Oscar Tuazon works in and out of and between sculpture, architecture, and the meditative spirit. His practice also expands toward activism related to land and water access and infrastructure. Often using architectural techniques and materials, he produces quasi-functional objects, parts or representations of spaces, and constructions that are open to use and appropriation. His fireplace sculptures, for example, often shown in public places, provide a space for collective gatherings. Many of his projects are inspired by alternative and utopian visions from the 1960 and 1970s, early eco-efficient and self-sustainable living models, and do-it-yourself strategies and collaborative practices. Tuazon explores these approaches to evaluate their potential for today’s needs, embracing coincidence and failure as a way to move forward. For him, final form is not nearly as important as possibility. As he has said, “Turning away from the idea of an original, discrete work of art is the necessary first step in a liberating process in which people can actually participate in the creation of a work of art, rather than being drawn in as an audience.”
Robert Preece: You grew up in, and have since returned to, the rainforest of western Washington State. Did your studies in art and then architecture at Cooper Union in New York turn things upside down?
Oscar Tuazon: Yes, you could say that. The contrast heightened my awareness of the cultures and ecology of the place I’m from, particularly the culture of building, and I rehearsed that distance in my work. Initially, I experienced this primarily as difference; and in my early work, there is a preoccupation with pushing materials to the limit, to performing architecture through tectonic collapse. Maybe in contrast to an earlier generation of artists who used the exhibition space to document or represent the natural world, I wanted to bring natural forces indoors. I wanted to work with the living, dying materials of the forest, the formless.
I lived for a decade in New York, then a decade in Paris, and the past decade in Los Angeles. Strangely, as climate change continues to destabilize architecture, I recognize that the entropic elements in my work are endemic to the built environment more broadly. There is no site/non-site—even the distinction inside/outside is completely illusory. I finally recognize that I haven’t been moving in a linear direction but in a circular motion, turning things upside down.
RP: For the 2021 São Paulo Biennial, which had the theme “Though it’s dark, still I sing,” you installed Growth Rings in the Parque Ibirapuera. What was this installation about, and how did it differ from your earlier installation of rings at Boston Harbor?
OT: In Boston, the project began as a simple observation of the space between trees, a way to draw attention to what was there, bringing people close to trees and accentuating the energy that exists between them. I was excited to return to this work, to extend it through another site, and I wanted to think about it as a performance. The performative works of Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Lygia Pape have had a big impact on my conception of sculpture, so I was striving to make something temporal, something in motion and unstable.
Before the opening of the biennial, the five rings were installed between pairs of trees in the park, where they traced paths. Later, after the show opened, four of the rings were moved inside, their variable diameters retaining a kind of sense memory and resonance of the park. The fifth ring remained outside, visible through the windows of the pavilion, as a mirror image. Maybe something disorienting happens as the rings appear and disappear—in any case, there isn’t a single form of the work, only the impressions of it in the mind. I hoped that the work would act as a threshold through the Niemeyer pavilion, inhabiting the porous space between the building and the park, between inside and outside. It makes space for the movement of bodies through the building, between the trees, and then disappears.
RP: There is an aspect of contemplation in this work. Are you referring to a kind of meditation?
OT: It’s funny that you pick up on that; it is a state of mind that I associate with trees, who have been some of my closest collaborators over the years. Western science is finally catching up with the idea that trees are intelligent beings, an insight that I associate with traditions of meditation and the sense that life is continuous, infinite, circular. Growth Rings exists in that space, making visible the unseen modes of communication between trees, creating spaces for us to pause in that zone of immanence and listen.
RP: The cylindrical form of Mind Pipeline (2016) cut through the gallery wall. The act seems metaphorical and also a bit spiritual. Could you tell me more?
OT: I love that interpretation. The Hammer, where it was installed, is on the corner of Wilshire and Westwood, the busiest corner in Los Angeles, and yet there are walls covering the windows, so I wanted to make a cut that would act as a lens, almost a camera. At the time, I had been thinking about the water and energy infrastructure in Los Angeles, and the Hammer was built with an oil fortune. I wanted to make all that visible, tangible, to go inside the pipeline, to see ourselves reflected there. It became an aperture that brought inside and outside closer, and people watched one another, separated by a sheet of glass.
RP: White Walls (2018) cut through walls again, but with a rectilinear form, and as the viewer approached, there were differing linear and visual plays. What draws you to these sorts of “cuts,” which you also explored in an installation at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen?
OT: The mundane is miraculous—that seems like the premise of Minimalism to me. This kind of American mysticism is really funny to me, and White Walls was a discovery in that vein. All modern interior architecture derives from stud-framed Sheetrock walls, which are basically an optical illusion, a Minimalist painting of a wall on a hollow support, like a film set. A lot of early slapstick films play with this illusion of solidity, and then strangely these devices are revived in the work of Fred Sandback, James Turrell, and Dan Flavin.
There is something stupidly profound about these phenomenological experiments, and with White Walls, I wanted to create the sensation in the space of a threshold, to make the mundane act of walking through a doorway feel like walking through a wall. And it works, partly because the apparatus of display within exhibition spaces creates a de facto sense of heightened sensitivity where these minimal interventions take on a profound weight.
RP: In contrast, your untitled 2010 installation at the Kunsthalle Bern took a more additive approach, with beam-like forms. Was there more of a battle between the “space” and the “work” there?
OT: I did try to push the antagonistic relationship between sculpture and architecture to an exaggerated, almost absurd point. The idea was aggressively blunt: make a single work that was so large it occupied all of the Kunsthalle galleries. The result, paradoxically, was a hybrid form that emphasized the interdependence of the work and the space of display—the structure passed through walls, becoming inseparable from the gallery.
RP: The works in your “See Through” exhibition (2017), as well as steel, plywood, oven (2011/2012), appear different, with perhaps more of an emphasis on construction materials and on sculpture in the round. Could you talk about your interest in materials and form?
OT: In the largest sense, my entire output as a sculptor has been building a house in fragments. Sometimes that’s just an abstract motivation, but in these works, it is very direct. For “See Through” and “At Home,” both at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, I modeled the works on a project that I’ve been building over the past decade in the Hoh Rainforest: my family home and studio. Using an existing structure as a framework like this is liberating; it becomes a field of play, a way to approach construction as a game. An exhibition is always in a sense a model space, and I’m interested in using that capacity in a way that is sometimes done in architecture and artificial reality—to create a one-to-one model of a proposal. Of course, the model is never seamless, or even necessarily convincing as a replica, but it allows two spatial regimes to coexist simultaneously and overlay one another, and within this model space, a peculiar kind of double vision is possible, like wearing 3D glasses. Things look weird.
RP: Tell me about Zome Alloy (2016).
OT: This is a one-to-one model of Steve and Holly Baer’s Zome House (1968–72), an icon of Modernist energy-efficient design that runs on sunlight and water. But the legacy of energy-efficient architecture is incomplete—and today, these questions are more urgent than ever. I wanted to recycle the building and apply the ideas to the present reality of climate crisis. I have been converting this design for a single-family home into a modular, mobile building, a public space, a school. Water School came out of this process; it’s a nomadic structure that moves on water, hosting conversations, events, and actions in Los Angeles, the Great Lakes region, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and in its permanent location at Cedar Spring, Nevada, in the high desert of the Great Basin.
RP: What was the background to Sex Machine (2012)? It seems to have quite the story.
OT: This is one of a series of fountains using trees, where I would drill a hole through the length of the trunk and pump water up through it. It creates a subtle effect of water running down the bark, so that the tree is always wet. The water creates its own ecosystem, and eventually, of course, it would hollow the tree from within—water always wins.
Making these works was really fun. We would start with a 1.5-inch wood boring bit and weld sections of rebar to the shank end to extend up through the length of the trunk. The bit ended up being almost 30 feet long, and it took so much torque, it was like drilling with a wet noodle. We used magnets on the outside of the trunk to curve the bit where we wanted it to go.
RP: Then there is A Person (2014) and a differing composition for Natural Man (2015).
OT: I have always been fascinated by the double. Sculpture is a form of doubled life, which produces its uncanny aspect. So, with A Person, I replicated an existing revolving door at the Ludwig Museum and installed it on the terrace just outside to destabilize the architecture through a juxtaposition with its double. And to take it a step further, I created a second version, a “clean version.” Natural Man has undergone a similar transformation in material, from black walnut to bronze. I’m fascinated by this ordinary kind of alchemy, because within the ad-hocist design/build discipline I identify with, there are infinite technical solutions to a given form, and each iteration destabilizes the notion of an original.
RP: Your 2021 exhibition “PEOPLE,” at Luhring Augustine, featured vertically oriented works made with different materials.
OT: This body of work is my practice at its purest. The paradox of a post is that it’s both architecture and sculpture. Structure and decoration. I found a cast iron column from the same era as those in the gallery and turned it into a chimney—it’s both. The post paradox is fundamental within the Coast Salish sculptural tradition, where one of the primary forms of sculpture is the structural post used in monumental longhouse architecture. My first experiences of sculpture were watching Suquamish master carver Ed Carriere and apprenticing with Inupiaq sculptor Larry Ahvakana, so the idea that sculpture can be simultaneously functional, even architectural, is ingrained in my work. More recently, I’ve had the honor to work with Randi Purser, Duane Pasco, Tyson Simmons, and Keith Stevenson on a commission for the City of Seattle in the tradition of house post carving. Cedar (x̌pàyʔ) (2021), in collaboration with my dear friend, the poet Cedar Sigo, is animated by these questions—sculpture as a not-quite-human being.
RP: What materials do you really like to work with? And which ones do you not like?
OT: I’ve been interested in working “against nature”—using materials the wrong way, amateurishly, rather than arriving at any kind of mastery. Working with the tools of architecture, I tend to think in terms of function, so materials are to some degree interchangeable based on their properties. Materials have their own minds, and I learn by failure. That element of surprise was what I found so compelling about concrete—pushing it to the point of collapse—though my days of working with concrete are over because it’s not sustainable. If I had to choose the material that I most want to work with now it would be wood, particularly Western red cedar, which is lightweight, fragile, rot-resistant, and eternal, maybe the perfect material.
RP: Une colonne d’Eau (Water Column), your installation at Place Vendôme, Paris, featured four sections of pipe, forming cylindrical passageways bisected by tree trunks, possibly referring to life. Could you explain your choices of juxtaposition and positioning?
OT: The pipes that I used are the physical infrastructure of our subterranean, invisible water systems. They are made of recycled drink bottles, so they sequester petroleum underground. They’re beautiful in a very pragmatic sense, and I thought that it would be useful to have a physical experience of these pipelines in a public space. A horizontal column you can walk through, in contrast to the vertical column commemorating Napoleon standing at the center of Place Vendôme, which Courbet had already tore down once during the Paris Commune in 1871. To me, the juxtaposition is bluntly pedagogical, particularly in a time of climate crisis, when we all bear responsibility to water. Trees are embodied water, as we are.
RP: Fire also makes an occasional appearance in your work, as in Burn the Formwork (Fire Building) (2017). Is this another meditative element?
OT: I’m drawn to working with entropic materials—first with water, now fire. Everything is burning. The sense of formless continuity makes space for meditation on change, and it makes space for people. I thought of it as a monument to something that was already there within an industrial wasteland at the edge of Münster, a place where people would go to make a fire, grill something to eat, and jump in the canal. I wanted my work to be useful, to act as a stage or a platform for people, and fire is a utilitarian element.
RP: Looking back, which works do you consider to be most important to the development of your practice?
OT: I keep coming back to steel, plywood, oven (2011–12), a work that surprised me when I made it. It continues to be compelling because it seems unresolved in the most challenging way—as a thing that suggests another order but asks you to complete it in your mind. I hope that’s where I’m going now with Water School, into a phase of what Andrea Zittel has referred to as “life and living” as the work itself. Water School is an architectural project at the scale of an ecosystem; it’s so encompassing that it can’t be reduced to an object or to individual authorship, something that doesn’t even need to inhabit a physical form at all, more like an oral poem.
RP: Do you know the importance of a work when you are making it?
OT: Making new work is like working blind, compelled by something I can’t articulate. At times, trying to understand what I am doing has been profoundly chaotic, which is funny to me now because I see that the meaning of the work is not up to me, it comes from you. Now, I feel comfortable working in the dark. I don’t need to know why I do what I do.
Oscar Tuazon’s “Water School,” featuring new work and a large-scale installation related to his ongoing Water School project, is on view at the Bergen Kunsthall in Norway through April 9, 2023. “Building,” a mid-career survey, is on view at the Kunst Museum Winterthur/Beim Stadthaus in Switzerland through April 30. “What We Need,” the final exhibition in this trio of related projects, will be on view at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in Germany, August 19–November 12, 2023.