During the Biennale, visitors to the MCA entrance are greeted by New York artist Roxy Paine’s large-scale structure. Roxy Paine’s work examines systems of growth and decay by setting them against processes of organic evolution and industrial construction.
Entropy – the inevitable and steady running down of energy – man-made and natural – is counterbalanced by possibilities for regeneration. His work is nearly always based on a creation of tension between organic and man-made environments.
This has been expressed, at different times, in vitrines of meticulously replicated mushroom and plant life (often poisonous or hallucinogenic) in varying states of decay and in a series of large structures based on the forms of trees with their roots exposed that have been handmade out of industrial stainless steel pipe.
Such works are generically called Dendroids. Neuron (2010), the vast new work shown for the first time continues this idea, focusing even more on the idea of dendrites and synapses, the means by which information, knowledge and experience are eerily and electrically transmitted through a body.
Born 1966 in New York, USA
Lives and works in New York
Roxy Paine’s work examines systems of growth and decay by setting them against processes of organic evolution and industrial construction. Entropy – the inevitable and steady running down of energy (man-made and natural) is counterbalanced by possibilities for regeneration. His work is nearly always based on a creation of tension between organic and manmade environments. This has been expressed, at different times, in vitrines of meticulously replicated mushroom and plant life (often poisonous or hallucinogenic) in varying states of decay. He has also made a series of large structures based on the forms of trees with their roots exposed, handmade out of industrial stainless steel pipe.
Paine created a site-specific installation for the 2009 season of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden, the most dramatic outdoor space for sculpture in New York City.
Maelstrom features a 130-foot-long by 45-foot-wide stainless-steel sculpture, that encompasses the nearly 8,000-square-foot Roof Garden, and is the largest sculpture to have been installed on the roof of the Metropolitan. Set against, and in dialogue with, the greensward of Central Park and its architectural backdrop, this swirling entanglement of stainless- steel pipe showcases the work of an artist keenly interested in the interplay between the natural world and the built environment, as well as the human desire for order amid nature’s inherently chaotic processes.
These works are generically called Dendroids. Neuron (2010), the vast new work shown for the first time in front of the MCA, continues this idea, focusing even more on the idea of dendrites and synapses, the means by which information, knowledge and experience are eerily and electrically transmitted through a body.”
To create a Dendroid, Paine starts with an ink drawing and then makes a stainless-steel scale model that serves as a constant reference point. Shaping each pipe into a branch takes hours of reforming the steel with a metal-shop machine called a hydraulic bender, and then there is the welding, fitting and finishing.
Tall and lean, with shaggy brown hair and a beard, the 42-year-old Paine has a disarming mellowness that belies the drive revealed when the discussion turns to his art. “My life right now is this work. I live, breathe, eat, drink and piss it,” he says. “When it’s done, I’ll collapse for a while.” This intensity is no surprise, given the intellectual rigor and laboriousness of his endeavors over the years. He studies a work’s subject, such as fungus or trees, for months before embarking on it, and uses materials — epoxy, electrical wiring, stainless steel — for which tremendous skill and persistence are required to yield the precision he demands. “It’s a process of generating an idea and being propelled forward by it — a long process of intensive research and absorbing everything I can about that particular realm and then expanding on it,” he says.
Roxy Paine’s work examines processes of growth and decay, creation and entropy, on both manmade and natural scales. From the artist’s best known dendroid sculptures to works based on weeds and rot to his automated painting and sculpture machines, Paine continues to return to questions of environment as related to the viewer. Encountering his work, often in public settings, not only results in a distinct sense of place, but also generates connections between human bodies and those bodies and their shared space. Paine’s work is represented in major museum collections worldwide, and his recent large-scale installation, Maelstrom, is currently on view in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
SRK: Congratulations on Maelstrom. The installation looks incredible, and it’s a hard space to deal with in the sense that there’s so much to contend with on the rooftop.
RP: When you go up there with this installation, you might not have a memory of the previous installations, and things tend to be diminutized up there by the surroundings, so that was definitely one of the challenges that I saw coming into the project—how to deal with the scale. It’s not just the square footage you’re dealing with, it’s the vastness or expansiveness of that space—it just feels open to the heavens, and there aren’t any other trees nearby like you would have in a park, which would give you a sense of scale. The trees are 500 feet away, and you’re looking down on them.
SRK: I’d seen your previous works in New York, and I thought it was interesting that you’re obviously still working in a similar language, but it translates differently, depending on street level versus rooftop, where you have a sort of horizon line.
RP: I think it’s a combination of things that are happening: the language that I’m working with is changing. The earlier work was really characterized by the word “restraint.” I was constricting myself inside a very finite number of elements and possibilities, seeing what I could do within those very tight restraints, and I think in these more recent works, of which Maelstrom is an example, I’m really throwing those restraints away; I’m pushing outward on those boundaries and this language that’s set up, and I’m just less interested in restraint right now.
SRK: Building off of that, one of the things that I love about the work and that a number of people have commented on is that in contrast to restraint, there are so many allusions, there’s such a large range of visual imagery that comes up with Maelstrom—you’ve got downed trees, industrial plumbing, power lines, human limbs, cardiovascular systems.
I was wondering if you could elaborate a little on all of those suggestions and the importance of transformation and metamorphosis. Something that’s also very important to the work is the idea of simultaneity, and that’s increasingly important to me—that something be existing in these multiple states at once. It’s been present in the work to some degree all along, but I think it’s becoming much more prominent. Depending on the physical location in relation to the work and also the location of your mind—where your mind is when you come to it—the work can shift tremendously.
The idea of transformation is really critical because it’s taking this banal material, industrial metal piping, which is very specific and with limited functionality—it’s used to transfer material from one location to another in a factory or a pharmaceutical facility or an oil refinery or chemical refinery—and transforming that very stiff [material] into something very subtle, organic, and shifting. And a crucial thing is that it’s simultaneously transformative as well as still being the material that it is, and I’ve left many markers and remnants of its original function. When the stainless-type stock comes to us from the factory, it has all of these markings saying what weight it is, what size it is, what alloy, and so forth, and in many cases, I’ve just let that be.
SRK: When you’re walking through the sculpture, at certain points, you forget what the material actually is, and then at others, you’re drawn right back to knowing where it comes from. Can you discuss a little bit how the commission developed in the first place and physically how it was constructed and installed on the roof?
RP: Anne Strauss has been a fan of my work for a while, and about three and a half years ago, she proposed something. Originally they wanted me to do something for 2008, but having done Conjoined in Madison Square Park, that really just sapped my energy for a while, and I knew the enormity of the task at hand for doing something on the Met roof, but fortunately they were willing to wait. There was an original proposal with more discrete pieces on the roof, which they rejected.
I had proposed that, knowing that I was doing the installation at Madison Square Park, and I knew that I wouldn’t have the energy to do something really massive up there, but luckily it was a good thing that they rejected the proposal and that they were willing to wait because I think that it came out for the better. So, then about a year and a half ago, I had the drawing done and presented it to them and they got quite excited, so I started working on the model and finished it in about January 2008. One of the challenges of this project has been the massive bureaucracy of the Met, and in a way, it’s a kind of miracle that a piece like this has managed to exist at the Met.
There were about twelve people who came over to look at the model—I can’t even recall all of the different departments that they represented, but it was like seven different departments at the Met, and all of them had to give a go-ahead on this. It really is a testament to Anne that she managed to navigate amongst all of these separate [departments]; each one is its own fiefdom in a way with absolute control over its faction. It was interesting, from that perspective, seeing the way a huge institution runs.
SRK: So, once you started the installation, how much of the work was constructed in pieces off-site, and how much had to be done on the roof itself?
RP: Pretty much all of the elements we built in my studio. The piece itself is composed of about 10,000 individual parts. Then, basically, if you divide the length of the Met roof into thirds, it’s about 150 feet, so each third is about 50 feet in length. So, we would put together everything that we could in a third, and then we would have to dismantle it and put together the next third. It’s quite an elaborate undertaking; all of these elements are extremely heavy, as you can probably imagine.So then we would have all these elements, and the next stage would be to make all these elements fit onto trucks, which have definite restrictions on weight and height, so the elements had to be made transportable.
We cut the segments into the components that would fit on the trucks, and we ended up with about 80 different sections that were actually the parts that were loaded onto the flatbeds and then lifted up off of the flatbeds. We had two phases: we brought down five flatbed trucks worth of elements on the first morning of installation, bringing them in the middle of the night, and they were lifted up by a massive crane situated behind the museum that has to lift not only up, but it also has to lift out, because the roof space is not a straight line down to the ground level. There are a couple of buildings between there and the ground, so that requires quite a massive crane to have that cantilever. The first morning [involved] bringing up all the first truckloads’ worth of elements, which [included] probably about 50 of the elements.
You couldn’t bring all of the elements up at once or else we would have had no room to move or operate up there. So then we had Italian-made mini-cranes, which also fulfilled all of the requirements that the Met imposed on us, like we couldn’t have anything gas- or diesel-operated on the roof because of their fire regulations, and it had to be under a certain weight, and it also had to be something that would fit into the freight elevators. We found these mini-cranes that compact into a very tight space, and then once they’re on the roof, they open up and have these outriggers. With those, we were able to put all the elements together when they were on the roof itself. So the first week was spent putting as many of those elements together as we could, and that opened up the floor space, so we were able to bring up the second load of elements at the beginning of week number two. You [can] have all of these theories about how it’s going to go together, how it’s going to work, plan[ning] and worry[ing], try[ing] to think about every little detail, but you don’t really know until you’re there that morning whether it’s actually going to work.
SRK: There’s a certain leap of faith.
RP: Yeah, and luckily we were well prepared for every contingency, and it worked out.
SRK: One of the questions that the space itself brought up for me, and especially thinking about some of the other places that your work has been sited, had to do with the considerations of public and private space. Does that come into play when you start to approach a project? The Met roof is in a sort of weird limbo—it’s obviously private, but since the Met is a pay-as-you-wish museum, there is an aspect of the public as well.
RP: There are certain limitations that you have to deal with when something is truly public, 24 hours a day. The litigious nature of this country has also unfortunately resulted in a kind of lowest common denominator for a great deal of public sculpture in the last 30 years.
That’s always been one of the additional challenges for me: how to deal with those limitations and not dumb it down, not let it become lowest common denominator and still really engage with the complexity of form, complexity of metaphor, complexity of meaning. The Met roof has some constraints in that regard, but it did allow me a bit more freedom in what kinds of forms I could work with and how accessible those forms could be.
SRK: I was also wondering whose work, or which artists, you consider influential on your development, and whose work you’re currently interested in, either your peers, contemporaries, or looking backwards?|
RP: I’ve always been a huge Robert Gober fan, I’ve always been a huge Bruegel fan, and Sigmar Polke. I think they’ve been very inspirational to me, but I don’t think there’s a direct lineage. I’ve always kind of tried to establish my own logic, and I guess that’s what’s inspirational to me about those [artists] is that they’ve been very effective at establishing their own spheres of logic and then working within them.
SRK: Picking up on that idea of establishing your own sphere of logic, at this point you’re obviously best known for the metal trees, but looking through your past work, it’s obviously an incredibly varied practice, from the weed and fungus sculptures to the painting and sculpture machines. Not to specifically connect the dots between these parts of your practice, but do you think you’ll be returning to some of those other lines of work?
RP: Well, I am still always working with those different practices. I have a new fungus piece I’ve been working on, and there are some different machine ideas that I’ve been thinking about. It’s kind of like an overlapping series of wavelengths; I didn’t switch to making dendroids to the exclusion of the other works. It’s kind of a continuum amongst all the works.
SRK: And in terms of, Maelstrom specifically, it was obviously conceived with the site in mind. Will it have a life after the Met installation?
RP: I certainly hope it will. “Site-specific” is a subject that I have a little bit of trouble with because I believe that if the piece establishes its own logic and its own structure and its own world of ideas, then it should be able to function anywhere.
It may have a different set of resonances on the roof versus another location, and I wouldn’t necessarily say yes to any location, but I really believe that a piece should not be dependent on its site. So I hope that it will go to another site, and I may modify it to deal with the architecture of that site or the non-architecture of that site, but it would be largely the same.
SRK: To me, one of the interesting things that has developed in the past few decades as a response to site specificity is site sensitivity. The “if you move it, you kill it” ethos is something that artists have to respond to in some way or another.
RP: Yeah, there are some very specific elements of this piece—the parts where it goes into the edge of the wall, for instance, or the way it sweeps out over the borders of the space, which are very important aspects of the piece. But if it were to be re-sited, I would have to see what kind of space it’s going into and see if I could maintain some of those ideas, maybe not in the same exact manner.
SRK: And a related site question: in general, with the dendroid sculptures, can you talk a little bit about the difference between working in an urban environment versus a more natural landscape? The original one was in a forest, right?
RP: That’s right. For me, it’s more interesting when they’re in an urban environment or a disturbed natural environment. I think that people mistake a certain romanticism when it’s in a natural environment, and that was something I fought with early on because the first one was done in the middle of a forest. Many people looked at it and thought, “Oh, ok, this has to be in this kind of idyllic situation.” Their imaginations couldn’t allow them to see how the piece would be different in an urban situation, or an architectural situation. So that’s something I’ve had to fight over the years. For me, there is an examination of romanticism in the work, but it’s not romantic. And there’s just as much of romanticism’s opposite, which is a very analytical way of looking at the world. It’s equally present in the work.
At this point, I’m much more interested in them being in urban situations because I think that the tension between those two is more vivid and more robust, in an urban situation.
SRK: So my last question, obviously you’re just coming off of a major project at the Met, but I was wondering what you’re planning on working on next.
RP: Well, actually there’s no rest for the wicked because I immediately threw myself into a project I’m doing for the National Gallery in D.C., and that’s a very large piece that’s going to be a permanent part of the Sculpture Garden there. It’s a piece called Graft, and it’s a grafting of two very different dendritic entities onto the same central trunk. It’s dealing with dualities and dichotomies; it’s not necessarily only political but also about the dualities that exist in each of our minds.