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Nina Karavasiles

Spiraling Inward
An interview of Anne Mudge by Robin Brailsford

Robin Brailsford: Here we are at the San Diego State University light rail station as it's nearing completion. I am with public artist Anne Mudge. We are both founding and board members of Public Address, an alliance of professional public artists in San Diego, California. Anne is the artist for this first for the San Diego trolley system - an underground light rail station. The station is designed to accommodate up to 4,000 passengers a day. Anne and her colleagues on the station's design team, Zimmer Gunsel Frasca and Estrada Land Planning, created an impressively warm and inviting space. It has a European sense of modern efficiency. While it is subterranean, it is also boat-like in form, fore and aft. The large, bright station also has a surprising Anasazi aspect to its light, created by sunlight reflected off of the station's exterior limestone walls. Highlighting the station's inner sense of peace and depth are Anne's TapRoots sculptures. These five silvery metal forms are suspended from the very tall ceiling over the (port and starboard) pedestrian platforms. Tell me about these unique sculptures. They are made of cable?

Anne Mudge: Stainless steel 1-inch-diameter cables that I got from a ship rigging company near the harbor. I like the idea of using an industrial material this way.

RB: There's been a lot written about your work and your discovery of cable as a sculptural material. What was the difference working with it at this scale?

AM: For the first time, I had to employ people to help me. It was physically impossible for me to manipulate the cable by myself. This meant that I had to rethink my usual working process. At a small scale, my working process is intuitive and spontaneous, like jazz riffs or feedback loops, where I can just flow with the material. In blowing it up to this scale, which is approximately 18 feet long, I didn't have that luxury. Making changes or improvisations at this scale becomes physically daunting. Also, I had to instruct other people on how to help make the work.

RB: And you had to communicate that, which must have been conceptually daunting.

AM: Oh, it was. As I was designing the work in quarter scale, I created a language to accurately describe every single step I made. So as I was making these pieces, I was taking very detailed notes.

RB: What would those notes look like?

AM: They kind of looked like hieroglyphics to my crew. They were completely freaked out when they first started to work. They told me later they went home the first night and said, "I don't think we can do this."

RB: Who were your helpers?

AM: Debby and Larry Klein, who are also members of Public Address. They're excellent artists in their own right, which was an enormous asset to me in creating this work. We had a shared work ethic and desire to bring out the best possible product. We also had a kind of nonverbal understanding of the direction that we were going in. That's such a rarity, to have assistants who work every bit as hard as you do in realizing your vision. I feel very blessed.

RB: So how did it work? Did they come to the studio at 9:00 in the morning and you'd have notes and a model?

AM: Yes, I'd have a model and a series of notes with symbols that I'd developed to help us understand. We were working with mathematical intervals, and I had a way of notating that, so it's like reading a musical score in some ways... not exactly, but reminiscent.

It was like learning another language. It was interesting, having to transcribe something that I do on an intuitive level into something that is rational and repeatable. And even at that, I found it wasn't entirely repeatable, because when I shifted from one scale to another, I had to make different decisions. What works at one scale doesn't always work at another. The piece directly across from us ("Tap Root B") was probably the most difficult piece of all. I had to take it apart and put it together innumerable times to arrive at that form.

RB: Completely take it apart?

AM: Mostly it meant taking apart sections. I built from the top down, so as it was being built, I would raise it up and down on a pulley. I took the smaller units of the piece apart many, many times, and then as it evolved, larger sections of it over and over again. That "TapRoot" took six months to build.

RB: Would you stand back from it and think, "it's just not communicating to me," sculpting it the way anybody else would with any other material, but you're doing it with stiff, ornery and sharp cable?

AM: Yes, precisely.

RB: I remember seeing you at an art opening when this was underway, and your hands were all sliced up, like you were working in a barbed-wire factory. Those cable wires are wicked!

AM: One of my great regrets is that we didn't document the fabrication as much as I would have liked. The material itself required processes that were very dance-like. We were unraveling 25 to 30 feet of cable strand by strand. There were a total of over 120 strands per cable, and in order to get that much cable unwound, we had to whip it. We actually used the cable itself as a counterweight, and we'd swing it around and around.

RB: Like Double Dutch jumping rope?

AM: More like a cowboy with a lasso.

RB: So it's like a lariat.

AM: Yes. It was very dramatic and beautiful to see. And hear!

RB: What's your inspiration? What point in your brain or your personal history or sight are you trying to articulate? Is that a fair question?

AM: You mean what is the image? What is the content?

RB: Yes, what were you going for?

AM: Very much like my other work that I do in my studio. I'm just fascinated by... (Thinking).  You know, the idea of diversity, the sheer mind-numbing number of possibilities that bubble up from any given situation. I wanted the work to reflect that kind of diversity.

RB: Diversity from one sculpture to another or within an individual sculpture?

AM: Other sculptures.

RB: Other sculptures. Are these individual pieces? Are they part of the whole environment?

AM: I considered all twelve of the "TapRoots" that I originally designed to be part of one sculpture. Now, because of budget cuts, they're down to five units, but I still consider them as a whole, as part of one sculptural environment. At the same time, they also function as individual sculptures in relation to each other.   The point is, though, that while each is constructed of an identical material, each has evolved quite differently. Hopefully, when taken together, they demonstrate the infinity of different forms that one simple material can take.  

RB: It's a bit like origami, where one always must start with a square piece of paper, and there are particular rules dictated to create a three dimensional form.

AM: Right.   And the forms that are possible are only limited by your imagination. I thought of the "TapRoots" as generative forms, a kind of flowering of ideas out of the most basic of premises, in this case a simple length of cable. I was responding to a dynamic university environment, where a diversity of thought is not only tolerated, but is encouraged.  

RB: They all start from the same set of rules. Why was that important to you? As in some of your other pieces, why didn't you add beeswax to these, or rubber?

AM: Believe me, I would have (laughing). But public space dictates a fairly narrow palette of materials. I love skin and bone, and adding materials like rubber or wax would have been like providing the skin. I think of these "TapRoots" as skeletal works. They're about structure. They're all about structure. That's what gives their form, just like the skeleton is the body's architecture. When you skin the body with flesh, you're putting on the mortal edge.

RB: So the bones are the immortal? I see what you mean.

AM: Right. They're the thing that remains. It's like a black and white photograph. If you look at a color photo, it's showing you the juiciness of life, a particular moment in time. If you look at the same scene in black and white, it reveals more of the bones of reality. It's about the structure of reality. That's what these are. These are all about the irreducible, the basic, the universal.  

RB: For me, the title "TapRoots" doesn't hit the right note, does not fully describe what you are telling me here. If these are the skeletons, the bones of reality, then they are about much more than just a taproot. They are also the form of a hurricane or a stellar cloud or ...

AM: They're an open container for all kinds of references.

RB: You're looking at nature, the dance of life that's uniform in everything.

AM: Thank you. Right. That's it. One of my brothers is a botanist, and he, too, seemed uncomfortable that I'd use the term "taproot." A carrot, for instance, is a taproot. These aren't meant as literal illustrations of taproots. What I was trying to suggest were metaphorical roots that are "tapping" into some vital impulse. So while titles constrict you in some ways, they can also open a door.  

RB: I have noticed that your gallery work is becoming more symmetrical. Is that true?

AM: (Laughs). Actually, I've been fighting symmetry lately. But symmetry is one of the most attractive design elements I've worked with. I often build things off of a central axis, thinking about and referring the work always to the way it feels to inhabit a human body. You know, we are symmetrical, and we understand what a backbone feels like. I'm drawing on those subconscious references as a way to pull people into the work. It's a way that people can relate, in a way that they may not be aware of. I think that's why it's easy for people from a broad range of backgrounds to respond to my work.

RB: It seems to me--especially with the idea about the backbone--that symmetry is equated with health.

AM: Yes.

RB: And that when something becomes asymmetrical--especially the human body--then it's in a state of dis-health.

AM: Yes, a kind of breakdown.

RB: So then the a-symmetrical works make people uneasy?

AM: Yes, at least as it relates to the body.

RB:   Health in man and solar systems equals symmetry and beauty - therefore disease is the opposite of health? Do you think that's a fair statement?

AM: That assigns some kind of value to disease. I think what we call diseased states is also part of an overall process.

RB: Which is the life cycle.

AM: Yes. It's necessary in order to have a beginning. Opposing forces make things vital, always moving.

RB: And there we arrive at "wabi-sabi" the Japanese aesthetic philosophy that life and evolution are always in the process of either coming to, or going out of sync. Much like the rotating spirals in the window grills you designed for the station's windows - and through which comes the quality of light that I like.

AM: Yes, they have a rising and falling...I don't know why I am so drawn to symmetry, except that my working processes originate from the body, specifically my own body. That may be why I've found working with public art to be so especially challenging. And it may be another reason why I was initially shy about introducing something that was so clearly my own aesthetic into this space. My aesthetic and processes are extravagantly time consuming, and I was trying be a responsible citizen, trying to develop and design processes that are economical and yet thought provoking.

RB: And that didn't work? You had to be yourself? An artist?

AM: I knew developing designs for the hanging sculptures would require innumerable man-hours. That's certainly one reason it took me the better part of a year to come back around to the idea. Finally, I was able to understand how I could incorporate something that was so obviously discrete art objects, which the client was not interested in funding. Finding a way to address that hurdle, and how to bring my own work processes into this design program, took me that long.

RB: Why did they say they weren't interested?

AM: The fabrication and installation of artwork was envisioned as something that could be absorbed into the architectural program, which was true for the other art elements in this project. But the idea that I was designing something that was distinctly art that could only be made by an artist, that was harder for the client to justify and understand. I eventually found a way around that. I developed an approach where the lengthy design process for developing twelve "TapRoots," which took over a year, could be incorporated as part of my private studio practice. The client did not have to pay for that time. Therefore, I was able to keep ownership of the all the prototype work, which kept the costs within an acceptable range for the client.

RB: These are some of the major faults in our current public art system, that owes it's allegiance first to the budget, second to status quo, third to maintenance, and often lastly to courage and vision. So, we've come back and made a spiral, about the nature of the current accepted processes regarding public art on a design team. What you're saying is that the thing that threw you off of your own vision was a process that was not conducive to why you were hired, and to how and why you work!

AM: Right.

RB: Well the good news is, I think you got it right in the end.

AM: Thank you!


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