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Issue 241

Nari Ward’s Spiritual Alchemy

The artist discusses how his sculptural practice is grounded in the invisible with long-time friend and collaborator LeRonn P. Brooks

BY Nari Ward AND LeRonn P. Brooks in Interviews | 26 MAR 24

LeRonn P. Brooks Nari, we’ve known each other for almost 25 years now, and over the years I’ve had the good fortune of assisting you on a few projects. You’ve always had a dynamic creative process and your recent work exemplifies this. Let’s start with your first UK solo show, ‘Balance Fountain’, at Lehmann Maupin in London, which just closed in January. What was the concept behind the exhibition? 

Nari Ward I really wanted the show to contain a performance-activated floor piece similar to my first work of that kind, Ground (In Progress) (2015): a platform comprising 700 copper-plated bricks animated by dancers. I was looking to revisit that work for the London show, but also to index some of what I had been exploring in other earlier pieces. For instance, the copper patina of Groundin’ Visible (2023) – the floor piece at Lehmann Maupin in London – features ghost images of prayer beads and rosaries. The effect emulates my series ‘Radiant Scans’ [2013–23], for which I used a thermal camera to create photographic images with radiation. Other symbols in Groundin’ Visible include the dikenga cross or Kongo cosmogram [the sacred symbol of the Bakongo religion] and the Union Jack flag, creating a mashup of religious and devotional iconography.

That work was a definite starting point for the exhibition. At the time, I was also revisiting another earlier piece, Balance Fountain [2013], which I came to realize was in conversation with Groundin’ Visible. So, I combined the two works into one installation at the centre of the London gallery space. Effectively a surrogate for the bodies that activate the piece, Balance Fountain would be pulled aside during each performance to enable the dancers to engage with Groundin’ Visible.

Portrait of Nari Ward, 2023. Ccourtesy: © Nari Ward, Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua; photo graph: Axel Dupeux
Portrait of Nari Ward, 2023. Courtesy: © Nari Ward, Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua; photograph: Axel Dupeux

LB How important is such activation – either by performers or other artworks – to your practice?

NW Increasingly, I realize that pretty much all the objects I make are intended to be performative. When I create an object or a sculpture, it’s about more than its aesthetic qualities or its installation within a white cube. The work is meant to engage with the space, to activate the viewer’s imagination. More and more, I’m realizing that I don’t want to make objects that are sterile and live on their own, I want them to connect back to the rhythm of life.

LB Groundin’ Visible reminds me of a musical score, of the concept of ritual or charted movement. Have you ever made that connection before?

NW Yes! In fact, I was just talking to one of my collaborators, a musician named Justin Thompson, and he literally brought up this same idea. He was like: ‘I think about your work in a kind of sonic space.’ We worked closely together on my new show, ‘Ground Break’, which opens later this month at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan. My compositions are always about creating different kinds of rhythms: I’m trying to orchestrate something. It’s about how repetition and variation – which are critical to the notion of a score – play out within the content of my imagery.

Nari Ward: Balance Fountain , 2023, performance view. Photograph: Jack Thomson
Nari Ward, Balance Fountain, 2023, performance view. Courtesy: © Nari Ward, Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua; photograph: Jack Thomson

LB A lot of your work appears to come from some aspect of witnessing – of recognizing that the space you’re in has certain properties and that some material cultures have a deeper political connection, or a religious aspect to them. As such, the objects in your work are not innocent or devoid of meaning. The combination of silver twine and golden mango seeds in Balance Fountain, for instance, makes for an interesting landscape, a reorientation of materials with spiritual connotations commonly found in Black and Brown communities. Mangoes are a sign of virility and love in Hinduism, while also a symbol for the transatlantic slave trade, where mango trees have been planted to memorialize the enslaved. The silver twine, however, may refer to the Hindu belief of the sutratma, a silver cord connecting the physical body to the astral body.

It’s about the secrets materials hold, the alchemical possibilities they possess and their mysterious power over culture.

NW The challenge, for me, is how to bring the viewer into the imaginary world of this object or artwork. So, the silver twine you mention, for instance, is actually silver-painted shade cloth – a nurturing and dynamic material used in landscaping to cover plant growth in order to keep the soil cool, while still allowing sunlight to pass through. While the sprung forms of the sash-window balances – components that allow you to open and shut double-hung window frames with greater ease – make me think about your comment on witnessing. I want to channel the viewers’ collective imagination. For me, the idea that several individuals might be looking at the same thing, while having an experience with it and convening around it, is also part of that notion of witnessing, of the shared experience and the communal aspect of seeing art.

Prayers Series; Circuit V , 2023, copper sheet, copper nails, darkening patina, 29 × 29 × 5 cm. Photograph: Dan Bradica
Nari Ward, Prayers Series; Circuit V, 2023, copper sheet, copper nails, darkening patina, 29 × 29 × 5 cm. Courtesy: © Nari Ward, Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua; photograph: Dan Bradica

LB You mention the dynamism of the shade cloth: how it can protect plants from the heat of the sun while still allowing light to pass. Can you speak about the way you approach materials in terms of their function and dynamic qualities?

NW Yes, for me it’s about the secrets materials hold and the alchemical possibilities they possess. The aspirations I place on the materials I use only exist because of the mysterious power they hold over culture. For me, it’s exciting to tap into those alchemical qualities and try to channel them into other possibilities.

As a student of postminimalism, I mostly work with industrial materials – brick, copper, shade cloth – that I’m now trying to place in dialogue with each other. It’s like I’m bringing out the nature within them to reconnect with their original element – copper, say – that’s been transformed into something completely different for some other purpose entirely.

Restin’ Dream, 2023, copper sheet, copper nails, and darkening patina, 119 × 119 × 6 cm. Photograph: Daniel Kukla
Nari Ward, Restin’ Dream, 2023, copper sheet, copper nails, and darkening patina, 119 × 119 × 6 cm. Courtesy: © Nari Ward, Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua; photograph: Daniel Kukla

LB Generally, I think of industrial forms as cold and impersonal: there’s an absence to their presence. In your practice, however, you endeavour to resituate these materials within a more complex matrix of ideas and emotions.

NW I’m trying to reinvent people’s expectations. For instance, the copper in Groundin’ Visible is no longer just a covering for the brick: it speaks to devotion and connection. As all of those qualities are poured back into the material, people no longer recognize it as brick, but see it as something entirely different.

LB Some of the materials you use are scavenged items – baby strollers, cash tills, shopping carts – that speak to your background and to the neighbourhood of Harlem, where you live and work. In your early performance Pushing Savior (1996), for instance, you walked across Harlem with a shopping cart.

NW That was my very first performance. I pushed my sculpture Savior (1996) – a shopping cart filled with a tower of refuse tied together with twisted fabric and plastic – from my studio on 125th Street to the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street. Like Groundin’ Visible, Pushing Savior also combined this notion of devotion and craft. Although I’m not a religious person, faith is regenerative so, for me, trying to figure out how to tap into that is crucial.

Pushing Savior , 1996, video still, dimensions variable. Film: Marcel Odenbach
Nari Ward, Pushing Savior, 1996, video still, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © Nari Ward, Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua; film: Marcel Odenbach

LB You use several different assemblage techniques in your practice, including welding and nailing. One of the most compelling is binding, which you do with both fabric and plastic. Could you speak about that practice?

NW There are two parts to the process: the binding, and the wringing or twisting of the material to imbue it with a certain tension. I got particularly excited by this idea when I started using fire hoses in early works like Amazing Grace or Exodus [both 1993]. I really wanted to find a way for that material to hold the energy of its making. And so, with this tension of tying and wringing, I was able to maintain that within the form of the piece, literally twisting it as it turned onto itself. That energy is retained and the hose almost looks like bodily entrails.

LB Was it a way of visualizing the metaphor of someone’s stomach ‘in knots’?

NW I want the viewer to feel anxiety, to feel this bind, this tension. As you said earlier, I’m trying to imbue life into all these mute industrial materials and objects.

My upcoming retrospective at Pirelli HangarBicocca features an earlier work that I wouldn’t have thought to include, but the curators, Lucia Aspesi and Roberta Tenconi, suggested it to me, and it ended up being a great idea. Between 1996 and 2000, I collaborated with choreographer Ralph Lemon on his multi-media dance performance Geography Trilogy, for which I devised the stage sets. In the context of ‘Ground Break’, however, the set designs and performance props are exhibited in dialogue with my sculptures. Seeing them installed alongside one another made me think about what a prop really is and at what point it becomes something else. Things evolve by being imbued with meaning. And that meaning is going to come from the other objects, the surrounding sculptures, in the space. The stage pieces act as a kind of framing device for the other works, or as a reflecting pool for these moments in time throughout my practice.

Nari Ward, Savior, 1996, installation view at Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, 2010. Courtesy: © Nari Ward, Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua; photograph: EG Schempf
Nari Ward, Savior, 1996, installation view at Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, 2010. Courtesy: © Nari Ward, Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua; photograph: EG Schempf

LB To be the subject of a retrospective means having a significant body of work that speaks to a certain level of mastery and intention. It must be a deeply reflective and meaningful experience to see works from different moments in your practice across the years in conversation with each other. When you walk into an exhibition like that as the artist, what do you see?

NW This first happened for me in 2016, with ‘Sun Splashed’ at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and again, later, with ‘We the People’ at the New Museum, New York, in 2019. In both instances, not only did I see things in the work that I hadn’t seen before but, beyond that, I’m a different person now than I was when I made it. So, whether I made a work ten, 20 or 30 years ago, every single time I look at it, I’m seeing it in a totally different light because of my own evolution as a person. For me, it’s a privilege and an inspiration to have the chance to go back into a toolbox that I thought I’d put aside. I’m like: ‘Oh, wait, this tool is right here. It still works!’

Soul Soil , 2011, earth, ceramic toilet fixtures, shoes, broom and mop handles, acrylic and polyurethane, 6 x 6 x 6 m. Courtesy: HangarBicocca, Milan; photograph: Agostino Osio
Nari Ward, Soul Soil, 2011, earth, ceramic toilet fixtures, shoes, broom and mop handles, acrylic and polyurethane, 6 x 6 x 6 m. Courtesy: HangarBicocca, Milan; photograph: Agostino Osio

LB Poets call that a seed file: nothing goes to waste.

NW That’s the power of being fortunate enough to have these opportunities. To revisit a large body of work supercharges your intensity for what you’re doing right now, because it gives you more tools. Ground Break (2023), the namesake work for the Milan show, is also a floor piece. As I mentioned earlier, I’m doing a collaboration with the artist Justin Thompson, whose background is primarily in sound and music. It’s interesting, because now I can understand how Ralph must have felt when he asked me to do something and I would just be taking over the stage and going crazy with it. I remember, more than once, Ralph saying: ‘OK, now rein it in. This is about the dancing. You’ve got to make this about the dancing.’

Similarly, Justin was talking about making new instruments for the exhibition, and I was like: ‘Wait a second, man. I love this idea but you’ve got to stick to the work in the show.’ And he was like: ‘Yes, yes, I get it, you’re right. I’m just getting excited.’ It’s about letting somebody do their thing, while also giving them a guardrail to make sure they stay on the road and don’t veer off.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 241 with the headline ‘Conversation: Nari Ward and LeRonn P. Brooks’

Main image: Nari Ward, ‘Balance Fountain’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: © Nari Ward, Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua; photograph: Daniel Kukla

Nari Ward is an artist. His exhibition ‘Ground Break’ is currently on view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Italy.

LeRonn P. Brooks is Curator of the African American Art History Initiative at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, USA.