Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Ursula von Rydingsvard: Objects of Presence

by Richard Whittaker, Feb 16, 2003



I first heard of Ursula von Rydingsvard from my friend Jane Rosen. "She's a great artist," she told me. "You should interview her." But Ursula lives in New York and I had my hands full in the Bay Area. It didn't seem likely to happen. Then one day I got a call from Jane— Ursula would be in San Francisco to give a talk at the Art Institute. She would be in town only briefly, but perhaps I could arrange to meet her. It turned out that she would be staying with Ann Hatch who had brought Ursula to SF years before for a residency at the Capp Street Project. With Jane's help, a time was arranged and one afternoon I found myself sitting in Ann Hatche's living room across from von Rydingsvard. 

Richard Whittaker:  To start, I thought I’d ask if there was anything you might be thinking about currently which you might want to reflect on.

Ursula von Rydingsvard:  The thing I’m thinking about now is something I’ve thought about for the past number of years: that is, trying harder to break up the givens that I know, but to break them up in a way so that they have meaning—so that the process of breaking up is a kind of groping to figure out where I want to go. I guess to try to have a platform that I’m working through that does not have as many answers.

RW:  You’ve been making art for many years.

UvR:  Yes. I’ve been making art since the late sixties.

RW:  So you’ve found certain directions are beginning to become fixed? or habits are forming?

UvR:  Yes. I think it’s as in living life, that there are things one leans on. One gets a degree of comfort by leaning on them. I want to be very wary of that in my work. You lean on something because there is a connection between that which you lean on and yourself. I want to make sure that there is indeed a connection that still feels exciting, that it’s a connection that I made a decision about. I guess my instinct is to throw things out of whack a little more to see where they land, and then to start gathering them again to see if there’s another way that they might assemble themselves which might be worthwhile for me at that moment. Just the process of throwing it off means that I have to reassess it.

RW:  So there’s the search for some life—to use a big, general word.

UvR:  I think that’s really one of the most important things in any work, the life that one imbues it with. I’m not even saying that there’s too much life or there’s too little life—I don’t think I’m saying that. I guess I want to ask the questions that feel like they’re the most exciting questions to be asked, and they’re not questions I can ask verbally.

RW:  I regret that I’ve seen only photographs of your work, but I have looked at them carefully. Even the photos affected me strongly, and it was clear they were reaching me in non-verbal places. And you’re saying that your questions can’t be asked verbally, but have you ever tried to articulate it any more than that?

UvR:  It sounds so corny when I say it verbally, but the process is basically a kind of reaction to whatever is happening when I’m building a piece. You need a starting point, something you’re going after. There’s something that maybe you were working on in another piece that started a tangent that you couldn’t follow out with that piece. So now you’re working out that tangent in this new structure with some sort of image in your head that you want to go for. But often, because of the reality of what’s happening, that image is impossible to realize—or impossible to realize the way you had intended for it to be realized. Often that image is not clear. But there are images that are insistent images. They are more specific and more clear. If the image is insistent enough, you then try to reach as close as you can to that, unless in the process of building it, it’s really not looking the way you want it to look. You then let that go. What I always want to do is to be able objectively to look at what’s being built and intuitively react. "Oh, this looks so dumb!" And maybe that’s what I want, kind of a dumb orientation for that moment. Or, "it feels kind of goood."
     So the words that are associated with what I am looking at are really words that are like some sort of traffic light that tells me something like, "be a little cautious about this one," or "go for this one." I’m really simplifying it here.

RW:  While working with materials, there’s something inside that’s looking and responding, sometimes saying "no," sometimes "yes," etc. And when you say, "I have an image in mind," There’s a tendency to see "image" only as a visual thing. But is there something more than just the visual in this guiding image?

UvR:  That’s a lot.

RW:  The reason I ask is because of how your work gets to me viscerally, and when people write about your work, this aspect always seems to be mentioned prominently. Now out in the world it’s rare when large works, welded steel, etc., touch me this way. How do you respond when you hear people saying your work affects them this way?

UvR:  I like it.

RW:  You must find something like that true of your own experience, or do you?

UvR:  Yes. It’s just that with my own experience, there is the drive to go into an emotional arena. But I never describe that arena because I can’t. As I hear myself right now, I say, "What are you talking about? What arena?" I have never said that to myself. It’s very intuitive.

RW:  Yes. I think one doesn’t want to dishonor the experience by using language that doesn’t work somehow.

UvR:  Except that I love language. But what you’re saying is that language is hard to tailor to it, and I must say that there are people who can really do it. I’m not sure that I’m one of them. I find that no sooner do I say something than just the opposite is equally true. I feel like I’m a constant liar, you know? But it’s usually after I hear myself. My intentions are to say something that’s somewhat true.
Jazz players, for example, could care less about verbally describing what it is they’re doing, or why it is that they’re doing it. I almost feel like I’m playing the position of a dumb one, but maybe I like that position.
Often I have a horrible dyslexia about geographical locations—and I can’t help but think I facilitate that not knowing, I sort of prepare the bed for not knowing where I am. When this world is not such a known, it becomes new, and you’re so much more alive and open-eyed to it.

RW:  I know that experience and love it—like being on a familiar stretch of road, but suddenly, for some reason, you don’t recognize it, and it’s new.

UvR:  Or going to another country and not getting a map. Doing it another way.

RW:  Yes. Well, I wanted to ask you about scale. Obviously scale plays a very significant part in your work. Not a simple issue.

UvR:  There’s part of me that loves being angered and heavy and really present, but… I try not to associate with things that have to do with machismo, things that have to do with an "aggressive stand" or egocentricity. Sometimes those things are associated with scale.

RW:  There’s a part of you where there’s anger that sometimes comes into play?

UvR:  Yes. I’ve got plenty of anger and yes, it does come into play.

RW:  It comes into play as a force perhaps that affects your choices?

UvR:  There are also some things in the work that feel agitated enough that they can be talked about as "anger" as well.

RW:  Sometimes do you feel you can come up with thoughts or actions or choices that you couldn’t have without this force of anger?

UvR:  It’s a great mobilizer. It prevents you from the maintenance mode.

RW:  You can make radical decisions and one doesn’t even feel there was anger there. It could come out as a visual choice. Does that make any sense?

UvR:  Yes it does. And I have never, ever in my life said in words, "okay, I’m going to put ‘anger’ in here."

RW:  No. It’s not like that. Now scale—people are going to respond to sculptural objects in relation to their own stature. Do you play with that?

UvR:  A lot. The whole basis of scale is in relationship to the human size. Even when it’s outdoors, it’s in relation to the human size, but also in relationship to what surrounds it. In scale it’s incredibly important outdoors to have a presence underneath the sky, underneath the sun, and I never, ever think of competing with what nature does in any way. But I do try to hold my own with the surroundings, to have a presence in the context of the surroundings.

RW:  If I’m standing in front of an object which is eight, nine, ten feet high—one thing that may do is put me back into an earlier part of myself.

UvR:  Sure.

RW:  With the Bowl with Side Steps, for instance, which is seven and a half or eight feet high or with River Bowl, which is huge, do these put you in a certain space like that when you’re in front of them?

UvR:  I think it can, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. It depends on what piece, and how I do it. I think being larger in itself doesn’t have to make you go back to one’s younger years. I think, in fact, there is a way of making huge pieces that can do the opposite of that—support one’s strength and the size that one is—depending on how one does it.

RW:  Can you say anything more about that?

UvR:  I think that going larger, or changing scale is critical, but there are so many more undercurrents and implications to that depending on how one does it. There’s a huge piece that was done by Tinguely in which a machine was installed at the Museum of Modern Art a long time ago. I think it was in the late sixties or early seventies. A machine—huge!—threw a ball to presumably the viewer. So playful! There was almost a tenderness that he gave to this huge machine. And we all know that there are some sorts of huge animals that are on the side of being tender.
     I remember a guy who worked for a circus and was their freak. He was some enormous height. I don’t remember how high. He used to eat four dozen eggs for breakfast with two loaves of bread. And everybody would pick on him—not the circus people. They knew better. But when he got into the outside world, they would pick on him, as though he had to be a bully, and he had to be aggressive because he was that big, but he didn’t come with the qualities associated with bigness.

RW:  He was vulnerable.

UvR:  Yes.

RW:  I wanted to ask about another aspect of a lot of your large pieces—they seem to have a geological quality also. There is the evocation of strata, for instance. Do you think about this geological aspect?

UvR:  I do. I don’t think about it as a scientist obviously would think about it. I love the transitions of age, the evidence of those transitions.

RW:  There may be a very massive object like River Bowl but the surface is intimate, in that the evidence of the hand is everywhere. There’s the massive scale, and then the intimate quality of the surface that is also very much present. Both things present at once. Almost contradictory. Someone wrote, "dialectical." Do you have any thoughts about that?

UvR:  I think you’re saying it well.

RW:  What’s it like for you when you’re touching and cutting, and your hands are on the work?

UvR:  It’s not what people would think. I’m constantly pulling a dozen slivers a day out of my hands. I can wear gloves, but I have to leave at least the tips of my fingers exposed. Otherwise I can’t really feel what it is that I want to feel. When I do the cutting I can’t wear gloves at all. I’m constantly getting smashed by the cedar. There’s a way that the cedar becomes something that I need to protect myself from. Sometimes I manipulate it in a way that is so aggressive and so heavy. I wear respirators, not just the paper masks. And I hate the respirators. There’s a tremendous weight. I’m getting dents in my face, but I have to do it. I’m allergic to cedar because it’s been with me for so long. My hands are always like sandpaper, the tips of my hands. But I’m not complaining. I’m getting a truck-load in right now, a huge flat-bed being delivered up-state. It’s not as though I don’t need it and don’t want it, but I do not idealize it. It’s too much around me to idealize. I know its strengths and its shortcomings.

RW:  You’ve been working with the cedar beams, the 4 x 4s since…

UvR:  …1974.

RW:  It’s been a very rich medium for you. You haven’t exhausted it.

UvR:  I don’t think so. I keep thinking I will, and if I do, I’ll go to another material.

RW:  I wanted to describe an experience I thought you would relate to. I was in Death Valley not long ago. Magnificent place. In some parts there are hills of black rocks, basalt, often with scattered pale-colored shrubs growing on them that catch the light. Beautiful. I was walking out into this place and stopped and picked up a chunk of that dense rock. I was holding it in my hand and said to my wife, "This is a piece of basalt."
I guess I was in sort of an altered state actually, because as I heard myself saying these routine words "This is a piece of basalt" I was immediately aware of a huge gap between the reality of this object in my hand and these empty words. No connection. You’re smiling and nodding… I guess there’s not much to say about that.

UvR:  [smiling, nodding]

RW:  One’s relationship with the world, as object. Does this relate in any way to your work as a sculptor? With materials?

UvR:  It does. I just don’t know exactly how to amplify on that. But I understood what you said.

RW:  Do you read much?

UvR:  Yes.

RW:  One reads a lot about "The Other." Do you have any thoughts about that.

UvR:  I don’t know how to respond, because I don’t know in what context you’re talking about "the other." "The other" can mean anything.

RW:  In this case, with the basalt, I saw it wasn’t me. It wasn’t the words. The chunk of rock was what it was, but I couldn’t possess it through anything. It was just there—something utterly other than me.

UvR:  That’s right.

RW:  But, in fact, the basalt is just a little piece of a larger otherness. All of nature is other. I guess one is just mute in front of that.

UvR:  That’s right… And do you think that there’s a way in which we experiment with being "other? Like you are "other", and I am "other"? You know what I mean? That there are times when that’s what we need to do, too—just even with ourselves?

RW:  I think there’s something deep in what you’re pointing towards. I don’t know that I have very good articulation around it, either.

UvR:  I have a great love for many objects. These are objects that don’t even have to have a reason for existing. And often these things are man-made, but they’re man-made in the most hokey way. Often they’re made out of some kind of necessity, and "hokey" meaning that they might be squeezed and pressed together almost out of nothing. It’s not as though there was some kind of expert tool-smith that made this chalice with inlaid gold and rubies.
     I think of something as simple as—in China I saw a guy about a year ago, with a bottle that was made from a bamboo tree. All the bamboo trees get their strength because they have not only the stem itself, but the stem is cut transversely by a diaphragm, a diaphragm which gives it its strength. They use the bamboo for scaffolding, going up fifty stories with it! Not an ounce of steel. All bamboo. So he takes a piece of this and cuts the bamboo so the bamboo is maybe this wide [holding hands apart]. Cuts it off where the diaphragms are and turns it this way[sideways]— and cuts a hole in the stem so it can be like a bottle. He puts some plastic circular thing in it so it won’t spill and he can put a straw in it. You can tell it was some peasant’s thing that he took with him every day to the fields. It was very functional. Very light. And the straw added a recreational quality. It held water and was actually very beautiful to look at.

RW:  I remember a talk Wayne Thiebaud gave once. He said he felt it was important to surround himself with objects that sort of fed him somehow. Is that something that relates here?

UvR:  Absolutely. Yes they do feed something, but I don’t do it for that reason. I do it because it’s my pleasure to surround myself with things that are visually fun to look at.

RW:  When you make a work that goes in public space, do you have any hopes for that, as to what that work might do?

UvR:  I do. I have hopes for all of my sculptures. To verbalize what these hopes are would be very difficult.

RW:  I guess I’m thinking about how a work in a public space has an inner action. We hear a lot about the environment. Take a phrase, "habitat restoration." A good thing, but do you think we can think about this phrase as it applies to us in an interior way?

UvR:  Absolutely.

RW:  Let’s say that wilderness, for instance, could have to do with a kind of original experience, a place that hasn’t been spoiled by "education," so to speak. I mean how we’re always under some pressure to act and see and think in proscribed ways. But there’s something necessary about being able to preserve parts of ourselves that aren’t so divided.

UvR:  I feel strongly that yes, one can drink in all of this stuff, but I think—well, there are times when one rides in the subway when all of the subway cars line up. You look to your left and you look to your right and you see almost infinite numbers— especially if the car doors are open [extending out]. You see infinite cars, with many, many people in each car. You know there’s a way in which you feel you have to reconfirm that you really exist. There’s a way in which you can almost lose the fact that you actually exist. I’ve felt that way on the main streets in Tokyo. Everything there was built in the 50’s and you look down one street and you look down others, and you can’t see the end. In that part of Tokyo, everything was done in a grid, built so quickly, that there is a frightening sameness in streets so long, you couldn’t see their ends. You try to figure out how it is that you can deviate from all of that, and for that deviation to have meaning for you.
     In Last Tango in Paris, there was a woman who was married to Marlon Brando. She committed suicide, and Marlon Brando was talking over her grave. He said, "You got your lover a pair of cuff links exactly like mine. You bought him the same bathrobe you bought me, but I see…"—and the lover actually lived in the apartment next door which was the same kind of apartment that they had—"but I see that somewhere…" I’m making this up probably, but I’m making it up only partially. "but I see that you have, with your bare hands, that you have scratched the surface over and over again, of a corner of our room"—I think it was their bedroom— "and it is only now that I understand that you were trying to make that different somehow from your lover’s bedroom next door." —trying how to better figure out who you were through that difference.
     Perhaps that’s what I think I’m trying to do, to see if I can excavate some sort of meaning for myself through these objects that I make. And I think that we all have our own way of doing it.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine


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