SL: I got a real hands-on education from you when I was a participant and Skowhegan and you were the shop technician. I learned so much from you but I didn't really have an understanding of your practice until I watched you work on Possible Odyssey in 2005. I got a real education in materials and processes watching you build, fabricate, wire, and install what proved to be one of the strangest and most compelling moments of my experience that summer. I saw that the power of a simple metaphor created through intense and complex activity loses none of its power when the materials of it are laid bare for investigation. I've never forgotten that lesson.
Since that time I've seen your work in sculpture, performance, and drawing (and also in teaching) and I am struck about the way issues of power play out in your work. Your ways of creating power for your kinetic works and the metaphors they conjure have long been of interest to me. And this is beyond a facile wondering of why you chose to make something the way you made it. It becomes very clear after looking at your work that power, its presence, its absence, its potential, its ability to make or destroy seem to be central to your work. Which leads me to my question:
How did you come to use power as a material in your work and how does your understanding of the metaphors of power inform the ways you employ this material in your practice?
BA: Steve, that was such a transformative summer. I began that season at Skowhegan researching solar panels for experimentation. The impulse came from a desire to incorporate unseen or intangible materials such as sunlight into my work. I had also been looking at Arte Povera and became interested in the potential for meaning to be drawn from latent sources. Solar power, I thought, was a way for my work to reach beyond itself in material and metaphor. More than if it were plugged into a wall outlet, the work could be at once autonomous and fiercely placed in the present moment. I wanted the transformation of materials to happen in front of the viewer. The physical installation of Possible Odyssey – consisting of the bare-bones and recognizable materials of a solar panel, two by fours, fans and translucent trash bags – functioned as a “ground” between the ethereal input on one side and the live physical performance on the other. This formed an unexpected, eerie connection that really excited me, one where the literal transformation of solar power and performance became a metaphor for the activation of the imagination, to make something possible, and to nurture the continuation of that possibility in the mind of the viewer. It was, as you noted, the most complex work - the riskiest work - I had done to that point and the role of power launched new possibilities regarding the object, performance, and especially the role of the viewer in the meaning of the work.
After that summer, transformation of energy remained a central theme, but it became less important that the energy source be quantifiable in that transformation. In Constellation and Opus, canned peaches and planted potatoes were conduits not only for energy (a natural occurrence made manifest in wires and outputs) but also for more complex material relationships resulting in more complex metaphors. In using objects of the everyday to literally and figuratively energize the metaphor, they became stand-ins for the power of the unremarkable to have influence. Opus, for instance, was inspired by the story of a Mozart aria written purposely to be too difficult to sing so that he might ruin a hated diva’s career. I was fascinated by this story of negative influences resulting in positive outcomes. The difficulty of the aria, now considered one of the most beautiful, only served to inspire the diva to overcome it. Opus was completely still with the forces of influence happening under the surface or around you in the air. Unlike Possible Odyssey, performance took an almost invisible form but was still central to the meaning. Composed entirely from domestic objects, Opus brought familiarity and intimacy to the viewer, pulling them closer and pulling this experience into the meaning of the work.
The experience of the viewer has always been important to me, but I had always funneled it entirely through my own experience. After all, that’s really what artists do. The most interesting and compelling works of art for me though, are those that do not take the viewer for granted, that somehow involve our imaginations in the outcome of the work. I’m not necessarily talking about physical interaction, but affect. I’m talking about works from artists such as Beuys, whose simple sleds of fat and felt take us to visceral places that are at once unique and shared. I think that my interest in natural power sources, however large or small, exemplifies this shared source and continues to evolve into more and more inputs from the viewer. Imagination itself becomes content.
You might say that this has resulted in a deferring of power to the viewer. Occasionally this has had disastrous results, such in the case of a sculpture that was destroyed by a museumgoer because they literally sat on it! This experience affected me deeply. For a long time I wondered if I had made a mistake, if I really could effectively replace my own performance with the viewer’s imagination. What does it mean to blur this boundary so completely?
I have been working through this problem for some time and this work has resulted in a new series of ceramic objects and installations. Sturdy objects such as hammers and anvils rendered in porcelain lace are a happy return to craft and process that have been a way for me to reexamine how a material – specifically a traditional material – can be transformed into an art object that ignites imaginative impulses. In this particular case, the delicate and fragile nature of porcelain induces one to imagine what it might be like to smash it. My delight in all this is that the impulse, carried out through the imagination, flits back and forth from an appreciation for the objects and a secret desire to desecrate them. The performance of these objects strikes a balance between the power to create and destroy -one where the outcome is always becoming, where the potential is always there.
Betsy Alwin received a BFA in Sculpture along with a BA in Spanish Language from Minnesota State University in 1997. She received an MFA from Illinois State University in 2001 and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture that same year. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Sculpture Space in Utica, NY. In 2005 she completed a permanent public commission in Tokyo, Japan. She has exhibited her work both regionally and nationally and has participated in several public art venues such as Figment on Governor’s Island and the Art Under the Bridge Festival, in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Solo shows include Figments of the Ordinary Life at A.I.R. Gallery in New York City and Inner Limits at The University of Tacoma Gallery, Tacoma, Washington. Her work has been included in several group and two person shows at the Islip Art Museum, the Berkshire Botanical Garden (Mass MoCA), the U.S. Botanical Garden, the Peter Fingenstein Gallery at Pace University. She was nominated for the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant and has been a visiting artist at Williams College, Penn State University, Virginia Commonwealth University Craft Department and Johnson State College. She has a forthcoming solo show in 2014 at No Globe Exhibition Space in Brooklyn.
You can see images of Betsy's work at her website.