Interview: Karen Lofgren
Interview: 1500 words
on the occasion of What is to Cure
on view at Royale Projects September 6–December 16, 2018
Sacha Baumann: Can you make work anywhere or do you need to have a dedicated space?
Karen Lofgren: I do need to have a studio, but it can be anywhere in the world. I had a studio last year in four different cities. I was in Iquitos, Peru, London, Lima and Los Angeles. I had a studio in each of those cities that was completely viable, and I made a lot of work.
SB: Your exhibition at Royale Projects in Los Angeles consists of sculptures and a series of drawings that look like large travel journal entries. Where was the work for What is to Cure conceived?
KL: Well, I was in the world. Some of it started in the Amazon, some of it started in London. Some of it started in Lima. But it crystallized or began to come together as form in London, really. I bought silicone here in Los Angeles and then went back to the Amazon to cast leaves. I had 30 pounds of silicone in a backpack. You can't just buy silicone in the Amazon. And the species of these giant medicinal plant leaves don't exist anywhere else in the world!
SB: I feel like the illustrations act as an introduction or guide for the rest of the exhibition.
KL: Right. That’s fair. They are notebook pages from my research. They're pretty basic in a way. That's just me sitting in libraries, reading stuff, and drawing.
SB: Libraries in Los Angeles?
KL: No, that was in the UK, those were made in London. I was either at the Science Museum or the Wellcome Library, which is dedicated to medicine. I was collecting data. The library is so comprehensive. I was making those drawings while in the library—they are my notebook pages. I've never shown drawings before. So that was a new thing for me. Even though I'm fairly skilled at drawing. I've taught life drawing. I haven't ever actually taught sculpture.
SB: Why is that? Are you holding it for yourself?
KL: No. I just haven’t had the opportunity. It would interest me. I mean, if somebody wanted to hire me because I am who I am and I do what I do. If they wanted me to follow a sort of really pedantic regimen of how to become a teacher, no. I don't want to learn the six Socratic methods or whatever. I just want to do my stuff. I like student work and I like students. It's a lot of energy. I know something about scholarship, but my relationship with sculpture is very personal. I know how I do it. I don't know how it's actually done. You know, I always wanted to become a good sculptor. I haven't quite figured out how to. It’s an aspiration for me.
SB: Teaching and learning by doing? You were being a student in London while you were on your Fulbright Scholarship.
KL: Yes. I'm really ambitious with sculpture and with art. But I'm also really ambitious with ideas. I’m interested in cultural perspectives—shaping, interpretation—how we shape consciousness as human beings. I’m pushing for a shift in perspectives. What is the presumption of empirical knowledge? I want more questions than answers and I want more people to be asking more questions, especially about the origin of knowledge. This was my sort of takeaway from researching the history of ancient medicine.
SB: Is it important to you that the viewer of the exhibition know about your research and experience of living and creating in the Amazon?
KL: I’d like the exhibition to be able to point to the history of medicine and what I was researching, but there doesn’t need to be a conversation or an explanation. I like to ask questions about imperialism, about the cannon, about empirical knowledge, about presumptions. About knowledge and the categorization of objects. I try to address this through pointing to taxonomical structures or structures to order species in the natural world.
SB: The illustrations read as taxonomy, a kind of classification of medicinal plants, alchemy, and cures to ills. Can you talk about the reference of “pulling through” in the drawings and titles of the sculptures?
KL: I was thinking of physiology and the way the sculptures correspond with parts of the body. The whole series is about moving through the works with the body. The title Pulling Through a Softer Index is a reference to taxonomy, but it's also a reference to a ritual that's called passing through or pulling through. ln the ritual a patient is pulled through an object to the other side of that object and in the process of a few things can happen. There can be a rebirth. It can also magically transfer disease to the object. And it can create a magical barrier between the disease and the suffering.
SB: And you are echoing this ritual with the way the sculptures are installed in the gallery?
KL: The idea was to create spaces for people to move through. To move through the objects. And also, simultaneously, to create these objects that could potentially invade the body and the objects will accept whatever “it” is. But also, they impose. They welcome you. But could harm you.
SB: These objects, the geometric aluminum sculptures that stand, hang, and adhere to the walls of the gallery, are intended to be experienced in relation to our own bodies.
KL: Very much. They correspond to the scale of the body.
SB: There is a definitely an immersive quality while walking through the space.
KL: I conceived of the show specifically for the space. I try to do this with all the pieces I show. I consider the scale of the space and how many corners it has and what the relationship to the body is. The height of the space and then how the sculptures might start talking, interacting.
SB: Speaking of height, I was struck by the aluminum sculpture that is placed way up, hugging the corner of the gallery. It seems to tie the show together—I actually thought of it like a ribbon on a package.
KL: I wanted it to be a part of the geometry of the space. The sculptures outline the space as you walk by them, but it also points to the rest of the geometry connecting them. The eye naturally wants to make logical sense of connecting objects or similar forms. There's a lot of form repetition, so the eye starts to repeat those forms in between those spaces. Your eye sees a line that relates to another line.
SB: Yes, I agree. I saw geometry and architecture. Another surprise was the smaller objects. On the main gallery wall, next to the sculptures of giant Amazonian leaves is a fist-sized shell with blonde hair flowing down from it and on the adjoining wall there is a golden hand holding blonde hair again. They introduce a soft, sensual element.
KL: They’re like a little celestial object, bringing you back to reality. Abstract sculpture doesn't really have a palpable object tangibility in the same way that like a wineglass does or a fork or spoon or whatever [pointing to the objects on table]. So when you're making new forms, people are like, fuck, what is that? The shell was like a representation of something more familiar.
SB: I agree. These smaller sculptures are grounding—made of objects we can recognize in our lives. I actually didn’t see the shell until the very end—I was there for 30 minutes before my eyes rested on the sculpture.
KL: You were there for 30 minutes? You have an amazing attention span. You really were looking at it.
SB: [laughs] I was walking through it, thinking about it, looking at it.
KL: I think people like you are why people like me make work. Because we want people to want to look at it. I know every bloody inch of those motherfuckers, like every little inch. I make it like that because I feel like somebody might care or it might speak to someone. It doesn't necessarily have to speak to lots and lots of people, but it might speak to someone. Sculpture has a way of doing that across space and time. I can look at a sculpture that was made a hundred, a thousand years ago and it will speak to me in its shape and form. It does it in a way that feels palpable. Some people look at things like you, but I think you're in a pretty severe minority though.
SB: Well, it’s my way of looking. And it sounds like the one you prefer from a viewer.
KL: Sculpture is a tool of communication ultimately, right? So if you feel like you can't communicate with people through that medium, then you would just find another medium. For me sculpture is the most effective media, but my medium of choice depends on people who are slow lookers.
Photos: installation views, What is to Cure, Karen Lofgren at Royale Projects, images by author.