Yu Yu Tangeriene, 2013. Mixed media, 172 x 360 x 360 in. Photo: Stewart Clements

Working Together: A Conversation with Mark Cooper

Mark Cooper’s sculptures seem particularly suited to the uncertain nature of our times. Like the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Cooper “liv[es] the question” through his work, both personal and collaborative, creating visual forms that bear traces of a rich, compelling, infinitely productive, and changeable process. The pieces, which exude energy, present variations on archaic forms and seem timeless. When combined to create installations, they give a sense of continually evolving life. Cooper has worked extensively in the United States, Europe, China, and Vietnam. Collaboration with communities is one of his favorite ways of creating art. He is forever exploring new ground, and he has most recently created a three-part marble “anti-monument” for the DaNang Museum of Fine Art in Vietnam. Through this and other works, Cooper shows us that though a form may seem fixed, its associations create endless permutations in the viewer’s experience.

Four Square, 2009. Ceramic, wood, and metal, 66 x 71 x 46 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

B. Amore: How did you move from a single object, which is where I imagine you started as a ceramic artist, to multipart works?
Mark Cooper: Early in my career, I was invited to create a site-responsive installation for the 1981 Triennial at the Fuller Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts. The site inspired the response. I created a large-scale, outdoor, multipart sculptural installation in cast concrete. The concrete had relief drawings and fragments of bronze, ceramic, shell, and stone cast into it. I got excited about the idea and the experience being more important than the singular, salable art object. The notion was to make each part as remarkable as I could, with the intention that the sum of the parts was greater than the individual elements. I have expanded on this idea ever since. Collage, assemblage, and installation engage the viewer’s brain in a different way than linear narrative. Viewers make their own associations rather than experiencing a singular point of view.

BA: You seem to have a very non-linear approach to art-making. You’ve said, “In terms of art-making, I’m really loose; in terms of structure, I’m compulsive.”
MC: My goal is to construct objects that exist as if they were something created in nature, like a plant that grows in response to the sun. At the same time, I am interested in a structure that provides order. In the wooden sculptures, for example, I make sure that every angle is a right angle and every cut is like an elegant drawn line.

BA: Photography clearly has an important role in your process. Do you take your own photos, and how do you employ them? 
MC: I take all of my own photographs, and among other things, I use photography as a tool in my field research. In research trips to India and China, for example, I took around 8,000 digital images on each trip. Those images, printed on photographic paper and quite often silkscreened onto fabric that I’ve dyed, become collage elements for paintings and sculptures. 

Jack’s Poem, 2016. Wood, fiberglass, ceramic, fabric, photo collage, ink on paper, paint, and metal, detail of installation. Photo: Stewart Clements

BA: You often refer to a “conversation between elements.” How do you see them creating a whole?
MC: The same imagery and the same forms often appear in different elements of my large-scale installations. I developed a process of taking printing ink and covering a hard surface with it, placing transparent paper on top, and drawing on the back of the paper. The pressure of my drawing is picked up by the ink on the reverse side along with some beautiful, unexpected traces of the process. I then cut out the drawn forms and use them as collage elements on two- and three-dimensional objects or as a wall installation on their own.

BA: You talk about the viewer having an active role in your work. Does this relate to how you use individual works as part of an installation?
MC: Visual art is a language and a conversation between the artist and the viewer. The difference in my practice is that I break down the hierarchy of value and importance through collage, assemblage, and installation and create a situation in which the experience that the viewer brings to my work becomes another element. Quite often artists present a narrative or a core idea; I prefer visual signals that encourage viewers to bring their own associations to the work.

My installations involve multiple subtexts. They reference art and cultural history from many parts of the world. There are references to architecture and to biology, as well as to collecting and collections. I am interested in including a conceptual approach. The ceramics, for example, reference the history of the material and the cultural imperatives that generated different styles and their cross-influence around the world.

BA: Collaboration is an integral part of your creative process. It’s unusually generous for a sculptor to engage in so much work with others.
MC: My creative practice is divided equally across individual efforts, collaborations, and teaching. My collaborative efforts involve a range of participants, including young people and artists who have a direct, hands-on impact on the work. I’m interested in the humanity of the expression. It is not so important that a flower be precisely drawn; it is rather the reference to the type of mark-making. Collaboration also provides an unexpected juxtaposition that feels like a natural occurrence. I also consider gallerists, assistants, installers, art handlers, and artist friends who offer critical advice to be collaborators. Museum curators are collaborators in that they introduce me to new ways of installing and thinking about my work. 

Getting Along Project, 2000. Billboard and paint on paper, 128 x 248 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BA: You’ve worked extensively with schools. Could you talk about the Getting Along Project in conjunction with the Whitney Museum of Art and New York City public schools?
MC: I had the good fortune to receive an Open Society Fellowship grant to support a large-scale collaborative project involving youth from all five boroughs of the city, which resulted in two exhibitions at the Whitney Philip Morris space, an exhibition at the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, and 10 collaborative billboards in 1999 and 2000. The Whitney also invited me to create a large-scale collaborative project based on previous projects in Washington, D.C., and Boston. In D.C., I worked in conjunction with the Corcoran Gallery, the Children’s Museum, and the Washington Metro system on a two-year project. Imagery and text created by young people on the themes of “getting along” and “against violence” could be seen throughout the city at more than 1,200 locations, including subway stations, buses, and billboards. A number of these museum-sponsored projects were included in On the Road, published by MASS MoCA and MIT Press. 

I believe in experiential learning. Creating an image or text against violence, supporting the idea of getting along, and exhibiting it in a respected venue is a powerful experience. I was interested in bringing together young people from disparate backgrounds and using art as a metaphor for the idea that working together can bring greater results than being divided and territorial. 

BA: So, collaboration is an important teaching tool.
MC: I believe in short-term, attainable goals. Trying to rid the world of violence can seem overwhelming. Making a difference is attainable. I’ve been able to share my approach to collaboration with others, who then apply it in their own way. I’ve worked with teachers from the Middle East and North Africa, who then returned to their home countries to lead large-scale collaborative projects. In conjunction with the United Nations, I worked with youth and ministers of education from 65 countries to create a large-scale mural.

After Tuck, 2009. Mixed media, 68 x 42 x 44 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BA: I’m particularly interested in your Northern Ireland project. How did that come about, and what was your experience like in that conflict-ridden society?
MC: For the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, three assistants and I built a 50-by-12-foot-high sculptural wall on the campus of Boston College. The sections of the wall were constructed to the same dimensions as the original. During the exhibition, visitors were encouraged to spray-paint their own images and text, which resulted in a number of very powerful comments that transformed the surface.

Subsequently, I was invited to create a project in Strabane, Northern Ireland, for the reconciliation process. We packed the wall into a 40-foot shipping container and sent it to the site. There, a remarkable group of facilitators worked with youth from both sides of the conflict to repaint the sculpture, create performances, and engage in a series of exercises around the idea of breaking down walls.

In Northern Ireland, there are psychological walls inherited through generations of conflict. There are walls that are invisible but real, such as safety concerns about crossing particular streets if you are Catholic or Protestant. Strabane was one of the more violent areas during the conflict. It was extremely rewarding to see participants from both sides working together on the reconciliation project using my wall as a catalyst. When I addressed the district council, explaining my approach and aspirations for collaboration, I was told it was the first time that council members from both sides had gathered.

BA: The history of ceramics is one of cultural exchange. Could you speak to your experiences, particularly in Asia, where there is a long history of ceramic work?
MC: In creating an immersive installation for the Yuandian Museum in Beijing, I collaborated with 15 faculty members and 500 students from the Jingadezhen University ceramics area. The installation included sculptural, shelf-like objects for the ceramics, videos, collage photographs, collaborative paintings, and an enormous paper installation on the walls. In a way, it was like taking what happens in a traditional temple, where ceramics and paintings, flowers and fruit, are all present, and reimagining it in a contemporary way.

BA: How were you received as an artist from the West? 
MC: I feel incredibly fortunate to have been well received in China, Vietnam, and South Korea in the past several years and have developed some lifelong friends as a result. It was important to me to collaborate with artists from each place and not impose my own vision for the exhibitions.

“New Cantonware” series, 2016. Ceramic, 14 x 36 x 20 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BA: Do you see this relating to Unbounded (2020), your recent project for the DaNang Museum of Fine Art in Vietnam?
MC: The curator, Trinh Nguyen, asked if I would be interested in creating a permanent outdoor sculpture at the museum’s entrance. I was aware that DaNang was known for Marble Mountain, a stone-working region, but I didn’t know much more. When I got there, a friend said to me, “You have big ears; you will live a long time.” I started noticing that the Buddha sculptures have big ears. When I was glazing some bottles back in Boston, I started adding ears and benevolent smiles to faces. I realized that I was having a better time glazing than I had had in years. I decided to make some ceramic forms with similar blue and white images of faces and ears. It then occurred to me that it would be awesome to take the loose approach I have in working with clay—the slumps and bumps—and translate it into marble, which is challenging to use in interesting and contemporary ways. I made three models for large-scale marble works and brought them to the curator at the DaNang Museum. She got approval from the director and, after I supplied an architectural rendering of the future placement, from the government.

BA: What was it like working with Nguyen Loi at the Non Nuoc Stone Sculpture Village in DaNang?
MC: The museum introduced me to Nguyen Loi, who comes from generations of marble sculptors. He was perfect to work with on the fabrication and installation of the sculptures. Working with him and the museum has been one of the best experiences I have ever had. Nguyen translated my malleable clay models faithfully into marble and totally supported my vision. He also suggested a number of things that I didn’t know would be possible, like inlaying black marble into the white marble for the faces rather than painting the expressions. He also had suggestions about the shape and inlay elements of the pedestal components.

Unbounded, 2020. Vietnamese white marble with inlay, 52 x 400 x 400 in. overall. Photo: Trinh Nguyen, Courtesy DaNang Museum of Art

BA: The DaNang Museum sculptures feel “fixed” in contrast to the fluidity of your usual installations, especially since they are carved in stone. 
MC: I feel that these permanent sculptures, though not strictly collaborative, are some of the most powerful statements I have made about hope and healing. They also redefine monuments in a universal, welcoming manner rather than glorifying a military or religious leader or public official. The informality of the anti-classical imagery responds to the history of marble sculpture. Each of the three components has an organically shaped base consistent with much of my recent work. The museum altered the landscaping to respond to the three sculptures, which have faces on both sides. In some ways, they are major components in a larger outdoor installation, which includes plants, other sculptures, and the museum building. My works are in conversation with everything around them. In that way, they are not purely fixed and are, in fact, fluid.

BA: What are your thoughts on the dialogue between contemporary art practice and traditional techniques?
MC: Unbounded references aspects of contemporary image-making and installation, so it stands in contrast to traditional marble sculpture, ancient Greek or Buddhist. One of my goals as a contemporary artist considering an international community is to add to the conversation through ideas and process. I attempt to build on traditional ideas and techniques through the use of alternative materials or alternative approaches to traditional methodologies.

The three Unbounded sculptures are intended to surprise viewers and invite them to consider the history of monuments and public art. In a way, they are physical manifestations of the act of focused breathing. They give the viewer an opportunity to slow down. The quirkiness of the sculptures and the quiet differences between them add an element of ambiguity similar to what happens in collage, assemblage, and installation, allowing viewers to make their own associations.