Issue 4   >   Kate Weigel

 
 

profile: Kate Weigel

"This is a performance,” Kate Weigel says, pointing at the screen, “where I counted grains of sand for six hours. Individual grains of sand, one by one.” The video on her website shows her sitting at a small white table with a toothpick and two piles of sand. The pile she counts from is considerably larger, and the repetitive motion of her hand twitching atoms of sand from left to right quickly turns hypnotic.

  Whole Wheat (2012)

Whole Wheat (2012)

"This is a performance,” Kate Weigel says, pointing at the screen, “where I counted grains of sand for six hours. Individual grains of sand, one by one.” The video on her website shows her sitting at a small white table with a toothpick and two piles of sand. The pile she counts from is considerably larger, and the repetitive motion of her hand twitching atoms of sand from left to right quickly turns hypnotic.

Just watching Weigel quietly number off the grains in the 23-second snippet is anxietyprovoking: How many grains of sand are there? When will it end? What if she sneezes? Her audience watched with a combination of intrigue, unease, and frustration. This, of course, was Weigel’s intention. “I was thinking about the idea that humans can’t really conceive infinity,” Weigel explains of the piece, titled Measure. “How futile it is! We think we are so smart, that we have all this technology, when we can’t even imagine how many grains of sand there are in this tiny little bit of sand.” At the end of the performance, she had counted 14,400 grains. Bright-eyed, with energetic hair and a quick grin, Weigel laughs every few seconds and pauses before speaking, collecting her thoughts into coherent and meaningful statements. Effortlessly, she exudes happiness and excitement into the fluorescent-lit lounge of NYU Steinhardt’s Pless Hall, where, around us, students sit hunched over laptops, fingers pattering over keyboards. Weigel moves and carries herself like a natural artist: her hands conduct her sentences and shape her words, hitting the table at points like one would at a pottery wheel.

Weigel is a conceptual artist. For her work, she has played a game of chess in the dark, made out with a cell phone (also in the dark), sawed through wooden boards, and turned candy into Jell-O shots. She is also a conceptual sculptor; browsing through her website reveals images of an iPhone used as a paperweight (Paper Weight) and a photograph of a Zen garden (Habits). From these images, one might think a conceptual sculptor was like any other sculptor, bringing ideas to life through the manipulation of objects. But conceptual artists put their energy and creativity into the idea of the artwork; execution of the idea is perfunctory. Therefore, the art is not the actual, tangible piece, but the concept behind it.

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In March, Weigel debuted a performance art piece at her residency at Engaging Artists, based in Brooklyn. Engaging Artists is part of the Artist Volunteer Center, an art program that unites artists and volunteerism to promote awareness of social issues. For this year’s group, Engaging Artists connected artists with homeless populations. Fifteen artists were selected for the six-week program, culminating in an art show at the Hot Woods Art Center in Red Hook. The center is located on a quiet boardwalk overlooking an equally quiet river. Inside, wide wooden-floored hallways branch, spine-like, into little nooks that contain an ever-unfolding number of paintings. On the night of the performance, Weigel met everyone warmly, exclaiming happily as people streamed in to greet her. I asked her if she was nervous. She wasn’t—she was excited. As the performance began, Weigel surrounded herself with a pile of handmade wooden blocks and built them into a nearly three-foot semicircle around her. The blocks, which were shaped into rectangular prisms and small arches of blond wood, seemed like blocks from a child’s toy box. After the performance, she would donate them to family homeless shelters. “In a way,” Weigel explained, “the children that will play with them will also become performers of the artwork.” The piece, titled Touching, called attention to the lack of daily human physical contact that many people suffer. Weigel built a wall between her and her audience, enclosing herself against the wall behind her, demonstrating the complexity and difficulty of human touch and lack thereof. An observer remarked that it was also about gentrification, that the closely-packed blocks represented crowded living quarters and empty apartments. Weigel neither affirmed nor denied this. In complete silence, without ever looking up at the audience, she stacked block upon block. The meticulous nature of the work was stressful to watch. It took time and dedication for the viewer to sit through it, to say nothing of the artist’s effort. When the structure fell twice, Weigel, rubicund in concentration, deftly and carefully put the blocks back in place. By the end, the pieces were leaning outward drunkenly, entirely blocking their constructor. It took 35 minutes. When the tower finally collapsed, the audience groaned, but Weigel’s only reaction was laughter.

Weigel first grew accustomed to performing in theater. Throughout middle and high school she acted in plays and musicals, and she currently works as a theater carpenter in a set shop. However, she found performance art to be more visceral. With musicals and theater, there is a clear start and finish, whereas with performance art, there is really no cut-off between the performance and reality. “With theater,” she says, “the lights go out or the curtain closes. The music stops, the audience claps and the actors bow. With performance art, it is a little more complicated. Often there is no curtain to separate you from the audience, and no stage either.” The line between reality and performance grows blurry. Should the artist bow? Should the audience applaud? Should the artist wear a costume, or is what she is wearing already part of the costume because she is wearing it? It is this anti-theatrical aspect of art which guided several of her works, pieces she calls “immersive installations.” One such installation was Rosenberg Gifts. “We made the gallery look like a gift shop,” she explains. “It became a totally immersive experience where we totally changed the environment, which is something I learned to do while I was building sets.” Complete with glass cases, registries, and a small sign that said “Ask us about gift wrapping,” the gallery space was completely disguised as a bland gift shop that sold shirts and pencils emblazoned with the words “Rosenberg Gifts.” Also sold were some surprisingly chilling objects, like the brightly colored

and horribly withered ceramic arms hanging from the wall and five-dollar sympathy cards written with the prophecy “She will be felt from within.” Visitors could peruse and purchase items and candies at Rosenberg Gifts, participating directly with the art. They became the performers of the  art, a part of the play. Essentially, Weigel had built a set, but one which both artists and audience could interact with. Building a gift shop—complete with tiling, counters, fluorescents—in the middle of an art space might seem disruptive, particularly when the rest of the gallery functions as a normal gallery. Moreover, the gift shop combines artwork with the capitalist forces that commoditize it in sometimes uncomfortable ways. In 2012, artist Tom Sachs’s Space Program: Mars premiered at the Park Avenue Armory; in the middle of the exhibit, he placed a fully-functioning, selfmade gift shop, not dissimilar to Rosenberg Gifts. To some critics, the gift shop’s abrupt presence was intrusive. In his review for The New York Times, critic Ken Johnson remarked that the items Sachs sold at his gift shop could be seen as extremely satirical or extremely capitalistic. The items sold were shockingly expensive and later issued, in limited edition, by Nike. Such integration can threaten the integrity of the artist, as critics question the artistic value of such a brazenly commercial enterprise. The gift shop as a work of immersive art can be the greatest piece of satire, or the greatest scam. Rosenberg Gifts sidesteps such criticism. For Weigel, the piece was more about challenging visitors’ expectations of a conventional gift shop. Traditionally, artwork is presented on a pedestal, or in a frame, bounded off from the audience. But immersive installations such as the ones Weigel creates aim to destroy that boundary.

With Rosenberg Gifts, the gift shop was the medium of the artist’s message. Because the gift shop is a place that people are comfortable and familiar with, the boundary dissolved, leaving behind a clear pathway between artist and audience to communicate via the odd relics of the shop. Every aspect of Rosenberg Gifts was handpicked by Weigel and her collaborators. Having complete control of this environment is both a form of power and subjection: power in controlling what the audience sees, subjection in conforming to the expectations people have of a conventional gift shop. Unlike galleries and exhibits, which forbid touch and interaction, the gift shop atmosphere relaxes human behavior back into the mimetic throes of commercialism.

The act of picking up, observing, and purchasing objects forces gallery-goers to behave differently. No longer were they passive observers of an untouchable piece of art, but consumers sizing up items for sale. But because people have preconceived notions of what a gift shop looks like, it was important for Weigel to replicate every detail—color schemes, lighting—in order for it to be completely believable. Then, once the stage was set for a gift shop of normal expectation, she threw in the quirks. Because the set was so realistic, these little anomalies would be the catalysts of the play. In the midst of showing me pictures of the exhibit, Weigel reaches into her bag, takes out a piece of candy, unwraps it, and places it squarely on the table. It looks like an enormous blood clot or a dried plum, then transforms under the fluorescent lights, appearing jewel-like. “This,” she says, “is a series of candy casts that I made of the inside of my mouth.” The candies, called Suckers, were available for purchase at Rosenberg Gifts for three dollars and fifty cents each. Suckers is a tangible expression of Weigel’s exploration of space—in this case, the pocket of air between the roof of our mouth and our tongue. In creating them, she drew inspiration from the contemporary artist Janine Antoni, who once made a mold of her body, filled it with chocolate, and licked it into shape. The idea of making a mold of a body part and filling it with something sweet creates an erotic element to the artwork. Filling in the gap emphasized the uncomfortable ways humans fit (or don’t fit) together. Suckers exists in three stages. Visually, it is peculiar—a lumpy tongue-shape. On the tongue itself, it is spicy—a pun on the sexiness of the piece. And physically, Suckers fits oddly inside the consumer’s mouth. Humans are not meant to fit perfectly together.

Weigel’s work is both ephemeral and infinite: although her performances inevitably come to an end, they illustrate the illusory nature of time and the metrics by which we measure it. Counting grains of sand (Measure), making out with a cell phone in the dark for seven minutes (Contact), and sucking on a mouth-shaped candy (Suckers) are all acts of exciting desperation reliant on created units of time: by sand grains, by cell phone usage, by the slow dissolution of the sweet. Weigel is aware of the arbitrary nature of how we measure time; she lives not by seconds, but by moments. Such was her New Year’s resolution. On the first day of the new year, Weigel began hitchhiking to California. She wanted to do something for her own happiness, which meant a change of environment, a personal journey across the United States. This wouldn’t be the first time she had gone coast to coast; as a college freshman, Weigel biked across the country. The acquaintances she made during that trip would prove useful in this second cross-country trip, as she stayed with several of them along the way. Both times, Weigel sought a change in perspective, a sort of renewal in vision which would recharge her. In total, the hitchhiking trip lasted from January 1 to the end of February, encompassing states from New York to California to Hawaii, then to Vancouver, and back to New York. In Santa Rosa, California, a man picked her up and took her down to a river where he showed her some native plants—one for healing, another for eating, another for washing your hands. He then invited her to stay with him at his friend’s mountain house in Willits, a small town of 5,000 people located just outside the redwood forests of Mendocino County. For two days, Weigel hung out with this man’s family and friends, enjoying their company and hospitality. With her art, Weigel hopes to manufacture such intimate connections with strangers. She is inspired by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose piece “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) consists of two identical clocks hanging adjacently and off-center on a blue wall. Their hands are perfectly synced. Gonzales-Torres was known for his minimalism and for drawing attention to the AIDS crisis in the late ’80s. “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers)—two clocks, two infinite heartbeats, one following the other—bears a tragic metaphor to Gonzales-Torres’ partner, who died of AIDS. The piece was a revelation for Weigel, who realized that art had a true impact and statement. Survival, both literally (in terms of surviving as a working artist) and artistically (in terms of how much art and impact you can create before you die), fosters an urgency in Weigel’s work. This is expressed in one of her favorite pieces, the quietly defiant I’m Special. It’s composed of two pairs of hands: one pair printed in red paint on a paper plate with the words “I’m special” written on it, and the other pair molded out of clay, with all the fingers broken off. These are the hands of Weigel, ages five and 11, respectively. She found them when she was cleaning out her childhood home in Maine. She held on to the hands and sold all her other childhood possessions in a yard sale. This was the experience that Weigel wanted to communicate to viewers of I’m Special: the feeling of moving on, cleaning out, leaving home, not being a child anymore, never being able to be a child again. She wanted to share the experience of changing and growing up. “You hope your own personal experience will speak to people in general because human experience is pretty broad,” she says, “but at the same time, everyone is going through the same thing.”  Weigel’s acute sense of time and change guides her artwork. She knows that change is inevitable and change is constant. She understands that experiences color people’s minds and stay with them, changing them forever. Her favorite piece, Whole Wheat, embodies this idea of experience culminating in change. Whole Wheat is a loaf of sliced bread sewed back whole with black thread stitching. Weigel used the thread as a metaphor for getting stitches. Medically, we know stitches heal wound openings by forcibly pulling interrupted skin back together with string. Weigel chose to view it in a different way: “You are stabbing a needle inside of something and pulling it out over and over again.” She mimes the act of sewing violently. “It’s an interesting dichotomy of violence and healing,” she says. “I sewed together this loaf of bread, but now it becomes a useless object. It can never truly be whole again. Maybe it’s a metaphor for pain.” The way Whole Wheat stands, somewhat unevenly and forcibly upright, engenders pity. Today, the piece itself no longer physically exists. Even as art, the loaf of bread could not withstand the forces of mold. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘You can never go home’?” Weigel asks. As she asks this, her eyes flit between the empty tables behind me and the darkening window looking out at Washington Square Park. The silence preceding the question fills up—an anti-space. “Things will never be the way they were,” she says. “That’s what it means. Things can never be the way they were. And by trying to make them what they were before”—she nods at the pitiable loaf— “you’re just ruining it.” In other words, it’s better to just let things go.

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Weigel’s next plan is to build a boat. “I’ve always wanted to make a boat,” she says. “I really like this idea of a nostalgic, wooden boat and what that implies.” A boat, as a sculpture, would be stationary. As a performance art piece, Weigel just might sail away. “Why a boat?” I ask. Weigel laughs. “I don’t know! I feel like once I do it, I’ll realize why. I don’t think you have to necessarily know what you’re doing to do it anyway, because intuitively you have an idea, way back there.” She gestures to the back of her head. “By doing it, you come to realize what that was. Maybe it’s something to do with traveling, dreams. Maybe it’s nostalgia for Maine and the coastal region where I lived in.” Weigel laughs again, this time with a breath of heaviness. Then she shrugs. “We’ll see what happens.”

 

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