Notebook, 1993-


Andrea Zittel . . . . . On the Web

'Art as Roadside Attraction' - By JORI FINKEL
(Published: September 25, 2005 - NYtimes)

AFTER five years of living in the high desert near Joshua Tree National Park in California, the artist Andrea Zittel has begun to toy with the idea of turning her home into a roadside attraction. "I've taken a lot of road trips and have always loved those places where you have to pay 75 cents to see carved stones or U.F.O.'s," she said. "Besides, I'm so close to the highway that it just seems right."

While she has no U.F.O.'s for now, some of the objects designed by Ms. Zittel for her 1930's homesteader's cabin might well be described as alien. There's her kitchen table, for example, into which she has carved small craters on either side to hold the food - no plates needed.

Or maybe the Raugh (pronounced raw) furniture dominating her living room - gray, high-density foam that she has cut into a mountainous shape, with enough nooks and crannies to serve as a chair, desk and daybed in one. Outside, you can imagine a line forming to try out her Wagon Stations, futuristic-looking steel sleeping pods planted in the dry, dusty landscape.

But the main attraction at A-Z West - as her home and workplace are known - would be Ms. Zittel herself. "I know that opening my home like that would be impractical," she said, sitting at the dishless kitchen table and glancing at her one-year-old son, Emmett, on the floor. "But maybe one day in the future I could figure out how to do it."

To some degree her home has already become an art laboratory, design repository and exhibition venue. She has opened her doors to a stream of artists, students, curators, and writers, and shared her 80 acres of land with other artists for a series of earthworks exhibitions called "High Desert Test Sites," which began in 2002. For the last Whitney Biennial, she created a PowerPoint presentation, "Sufficient Self," that offered an intimate tour of A-Z West and a meditation on the American tradition of rugged individualism.

"I moved here looking for one site where my entire artistic process could be unified," she said, adding, "I've struggled for years with the fact that museums and galleries are not the ideal settings for my work."

That issue is pressing as Ms. Zittel, 40, puts the final touches on her first American museum retrospective, "Andrea Zittel: Critical Space," which opens next weekend at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston before traveling to the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in January. In February, the Whitney Museum of American Art will display her steel Wagon Stations at its branch in Midtown Manhattan.

The Houston retrospective covers 15 years of activity in a wide range of media, from her furniture to her more ephemeral personal experiments. "We're trying to show her whole trajectory, starting with the early pieces," said Paola Morsiani, a co-curator. "But because Andrea is so prolific, deciding what to put into the museum was a bit challenging."

So is showing just how closely her art is related to her everyday life. Like Rirkrit Tiravanija, who famously cooks Thai food in galleries at his exhibitions, Ms. Zittel often frames seemingly mundane experiences as art. When she moved to New York in 1990, fresh from graduate school, she was touched by the sight of so many discarded and broken objects on the street, like a wooden table with two legs missing and a plastic hubcap bent out of shape. She began taking the orphans home to her 200-square foot apartment and studio in Williamsburg to fix them up. She called the series "Repair Work."

"She works with propositions like a conceptual artist," said Shamim Momin, a curator at the Whitney, "but she never goes to the extreme where that gets really dry. She never goes so far as to say that the ideas behind the work are more important than the objects she makes."

Ms. Zittel ultimately gave her Brooklyn space a title, A-Z (since called A-Z East, to be distinguished from A-Z West), as if it too were a work of art. The conceit arose from frustration over not being taken seriously when she called manufacturers and suppliers for her projects. "I have this Southern California mall girl twang," she said, courtesy of her youth in a suburb of San Diego. The people who heard it, she said, "wanted to know who I was calling for. I would say 'me,' and they'd basically hang up." Soon, she began saying "A-Z Administrative Services" instead, and found it did the trick.

She still brands most of her artwork with the A-Z, and sometimes it's hard to tell where Andrea Zittel ends and A-Z begins. As she has told her students at the University of Southern California, where she began teaching as a "new genres" professor this semester, "For me the best things never start as art: they just start for fun, or as an experiment. You can always formalize them as art later on."

Take her A-Z Uniform series. As a gallery assistant in 1991, Ms. Zittel faced a challenge common to many entry-level New Yorkers. How do you dress well while making a measly $17,000 a year? Her solution was to pay a tailor good money to make a sturdy black linen dress that became her one and only outfit for six months.

It may sound like an experiment in sensory deprivation, but she insists, "I really did like that dress, and I felt I looked good in it, so I felt I looked good every day," said Ms. Zittel. "And the thing that kept me from going crazy from monotony is that the whole time I was wearing it, I was doing drawings of what my next uniform would look like."

The uniforms, which now include more than 45 variations, taught her a lesson: some constraints, especially those of one's own choosing, can be liberating.

She likes to make lists of things she can and cannot live without; for the latter, she offered "hot water, epidurals and heat." She has tried living without natural lighting for a week. She has purged her kitchen of plates and cups in favor of bowls. She taught herself to crochet without tools, using her fingers in place of needles.

She also welcomes space constraints. She has over the years built several kinds of portable chambers - most no bigger than a small closet - that can be plunked down into any apartment to serve various domestic functions. There are chambers outfitted for daily living (A-Z Living Units), cleansing (A-Z Cleansing Chambers), sleeping (A-Z Wagon Stations), even daydreaming (A-Z Escape Vehicles). In the cleansing unit, the bathtub doubles as a sink.

Because of her interest in industrial design, Ms. Zittel has been embraced by shelter magazines as the art world's answer to Philippe Starck. But she rejects this label and has declined requests to have her designs mass-produced. "I am not a designer - designers have a social responsibility to provide solutions," she said. "Art is more about asking questions."

"A lot of people think of me as a lifestyle artist," she said. "They talk about the bowls, or the uniforms, but they never go on to say that it's my way of commenting on the fact that our need for constant variety becomes oppressive. I think of what I do as a kind of practical philosophy."

Her New York dealer, Andrea Rosen, compared her to Richard Tuttle, suggesting that both use art to achieve a high level of consciousness. "Imagine that everything in your life, everything in your house, became an opportunity to find meaning," Ms. Rosen said. "Usually we wait to read that great book or have that great conversation to find meaning, but Andrea has created a structure whereby everything in her life becomes an opportunity for thoughtfulness."

Ms. Zittel prefers the word mindfulness, with its Buddhist connotations, saying it was one of her motivations for moving to the desert five years ago. "The desert focuses you," she said. "I thought it would make me a better artist."

Another draw was the community of artists she had met in Los Angeles through various teaching jobs. "All the artists I knew in New York were making art to show, art oriented to exhibition," she said. "My peer group here showed a little less, but they did things in their personal life that were fascinating to me. They had weird hobbies like building a 31-foot steel-hulled sailboat in their studio, or baking cakes and identifying bugs, or obsessively gardening, or getting their master's degree in knitting."

She now collaborates regularly with some of these artists, like Jennifer Nocon (the gardener) and Lisa Anne Auerbach (the knitter). Many of them have cooked up large-scale, site-specific works for her off-the-grid exhibition, "High Desert Test Sites." And several have signed up to customize the steel Wagon Stations that Ms. Zittel designed with both covered wagons and station wagons in mind. The plan is for each artist to individualize one of the stationary vehicles, which will essentially become their overnight desert lodgings once the works return from the Whitney to A-Z West next spring.

Then there's a hiking club, involving many of the same artists. For several years, the group took to the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles on Sundays. More recently, they have begun tackling the trails in the back of Ms. Zittel's property. Everyone who hikes wears a costume. Ms. Zittel wears her A-Z Uniforms.

She is careful not to claim the hiking club as her idea-"I don't want to co-opt it as my own; it's really a fun group activity." But, like so much in the "gestational pool" that is her life, these hikes are just one small step away from becoming a work of art. And that step will be taken from Oct. 21 to 24, during the Frieze Art Fair in London, when Ms. Zittel will organize a series of costumed hikes. She will also be pitching a tent in the fair's exhibition hall, where the dozen California hikers flying in for the event can camp out and greet visitors.

"The people at Frieze probably expected me to design chairs for the cafe," Ms. Zittel said. "But I wanted to do something more alive." Which, now more than ever, seems to be the driving force behind her highly inventive work.}

(NYTimes - September 25, 2005)



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