PRINT March 2008



WHILE DOING PRIMARY research for his most recent film, Empire, 2002, which took Clement Greenberg’s library as its thematic starting point, the Los Angeles–based artist Paul Sietsema started to collect scholarly books steeped in the milieu of midcentury modernism. As a result, he soon found himself amassing a vast bank of images from various disciplines, but what particularly piqued his interest were the numerous pictures of cultural artifacts he discovered. Indeed, seeking after a time to organize this trove of material—and establish his own relationship to it—he privately began comparing himself to those Western explorers centuries ago who visited island cultures hitherto isolated from the outside world (and who inevitably altered those societies, as they transformed, for instance, utilitarian tools into objects of study). With this comparison in mind, Sietsema decided to remake various precolonial articles—a fishing net, a cape, coins—as they appeared in his image bank, specifically so that he could represent them on film. In so re-creating and recontextualizing these old forms, the artist sought to highlight the necessarily fragmented, or incomplete, nature of history as manifested in objects, as well as the ways in which cultures may be so embedded in objects that the objects obtain mythological stature. The final project, titled Figure 3, debuts this month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Walking into Sietsema’s studio in January, when he was preparing for the exhibition, was akin to entering an alternate reality where time moves more slowly, or a future made from the stuff of yesterday. Perhaps this quality was to be expected, since, as Sietsema admitted in conversation, Figure 3 began merely with the tentative conceit of an imaginary explorer who, operating in a timeless zone, amassed the items represented in the artist’s film. (On a more theoretical note, he cited Alois Riegl’s “The Modern Cult of Monuments,” a 1903 essay that inspired him to think of “objects being reborn each time they are reperformed or remade,” thus allowing for a perpetual “presentness.”) Scattered around the space were newly made sculptures with a decaying, weathered patina, invoking both island civilizations and, seen in the context of the studio, a post-Minimalist aesthetic. Here the objects themselves (the results of a process that is clearly painstaking, tedious, and obsessive) become artifacts of the artist—evidence of a hands-on, mesmeric approach to making art.

Ali Subotnick


FOR MY LAST MAJOR WORK, Empire, 2002, I made a film that basically offered a conception of modern art history using the objects in Clement Greenberg’s apartment. I had come across a photograph of his place, taken in 1964, that I particularly liked: The room was filled with a mix of furniture, minor antiquities, and paintings of the period. In fact, the place seemed to perfectly display Greenberg’s construction of himself as a white, quasi-academic intellectual. But to tell this story of art, I eventually turned to his library, imagining what books Greenberg might have actually had on his shelf, using them as a kind of armature for the project. In my research, I soon found that many of the texts coming out at that time revolved, as they looked at art from the Enlightenment through Cubism, around the “truth to materials” argument—which was, of course, a crucial underpinning for Greenberg’s idea that a painting defines itself more fully by retrenching itself in its constituent parts.

So, from there, I took a familiar approach from avant-garde film, employing a simple idea and extending it formally as I investigated the modernist perspective on an artwork’s relationship to its own structure. In addition to showing the postcard image of Greenberg’s apartment, I started to cut across 1964, first constructing, and then filming, individual objects based on artworks that had been made that year—taking up in particular the organic forms that were then appearing in the work of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeois, and, in a utopian architectural vein, Frederick Kiesler. Privately, in fact, I was thinking of my own film as a kind of hard-edged sculpture, appropriating a number of avant-garde aesthetics steeped in different materials.

After finishing Empire, however, I found myself interested in a relationship that I felt the project had left unresolved: the relationship between the phenomenological experience of objects in space and that of objects on film. Perhaps because I hadn’t been able to use the actual objects in Greenberg’s living room, I wanted to look more closely at what it would mean to present a simple, discrete, three-dimensional object that would be experienced on film alone. I started thinking back to when I was first looking at Le Corbusier, some fifteen years ago, and understood why he would make these ramps running through a building’s interior: You’d enter a room and cross it, say, and then you’d move up along a wall before the ramp would turn and you’d finally exit. Throughout this movement inside and outside, there would be these different viewpoints created, where you were intended to look out over the room. In the end, Le Corbusier was giving you these specific vantages within a kind of sculptural architecture—presenting not just the structure or form of the building but also an experience of that building. It’s an approach in which the encounter is more orchestrated and where one’s sense of the physical context is clearly heightened by the way you’re led in: It was an early sort of virtuality. In a similar way, film, I began to think, adds another layer to an object and to our encounter with it. There is the object and then the representation of the object, and I would try to create a third category, where what you encounter is not simply either material or image but somehow both.

Titled Figure 3, my new project, then, is a very simple film featuring still images of some seven or eight objects, appearing one after another—it’s not precisely a slide show, since there are dissolves—over the course of roughly twenty-five minutes. At the very beginning, there is a series of straps—carrying straps, for instance, and shoulder straps. There’s a harness, too. All these are modeled on objects from precolonial New Guinea, where they were made of leather. For my piece, however, I made them out of newspaper and tape, which I subsequently covered with a white paint that was also a flame retardant. After that, I burned away the paper underneath, leaving mostly just a shell of white paint. The burned areas would either disappear or blacken; I filmed them against a black background so they would seem to be disappearing into their surroundings. In a sense, the process mimics the physical chemistry of photography. What you’re left with, I hope, is something like film as a spatial model based on the materials: an intermediate material between the actual thing and the film.

Of course, each strap looks like an Eva Hesse or an Alberto Burri, given all his burning, melting, and tearing of different materials. This is something I wanted. When making Empire, I’d become interested in books on structuralism and, more specifically, on anthropological structuralism—in how, when it came to people’s relationship to materials in island cultures before the arrival of explorers, they were limited to what they had. They had trees. They had leaves that they could weave together. They had earth pigments that they could crush into paint to decorate things. This reading had led me to the objects from New Guinea. But in approaching my new project, I also began to think about how the objects I’d put forward in Empire didn’t really have any true relationship to the celluloid medium—whereas a meaningful comparison could be made here between celluloid film and post-Minimalist materials using the anthropological studies as a conduit. If an artist associated with post-Minimalism were to use felt or lead, he or she would probably just roll it around for a while, mold it into a shape, tack it up, or cut it into strips. The sculpture took the simplest form that it could and was entirely based on the properties of the material. It was interesting to me that people never seemed to break totally with modernist ideas after Greenberg, and yet these modernist ideas also pertained in some way to an earlier time and place.

So, as I began making objects related to my reading in structural anthropology, I came up with a list of materials typically used by post-Minimalists and started using them myself as ingredients for sculpture—whether it was netting, coins, or storage jars with elements of Anasazi, Roman, and Chinese motifs. For the jars, I poured Ultracal over a form and then hammered it off before gluing the pieces back together. (The method of production mimics the look of things falling apart or decaying before being reconstructed by anthropologists.) Other times I would mix Ultracal with printing ink, allowing as well for different amounts of powder to mix with water in order to make objects seem like they’d come up from the bottom of the ocean, having accrued the patina of history, and had also undergone a process akin to post-Minimalism and to my own filmmaking. Every object seen here contains as many visual, material, and contextual elements as I can pack into—or subtly and materially embed in—the image.

As a result, I think, processes move in different directions at once. And this is important. The objects I’ve created are also deteriorating. Further, one can note that these things are my products—the relics of my activity, my artworks—but only as they’re completely structured by appropriation from previous times. (In this regard, I like that the jars are an ’80s cliché: the vessel, a simple, iconic form standing for our relationship to history.) In fact, audiences will probably be unsure whether I’m showing them stuff that I’ve found somewhere or whether I’m some artist who’s long gone and this was my production at some point.

Part of my purpose here is to point out how radically changed our own experience of materiality is today. Even the “raw” materials we encounter are often a matter of design. And correlating with this shift, I think, is a change in our relationship to history. History is more obviously constructed and has started to unravel due to the proliferation of different information media. The very idea of history is a gray area, given this proliferation of media today. We live by the Wikipedia model: Things get tacked on, or rated and removed. Everybody can present his or her own model of history now, which then competes with all the others. Am I going to pick up a history book and read only one person’s version, or am I going to Google for a while and try to construct my own story? This kind of “searching out and choosing what I want” makes history impossibly cumbersome, detailed, relative. And it undermines our reverence for the material within history. So I saw this new project as an opportunity to create a nice material situation that might bracket the prehistorical condition—meaning the one existing before Western explorers landed on the islands—from the posthistorical condition of our own time.