A Conversation wth Richard Berger: Necessities
by richard whittaker, Feb 13, 2009
The first issue of works & conversations featured interviews with artists Judy Pfaff, Squeak Carnwath and Richard Berger. Of the three artists, fewer people will be familiar with Richard Berger, one of the most interesting artists I’ve met. That first interview took place in 1996. This one, which I thought I’d lost, took place in 2009. It’s only now (May 2013) finding its way to the web site.
In the interim, I published some of Berger’s writing including an account of one of his trips to India. It’s always fascinating to listen to Berger, who has been teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute for decades. For a generation of students, he has been a unique figure. Descriptions of Berger often include the word “brilliant” and “genius.” I've no quibble with that. What’s difficult to describe is the particular flavor of his sardonic, and often hilarious, observations and analyses. His creativity is as much in play as he speaks as in his art works.
When I first learned about his intention to build a model of the Sun Temple Konark in Orissa, India that had fallen into ruin, I was intrigued. Some years later, when I learned he had begun working on it, I asked if he’d be willing to talk about it.
Richard Whittaker: You are spending all this time reconstructing this temple, making a model of it. I can’t help but feel that you have a religious sensibility in some way.
Richard Berger: Yes. But what I would say is that sensibility is simply of the cumulative evolutionary cast, which goes back to that idea of being driven and back to the idea that everyone was an artist at one time. And everyone was a dancer and everyone was a storyteller and a performer within a small social unit—and there weren’t those boundaries.
RW: Does it make you uncomfortable—I mean I invoke the word religious, the phrase religious sensibility. I’m sure you don’t want to be mistaken for someone who is simple-minded or misguided in believing in something…
RB: I’m critical. You know? I mean I’m critical. My definition of ignorance is not about being short of certain information that I happen to have. It is about somebody who has the information and ignores it.
RW: Ignores it. Yes.
RB: I’m not uncomfortable with it. I just think religion is this collective accord that sort of transcends all of the possible executors of that accord. So you have great ideas in the hands of small people and, of course, things are going to go awry. And it’s very tempting to say the ideas weren’t great after all.
RB: But I think greatness in that case can be described in terms of pervasive recurrence. I mean if you go anywhere in the world—and there’s a guy who is living in a hut made out of sticks there will be some little picture, or decorations on the sticks—there will be some way in which there’s a selective segregation of this world from another world. And there's the acknowledgment of the interface of the two. I think that’s also human nature. And when I hear people like Dawkins—I mean I’m sure he’s a very bright guy, I mean brilliant; he’s totally sincere—it’s kind of flip a button there. But the worst things done by humanity to one another have been executed by the people who are most convinced of their own rectitude. Like they’re really sure these guys are savages and that it makes perfect sense.
RB: Surgeons in the Civil War were so sure that this idea of microbes and germs was a farce that they would clean their scalpel on their boot before they would operate on somebody. That just happens over and over, you know—that kind of myopic rectitude—and especially of the privileged, including myself. I think, yeah, I’m so slick. It casts doubt on everything. You know?
RB: So that’s in terms of religion. I think religion is the collective—beyond denomination and beyond localization. It’s the way vulnerable creatures attempted to make survival possible and less than a total chore. You know? It’s just sort of a natural thing. And the idea that, like with the Lucy Lippard book The Dematerialization of the Art Object.
RW: I haven’t read it.
RB: Oh, I mean it was a very influential book, and it's actually a great slice of its time. But the revelation that one really comes away with from that book is this kind of certainty. She and Jack Burnham, too, were writing in those times with this great certainty that, basically, there was a kind of a philosophical and technological triumph of some finality over the realm of superstition and traditional metaphysical systems, and that kind of stuff.
RW: There’s a deeply ingrained repetition of that tendency, isn’t there? I mean, this belief that "Now we know for sure what it is." There’s a certainty about it. It just happens over and over again.
RB: Yeah, and nobody ever mediates their situation.
RW: How long have you been working on this temple reconstruction at this point?
RB: Well, what's here in the studio I’ve worked on since I got back from sabbatical last March. So I’ve been on it for about a year, but it’s been kind of intermittent.
RW: Now you conceived of it, though, when? I mean you sent me a note quite a while ago, with your intention to do this.
RB: Yeah. That came out reflections after the first trip I took to India in 2001. I mean, actually, when I got back in 2001, I thought my future as a sculptor was pretty limited. I did make more sculpture after that, but I don’t know if anything changed, where you could say "this is the moment of a turning point." But maybe, in the face of seeing all of those enduring things, all of those things with such longevity…
The idea that alone in my studio I would make a thing out of my own necessities and my own considerations and place it in the world, and then judge its viability and value based on whether or not somebody bought it—I just thought, "I don’t need that anymore."
The notion that whatever this object is, it’s going to have to interface with a whole modality of validation that I find basically to be just business—and business with some dimension of predation and corruption, and all that kind of stuff—I don’t think I need that. I don’t know that I ever did. And I was never diligent about pursuing a career taking care of that kind of stuff.
It’s certainly occurred to me that’s because my stuff wasn’t good enough. You know? But if I made something that people really wanted, people really wanted it. However, I never did the "send out a million slides" or hit the streets with my portfolio and do those kinds of things. So I finally came to this sense of conclusion. I’m getting a little more interested in it. Again, just from having to put these things together for the show.
RW: The Meridian Gallery show.
RB: And particularly seeing that’s a gallery that seems to survive somehow without being connected to all that other stuff. You know?
RW: Yes. And at great sacrifice. I love Tony and Anne. They live in a rental. They must be in their 70s. It’s something they believe in.
RB: Yes. And I thought about this. At first I thought, well you know, this isn’t sculpture. "This is dollhouses" —or this is fiddling around, or something. And it took awhile to reconcile this sense of direction and to see—I mean I don’t think I was prone to such reflection earlier in my life. But in looking over all this different stuff I’ve made, like a lot of times there are changes in what I made that at the time seemed almost irrational. Like why would you go from this way of saying stuff to another? But then in retrospect, it made perfect sense.
That’s back to the reverie in the studio. You’re not going to get the reverie then. You’re going to get the reverie, if at all, 10 years after you made a bunch of stuff and look back over it and see, yes, I wasn’t wasting my time after all.
RW: The idea of the unconscious. That comes up. I mean there are processes that go on that you only realize later. What do you think about that?
RB: Well, you know, I’m not sure about the term “unconscious.” I think it’s more like context that, over the passage of time, I think, acquires meaning. You know? It acquires implication or import, or not. And I don’t know that it was because of something I didn’t know that I was doing. Or I think it’s more about what I found out in the interim. At a certain point of incubation there’s a birth of this thing in its fullness, or however you want to describe it.
RW: I’m thinking that’s an interesting subject, the unconscious. Is there such a thing, or isn’t there? And it just came back to me that you’d said earlier that you'd seen something of these temples in a picture book of India. And that somehow that had been a significant event. I wonder if you would talk about that a little bit. I’d like to stay with this whole project you’ve been working on.
RB: Well, this is another one of those unconscious kinds of things—I mean the import of that event was entirely contextual. I was 18 years old and I was still living with my parents. I went with this friend of mine to visit this guy who had graduated from our high school four years before I did. He was the class of ’58 and I was the class of ’62. So in that interim, this guy had become sort of the local beatnik bad boy. He and this other friend of his and mine had gone on this Jack Kerouac-fueled kind of odyssey going to Mexico and scoring weed and pills and coming back and reading Zen. He was like this small-time guru in Sacramento.
So we go to this guy’s house and he showed me this book called Kamakala. I ended up buying a copy. It’s like it’s "The Book of Love," or something. It featured erotic sculpture from two places, Khajuraho and the Sun Temple in Konark—and mostly from Khajuraho. I mean, there were tiny pictures of the temples. But the whole spread was about this erotic subject matter, which turns out to be about 10% of the imagery in these temples. They're utterly festooned with a lot of other stuff going on.
I was around artists and was hanging out with people. I knew Bob Arneson when I was 15, just by the coincidence of his being a colleague of my friend’s mother. And I had this idea that these guys got to have fun while getting paid for it while everybody else toiled in some miserable situation. And in those days, I think as always, there was this aspect of art as a sort of socially sanctioned outlet for erotic curiosity. Even as a kid I couldn’t wait for the National Geographic to arrive in hopes that there would be some feature of some Tahitian painter who had voluptuous babes around him.
But in seeing those images, here was eroticism that was not covert at all, and not subdued, but was in fact, abstract in an entirely different way. So I think that just by a coincidence of formative expectation, like you’re poised to have a void filled and something drops in that spot amid expectation or anticipation—and that’s it. You know? That’s who you are.
I wrote a story about that called Imprint. It’s on my website. It’s about another kind of chance encounter. Anyway, from that I got interested in Indian culture. I just thought, wow, these guys are far-out. But I admit it was 90% salacious. Like here are these guys who get to have these giant orgies in stone.
What registered then, but I didn’t realize, was that here was a representation of life that’s really different than anything that I'd seen. So I think I might have been already predisposed to make those kinds of distinctions. I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the moment, but it definitely stuck. And through all of that, I got interested in Indian music. There were those Nonesuch records, you know? They had Ravi Shankar. They had various mostly Northern Indian classical music. And I liked the music, but that was right at hippie times, too—about 1965. Everybody had a Nehru jacket and a sitar, but I always mistrusted that imprint. It got swept up in this simple-minded fashion and mimicry. I had already looked into that music and concluded it was way more than I could do in a lifetime. But I could pick up a saxophone and doodle around, and people would listen. And that meant you didn’t have to work. I mean, it’s a troublesome practice, 10 hours a day. But I was interested in this music. There would be Shankar, and the world was twiddling away on some ukulele.
And I got interested in the food. Later on I even did a lot of figurative images that were reminiscent of some of those things. I concluded I’m not a Hindu. These don’t mean anything to me in this particular way. I was looking for something to do, really. I was exploring that notion of can the body be a semaphore in a message of some sort? But in retrospect I think they were decorative things.
So I finally figured out, okay, I'm going to go to India and just look around, which was the time I went in 2001. I did, and saw kind of the standard northern thing. I really wanted to go to Elephanta. I wanted to go to that cave that was cut out of the rocks. And after that I went to another rock-cut thing called Ellora, which was an astounding place as well, a couple of hundred miles from Mumbai. And from there I went to Jaipur and was in Delhi for a little bit. I went to Benares and then I went to Bageshwar, which is a city full of medieval Indian temples. It’s an astounding place. Then I went to the Sun Temple, which was just in the neighborhood. You might as well go.
When I went to the Sun Temple, I literally didn’t connect it with those pictures I'd seen in 1963 until I saw one of the panels I’d seen in that book. And I thought, "Wow, there it is! There’s the real deal!" That made me then consider, you know—what happened in-between? Seeing this as an image, and then really seeing it—I could say it's pure naked chance that I saw this picture and then 38 years later stumbled into it. But given all this stuff along the way, I don’t think so. It sort of affirmed for me the idea that what I had done in the interim was my way of getting to that place. And that maybe this was a place where things changed somehow. And that didn’t occur to me at the time. It's something that has emerged in retrospect. You know? It dawned on me gradually afterwards that there was a connection.
RB: So it's this idea that you’re seeking completion, or in a search for the prosthetic—the prosthesis that does the whole job, and that I could somehow re-enact that in the resurrection of the temple—which is what I’m going to build. I'm going to bring this thing to a sense of wholeness, because it was somehow an ingredient of the pursuit of my own kind of wholeness, or my own completeness, by making what I now conclude are a series of prosthetic constructs to fill some void that is fundamental in its functionality. I know that sounds hugely conceited. I mean, like the comparison I would make would be like how James Joyce used the Odyssey. James Joyce used a literary monument as the jumping off place for him to cast his own version of things.
RW: Well I mean it could be, I suppose.
RB: I’m not James Joyce.
RW: I suppose one could say it sounds hugely conceited. But it never crossed my mind there was anything even remotely like conceit there. To me it seems more like this is a point in your life; that your life led you back to that temple. And it wasn’t an intentional thing. It did happen that now you’re dwelling on that, because there is something deeply meaningful in your own life around it. So I can’t see anything conceited about that. What I see is an investigation, perhaps, or as you put it, a wish to complete some kind of process. What do you think?
RB: Yes. I just feel like there's a way that you keep…. I mean, the idea of the prosthesis. Like these things have gotten much, much better over time. I lost my leg in 1968. The first leg I got cost $300. It was as close to a peg that you could get—a solid thing with a rubber foot on it, and a leather liner. You know? And actually it worked. Now I have one that's Kevlar and carbon fiber and titanium and other synthetic stuff. So you know, I think you keep rebuilding. You keep revising towards effectiveness. But the goal is always the same: wholeness. That's when you forget about all the parts. You lose the consciousness of the parts. There are times that I forget about this idea, times where I have completeness and fluidity and movement and continuity. And I think I’m not totally used to it. It’s that the remedy has become constant, which is a different thing. It’s like you never are cured of this. It’s just that you are perpetually in a state of adjustment and repair.
And that goes back to faith. It’s like what are you? What many people think of is like, okay, I’ve been cured of being a sinner and now everything is great. But actually, no. You just found a way to perpetually repair your misdeeds in some way and not be crushed by them. So I’m feeling like that’s more of a continuous thing rather than just now I'm going to do the Temple and settle this hash once and for all.
Statement from R. Berger's website - http://www.rbsculpture.com/
"I propose that one attribute of the production of those makers we call artists, historically and culturally, constitutes a kind of prosthetic activity to address an unforgettable and irreconcilable absence. To forget would be to surrender to incompleteness, an untenable and intolerable state. This production, the work of the artist, is intended to, however imperfectly, reestablish completeness. This leads to the consideration of cultural, psychic, intellectual and/or spiritual categories of the prosthetic construct.
The cultural behavior called 'the arts' could be characterized as the manufacture of interrelated tokens alluding to or articulating prosthetic constructs of a collective nature, not to address issues of mobility or appearance as with a bodily prosthesis but rather to intervene on a number of levels in the very human predicament of what is collectively missing needing to be acknowledged and reconfigured, with the understanding that just like the missing extremity, what is missing is not an experienced recollection, but a gnawing presence. The sculpture titled The Prosthetic Temple constitutes a prosthetic expression of all that I didn’t know was missing, thus far."