Rebecca Marino: Can you talk a little about how you select the images that you appropriate? There are some strong underlying themes in this group of images—the human presence/impact, as well as things that exist in two states or contextual layers. Do you usually have a theme or single image you choose first that the rest of the images are then chosen in regard to?
Eric Zimmerman: It’s a more fluid process than not. I typically start with a set of ideas and images that I’m drawn to conceptually. There are core issues my work is always addressing and these—how we construct knowledge and history, the human place in and effect upon the world, embracing complexity and not knowing—are, along with some intuition, major drivers of the selection process. Sometimes one image leads to something unexpected, away from drawing altogether and into another material. Other times I proceed methodically from drawing to drawing or object to object. The underlying themes of a group of work follow a similar trajectory: from established at the outset to mutating as it gets made. I try and remain open to possibilities during each of these steps even if it leads away from the place where I started. Really, this idea of a set of open-ended propositions rather than closed meanings is what my work centers on so it’s logical for my process to reflect that.
RM: Do you feel like the way you’re creating this constellation of imagery is very personal to you specifically? Do you select images based on your own interests entirely or do you work off of the potential consideration or input of others?
EZ: There are certainly personal aspects to why I’m choosing particular images and am drawn to certain ideas, but there is no personal narrative thread that moves my work forward. They are my interests, and the work contains the things I want to communicate, but it stops there. It was a very conscious decision to have my work not rely on my private life in order to exist. The imagery and objects in this show, and in my previous exhibitions, have sought to suggest familiarity and be inclusive, to address ideas that we’re all implicated in, in order to allow viewers to assemble their own paths through them without me delivering the meaning from on high. This is not to say I’m not steering things along here and there or abdicating responsibility. A substantial part of this exhibition is about the impossibility of really knowing things and rejecting the idea of easy explanation, quantification and straightforward narrative, for complexity, the poetic, and the irrational forces that exist in the world. It’s been surprising how scary and difficult this has been for some visitors. People have actually gotten angry. I haven’t had too much time to think through this yet but one hunch is that there’s something about using representational images and objects in a way that so blatantly contradicts their “factual” and “truthful” nature that is troubling. Things no longer mean what they’re supposed to mean, and there is not even an obvious clue to what the new meaning is; you’re forced to look to yourself for answers with minimal guidance. The floor got pulled along with the rug.
RM: Time is such a critical part of the exhibition. The way you’re restructuring and blurring time is fascinating—not only in regard to the content you’re choosing to re-contextualize but also in how it’s being presented (the meticulous and timely process it requires to draw them, stripping them of color to unify them, the non-linear progression, etc.). I recently learned of sehnsucht, which is a German word for a type of nostalgia that people can experience without being conscious of what or who the longed-for object may be. I feel like I’ve definitely felt nostalgia for a time and place that I’ve never experienced. How do you feel nostalgia functions within this body of work, if at all?
EZ: The idea of nostalgia definitely plays a role in this work. I use it as a strategy for coaxing certain responses from the viewer and to point to the way it influences how we view history, science, and the objects in our world. In a sense it’s a way to highlight the emotional affect that these purportedly objective subjects have. There is poetry in those topics and images that exists in conjunction with their “factual” and “useful” qualities. I’m trying to get the work to squeeze into the gap between those things: the poetic and the factual. Nostalgia is sometimes a bad word, but I think as long as it doesn’t veer into sentimentality it’s a useful thing to think about.
RM: I noticed that you have a drawing of a feather in this exhibition, whereas in your exhibition at Texas State University you had the actual feather on display, along with a little skull. How do you decide what objects you’ll reproduce flattened with graphite or ink, what will be presented as the object itself or presented as a sculptural replication of the object (such as the papier-mâché basalt and branch)? Or does it even matter? Is it just a matter of also re-contextualizing the materials along with the content to further confuse fact with fiction, evidence with fallacy?
EZ: Those choices happen very organically based on the object and context that they’re going to be seen in. It’s also about testing how things like the feather work in different materials and through different kinds of presentation, i.e. the real object on a shelf versus a drawing of a photograph of that object. The bulk of it is as you say: re-contextualizing and transforming in order to confuse fact and fiction, illusion and reality, real and unreal, etc. All of this is intended to complicate and question our linear understanding of the world and ask if it’s really possible to think about the world in those dualistic terms. There are very real consequences of this sort of thinking, and the exhibition points some of them out.
RM: How do you feel the Internet or technology in general has changed the way we construct history and time? Do you feel like there is an elevated sense of truth because information is more easily accessible? Or is it the opposite because of how over-saturated we’ve become with that information and those images, which are often so diluted with fallacy?
EZ: I don’t think its one or the other. Technology in general has been with us since the beginning of our species: stone tools, fire, the wheel, etc. (This is just one reason why Silicon Valley’s savior rhetoric is so nauseating.) I think the Internet has made it much easier for us to construct our own histories outside of academia and other halls of power. We have access to the stories and plights of others in an unprecedented way that forces us to see history not as existing in a vacuum but as a thing that intertwines individuals and the collective “us” with the events of the world. It throws into serious question traditional models of history making that privilege isolated events and individual trajectories while following neat linear narratives. The trick is sifting through all of that information to find out what’s important and what’s just self-serving noise and then utilizing it in some sort of positive way. Distinguishing between information and knowledge is critical as well. I would say part of my work is a way to think through this sifting process and some of the issues that come up when doing so.
There is certainly an over-saturation of images and information that I react strongly to, and that is a large part of why I make the material choices I do. There’s tremendous value in slow and “stupid” ways of doing things that we tend to forget about when we’re running off of the cliff chasing the latest, fastest, most efficient way of doing things. Not to get too far off track, but I see this “productive” way of thinking (and the constant emphasis on it) as a direct result of neoliberal economic policies and as something we need to be questioning more vociferously. It’s gotten us into a bit of a pickle in terms of global warming and social justice, amongst a slew of other things.
RM: Your day-job as exhibition designer at the Menil really shows here — the diagonal wall built to cut the space in half, the placement of the papier-mâché basalt that then cuts one of those spaces in half and the zines you placed on a shelf just a few inches from the ground are just a few examples. Can you talk a little about what your goals were with the layout of the exhibition? And perhaps how your job at the Menil informed those choices?
EZ: My job at the Menil has shown me what is possible with simple and well-thought-out interventions into the architecture of a space. It’s also taken tendencies already present in my work regarding the exhibition as a work and amplified them considerably. The goal was to cut the space up so that you are never able to see the entirety of the exhibition from one vantage point. I wanted the show to unfold slowly and in fragments. The diagonal was critical to create “awkward” spaces in which to hang work and force viewers to negotiate the rooms in unanticipated ways while removing the series of linear rectangles that are so commonplace in galleries. Along with the examples you’ve mentioned, the feather drawing in the corner, the film stills in the doorway between rooms, and nothing on center or on traditional sight lines were just a few of these decisions. I was consciously trying to work against some of the design conventions I deal with at work. The Menil definitely takes more risks than most when it comes to mounting exhibitions, but it is still fairly traditional in terms of adhering to linear art-historical narratives. It’s hard not to want to push up against that a little bit. Primarily though, the wall and overall exhibition design was about forcing the architecture and layout to function as part of the work rather than just a passive support.
RM: I know your catalog has a reading list in the back, but can you jot down a broader list of recommendations (books, music, movies, etc.)?
Elegy for Left Hand Alone will have a catalog release and artist walkthrough Saturday, May 23, at 2pm at Art Palace.
Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. She also works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX. Marino is a former student of Zimmerman’s and has used him as a job reference on more than one occasion.