Linda Cunningham describes her stone sculptures and the responsibilities of an artist when creating public memorials.
Tracey Hummer: In works like Structural Transformations (1990), you've combined stone and other materials.
Linda Cunningham: I used rocks that were in their original state, slightly altered to show off the natural qualities of the stone. They were posed against huge steel beams that had been altered in such a way that their structural function was eliminated. The piece became like a Japanese garden, but it was an urban garden. The rock in that piece is very sculptural, naturally sculpted. It's a fossil rock that's highly irregular. They remind me of rocks that are displayed in Asia for meditation and contemplation. I thought of this piece as having to do with transience. We believe so much in the steel structures in the urban skyscrapers that are all around the piece, but the steel in the work is maybe 30 years old and no longer functional it's bent in such a way that it becomes graceful, entwined around geological forms that are thousands, millions of years old.
Linda Cunningham, "Structural Transformations: An Environmental Memorial" (detail), 1990. Bronze, steel, fossil rock, red lava, eroded limestone, installation of 18 parts from 2 to 7 ft. high, 100 x 100 ft. area.
Hummer: How did you start working with stone?
Cunningham: I was working a lot with bronze, and I got an invitation to be a visiting artist at a summer program on the island of Pece. On my way I made the sculptor's pilgrimage to Pietrasanta and Carrara, and visiting the quarries, I felt like an artist on a mission. Then I went to Pred, it was the island where the marble for the Parthenon frieze was quarried. The ancient quarry was a cave with marble walls they had taken not-so-good blocks of stone and built walls. Going down in there, I got the bug! I hauled out pieces of marble and sat on the beach and carved them during the month that I was supposed to be teaching printmaking. I could hardly get myself to go into the printmaking studio. Later, for a piece that was about the interaction of people with the environment, I used bronze forms and three different types of stone, each representing a different geological process. The sedimentary conglomerates and weathered limestone had the look of rocks formed by geological aging, so they had a beautiful surface but also a sense of mass and solidity. And there are red volcanic lava stones. With the signage for the piece, I found that I could engage people on the level of geological information.
Hummer: How does your selection of a certain type of stone figure into the overall planning of a work?
Cunningham: I'm usually interested in preserving the stone itself. My attitude towards a stone is one of meditative contemplation of a beautiful surface that forces in the universe have already given shape to. I only carve a part of the stone, a very specific part of it. Even in those first stones I kept the holes from the blasting and drilling. I recently saw some magnificent pieces by Ulrich Rckriem, the German sculptor, that use the quarrying process as the whole decorative surface. The fossil rocks for Structural Transformations look very soft, but they have flint in the middle of them. You really find out why people work with marble! There was a piece of quartz originally in that installation and that's truly awful, though it's very beautiful. In that piece, the stones all had holes drilled in the bottom of them so they could be fastened to the pavement underneath, so that some joker coming out of the discos at three in the morning couldn't roll them out in the middle of the highway. In public art, the artist has to think about how the public might engage with the work, and who is using the street and in what way. The selection committees got freaked out about children possibly being injured on this piece. In fact, I've seen kids hug the stones, and hide things in them I think there's a level on which the stones can communicate.
Linda Cunningham, "Cornberg Memorial", 1994. Quartzite sandstone, engraved quotations.
Hummer: What was the evolution of your public art projects in Germany?
Cunningham: I met with the mayor of Cornberg and said, well, I could come and do a small sculpture, but if you can make available to me some of the town's resources, we could do quite a big project. I prepared a lot of drawings and I found enormous stones cut in half in a nearby quarry that evoked the stone circles in England. The mayor got the stone quarry to donate them, and men who normally repair the roads worked with me to transport them. It was really built with the resources of the town. I wanted the text that would be inscribed on the stones to deal with what was in fact the very problematic history of the town. The town was built to house forced laborers from conquered nations in World War II. The text on the stone tells that story, but also that the Americans who marched in in 1945 threw everybody out of the town and made it into a town for displaced persons it's one of those ironies of history that the Americans didn't know that these people were forced to go there in the first place, that they weren't even German! I went back a year later, and the town is proud of the monument, they are as invested in it as I was and it has never been touched by graffiti. I feel that listening to them during the planning process helped to accomplish that. It was important to include all the truths, and then people could accept it. The monument is not a one-sided telling of their story. I was later invited to participate in an exhibition commemorating the bombing of Kassel, Germany, in 1943. The exhibition was about the development of air warfare. On one of the stones that surrounded the steel form in my piece, I used quotes from newspapers describing the sensory effect of the bombing the screaming of the bombs, the tremendous heat and suction that makes the buildings fall down. It makes reference specifically to Kassel. On another stone, I inscribed a sentence about the American idea that we have to export democracy to the rest of the world, and the cost of that idea in, for example, Vietnamese lives. One stone has a quote from Audre Lorde about silences, and I intended that to have implications for the present as well as the past. It says, "My silences have not protected me and your silences will not protect you." The stone was the carrier of information, in the same sense that tombstones do that. But I used granite slabs that are actually sidewalk sections from Berlin, torn up during the rebuilding after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They have a surface that recorded the wear of footprints on the pavement over time the inscriptions evoke history and so do the materials.
Hummer: The materials have their own history?
Cunningham: Yes. I'm fascinated with how history gets written into the forms. My work has to do not just with the tactile sensibility of those materials, but with the way that they convey or embody experience. I'm using stones worn by footsteps, in a sense, to refer to things like Moses's stone tablets and the eloquent old Jewish graveyards like the one in Prague that's full of broken stones.
Linda Cunningham, "Have We Chosen?" (detail, gallery view), 1993. Rusted steel, bronze, granite, sandstone, basalt.