Voices from the Bonavista Biennale: Reinhard Reitzenstein
Curated by Daniela Veneri
“A lot of the work I do is motivated simply because it's creating a sort of a consciousness of trees, arboreal practices and the notion of the survival of forests. Without trees we clearly don't have oxygen, we do not have an opportunity to share life or even enjoy life to the fullest… even though it's something we're really aware of, it's also something that we constantly seem to overlook or take for granted. I simply want to bring that into our consciousness more effectively.” - Reinhard Reitzenstein
What are the projects you are working on that excite you most, and why?
There are three simultaneous exhibitions happening currently. One of them, that I'm collaborating with my partner Gayle Young, who is a composer, we are putting a sound sculpture together down near New York City in a place called Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts.
I'm also currently artist in residence for a full year at a place called the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Hamilton, Ontario, where I am their inaugural artist and residence so I get to play and work and show works and projects for the period of a year, which keeps me extremely active in terms of what I want to do next.
The other exhibition is in Buffalo, New York, at a place called Hotel Henry, which was I think North America's largest psychiatric hospital in the 19th century, that revolutionized psychiatric care by also having a hundred acre farm attached to it where patients were learning to work through their trauma by being in touch with the earth, and that hotel is now something developed by an organization at Buffalo revitalizing the old psychiatric hospital. So now it's turned into this very luxurious hotel, which has a very active art program.
At the Buffalo Arts Studio there is another exhibition where I have suspended a 12 meter long tree from the ceiling, it's covered with about 15 kilograms of bees wax, so the whole atmosphere is aromatic, filled with bees wax and accompanying the tree in the adjacent area is a column work also composed of tree parts and hundreds of tiny trees glued to the column. The column 4 meters high. Most of my work is about trees. On one level I just don't care about anything else anymore, or so it seems.
What principles guide your work?
A lot of the work I do is motivated simply because it's creating a sort of a consciousness of trees, arboreal practices and the notion of the survival of forests. Without trees we clearly don't have oxygen, we do not have an opportunity to share life or even enjoy life to the fullest… even though it's
something we're really aware of, it's also something that we constantly seem to overlook or take for granted. I simply want to bring that into our consciousness more effectively. I think that a tree is iconic and connects to us directly… it's something that crosses audiences. You don't need a highly coded theoretical position to access the significance of trees and forests. As our research into trees and forests expands for instance, we're learning that trees actually communicate to each other, that they are acoustic communities, they literally send 220 hertz signals to one another through their root systems in particular when there are various kinds of crises occurring within a forest whether that be drought or insect infestation.
It's the idea that we're in communication, we're in relationship with this larger world around us, which is related directly to the quality of life for everybody, every species. A lot of the work I show is made of actual dead trees. I really want people to physically meet and confront and absorb the fact that there's a dead entity in their midst and that death is palpable and that death is really problematic, rather than trying to produce pretty pictures to create dialogue.
What are your most important objectives as an artist?
My most important objective is to create a relationship, to create communication. Ultimately my main goal is not to create isolation. It's really important to me that things are accessible, accessible not through mediocrity, but accessible through identification, through relational thinking. Everything I do is less about creating a finished noun, like presence of an object, but an object or a series of objects that create a relational way of communicating so that you're in process together. That for me is most important. I think the forests and the trees are so significant simply because if we're not surrounded by them, we're encountering them frequently and we are in a constant kind of relationship.
So for me it's especially relational thinking there's also the capacity to lend support and create a dignified a relationship.
How do you choose which collaborations to work on?
Whoever asks, whoever asks me seriously. The explanation for that is also simple. When people ask you for something, they are looking for the possibility of building a relationship of some kind. I don't say no, I don't like to say no. I think when people reach out, there's a reason for it and that means that there's something to learn and there's something to share and grow from, even if it turns out to be a disaster… hahaha
What did it mean for you to participate in the Bonavista Biennale?
I have a strong relationship to Newfoundland. It's also an island and there is something magical. Islanders are also people that I find generally more generous, really resilient, self supportive. They're really good at community and collaborating.
Doing something in Newfoundland for me was really a great opportunity to continue my relationship, because I know the land quite well. I have over a period of many years created a number of projects there, but I've never done anything like I did there this time. In a tiny fishing village to be able to freely place these inverted trees in a semicircle along this natural Barachoise, was really something I never would have expected and it couldn't happen anywhere else, it's very distinct and unique to the place itself, and the culture was so ridiculously receptive to the idea. I was startled, not only that there was no resistance, there was a full embrace of the project and even the fact that they promoted the project. The local folks in the village were just so incredibly supportive I couldn't believe it, much more than in a urban center where people are much more likely to be critical and ask different kinds of questions rather than embracing something outright. I guess it comes from the fact that I wanted to do something unique in their place and they basically just trusted me to go ahead and do it. That kind of trust was really quite wonderful because it is also liberating when you know you have support, and if there's a sense of innate trust, that support becomes even deeper and you have automatically a relationship, which I thought was great and I didn't expect that. I expected a lot of resistance and I didn't get it, and the work is still there and people are still enchanted by the piece.
Also, I think you enrich smaller communities on a higher, quicker, more intense level than you would in an environment where it's normal to have extreme activity or ambitious activity. The work is no less ambitious, certainly the work I do is very ambitious, but it opens up different kinds of communications and different kinds of communities, and the surprises are always there. I've never underestimated in my audience.
Which of the feedbacks that you received over the years have been particularly meaningful for you and which surprised you most?
In 1973 I spent three weeks underneath a tree. I dug a hole around the base of a huge, mature tree and I dug down over a meter deep and I revealed all the roots with my fingers and little spoons and spent three weeks underneath the tree every day. I was underneath the tree and watching how they move, their root system. There was a rock in one spot, and while human beings would probably see a barrier or an interference in it, would burst it or destroy it, the roots of the trees just wrap around it and I think they get stronger and more firmly rooted into the earth. I thought that strategy of embrace informed me unconsciously from that point on to the idea of rather than resist or destroy, embrace and get stronger.
If you can embrace obstacles and make them part of how you move in the world then how you move in the world just becomes more succinct and more multileveled too. People kept asking me, why would you do that? And I said, well, we're walking on the earth and these roots are underneath our feet all the time, that dance that's happening under the ground is this high network of communication that we don't see or witness. I wanted to go there and see it, and from that point on I started turning trees upside down so that people get to see that crazy dance, which is not crazy at all, it's very deliberate and quite magical.
I'll tell you one incident in the 80s. I made a piece on a very small island in the middle of a land claim for an indigenous community in Ontario, it was a sponsored project where artists from the province of Quebec and Ontario were living and working together for a summer. It was a residency and sculpture festival and we were dealing with making very large scale works. I made a 30 meter wide circle of inverted trees that stuck out of the ground about 10 meters. They were huge trees and it was an enormous process. Almost 30 people were involved in making my work with me.
Imagine this the circle of inverted trees with the roots above, it was really quite archaic looking. When the government officials from Quebec came to see the work, the cultural minister walked past the periphery, walked into the inside of the circle and she turned to me and she said, Why is it so quiet in here? That government official felt the difference of the way this environment was engaged, she herself felt a remarkable shift in awareness from the outside of the circle to the inside of the circle.
And also I worked very closely with the local indigenous community around that work, because it was a work that was critiquing the land claim issues that were at work at that point, in its history, and the project itself created an intense dialogue. That was the first project I did where I was using inverted trees, it was 1987 and it basically changed my life as an artist completely and changed the way I did everything completely.
That's probably the most memorable thing because it was fully transformative and it worked on so many levels that even the indigenous community welcomed the fact that a white guy would even consider creating dialogue around land claim.
When it comes to the project that I did at the Bonavista Biennale, that has the echo that goes back to 1987 and whenever I work outdoors, wherever I go, if there are indigenous communities locally, I try to communicate with that community to ask permission to work on their land.
How can arts make an effective social contribution today?
I think in our time where we've become so fully globalized, instant communication is basically ubiquitous, what happens through that instant communication is that we limit ourselves to digital communication as a result. I'm one that obviously embraces this and it’s important to me too, however I'm a proponent of the tactile, the visceral, physical world that I think is absolutely key to stay connected. So I think that where art becomes significant in our time is to bring these aspects into relationship.
Do you think that the instrumentalisation of art is a risk in our time?
There are a number of factors at work. In a post colonial world there are all kinds of internal issues around the implication of action. I'm always a believer that if your intentions are clear, then the motivation is honourable. However, when thrown into a particular cultural context that may be in question or that may be suddenly not what you think it is, or it's perceived to be different than what you intend simply because of the charged environment that you're entering into, if the environment has been victimized in any way, as artists the consciousness that we have to come at things with now are so multilayered and so impossible to predict, because you can't predict someone's response to a work if the work is perceived according to a particular personal history. Every time a curatorial exercise comes into focus, that exercise is charged with the unknown and generally how things are received, because things are received in different contexts, in different ways, in different times. One of the reasons I use trees is because they are ubiquitous too and necessary for us all. They don't have a cultural bias. They have environmental strategies and environmental adaptations.
The level of awareness of risks that artists have to carry with them when they are engaged in a curatorial context is huge. I love that consciousness that we have to be aware of many things simultaneously, but at the same time it's intensely limiting.
Creativity is great when limits are clear because then you have to improvise within that. If you fail it's because you just are not using your imagination. Anytime people fail it's not so much the context but it's the failure of the imagination to be able to find other ways to deal or to communicate or to relate. Artists are becoming in many ways very highly developed diplomats. On some level we are cultural diplomats of course and we have to try and create clear communication so that we don't misunderstand each other or misunderstand our intentions, but intention, clear intentionality is central to all of this. And intentionality means you have to be informed, it's not intentionality by sense of purpose, but also an informed intention. You can't just blindly go into something without doing some of the research.
Who are your most important partners and interlocutors?
My own life partner, she and I started collaborating in 1978, we met because she's a composer, and I wanted someone to write music for my installations. Then I have a small crew of people in my studio that help me.
There is also an artist and good friend named Gareth Lichty, an excellent artist but also a fabulous installer, that's an important person in my life.
For 37 years I worked in a foundry with a friend and fabricator/foundryman, named Bill Jurgenson, and with his help I was able to make all my bronze works. That collaboration was a long collaboration, but he had to close the foundry and now I'm a rethinking what I'm doing with the, those materials.
Collaboration is really key. My friend and and technical assistant, Chris Siano, at the University in Buffalo, NY, where I teach is a key collaborator and fabricator. My son Lorne has grown up working with me and has assisted me in countless ways over the years. These good people are key collaborators. Of course there is also my commercial gallery representatives of 30 years in Toronto, The Olga Korper Gallery and more recently Indigo Art and Resource:Art, in Buffalo, NY.
Where do you see current shifts in the evolution or transformation of the role of curators, art managers, cultural institutions, artists, and big events like art biennials? Where do you see risks and challenges and where do you see opportunities?
There are two things that are happening that I'm a little nervous about.
One of them is that the auction houses are starting to take over. They're kind of pushing contexts to the margins a little bit, pushing dealers out of the way, and they're pushing biennials a little bit further too. They're kind of establishing a hegemony of a value, on different levels they are escalating value on a different level economically, and the drivers are usually people who can afford to push the parameters quickly. Art has become ever more commodified and at a level that we never imagined.
Even though I love the fact that artists get a ton of money, and it's about time that we are appreciated for what we do because we do make a difference to the quality of life, no question, at the same time what makes me nervous is the degree to which the manipulation of a market can literally privilege those who can afford to play at that level. What are they protecting? What is art being used for really? Is it hiding other things that we don't know about and we might find out about later, are wealthy people using art in order to support their own interests, therefore driving up the value and creating an untouchable investment environment?
As artists, we are less and less concerned with making things and more concerned about community action and experiential actions and so on, we're dealing with information transfer and information exchange, so we are communicating more directly. Consequently, the global village idea is what's actually a warning that Marshall McLuhan said: Once we create a global village we're also talking about the amount of double talk, and the amount of all kinds of things that are not so nice happening because we're so closely in touch. So there is a warning there. The more global we become, the more there are rumors and rumors become divisive as well as connective.
On one level, in terms of the market there are far too many artists and it is possible that it can't keep up anymore. I used to know all the players and I don't know all the players anymore, it's so global…so vast. The problem is, what are you gonna do with all the art that's being produced? It can’t all be collected or stored, we can't even restore it all. So it's interesting that so many younger artists are getting away from making things and trying to do these other kinds of actions with communities and with each other, under disadvantaged communities or communities that need a voice. Those are really honourable options in the world that we're swimming in now. I think it does create an anti environment to the constant accumulation of things. As a professor, I also see the contrast, which is that a lot of my students do want to get dirty, they want to carve again, they want to cast, they want to fabricate, to make, to use their hands again. So there is an interesting kind of a contrast, while we're working in a new direction we're also retrieving this tactile world that I'm a great proponent of.
If you were able to change two things in the area of responsibility of artists, curators, cultural producers, cultural institutions, what two things do you think would create the most value and benefit for all?
I don't like the idea of two things because that's a binary, I'm Cartesian enough to know that you get locked into a binary. I'm always interested in a third element, which is the less predictable element, because if you say something on one hand, you can counter it in contrast on the other hand, but that doesn't create dialogue. I mean it is dialectic, but at the same time it's also something that can be frozen. Two things are not enough and my feeling is that when you look at three, you look at a more inclusive possibility.
On the one hand, more direct communication, and by more direct communication between artists, curators and so on, I mean let's not limit ourselves to a thematic envelope that a curator would create and that envelope has no room to push it around or to move it around if it becomes like a grid that's laid over. One of the things I found frustrating with working with some curators is that it's not about you, the artist, it's about the curatorial intention, and if you can't participate in a group exhibition that's being put together, well you can be replaced. It's not a commitment to the artist, it's a commitment to an idea.
I think that one of the strengths of being an artist is that the perspective of a personal view could be respected more deeply rather than the curatorial intention only, the envelope that the artists are slipped into so the artist becomes the means by which the curator can justify their intention only. It's not about the artist pushing that curators intention. I find that that approach to curating creates more problems than solutions, because it disenfranchises artists in some sense. It's not a negative, it's just something that I've noticed. That's the problem with binary, ideas that you're either in or you're out, you either agree or you don't. What about the third option? The third option being, what could we do to make it possible? If we can't do one or the other, what can we do? What is the shared interest that drives us? Is there that third element of a shared interest possible? At which point the curatorial and the institutional directive can be changed. It can shift, it can move, it can be more malleable.
What forms of artistic proposals and contaminations do you think are particularly representative of current transformations and challenges taking place in modern society?
There are a couple of things. One of them is the notion of collaboration, that is really key because what we really understand now, I think beyond Darwinism, it's the fact that it's through collaboration that we survive. The rise of collaborative strategies in art practice I think is a really healthy sign. It shows that it's through communication, collaboration, that we do survive. We enhance each other's strengths and weaknesses rather than trying to pretend that it's all competition based, which I think is ludicrous. Competition is the disaster, creativity is really the key, and the failure of the imagination is how things do become disastrous.
I think of collaboration, cooperation and the idea of collectivity, which again goes back to my initial point around enhancing communication. We understand more about each other on the global level. Once we have dialogue and are freely able to exchange our ideas without even making a judgment or without making a limit to what we say, we try and hear each other, the commonalities through cooperation and collaboration is what creates a true relationship.
That's to me the beauty of something like Bonavista Biennale where you're dealing in activities that create a great community by virtue of the collaborative spirit of something like that, and it's crazy when people feel included how much more energy you produce. If people feel excluded, the energy gets limited really quickly. A great curatorial mandate would now be let's go post Darwinian and find out the strengths within collaboration.
That's why I work with the forests, because they talk to each other all the time, they make room for each other, they create nutrients for each other, they do whatever it needs in order to survive. That's a collaborative community much more so than we are yet.
What is one cross-sector collaboration that you find successful, inspiring or interesting and why?
In a culture that's not my own, because I live in Canada, I've experienced a lot in my work relationships to indigenous people, that are redressing and rebuilding their own culture in the midst of postcolonial environments. I think one of the inspirations for me is how resilient indigenous communities have proven to be. Colonial powers assumed that they could completely eradicate indigenous nations… yet now we are seeing how resilient they actually are and how resourcefully indigenous cultures in my country have collaborated in order to continue to be vital. Resilience shown within individual familial collaboration and across nations, As a collective culture we all must collaborate to create a context, a platform, for indigeneity to have a voice in general in the larger culture. I guess what I'm seeing is this huge meaningful development of identity through indigeneity, the original communities of North and South America reasserting themselves by understanding that the only way to move beyond the postcolonial is to use the colonial context to strengthen themselves, education and all the things that colonials brought in terms of institutionalized behaviours, those institutional behaviours have now become a conduit for those voices to create meaning and to create validity and identity. That's probably to my mind, the strongest thing that I see.
What artistic proposals currently catch your attention and why?
I think most importantly I'm finding the kind of playfulness that I'm seeing in object making currently really quite delightful. It seems to be letting go of these kinds of rigorous, theoretically postured positions around illustrating a theory. We suffered for a long time in the puddles of postmodernism… of becoming illustrators for theoretical positions and really not generating theoretical positions through the work itself but becoming supporters of/with a preexisting theoretical position and the accompanying perplexing postulations.
I'm really, really delighted by the playfulness that people are taking to object making, to intermedia work, to the liberation of classical media, even to the classical media suddenly has a relevance again, they've become ingredients within a larger exercise where the cross-disciplinary practices that we're now more familiar with have the capacity to play more open and believe with a variety of things.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I don't really have a tremendous amount more to add other than the fact that don't give up, don't ever give up. Let your imagination guide you rather than any kind of ideological or theoretical position be your guide. And also the poets. I am a great advocate of the fact that poets are the sculptors of language, and since I'm primarily a sculptor, to my mind poetics is an invitation to hang onto the means to more open cross-cultural communication, to enhance imagination, to create catalytic relationships. I think the poetic mindset is the healthiest mindset ultimately, that's sort of how I feel. Playfulness and imagination as well are what I find really important. If we don't play, we're dead. If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right, and it doesn't mean you're not serious or you don't have any focus, it just means that if you don't love what you do…if you are not passionate about what you do, why bother doing it? When that happens, time doesn't exist and all that stuff falls away.
Can you think of three or five keywords that express your impressions and feelings about the topics we just talked about?
Fun, forests, imagination, play, trust.
Reitzenstein, the eminent Allegorical Minimalist has inverted trees and our perception of humanity’s relationship to the natural world since the mid 20th century. After emigrating to Canada in 1956 he studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He is represented by the Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto and shows internationally. Reitzenstein explores interconnections between nature, culture, science and technology. Reitzenstein works in several parallel areas: he works outdoors on large scale tree-based installations, and often includes sonic elements in collaboration with Gayle Young. Indoors he creates sculptures using cast, spun and welded metals, wood, glass, photography, digitally processed images and drawing. He travels and exhibits his work extensively, often speaking about contemporary cultural issues in his public lectures. His work is part of numerous private and public collections in Canada and abroad: The National Gallery of Canada, The Art Gallery of Ontario, Lutz Teutloff Collection in Bielefeld, Germany, CONAC, Caracas, Venezuela, Canada Council Art Bank, Art Gallery of Hamilton, University of Toronto, et al. Reitzenstein has been an instructor in sculpture and interdisciplinary studies at the University of Guelph from 1980-1998, at Brock University 1991-94, Queens University 1997 and Toronto School of Art 1998-2000 and Sheridan College 2000. He has served as the Head of the Department of Art Sculpture Program at the University of Buffalo since 2000.