Transforming Worry into Wonder: An Interview with Sarah Wagner

October 13, 2011 · Print This Article

Chernobyl Series, Nuclear Family, 2008

I feel like I’m on a bit of a mission to prove to Bad at Sports readers that not all Detroit artists trespass into abandoned buildings, cultivate urban prairie, or become beekeepers to create work in this city. Admittedly, tactics of urban intervention are a integral aspect of the cultural life of any locality, but in the D, activities based in studio practice can be provocative, and even subversive, without any bulldozing or breaking-and-entering. I was eager to interview Sarah Wagner, a sculptor who recently returned to Detroit by way of the Bay Area and most recently, Chicago, where she was teaching in the fiber department at SAIC. Sarah is admittedly a studio-based practitioner, who crafts intricate environments from the space of the gallery—entire ecosystems for the imaginary, populated by botanical and biological specimens that nearly float away with uncanny ethereality. Her most recent series of Wormwood Cats are a collection of laser-cut wooden skeletons rendered with meticulous anatomical precision, that are overlaid with a fine skin of marigold yellow Chinese silk organza. Wagner’s Cats are icons of human-made disaster—residuum of the atomic meltdown at Chernobyl that left a trail of biological mishap in its wake. The sculptures are not a pessimistic portrayal of the clash between human and environment, but rather, a positive look at the process of renewal, and the ability of some species to thrive amidst catastrophe.

Wagner’s work exists in a delicate balance between real and imaginary, exterior and interior, city and studio. She is able to create alter-universes from the space of the gallery, yet traces of reality inevitably emerge from amidst the illusion. Beginning in the summer of 2010, Wagner and her husband Jon Brumit, who is also an artist and recently appointed Director of Public Engagement at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, started Dflux, a residency program that falls under the framework of Creative Commons. The couple invites artists to engage with the city of Detroit and the immediate Hamtramck Heights/Banglatown neighborhood using the landscape and culture as the basis for a summer-long investigation. The residency operates from the space of their $100 house—a purchase made legendary by 20/20 and other mass media outlets in 2008, which can take partial credit for initiating the (some say speculated) romance between artists in search of low-cost housing and Detroit.

So, yes, this interview begins with a discussion on the housing crisis, arson, and what it means to buy a house for $100. No matter how thick those studio walls are or how many locks separate the inner sanctum from the street, (three at DFlux!), it’s tough not to let a bit of Detroit in. Sarah and I spoke recently over tea in the DFlux kitchen.

The DFlux Kitchen, 2011

SMP: So, we’re in a pretty famous house. Just to get it out of the way: You have to tell the story—what does a $100 house look like?

SW: We bought the house in 2008, December—we were both working down in Miami at Art Basel, and Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope [of Design99] sent us a picture all graphic-designed up: 3323 Lawley, $100. They had walked through the house, and it was structurally sound with the exception of one 2×4 that had been busted when the firemen cut the hole in the roof. Two fires had been set here, probably by the tenants as a way to get out of the mortgage, because we know they were both arson—you can actually tell by the way the fluid hits the ground in a perfect circle, which indicates the use of some type of accelerant. So there were two fires—one in the front bedroom, and one in the living room, so the house was just a mess when we first got it. There was paint coming down from the ceiling, and all these just amazing surfaces. We promptly found out after we closed that I was pregnant, so we had to make sure the lead was out. We probably would have sealed the paint in otherwise to preserve those amazing surfaces. Basically, we demoed the whole thing. There’s a bit of original plaster that’s still there, covered up by drywall but we’ve made a huge changes within the floor plan due to the damage. There was a bunch of water damage—for two years there was a hole in the roof, and the damaged planks had to be removed, but now we have this kitchen counter as a result—the countertop is from the rafters.

SMP: But the media makes buying a house in Detroit seem so appealing!

SW: What we hear a lot now is: Oh, I hear there are artists buying all the houses and it’s a movement! It’s been really interesting watching the shift of the perception of Detroit in the media because before we even bought the house—the day we closed on it—was the day the $100 house piece aired on 20-20. It’s been a really bizarre and very educational experience… There was this media blitz, [NYTimes, CNN, ABC… It’s endless!], and everyone was contacting us and wanting to talk to us, and it was weird because I was pregnant and I didn’t want anyone to know. All the comments were difficult to take, for example many people said that no one with kids would ever move into this neighborhood… I feel like 20-20 actually did a really good job—I didn’t expect them to spin it in the way that they did because they wanted it to be the “feel good” segment at the end of the program, but they spun it in a more authentic way. They used a quote to describe it that was something along the lines of it being something really good out of something really horrible—this isn’t just, like: Woo hoo! Buy a house for $100! Well, it is, but this is the only way that Jon and I could have bought a house. We have never had enough money to buy a house.

SMP: Is this the housing-crisis iteration of the American Dream?

SW: It is for us, I guess. And this is a city of the American Dream, and this is a city that everybody loves to mythologize. It was once the “most dangerous city in the world”, and now, it’s the “city of artists” in the midst of resurrection. Or something. There’s always some sort of big, big mythology that is really quite simplistic, and that’s the thing about mythology; it misses all the beauty… There’s incredible diversity, amazing neighborhoods with beautiful, well-cared full homes! It’s not that the portrait that’s painted about Detroit wrong, it’s just that it only captures one part of the whole narrative. It’s funny too, because the myth just really isn’t interesting after a while. It’s a great story for a cocktail party: Ha, ha, $100 home, but it gets old. What really is interesting to me is the neighborhood—30% Bangladeshi, 30% Polish, 30% African American and the 10% other, which we fit into, and every single one of these people has a story—a really interesting story, way more interesting than a $100 home. So this was what led us to do DFLUX project, because we felt as though we wanted to provide a platform for people to come in, see, and explore. It was really important that they actually explore and not have their experience scripted ahead of time. We were frustrated with the sound bites—reporters would come in, and they’d claim their interview would be different, but all we ended with was being used for sound bites.

Jon and Sarah, DFlux, 2009

Projects by Finishing School and Wayne Grim, DFlux 2010

Benjamin Maddox, "Habitat," DFlux 2011

SMP: How did you facilitate going beyond sound bites considering these all-pervasive myths? It seems like chasing various Detroit mythologies would be part of the impetus for artists to be in residence here?

SW: I guess by not giving much information so they had to seek it out on their own. In terms of what we would show artists when they would come here, we’d definitely show them the neighborhood—where to get their beer and all that stuff, and then we’d bring them to visit the field. There’s this field off of Mt. Elliott where they razed a whole neighborhood in order to provide a space for development. But of course, no development came, and it has turned into a wetlands. It’s this really amazing place where there’s all this natural growth, which is really overtaking the grid. The roads are still there and the fire hydrants are still there, but everything else is gone. From botanical standpoint, there is all kinds of diversity. The area was residential, so there are all these cultivated plants popping up along with plants that are perhaps natives, or perhaps invasive, or whatever. And that’s what has absolutely fascinated me is the memory, or trace, of what was there before, and how different traces are reemerging and reclaiming the space overtime.  And that was it. That would be it. It became really clear that some of our residents came and wouldn’t leave the house, and that’s just not okay. The experience is not about being at the house, but to be in the neighborhood and city.

SMP: So 2011 was DFLUX’s second summer. How many residents did you take on initially?

SW: DFLUX in 2010 had nine residents, which really pushed the envelope.

SMP: Yikes! That sounds like a camp-out!

SW: It was a camp-out. It was not fancy. We warned people, and out litmus test for selecting people was whether or not we thought they could handle it, which was difficult. We had six people sleeping upstairs, one person downstairs and we had a mother and son sleeping on a porch.

SMP: And how are you taking applicants?

SW: Everyone who we asked in that first round came, which is how we ended up with nine. That was really ambitious, but we thought: we’ll just figure it out. We didn’t have our bathroom ready for three days! That was a bit rough, but it worked. In the future, we’re not really sure. We had one resident this summer, who was fantastic… But it became really clear that we can’t do it with so little space. We’re looking to buy another house right across the street in this auction cycle, and if we buy that one, then we’ll continue, but if we don’t, then I don’t think we’ll be able to… Especially with a toddler.

Chernobyl Series, Nuclear Family, 2008

SMP: It seems as though the engagement with landscape that your residency facilitates is similar to the way that you explore ecological and human-made systems in your own work. How does the shifting biology of this place—epitomized by your field, also inform your studio practice?

SW: It’s something that I’m trying to figure out, and I think it’s a big part of the reason that I’m attracted to the wetlands off Mount Elliot… The piece I’m working on right now is a grouping of five cats.  It’s about Chernobyl, and what I’ve been thinking about is that there are all these animals, wild and formerly domestic,  in the area of Chernobyl that appear to be doing just fine—completely normal—they’re playing, running, eating, procreating, but they’re completely radioactive. And what I’ve been thinking about is how to represent the invisibility of the radiation. So this is the first one—it has a completely normal skeleton now, but the skeleton will slowly start to overtake the inside of the form.

SMP: In essence, these are ghostly traces of radiated creatures that will change form overtime?

SW: Yes. And they’re dyed with turmeric, because it’s a bad dye—meaning, it doesn’t keep, so it’s light sensitive. The idea is that the turmeric is mimicking the shelf-life of radiation. And so, these creatures are slowly healing, and over time, they’ll be come white again. I don’t know what that time period is, but they start out one color and they end another.

SMP: Interesting. So it’s not so much about deconstruction or decay, but more about purification?

SW: Healing is really important. At the risk of being very California, it’s really important to me. Also, I don’t want to look at the problem, but to the hope. There’s this military term called “positive ocular response,” which means when there are two blown-up tanks with a small space in between, you don’t look at the tanks while trying to drive through, you focus on that space between–and often you make it no matter the odds. I’m trying to present positive ocular response while still being truthful about the situation. Truth is really important to me too, but truth is flexible… I supported myself for ten-years doing construction and fabrication—including museum building fabrication, exhibits for natural history museums and the like. It was really interesting working in these environments because I came to realize how these institutions of science presented an interpretation the truth–not the truth.  The idea of exploring what’s true and what’s real, and trying to imagine the process by which truth is created is interesting to me, because it is all a product of imagination in a way.

Chernobyl Series, Arrested Development, 2009

SMP: I’ve heard the correlation made between Detroit and Chernobyl before. Is that a comparison you’re conscious of making this work?

SW:  Detroit is not Chernobyl–it’s vibrant, alive and safe for humans, but I feel like the reason I’m drawn to the idea of Chernobyl is that there’s all this hope–living creatures surviving radiation.  But the effects of radiation on the animals is not investigated, and we don’t know what’s going on there, but I really am interested in the idea that this horrible thing can happen and that life continues. It may not be human life, but something is flourishing—all the plants and the species that are coming back, it’s all pretty phenomenal. In that way I feel like there is a link, particularly when thinking about the Mt Elliot wetlands–it’s a place that gives me hope.

SMP: It seems that your practice is for the most part studio and gallery-based. Given your interest in landscape, have you ever done any installations outdoors?

SW: I haven’t really done that. I’ve had ideas for it, but I haven’t been able to manifest them. I love being a studio-based artist, and that’s what makes me different from Jon and Mitch and Gina is that their studio is everything. I love getting lost in that deep space of just being alone, working, and making something. I don’t know if my work will shift that way. But there have been a number of other big life changes—I have this big, sort of, Bangladeshi-style garden that we grew out back– we grew our own food, and doing things like this will surely have some sort of impact . But I don’t know… That’s one of the things about the creative process I guess.

SMP: What is in the works for you?

SW: I’ve got a couple shows… I’ve got a month to finish the cats for a traveling museum show… I’m also part of a “sisters” show this spring at the Ann Arbor Art Center called Inherent State. My sister, Cathy Wagner, is an experimental writer. Right now, she’s putting herself into trances, recording herself speaking in tongues, and developing writing from that. I decided that I need to meditate to try and, you know, be calm, (laughs), regulate my anxiety, and so I’ve been trying to meditate, and when I begin obsessing about things while I meditate, I write these things down on the fridge. As soon as I’m done with the cats, I’m going to begin making all of these things—I’ll make the objects on the list on the fridge and install them in Ann Arbor.

SMP: What kind of objects are we talking about?

SW: [Sarah reads from her list:] Garden; Pollination; Squash; Otto Screaming; Ramadan Plate; Concealed Weapon, carrying, protecting; Otto Baby; 3322… Oh no! It’s illegible, darn… Platonic Solids; Peony; Oxygen Masks; Otto; Cat; Bottles; Window; Cat.

SMP: In a way, you’re in dialogue with your sister’s process but through your own process of making.

SW: Yeah, we’re definitely drawing from the same process. Stream of consciousness to create objects and text. She’s got her craft, and I have mine, so the process will be filtered through our skill set. For the show, we’re teaming up with artist Brooks Harris Stevens and her sister Jen Harris, who is also a writer. Brooks and I have a lot in common both materially and in our personal lives, including having writers for sisters, so we thought this would be fun.

Jon Brumit, Sarah Wagner, and Christy Matson, "Six-Minutes to Dimond Consciousness," Future Positive, Patricia Sweetow, 2011

SMP: Do you and Jon ever collaborate in this way? Since Jon’s praxis is more socially-based and your work is certainly all about the introverted studio-time, do you find that this clashing of opposites is productive (and challenging) in the way that working with a writer is?

SW: Jon and I collaborate quite a bit, and we’re looking to collaborate more because he’s been so busy, so it’s a way for us to get to work together. And I really admire his work, and I think he admires mine, but we’re also so different, so it’s really lovely to have that polar-opposite-ness come in… We did a Life Laws project together. We have this series of Life Laws, for example, number one is: Don’t put your bearings in the dirt. Number three is: Don’t cut a hole in the roof of a co-owned car without asking the co-owner’s permission. These are either things that we’ve done, or tales that we’ve collected from friends. This is from a friend, who was actually at Cranbrook: Don’t wear homemade pants that aren’t reinforced in the crotch and sit cross legged in public… We have performed the laws and made romance novels with the titles.  Collaboratively? What else… Well, DFLUX which is pretty huge, and then we did a show at Patricia Sweetow, [San Francisco], with Christy Matson as a third collaborator. She makes weavings using a conductive thread, so I made sheep that conducted sound art that Jon created. Oh! and Jon and I did a show in Tennessee in 2003 called  Crossover in Chattanooga, TN, which is where we both went to undergrad.  That project was really fun: we conducted traffic across this bridge that has a perfect octave. I don’t have a perfect pitch, but it goes [Sarah hums three successive pitches: looooow-hiiiiigh-looooow]. We discovered that if you drove over in 3-mi/hr increments that [the pitch would elevate harmoniously]. Depending on how fast you were going, you could actually make different pitches. So, we tried to conduct traffic across the bridge to create, like, “Row Row Row Your Boat”… It was really bizarre, because you just can’t control how fast the traffic goes.  We were able to do it on a synthesizer in the gallery, and we exhibited that along with an installation based on the Tennessee River Valley out of construction materials: tar paper, electrical lines—the current was the river, and then we had shredded paper set up so as the viewer entered the space, they came into a pristine environment mimicking what the Tennessee Valley was before it was settled. The viewer was then forced, essentially, to clearcut it as they walked through these huge piles of shredded paper so their trace was left as they walked. The audience then essentially made the environment, which was the reason I really loved that piece.

Brumit and Wagner, "Crossover," 2003

SMP: It seems as though many of your collaborations involve willing or unwilling participants. Is this an element of installation-based work as well?

SW: Um, I think it ends up being part of the sculptural experience. I really love the way, for example, Richard Serra sets up his work, where it’s more about the emotion of the encounter. I want to get that kind of affect in my work—I’m really into creating that kind of intense feeling when a viewer walks in. You know how when you walk in and see one of those stacked sculptures and there’s this amazing tension—that’s really what I’m hoping for. I guess it is unwilling in some way, where you’re just subjected to some kind of emotional shift.  It does require participation.

SMP: With this new Chernobyl series, do you intend for viewers to get a strong sense of lifespan—though the turmeric, or the shifting patterns of natural systems?

SW: The evolving? I guess so, I hope so.  I envision the viewer, the owner of the work really, seeing the work shift over time.  The viewer who passes by will miss this–it is too slow of a story arc.  I guess that’s what I feel like happens in my whole life! The story arc is a long one with many shifting patterns.  In my twenties I approached life as if it was so much more cut-and-dry, like, if you got rejected than that was it—you were black balled. Now I know that rejection is just an opportunity. Now I think: oh, well, they got to look at my work, and you never know what’s going to happen–there is an ebb and flow. I think being willing to submit to things occurring over time has very much about not having scarcity, and not living in that kind of closed mental space. I want my work to exist  in the same kind of place—where there is room to be open ended–to not know.  Because what do I know?! I don’t know anything, I only know what I’ve experienced. There’s a whole range of things on the horizon of possibility that are so out of the range of what I could even imagine. I would have never guessed I would buy a house in Detroit for $100 and we’d go on 20-20, I’d have to navigate all that mass media, and that we’d have a kid! Go figure! And throughout, still working in the studio.

"Invisible Healing World: Echinacea Purpurea," 2004

SMP: What I love about your work is the overall sense of positive uncertainty, which I find very hopeful.

SW: That’s lovely, because I’ve worked towards that. A number of years ago, I decided I wanted to turn conditions around—I wanted to transform from survival into prosperity. And I did that during grad school, and it felt great, so lately I’ve decided to turn worry into wonder… Maybe I’m starting to do that in my art work as well.

SMP: A word I’ve been hearing quite a bit lately is the notion of precariousness, and how contemporary art thrives within uncertainty. Precariousness seems to be an apt term—it’s where your work is, and where Detroit is… It seems to be a lovely synthesis of you and environment.

SW: I think thriving within uncertainty is the only way to go.  A precarious position is wonderful in the range of possibility that is there depending on the way one falls.  There’s a lot of tension there too and that’s what makes life and art interesting.  Our neighborhood is in some ways “precarious” but it’s a space of possibilities.  It’s really funny, because I would be terrible in a neighborhood where everybody mowed their lawns precisely—I wouldn’t fit in there, and I couldn’t do what I wanted to! I can do what I want here, nobody’s looking, and our neighbors get excited when we do something. I like the openness. There are so many places where we lived—Cranbrook is one of them, where it’s so beautiful, but it’s so sculpted–finished! There’s something about our neighborhood, and about its openness that I really, really like. What can happen?

Sarah Wagner’s wormwood cats will be featured in Innovators and Legends: Generations in Textiles and Fibers:

Muskegon Museum of Art: December 13, 2012 – March 17, 2013

Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center: May 26 – August 11, 2013

University of Kentucky: September 8 – December 1, 2013

Colorado State University: January 24 – April 11, 2014

All photos courtesy of the Artist, Jon Brumit, Benjamin Maddox, Robert Beamer, and Patricia Sweetow.