Image courtesy of the artist
Interview with Stephen Hendee
It wasn’t until I was listening back to this interview with Stephen Hendee that I realised the impact of his experience, knowledge and intent in making. It’s an ongoing discourse meant for now and in the future. The underlying issues that Stephen is contending with are both of this time and yet still so fundamental to our underlying social needs and human behaviour. The term ‘making’ does a disservice to the scale and ambition of his temporal landscapes. They are grand constructions of a future, past and present.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about your background to becoming a sculptor. How did it happen to you, where have you come from?
When I was a kid my family moved around a bit, but wherever we went my parents were interested in culture so I got to see a lot of museums. My father was a chef, he emphasised the importance of culture; that being involved in the making of culture was a worthwhile thing to do. They were from a working class background and I think they saw this as an opportunity to do something more positive with my life. They encouraged me to express myself in that way. It was obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to afford college so my option was to get good at something that’s creative and get a scholarship. I worked really hard when I was in high school to focus on a portfolio of making objects. In southern California when I was a teenager there was a really good public school system that had a lot of progressive teachers that were interested in critical thinking. There were different programmes exposing teenagers to culture and I became really attracted to installation art after seeing a Roland Reiss work at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. It was just something that really blew my mind. This was the idea of transforming a space, not only a singular object that draws you in, but a larger sphere of influence upon the viewer. At the museums, looking Marcel Duchamp’s work, surrealism, and the work of early twentieth century avant-garde opened what was possible. A number of the individuals at the beginning of the twentieth century were seeing a world that was very different than the one that I was experiencing. There were a lot of different possibilities in terms of making it work and seeing the way different materials could be used. That inspired me to move forward and start seeing myself as a sculptor. I applied to a number of art schools and I got into the Art Institute of Chicago with a scholarship. I then decided after that first year because of the sculpture program I wasn’t interested in it. I decided to apply to the San Francisco Art Institute where I started in my second year with performance and video.
Q. What was wrong with Chicago?
It seemed like a boys club. It seemed like the kind of place that I wasn’t going to be able to access. I don’t know how to describe that but you get the sense of whether or not you are welcome. It didn’t seem like the kind of place that I was going to be able to do the work that I wanted to do so I turned around and got in the San Francisco Art Institute. It was a very inclusive place, very interdisciplinary in terms of the philosophy of teaching. I was very fortunate that when I first got there my teachers; Tony Labat, David Ireland, Paul Kos, were involved in performance, video and installation. They are the core part of what’s considered the Bay Area Conceptualist Movement. It was the way that they questioned space, context and materiality that really inspired me. It was interdisciplinary but there were also these edges that people fall off and the edge I experienced was making a lot of objects. So I moved into San Francisco Institute’s sculpture area, which was really quite diverse. There were graduate students, older non-degree artists and young artists like myself there who would come in to build their work. There was a multi-generation experience in that welding shop and a lot of different ideas were being put around about how to make things. That was a club that I felt included, partly because if it’s diversity and wider perspectives. It was really eye opening. I had my first solo show in my third year of school and started showing my work in group shows locally. At that point I got a scholarship to go to Stanford University at the MFA program and continued to develop my work. I moved from steel to mixed media work using various kinds of materials that were somewhat affordable such as plywood, for example, instead of steel. The language changed.
Q. Was that a fiscal decision or just to allow you a bit more freedom of expression?
A lot of my decision-making throughout my work has been economic. It was on those things from early on. I have had to compromise to figure out how to translate the limitations into materials that are convincing and that I can afford. I emptied my bank account to apply for Stanford. They were supportive of my work and for two years I had free reign to do what I wanted, but I obviously still had to adhere to a budget. One of the things that was really inspiring about working there was that Stanford University has a world class programme in industrial design. A lot of the people that I hung out with there were interested in graduating with their design and manufacturing credentials. I wasn’t that interested in the commerce side of industrial design but I was influenced by the idea of making things that felt like they were functional.
“My work is in flux because it’s destroyed in the end. It continues to be unresolved in terms of how I deal with that as an artist.”
Q. I think there is a commonality in building something that you want to translate some sort of message whether it’s functional or purely aesthetic. There’s an ebb and flow between design and sculpture?
Certainly. The fact that the physical object is existing, the audience is trying to figure out what their relationship is to that form. They’re searching, evening subconsciously, for the place where they fit in the equation of that object. When it’s not there you can tell, you don’t fit, the viewer doesn’t feel it. I base my opinions on whether or not I know the artist cares whether or not I exist. You can tell that in an artwork where the artist has made something for themselves, or you can tell how limited that audience is. I think it’s something that’s very important to what I’ve been doing. When I was at Stanford I started making these fictional designs as a commentary on the world I was seeing. For example, portable interrogation chambers designed to be picked up by helicopters and dropped where they needed to be. I made fictional execution devices that might be provided by the State. They looked fully realised, the same colours, the same materials that would be used in an institutional setting. During this time period I was being exposed to a higher level of critical thinking about society and institution. I found that really compelling and that fed it’s way into my work.
Q. Was your earlier work darker, for want of a better word?
Yes. In some weird way, even though people have a very specific idea of what the content is, I have a personal motivation in making and presenting it. Even the larger more spectacular work that I’ve ended up making is a kind of criticism.
Q. There’s something underlying, a sense of something beyond the immediate in your work.
Part of the trick of getting exposure with my work, at least early on, was some sort of camouflage and recognising that in order to get the work out there I had to figure out a way of pleasing the audience while at the same time focusing on the content that I was interested in.
Q. If you concentrate too much on pleasing your audience you step away from what you were originally intending to do. Have you been careful with that balance?
There’s definitely been moments where I question myself; what it is that I have been able to achieve? I can tell difference between some of the installation work that I have made and some of the more architectural work. I can tell when it veers away from the more expressionistic or conceptual project versus something that is more design oriented. I don’t know how to describe it… I can talk about narrative and someone would say that’s incredibly abstract but I guess it’s about intent and the context of the work and that can change the narrative of it or the experience that viewer has.
Q. Stepping back slightly, you’ve gone through formal education, you’ve had a good grounding in terms of that. You’ve then had to transition from that institutionalised way of operating into the realm of becoming a professional sculptor. That transition makes and breaks some artists. Was that transition difficult for you?
It was challenging, partly because I didn’t know what I was going to do after I graduated. Where I was going to work, how I was going to move forward. Half way through my graduate degree I was basically unable to afford the mixed media work I was building at the time so I decided that I would start building things out of cardboard. This brought a lot of criticism from some of the older faculty and students. There’s many artists who work in cardboard now but at the time it wasn’t really being done. Eventually I did get enough support and felt empowered to move forward with making objects out of cardboard and crafting them to a level where people bought into the object. When I graduated I was lucky enough to start work at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which was at that time a brand new institution in San Francisco and pulled in lots of local artists for the exhibitions. I started building walls for these exhibitions, where I met Renny Pritikin and after a series of studio visits with me he started supporting my work and then eventually put one of the early installations, ‘Cascade’, in the first ‘Bay Area Now’ exhibition at YBCA. Through connections I made with peers in SF I was given opportunities to start presenting my sculpture that I had made out of cardboard. One of thing that was significant about San Francisco at the time was that it was a very affordable city to live in. This was before the first dotcom boom. I started using my observations of technology with simple 3D computer programs to reimagine my work. This came hand in hand with something that was going on with my materials. I had developed the cardboard pieces to the point where I was trying to find other materials that would exemplify these artificial objects I was making. I started working with foam-board, a urethane foam with paper on either side. It was largely a failure at first. I didn’t understand, it was such a delicate material. I had invested in a number of sheets of the material and didn’t know what to do with it. I decided to make a lamp out of and then realised by making a lamp with closed edges I was actually making something that looked like a luminescent object that you would see on a computer screen. It basically grew out from there very quickly. My transition from starting to use cardboard to these larger objects happened in a relatively short period of time, maybe 4 years of development. I then started getting grants and won an art award in Japan, I travelled there to do installations. That was followed by a year-long residency at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation enabling me to move to NYC. Each time I was building installations I was documenting them. I worked hard on developing the images surrounding the installations and was discerning about how I used that photography. With photography at the time you sent out 35mm slides to people, and they would hold them up to look at them with a magnifying loupe. There was something challenging about that context, to make a slide image describe everything that needed to be said about what was possible in an installation. So I began optimizing the frameworks of the installations themselves, focused on compositions for the photographic documentation. My objective through all this was to get a solo show. I didn’t know it was going to happen I just put everything I had into making a spectacular environment for people to experience.
“There’s definitely been moments where I question myself; what it is that I have been able to achieve?”
Q. It seems the scale, the size, and the type of things you are creating with your installations are something that people don’t just arrive at and look at but actually go into, become immersed or part of?
I had limitations in terms of creating virtual reality with the existing technology. At that time the only other virtual reality space that I was aware of was the Tank at MIT. That required putting on gloves, a big bucket on your head and that bucket was connected to a gantry. Then you got to see an environment that was actually a lot less immersive than some of the work that I was making. The idea was – what would happen if I were to make a space that was immersive that you didn’t have to boot up from a computer, that people just walked into. There are connections with science fiction, like the holodeck in Star Trek or Tron. The other close association is film making; the idea of fictional spaces that are seemingly endless with convincing levels of detail. The history of science fiction film is filled with people who have crafted spaces to make the smallest elements convincing. The process of the building these spaces has been a continual effort to refine the details down in scale to the finest levels within the object. That they can bear that scrutiny is really important.
Q. One side of artwork is the primary artists process and perspective, the other is the audience interaction / reaction. You obviously are aware of this latter aspect and it’s quite important to you, do you think more so than other artists?
I don’t know. It’s clear that most artists are trying to achieve a communication with an audience. In the case of the immersive work that I have made, it really is. If I am in a situation where I am unsure very many people are going to see it I am loathed to do that project. I am interested in having people see the work. There’s something enjoyable when I hear that someone came in to see the work and they just hung out for hours, or just laid down. The spaces themselves are not necessarily that comforting.
Q. As an observer you are part of it, almost, rather than observing it?
Exactly. One of the aspect of this interaction, or transaction, that I really enjoy is the idea that I have had an intent of making it and exposing people to it but often they will use it to their own ends. That people would go in there as a respite – or enjoy the fact that so much of the information from the outside world is being blocked out. Being in this ambient space which allows them to relax, was something that I did not necessarily expect.
Q. Do you go looking for feedback – do you actively ask for it?
Periodically I will ask friends whose work I value to see a piece as it’s in process sometimes just to see what they think. Maybe I need another perspective on developing some things further. I’ve been really fortunate that I have had viewers be generous and want to talk about the work and the things that they experienced: why they stayed in there, what they noticed. There’s always a line of development that is happening and the feedback helps me figure out in what direction I want to go and how much further can I go with a certain idea. I have had some peers comment that I’m still doing the same thing. Well, actually all of the pieces are different and I have different objectives. The structure of a piece is far different from the previous one where I learnt something about working with a new material or lighting or the soundtrack or something about the space which was uniquely different. When I develop vast objects it’s reliant on the space that they’re in and changes the way people approach them and it informs the work…
My work is in flux because it’s destroyed in the end. It continues to be unresolved in terms of how I deal with that as an artist. One of my students said ‘it’s really great that your work is ephemeral and that it gets taken apart’. Of course, I’ve heard this before and I appreciate that it sounds coherent but from on a strictly financial level, not to mention the labour that I put in, when I take them apart because I have nowhere to store them – I have to grapple with the ethics of that.
“This was the idea of transforming a space, not only a singular object that draws you in, but a larger sphere of influence upon the viewer.”
Q. Your work is site specific, you are reliant to a certain extent on grants to sustain yourself. Is there a commercial aspect beyond those installations, where you produce work for galleries for instance?
I have worked with galleries before. Selling installations or selling objects related to them has been a challenge for those galleries. Currently I don’t work with a gallery but there is always a potential for that.
Q. Is that something you want to do?
It would be great to work with people who really want to support the work in that way. There have been other artists who have been able to make this transition and partly it’s just having good support. I am in the process of developing a lot of studio work currently and hope that I can get some interest in that. For the last five years I have been working on a parallel project called ‘The Ice Next Time’, which is a travelling museum collection comprised of objects from an alternate future with a narrative of a post apocalyptic North America. The accompanying didactic text provides that viewers see these objects as historical objects that exist in the future – the museum itself becomes a future historical construct. The concept of science fiction as a narrative line is used in terms of what it can provide as a subtext to current society. ‘The Ice Next Time’ allows me to make different studio based objects, they go together as a collection which transforms the institution they exist in, simulating a fictional history. The benefit of this project as a body of work is that these pieces are not discarded, I can ship them really easily. I’m constantly thinking about how to get some version of my work to an audience.
Q. And your public pieces will have a longer life?
The piece that I have in Las Vegas, ‘Monument to the simulacrum’ is an artwork that will be there till at least 2105 because it’s the centennial time capsule for the city. It was installed in 2007 around the same time that Jean Baudrillard died and I was fortunate enough to get the city to dedicate it to him. If I’m going to make one piece that last a really long time, that piece exists out there in the centre of Las Vegas. Whether Last Vegas will continue to be there is another question. (laughs)
Q. You work primarily alone. Is that solitude an important part of your day to day practice?
I need the solitude. There are times when I have collaborated with others to make things on a limited basis, for one reason or another. I would be inclined to say that the work I do on my own functions more effectively on some level. In order to do larger projects you do need to collaborate with other people and if I’m given the opportunity I would.
Q. if you were doing, for instance, a four month construction of an installation would you have assistants to help you do that?
In the past I have had help. Depending on what type of building it is sometimes it’s easier for me to do it myself.
Q. Presumably an assistant might not quite understand or realise what you want. You need someone who is would act as an extension of you?
Definitely. The geometry that I create, even though there’s a general plan, is often incredibly spontaneous. I now make models of work that could be fabricated using a CNC but when it comes down to building that work, if I don’t have the funding, I am largely using that information as an inspiration and developing the work by hand on site. It’s hard to have someone help me do that work. I can use help to some degree with the more linear parts of the process but when it comes down constructing it, more often than not, I do it by myself. It’s just easier.
Q. Does it become a challenge to you that your process does not allow for that assistance in terms of timescales?
It limits what I can do. Part of my process is about dealing with limitations and just working with them. I have had opportunities where I might be told I only four days to an installation – I have to say that I can’t do it. I have to make it work for each situation. If I could pay skilled builders, that would be a totally different thing, there are galleries that have budgets that allow artists to do that. Those kinds of opportunities are rare for me.
Q. Your work seems quite different from someone like Antony Gormley, to name one example, who will rely on fabricators to realise larger scale pieces?
You know, if there was a budget where I could use people who were skilled I am sure I would be able to work with them. When you look at Antony Gormley’s work it looks like he has a really specific plan about each piece. There is an implication of context and scale that he can provide to someone that is so much more informed than what I can provide at any given point. I respect that work a lot and love looking at the way it is constructed, the underlying signature is his work. But he has had some people, very well informed about his work, make some decisions. I suppose given the context I could do a similar thing it’s just not one of those opportunities that has been made available.
Q. So you are still in that creative process when you are putting it together, whereas for other artists the construction is realised before it’s actually built?
I was in LA building ‘Shadow Proxy’ and the architect Thom Mayne walked into the gallery- he said ‘hey, if you had a digital version of this object you could have a show opening simultaneously in four different cities and you could have the same object in each city’. I said ‘well sure that’s great, but who would build it’. He said ‘just have people cut out all of your parts and assemble them’…and I was just thinking about the sheer scale, organization, and cost that would require…it’s an ideal but I don’t see it happening unless there is a huge budget for that. It’s a tremendous amount of material that needs to be cut and positioned. Not much different from constructing a small building. If you think of the trouble that Frank Gehry has had developing some of that organic architecture. I don’t think it’s impossible but maybe it will come down to something in the future where I come into contact or develop a network of people who I can work with. I just don’t see it right now.
“The fact that the physical object is existing, the audience is trying to figure out what their relationship is to that form. They’re searching, even subconsciously, for the place where they fit in the equation of that object.”
Q. With titles like ‘False Dawn’ and ‘Some Zombies Stayed at Home last Night and Did Nothing‘ your work seems to be have an underlying dystopian narrative?
Science fiction, as a text that I look at and decipher, is a body of work that’s made by many different kinds of writers and it’s also reached into popular culture through movies. Those documents have really significant titles. When you hear the title ‘Blade Runner’ everyone knows what you are talking about. The titles of these pieces are intended to sound potentially like titles of a book or a movie. They are poetic and potentially critical and some of the titles do come from things that are related to cyberpunk or science fiction. My piece s was inspired by William Gibson’s idea of what a virus in cyberspace might look or act like – the potential menace behind something that is virtual. ‘Some Zombies Stayed at Home Last Night and Did Nothing’ is related to politics and the death of physical space. Zombies are a really very popular as a monster narrative and it’s utilised to talk about so many things in humanity. That’s why I am interested in it, much in the way that monsters have exemplified concerns about technology or capitalism in the past, like Frankenstein or vampires- are alternately related to those subjects. Besides virtuality being an exquisite tool to build things and make things – on social level it’s kind of a nightmare. There’s a commodification of social connections that I find really chilling and unfortunate. There were never ‘good old days’, but I think virtuality is creating problems that are potentially irreversible. The lack of face to face communication is informing a kind of disassociation that is subtle, which can be challenged and worked beyond. It’s funny to think about it now, people like Foucault were foreseeing a world in which the challenges of communication were present for those who are critical of it. I see that as dystopian. I think that’s why post-apocalypse narratives are actually in the range of science fiction, about bringing back a one to one communication with people. Back to an essential and immediate humanity. And in that way the intention is more idealistic than dystopian.