This 2008 interview is part one of a series of ten-minute conversations which took place between artists who have little in common with each other except their place in the alphabet. Here, James Turrell and Cy Twombly interview Rachel Tweddell.
JT: Let’s start by talking about Dollar Drop – you climbed to the top of the Empire State Building and dropped a dollar off the top, and advertised this as an event, which people could attend.
RT: Yes, it was an almost invisible artwork. I wanted to make a work which was more a train of thought than anything else. It did actually physically happen – I mean, I did drop a dollar and people could have come to the top of the Empire State Building at 9am to watch, although as far as I know, nobody did. And it was important to actually do it, because in the real, concrete world something did actually happen to that dollar, though of course I will never know what. It may have landed in someone’s hand, it may have fallen in a puddle, who knows. But something definitely happened to it. So I set a narrative in motion. And every time someone gets to know about this work, they will also only be able imagine the outcome, so it’s as if there are as many possible outcomes as there are people who know about the piece. It’s a kind of limitless work in that way. But it required minimal materials - no effort, no cost. Well, it cost one dollar. As a work it very nearly didn’t exist.
CT: It’s a very hands-off piece of work. You literally let something go. Is the piece analogous to the general idea of making work, showing it to people and having no control over its future?
RT: It was a set of possibilities. I mean, the work really takes place when people find out about it, and start wondering about it themselves, but I won’t actually know what kind of outcomes they visualise. So yes, the piece does hold these two ideas up alongside each other – the unknown fate of the dollar, the reception of the piece – they sit in parallel in the work. It can be pared down in this way, but I think, as an act, dropping the dollar had just enough theatre or grandeur to hold its own as an actual spectacle, and not just be this kind of absent musing. I think that’s important. Since the twin towers fell, the Empire State Building has become New York’s tallest building again so, even though it was a very slight gesture, the drop did have its own kind of drama or vividness.
JT: It seems similar in tone to another piece you made, also in New York, with the inscription on the city post office.
RT: I made those works months apart but I think I was trying out similar things in both pieces. The main post office in New York is huge, and it has a really long sentence carved into its façade – NEITHER SNOW NOR RAIN NOR HEAT NOR GLOOM OF NIGHT SHALL STAY THESE COURIERS FROM THE SWIFT COMPLETION OF THEIR APPOINTED ROUNDS. It’s two blocks wide. It almost looks as if the building had to be the size it is just to accommodate the sentence. I loved this sentence so much and I wanted to work with it somehow, do something more with it than just tell people it was there, which would have been the alternative. The work I made was sent by post to a group of people. Each person received a letter saying that on a certain day, I had made a rubbing of the whole inscription, which I then cut up and sent, one letter at a time, to people on my mailing list. There are 103 letters in the inscription, so I said that the length of the mailing list was dictated by the length of the sentence. And in each envelope was a huge rubbing of one letter.
CT: But are we to think you actually climbed up the building and made the rubbing?
RT: Well, I don’t know what people thought, but I doubt anyone believed I had really done that. Of course, they can if they like. That would be great. But I wasn’t really pretending that I had climbed the building. There are many other fictions in the letter. I didn’t climb the building, I didn’t make a rubbing of the sentence, and I didn’t send out 103 letters. I wasn’t actually in New York when the letters were posted. What I did was take the sentence and supplant it somewhere else, in this case divide it amongst all sorts of different people in different places who, in many cases, didn’t know each other and whose only connection was that they were on my mailing list. And then they became a sentence. In their minds, with their letter, if they all thought about the other people (which they kind of had to, in order to think about the piece) they spelt out the sentence. And there was the implied possibility, even if it remained unrealised, that these people could one day physically come together with their letters, and they would be able to write out the sentence, actual size, in a different place.
JT: So using the process described in the sentence, the delivery of mail, you literally transported the sentence.
RT: Yes – well, not literally, as everyone got an O. There are 13 Os in the sentence, and no more than 13 people on the list knew each other, so that was fine. So long as people can imagine the other people receiving all the other letters, the work is done.
CT: I got an O!
JT: So did I!
CT: So the work exists in the minds of this disparate group of people. But the physical elements to the piece seem crucial. For a start, unlike most sentences, this one was originally carved in stone on a huge, clumsy building. And when you unfold the rubbing, there seems to be a strange perceptual shift; the actual size of the O strikes me as being huge – much bigger than you would expect.
RT: It’s true that the work is ultimately an idea, or a visualisation on the part of a certain group of people – it’s weightless in that way, but it’s set against this heavy claim I make, that I scaled this huge building, overcame physical obstacles and so on, with something of the heroism that is contained in the sentence itself. I think this balance of concrete realities and flyaway ideas runs right through the piece and reveals itself at all sorts of different stages within it. In the absense of first-hand experience, you rely on imaginative projection to cover distances. So from the ground, or in a photo of the building, the letter O looks tiny, and by being close up to the real size of it you stop having to visualise it, or mentally account for the distance between you and it. You are sort of in two places at once. And, of course, I did send the letters by post. The postal system in the first place has to do with covering huge distances with solid objects, and the leap of faith that is part of using the system – believing that this thing came from that place, that this thing will soon be in that house, across that ocean. I mean, it’s a practical, straight-forward system, but there’s actually a lot of faith and imagination involved in sending post.
JT: It strikes me there are a lot of ideas going on in the work, but its physical form is very spare – it’s just a letter in the post and a big O.
RT: That’s something I’m trying to do in my work generally - be concise. I wanted to do that with the Dollar Drop too.
CT: Let’s talk about one more work – I think it’s your most recent piece. Green Steeple as Centre. It’s a different piece to the other two we’ve discussed, in that it’s a hand-tinted photograph, a more conventional art object, but has a sense of mystery which is familiar from the other work. Who is this boy in a mask?
RT: I don’t know who he is either. I found this photograph. And I agree, it seems to say ‘Mystery!’ as he’s wearing a mask and there seems to be a set of clues around him. I suppose all old photographs are mysterious, but this one is mysterious in a very engaging way. The boy is holding a big bunch of balloons, and on the wall in his room there is a Paul Klee poster. It’s a black and white photograph but it has a lot to do with colour. Klee was an artist who was really about colour, he taught colour at the Bauhaus. And balloons, well, they are really just about communicating a colour, aren’t they. What can you say about a balloon, until it pops, except that it’s a red one or a yellow one? And then I realised that if I traced the Klee piece, found out what colours it contained and compared the tones of grey in the photo, I would be able to establish the colours of the balloons.
JT: So you were able to find out, with a degree of accuracy, something that was actually quite arbitrary.
RT: Yes, the task had a pointlessness to it. That was part of the impulse to do it. I mean, the colours of those particular balloons were not important, and the position of the balloons at that moment is of no historical significance. It’s not something you would ever need to remember or record. If I could find the boy in the photo, or the person who took the photo, they wouldn’t be able to tell me what the colours of the balloons had been at that moment. But there is record of the Klee painting, it was considered worth recording, it’s a culturally significant set of shapes and colours. The photo puts the two things on a level plane. Although, interestingly, that Klee is now missing- it was stolen in the 80s – so it was impossible to really see the colours at first hand.
CT: And from the photograph, I don’t think it’s possible to read the title of the work, is it?
RT: No, it isn’t. I really tried. More mystery. Luckily for me, Paul Klee was extremely organised. He made almost 10000 works in his life and he catalogued every single one. So I eventually found a reproduction - but it was in black and white! By then I had the title, though, so I was able to find it on the web. By that time, of course, I had come a long way from the original colours – even from screen to screen the colours looked totally different. So the task I set myself is full of gaps and vagueness and approximation. There is a huge amount of distance between the original Klee and the reproduction I found, between the balloons and the poster, between us and the boy. Everything is missing, really, or unknown – even down to the boy wearing a mask. But the work ignores this - it’s saying we have information, this is what we know, here we are. It brings the scene back into the here and now.
JT: It seems that at the centre of most of your works there is something elusive, something that we can think about but never really know. Is this intentional?
RT: It has happened unintentionally. I certainly don’t set out to make work which does this, but it’s true, it’s a big thing. With most art, I think it’s interesting to think about where the work can be located, where it really does its turn. With my work, it’s not quite in the object before your eyes, it’s not quite in your mind’s eye, or in the anecdote that surrounds it - it’s somewhere in the mid-distance between all three. The best way I can explain it is when you are playing with the focus on a camera, and you focus on something far away, and then on something close up, and then a fly comes along and for a split second the lens focuses on that. But you missed it because you were thinking about something else. That’s where the work is.