Contemporary art Interview Fairs USA

Ugo Rondinone: getting stoned at Rockefeller Plaza

“Fundamental” sculptures contrast with the pace and density of Manhattan

Ugo Rondinone’s Human Nature in Rockefeller Plaza, New York

The Swiss-born, New York-based artist Ugo Rondinone has two major presentations of his work in the city this week: Human Nature, consisting of nine colossal stone figures from 16 to 20 feet high, was commissioned by the Public Art Fund and is currently on display in Rockefeller Plaza, while a solo exhibition at the Gladstone Gallery opens on Saturday. He sat down with The Art Newspaper to discuss his working methods, influences, and opinion on art fairs.

The Art Newspaper: How did the works for the Rockefeller Center come about?

Ugo Rondinone: I was approached two years ago by the Public Art Fund (PAF) to think about specific work for the Rockefeller Center because they had stopped their public programme in 2008 and wanted to reanimate it. I wanted to do something very specific for that site because I think it’s magical. So I thought of Stonehenge in the middle of the city. These stone figures are the complete opposite of the site. Midtown is a very densely developed area, so I wanted to come in with something very fundamental in terms of material and subject. All the figures are titled after our fundamental feelings [such as “Sad”, “Ecstatic”, “Calm”]. I ­didn’t want to compete with industry because that’s what Midtown is.

What kinds of problems does working in a public space pose? Does it demand different ways of thinking?

There needs to be a more direct approach. The work should get a universal reaction. No one [member of the public] has any more information than anyone else. If you go into a gallery, you know specifically what you’re looking for. In public, the situation should be as democratic as possible. The work should be as simple, dumb, or as stupid as possible. So far, I’ve done five different bodies of public sculpture: the rainbows, the trees, the masks, the scholar rocks and this project. A rainbow is stupid, a human figure is stupid, and I’m stupid in saying so. The work is meant to be basic. But I never say why I’m doing what I’m doing. I believe if you explain it as accurately as possible, as true to the material, then you have a lot of information. With the Rockefeller Center, I didn’t want to do one single work competing with the architecture. So instead of going horizontal, I went vertical. These are interactive figures. People can walk around them. I could even have doubled the size of the works; it wouldn’t have been difficult to do. But I wanted a size where people could still relate to the figures and stand with them and be photographed. So all those little details are very important. I wanted to bring something really ancient to something modern, almost like a reminder of our basic being.

Are there artists that you look to on a consistent basis, or do you turn to others at particular moments, while you’re working on specific projects?

With these works—and especially because I was thinking about the fundamental human condition—I was thinking of Giacometti and what he would do if he were to build up stone figures. But I’m also interested in [the playwright] Samuel Beckett. I’m interested in [the] very defined and precise structure [of his writing]. There are no accidents and he strips down language to its essentials. He never gives a value; or, as soon as he gives a value, he devalues it with his next sentence. Even within his structure, there is much that is open ended. Many artists are inspired by Beckett, from Duchamp to Jasper Johns. Whenever you want to do something basic, you go back to Beckett.

What about the art fairs? Do you go? Are you interested?

I have no idea about the art fairs. I don’t go. I like to go where art is meant to be exhibited and not a corporate situation where you know that the layout has been laid out for customers, or where the gallery presents the art as goods. I believe you get much more out of a gallery exhibition than seeing the same artist installed at an art fair, even if it’s a solo presentation. You can be much more focused in a gallery. At art fairs, you’re always in the middle of other booths and you cannot control it. You have no control of the layout or of what is next to you; this kind of energy comes into play. In a gallery, it’s different. It’s singular, it’s isolated.

How does your show at Gladstone gallery relate to the PAF project?

This was the first time I worked in stone, so I wanted to train myself so that I wouldn’t be surprised. With the installation at the gallery, the sculptures are immersed within an architectural structure. There is a duality between the organic and the artificial. In the plaza, they are set within the architectural fabric of the city, and in the gallery show I wanted to create a similar confrontation of something architectural.

You’ve also just moved into a new studio space that is still being renovated. What do you plan to do with it?

There are three floors. I will live on one, but there will be space for poetry readings and perhaps music. There will also be five studios for younger artists who have just graduated from school. The programme should start in around six months. I’ve been asked many times to be a professor or an art teacher, and this is how I can give back.

Human Nature is at Rockefeller Plaza between 49th and 50th Streets, until 7 July

Ugo Rondinone
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