What is your work about?

I work with language, combining different materials (clay, plaster of Paris, cement, wax, resin, porcelain) and media (sculpture, printmaking, photography). A good example is a series of works I am calling Towers of Babble, in which I use excerpts from a story by Franz Kafka, The Great Wall (Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer). But I began using language in a literal way in earlier work, for example the Shanghai 1931 piece [below]. At first glance it’s kind of an aerial view of a city that could be somewhere in a desert, an ancient view of Babylon or something. In fact it’s based on an administrative map of Shanghai made while the city was occupied by western powers, during a period that began with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 and ended the day after Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese took over. The piece itself is made of green (unfired) porcelain. I used the clay to take impressions of texts borrowed from a variety of writers ranging from André Malraux and Lu Xun to Italo Calvino, James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg, and for other parts of the piece I used rubber alphabet stamp sets to hand-stamp the texts — the Treaty of Nanking in the lower right hand corner, for example. The Treaty ended the First Opium War and opened up five port cities, including Shanghai, to trade in opium, brought in from India by the British, and other goods.

The photos of the Shanghai 1931 piece were taken by Xepo, one of the artists working at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai. After he photographed the clay model I made a silicon rubber mold and took it to an art foundry in Shanghai, where I had it cast in bronze.

There appear to be texts in different languages, including Chinese.

There are a few odd characters from an old wooden printing set that I picked up at a flea market in Beijing. The other texts are from parts of André Malraux's La Condition Humaine, from the original in French and from a Chinese translation. And then there’s the original Italian and a Chinese translation of Italo Calvino's Le Città Invisibili, one of my all-time favorite books. The Malraux is an amazing novel, set in Shanghai during the uprising and streetfighting of March and April 1927. Then there are the opening lines from The Real Story of Ah-Q, by Lu Xun.

Why did you pick these particular texts?

I was interested in the history of China, Shanghai in particular, and I have always been interested in cities. The Calvino text is presented as a conversation between Khublai Khan and Marco Polo, who tells the Khan stories of cities he has allegedly visited. In Calvino's version the cities are explicitly cities of the imagination, and as such they’re invisible to the eye: you have to build them as you hear about them. In parts of the book he talks about signs and language: Non c'è linguaggio senza inganno (No language is free of deception), or La menzogna non è nel discorso, è nelle cose (The lie isn't in the discourse, it's in the things themselves). Languages are like cities - overwhelming and incomprehensible when you first come in contact with them, but after a while you learn to move about in them, and to use them as a medium to speak with other people. I think that when you first look at Shanghai 1931 you may find it deceptively familiar: you can see it's a map of Shanghai, but then if you look at it more closely you begin to feel something of what it's like to try and understand and get to know another language, another culture. There are things you recognize, but they are all somehow incomplete, you can't understand the connections or what they're supposed to mean. So it can be very frustrating. I think anyone who's ever tried to learn another language knows what that feels like. And for someone who knows only Western languages and attempts to learn Chinese, well, it's totally bewildering at first. Like Shanghai if you've never been there before.

It looks like you have also quoted Dante and Garcia Lorca. Why?

There's not much Dante, actually. It's a tiny piece from L'Inferno where the poet invokes his muse and asks for her assistance. Garcia Lorca kind of snuck his way into the piece. Maybe it's because he was a communist at a time when it was dangerous to be a communist, like some of Malraux's characters.

What about Ginsberg or James Joyce? What have they got to do with Shanghai?

I think it was Luca Forcucci, another artist who was at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, who remarked that the piece reminded him of William Burroughs's and Brian Gysin's cut-ups experiments. He's right, of course, and Ginsberg and Burroughs have both appeared in my work, in turn cut up and pressed into clay. Ginsberg's Howl was to some extent a description of San Francisco in the 1950s, but it still reads today as a contemporary piece. I quote the parts about Moloch whose blood is running money... etc. If you look at the river in the Shanghai 1931 piece, you'll find that the words are all taken from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which is all about language. The words are from the opening page of the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter, where washerwomen are washing clothes in the river Liffey, which runs through Dublin. So many cities started as settlements on the banks of a river, Shanghai is one of them. It has something to do with the music and the rhythms of language, too.

You have also quoted from the Treaty of Nanking. Why?

Aside from requiring the Chinese to "open" five ports, including Shanghai, and to cede to the British Empire the Island of Hong Kong "in perpetuity", the treaty mandated that the British be paid six million dollars, said to be the value of British-owned opium seized and destroyed by Chinese troops at the outset of what is now known as the First Opium War. It's a not very subtle reminder of the opium trade that created some of the first great drug barons of the 19th and 20th centuries. The trade was legal until the early 20th century, and here's another connection to the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, which is where I made this piece: In 1909 a number of countries met at what was then the Palace Hotel, which had just opened, to discuss the so-called opium problem and to promote the cause of prohibition.

What are you working on right now?

I've been doing some follow-up in the wake of my solo show at the Konzert-Galerie Maison44 in Basel, Switzerland, which was was a retrospective of work that began in the mid-1970s when I was living in West Berlin, along with some more recent work. A recurrent theme, apart from language, is a kind of cross-breeding that results in hybrid objects, so I called the show "Figures of Speech: Mongrels and Metaphors". I showed work in ceramics and sculpture and a new  series of photographs that are also based on the idea of hybrid creatures. For the Birdbrain project I worked with an amazing silkscreen pro in Basel, Hans Peter Arni, on a print that plays on Ginsberg's "Birdbrain!". Another of the writers I work with (so to speak) is Franz Kafka, and for another silkscreen print I worked with Gianpaolo Fallani in Venice on a piece I'm calling "Blues for Kafka", which has to do with the Kafka project that I began in Shanghai. 

Otherwise I am hoping to go back to China at some point to work with ceramic artists and artisans in Jingdezhen. I remain interested in the mapping project that led to the Shanghai 1931 piece, and have a number of map projects in the works for Venice, Moscow, Jerusalem, Rome and Milan, where I live. In any case, the work is always about language. I love taking metaphors and working out the extended implications in porcelain or whatever medium happens to have grabbed my attention. A city is a language, a language is a city.

The other thing I did as part of the show was to read excerpts from my novel, Vietnam 93108 - The Book of Dog, and once the show was over I went back to work on it, to finish it up before I publish it in September 2017. This novel is about two brothers and their dummy, Eddie Moron, who tells the story while lying in a suitcase under a hospital bed. The younger brother lies in the bed above him, in a coma, while Eddie tries to coax him back to the world. 

What role do metaphors play in your work?

I've been interested in metaphors forever, and in figures of speech in general. Raymond Chandler's use of similes hooked me first, but it's one thing to say something is similar to something else, and another to say that it is something it's clearly not, at least not in a literal sense. I found the idea of taking metaphors both literally and figuratively interesting. Freud's metaphors about digging up the unconscious - comparing himself to an archaeologist excavating ancient Rome or Troy or whatever - led me to write a novel whose protagonist mounts an archaeological dig in an apartment, and destroys the place in the process. The extended metaphor that governs the novel wound up setting the tone for much of my later work, because to understand a metaphor - and some kinds of jokes - you have to see double: you see the literal surface and then you see something else, a secondary meaning or an image or something that allows you suddenly to get the joke. Or you take a comparison (a detective is like an archaeologist digging up relics/clues) and you extend it, let it play out in all its implications, which is what I did with that first novel. 

This "seeing double" that is essential to humor, irony, metaphors and so on is evident in the sculptures that I call "mongrels", which are hybrids that compress disparate worlds into a single figure: animals and hand tools, hand tools and human forms. They're all borderline figures, creatures caught crossing borders between different worlds. And if I look for inspiration it doesn't take long before I start seeing sirens and sphinxes and bull-headed humans, or look again to Ovid's Metamorphoses - full of wondrous and terrifying stories of violence, transgression and occasionally punishing transformations.

Spooner & Shoe, 1999
 Birdbrain, bronze, 1998

Let's go back to Ginsberg for a moment ...

He was an amazing man. I grew up in Vancouver, and I was just a kid when he was there for a conference organized by Robert Creeley, and he made the local news and somehow it caught my attention, even though I was only 11 or 12 years old. Later I saw him perform, in Italy and I can't remember where else, Berkeley maybe. When I read Howl for the first time I was blown away by the power of the language, and the humor - which comes across a lot more when you listen to the recording from his Holy Soul Jelly Roll album. It's still a powerful piece today. He and Burroughs both made a huge impression on me. So anyhow one day I made this sculpture using a pair of wire-clippers that looked like the head of a bird. So I decided to call it Birdbrain. And then at some later point I discovered that Ginsberg had written a poem called Birdbrain! and I read it and decided to do something with it, so that's how the "Birdbrain 2.0" print happened. I also made some more Birdbrain sculptures - crossbreeds, mongrels, hybrid creatures of various kinds - for the show in Basel.