Alec Soth talks about “Broken Manual”, esacaping from society, the urge to own a cave, about becoming a binoculographer, his work and the life behind it:
AS: This is where Broken Manual really comes close to Sleeping by the Mississippi, because there you have the idea that you get on a boat and float away. It’s very similar to that.
BR: I’m quite curious about these new characters. Now I’m wondering: do these people own their caves? What is their relationship to public space?
AS: I thought about this a lot because with my own cave, I needed to own it. It was fundamental. I thought it would be really easy to ask some farmer, “Can I rent your cave for a couple years?” But that takes out everything I want from it. In terms of these people, there’s a huge variety.
There’s this guy who has a whole mountain and it’s worth millions of dollars. He ran away from home, was living outdoors, and his parents just bought him this thing that was quite cheap at the time. And now, thirty years later, it’s worth a lot of money. Everything from that to, essentially, a homeless person just living somewhere.
BR: These are very intense people you are tracking. For example, the large photograph of the guy standing naked in a desert oasis. When you look closely, there’s a swastika on his arm, and it comes as a shock. The image presents, in a way, the ultimate in a separatist white idyll. Other people may see drug or alcohol problems, or schizophrenia, even. I was thinking about encountering these people who are always at certain extremes, and there being something slightly traumatic about that. I’m thinking of the photojournalists who came back from Vietnam, but it also reminds me of looking for an apartment in New York one time via Craigslist. People would open the door, and just feeling these lives—even just stepping into somebody’s subjective space for a moment—could be so incredibly depressing. What’s it like to carry these intensities with you?
AS: How to answer that? Fundamentally, the work is about wanting to run away. And you would say, “Why would you want to run away, Alec? You’ve got a wife, two kids, nice house.” Comfortable—what is that? I don’t know what it is, but it’s something that a lot of people have. Then you go out looking, and you see these lives. It’s something like, “Yeah, okay. You have the cave and it’s nice. You sleep with the dog, and …” But, over and over again, you do see real misery. So then you’ve witnessed the fact that, with these people, something’s broken and that more often than not, there is a real hunger to engage with me. So, if I were to really leave my life, I would desperately miss it, and people. It’s a case of the grass is always greener. It’s both being attracted to it, and then when you’re in it, a bit repelled.
And on the issue of the swastika—I asked him a lot about that, and it was so clearly a case of being completely naïve. I didn’t want to exploit that as a major topic because I felt like the religious impulse of becoming a monk or something is not that different. It’s just a different shade of the same thing, which is this hunger to latch onto some sort of system. Because there’s always a belief system that’s connecting you to other people.
But you know what’s really interesting about him? You know the older guy who I said lives on millions of dollars of mountain? He was the guy I was going to visit. That young guy with the swastika was living on his property. The older guy is a total hippie. Not Nazi at all. I think he’s gay, and likes having the young guy around. The young guy is a bit lost in life, and he hates his parents, but it shows you—in both cases—how they’re not alone at all.
Untitled – Environmental Light Installation, 1969 Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photograph by Doug Chrismas; courtesy of the artist.
What does the sky look like in the desert of Arizona?
Grown up under this sky and having experienced the desert sky between massive cloudbanks early and often, American artist Doug Wheeler’s work is all about the attempt to achieve this kind of effect, an effect like a “torquing in space”.
After having started his career as a painter in the 1960s in the first place, Wheeler started to experiment with light when he realized that “what was really important was the space between things”.
Whether drawing, painting or installation – all his works are characterized by the experimentation with the perception and experience of space, volume and light.
His first environmental piece was shown at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1969, a “light wall”. In 1975 he presented the first of his “infinity environments” at the Salvatore Ala Gallery, Milan and later at the MoMA, Los Angeles and the Guggenheim in Bilbao: a white room that simulated dawn, day and dusk in continual succession.
In reference to his first “infinity environment”, Doug Wheeler now shows his latest piece of work at David Zwirner: “SA MI 75 DZ NY12”.
In interaction with the exhibition space he has built a large scale installation made of fiberglass, paints, resins and light to create a sense of absence. Over half an hour it will gradually cycle from light simulating dawn to the rising of daylight and finally to the falling of dusk. The viewer experiences the infinite space physically.
Citing the New York Times, “the works are trying […] to enable an experience of light and space in a much more direct way than is normally possible, “without,” as Mr. Wheeler once wrote, “the diminishing effect of a learned associative response to explain away” the essence of what is being seen”.
The solo exhibition is to be seen until February 25th, 2012.
More: New York Times