It’s a wonderful space.
But it’s almost like the architect did such a good job, you’re like, “I’ll just take a nap.”
For sure. It didn’t allow me to work in the ways that I had before.
You do better with dilapidation.
(laughs) Something caving in… you can come to my apartment.
(laughs) You can come to mine. I should start doing installations there… I guess I was trying to figure out how to think of, or how to use the Berkeley Art Museum as context for the work that wouldn’t have so much to do with the material components of that specific space. Or how to make the museum the context for the work, highlighting some of the language and limitations of that generic space, in relation to a public project.
Can you talk about any interesting experiences or things you’ve learned from installing site-specific pieces abroad?
It seems kind of to presume a lot that I would go, for instance, to Shanghai for a site-specific piece and make something that really is context-specific after only being there for two days. It’s really a challenge to think about what site-specificity means when working in unfamiliar contexts.
It’s more your gut reaction to a space.
It could be—to the physical materials, or to this very small piece of the city. When I did something for the Shanghai Biennial, my knowledge of the city was restricted to four blocks. so it was very focused on this one building, and this one space, and what I saw happening there in relationship to what was happening around it- in the four days I had. So in that case, I don’t know, it is really challenging, because I try and plan but I don’t always have a lot of time, And I do research, but everything might change upon arrival or I don’t speak the language, but it’s been a really great way to travel and to get to know cities through finding materials there, working, getting to meet people.
Do you feel like that informs your work when you come back to your home turf?
It’s certainly made things here seem less overwhelming or more doable. If I can go thousands of miles away and make something in a week then I can probably figure something out back home when I have a few months lead-time and I know where to buy supplies and stuff. But I haven’t really thought about how those experiences have influenced the work. I feel like all the works have been related to each other.
For sure. I think your works always have a thread connecting them even though they are responding to different spaces or places.
I feel that way probably with the exception of the piece for the Wattis [Institute of Contemporary Art.]
It was a little bit outside.
Which one was that?
It was called The fall without the fruit.
That’s right. I saw that one and it stood out to me as well.
Yeah, it’s different because, I don’t know—it’s an artwork that is most interesting in the ways it’s about art.
However, I think what you do in a lot of your pieces, and this one as well, is you draw attention to invisible forces that need a context to be seen. Gravity is one of those forces and you illustrate gravity with this piece. So it made sense [that you would make this] after I thought about it, but the immediate image of it is not what I expected. Perhaps because it isn’t reliant on that space to exist.
It’s not so far out, the place where it diverges is that I really thought of it as being art about art. For this exhibition the frame of reference was work from the late 60s and the works that were included in the original, When Attitudes exhibition—I was responding to that, and also critiquing those pieces with my sculpture.* Usually you don’t really have to know about much art history to get something from my work.
What’s the best advice you received about being an artist, either as you were growing up or in grad school or—or the worst advice?
Someone gave me the advice that I should never say no to a project. And I actually don’t think that’s the best advice! I think it’s good to be open and I think that advice was useful for a little while because I don’t know if you get to decide exactly what your career in the arts is going to be. It’s where the opportunities end up being, and I don’t know, some of it’s luck. I’m really happy that I’ve been able to do installation-based pieces and site-based pieces, but it could have gone the other way if I’d done another piece for my MFA show, or decided to work in a different city, etc. It could have taken a completely different path, which would have been fine, but I think—I don’t know. It’s good to say yes at first to a lot of things, but at some point you do have to start narrowing it down.
Should you be so lucky.
Well, yeah, and when I say narrow down, I don’t mean only doing big projects or something.
Use your resources in a way you can manage.
Yeah, and that you’re comfortable with.
Have you done a project you regretted doing?
Did you feel like there was a red flag and you’re like, nope, not going to do that.
Yes, projects where it seems like the artist has to do a lot of work while other parties involved take credit and move on—that I sort of object to. I definitely object to artists having to shell out lots of money and resources and time while other people sit around. You should definitely do that for projects you believe in, but unless you really believe in it then I don’t think it’s worth just another line on your resume to do things like that. And those can be ‘high profile’ projects too.
Oh really? Yeah, I suppose, because they’re the ones that think they can get you for less.
Yeah, because it’s cultural capital. Actually, I feel like I still need advice on this stuff. (laughs)
What is it like to be someone who is working mostly with site-specific projects and having a gallery dealer who is presumably going to sell something, but you don’t really know what you’re going to sell. You do some pieces, but—
I’m really happy working with Claudia [Altman-Siegel]. I just started working with her last winter, so I’d already established a way of working that she trusts and we’re figuring it out together.
So you started out being yourself, making the work you want to make and then she’s into it or not. Luckily she’s into it.
She’s behind the work. And I felt really comfortable with the work before finding a gallery. That was important to me.
So last question, what would your advice be to young artists who want to be showing at a gallery who adores them? Or if not the gallery world, something more unusual or more commercial.
I don’t know, I’m probably not very qualified to give advice.
No, I think you are. You’ve been in a few biennials. You’ve been around the block a couple times.
Well, I think doing projects that feel right and finding people who trust you and who you trust- whether that’s other artists, curators, gallerists or writers. Maintaining and cultivating those relationships is key because even if you don’t have a lot of external recognition or whether that be financial, critical or whatever–if you have those relationships, then you have support. I think it makes it easier and more fun to continue making work…and you really need to be doing that first and foremost, no matter what your long-term goals are.
Having the community support or some other kind of support.
Yeah, cultivate that support and then just make your work. I think that’s the biggest thing. Then, I don’t know, just work a lot.
Yeah, that too, being a workaholic.
Abandon your life and be a workaholic. It will take all your time and all your money. So you better believe in what you’re doing and do things that you want to be doing!
I think that’s a good way to end. Work a lot, but do what you enjoy. And don’t sleep, ever.
Never sleep! No, that’s terrible. You have to take care of yourself.
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