Jan. 2009: At Ben & Nicks in Oakland’s Rockridge, our heroic interviewer fiddles with the recording device attached to his iPod and casually tries to assuage the trepidations of a cooperative Christine Lee.
Andy Ritchie: So, actually, all the questions I drew up are somewhat inspired by your idea of the shim, your use of the shim—the idea of a short side, a long side, and a long side with an angle. So I’m going to ask you some short questions, some long questions, and some long questions with angles.
Christine Lee: OK.
AR: First short question is actually a question my parents had for me so I had to pass it on to you. Why are there artists at the dump?
CL: Why are there artists at the dump?
AR: Why are there artists at the…[adopting mother’s voice] Why are there artists at the dump?
CL: From the artists’ perspective?
AR: I mean, it’s clearly a unique proposition by the city of San Francisco to have this residency. Why do you think it’s a good idea?
CL: Well, it makes sense to me that a program like this exists but it doesn’t make sense that there’s not many of its kind. I think this might be the only one on the West Coast. First of all, with the amount of material, the trash that’s generated, when you actually visit the dump and go on the tour, it’s pretty disgusting and depressing how much trash goes through there every day. And a lot of new design deals with new materials and innovation, they’re supposedly green, but they’re not actually addressing what’s already existing out there right now. So, to me It seems really incomplete—it still needs to be worked on—and I haven’t heard of any other programs or business models or designers that utilize that. However there are a couple of places I believe it’s Boligee, Alabama, there’s this—
AR: —Where in Alabama?
CL: Boligee, Alabama. It’s actually called Rural Studio, and they are connected with the Auburn University architecture program [editor's note: The site at Boligee is where some Rural Studio work resides, but the program itself is not in Boligee—it’s in Auburn].
CL: And they have their students work with recycled materials to create structures for Hale County. When I was in undergrad, I did a volunteer “expedition” to a southern part of Alabama.
AR: What did you study?
CL: I started in chemistry at University of Wisconsin in Madison and then I switched into the school of education, which had art in it. I, at that point, didn’t know what I was going to do exactly so I started taking all kinds of classes like printmaking, sculpture, and then I took furniture design and woodworking and I really loved that class. But when I went on that field trip, that weekend excursion, I was totally inspired by the structures there. They were just so beautiful. You couldn’t necessarily see immediately that it was recycled material. You kinda had to look a little bit closer. So that left a real deep impression at the undergraduate level. But I didn’t really know yet how that would lead back into my art process. I even looked to see if there was a Rural Studio, or a program like that, on the West Coast—and there wasn’t. But then, years and years later knowing more about the dump, I thought, wow, this is the closest thing to that. And it’s more accessible because you’re not necessarily going through an architecture program. You can be an artist, I mean. It’s competitive. But you have benefits to scavenging and you also have, of course, a show at the end of the residency, but I think that a lot of the artists that are drawn to the dump program like to be surrounded by lots of excess. And in a way it’s comforting too because you’re not necessarily worried about something running out. It’s more about "Where do I store this? How do I deal with this? How do I stop hoarding?" You know?
AR: Yeah, yeah.
Christine Lee's workshop at SF Recycling & Disposal Artist in Residency Program; Courtesy of the artist
CL: You have to put some limitations on yourself or else—
AR: You should see my room. I’m building my own dump. So, as Oaklanders, we didn’t really get to vote on it, but do you know what the result was for the George W. Bush Memorial Dump and Recycling Center or whatever that was about?
CL: I have no idea.
AR: That is the dump that was going to be renamed that though, right? It was actually on the November ballot for the City of San Francisco. Somebody proposed it and San Francisco got to vote on it.
AR: I haven’t officially heard one way or another. Another cool thing I’ve recently discovered about the dump was, it was actually spotlighted in MAKE magazine. Are you familiar with MAKE magazine? It’s kind of a do-it-yourself out of found objects and household products and things.
AR: They have a video podcast, and they actually covered one of the recent artists in residence, and, it was Paul Cesewski.
CL: Uh huh, he did the carnival.
AR: The bike carnival, yeah. I was just wondering if you’d seen the video. You should check it out. It’s online…somewhere. But are the benches you’re doing installed in the sculpture garden or are you doing any sculpture garden installations?
CL: Originally when I applied for the residency I had checked off the box for any artist interested in doing seating, public seating, for the sculpture garden. So that was the original plan. But when I got there and I talked with the director, we realized that if I made some type of bench seating it would be utilized more in the back art patio outdoors. It’s pretty much concrete, a little concrete patio, and when you look at the building from the outside, it’s just concrete blocks and then some large roll-top doors. So, at first it seemed pretty challenging, you know, it’s like "How do you make something for this place and have it integrate into the immediate environment?"
AR: It sounds pretty stark. It’s just concrete and doors, roll-top doors.
CL: Yeah, yeah. I thought this would be a good challenge, you know, and because I love working site-specifically and I really like making a connection between the materials that I’m using and the space. I took pictures of the back patio and simple details of the building, where the bricks interlaced, overlapped, and the doors. What I realized is that the 2x4s have a dimensional thickness that’s very close to each repetitive element of the roll-top doors, all the horizontal lines. I thought it would be nice to, since they get quite a bit of construction material—or 2x4s—if I could make the benches out of that and have ‘em kind of overlap or interlace. Then that would combine the lines that are reappearing on the doors along with how the bricks are stacked next to ‘em. Hopefully I’m melding them both. The 2x4s did not need to be cleaned up too much because I’m picking them, arranging them, and putting them together in groups of three based on the colors that I see.
AR: So it’s the discoloration—
Christine Lee, working on Linear Elements at SF Recycling & Disposal; Courtesy of the artist
CL: —That I really liked. Exactly. It has this natural patina, and the concrete portion of it that was not so much in my controls, in terms of what colors would come in. But what I did is I made the mold for four casts, to be poured at once. And we did three major pours. The first one turned out really bad. And the second and third ones turned out really great. And the reason the second and third ones turned out really great is because I listened to their concrete expert there.
AR: Have you used it before?
CL: Have I cast concrete? Yes, but on a smaller scale. So, there was a lot more involved, and not just dealing with the 250-pound slab of concrete but just the finishing techniques.
AR: Let’s go back to the shim for a second because the site-specific installations using the shims were all over the place on your website, so it really stuck with me. And the more I thought about it, the more it captured a certain artistic essence for me because it’s a wooden wedge that’s manufactured precisely to be imperfect, but just by a degree. So I thought, philosophically, that had a lot to do with my understanding of what would be the way to perceive art, or to perceive art properly…what am I trying to say? So, artwork can either be very… hold on a second. [Exasperated, takes large drink of Pliny the Elder] So, because it’s off by just a degree, I think artwork that shows a reality that’s off by just a degree is often most effective. So I think the shim, in a way, because it’s specifically manufactured to represent that single degree of inaccuracy that’s kind of inherent in the organic world…I just think that it’s a great symbol. By jamming them all together you can actually create a complete geometric perfection. You can fill in a square hole with these imperfect shapes, with these slight angles. Do you have any thoughts on that?
CL: Sure— Well, it’s funny because when people ask me, “Oh, how do the shims stack together?” (because I don’t use glue.) And, “How do they stay in place?” and I explain to them that each shim is different; some of them are more twisted than others, some of them have a chunk missing out of them. There’s never a very perfect repetition of the same exact dimension or shape of the shim.
CL: And some of them are furry, you know, so there are all these different characteristics of the shim. And what I like about it, about working with those materials, even though I get tons of splinters…
CL: …is that every time I have to put one in a specific spot, I have to find the right one to put in there. I set some rules for myself. I try not to cut or snap any of them off, because to me that’s not really dealing with what’s there. There have been some pieces, just recently, where I’ve had to make an exception to the rule [grimaces], and I’ve had to snap a little bit off just to fit in a spot. But it really does irk me to do that. I really don’t like doing it because that’s part of the challenge, to use what’s there. And I get a little bit of joy of just seeing not much crap left, excess little broken bits left. It’s almost kinda like a real simple problem with a real simple solution—
AR: Right, but it’s not completely linear either, because you build up to a certain point and realize you’ve taken the wrong tack you have to break it down and build it back up again, right?
CL: Um hmm. Exactly, sometimes in the process of restacking it I will have stacked quite a bit and if something doesn’t feel right I’ll take it out and just put it in again. That’s also what I like about not gluing them; it allows this flexibility and change. But then there’s a lot of stress involved in pulling one out if it’s already surrounded by a bunch of ‘em and I know it’s just the wrong one, but…it depends on how tired you are.
AR: So it goes from a jigsaw puzzle to a game of Jenga.
CL: [Laughs] Yes, exactly. But I think there’s a huge difference…if I worked with manufactured shims, plastic manufactured shims that were the exact same dimension, it would be a totally different experience.
AR: Uh huh.
CL: I like, you know, working with curved ones and realizing they have to fit really well to be stable—otherwise, the whole thing will fall down. They’re pretty tight. So I like actually creating the little piles: these are curved; these are really long; these are really short; these are really thin on one end. You know, there are so many different categories that you can develop. But to someone who’s just walking around the space, like “She’s got a bunch of little piles, just all around her.”
AR: That really doesn’t come through in the finished work, so that’s really good insight.
Christine Lee, Shims: Thousands of Uses - Use #3, (detail), 2007; Photo by Jeffrey Lamont Brown.
CL: I think part of the whole process of handling the material for me, it’s the direct reconfiguration or placement of the materials that I get the most enjoyment out of. So actually when I do woodworking or furniture design, there’s a little bit of a gap between me and the materials if I’m running them through a machine. There’s also a lot more technical stuff that sometimes kind of takes the fun out of just kind of spontaneously working—
AR: Uh huh. The discovery.
CL: And I realized that I’m not in love with furniture design or woodworking, but I’m in love with the different steps that you go through when you touch the material. That’s what I like about that process. I think a lot of the woodworking is really like the simple processes of just hand-planing, over and over again, or sanding. I really like the repetition and the meditative quality of it. I also just like to refine certain materials to a certain degree, but to also be able to choose what degree I want to refine it based on what’s appropriate for the space or the situation. Because I also like things that aren’t very refined, or things that have that aren’t streamlined or clean lines, you know. I mean, I love Eva Hesse’s work. She has a mix of perfectionism but then also this ability to be very organic and let things take its course.
AR: I can see the influence, although I think of her more as loose, drawn lines, flowing curves, and your work—your work seems more tight-fitting.
CL: Oh yeah. [Laughs]
AR: But I might be judging too soon. Speaking of tight-fitting, the way you work the appliances into the shims, I read that as an attempt to equalize the perceived functions of something that’s visibly functional—like a dishwasher or a refrigerator—with something that’s invisibly functional like the shim that’s, as you wrote in your artist’s statement, hidden behind drywall.
CL: Bringing that to the forefront. Bringing the shims to the forefront.
AR: Right, or at least putting them into the same plane. Is that the meaning behind the visual relationships between the appliances and the…
CL: Well, I really haven’t worked with appliances lately. The earlier works with the appliances first began as a test piece in my apartment. I wanted to work with objects that were in everyone’s homes, that on a formal level contrasts to the shims, had their own presence but then gave the shims a presence as well. Ah, when I did the installation at the Art Produce Gallery, which had the refrigerator, the washer, the dryer, and the microwave, I basically fell in love with the location because everyone was walking in that area.
AR: Yeah, I could tell from the photos. There’s pedestrians in every, in every picture from outside.
CL:So people would be comin’, you know, along their way and look maybe to the left and see this installation. So I borrowed the appliances locally from that area, but also I wanted to lift them up into space.
AR: It’s because it has that one degree away from reality. You know, it is almost, aside from the unreality of a fridge levitating three feet off the ground, it doesn’t look entirely out of place. I mean, you know, it’s just a refrigerator in a window. An appliance store—it’s a storefront.
CL: [Laughs] Yeah. It didn’t feel right for me to just be putting appliances into these other installations, ‘cause it just didn’t seem relevant to the space. The next installation I did after that was at SF State’s gallery space at the student center. I did an installation—
AR: That was the joint installation?
CL: Yeah, Scott Hove. And so, it made more sense that our installations worked into each other, so I was shimming around his rope work, and he was actually installing the rope work, anchoring ‘em in different places where I knew my shims were going to be butted up to. So, it’s really what’s appropriate for that particular space.
AR: So, your work, you describe it as process-driven—I would obviously agree—it’s a no-brainer. Do you feel that a piece is done when the puzzle is solved? I mean, do you ever have the painter’s dilemma, you know, adding that one last stroke?
CL: Always. Because I never feel like anything is ever completely done ever, and either there’s room for more analyzing or rearranging or reorganizing. And the way that I have been able to resolve that is by just saying this is the best configuration I could do in the amount of time that I had. It lets me move on.
AR: It helps to have a finite amount of materials too.
CL: Yes. Exactly.
AR: If you’re at the San Francisco dump, I can imagine it would be a lot harder to control yourself. Your urge to quit the piece…
CL: Right. Well actually with the 2x4s, I was worried about having enough 2x4s to get the piece done because you don’t really know how many are coming in a day.
Christine Lee and Scott Hove, Shims: Thousands of Uses - Use #5,
CL: And there’s quite a bit of work to do in terms of joinery and cutting up the materials, so I couldn’t always be in the PDRA, which is the Public Disposable Recycle Area. I felt like I really needed to focus a lot of time actually making the benches, so I developed these interesting friendships and relationships with people at PDRA. They became my eyes and my hands and I got a lot of assistance, especially towards the end, getting those benches together.
AR: So here’s a question, does the reuse and the recombination of materials destroy any commercial viability for your work? Are the individual specifics of your materials unimportant?
Some of what you use could be termed generic and easily obtained materials. But certain things, like, the phone book or the fire hoses, if those are unique—too unique—to let go?
CL: I get attached a lot to the initial experimentations with the material.
AR: Does it have more to do with the properties of the material and how you can exploit those properties than the actual specifics?
CL: It has a lot to do with the moment of discovery, that I realize that the material can do something. And I just don’t want to throw that away. Even if it’s a little block of wood, even if it’s a corner of a phone book, which, actually when I started folding the phone book pages, I started seeing these kind of changes in the pages, and I still have those initial books. And they’re yellow now, and I realized that, "Wow, these are really old, because they’re so fragile now." They’re not archival—the pages.
AR: Of course not. They’re only designed to last a year, right?
CL: Exactly. But I, of course, keep holding onto them. It’ll be sad for me when they actually finally disintegrate. So I don’t necessarily have such a hard time letting go of the bigger pieces because they’re really further refinement or exploration of the same territory.
AR: So even though you’re an artist that reuses, you realize the limitations of reuse? Fair to say. What I really like about your use of material is you create these often flat planes, the best way for me to put it is visible cross-sections. Like the pages of a phone book: normally you flip a phone book open, you look at it flat. You expose the actual uniqueness of having very thin pages. Or the fire hose, which you normally see full of water or rolled up, but not snaked out along the ground and tied up into tight forms. I like the idea of creating these cross-sections that become actual frontal images. And I think that’s a lot of the power in your work. I was wondering if you ever considered using hazardous materials because well, obviously the dump has a lot of things that could do bodily harm.
AR: And most of what I’ve seen you use through your website is mostly inert materials, organic things, either paper-based or otherwise, so…
CL: Well, hazardous materials meaning, like—it could just be contaminated, right, like—
AR: You know, hazardous or unstable materials I guess would be another term.
CL: Yeah the closest thing that I think would come to using anything hazardous would be using a fire hose that was involved in the 9/11 catastrophe.
CL: Because the fire hose has been contaminated to the point where it’s carcinogenic and when I—
AR: Is it asbestos?
CL: It’s a combination of the smoke embedded in there and all the debris. When I inquired about it a while ago, they were in some airport hangar or something, some major storage facility. But what I thought about the fire hose that was contaminated is that if I did a piece, I could actually wash sections of the fire hose to reveal part of the original state, but then to leave the soot and all the dirt as a frame outside of the piece [editor's note: The fire hose from 9/11 has not been acquired yet, but is still being sought to create the piece]. That’s probably the closest I’ve come to using anything that’s hazardous. I’m not interested in exposing myself to hazardous material, especially when I’m working in large numbers or large quantities because I know that I’ll probably get very sick very visibly. [Laughs] And I want to continue to live long just to keep making stuff.
AR: It’s understandable. I have one more thing to ask.
AR: Could you describe what I’ll see, this weekend, in one word?
CL: [Laughs] One word?
AR: One word.
CL: OK, lines.
AR: Lines! How about five words?
CL: [Laughs with good sportsmanship] Five words. Interlacing or interlacement, lines, concrete, and modular.
AR: OK, that’s four, but—
CL: Oh, that’s four! [Laughs] OK, let me think about it a little more. Well there’s certainly an overlap or an interlacement or an interweaving, I guess, of materials. So maybe one of those three—you can pick the best one of the three and consider that, like number one.
AR: I’ll just pick my five favorite. [Laughs]
ArtSlant would like to thank Christine Lee for her assistance in making this interview possible.