Oscar Tuazon is an unlikely American in Paris. The artist’s first living space was a geodesic dome built by his parents in small town Washington State, he didn’t leave America until he was 32 and only speaks rudimentary French. And yet, after years of living between New York, LA and Tacoma, he followed his wife Dorothée Perret, editor of culture journal PARIS, LA, to the social housing apartment in Paris where the couple still lives with their three children: Rain, 1; Tacoma, 5; Nuage, 11. Tuazon had always worked with building/living experiments but it was in this apartment that his large-scale sculpture absorbed the bedroom, bathroom and even some living room furniture. (Perhaps the best example of this is Bed (2007-2010), named for its original function, now housed by Saatchi Gallery.) But Tuazon thrives on this kind of basic dialogue with architecture, and with recent solo shows at the ICA, London, and the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, as well as significant contributions to the 2012 Whitney Biennale and the 54th Venice Biennale, it is clear that lack of immediate space did not hinder the artist’s output.
I met Tuazon in New York, before the opening of People: three new sculptures on the Brooklyn waterfront commissioned by the Public Art Fund for Brooklyn Bridge Park. The structures are made mostly of cement and the trunks of local trees, and can be used as basketball hoops, handball walls, and springs for water. They are temporarily installed, and this is how Tuazon likes it. His is a sort of inverse architecture in which the transience of a work, and the materials that comprise it, is honored and even encouraged. Natural materials do not promise anything. They are made available to the artist or maker on the condition that they will return to the earth with time. This is a temporary custodianship that begins with Tuazon’s earliest experiences of architecture, and which the artist continues to take very seriously.
You grew up in Seattle, Washington. Tell me about your family home.
When I was ten the architect Ibsen Nelsen designed a house for us, and my parents built it. It was not a big house but each of the elements, the bedroom, the kitchen, were sort of separate elements that you walked between. My parents are bookbinders so there was also a bookbindery in there. They made blank books: sketch books, photo albums. It was really a two-person operation. It was just them and then, when I got old enough, I was helping out. My brother too. It was a family business. They’d come to know the architect because he would order these custom-made sketchbooks and I think they may have traded him some books for architectural work.
They traded notebooks for the design of your house? That seems like an imbalanced trade.
It does, doesn’t it? There’s probably more to the story, but that’s how I remember it. But the house that I was actually born in is a geodesic dome that my parents built together. And I think, even though I didn’t grow up there, that house has been really important to me. It’s in my DNA.
Was it a geodesic dome that succeeded structurally?
No, not really. As soon as I was born they moved out. It was leaky, the windows were plastic sheeting. It was totally hand built by two people who have never built anything in their lives so it was bound to have a lot of problems.
Geodesic domes were usually built in clusters, right? Someone would build one and then their friends would build one right next door.
Yeah, of course, a lot of it comes from a communal context. But in this case it was just in the middle of the forest. Now it’s funny because all of the forest around there has been cut and so it’s there in the middle of a barren hillside looking very strange. I think it’s now used as a horse barn. Somebody lived there for a long time but now it’s for animals, which is probably more appropriate.
So, the geodesic dome is obviously there in your work, as a structure that can be dismantled and as a structure that essentially failed repeatedly upon execution.
Initially what attracted me was that I felt like a lot of those technical failures also had an interesting relationship to the ideological context that produced the geodesic dome, which in my mind is the sort of back-to-the-land movement and this moment of frustration with the urban situation. Although I’m not so much involved with the geodesic question anymore, what remains interesting is the technical problems. I’m always interested in the way a structure could fail. In a lot of ways, in architecture particularly, when a building fails it can be more interesting than when it performs the way it’s supposed to. That iconic image of a Buckminster Fuller dome on fire, years after the Montreal Expo, with black smoke pouring out of it, I think that’s kind of fascinating.
Do you think your relationship to natural materials will change as they become scarce? Wood is integral to your work but it is also a finite resource.
I actually feel more like that about stone. Certain kinds of stones are quite rare. But it’s not something I really think about, actually. For me what’s more interesting in terms of a material is its lifespan — how a thing ages. It’s interesting in terms of an art object, which has traditionally been conceived of as a physical object. What I like to think about is that object decaying and falling apart and ultimately being replaced. One of the things I’m trying to work on now is the idea that a work will need to be repaired. Buildings are thought about that way: as a brick building ages it will need to be repointed or bricks need to be repaired. Somehow the form of the building and the essence of the building is able to be the same while the materials ultimately can be completely replaced. In wood buildings that’s even more typical, right? You’ll have to replace the siding and eventually replace the roof, replace the foundation. What is the object? I now try to think about designing that into an artwork or structure, so it becomes something that is in other people’s hands.
You’ve said that before about a work – I think it might have been built in the woods – about how you liked the idea that it was going to exist on its own with no need for anyone or anything else.
Yeah, I think that was probably this piece that’s a marble block in a tree?
Yeah, that’s the one.
That’s something which, rather than decaying, is growing. It’s like I’ve set up a situation and now it’s making its own decisions and creating its own form and, to me, it has autonomy that way. It’s got its own life.
What is appealing about that idea?
Well, I think in one way it disintegrates the aura of an artwork. It returns it to being a thing. I’ve just done this project here in Brooklyn Bridge Park and to me, what’s exciting is that those things exist and will be interacted with and perceived completely independent of me or of being artworks at all. They’re just things that are going to function in the park and people are going to play basketball with them or take a nap on them without having to perceive them as artworks.
In a way, what you’re describing is the inverse of what a monument is supposed to be. A monument is not an artwork but is supposed to be revered and not used in a utilitarian way and not touched or approached.
Yeah, they should be anti-monumental, that’s really true.
You’ve said that with the Brooklyn Bridge Park sculptures you didn’t want to compete with the New York City skyline — but do you ever feel as if you just want to make intrusive alterations on a huge scale?
No, I don’t actually, and it’s weird because I like to work large — but it’s not a question of scale, it’s a question of size. To do that kind of grand, monumental gesture… I don’t know. Those kinds of things have less impact on me than something I can interact with on a one-to-one basis. The fountain piece [in Brooklyn Bridge Park] is something you can perceive at a distance but its effect is very subtle. It asks you to come close to it. For me, the effective moment in that work is to be able to touch it and feel the water.
When you look at a monument, the only thing you can perceive is the person who made it. In terms of the Manhattan skyline, what I think is important is to somehow turn your back on it and to create an experience where you’re more able to think about yourself and have the space for yourself.
“Have the space for yourself” is a great choice of words.
Yeah, I thought about parks a lot. A good park can give you the feeling of seeing things that nobody else has seen. It’s discovery, basically. You find an area in a park that you’ve never been to or you feel like nobody has ever been to, which of course is absurd in a city of ten million people, but there are seasonal things in a park that are completely new all the time.
Why did you move to Paris?
I met my wife. She’s French. At the time I was living in Tacoma and so for a while, for a year, we were having this very long distance relationship. Finally someone had to move and I tried to convince her to come to Tacoma but ultimately I decided to move to Paris. It was nice because it gave me a lot of freedom — just the freedom of being disoriented and not knowing French.
It must have been intense for your wife to always have to act as your translator.
[Laughs] Yeah, and it’s true, she’s been very supportive and taken good care of me. I found it nice, it’s like being a child where you can’t understand what the grown ups are saying.
Do you feel more American in Paris?
Definitely, yeah. I always thought it was funny that I was a sculptor in Paris, because, really, the urban situation — the housing, the spaces you can find — isn’t conducive to sculpture. In a weird way, you could write the history of modern art and contemporary art just based on the architecture of the different cities in which that art developed. At least at the moment in Paris, the scene is very… I mean, it always has had a very strong conceptual element to it, a conceptual, immaterial tendency, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that people have these small apartments and can’t afford studios. And then you think about, I don’t know, the kind of work that’s developed in New York, post-war painting and sculpture, it had something to do with the particular kinds of spaces that were available. Anyways, I just thought it was quite ridiculous that I was living in Paris and doing large-scale sculpture.
What does your house look like in Paris?
It’s an apartment, social housing, that my wife has had since before I moved there. For a long time I would build things into the apartment. I had this huge bed structure on the upper floor and I had my studio there for some time, which was insane. I was running power tools and mixing cement in the bathtub. I was really working in the living room, making these sculptures that would fit exactly the dimensions of the elevator. Now I have a studio in the outskirts of Paris, it’s very rough and I can do whatever I want, so the apartment has kind of returned to normal.
When you build a utilitarian object like a bed, do you find yourself wanting to make it sculptural?
I think the line between a design object and a sculpture is interesting. I would like to invent a new way of thinking about a bed, about a table. I’m fascinated with tables because you can’t argue with the functionality of what a table is supposed to do, but I always feel like somehow there is a way of reinventing it – and not in an aesthetic way at all. Just that simple thing of making a horizontal plane at a certain height that people can eat at. In a way, that’s a really open set of requirements. So, of course, you can find a million different ways to get there.
I suppose you’re still dealing with parameters like the size of the room.
Sculpture needs to have that same criteria built into it for it to be successful. I don’t think you can just go into the studio and be like, I want to make something that looks nice. I try to think of making a sculpture like making a table. I may not be able to explain the criteria that it is trying to fulfill as clearly as in the case of a table, but it needs to have that kind of structure built into it.
Do parameters ever frustrate you?
No, no, for me that’s the most exciting thing: to work against parameters and to work with parameters. I’ve worked in architecture with Vito Acconci for a couple of years and that was a huge revelation for me. You could use the parameters to form the work in a way that I found more open or more subtle or more challenging than the idea of how site specificity had been practiced in sculpture up to that point.
Where parameters were limitations?
Yeah, and in very stark terms. I think the development of site specificity in sculpture came out of an ideological struggle that presented things in an almost cartoonishly simple way. What you find in architecture is that the program is so complex and the process of having to plan a building is so multifaceted that you can’t always sustain an ideological position in the overall construction of something like a building. So, to me, it was exciting to find that mode of working. I’ve always worked with architecture — the thing at the Whitney Museum was almost becoming its own building, in a way — but I’ve just bought a cabin in the woods on the Olympic Peninsula, I’ve started to think about actually designing and building that structure. I am not sure what I can say about it other than that it should be, like I said, a house as a sculpture or something. I guess I am interested in taking the various functions of a house and atomizing it, breaking it down into a number of smaller different events. I’m into building small, interconnected rooms, which is a funny idea for a place where it’s raining 328 days a year, to try to explode the house out, it doesn’t make sense yet. If you can think of a table as a sculpture, you can think of a shower as a sculpture.
How did you come to work with Vito Acconci?
I had always been an admirer of his work and he came to speak at the Whitney program while I was there. After he left he needed somebody to pack up his studio because he was moving to a new space, so I got hired just to pack boxes. I had no architectural background at all other than an interest, so I was the odd man out in that studio because it was, like, ten architects. Anyways, I kind of never left. I was never really offered a position but I found things I could do to make myself useful there and stuck around.
Your wife is Dorothée Perret [editor of Paris, LA]. How did she feel when you started to make alterations to the house?
She was always very open about that [laughs]. It’s kind of a crazy adventure. One of the things that I always admired, and this comes back to the dome thing — the kind of architecture that I like — is always this impulse to build your own space and then have to adapt your way of living to that space. One of the things I’ve been interested in over the years is this nomadic or quasi-homeless or backwoods way of living. The idea is that the architecture is so demanding and so difficult that you have to adapt your whole lifestyle. I’m not that hardcore, I just made a weird bed in my house, but I think that’s the ideal that architecture should aspire to: not to accommodate existing functions or existing uses, but to demand new ways of living.
I read that the bed you built eventually got bought by Saatchi Gallery.
Yeah, it’s funny how these things happen. I’d never thought of it as an independent work, it was more a way that I could hide the bed underneath the floor so that I could move into the guest room and make my studio there. That, to me, is the perfect formula for making something interesting: it was never meant to be an artwork, it was just this problem solving process. But then, yeah, we had a fire and the bed was either going to get trashed or… [laughs] Oh, I really should not say that: “It was either going to the dump or to some collector’s house.” But it’s this thing of an artwork in the process of decay.
Do you imagine the conversations you might have with your one year-old daughter when she starts building things out of wooden blocks?
Well, I’ve got two older daughters as well: I’ve got a five year-old and Dorothée has an eleven year-old. They’ve always been pretty active in what I do. Nuage, the older one, she would work in the studio with me when I had it at home and now she’s at the age where I’ll sometimes take her if I’m going to install a show or something. Sometimes she likes it and sometimes she thinks it’s stupid, which is kind of her age.
Like it’s another item on her chores list.
Yeah, exactly. She’s also like, “It’s dirty in here, it’s disgusting.” There are certain things she likes though. We’ve made work together. It’s pretty amazing actually. One time when we went to the studio together I had a work that I needed to make that I’d kind of been putting off, and I knew the materials I wanted to make it out of and I knew, somehow, the dimensions. You know, I was in that beginning phase. And so we talked about it together, I tried to explain what I was thinking and — it was amazing — she started doing some drawings and she knows my work very well, so she made these drawings that were very perceptive about the volume and the structure that I was talking about, and we conceived the work together. It was really cool. And it’s rare, actually, because I work with a lot of people and that process I’m comfortable with, and like I say there are people I collaborate with, but it can be difficult to have that level of comfort.
The way your folks lived has obviously influenced your life in a direct way. Do you think your career could influence your kids in an inverse way, where they want to get as far away as possible from art, from spaces that transform constantly?
My parents were constantly building houses or remodeling houses and I think I absorbed the excitement of transforming a space just naturally, from being around that. I have no conception of what it must be like to grow up for Tacoma or Rain or Nuage. I didn’t leave the country until I was probably 32. I didn’t really leave Washington State until I was 18. I grew up in a very small town. Rain, she’s going to turn one this week, and she’s already been back and forth between France and the US five times. She took her first trip when she was 10 days old. She draws upon a completely different environment. I try to incorporate the whole family in what I do but what I do means travelling all the time and living this very strange lifestyle. In a way, I do try — I think — to replicate or explore some of the things that were interesting for me as a kid but it’s completely different. Maybe they’re going to want to live in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
When you move around so much, does it influence your relationship to accruing stuff?
I do try to shed stuff and we don’t have a whole lot of stuff. At the same time, being a sculptor, you’re constantly producing things. The studio is always full of material, I’m always ordering material, I need it for projects, and one of the things that drives the work is just this compulsion to empty the space out. I’d like to have the space empty of stuff, of materials, of half-finished works, even of furniture. Because [the studio] is a squat it came with some old furniture, chairs and desks and tables and stuff, and those have all been cannibalized and turned into works. Just to clear the space. But the flipside of that is, of course, I’m creating this ocean of stuff that goes out into the world. I always wonder, where the hell does it go? I mean, sometimes I know, but a lot of times it just disappears into some weird storage space. It gets moved around, lost track of… I have a feeling that it never comes out of the crates, but that’s another story.
Do you feel attached to where a work ends up?
No. It’s that joke about it being trash. I think it’s really true. There’s this great essay by Helen Molesworth that talks about the Rauschenberg newspaper paintings in terms of excrement; that an old newspaper is garbage, it’s trash, it’s even shit, and there’s something wrong about preserving that somehow. The artworks, at least from my perspective, really are almost like trash.
Yeah. But you know, at the same time, I think it’s great to think about them from someone else’s perspective. That they might enjoy them or lose them or preserve them, I find that an awesome and humbling thing that anybody would find something I do valuable enough to live with. That is totally cool. But from my own perspective, I really don’t want to have anything to do with it [laughs]. I don’t want it around anymore. I want to get it out of the way so I can move on to the next thing.