Reconstructing History:A Conversation with Julian LaVerdiere

A self-described inventor/historian, Julian LaVerdiere explores the rich and protean territory where history, science, and commerce commingle with art. The son of sculptor Bruno LaVerdiere, he studied with Hans Haacke at Cooper Union (BFA in sculpture) and later with Ronald Jones at Yale (MFA in sculpture). He speaks admiringly of his father with whom he shares an interest in memorials, though their approaches are generations apart. LaVerdiere makes magical, edgy objects that instantly grab attention yet abound in subtexts. After graduating from Yale, he and two Yale colleagues, Vincent Mazeau and Randall Peacock, created Big Room, a production design company intended to “infiltrate commercial culture.”

Percy Twins, 2001. Paired giant-sized patent medicine bottles encapsulated in reliquaries on cenotaphs, 92 x 48 x 48 in.

Earlier this year, he completed a show in Milan at NO Limits Gallery in co-operation with Deitch Projects. “Designer Imperialism” featured a half-scale replica of Napoleon’s Tomb. At press time, he and fellow artist Paul Myoda were furiously engaged with Towers of Light, a temporary monument inspired by the attacks on the World Trade Center, to be produced by Creative Time. He was also working on Project Babel. With consultations from an architect at Robert A.M. Stern’s firm and the chief cartographer from the UN, he is building an 18-foot scale model to illustrate his vision of the Tower of Babel. The tower will rest under an electronic canopy depicting a revised United Nations flag with all of the world’s time zones, to be shown at Lehmann Maupin’s new Chelsea gallery next season.

ST: I am fascinated by how your work represents a cross-fertilization of design, fashion, and film, on one hand, and fine arts on the other. This results not only in a blurring of the commercial and art worlds but also in a re-thinking of how art and life, illusion and reality overlap. How did this come about for you?

JL: Well, I think largely because my influences were “real” world references. These were developments in science that I found awe-inspiring as a child, i.e., both the wonder of space exploration (Sky Lab) and the terror of the nuclear arms race (Reagan). These larger-than-life forces inspired me to become a social scientist of sorts. As I grew up, I recognized that my primary references had been gathered from the cinema and television. My judgment was shaped by The Day AfterDr. StrangeloveRoad WarriorBlade Runner, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

The mad scientist was the anti-hero I modeled myself after. I am still fascinated by those types of infamous characters and was completely seduced and spellbound by the movie magic of big-budget, special effects films. In high school, I started working at an FX company in New York. I was fascinated by the mechanical trickery that would lead a viewer to believe impossible science portrayed on film. Writers such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, and Arthur C. Clarke have inspired me too. Although they wrote science fiction, it seems that they altered the course of real science through their power of suggestion and vision. Perhaps Clarke’s 2001 Space Odyssey, brought to visual fruition by Stanley Kubrick, influenced the American taxpayer’s long-term desire for the construction of an international space station.

Napoleon’s Tomb, 2001. Half-scale replica, poly-iridescent auto paint, composite wood, and polyester felt, 79 x 54 x 75 in.

After paying my first student loan bill for my MFA, I began to question what I had done. I’d spent so much of my life devoted to studying fine art, and to what historic effect? How would I make great impacts on mass culture? Perhaps I should have been a rocket scientist, a nuclear physicist, or something. Nah…there are more opportunities for mad science and invention in the art world.

With that in mind, I thought that if I could find a way to get into the media industry, I could create illusions that might be seen by the mass public. I could make art that would cross these borders. And that brings up another question: How much control do you ever have if you’re working in the commercial industry as a production designer or art director? You can have quite a bit of control if you can adulterate commercials with visions that may evoke questions, or for lack of a better term, subliminal imagery.

I was just reading about the sad collapse of Mad magazine. I grew up on that magazine. Generations of people, who have now become adults and many of whom are now members of the corporate culture that Mad satirized, have learned to incorporate the irony and cynicism that Mad applied to institutional critique and use them for marketing strategy. Think of the invention of smart-ass spokespeople like Joe Isuzu. It seems as though corporate culture is going to have the last laugh.

ST: Along those lines, was there a seminal piece that assimilated these ideas?

JL: As a student at Cooper Union, I was particularly interested in how one comes to terms with history and how one re-writes history. I think for many artists the aspiration is to be historic, but whose history? Future history or past? I began seriously making models after I had seen an exhibition of patent models from the Smithsonian and became fascinated by the miniature portrayal of grand ideas. When you look down on a maquette of the world you feel as though you can master it, you can simplify it, and that is what history is in certain respects—a simplified model of what we think has taken place.

Patent Model of Somnabulist’s Chair, 1991. Articulated 1/12 model of examination chair, brass and mahogany, 1 x .5 ft.

ST: Much of your work deals with Fascist imagery and World War II history. What led you there?

JL: I guess I am trying to find, referring again to American cinematography and Hollywood, the stereotypes of good and evil. And I don’t think that there is any question that the Nazi party was certainly evil. Watching World War II films as a kid and then coming of age in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the black and white of World War II became less plausible, as to where the morality of good and evil really lay. I was particularly intrigued with the identity of individuals who had played a Faustian role in that war, such as Werner Von Braun or Oppenheimer. In both cases, you have physicists of extraordinary intelligence who were working for their political benefactors to build magnificent and questionable instruments, whether it was the V-2 missile or the A-bomb. What happens to “genius” when it’s sponsored or funded by a superpower? I guess getting involved with the advertising industry and commercial production can have similar adulterating effects on one’s ethics. What happens to one’s integrity as an individual after one does design work for IBM or Sony?

ST: Or Hugo Boss? Can you tell me about the Hugo Boss project?

JL: It is said that Hugo Boss, like other German companies active during World War II, had a checkered past. Apparently, their effort was designing uniforms for the SS. The Boss project was a menswear editorial that featured several gray tweed Hugo Boss suits that were spitting images of those that were designed in the late ’30s. When I saw these suits and considered their concept, that the campaign be in black and white and have a very stern Germanic look with concrete interiors, I said, “Jesus, you’re asking a lot here from an Allied American with an ounce of morality!” Unbeknownst to them, we thought they would be best suited to a bunker, one in fact, that Albert Speer had designed for the Atlantic Wall, because it was intended to fend off the Allied Forces just as those campaigns are designed to intimidate and seduce the American consumer.

So we at Big Room designed a set for the shoot that was based on documentary photographs taken by Paul Virilio and published in his book Bunker Archeology. In this one particular shot you see a youth wearing a dark flannel suit standing in front of a bunker model. At first glance, it looks like a Rachel Whiteread or a Donald Judd, or a Minimalist sculpture, a style common in fashion magazines nowadays. But if you knew better, you would say, “Wait a second, that’s Barbara.” It’s a gun tower on the French Coast that still stands because it’s too big to tear down. It represents the interesting, subliminal advertising that we were seeking, in which we wanted to build an object in the guise of art or décor that would actually have a bite and would bite back if the viewer could decode the cryptography of the visual image. Nine times out of 10, this esoterica would never be recognized, but at least it helps us believe that we are doing our part, rather than just making money.

Patent Model of Somnabulist’s Chair, 1991. Articulated 1/12 model of examination chair, brass and mahogany, 1 x .5 ft.

ST: And what was the reaction of your client?

JL: They loved it. They thought it was great. Although they didn’t know the reference, nor did we feel the need to tell them.

ST: You just mentioned Big Room. Is there a difference between your studio work and the collaborative work you do as Big Room?

JL: I think there is a big structural difference, although I consider them both art. The Big Room projects I do in the commercial realm are site specific, they are meant to be seen in magazines or television, and are designed to be shared by millions of viewers. My studio art is intended to be a rarefied experience seen by far fewer viewers, who are able to interface directly with the objects, not their mediated doppelgangers.

Big Room advertising images have to be clear and simple so one can take in the message in 15 seconds, that’s the estimated attention span for a commercial viewer. The image must be eloquent and succinct enough imprint quickly on the viewer’s memory. Big Room projects are strategic, sinister, and pop. We try to keep it as sophisticated as possible, but at the end of the day, advertising calls for bold and decisive blows. With my studio work, I have the luxury of time, although the average viewer’s attention span is still painfully short. So I still try to get my initial message across clearly and iconically. The subtext of the work is interpreted after the first impressions are made. Obviously, viewers in a gallery have more intimacy with the work and can linger and study details, if they wish.

Flight Pillows, 1999. Electro-luminiscent airline pillows designed to control sleeping rhythms, live wire nylon, 12 x 10 x 4 in.

ST: The idea of scale is very important in your work.

JL: I usually work in two scales. First is the scale of the Fabergé egg, in which one can objectify the miniature opulent world; and the other is the scale of Disney, where one is subject to a larger-than-life, artificial world. I think that some of my more recent intrigues explore the way in which American culture freely reconstructs its past.

America is suffering a deficit of history. We are reconstructing the Wonders of the World in our own backyard. That’s why we build massive casinos in the form of Venice, Egypt, or Paris. I’ve always been fascinated by weird, Neoclassical architects, such as McKim, Mead, and White, Russell Pope, and Raymond Hood. The average New York skyscraper is a print of the Parthenon on silly putty stretched long. This malleability, this grand synthetic abbreviation of history is quintessentially American.

ST: And Americans really tend to like happy endings. When we rewrite history we try to make sure it was a happy one, even if it wasn’t at all.

JL: That reminds me that as students, much of our discourse revolved around examining consumer and corporate culture. We questioned what the validity of an institutional critique in the form of art was worth and whether the art world was really a proper platform for anti-establishmentarian radicalism or if it was just another futile example of preaching to the converted.

It was difficult for me to distinguish between actual advertising culture and real art, whether it be Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Ashley Bickerton, or Jeff Koons. It is quite clear that aspects of ’80s art were made in response to Reaganomics and that the position of the artist was that of a freedom fighter. But in the late ’90s, that was clearly not the case any more.

ST: Tell me about Flight Pillow.

JL: In the spirit of walking the line between fact and fiction or real commercial culture and fine art, I was building industrial design objects that could be mass-produced and marketed. Flight Pillow was a prototype example designed to illustrate what a corporate airline might market for its passengers—a luxury travel accessory that pampers one on international flights. These electronic Flight Pillows help people recalibrate themselves to different time zones, and are, in effect, instruments designed to reprogram your circadian rhythms. I was trying to design a line of products that would address the issue of consumer brainwashing. This conceptual art project was only complete once the pillow was published in design magazines as an available product. So the reader’s question becomes, “Is this actually now available at Sharper Image or is this some sort of bizarre farce?”

View of installation at P.S.1, New York, 2000. First attempted Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable crossing memorial, (model) 9 ft.; (pavilion) 22 x 25 x 12 ft.

ST: I have to ask you about First Attempted Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable Crossing Memorial. What I found so successful is that it combined spectacle and craftsmanship with content. And, as a quick aside, most of the work I saw in “Greater New York” was either heavily weighted toward the spectacle or toward content. I thought very few did both. And certainly yours did. It started off as a model for a commercial.

JL: Like the Hugo Boss campaign. We typically design a set for a client and most of it ends up in the dumpster. We’ve done this for a number of years, building sets that are complex answers to questions and trying to encode these answers with a form of critique. But it’s a shame to see these things get tossed. In this case, I was asked to do production design for an Agilent Technologies campaign. One of the commercials called for a view of the transatlantic cable along the Atlantic seabed. They wanted to pass by a sunken ship, enter the darkness of the Atlantic, and then come across a satellite. As though all of a sudden you went from deep sea to outer space. These commercials involve one page of explanatory text. Then it’s up to us to illustrate the idea or to bring it to fruition. Again, being wary of the mass corporate cultures that are in control of our communications, I felt that it was important to incorporate a memento mori as in Hans Holbein’s French Ambassadors with a skull in the foreground. In this case, I felt the best foreshadowing instrument would be the first ship to attempt to lay this transatlantic telegraph cable in 1854. Few people know about the dawning of the communications age. The telegraph was deemed impossible. And the attempt failed because the cable snapped and the venture went bankrupt. But there wasn’t a massive wreck that only a nautical expert would recognize, and that’s all I needed to know.

They wanted to shoot it underwater. And I said, “Why don’t we shoot a miniature?” And they said, “Why?” And I said, “Because it will be much easier and cheaper for you,” and to myself, “Better for me. If all goes well with this commercial, the miniature will be incorporated into my next show.” So I designed the nine-foot model. Once that relic was finished and the commercial was done, they agree to let me keep the prop. After a prop is seen on film it is sacred, it’s a movie star. They become transubstantiated things. Recall Lucas mounting the exhibition of old props as “The Art of Star Wars” at the Smithsonian. For someone of my generation, Star Wars felt like a great, sacred Arthurian legend, and the fans made pilgrimages to see the props in the flesh. So, I entombed my ship model in a Sleeping Beauty-style casket, as though it were Lenin’s or Mao’s Tomb, and exhibited it in my first show among other memorabilia of this nature.

Vanitas, 1999. Recirculating nitrogen gas chamber with artificial plant, 2 x 2 x 4 ft.

When I was asked to participate in “Greater New York,” I proposed building a really grand pavilion that was particularly dark and sinister and that would illustrate this memorial for the dawning of corporate communications. Nothing seemed more Faustian than to duplicate a scale model of Albert Speer’s German pavilion for the 1938 World’s Fair. This in essence was the signing of his Faustian contract in which he was transformed from an innocent young genius to a commercial architect for the Nazis. Speer’s pavilion faced off the Russian pavilion and was essentially a miniature skyscraper. It was meant to affect the audience in the same way that the pavilion was: strike you with a sense of awe and theatricality. So with “Greater New York,” I intended to build something spectacular and stunning. Unfortunately the English movement seems to have left spectacle without the content. At least I try to provide a few things to think about.

ST: What was the music? It had a big effect.

JL: The music was by the contemporary German ambient electronic music composer Wolfgang Voigt. A pop-techno Wagner, Voigt applies folk themes to a contemporary idiom. Even though it’s washed of its initial content, the music is still charged with all the bombastic strength of German wartime favorites and other classical works that were used or misused in that era. When you hear it, you are uneasy, because as an American, you’re not certain of the ethic behind it.

ST: I think what happens with your work is that you have a visual experience, but at least in my case, you also have a gut reaction of not feeling so good. Then you stop and think why. That’s the way I get into the content, because it’s so layered.

JL: It’s like most political propaganda of the U.S. and Germany and the Neoclassical architectural style used in Washington and Berlin in the ’30s—a transcultural style of unflinching totalitarian power, cloaked in classical proportions. There’s little difference between Speer’s design for the German pavilion for the 1938 World’s Fair and Robert Mills’s design for the U.S. National Treasury in 1935. I am interested in the awe-inspiring and threatening effect that this architecture possesses. A sense of uneasiness and fear is what I try to evoke in my viewer. That’s the happy ending I like to leave out. That’s the intrigue that isn’t so necessarily American. I don’t have any aspiration to be a Norman Rockwell. I’d prefer to be a little darker and leave the assessment of my moral standing up for debate, so that my pieces are more charged and volatile.

Hour Glass Nitrogen Fountain, 1998. Wind tunnel configured into an hourglass with upward flow of nitrogen fog, 9 x 3 x 3 ft..

ST: The idea of memorial runs through a lot of your other work. I was particularly interested in Vanitas because it’s linked to cryonics, the fear of aging, and our need for a legacy or status even beyond the grave.

JL: I believe that there will undoubtedly be technological developments that will either allow for the body to be re-animated after death or sustained perpetually. I have always been fascinated by the faith and mysticism that science evokes in the heart of modern man. I have been building machines and instruments that use these attributes of science and exaggerate them. Vanitas is a re-circulating nitrogen gas chamber filled with youth-sustaining mist that keeps fruit in a state of suspended animation.

The title refers to the Dutch still-life tradition of the 17th century. Bowls of fruit served as portraits of wealthy merchant patrons because they exhibited an array of exotic fruit from around the world, which only the powerful would ever be able to have in a single basket. Nowadays, a cornucopia like this makes you think of bland branding, like Fruit of the Loom; it’s certainly not exotic or powerful.

However, what is remarkable today is the technology used in shipping, as well as the ability to halt ripening. This is still the portrait of the wealthy, who are able to evade aging and stop time—whether it be shuttling themselves off to Switzerland to have human growth hormone injections or affording a membership to an elite cryonics facility.

ST: A deep tension between fear and desire underlies your work. Put another way, it’s the ability to control. This tug produces a lot of tension. I was wondering, how you reconcile these two forces in your own mind?

Patent Medicine Collection, 2000. Empty patent medicine bottles in reliquaries, all electricity related, (capsule) 1 x 1 x 5 ft.

JL: Fear and desire? As far as control is concerned, I have found it hopeless to try to control others. Totalitarianism is not a successful communication strategy within the art world. However, attempting a rigid self-control is fair enough. I have a rather Spartan personal lifestyle, in which I have attempted to understand, catalogue, and order my own systems of behavior. I have modeled myself as a fusion of novice mad scientist/historian and absent-hearted inventor, where on one hand I’m trying to catalogue the strategies and techniques of seduction and control, and on the other, I’m examining the way in which we as consumers exhibit a willing suspension of disbelief and manifest historical fictions to grant our own peace of mind.

Propaganda art uses both fear and desire. I’m interested in reverse engineering propaganda strategies to determine where the power of persuasion lies, beyond simply, political agenda. I am fascinated with the various methods of presentation by which Utopia is sold to the public, regardless of the consequences.

I don’t want this to be misunderstood as cynicism or irony. Ultimately, I also fear and desire the pursuit of a utopian ideology. Utopia should not be considered an obsolete notion. My forbidden aspirations lie somewhere between Thomas Moore’s parody and Arthur C. Clarke’s optimism.

Sarah Tanguy is a writer and curator based in Washington, DC.