What is your work about?
Language, mostly. I work with found or cut-up fragments of text and often with figures of speech, metaphors in particular. A city is a language, for example. That's a good way to approach Shanghai 1931, a low-relief sculptural map of Shanghai based on a colonial map of the city published by British authorities in 1931. I took impressions in raw porcelain of texts from a variety of writers ranging from André Malraux and Lu Xun to Italo Calvino, James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg. Then I cut up the fragments and assembled them into a map where the words stand in for streets and urban spaces, including the Huangpo river that runs through the city. For other parts of the piece I used rubber alphabet stamps — the 1842 Treaty of Nanking in the lower right corner, for example. The Treaty ended the First Opium War and opened up five port cities, including Shanghai, to trade in opium, which the British shipped in from India, so there's some idea of a reckoning with history.
The original photos of the Shanghai piece were taken by Xepo, a friend and fellow artist at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai. We took photos with the light coming in from different angles so the shadows evoke the city at sunrise, high noon, sunset. The look like aerial photos of some fabled ancient city in the desert - Babylon? After Xepo photographed it I made a silicone mold and had the piece cast in bronze.
You've also done work with words in ceramics.
I went to Jingdezhen, China, specifically to work with porcelain. It's an amazing place that still bills itself as the porcelain capital of the world. The work I made there is called Towers of Babble. Again, all the work has text embedded in the surface. I built the models using porcelain and stoneware imprinted with fragments from Kafka's The Great Wall (Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer), Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and others. They're cast in porcelain with different celadon glazes.
What are you working on right now?
I've taken up ceramics again, a project I'm calling Voiceboxes -- a series of hand-built, press-molded and cast ceramic radios, books and letters/envelopes, all of which have speaker grilles (holes punched in the clay before firing), from which I imagine different voices emerging. I've been working with voices for years and years, primarily in fiction. I've just published a novel, The Book of Dog, which deals behind the scenes with the relationship between the artist and voices - real or imagined - as a source of inspiration. Voice in fiction is like style in the visual arts, it identifies a specific writer or artist. It's also uncanny, spooky somehow. If you're lucky enough to find yourself in possession of a voice, it's just there, it doesn't belong to you. It's a gift, and it's your responsibility as an artist to develop it, to listen and to let it speak, for you or through you or embedded in your work.
Is voice a metaphor?
I wouldn't call voice a metaphor, maybe a stand-in for an artist's work as a whole. But I am interested in metaphors and have been for a long time. I like the idea of taking a metaphor literally. Freud's talk about digging up the unconscious - comparing himself to an archaeologist excavating ancient Rome or Troy or whatever - led me to write a novel about a detective who 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 at some point you see something else, a secondary meaning that allows you to "get" the joke or the reference.
Why are metaphors so important in your work?
In part because they're a good example of seeing double, a way of seeing that is critical to humor, irony, and to the ability to perceive layers of meaning - assuming there are any - not immediately evident in the surface of the work. The sculptures I call "mongrels" compress disparate worlds into a single figure: animals/tools, tools/anthropomorphic creatures, but implicit in the compression is conflict, sometimes violent conflict, a clash of cultures, materials, languages. They're all borderline, creatures trapped crossing borders between different worlds, so you see both worlds at once, in collision and conflict. If I'm looking for inspiration it doesn't take long before I start seeing sirens and sphinxes and bull-headed humans or Chinese dragons, or I go back to Ovid's Metamorphoses - full of wondrous and terrifying stories of subversive, defiant transgression and the violence of punitive transformation meted out by the gods offended. I'm interested in the conflict and/or cross-breeding that generates hybrid objects, which is why I called the show in Basel Figures of Speech: Mongrels and Metaphors. Along with the Towers of Babble I exhibited the mongrel sculptures and a series of photographs called Pinheads, also based on the idea of hybrid creatures.
Tell us about Birdbrain!
First of all it's the title of a great polemic by Allen Ginsberg. 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. 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 years later when I came across Ginsberg's poem I decided to update it to highlight just a few of the hare-brained schemes hatched and pursued by the pinheads running the show these days.
Franz Kafka shows up in a lot of your work. Why Kafka?
Because his work speaks to me. I read him a long time ago and again when I went to China, where I drew heavily on The Great Wall for my work in porcelain. He winds up suggesting it could be bad for your health to think too much about the orders you're following - better to stop thinking altogether. And that's where the story ends. So the last thing I did for Kafka was a silkscreen print, Blues for Kafka.