ŽILVINAS KEMPINAS

ŽILVINAS KEMPINAS
Interview by Veronica Roberts
. . .
žilvinas kempinas, tube, 2008, videotape, plywood

In May, New York-based Lithuanian artist Žilvinas Kempinas held an open house at the Atelier Calder, an event that concluded his six-month residency in the studio that Alexander Calder built for himself on a hilltop in Saché, a small village in the French countryside with a view of Balzac’s house. I attended the event directly after seeing Richard Serra’s Promenade (2008) at the Grand Palais in Paris. Despite seeing the shows in direct succession, I didn’t initially connect the work of these artists: Serra is one of sculpture’s leading elder statesmen, while Kempinas is only in his late thirties. Furthermore, the disparity in their working materials could not be more pronounced: to move Cor-ten steel, Serra’s signature material, requires the herculean efforts of steel mills, transatlantic transport by ship, and the careful choreography of skilled riggers. By contrast, a single strand of loose, unspooled videotape, Kempinas’ signature material, doesn’t even register on a bathroom scale. After experiencing Promenade and Kempinas’ work in Saché, however, I was struck by their shared dedication to creating sculptural experiences rather than objects. While sculpture is traditionally thought of as a noun, Kempinas and Serra both treat it as a verb. Like Serra, Kempinas has foregone the sculptural tradition of producing contained, isolated objects on pedestals in favor of creating active spaces in which the visitor’s experience of walking and looking is as crucial as the object itself.

The centerpiece of Kempinas’ open house at the Atelier Calder was a large work called Tube (2008). As I walked through the front door of the studio and approached the piece from its side, my field of vision was filled with fluttering, horizontal, black-and-white stripes. The encounter completely disoriented me. Even knowing that Kempinas works with videotape, it took me a moment to register the shiny, black bands for what they were. It was also difficult to gauge how far the bands were from where I was standing. My ability to perceive depth and distance was temporarily suspended, producing a spatial discombobulation that felt like some sort of earthly counterpart to the zero-gravity phenomenon experienced by astronauts.

žilvinas kempinas, tube, 2008, videotape, plywood

One of the most compelling aspects of walking through Tube came from the way that light activated the material and the space. Indelibly associated with film as an essential ingredient to the formation of the photographic image, light operates in Kempinas’ work in more unexpected ways. As I entered the tunnel of tape, the work resembled a giant sunburst; in sections of the sculpture, the light reflected so brightly that the tape disappeared. From other vantage points, light appeared to bounce off of the strands of videotape as it would off of water, transforming the strips into shimmering artificial waves.

Veronica Roberts: How did you arrive at the decision to make sculpture out of videotape?

ŽILVINAS KEMPINAS: The first piece that I did with tape actually used microfilm, not videotape. There was a scientific/technical library in Vilnius, and they were getting rid of microfilmâ€just throwing it out. I liked how the material was translucent, and I was attracted to its snake-like shape. I was also drawn to the fact that microfilm is an obsolete material. The information contained in the microfilm was presumably very important at one point, but it had become just a strange leftover artifact, a kind of industrial fossil. So I used it as a sculptural material in a couple of works in 1992. Later, I used a large quantity of 35-millimeter film rolls that were thrown away after a movie production to make my first full-room installation, Painting from Nature (1994), at the Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius. I arranged large rolls of film on the floor in a grid and carefully pulled the central part of each roll out and up. This simple gesture transformed the rolls into something unusual: they looked like a forest of gigantic worms, translucent and shimmering, with perfectly smooth shapes. You could actually see images on each frame if you studied them up close. But if you stepped back, this micro-world of images turned into abstract forms, perfect spirals. They looked alive and dead at the same time, like coral. Movies are time-based mediaâ€they rely on a certain length of time to be perceived, but here, the film was deprived of this essential element. Time was frozen into these celluloid stalagmites.

žilvinas kempinas, painting from nature, 1994, mixed media

Roberts: And after working with microfilm and 35-millimeter film, what made you shift to your current practice of using videotape?

KEMPINAS: One day, I pulled tape out of a VHS cassette because I suspected that it might be a very interesting material to work with: it’s super thin, super light, and totally black, so you can perceive it as an abstract line. Since you can create many different drawings with a single line, I figured that I could use this material to make different three-dimensional installations. At the same time, tape is a data carrier. Hypothetically you can have all the colors and sounds of the world in it. So, it has this capacity, this potential, just like 35-millimeter film rolls, but it’s more abstract and simpler. And then, of course, videotape is so flexible and so light that it can be set in motion using air circulation, which becomes an invisible carrier for the sculpture.

Roberts: And after working with microfilm and 35-millimeter film, what made you shift to your current practice of using videotape?

KEMPINAS: One day, I pulled tape out of a VHS cassette because I suspected that it might be a very interesting material to work with: it’s super thin, super light, and totally black, so you can perceive it as an abstract line. Since you can create many different drawings with a single line, I figured that I could use this material to make different three-dimensional installations. At the same time, tape is a data carrier. Hypothetically you can have all the colors and sounds of the world in it. So, it has this capacity, this potential, just like 35-millimeter film rolls, but it’s more abstract and simpler. And then, of course, videotape is so flexible and so light that it can be set in motion using air circulation, which becomes an invisible carrier for the sculpture.

žilvinas kempinas, columns, 2006, videotape, plywood, nails

Roberts: When did that inspiration strike? When did you first use fans to lift videotape into the air?

KEMPINAS: I experimented with videotape as an art student at Hunter College. After I realized its flexibility, I made four arches out of tape, one for each wall of the room, with four fans in the center. The arches weren’t attached to the floor or the ceilingâ€there were just a couple of small tacks on the end of each arch for weight. The wind lifted the arches up and down along the wall. Sometimes just one side would rise, and other times, the whole arch would fly up in the air. They became live sculptures: light sparkled on the tape, there was the sound of the fans, and the arches went up and down. On the one hand, they were free objectsâ€free from the wall and the floor, but on the other hand, they were caught by the wind of fans and looked like they were struggling to fly. I realized that after all these years of intense studies, nothing made me happier than having this silly strip of tape going up and down the wall. Then, I wanted to make the tape fly.

žilvinas kempinas, flying tape, 2004, videotape, fans

Roberts: And that’s what led to Flying Tape (2004)?

KEMPINAS: Exactly. Flying Tape is one gigantic loop the size of the room, capable of levitating in midair, held up by the wind of several industrial fans. It’s a self-balancing sculpture that constantly changes its shape but without ever losing its circular structure. It’s a sculpture without a pedestal, and it’s not hanging from the ceiling or standing on the floor. It’s carried by an invisible elementâ€currents of air.

Roberts: How do Flying Tape and your other kinetic sculptures reflect your ideas about the relationship between sculpture and space?

KEMPINAS: I didn’t want to build anything meaningful when I created Flying Tape. I didn’t have any story to tell, and I didn’t want to critique or comment on anything. I just wanted to activate space in a room. Somehow. Anyhow. And preferably without spending much money! I used gravity as a force, but instead of playing along with it, I was intrigued by the idea of fighting it, using these banal materials of unspooled VHS tape and industrial fans.

žilvinas kempinas, double o, 2008, videotape, fans

Roberts: I’d like to discuss the role that shadows play in your work. When I looked at Link at SFMoMA, I noticed that people were drawn to the crisscrossed pattern of shadows that the strands of videotape cast on the wall. It struck me that people might also be looking to try to make better sense of what the work is made out of and make sense of the space that the work occupies.

KEMPINAS: Yes, shadows help us to perceive three-dimensional form. But I see my work as being about light more than it is about shadows. For example, there is one piece called 186,000 miles/second (2004). I wanted to make a piece that would be entirely about light. I wanted to use the casual gallery light like it was a sculptural material, like clay or wood. The work that I made looks like a net of thin pencil lines drawn onto the wall. The lines are actually shadows cast by small needles mounted onto the wall and painted white like the wall. I mounted needles into the wall, starting at seven feet above the floor, and I extended their shadows all the way to the floor. There were two existing conventional gallery lamps by the ceiling, nothing unusual. Their light created a diamond-shaped pattern of shadows along the wall, which was sharper at the top (where it was closer to the light source) than it was at the bottom. Since the painted needles were barely visible, this net of shadows became the predominant visual element. The light cast onto the wall was no longer just a simple, passive lightâ€it became a form. 186,000 miles/second was visible during the day, when the museum was open to the public and the lights were on. But at night, this piece did not exist at all. At the end of every day, it would disappear with a click of an electric switch, at the speed of light, literally. I don’t often use shadows because I want to avoid the theatricality often associated with them. But sometimes they are just unavoidable, and it’s better that I make them contribute to the piece. Social Outbreak . Link is a good example of this kind of collaboration: the lines of the shadows on the wall cast by the videotape visually overlap with the black lines of the tape coming off of the wall. This overlap creates a subtle optical effect as you approach the workâ€the surface of the work starts to look like ripples. The viewer’s physical movements optically animate the piece. But, for Still, I used fluorescent tubes, which don’t cast shadows in the same way that regular electric bulbs do, so their light is very even, and there are barely any shadows on the walls. It looks like the piece is floating.

žilvinas kempinas, still, 2003, videotape

Roberts: Both Link and Still feature long, curved strands of videotape that drape from the walls, and yet, as you point out, they have very different visual effects. Part of that comes from the fact that light affects them differently, as you explained, but it also seems like your spacing of tape has a big impact. Can you explain how you determine how much space you want between the pieces of tape and also what the relationship is between the parts and the whole in works like these?

KEMPINAS: The proportions of Link are 1 to 1.5; if the tape is 1, the gap between the tapes is 1.5. If you change these proportions, you will lose the visual effect. Link is very optical and more visually aggressive than Still because the tape has a tighter arrangement. And Still has very different features. However, there are a few things that they share that interest me, such as the way in which the strands of tape don’t read as separate elements. In both Still and Link, they become a single shape, a unified form. And it’s because of this that the work actually has a monumental presence, despite the ephemeral quality of the material of which it is made.

žilvinas kempinas, tripods, 2008, aluminum

Roberts: What led you to make your first outdoor sculpture, Tripods (2008), during your residency at Atelier Calder in Saché? Do you see it as more of a departure from the other works you made there, or as a continuation of your ideas and interests?

KEMPINAS: Tripods seems far away from the tape works, but it’s not as far as it looks. It’s about light, or to be more precise, about catching sunlight. I live in New York where I can’t do outdoor sculpture easily. But in Saché, I had such a great space. I was also inspired by the fact that Calder made outdoor sculptures when he was working there. So, I decided to make an outdoor piece. I wanted to do something relatively light but strong enough to withstand tests of nature. With Tripods, I used aluminum rods, which I bent and curved a little, so they looked more organic. I put all of the rods in clusters of three, joining each trio at the top so that they became tripods, standing on three “feet.” I made a hundred of these tripods and had them intersect along the bottom. Like my work with videotape, Tripods is fragile and durable at the same time: the rods are only fifteen millimeters in diameter, but the way that they were joined allowed them to stand strong. Several impressive storms passed by, and nothing happened! Tripods, to me, is like a happy marriage of the artificial and the natural. It’s artificial because it’s aluminum, an unusual thing to see in a field in the countryside, but it has natural curves, which reflect sunlight and catch one’s attention from a distance, like a lighthouse. There is something slightly alien-futuristic about them, but at the same time archaic and primitive, almost tribal.

Roberts: Yes, and I think that where you placed the work on the property in Saché, nestled in a grove of trees, heightened the juxtaposition of natural and artificial elements.

KEMPINAS: At the beginning, I thought that I might assemble them in front of the building on the large stone platform where Calder often placed his works. But when I brought a few elements outdoors to see how tall they were and how they worked with sunlight, I placed them on the other side of the building and decided to just leave them there.

Roberts: I’m curious about when you first learned about Calder’s work and what about his work you find most compelling.

KEMPINAS: Calder was always so big that even the Soviets didn’t know what to do with him. Dalí and Warhol were crucified, and Duchamp was totally ignored, but Calder was present. So I knew about him early on, through books. Initially, I wouldn’t say that he was an inspiration to me because at that time, I was suspicious about everything that Soviets didn’t condemn. And later in school, I was drawn to the bad boys. But recently, because of the Calder Prize, naturally, I have been studying his work more closely than ever, reading books and seeing his works every chance I get. I was surprised by many things about him, and his works resonate with my own sense of art and art-making. I can now see that I share some similarities with Calder in my approach, even though I arrived at my work from a different direction.

Roberts: Martin Puryear recently made the following observation: “The most interesting art for me retains a flickering quality, where opposed ideas can be held in tense coexistence.” This statement resonated for me, as contradictions are such an intrinsic part of our daily lives, and they also seem to animate your work. Is that a fair assessment, do you think?

KEMPINAS: I could not agree more. I see art as an accumulation of energy, and this energy is often generated by the intensity of opposites. In fact, opposites are at the very core of art-making. Traditional painting combines hot and cool colors, music uses high and low notes, architecture uses volumes and voids, poetry combines contrasting words, and so on. I am attracted to things that are capable of transcending their own banality and materiality to become something else, something more. I like the way that videotape is simultaneously delicate and durable, since it’s meant to last. I can rip it easily with my hands because it’s so thin, but I can also stretch it. Videotape is made to present the world in color, but it appears purely black. It’s supposed to be this safe container of the past, but it is destined to vanish like a dinosaur, to become obsolete, pushed away by new technologies. It’s a familiar mass-produced commodity, but it can be surprisingly sensual and can look almost alive if set in motion. It can be seen as a solid, thick, black line, but it can also disappear right in front of your eyes if it’s turned on its side. So, to me, it’s not just VHS tape but a rich sculptural material. Loose Diamonds . It allows me to achieve subtle perceptual effects, which I simply would not be able to achieve with steel, stone, or any other material. I also like the play of the artificial and the natural. Denver Used Cars . Even though my work is made of industrial materials, displayed under artificial light, and sometimes uses artificial wind and electricity, I am going for something fundamentally natural. Looking at one of my works can, I hope, be like watching a flame or a running river. I want people to forget for a second what they are looking at and inhabit a parallel world, where abstract things make perfect sense as long as you are willing to take the time to look.

* This article was re-published in Tube (2009), the catalogue for Kempinas’ exhibition at the Lithuania Pavilion of the 53rd Venice Biennale.

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2008