You were in residence in the summer of 2017, and then you also came back to install work in the 2018 Summer Exhibition. How have those previous two experiences in Wassaic informed what you wanted to do in this installation?
Well, when I was in Wassaic in 2017, I was fresh out of grad school. And it was, I think, an experience like a lot of people have right after graduate school, where you have a lot of voices in your head and you need to clear them out a bit. I came to a more meditative place with the practice.
In the 2018 Summer Exhibition, I was installing work that, honestly, due to its scale kind of can't go anywhere else. I was on the second floor, and that space has, like, a cathedral ceiling. One piece I brought was the caryatids walking away from their posts [the caryatids decide that they've had enough and leave their charge for other things (2017)], and we realized that it was a little bit too wide to install just flat against the back wall. So we decided to put it at an angle. It just forced the perspective even more — it transformed the piece in a way that I wasn’t even anticipating. Because in the piece, the figures are walking back into perspective, and I tipped the floor up a bit so the perspective is forced. And so pushing that right hand side back just like made you feel, whenever you're walking up the stairs, like you were entering the space that the caryatids were also in, which I was very excited about. My carpets are all beige, and the wood in the mill is also kind of a honey color, so I really felt like they could incorporate in a way that they can’t a typical white box gallery space. They felt like they were more a part of the space — they had a warmth surrounding them, not just in them.
And there is texture in the walls of the mill, which excites me because the carpets are also just texture: it’s just a typical, average, everyday, suburban, cheap floor covering, that the only thing that I've done to it is to create more texture by cutting it away.
And how has that informed what you wanted to do this time, then?
Well, when Will [the Wassaic Project’s Director of Artistic Programming] approached me for this exhibition, he was talking about it being January, and the mill being unheated, but wanting to create these individual kind of meditative spaces. And I was really vibing with that because I’d just been at a residency for the past five months in Woodstock, and I’d gotten into this super meditative work. It's like he read my mind a little bit.
So knowing the spaces, walking through the spaces again, I identified the third floor as the one that I wanted, because there are these two small rooms, really low and intimate. One has white walls and one has that same honey-colored wall, and I thought that creating a dialogue between those two rooms could be super exciting.
So in the first room that you walk in, there’s a smell from branches and branches and branches of eucalyptus in the room. They fill your nose first, and then there’s a meditative moment with the glass channel and reflecting pool in the center of the room.
Which — it’s so wild — that idea started while I was at Wassaic in 2017. Just talking to you, I just realized that I started thinking about those flows while I was on my residency.
Is that a typical process for you? That something will just gestate like that for two years?
Yes, that actually happens a lot. I feel like sometimes — especially with my sculptural work — I will make a part of a piece, and it will be in my studio, and I will just rearrange it over and over and over again, trying to find its form. Like, I know that it's important, but it hasn't come alive yet.
And were the glass channel and reflecting pool a case of that?
The glass channel was definitely. I think that it was the spark point for the piece.
It happened while I was here in Wassaic. I was going down to the river daily as a part of my practice. Lying on a log and thinking. I had never spent this much time in the Northeast, I was just reading a lot about architecture and how it related to the body. Like, my piece with the caryatids: that’s a drawing of architecture relating to the body, but also I feel like the carpets are architectural. I find them to be like stone carvings on the walls. And how they relate to the body is — I mean, I’m using scissors to remove a material that looks like my body hair off of this suburban symbol. And I only use scissors — I feel a little embarrassed talking about it in an interview. [Laughs.]
What about that contrast between things feels embarrassing or comical to you?
Contrast between what?
Like, you’re laughing trying to talk about this, and I think that says something interesting about the way you approach your work. I think a lot of artists say “this relates to my body” with a very straight face, but you seem to have a different relationship to that.
It's true, it's a different relationship. It does exist in this light-hearted space. Yes, it's related to my body, and, yes, I think about all of the puns related to the carpet, especially in relation to my sexuality — like carpet munching, scissoring. I only use scissors specifically for that pun for myself. I mean, I'm also interested in the texture that the scissors give. Like, people ask me all the time why I don’t use an electric razor: it just frays the texture of the rug in a way that I hate.
But also it's about queering it in a way, and, yes, whenever I finish a carpet what’s left is what looks like just a pile of pubes on the floor. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s just funny. Something you can’t get away from. Also, this work exists in a space where it sometimes makes people angry because they're like, “I don't understand why this is art. This belongs in the Wisconsin State Fair.” I'm like, “People at the Wisconsin State Fair are making better work than half of us trying to make “Art," you know?”
How do you approach that critique? I feel like that’s the sort of thing that, the first time you hear it, you don't really know what to do with it. But what is your response to that at this point?
To what? To the kitschiness, or to people’s anger about it?
Anger. ‘Cause I feel like anger is a different reaction from, like, “Eh, I don’t get it.” It feels like a weirdly intense reaction.
It’s true. Honestly, it really excites me, to be frank. So I am a lesbian from the South. I'm from Alabama, like the furthest south you can go — where I grew up is basically on the Gulf of Mexico. And I feel like that anger that I get from the carpets is a little bit of the same anger that I’ve gotten in my life. Like, it's the same reaction that I’ve gotten for just being myself in the space that I love, that I’m from, but that doesn’t really understand who I am.
Why does that excite you, though?
Why does it excite me that they’re the same reaction?
Yeah. That feels like an interesting reaction to that sort of prejudice that you're talking about: excitement.
Because to put that kind of reaction out into the world just sharpens us a bit. To have a reaction that produces anger, that produces confusion. It's something that, if you're open to it, can act as a way of re-seeing. Or maybe some people are just angry. But my perception is, like, I can shift perspectives, if it's done in a way that’s separated from something that's actually gonna harm you.
Can you say a little bit more about that word “sharpens”? Because that's something you talk about in your most recent statement on your site as well: “a sharpening to mortality.”
Right. I think about death and grief a lot. What I'm trying to do in the installations is activate this what I call “a sharpening.” Essentially, I mean it like how you sharpen a knife: you have a dull blade, and you slowly push it against a stone, and it gets sharp. I mean that in a sense that there are these moments that I’ve experienced — that I think that other people have experienced — where life comes into focus, or our fragility comes into focus. And all of the daily things — the distractions or heavy things in your life — just evacuate your headspace.
And I feel like that sharpening for me happens whenever I think about mortality, whenever I think about our relationship to the world and how fleeting it is. That's what I'm trying to activate with my installations. Always. A space where other people can be sharpened, if they want to be.
Can you talk about how you're playing with that in this particular installation? Because I think that's particularly interesting to be thinking of the word “sharpening” in the context of a space that you were saying earlier is sort of an oasis in the mill.
With these sharpening spaces I've been thinking about locations for grieving, recently. Like individual grave sites, or cemeteries, or memorials: they're an architecture that we've developed to bring about that kind of feeling.
A garden sometimes can activate the same kind of sharpening space as well, so I'm looking to those too for guidance in trying to create a space that sharpens, but doesn't have to have a body in the ground, if that makes sense. I'm trying to look more towards gardens, towards sites both curated and not curated by human hands that make you feel that way. And for me that exists at the edge of water, like a reflecting pool.
The glass channel around it came from thinking about sacrificial altars. I was looking at the path that they have on them to run the blood off of the stone, and they kind of do this little squiggle. And so I got really fascinated by the idea of the squiggle being a receptacle, in a way, for the blood.
The next part is the set of rocks that I've made. I was in Arizona, sitting in this river daily. Again, water is my meditative process. It was a red river — I mean, not the water, the stone that the river was running through was red — but then I started to notice these black rocks everywhere. I started picking them up, and they were so curious to me because they were both lava rocks — like they have that pumice-y texture — but then they were also river stones, in that they were smooth all the way around the outside. And that duality made me really excited: the fact that you could both be a lava rock and a river stone. And the idea that that river stone had to be, in a sense, also sharpened. It had to be tumbled for over 1,000 years to get to that state, to become two things instead of just one.
To go back a little bit, what do you think that putting the glass channel next to a reflecting pool instead of an altar does? Because a reflecting pool doesn’t usually — I don't think — produce blood in the way an altar does.
No it doesn’t, this is a bloodless channel. [Laughs.]
It started as a meditation on those altars. I thought that I wanted to run water or another liquid through it and out of it, just like it would perform with the altars. I made them as soon as I left Wassaic, as soon as I had access to glass, but after living with them for so long, they told me after a while that they needed to circle back on themselves. So they’re a continuous loop now.
And I’ve made work that talks about masturbatory processes, that talks about closed circuits before. Some of the carpets talk about those things. So as soon as that happened with the glass channels, it made sense as a way to insulate the reflecting pool. It’s like a double insulation in a way. The glass channel is around the reflecting pool, and then the rocks are around the glass channel. A kind of protection.
Can you say more about how you think about that circling-back? Especially since it's been something that's been in your practice for a while.
Well, the first time that I can remember it coming up, I was making a fountain in 2016. Thinking about fountains in these garden spaces and these sharpening spaces. About how fountains actually kind of make a mockery of other water spaces — of a real spring coming from the ground, or a river, or an ocean — in the sense that they produce this pretty elaborate thing, but they’re just circling back on themselves. You know, collecting their own water, going back through the pump, and coming back out. And so fountains became this really bizarre, masturbatory thing, where they’re only consuming themselves.
I like that. I've never thought of fountains that way.
I mean, I feel like most people think that they're a representation or kind of a celebration, but in a way it actually feels like the opposite to me.
In the fountain that I made, I was trying to merge these ideas of this garden space, but also this masturbatory circulation. And so I set a pump so low that it actually started to sound kind of like a guttural throat sound — like a person with a breathing tube or something like that. And I felt like that was really appropriate in the installation that I was making, because overall it was talking about mortality: it was referencing it with sound, too. There wasn’t another sound element in the space, so that’s all you heard: this sucking sound.
Can you bring that back to the closed circuit that you've created in Wassaic? How you’re thinking of it differently or how it’s evolved, etc.?
Yes, yes, yes. I haven't talked about the other room yet.
So I made a series of ceramic pieces at a residency that I was at for five months this summer. These pieces were very simple and powerful to me, because I haven't ever talked about this in my work directly: an object that’s a metaphor for processing grief.
I was thinking about the cups that you pour into at the top of a mold: how that’s the receptacle, and then it flows through the mold. So I was thinking about making a mold that doesn’t hold — making a shape that has that receptacle, but that flows out at the bottom, too. These pieces are meant for the water: they’re meant to go into a river, have water pass through them, and change the path of the water slightly. Like a dam, but then also an artery. There are three of them, and they have these clear vinyl tubes running through them in a closed circuit — passing down through them, and then back up, and then back down.
I wanted to bring these pieces to Wassaic because I was really excited about the dynamic with the reflecting pool in the other room. But I couldn't bring a body of water into the mill, so I needed to have a way for these to still have a flow going through them without a river present.
Without flooding the mill, yes.
Yes, so the tubes represent the water in that way. We all know these tubes as a place where water typically runs. Each one is its own closed circuit, so it goes down and then it circles back up through each piece, individually. The flows act differently, divert differently, in each one.
And what about the carpet in the first room?
It's on a rigid circle, and it doesn't have a home between the two rooms. It’s actually going to be moved — I’ve asked Will to move it throughout the course of the show as kind of a time-keeping mechanism.
I keep calling it a medallion. Even though it’s, like, four foot in diameter, it feels like currency to me. Represented in the carpet is a hand offering one of the ceramic sculptures that’s in the second room. In the 1500s in Italy, when a donor would give a ton of money to build a church, they would represent the donor inside of the church in a fresco, holding a tiny representation of the church in his hands. This is my own version of that.
Why do you think of the carpet as currency, then? That's an interesting word to use there. What do you imagine that currency being used in exchange for?
The exchange that’s happening here is hopefully between me and whoever decides to engage with the work. It’s my hand holding the ceramic piece. I guess I’m the donor in the church, and I'm offering this experience, this sharpening. But it’s not a coin you can put in your pocket. It’s something that you take away with you in another way, hopefully.
Corinna Ray (b. 1988, Fairhope, Alabama) received her BFA in Printmaking from Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama and her MFA in Sculpture from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Recently, she has shown in exhibitions at Index (L.A.), Ortega y Gasset (Brooklyn), and Crystal Flowers (NYC) with an upcoming two-person show at Field Projects (NYC). She was an Artist-in-Residence at the Wassaic Project in Wassaic, NY and the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild in Woodstock, NY, and an MFA Resident at Oxbow School of Art in Saugatuck, MI.