A conversation with Eric Zimmerman
Eric Zimmerman: Atlas at Art Palace
On view through April 9, 2008
by Michelle White
Eric Zimmerman’s exhibition, Atlas, opened at Art Palace in February, and his work is currently included in New Art in Austin: 20 to Watch at The Austin Museum of Art. I thought it would be a good time to catch up with him at his studio and talk about his new work, the idea of imaginary space, visionary architecture, and the term “intellectual whimsy,” among other things
MW: In your drawings, Eric, you articulate the ambiguity between real and imaginary space through these beautiful passages and topographic structures melt into amorphous compositions. In your new sculpture for Atlas, you are introducing the overhead projector. How does this technology fit into your project?
EZ: In a certain sense, the technology of the overhead projector allows the same spatial exploration that I am looking for in my drawings. The projectors transform the architecture of the sculpture into a kind of topographic, amorphous, map-like space. The resulting image on the wall, for example, is a “new” place because it establishes a link between the flat projection and the three-dimensional structure. Using the words “imaginary” and “real” of course gets a little tenuous, but here I think it is safe to say the projection is an imaginary space, and the real space is the sculpture and gallery. This sense of movement between spaces is an important aspect to all of my work because it allows for the potential for things to unfold in a variety of ways.
MW: To experience the work, I had to go back and forth between the miniature landscape set on top of the projector’s light table—made of train-model trees, tiny balsa wood scaffolding, and pools of pigment—and the patterns of blue and magenta light thrown on the wall. The hyperreality of the model and the cast of such atmospheric light seem incongruous.
EZ: Do you mean incongruity between the materials and the surrounding architecture, or the relationship between the projection and the materials on the light table? The colors are derived from map-making techniques, satellite views of coastal regions, and images of celestial nebulae. With the exception of the satellite images, computer algorithms determine the colors as a way to describe and symbolize space. They are essentially symbolic of ways of perceiving and translating natural geography into a functional and descriptive image—a way of measuring, I suppose.
MW: I think the incongruity comes from the effect of the sculpture’s material peculiarities. The sculpture resembles an architectural model, but it casts such a dreamy light. You capture a fluidity of meaning by suspending the viewer’s sense of certainty, which I also see in the Atlas Drawings.
EZ: The small drawings emerge from that very idea. More specifically, they come out of my desire to begin an archive, or atlas, of symbols, metaphors, and places, that represent ways of structuring space. They represent ways to understand the world, in terms of politics, geography, geology, and language, and ways we look for an ideal or invented place within those boundaries. In this series of drawings I want you to move from a recognizable space, like Monticello or the Matterhorn, on to an imaginary space and then to an image of the word “here.” The process of moving between these spaces unmoors you from any fixed sense of order. So we are back to the idea of movement again—movement not concerned with time so much as space. “Hyperreality” is an interesting word choice, I think. The sort of time and space it connotes always seems like a strange one to me—a J.G. Ballard, Crystal World type of environment.
MW: As in Ballard’s novel, in your work you create confusion between where something is actually happening and how that space is understood. For example, the sculpture’s projected light fails to describe how it is produced and the disparate representations of types of places in the drawings invite comparisons but fail to give a clear explanation. I don’t know why they are next to each other, or why you have arranged them in a certain order. I love that because it creates this weird moment when the allure of illusion trumps the desire for authenticity.
EZ: The lack of order leads to a greater number of possibilities. When ideas get locked into narrative, they tend to become inflexible. I prefer a fluid framework that allows the spaces referenced in the drawings to create an unexpected dialogue—between stages in time and different kinds of perception. Ideally, the lack of order plays on our desire for order and forces us into a placeless neutral space—a space made up of the parts of all these real and imaginary places. Behind systems of collecting knowledge and accumulating history, even behind our methods of perception and understanding, there is always this unpredictable element of chance. You mentioned the idea [of intellectual whimsy in the studio, and I like this notion because it implies an earnest embrace of this fluidity.
MW: How does this interest in entropy and order parallel your interest in imaginary and visionary architecture of the late nineteenth century?
EZ: I perceive a sense of anxiety—or death—underlying, and ultimately motivating, human activity and perception during the Victorian era. Fear of calamity drives invention. Think of the combination of industrialization and idealism that fueled The Worlds Fair of 1851. I like the idea that failure and anxiety become a source of longing and of a search for the ideal. Why else would we always be looking for something better? This sensibility is ahistorical; I think it is always present. Visionary architecture is one example of the many ways that we manifest our longing for the ideal. Our perception of space creates a foundation on which we establish meaning and escape anxiety and uncertainty. Illusion creates spaces that often confirm feeling “good”; the reality of coming to terms with the actuality of our environment is less predictable.
MW: Do the towers, a reoccurring structure that you build to surround your sculptures and render in your large graphite drawings, confront this theme of impermanence?
EZ: The towers in the graphite drawings are derived directly from the sculpture and my interest in nineteenth-century developments in iron and glass architecture, the kind of transparent structure still prevalent in industrial structures and bridges. A building like Paxton’s Crystal Palace dissolves into the landscape because of its transparency. It becomes a sort of liminal space that floats and blurs within the land. In the drawings, the towers act in a similar way—placed within a dissolving atmosphere they are both architectural structures within a space and antonymous sites that have no specific location on a map. The “here” and “there” is not clear. The structures are projecting into the future, but also decaying into a sort of ruin. The concept of the ruin is a gothic aspect of the work and the source of the “romantic” images like Atlas #17 McCall Glacier, 1958. The mysteriousness, melancholy, and slowness that permeate some places and objects resonate with me. Hope should always be combined with skepticism.
MW: Let’s talk about your studio practice. Your drawings, as well as your balsa-wood scaffolding, are really labor intensive, not only because of the small scale and minute detail, but also because of the repetitiveness of gesture and construction. Is this part of your infatuation with finding order?
EZ: I am drawn to images and sources that exhibit a certain level of complexity in their creation and concept. I like how the formal intricacies of iron and glass architecture, maps, and nineteenth century astronomical illustrations, among other things, are directly linked to both function and a historical context. In my studio, the labor required to make a drawing or build a wooden structure is not always enjoyable, but it allows me time to parse each image or structural form. Also, slowly rendering a “real” image is a way to avoid the sense of time contained in photographs while preserving a solid sense of place. Maybe subconsciously it is about looking for order, but it is also a response to the frantic pace of life.
MW: Your show is called Atlas. An atlas is book of maps, a compilation of ways to see the world and describe space. It is a place to figure out where things are and for that reason it speaks to your celebration of the impossible task of finding of more methodical way to understand the world.
EZ: An Atlas is another form of structuring space, and collecting seemingly disparate things under a single heading. Like turning the pages of an atlas, the show unfolds over a small and relatively intimate space. Double meaning in the word’s origin also seemed appropriate. The word derives from Mercator, the mythical King Atlas who was a philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician. But Atlas was also a figure in Greek mythology. Punished by Zeus to hold the weight of the heavens on his shoulders, he is traditionally represented as a figure bent over holding the celestial sphere on his shoulders. Homer refers to Atlas as "one who knows the depths of the whole sea, and keeps the tall pillars that hold heaven and earth asunder." This is a fantastic image of structuring and understanding vast spaces and our incessant desire to do so.
Michelle White is Assistant Curator at The Menil Collection, Houston, where she is organizing an exhibition called “Imaginary Spaces,” to open in August. She is a frequent contributor to Art Papers, and a regional editor of Art Lies.