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Portfolio: Itty Neuhaus 

What do subterranean caverns in Slovenia, volcanic activity beneath glaciers in Iceland, and the fate of German-Jewish designer Friedrich Adler have in common?

They’ve all become subjects of exploration, and jumping-off points for the aesthetic meditations of artist Itty Neuhaus. An associate professor of art at SUNY New Paltz, she engages many different media in her own art, including sculpture, collage, video, performance, and installation work. Her physical/visual artistic production is informed by a broad range of informational and intellectual sources, from glacial geology, botany, and biology to concepts from film editing, philosophy, and history. She picks up key concepts from these disparate fields, merging (or colliding) concepts in a body of work that plays with light and form to create an entirely new mode of expression, an aesthetically palpable way of understanding.

In “Home for Haus,” her latest exhibition, she examines elements of her family’s history (they emigrated to the US in the 1930s), in contrast to the fate of others who stayed behind (especially Adler, who died in the Holocaust, and who designed a desk that still resides in her father’s office). The exhibition is on view at the Stadthaus in her father’s hometown of Ulm, Germany, through January 27. Portfolio:

—Beth E. Wilson


See it/say it
I don’t really try to make sense of all the disparate parts of me. As an artist, I feel driven to certain interests—it seems so inexorable, why I go where I go, what my interests are. Sometimes it’s because I’ve got a show (which is always a great motivation), but sometimes I’ll [come up with a concept to] write a grant for something in particular. Right now, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to pursue more of. It depends on what sort of opportunities I can make happen. I do feel like how it all does fit together, I want to have a common language to express that. It is already there [in the work]. The forms are there, maybe the words will come…today [in this interview]!

Light into mass
A Bigger Container was a series of forms that nested inside each other when it was in the back of my truck, and it expanded out into a giant piece that hung from a crossed the ceiling [at SculptureCenter in Queens]. The biggest form was cast [in paper mache] over a pup tent, so they went from 7’ diameter to peanut-sized. At that time I was thinking of light as the character of the thing, what sort of brought the objects to life. The actual, physical light and shadow interacted, and was what made it happen for the viewer. It also came out of snow, thinking about forming snow, making snow angels. When I was first thinking about the piece, I was making snow structures, snow huts. The way snow melts and changes, it inevitably had to be recorded with something, video or film or something, to show the change. Going from light to video is not much of a leap.

From here to there (it’s farther than you think)
The strata, the layers in geology in some of the work I’m directly dealing with I think in terms of time lapse. Something happens, and you shoot another image, and you see a trace of that. It’s about something changing and passing, an accretion, something adding up, or going away. I remember lying in bed when I was a little kid, and I’d heard about Zeno’s paradox, that idea that you could never actually get through the door, that space is infinitely divisible. I remember lying in bed as a child and looking at the crack of light coming in from under the bedroom door and thinking that the idea is that I can’t get through that door. I know I can, but the idea that there’s some kind of liminal place, this hurdle, this divide between now and then, and that you can incrementally get to then (the future or the past), but there’s this infinitely divisible way to get there. If I [can focus on] describing that, it gives me some way to divide up the time until I die.

Why am I doing this? It’s endlessly fascinating to me to take phenomena and to try and understand them. I think of how I started a lot of this work—snow angels, you lie down in the snow and you make a mark. It’s like the mark you leave, and it either gets filled in incrementally, or melts away incrementally. All of my work has always been about this space in between. At times it’s been very much about cell division, or love and lust, but it’s ultimately about when two things come together, that idea of whether it’s you and a passage, how you pass through a space, or in film the idea of the frame, with that black screen projected between each image up on the screen.

Why Iceland?
I read this John McPhee book, The Control of Nature, about how in Heimaey, Iceland, there was a volcano erupting, and the flow of lava was threatening to close off the fishing port. Great minds were coming together to figure out how to redirect the flow of lava. This one guy noticed, walking along the beach, how one little trickle of lava came to the ocean and took a left, formed a wall, which the lava behind followed. The water was cooling it—so he thought, if he could direct enough water on this lava, he could redirect it away from the port. It was like sculpting the earth. Ultimately, this idea worked, and they were able to save this little port.
This story is what first got me interested in going to Iceland. When I got there, I became fascinated with the crevasses in the glaciers. It puts you in touch with all the hidden forces, the power inside the earth. They’re actually very dangerous—people have died from falling in them, and when I filmed them, I had to be all roped up in a safety harness. It makes you feel very vulnerable, which was compounded for me because it reminded me of an incident when I was a teenager, when my father fell into a hot spring. It was like the earth just swallowed him up, a feeling I had again in Iceland.

Wo waren Sie?
I am the last person anybody in my family would think of [to do this family-based work]. I don’t remember people’s names, I don’t remember where people are in the family tree. In Germany, at the opening, my father invited five or six different families from southern Germany and Switzerland that were related to us. It’s been incredibly moving to meet these people. At the opening, someone had a family tree with them, and said I fit in here, you fit in there. That was so helpful for me, to have a physical, visual ‘This is where you are.’ I don’t know what my role is in this. Nobody would have expected it of me, but this is all I’ve been doing for the past two or three years. There’s a lot of unresolved stuff.

In the Clouds for Clouds piece [in Ulm] I keep repeating the refrain “Where were you? Where were you?” in the video projection. You look up to see a Tiepolo-esque mural painting of clouds, layered with two skylights, through which you can see the real clouds. The video projection is an hour of Brooklyn clouds, speeded up 1,000 times so they just race by. When I was in Germany last summer, I found myself following German people around who were close to my father’s age. I kept wanting to ask them, “Where were you?” I would follow an older person onto the bus, filming them along the way. Once I was filming right on the site where my father’s house had stood, and I saw this guy and spontaneously turned the camera on him, and I asked him these questions. Everybody I did get to talk to had airtight alibis of course. Nobody would implicate themselves. On the last day I was there, I just started saying “Where were you” over and over again. I asked one of the curators how to say it in German, so it’s layered with “Wo waren Sie?” in the installation, to address the German audience directly. It’s been quite an experience to get back in touch with my German roots in this project, which I really appreciate, but it’s been very complicated by the history as well.

click to enlarge port_jan08_1artist.portrait.b.w.gif
click to enlarge _Fathom_ video installation at The Islip Museum Carriage House, 2004.
  • _Fathom_ video installation at The Islip Museum Carriage House, 2004.
click to enlarge Stills from video for _Fathom_.
  • Stills from video for _Fathom_.

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