WHEN IS BARBARA WEISSBERGER’S ART
THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF UNDONE?
Kiera Coffee: What kind of art you make?
Barbara Weissberger: One of the ways I frame what I do is that I started out making sculpture, I did that for many years and then I hit a wall with making objects; I realized I was interested in narrative. So I started making drawings and collage which led to installations with fragments of photographs I had taken. At one exhibition, I pinned photo fragments to a wall and put mirrors on the floor. In documenting that, I realized the photograph would actually be the piece, rather than the installation.
KC: So the physical things you were photographing would then only be seen in a photograph of them.
BW: They have brought me back to making objects, making sculpture. The photograph was my way back to the object.
KC: So your sculptures involve photography?
BW: No the photographs involve sculpture. (Actually the other way is also true.) Mostly I’m just making stuff and I’m not really sure if what I’m making for a photograph… will actually end up in a photograph.
KC: What materials do you work with?
BW: I use a lot of cardboard. I’ve been using space blankets, and one-way-mirror window film that has a very watery quality, sort of like a funhouse mirror but sometimes like a placid surface of water. When I make a full-blown sculpture, I generally use wire, and plaster, and paint. Really humble materials. Any detritus that’s sitting around the studio might find its way in.
KC: Do you like seeing your work in public spaces?
BW: Yes. This is one of my big preoccupations; the way the work exists in the studio versus a polished space. I like seeing my work in public spaces and I think it is in fact the polish and resolution of the exhibition space that I like.
KC: But you’re not always concerned with polish, using as you say detritus from your studio.
BW: I like the way detritus and roughness coalesce within the photograph, within the rectangle, underneath the smooth surface. I’m hoping that within the photographic image, all of the pieces of dirt, fingerprints, hair—literally if a hair falls into the setup, it stays there—that all of that keeps my studio present in the work.
KC: What does it mean to keep your studio present?
BW: When something is in the studio there is all of this possibility. In a good work, the finish of it doesn’t close things off, the process feels open ended, like breathing room. I really want that with my work.
KC: Is the making, the creative moment, the most exciting part?
BW: Maybe. When you feel like you’ve gotten something, it’s also very exciting to just look at the work. The most exciting part is what you didn’t anticipate. And that’s often what spurs you on to think, ‘Okay I want the next one to be….this!’
KC: You said that when a piece is in the studio, everything leading up to it, surrounds it. What do you like about that?
BW: Meaning shouldn’t be locked down or too resolved, the studio gives flexibility going forward and backwards. I like a lot of ambiguity in art and I also like for things to be a little confounding, in flux. When I see art that I am excited about, an amazing work of art, I feel a physical expansion. I feel the world just got a little bit bigger because of this work of art.
KC: What a great thing.
BW: And it’s often when there is ambiguity. You need structure, some meat, but openness is a lot of what I’m after. I relish when an artwork can sustain a lot of looking, over time, and keep yielding different sensations.
KC: You’re talking about art works we are drawn to look at again and again?
BW: A historic photograph is an image of something that happened in the past and we think of it as an event that is over. The way it can remain meaningful is in your response to it, which is not in the past. Your response is contemporary and ongoing. So even a historic photo can have a quality of undone-ness
KC: How do you bring an undone quality to your work?
BW: I’m not sure I’m bringing that. But it drives me.
KC: How do you start?
BW: Usually there is some preoccupation; I’ll be thinking about a foot, or a sock, for example. I’ll have something on my mind and say, ‘Ok I’m going to make that thing and see what happens.’
KC: Do you have themes?
BW: One preoccupation in my work is with the body. The sock is like a surrogate foot. But when I’m working, I try not to know where I’m going. I may start with something particular in mind but I try to be responsive to materials, shapes, images.
KC: Why not follow an idea?
BW: It doesn’t work so well when I try to force something into an idea. That said, I might be fixated on the funny, sad sock, or a bent pencil sculpture I made, and it often remains central to the piece.
KC: I like the sock and the pencil a lot.
BW: The pencils come out of the studio, and working. When I started making them I wasn’t really drawing; I thought of them as homages to something I used to do all the time. Also a lot of my imagery comes from the way something comic can be poignant and abject. There’s a ridiculous quality, like the sock is ridiculous, it’s stupid, but it elicits pathos, it’s like a sad body.
KC: I think of you as a reader and thinker, a conceptual person.
BW: For me, concepts, materials, and form are jumbled together; thinking and making are not separate activities.
KC: Where do you do your best work?
BW: I am adaptable, that’s part of my work process. I travel and do art residencies and all of the different studios have their own character. For quite a while I was thinking, ‘Ah this is so great, I’m so lucky I work this way, making photographs of temporary installations because it allows me to work in all these different places.’ And then I thought maybe it’s the other way around, maybe working in these different places and traveling around actually sparked this work.
KC: You seem to thrive, whichever it is.
BW: I like making do with what’s there, I like bringing a limited number of materials, and then I have an idea that those materials may not support, and I have to be ingenious, work with what’s in my environment. What can I slap together to make the thing I want to have happen? It’s this very alive thing. I come in with all of my stuff in this box, I open it up and everything comes out, I make work and the space fills up, becomes an installation of what I’m making. And then I’m done and I pack it all up and it’s an empty space again.
KC: Like the circus came to town.
BW: I’m touching down lightly, moving. The photograph exists but everything else that happened in the space disappears.
photo credit: work in-progress at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts