Last month (if all went according to plan), a three-car passenger train snaked through the mountains of Switzerland covered from head to tail in a rigorous, brightly colored geometric pattern. The train (temporarily re-faced as part of the Swiss winter art exhibition “Elevation 1049: Avalanche“) is a piece by the New York-based artist Sarah Morris—perhaps one of the most prolific and multifarious artists working today. Morris is probably best known as an abstract painter, a designation, particularly in light of the recent resurgence of messy, lyrical abstraction by a flurry of young artists, that utterly fails to capture the depth, precision, and potent societal forces at play in her canvases. Morris’s paintings are like controlled detonations, more scientific than spontaneous declarations, and, thus, their obsessive, kaleidoscopic grids function like cultural spiderwebs or structural lattice underneath the smooth skin of economies and behavior. Morris has been making her idiosyncratic paintings since the mid-1990s, and with each new series, there is the simultaneous sense of déjà vu and aesthetic progression. The counterweight to her painting practice can be found in her hypnotic films often based on a fixed city or figure (Los Angeles, Robert Towne, Rio, Miami). On first appearance, they have the misleading quality of documentary form but really feel like hyper-realist fantasies or footage shot by an extraterrestrial information-collecting service. And it’s no wonder that turning a Swiss train into a canvas appealed to her, because her work routinely focuses on detailed coordinates of time and place.
Morris, at age 49, is gearing up for a busy 2017. This spring she unveils a suite of new paintings and drawings at Petzel Gallery in New York based on the Middle East—specifically Abu Dhabi—with influences including GPS technologies, topological mapping, and laser QR codes. She will also premiere a new film shot on the desert outskirts of Abu Dhabi in its vanishing and/or everlasting moment of empire. Her friend, the French artist Philippe Parreno, got on the phone with her this past January to find out more about her practice and how she found herself in the center of Manhattan as an assistant to Jeff Koons in the first place.
SARAH MORRIS: Philippe! Are you still in Mexico?
PHILIPPE PARRENO: I’m in Paris. I was in Mexico for a couple of days to put together an exhibition. What are you up to?
MORRIS: I’m in the middle of editing two films right now, and I’m also about to do a show at Petzel. Oh, and I’m doing a train in Switzerland. [laughs]
PARRENO: A train, eh?
MORRIS: A train, yeah. It runs from Montreux to Zweisimmen. It’s called the GoldenPass. It’s my version of a monarch caterpillar moving through the snow. I’m wrapping the cars of the train in my colors and diagram so the train will be in a vinyl cocoon. The train is in a cocoon. Maybe if you’re in Switzerland, you’ll see it crossing the countryside.
PARRENO: I will let you know if I’m in the country. I’m glad we have this chance to talk because I’ve been thinking of some of our common interests for a while. One of them, which we’ve never discussed before, is the idea of automation or automatism or automats.
MORRIS: Yes! I was thinking about this, too.
PARRENO: It’s hard to not. The paintings you make are done in a sort of automatic way. And of course, there’s the film side of your work that also has the feeling of automation—one image chained to another in an automatic way.
MORRIS: For me, it’s more like one image is an index for a whole set of other images that sets off the chain. It’s true with the paintings, too. I’ve never really talked about this, but I think about it all the time—this desire to erase oneself and also to erase the hand and have the feeling of one image being an index for another. It’s like Deleuze’s concept of rhizomes. You find it in the way potatoes reproduce or how a spider plant grows another spider plant. I think that people tend to look at the paintings as being resolved or finite. But, to me, a painting can be an index for all of the paintings I’ve done and all of the paintings I’m going to do. It’s like if I’m doing a film of the Olympics, I’m not examining a specific sport; I’m interested in the overall context. And that’s also true if it’s the Oscars or the president walking across the lawn, in my film Capital. I’m interested in the reduction of these moments because I know that we can read these things very, very quickly. There’s a speed to reading and looking that we all do constantly.
PARRENO: And it’s not the case with you that you first think in painting and you move to film. One practice doesn’t follow the other.
MORRIS: No. I didn’t get my start in art school. The idea of erasing the hand is something that comes very naturally to me. I’m just not that interested in showing how the thing is made.
PARRENO: So it’s automatic, but it’s mechanic as well. There’s something that triggers the work and then it starts to develop itself.
MORRIS: Yes. Once you set up this system, it develops itself. For both, there are a set of coordinates, of rules. Of course, it starts with a desire to place myself in a certain situation, whether it be a story or an image. But once I have that dynamic, it’s set free. I’m free of it in a way. That’s what I mean by this sense of erasure. You’re inside some event or spectacle and you know you’re complicit in it, but there really is no external.
PARRENO: So you’re sort of dealing with a machine, no? Whether it’s a city or an event, it’s all a big machine.
MORRIS: In a sense, but the machine is much more schizophrenic than anybody could imagine because there are many different types of things going on all at the same time. And I’m always working on so many projects at once. Like right now, I’m making a train, I’m finishing two films, I have many paintings that I want to make, and maybe will in three years …
PARRENO: So there really is no difference between the films and the paintings in your mind?
MORRIS: Well, I also think the films and the paintings erase each other. The paintings are extremely slow and constantly going on in the studio—they’re constantly regenerating themselves in this slow, monotonous way that’s a physical struggle and can be a pain in the ass. They’re all based on very specific math and diagrams. And the films, when I’m making them, are very fast, very collaborative, with a lot of improvisation. With the films, it starts off with certain coordinates in the world and seeing what happens. What happens if you place yourself at an oil refinery in the Middle East? What happens if you place yourself in the White House Cabinet Room? What happens if you place yourself with Brad Pitt on the set of a film? And so on. And no matter what I capture, there is a sense of déjà vu to it, like you might have come across this visual before. That’s probably because images are always circulating at very fast speeds anyhow. Nevertheless, you make them again. So there’s an automated element to it no matter how specific the coordinates are on the map.
PARRENO: You just finished your film in Abu Dhabi, right?
MORRIS: I shot it in the desert outside of Abu Dhabi. Again, it has that element of going from the micro to the macro. It’s going from the sand and the erasure of the desert to the architecture and a society that, in a way, knows its limits in terms of time due to the oil being a limited resource that we all know will eventually end. And what are they going to do about it? They’ve created this city on the edge of Abu Dhabi designed by Norman Foster. It’s called Masdar. It’s supposed to be completely green, and they’re trying to invent mechanisms of a new society that would regenerate itself through new sources of fuel-like discovering an enzyme that eats waste, or these sorts of molecular solutions to energy. It’s a society that’s dealing with the threat of its own demise. That’s the setting for the first film. The colors are extremely beautiful—all beige and washed out. And it was really interesting, that space between the city and the desert. They’re literally lined up right against each other, so you can leave the city and in a step enter into nothing. It’s sort of an existential situation there. And then there is another film I’m doing that I’m still actively editing, which I shot with Alexander Kluge who was the lawyer for the Frankfurt School and a filmmaker, writer, and philosopher. He has a really beautiful voice. I asked him to read a very specific script that I extracted from a book by James P. Carse called Finite and Infinite Games. And it’s about game playing.
PARRENO: Is Kluge also an actor?
MORRIS: No, but he made a very famous film in the ’60s called Yesterday Girl . I was actually thinking of using Werner Herzog, and then I rejected that idea because Kluge is a more nuanced version and much more interesting to me. I could have spent several years filming this guy. He went off script, which I told him to freely do. But I’ve taken his voice and placed it inside this philharmonic hall on the waterfront of Hamburg, which was designed by Herzog & de Meuron. It’s this text with his voice inside of this empty void of a building. It’s like a vacuum. So that’s the piece I’m finishing now. And, as I said, the paintings are ongoing.
PARRENO: The paintings are based on architecture, no?
MORRIS: It’s always been sort of a misunderstanding that the paintings are about architecture. They’re not really. They use architecture. They use the strategies of architecture—distraction and scale. And I title them after existing or past places that have been institutions of authority, whether for the good or for the bad. The paintings themselves are almost like virtual places, almost like looking at the world from GPS topological software. I’m really interested in the development of QR codes and how they were used to bring you to a specific object but now they’re used to bring you to specific places or times. As I left the MoMA Picasso show, I got a QR code on my receipt. So that code is like a portal bringing me to that place and time. I was thinking that the paintings sort of function like that. They’re my version of a QR code. The paintings are portals. They cite architecture but they aren’t based on specific architecture. I make a painting and call it Revlon Corporation, but it has no direct bearing on the real Revlon corporation.
PARRENO: I would say that’s similar for your films. The subjects of what you shoot might not really end up being about that subject.
MORRIS: People have always talked about art being like an alibi. Or even Warhol talked about Interview magazine as being an excuse to have a conversation. I definitely view art the same way. Of course, art in and of itself gives me some feeling of elation or power and is in some way curative. But actually what’s interesting at the end of the day is the various interpretations and conversations between us. Something that exists between us is probably better than you and better than me.
PARRENO: Yeah, absolutely.
MORRIS: I think that’s what exists across the board in art itself. I don’t even think we’re limited in terms of whether someone is alive or dead. It’s all part of this constantly shifting and moving index. And that goes back to what we were saying about the paintings—they’re like a cascade of dominos regenerating themselves. Although, I have to tell you, it is a lot of work and willpower to do them. [laughs]
PARRENO: Of course.
MORRIS: But it is sort of like a game of Monopoly—or at least my version of it—where you watch how capital is constantly buckling or changing and power is shifting. It’s not in any way solid. The same happens with an artwork. The meaning is changing depending on who’s looking at it—depending on what culture, depending on what time, and so forth. It’s alive. And you can’t create a work without being aware that it will change dependent upon the context or the society where it is developed or consumed. For example, the films are in some way fantasy. I don’t view them at all as documentary, although probably some people see them that way. And at this point, I probably could take all of the footage I’ve compiled and open a stock footage company. I could have a whole department devoted to cars. [laughs] But to put together the films is much more of a fantasy-scape.
PARRENO: So your decisions are also personal, not fully mechanical.
MORRIS: The work has always been an opportunity to place myself in different moments and see how I feel. In a lot of situations, I think I’m going to feel one way but actually at the end feel like, “This is too much.” For instance, there was a reason why I shot Beijing after I shot Los Angeles. That’s because I was like, “I can’t handle any more ego. I don’t want to have any more of this ego as corporation.” It was boring. And after Beijing, I did Rio. And after Rio, I did Strange Magic, which I shot in Paris.
PARRENO: What’s the link between Beijing and Rio?
MORRIS: I’m trying to remember, but there always is a link. [laughs] Oh yeah, after Beijing I wanted some element of a tropical environment. I love the politics of Brazil. You know, I just got back from Brazil a few days ago. People forget that Niemeyer was a leader of the Communist Party, and his architecture was based on the female form. But, anyway, it’s always an interesting thing that happens between an artist and their work. People collapse the two, and for any artist, there will be a long period of being considered one thing before being considered another—whether despicable, rhetorical, or poetic. But we all know that these things are made with a huge amount of will and intention. Yet ultimately they’re out of our control.
PARRENO: But at some point, after some years, all of your work comes together to form an ensemble which is much more important than the sum of its elements. And there’s something much more important at stake than the artist making just one more piece. But I didn’t ask before, did you come to New York originally to be an artist?
MORRIS: For me, it was obvious to come to New York. It wasn’t even a decision—again it was almost automatic. It was a matter of placing myself in certain situations. I was at Brown, and I made a manifesto and published it. For this manifesto, I contacted Jeff Koons, because he had just made his “Banality” show , which really interested me, along with his making sculptures and not having a traditional studio and working as more of a producer. So I reached out to Koons and asked him to contribute to the manifesto, which he did. And then when I realized I was coming to New York, I knew I absolutely needed to have a job. There was basically no economy at that time in the early ’90s, which is not to say there wasn’t a lot going on. I met Rirkrit [Tiravanija] in the first days of moving there. And Gavin [Brown] and Rita [Ackermann]. Everyone was around, producing work, but there was no economy. So I asked Jeff if I could work for him. Only he didn’t have a studio. So I would go back and forth between the Whitney Independent Study Program, reading Lacan or whatever, and helping Jeff at his apartment on his “Made in Heaven” show . We were mostly editing the images. So there was this ping-pong between the visceral and the conceptual that started quite a long time ago. And no one could believe those two worlds existed, but they did simultaneously. I think that was the beginning of realizing what was going on and placing myself in that kind of conversation with others and knowing I wanted to be a part of it.
PARRENO: Where was your first studio?
MORRIS: It was right on 42nd street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, which was a zone in the city that was slated to be demolished or redeveloped. It was a really seedy area then, before Giuliani made a deal to clean it up. It was a whole pornographic block of theaters and bars, and all the artists were in this one building on 42nd Street. So I was literally in the center of Manhattan. I felt like I was in the center of the universe.
PARRENO: What a fantastic place to be.
MORRIS: It was fantastic. I used to lie in the sun and take naps in my studio, and there would be guys out on the street with massive loudspeakers just yelling about the apocalypse. Then there would be hookers in a hamburger joint downstairs and people who were going over to the bus station on Eighth Avenue, and tourists—you had both the naive and the corrupted. And then you went around the corner to Sixth Avenue, you had all the corporations: Paine Webber, Alliance Capital. So at that time, I had this feeling of adrenaline to that particular place—and there was just this speed and desire to it. This dynamic, in a way, is how the paintings began. It was a very strange juxtaposition, which was extremely exciting as a young artist.
PARRENO: What’s your relation to the city today?
MORRIS: It did change a lot. I still love it, of course. I wouldn’t live here otherwise. But obviously, this type of in-between space in the middle of the city doesn’t really exist now. It’s very hard to occupy some other type of space. I’m lucky to have this crazy Paul Rudolph apartment of mine filled with my books, which is sort of like being in a cuckoo’s nest on the East River. I got lucky because I had always admired this place, which had this strange dichotomy of an old town house and very modern at the top, like it had landed there from outer space. Orson [Morris’s son] said to me, “It looks like we live in a cat jungle gym,” and it’s sort of true. It has these layers like a ship. And from my view right now, I can see the Queensboro Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, Roosevelt Island, the Louis Kahn memorial, the Renwick Ruin. And I see traffic going up the FDR. You get a buzz; you get this feeling of being on the edge of the city, but also being linked to the city’s past. In a way, I’m a caretaker for this special place that’s protected. But in another way, landmarks are never really protected. This is the thing with capital; it’s always buckling and changing. It’s never really staying stagnant. Even if it’s a building or a person or an institution in a position of power; it’s always changing.
PARRENO: Do you think it’s harder today than it was before to be an artist?
MORRIS: I think it’s still very hard. For instance, last week I had a big fight about how to make something come into the real, to make it physical. It sounds really antique, but it’s a question of, how do I make this idea happen? You can’t just will it into existence. You have to educate, you have to persuade, you have to seduce, you have to do all this stuff to make something three-dimensional and happen. It’s not just a concept. It’s actually a reality.
PARRENO: It’s a form of negotiation.
MORRIS: Yeah, and it’s constant. Remember how we used to joke all the time about that Spielberg cartoon Pinky and the Brain?
MORRIS: It’s where two mice plan to take over the world every single night, and they come up with these crazy ideas. I feel like this, believe it or not, is the nature of our existence, the nature of our struggle. It’s like you’re plotting to take over or somehow occupy space that is not yours, it never was yours, it will never really ever be yours. But you can occupy it for a time, and hopefully shift things while you’re doing it.
PHILIPPE PARENO IS A PARIS-BASED ARTIST. “A TIME COLOURED SPACE,” HIS MOST RECENT EXHIBITION, OPENED LAST MONTH AT THE SERRALVES MUSEUM IN PORT, PORTUGAL.