Running Man, 1982, Berlin Wall

PC:  Did your Human Structure series precede the monument, the sculpture that you had proposed for the World Trade Center memorial competition?

JB: Yes, I was already beginning to develop this idea, in 2000, 2001, of taking my counting exercise, the idea of infinite numbers, and then taking my psychological figurative work and blending these seemingly disparate activities. Figures were already connecting to figures in a systemic manner. So when 9-11 happened and there was a public call a for memorial competition, it was a natural step for me to take the many figures I was already connecting together into different objects--as prayers—and symbolically taking the number of people who were lost in that moment of history and build creating a beautiful tower with their silhouetted images. The tower structure was designed by connecting just over three thousand life-sized stainless steel figures together.

I saw it as a rebuilding, using symbols for the lives that were lost to build something beautiful back upwards again.  I was a bit disappointed that in the final round of the competition there were no sculptures that were considered.  They seemed to decide on more of a landscaping type of solution, going down into the ground rather than reaching upwards as I was proposing. I just wanted to create a symbolic tower that illustrated humanity rising upwards, building itself and constructing our world together.  I wanted something positive to rise from this place of tragedy.

PC:  You were saying you see the figures in the work as a kind of prayer?

JB:  At this point I’ve started to use that word.  It slipped into my conversation one day, and the word still seems to fit the work I’m doing today. If there is no prayer, then we’re left with hopelessness.

You know, there are choices that people can make whether to be positive and hopeful or whether to be negative and fearful.  There is a danger in our society, and it seems in most societies, that there can be a tendency to feed off of fear. If two countries don’t see eye to eye, let’s just say it might be Iran and the United States at this particular moment, then each country has the possibility to fuel and feed off of their own fears, thereby creating a greater possibility of war and disaster. And on the other hand there is the possibility to break down these barriers of fear by reaching out to each other.

It takes wise and enlightened leaders to do this. Diplomacy is a talent which we must expect our leaders to possess. Weak leaders fan the flames of their own fears and lead us into wars.  Strong leaders keep us out of wars. Sometimes I can be so unhappy with what I see, the way humanity treats humanity on a daily basis. If we choose to watch the news--which I’m beginning to wonder why I do---but if we choose to watch the news on a daily basis, we are fed with quite a dose of unhappy ways people treat each other.  And we do break down, it seems into groups, counter groups, one against the other, no matter where we are.

I don’t know why we’re so surprised that the Iraqis can’t get their government together when we’ve had a few hundred years here in the U.S., and we’ve just managed to civilize it enough here in 2008 so the Republicans and the Democrats don’t carry guns.  We’ve got it civilized down to just inertia, and we get very little done for four years at a time, while each party does its best to hurt the other party. Psychological warfare.

PC: You talk about human freedom, as well as connection among all peoples.  When you talk about freedom, do you mean individual freedom, freedom to change?

JB.  Well, let’s see.  Freedom is quite an important word, of course.  I used to say, “We’re all learning to be free.”   I used to write that on the wall in each of my museum installations.  Learning to be free.  It’s a process.   Obviously it’s a learning process that will continue into the future.

But what does it mean to be free?  Well, when people get to live relatively good and peaceful lives, and they get to feed their families, and they get to stay healthy, and they get to do a few things they want to do. That would be a starter, I guess.

It’s real basic.  As soon as you start doing something that disturbs other people, now we have a problem.  If you start interfering with another person’s life or life style, or if you start interfering with another country’s life or life style, then you begin to create unhappiness.  So that’s where the learning process comes in, and where we have to learn to talk to each other and to find what’s the best way to compromise in a given situation.

                                        Human Structures (detail), 2008, polycarbonate

And this is where I come back to my basic philosophy of the moment anyhow: and that is that we’re all part of something very large, a civilization, a humanity that is all connected together and to take that one step further, this one humanity is connected to a planet of organic life that exists amongst apparently an infinite universe of planets. This is a feeling, and it has to be felt:  the words are only descriptive. Of course, we’ve heard our whole lives, that if you hurt somebody, you’re hurting yourself. We have to find ways to be free, but make sure that everybody is accommodated in this freedom. It’s sort of freedom with responsibilities to the whole. That is why planetary ecological discussions are becoming relevant today.

PC:  I think you mentioned once in another interview, that with public art you have a responsibility to the people who walk or drive by who don’t have a choice about seeing the work?

JB:  For myself, I just try to use archetypal symbols that everyone can relate to.  For me, it’s a thin line to balance between being too obvious and being symbolically profound or helpful.  In any case it usually takes a while for these symbols to become part of the public psyche.  And I guess in a few cases I have pushed the limits.

PC: Ballerina Clown?

JB:  That was definitely pushing the limits. Ballerina Clown is not a work you’re going to put up in the center of Philadelphia, or the center of Boston, but it is a work you can consider pushing the limits with one block off the beach in Venice California, where you have weight lifters walking up and down the beach in their striped outfits.  You have performance artists on the beach doing their thing on a daily basis.  It’s a massive party there along the beach—well, not really a party, but a spectacle, especially on weekends. Having lived there at that time, it seemed like this would be a place for this image, which, by the way, was an important psychological image for me as well But just because it’s a personal psychological image for me, doesn’t make it viable for public consumption.

But, as I said, in most locations that image it wouldn’t be acceptable, but it did have a potential for life there in Venice. I gave the client two options.  One was much more conservative an option, and he chose Ballerina Clown, which I was thrilled about.  But the image had all sorts of loaded subject matter in it, which naturally is going to confront a lot of people.  Loaded subject matter like male-female together in one image:  a male clown head sitting on top of a female ballerina set of legs and with a tutu on.  It’s a pretty dramatic image already, but as I’ve already said, very much in keeping with the spectacle that was and is Venice Beach.

The sculpture dealt with bringing the male and female together, which is an image I’ve used on many occasions in public sculptures, but not so theatrically.  It also dealt with bringing the duality of street performers like those in Venice together with a more classical performer, like a ballerina, so you had those two ends of the spectrum in terms of performance.  So there were interesting things going on there, but the bottom line was that you still have this pretty shocking image up on the side of a building, kicking with a motorized leg. I certainly understood why leaflets were being circulated to take the sculpture down. Papers were circulated to take it down, and, you know, I’m glad there was no blogging then, or it would have been really crazy.  Luckily the most important art critic of the moment in Los Angeles gave it a rave review in the LA Times, which didn’t help to settle down the angry people, but it certainly helped to win over the people who were in the middle and didn’t quite know what to think about it.

PC:  You said your Ballerina Clown was a personal image?

JB: Personal philosophy, psychology in the sense that the male and the female are being brought together into one image. I always said I was 51% male and 49% female.  I seem to be a normal, regular male.  I’m married, to a woman.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the feminine aspect within me. It is the recognition of these feminine parts that gives me strength and wisdom as a male. And it was a kind of personal statement about that.

PC: I suppose it’s only in 2008 that you have to add “to a woman” when you say you’re married.

JB:  You caught that.  I wanted to make a point in my statement to you.  By the way, I have other images that deal with male aggression, a painting called Male Aggression with a lot of weapons coming out of the male’s groin area, rockets and guns and things. You know, it is our overly macho males that keep getting us into wars while the females are kept hidden away. The really strong and wise males have this balance of male and female energies and therefore don’t carry within themselves the fears that ultimately stimulate aggression. There is a balance we have to find amongst ourselves, personally, each one of us. I’ve been dealing with these thoughts in myself and wanted to put out imagery that would make people talk a little and think a little about themselves.

PC: You also have public sculpture that’s male or female depending on where you stand in relation to it when you look at it?

JP: Correct.  I have one in Baltimore in front of the train station. I have a different style one in Offenberg, Germany, one in Japan and a few other places.  Different ways of illustrating this same psychological issue of male/female.  If I break it down, if I look at our universe, the way my life works, it does seem to come down to learning to bring two energies into balance so that I achieve a greater force, a greater energy.

A good example--going way back to ancient times, is the symbol of the yin and the yang swirling together. In our present life, we know that electricity is produced by connecting two wires, a positive and a negative.  Today, we know that computers communicate with each other by using binary code--a zero and a one. In this case two numbers, coming together in different sequences, create the language that is used by every computer in the world. This is how we talk to each other.

                Artist's studio with Human Structures, 2007

And now we come to the obvious, like males and females relating to each other. Or Republicans and Democrats. Or Blacks and Whites in America. Imagine, at this point in our evolution we actually call ourselves “Blacks” and “Whites”! It has been worked into our vocabulary, I guess, in the sixties.  “Negroes” and “Caucasians” didn’t work any more, so we became “Blacks” and “Whites.” Now, looking at myself in the mirror, I’m definitely not white. Depending on how much I’ve been in the sun, I’m some shade of tan or cream color.  And the skin color of every African-American I’ve seen is definitely not black, but different shades of browns.  But we’ve somehow brought it down to this duality once again.

And our heart beats in and our heart beats out, the ocean rises and the ocean falls—actually these are lines from one of my songs “It’s Amazing to Be Alive.”

So now we see it: we’ve got these two forces that can either work in unity together or be out of balance with each other.  And the more out of balance they are, the less pure energy is achieved.  And the more in balance they are, the better the energy.  And that’s true with the interaction of a husband and wife or with a political party such as Democrats and Republicans.

So it’s fascinating for me to observe this. I have to see where I’m taking it from here. I’m not sure. I’ve got about twenty years left to develop my own understanding of what’s going on.


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Interview Part 2

© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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                      Ballerina Clown, 1989, fiberglass, steel, electric motor, Venice, California

Hammering Man, 1990, painted steel, electric motor, Frankfurt

People Tower, 2003, World Trade Center memorial competition, 3,024 life-size stainless steel figures

People Tower (detail), 2003, World Trade Center memorial competition, 3,024 life-size stainless steel figures

People Tower, 2008, computer rendering of sculpture for Beijing Olympics, 65 feet, painted steel

Walking to the Sky,2006,100-foot stainless steel pole with 10 life-size figures, Carnegie-Mellon University

All Images in this interview: ©Jonathan Borofsky.  Images are provided courtesy of the artist and used with permission.