What follows here is a conversation between artist David McQueen and Gabriel de Guzman, Curator of Visual Arts, about the artist’s installation in the fall 2015 exhibition Field Notes. On view through November 29, the show includes three projects that offer insights into the way that observation, notation and travel are integral to the creative practice. McQueen’s installation delves into Wave Hill’s history as a departure point for this site-specific project.
Attend the Artist & Curator Talk this Saturday afternoon, November 7, at 2PM to hear more from two of the artists in the show, David McQueen and Matthew Friday, about their projects for Field Notes at Wave Hill.
“…it is bright and beautiful, and I love you most deeply,” imagines how Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and his wife Olivia might have maintained their intimacy when they lived in Wave Hill House from 1901 to 1903, a time when Olivia was ill and required “quiet seclusion” to try to regain her health. During this period, the couple passed notes to each other under Olivia’s bedroom door. Reading their correspondence inspired McQueen to invent more elaborate means of communication for the pair, creating a series of objects and drawings that the artist presents as found field notes. In fact, the titles of these works are actual quotes from Samuel and Olivia’s letters. McQueen’s story unfolds in the gallery and then continues outdoors.
In the artist’s imagined narrative, husband and wife construct intricate mechanisms to converse, including a rewired chandelier and sconces. Messages typed into the attached typewriter would illuminate the chandelier and transmit the lovers’ coded notes. McQueen envisions telescopes and mirrors installed at angles, so that Samuel and Olivia might catch glimpses of one another throughout the day. Mirrors placed in the gallery, entrance vestibule and in trees on the property trace this connection. Other unlikely components McQueen imagines the couple using are gramophone horns installed in a favorite chestnut tree, so that while writing outdoors in the afternoons, Samuel would still be able to hear his beloved’s daily singing. To illustrate their exchange, McQueen has installed gramophone horns in the gallery that emit voices reading Twain’s writings, as well as horns on the grounds in a nearby tree. Visitors can find mirrors installed between Glyndor and Wave Hill Houses as they explore the same grounds that the Clemenses so loved.
Gabriel de Guzman: For this site-specific project, you incorporated Wave Hill’s history in an interesting way. Why were you so taken by the relationship between Samuel Clemens and his wife Olivia? What was it about their relationship during the time that they lived at Wave Hill that sparked your imagination?
David McQueen: I have spent a lot of my studio life thinking about the things that go unsaid, the moments and emotions we fail to articulate and the ways in which that restraint, that repression, shapes us individually and culturally. The story of Samuel and Olivia Clemens struck me so deeply because as they lost their ability to express it physically, they were forced to find other ways to articulate their love—in a much more expansive way than just physically. While in residence at Wave Hill, Olivia became extremely ill, and her physician prescribed seclusion, or rather the specific exclusion of Samuel’s presence. In doing so, he denied them all of the smaller, essential joys of being in love. They lost the soft whispers, the casual glances and the unedited honesty that only a long, late-night conversation can bring. The totality of their intimacy became the passing of letters under her bedroom door. This story was so heartbreakingly lovely that I immediately started imagining what I might do to give them back some of those moments they had lost.
GdG: Is this your first work made in response to a specific historical narrative? How did the process for this project differ from your process of creating the allegorical pieces that are more typical of your practice?
DMQ: In 2012, I created an installation about Galileo’s son and his accompanist, so it is somewhat familiar territory. That relationship, however, was entirely fictionalized, whereas here the historical foundation of the Clemens’s marriage drives the emotional core of these sculptures. That specificity separates these pieces from my more allegorical work. Interestingly, the specificity also makes the work more universal, or at least makes the underlying allegory more accessible.
GdG: You’ve taken certain liberties with the details of this chapter in Twain’s life, using it as a springboard for inventing your own narrative. Why did you decide to portray a fiction based on the life of a historical figure?
DMQ: Sometimes the most profound truths are found in the lies we tell ourselves, but the word lie implies a malevolence that I don’t think we intend. I believe we often surround ourselves with fictions to avoid confronting the people we have become. Moreover, the fictions help us forget who we thought we could be. Hopefully, by monumentalizing this chapter in Twain’s story, by inflating that simple gesture of a note slipped under a door, these pieces will point to the love in our individual lives and allow us to celebrate them with all of the intensity and thoughtfulness of the Clemenses.
GdG: In your body of work, you often explore longing, romantic desire and emotional currents that remain unfulfilled. Why have you been drawn to these themes?
DMQ: I think we need more of it in our lives. There is tremendous beauty in raw emotions and unguarded truths, but we allow fear and insecurity, more than love, to guide our decisions. I like to think that by returning to these themes I’m rooting for love to conquer fear.
GdG: You have also used nautical imagery and maritime devices that appear to have come from a forgotten age, and in this project, you are presenting tools and devices supposedly uncovered from an obscure past. Why present these antiquated objects? Do they convey a lost aura, as in the concept introduced by Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”?
DMQ: Mechanical objects have a kind of transparency that I love. As a maker, I examine the physicality and functionality of things. By contrast, digital technologies and objects derive their functionality from their lines of code. I am more often seduced by the lines of an object that follow its physical necessity. I guess I’m also a romantic about objects and the making of objects. I do think that Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction has evolved into an age of disposability. My fear is that, as we get more comfortable throwing away things, we become more comfortable throwing away ideas, relationships and dreams.
David McQueen’s work has been shown at Wayfarers and DUMBO Arts Center in Brooklyn, NY; Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, NY; the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Bronx, NY; and Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, Wilmington, DE. He was awarded a fellowship in sculpture from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 2011. McQueen is the arts director for Advancement for Rural Kids, an organization that provides feeding programs, scholarships and arts education for children in the rural Philippines. He received an MFA in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA from Oberlin College.
Pictured above, from the top:
David McQueen, 2015. Image credit Wave Hill
David McQueen, “…the flooding sunshine, the fire of big logs, the white expanse of cushioned snow and the incomparable river,”2015. Image courtesy of the artist and Kim Foster Gallery, New York, NY
“…it is bright and beautiful, and I love you most deeply,” 2015. Mirror installation and gramophone installations. Image credit Stefan Hagan