The Other Side of The Door: Rita McBride

Rita McBride and Mitch Speed in conversation


The world saw a lot of Rita McBride this winter, with exhibitions of new work running in Berlin, Brussels, and New York. In early December I walked down the street to see her show at Berlin’s Konrad Fischer Galerie. Several years ago, I’d been perplexed and compelled by a series of bronze sculptures of parking garages that McBride had made. Small in stature, these structures seemed to conflate the imaginative space of toy train sets or dollhouses with the dark, often lonely, gasoline-scented reality of modern life. At once fantastical and harsh, they were curious exceptions amid so many boilerplate critiques of utopian, modernist architecture.


At the same time, McBride was producing a series of genre novels whose chapters were commissioned by other artists and writers. These two projects could have been made by altogether different artists—a quality of McBride’s work in general, situating the artist outside conventional understandings of artistic and professional identity. In this way, the artist’s very material practice is defined by a certain kind of un-graspability. When this refusal to adopt a singular style mixes with a refusal to produce meaning, McBride’s work can become frustrating. And so it was in a state of mild vexation that I walked out of Konrad Fischer on that December day, trying to figure out what I’d just seen. As the artist and I spoke, her commitment to openness of interpretation and experience often became knotted in my head with the work’s intimation of narrative and ripeness for social analyses—recent pieces implementing highway guard rails, or an ongoing series centered on keys. What I came to remember is that the span of an artist’s career is less a linear production line than a circuitous exploration of themes and techniques whose purpose is to create eddies of novelty in an overwhelming current of received ideas. Over McBride’s thirty-year career, this novelty has taken the form of a persistent, elusive questioning of sculpture’s role in art, institutions, and the social space. Nevertheless, the work’s evasion of graspable meaning produces a kind of tension, in combination with the intense themes suggested by its materials and motifs. Our conversation began with this conflict.


MITCH SPEED: One reason I’m excited to talk is that I recognize an ethos in your work that is alien to me, even though I’m compelled by it, and recognize where it comes from, in terms of the recent history of contemporary art. Maybe we can start here. At your recent show at Berlin’s Konrad Fischer Galerie, you installed lengths of custom-painted aluminum guardrail around a white pentagonal structure. I spent a lot of time thinking about the work’s relationship to conceptual art and pop art—for instance to Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings of the early 1960s, in terms of subject and monochromatic color, and to your teacher John Baldessari, who shares your reduced, high-impact language, and who has also worked with cars. But I also became fixated on a conspicuous absence of the more discomfiting endgames of automobile culture, which featured so brutally in Warhol’s paintings. A former teacher of mine recently posited that my generation might turn out to be defined by a return to the real. I think she was onto something, and that this was my hang-up—the guardrails were so perfectly executed, so charming, that I couldn’t find my own understanding of “the real” in them.

RITA MCBRIDE: I like that you use the word “ethos.” The “guiding beliefs” that I received at CalArts are probably obvious, in all of the shows you just mentioned. All feature guiding systems that “serve” on a number of levels. These sculptures have different dimensions, and are made of different materials for specific reasons. But they are all based on safety products that protect humans from themselves as they navigate their world, using inventions like the automobile. I’m not so into blood and gore. I find it visually limited. Warhol understood the pop power in that, but I think by now we’ve seen enough. I have trouble finding something to watch on Netflix that doesn’t involve a ridiculous amount of blood loss. Baldessari understands pop power within a more comedic cadence. His insistence on the “joke” gave me a lot of leeway in material choices, and other absurd possibilities. He always says, “If it isn’t fun, don’t do it,” and he’s right. But really, most of my work finds its method within institutional critique, which I learned about from Michael Asher, who was also at CalArts.

MS: The lietplanken (guardrails) at Konrad Fischer circumnavigate the pentagon structure, like a dog chasing its own tail. But whether we’re talking about car crashes or institutional critique, there’s a latent seriousness in the work. So a viewer might wonder what it actually is that the guardrails are circling.

RMB: That’s a funny image—dogs chasing their tails. I hadn’t perceived the slapstick aspect of lietplanken. Oftentimes I don’t fully recognize things in my own works until decades later. But you’re right, it can be there, this endless silly loop.

MS: I wonder what the role of institutional critique is these days. I guess I’m skeptical of its critical capacity. Universities and art institutions still seem like sanctuaries for creativity and criticality. But they’re also functioning more and more like businesses, and have become adept at incorporating critique into their programming.

RMB: Money is a festering excuse, often used to block transformation. But in a way, I believe that capitalism (which is still in its infancy) helps keep institutions from getting too comfortable. Like democracy, capitalism needs constant engagement, and I prefer the growing pains that come with this process to any alternative. Humor is one option to sweeten the pill.

MS: Early on, you showed in institutions as a way of circumventing the art market. Concurrent with your show at Konrad Fischer, you had exhibitions at WIELS in Brussels and Dia in New York. In Brussels you also installed guardrails, but they were white-painted wood instead of aluminum. Moreover, they engaged the institution by mimicking the dimensions of its architecture. Can you open up the critical potential that you find in this more jesting mode of institutional critique, as opposed to a more directly critical approach?

RMB: My approach has never been accusatory. The most antagonistic aspect of my work is that I often make large structures that can’t fit within institutional categories. But the driving force behind these works is absurdity, not finger pointing or whistle blowing. Institutions mainly suffer from a kind of narcissism without mirrors—a pathological self-involvement. WIELS continues to evolve. After ten years of operating as a physically open platform, they’ve just added a grid of white walls designed by the artist Richard Venlet. I jumped at this shift in order to make a work I’d been thinking about for years. Guide Rails allowed me to dance with this architectural and institutional change. But it also provided a mirror for the institution, regarding the conservatism of installing these walls. To their credit, they saw what needed to be seen—evolution is hugely important, and avoiding comfort is the only option for an institution to stay vital. Much art today seeks to be socially engaged. But most of this activity goes unconsidered, and generates very little resonance with a larger audience of citizens and politicians. Artists have to rethink what we offer audiences. Education is a big part of this challenge. And the challenge is getting bigger every day, as educational institutions struggle with old political and social regimes that only understand how to replicate themselves, and that continue to squeeze out art programs. We have to give them something juicy to act on.

MS: You’ve been a teacher for many years, in Dusseldorf. But you’re also engaged with writing and discourse through a series of fiction books. Each book begins with a theme, and you then commission writers to complete the chapters.

RMB: That’s right. At Dia we’re now working on a “chapbook” to which we’ve asked a number of sci-fi writers to contribute. We asked them to consider the literary device of time travel, which is a cliché tool for suspending disbelief. So far we’ve received stories that successfully omit time travel entirely, as if it’s a given that time is conflated and simultaneous. It’s interesting how that works. I noticed that visual description becomes more elaborate in these stories—even over the top, sometimes drifting toward fantasy. I am always interested in the “too much,” in the sense that saturation can empty meaning, thereby liberating the subject to become a kind of free radical, full of possibilities.

MS: If this function is successful, and following your interest in time, the Guide Rails might suggest how memories produced outside the museum—while driving, say—cling to our minds when we’re walking through an institution or gallery. It becomes apparent that experience doesn’t play out in linear time; it’s always conflating and mixing. We’re never experiencing only what’s in front of our eyes. Perception is always both primary and an afterimage of the past.

RMB: Music to my ears. When I was making some of the Guide Rails in Los Angeles, to test them, a couple of artists who were transporting work to New York saw them standing in the studio, and immediately exclaimed, “Muholland Drive!” That made me smile. This cinematic reference returns me to the question of abstraction versus blood-and-guts reality that we began with. I guess that I am missing the giallo aspects in the horror of today—or just missing some development of style, generally. Maybe I am just dating myself dreaming about Dario Argento.

MS: Oh, I think Argento has transcended generational divisions. You’re safe. Suspiria (1977) is a masterpiece!

RMB: Amazing sound. Amazing color.

MS: Speaking of which, your show at Dia features an installation of green lasers. The beams make a kind of twisting horizontal cylinder. This shape has appeared often in your work, for instance in the massive public sculpture Mae West (2011), and also in many smaller pieces.

RMB: This shape is a hyperboloid of revolution. I first used it to make a pair of cooling towers out of rattan. I was putting together a vocabulary of modernism. It had to do with taking stock of the modernism’s promises and eventual manifestations. I needed to include cooling towers alongside the parking garages, cars, and grids. With the Mae West public project in Munich, I wanted to challenge assumed dimensions of public sculpture. I chose the shape simply because it is one of the most stable structures approved for building towers. I didn’t want to lose time in engineering, nor offer an already-resistant group of city planners any arguments to block the project. Carbon tubes, which I had seen in the sports world, seemed like a good option. I was particularly excited that nothing like this had ever been built and that the structure itself, let’s say, performed the surface, like an exoskeleton. This is rather rare in the making of sculpture. With lasers, gravity and engineering are no longer a problem. So I’ve started considering the hyperboloid a wormhole. I am a sci-fi fan.

MS: In an interview I recently read, there’s a funny, honest moment where you refer to the futuristic aesthetic of that carbon material. With Mae West, you were determined to make a public sculpture empty of meaning—utterly non-message-driven, and non-propagandistic. But you’re also thinking about futuristic materials. So in a way, your artistic thought process is overlapping a very democratic intention, with a sensitivity to materials that seems cinematic, even theatrical. Certainly this would be an accurate characterization of your work Arena (1997­-ongoing), a kind of modular bleacher system that has been installed in many different institutions, and that is used for various discussions and performances organized by the host institution. This gesture of providing an open space for discussion has a particular resonance, in our very unsettling political moment.

RMB: For me, Arena has been a successful attempt to give a larger audience some kind of tool to act with. For two decades, the work has provided a temporary structure for each institution it has inhabited. Through the programming organized by the institution, one can see the larger or smaller intentions of the institution. Sometimes I also program Arena. The audiences vary greatly but are always highly aware of each other. Something about the work’s dimensions creates a nonhierarchical relationship among the audience members. I think this is because everyone can see one another, and there’s no center stage. So many people have participated. Thankfully, it’s still standing, and has an extremely active life. It’s fabricated with a sandwiched material made of Kevlar and wood, so it’s incredibly strong. At the moment, Arena is installed at the Kunsthalle Mannheim, waiting for Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867-1869) to arrive.

MS: That will be a strange, interesting encounter. The Manet painting brings up an important question about the status of art objects now. A painting like that is loaded with aura, whereas your work seeks to circumvent the auratic power of the singular artwork in various ways. This is not a new artistic gambit, of course. In a sense, it’s very 1960s. And it also recalls a contested period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when viewer participation was becoming more important to sculpture than the art objects themselves.

RMB: It’s a gamble that Arena can hold any line with the Manet. I imagine that it could be a draw. I’m curious to see what will happen. In Mannheim, Arena is installed in a new configuration, like a Janus head, back to back. Four modules face the painting and four modules face a circulation area with elevators, stairs, and a large corridor—the functional parts of the museum. I agreed to this cohabitation because I consider it a chance to learn something. In my own mind, written history, as it has been communicated through generations, is a tough pill to swallow. I want to reflect on my complicated thoughts. I hope that the audience visiting the new building will consider this an opportunity to do the same, and the programming will help focus the thinking. I am kind of nervous about the situation, but there’s no fun without risk. Actually, the execution that Manet painted wasn’t successful and a coup de grace was necessary: I read that online.

MS: It’s funny in a dark way to talk about this kind of artwork, with its promise of democratic possibility, in proximity to a painting of an execution. One thing that makes your practice idiosyncratic is that it partakes in an artistic tradition of participation while retaining images and motifs that can be science fictional, realist, or even fantastical. As two examples, we could look at your sculptures of parking garages and these wonderful works that are silhouettes of old-fashioned keys made of steel or some other metal. As we come to a close, maybe you can talk us through the anxieties and desires that result in this dialectic in your work—this draining of the unique art object’s power on the one hand, simultaneous with an interest in producing very symbolic images.

RMB: Sweet request, for a walkthrough of anxieties and desires. That is exactly what it is to be an artist, don’t you think? Impelled by anxieties and desires? I’ve often slipped under a radar that only picks up on consistent, persistent, categorical rhythms. Over the years, people have sometimes thought that my solo shows were group shows. I was always kind of happy about that. But visitors who have maintained interest in what I’ve been doing for the last three decades don’t have trouble identifying the vocabulary. I do have a method, a trajectory—it’s fundamentally rooted in “modernism.” The bronze, aluminum, and steel keys you mention are in keeping with this trajectory. Turbo real estate, brought about by modernism as a capitalistic tool, and having found security in the lingua franca of everything today, still symbolically employs keys. They are an odd relic of history. Keys are tools that allow passage through the space in front of a door, allow passage through a lock, and offer something unknown on the other side of the door. Janus is the god of locks and keys.


Rita McBride was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1960. She currently lives and works in Düsseldorf and Los Angeles. She received a BA from Bard College and a MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. In 1987, she began to explore architectural and sculptural form in works ranging from small scale objects to large public commissions. Her major public commissions include Particulates, Dia Art Foundation, New York; Obelisk of Tutankhamun, Cologne (2017); Donkey’s Way, Moenchengladbach (2016); Artifacts (C.W.D), P.S. 315, Queens, New York (2015); Bells and Whistles, The New School, New York, (2014); and Mae West, Munich (2011). Institutional solo exhibitions include Rita McBride: Explorer, WIELS, Brussels (2017); Gesellschaft, Kestnergesellschaft / Kunst halle Düsseldorf (2015-2016); Public Tilt, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (2014); Public Transaction, Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2013-2014); Public Tender, Museu d‘Art Contemporani de Barcelona [MACBA], (2012). 

Mitch Speed is an artist and writer based in Berlin. He is a contributing editor at MOMUS, and writes regularly for Mousse, Frieze, Camera Austria, Artforum and other publications. He is currently working on a book about Mark Leckey’s 1999 work Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, for Afterall’s One Work series. 


Originally published on Mousse 62



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