"The Best Art In The World"
Marco Maggi (New York, USA) interview with Becky Hunter (Durham, UK) via email between November 08 and February 09.
Working in both small scale drawing/etching and in room-sized paper installations, Marco Maggi’s work has been said to evoke an architectural spectrum of sources, from El Lissitzky to Zaha Hadid. Featured in the publication Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing, and in collections including that of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Maggi has exhibited extensively across North and South America, Europe and Asia.
BH: "Maggi is not about walking on or picking up, but crouching down and looking at." I found this quote about you from a 2003 Hosfelt Gallery press release. It caught my eye because it described the way images of your work affect me, drawing me down and in to explore detail, yet it is describing a large scale paper installation, not something shy or tiny. Is this your intention for the work, to draw people into quite an intimate viewing relationship?
MM: Scale changes the relationship between the viewer and the work. This reduction of scale intends to humanize the visual arts. Fast viewers see, from far away, a drawing as a blank sheet. Slow viewers can read the same drawing ten times, switching perspectives and conclusions. My main issue is protocol; my main focus is not the object or subject. I focus on the space in between the object and the viewer. I am interested in the particular protocol of manners and pace in the viewing process. [Click on this link to see a letter-size paper carpet and people walking very slowly on the piece, ‘Snow Walking Protocol’] To watch theater, a movie or video, or to hear a symphony, you need to spend a specific amount of time with the work. For example, a three minutes fifteen seconds song requires three minutes and fifteen seconds of your time. Reading a book is more flexible, but it is not completely flexible, because it is impossible to read a novel in sixteen seconds, which is the average amount of time spent by the public looking at a work of art in a museum. Drawings are not so much related to space as they are related to time: no time frame is included in ‘drawing protocol’... the viewer is therefore free and the challenge is to expand the freedom range from 16 seconds to 16 minutes or 16 hours.
BH: I wondered if that description I quoted is still relevant now or if your approach has changed in the past five years?
MM: My recent show at the Sicardi Gallery is entitled ‘Slow Politics’. ‘Slow Politics’ was also the title of the text written by Adriano Pedrosa for my September show at Nara Roesler (‘HypoReal’, San Paulo). So, yes I am still promoting pauses.
BH: I'd now like to quote something that you have written that seems fitting here. "We all feel a bit offside at the start of the 21st century, the only hope available to us is unambitious and slow: hypo-hope." Do you think slowness (in artmaking or in life) is undervalued now?
MM: I really love MHz and computers. They save so much time: saved time that allows us to go slowly. Computers deal with long distance very well; we need to take better care of the short distances. Images and sound travel on the internet; we need to take care of tactility, smell and taste. Computers work with zeros and ones; we need to focus on the hand’s ten digits. Nothing is more digital than a hand. I love the digital era in both interpretations of the word: ‘hand’ and ‘binary’. We are ‘bit-niks’ and not reactionary or nostalgic. I wouldn’t say that slowness is undervalued, as slowness is a great opportunity made possible by the fantastic speed of computers. If I have speed and long distance on my laptop, then it enables me to have slowness and short distance on my table top.
BH: You write beautifully, as though you are also taking time over phrases and that allows you a deep expression - I'm having to read slowly to take it in fully, which is a good thing. I watched the film on YouTube [link above] of your installation being constructed and demolished, it was very poetic, all the whiteness. And it did seem to slow people down a great deal, bending close to see, perhaps suspending the usual viewing protocol for something more careful and sustained. Is it your intention that the work is demolished by the audience, or are some parts of it preserved other than in film? Or is the demolition the final act of the piece?
MM: I have no precise intentions about tensions between people and the work, only expectations. I did very different versions of the same floor piece in diverse cities and venues - from Montevideo to Gwanju, from Los Angeles to Santiago de Chile or Bogota, from Madrid to San Paulo, from La Habana to Washington or San Juan de Puerto Rico, from Pontevedra to Kansas City – in biennials, galleries, museums there have been more than twenty examples. People’s reactions are always very similar, but the traces left behind after the exhibitions close are very different. The paper piece works like a slow photo-sedimentation of the show, in that there could be a very clean context and perfect conservation at the end, or a very aggressive environment with interventions by the viewing public, such as hair, coffee, written messages, lost objects, particles, etc. In some places the work survived like a collection piece (Daros Colection, LA MOCA); in others it was destroyed after the show (Buenos Aires Biennial). At the Hirshorn museum a child jumped on the piece; at San Paulo Biennial some top sheets (that are cut into with engraved marks) disappeared. In some cities I asked for a ‘non shoe’ sign; in others shoes were allowed. At Josee Bienvenu (my New York gallery) shoes were allowed and two friends added clean sheets of paper to erase shoe prints during the opening. The video on YouTube is a document: it is not a phase of the piece. I really love the response of the people documented, as they participated in constructing or demolishing the piece. Mutations start before the installation of the floor piece: the top sheets travel in a folder like a zip file to unzip on local paper reams.
BH: Why do you think drawing is not subject to the same time protocol as other works of art? Is it not seen as such a serious or complete art form? Is it more approachable or flexible?
MM: It was a ‘Drawing Inside’ era: drawing was working backstage, like art interface, or bone structure in paintings and sculptures Now, drawing emerges like the final tool to express precise confusions. Ninety percent of the actual description of the Universe is based in mathematical metaphors. Numbers are better than letters to describe abstract contexts. Drawing is the perfect media to document the triumph of micro uncertainties or the demolition of big messages. When words or landscapes are no longer capable of naming or showing systems, drawing becomes the protagonist. After the shock art of the early 1990s, the silences of drawing allow us to start again. Drawing can be slight like a text or even less; drawing carries the notion of being pre-text, coming before written language. Drawing is the perfect medium to emphasise or construct emptiness: a type of writing that erases.
BH: Can you remember the first object you paid close attention to and how that felt?
MM: It was a book and I was to young to know how to read it.
BH: So there's a thread in your work that sees drawing as unknown language, or standing in for an unknown language, that has the power to erase because of its unknowable quality, to act as a blanket over what has come before?
MM: To draw is very similar to writing slowly in a language that you cannot read: a text with no hope of being informative. It’s not a thread, it is training to stimulate our empathy for insignificance.
BH: I've been fascinated with ancient languages for a long time and have collected several books on the subject, and started to learn some of the basics. I felt there was some connection between being interested in art, particularly drawing, and being interested in the cut and carved marks of cuneiform script, for example. Would you agree that in both cases there is meaning to be uncovered? Or do you see mark-making in your work as only an erasure or slowing down, or can it refer to many possible meanings?
MM: Cut and carved marks of ancient cuneiform scripts are the most beautiful examples of new drawing. The genome alphabet is another example, and in a way, the genome is older than cuneiform! They are both examples of an illegible language: an abstract alphabet and syntax, grammatical tension. They are insignificant texts waiting for meaning (like a hook waits for a hat) in the sense that most of us cannot understand them, their interpretation is still being worked on. In the last four years I have been working around the word ‘cover’ and its sister words such as ‘coverage’. It’s interesting that the mass media use the word ‘cover’ to mean the opposite: to show something, they promise ‘complete coverage’. To link back to the idea of unknown languages, you could describe CNN coverage of the war or the elections as ‘cuneiform coverage’, covering up in the act of showing. My series title is ‘The Ted Turner Collection from CNN to DNA’. The coverage is so efficient that we cannot recognize the difference between live transmission and death. I wrote:‘We are familiar with the DNA structure but we cannot remember the genome's alphabet. I have only one question: is the inability to relate to this type of information blindness or should it be described as a new form of illiteracy? In both cases the most advisable thing to do is to patiently resign ourselves to the fact that we are doomed to knowing more and understanding less –victims of semiotic indigestions. The extreme percussion of news prevents any repercussion of the news. An overdose of drama is the perfect anaesthetic, a tool for censorship that is more efficient than a pair of scissors. We are setting up a society of dysfunctional information: reality becomes illegible; and the visual arts become invisible.’
BH: You often make the point that micro and macro have similar visual effects and also you compare ancient with up-to-date (preColumbian/postClintonian). Can you say anything further about this comparison of opposites? Are there political or geographical implications for you?
MM: The point of these pairs of opposites is the idea of unfocused information (in scale and time). Looking at the same drawing we can see different things: is this a bird’s eye view of the urban fabric or is it micro computer intimacy? Is this texture, textile or text? Is this archaology or statistics? We cannot trust in our conclusions about drawing or reality. In this situation the best reaction is to slow down. Nowadays speed is tragic in arts, diplomacy and cars.
BH: Can you say something about your juxtaposition of delicate engraving/etching and ordinary, household objects, such as kitchen foil still in its cardboard box, empire rulers and plain paper? This use of the everyday and simple is taken to an incredibly detailed and poetic level in 'Micro and Soft on McIntosh Apples', 1999, which uses a dry-point technique to make minute drawings on the apples' surface. Also, your careful use of language comes into play here...
MM: I already talked about training our empathy for the indecipherable, that drawings are texts that you cannot read. Similar training is conducted by choosing insignificant objects, giving them a second chance, changing their destiny from garbage containers to art collections. They have very beautiful surfaces: the silky side of the aluminum foil, the McIntosh apple skin, coated office paper, industrial graphite sheets, plexi-glass. If you see a drawing on aluminum foil in a very important institution you will perhaps take more care and time at the supermarket. Attention and delicacy are two subversive activities in Walmart. My first video piece, in collaboration with Ken Solomon, show the biography of an apple. A photo with video vocation, a slow perception test. One photo, every ten minutes, during 40 days, documenting apple skin micro mutations.
BH: Do you have an interest in the tradition or history of drawing and etching, or are these activities simply useful for your purposes? For example, Dana Self compared your mapmaking impulse to that of Jan Vermeer.
MM: I did an MFA majoring in Printmaking at the State University of New York. My interest was not in the print process. I focused on plates and particularly in the threshold between two and three dimensions, using engraving and embossing. As I write today, I am engraving a plexi-glass sheet but I will not print from it. I stop here. The framed plexi-plate projects a shadow on the paper. The technique could be called printing with shadow. You see the projection but you cannot see the real drawing on the plexi-glass. A spacer between the plexi sheet and the back paper is a second referent to three dimensions. In fact, the relationship between two and three dimensions is another very important dichotomy. Jan Vermeer and Fred Sandback are my favourite artists, if that helps you locate where my interests lie. I did my first print edition last year. I was invited by The Drawing Center in New York for the 25th Anniversary of the institution. I worked with Greg Burnett, a master printer and a master friend.
BH: Do you enjoy the physical processes of art making?
MM: It is my full-time job and my life’s work. Process is my concept and my purpose, the work’s origin and its goal. The most important phase in that process is not to warm up my hand before returning to the drawing, it is the viewer’s process of art-making that is the vital stage.
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Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.