Live Long Enough to Live Forever: A Q&A With Cole Sternberg

photograph by Adarsha Benjamin 

Multidisciplinary artist Cole Sternberg is an explorer of the human soul, the American psyche and the paranoia surrounding global growth, change and ecological destruction. Although he is predominantly a painter, Sternberg also practices sculpture, photography, film and room installations. At Paris Photo Los Angeles 2015, Sternberg will present what may be one of his most exciting photographic journeys yet: a recreation of his grandmother’s den from her home in Long Island. Sternberg has exhaustively documented every inch of the space and the strange objects that live there: "...Late 19th century plein air impressionist American painting, a 1990s TV with really strange, hardly decipherable instructions for how to use it, her VHS collection, my grandpa’s ashes, a binder about a Parisian tourist trip they did—this real weird mix of things—pillows knitted with puppies yawning." Through collage and unorthodox photographic processes, “My Grandma’s Den” is a microcosm of a larger consciousness: an America afraid of itself, afraid of its neighbors, armed to the teeth and begging for spiritual catharsis. After Paris Photo, Sternberg will be exhibiting a site-specific work in the Hamptons and then he is off to travel the world aboard a shipping vessel to create works that deal with human minuteness and global trade. In the following fascinating interview, Sternberg discusses his practice, the fate of mankind and his grandmother’s den.

Oliver Kupper: What were some of your earliest introductions to art? 

Cole Sternberg: Well, my earliest ones that I don’t actually remember—but I’ve been told from family members—my parents and grandparents used to take me to a lot of museums. I guess I got really into certain, specific impressionist paintings when I was four years old. I would just sit and stare at these different textured oil works for—not a serious amount of time—but a serious amount of time for a little kid, three to five minutes or something. Just staring at them. And they thought it was kind of strange, but that was the first thing.

OK: That makes sense now.

CS: Yeah, it came together twenty years later…The first thing I really remember getting deep into was in middle school, my family moved to Germany for my dad’s job for a couple of years. They kept dragging me, again, to museums. But these were more iconic European museums like, the ones you would think—whether it be the Louvre, or the D’Orsay in Paris, or the Uffizi in Florence—you know, whatever, every big tourist museum. So I saw a lot of work. In a two-year span, I saw a ridiculous amount of important, historical work.

OK: Can you name three artists that really had a profound influence on you?

CS: I don’t know. It’s hard because I don’t think my work really related to any of those early influences super specifically. I mean, I’ve always really liked texture, and I would see that in a variety of works. I think when I was seventeen, I started learning more about abstract expressionism, and then Twombly. Things like that – you can see a little bit more in the work. But it’s weird because I can’t really piece it to one or two specific people. It’s kind of a blend. I love Joseph Beuys, and Sigmar Polke, and Twombly, and Mapplethorpe—all kinds of different people.

OK: Yeah, I meant in a sense of—not necessarily influence your work, but just had an impact on your creativity…

CS: Well that immersive environment of large abstraction. “Fifty Days at Iliam” is a Twombly piece in the Philadelphia museum that’s either eleven or twelve massive canvases that go together to tell the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The feeling sitting in a room surrounded by those big, powerful works, I think, drove me to actually create something. 

OK: Yeah, that makes sense. So, do you travel around a lot? Did you travel around a lot as a kid? Were you sort of moving around the world a little bit?

CS: Not really. We were pretty much in Northern California except for that few year period in Germany. But during that period in Germany we tried to travel as much as possible because it was a unique time and opportunity. And then from college until now I travel a lot.

"I like this idea of an ongoing search for some sort of truth. That truth could be very grandiose. How is the earth placed in the whole environment, in the solar system, in the universe, and so on. How is one person’s life relevant to the rest of us? I like these amorphous concepts of searching."

OK: You work in a lot of mediums—photography, sculpture, insulation, film—but painting has sort of become your main medium. What is it about painting that best expresses your creativity?

CS: Well, it’s kind of a selfish thing. I think I just enjoy painting the most. There’s an emotional connection to that, and a sort of visceral feeling about it that I really like. But at the same time, my recent body of work is all photography. And then my next project after this is a mix of photography and painting. So I don’t know. I don’t know how locked in I am on it all the time. But painting a large-scale painting is probably still my most joyful thing to create.

OK: Your work seems to be this grand exploration of humankind—evolution, civilization, culture, what drives us, what moves us. You recreated the Sistine Chapel on shipping crates and the last moments of Ray Johnson’s life, which is incredible. What are you hoping to discover? What are you looking for? Is there anything specific you are looking for?

CS: I don’t know. It feels like I’m looking for something, but I don’t know what exactly it is. I like the overarching theme of how humanity or humankind (in a more positive way) affects our environment around us—for the better or worse. Mainly for the worst, but it kind of depends. I like this idea of an ongoing search for some sort of truth. That truth could be very grandiose. How is the earth placed in the whole environment, in the solar system, in the universe, and so on. How is one person’s life relevant to the rest of us? I like these amorphous concepts of searching. Also, I like to subversively deal with social issues in the work.

OK: Where do you think humans will be in five hundred years?

CS: Oh my god. Well, the way it’s looking now, we’ll probably be turning into fossils slowly. Sometimes I buy into the Kurzweil concept of a singularity, the possibility that in five hundred years our consciousness will be, basically, where it is twenty years from now. We’ll figure out how to live forever. The idea of neurology and robotics and general science and technology combined to the point where every day automatically our brain is uploading to a cloud and we know exactly how the brain works. So if I got hit by a car one second from now, I would just download all my memories and experiences into a synthetic brain and synthetic body and be rolling again. If that works, then in five hundred years, we’ll probably have explored deep, deep into the universe and learned more truths about how small we are in the context of our world and others.

OK: Sure. That was sort of a curve ball question, sorry about that.

CS: I could go on forever about weird theories of living on.

OK: I love that. I think we’ll be downloadable, too. I think that we’re already becoming cyborgs.

CS: Oh yeah, it feels like it in the stupid connection with our phones.

OK: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. So, Paris Photo is coming up. This is really interesting to me. Can you describe your solo exhibition with MAMA at Paris Photo?

CS: Well the idea started with taking a room and recreating that in photography in another room—that other room being the booth or whatever space for Paris Photo for MAMA. I spent a lot of time in my grandma’s den, which is in a small town on Long Island. The den is really creepy—like every grandma’s dens. But it also has all these weird little components that, taken separately, can mean a lot of different things. Or, together, can be this symbol of the weird state of America and the world. So I got really into my grandma’s den, basically. It has everything from a late 19th century plein air impressionist American painting, to a 1990s TV with really strange, hardly decipherable instructions for how to use it, to her VHS collection, my grandpa’s ashes, a binder about a Parisian tourist trip they did—this real weird mix of things—pillows knitted with puppies yawning. I captured all that, shooting each square foot of it very specifically. I took it back to my studio—all that photography—and then started to figure out what I was really going to do with it.

OK: What did you do with it?

CS: What that ended up being is a series of collages that are manipulated in a kind of strange way that give it this destructive, rough feel—in black and white and color. Then, integrating text in with different images to give these little hints of what I’m thinking with each work. They address the environment in some way. My grandma has been a lifelong left-wing democrat. Suddenly, she’s a very right-winged person, which I don’t understand, except that my uncle has her watch Fox News a lot. I think maybe that’s brainwashed her. There’s these little hints of what happens to people when they get old and why their viewpoints change for no rational reason. Then, the bigger thing that came out of it is this agoraphobic tendency of my grandma, of me, and then of America in general. We really want to build walls and isolate ourselves, which, I think is super unfortunate. So a lot of the work ended up getting into more of this agoraphobia than anything else. 

Agoraphobic Tendencies of a Modern World (2015)

OK: Does she know that you are presenting this exhibition? Does she have any idea what’s going on?

CS: She loves art. She’s exposed me to a lot of art. She went to the Ray Johnson Hamptons thing. So she knows I’m feeling it. I’m pretty sure she has no clue of the dark side of it or the agoraphobic side of it, until she sees the work. Even then, I’m kind of hoping she doesn’t figure it out. She’s very sweet and fine lady. I don’t want to bum her out too much. It’s more about everyone than her specifically. So, we’ll see.

OK: You’re about to go on this massive trip around the world. Can you talk about that project? You’re about to travel the world, essentially, on a shipping crater.

CS: I love this project. It’s been planned in a variety of forms for three or four years, and finally, it’s not coming to fruition in what I think is, probably, the best way. At first, it was more in regard to Chinese trade, and America controlling the oceans, and what that meant to the world. Now, I have been more focused on it being about the journey itself and how small humans are within the scope of the ocean. The vessel stops three times in China, one time in Korea, then goes across the Pacific. That part of the trip is around 10 or 12 days. You cross one of the few dead zones that are left in the world—zones of the ocean where if you get sick or the boat has a major issue, no one will reach you in time. Dead zones are closing very quickly due to technology. So this is a last moment to really spend any time in one of those areas. Also, you pass by, to some degree, what’s called the “plastic island.” It isn’t really an island, just a massive amount of garbage floating around. You can’t really see it all of it on the surface at once like a normal island, but it’s another sign of disgusting human waste. And then the ship goes through the Panama Canal, stops in Columbia, and then goes up the East Coast of America, ending in New York. That’s more of a human ingenuity part of the trip. I think that might be more fun.

OK: So, what are you doing on the ship?

CS: On the ship, I’m painting. I’m creating all kinds of work—paint, photography, drawing, writing—and exposing the work to the elements in different ways. For instance, a watercolor might be tied to a pole on the ship, and then the rain and saltwater will eat away at the paint to some degree for the whole journey. Another piece might be sitting in the engine room for the whole journey, and the soot will slowly build up on the piece. I’ve never done that before—physically integrating the environment into the works in some way. I think it will be a mental and physical challenge.

OK: It sounds amazing. Now, are you exhibiting those works at MAMA? How long does that take? How long does something like that take?

CS: The journey?

OK: Yeah.

CS: It’s about a month—a few days in China on the front end. This production company is making a documentary about the journey and me, so we’ll spend a little time in China beforehand just doing things and wandering around. Then, the same on the back end in New York. So I guess the whole thing is about five weeks or five and a half weeks.

OK: It sounds incredible.

CS: I think it will be good. Hopefully I don’t jump off.

OK: Yeah, hopefully. So where do you see yourself as an artist in ten years? That’s my last question. It might be a difficult question.

CS: Oh my god. I don’t know. With every exhibition or project I do, I try to grow a little and push myself a little further in terms of process, and concept, and the ending visual too. If I keep doing that, as I’ve done for at least the last five years, I think the work ten years from now will be pretty interesting and pretty in depth in a variety of formats. I think that, through it all, that’s all I can really hope for, is the work itself. You can’t really predict what business opportunities or anything will come. 

You can check out Cole Sternberg's "My Grandma’s Den" at Paris Photo Los Angeles 2015, presented by MAMA Gallery, New York Backlot, Stand H3, Paramount Pictures Studios. text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

photograph by Adarsha Benjamin