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Silent Explosions, an interview with the sculptor Keene Kooper

Tonight is the last chance to view the brilliant artistic creations in this year’s Automata show.

For the past week, Automata has filled the Old Iron Works(612 Chartres St.) with a mélange of kinetic sculpture, all holding to an aesthetic that values raw material over polished sculptural product.

Keene Kopper, a multidisciplinary artist and the assistant to the infamous local artist John Michalopoulos, welcomes viewers into Automata’s main entrance with an “explosion,” as he calls it, of wood, movement, and miniature island scenes.

For the piece, three slender, twenty foot long wooden beams are braced to the ceiling of the Iron Works entrance. Each beam is set on its own pivot, allowing a see-saw saw action.

One end of each beam, is weighed by small "island" scenes - graduated topography with deciduous trees, spray-painted violent neon hues. At the opposite end, are small fans that spin to push their end, the lighter end, to the ground. The result is a constant see-saw, balancing act; weighing neon-colored nature on one side, against mechanical turbines on the other.

My first question to Keene was why his creation was necessary.

He responded:

When people came into the entrance of Automata, I wanted to greet them with an explosion. I paired this idea with an idea that I had been working on – floating landscapes – for a couple weeks before coming to the show.

What is the modus operandi behind the floating landscapes?

Machine versus the landscape is what I was really going for, in a very sarcastic self effacing way. In some ways the modus operandi is to mock the viewer, I am disturbed by our inability to see through cultural constructs, and break through to a more thorough understanding of our universe. This frustration of mine is explored in this installation by tricking the viewer into being lulled into the beauty, the psychedelic nature of the colors, with the slow, metronome-like movement becoming very hypnotic. Beauty often can be a shell for something more deadly underneath, like nature for example. There’s a certain darkness in the piece for me actually, the erosion of our earth and the tumultuous narrative between the machine and our planet.

‘The rape of the environment’ – that kind of thing?

Yeah, that kind of thing.

I definitely see the natural beauty to it, even though, yes, it’s a totally unnatural creation: the little fans, and the harsh neon that those islands are spray painted in.

From what I’m gathering about my piece, there seems to be this literal and figurative battle going on between natural and unnatural. I knew that was the case before in my planning, but really, it was just a departure point, and now I’m seeing that that was reflected in many more ways than I expected initially.

Do you see yourself as one particular type of artist?

Well my background’s in architecture, but I see myself going in this direction more than anything; this makes me feel best.

I actually almost started crying when I was putting this together – when I stepped back into my ego, it was so fucking amazing.

[Laughs.]

I know it sounds crazy, but I wanted it to be emotional… I want people to feel emotional when they discover my stuff. The first piece using this formal language that I made was for an ex-girlfriend of mine on the roof of my old building in Brooklyn. It was placed directly in front of the roof door, when she walked out of the door her response was very emotional.

You said it has similar language? What does that mean?

You see, all the two-by-four beams in my Automata piece have been sculpted. I take a circular saw and rip them length-wise so they’re tapered towards the end. That minimizes the amount they weight, and means you can make these really minimal connections. Where as if you connected a whole two-by-four onto another piece of wood that weighed twice as much, it might put too much pressure on that connection and snap them. So this  is kind of a structural exercise for me. I really enjoy pushing the limits of wood’s integrity, and my work with James [Michalopoulos] deals with a lot of the same kind of analysis of structure, making sure things don’t break or fail – my work here is kind of another physics exercise that I kind of went through.

But are you just looking for balance? What would be the ultimate goal in these exercises?

Weightlessness.

…As far as a freedom from gravity or is there another kind of weightlessness? How would you articulate it? Can it even be articulated?

Silence. It would silence. Silence amid the physical weightlessness. It would be openness to interpretation. ….That’s kind of what silence is; it’s the birth of everything. Whenever you have silence there’s always the opportunity for something else to happen.

I created another piece that’s almost as big as this one – it’s a lighting piece – and on every arm there’s a lamp – there’re twelve lamps – and it has the same feel to it because it is very thin at the arms; it’s almost as if it’s disappearing.

It seems like even though you are a creator your trying to escape your creation?

Yeah, you could say that. But I just really like making these things. I feel it out as I go along with it – it’s just the nature of my sculpting. I cut it as I go without a plan, or dimensions laid out on a sheet, or anything like that. I just come here and start working.

Do you every run into problems and have to start over?

Sometimes I run into problems, but I just ignore that it’s a problem and keep moving around it.

So no preconception dictates what you make?

The departure point for this piece really was the context of this environment: the Iron Work’s entrance.  I looked at the large opening that people would enter in and I wanted to make an explosion happen out of it.

But at the same time I was kind of hoping that this would hope as a meditative piece, in the way that when you’re meditating you usually have one focus – usually breathing. Personally, this piece demands me to focus; really becoming  part of the movement of it, the flow of it.

...Sounds very Avant Garde....

It is. Most new art that I enjoy is part of the Avant Garde. But I also take allot of inspiration from the past. Bauhaus, for instance, is a big influence on me and my architectural schooling. But I don’t know how this comes across here. This is relatively new here, and for me to concisely define what is going on here I would be ahead of myself. I’m finding out what I think is beautiful about it.

I mean, I would hate to post rationalize now, even though one day I think I will.

Richard Serra’s a big influence on me, and most of his important work was post rationalized. He figured out what he liked about it and then he worked off of that.

Is this time of your life dedicated strictly to experimenting than? Do you have set goals – like, ‘when I’m forty, I’m going to stop experimenting and start rationalizing…’

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with James [Michalopoulos], it is to not put myself in a box.

I’ve been trained as an architect, and so I have these tendencies to find the parameters and work in them and solve them. So art for me is an exploration outside from those parameters; I want to completely free myself from parameters. That’s why I don’t draw out my sculpture before it’s created. I come here with a pile of wood and some metal. And whatever comes out of it is what it is.

I kind of also don’t even imagine myself making these things. I don’t really understand how I got into it. Like I said, I just started making these things and it was really fun and so I just kept going with it.

What’s next?

I have some other ideas for some kinetic pieces, but it sounds like my Automata piece got me another show.

With a new creation?

Yeah, I’m going to take this down. It could conceivably go somewhere else, but it’s so contextually dependant on the location in the Iron Works. I could make a big tripod for it. It would have to be a twenty-five feet tall to support this whole thing, but I don’t think that would interact with the architecture anymore, like I want it to. I’m probably just going to take it apart.

…Like a Buddhist monk destroying his Mandala sand painting…

Yeah, it’s alive and then it’s dead.

Do you feel cathartic when you take it apart?

No. I don’t really see taking it down as a depressing moment.


Keene Kopper’s sculpture will be on display tonight only, April 9th, at the Old Ironworks (612 Chartres Street). You can find out more about the Automata Exhibition at automatanola.wordpress.com, and see more of Keene Koopers work on his website: keenekopper.com.