How Kaari Upson’s Fascination with Cats, Costco, and Her Mother Spawned a Monumental Sculpture
The artist explains why homemade cat beds and Idiot's Guide books are sources of great inspiration.
Kaari Upson has turned a gallery at the New Museum into a haunted big-box store.
The most dramatic work in her first New York museum presentation, “Good Thing You Are Not Alone” (until September 10), is a sprawling installation called Idiot’s Guide Womb Room (2016–17). Costco-style metal shelves play host to numerous videos, heaps of stuffed dolls, and seemingly endless copies of books from the Idiot’s Guide series. The dolls, dressed in Upson’s mother’s trademark outfit of jeans and a plaid shirt, are ominously stacked like corpses—or, maybe, items for sale.
The New Museum show includes work in a variety of media, from sculptures made from discarded furniture to eccentric drawings with abundant text. There are videos, too: One shows the artist sitting on a throne made up of cases of Pepsi (her mother’s favorite beverage) at Costco, while another captures her awkwardly maneuvering around the perimeter of rooms in tract homes for sale in Las Vegas, like a young Bruce Nauman in an episode of House Hunters.
The Los Angeles-based artist, who was born in 1972, has had a major presence in New York this year. Her furniture-inspired sculptures also appeared in the 2017 Whitney Biennial.
For this edition of “Origin Story,” which explores the backstories of individual works of art, we spoke to Upson about the genesis of Idiot’s Guide Womb Room, the importance of remaining an amateur, and the evolution of her army of dolls.
Idiot’s Guide Womb Room (2016–17) brings together so many aspects of your practice. How did the scads of life-size sculptures of female figures in your mother’s trademark outfit come about?
They’re cat beds! If you look very closely, you’ll see a lot of cat hair on them. The doll is a prosthetic mom, a substitute maternal figure, that came about very naturally. We were being invaded by burglars coming in via the back of our studio from the large homeless community that lives there, so I made this scarecrow-style doll to scare people off, and it worked!
But there are so many of them.
When we had a show in Germany, I decided the show needed the doll’s animism, so we hid one in the gallery. But [after we sent away the sculpture] the cat started to lose its mind—it was so attached to this substitute. It sits here alone at night, so the cat must have a relationship with it. So we made another one, and from there, it naturally started to build.
There are a number of videos inside and next to the installation. In one, for example, you are hanging out in a big-box store filled with stacks of boxes of Pepsi cans. How does the video relate to the wider installation?
That one is shot in Costco. I would go weekly and film until I got caught by security, then move on to another Costco 20 minutes down the freeway. Many times I could sit there unnoticed, almost invisible, for hours. In the video, I’m wearing an outfit I bought at Costco. The video relates to the installation because the perverse minimalist sculpture itself—the long rectangle made of actual Costco shelving units—was developed from going to Costco ritualistically and viewing the bulk shapes, boxes and multiple towering merchandise shoved on the shelves. Also, the actual shelves that appear in the installation at the New Museum and repeat recursively in the projected videos are important for presenting this psychic visual endlessness—as though it could just keep going and going.
You’ve described drawing as the beginning, the middle, and the end of your practice. Is there a particular drawing that relates to the installation?
Yes, definitely. By being really loose and not thinking, I decide to draw something and then draw it upside down right on top of it, and that juxtaposition will literally determine something—say, how I edit a video. It’s frustrating that I can’t force it! But the minute it happens I can pin it down. There it is.
There’s an unbelievable array of Idiot’s Guide books throughout—guides to difficult conversations, sex on the net, and impeachment of a president. Are they all real?
Yes. I’ve been curating the Idiot’s Guides over 10 years. I like how if you just casually stack five of them next to each other, it creates a whole narrative. I have a related drawing where I write down every idea for a Guide: to clouds, or to Michael Asher. When I was finishing installing the show, I went to the Strand bookstore and scoured the place for them. You sit in the foam sculptures to watch the videos, and the books became a kind of teeth for those forms.
What do the books mean to you?
They’re about the endless chasing of information. There’s no knowing everything, and the guides are about not knowing. But the accidental overlay of information can create new directions. If I were a better student, I might have become a psychiatrist—not knowing has to do with the unconscious and the drives outward that we can’t navigate. I never thought about this before now, actually. Formally, I like to work with materials where I don’t fully know what’s going to happen. Once I start to master something, I’m out.
That reminds me of Bruce Nauman, who said he always likes to work in new materials because it makes him an amateur, which he finds a fruitful thing to be.
Nauman is one of my go-tos. I never knew he said that.
“Origin Story” is a column in which we examine the backstory of an individual work of art.
Organized by associate curator Margot Norton, Kaari Upson’s exhibition “Good Thing You Are Not Alone,” at New York’s New Museum, 235 Bowery, is on view through September 10.
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