UK-born and L.A.-based sculptor Thomas Houseago buzzes with a jittery energy that makes it hard to believe he created the meditative and almost ghostly installation at Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York called "MOUN ROOM" (open Nov. 10 to Jan. 17). Even Houseago—who's an animated speaker, stressing his ideas with non-verbal exclamations like unbelieving whistles, staccato syllables, and fist-to-the-stomach exhalations—agrees that this quasi-sacred space seems not to belong to him anymore. Instead, he believes the public is staking claim to the democratic exhibition. People have told Houseago that they want to get married between its plaster walls. Others have said they want to be buried in it.
Even if such morbid thoughts make you uncomfortable, it's easy to see the appeal of claiming "MOUN ROOM" for your final resting place. Constructed from cast plaster panels and large clay forms the labyrinthine installation envelops the viewer in its peaceful, imperfect walls. The more you observe Houseago's white forms and circular shapes, the more they seem to reveal themselves to you. See how light shines through the holes to cast circles on the gallery floors. Notice how the individual panels don't line up but are warped because the piece was created in L.A.'s hot climate. Glimpse the limbs of other visitors through the irregular openings Houseago has left in the structure.
"MOUN ROOM" is Houseago's first solo show, and it's also a departure from what the art world has come to expect of him: giant sculptures that look like mythical creatures or ancient totems. Yet Houseago believes that his work has always attempted to confront (or in the case of "MOUN ROOM," embrace) the public. The project began as a small structure of only three panels that Houseago and the people close to him could retreat into, a peaceful escape from everyday life. As the Houseago kept working on it, "MOUN ROOM" seemed to grow on its on volition, according to the artist. Now Houseago is departing from his private space and opening it up to everyone. Last week, I walked with him through "MOUN ROOM," where he talked about how the installation has transformed overtime, the way people are reacting to it, and its sci-fi fascination.
I began to notice it being peaceful as opposed to going out to make something peaceful.
You've said that you don't feel like this work is yours anymore. Why is that?
There are certain works that I really live with for a long time. There’s a long period of time when they're really yours, and your kids inhabit them and so do your friends and family. With a piece like this, it goes to the gallery, and then suddenly at the opening it's not yours in that way anymore. So on some level, its current manifestation has less to do with me than with being in the city. It was such an intimate piece to make, and it was such a slow piece to make.
How long did it take you?
It took about just over a year. It was a piece I’ve dreamt about for a long time but didn’t have the means—the time and energy, the financial means—to really do this and run the rest of the studio. This idea of making an environment or making a museum is really my fantasy. From my generation, coming out of the '90s with the critique of the institution and the white space, I understood that. But I felt that I always ended up with just the white space, this institutional thing with people on salaries. I had this dream museum that would be a museum that the artist makes himself and asks friends to show in.
The original idea was I was going to show sculptures inside. Slowly but surely, it became more of a safe place, a sane place for me and my partner. I was going through a quite heavy divorce, and I’d gone through this rollercoaster, arriving in L.A. 10 years ago and going through this very weird journey. So this sculpture was a room or a space that was, yes, in a way part of that museum project, but became much more intimate. It became a space for me, Muna [my partner], the kids, and my close friends to go in that would give us a little space, like a gestalt, from the studio, gallery, art world, and my divorce. It began like that—this fusing of that museum project with a personal need.
On some sides of "MOUN ROOM," you can see the exposed materials. What was your process?
When we do the mold process, there's the iron, the hemp, and the plaster that we put inside the mold to keep it strong. So when we break off the waste mold, you get the cracks. It's a very physical process. It’s the most traditional way you can strengthen plaster when you cast it. There’s this “in-out-in-out” feeling.
While people might not necessarily know that process, I think they feel it. They feel that this side is being treated in a certain way, like it’s been rubbed by me. I’ll sometimes rub the clay forms to get them right for hours and hours and hours. It was a very meditative piece. You get this constant interchange between front and back, inside and outside that’s dramatized in the piece.
Do you expect people to feel that kind of calm and meditation when they come in?
In the reviews, they're saying, "The guy who used to make these terrible monsters is now sweet." When you’re an artist, it’s hard to get past the full practice in your studio. But there have always been aspects of my work that have been more meditative or gentler. Even the figures, if you really look at them, I’m always shocked people think they are monsters. They're very vulnerable, they’re very human, and they're very fragile, even the big ones. They're full of cracks and fissures.
In the case of ["MOUN ROOM"], it was a moment in my life where I stopped and paused. I had lost a really close friend. He died about year and a half ago, and that really shocked me. I was going through a lot of personal changes, and I began to notice it being peaceful as opposed to going out to make something peaceful.
I remember someone came here who was pregnant and said, “I feel really good in here.” I’ve had a lot of that, like people doing yoga or people just wanting to sit for a while. It’s a much more contemplative zone, which in a weird way my studio has always been. My studio is a utopic place, even when I’m in full monster mode. The studio itself is quite gentle, quite utopic. I really believe in this idea that the sculptor's studio as another universe, another creative space.
My studio is a utopic place, even when I’m in full monster mode.
Is that where the name comes from, that it's another universe?
No, the name actually comes from the fact that I was working on it at night. People always talk about L.A. as strip malls, Hollywood, and the porn industry, but actually the cycles of the sun, the moon, and the natural world are quite present in LA. It’s this big sprawling city but with this very cosmic feeling. I would work at night, and I would see this huge moon. Also my partner is named Muna, and she would sit with me, and we would talk while I made it. It was a very collaborative work, and the work might be picking up some of her peacefulness. It's a mixing of the two: the moon, because I was working a lot on it at night, and Muna.
The surface of the work reminds me of what you would imagine the surface of the moon to look like.
A friend once said to me, “Your work comes from the dark side of the moon.” And I thought, “Huh, now this is coming from the light side of the moon.” It’s corny, but it feels like that. The clay, as we cast it, cracks and warps. Because it’s very hot in L.A., the water evaporates out. You get all these tensions from the wet of the clay and the dry of the plaster. Some people say it feels like an eggshell.
Does it reference other lunar qualities, like cycles or tides?
The piece has this weird function, almost like throwing a sundial or moon-dial. If you have a full moon, the circular cutouts in the panels will reflect out, so you’ll actually get these circles [of light] on the floor. And in very bright sunlight, you have the same thing. But I wanted the piece to never quite fall into that total logic.
The piece is very much about children. I have three kids now, so a lot of the spaces are to allow children certain access. For example, kids can go very quickly through the smaller holes into the middle room. There are a couple of spaces where they get access over adults. So there was also that play of scale in the piece. When you look at the moon, there’s that weird scale too. So, yes, there's this cycle of the moon, but there's also a cycle of life. One of my favorite people in the art world came in and said, “I want to be buried in this thing," which fascinated me.
I’ve had a couple people say they want to get married in it, I've had people wanting to do music videos in it, I've had people wanting to dance in it, and I’ve had people wanting to be buried in it. When you go into the inner room the feeling should be there that you’ve come to an end. I didn’t want to people give people a false idea. There was no cynicism in it at all. There was none of that '90s thinking.
It’d be hard to murder someone in here.
The split circle shape in the center of "MOUN ROOM" appears in a lot of your work. It reminds me of Constantin Brancusi's sculptures.
The Kiss? Exactly, one hundred percent. In this piece, you also have Brancusi's famous commission for Romania [The Gate of the Kiss]. I think I was channeling that whole moment of real optimism about the beauty of art and its ability to come into your life and mirror life and remind us of the positive. I’ve always loved his work. I also love [James] Turrell, Robert Smithson, and these other famous sculptors, but people always tied me to figuration, with Rodin, and it’s nice for people to finally go, “Oh! I see now.”
But the piece is really a dance between inside and outside, light and dark, shadow and light, positive and negative space. It’s really about that and how the body operates within that. I deliberately made it so you could be inside but still see people outside. I’d have studio visits, and people would be wandering around, and I’d find them talking through holes in the panels. It's about human interaction—just seeing a pair of legs or a foot, or just suddenly catching someone’s head as they walk by. I wanted humans to be really celebrated in this piece and the relationship between humans, too. It’s hard to be angry with someone in here. It’d be hard to murder someone in here [laughs].
How did go from creating sculptures that you perceive from the outside to something you experience from the inside?
If you’ve seen the scale of my past work, people always said it was big because I had this bombastic drive. But I was always trying to push towards the public. I was always trying to re-position the sculptor, the artist, or the actor as having a public persona. I wanted to make this point: “As an artist, I have a right to social space. I have a right to making monuments. I have a right to putting out that gestalt with the world.”
The big pieces, I never actually made money from them. You make money with small stuff, interestingly enough. Those sculptures were able to handle a lot of negativity because they were reflecting. They attracted a lot of hostility, and they freaked people out, but they could handle it. I wanted people to see how awkward it is to be an artist and how unprofessional it can be and stupid it can be. There was something in me that wanted to break the super slick visual culture of "This is how things look."
The absurdity of the monument in this society that doesn’t want a monument really appealed to me. Whereas with this—because it was made so much for myself, my kids, Muna, friends, and the studio—it was a brand new way of operating, and I’d been very moved. I was very nervous about showing it, and I was not going to show it. People would come and see the normal Thomas Houseago stuff, and this was hidden in the back of the studio. But in a weird way, it started blooming. It started becoming really big really effortlessly. It kind of just flowed out of me.
Today we seem to have this need for an alternate space outside of reality, which may explain why science fiction is so popular right now. Was that something you considered while creating "MOUN ROOM"?
I’m very happy with this piece as it manages to be some kind of other emotional space without being religious necessarily, without being dogmatic or hierarchical. Anybody can enter from anywhere. Everyone can get in the middle, and that I’m really proud about that.
I think we are beginning a new century still. The 20th century was so heavy and so dramatic, and the way that the 21st century began was so heavy, with 9/11 and the economic crash. As artists we have to start saying, “Hey, I can also offer something every now and again that's loving and a space just to think."
One thing we can do as artists is pointless stuff. We can be pointless in a way almost no one else can. The folly of making this, the cost of making this is insane. It's millions of dollars to make it. But in another way, that folly is part of the beauty of it. There’s no roof, you can’t eat in there, you aren’t protected, you’re not warm, but it’s doing something else to help. I think it’s been bubbling in me. If you go to Brancusi's Studio in Paris you feel, “Wow someone could make that space for people.” It’s pretty amazing.
One thing we can do as artists is pointless stuff.
When I first heard the name "MOUN ROOM," it reminded me of the conspiracy theory that we never went to the moon. In that theory, the moon room was a Hollywood stage where the moon landings were faked.
There’s something sci-fi about this, like you could fake that this was an an alien craft. I can imagine the US government saying, "We found this in the jungle.” Living in L.A. obviously that theme's really there. That crossed my mind. Even if maybe we didn’t go to the moon, that was a fantastic piece of theater.
Even though I see ties between the moon room stage and your "MOON ROOM," your work is not trying to hoodwink the viewer. There is something honest about the experience.
The feeling I have with the piece is that it absolutely is what it is. It’s not like you turn it on and something happens. It really, literally is what you see.
Thomas Houseago's "MOUN ROOM" is open until Jan. 17 at Hauser & Wirth in New York.