Librarian by day, writer by night Susan Thomas talks with artist Chantel Foretich. The longtime friends revisit in Chantel's studio and catch up on the "old Ebay," Parisian bars, and of course, music boxes...
Courtesy Chantel Foretich
Susan Thomas: Your works are small and like many small things, fragile; yet many run on electricity and include motors. Is there a relationship between delicacy and machinery in your work?
Chantel Foretich: They look more fragile than they are, although there is some figuring required to get the small motors to lift the weight of certain pieces. I love working with motors and the thrill of activating them. Electricity, when I conduct it myself and make the right connection so it flows, feels like I’ve invented it! I often get shocked, or blow fuses in the apartment. I think the mechanization is sometimes laughable since none of the pieces are accomplishing great feats. It’s always good to me when viewers laugh a bit at them.
ST: I guess there is something about miniature that suggests fragility or delicacy. I see a tiny bed that you’ve made, and I imagine it falling apart when the engine turns on and things start moving! Your MFA is actually in photography. What led you from photography to sculpture?
CF: Specifically, I wasn’t allowed to photograph a lesbian bar in Paris 13 years ago, so I remade it in a soapbox.
ST: I remember that, so why did you choose to make a diorama of the bar rather than paint or draw it? Didn’t this have something to do with the poor lighting in your studio?
CF: Yes, definitely. My studio was a closet that was painted black. I'd never cared for museum and gallery lighting; there always seemed to be too much of it. I'm not a painter. I do draw, but that seemed as limited a way to convey a place as a photograph. There was something very attractive about creating all of a place in space, not on a flat surface. it was very much a compulsion, and still is. The first one was crude, childish, even, although I still want simplicity. I also want people to look at the works and think or know they could perhaps make them themselves. Created, immersive environments show up everywhere as a matter of art or necessity. There is Olafur Eliason's misty black room and, similarly, there is the house made of beer cans in Houston. If you visit that in the summertime, the sunshine and the heat emanating from all the cans envelops you.
ST: Can you describe your first impulse to use motors and lights in your sculptures?
CF: The first impulse to sculpt, or build a construction was born out of the discovery of photography’s limitations. For me there is magic in the constructions as they become themselves, which is rarely how they were originally envisioned. A little room, if it’s made well, becomes a bigger room holding viewers in their own recollections, or interpretations. I love front yard and tabletop Christmas displays, big and small, and those often use motors and lights to animate characters or to draw people in. I love other altars of sorts, too, and they often use lights or candles and have moving parts. 99 cent stores often carry fascinating electric trees whose branches change color, using rather simple fiber optics. I've reworked them into pieces because they have a fantastical glow.
ST: I am interested to hear more about your artistic practices and habits. How do you come up with ideas for your next piece?
CF: Ideas usually come from being in charged environments, for example, the temporary walkways in New York City. People seem, to me, to look at each other differently in those corridors than they do on open streets.
ST: Can you further describe what you mean by charged environments?
Peekskill Project, 2006; Courtesy of the artist
CF: Places that are important because of an accumulated history, a fleeting exchange, an area of respite, or violence. There's something I haven't yet made - I stopped by where my grandparents and my father lived for many, many years in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Someone opened the door as I was approaching. They said the house had been sold to them under false pretence and that they were now trying to figure out what to do. "You see, the floor fell through," he said, and there was no floor, only dirt. Paneling was still on the walls, but the dividers between the kitchen and living room area were gone. My grandmother's curtains were still in the open window, which seemed so far away with no chairs or stove or anything to take up space between the curtains and this very upset gentleman and me. She'd died in a retirement home fifteen years earlier. I understand the limitations of personal work, but always hope that there are some aspects that are bigger than me or the thing I've put together.
ST: I know you spend a lot of time like Joseph Cornell did, rummaging through thrift stores. (I often wonder how Cornell's practices would have been affected by the Internet and Ebay.) There seems to be such value in happenstance or discovery as opposed to searching and finding.
CF: Going to thrift stores is like going to a junk-yard carnival – every ashtray, recipe box, eyeglass case looks like a swimming pool or living room or dance floor! From thrifting and shopping in Florida I had an excess of pompoms, glitter, any and every thing that I might eventually need. There is no room for that here, so I’m more exacting in my searching. I did find a musical piece thrifting in Peekskill, a polar bear on a pedestal that turned to the tune of “Born Free.” I knew that song would complete a piece that had been inanimate for a couple years, so I connected a belt to the “Born Free” mechanism. Now when you wind it, the belt hits a little couch over and over. Ebay is a fascinating source for miniatures, especially in the way that people arrange their miniatures on the carpet or a pillowcase for sale - it really is like a yard sale.
ST: The poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote about a former student, the artist Wesley Wehr. He used to "deal out his latest painting" in a coffee shop, and he hoped to be able to carry a whole exhibition of miniature watercolors in his pockets. I've seen you unpack your work in restaurants and apartments. Do you prefer to show your work "outside of the museum"?
CF: I love bringing work around in a box or suitcase and setting it up and lighting it with the floral, battery-operated lights, especially in dark restaurants, when people have had a few drinks. I was told once that I got a window show because the guy looking at the work (in a restaurant) was really high when I brought him my music boxes. But I’d like more gallery and museum shows, too.
ST: There’s something about your handling of your work--watching you wind up your pieces or change a bulb--that makes me wonder if you have ever considered enabling the viewer to do more than just look and hear. I’m thinking of Cornell and his boxes that were created to be handled, as well as conceptual artists like Hélio Oiticica, who made tactile Box Bolides as well as wearable art. For some reason, I’ve always imagined your art going in this direction—not participatory exactly but in that realm.
CF: When I transport the works to show someone and then head home in the subway or a cab, the works often make sounds; so people will ask what they are. I think I really should set up a black tent in the subway and invite people. I definitely want people to activate the lights, the switches, and the musical mechanisms themselves, but people often seem afraid to touch them. I think that there is a very simple thrill involved in turning on, in some way, a small object.
ST: You and I have talked about how strange it is to view art that was a gift--like many of Joseph Cornell's boxes and H. C. Westermann's sculptures--displayed in vitrines in staid museums. Instead of making and giving your works away as gifts, the subjects of your works are often gifts or tributes to family, friends, and lovers. How do you feel about such intimate work being collected by institutions or strangers and displayed?
CF: I have only considered this in the last three or four years when I sold my first piece – a little musical room about moving to New York and falling in love – called “There Shall be no More Naivete.” I made it when I was living in a tiny room in your apartment (!), where the bed took up the whole floor. This love, every love is different, I suppose, and this love demanded of me, as did the city itself, that I rethink everything, that I take some pain. There’s a belt on the bed, and this love made me a short decorated Christmas tree, and that’s there, too. The music box plays “London bridge is falling down” and the tree turns. A straight guy bought the piece, fitting, I think, to its title.
ST: Please talk about your more recent use of video. I love the film "Mistletoe." I see the silhouette of your hand winding the motor, the tree moving, and you moving the tree a bit yourself near the end as the motor winds down.
CF: I love video, especially the ones taken on digital cameras, because they force a great deal of self-editing. I’m still figuring out what to do with them. I have many, many wonderful short videos that could give context to the constructions or become something on their own. I’ve not been able to dedicate much time to video. I did work on a movie in Colorado. I put together all the music boxes I have that I haven’t taken apart, and (by stop action) it appears that they gathered themselves one at a time on a hilltop – a clock in a plastic bell jar, a streetcar, a unicorn, clowns, drunks, and a couple sitting in the moon. Each played its song, turned in a circle, and rolled back down the hill. I should put that together. There is a line in a 1940's book about the history of music boxes that (even then, apparently) music boxes remind people of a time they’d not experienced but would like to.
Mistletoe, 2003; Courtesy of the artist
ArtSlant would like to thank Chantel Foretich for her assistance in making this interview possible.