Charles Ray / Interview

Portrait de/of Charles Ray, 2019. Photo Maxime Tétard.
Close Portrait de/of Charles Ray, 2019. Photo Maxime Tétard.
March 9, 2022

Charles Ray / Interview

"And so the sculptures themselves are built out of space. They're part of the space-time mosaic, in a way, they're events in space, made of space." Charles Ray

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Do many of your works draw on specific memories or experiences? 

That's a hard question to answer, because it would be hard to separate my works from my memories, but it would be hard to separate my life from my memories as well. So they do draw from memories, but not specifically from memories; they are not built from memories.

Most of your works have very descriptive titles. Do you see them as clues for the viewer to draw his/ her attention to the details or something?

Usually, the titles sometimes come before the sculpture comes, once in a while. Usually they develop and just how we talk about the work in progress to each other. So if something is being fabricated with my fabricator and I have to get on the phone and talk to him, I'll say: ‘How's that going with The Big Lady? Or how's that going with The Tractor? How's that going with the self-portrait?’ Others kind of go back to your original question. Like The Return to the one came after the sculpture was developed and being worked on.

Often the title is slang. Sometimes there's an official title, like with the lady mannequin.  Fall 91 is its official title, but everybody just calls it The Big Lady, and then I do as well, or The Car wreck rather than Unpainted sculpture

And what about Boy with frog?  

François Pinault had asked me to make a sculpture for the Dogana a couple of years before it was finished; before the Dogana was finished. And the day he asked me, I was scheduled for an open heart surgery a few weeks later to replace a part of my heart and when he asked me, I instantly saw the sculpture. I think I saw it because of the frog : in America we use it in primary school when we first dissect, to cut it and look inside.  

How does sculpture allow you to give sense? 

It came originally out of thinking about archaic art, and my question had been why can I look at a "kouros" figure and get so much out of it? Why is a "kouros" figure seemingly so contemporary to me in my experience of it? I started thinking of it because the social context is long gone. The reasons why it was made, the context can be speculated upon and talked about but we're not in ancient Athens to experience whatever its social political trajectory was, and we're not voted to it. Yet, there's so much I get out of looking at it, and I realized or I speculate that it was so beautifully and so powerfully sculpted that the sculptors had to have been thinking sculpturally to put it together. I've thought a lot about how the sculptures were made. It's often said, if you understand how something is made, you get closer to understanding the sculpture itself or any object. 

Au départ, cela vient d’une réflexion sur l’art de l’époque archaïque. J’étais curieux de savoir pourquoi nous pouvons en apprendre autant en regardant un "kouros". Pourquoi nous semble-t-il si contemporain ? Pourtant, bien que nous puissions nous interroger et discuter des raisons et du contexte dans lesquels cette figurine a été créé, n’étant pas en Grèce antique, il nous est impossible d’expérimenter sa trajectoire sociale et/ou politique. Malgré tout, j’apprends toujours en la regardant, et je me suis rendu compte que cette statue était si magnifiquement et puissamment sculptée que les artistes impliqués avaient dû penser de manière sculpturale pour la créer. J’ai beaucoup réfléchi à la façon dont ces sculptures ont été créées. On dit souvent que si vous comprenez comment une chose est faite, vous comprenez mieux la sculpture elle-même ou, de fait, n’importe quel objet.

I see it as a meaning machine, that the meaning is not specific to the moment it was made, to its function, that it was made. But the meaning is sculptural. That's what I meant by a meaning machine. It's always generating new meaning in its relationship to the viewer.

How do you place sculpture in space? 

I think a sculptor's primary medium is space. And so the sculptures themselves are built out of space. They're part of the space-time mosaic, in a way, they're events in space, made of space. So I don't think you can remove a sculpture from space. I don't think sculptures are images. I think they reverberate out of their images. Perhaps that is a weakness of the sculpture I just talked about is that it can start to exist in a narrative, not in its spatial location. So the spatial location is not installation. It's not unique to a particular space. But neither is ancient work. Even though it may have been made for a specific location in a square, a specific location in a church. It's sculptural enough that it's still alive when it's moved. I once saw a Boy with frog. I put it in an exhibition in Basel, and I thought it dragged the whole Dogana in with it somehow. 

On one sculpture, some parts can be highly detailed, while some other parts are still out of focus. What effects do you create with this tension?  

If a face like in Horse and rider, if the face is fully detailed, that's where your mind is going to go. You're going to say, "oh, look, it looks just like his nose". It looks just like him. Or if the whole sculpture is perfectly detailed to the same level, there's no look at this. It actually looks incredibly weak, because then you have mimicking of reality. You have a depiction of reality. You don't have a work of art. 

If every detail on a sculpture was brought to the same level of rendition, if you want to call it that, I don't think of it as rendition, but it was brought to the same level, there would be no sculpture. We work in such a way that I, one day was looking at Young man, we were looking after ten years at a toenail on the toe and changing it, bringing it in and out of focus. The toenail is in relationship to the knee, to the penis, to the breast, to the eye, to the hair. These run in a very complex relationship with each other, like space time events across the world that they have. 

Would you say plain colour materials – paper, aluminium, steel, concrete, etc. – get a timeless quality to your sculptures?
the materials themselves are nothing. They're like a pile of stone and lumber for a building, or a heap of thoughts. The sculpture is not made out of clay or it's not made out of concrete. The sculpture is made out of an image of a dwarf on a base, on a certain amount of detailing, a certain kind of gesture, of gravity, of the sky, its weight. Of all of these, no one aspect is more important than the other. So it's not a material making a rendition of Doubting Thomas or of Christ. I'm an atheist, but one can make a sculpture of Christ, without comment. Even one could say an atheistic form of prayer because it is an aspect of all these. What it's made out of is all these things, and I guess, including culture, including where we are with the imagery. Clay will crack, concrete will erode, and the sculpture will endure, not change, and not become like an old sphinx. 

Boy with frog was created for the Punta della Dogana, just as a reminder. And today the square in front of the Bourse de Commerce is home, will be home to the Horse and rider. Do these sculptures in public space hold a special place in your work? 
As I grew older and began to age myself, I started realizing you could embed, or had to embed in space-time and in time, as well as space, so it wasn't just a matter of being here in this room. The idea of the public space and the square is an extension of that. 

It's not like just putting it and working in the spatial realm, it's the social is spatial, and it is temporal in itself.

If you put your monument like Joan of Arc up on the horse, Joan of Arc down the street, if you put it up on a pedestal, or like Louis, up on a pedestal, you're not only embedding in the region and space and time, but also embedding in the sky, in a way. The Horse and rider that's going in front of the Bourse, its pedestal is our social space. I've spent my life trying to make sculptures that can sit not physically without abuse, but psychologically in relationship to us, in our space. 

How do you decide when the work is complete?  

I don't decide. Some works, not all, but some can take as long as ten years and take an immense amount of energy and effort by a large group of people. When I worked on Hinoki, the log which is over at the Pompidou, the pattern for it was built over many years in my studio, through many different people, assistants would come and go. Then that pattern was sent to Japan and I often tell the story that I sent it to a master wood carver’s studio, Yuboku in Osaka, and there was a worker amongst this group of apprentices who I assumed was a young lady. And then over a period of time, a few years later, this young lady grew a beard and then I realized it wasn't a young lady. It was a young man. And then a few years later, this young man went off, left the studio and got a job on his own and became an apprentice to a corporation of toy makers. I tell the story because it was a temporality of the making that actually people changed.

The making of the sculpture became a way of life. And I just found it impossible and I enjoyed that way of life so much I found it impossible to bring it to an end. And one day I asked Yuboku while we were still working on it, I said, ‘how long will this sculpture last with the wood?’ Because I hadn't worked in wood before. And he said, ‘oh, a really long time,’ he says, ‘in four hundred years it will be black from oxidation. In another hundred years it will start to crack. And then he said, it will go through a phase of cracking apart and opening up, being very active. And then after two hundred years, it will settle down. And then it will exist for another two hundred years until it just dissolves into space and time and is no more.’ And that was the moment for me that in a certain sense completed it. I realized, well, the sculpture is finally separated from me when I realized it had its own life cycle ahead of it and had nothing to do with me or my intents. I even realized it was a Japanese sculpture, not an American sculpture. Authorship is one of the first things to slip away. Maybe first, content, a content or meaning of work, criticality of a work is one of the first things we try to control and hold on to, but that drifts away. Then authorship drifts away. Do you really care who made some of the work in the Louvre? You don't know who those people were. You don't care about their pains that they felt or their problems. Nor should you because they’re gone. 

You don't like the word retrospective, but what do you think about this major presentation of your work?

It's important that it's not a retrospective because it's not organized as a retrospective. It's not organized in an understanding of a development and of a trajectory of my artistic life. It becomes about the two institutions more than me, more than my life, my artistic life, or dissecting a cross section of my artistic life. It has more to do also with Paris. It has a lot to do with François Pinault, with Caroline Bourgeois, with Jean-Pierre Criqui. It has to do also with what is feasible. 

What about Los Angeles, where you live, and America in general, what inspires you? 

Well, nothing, but you can't take America out of me. Our politics have gotten so poor and so bad that I often think I've got to get out of America before America gets out of me, in a sense. Los Angeles is America. People say it's not like the rest of America, but it is America. Chicago's America, New York's America, the south is America. The Republicans are American, the Democrats are American. So a question like that, it's hard to say because like, what does the fact that you've a male gender have to do with your work? Well, nothing but everything. 

What is your favourite sculpture in Paris?  

My favourite sculpture in Paris… Well, that again, changes day-to-day. It's not the Eiffel Tower. It's not Notre Dame. Although I like those buildings very much. I love the Pompidou, but it's architectural. I like the Bourse, but it's a piece of architecture. There's many works I like in the Guimet. I like a lot Balzac that's just out on the street. Very hard question to ask. Lately, I had been thinking a lot about in the Louvre, in the big stairway area, the four horses that were in the side. Then they were moved to Paris. They're very Baroque, kind of. I like to look at them a lot and again think about how their history is still with them. You don't have to know specifically what it was, but they're dragging something of the French and the French sensibility and politics, good and bad. By politics, I mean, more state of being, both good and bad, you know, in every breath that they take.