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The Myth of Sisyphus
Lincoln American Tower
Memphis, Tennessee
October 30–November 5, 1991

(in conjunction with Southeastern College Art Conference Annual Meeting)

The Myth of Sisyphus began with the delivery of two wooden pallets to the lobby of an old office building in downtown Memphis. These pallets held 1354 standard concrete bricks, and on each brick was stenciled one word from the text of "The Myth of Sisyphus," an essay by Albert Camus in which he compares Sisyphus to "the workman of today, whose fate is no less absurd." During the course of the exhibition/performance I carried the bricks, three at a time, up 21 flights of stairs to the top story of the building, where the complete text was gradually laid out in readable form in a room overlooking the Mississippi River. Like Sisyphus' rock, the text was dismantled and the bricks returned to ground level.

The following contains excerpts from an "Interview with John Salvest" conducted by Jeff Kessinger in the artist's studio in Jonesboro on May 25, 1991. The complete interview appeared in the Southeastern College Art Conference Review, Volume XII, Number 1, 1991.

Kessinger: Let's talk about The Myth of Sisyphus. How did you pick the Lincoln American Tower as a site?

Salvest: Prior to receiving the 1990 Southeastern College Art Conference Exhibition Grant I had come up with an idea for the project, but had no particular place in mind. My only criterion was that the project involve obvious vertical movement. So, a tall building seemed to be the most appropriate kind of site. When I was awarded the grant I began to think about suitable locations in Memphis. Having lived in Memphis for a few years, I was pretty familiar with downtown. Only one building came to mind as a potential site. So I drove to Memphis from Jonesboro and went directly to the Lincoln American Tower. I learned later that it's a scaled-down replica of the Woolworth Building in New York, and that it was completed in 1923. From the outside it seemed ideal because it has the patina of age and because its verticality was exaggerated like a rocket ship's. When I stepped inside the building and saw the lobby, I was even more delighted. It was small and kind of funkily elegant like something out of Mystery Train. Its small scale was perfect because the pallets of bricks would have a visual impact there at the bottom of the building. No one was going to miss the piles of stenciled bricks right there by the elevator. Also, there's a staircase that curves up to the second floor mezzanine to suggest the upward ascent. I wondered if the top floors would work, so I went and talked to Don Lovelace, the building manager, about the project.

Kessinger: And how did the building manager respond to your idea?

Salvest: He was very receptive to it. I explained that the project would be executed during a regional conference to be held at The Crowne Plaza, which is about four blocks away, and I think that helped my case. I asked if he knew the myth. He didn't. So, I explained the myth and some background about the project. He took me upstairs to the twenty-first floor, which is the top floor. This, of course, was an important element. It was unbelievable. The whole top floor is one room with beautiful windows that look out onto the river and downtown. It's a fairly large room and the dimensions couldn't be more perfect. In my original proposal the layout for the text called for approximately ten by twenty-six feet. This room is sixteen by twenty-six feet, so I would need to adapt the configuration only slightly to fit the space. Also, the stairwell that begins on the mezzanine level reappears and opens right into the room. Even if you take the elevator, which also opens onto the room, there's that visual reminder of the non-mechanical ascent. It's really theatrical and it's a beautiful setting for the project.

Kessinger: Sisyphus is condemned to futile and hopeless labor as punishment for a number of interventions into godly affairs. You said you shared something with Sisyphus as a sculptor. How far can you take this metaphor? Have you been passing along privileged information of the gods to mortals?

Salvest: I don't know. I can't really say I've passed on any privileged information other than that, in a broad sense, we're all gods or all can be gods. What I mean is that, by being conscious of our fate, we can become masters over it. As Camus states in his essay, "crushing truths perish from being acknowledged." This is true of factory workers as well as artists, I think. As long as we have the capacity to reflect upon our mortality and yet still go on, then we are the creators and controllers of our own destinies.

Kessinger: Sisyphus' labor was punishment. However, you're involved in an ascetic act. No one is forcing you to make your art.

Salvest: That's right. No one, that is, other than myself. For several years I worked at Port Newark in New Jersey, where I was an expeditor for an automobile import/export operation. Seeing endless lots of Toyotas and BMWs made a big impression on me. That job required a lot of repetitious and systematic labor, and it really put some things in perspective for me. I realized how much I resented doing the same thing over and over again when somebody else was making the assignments. Now, I'm a relatively independent person and I'm giving myself repetitive tasks to perform. It's crazy. If somebody else told me to spend all day sorting buttons or alphabet noodles, or sharpening pencils until bursitis sets in, I'd be angry. But as long as I'm telling myself to do it, it's okay.

Kessinger: The artist is often envisioned as self-possessed or self-fulfilled. His or her work is often viewed as different from those whose work is compensated strictly monetarily. Are you as an artist reflecting on this? Wasn't the futility of Sisyphus' labor meant to be punishment?

Salvest: Yes. It was intended to be punishment, but I think that Camus suggests in his essay that the gods could not or did not foresee the satisfaction that Sisyphus was able to experience in his task. The satisfaction comes from Sisyphus' acknowledgement and acceptance of its futility. This is what Camus calls the triumph of the absurd hero. This message can be applied to any human effort, self-motivated or otherwise. But the frustration most artists experience in simply surviving while seeking personal fulfillment may cause them to relate more intensely to Sisyphus' plight.

Kessinger: In the original myth Sisyphus did not receive anything from his condemned task except suffering.

Salvest: I don't think that the original myth said much about Sisyphus' state of mind. I think that Camus even mentions that. It is presumed that this is a punishment that can only lead to suffering, but by entering the psyche of the condemned mortal, Camus sees the possibility for Sisyphus, at least during the descent, to transcend his fate.

Kessinger: It seems to me the point of the myth is that Sisyphus is to serve as an example for all to see. It is essential for the reader, or in your work, for the viewer, to complete the work.

Salvest: I think that's true. In the essay Camus says, "Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them." When my project is being carried out at the Lincoln American Tower, the amount of information available to the viewer will be pretty minimal--just some guy hauling bricks with words on them up twenty-one flights of stairs, laying them out, and then hauling them back down again. I'm anxious to see how people, especially those with no background knowledge of the project, will interpret what they see. I hope it stirs an imagination or two.

Kessinger: Camus gave Sisyphus the possibility of becoming superior to his fate only during the moments he descended the hill, not as he struggled to push the stone up. For you the absurd activity is meaningful at all times, not just as you come down the stairs.

Salvest: At least that's how I foresee feeling about it. I'm comparing this project to an older work called Insomnia that really inspired The Myth of Sisyphus. That work also involved painted bricks, but it was actually about not being able to sleep at night. The logistics of transporting and showing that piece were peripheral to the real subject matter. The process of packing it, moving it, unloading it, installing it, and then following the same procedure in reverse several times became an absurd and frustrating exercise. I hadn't really anticipated that aspect of the work. I expect to feel differently while executing The Myth of Sisyphus because it is intended to be an absurd exercise. You might want to check with me later after I've hand-stenciled 1354 bricks and hauled them from Jonesboro to Memphis and back.