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The Hidden Significance of a Clothespin: A Conversation with John Salvest
by Bill Anthes for NUMBER: 44, Spring 2003, pp. 13-14.
Bill Anthes: I've seen several of your works that include
the image of the U.S. flag and the U.S. map, but you don't seem to
approach these symbols with the same deadpan attitude of, say, Jasper
Johns. I'm reminded more of installations like Dread Scott's "What
is the Proper Way to Display the Flag?" The flag is a very loaded
symbol. Why do you work with it?
John Salvest: All of my work begins with objects or materials that
I believe already have attached meaning—used coffee filters,
pills, pencils, chewing gum, etc. Maybe it's my Catholic upbringing
that has cursed and blessed me with eyes that find meaning in everything.
I agree with Baudelaire who said, "We walk through a forest
of symbols," but most of the time we are too tired or busy
to notice. Usually my task is to bring these submerged or half-forgotten
meanings to the surface. With the image of the flag, however, pre-existing
meaning is a given and is already particularly intense. Working
with the flag is very different from, say, trying to convey the
hidden significance of a clothespin. When I make an American flag
out of used cigarette butts or matches or pills I am layering meaning
upon meaning. These combinations of an already loaded symbol and
a specific material are intended to suggest discrepancies between
the ideal and the actual and to raise questions about the state
of our nation. Sometimes it seems that the main purpose of religious
or political icons is to squelch critical thinking. We are blinded
by the comfort and safety of being part of a group or numbed by
the promise of future happiness on some other hypothetical plane
of existence, and so we are distracted from our present sadness
or anger. The idea of America is, or should be, always evolving.
Its laws and even its constitution should be subject to constant
reexamination and revision. Creating a dialogue or tension between
the given design of the flag and the unorthodox material from which
it is made is a visual reexamination rather than a verbal one, like
a debate without words. The flag pieces are more overtly political
than a lot of my work, but still the main intent is to enrich experience
for the viewer by helping him or her to see things freshly or differently.
Did 9/11 change the way you think about the flag in your art?
Have you done more flag pieces since?
It did for a while. The over-saturation of red, white and blue that
accompanied the wave of patriotism after September 11, 2001, caused
me to question whether I'd ever make another flag. First of
all, did America really need another flag made of plastic cups poked
in a chain-link fence? I also recall many commentators speculating
about the death of irony at the time, and I too wondered if the
use of irony or humor in addressing the American way through its
most potent symbol was appropriate or relevant any longer. But just
as congressional repartee returned after a brief hiatus immediately
following the tragedy, the impulse to create new flag works returned.
Actually, the impulse was helped along by a commission for a flag
in the lobby of American State Bank in Jonesboro. That flag, constructed
of pennies and dimes, jump-started a series of new works, some of
which address the excessive use of the U.S. flag after September
11. I have an exhibition at the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville
that focuses exclusively on the flags and will include new works
as well as a sampling of older flags. I've always thought
of them as individual works and not as an ongoing series, but when
you suddenly realize that you've made ten of them, maybe it's
time to step back and look at them as a whole. I'm curious
about how they will function as a group. With the one-year anniversary
of 9/11 just behind us when the exhibition opened, it seemed like
an interesting moment to gather a roomful of them. Perhaps some
of my questions about the appropriateness or relevancy of such work
at this time will be answered.
Many of the works presented in TEXTure at the Arkansas Arts Center
have what I would describe as an indexical quality as regards the
passing of time. I'm thinking in particular of "Reliquary,"
"Newspaper Column" and "Coffee Calendar."
But I think there is also a time-based dimension in many of the
other pieces as well. Do you see these as a kind of performance?
Actually, I do. The works you mentioned, "Reliquary,"
"Newspaper Columns" and "Coffee Calendar"
can be seen as the remnants or evidence of ongoing private performances
or rituals. The saving of newspapers or fingernail clippings has
become habitual. I have several years' worth of used coffee
filters and many full year editions of various newspapers. The year
of coffee filters and several columns of newspapers you saw at the
Arkansas Arts Center were only a small part of the inventory. Why
I am compelled to save all of this stuff is another matter, although
you and I have talked before about the influence of growing up with
relatives who lived through the Depression and World War II rationing
programs. It's as if we have a second-hand economic insecurity
embedded in our psyches. Anyway, some of the things I save or accumulate
are organized in some way, usually chronologically, while others
are just gathered and stockpiled for future use. I think that anyone
who sees these projects can't help but consider the passage
of time and the performance of a repeated action by the absent maker.
There is never, intentionally, any trace of specific autobiography
in those works. My hope is that this anonymity will enable viewers
to substitute themselves and thereby connect more personally with
the work. I've noticed that even the non-indexical works,
because of their labor intensity, lead many viewers to think about
time and process. I'm often asked questions about how much
time it took to accumulate materials for a project or how much time
it took to construct a work, and I'm sure that it's
because everyone can easily relate to ordinary materials like straight
pins and postage stamps. The magic isn't in the materials
but instead in the time and labor involved.
Many people include the fact that you have a background in literature
to explain the inclusion of text in your sculpture. As a sculptor,
how would you describe your relationship to words?
As a kid I loved reading and writing. My mom has always loved books
and I think it rubbed off on me. Eventually I majored in English
in college. I guess I had this vague longing to communicate, but
writing seemed too sedentary and hermetic an activity for me then,
and that still holds true. I think that I'm too restless to
be a full-time writer. When I was first exposed to sculpture in
college, I was immediately attracted to its inclusiveness in terms
of materials and ideas, including the use of language. It seemed
to open up a world of endless possibilities and offered a more physical
and active form of creativity. That really appealed to me. So the
realization that I could communicate through materials instead of,
or in addition to, language was a great breakthrough for me. It
changed my life. From the very beginning my work had a narrative
quality, but for a long time I actually resisted the use of language.
It was probably inevitable, given my background, that text would
find its way into the work. Now I have a kind of double relationship
with words. When I use text in my work I am very focused upon the
physical characteristics of the words I am using—the number
and shape of letters, the logistics of shaping words from specific
materials, and the mathematics of fitting words into specific spaces.
When I am drafting plans for an artwork, graph paper is required.
When I write, I am more concerned with the abstract quality of words—their
meaning and infinite nuance. When I write, any kind of paper will
The two most recent pieces I have seen—"FLY"
at the Arkansas Arts Center and "Night Train" at the
Memphis Brooks Museum—have included sound. This seems to be
a change in the way that time is an element in your work, is that
In using sound, my main intention, as always, was to make the work
more interesting. I was interested in adding other sensory elements
that contribute to the overall meaning of the work. In earlier works
I had stumbled upon the use of smell, for example, because it was
a natural characteristic of the materials with which I chose to
work—the rubber tires I used in "Black River"
or the cigarette butts in "Smoke Free." Both "Night
Trail" and "FLY" used sound loops with no sense
of beginning, middle or end to them, so I wasn't trying to
control the time element in those works. They were meant more as
ambient, atmospheric sound that provided a soundtrack for the process
of looking at the visual elements. So in a way I think of the sound
element as only slightly less static than the visual elements. One
thing that sound may do is prolong the time spent with a particular
work by providing another hook for engaging the viewer. Someone
told me that museumgoers spend an average of something like three
seconds with a work of art, so maybe artists need all the help they
can get. The found loop for "Night Train," part of the
Side by Side exhibition at the Brooks Museum, had several minutes
of rail yard sounds that included train noises as well as a conversation
between engineers as they prepared for departure. I thought it was
pretty funny because, given the context, you couldn't help
but pick up on the sexual overtones of the rail men's banter,
which only reinforced the point I was trying to make about the trouble
with trains as subject matter. Viewers, as easily entertained as
I, might be compelled to stick around until the loop goes full circle.
Neither of these pieces includes text. Do you see yourself moving
away from words in your work? Do you see a change in the way that
meaning and message are conveyed in your work?
Actually, "FLY" did include text as well as sound. You
may recall that the sparrows were arranged on the wires to spell
out the word "fly." But in answer to your question about
moving away from the use of language, it seems that I never completely
abandon any element I've used before in my work. Even if they
disappear for a while, ideas, materials and images resurface. Also,
I tend not to jump from one style or medium to another or to make
distinctly separate bodies of work. Changes in my work are more
incremental. They may not be obvious from year to year or show to
show, but unfold over time, I think. I remember a time not so long
ago when I was answering questions about incorporating text in my
work, and now you are asking me if I'm moving away from it.
Maybe five years from now someone will be asking if I'll ever
use sound again. I said earlier that I always had this vague longing
to communicate and that I was lucky to discover a suitable vehicle
for personal expression in sculpture. My point of departure has
always been and will probably always be the commonplace, because
it seems that ordinary objects and images offer the greatest potential
for connection with the viewer. Over the years I have explored different
strategies for strengthening that connection and have gradually
developed a palette that includes text, smell, sound and other "colors."
For any given project I will continue to use whatever means seem
most effective in conveying meaning and message to as broad a spectrum
of viewers as possible. This is not to say that I will pander to
the lowest common denominator, but instead to suggest a genuine
consideration and respect for the audience, whatever its level of
involvement with contemporary art.