Chicago Art Journal Telos
Art Outside the Box: Life, Death, and Morality A Conversation with Michael Aurbach
This conversation with Michael Aurbach took place in his studio at Vanderbilt University on September 10, 1999. Aurbach has exhibited his sculptures in galleries, museums, and universities nationally. In his earlier work, death and identity were major themes. I wanted to focus on his process and ideas, and to talk about the newer work, which he says is about secrecy. I was also interested in Michael’s thoughts regarding the nature of art and the place of art in contemporary society. What emerged in the discussion were a number of questions about the role of art, art history, and art criticism, as well as some insight into this very intelligent and passionate artist and educator.
Interview by Barbara Fontana Yontz, an artist and an art educator teaching at Watkins College of Art in Nashville, Tennessee. She completed a Master of Arts Degree in Art History from Vanderbilt University in May, 1999.
B. You have said you start with words, that you make word lists often while driving. What is it about words that intrigue you?
M. It was a family thing. Bad puns were part of our tradition and also both my parents spoke Yiddish in their homes. There are some things that only Yiddish can capture since often one word can communicate complex ideas. In Hebrew school, too, I learned to read right to left, so I got very adept at reading backwards. I was just amazed that the words used to describe the acts of creation were synonymous with those used to describe acts of destruction and violence. I thought that was very strange so I kept building on it. Pretty soon I saw how the process could take me to another level. For example, in graduate school I stuffed some coyote feet and made a pyramid form to house them. When I used the Egyptian motif and wrapped the feet in gauze I realized that once the feet were wrapped, I didn’t need them any more. I was just symbolizing the feet. I no longer needed the real animal. Just the act of producing the work shifted the focus but it took the words to launch me. The words were only a springboard.
B. Your Final Portrait series seems to be about death because they are constructed as sarcophagi and I have read other writers state that they are a parody of the Western funerary tradition. It seems to me they are more about immortality and I am very interested in the relationship between life and death as a cycle. They seem to be a monument to the dead and as such, a way to continue life.
M. When I first started giving slide talks about this work, people thought I was preoccupied with death. I’m really not but I realized that if you notice the number of references to death you hear on a daily basis you will be overwhelmed. Watching or listening to the news is just one example. [But] you couldn’t cross the street if you thought about death too much.
B. So you can completely accept the finality of life?
M. Intellectually, reincarnation is more organic for me and actually probably parallels things like the plant world. The Jewish tradition is more abstract because it is willing to accept finality. Yes, you are remembered by others who are living and in that way you live on. I suppose the residue of your life be it art or whatever, makes you live on.
B. What about the size of your work. It seems that the monumental aspect and even the materials could ensure that the work lives on.
M. The monumentality is an artistic choice. I think human concerns are best represented at human scale. Less than a human scale, the work becomes more of a model. As far as the longevity of the work goes, if the work survives five years I’m happy since the work is not saleable–it’s frequently vandalized and I can’t pay to store it any longer than that.
B. That touches on something that seems to be part of the nature of our times in relation to art, which is viewing art as a commodity. Your work is not really about that. It is not presented as an item for sale?
M. No, I want my work to be a barometer of my existence on this planet. It indicates that between this month and this month I was working on this. That is another reason I work alone. I like the one-to-one. [My work is] very individual in that it’s a direct extension of me. So it’s a celebration of life even though it comes in the form of a topic like death.
B. By viewing the work as a celebration of a life, the death/life cycle continues.
M. Well, I think anybody who makes are is celebrating life.
B. Some people would say it was self-indulgent though, a form of therapy.
M. Yes, but it’s one of the few things in my life I can maintain almost total control. I have some physical and financial constraints but basically, it’s a chance to play god.
B. What about the role of art as a communication form? What is the social role?
M. For me it is a way of venting anger . . . an elevated tantrum I suppose.
B. But that’s still about you. What about . . . the viewer?
M. I do want to manipulate you to a point, but I’ve got to admit that when it comes to the subject of death what I thought I could manipulate I could not. Everybody brings too much baggage to the experience.
B. But do you think that is because death is such a loaded subject?
M. It is incredibly loaded but it permeates our life. I see the behaviors of children as predominantly destructive because their creative nature is not nurtured. It is so much easier to destroy than create. I don’t know if it is some kind of primal thing for us to maintain our power or what.
B. I still want to get back to the viewer. I know that individually we are all going to come to the work and we are going to bring our own ideas. How do you view your role as an artist in society? Is it important to communicate?
M. My work is very elitist. I probably exclude ninety-five percent of the population anyway because I’m relying on art historical precedents to make my message. So I know most people right off the bat are not going to get it.
B. One of the things I noticed about the early pieces and even the new work is that because of the way they are constructed there is an animated quality to them. They are human scale with architectural and fantasy references, but the surfaces are not the same–they are like armor.
M. That’s right because the newer work is meant to be insular…in the case of the Witnesses, I have specific documents that are being housed inside. These are like safe deposit boxes. They need to be insulated or protected because I know what would happen if these documents are released.
B. So there is something almost like a spy novel, a mystery?
M. Yes, these are clandestine. They are underground pieces and I want the surfaces to reflect our bad behavior as humans; they’re cold, insular and inhuman.
B. This gets back to the elitist aspect you discussed. I think most people who experience your work find a fantasy quality because they look like facades from Disney World.
M. Well, children see my work as playground equipment. The front door of the Mail Carrier piece was used as a slide. They climb up the box and slide down. On the pieces with the motion detectors, all they care about is jumping over the beam or crawling under it. But, I think most people sense a kind of solemnity because the pieces are very formal. I keep the ambient light very dark and there is a sacred quality that some people pick up on.
B. The other thing I noticed besides the art historical references was that they are very male. Not just the monumentality and the materials but some of the symbology.
M. I suppose there is a machismo to the work but you have to remember that I am making references to professions and societies that were historically male dominated.
B. So you were conscious of this aspect?
M. Well, not at first. It is just something that happened. But with The Institution there’s a clear effort on my part to make fun of masculinity by making a short bell tower and a zipper on the front door. At Vanderbilt they [picked up on it] and the person who did the review did as well.
B. But even in the Witness pieces with microphones and such, there are symbols that seem very male.
M. Perhaps, but it may be the absence of color too. I don’t see color well. I intellectually understand it, but I don’t respond to it. I am more attracted to form and my surfaces are more about tactility as opposed to color patterns. I think that has always been the case with my work.
B. The last time we spoke you discussed how your early work was informed by your interest in biology and your use of dead animals.
M. As a lab assistant in both high school and college I prepared animals for dissection… so most of the animals were dead. At that stage it was fine with me but I don’t think I could do it now. It was the most immediate way for me to understand this idea that something had to be destroyed in order to be created. Going back to the language, “you execute a piece of art, you hang a painting.” Our language says that something has to be destroyed to be created. The animals were available and I understood something about them, so it was a baby step.
B. How do you think the older work relates to the new work?
M. Well, I always put things in containers. I love boxes because they offer so much. Just the form itself offers possibilities like interiors, exteriors, and multiple surfaces.
B. And there are metaphors that go along with that, too.
M. It’s loaded. It could be about growth, things entering, confinement . . . the metaphorical possibilities are exciting. In fact, I get teased about my obsession. People say to me, “are you still making boxes?” And I say “are you still painting on rectangles?” But the container to me seems almost natural because so much in our life is contained. You go to work in a vehicle, you start out in the womb, our bodies are contained by our skin, you’re placed in a box when you die, etc.
B. Now I want you to address…the new piece, The Institution…You have said that it is about secrecy. How does that concept relate to your earlier work?
M. Secrecy is one aspect of it and is easy to discuss but in a broader way I’m concerned about the loss of “substance” in our society. For example The Institution is all about facades. It’s about illusion. For example the sheet metal with the brick pattern is mobile home skirting that is used to create the illusion that the institution has a foundation. The whole thing is a stage set. It is just a front. The kind of front that people create when they lie and lying makes me crazy. [In the university], we’re supposed to represent some kind of higher ideal. I have other faculty telling to me I’m a utopian, an idealist. I don’t understand why they are not making any effort to be. I feel it’s okay to be idealistic, as corny as that sounds, because once you give that up, what do you have left? Again that’s another loss, I’m mourning another loss. I tell my students that it is okay to follow their ideas. We are set up in our society to self-edit, self-censor before you’ve even done anything. I think my job is to give students’ permission to be who they are and that is an incredible awakening for some of them. I think students come to the art class not as a blank slate but as people who have real experiences. They just don’t know how to tap it.
B. What do you feel art is in service to? Or is the power of art that it is not in service to anything? Whenever you know what you are serving the tendency is to follow the rules. Sometimes in order to get to the truth . . .
M. … you have to give up your allegiance otherwise you loose your objectivity. I think art is a spiritual thing in that it is a mechanism by which you can become more spiritual. But I see lots of art that is vapid.
B. The things we talked about earlier like commodification and simplification, even intellectualization have removed any of the power [of art].
M. The metaphor is alsP dying. Everything seems to be literal now.
B. What do you do with the pieces after you show them and do you feel guilty about adding more “stuff” to the world? Because it’s really big.
M. Yes, it’s really big “stuff” and it’s almost a self-inflicted wound because I can’t afford to keep it. I’ve destroyed a lot of work that is either too beat up to show or too expensive to store. You know, that is part of the cycle of life.
B. I want you to talk a little about how you are reworking themes in art. You mentioned that you felt you were working with the big themes.
M. I break it down like the ten commandments. There are sins against God and there are sins against other people. A similar phenomenon takes place with art. There is art about human interaction. Art about nature and humans. Art about deities and humans. There is art about beautiful shapes and textures, and then, of course, the human emotions.
B. So we just keep working with the same themes for 50,000 years or more.
M. You have the new computer but you are back to the same problem. I think my work is extremely traditional.
B. Well, I want to try to get some closure. Your early work looked like it was about death but to me it was really was about life…
M. I see where this is going…It’s flipped. So you are saying that the Final Portraits were more about life and the recent work is more about death?
B. Well yes. I think it is the kind of death we are talking about. Your newer work is about a death of honesty, integrity, commitment…those kinds of things. The Institution is your way of reconciling or dealing with or maybe fighting the powers that be, so that in some way the idealism and honesty does live on.
M. I may be engaged in a lot a self deception here about what is honest. Yes, I guess I’m mourning, that sounds arrogant.
B. It just gets down to making a decision, do you want to be part of the problem or do you want to be part of the solution or do you want to go stick your head in the sand? My belief is that all of us have a responsibility to be part of the solution however we choose to do it. My interest in this discussion was to talk about the role of the artist. The connecting theme in your work for me is morality.