A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

Wondering, Not Knowing: An Interview with Alisha Wessler

David Xu Borgonjon, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, helps make Wave Hill a welcoming space for artists and a stimulating experience for visitors. 

Each winter, Wave Hill opens Glyndor Gallery as workspace for New York-area artists. They benefit from intimate exposure to our garden setting, and also reveal part of their working processes to visitors through open studios and artist-led workshops.

Alisha Wessler, Compass/Trap, installation view, From Afar It Is an Island, 2013.

Alisha Wessler’s  talisman-like creations take physical handling to understand. One of Wave Hill’s 12 Winter Workspace 2015 artists, Wessler gathers objects from daily life and modifies or fuses them, often grouping them into museum-style arrangements. She’s made ample use of her time at Wave Hill, where she has been settled into her studio space since New Year’s, gathering plant clippings and fallen matter as her raw materials. I took the opportunity to find out into what world she imagines these alien odds and ends would fit.

David Xu Borgonjon: I know you’re inspired by Cabinets of Curiosity, which were status symbols for European prince-collectors in the Renaissance, as well as scientific laboratories for creating knowledge. With that in mind, do you think your work produces knowledge?

Alisha Wessler: While I wouldn’t say that my works produce knowledge, I am very interested in questioning the bounds of existing knowledge and the assumptions behind classifications that we use. When I exhibited my work at Ann Arbor’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in 2013*, it was in the context of an old archaeology museum. I decided not to use labels, avoiding the 1:1 ratio of object to fact-fragment that we’re so accustomed to in museums. Instead, I gave visitors a “List of Possible Categories,” which was based upon the notion that every system of classification is arbitrary and, in equal terms, wondrous. My hope was to disrupt expectations and challenge the ways we take things for granted while giving the viewer an opportunity to not know!

DB: Could you talk a little bit more about this idea of wonder?

AW: In the introduction to his well-known book The Order of Things, [French philosopher Michel] Foucault references a list of fantastical entries from a fictitious Chinese encyclopedia featured in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” As Foucault suggests, in the wake of encountering this list, we the reader are suddenly made aware of our own inability to believe in systems outside of the narrow set of possibilities to which we are accustomed. The world that Borges reveals to us is unsettling but expansive; it reminds us that other systems of thought can and do exist.

DB: The systems that you create tend to use unstable or unfamiliar categories. One device you use is hybridity.

AW: I’ve always been fascinated by objects that fall outside the bounds of simple classification. For me, this is where wonder comes into play—an encounter with the unknown. When experimenting with materials in the studio, I’m looking for that moment when two opposing parts come together and become indistinguishable. The shift can be subtle until you handle the object. When a dry kelp pod is filled with resin, for instance, its fragile membrane becomes impregnated with liquid, and then hardens into this entirely new form. Even more important to me is the idea of the uncanny, where the familiar commingles with the unknown, strange and often foreboding.

Wessler leads a workshop Saturday afternoon, January 31, working with participants to combine objects gathered from home and Wave Hill’s grounds into surprising new forms.

*From Afar It Is an Island, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Ann Arbor, MI, 2013.


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