Interview: Will Ryman

New York-based sculptor Will Ryman recently unveiled his first large-scale European presentation of work in La Villette, an expansive urban public park located in the northeast of Paris. Three sculptures, ‘Pac-Lab’, ‘Heads’ and ‘Sisyphus’ (all 2018), have been commissioned as part of the interdisciplinary Festival 100% and are on view until September. Made first in clay and then fabricated in painted resin and bronze respectively, the sculptures have a theatrical bent, something the artist is keen to connect to personal experiences of making processes, histories and audience dialogue.

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Will Ryman, La Villette, Heads. Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images for Will Ryman

 

You started working on this project over a year ago. Tell me more about its development.

I was invited to make a proposal for Parc de la Villette. I wanted to see the park first obviously and walked through it a lot. I started playing with ideas and I wasn’t sure what the curator and organisers were going to make of them. I came back to present the work and they liked it right away. I started working on the project properly Spring 2017 and was researching the park throughout.

Did that include the ways that people use the park and the really varied structures and buildings (including museums, a cinema and the Philharmonie de Paris) already housed there?

I was really interested in these structures and the history of the park, although these didn’t enter the work really. I don’t really respond to structures within my work.

Can you tell me more about the clay forms that the larger sculptures started out as?

Almost everything today is made by machine – a computer telling a tool or a robot what to do. My work is very much about human processes and consciousness. A human search. I’m interested in having an organic and handmade quality to the work – it’s what I respond to. There is almost an arc of the history of making within my work.

The most important part of the process is me sitting down with the clay and having a relationship with it – allowing the clay and my hands to do what they want – a give and take. I worked blind with small blocks of clay, trying to work unconsciously to form shapes.

After the small sculptures left my studio, they went to a fabricator called Digital Atelier in the US where they were enlarged and hard coated. The technology then has to come into play for the work to exist outdoors. It’s important for me to keep as much of my hand as possible through the enlargement process so that when you look at the sculptures, they look like they could be soft balls of clay or Play-Doh and yet they’re not.

The painted coating emphasises this, especially on the black sections of the multi-coloured ‘Pac-Lab’ – almost like a fabric.

Like a sugar coating or a fungus. I didn’t want any light reflecting on the work because that way it would indicate its inorganic hardness.

There is a process of play going on in terms of the navigation of space and the arrangement of ‘Pac-Lab’ and the seven ‘Heads’ in the Place de la Fontaine aux Lions.

The plaza, like so many, has an ornament in the middle. In this case a large fountain with beautiful sculptural lions. The city and the people walk around it – it’s like theatre in the round. It has its own borders and colour palette which I thought was prime for what I do. I consider my work to be figurative even though it’s abstract and I feel like my works are moving. ‘Heads’ are not arranged in a perfect circle but they almost seem to dance around the fountain. The colour is bright and references city life, like a sign or road markings, and it creates some movement. The location of ‘Pac-Lab’, in front of the reflective Géode cinema, is like a stage right there.

‘Pac-Lab’ is rooted in technology whereas the other sculptures here aren’t.

I wanted to make a contemporary relic with that work. Like a stonehenge of today.

Except there is a nostalgia to the video game references you conjure up.

Exactly. That’s where it all started. The video game Pac Man specifically is about non-stop consumption of something, everything – it doesn’t matter what it is – which is part of the human condition. The bright colours of ‘Pac-Lab’ reference pixels, fast food, processed materials. But the work also has the look of clay. It’s why I didn’t want a complicated maze but a simplified version.

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Will Ryman, La Villette, Sisyphus.  Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images for Will Ryman

Could you say more about the stories or myths that you are referencing? A work that looks like a maze positioned next to the bronze ‘Sisyphus’ draws these comparisons …

That’s a good question. These stories are really about universal truths told in a fun or sometimes scary way. I have the same feeling when I look at ‘Pac-Lab’ – it’s a series of objects put together to reference a whole lot more.

How about your references to art history? ‘Sisyphus’, in bronze, is about the most traditional sculptural material you can find. Which is interesting as you didn’t train as an artist.

I am self-taught. I had a tonne of exposure to great art growing up. When I look at ‘Pac-Lab’ from above, I think about Mondrian paintings as well as video games. I wanted ‘Sisyphus’ in bronze because I am pointing to traditions as well as the conditions of today.

Let’s talk about your theatre background and the ways this led you to sculpture.

The kind of theatre that I was interested in was really inspired by the absurdist philosophy and the Dadaists and Surrealism. I wasn’t interested in stories so much in my writing – I was more interested in the ideas and the psychological conditions of the characters. My plays didn’t have a lot of action but they were dialogue strong. I would invent words so that my dialogue didn’t say anything – it was a string of syllables and sounds that were lyrical but ultimately, they didn’t make any sense. Which was the point. That led to people not understanding what I was doing therefore not really wanting to work with the material as it was not conducive to commercial story-telling. I did this for 12 years. I tried to write a linear play once but it’s not me.

So out of frustration I started to feel like maybe I could sculpt my characters – sculpt their thought processes and see what would happen. I remember thinking maybe this is a different type of theatre, not puppetry but something else. That’s what led me to making sculpture. My sculpture isn’t about classical objects but a combination of theatre and sculpture.

And that’s where the public sites come into play, as a stage-like space?

Exactly. It allows an interaction with many different cultures at once. The theatre and art worlds are elite crowds. I prefer working in public sites because I get something from that interaction, even if it’s only for a minute, even if they hate it or don’t understand it. I want to give to an audience.

How do you feel your works work in dialogue with the park?

I’m from New York City and I’ve not seen anything like this park. There are so many different cultures all in the same place and my work speaks to that. The park was almost like a blank canvas for me in terms of colour and shape. It was grey, green and red and needed a bit more colour. It’s the perfect place for me conceptually and aesthetically speaking. I’ve never been involved in a public project where there has been no resistance to my ideas but here the organisers have been so supportive about everything and trusting. The park is special.

What’s next?

This show is going to travel to Lille in 2019. I just finished an installation called ‘The Winner’s Circle’ which is about ambition and is inspired by the Surrealists and has a lot of surreal and autobiographical references to it. I’m looking for somewhere to show that and I’m about to start a very big project sculpting the building I grew up in in clay, starting out small. Eventually the hope is to make it life size. I’m not going to look at any drawings or tools. I’m just going to use my hands and my interpretation of what I remember – my interpretation of reality which is always skewed. I want to let the material make something, working in short bursts, to try and avoid my mind solving a problem that I don’t want it to.

22 March – 16 September 2018
Text by Anneka French
Published 30 April 2018 on this is tomorrow

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