Liza Lou rose to prominence in the art world in 1996 with her groundbreaking contemporary piece, Kitchen, which re-created, over a five-year period, a replica of a kitchen made entirely with beads. Since then, the New York native has relocated to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa to open a studio where she has symbiotically employed local women with a mastery in beadwork, creating unique pieces that are testaments to the labor of patience. Having established herself as one of the leading contemporary artists, it was only logical for Lou to sit down for a conversation with Lawrence Weschler, the author and cultural critic who boasts long-term relationships with everyone from The New Yorker (where he was a staff writer) to other visionaries, such as David Hockney and Robert Irwin. The two discussed poetry, translating experience into art, and Zulu beadwork.
LW: Let’s start with the evening prayer. In this case, it’s part of a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, the great Nobel-Prize winning Swedish poet. I promised you, Liza, that we’d consecrate the event with a poem. This one is called Sentry Duty, translated by Robert Bly:
Task: to be where I am.
Even when I’m in this solemn and absurd
role: I am still the place
where creation works on itself.
Dawn comes, the sparse tree trunks
rake on color now, the frostbitten
forest flowers form a silent search party
after something that has disappeared in the dark.
But to be where I am and to wait.
I’m full of anxiety, obstinate, confused.
Things not yet happened are already here!
I feel that. They’re just over there:
a murmuring mass outside the barrier.
They can only slip in one by one.
They want to slip in. Why? They do
one by one. I am the turnstile.
LL: It’s kind of hard to follow up after Tranströmer. I think the idea that we are a turnstile is so interesting. It’s saying, right now, this moment is an act of creation. Not looking at finished things. But, having said that, I’m going to show you some finished things:
Kitchen by Liza Lou
The first artwork I ever made that was large-scale was 168 square feet. I made Kitchen over 20 years ago. I think part of what I’ve always been interested in is time and the idea that you change your life in the process of making work.
LW: This is all beads. This is hundreds and hundreds of thousands of beads over every surface.
LL: Yes. So around 2004, I started to think, “Man, I’ve been working in this craft métier for almost 15 years. Couldn’t I have the making make some kind of difference? Surely I could go somewhere where people work with labor intensive process and material and who have a history with beads, and the work could actually make a difference in real and quantifiable ways.” So I started to write letters sort of saying, “I’m this artist and I work in this sort of way, how and where could I be of service?” And it was suggested to me by the non-profit group, Aid to Artisans, that I go to South Africa. At the time, KwaZulu-Natal was the epicenter of the HIV epidemic and unemployment in the townships was as high as 70%.
LW: KwaZulu-Natal is near Durban…
LL: Yes, it’s a coastal town on the Indian Ocean. I rented a dancehall. The idea was to find women who were previously unemployed and desperately needed the work.
LW: There’s a long tradition of beading there, right?
LL: Absolutely. Zulu beadwork is among the most beautiful beadwork in the world and it is all woven or sewn. Prior to going to Africa, I never thought about beads as part of a craft tradition. I thought of beads as an art material with a starting point of zero. There was no art historical precedence for beads in Western art and that’s what I loved about them. Going to Africa changed my understanding of the material, and it changed my work.
LW: How many people are in the group?
LL: We started with twelve, and today there are 27 people. The piece Maximum Security was something we made after Security Fence. I started to think about chain link as a purely repetitive pattern. Apart from its associations with prison architecture, incarceration, and South African history past and present, I became curious about how far one would have to take an ugly symbol until it could verge on a sense of wonder or even the sublime.
LW: You wonder both at the beauty and obsessiveness of the process.
LL: (laughs) I guess some people might think I’m obsessive, I don’t know.
LW: I leave it to you. Describe the lives of the people who work with you…Tell people a little bit about that.
LL: Well, the difficulty of people’s lives and the way in which they work their way out of extreme situations has been very humbling to be witness to and a part of. I try very much to be of service in that situation and what has been fascinating is that all of that real life is situated within an art context.
LW: We were talking about the creative process, but before we do that, can you talk a little bit about what it is like to show your work in the first world… in a gallery or a museum. Is it important to you that the process, which you’re talking about, be understood by the people who are looking at it? Or how do you feel about people who might just see it as formally beautiful, or whatever other things they might think of it as?
LL: For me, the beauty of sculpture and painting is that it doesn’t speak. I really love that silence. It should exist for its own reasons, and ultimately, should stand on its own without explanation. Viewers should be able to have their own personal experience with the work and hopefully it’s a springboard to their associations and experience, which they bring to bear when looking at art. Of course it would be wonderful if everyone took the time to dig deeper and to find out more, but one has to be realistic. And anyway, a little bit of mystery and silence is not a bad thing.
LW: Let’s be clear. Your workshop is a workshop. There are 27 people whose families now have educations, healthcare, and so forth. So that’s happening in your studio every day. But come back, though, to how strange it is that people might go and see your work and not experience or know any of that. Does that matter to you?
LL: I’m not making art to illustrate a social issue, because the making itself is a social issue. One of the first reactions to seeing my work is often, “how was that made?” And even if I tell them, there will still be a sense of the unknown. We can never really see how much thinking or love or labor goes into anything. We can never truly appreciate how a rug or a piece of clothing was handmade. There is a kind of silence around labor. There’s kind of a heartbreak that we’re not connected culturally, or in any way, with all that’s made on the ground beneath our feet. I try to weave that disconnect into the work. I did a piece called The Book of Days, and it’s 365 stacked woven sheets. Every single one of those sheets is woven, in this very, very slow labor intensive process that over 30 people worked on for a year. I was just really interested in only being able to see the edges of the stack and the very top sheet. It’s that shimmering around the edges Joan Didion talks about when she describes writing. She could also have been talking about a field of awareness. I mean, how much do we ever really know or see?
Portrait Photography: Tyler Nevitt for NeueJournal
Title Page Artwork: Color Field (2010-2013) by Liza Lou