publication of the International Sculpture Center
A Conversation with Petah Coyne
by Jan Garden Castro
like art, a tough-talking policeman pronounced, looking around at
the fairyland of wax-bathed figures, birds, chandeliers, scarlet and blue
feathers, worldly and otherworldly forms. Petah Coynes White
Rain exhibition had a visceral immediacy not easily communicated
in photographs. She draws heavily on art and literature, Catholic legends,
and intuition to create her seductive, visionary worlds. White Rain
was conceived as a female and an American response to the black
rain from the fall-out after the bombing of Hiroshima at the end
of World War II; its message is eerily relevant to New York in 2002.
Installation view of White Rain, installed at Galerie
is in numerous public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art,
the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the High Museum, and the Corcoran
Gallery of Art. In addition to solo and group exhibitions at these institutions,
she has shown at Galerie Lelong, the Dublin Museum of Modern Art, the
Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, the Moscow Institute of Contemporary
Art, and the Centre International dArt Contemporain de Montréal.
She received an honorary doctorate from the Cincinnati Art Academy in
2001 and has been awarded prestigious fellowships from the John Simon
Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Rockefeller
Foundation, and the Asian Cultural Council. Current projects include a
solo exhibition at the Frist Center for Contemporary Art in Nashville
and an installation in Artists Take on Detroit at the Detroit
Institute of Arts. Among future projects, Coyne will exhibit at the Albright
Knox Art Gallery in 2003, and a survey of her work will travel in 2005.
You told one interviewer that in medieval Catholicism, birds take the
soul to heaven. In White Rain, the work Josephina features
a figure being swallowed by a funnel of scarlet birds. What are your associations
Petah Coyne: Ive
always been interested in birds, and this exhibition has both real birds
and birds that Ive made by hand. The red birds on top of Josephina
are actually discarded feathers. They have been dyed red and put back
together. The feathers came out of China about 10 years ago. Theyre
For me, the figures
head is being consumed by the birds. Not long after that, her body. Its
a funnel coming down, at least thats my impression of it, and the
victim will be swallowed up or taken awayvery much like what we
were taught about the Holy Spirit in Catholicism: it approached, consumed,
and then you were transformed into something else. That, coupled with
Catholic cardinals, who wear impressive red hats. When a cardinal dies,
his hat is taken and hung from a rope at the top of his cathedral, next
to those of his predecessors. When the rope gets old and rots, the hat
falls to the ground. This is to remind the current cardinal that he, too,
is human and will be judgeda warning to use the power the church
has placed in his hands with great care.
Untitled #992S01 (Descent), 20002001. Mixed media,
88 x 109 x 7 in.
I thought this was
a beautiful synthesis. It relates to the piece called Descent,
which is about a lone female figure descending to Hell. She is passing
a whole group of niches, each filled with birds over 100 years old. My
interpretation is that the birds are waiting. Theyre in purgatory;
theyre watching. Theyre beautifulthey were real birds
and have been preserved. As in Catholicism, the soul is gone, the body
In one of these
niches, next to one of my favorite birds, Ive actually buried my
grandmothers pearls, pearls I lusted after as a child. You can see
them. They are earthly goods. Giving an offering, a ransom of sorts, to
see if I could stop her descent is similar to praying for a soul in purgatory
or limbo. For some reason, this particular person wasnt good enough
to get into heaven, so shes making her descent. Through that descent,
the most painful part is being surrounded by all of this beauty, all of
the things of which she will soon be deprived. Then only Hell and a faint
longing will remain.
birds are really 100 years old?
PC: Yes. Theyre
from a Canadian museum that has closed. Its a very Catholic idea
to take a thing that is considered trash, basically no good, and to re-energize
it and give it new life. Even though they have long been dead, the birds
seem beautiful to me. Each one contains a personality, the residue of
a life lived.
That relates to a
book by Yasunari Kawabata, House of the Sleeping Beauties. Its
about a very old man who goes to a secret house for old men. There, they
pay to sleep with drugged virgin women, who never move. The mingling of
death and eroticism is at times suffocating, yet the author intrigues
us with his description of each sleeping beauty. Maybe its
how her skin looks or a perfume she wears, but each comes alive with a
full and complete personality. Thats exactly how I perceive those
brings us to the work about the two Marys.
began with a statue of the Virgin Mary. She was facing the wall, and
I was trying to make her gown very full, almost as if she were transcending.
I was speaking a lot that summer with a good friend named Mary, who was,
coincidentally, pregnant. She kept commenting on her size and saying how
big she had gotten. One day, I looked up and realized that I had made
this particular Virgin Mary pregnant, a synthesis of my friend and the
Virgin, which is why I call her Mary/Mary.
Untitled #945S01 (Chinese Landscape), 19922001.
Mixed media, 103 x 117 x 350 in.
I should probably
say that my use of Catholic imagery is partly tongue-in-cheek and partly
irrational fear that all the dogma may, in fact, be true. I try to use
both my humor and my horror of it all. I like that edge. Because of all
the stories the nuns told us as children, I think of the Virgin Mary as
the representation of all womenthe best any woman can
be. We were told that we should be exactly like her or at least aspire
to be that ideal type of woman. So, I look at her and see all the things
I would have liked to have been, but also all the things I can never be.
This longing for
perfection and the impossibility of its complete attainment seem clearly
figured in this piece. I actually cut apart a chain link fence, and although
I covered it in silk flowers to give it beauty, a seduction of sorts,
it still does its job, keeping the viewer at bay. The face of Mary/Mary
is barely visible, only if one really cranes ones neck. And even
then, her face is dripped in thick wax, barely discernible against the
wall. This is how the Catholic church presents its most sacred images,
almost there, but mostly hidden.
Landscape has another hidden figure. To me, that was a stunning and
tender work. The surprise of seeing the Madonna hidden in the crevice
in the wax was a little unsettling. It reminded me of Duchamps Étant
PC: That was
exactly my intention. Its the flip side of Duchamp, but no less
erotic. His work was from the male point of view and mine is from the
female. It took us over five years to make that piece. We started in 97
or 98. She used to be more exposed. We made the front of the wall,
and I never felt that it was quite right. It sat for maybe a year, and
then I knew what I needed to do. Originally, that piece started out at
four by two by two feet. Then it grew to eight by four by one. That wasnt
good enough, and it had to be eight by 10 by one. It finally ended up
10 by 10 by two feet.
talk about the technical aspectsyour special wax and the construction
of the base.
PC: All of
my pieces seem fragile. But that is deceiving, because theyre all
begun with steel understructures. Yet I want each one to look incredibly
delicate and to have that feminine sense of appearing soft and seductive.
But as any number of women have shown, we have an internal strength and
drive that is hard to fathom.
As far as the wax
is concerned, I always use a commercial chemist to make the formulas.
I expect this work to have its own lifetime, long past my own. Each flower
we attach is made from silk, and each bird wing is rewired so that nothing
can fall apart.
Untitled #989S01 (Miss Scarlet), 19992001. Mixed
media, 82 x 52 x 26 in.
about your exquisite surfaces?
PC: For a
number of years, I had been using what we call chandelier wax,
made for the pieces that hang in the air. But making a wall wax is a very
different animal. The chemist had to invent a new formula. To get the
surface texture, we often scar the work with razors, and we are not beyond
sculpting those drips ourselves.
Chinese landscape painting, especially the work done in the 16th and 17th
centuries. That is the period I love most. When I began working on
Chinese Landscape, I stepped back, as I often do, and immediately
recognized its sourcesthe feel of the landscape paintings, the lengthening
that can stretch across vast areas.
On the front of the
piece, theres a seagull covered in black silk ribbons. Seagulls
seem almost clumsy in how they take off and land, and I thought it would
be a challenge to take something so awkward and make it seem graceful.
Im hoping that people dont recognize exactly what the imagery
is from the front. Its only when they go around the back that more
is revealed. But youd be surprised at how few people look inside.
We lit it by cutting a hole in the front that sent light through to the
back, illuminating just a bit of the figure.
read that you were home-schooled. Could you describe your art education?
PC: My mother
is a writer. In my early years, we traveled all over the world because
my father was military. Everywhere we went, my mother always made us live
in real neighborhoodsno army bases for us. She absolutely
did not want to raise a troop of army brats. In Germany, we
lived in the German neighborhoods. In Ohio, we lived with the Amish for
a summer. In every location, we were encouraged to study the beliefs and
customs. I always felt more connected through these experiences. When
I was very young, we lived in Hawaii in a Japanese neighborhood. That
was the home I loved the most.
My mother was a great
teacher, but not in the traditional sense. To get us interested in visuals
and reading, she would take every opportunity to expose us to real life.
Once when a large whale had beached itself on Waikiki Beach, she ran to
get us out of school. Moving us as close as she dared, she told us to
pretend we could put our hands on the whale and feel its labored breath.
Then she took us home and read us Moby Dick. The images came alive
for us in a really profound way.
I didnt like
school at all; I felt like I never fit in. My parents told me that if
I didnt want to go to school, I had to figure out a way, within
the system, to not go and theyd stand behind me. The easiest solution
seemed to be to test out of classes. So my mother began to tutor us in
the summers. Every room was a different lesson. One would be the history
room, another the math room, and wed move from room to room every
45 minutes. We really hated doing this in the summer while all of our
friends were playing. But throughout the school year, I only signed in
for homeroom and then immediately left school to work on my art. Once
when I wanted to do some bronze casting, my mother took me to the local
foundry, and we learned how to cast and pour bronze. She was a great role
model, fashioning whatever was needed to reach our goal.
Untitled #978(s)99/00, 19992000.
Mixed media, 144 x 206 x 53 in.
did you become interested in Japanese literature?
PC: My parents
had been to Japan a number of times and always brought back treasures.
Captivated by their stories, I read a lot of Japanese literature. Then
in 1991, the Asian Cultural Council, an arm of the Rockefeller Foundation,
gave me a fellowship. For six months I was able to just travel and observe;
nothing was asked of me. Being there and reading a book every day, or
at least a book every other day, I began to understand Japanese thought
much more clearly. Often as I read and wandered about the country, I couldnt
remember if Id lived the things I thought about or read them. Today
my greatest pleasure is reading Japanese literature; its my secret
have you expressed sexual difference in White Rain?
and men are so different, and I think that we address different issues
in our writings and in our vision. Because this is the first century of
women sculptors of any kind of quantity, the differences between the genders
are more apparent. I enjoy looking at and thinking about these differences.
In many of the art schools, it seems 75 to 80 percent of the sculptors
are women. Why is that? Possibly because we have no history, were
totally free to make our own history. And were making a different
history, which is thrilling to me.
I dont express
ideas consciously. Its more when you step back. At mid-life, this
exhibition is very much about looking back and looking forward at the
same time. Recently, I moved my studio, and all of my works passed before
my eyes. I began to pick and choose different materials from those I had
used in the past. Materials such as black sand, birds and feathers, soil
and flowers, chicken wire, and even the statue of the Virgin, which I
first used in 1984, came back in this body of work. In the last year or
two, my ideas are more about architecture, and sculptures leaning against
the wall or becoming walls themselves.
Theres a piece
that for me is extremely tender, sisters or twins.
Its about my sister BZ and I, and our family connections. BZ is
holding a perfectly formed baby, and my child is headless and broken.
Nonetheless, just a different kind of baby, one that is more interesting
to me. Were all in a puddle, melting together. Its the melting
thats so beautifuland sad. Beauty comes when you least expect
it, and that beauty is the kind I love most, although often I am criticized
for it. Seduction and the power to seduce cannot rely just on that beauty.
It must be poised to reveal yet another layer, possible a darker layer
but, at the very least, something more.
Untitled #996S01 (Sister/Twins), 2001. Mixed media, 111
x 80 x 37 in.
That was the impetus
for this body of work based on Masuji Ibuses book Black Rain,
which is named for the rain that fell after the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.
Those who returned to look for their family members found their skin stained
from it. And even though they had not been at Ground Zero when the bomb
fell, they too would eventually get the sickness. This illness
rendered you a social outcast who needed to be hidden from neighbors and
The exhibition is
called White Rain. As an American, I felt I also had a staining
from the atomic bomb, a responsibility for it. There is a sadness in creating
all this. I felt as if the white rain was mine to carry, just as the black
rain was theirs. On September 11th as I watched victims walk up Broadway
away from the devastation, I could not help but think of Butoh. Everyone
in the vicinity was covered in white ash, which was literally the pulverization
of the buildings, including the ashes of the people who were caught in
them. Its still hard to say this, but this image of Butoh, the dance
of the dead, born in Japan in 1959 to portray anger and rage after Hiroshima,
was now here also. The porcelain white with which the dancers cover themselves
ironically exposes them and the humanity of their souls.
PC: Yes, but
Kabuki is much older. Butoh is about violence, sexuality, repressed anger.
In its infancy it was never supposed to be performed in theaters, but
in alleyways, in the forests, or on rooftops. It is much wilder, which
fits with its character, a total abandonment of the traditional formal
I think thats
what has happened to us. I hope that September 11th will make us better
humans. Already New York is a nicer place to live, even though its
much more frightening. Every day when the wind blew the right way, we
could smell the smoke. You almost couldnt breathe because of the
mixture of emotions that overwhelmed you. I do not believe anyone living
here will be able to smell fire again and not have a wave of sickness
come over them.
worked with interns on various projects, but youve also said that
you need to develop your work over time, without consulting others. Could
you discuss the need to work without consulting others? Or is this still
Untitled #961S9901 (Mary/Mary), 19992001. Mixed
104 x 84 x 310 in.
PC: I have
three assistants, and theyre all part time, because theyre
artists themselves. When we are in the studio, Ive asked them not
to say anything about my work, on any level. I dont need to know
what they think. When youre in your studio, youre at your
most vulnerable. I want it to be completely my sensibility. To get to
that placeto be able to be freeyou have to be completely comfortable
with your surroundings. I try to use and trust my own instincts. For myself,
I can go to that space, and I know exactly what I need to do. When Im
out in public, finishing the piece, I again go to that place. Ive
learned where it is. Its that zone, maybe our subconscious, and
I trust it, more than I trust anything else.
trying to use that instinct more in my personal life. I think women in
particular are given this intuitive instinct. My male sculptor friends
know less what Im talking about when I refer to it. My women friends
know exactly. But the tragically humorous part is that we dont trust
this, our greatest gift. I can still hear my mothers voice: You
have this incredible instinctual power and you must learn to trust it.
So thats what I try to do. Sometimes I dont even look at it,
I just make it. Thats my collaborationwith the outer limits.
Jan Garden Castro
is a contributing editor for Sculpture. She is curator/author of
Sonia Delaunay: La Moderne (Japan Museums and Jane V. Zimmerli
Museum at Rutgers University, 2002).