Tauba Auerbach's dizzying, opt-art minded work draws influence from many sources, from the stark graphic designs of Alexander Girard to Guy de Cointet's linguistic musings. Working across a variety of mediums, her current show of large-scale paintings, photographs, and sculpture, Here and Now/And Nowhere at Deitch Projects, has a grand white elephant as its centerpiece. It's a two-person pump organ, which, dressed as cult priestesses Auerbach and her friend Cameron Mesirow (aka Glasser) played to a rapt audience of a few hundred people during the show's opening. Auerbach and Mesirow designed the instrument, which like all proper white elephants is for sale (when the organ sells, a second one will be crafted for the artists' personal use).
Six "fold" paintings on the gallery's opposing wall are arranged to mimic the rising peak of the organ's pipes, a reminder of the overlap of the visual and auditory. If ever a gallery echoed a chapel, Auerbach's current show conjures a certain sanctity, a contemplative space for image and sound.
Earlier this year at nearby Team Gallery, viewers buzzed about Cory Arcangel's video "Arnold Schoenberg, op. 11–I–Cute Kittens" a ribald piss-take on the Viennese composer's signature atonal style reduced to hiccups of piano plunking. Unlike that desultory stab at avant-gardism, Auerglass (as the organ is known) is a remarkable platform for creation, a genuine attempt to make music not pick it a part. What emerges from the wooden pipes of Auerglass are hauntingly dissonant nocturnes, one part Philip Glass, two parts György Ligeti with a dash of Steve Reich's "Piano Phase" thrown in for good measure. The music likewise results from their cooperation: one cannot play this instrument without a second player. Although the organ is an analog instrument, their original composition intimates a digital-like sound. Similarly, manual elements like hand-touched Ben-Day dots, ironed creases on canvas, and 35mm-film television screenshots of static produce a cumulative digital sheen to the work hung on the walls. (Performances Tues-Sat at 5pm daily until 17 October). [Photo: N. Dash; Dress designs by Ida Falck Oeien]
STEVE PULIMOOD: In the early 1960s Lee Friedlander made several photographs of television sets. For me that series looks like stills from horror films, or at the least images of life perverted by the incessant slipstream of mass media. I was reminded of them because I thought that your photographs of television static were somewhat disturbing... Did you grow up too close to the TV?
TAUBA AUERBACH: No not at all. I was only allowed to watch PBS for a long time. Then at some point I begged my parents for cable so I could watch Nickelodeon.
PULIMOOD : When did you know you were an artist?
AUERBACH: I never thought otherwise.
AUERBACH: It's the one constant in my life. But it's more general than art, it's a drive to make...
PULIMOOD: Your parents were architects and designers, right?
AUERBACH: Yes, my parents have a theater architecture and lighting firm in San Francisco.
PULIMOOD: Name an artist whose work has stuck in your mind, haunted you for some period, whose work you've maybe dreamt about... at that time or any.
AUERBACH: Today I'm haunted by the James Turrell's holograms. And I think about Steven Parrino a lot these days.
PULIMOOD: In their own ways, Parrino and Turrell make unrepentantly bold images. I'm interested in the time when you worked as a sign painter. I assume you were an autodidact in learning the skills of graphic design.
AUERBACH: Yes, very much. All of my friends did graffiti. I wasn't any good at it, but I was good at drawing letters on paper. I got really into it in high school and then I started working at the sign shop during college. I collected books of fonts and calligraphy. We did everything by hand there. Drawing letters and especially spacing the letters by hand and by eye makes you understand them differently from if you just type and move them around on the computer.
PULIMOOD: When I think about "The Whole Alphabet," a piece you made in 2006 by typing the entire alphabet on a single page in the space of a single letter (the result: a black smudge), I think of the sound the typing makes... knowing full well that it took 26 strikes of the key to produce what appears to be a fuzzy dot. It reminds me of Jasper Johns' famous overlaid number and letter works, such as 0 through 9 (1961)... one of which, by the way, is particularly relevant because it's going into the Obama White House!
AUERBACH: The sound of him drawing?
PULIMOOD: Yes - Johns drawing and drawing and drawing, working in silence with only the mark-making audible... What role do sound and music play in your work? I was looking at the photos of static and I thought of the sound of a TV sputtering static... or the paper crumple, or the fabric creasing.
AUERBACH: I love that idea. And during the making of those photographs I had my head under a blanket with the TV and my camera, so I was hearing the sputtering static and the rapid heavy click of a clunky old Nikon. The creasing in the "fold" paintings is often done with an iron. So now you can add the sound of the steam.
PULIMOOD: How was Auerglass conceived of?
AUERBACH: Cameron and I lived together for several years. One night in San Francisco we were bored, so we made a banjo out of a cookie tin. That started the gears turning. We wanted to make an instrument that we could both play, and then it turned into an instrument that we would both have to play, one that relied on our friendship and our trust in another to operate.
PULIMOOD: What about the outfits and jewelry? Are they integral to the performance?
AUERBACH: The outfits, the shoes and jewelry all are part of the concept. The dresses are like bellows, and the heels of my shoes fit like puzzle pieces into the heels of Cameron's. They were made by our friend Ida Falck Oeien. Cameron and I made the necklaces.
PULIMOOD: Tell me about how the music evolved... What were your influences–Phillip Glass, Ligeti, Schoenberg... or was this something entirely else?
AUERBACH: We didn't set out to make it like anything else. The organ arrived in New York a few weeks before the show. First we had to get acquainted with it. It was like getting to know an animal. We composed the piece bit by bit, each day writing a few bars. It was totally collaborative, but the way the instrument operates precludes certain kinds of playing and is conducive to others. For example, the only way you can increase the volume is by playing more notes at once. You can't chose to play louder or softer, so the dynamics are totally written into the piece. The piece we play is half structured and half improvisation. It starts out ordered and gets more chaotic towards the end, and changes every day.
PULIMOOD: Is that last effect you mention-to start with order that gradually dissipates into chaos-the music's relation to the work on the walls?
AUERBACH: That particular tension is a common thread throughout the show, the idea of merging two things... states of being, order and randomness, randomness and chaos, two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality.
Here and Now/And Nowhere is open through October 17th. Deitch projects is located at 18 Wooster Street in New York.