Quizzing Glass (detail), 1988-2005. Cast acrylic, wood, brass, projector, fiber optics, and lacquered wood cabinet, cabinet, 24 x 19 x 23 in.

Performing Sculpture: A Conversation with Elizabeth King

Elizabeth King combines meticulously built figurative sculptures with stop-frame film animation in works that blur the perceptual boundary between actual and virtual space. Intimate in scale—she speaks of a theater for an audience of one—and distinguished by a level of craft that solicits close looking, the work reflects her interest in early clockwork automata, the history of the mannequin and the puppet, and legends in which artificial figures come to life. The finished works are surprisingly mutable. Figures with hinged limbs are placed in a particular pose that can, and sometimes does, change. Sculptures, which took months to craft, come to the viewer solely as photographs or video animation. King’s mid-career retrospective, “The Sizes of Things in the Mind’s Eye,” was curated in 2007 by Ashley Kistler, director of the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University. The exhibition, which recently finished its run at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, featured new sculpture and animation, major works and significant early pieces, and a survey of objects made or collected over many years: figure studies, wax models, life casts, antique mannequins, and glass eyes. King’s work can be found in permanent collections nationwide, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has received numerous awards, including a 2006 Academy Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2002–03 Guggenheim Fellowship, and a 1996–97 Fellowship in the Visual Arts at the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute, now the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, at Harvard. Her book, Attention’s Loop (A Sculptor’s Reverie on the Coexistence of Substance and Spirit) was published by Harry Abrams in 1999. She is currently finishing A Machine, a Ghost, and a Prayer: The Story of a Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Monk, co-written with W. David Todd. Since 1985 she has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is now School of the Arts Research Professor in the Department of Sculpture and Extended Media.

Gregory Volk: Your recent mid-career survey underscores that you are a sculptor’s sculptor to the extreme, with a tremendous aptitude for materials, including wood, porcelain, metal, and glass. You often work for months on a single piece, homing in on details with the precision of a surgeon. The finished sculptures seem almost eerily perfect, the commitment and endurance verging on mania or obsession. They are also uncommonly subject to flux and transition, and, as much as you deal in fixity, you also deal in shifts and transformation. Care to comment?
Elizabeth King: There is a photograph that I love in Donald Keene’s book Bunraku: The Art of the Japanese Puppet Theater. It shows four puppets mounted on a carrying pole, erect and fully robed but at rest, awaiting a performance. Distinct as character types, they are nonetheless built to assume different roles depending on the play, just like the actors that they are. They are beautiful in arrest, as sculptures, but you can see from the construction of the faces and limbs that they are designed for action, and presently they will be whirling and gesticulating on the stage. They are, as you say, mutable. Once the play begins, they become instruments of the theater. I think of my own figures as objects that cross this categorical divide, objects with roles to perform—and roles that differ from one show to the next. Of course, I feel hesitant to speak of my work in the same breath as the great theater of Bunraku, and yet what an influence its culture has been for me, for a lot of us. It is a way for me to try and talk about the double life of my sculptures, as things in their own right and as agents of something else. Later I became involved in stop-action animation with the pieces, but early on I told myself that I was making the movable joints so I could pose the figures. Finding the pose became an important part of the life of the sculpture. Once found, all of my theater was invested in this single pose, held as a still composition for the duration of the show. All this takes place in a gallery, not on a stage, yet each show is a performance, each show requires the discovery of a new pose. Maybe the sculpture is like a violin, and the pose is the sonata. It can take hours, finding the pose and lighting it. Naturally, in the studio, I want to make an object that can assume the greatest possible range of positions and is also robust enough to withstand the tumult of improvisatory searching and handling. I’m always amazed at the difference a few degrees of tilt makes in how we read the position of the head. If I move the eyes so the gaze shifts away from face on, even just slightly, a thread of tension enters the pose. My own emotional responses, as I manipulate the sculpture and look at it, are innate and involuntary. I love the visceral evidence of impermanence, not in the object itself, but in its pose at any given moment.