Interview by Veronica Roberts & Jane Panetta
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Orly Genger builds stacks, walls, and even entire rooms out of rope, creating large sprawling sculptures that skillfully commandeer both indoor and outdoor spaces. Through her recurring use of coarse rope, extreme color choices, and what might be described as aggressive installations, Genger is a sculptor interested in reshaping space and actively engaging the viewer. Tacked onto the bulletin board of her Greenpoint studio are photographs of work by Richard Serra, Frank Stella, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Lynda Benglis. It is not surprising, given her practice, that she looks closely at this group of artists, all of whom are either major practitioners of Minimalism or artists who have directly responded to that tradition.
But perhaps more intriguing are the photographs of bodybuilders taped to various walls throughout her studio. For Genger, the physicality of sculpture is paramount not only to her process but also to the experiences she creates. While much of the rope she uses is repurposed from the sport of rock climbing, Genger likens her intensely demanding engagement with the material to wrestling. To prepare for installations, Genger ties her rope into knots by hand, an arduous and repetitive task. Once on site, she further wrestles with her material to coax it into massive accumulations that resemble everything from plinths and beams to molten lava flows. She then leaves the work for the public to navigate in experiences that are often physically and psychologically engaging due to the ways in which the installations occupy and often obstruct space. But the seriousness of her projects does not minimize the extent to which she also incorporates a playful humor into many of her works: for Genger this becomes yet another way to connect with and surprise the viewer.
When we visited Genger this winter, she was busy preparing for the exhibition, “Material World: Sculpture to Environment” at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts (on view April 24, 2010 through February 27, 2011), which will feature her largest, most ambitious work to date.
(photo courtesy of peggy ann)
Veronica Roberts: We’d like to start by asking you about the work you are currently making for the upcoming MASS MoCA show. Could you describe it a bit?
ORLY GENGER: I’m working on an installation using rope that I hand-knot and paint. Essentially, it will be comprised of two parts that will form a single whole. The first part—or what the viewer will probably encounter first—is a wall that runs from floor to ceiling and running side to side made of hundreds of layers of knotted rope. At one end, the wall will give way to an opening that will let the material pour into the next room, creating an amorphous environment where the material takes over, creating an overwhelming landscape.
I see the first room as a kind of contained object: something that we stand in and look at and that is very separate from us. And then the second room is something that very much involves us—we have to decide where we stand in it. So, it deals with both aspects of how we look at art: one is that we look at art like it’s something else, on a pedestal; the other room is something we become part of and we know it because we are in it. These are two different ways of understanding sculpture. I have been dealing with both separately. This is the first time I am combining them in one sculpture.
Jane Panetta: I’d like to ask you about your color choice for this work and about your color choices more generally. It seems like they are often pretty extreme—either all black, an absence of color—or electric colors. Can you elaborate on these choices?
GENGER: The MASS MoCA work is the first all-red work I’ve made. I am using this rare red color called “Pyrazo Quinazo” and am trying to use this color as an object, perhaps as much as the physical object itself. It’s hopefully going to be a color that will intrude upon you, like space can, and ideally, it should create an intense physical reaction, which is what I try to do with the physicality of the sculpture itself. My initial idea was to have a color that was so powerful that when you look away, you see another color. So, the red actually becomes an object that takes over space, it’s not just a surface. It takes on an active and aggressive role.
(courtesy of larissa goldston gallery)
GENGER: As for color choices I’ve made in the past, in the beginning, I was just using the original bright colors of the rope and not painting it. There’s a natural beauty to the color of this dyed material, like in Mr. Softy at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. I wasn’t yet focusing on color at the time; I was just focusing on the process. When I started using bright colors, it was for outdoor pieces like Puzzlejuice, installed in Riverside Park in New York.The outdoor works are very different from the indoor works. You so rarely get to see color in outdoor sculptures, and I felt that there was nothing wrong with it being accessible, especially in a public space.
At the Indianapolis Museum of Art, it was important that the pieces were solid black. I was trying to mimic how steel would look, which is heavy. And I was trying to poke fun at the way many male artists in the 1960s and 70s would make the same cubes or blocks or monoliths with steel, trying to hide their artistic hand behind cold and stoic façades.
Roberts: Can you talk about the kind of rope you are using for your MASS MoCA project and where you found it?
GENGER: For a long time, I have been using rock-climbing rope because it’s very durable, but I needed so much rope for this project, and we just didn’t have a budget for the rock-climbing rope. MASS MoCA is very resourceful, and they discovered this huge recall of lobster rope in Maine that we could have access to for free. It was literally mountains of rope—ten times the size of this room. So, Susan Cross, the curator, and her colleague Dante Birch went up to Maine and hand-picked rope for me. The decision to use this material was really born out of necessity; I would never say, “I want to work with lobster rope.” Even for the climbing rope, it’s not like I said, “I want to work with climbing material.” I try to take my material and neutralize it, and I try not to get bogged down in its history. I try to treat it the way I would treat steel or brick, something we’d consider more neutral, as opposed to giving an object a second life.
(photo courtesy of peggy ann)
Roberts: In looking at the rope, it strikes me that the ways you use it seem to have less to do with its history as a material and more to do with its properties and abilities. You don’t seem to be intent on transcending the material the way many artists do.
GENGER: Right, my work is not about transcendence. I really get into what I call a wrestling match with the material. I play with what it can do naturally, I try to resist what it does naturally, and I try to push and take advantage of it in some ways. That’s more of what I’m interested in.
Roberts: Certain works, Mr. Softy and Puzzlejuice for example, almost look like a knitted or crocheted textile. Is there any interest in knitting or textile-making for you?
GENGER: I hate all of these associations. I don’t relate to any of them. I associate with steel more than I do with crocheting. I just don’t see it as some sort of knitted material. I see it as using material to build. It’s on such a different scale. I wish my work would be able to fully transcend those associations and find a place somewhere between steel and textile, or be associated more with steel than with textile.
(courtesy of larissa goldston gallery)
Roberts: Returning to your MASS MoCA work one last time, I wanted to ask you about what connections you feel your work has with landscapes. I find it interesting that the way you describe the material often seems connected to landscape. You talk about canyons of rope, the way the wall at MASS MoCA will dissolve in an organic way…
GENGER: I am always interested in opposites. Steel for me represents permanence. Landscape I see more concerned with movement. That is probably why I talk about both. I’m fixated on what goes on in between the two. The permanence of steel combined with the flexibility of movement. And having that all in one world, in one object, because you usually don’t, really appeals to me.
Panetta: How much of the MASS MoCA work have you determined in advance, and how much of the work will you arrive at when you assemble the work onsite?
GENGER: The preparatory drawings I’ve made for the MASS MoCA work are abnormal for me. I don’t usually make drawings for sculptures. Usually my drawings are independent works that inform the sculpture but are not preparatory drawings. I actually hate planning—it makes me feel confined. I had to do it in this situation. Too many decisions needed to be made in advance for a project of this scale. I think one of the hardest parts of the work I do is staying with the initial idea. Over several months your ideas grow and change, but you still have to stick with that vision you had that one week, that one month. I find that to be one of the most challenging things with large-scale pieces. But there is always an element of spontaneity and surprise when finally installing a work on this scale, which is the exciting part.
Roberts: When Jane and I were last here in your studio, we had a chance to lift the rope you are using for the MASS MoCA project. Until touching it, I don’t think we fully appreciated how heavy this material is, whether it’s lobster rope or climbing rope. Can you talk a bit about the physicality of your process?
GENGER: The physicality has become a huge part of the work. I believe in working your ass off. I would even say that the amount of effort and sweat that I put into the work is everything. Work comes from work, even from bad work.
(courtesy of larissa Goldston gallery)
Panetta: The last time we met, you mentioned liking having a full day of work. That really left an impression on me. And to continue on this theme and the importance of the physical experience of certain works, I’m thinking of MASSPEAK in particular—what do you think about the way in which that piece invites the viewer to undergo a kind of physical experience as well?
GENGER: I wasn’t consciously thinking about this initially, but people have told me this, so now I start to see it. My work asks people to work, and there is definitely a physical interaction with the work. It’s not the same for everyone, but I want the viewer to be involved—physically and psychologically.
Roberts: Can you describe MASSPEAK a bit?
GENGER: MASSPEAK was the first real room installation that I did. It was at Larissa Goldston Gallery in New York. I basically filled the entire gallery with knotted rope. In the first room, I made two canyons that you walked between. And then in the second room, you were confronted by an outpouring of rope coming out of the room and towards you. It completely overtook the space in a way that controlled where you walked and how you saw and experienced the piece.
(courtesy of larissa goldston gallery)
GENGER: One of the things I want to underscore is that I know that simply filling a room with anything is interesting. And there’s a danger in that. Take anything and fill a room with it, and you’ve got an installation. What I am trying to do—and we’re getting back to the wrestling game—is take a material and push or take advantage of its limitations and inclinations to create something new. I’m not buying a million things at a store and putting them into a room. I’m building.
Panetta: Your work is much more engaged than that. First, you are wrestling the material. Then, the material, in a sense, is wrestling the space.
GENGER: I like that—the idea of sculpture wrestling the space. That’s what it does. And it’s transparent. With the rope, it is all visible. In a way, I’d almost compare the work to performance because the process is so visible and because my work is so connected to action. Sometimes I do performances pieces, but I also think that some of my sculptures, because of how they are made, are almost like the remnants of a performance.
Roberts: Jane and I both find your titles intriguing, especially the pithy one-word titles you often use, like Puzzlejuice, MASSPEAK, Posedown, and Reg. Can you elaborate on where these come from?
GENGER: I usually feel like huge sculptures should have short titles and small sculptures should have longer titles, just to balance things out. (Although I may be breaking my own rule with this new piece.) MASSPEAK is an invented word in English. In Hebrew, MASSPEAK means “enough.” MASSPEAK was a room split into two overwhelming canyons, and it was a very personal piece for me. At the time, my parents were going through one of the world’s worst divorces. People didn’t have to know about this, but it dealt with a mass, a peak, but for me, it also related to that translation of “enough.” So, it was a very significant title for me. "Posedown" is actually a term, a great term, used at bodybuilding competitions. At the end of a competition, it’s a posedown—all the competitors start posing, and the judges judge the poses on a point system. I liked the idea of having a room full of sculptures that were trying to out-pose one another.
Panetta: Returning to Mr. Softy and this idea of the performative, can we talk a little about which came first? When you initially conceived of the work, did you imagine that it would be both a sculptural installation and also a site for performance?
GENGER: I made the piece first and then thought of doing the performance. This was a horizontal installation, and it lay directly on the ground; the horizontal is very feminine to me. I started thinking about the armature, the structure, and whatever it sat on. In some way, the piece acted as a very passive object that simply took on the form of the ground it rested on. I wanted to make the piece animated, make it come to life. Crawling underneath was a way to become the armature for the work. In essence, I am trying to better understand sculpture; one way we relate to sculpture is by trying to imagine ourselves in the center of the work, as the armatures. That’s how we understand how things are made, how things are held up: by crawling underneath and being a more active participant in its being, as opposed to just letting it lie there.
When I work with a material, I am always trying to figure out how to get in it. The first time I was invited to create a print, I didn’t know anything about it, but I knew there was a press, and I wondered if I could put my body through the press. The printer said, “no, you can’t do that!”
Panetta: I was curious about your inclusion of the fans in Reg Versus Fans. Have you used readymade objects before in installations?
GENGER: It’s rare for me to use a readymade object in my work. I wanted to use the fans because I was thinking about stillness versus motion and wondered how to show the weight and permanence of something. You could have fans or wind blowing on the piece forever, and it still wouldn’t move. The whole room was surrounded by this circulating air, but the object just stood there, completely still.
Panetta: Also, when I entered Larissa Goldston Gallery to see Reg Versus Fans, I was hit by the odor of the sculpture. Was this “physical assault” intentional on your part?
GENGER: It was nice that it happened. I didn’t actually think about it because it was really true to what my studio was like. So I didn’t plan on it but it was a wonderful bonus. One idea that I want to do at some point is to make a piece that actually sweats. I don’t know how to do that without being more “high-tech,” but it’s something that’s been cooking in my head for a while now. I think about making a work and the possibility that it could actually sweat.
Roberts: I love this idea.