Olukemi Ilesanmi: You started out as an abstract painter, but now consider yourself an installation artist. Why did you decide to switch modes of expression?
Nari Ward: I became really uncomfortable with the code of painting – the idea that you would make a mark and it would represent something else, either historically or in terms of graffiti. So I became interested in actual objects that could have a different kind of reference. I was doing a lot of layering and trying to break down the material. Even when I was painting and drawing, I was using things like fire and trying to cover and coat things. I wanted to leave just enough information for the viewer to see the original but also to get another kind of read from it. Even now, I’m still interested in concealment, finding another way for the viewer to see things. So it was really easier for me to start working with what I call everyday material as opposed to trying to encode a kind of mark-making like painting.
Philippe Vergne: When did this shift away from painting to objects happen?
NW: Well, it’s kind of a funny story. I moved to Harlem while I was going to the School of Visual Arts for illustration. I started living – squatting – in this building, and it was kind of a dangerous situation because people were doing illegal activities there. But I viewed it as an opportunity to get a large, cheap space. It was the ‘80s and the crack problem was at its height. The poorer neighborhoods of New York were hugely neglected. People were always dumping stuff in empty lots, and I started seeing good materials – materials that I reacted to, that had stories behind them. I got really intrigued by working with these things and bored with mark-making. I was trying to find a language that would relate to the things I saw in those empty lots. So I started bringing them in, dragging them up the five flights of steps. Other people in the building felt threatened because they didn’t know what I was doing with all this stuff. They related my activity to being a homeless person, not an artist, so I was “evicted.” An artist represented an unknown danger. It was a revelatory experience for me.
PV: So quitting painting was a way to deal directly with the real and move away from a limiting studio practice?
NW: I didn’t have a proper studio at that time, but as I began to accumulate things, I realized that I needed a specialized space to deal with it all. My new method of working also allowed me more flexibility to explore working on-site. I’m very interested in the challenge of going to a place and reacting to the broad range of experiences there. When I’m in the studio I fall into production mode, and as a result, I fall into old habits. It’s important for me to break those habits. Visiting different places allows me to leave that practice behind for a moment and challenge myself to incorporate other kinds of information.
OI: So you gather materials and experiences in an effort to find new approaches to your work?
NW: What genuinely interests me is having all these gathered materials around me. Something may or may not end up in a work, but it’s necessary for me to have it in the room. When I first came to Minneapolis, I needed to get a sense of those voices of the communities, to interact with them. Having a direct notion of where I was going wasn’t necessary at that point. I tried to build the form around those voices.
OI: It was fascinating to watch you move from raw data to visual and conceptual narrative. How does the process of conversion from information overload to finished piece happen? Is it completely intuitive?
NW: Early on in this project, Dr. David Taylor of the University of Minnesota introduced me to the story of Clarence Wigington, the first African-American municipal architect in St. Paul and a gifted ice-palace designer in the 1930s and 1940s. I was captivated by this fading history. For me, memories often become richer as they become more distant. I began trying to extend my work with this theme, but I didn’t feel comfortable going around Minneapolis and St. Paul picking up materials as I have with past pieces. Instead, I decided to ask people for objects and their stories. That’s what I’m really interested in when I see something – the story behind it, a sense of it having been used. I struggle with how to extend memories, layer them, make them more ambiguous. For this project, I wanted to find an unpredictable way of talking about the elusiveness of memory, and the ice palace makes a lot of sense for this. The palaces were temporary. They were meant as a kind of spectacle to exist in old photographs and the memories of the people who visited them. It is not necessary for them to last for long in the real world. Based on the architectural footprint of Wigington’s 1940 ice palace, Rites-of-Way is built out of scaffolding, a material that is not place-specific. It goes around a building as an impermanent architecture, like an ice palace, and is often used to go up into a structure. I wanted this sculpture to capture that drama of height. That’s why ice-fishing houses serve as the palace towers in Rites-of-Way. They capture the planar ascension of the original. All these connections were really important as I conceptualized the work.
PV:Rites-of-Way is so conceptually and visually complex. The Wigington ice palaces are only part of a larger picture. Other components include a post office, the Rondo neighborhood, ice-fishing houses, and the stories and objects you received from Twin Cities residents. How did you approach combining so many disparate elements?
NW: It was faith. At the beginning of this project, I didn’t even know what an ice palace looked like. I just knew they were amazing. At the Minnesota Historical Society, I finally got a chance to see them and was really fascinated by the floor plans. They sort of looked like spaceships out of Star Wars or something, and that sense of fantasy appealed to me. Wigington’s ice palaces of 1940 and 1941 included post offices, which was unusual because most ice-palace themes revolved around winter sports. A post office is a way of processing and delineating information, and I wanted to incorporate that concept into my piece somehow. During my early research, I also learned about the old Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul. It was a thriving African-American community for several generations until Interstate 94 was built right through the heart of it in the late 1950s. Each of the homes demolished during the process of building the highway was photographed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Those images now appear in the King’s Tower of Rites-of-Way.
OI: Why did the Minnesota ice-fishing houses so capture your imagination? Is it because they are another form of vanishing architectures, like the ice palaces or Rondo homes?
NW: The analogy between the ice house, the Rondo homes, and the ice palace makes total sense. When the three of us drove up to Lake Mille Lacs to see one particularly large ice-fishing community, knowing that in just a few weeks the lake would thaw out and none of this would be there, I was further intrigued. Ice fishing seems like a primarily male ritual. These little houses are brought onto the frozen lake and holes are cut into the ice so that people can fish. Fishermen spend a whole day or two waiting for the fish. I think it’s really a way to commune with the self. When we left the lake, I immediately wanted to figure out a way to make those structures part of the piece.
OI: Could you take us through the workshop process that was so crucial to creating Rites-of-Way?
NW: During the residency, I met with several different groups – teens, elders, writers, homeless kids, recent immigrants. I asked them to tell me about an old home or an early experience that remains rich in their memory. Finally, I asked them to convey that story through a single object. For some people it was very easy, because they were talking about a specific item. For others, it was quite difficult. They had to distill an important experience or emotion into a single physical object, so we worked together to figure out what that might be. I asked them to either donate it or allow me to document it with a photograph. The most crucial element for me was the storytelling. Many participants knew one another quite well before the workshops began, but I felt they discovered new things about each other because I asked them to open up about their lives.That sharing built trust levels as they delved deeper into dialogue.
PV: How did their donations link to the larger project?
NW: After photographing them and concealing them in fiberglass cloth wrapping, I mailed their objects to old Rondo addresses that no longer exist. Eventually, they were returned through the post-office system and installed into the Queen’s and Federal towers in Rites-of-Way, the latter of which had been the post-office site in Wigington’s original design. Members of the Walker Teen Arts Council, in addition to participating in one of the workshops, designed rubber stamps that were used to mark the parcels containing the donated objects. This special collaboration added a level of sensitivity to the project and established a conceptual link back to the workshop process. It was important that their designs be guided by their conception of stamps in general and the function of this one in particular. The stamps symbolize four phases in an individual’s life: birth, adolescence, adulthood, and death or rebirth. I am delighted with the results because it’s a very open-ended system that allows for multiple readings. The designs are carried over to the flags that fly above the throne area of Rites-of-Way, unifying the work without confining it.
PV: How did you approach asking strangers to tell you something very personal, which would then become part of your process and outside their control?
NW: When someone contributes something to my projects, it places a lot of pressure on me because, on some level, I want to live up to their expectations. My sense of responsibility increases, and I like that. It’s like hearing, “Okay, I trust you completely.” I have to make their moment, their experience, really special. My anxiety becomes a kind of positive force. However, I do acknowledge that this way of working brings up issues of exploitation and cultural tourism. I try to keep centered in terms of necessary boundaries. I want to be respectful of the people, their memories, and their objects.
PV: One of those crucial boundaries might simply be the threshold of someone’s home or personal space. Did you meet people who resisted your process? Did anyone respond as though you were stealing their memories?
NW: There were some people whose memory objects were very meaningful to them, and they were reluctant or unable to part with them. Initially, I thought I wanted all of the items donated outright, but at a certain point I had to be realistic. When requested by the participant, I decided to substitute a photo of the object in place of the real thing. As long as they shared their story, they became part of the process.
PV: It must be challenging to separate your dual roles as artist and sociocultural catalyst in projects like this. As an artist trying to maintain creative control over the entire piece, would you exclude an object you did not like?
NW: I would not, but that’s a good question. It’s really important to stick with the parameters established at the onset. So again, it’s the idea of trust. As much as possible I try to do what I say I’m going to do, but I also need to complete the project. I feel that in this case, I’ve done really well.
OI: As a follow-up to that, I remember the very first time you met with the homeless teenagers who belong to the Kulture Klub at Project OffStreets. Afterward, you questioned how your project demands fit into their troubled lives. I imagine this reminded you of your experience working with street kids in Bahia.
NW: The children in Projeto Axé and Project OffStreets are faced with such hardship on a daily basis. I’m coming in with an artist’s proposal, and they don’t know where they’re going to sleep the next day. That’s why I’m interested in this idea of taking people into a space of contemplation. How do I get somebody to reflect upon their everyday experience and make it transformative? How do I take them to another place? For me, that’s how Rites-of-Way could function. It’s an environment that says, “This is a special place. You’re going to have an important moment here with yourselves and with each other.”
PV: There is something in your practice that I particularly enjoy: you don’t shy away from the big topics – the role of the artist in the community, historical realities, rigorous form – yet you maintain a certain distance, irony…
NW: Survival instinct.
PV: Survival, humor, and politics. You often balance radical social content with compelling form. This seems to reflect your approach to life and art. It’s remarkable that you can develop your work while maintaining such a delicate balance.
NW: You’ve hit on something – this idea of being a kind of socially conscious artist as well as a liberated artist or trickster. I find I can navigate between both of those things quite easily. Some projects allow me to be more of the trickster and much more disruptive. In others, I create something that elaborates on different kinds of information. I try not to limit myself by thinking I will do only certain types of projects. I can do both. I grow as a person through both approaches, which means knowing where my center is. Sometimes I may run from it, but I still know where it is.
OI: This idea of the trickster echoes throughout Rites-of-Way. Visitors navigate through an unfamiliar built environment, the elements of which offer several open-ended readings. Its simultaneously specific and unpredictable system fascinates me.
NW: For my process, it’s very important to avoid making linear connections, thus allowing the viewer to do some work. Those connections have to be carefully orchestrated, though, and that’s one of the difficult things about putting ideas into physical form. How do I make the visual form enticing enough to stimulate viewers’ thoughts and engage them on several levels?
OI: As visitors navigate within the piece, they may become hyper-aware of their own bodies and sensations. You’ve talked of Rites-of-Way as a passageway or a threshold to another space – physical, emotional, experiential. Could you elaborate?
NW: For me, the experiences of the work are crucial. Viewers have direct access to it, and I want to allow as much as possible to happen within that space. That’s why the complexities of the ice-palace layout and what I was able to capture via the scaffolding are so important. You see different views at different times. I’ve tried to enrich the experiences of the individuals exploring it by coding material and concealing it so they have to fill in those empty areas.
OI: Doesn’t encouraging the visitor to fill in those empty spaces mean relinquishing your control of the end result?
NW: When I worked on the stage sets for Ralph Lemon’s Geography, I learned a lot about letting go. I was fascinated with the stage because of the focus it gives to the individual moment. This is the same kind of focus I seek in my environments, because it allows a specialized space within which people can interact. In my work,I usually make my hand apparent through repetition and manipulation of the materials. However, the architectural construction of the stage is very modular. This process allowed me to move away from the need to physically layer and handcraft things myself. Now, I layer things more conceptually. Onstage, the performer guides the audience into a dialogue with the materials, which is very different from a traditional visual-arts approach. My experience working on Geography allowed me to approach Rites-of-Way differently than I might have three or four years ago. I no longer felt the need to go out and get those objects myself; instead, I went to the community members. I also had to trust the Walker staff to help me design and construct the piece. It’s been a good experience, a real growing experience. I want a balance between all of these approaches. There’s no one way to do things.
PV: The other day, someone remarked to me that Rites-of-Way is an “attractive nuisance.” Is that one way you would describe your work?
NW: I want to be able to visually seduce viewers to enter my environments, but I also want to give them something unexpected. I’m always trying to turn the script on them by being sweet and sour at once. Once they are leaning toward one, they’re also getting a better view of the other. So maybe that’s what “attractive nuisance” means. I like that term a lot.
OI: Some of the most powerful moments during the workshops were the profound reactions participants had to being asked to share their stories, their lives. Are you concerned that Rites-of-Way may challenge their expectations since you’ve taken their specific stories and made them accessible in a different, perhaps unexpected, way?
NW: I have a lot of explaining to do. Part of working with a community includes education, for me and them. I wanted to have an opening-day celebration so I could explain what I was thinking, why it’s important that their objects don’t get revealed. For me, being hidden is also about being empowered, for instance, because it’s like operating in the shadows. There’s a certain amount of power you can gain from being able to navigate undetected. I’ve always been interested in wrapping things or closing them off as a way of empowering what they are. People aren’t just looking at them and saying, “Oh yeah, I know that’s a knife.” Instead, they’re looking and wondering what’s in the box. It keeps the viewer curious, and it makes the objects more potent.
PV: What would you like someone visiting Rites-of-Way to experience? What would you like them to walk away with?
NW: Ultimately, if they connect with the information, the stories, the objects, I will be happy. Rites-of-Way is about notions of community in the broadest sense. If someone enters the piece and says, “Yeah, I can relate to this,” that’s a beginning. Secondly, I’d like people to engage in the space itself, move through it, feel what it’s like. Perhaps this could become a special experience they’ll want to document. Like the original ice palaces, Rites-of-Way could live in their memories and photographs even after it is removed in a few years.
PV: Is there a critical quality or common denominator that links all of your work? Is there something that you would be able to define?
NW: That’s a big question. Much of my work is about memory and mortality. I don’t want to say “death” because that carries too much baggage. We always wonder what happens to those little moments we have that are precious to us. We want them to continue and other people to share them. I’ve been thinking about how to keep them alive as long as possible. My work is an attempt to hold onto what we know is slipping away from us. For that brief time, we’re convinced that we’re really holding onto it. Rites-of-Way also addresses the concept of ownership – once you’ve shared something, who owns it? When someone else says, “I remember that, too,” you’ve both come together and a third thing is created. Ultimately, I want to maintain a critical awareness in my work process and remain unseduced by any one way of thinking. I constantly check myself because it’s easy to start doing the same thing over and over and not see that other realities also exist. As an artist, I try to remain as open as possible. I don’t mean only in terms of judging, but also in terms of seeing.