Hope and Fear: An Interview With Artist Will Ryman On His Upcoming Solo Show

Will Ryman is a brilliant puppeteer and manipulator of materials to expose innate contradictions in history, commerce and power. It started with a gilded reinterpretation of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood cabin and took even more shape when he crafted a true-to-size 1958 Cadillac and coated the entire thing in Bounty paper towels. It’s simple distillation and refinery, and Ryman is the centrifuge forcing the base materials to the surface – the resultant work connotes a singular layer of blatant truth. His upcoming exhibition at Paul Kasmin gallery, Two Rooms, is an even more advanced exploration of this distillation and stripping down. There are two installations. One is a life-size sculpture – entitled The Situation Room – that is based on the iconic photograph of the Obama administration watching in real time the Navy SEAL raid on Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 201l. The twist: the entire sculpture is crafted out of crushed black coal. In a contemplation of “war, power, propaganda, industrialization, and political theater,” the sculpture seems to also bring to light our ulterior motivations in the Middle East, the plundering of natural resources, and the blood spilt to acquire such dubious ends. Another installation, entitled Classroom, features 12 students at their desk chairs – each of the twelve sculptures is made out of a different material: cadmium, titanium, salt, iron, oil, chrome, copper, wood, and gold – are we all reduced to simple commodification?

Will Ryman wasn’t always an artist. He wanted to become a playwright. Perhaps it was a rebellion from his painter parents – his father is famed minimalist painter, Robert Ryman. After twelve years, though, Ryman realized that the characters in his play couldn’t come to life like his future sculptures and installations could. Art seemed the perfect medium to explore the themes he was interested in.

We got a chance to catch up with Ryman over the phone from New York. We had an enlightening chat about materials, crude oil, his sculptural installations and we ask whether he is hopeful or fearful about the future ahead.

Oliver Kupper: Growing up with parents who were artists, did you always know you wanted to become an artist?

Will Ryman: No, I didn’t. Initially, after high school, I wanted to be a writer. I tried to launch a career in writing. I wrote plays and screenplays. Slowly, I started to sculpt the characters in my plays. That’s how I started to become involved in installations and sculptures.

OK: You were a playwright for twelve years. That’s a long stretch of a career. What themes were you working with as a playwright? Were you more successful as an artist in interpreting those themes?

WR: As a playwright, I was interested in writers like Beckett and Ionesco. I was interested in plays that had to do with approaching our culture from a cathartic and absurd place. I’ve always been interested in how things got to be how they are in our culture—whether it’s internal psychology or external social relations. That’s what I wanted my plays to be about. They were very abstract. It was very difficult for me to get anything produced. A lot of people didn’t understand them. They weren’t traditional in a structural or commercial way. At the time, people were looking for the Reservoir Dogs style. They were looking for the next Seinfeld. My work was nothing like that. I was frustrated; I started questioning myself a lot. I was also a very young man, so I had a lot of uncertainty about everything. I became blocked. What I was interested in, what was in my true nature was not working out. I tried to make my characters 3-dimensional to see what that would do. I started to work with materials, and I became interested in the same subjects that I’m interested in now.

OK: What are those subjects, specifically?

WR: Like I said, I’m really interested in how the world got to be the way it is today. That’s a huge topic. Within that, I’m interested in external issues like how the system—mass production, capitalism, technology, social issues—how that evolved to the way it is today. My work is about retracing that and exploring what’s underneath all that through natural resource materials.

OK: The materials you choose for your work have a very political charge. When you source these materials, do you run into ethical paradoxes that validate the very statements you’re trying to make?

WR: Yeah, a little bit. A lot of my work is about studying materials. Most of the work is done before I’ve made the art—in research, in testing the materials to see what they do. Sourcing them isn’t usually an issue. I got some crude oil from Texas, which was pretty strong stuff. It’s very toxic and very difficult to work with. It brings the reality right in front of me as to what these materials are capable of and what they’re used for. It definitely makes me think a lot more. It piques my interest about the uses of these materials—titanium, dust, silicon.

OK: It must get pretty dangerous to work with these materials, especially [crude] oil. What kind of environment do you have to be in to work with these materials?

WR: When I got the [crude] oil, I didn’t want to use it much. I would be uncomfortable working with it. We used very small amounts of it. We put it in resins to help try to tint them and give them the look that I want to reference crude oil. When I use the coal, we have to wear respirators.

OK: It seems like a lot of the products we use today are made by some kind of crude oil.

WR: That’s what is interesting for me. When you strip everything down, it comes down to these elements on the periodic table. Without that, our life wouldn’t be where it is today.

OK: I want to talk about the Cadillac made from paper towels. It was made shortly before GM recalled ten million of their cars. It brought attention to their negligence and cover-up of it. It’s the same with a lot of car manufacturers. Did you feel this recall was a confirmation of what you were saying? Were you surprised?

WR: I was exploring the Cadillac as an American symbol of power. But power is fragile. I took two commercial symbols. The paper towel is disposable, mass-produced, and convenient. The Cadillac is the symbol of American power from the industrial revolution. Combining the two, I was playing with appropriating these symbols of commercialism and power. What happened with GM is certainly related to what I’m exploring, with this piece especially. Negligence stems from mass production that stems from a system that relies on the speed of consumption. Things are made in negligence and silence, all to make profit. That’s what it seems like. I’m trying to make sense of all this for myself.

"I’m not trying to take a stance on it or have a really strong activist message. I’m coming from more of a fearful place. I do these things because I have a lot of fear." 

OK: It’s a complex time. It’s hard to ask questions in a way that makes sense, because it seems like nothing makes sense.

WR: When it does seem like it makes sense, it seems too simple. There’s got to be more to it, but often there’s not. When you’re playing with materials, you see the significance of the materials.

OK: The Situation Room, which is going to be a piece in your next show, is a good example of that. Why did you choose to use coal?

WR: First, I wanted to take away all the colors and emotions from that photograph. I wanted to take away any kind of nationalism and romanticism that was there. I wanted to use a monochromatic material that was also a resource. Oil would be an obvious choice, but coal was more interesting to me. The interesting thing about that piece to me is the situation itself, not the event. It’s not about Osama Bin Laden or 9/11. It’s about a much bigger situation that repeats itself throughout history. Coal is referencing that, as well as redaction. If I saw the Situation Room, and it was covered in crude oil, that’s too direct and obvious. I would walk away. I would think that I saw something that looked cool, but was something I already knew about. With coal, I walk away thinking about a lot of different things. I think about history. I think about Pompeii. I think about archaeology. I think about energy, power, and expansion during the industrial revolution. I think about when American interest became very aggressive with the Middle East, which was around the time of the industrial revolution. I think about oil replacing coal as an energy source. I think the arc of this. 9/11 and the incident itself on Bin Laden’s compound was just one letter in the entire alphabet.

OK: From a historical sense, it’s such a fresh moment in history that we glance over that photograph as iconic. There are so many of these iconic, photojournalistic moments in history that have come up in major magazines that have now solidified major political conflicts. If you were in a different time, could you think of one photograph that would influence you to make a sculpture?

WR: There are probably many. I’m not really sure. There are many photographs that make me think about things. What I found interesting about this particular photograph was the relationship between propaganda and what’s underneath all that. A lot of these photographs operate that way. The Vietnam War was photographed a lot and on television a lot, which is why people were so aware of it back in the States. Without photographs and television, no one would have known. The Gulf War was the first war that was live. It was like a video game.

OK: I remember that—night vision images of bombs exploding.

WR: Television created a reality. Shortly after that, reality television became the number one media. There are similarities in all these relationships. That’s what interests me. When you see the Situation Room sculpture in person, I tried to make it as exact and as honest I could in relation to the photograph. When you see it—I didn’t do anything to it other than making it 3-dimensional and out of new material—I took everything else away. You see the difference. You can feel the intensity. It makes you think. Why was the photograph released? Why was everybody looking at that?

OK: Another big theme that you work with is human commodification, which is a big deal right now. Terms like “human resources” are thrown around when they should not be applied to humans in a working setting. How extreme do you feel this thread is? Do you feel we are approaching a society fueled by Soylent Green?

WR: I’m not trying to take a stance on it or have a really strong activist message. I’m coming from more of a fearful place. I do these things because I have a lot of fear. What helps me along and make sense of everything is to retrace it. Ultimately, what helps is to work with these materials and make these installations.

[In Classroom] One figure is sculpted, cast, and molded twelve times; there are twelve identical figures. Each one is made from a different material. They’re all natural resources, like salt, wood, chrome, titanium, gold leaf, and copper leaf. They’re all materials that have been essential—and are essential—in building our economy, retail, technology, military, and energy. All of those elements are in this piece. They’re the same figure, but because each is made from a different material, they have different characterizations, identities, and personalities. They all look different, which is interesting, because they’re all the same. We’re all the same, but we experience each other. The differences in each piece are purely from the materials. Some of them look Asian, some white, some African. The material has washed away some of the features. I really think that’s interesting and telling.

That’s a sign of mass production. I was thinking about that when I was working on them. I arranged the child-like figures into a grid that was reminiscent of an assembly line or military formation. The idea is that human beings can be mass-produced. They are just as much a resource as titanium or silicon. That’s interesting and disturbing. It’s part of the paradigm of the system that we live in. I don’t know if it’s bad for the majority of people. It’s great for a small amount of people. It’s what we live in the United States. That’s why I want to figure it out.

Also, robots are replacing humans. You see pictures of car factories—robots are building all of these cars now.

OK: Should we be fearful, or should we be hopeful for the future?

WR: I don’t know. I’m coming from an honest and accepting place. I think I’m hopeful, especially when I do this kind of work. It makes me hopeful. I feel like I understand things better. It’s such a complex, complicated machine. 

Will Ryman's Two Rooms opens on September 10 and runs until October 17, 2015 at at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 515 W. 27th Street. Profile photograph by Dan Bradica. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram to stay up to date: @AUTREMAGAZINE

Lucia Cuba on Gender, Strength and Politics

Can fashion be used as a medium for social change? If fashion is an artform and one of art's inherent powers is to change people minds then the answer is yes.  From 1990 to late 2000 the former president of Peru Alberto Fujimori was engaged in an alarming series of human rights abuses including the forced sterilizations of men and women as part of a family planning campaign called Contraceptive Voluntary Surgery.  As a result nearly 300,000, mostly indigenous, women were coercively or forcefully sterilized during these years. Medical procedures where executed without consent, using fake signatures and untranslated "agreements", and under unsanitary conditions. In most cases no post-operatory information and treatments were provided. This caused secondary effects related to the surgery, terrible complications that in some cases lead to the death of patients. Fujimori is currently serving a 25 year prison term for his involvement in the kidnappings and mass killings carried out by an established paramilitary group called the Grupo Colina death squad which was supported by Fujimori and former head of Peru's intelligence service Vladimiro Montesinos. But will justice be served for the victims of the forced sterilizations? In 2001, a brave group of 12 women from the town of Anta, in Cusco, Peru denounced the violation of their rights and after 15 years of protest the public prosecutor's office has reopened the case, but there is a risk it may be dismissed.  Peruvian social activist and designer Lucia Cuba, who recently graduated from Parson's in New York, has started Articulo 6, named after the statute in Peru's general health law that all persons should have the right to choose their own contraceptive method, as a way to give greater visibility to the case and to open a dialogue about issues of human rights, gender and justice. I got in touch with Cuba to learn more about the Articulo 6 and how she is using fashion design to broaden awareness.  

PAS UN AUTRE: You are both a social scientist and a fashion designer – what brought you to these two seemingly disparate paths?

LUCIA CUBA: I was brought up in a household that is very concerned with social issues, and highly motivated by the arts and sciences. As a child, this environment nurtured all sorts of creative impulses, and I remember making some of my own clothes from an early age. While in college I became interested in the social sciences and decided to study psychology. To my surprise in 2004 a group of people who knew I sometimes created clothes invited me to participate in an experimental runway show. At this time, I was beginning to focus on my practice as a social psychologist in human development and public health, however this re-encounter with design opened a parallel world I finally decided to fully explore. During this time, independent fashion and design in Peru were growing exponentially and the context was also very stimulating.

In 2005 I created an independent brand called LUCCO, while I kept on working as a consultant and coordinator in different projects related to the social sciences. I had the need to explore how both practices could connect, and how they could grow together, as one; I started to realize that if I could not find clear connections between them, I needed to develop my own. Everything that came after, took place in a very natural way.

Today I feel that both “sides” of my work have merged in a symbiotic, dialectical and very productive relationship. I can’t think of another way of approaching my practice, but from the understanding of social sciences as a foundation for fashion and design.

AUTRE: You just graduated from Parsons for fashion design – what are some of the differences between the world of fashion in the US versus Peru?

CUBA: Aside from the fact that fashion systems in the US are more internationally established and recognized, I would dare to say both worlds behave in similar ways: They are both fundamentally powered by the idea of fashion as a commercial project, object and experience, one that basically responds to in-depth research on consumer trends. Their foundation does not grow through critical thinking and social analysis, for example. They both urgently need a strong educational reform in the field so as to develop local understandings of fashion, advance theoretical research, and broaden the way we understand and accept different fashion systems.

AUTRE: You had an internship at Kenzo in Paris - can you talk a little bit about what kind of impact that made?

CUBA: My experience in Paris came right after I won a local “young designers” contest and when I had just started a PhD in Public Health. Until that point I was totally attracted to my new practice as a designer, but I was also very involved in my practice as a social scientist. With the award came Paris, and with Paris came experiencing the reality of something that had been, until then, an ideal of what I had heard fashion “was supposed to be”. This experience included a short stage at Kenzo and classes in a local fashion school. This was my first experience in a “formal” environment of the fashion industry. Until then I had been working as an emerging independent fashion designer in Peru.

Two special things happened to me during this time. I started my practice as an active speaker and researcher on fashion—analyzing emergent fashion systems in Peru—and I confirmed that, whatever I was looking for as a designer, I wasn’t going to find it in a formal, traditional or conventional fashion environment.

AUTRE: It seems like the first big socio-political project that bridged the world of art and design was Project Gamarra - what was the project about and what is the Gamarra Commercial Emporium?

CUBA: The Gamarra Commercial Emporium is one of the main clusters of micro and small firms in the country, a key regional actor in trade, production and development of the Latin American textile and garment industry. Gamarra is located in the district of La Victoria, in Lima, and is also a conglomerate of histories of entrepreneurship marked by important migratory processes that began in the 1960s, due to increasing economic and social crises that forced people to migrate to the capital city. Today, over 20,000 firms are located in Gamarra, spreading through 34 city blocks and employing 70,000 people. It receives over 60,000 daily visitors and reaches 800 million dollars in annual sales.

Project Gamarrais an activist-design project that aims to raise awareness about the importance of understanding the Gamarra Commercial Emporium not only as an industrial cluster, but also as an urban ecology—a site of creativity and a space of confluence of diverse peoples and cultural identities. This project also aims to promote open dialogues among designers, students, business owners, neighbors, politicians and consumers in an attempt to promote self-reflection, the strengthening of social cohesion and sustainable practices in this urban context. The idea is to re-think of Gamarra as a creative and sustainable space.

The project creates a number of small but highly visible projects created by designers, photographers, filmmakers, artists, etc., in conjunction with local firms and exhibited in public spaces inside and outside Gamarra, aiming to give these preoccupations great visibility among consumers, decision-makers and the local media. It’s main objective is to promote the commitment of local firms and authorities towards the advancement of creativity, cultural diversity and sustainable practices within Gamarra.

AUTRE: I'd like to discuss the Articulo 6 project - how did you first hear about the forced sterilizations and what was your initial reaction?

CUBA: The first time I heard about the case was in 2002. I remember reading about it on the newspapers, but also reading about other cases of human rights abuses that took place during Alberto Fujimori’s first and second term as President of Peru.

The second time I connected to the case was almost six years later, during my PhD studies in Public Health, and while having group discussions about the “social determinants of health”. My classmates and I decided to follow the case closely and chose it as a case study for the course. During this time I got to interview former congresswoman Hilaria Supa, and Maria Esther Mogollón, a journalist and activist on gender rights. They have both supported the victims of this case for more than 14 years, empowering them and helping them to pursue justice and reparation.

However, It wasn’t until the past presidential campaign in Peru in 2011 that the case returned to the public eye. The case acquired a lot of visibility and was strategically used as a key issue against Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, who was – ironically – running for president. I became convinced that I could take action, and use my work to give this case and the issue it brings forth, greater visibility. While I was geographically far away, I felt emotionally committed and connected to a case that exemplifies the situation indigenous women face in contemporary Peru.

I started to draft the project while processing the incredible amount of information that exists on the case, and connecting with people involved in documenting, researching and actively promoting justice for women and men affected by the sterilizations. I traveled back to Lima and Cusco that year to conduct research, and I had the opportunity to interview two very inspiring women engaged in a permanent search for justice. They shared with me very personal and horrifying accounts of their experiences. These and other testimonies have been essential materials for my work.

The name of the project Articulo 6 is chosen in ironic reaction to the General Health Law of Peru which sustains in its Sixth Article that “all persons have the right to choose freely the contraceptive method they prefer, prior to the prescription or administration of any contraceptive method, appropriate information on the methods available, their risks, contraindications, precautions, warnings, and the physical, physiological, or psychological effects that might be caused by their use”, and that “the application of any contraceptive method shall require the prior consent of the patient”. These are regulations that were completely ignored when the massive sterilization campaigns took place.

AUTRE: After 15 years, why did the prosecutor finally open the case? What is the status of the case currently?

CUBA: The case was conveniently “archived” in two different occasions, and attracted renewed attention in 2011 when it became a key issue during the electoral debates. Even though Ollanta Humala, Peru’s current president stood up for the victims during his campaign and even though he spoke loudly and clearly about the need for justice, the case has not being solved yet.

On March of 2012 the case was re-opened for a third time. The Association of Forcefully Sterilized Women (AMAEF) from Anta (Cusco), accompanied by activists, intellectuals, journalists and politicians approached the Attorney General, to yet again present over 2,000 testimonies and other pieces of evidence that have existed for years. However, all this evidence appears to be “invisible” in terms of the legal aspect of the case. At this point in time, the case appears to have lost its political importance, and we are afraid that it will be archived yet again.

AUTRE: Will the women who had to undergo these sterilizations finally have justice - in what form?

CUBA: As abstract as it may sound, I believe that justice is the least they deserve; yet perhaps the last thing they will receive, if things continue to move as they have in the past.

They know that the sterilizations are permanent, that they where subjected to harmful and inhuman conditions. They were disrespected and hurt. They have mourned and, as one of the women I interviewed told me, they have cried so much that even their tears are now gone. Another women told me that “they just want to be untied”, liberated from a kind of binding condition of injustice. It makes you rethink in what form should justice come. There is no amount of money that can compensate for their loss. Can one put a price on fertility? However, they do demand medical and psychological attention, but more importantly they are demanding to be treated with respect by health and government officials, to have the State officially recognize their loss and the violence they were subjected to. If this does happen, I believe a very symbolic and crucial healing process may begin to take place.

I strongly believe that justice should also come from all of us. All Peruvian citizens need to know that this happened, and they also need to remember it. We need to finally accept that this happened to all of us, and that the responsible one is not a single person, but a complex logic of vertical power and racist ideologies that unfortunately do not only stem from the State. Peru is a country defined by inequality and discrimination. We need to feel responsible, related, and act upon this.

AUTRE:Articulo 6 has a very important message – how will a fashion collection get the message out - could you produce this collection for stores or boutiques across the world?

CUBA: As a fashion designer and social researcher I will always struggle, trying not to let one of my sides win over the other. In this project I am very aware of the highly social and political issues I am raising in the form of garments, and that garments—as I conceive of them—can transform into bodies that advance and open debates as well as new understandings. One of the foundations of the project is to use fashion platforms to talk about the case, but also to discuss the narratives that can be touched upon while presenting it: issues of gender, strength and politics.

I understand garments to have agency, and that when they interact with people and things while performing themselves (in a runway, a photo shoot, a video, a conference, etc.) they may generate emotions, raise questions, foster divergent thought, and challenge established memories. If I know that the garments I created can make at least one person more familiar with the case, if I can move them towards it and prompt a reaction, a feeling and perhaps even an action, I will be satisfied. I strongly believe that we are all capable of letting people know more about this case, and to explore the ways in which we can all take part and change things.

The next part of the project does actually include the development of new pieces inspired in the initial garments and their trajectories as migrate and transform into more “public and commercial garments” that spread the message of the piece in numerous ways. I am aware that this project won’t solve the case. But it can definitely give it greater visibility. It can also let people know that we are all capable of talking out loud not only about ourselves.

AUTRE: Do you think fashion should be more of a medium for social change?

CUBA: I believe that it already is. However, it appears to suffer some sort of blindness towards its own powerful agency and the potential impact it could have if conceived as a device and a medium to transform and change things. In order to so we need to see fashion less in terms of material objects for consumption. We need more fashion that acts, critiques and reacts. We need design and actions for transformation, stronger activism and less narcissism.

AUTRE: Whats next?

CUBA: I am preparing to present Articulo 6 in Peru in August (in Lima and in Anta, Cusco). The idea is to engage in an open discussion about the case and its current situation, and not only about the project. In September I will be presenting the first collection of Articulo 6 in the New York Fashion Week. This experience in itself will constitute another “action” of the project. Later on I will develop at least 10 more actions that stem this work, and I am currently looking for funds to develop them. A total of 12 actions will be performed as part of Articulo 6. I want them to represent the 12 of Anta: the group of brave women that made the first formal accusations and that became a symbol for the case.

To find more about the project, its actions, and the case, and to pledge your support visit the Articulo 6 website. Photography by  Erasmo Wong Seoane, Model  Carla Rincón for IceBerg, styling by  Lucia Cuba & Yasmin Dajes, assistant production Joy Rosenbrum, hair by Olga Sonco. Text for this article by Oliver Maxwell Kupper for Pas Un Autre.