Artist El Anatsui talks to Art & Antiques’ Ted Loos about happy accidents, open-ended works and his current show at the Brooklyn Museum.
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In the hands of the right artist, materials can be deceiving and revealing at the same time. For years, I thought that the works of the African artist El Anatsui were made of textile—they have a sinewy, shimmering, supple quality about them, reacting to light and the movement of air in fascinating ways. You can envision yourself draped in one of them, just as Gustav Klimt’s enveloping, bejeweled patterns invite us to lose ourselves inside his paintings.
The viewer has to get up close to realize that Anatsui’s wall hangings are actually made of recycled bits of metal—from bottle caps to linotype plates—and attached to each other with copper wire. Once you know this, his delicate artistry is even more astounding.
No further proof is needed of his talent than the current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Gravity and Grace: the Monumental Works of El Anatsui,” which is happily up for a long run, through August 4.
These huge works, one of which is 36 feet long, envelop the museum’s rooms, particularly the vaulted rotunda outside the show’s main exhibition space. Some of them hold their own by hanging majestically, either from wires or on the wall. One particularly sly work, Drainpipe (2010), is like a set of Slinkies crawling around the floor in a corner of the museum that is normally empty. It’s a fascinating installation, in that it makes the viewer understand the space in a different way.
Anatsui, born in Ghana but a longtime resident of Nigeria, is now 69—and his career has been taking off ever since he entered senior-citizen territory. In 2007, his breathtaking installation at the Venice Biennale finally got the art world to focus on him. And he has quite a presence in New York this year, even beyond the Brooklyn show. He also has a huge sculpture, Broken Bridge II, on view along the High Line, the elevated park in Chelsea. And he shows regularly at Jack Shainman Gallery, right underneath the High Line.
When he stopped in New York to install Broken Bridge II, I had the chance to sit down with him explore the thought process behind his works.
A&A: Tell me about the Brooklyn show and how it got going.
EA: The Brooklyn show consists of what was originally created for a traveling show in Japan. The scale of the work is monumental, so it’s only for huge galleries or museums. It’s kind of a summary of all the things I’ve done so far.
A&A: Are you getting the bottle caps from the same places you always have?
EA: Yeah, from the same supplier. And even from the same drinker!
A&A: These piece are so big, what does that physically entail for you to make them?
EA: Well the process is a very laborious one, using so many assistants, ranging from 20 to 30. It’s a very free arrangement whereby people are free to come in at any time. Good days, we can have like 30, 35. Bad days, we can have 20. Good days happen when school is on holiday. A lot of them come in. We pay them.
A&A: People are thrilled to get to have this kind of work?
EA: Oh, yeah.
A&A: Do they know what they’re doing?
EA: I direct them to specific areas of the work, things they can accomplish. And I watch them.
A&A: How has your work changed over time?
EA: In the beginning there was only one format of joining the pieces. But now there is crumpling effect, because of the tiny rings joining them. They all create very different textures. And as time went on, the works went from being very opaque to now being very translucent. You can see through them.
A&A: Does that have a particular meaning for you?
EA: Well you don’t want to be opaque all the time, you want to also explore translucence. Transparency—it’s good that you engage it in your work.
A&A: Do you find yourself making any other changes as you go forward?
EA: The changes come when you don’t plan for them. We keep working, and by accident something shows up.
A&A: And you use chance in your work, since they are never hung the same way twice, correct?
EA: The interesting thing about my work is that while you may have seen them in one venue, in a different venue it would be different.
A&A: Does that make curators nervous?
EA: They have to develop courage. Curators are brought up to follow artists’ instructions on how to lay their work. I don’t give them instructions. I believe everyone has an artist in him; that’s something I learned from my school days. This belief that life itself is not something that is cut and fixed but is forever open to challenges and changes and chance. I want my artworks to replicate that kind of situation. That’s why they’re not fixed. They are loose, very loose.
A&A: Anything else tricky about this installation?
EA: Well, there is one piece that needs to be moving. So they have to do a special false wall for that and put fans inside the wall so they will be blowing. When the fans blow them, the things move.
A&A: Who are the artists you admire who are working in sculpture?
EA: Oh, so many. I don’t name names, I guess. I like works that tend to be spiritual. I love the human figure, but right after school I developed an interest in the abstract. There are more challenges than doing life studies. You know in art school, you paint nudes, you model—that didn’t look like it had much for me in it. And I think abstract work has more flexibility in interpretation.
A&A: Have you seen any new materials that you thought you’d want to work in? Have you been walking down the street and something caught your eye?
EA: The story of the bottle caps is just that I found a bag. I was looking for something else, but I found a curious black bag. I opened it, and saw it had these bottle caps, so I took it to my studio. Three or four months went by before the idea came that I could cut them open, stretch them, and stitch them together into a sheet. You know, I was looking for a form that is changeable, and a sheet is about the easiest malleable form when you’re talking about flexibility. I found the bigger they are the more effective they are as artworks.
A&A: Bigger is better in this case.
EA: Yes. It gives more scope.
A&A: But you don’t know what the next bottle caps are going to be?
EA: I don’t know what. It comes by accident. In the Brooklyn show, there are works made out of aluminum printing plates.
A&A: The Waste Paper Bags that you made from 2004 to 2010.
EA: I think they look good, and what attracted me is the fact that they carry a lot of information. I found I spent a lot of time reading what was on them.
A&A: What is the text on them?
EA: What struck me about the printing plates that I collected was that they were all obituary notices. We celebrate funerals there more than you do here. So there were these big notices. A huge number of the plates I collected were about obituaries. The interesting thing is the lifespan of the people they were reporting is very short—35, 45.
A&A: Sad, right?
EA: Yes. It’s not that we didn’t know that they died, but seeing it on printing plates is different. I turned them into a collection of huge wastepaper baskets, about six or seven of them.
A&A: What is the relationship between African textile and your work?
EA: Let me tell you two stories. Or two facts, rather. One: my father was a weaver. And so my brother who grew up around him, they wove as well. But I wasn’t interested in weaving. In art school we were introduced to all the techniques. The one that least attracted me was textiles. So my work is not about textiles—what I am doing is looking for a form that is changeable, which is not fixed. Which lends itself to so many types of handling. Early in my career I developed a loathing for the rigid form.
A&A: What does hold all of the metal pieces together?
EA: Copper wire, because it doesn’t rust. The bottle caps also are made from metal that doesn’t rust.
A&A: So the wire is the “warp,” as they call the structure of a tapestry, versus the weave, which is the visible picture?
EA: You can’t be talking about warp and weft here!
A&A: Noted. What kind of weaver was your dad?
EA: He wove what they call kente cloths. It is common in Ghana, and all over the Côte d’Ivoire. It’s a very famous kind of ceremonial textile that people wear. Originally it was for royalty only, but now everybody uses it.
A&A: It’s ironic that you hate textile but people sometimes think your work is textile. I sure did.
EA: It’s funny. You try to escape it, but it is following you.
By Ted Loos