EK Interview: John Grade

John Grade - Empty Kingdom - Art Blog

John Grade is a large scale installation artist based out of Seattle, his work is made from natural materials with the intent that it will decompose and return to the earth. He discusses his link to nature, the fetishization of the naatural world and how his work addresses both. His work was previously featured in August of 2014.

As a resident of Seattle, what’s your favorite place to go in the Pacific Northwest? And what do you miss the most from Minneapolis?

What I appreciate most is the range of what is accessible in the NW from the national park coastline to the rainforest and up into so many ranges of mountains – full of glaciers and alpine lakes and plenty to explore away from trails.



How big is your work space? Some of your pieces are huge, how big of a space do you need to put them together? How many pieces are you working on at a single time?

I work out of two spaces – my primary space is about 2500 square feet and the second is larger but rarely do I work on a piece in the studio in its final assembled state – usually the works are in sections so they don’t require that much space. My primary need for space is driven by working on multiple projects simultaneously – these days usually 3-5 projects at any given time.



How would you compare an exhibition of your work to a show with framed art? How is the viewer’s perception changed when the art is as much an obstacle and part of the space as anything else? Do you think that makes the viewer a participant in the piece? Does that involve them any more or less?

A significant part of my choice to move most of my energy away from smaller sculpture and into immersive large scale work is so that the work is experienced fully with the body. At a very large scale there tends to be less a question of what the sculpture is supposed to be and instead a release into what it simply is – a transition away from thinking metaphorically; the sculpture becomes a frame. I am interested in viewers crossing over into becoming participants – as they literally have with my Middle Fork project – and it certainly involves them much more with terrific investment and contribution.


How does it change the meaning and framework of a show when you don’t have a number of pieces on display for sale that essentially the viewers could walk away with? How does it change the goal of the show for you when the art you are constructing is designed to fall apart, to decay and that selling your work is not a driving force? Or is it?

Removing economic from the experience of the art is bliss – but it is difficult to pull off with all of the work. I have been finding a good balance between large scale work that is not made to be purchased or to last with doing other work that is meant to last longer – sometimes public commissions, works that are viewed in museums as well as gallery exhibitions of smaller works that are for sale. I think is simply comes down to finding balance so that money is a secondary consideration behind the content.



What is your connection to nature? Your work seems to be a bridge between the abstract concept known to humans as ‘art’ and the natural world. How do you see yourself existing between the world of nature and the human world? Why do we consider these intrinsically disparate? It seems as if humans have somehow forgotten or broken the conception that we come from the Earth just like everything else. Beavers make dams and they don’t label natural versus manufactured. How is it anything that humans make can be unnatural if it is constructed by materials from this planet, thought up by minds from this planet?

I think of my work as visiting natural environments (I secure it to a specific place short term then retrieve it to see what has happened) and in this way I am learning both more about the natural world as well as how to relate it to urban and rural landscapes that have become dominated by humanity. I think that we have come to fetishise the ‘wild’ natural environment and place it into an idealized place in our minds, a place that we want to visit briefly for inspiration but then return to our civilized lives. I fear that we may turn what is left of undeveloped nature into theme parks of a sort that no longer reflect much ecological balance. I was just at Big Bend national park and woke up to a dear a few feet from my tent. Rather than leap away from me, the deer turned his back to me with attention to some noise a few hundred feet beyond us. I think the deer was being stalked by a mountain lion and using me as a kind of shelter and I thought this exemplified an aspect of how we are changing places we have designated wilderness. It is a tricky path to both preserve a natural environment while simultaneously seeking to provide access to it.


Tell us about Elephant Bed. Where did the inspiration for it come from? How long did it take to execute? The piece looks like you have moved it all over the place, how was that done? And which of the locations do you think best suited the piece?

Below is some text that I wrote about the Elephant Bed the second time I created it for a museum call the Whatcom in Bellingham WA. Because the sculpture disintegrates in just a few seconds of contact with water it needs to be recreated in order to exhibit it again. The forms are like a kind of origami so they can be packed flat. The 20 large forms that we showed at Fabrica in Brighton UK all fit into three suitcases that I was able to pack on a flight with British Air. The site in Brighton so close to the calcium cliffs nearby that inspired the forms was the ideal location.
Bloom: The Elephant Bed

Floating inches below the surface of the sea are tiny microorganisms called coccolithiphores. Individually, they are too small to see, but grouped together they form such large masses that they can be seen from satellites blanketing hundreds of miles of ocean, coloring the water a bright turquoise. Unlike any other type of phytoplankton, each coccolithiphore surrounds itself with a microscopic plating made of limestone (calcite). When a coccolithiphore dies (they have a life span of a few weeks), this outer shell slowly sinks down to the ocean floor. Hundreds of thousands of years ago these shells accumulated and formed a sedimentary layer that can be seen today as the white cliffs of Dover along England’s southern coast. Geologists named this exposed accumulation of calcium made from the casings of coccolithiphores, the “Elephant” bed.
When I first imagined masses of coccolithiphore shells slowly sinking to the seabed, I wondered how that descent might sound. I pictured thin casings softly colliding en route to the sea floor and then piling together, currents shifting them together into locked clusters. In 2003 I made a sculpture, Shoal, based on my interest in this natural process. Thin wedges of wood form small acoustic enclaves that radiate together away from the wall. I gave each hollow form a puckered opening where lips might blow sound through and hung the assemblage on a ring so that one might imagine a person wearing the form on his or her body.
Over the past decade there has been controversy over the role of coccolithiphores as they relate to the health of the world’s oceans and global warming. They thrive in areas of the sea that are otherwise largely lifeless, primarily in sub polar regions. Generally, when coccolithiphores inhabit an area, they dominate and supplant other forms of phytoplankton. In the past two years, coccolithiphores have begun to cover large areas of the Bering Sea. This surprises some scientists because the Bering Sea is usually a very nutrient-rich body of water. In the long-term, coccolithiphores appear to be a positive force in the reduction of greenhouse gasses. With the formation of each calcium shell, a small bit of carbon is removed from the environment to become part of the shell that will eventually sink harmlessly to the ocean floor. But an immediate concern arises when a coccolithiphore takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (for sustenance) because it is simultaneously releasing a small portion of it into the sea. This can cause the upper layers of the ocean to become warmer and stagnant – essentially creating a “dead zone” in the ocean suitable only for sustaining more coccolithiphores. Over the past ten years, coccolithiphores have been a growing presence in the world’s oceans as they cyclically bloom in greater numbers.

One of my goals with the installation of Bloom is to employ scale so that we can tangibly encase ourselves within a form inspired by the shell of a coccolithiphore. I am also interested in impermanence, at directing our attention to what is compelling within a state of decay or disintegration. The sculptures that are gradually lowered into the pool of ink will collapse, sink and flake apart slowly while the remaining sculptures will dissolve almost instantly when we walk them out of the museum and directly into the bay at the close of the exhibition.




What are you doing after this interview? What is the highlight of this week, or what do you expect to be?

I am scurrying trying to finish the last of the branch tips for my current project Middle fork (video link attached) – it will next be exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington DC.


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