Art Beyond the Gallery: An Interview with Artist Oscar Tuazon

Escaping the  context of the traditional white-cube gallery, American artist Oscar Tuazon, known for his architectural installations, responds directly to the city’s natural and artificial landscape through a series of three urban interventions collectively titled People in the recently completed green space in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Here, Tuazon creates a series of interrelated works that encourage participation with the outside world, making the work become both sculpture as well as apparatus. The following Q&A was conducted with the artist for the Italian art, architecture and design publication Domus about his public art project People at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. The full story was published on DomusWeb and is featured in the January 2013 print issue of Domus Magazine.

Danielle Rago: I’ve been following your work for some time now and am most interested in how your pieces intersect art and architecture in both theory and practice. I’m interested in finding out how People references your past works as both extensions of or departures from past projects. More specifically, your use of trees as subject and material.

Oscar Tuazon: Well I've been working with trees for years now. They're alive, which means that they have their own needs, their own imperatives, independent of what I want them to do. There's an essential conflict built into the work. The fountain work (A Machine, 2012) in particular is something I've been trying to do for five years or so. That's a pretty exciting work for me because I really don't know how it's going to evolve over the course of the exhibition. I'm always looking for ways to make work that is beyond my control, and I think these three works do that pretty well. 

DR: Your work to me has always been quite architectural. This is the first work of yours outside the context of a traditional gallery space and inserted into the public realm or built environment. The works have an invisible aspect in the way they interact with the city. How has working outside the gallery affected your practice? How did you address the relationship of the artworks to the surrounding landscape of New York City and specifically Brooklyn Bridge Park?

OT: The visibility of an artwork is one of the things I think about a lot, and particularly when working outside that becomes a central question. To make an object disappear does require a kind of transparency relative to its context-- but it also implies the capacity of an artwork to alter its context. To 'appear normal'. So the works in the Brooklyn Bridge Park work like that, like camouflage-- they're trees in a park, after all. And like other trees, they aren't there to be looked at, they're meant to be used. They need to be touched. You can play with them, you can sit on them or with them. The urban environment of New York is actually so dynamic and unstable that it doesn't have any need for public art, making outdoor sculpture in New York is a redundancy, there's something ridiculous about it. I'm not interested in making public art. I wanted to make some objects that could credibly exist in that environment. Things that would be perceived as part of a new reality, rather than as artworks. 

DR: This new reality you speak of is extremely relevant when you approach the site. It's kind of amazing how much the works assimilate to the environment or vice versa. Like this work at Brooklyn Bridge Park, your projects at The Whitney Biennale this past year and at the ICA, London in 2010 are both incredibly experiential. Can you elaborate on how you create dialogue with the audience as much as you do between the works themselves in People, for example?

OT: I called the project 'People' because to me the most interesting thing about the works isn't the objects themselves but this potential they have to operate in the everyday, the fact that each of these things will get used by innumerable people in ways that I can't anticipate or even imagine. They really have their own lives. I have no interest in designing experiences-- to me that would be just as constricted and narrow as the traditional definition of painting has always been. I actually think that an artwork can open up a new space for itself in the world, and that's possible because there is something inherently utopian about an object without a function, like a tree. Or a person.  

Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone. Photos courtesy of Public Art Fund.