Interview with Icons: Lita Albuquerque, Environmental Artist
By Jessica Hundley
For the last of the series, we spoke with internationally acclaimed environmental artist Lita Albuquerque. Utilizing a variety of mediums, Albuquerque's work is often executed within natural landscapes — paint, installation and sculpture, transforming exotic climes such as Antarctica, the Arctic, Death Valley, the Mojave Desert and South Dakota's Badlands — into transformational works of art.
Born in Santa Monica, California and raised in Tunisia, North Africa and Paris, France, Albuquerque first gained national attention in the late 1970s alongside such artists as James Turrell, Christo and Robert Smithson. Her work has since been collected and shown by museums and institutions such as The Smithsonian; Whitney Museum Of Art; The Los Angeles County Museum Of Art; Musee d'Art Moderne, Paris; and many, many more. Her first monograph, Stellar Axis, was recently published by Rizzoli.
We spoke with Albuquerque about art, inspiration and searching for self in the modern world.
What initially inspired you to begin making art?
I don't think there was ever a time in my life that I did not want to express myself. From the time I was 5 and living in Paris, I dreamt of being a dancer at the Opera, and to immerse myself in the theater. Instead we returned to Tunisia where the sea, the sky, the wind, the smell of jasmine in the air, the colors of nature, down to the Earth itself inspired me to express this all-enveloping beauty. There was poetry in the air. The way nature was so powerful in Africa, how the winds would suddenly come out of nowhere and then stop. Whole flocks of birds would appear, then disappear. The intense storms that would overtake us with no warning, all of this, this constant motion of nature which seemed outside of our control accompanied by the colors of the sea and the sky and the brightly colored tents on the beach, the white veils of the women in the street, as if movement was dotted by color, the blue and gold of the tile work in the mosques and the buildings… all of that added up to a sense of beauty that I felt I lost when we left the country and that I felt I needed to express in order to bring it back in a palpable form, in a form I could see and touch, as a way of making it real.
How does nature feed into your own creativity?
Sigfried Giedion, the great architectural historian, said that humanity's desire to express our relationship to the environment is the beginning of art. And I feel that very strongly. For me it all begins with nature and who we are in relationship to it. I am continually asking questions about who we are in relationship to the environment around us and to the planet itself and then extend that to the sun, the moon, the stars, the galaxy, the universe. My relationship to nature, all of it, is what inspires me and drives my creativity. When I am out in the desert, the silence there begins to be filled with thoughts. It is in the silence of nature that we can begin to hear ourselves that we can begin to connect with our own nature. Sometimes I think we are alien to the Earth, and the Earth is a listening system, a way to hear the heart, and that is why we are here.
What are some ways you would recommend connecting with nature in an increasingly virtual world?
This is probably one of the most important questions today. It is so easy to lose ourselves in our tablets that we create a world outside of time and space. And it is so important to be IN time and space. My work has everything to do with bringing us in awareness to the moment. To the NOW. In physical space and to what our bodies are doing in the world we live in. I think it is important to meditate. Go for a walk anywhere and begin a listening meditation … just becoming aware of the various sounds around you, from the chirping of birds to the sound of your feet, to an airplane, to your beating heart, to children laughing, to the sound of the wind. By listening, you can begin to differentiate the multitude of layers we live in and begin to be aware of the natural sounds versus your own, versus life around you. Go out and take a walk in nature, at the beach or in the mountains or in a park and do the same listening meditation. It is a great way to connect. I also recommend going out on a moonless night and watch the stars — no one can deny the power of that experience. I did a performance recently called “An Elongated Now." It was held on the beach and started with one person at sunrise looking at the rising sun; then at noon looking up at the noontime sun, then 300 people dressed in white lined up in a row at the edge of the ocean paralleling the edge of the ocean and stood there watching the setting sun for an hour. It was about experiencing another kind of intelligence, an intelligence that is revealed by silence and by connecting to nature.
What in your world continually inspires your creativity and helps to fuel the passion for what you do?
I am a very active person and being on the move is one of the ways I get inspired. Traveling has always been a great source of inspiration, experiencing different cultures, being in a place I have never been in before. Right at this moment I am on a train on the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and outside my window I can see the beginning of Monument Valley. It shifts me sideways, makes me think in ways I don't always think, words and images come into my mind and I write them down for future projects. When I am home, I like to start the day with running on the beach and doing what I call Energetic Meditations, which are meditations done while running. I then go back to my studio and do automatic writing to get the juices going. For me it is a combination of movement and thinking. Being on airplanes has always been another way for inspiration to come in, looking out the window to the world below. I get great inspiration from the Earth itself. Rocks, to me, are containers of information; everything is information. Every single particle has something to tell us about the world we live in. I am also an avid moviegoer and am continually thinking how the director is framing a shot. I have a fantasy of living inside Wim Wenders' Pina movie — a 3D film on Pina Bausch, the German choreographer. Her talent, what she brought to dance, and how he filmed it is of great inspiration to me. I imagine being in that space of the film. One of my fantasies is to live as if I am in a work of art, in the beauty of art.
In light of Women's History Month — what historical figures have inspired you and/or your work, if any?
I can start with where I grew up in Carthage, Tunisia and the famous story of Queen Dido, who negotiated with a local chieftain for a piece of land to found her new settlement. The agreement was that she could have as much land as a single ox hide. She cut the ox hide into thin strips until she created a length of rope long enough to encircle a wide area including a prominent hill and thus the city of Carthage was founded. I would not necessarily say she inspired my work, but knowing that tale ever since I was very little certainly was a big influence. It taught me not to take things at face value. It showed me the example of thinking outside the box, thinking from a different perspective.
The other four women who inspire me all have an adventurist and spiritual nature and all had the courage to forge their very own path. Isabelle Eberhardt, who led a most unusual life as an explorer and writer at the end of the 19th Century, and spent most of her time in North Africa. She led an unconventional life and was a liberated human being and became a Sufi, a spiritual sect of Islam. She died at the age of 27 in a flash flood.
Isak Dinesen was a Danish writer who lived in Africa and shares my almost mystical love of Africa. Isadora Duncan, for what she brought to dance, bringing it back to its roots as sacred art. And I cannot leave out my mother, one of the original feminists. She led a very singular life that was of great influence and inspiration.
What advice do you have for the younger generation of women, as it relates to matters of career, love and relationship with self?
That is a loaded question. The main advice I have is to know yourself. Everyone is different and there are no set rules as to live one's life. It is important to understand one's process, not to ignore it. I always think about how there are no maps as to how to live your life. You have to, as a daily practice, be aware of what works for you and what does not. What can you do with and without? What makes YOU flow? With my students and their work, I talk at times of a theory that I call the “theory of the obvious" and that is whenever you think that what you are doing in your work is obvious, or silly, or childish — THAT is the important path to follow. That it is obvious to you, because you are so close to it, but it is indeed the gift you have to bring out, to give to the world, no one else has that. What makes you distinct as an artist is what is distinct about you. So you have to discover what are your loves, your passions and delve into them even more. All the little quirks and interests that lead up to who you are. There is no one else is like you. Of course it is scary and not easy at times. But always remember you are a very complex and specific system and only you have that specific system. It is your life's work to discover it, and doing so will spill over into your work, love and career. The self is indeed the “great work" — the magnum opus.
What struggles have you endured as a woman in your particular field?
My mother was the embodiment of Lynda Benglis' famous image in Art Forum magazine, which burned in everyone's head 40 years ago. She lived that way her entire life and made as strong an imprint on my life. I am not a feminist per se, the path had been cleared before me. I certainly had my share of experiencing being a woman artist in the '70s in Southern California, when male artists ruled. But though it was an issue socially, it was never an issue for me, as I had that image of my mother breaking the rules. Even though I did not carry the banner of feminism, I certainly feel that I did through my work and through my example as an exhibiting artist.
What are you most excited about for the future of women in the fields of business, art, science, etc.?
I think young women today have a great opportunity to make deep, enduring changes. We are in a new age, and it is an age of information, connectivity, collaboration and creativity. It seems that on a deep, subliminal level, the ego structure of the world is disintegrating and a new being is emerging. We are going from the I to the WE. Of course, it is a process, and it will take awhile to operate from the knowledge that we are completely connected and interconnected. I am excited because I feel that young women today are increasingly becoming aware of that difference. They are starting to operate within the possibility of great collaboration and with the increasing understanding of maintaining the greater vision of greater and greater unity.