Thing Maker: An Interview with Liz Magor

We have Dr Frankenstein bringing parts and pieces, fragments—to life. We have the prestidigitations of an adept magician making things appear before our eyes—if we look. We have an opportunity for empathy—if we are sincere. We have mystery, some confusion, tricks and surprises, philosophical investigations, and we have what we can read as love and beauty. The work of Liz Magor.

French writer Édouard Levé wrote Autoportrait in 2005, an autobiography by indirection. It is clear, reading it, that he wanted himself or some things about himself to be known. It was followed in 2007 by his book Suicide, and very shortly after by death at his own hand. Knowing this, as we read, contributes to its apprehension as poignant and strangely tender. One of the things he lists, in this book of lists, is a series of disconnected statements, among them, “I talk to my things when they are sad.” He could be talking to Liz Magor.

Liz Magor, Stream, 2023, 41 pieces, 3 hanging components, 10 light fixtures, polymerized gypsum, mylar boxes, various found materials, dimensions variable. Installation view, “The Separation,” 2023, Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver. Photo: LF Documentation.

In the interview that follows she acknowledges that her perception of objects having sentience and perhaps a presence independent of our attribution anticipates the term “object ontology” by decades. Referring, as though it were commonly recognized, to “the latent intelligence of things,” she amplifies the idea that, as central as we are—each of us—the world is full and active and carrying on without us. She describes her process, and, as ineluctable as it seems and sounds, it coheres and makes sense. Her role as vivifier, or revivifier, in making her work is the Frankensteinian electric bolt or god’s outstretched finger meeting Adam’s on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. She tells us, and we are rapt, following along: that an object of some subjective charm catches her eye and she brings it, its small, rapid, material heart still beating, back to her studio, where she finds it grey and lifeless. It may have been a nightingale and she, now nurse, has to bring it to life, which she will do by creating a new context for it. Art steps with care, and she does, through her art, evidence care. She tells us she can feel “when it gets a new charge, and that charge always comes through its relationship to other things.”

It’s generous and increasingly necessary in our flying-apart world to recognize and create a context that in turn provokes or prompts an emotional response. She says she wants to make work that engages the full spectrum of emotions, to which viewers will respond, recognizing that some of her works are sad or funny, confusing and also sometimes beautiful. Additionally, now, it could be a good idea to upend or overturn the manner of reception and also what is being received. She will implement a small revolution, dismantle “the ordinary hierarchy of importance” and cast out bombast. Out with the large, in with the small detail, which takes time to recognize, and we will all slow and benefit in the process. Film could guide us, she says, that medium observing and using to full effect the insignificant detail that carries the tale. She and we will be radical observers.

This aesthetic subversion continues, causing pause as we bump up against easy access, more to the tricks, confusion and surprises earlier mentioned. Some of Magor’s works include cloudy plastic boxes, almost storage containers to keep moths at bay, but through this slightly opaque material, and even though stacked and obscured, objects are visible—parts and wholes and maybe precious and desirable but not clear. Desire might be the thing. She speaks about whetting “the appetite for the obscure, the rare and the unavailable,” tricking us into wanting things we don’t really need, and about pressing that desire. With what seems like pleasure of her own, she says, “Things that are veiled or difficult to apprehend create a stronger scopic drive. I like to play with that.” The sleepiness that follows an overrich meal or the fatigue of sated overconsumption can use that remedial goad.

In a work titled Stream, from Magor’s 2023 installation at MOCA in Toronto, that very issue is addressed. Long-limbed creatures are suspended upside down. Clever and dextrous, garbed against shame, they hold stemmed spotlights over an assemblage of plastic boxes holding—what? It’s not clear, hence the attempt at illumination. But will it come clear? Will we see, and know, what is inside? Similarly, Pet Co., installed in the exhibition “BLOWOUT” in 2019 at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. Stuffed animal parts and rat skins?

Pearl Body, a small work from 2015, carries poignancy, mystery, tenderness (accompanied by the need to protect) and admiration for the tenacity and courage of this single small creature, its thin, lumpy form clinging, with no background story, to a rectangular block mounted on the wall and covered in a lead-grey material that is nowhere as welcoming as, say, flannelette would be. Alone, and face down, head turned away—the “I can’t see you” sobbed answer of a teary child barely audible, if we imagine it. It is also desirable as an object when it is once again an object and not an emotional provocateur. The shift and play are nicely destabilizing. And as to objects of desire: cigarettes doubly toxic if used, for their own addictive qualities as tobacco and for their material composition. Humidor (brown) and Humidor (white), 2004, are well-used leather mitts, the pairs complete, and their cozy insides well-worn with the imprint of hands thrust many times into their interiors. Why as containers of those uniform little soldier cigarettes? Why not? And again, with Fresh Pack, an orderly cluster of handsome cigarettes resting on a small boulder on a low table casually, deliberately there, generating desire, and I don’t smoke.

Liz Magor elaborates on the formal strengths of these readily replicable objects in art and life, investigating almost with wonder at their intrinsic object perfection and being. So it is with her work.

This interview was conducted by telephone with the artist in her Vancouver home on October 13, 2023.

LIZ MAGOR: My parents were from Montreal. My dad was a journalist working at the Winnipeg Free Press when I was born and then he got a job with the CPR writing copy, so he moved his family out to Vancouver because the CPR was colonizing the West. Whenever anything good happens in my career, the Winnipeg Free Press phones to see if they can do a story on a Winnipeg girl and I have to tell them I lived in the city for less than a year. After Vancouver we moved up to Prince Rupert, where Dad was the editor of the Prince Rupert Daily News. I was four then and was 10 when we moved back to Vancouver.

BORDER CROSSINGS: You went to Parsons in New York for a while and then came back to the Vancouver School of Art, now Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Did you ever complete a degree there?

I got a diploma from the Vancouver School of Art. I went to University of British Columbia for two years, then to Parsons School of Design for two years, and then I came back to Vancouver and asked the art school if I could go directly into fourth year. They said, “Well, that’s jumping the gun, but if you can find a teacher who will take you into a fourth-year class, we’ll let you in.” There was a very charismatic guy named Geoff Rees who was Timothy Leary-ish and his class was very popular, with people hanging from the rafters. He said, “Sure, you can be in my class.” So I was in. I did that for a year, and I did qualify for a diploma, but I never had any normal classes or assignments. I made some work, but I never had a critique. We didn’t do art history. My education was slapdash, but all my friends were from the art school and I married an artist, who was more clued in than I was. I learned a lot about art from hanging around with those guys.

Why did you end up in art school at all?

Good question. I thought I’d be a writer because that was in the family. I read a lot then. I also thought that all artists were painters and I don’t have any two-dimensional drive in me. If you think about it, the art of the ’50s was painting and it was largely abstract, and I didn’t think in those terms. You can see that my work is narrative in almost literal ways. So language seemed more possible and more suited to the way I thought. I knew I wanted to be a creative person, but I didn’t know the discipline or the medium. Then the art world changed; there was a bit of pop art going on and certainly some minimalist art, which was interesting to me because of how physical it was. I didn’t call what I was doing “sculpture.” I thought of myself as a thing maker. In my year at art school I made things with coloured, cast resin balls strung on to strange shapes that were sort of musical instruments except, instead of sound, they were about colour. I jumped around a lot in the beginning because I was looking for a discipline and an idiom in which I could work.

Installation view, “The Separation,” 2023, Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto. Courtesy the artist, Andrew Kreps, Catriona Jeffries and Collection of François R Roy. Photo: Laura Findlay. Foreground: Float, 2023, silicon rubber, polyester, workbench, coffee table. Background: Stream, 2023, 41 pieces, 3 hanging components, 10 light fixtures, polymerized gypsum, mylar boxes, various found materials, dimensions variable.

Stream, 2023, 41 pieces, 3 hanging components, 10 light fixtures, polymerized gypsum, mylar boxes, various found materials, dimensions variable. Installation view, “The Separation,” 2023, Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver. Photo: LF Documentation.

The Canadian Encyclopedia describes you as an avid reader and you often reference literature and writers when you’re talking about art. In your Gershon Iskowitz Prize lecture in 2015, you described a woman with bad eyesight who puts on lipstick and her application is wonky. That’s a writer’s observation and not a visual artist’s observation. A lot of the time when you talk about work, you talk about it as if you were a storyteller.

I suppose that would be the form that I learned the earliest. If you were in Prince Rupert, or even in Vancouver, you weren’t seeing a lot of visual art, so you’re not learning how the imagination can work through those forms. Books were very available so I learned a lot through reading fiction. Writers observe details and then they find a way to contextualize and arrange those details in a different way. My work really grew from there. Turning that kind of language-driven imagination into image or material was hard, but it felt necessary. It seemed that language wasn’t adequate for some of the things that I wanted to understand. Maybe I liked phenomenology before I knew it was phenomenology. I liked the experience of a perceiving subject going through the material world, and I needed to find a way to make work that approximated that in a way that exceeded language or that somehow dodged it.

The way you refer to objects, whether they’re clothes or stuffed animals, is the way that writers talk about characters in fiction. Your objects do things, or you ascribe feelings to them. You become a kind of object anthropomorphicist. Were you aware that you were giving objects agency and a kind of animate life?

I wouldn’t say I was aware because the first 10 years of making work were quite difficult and I didn’t know how to make it meet my needs. There was a lot of hit and miss. Then I began to understand that if I transferred my subjectivity to things, as opposed to being the director or organizer of things, they would organize themselves. It was much easier to make work if I could do that projection. Prior to that I was trying to find the significance of things. I was trying to listen to them, but they weren’t saying anything. It’s not that I’m looking for the hidden being in the object. It’s more like I’m trying to understand the process of transferring subjectivity onto things, which is then reflected back. When that happens, it feels as though the object has spirit. I think that’s not exclusively an artist’s experience of the objective world; that’s how all of us proceed, but I’ve just organized it as a focus for myself.

Is that what you meant early on when you said that you made a decision, and I think the phrase you used was “to get past the barrier” of you?

I’m not sure if that’s what I meant.

You can tell me what you meant.

The problem was that I had incoherent feelings and incoherent responses. I had them confused, so I didn’t have any way to understand them. My education was pretty shitty and I was also very distracted and not a good student. I emerged as an adult without the intellectual or experiential resources to understand complicated feelings. I needed to get past that immature person in order to examine my responses toward people or a thing, or an event. So having a studio and using that time to lay out an emotional field was like finally having someone to talk to. I could have done the work with a therapist, but I learned a lot from the way things in the studio reorganized themselves. When you’re trying to make something out of nothing, there’s a point at which you get some clarity as to what “something” is as it emerges from “nothing.” And then you learn to repeat that operation so that you can get clarity again and again. It’s a way of learning about emergent responses and feelings that, up to a certain point, are chaotic until they cohere in such a way that you can move on or get past them.

Pet Co., 2018, polyester film, textiles, paper, stuffed toys, rat skins, mixed media, 112 × 518 × 396 centimetres. Installation view, “BLOWOUT,” 2019, The Renaissance Society, Chicago. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver. Photo: Useful Art Services.

Installation view, “BLOWOUT,” 2019, The Renaissance Society, Chicago. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver. Photo: Useful Art Services.

William Carlos Williams’s poem “Paterson” has the line “there are no ideas but in things.” That idea fits your work more than that of any contemporary artist I can think of. For you, it’s the thing that generates the idea and not the idea that sparks the thing.

That’s right. I don’t have very good ideas. Nobody really does and there aren’t that many ideas overall. It’s when the idea intersects with something that isn’t generated by the idea person that something interesting occurs. When I send an idea out, it’s a very minor one. It might be about gravity or about the space or about the relationship of one thing to another, but as soon as I launch that minor idea and it intersects with something that’s out there, that is when I learn that the world is already full and active and that things precede our ideas about them.

You always knew that objects had a kind of independence. Twenty years before it was named, you were doing object-oriented ontology.

I think artists and poets have always known this. The Romantic poets were writing about nature as though the things they encountered had—I don’t know if “agency” is the right word, but they were writing as though there is an intelligence out there that isn’t provided by us. We perceive it, but we don’t create it. So when object-oriented ontology came along, the language matched the way I was thinking. But I certainly wasn’t in its pioneer stage. The reason it might seem so is because I was making my work in the midst of the conceptual art period, which was the opposite of materialism. Conceptual art eschewed materialism and I’m really a materialist. So I looked eccentric in that group but I’m certainly not eccentric in the history of art.

You wrote in an artist’s statement in the Capilano Review about a process that allows you to understand what you call “the latent intelligence of things.” That’s a fine phrase, and obviously it’s central to the way you think. Things have latent intelligence and your job as an artist is to allow the revelation of that intelligence.

Yes, but I want to understand how that intelligence gets there. Many of the things I’m dealing with were made by people. So there’s an intelligence that goes into the procuring of materials, the design, the manufacture, etc., of objects that we buy and use. I often put those qualities into relationship with things that are not human-made, things like a dead bird or an animal form that is not manufactured. So there’s a correspondence or a dialogue between the manufactured, the human-made and the not-human-made. I did some works with bird nests—there’s an early work called Breast Nest Pressers for the Perching Birds of Canada that is an example of my initial understanding of a similarity between the production of things by nature and ecology and the production of things by humans.

Pearl Body, 2015, polymerized gypsum, plywood, textile and acrylic, 20 × 32 × 20 centimetres. Collection of Audain Art Museum, Whistler. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver. Photo: SITE Photography.

Pearl Body, 2015, polymerized gypsum, plywood, textile and acrylic, 20 × 32 × 20 centimetres. Collection of Audain Art Museum, Whistler. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver. Photo: SITE Photography.

You make a distinction between things from the world and the objects you make, and your tendency is to combine them. I’m interested in knowing what determines which of those two conditions you decide to use.

The process goes something like this: outside the studio I encounter something that has some charm, some intrigue or some form that catches my eye. It could be very slight and it isn’t exceptional. It’s not the most beautiful thing or the rarest thing. Who knows what it is? I take that thing back to the studio and the minute I do that, it just dies. Sometimes that happens because the original context is a big part of the charm or the identity of the thing. So when I take it out of that context, it calms down, or it loses its light. But I don’t give up on it. I want to resuscitate it by making a new context and I proceed to offer this new context through the things I make. The cycle is life/death/life. It goes from life out there, death in the studio, and then I have to bring it to life again. I can feel when it comes back, when it gets a new charge, and that charge always comes through its relationship to other things. Those things might be found or they might be made, and I can get a little more spark, which is slightly confusing. There’s more dialogue. There’s more quick back-and-forth between things that are fundamentally different from each other but appear to be similar. It’s almost like they have something in common, so the conversation can be lively. I keep trying until the thing I’ve brought into the studio has come back to life. But it’s a different life from what it had before. I’m looking for that second life that comes from a quality that was hidden. Often it was hidden because I held an accustomed idea of the thing, which breaks down in juxtaposition. The second life reveals itself when it’s free to find a new association.

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