For the fifth edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Becky Sellinger (A '12) spoke with 2010 resident faculty member Martin Kersels outside a bowling alley in Yonkers, NY. This interview was coordinated and edited by Don Edler ('12).
Becky Sellinger: If you could just start by maybe introducing yourself and talking a little bit about your upbringing, I’d be curious to hear about how you arrived at making art.
Martin Kersels: Ok, yeah, I grew up in Los Angeles and had lived in Los Angeles continuously for fifty-two years. When I took the job at Yale, I spent a year going back and forth between Los Angeles and New Haven and since 2013 I have basically been living in the New Haven area. It is a very strange thing, given the kind of continuousness of Los Angeles and what Los Angeles sort of has to offer in terms of a landscape, a rhythm of a city, of literally a light in view, like how things are seen, vistas versus sort of the flatness I feel, at least around here. Mountains, real mountains, you know, twelve thousand foot mountains, which you sort of don’t see here. It’s been very interesting.
Early on I was interested in film and filmmaking and wanted to go to film school at UCLA, but I didn’t get in. So I wound up taking some sort of courses in video, with a woman named Shirley Clarke, who was a great independent, experimental filmmaker. She made Portrait of Jason, and she started working with video, working with Sam Shepard, and Joe Chaikin, and I was able to take a class with her, and she was not highly theoretical, but instead had this attitude of “you have this idea, well you should just go out, just go and do that. Don’t talk about it, just go ahead and do that.”
I had an interesting mix of influences and experiences, because I also knew a lot of dancers, and Rudy Perez, through a friend of mine who was part of the Judson Church back in the day. She performed there with Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, and so I had this sort of, you know, knowledge of dance, and experimental video. Visual Art wasn’t necessarily the thing I was most ground in. I was more interested in art that had dynamic motion to it.
BS: So did the making come later, was that––
MK: Making came – I went to art school, I eventually wound up, after not getting into film school, I started taking some art classes, and I started making things, and I thought it was great fun. Isn’t it fun making things?
BS: Yeah, yeah!
MK: When you can be in the kind of the groove of the project at hand, and the materials are working for you; and so as an undergrad I enjoyed making things. Painting wasn’t what I did, I always, when I took painting classes, I always turned paintings into projection screens or into sculpture or sculptural things, and I realized that sculpture was more interesting to me, but I didn’t really start making sculptures seriously until I went to grad school.
I was inspired by certain people like Tim Hawkinson, a close friend of mine, and I really loved his work, I would look in his studio and think ‘This is so good. I want to make work this good someday.’ So, that was an inspiration to me to really work, it sparked an interest in me to make sculpture. But that wasn’t until I was in grad school, which was, I was already in my thirties.
BS: So did you and Tim go to school together?
MK: No, Tim went to school with my wife Mary earlier, in the ‘80s, and I went to grad school in the ‘90s. I met Tim through Mary, and we were friends, Tim’s wife Patty and Mary and I and Tim would go out to dinner and we’d hang out, and that’s how I saw him.
I don’t know, it just was—I think for me, this sort of background of being involved with dance, and having worked in video and some film and taking photographs, these things all seemed like really interesting ways of approaching the making of an object; to be able to sort of try to use those different forms to, in order to infuse an object, a sculptural object, a three-dimensional object, with the qualities that I found interesting myself: movement, a great kind of graphic visuality, sometimes sound, sometimes, how shall I say, a sensibility of, an understanding of placement within space, and I’m not saying I had any kind of formula for this, but it just seemed like that these were the things that I wanted to incorporate into my sculpture.
MK: Does that make sense?
MK: I think, I hope.
BS: Yeah, no, it makes perfect sense; I think that the fusion of, or all of the – the dance thing is really interesting to me - I mean, one of my other questions is how that collaborative process works.
MK: You mean in dance?
BS: When you work with dancers, what does that --
MK: Well - have you collaborated?
BS: I have, but I find it to be kind of difficult, so I’m impressed with the amount of collaborations that you’ve done that are really successful.
MK: Mmhmm. Well, collaboration for me started in undergrad, when I collaborated with a couple of different people on a project. And those are my first collaborations. But when I graduated undergrad, I started doing performance with a collaborative group. And to me, it wasn’t that I want a collaboration because of X, Y, and Z. I was not so trained and knowledgeable, and I thought collaboration was an opportunity to work with people and continue learning. A collaboration’s a way for me to learn from others how something is done. Sort of like mentorship or what, what do they call it, internship or something like that, right? And as I got more confident within it, collaboration then changed from that feeling of learning to being open to having your own ideas questioned, or interrogated and also to let your ego go, give your ego a break, because someone may have something that works a little better for this aspect of it. Or to do the opposite and say ‘No, my experience tells me that this aspect will work better.’ And so it becomes an interesting interpersonal situation. It’s not just about art, it’s about this interpersonal situation. That can be highly emotional, and highly inflamed, potentially inflamed, people, I’ve seen so many collaborations blow up, because people are hurt, that, not because of the work, but because of just how you might go about approaching the work. I like having close, personal relationships with a few people, and working with a group of collaborators is a really close relationship. Not to say it was always easy. I usually collaborate with people that I know, I have collaborated with people I know less, and that’s harder.
BS: Have you ever taken dance classes?
MK: Yeah, yeah, I’ve taken dance classes.
BS: Oh, you have.
MK: But I never had the level of training dancers have. I was not committed enough, nor did I feel I ever had the body for that, or the desire. But I was interested in the pedestrian aspects of movement, and the everyday aspects of movement, and how you take that and turn that up a notch. And then you have these situations that point out our generosity or patheticness, or our heroism, or our failings, or our potential for failure. If I was going to be serious about dance, I think it would have been a different thing; I would have been more interested in my body as an instrument rather than my body just as this sort of carrier of these other emotional situations of being an every person.
On the other hand, I’ve worked with choreographers and I think now the situation is not so much about the movement for me, but about what I can do, or how I can work with the choreographer to make something to dance with, or against. So I make a space that’s activated, or something that is activated by their space of movement, and that’s interesting. I’m less interested in dancing.
BS: Yeah. Kind of like some of like what Allan Kaprow was talking about people walking around grocery stores pushing carts being modern dance.
MK: It’s funny, I mean, I think the grocery cart thing is an interesting analogy of the interaction of your body with an object, within a space, right? And how that thing is an extension of your body, and it’s there for ease, but it also blocks people, right, you block aisles and you hit other things, so it’s a cumbersome thing too.
BS: Like MarioKart. [laughter] Donkey Kong.
MK: Yeah, I think I’m interested in the sort of every day, because I don’t have that facility to be so focused to become an expert at one thing.
BS: Yeah. I think that that’s something that probably most people can relate to, and just talking about that in itself is interesting, equating the everyday to modern dance.
Speaking of the object and the body, I was really interested in the drawing, the flotsam drawings that you were doing and specifically the table, Table Skeleton
I just saw a talk by this philosopher Timothy Norton, and he was talking about anthropomorphizing, and he used this word called ‘tablepomorphizing,’ and I thought of that drawing that you did. Is there any part – because you’re always thinking about the body and the object, do you think that a table could tablepomorphize us [Kersels laughs] in the same way that we anthropomorphize a table?
MK: [laughs] Like have it work the other way around? Well, what I was interested in with furniture and the body is that furniture is sort of this index about the body. There are these books of standards for furniture, like what the height of a table should be, or within what range a coffee table would be. I’m not saying that all those standards are paid attention to by everybody, but when you see a table that is thirty-two inches high and thirty-eight inches long and twenty-four inches wide, you go ‘that’s a specific sort of table.’ These measurements often reflect where our bodies bend, and what the table would be used for, or what our expectations of the table would be, so it’s sort of this index.
Now, thinking about it back the other way, the furniture does – it’s made by us to do something, but it also makes us do something. Say a coffee table for example, you don’t pull up a bar stool to eat dinner at a coffee table. The table makes us do something specific, meaning sit low.
It’s something for me to think about in general, but I think the drawings were about the comparison of how something is made and what our bodies do with it. And in Western culture we eat at a dinner table while in Japan you might sit on tatami, you don’t sit in chairs. Why does that happen? And not that I have any answers for that, and not that I’m necessarily trying to answer to that, but I am sort of interested in my experience with furniture. Like being a big person, when I go and sit, I think about, is this chair sturdy enough? Right? Is this chair too low or too high for me to sit at a table? Is this position of this table within this room, is there enough room for people to walk around me if I sit here. I’m constantly negotiating these things when I enter a space. First thing when I went into this space, I looked ‘if I sit here, am I gonna be in the way of this person?’ So, there’s a little bit of that, too, this kind of anxiety around knocking things over, breakage, being too big to live in this world. [laughs]
BS: Yeah, that kind of sets up a pretty, I would say, acute awareness of those sorts of things that you’re dealing with.
MK: Yeah! Yeah, body boundaries! The boundary of the body with, its interaction with the world.
BS: I want to lead into questions about the body and the history of the use of the body in comic language, and your relationship to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin – are those people that you relate to at all?
MK: Oh yeah, Keaton over Chaplin for me, because I think Keaton seemed like a sadder sack. I related to that. His physicality was amazing to watch, some of the things that he did, and his timing and deadpan, you know, deadpan reactions really hold me to the screen. But certainly physical comedy, I mean even something like The Three Stooges. I remember, the first time I saw a Three Stooges I had strep throat and I was in bed, a friend came over, and he said, ‘Well, let’s watch TV,’ and The Three Stooges were on so he turned it on and I laughed so hard I think it set me back on my healing for a few days.
I haven’t figured it out completely for myself, but, there definitely is a connection for me between humor and not necessarily physical pain, but something psychological or emotional. It certainly is there for me and it certainly runs deep, and I think not just with myself.
BS: Yeah, no, totally.
MK: And I think that’s where, for me, when I think I’ve made my best work, it gets a response from people. I think that’s where it’s touching people.
BS: One thing I thought was interesting about Chaplin, I just recently heard this thing where he was quoted as having said that he was afraid of the cartoon because cartoons don’t need time to breathe, so they could do his tricks better than him? I sensed a kind of sadness in that, and now thinking about new technologies and how they’re kind of displacing our bodies [Kersels laughs] I’m wondering if maybe that’s part of a psychic sadness?
MK: Well, so it’s sort of a sense of loss. Like a loss or an inability to live up to something?
BS: Yeah, there’s like a lack or something, because we’re not, we’re being——
MK: We’re superseded by technology in some way——
MK: Or some aspect of our lives, say, the idea to create laughter——
MK: ——is now, is easier to usurp with a cartoon.
BS: Yeah, or with a meme. It is easier to create laughter with an Internet meme, than it is with your physical body.
MK: Well, I think that might be true, but I’ve realized what I want to do is to become more personal, rather than broader. A meme on the Internet can be enjoyed by fifteen million people, right? Well I’ve begun to realize I have no interest in competing with that. I want to be happy with a kind of slowing down, a narrowing, becoming one with what I do and be happy with the people that I do reach, and do effect. And not try to go, well, if I’m effecting this group of people, I could expand that if I do this, and if I can, then maybe get an Internet presence, then I can expand even further, and further. I’m not trying to salve the pain of the fact that a cartoon can do something I can’t do, it’s just then, what can I do that the cartoon can’t do?
BS: Yeah. So what is that?
MK: I think relate to people personally. And respond. And try to understand people as individuals, and not as demographics.
BS: Yeah, that --
MK: Sorry, that was a really long-winded way.
BS: No, I don’t even remember what the question is at this point [laughter] but your response was great! I was also sort of hoping that’s how you’d feel. Can you talk a little about the spectacle? Does that come up in your work? Do you ever feel what you’re doing is creating this spectacle around yourself?
MK: I think there was a moment when it kind of was heading that way, or the potential for it could have been that way. But I don’t think I ever—I was a neophyte compared to when others started to do that. In terms of creating a spectacle, I realized that that wasn’t something that I was interested in pursuing. And this was in a moment, when I was making big sculptures because I could, or making loud sculptures because I could. I’m not saying I’m not still interested in doing some of that, but not as a way of building, like that would be the thing I’d be known for, right? Building bigger and bigger things, and working my way up to fill the Park Avenue Armory or something, that’s not me. I reached a limit and realized; well, I didn’t realize what I wanted, I realized what I didn’t want. Now I realize what I want, and that is about having a more intimate relationship with an audience. As opposed to the audience of the spectacle.
MK: Because it’s two different things. And there’s nothing wrong with spectacle. I enjoy seeing spectacle sometimes. But a lot of times it doesn’t feed my personal interests. It’s ‘wowee zowee’—that’s a horrible thing to say—but it doesn’t always feed my interests.
BS: Yeah. I’m curious about that relationship, because there is something about your work where sometimes that content will come in, like the use of the clown imagery, or I don’t know, there’s something there that feels like it’s not part of the function, but it’s part of the content? Do you think about the idea of the spectacle, even if it’s in relationship to society?
MK: How do you define spectacle for yourself? What makes a spectacle?
BS: Something that you can’t take your eyes off, or maybe appeals to some kind of craze. Maybe this is a far reach or something, but I’m even just thinking about the older works—in the piece that you’re yelling at the water [Kersels laughs] or something. It just made me think about the kind of spectacle of - or how politics is often referred to as a circus or this kind of magic trick that could be used to gain power. So maybe that’s not a clear question. But then there’s also like this feeling of futility, or belief.
MK: I think that’s a nice way of putting it, of putting yourself out there with the idea that it’s maybe futile. [laughs] Like, the idea of yelling at the water is an example of that. I guess when I think of spectacle I think of so much going on that assaults the senses that it’s maybe considered ‘total art’ or something, or we can call spectacle total art, that it’s just everything hitting at you, you don’t know where to look, you don’t know where to respond to. One bit of information is sort of overriding and blending with another bit of information, is how I guess I was thinking about spectacle.
Maybe that is just me sticking to a more strict definition or something for myself or what I built. If in terms of talking about something that you can’t take your eyes off of, or that draws you in, I don’t know if I see that. I see that less as spectacular, but more seductive. But seduction doesn’t necessarily take the form of soft whispers. We are seduced by any number of kind of stimuli, and it can be light and it can be a good beat, it can be something shiny, it can be a good aroma. Maybe when you’re talking about when it draws you in, that it doesn’t necessarily lead you, it maybe frustrates you. Because it’s drawing you in, but making you think of futility. Or it’s drawing you in and making you think of something painful, as opposed to drawing you in and pleasing you in this way that soothes you. But it draws you and makes you in some way conflicted. Maybe that’s spectacle!
MK: I think for me, I’m sort of more interested in creating situations that are sort of almost like dynamic binaries, where something that is attractive in some way, whatever that is, leaves a sense of uncertainty within it. It’s not on the nose. It has no sense of closure. And therein lies the dynamic creates the tension in a work.
BS: Yeah, questioning a perception or something.
MK: Yeah, something like ‘this is so funny, but wait a minute, it also seems so sad!’ And I love that, because it just is such a reflection of, you know, so many of our experiences in life. An example is the happiness of seeing somebody you like and then, hearing them talk about something awful that’s happening to them, like when you find out their relationship is falling apart. It is ‘like oh, I was just happy a little while ago with you, not a care in the world – now, this is happening to you.’ And to be able to do that within an assemblage of materials that aren’t sentient and don’t have experience, if you can do that. That’s kind of amazing. But it maybe can only be amazing to .1% of the people who see it——
BS: Yeah, but that’s the most important audience. [laughs]
MK: Well, I mean, yes——
BS: [laughing] I was kidding.
MK: But yes, as an artist, right? As the maker of that. But as a person in the world, as the artist in the world, there are other things are important also, and so, I’m not trying to say ‘This is the only way to do it,’ because I know that there are these other pressures, and ideas, and issues, and that artists have to contend with, all the time. That’s what makes artists’ jobs hard. Because they have to contend with this idea of communication and usually in a kind of non-verbal, non-interactive, non-, usually, in an intimate way, but with their materials at hand. And they have to struggle and figure out how to do that; at the same time they have to struggle and figure out how to, you know, live. And——
BS: Do their laundry.
MK: And do their laundry; have relationships; and also probably how to do ok at work, because you probably have something else you gotta do. And all those things. For Artists, we pay for our pleasure. That’s for sure. In ways that aren’t just counted in denominations of ones, tens, twenties and fifties.