Sulfur, Charcoal, Saltpeter, 2018–present. Dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Zoë Sheehan Saldaña and Glenn Adamson in Conversation

“There Must Be Some Way Out of Here,” on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum through May 25, 2020, is artist Zoë Sheehan Saldaña’s most comprehensive exhibition to date. It consists of some 50 handmade objects—“artistic camouflage,” as the museum puts it—that appear to be ordinary items one might find in any home. What follows is a conversation between the artist and the show’s curator, Glenn Adamson, moderated by the editor-in-chief of Sculpture magazine, Daniel Kunitz.

Daniel Kunitz: How is the catalogue a piece in the show?

Zoë Sheehan Saldaña: In technical terms, the ink that the cover is printed in is something that I made in collaboration with the printer. I created pigment from lamp black, burning linseed oil, then the printers mixed it with a gloss medium that they have, and that became the cover. Likewise there are other things in the show—like the checklist—that are also printed in the same ink, and there are two wall text panels that are printed in an oak-gall ink that I make.

DK: Oak gall?

ZSS: If you’re a wasp, and you lay your eggs in an oak tree—you see this on lots of plants, a round bit, a gall, which is a reaction of the plant against an intruder—the plant will send lots of tannins to that place where the wasp has laid its eggs, in order to isolate the wasp egg and try to kill it. The galls look like little apples, and they are super-concentrated tannin sources, so historically people have used them to do tannin-y things, and one thing they were very commonly used for was making ink. You just extract the tannin and then react it with an iron salt and you’ve got this rich, purply black ink. That was the same ink used to write the Declaration of Independence. Those kinds of things are all happening in the exhibition apparatus.

Glenn Adamson: There’s an interesting sliding scale between the objects that seem obviously to be artworks and things that are quite far away from that condition, like the cover of the catalogue or the wall text. Sort of hovering in between you have the paint on the wall of the gallery, which is a little closer to being a traditional object or sculpture, and then of course you have things like plinths. I think one thing that’s very interesting about the exhibition as an experience is that there’s a sense of continuum—you don’t know quite where the art stops. And to me that’s very bound up with the conceptual proposition of the work in general, which is this idea of self-reliance and trying to take on everything and be totally responsible for one’s creative production. Then there’s of course the question of where that does stop. That can be true of a specific work: for example, if Zoë’s going to make a bunch of pins, does that mean she’s going to dig up some ore, then smelt some different metals and combine them into an alloy? Or does she start with a more processed metal, which is what she in fact did? There always needs to be a boundary around the endeavor, and where that boundary gets drawn is often intensely thought about but also a little bit blurry; there’s often a bit of a dosey-do there, stepping in and out of your realm of responsibility. The frontiers of the work get probed all the time, and that’s why I think it’s important that these sort of ancillary pieces have that same quality of being addressed.

Hand Sanitizer, 2010–present. Ethanol distilled from fermented corn and grain, and gelling agents in readymade dispenser, 11 x 6 x 4 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

DK: How do you draw those boundaries?

ZSS: Arbitrarily, mostly. Idiosyncratically. Something has to get done, so…there’s a word for this.

GA: There’s a pragmatic quality to it.

ZSS: That’s my American word. It has to get finished, or it doesn’t, and then it’s just not going to be a piece. There are some things I could spend my entire life making, but I have other things I want to do.

GA: There’s a kind of dialectical relationship between the intense pragmatism of the work—like, “How am I going to make that hammock?”—and the absurdity of the very nature of the project, which is to do all these things that aren’t necessary. Sitting in one body of work or exhibition, you have very matter-of-fact pragmatism and you also have this utopian ideal of escape, of radical self-sufficiency. That dynamic has its own historical backdrop, if you think about 19th-century separatist communities—the Shakers, for example, have exactly the same quality of being at once very, very hard-headedly practical and also, by our standards, swept up in visions of the impossible. I think Zoë’s continuing in a very thoughtful way this tradition of pragmatic utopianism.

DK: Are you conscious of doing that or is that just how it works out?

ZSS: You get involved in anything you do and at some point you’re just in it. I’m not thinking through some program all the time. At some point it feels done, but I think that’s largely the way intuition always works, through repeated practice. There’s a deep logic to it. I mean, how does a painter decide when a painting is done?

GA: But also, on the other end of it, there’s the question of why you decide to make a certain thing.

ZSS: Some things just need to be possible. There are things I’ve tried that are not possible, for me at least. But also, if I’m going to spend that much time on something, I’d better enjoy it or feel connected to it or like I can live through the frustration that’s going to be involved in making it because I’m interested in what comes out the other side. If it’s just going to be tedious and frustrating and dull, then there’s no point.

GA: That’s pretty tricky too, since surely making all those pins was tedious.

ZSS: It was horrible. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever done.

GA: And it’s also a work about tediousness. It refers back to this thing Adam Smith said about pin-making, which is a foundational case study of capitalist thinking. In The Wealth of Nations, from 1776, he talks about how subdivided labor to produce pins can produce many, many more pins efficiently, and of course what he’s saying is: if you’re willing to sacrifice the mental welfare of the worker by subdividing the labor and making it truly mindless, taking away the worker’s relationship to the individual object that they are crafting, then you can achieve all this efficiency. Right from that moment there’s this thinking in capitalist economic theory about how the welfare of the worker is opposed to the efficiency of the manufacturing process. What Zoë is doing there is inserting herself back into the earliest moment of that thinking, camping out there, and saying, “Ok, what does it really mean to experience this, subjecting yourself to this mind-numbing task, which is obviously echoing the experience of all those poor 19th-century folks who had to do this?” That said, there’s this autobiographical quality in the show because it’s all of this stuff that you’ve done. That’s true of any retrospective, but this is more literal because there’s a more palpable sense of how you spend your time. Is there?

ZSS: Probably. For me, when I see the objects they come with all that baggage of what was going on, and they’re usually objects that I’ve chosen because they resonate with me somehow. That could be intellectually but also just the feeling of some other association that I have with them. The scale of the objects is also very human, which is important to me. They are life-size, and maybe that carries on the sense of the thing you have around, like a touchstone.

Wealth of Nations, 2015–17. Tin-plated brass pins created in the manner described by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776), each pin: 1 in. long, pile: 3 x 4 x 4 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

GA: One thing that I’m hoping people will get is the humor in the work. The first thing you see when you come to the museum is the hammock outside, and since the show is happening in the winter there’s this absurdity of having a hammock there. That’s already this idea of wanting to get away and not being able to get away. And when you come into the lobby there’s a handmade terry cloth towel, which Zoë made at the Albers Foundation on Anni Albers’s loom. Every morning a staff member at the Aldrich throws the towel down from the balcony, and it lands in the middle of the floor. There’s this idea of giving up—like in a boxing ring, throwing in the towel. From the beginning you’ve already surrendered to the inevitable, whatever that may be. We also jokingly called the first space in the exhibition the “insecurity closet,” because it’s filled with all these things that you may want in an emergency—most obviously, the life vests. But there’s this constant quality of urgency and maybe panic, on the one hand, and then this kind of deadpan, Duchamp-style humor, on the other, a sort of wily taking note of the fact of panic and sort of shrugging, this very complicated emotional tone that’s there throughout.

DK: Did you two know each other before this?

GA: Yeah, we’ve known each other for a long time, since about 2009.

DK: I ask because it seems this show was conceived quite holistically.

ZSS: I think if you’re making a show, you should make a show; you’re not just making the stuff that goes into a show. Part of why I like making the apparatus of the show is because the show is a thing, an experience, but it’s an object as well, and it hopefully opens up for people. I do think there are those moments when the viewer doesn’t really know what they’re looking at, and I hope that is present on multiple levels, but not poundingly present. You see a hammock outside in winter, and you say, “Okay, I’ve seen that before.” And then there’s a towel on the floor, and people have apparently been picking the towel up and bringing it over to the guards, or they think there’s a leak in the ceiling. There are all these opportunities for the viewer to be unsure what is going on and then maybe have to engage. I hope that’s available on many levels, and those levels all have to pass: the catalogue has to be a catalogue and the wall texts need to be wall texts, but there also needs to be a little slippy space, where you’re like, “What?” I enjoy those moments, and I hope that somebody else would too.

GA: There’s an opportunity for the visitor to have these little epiphanies throughout, because the rules change slightly. If you’re really paying attention, you might notice that the way Zoë made the towel is different from the way she makes a carpet or a drop cloth. You have this sense of shifting terrain under your feet that maybe keeps you interested—it’s not just this one thing that’s applied in this same, relentless, flat-footed way to multiple projects; it’s textured in the way that any good art practice is textured. Each object is addressed on its own terms. There’s a slowness to the experience, a lot of negative white space—it doesn’t feel like it’s crowded with stuff, and hopefully that sense of time-intensiveness in the objects will give the viewer a sense of consideration that stands in opposition to the rush and chaos and nonsense of the contemporary digital communication experience. It does feel like a real antithesis to that, but not in way that’s enforced. Sometimes I think it’s the opposite of trompe l’oeil but just as amazing: this is a great thing that looks like what it is, not like what it’s not; but then, when you find out how that what-it-isness was achieved, it has this quietly spectacular quality.

Towel, 2018. Handwoven cotton-terry cloth, 18 x 33 in. Created in residence at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, CT. Photo: Courtesy the artist

ZSS: It has to work, too. It can’t just look like something, it has to function. Almost everything in the show is functional.

GA: There are also a few moments where just materials have been gathered. There’s one very important moment where you have the three constituent elements of gunpowder, which are sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal, and they’re just gathered, put in piles. There you have another condition that’s about materiality as such and how it has an implicitly narrative or symbolic charge. The three materials are separated, but only by very short distances, and when combined are explosive. That sense of potentiality obviously speaks to the rest of the work, because everything is made of materials.

DK: Are you concerned with craft, design, and materials at a primary level when you’re working?

ZSS: I would say I’m concerned with craft, materiality, design, and art. I studied photography in grad school, and I think that connects as well—there’s a whole techy thing with photography, and a craft and technique, and there’s the high-low separation. Within the popular art of photography, there are people who think they are making fine art, and then there are the rest of us who are just making selfies all the time. I feel that all the questions about where you draw those distinctions are very much embedded in photography. When I was a kid, I was always doing craft things. We had TV but we could only watch it on very special occasions: baseball, or on Saturday nights, or if our dad had to take us to the office and we could watch cartoons. But other than that we just had to do stuff, and I was always making things, like sewing or origami. I had a little stand on the corner of my street in the summer where I would sell origami.

GA: This is where the art part of it comes back in, because there’s a very unique way that Zoë is framing craft in these multiple conditions simultaneously. Maybe at the extreme end of the spectrum it’s a harmless pursuit that you’re just doing for fun, but then it may also be the thing you’re reduced to in the condition of apocalypse—if there were a true disaster, like Walking Dead disaster, then we’d all have to learn to do stuff again because we’d be cut off from this capitalist overproduction situation in which we live. So there’s this thought experiment about what it really means to be self-reliant, and of course that means knowing crafts.

ZSS: I like the edge of danger in that, because craft is so wholesome. But what about wanting to blow something up? Ok, let’s figure that out and not die—that was match-making. When the education person at the museum approached me about a workshop, I said, “We can do match-making.” She said, “Okay, what’s involved?” And 45 minutes later, after I explained, she was like, “And these things can all blow up?” “Yeah, but we’d do it in a way that they wouldn’t.” She said, “I think we need to think about this.” People think of craft as very wholesome, and they don’t think about the unwholesome side of it, like the pins. To this same education person, I said, “We could make pins. Let’s get some small children to make pins!” And it took a while for that to sink in, for us to realize that maybe this wasn’t what the children of Ridgefield, Connecticut, should be invited to do: come in, breathe brass dust, and have their hair turn green, if they breathe enough of it.

GA: That’s what their ancestors 200 years ago would be doing 12 hours a day.

ZSS: The goodie-goodie-ness of craft annoys me.

GA: Me too. My favorite example of this is the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. It was a handmade object. I always try to point this out to get people to reorient their sense of what craft can be.

ZSS: Yes, there’s this sense that because I made it, it must be a wholesome object, and there are a lot of times when it’s not.

GA: There’s a whole conversation that we haven’t talked about, the Tom Sawyer aspect of it, which was to some extent occasioned by the fact that Mark Twain’s historical home is nearby. We started talking about that, and this idea emerged of having a “Tom Sawyer” moment, where the trustees of the museum would be invited to paint the walls of the gallery, to invert the usual hierarchies of the institution. That sits within the idea of the artist taking on the usual responsibilities of the museum—she provides the carpets and paints the walls and ships the work. This moment, which happened, was the exception to this idea of total autonomy.

Roller, 2012–present. Alum-tanned lambskin and phenolic cardboard tube, 9 x 2 x 2 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

ZSS: It was super fun also, which I wasn’t expecting. We had five or six trustees and someone who is married to a trustee. It was lovely, actually. Some of them knew how to paint, which was interesting, and most of them didn’t. The chief preparator at the Aldrich was my co-conspirator for the installation. He came out and gave them all a lesson in proper roller-painting technique, and he commented later, “You know, that’s the first time that I’ve told the trustees what to do.” But everyone was in good spirits about it; it wasn’t so onerous.

DK: Who chose the color?

ZSS: I did. I made the paint. I make it from milk, and I make the rollers from lambskin. I don’t make the roller cages or handles. I was in the middle of the room preparing paint for people, bringing it around, while they painted the wall. But you can see the brush strokes on the wall.

GA: It’s like a very, very subtle Franz Klein.

ZSS: I’ve done the painting myself before for shows, but this was the first time that other people have done the painting and there have been noticeable brush marks. It’s very Ab Ex.

GA: That thing about it being enjoyable is a great way to think about art production: Is it work or isn’t it? A lot of the ways art gets talked about in our culture circulate around that double identity, of it being on the one hand labor that gets remunerated and on the other hand this thing that gets done for expressive reasons, is poetic, or has other forms of value that can’t be integrated into the economy. Those two things shiver against one another all the time, and it’s what makes art so fascinating and ineffable. Getting the trustees to come in and volunteer their time—and they are volunteers anyway—doing manual labor creates this great tangle of images that mirrors for me the way art sits in the world.

DK: I notice you also made a dispenser for hand sanitizer.

GA: Another reference to panic stations. And when you actually use it, it has this weird, clammy quality on your skin.

ZSS: It’s hand sanitizer. You don’t use hand sanitizer regularly?

GA: Yours is a lot more alcoholic.

ZSS: It smells.

DK: Did you make it?

ZSS: Yes. I distill the alcohol for it. Because we’re financing so much ethanol production there’s a glut of ethanol on the market, and nobody knows what to do with it, because they can’t possibly put enough in cars. That moment, the rise of hand sanitizer, has exactly to do with the homegrown production of fuel. What can you do with ethanol? You can make it into hand sanitizer, and you can get people worried about “germs.” I was just making alcohol—moonshine, which is ethanol—more on a lark, and it wasn’t very good, so I thought I could make hand sanitizer. But because my ethanol isn’t very charcoal filtered, it smells like moonshine, whereas they add some isopropyl alcohol to hand sanitizer to make it not taste good, and that’s mostly what you smell. The hand sanitizer is one of the things where I don’t make the dispenser, similar to ketchup.

DK: What led you to make ketchup?

ZSS: It just makes everything taste better. And it keeps forever, you want to have it around, and it’s an American thing.

Cliffs Notes on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, 2008–09. Laser print on Mohawk Superfine paper, sterling silver wire, and wax, 8.25 x 5.25 x 0.25 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

DK: I’m interested in your interest in America. For instance, why Leaves of Grass?

ZSS: Well, Leaves of Grass is an important text of an idea about America, and Whitman was a printer. I thought about making Leaves of Grass itself, but then I thought in an emergency you’re going to want the CliffsNotes. I’d have to choose a definitive edition to copy as well. I’m interested in the ersatz—it’s not quite the thing, it’s a poor approximation of the thing. So, the CliffsNotes is to the text as chicory is to coffee: it’s got this ersatz quality to it. It’s mass produced and cheaply made, but if you want to make it yourself, it’s kind of intense to do. I did manage to find all of the text of the particular edition I was copying digitally; it was the edition out of the Brooklyn Public Library. I did all the design and layout work. I sat with the text, made all the design grids in InDesign, did all the layouts, and then went through to make sure all the line endings were exactly the same, which involved a lot of sitting still. I printed it and bound it. The cover had a gloss quality, so this has wax and some other things on it to make it look right. The way it’s displayed, you just see the cover; people don’t know whether there’s any text inside.

GA: It’s a good example of another thing we haven’t talked about, the authentic versus the ersatz. But the fact that it’s the CliffsNotes rather than the actual edition of Leaves of Grass—this idea of authentic inauthenticity is present there.