Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
David Teeple: When I was two or three I constructed a bird nest out of grass and mud, and placed it into the crook of a small tree. I can still smell the mustiness of the leaves rotting in a wooden bin nearby. This early moment, my first memory, of making something and perhaps steering me to a calling is curious, even more-so that in siting sculptures in the environment is a significant component of my practice as an artist.
I spent much of my childhood roaming and playing in the woods. I built bridges, forts, and treehouses, made architectural structures out of stones, sticks, and mud, and many versions of dams in the tiny stream behind my house. By my sixteenth year my basement had erupted into a studio of sorts. I built a black and white darkroom, created paintings, drawings and sculptures, made leather goods, built furniture, constructed a small science lab, assembled and painted model airplanes, and laid out a model train set complete with village and landscape.
When I was three-years old I was given a ukulele, at six I bought a guitar for six dollars, and at nine began years of classical violin training. Eventually I found my way to the piano which I still play regularly. Music has influenced my formal practice as a visual artist most notably through the intersection of improvisation and structure and a built-in condition of discipline. There is also something very pure, or maybe fundamental to music; it is practiced in real time and affects the subconscious in unique ways. I am interested in all musical idioms, but mostly contemporary classical, minimalism (especially Steve Reich), and jazz provide a tonal fabric that I use in my work.
By fifteen I was focusing on photography and envisioned a career making photographs. During high school, I was rarely seen without my Rollei twin lens around my neck, and my senior project was spent in the woods and fields behind a 4 x 5 view camera.
RB: Have there been any particular influences on your art practice?
DT: Early on as I immersed myself in photography, Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston were my guides; then Maholy-Nagy and Rodchenko a bit later. All the time I was spending in nature had an impact on me and I wanted to document the remarkable natural world. I read Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods and imagined myself walking off into a wilderness with only a knife, the clothes on my back, and pieces of flint and steel. This notion of solitude and self-reliance seemed natural to me and I had begun meditating at sixteen, so quiet and contemplation was becoming a part of my life.
I went to Hampshire College to study photography within a liberal arts structure. During my first year, I found that the plastic arts gave me a much wider spectrum to work in and I began making sculptures out of mirrored glass. I continued my studies in photography and music, as their vocabularies were unique parts of the whole.
In the late winter of my second year, I found myself in an unheated modern house on a beach on Martha’s Vineyard for a week. In the library, I came across the book David Smith by David Smith and read it cover to cover, twice. There was something about his intersecting of narrative and mathematical structure, his raw masculinity and physical strength, relationship to material and process, and placement of his works in the landscape of Bolton Landing that spoke to me. On return to school I dove into constructing sculptures and realized that I had entered a more refined version of my inquiry.
I studied with abstract expressionist master Ibram Lassaw who put a welding torch in my hand and opened my eyes to pure abstraction, and circuitously to the Russian constructivists. I also studied with Arthur Hoener who was a disciple of both Albers and Hoffman.
A pivotal event occurred when I went to Philadelphia for a semester of field study. Each day as I walked from my apartment above the butter and garlic-emanating Frog Restaurant, to the Philadelphia College of Art campus, I noticed a tree growing around and overtaking a metal fence. This intertwining of human object and nature was rich and full of both irony and beauty, and like a lightbulb shining above my head, the idea of injecting structural forms into nature came to mind. I returned to Massachusetts for my final semester and bolted steel elements into a grouping of trees, with the objects becoming further embedded into the trees over the years.
All the while the rigorousness of Judd, Martin, LeWitt, Smith (Tony), and Truitt had me in a velvet headlock, although all that coolness was tempered by Hesse, Castoro, Morris, Denes, and Winsor. Smithson, Holt, Heizer, de Maria, Aycock, and Miss all jumped off the shelves of the library, and I was aware I had finally begun to establish my vocabulary and language within a rich historical conversation. This intersection of constructed objects and nature informs much of my practice today.
If we are to speak of influences, I must also address other agencies that have given me direction. For grades two and three I attended a Quaker School, and a most vivid memory is the meetings that the entire school attended at the beginning of each day – where we all sat or stood in silence. That silence was not awkward and I found solace in it. Inside silence is a vast space and a mirror of freedom. Like Cage’s piano composition 4’33”, in that measured silence, the rest of the world becomes alive, and incrementally quite loud. In silence, we can hear things other than our own thoughts and constructs. What exists outside of these thoughts?
When I was fourteen I began reading Carlos Castaneda where I was confronted with the idea that deep inquiry into core values and meaning is an essential act; necessary for not only self-awareness but understanding the impact of the relationship of the individual to community and nature.
At sixteen I began transcendental meditation which I practiced daily for many years and prepared the ground to study the challenging works of Gurdjieff at twenty-three. There is no place for laziness in his practice and he imparted a rigorousness in washing away the illusions we hold steadfastly to. I found parallels between the intentions necessary to follow through with the rigorous formal and practical aspects of making art and being an artist, and those necessary to confront the weaknesses and dalliances of an untrained psychophysical existence. Deep inquiries and experiences with Sufism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have also been a part of my practice. Now mind you, I still have my share of contradictions, but it is the action and being-state of seriously and consciously being aware of the path that interests me here. Today I am most interested in Buddhism and Western philosophy.
When I was twenty-three I moved to the Sonoran Desert to open a studio, and allow the landscape to exert whatever influences it might hold. I admit to having a romantic view of the desert from my readings about the mythical Don Juan, but knew it would provide a new and exciting backdrop in which to reflect my work and my Self. I was not let down. The desert is an extraordinary place, full of life and colour and danger like rattlers, scorpions and poison tipped cactus at every turn. The harsh environment requires a heightened awareness and presence to stay unharmed, that isn’t necessary while traipsing through the New England landscape.
There is also a very specific connection to water in the desert, and it is here that water began to take hold in my work. From aircraft and high mountain vistas, I observed the topography of the landscape and was particularly struck by the patterns of the arroyos. Arroyos are empty riverbeds that rarely hold water, until seasonal monsoons drop heavy amounts of rain in short durations, quickly filling these dendritic pathways, only to see them empty shortly thereafter. Inspired by this landscape I began to fuse copper and brass into sculptures that looked both like the desert landscape and the surface of water.
After five-years I returned to New England and opened a massive studio in a paper mill. Running along the length of the building, and part of a hydro-electric generating system, was a wide canal. At first I continued the work from the desert but found that both the canal and the industrial environment were seeping into my formal vocabulary. It was an intuitive influence born of observation and when I began to see a different kind of pattern of water in my work, it consciously took hold in my formal practice.
RB: You have been engaging with water and water issues for much of your career. Can you say something about this commitment and why you feel this is important?
DT: First I want to say that from a certain perspective my practice is not about water. As a painter’s relationship to paint is as a material, water is also a material to me. It has unique physical and optical properties that allow for a range of uses and states of plasticity. I have used it primarily in its liquid state and find that in the process of containing it, or controlling it to a certain degree, that it has become a central part of my vocabulary in asking questions about experience, perception, structure, and psychology.
I came to water as a theme and material of my practice in both intuitive and logical ways. I have a personal relationship to water and suspect that my early water experiences have subconsciously played their part in my choices along the way.
As a child, I spent a great deal of time in water – swimming, diving, fishing, and canoeing. I collected frogs, fish, and turtles from the neighbours pond for my zoo. When I was in my early teens, after training for a mile swim in a ten-mile lake, I dove down twenty or so feet to check a mooring. The rope went slack and then taut again, wrapping around my ankle. I was completely stuck and nearly drowned. I was underwater long enough for my lungs to take in water, but the rope went slack again at the last possible moment, and I pulled myself up to the sweet air above. There is a scene at the end of Joan Campione’s film, “The Piano” that is utterly familiar to me, where the protagonist is dragged to her death in the sea by a piano, a rope, and her entangled foot. I enjoyed a different fate. Surprisingly, my near drowning experience never haunted me. On the contrary, it generated an association of comfort with water and I have had recurring dreams since then of being able to breathe under-water. I wonder if a visceral recall of amniotic fluids played a role here.
In an ongoing series of site-relative installations, I place water-filled glass tanks in various contexts: for instance, on a river where the tanks appear to be floating on the surface. Utilizing Snell’s law of refraction, the works challenge the relationship between perception and interpretation and how we interact with place. Part ritual, part experiment, part conceptual and aesthetic art action, the installations absorb and reconfigure both the surrounding imagery and the structure of the sculpture itself, creating visual phenomena that extend beyond the materiality of water and glass.
I’ve been looking for a muddy purity, a clarity that holds a cloudy past; and in this ambiguity, rests a wide range of conditions. It is a contradiction that affords a broad range of interpretations and encourages a wider spectrum of possibility; a spectrum that is honest about creative and destructive forces, for water both gives and takes life. Bergson speaks of non-existent problems and badly stated questions which illustrate the limitations of dualistic frameworks and false problems. The thought experiment, Schrodinger’s Cat, illustrates that reality exists in the entire spectrum of possibility, as much as this seems counterintuitive.
In addition to the formal aspects of water, I had no choice but to turn my attention to water as a theme. The subject is vastly rich, from creation stories to its use in industry and energy generation. It infiltrates our lives in every way imaginable, from the mythical to the mundane. Where do we go when we want to relax, or contemplate, or go on vacation? So often it is to water: a river, lake, the ocean – sailing, swimming, fishing, or simply resting, taking it in. There is something nurturing and tranquil about water that draws us to it.
The planets hydrologic system is confronted with great challenges. From industrial chemicals to material waste, most waters are adversely affected to some degree – some very badly. There are over four hundred ocean dead zones, massive floats of plastic in the oceans, untold numbers of cities like Flint, Michigan, many species of fish have been over-fished to alarming degrees, and ocean micro-ecosystems have been displaced by the redistribution of organisms via ship ballast functions.
What we do as individuals, communities, institutions and corporations has a direct impact on water. Simple actions like using eco-friendly products and conserving water can help, but to make significant impact, we must address the greater implications of resource extraction, industry and agriculture, packaging and manufactured obsolescence, and make water stewardship an intrinsic part of social and economic models. Water must not be factored as an externalized cost.
RB: What do you aim to communicate to your audience through your art?
DT: On first pass, I invite the viewer to enter into the work as experience; to generate a state of play and wonder; to look at the interiority of the work and see how it changes the environment around them; to look closely at the reflections and refractions and see how light and glass and water interact; to realize that these containers have become a living ecosystem. The viewer is not only an observer, but becomes a participant in the event – a performer of sorts. It is only in their movements around and through the work that the dynamics of the experience can unfold. This dynamic cannot possibly happen without the viewer. The works have presence which must be felt as well as thought about. If one has the patience to stay with the work awhile, they will see how it is always in a state of change; that as the sun passes by, or wind causes ripples on a surface, or raindrops leave traces of their dripping behind them on the glass, that this work is alive – and in a way, it is breathing.
If someone wishes to go further, there is more. To stand tall, to seek awareness in the nucleus of our tiny existence, there must be a profound dissection – that underneath sensory perception is a breadth of absolute complexity and infinite mystery. Perhaps a shattering of nostalgia and the romanticising of an idealistic utopianism, as well as the opposite, a recoiling fatalism, might be prudent. We are told to hold tight to certain ‘truths’, to a fold of images and ideas that are found in society’s myths, rituals, and doctrines, until the realization that the sides of a dualism are a construct, and that the seduction of systems keep us from a complete understanding of what this is. It is in the breath, in the space between the systole and diastole that presence can be found; and in the end, yes, it is a great conundrum – one that is a joy and terror to undertake if we are willing to break the chains of expectation or any system of false or limited truths.
RB: You talk of building a ‘liquid map’. What do you mean by this?
DT: The process of mapping helps me understand and illustrate the contextual and conceptual undertakings of my artistic and philosophic activity. However, I have a broader definition for the map. I use the term ‘liquid map’ instead, to refer to both the transmutation and expansion of the traditional map, and to the impulses of my art practice. The process of making sculptures, videos, drawings, and photographs is a way of marking my experiments and thoughts in space and time. In general, I map my creative journey, but more specifically I work to understand a context within seemingly disparate experiences, types of actions, or states of being, which are found under the umbrella of the structural, the psychological and the mystical. The map is a guide and outline where ideas are topological, both for comparison and verification; but the map must not be confused with the direct experience.
I map ritual, context, water technology, physics, surface, reflection, environment, duration, experience, activity, suspended time, containment, silence, refraction, history, function, myth, memory, action, dissolution, erosion, cycles, processes, space.
Mapping suggests a documentation of possible experience. I map using observation and physical intuition; yet reason can help mould the experience into a recognizable structure and use it as a mnemonic device with the intention of revisiting that which is mapped. Fluidity implies a constantly changing environment. In one context, the process of mapping limits the experience to what can be codified by a certain and specific language and technique. If we take the conventional map, that made of lines, to illustrate a topography, it is clearly linear – a ‘text’ to get us from point A to point B, or to illustrate relationships within a geographic context, i.e. borders and boundaries. But a non-linear liquid map made without fixed boundaries can reflect a world that embraces overlapping layers of shifting experience.
RB: Can you say something about your project Modified Perceptual Conditions and the Sublime?
DT: This project describes a thirty-year series of sculptures and installations that are composed of glass, water, and light that often rest within a structural framework. Several installations composed of groupings of water-filled glass boxes have been placed on underwater structures, where the boxes, although quite heavy, seemed to float on the water’s surface. Another piece located in a dishevelled industrial basement, reflected the crumbling brick walls and dirt floor. The specificity of the light, whether from the sun or artificial, is a central component of the work. It is only with light that the work takes life and becomes animated.
This work is a field of optical conditions where we might suspend a normal way of seeing and experiencing, and the ways in which we name, define and recall experience. When we look at the events and objects around us, they are coloured by our past experiences, our culture, the physical environment, our family, nation, religion, and education. It’s interesting to note that much of what we see, in what we think of as the present, is the brain weaving memories of past experiences with the sensing and processing of the present. We are constantly telling ourselves stories of what we will do in the future, or what this future portends. The implication is that what we call the present is not limited to the present, but a merging of past, present and future. It is a hallucination of sorts, or perhaps a dream. These sculptures articulate that dream so we can see it and perhaps look beyond.
Space is a complicated thing in the glass and water sculptures. Generally, space in the built environment is defined by plastic materials such as plaster walls, wood framing, granite barriers, steel beams, and other architectural components. Or it can be defined in nature by trees, boulders, and mountains for instance. In this series of sculptures, the space is quite simply defined by the glass, and any metal or other structural elements. But glass has attributes of transparency, reflectivity, and opacity. These qualities confuse the space in their meshing of the material conditions. A surface that appears here, is actually found over there; an angle that defines a space disappears as the viewer moves past the work.
With the introduction of water to the glass field, we find an exponential amplification of the illusion, and a complication of space. Within the parameters of Snell’s law of refraction, light and the imagery that is carried in the light, bends, reflects, refracts and combines into impossible spaces that shift both radically and subtly as one moves around the work. The surrounding environment is sucked into the vortex of this water and glass convergence but might be found upside down, distorted, or bent; and these perceptual conditions are not evenly distorted. Sometimes one might find a section of the surrounding environment reflected onto a plane of glass, or an illusory plane of combined water and glass; but it might transition from eighty percent transparency to twenty percent transparency for instance. It is this blurring of the visual phenomenon that invites the viewer to look askance at all experience, and allows us to see that what we think we see, may be quite different from what is presenting.
When an installation is placed outdoors, another aspect factors into the equation – each tank becomes a living ecosystem. On some of the pieces I place loose fitting glass lids that allow bio-matter from the surrounding environment, such as pollen and mould spores, to seep into the water. On first viewing it may appear to be a closed system, but this stuff grows and changes the colour and viscosity of the water, altering not only the optical conditions, but the feel and presence of the work. It is alive and growing. With the daily changes of temperature, the glass boxes also generate their own weather system, with cycles of evaporation and condensation observed through patterns of bubbles, steam, and condensation droplets.
Beyond the physical, scientific, and phenomenological engaging with the work, there is the transcendental and sublime. There is something warmly soothing about these groupings of water and glass boxes. How does intuition work here? What is it that generates these feelings of calm? Order and organization are inherent principles, but there is violence in the sublime as well. This can create a disconcerting feeling, but it is in this discontent that we push beyond perceived limits and discover new things.
RB: Many of your projects happen within the context of site-relative installations. What effect does this have on your creative and working process?
DT: The site becomes an extension of my studio. I discovered long ago that where and how my work is placed is as important as the work itself. With the sculptures and installations composed of water, glass, and light, place is an even more critical component. Because these works reflect the surrounding environment in the interior of the visual spaces, a slight adjustment in placement can have a significant effect on the overall visual experience and design. I spend a great deal of effort observing, measuring, and mapping the site a work is going to be installed in.
Placing works outdoors where the conditions are constantly changing, allows the actions of entropy and impermanence to become more obvious, and speeds up time in which these conditions are noticeable. An installation sited in nature for instance, is both in opposition to, and symmetrical with the laws of nature. I sometimes feel the need to break away from the balances and systems of nature and question the limits of the natural world; but herein lies a conundrum – there must be a cap, a limit to that break – I must be careful to invent and design with a pressure relief valve built of reason, to keep things in check, before the imbalance generates a negative feedback loop and begins the process of self-destruction. Nature is beautiful, but it is also a battlefield with all organisms consuming other organisms while always resisting being consumed and fighting for life. Can we as humans, with the capacity for reason, empathy, and understanding consequences, create a socioeconomic system within a framework of a balanced and self-sustaining ecosystem? Assemblage theory posits that we live in an infinitely complex arena of ever connected relationships, and that if we see things as interconnected assemblages and not less/more dualisms, and always in connection to a holism, we can potentially construct a human world that works symbiotically with the natural world.
RB: Can you say something about your project Thinking Water, which involved a ‘dialogue’ with a collection at University Museum of Contemporary Art, UMass Amherst?
DT: The University Museum of Contemporary Art invited me to curate their “Dialogue with the Collection” program. I titled the show “Thinking Water: poetry, systems and politics” and placed ten works from the museum’s collection next to ten works of mine that I made specifically for the exhibition. I had been studying water within the context of the environment, had recently completed an eighty-three-foot public sculpture that mapped The Connecticut River, and curated an exhibition that brought together twenty-five artists addressing water in their practices. The UMCA project allowed me to juxtapose the quiet and reductive qualities of my work, with the question – can a visual media, when in the context of public art, carry an underlying social or political message, and can that message have an impact on change?
It was an exciting experience sorting through the museum’s collection, to look for works that would speak with my works and support the exhibitions theme. There were the formal connections with Richard Serra, Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt, but I also found more organic and narrative works by Agnes Denes and Lucio Pozzi to illustrate my recurring interest in the complexity of systems. I was looking at how analytic thinking assumes a position of the disassembling of parts, and synthetic thinking looks at how a part relates to the whole. Analytical thinking works well for creating things in the physical world like a phone for instance, but synthetic thinking would consider the larger realms of communication.
RB: What future projects are you currently working on?
DT: As always, I am working on multiple projects: a new series of models and small works in cast glass and bronze; a series of graphite drawings that articulate the dynamics of flowing water; I’ve been expanding my time demarcation series of serial photographs and adding a water component, and am ramping up on a new body of video works. I have been working with an engineering firm, to expand the scale of the glass and water installations, and am planning a road trip to locate a piece of land to begin the development and construction of a large-scale permanent installation site.
All images copyright and courtesy of David Teeple
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