Barbara Madsen and Arezoo Moseni in Conversation with Eric Sutphin
The Arts in the Library project was founded in 2001 by Arezoo Moseni out of her desire to bring artists’ work into the New York Public Library. Currently, multimedia artist and Rutgers professor Barbara Madsen is showing a sprawling installation in all three of the Library’s exhibition spaces. On the occasion of this exhibition, I spoke with both Madsen and Moseni about the show, called “Plastic Age: Further Removed.”
ERIC SUTPHIN: What’s the story with the banners?
BARBARA MADSEN: The banners are something I’ve been making for a long time. I made quite a few post-9/11 in Jersey City, Newark and in Washington DC. So when Arezoo asked me to do a show, I knew immediately that I wanted to put big images in the windows. But I also knew that I wanted to have an interaction with the city, so the banners had to be translucent. People use this room. I spent a lot of time sitting in here, observing people and how they use the space. If the natural light flooding in was blocked it would ruin the experience, and I did a lot of research looking for a material that is translucent, that can breath, change and let the light in.
They’re mysterious. We see them as large-scale photographic images and they might be mistaken for advertisements. Can you talk about their function as images within the city space?
MADSEN: They begin with something that’s very tiny, which I isolate and blow up. In that process they become iconographic and monumental. The objects I photograph are made from a vivid plastic, so you feel that they are advertisements for some kind of a product. When you look at the forms, there is a familiarity but the scale destabilizes your relationship to what the objects might be.
MOHSENI: They lack the text that is generally associated with ads. The banners also have a theatricality. When you see them at night from outside they are backlit and appear to glow.
And this location on Fifth Avenue is important. Fifth Avenue has a history as a sort of marketplace with big window displays showing off products. But while the objects on the banners appear familiar, I don’t know exactly what I’m looking at. And that is what differentiates these banners from advertisements: an ad’s job is to be clear and sell you something, but Barb’s work tells us to look and to keep looking. Another function of the banners is that they invite us to look at the sculptures in the windows. Can you talk about the sculptures?
MADSEN: The sculptures are site specific and were made to respond directly to the library’s architecture. I wanted you to be able to see through them form both inside of the library and from the street. I didn’t want them to be closed forms; I wanted them to break down the relationship between image and object. I was thinking a lot about Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbau (1923 – 48). Each piece is modular so that when the installation is eventually taken down, each unit can function independently.
You mentioned that some of this imagery is taken from the video game Minecraft. This, coupled with the modularity, like Legos or building blocks, makes me think that play is an important aspect of your work.
MADSEN: I am interested in play and I have too much fun with this stuff! One sculpture has a periscope built into it, poking fun at the surveillance camera mounted directly above it. And inside that sculpture is a light, which flashes and twitches to imply that there’s a video playing inside. There’s no video, but it’s like a game of “Who’s watching whom?” There are a lot of visual puns in this piece. I invited the street artist Neanderthalogical to tag one of the pieces, which you can see from outside. I used photographs that I shot throughout the city so that when you’re looking at the sculpture, you’re also looking at the city, through the city through the sculpture.
MOHSENI: Is this the first time you’ve made freestanding sculptural work?
MADSEN: I’ve been using platforms or plinths as supports for my objects. The assemblages covered in photographic images are a first for me. I’ve been thinking about them conceptually, especially in relation to Schwitters, for quite a long time. With the Library installation, I finally had the right venue to make them happen.
MOHSENI: I see Barb’s work connected to a lineage of artists that includes Frank Stella and Nancy Graves. Both of those artists were investigating the disruption of three-dimensional space while also using intense color. The title of the show, “Plastic Age,” is important here. After World War II, plastic became essential in American industry.
But there’s also humor in the title, you’re playing off the historic “Ages” from the Stone to the Bronze and now into the Plastic Age. In two millennia we’ll be known as that weird civilization that left behind mountains of plastic.
MADSEN: When I was upstairs browsing the Pictures Collection I looked through the “Plastics” folder and I found these Monsanto ads from the 1950s showing the joys and possibilities of plastic. In the ‘50s, nobody thought twice about Monsanto. So there’s a conundrum with the love affair they created with plastic: it’s the container of our dreams but also the destruction of our dreams.
You’ve decided to use the vitrines and glass cabinets, tell me about what’s in those spaces.
MADSEN: The vitrines are dedicated to my collaboration with the Venezuelan poet Ely Rosa Zamora. I make images and she then responds with poetry. This particular book is called “The Unspecific Object” kind of making fun of Donald Judd’s 1965 essay “Specific Objects.” Judd was against illusionary space, so I wanted to take back that illusionary space. I put out an open call on Tumblr to have people submit images of objects and upload them to the site. I then had two jurors: Arezoo and Jared Ash (a Special Collections librarian at the Metropolitan Museum), to whom I gave no set criteria, and together they chose 14 images. I asked the winners to send me the actual objects, which I photographed in black and white within architectural spaces I built. Then I printed the images as photogravures.
You’ve talked about your collaboration with Zamora and your interest in language; are there other literary references that shape the exhibition?
MADSEN: In terms of literature and its relationship to space I think about Flatland (1884), Edwin Abbott’s seminal novel about Albert Square, a two-dimensional figure who exists in a three-dimensional world. Square is persecuted and imprisoned for his belief in a third-dimension. The book talks about possibilities that we don’t understand and our limited aptitudes.
Can you talk about the photographs that are hung in the Pictures Collection?
MADSEN: The photographs conflate types of space — interior and exterior, for example — so what happens is a simultaneous implosion/explosion. I think of it as queering space and taking it as your own, transforming it into a place where “fits” and “misfits” can coexist. They’re psychological spaces that suggest possibility but also admit failure.
It’s funny, going back to the ways in which each of your pieces have this dialogue with each other… I’m standing in the Pictures Collection among aisle after aisle of picture files. So there’s a very direct tie to the function of this part of library and to what your work is doing. The sculptures in the window announce or anticipate what happens within the walls of the Pictures Collection. Did you take photos of the library while you were coming up with the idea for the installation?
MADSEN: I did take photos, but then I spent a lot of time going through the image folders in the Collection. This grid piece shows a selection of images that I think of as portraits, in which I try to make visible something that’s usually invisible.
In your case the idea of a portrait implies a relation to the objects you choose to photograph. You humanize or anthropomorphize the objects. You’ve talked about carrying your collection of objects around for over two decades moving with them, as part of a family unit. So it makes a lot of sense that you would document them as portraits.
MADSEN: It’s also a documentation of excess and hyper-consumption.
But I don’t feel you’re making a value judgment against accumulation or consumption.
MADSEN: Absolutely. I strongly believe that angry diatribe is a failed strategy. You can’t reach people by screaming at them. If you can engage people through looking closely, then you might have a chance at a conversation. But I did want to see just how far I could push the portraits without them becoming too baroque. There’s a Neo-Pop-Baroque aspect to them, they’re so excessive.
We’ll there’s a photogravure of a tiara downstairs!
MADSEN: That’s the queen in all of us.