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20111030055511-img_5653 20111030055243-img_5786 20120411025414-best-of-all-possible-world-sunset_web 20120411031424-best-of-all-possible-worlds-sunset_web 20111030055720-how_you_hold 20111030054046-cg 20111030055047-cg_2 20111030053844-saul_s_hand_sewing 20111030055925-toilet
'rak'rüm (noun);
the back room of an art gallery
where artists and art lovers hang
Best of All Possible Worlds , Saul MelmanSaul Melman, Best of All Possible Worlds ,
2011, Mixed media, 55' length x 20' width x 9' 6" height
© Saul Melman
Best of All Possible Worlds, Saul MelmanSaul Melman, Best of All Possible Worlds,
2011, Mixed Media, 55' length x 20' width x 9' 6" height
© Saul Melman
, Saul MelmanSaul Melman,
2011, Mixed Media, 20' width x 55' long x 9'6" high
, Saul MelmanSaul Melman,
2011, Mixed Media, 55' length x 20' width x 9' 6" height
How You Hold Something Inside Matters, Saul MelmanSaul Melman,
How You Hold Something Inside Matters,
2011, Skin dust and water, Variable
© Saul Melman
Central Governor, Saul MelmanSaul Melman, Central Governor,
2010 , Gold Leaf, Salt and Saliva. Currently on view at MoMAPS1 as a long term installation
© Saul Melman
Central Governor  , Saul MelmanSaul Melman, Central Governor ,
2010, Gold Leaf, Salt and Saliva. Currently on view at MoMAPS1 as a long term installation
© Saul Melman
A Wound Drawn Together, Saul MelmanSaul Melman, A Wound Drawn Together,
2010, Live feed video with mixed media Installation and performance. Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial 'My Turn' Series
© Saul Melman
Johnny On the Spot , Saul MelmanSaul Melman, Johnny On the Spot ,
2003, Tyvek, wood, steel, fluorescent lights, cast polyurethane and water, length: 40 feet height: 24 feet width: 32 feet
© Saul Melman
Johnny On the Spot , Saul MelmanSaul Melman, Johnny On the Spot ,
2003 , Materials :Tyvek, wood, steel, fluorescent lights, cast polyurethane and water Dimesions length: 40 feet height: 24 feet width: 32 feet
© Saul Melman
Jadu Beta, Saul MelmanSaul Melman, Jadu Beta,
2004, Materials: Polyethylene, air, plastic automotive rivets, pvc, wood and digital sound, length: 450 feet height: 16 feet width: 120 feet
© Saul Melman
Jadu Beta, Saul MelmanSaul Melman, Jadu Beta,
2004, Polyethylene, air, plastic automotive rivets, pvc, wood and digital sound, length: 450 feet height: 16 feet width: 120 feet
© Saul Melman
Saul Melman lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He has presented sculpture, installation and performance at MoMAPS1, Whitney Museum of American Art,  and Socrates Sculpture Park.[more]

Interview with Saul Melman

New York, Oct. 2011 - The word “portal” denotes an entrance or gateway. It also suggests a divide or transition between two places that are perhaps in opposition to each other or in constant flux, an opening through which a body enters or exits. Saul Melman’s current installation Best of All Possible Worlds—a group of translucent plastic doors overlooking the East River—is a meditation on a very particular, but ambiguous portal: the tenuous boundary between life and death, a half-way point between what is graspable and what is fleeting.

The sculpture is on view at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City until March 2012.

I recently visited Melman in his studio in Gowanus Brooklyn to speak about the artist’s work and process, VacuForming plastics, poetry, and the liminal space between life and death.

Saul Melman, Best of All Possible Worlds, 2011, Mixed Media, length: 55 feet height: 9 feet 6 inches width: 20 feet; Courtesy of the artist

Aldrin Valdez: You're both a sculptor and medical doctor. How do you see the two occupations informing each other?

Saul Melman: As an emergency room doctor, you meet people who are complete strangers and need to get information from them within a matter of minutes, sometimes just by looking at them. It's about looking and listening. Doctoring is similar to making art. In the studio you make a couple of gestures and you have to step back and look and listen to see what your work is telling you. Looking and listening are an important part of making art and these two activities, art-making and doctoring, feed one another by the practice of looking and listening.

The emergency room is an immersive environment. It's an experience. You're in an architectural space; it's an installation and you're immersed in it. I'm interested in providing an immersive experience for the viewer that poses a question to them with a certain idea I'm interested in exploring.

AV: Could you talk about Central Governor, the installation you exhibited at MoMA PS1’s Greater New York Show in 2010? I understand it is now a long-term installation.

Saul Melman,  Central Governor, 2010, Gold Leaf, Salt and Saliva; Courtesy of the artist

SM: For Central Governor, I sandblasted the whole boiler room: all the walls and the boiler. There was an exfoliation of all the sedimentary layers of grime and rust and decades of paint. It was all removed and cleaned up. So you're entering a whole room that has been considered.

There were two characters that I embodied in that piece. Both were performances. One was dressed in a blue jumpsuit who chiseled and cleaned a 5000-pound stack of salt blocks, and swept the space with a broom, making it very tidy. And there was a second character dressed in a customized white work-apron who re-foliated the boiler with gold leaf. I would come to the museum in jeans and a black shirt that had an image of the Plague Doctor—a historic figure who dressed in a full-length leather outfit including a leather hat with a beak on it. That image seemed fitting because it was a doctor not in a white coat; it was a doctor in another costume. Doctor as performer. There was a transformation through the costume.

I would change into the jumpsuit and do all the cleaning. Then I would change into the white apron and gild the boiler. People would come in as I performed. It was very slow. It was quiet and it was performed in a very meditative fashion. Sometimes the viewers would come up very close to me and stay with me for a while.

AV: Walking through that environment made me think of a labyrinth. The way I discovered Central Governor was by getting lost in the basement of PS1 and trying to find my way out. It was a dark, foreboding area. But then there was this heavy-looking boiler covered in gold-leaf. The myth of King Midas and the golden touch was definitely in my mind.

SM: One of the larger ideas of that piece was transformation—the transformation of the room, the transformation of the object of the boiler, and what it meant for the boiler itself to be transformed with the specific material I was using.

AV: There's a really interesting relationship between the titles of your work and the actual object or physical space. Your titles provide a way for the viewer to interpret the work but they don’t impose a singular meaning.

SM:For me the title is another material. What I hope to do by using titles in my work is to extend potential meanings and metaphors embedded in the work. I don't think any interpretation is the correct one. The work that's the strongest is one where the artist guides the viewer to a general area of interest—it’s not about the potential for everything—to a more focused area that the artist is interested in. Within that area, there’s a lot of availability for interpretation.

At Bard College, where I earned my MFA, because it was so interdisciplinary I became more sensitive to language and the importance that language and titling can have in the work. Poetry wasn't something I was really interested in before I went to graduate school, but I actually feel now that poetry and sculpture are very intimately related with one another. Both are about a physical experience and, for me, about how things are constructed. How words interconnect—lines flow from one to another and images connect to one another—the physical connections in poetry are very similar to how things function in a sculpture.

AV: Which poets do you feel you’re in dialogue with?

SM: I really like the poetry of Joanna Klink. Her work is of the body and is very descriptive of sensory experiences. She’s one of the primary poets whose work I look at and whom I speak to about my own work.

Saul Melman, A Wound Drawn Together,  2010, Live feed video with mixed media, Installation and performance; Courtesy of the artist

AV:  Could you speak about the use of the body in your work?

SM:  I think the question then becomes, "Whose body?" My body? The viewer's body?

AV:  Let’s take Gatherings as an example. In that video of your performance, I was really drawn to how you were moving and using the tally as a literal structure to signify time. You were moving from left to right, doing a zigzag motion upward, but you didn't fill in the whole space. You stopped at five minutes, a time limit that I wasn’t aware of in the beginning. I was entranced with the motion you were doing.

SM: I'm keying in with the word you used, "entrance." Why did you become entranced?

AV: The motion was repetitive. My looking was tied to your action and it made me unaware of the time passing.

SM: That's exactly what I was going for, not just for the viewer but for myself—because, really, it's kind of boring. I'm just making marks on a wall and I'm doing it for five minutes. If not boring, it's a rather simple gesture. For that show, all the artists were given five minutes to make a piece. You could use thirty seconds or you could use five minutes, but you had a maximum of five minutes. My objective for that piece was to use the full five minutes as a container to make a work. I used a mark that was pretty much one for every second, like a metronome. My aim was to undermine the chronology of mark-making by creating a scenario where both myself and hopefully the viewer would become entranced and lose track of time. It wouldn't feel like five minutes of time had elapsed. There's a really good word for that in Greek, which is kairos. It's the feeling or sensation of time separate from chronological time, which clocks mark off. It's more of a bodily sense of time.

One mark a second. Me against a white wall making aggressive black marks in a repetitive fashion, a kind of moiré pattern of black marks to try to make someone entranced. The sound was a big part of that too. The wall that I built for that specifically was dry wall on either side, hollow in the center so that when I hit it with the charcoal, it became somewhat of a musical instrument.

AV: It reminded me of Cy Twombly's drawings which are very haptic and bodied and suggest the passing of time. With your work, my desire to describe the situation couldn't keep up with your motion. I think it was important for me to enter that performance and not to anticipate what was going to happen.

SM: The way that piece ended is the same reason why the boiler in Central Governor was not completely gold-leafed. A lot of people asked me if I was going to gold-leaf the whole boiler, even after the whole piece was done. It's important for me to convey the idea that things are always changing. Things are never in a state of non-movement, which then kind of relates back to my medical training. The body is constantly churning and turning over. For me to be able to present work, even when it's done and not moving anymore, to signify that it still could become something and show the traces of its becoming—that's really important.

Saul Melman, Best of All Possible Worlds, 2011, Mixed Media, length: 55 feet height: 9 feet 6 inches width: 20 feet; Courtesy of the artist

AV: Let's turn to your sculpture currently installed at Socrates Sculpture Park. Best of All Possible Worlds—is there a connection between these translucent doors and the photograph of the emergency room, which has the same title?

SM: The photograph is an image of a room in the ER where I work. The Socrates project is a translation of this image into a sculpture.

This room is where people may die, where they do die, or they've already come in dead, or they die and we bring them back to life, or they get very close to death and we save them. I've had a lot of really intense experiences in this room with people, dealing with life and death and that liminal space where people become one or the other. It's my personal experience as fact in this room. What's of interest to me in this image is that the lights symbolize that idea. The light in this room is ethereal. There's both presence and absence in this photograph. What I wanted to do was translate the idea of the simultaneity of presence and absence and use light as a metaphor. That’s where I started with my piece in Socrates.

AV: Could you talk about the process involved in making these doors?

SM:The meaning of the work is inextricably linked to the choice of material and the method or process that I use on the material and that sometimes the material imposes upon me. But it's a relationship with the material. I knew I was going to use VacuForm, which is a process I've never used before. I frequently find that I enjoy and seek out working with new materials and processes as a means to up the ante for experimentation. I think that also relates to why I am an ER doctor. I enjoy the uncertainty of anything coming through the door and having to deal with information that doesn't necessarily make sense.

So here was this process that I didn't know much about and then it was through my learning what VacuForming was that I learned what form I was going make. I found a company in the Navy Yard in Brooklyn. I would bring them these four-by-eight-inch sheets of plastic. The sheets are put out on this bed and put in to this machine. It's heated to 1000 degrees, where the solid plastic begins to droop and melt. Then it's lowered down over a positive mold; a vacuum underneath the positive is turned on and sucks the plastic down on top of it. You let it cool and you pull the plastic off. It happens within seconds. The plastic is irrevocably changed when it's VacuFormed. It's a pretty violent gesture.

There's a tremendous amount of force and energy and transformation sealed within these resulting doors—trapped. All the tension, the drama, the theatrics of that moment are in that thing, which is more or less transparent. But the energy is all contained in it.

AV: Do you think that when a viewer looks at the sculpture, he or she can feel that energy?

SM: I think so. There was an issue I needed to resolve. If the VacuFormed object was perfectly clear and without defect, it looked like packaging and I didn't want my sculpture to look like packaging. I needed to do something else with the Vacuforming process to transform the sculpture. One day, I brought in one of my positives, which I had painted the night before. When I pulled off the plastic, there was paint stuck on it. That was the first time that happened. Right then and there, I knew that that was the answer. There was a defect and the added narrative that this object came from somewhere.

The best times to see it are early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is passing directly through the doors and the sculpture glows. The plastic harnesses the light.They're like ghosts.The doors are laid out according to an exact architectural blueprint of a standard floor-through apartment. There are eight doors and those are all the doors that you open in an apartment that you would walk through.

They are made to be touched. I want people to interact with them physically, which is an idea that runs throughout my large-scale works. I want people to feel their own bodies when they're in my work. So, that's the answer to your question about the body. I want people to feel their bodies in my work and to feel the body of the work, the physical presence of the sculpture in relation to their own bodies.

What’s interesting to me about this idea of “the best of all possible worlds” is that it means that there’s the possibility that there could be another world, meaning that there’s more than one possibility and this is the one that has happened.

ArtSlant would like to thank Saul Melman for his assistance in making this interview possible.

--Aldrin Valdez


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