Liza Lou first caught the attention of the art world in 1996 with Kitchen, an American domestic environment covered entirely in glass beads over the course of a determined and obsessive five years of work. Her embrace of “lowly” beads and craft techniques was as invigorating as the chaotic and resonant work itself.Several major shows and a MacArthur genius grant later, she began working in South Africa to produce her latest body of work, which includes a piece called Continuous Mile. She took time to talk with HAND/EYE about her work and her South African experience.
H/E: Your work is incredibly craft-intensive. Is this an act of defiance against the quickness of the world we live in, or simply an expression of who you are and how you think? In other words, is craft a strategy or just the way you work?
LL: My work comes from a deep place—it is definitely not a calculated strategy. Working like I do needs a making mind and an analytical mind. The making mind is a haven: innocent, passionate. I don’t have to feel accountable to anyone. I just make. Bead-by-bead. Color-by-color. It’s a Zen-like approach. I think that paying attention to the smallest detail and attending to what is in front of you carefully and mindfully is the most enlightened way of doing, of making.
On the analytical side, my work argues for the dignity of labor. Some people have written about my work in relation to feminism and women’s work, which of course is there, especially in works like Kitchen. But men do their fair share of uncelebrated, repetitive labor, too. There is so much love and care involved in doing something well, and the beauty of labor is something we generally overlook in our daily lives. It’s so easy to pass over it without seeing. Challenging this “passing over” is part of my job as an artist.
H/E: Are your most recent pieces depicting prayer rugs, rope, and chain link cells a departure from the commentary on American life that infused your first works?
LL: In recent years, people have commented that the thematic content of my work has grown more ominous and political, but I think my work was always ominous-- spending five years applying beads to a kitchen has its dark side! There is a sinister aspect to all of that hysterical color and detail. Kitchen is a claustrophobic enclosure, a kind of prison cell, so it was a natural evolution for me to eventually make works like Cell and Security Fence.
H/E: You made your breakthrough piece, Kitchen, in Los Angeles. Recent pieces are made in South Africa. How (and when) did you get there?
LL: In 2005 I was preparing new work for a show at White Cube in London and I wanted to make a chain link cage (Security Fence). We were very pressed for time in my L.A. studio—there was no way I could add one more project, and so the question was where and how to make the work.
I searched the web and found Aid to Artisans, a group whose sole mission was to help and to fund artisans. I wrote to Clare Smith [recently retired from her leadership role as President at ATA] – and told her about my idea to make a large scale sculpture in a way that could make a difference and create jobs for a community of beadworkers. She wrote back and suggested a meeting with Marisa Fick Jordaan, a woman who led a beadwork project in Durban, South Africa. I couldn’t have dreamed up a more generous response than Clare’s—within a few weeks, I was on an airplane to Hartford [CT] to meet Marisa, [the founder of the BAT shop in Durban, capitol of South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal province] an amazing, energetic, committed woman who speaks English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Swahili. We hit it off, and she agreed to help me set up a team of beadworkers from the surrounding townships of Durban. We decided to focus on people with no formal work experience, and who were in the greatest need of help.
Less than a month later, my husband and I arrived in South Africa site unseen with crates full of barbed wire, chain link and beads. We rented an old dance hall and on the first morning we showed up in the pouring rain to find 15 women huddling under the eaves. We couldn’t always communicate with words, so we started working. Their beadwork skills were incredible, and after about twenty minutes, they started singing Zulu gospel songs in the most gorgeous harmonies I’d ever heard. The connection between prayer, music and beads, was deeply moving. We were going to make just the one sculpture and we’re still here, nearly four years later.
H/E: What is it like working in South Africa – compared to Los Angeles?
LL: Working in South Africa, is all about the people. Obviously we are working, but it isn’t about expediency or getting the job done quickly. I work with people who have been maligned by a system of brutality that continues to permeate their lives. There are horrible, horrible beatings by husbands. There is sickness. TB and HIV are common place in KwaZulu Natal—KZN has the highest incidence of HIV in the world. I played with a baby who came to the studio one day with his mother and discovered that his body was covered with open sores. First, I had to close myself in a backroom and cry. Then we got him to a doctor right away, and he just needed an antibiotic. It’s hard to imagine those things happening with such regularity in California.
It’s amazing to see how the men and women who work with us respond to being treated fairly and with dignity. Sometimes I think it’s the first time they’ve been shown or told that they are worth something. Standing back and looking at a complex bit of work we had finished, I asked one of the studio leaders, Sindi, “Did you ever think you could do this?” She answered, “I never thought I was something special.”
H/E: You ended up living in South Africa for the better part of four years. Did it change you? Or your work?
LL: South Africa is not easy. Sometimes I think I would love to go back to working alone but I have a relationship with the people who work with me and it’s impossible to think of leaving. Their beauty is awe-inspiring, and they put up with me!
H/E: How do they put up with you?
LL: In terms of the work, most of the team have worked with beads their entire lives, or certainly their mothers or grandmothers did. I ask everyone to discover a new way of working with the material that is as unfamiliar to them as it is to me. With every project, I try to bring a sense of discovery and experimentation; I am not interested in pursuing a known outcome creatively, which makes for a sense of risk-taking and adventure.
The studio in Durban operates like a Dance Company. I think of myself as a choreographer, directing movements of fingers. I match people’s skills and talents to each work. Even though we come from completely different backgrounds and histories, we gather together in this unique way and make a work of art.
H/E: Offensive/Defensive, and a number of the pieces in your recent show at L&M Gallery start with a reference to Islamic prayer rugs.
LL: Yes, but it’s more than that, too. The international language of labor is pattern. It shows thought. It shows process. And skill. If you think about a rug, we wipe our feet every day on the hands that made the rug. What’s the relationship between what we contemplate and what we dismiss? What do we hang on the wall and what do we walk upon? We pass through wonder all the time and don’t notice it: trees, dirt, each other.
I don’t mind that the work is silent when it’s done; that it doesn’t reveal the process; that people don’t always take in what has gone into the making of the work or the meaning behind it. Even though for some people, the work only passes through the retina and never penetrates the mind or heart, I always hope that the fact that each piece is labored over and loved comes through somehow.
H/E: What’s next?
LL: I have started a project called Endless Mile, which when completed will be one hundred miles long and will take twenty years to make. The rope is woven at home, so that people can make their own schedules and care for their children and meet their other responsibilities. I wanted to find a way to create an ongoing project that would be a stable economic entity for thirty men and women for a generation – enough time to create real and lasting difference in the lives of the team and their families. If you think about it, about ten people are supported by every woman earning a salary. That’s a lot of life held together by a single rope.
See www.lmgallery.com for more views of Liza Lou’s recent exhibition. Go to www.aidtoartisans.org for more information about Aid to Artisans.