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Artist interview: Oscar Tuazon creates sculptures you are supposed to play with

The artist discusses his new series of works commissioned by the Public Art Fund for Brooklyn Bridge Park

Oscar Tuazon selecting trees from New York’s Hudson Valley for his project in Brooklyn

Oscar Tuazon’s architectural sculptures burst through gallery walls, block doorways and spread across rooms in any way the artist sees fit—providing that the gallerist gives him the carte blanche to do so. The freedom of working outdoors allows for a different dynamic. For his latest project, the Washington-born, US-and Paris-based Tuazon has been commissioned by New York City’s Public Art Fund to install three new sculptures in Brooklyn Bridge Park, a recently-constructed green space designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, a landscape architect whom Tuazon greatly admires. Tuazon says that he enjoys navigating the problems posed by working in a public space, not the least of which is the imposing Manhattan skyline in the distance. As we went to press, Tuazon was planning to construct the sculptures on-site, over a ten-day period in late June using two of his characteristic materials—concrete and trees. The exhibition, “People”, is due to run from 19 July to 26 April 2013. Tuazon spoke to The Art Newspaper in early June from a taxi to his studio in the Parisian suburb of Sèvres.

The Art Newspaper: How different is it creating work for a park as opposed to a gallery space?

Oscar Tuazon:
Specific to this location: the skyline of Manhattan is incredible. The first thing I realised when I visited is that it’s pointless to try and do something massive because you’ll never be able to compete with the skyline. So, I decided to do something that was human in scale. And to me, trees are human scale. They’re bigger than people, but even on a monumental scale, I think a tree is still something that’s quite approachable because it has human qualities. The tree is also an interesting object in terms of its verticality. Like a totem pole, it doesn’t necessarily have to be massive to do something interesting to the space around it. Its verticality [makes it interesting]. These three pieces are trying to almost function as utilitarian objects within the park. They should be used.

How do you see people interacting with the sculptures?

There’s a fountain, a small room and a piece that comprises a basketball hoop and a handball wall. The basketball hoop will be a typical Parks Department basketball hoop, and I tried to replicate a handball wall so that it’s almost a found object. To me, these are very typical New York things. I hope the hoop is a piece that gets used and has a completely different function apart from being a sculpture. At the same time, you may look at that basketball hoop and the game played using it as somehow being part of the sculpture. Those boundaries are going to be lost or suspended temporarily. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is making objects that can function with a certain invisibility so people can use them without necessarily even thinking that they’re works of art. With the fountain, I think you’ll be able to play in it a little bit.

Have you ever done anything like that?

Yes, another public piece in New York [an outdoor installation titled Use It For What It’s Used For, 2009, created with his brother Elias Hansen]. It was something that didn’t look very playful, but it was meant to be occupied and had this playfulness: there was a lamp; it could rain; there was water. I’m interested in creating spaces that aren’t programmed and aren’t really operating on the same logic as the rest of the space that we’re accustomed to. I think it’s a nice rupture or void within the city when you find something that hasn’t been purposed and is kind of useless and useful at the same time.

In 2005, you wrote: “An occupation evicts the existing function of a building.” Do you consider these three sculptures to be an occupation that alters the park’s existing function?

Yes. In a way, I hope that they enhance the functions of the park. There is a space under the basketball hoop that overlaps with a path, and you could say that this will create a change in the way the space is normally used. The pieces actually determined where they’ll be installed. I came up with these three pieces, and very quickly it was obvious that the fountain would be in the valley area of the park. The other two, because of their dimensions, needed a certain amount of space around them. There were other options, but I wanted to keep the three works within sight of each other.

Do you differentiate between what is commonly referred to as site-specific work and your own work?

I would say that the way I work is definitely site-responsive. I wouldn’t really call it site-specific because I feel like a lot of the characteristics of any site are arbitrary. There are things that the work needs to respond to, but it doesn’t necessarily form the work. For these three works, I would say that the relationship to the site is very open. They’re not responding to anything in particular about the site other than the fact that it’s outdoors.

These pieces have a utility to them, but you’ve said of some of your other work that “they can be left outside, all alone. They don’t even need to be watched. They don’t need anybody.” Have you considered whether anybody needs a sculpture that doesn’t need them in return?

I think that goes to the autonomy of a work of art. Nobody really needs a work of art. (Laughs.) And vice versa, I guess. But it’s true that these [three works] are very inviting somehow. And [they’re] inviting a pretty open-ended range of possibilities.

Before you first visited the park, did you have any ideas for what you were going to build? Or did that evolve after visiting?

After I visited the park, I was immediately thinking about trees. It doesn’t really have trees of any real scale because it’s such a new park. I’ve worked a lot with trees and so I thought that it [would be an] interesting thing to bring into and think about in a park. All three of the sculptures have trees, which we’re bringing down from Duchess County [in New York’s Hudson Valley].

How much of the work have you plotted out in advance?

It’s very laid out. It’s a big project so it requires a lot of people working on it. But at the same time, there are elements built into these three works that are going to have to be improvised on site.

Are the parameters of what you can do to the site more regulated because you’re working with the City of New York?

When I’m working [on a piece that will be displayed publicly] and thinking about something that potentially can be used or interacted with, I do have to think about safety and what people might do with these objects. That might be a restriction, but to me, that’s the exciting kind of restriction or constraint that actually brings the work into existence and forms the work. I’m really enthusiastic about working with that kind of problem.

Do you foresee a lot of impromptu decisions on the project?

Yes, particularly with the fountain. I think we’ve had to premeditate a lot of stuff because of safety and I’m not able to build a lot of it myself because of the scale of it. There is this element that you can’t quite control when you’re working with something as organic as a tree, which is nice. Even the computer-modelling programme that we’re using to make the architectural rendering isn’t capable of rendering the tree exactly. So there’s that nice gap between what we can premeditate and what’s going to have to be improvised on site.

You’ve worked with your brother Elias on numerous projects. How is a project different when you’re the sole mind behind it?

We’ve actually just opened a show in Paris [“We’re Just in It for the Money” at Galerie Balice Hertling until 4 August]. Working with Eli is pretty unique because we don’t have to talk about it that much. As brothers, we’ve been working together for a long time. It almost comes out of improvisation. I think you let yourself do things that you wouldn’t normally do in your own work when you collaborate because there’s always this moment of projection where you are projecting with the other person, just thinking, or you have an image of the other person somehow. I think it takes us each outside of our own work in a nice way.

Many writers describe your work as “attacking” the space it inhabits. Do you agree with that description?

I think it is accurate in a lot of my work. Maybe that comes back to the question of site-specificity. Within a museum or gallery, the connotations of what those spaces are changes from a small gallery to a larger gallery to an institutional space to a museum. And I guess there’s nothing to attack in a park. I feel like one of the things that a work can do within an exhibition space is engage with or challenge the context [of the space]. While not to say it’s a neutral environment, the range of possibilities of what you can do in a park is so much more open than what is possible in an exhibition space. So, I felt that the best thing I could do was to make something enjoyable and fun.

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