Limits of representation*
An interview with August Christian
Edited by F. Farinelli, G. Olsson, and D. Reichert
I don’t really have an intention at the beginning, just to find forms … it just starts to come, nothing is ever really finished, only perhaps when you put down your tools…. When your emotion is exhausted then you’re finished otherwise you get into this mealy, over-worked creation, and it’s so over-worked it’s dead. If you ask me if I can see the sculpture when I close my eyes, that’s the only way I can see it, it’s a translation anyway, because it doesn’t exist, this was a block of stone and if I didn’t see it ‘inside’ I couldn’t have pulled it out. Usually your sculpture will fall somewhere in-between your vision and your attention. The vision just gets grander and grander, and as the forms come you fall into the point of being intoxicated; it was so intoxicating that I had to put the tools down, it was getting too much for me. I was making a race of my own at that point, especially with this particular material. The material was talking to me and we did really well. You can look at any sculpture and say ‘Why didn’t I do this?,” “Why didn’t I do that?” They are never finished. You could go mad…. There are Native American stories about a spider woman spinning and creating the earth….. Now we have superstring theory. The vision is always to lean over and kiss the form full on the mouth, isn’t it? Everything I’ve done is a complete failure. It’s a passing. When you put your tools down, when your emotion is exhausted, then it’s almost like the sculpture doesn’t exist for you anymore, you’re ready to go on to the next thing … you’ve already visualized the next thing.
The satisfaction can of course be very high, even if it is something you look at years later, put in a box so that it doesn’t get damaged, but the dissatisfaction naturally can also be extreme, like you can throw it in the East River, like I was selling white elephants. The anticipation is greater than realization. But the process is one of being form-drunk also. This one for example [Spider Woman] I was form-drunk — I knew I was done, I was dragging out the last weeks or so. I knew I was finished but I was just doing the least little thing so I could be with them, just completely drunk with the forms I created, the godhead…. You look at women on the subway and you notice how the corners of the eyes meet, how the mouth changes, etc. looking at women, part of being drunk…. A sculptor has to love manual labor, and you have to love material, this is the hardest wood in the world and you have to have some craft just to do anything with it, hard materials. This wood is from Haiti. Cuban wood is good. Even some from Florida. My teacher [José DeCreeft] had a particular appreciation of the hard, hard wood, and he had a particular appreciation of this work [Spider Woman] probably because he died before he could see the others. My teacher had ropes hanging from the ceiling because he was ninety-eight years old and he had trouble getting down the stairs, so he used ropes. My teacher said if you want to make a sculpture that looks like a rope, use a rope. I think he was right because working with wood or stone you have this block and just to purposely gauge it out, to make holes in it, just to have it look like some sort of rock that the water wore away, is idiotic… it’s not true to the material. Stone and wood have mass and strength, and data, and that has to be respected. You have arrived at your form by volume and movement, shape, thrust, not something with a couple of holes drilled in it and polish. When you can make portraits of tyrants then you can become rich. As I said, I’m just trying to keep from putting a bullet into my head. Joseph Campbell would say follow your bliss. Maybe each one of us has a piece of the clue.
I started visualizing, hallucinating as a kid, but it came to fruition during the war. All these sculptures were done through a veil of tears, as people will understand here in New York City now [post September 11]. And that’s a shame too because I thought I might have gotten a little peace in this life.
This piece [Genesis] is shape-changing, in process, a beginning, God created man from the dust, from movement, sort of like carving smoke (a bronze)…. You can’t be a poet and a shoemaker. People want their shoemakers not to be poets, in this country. They want shoes. People want to know that you make shoes, not that you also make poetry. That’s why European artists do so well here [in USA] — they have backing by government. America is not smart enough to know that art in this country brings in over a billion dollars and it would be very smart to support the artists… That’s why I reference not putting a bullet in my head! Do you want me to show you how to do it? This fucking America bullshit! Sometimes it all feels like it’s valuable. It’s just a journey I guess.
Two of the figures here I saw after the slaughter of civilians. I remember walking away from this ‘mess’ that we just left and I heard this voice say. “Who did this?” So I said “This is great! I’m starting to hear voices.” So now I do hear voices! The voice said, “Who has done this?”– and I saw these two figures in white. They were angry and I heard this loud scream. I realized only later it was me. The figures were the guardians [two of Christian’s sculptures]. When I was a child I had a dream that I was a goldfish and I was in my goldfish bowl and I was surrounded by, well, a number of women all of different color (outside the bowl) and they loved me and I loved them. Now this is a child’s dream. It all came together making these sculptures. It was a nocturnal dream in times of stress. Just a stupid goldfish.
So, selfishly, war was a turning point. I became a man when in war I made my decision. I made my decision not to kill anybody else. No more killing for me including myself, especially myself. Yes, at first I was a patriot…. There’s a lot one maybe doesn’t understand growing up in America and ‘the dreaded communism.’ But then I made that decision and walked away from the killing. During the war I lost my respect for authority. Needless to say, I didn’t do any sculpting in Vietnam. Thereafter, I studied shamanism. I found a place I could fit in. I was always in trouble as a kid.
Anyway I was in a rock band, then I was painting and I wanted to go to art school and study and learn the human figure. One thing led to another. I found my teacher. With the painting I didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted to learn to make monstrosities. I wanted to make things like George Siegel and Duane Hanson and make realistic looking humans, at first, human figures that looked alive. So I wanted to do that too, but with war scenes. I wanted to make things that were so horrendous that people couldn’t possibly look at them. But working with José [DeCreeft], the more I got into the marble and the wood the more I found out through the valor of the materials and the slowness and the thought process of speaking with the materials, that’s not what was exactly inside of me — all that anger and bitterness. I felt like an athlete. All those first sculptures are destroyed now. My first was a severed head of a Vietnamese. José understood that piece though. It was what it was. A lot of it came through seeing nature destroyed. You know, going in after the bombings. Body counts. The entire forests ripped to pieces. Animals and all. Seeing war as the hatred of women. The hatred of nature. Anyhow, I destroy a lot of my work. That destruction has nothing to do with the destroying of nature. At least I don’t think so?!!? So, it seems that all my pieces are about women, femininity in one sense or another. That’s the crux. Now one doesn’t have to ask any more questions…. That’s it. That’s the crux…
Henry Moore said “art is like a vast bowl and you can take out whatever you want. The only rule is that you have to place back something that wasn’t there before.”
* This text is abstracted from an interview with the author in Homo Oeconomicus, Volume XIX(2), 2002. Munich: Accedo Verlag. The title of this contribution refers to the original work, Limits of Representation, edited by F. Farinelli, G. Olsson, and D. Reichert (1994).