Art Papers March/April 1994
Interview with Michael Aurbach
Michael Aurbach has exhibited his provocative sculpture in solos and group shows at galleries, museums, and universities throughout the United States. His work has often focused on issues of death, identity, and systems of belief. He is an associate professor of fine arts at Vanderbilt University and has received several major grants.
Dorothy Joiner: How did you first become interested in art?
MICHAEL AURBACH: On a dare from a jogging partner–I already had a degree in biology, then Watergate came out I was going to be the next great investigative reporter. Halfway into journalism school at Kansas, I realized I couldn’t write, so I went into their advertising sequence, where you could make up words and make sentences with less than ten words. Then someone said, “You need lo learn how to verbalize visual things,” so l took some more art history. At that point, my jogging partner, a painting teacher, dared me to take an art class. I took a drawing course, and two weeks into the course, I knew I was hooked.
Joiner: Were the “Final Portraits” your first series?
AURBACH: No, I got into word games dealing with death and started doing pieces with taxidermy and small container constructions, making things that were like reliquaries. The caskets, the “Final Portrait” series, came out of grad school. It was a natural evolution from the taxidermy because I knew I wanted to work with death, but I wanted to do it in a symbolic way rather than with the blood and the guts and the fur. It was a stage in my development.
Joiner: You always seem to be working with boxes.
AURBACH: I like boxes. That’s one of the first things I learned to make, and I realized that there is tremendous potential init. People say, “Don’t you get tired ot building boxes?” I say, “Well, don’t you get tired of painting on rectangles?”
Joiner: Why are boxes so interesting to you?
AURBACH: There is a natural curiosity about anything in a box. If you have a party in your house, you find people going through your drawers or medicine cabinets. Everybody has to know what’s in them. We live in a world of boxes. Architecturaly, you walk into a box. You drive to work in a box, you get your food out of a box. When you die, you’re put into a box.
Joiner: Dorothy Joiner: The fascination is archetypal, don’t you think?
MICHAEL AURBACH: I’m sure. You come out of the womb, and then if you are premature, they put you in an incubator, so they start you out in a box. It’s pretty strange.
Joiner: How did the “Final Portrait” series develop?
AURBACH: Well, the early word games I was using with the taxidermy were based on words used to describe acts of creation, which it just so happens, are the same words used to describe acts of violence and destruction. You execute a piece of art, you hang a painting, you shoot a photograph, and so on. Using taxidermy, I could utilize animals that were in a sense executed or pieces of art. But I got a little tired of that, and I wanted to deal with the figure a little more symbolically, so I started playing around with the expression “a body of work”: “body,” the physical body; “work,” meaning labor. So that got me into doing pieces about a mail carrier, a steel worker, a bricklayer, a carpenter, and an electrician. The last in that occupational series was Final Portrait Banker. And then all these sub-themes came out of that, like the portrait I did for myself, the Final Self-Portrait. Because it was a casket with a U-Haul trailer, the idea of death as a journey started to emerge. It just so happens that at the time you die, your identity is associated with your occupation
Joiner: Does this wolk retlect your own need to deal with the idea of death?
AURBACH: I don’t know if it does or not. A lot of people have told me that somehow this was my method of dealing with my mother having Alzheimer’s disease for eleven years before she passed on. I am fascinated with death, but I am not preoccupied with it. However, working on the series I did get to the point where I would look at everyday objects in the context of death. If you look at a parking meter, all of a sudden that means that time has expired; if you look at a postage scale then you’ve got the weighing of souls.
Joiner: The notion of death has really permeated your thinking.
AURBACH: Well, that’s Jewish humor. There is a sort of built- in fatalism and paranoia that goes with being Jewish.
Joiner: How long does it take to make a piece?
AURBACH: About six months for the larger ones. The one for the banker took about eight months, and Final Portrail: American Indian took also about eight months. The confessional piece, which isn’t a part of tne “Final Portrait” series, took sixteen months. So l was really glad to get that one done.
Joiner: How conscious of craftsmanship are you?
AURBACH: Well, that’s something I always debate with myself. The smaller the pieces are, the more craft conscious I am. As you get into the larger works that involve transporting things and setting up installations, you want to have things fit together, but you can’t craft them to the point where you go nuts. I push the craftsmanship to a point that is acceptable, but I’m not going to get terribly upset it it gets scratched. Also the larger the scale, the less one needs to be preoccupied with every edge being perfect. The pieces are of a size now that it’s almost taking on a theater aesthetic with respect to craftsmanship. So it changes from piece to piece. One thing I don’t want is a furniture aesthetic. I don’t want to be seen as a sort of craft artist in wood or in metal for that matter.
Joiner: Craft also involves ideas, doesn’t it?
AURBACH: Well, yes, I don’t want to demean craftspeople by saying that they’re not dealing with ideas. I think most craftspeople tend to be a little more formalistic in terms of shape and texture and values like that. My work is more concept-oriented, and then the crart follows. I think it is important to build things well, but I am working at such a scale now that I can’t get overly preoccupied with every detail; otherwise it would take me a lifetime to get anything done
Joiner: You tend to work in a large, one might say impractical, scale. Why?
AURBACH: Every time I finish a piece, I say, “I gotta quit working this big,” and then I find myself working even larger. I guess it’s masochistic. But scale is important. In the “Final Portrait” series, I was dealing with things that had to be architectural to give a sense of place and time. But also, I think that if I am going to deal with human concerns and human issues, the work has more impact if it is done at human scale. Not that the work wouldn’t be beautiful, but if it was two feet on the largest dimension, it would be a model or a maquette. I could never pull it off as a convincing object.
Joiner: What effect do you want your art to have on the viewer?
AURBACH: Well, I thought at one time I could control the effect it would have on people. But I couldn’t because death is such an overwhelming concept in everybody’s life, and we have all been conditioned to deal with it in certain ways. And death comes into people’s lives at different points. It might come in childhood or adulthood. So everybody has had a different experience with death. With the new work, I’m getting out of the death thing; now I’m into issues of confidentiality, secrecy, privacy. Now that this work is highly interactive–at least the confessional is–I want people to experience it in a real time-related way, not just look and absorb.
Joiner: Your Final Portrait: Handicapped, the piece installed on the campus at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, would certainly have been participatory if the viewer had been allowed to walk down the ramp and come to the wall of earth, as you intended.
AURBACH: One reason people couldn’t go into it was because of the insurance. We had this big hole in the ground, and the university didn’t want people stumbling in it in the middle or the night and breaking a leg and then suing them. People reacted to that piece in a variety or ways. When I was digging the hole initially, people would stand on the walkway that goes into the back of the art building and just laugh. “Who is the idiot digging a hole in the rain?” Then they’d start throwing stuff at me. The architects would laugh and chuckle. And then finally when it was done, people would actually stand there and contemplate it.
Joiner: What do you want to accomplish as an artist?
AURBACH: Oh, I just want to be able to position myself in this world so that I can continue to produce work. In terms or fame and glory, I can just kiss that goodbye. The “problem” is that I produce my own work. In fact, I’m not sure I can name five well-known contemporary artists who produce their own work. I think it’s real important that I do the work and not have others do it for me. So l physically will not produce enough product in my liretime to get well known.
Joiner: Do you like teaching?
AURBACH: Oh, teaching is a blast! The hard part about it is trying to know when to keep my mouth shut. I like people to set up a situation where they come to terms with the art on their own level, not mask their experience with a lot of formalist theory. I just want them to be foreced into a situation where they come to terms with making choices about what they like visually.
Joiner: Does teaching give you ideas for art?
AURBACH: Oh yes. In fact, this confessional piece was absolutely a direct pull from a student performance done in another class. Don Evans teaches a course at Vanderbilt in multimedia, and they do things that involve just about everything, from copier imagery to performance art. In our art building, which has a beautiful black marble floor, a group of students did a performance that involved putting candles on the floor with the lights out. And they made a walkway to an altar. It was just beautiful with that light reflecting off the dark marble. The whole idea of a processional got to me. The concept of confidentiality and personal things was something I wanted to deal with anyway. But in terms of the form of the piece, student work really had an influence.
Joiner: What attracts you to the notion of secrecy?
AURBACH: Well, I have been tossing this whole idea around for a long time. I see doctors and lawyers and priests, and deans of colleges as people whose heads are containers of information. If at any moment informatio were to escape through a hole in their head, it could change a person’s life dramalically. So seeing the head as a container, I think, is a very nice idea. Initially I was going lo attack this whole thing in lerms of Pandora’s box. I still want to play with that a little bit. I don’t know if it will be on a small or a large scale.
Joiner: Is there anything comparable to confession in the Jewish tradition?
AURBACH: The closest thing to a confession is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There is a portiorn near the end of the service during the High Holy Day period where you ask forgiveness for example “for the sin I have committed for speaking falsehoods.” There is a whole list of things that you read off. And after you have been fasting for a whole day it starts to get to you a little bit. Also it is somewhat ritualistic in that you take your list and beat your heart every time you say one of these. There’s sort of a flagellant thing involved.
Joiner: What do you hope to accomplish as an artist?
AURBACH: Well I hope I can continue to show without rupturing another hernia. I built the Confessional on the third floor of a building with no elevator but what can I do? I can’t afford to go rent a space to work. I actually built it in the printmaking room while the printmaker was on leave. Then I put the very big sections on sleds and slid it down the steps to the next level of the building and then finished it there. I never saw the whole thing together as a unit until I had it photographed.
Joiner: How have people reacted to the Confessional?
AURBACH: Well the South is so WASP-y that they don’t know what a confessiorial is. I don’t know, people get a chuckle out of it. Sometimes you have to wait in line to confess, I fear that people aren’t willing to do it. They’re embarrassed. In addition, you confess to yourself on closed curcuit television, and there is sort of a funhouse effect. People are so occupied with looking at themselves on TV that I don’t think they totally grasp the concept.
Joiner: Do you record the confessionals?
AURBACH: Well I thought about putting microphone in here and I even thought about videotaping the way people look at themselves. But I don’t want to intrude on people that much. The few Catholics who have looked at the piece say that when they first see it they think back to their childhoods when they were still willing to go through confession.
Joiner: What did you learn about confessionals?
AURBACH: Well confession in the early stages was basically a face-to-face dialogue, and thell it developed into this booth idea during the sixteenth century. In certain Baroque churches you see these really beautiful confessional booths. I maintain some aspects ot the tradition. I still have a screen. In this case the screen opens to reveal the television set and camera. There is (although you don’t see it) an electric switch under the kneeling pad. The curtains are closed the whole time but we know if you’re kneeling because a ventilator on the roof will spin “venting” your sins away. There’s a kind of entertainment value to it. You don’t watch yourself confess; typically to me confession has something to do with coming to terms with yourself. When you look at the TV you see yourself in the face but you can’t look yourself in the eye because I’ve placed the camera about three or four inches above the TV monitor. It looks as if someone is looking down on you, maybe scolding you or talking down to you, but you’re doing that to yourself, which is a very weird phenomenon.
Joiner: How do you approach the booth?
AURBACH: You walk through a series of arches. On the column of each archway, there is a motion detector, so that every time you pass an arch, you set off an alarm. The alarm is set up so that it gives two beeps. By the time the second beep sounds, you are already into the next arch, and so on, so you get a series of alarms. I’m just trying to make people self-conscious of going through this process, this ritual. I think people are terribly self-conscious, and I just want to heighten that fact. The rubber walkway is black and yellow, like a warning sign; and the curtains in front or the booth are also black and yellow. The booth is totally enclosed except for the sides. It’s sort of like a car wash. You walk in one door and out the other, cleansing the soul.
Joiner: Is there a place for priest?
AURBACH: Yes, and there is an exhaust system for the priest. There is a little eye-level hole in the priest’s, front door, so you see yourself going to confession. There is also an electronic display with a flashing message that says, “If you are deemed a transgressor, please advance.” Then as you go down the walkway, you come to the priest’s door. You go to the confessional either on the left or the right; the message says that if you are five feet eight inches or taller, you should go to the right, and if you are shorter you should go to the left. The reason is that the confessional cameras don’t move. They are in a fixed position so I had to adjust the camera in such a way that you’d be able to get your head in the picture. I had the thing set up briefly at Vanderbilt and a girl from the Church of Christ said that some going to the right and some going to the left had something to do with the book of Revelation, where they separate the sheep from the goats.
Joiner: What role does the priest play?
AURBACH: In the back of the piece, there is a giant exhaust system with a steel control valve that comes out of the priest’s space. What does the priest do with all this stuff? Isn’t there some kind of limit, like a dump site? Do you just keep heaping this stuff up on the priest?
Joiner: Do people find this piece funny?
AURBACH: They think it’s funny, but I’m not sure they know what they’re laughing at. Sometimes they act like something is wrong with me. They get this glassy look on their faces when they come back to talk about it. It’s very weird. All the materials I used are industrial materials, like rubber and sheet metal and formica. I think contemporary sins are pretty toxic.
Joiner: Are contemporary sins different from traditional ones?
AURBACH: The information age has had an exponential effect on a sin. I’m sinning with this political correctness thing–if there is one talent I have it’s that I’m capable of alienating people without even trying. When I was doing the taxidermy, I alienated the animal rights groups. And when I did the piece on the American Indian, it was not politically correct because I’m not an Indian. When I did the Final Portrait: Gay Person, a lot of gay people were upset that I, as a straight male, had done something about homosexuality. In the piece about a handicapped person, everybody assumed I was making fun–in fact, that piece is about the fact that we are all handicapped: we’re all going to die, and death is equally accessible to all of us. So I just alienate everyone. But I’m not going to be reduced to spending the rest of my lire doing art about Jewish guys from Kansas who are over six feet tall. I just recently got booed by 200 women at a showing of a film on the Guerrilla Girls at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. People were hissing and booing, they were upset by what is going on in the New York art world and its effect on women. But to me that’s New York. In the South, I don’t think that’s all that true, I see women in major positions–even in Tennessee, in almost all the major institutions, women are in power positions. But I, as a male at this forum, apparently didn’t have the right to say that. I needed an escort to get to the door. But women actively involved in the arts came up to me afterwards saying that they agreed with what I said.
I see the South as not having defined itself. I don’t see any institutions with that much control now–or that have ever had that much control. So I don’t think that what goes on in the New York art world applies at all down here.
Joiner: What do you think causes women to react so violently?
AURBACH: I think part of the problem is the way women have been brought up. Women do not react to events in the world of art the way men do. I saw an article that said that 75% of women who apply for NEA grants will never reapply if rejected once and that the opposite statistic is true for men. So women haven’t dealt with rejection the way men have. What I do is just anticipate rejection 90% of the time with my art. As long as I have that frame of mind, I can deal with rejection pretty easily. If I succeed 10% of the time, I’ll have a career. Although I think we are seeing a new generation of women who finally see it more as a numbers game. This is a weird profession. It’s the only profession where you compete with dead people. They have as much access to the galleries as the living.
Joiner: Have you been influenced by any particular art movements?
AURBACH: I don’t trust any kind of art movements, at least since the early part of the twentieth century. To me these are marketing tools. Look at the ’60s You could probably name fifteen or twenty things, almost like cereal brands: Hard Edge, Pop Art, California Cool, California Funk, Bay Area Painters. Labels are like writing copy for advertisements. It’s a convenient way for critics or gallery dealers to identify individual artists. One of my old teachers said that if you follow fashion, you are already too late.
Joiner: Do you have any other thoughts on the contemporary art scene?
AURBACH: There are just too many artists and too few mechanisms by which a show can be promoted. It’s a numbers game. At the same time, no one has been stopped from producing their art, male or female. We are living in America. Just because you don’t get famous or you don’t have your name in a magazine doesn’t mean you’re not a legitimate artist. Somehow the art schools have created the idea that you are not a legitimate artist until you have so many shows, so many reviews, and so forth. In some parts of the art world, people only understand paper–at least in academia that’s true. The more paper you’ve got surrounding yourself, the more important you are.
Joiner: What are your plans for future work?
AURBACH: Well, I want to continue with this issue or privacy, confidentiality, and institutional secrecy. That whole thing really fascinates me that information is power. The way people maintain that power is by not being open about things. The hard thing is how to make a visual statement about something that is inherently secret. That’s a giant gap, but the confessional is one way of doing that. You have an environment screaming that this is a secret place.
Joiner: Is there any other issue about which you feel strongly?
AURBACH: I have been very active with the College Art Association in trying to make sure that teachers just starting out know what they are up against in terms of expectations. I think that universities need to be straight with their faculty about what they have to do as artists. There’s a lot of mythology out there in academia. In fact, most will say that to get tenure or a full professorship you have to have national recognition. What does that mean? What is regional recognition? And is national recognition a valid concept? Apparently you can’t be a private individual producing objects; you have to be out and about. I think that produces a lot of ethical questions. If you are an artist in Texas, and you spent your time showing in Texas, you have covered an area the size of France. So why in the world do we have this notion that you have to have national exposure? Each department needs to identify what its mission is and to have its own value system. Whatever that value system is, they have to tell the artist what it is, because we are now in a teaching market where people get one-year or two-year jobs, and they have to go elsewhere. They’re constantly changing the nature of the hoops they have to jump through. How does an artist make those shifts that fast? It takes you a year or two to get established in one city before people even know you exist.
Joiner: Is the situation in art more difficult?
AURBACH: In other academic disciplines, you can push your stuff through the mail. You can use E-mail. There are all sorts of methods to set up an identity. You don’t have to physically set up a studio; you don’t have to physically transport the work. You still have the expense of traveling somewhere to do research, but that is true of everyone. There’s an extra burden on the artist until administrators learn to understand what artists are really facing. At the next CAA meeting, I’m chairing a session on what is national recognition. We are getting into some real tough issues.
Joiner: Does the university have to set some standards?
AURBACH: In some respects, but not based on some mythological things, such as a solo show in New York, or a museum show, or a grant from the NEA. The statistical odds of those things are unrealistic these days. The other thing is that artists are basically subsidizing everything. They have to subsidize the studio. You wouldn’t ask a chemist at a university to do his research at home.
Joiner: Aren’t teaching artists usually given studio space?
AURBACH: About 75% to 85% of the artists who teach in this country are not given studio space. Yet they are held accountable for research. The universities don’t pay for the artist to travel to do shows. They don’t pay for the materials. In my case, exactly 40% to 50% of my salary since 1983 has gone back into my art, just to keep this art machine going. I can prove that with my taxes. In other words, I’m spending a disproportionate amount or my salary to maintain my career, unlike people in other disciplines. Even though we might be paid the same on the surface when we take these positions, in reality we are way behind.
Joiner: Are people taking your ideas seriously?
AURBACH: Oh, I’m going around doing talks as much as I can, but the hard part is that administrators aren’t interested in hearing this stuff. There are a few enlightened administrators up there, but they are mostly bean counters; and they usually answer to the people above who are even less knowledgeable about art than they are. It’s a giant communication gap. Art is expensive to have at a university. It isn’t cost effective, nor should it be. But we have reached that era where everybody is counting every penny, and they have to see direct results.
Dorothy Joiner is Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages, West Georgia College, Carrollton.