Interview with Wangechi Mutu

In February 2010, Kenyan-born, New York-based artist Wangechi Mutu was named the Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year.” Her accompanying exhibition, My Dirty Little Heaven will open later this month at the Deutsche Guggenheim Museum in Berlin. Recently, DailyServing’s Aimée Reed had a chance to catch up with Mutu at her studio in Brooklyn to discuss her upcoming show, as well as the con-current exhibition This You Call Civilization?, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

Wangechi Mutu, "Royal Blue Arachnid Curse", (view of piece installed with damaged wall), 2005, ink, collage, contact paper on Mylar, 77 1/2 x 51 1/2 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; Photo credit: Joshua White. Collection of Henry Kravis, New York

Aimée Reed: Tell me about the two exhibitions. Will both shows at AGO (open until May 23rd, 2010) and Deutsche Guggenheim (April 30th – June 13th, 2010) feature works from the same series simultaneously?

Wangechi Mutu: No. They both come from quite a wide range of different works. AGO happened to have contacted me to work with them earlier than the Berlin folks. For example they have installation works such as The Ark Collection (a work that consists of four large vitrines displaying postcard-sized imagery of women from African Art) and Sleeping Heads (drawings of severed heads that are installed on a “damaged wall”, or a wall containing perforated holes that evoke wounds), which are both memorable and significant pieces. They also have a lot of my larger collages, the catalog Shady Promise (published by Damiani) and video works.

Wangechi Mutu, "Sleeping Heads (4 of 8)", 2006, Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, NY

AR: The last time I saw you was at Ballroom Marfa in 2007 and at that point, correct me if I’m wrong, I felt that you had your installation pieces, and then you had your collages, as separate entities. But with these new works, such as Sleeping Heads and Royal Blue Arachnid Curse (at AGO), you have really incorporated them together to become one piece.

WM: Actually, Royal Blue Arachnid Curse was done before Marfa, but it is such a difficult priority to combine the two, that I don’t always do it so successfully and I don’t always try to do it. But now I have really made an effort to reconcile the two dimensions. Now, I am working with both and finding ways that I can play with the two dimensionality of the collage. For example, Our Lost Minds, came out of an installation called Dutty Waters, which [when installed at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London] had water pumped in from the Thames River. This evolved into Our Minds [installed at the 10th Biennale of Lyon, The Spectacle of the Everyday, curated by Hou Hanru] which also included a curtain with the imagery of fallen heads which related to a lot of portraiture I had been doing and has to do with this collapse and breakdown of a system, while Sleeping Heads was, to me, about the leadership vacuum at this moment where I feel that we have lost our sense of direction. I say “we” as in, I don’t know, this country or our shared culture…whatever you want to call it. The last ten years were insane which culminated into the economy crashing. But there were also many other things going on that were leading toward this paradigm shift. So these fallen heads are somehow emblematic of this shift in priority. A little bit of the emperor being revealed naked.

Wangechi Mutu, "Our lost mind finding a heart in dutty water", 2007, mixed media installation; Photo credit: Haupt & Binder, included in "The Spectacle of the Everyday: the 10th Biennale de Lyon. 16 Sept 09 - 3 Jan 2010"

AR: In regards to your upcoming Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition, how are you going to approach the selection of works? The space is beautiful but it is not that massive in size.

WM: No, it’s not huge. It is more like a project room of sorts. [Because of the size], we have to make these very particular decisions about what to include. We have asked a lot of people if we could borrow work so that we can have it there as an option. There is going to be a video in the space and there are to be these bottle pieces, and the piece Intertwined is going to be a central image. The video is going to be projected at the end of the space and as you walk in, there will be a wall so that you don’t see everything inside, and the windows [and walls of the space] will be covered in blankets.

Funnily enough, I’m going back to the plates, but they are very small plates and they are sitting on these tables that are derived from images found from Rwanda where bodies were dried out on white racks.

(In a statement from the upcoming My Dirty Heaven exhibition, Mutu defines these tables as, “ones found in post Genocidal Rwanda used for exhumed bodies preserved and set using lime.”)

Wangechi Mutu, "Intertwined", 2003, collage and watercolor on paper, 24 3/4 x 21 3/4 inches (framed), Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; Photo credit: Gene Ogami. Private Collection

Wangechi Mutu, "Intertwined", 2003, 24 3/4 x 21 3/4 inches (framed), Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; Photo credit: Gene Ogami. Private Collection

AR: I find it interesting that of the writing I have read about your work, people don’t really reference how much war plays into your ideas.

WM: I know. I think it’s because it is still one of the toughest things to admit to ourselves and it is happening right now and we are in it. Like now, Obama is in the process of creating a war. What did you expect? He is the President of the US – there is going to be a war in his time. There has been a war in nearly every President’s time.

AR: It is pretty much incorporated into our foreign policy at this point, I think.

WM: Exactly, and now, it is just about the American government’s decision to make this war a logical one that actually links to some ideology. As opposed to the way that Bush went about it by inventing a reason. I don’t think that there is any reason for war, but then again, that is why I’m not in politics.

AR: Besides the shows at AGO and the Deutsche Guggenheim, are you preparing for any other upcoming exhibitions this year?

WM: The works that are slowly forming in the studio right now are for my exhibition at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery later this year.

AR: This is your second show with her since you moved from Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, correct?

WM: No, it is my first show and I am really looking forward to it. I’m enjoying working on this upcoming show in Berlin, but my mind is also thinking about getting ready for the show at the Gladstone Gallery as well.

Besides these shows, I have other things for next year and the year after that are contingent on some of these things working out. I feel that it is a really good point for me right now because I am doing what you are perceiving – blending a lot of things and making whole spaces out of two- and three-dimensional works and video. I’m really trying to pay homage to the notion of the sublime and the abject together and using the aesthetic of rejection, or poverty, or wretchedness as a tool to talk about things that are transcendent and hopeful. Also, as a means to talk about on a very basic level, recycling and reusing because I think that there is such an urgency to come up with solutions out of things that have really been fucked with and destroyed. I think that unless we decide to have an apocalypse in order to clean the slate, in order to start again, we really do have to pick up pieces and remake and rework things and translate them into something new and hopeful.  This is what I’m trying to work through for the Berlin show and what I hope the feel of the show will be.

One of the fun elements of the Deutsche Bank Award is that they give you an option to create a series. They allow you to come at it from any angle: you can do a print, you can create an object – you can do whatever you want. So I decided I was going to do a puzzle of the image The bride who married the Camel Head. It’s printed on Corian, this beautiful white plastic that is a little bit like solid Mylar that has both the effects of enamel and matte. The box is going to be beautifully done so you can actually choose to do the puzzle and have it on your table, or you can just have the box of puzzle pieces and display it on your shelf. In one of the center pieces there will be a pendant and the puzzle will be built around it.

Wangechi Mutu, "The Bride who married the Camel Head", 2009, mixed media on mylar, 42 x 30 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Gallery

I think it will be fun because one of the things I have been running into is trying to figure out how I can make some of the works accessible – both price-wise, and as something that people can live with. Because I also want to own certain things and I think, “Oh man, I’m working at the same time as some artists and I can’t afford their work.” That is such a bogus thing. It’s so weird. But I also know that some of my larger pieces take me so long that I can’t think of any other way to price them. So, I think that [this puzzle] is a really great way to [approach] this issue.

AR: That is so inventive to do a puzzle because you are bringing the audience into the image and having them engage and interact with the work.

WM: Right. I think if people actually make the puzzle, you sort of see this wonderful thing. I mean, I know that some people do and some don’t, but you start to really see what is happening in the collage. You find the little figures and the incredibly tiny detail of things that come together to create this microcosms of an image. I’m pulling people into my obsessive behavior.

AR: One point that I want to return to is when you were discussing how we need to either have an apocalypse to start again or that we need to re-purpose imagery to lead to solutions. This, again, brings me back to how your images directly are referencing war and how nobody seems to really want to talk about that relationship. For me, this brings up the larger issue of why we (as a society) keep having that cycle because, as you made the point before, no one wants to address it.

WM: If you eradicate that memory, it seems like it is happening for the first time in our perspective lifetimes.

AR: Exactly. [With this in mind], returning to your work, I see you taking these severed heads, these very real and graphic things that are happening today, and you are making them into beautiful images to force people to actually see them. You aren’t tricking them, because I don’t want to use that word. But it’s like masking medicine for a child with a little bit of sugar.

Wangechi Mutu, "Our lost mind finding a heart in dutty water" (detail), 2007, mixed media installation; Photo credit: Haupt & Binder, included in "The Spectacle of the Everyday: the 10th Biennale de Lyon. 16 Sept 09 - 3 Jan 2010"

WM: Yes, and it is also a strategy of creating a monument to some degree. You embalm it, you catch it in time, you bronze it to say, “This is what is happening. This is now.” I guess this is my way of doing it by appropriating imagery, but also kind of trying to keep the references slippery as to what it exactly is. And actually, people don’t always go there. It’s not because it isn’t obvious, but because they don’t want to or don’t know how to deal with it. They have never seen such a thing. They wouldn’t believe it could happen. It is kind of a mass denial of our complicity in these kinds of situations.

So, I think it’s sort of trying to slowly place this image up front yet again, and again, and again. A lot of my work is about repetition; repeating the same thing, repeating the same image by going at it from different angles. I also think it takes a while for some things to be understood. I feel that what happens is that I have to keep continuing the work in order for it to be understood, “Oh, she kind of means it.” When you are criticizing a culture from within, it is a little bit harder sometimes for people to accept it.