David Adamo: Exploring the Everyday

INTERVIEW BY NIKKI COLUMBUS

With work spanning from performance to archival projects to sculpture, the Berlin-based American artist David Adamo (b. 1979, Rochester, New York) has been keeping busy: He has had three solo shows a year for four years running and has taken part in numerous group exhibitions, including the Whitney Biennial and MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” in 2010. OMQ recently caught up with him in a studio in Long Island City, where he was preparing for a May show at the New York gallery Untitled, to talk about deathcore, tomatoes, and chopping wood.

NC: Your work often involves whittled-down wood objects – bats, canes, long-handled hammers, and now planks. Yet they always retain something of their original shape or form so that they remain recognizable. How did you begin working with these objects, and what do they signify to you?

DA: Well, initially, I had done one of these, a small hammer piece, many years ago, when I was eighteen or nineteen. Or no, twenty, maybe. And years later, I found an image of that piece, and I was like, wow, that’s kind of interesting. So I had a sledgehammer, and I chopped its handle, and I was quite satisfied with that, and then I continued with the hammers. I liked the idea of this heavy weight and the light feeling. As it went on, I actually just wanted to compulsively chop, so I chopped whatever was wooden in my house. I found a cane, and a baseball bat, and I started to work in series. And I felt like it was a good lineup of symbols because they’re so recognizable, for everybody. So I went on with that for a long period of time, developing slowly, as I found things inside the wood.

NC: In Untitled (The Rite of Spring), which I saw in “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1 in 2010, you kept the bats whole. Instead of carving them, you created a wall-to-wall floor installation of baseball bats that museum visitors could walk upon.

DA: I initially had done that piece in 2008, in London. So when I did it in “Greater New York,” it had already been shown in Europe a couple times. I haven’t done many more pieces like The Rite of Spring, simply because of that production; it was kind of a one-time thing that I could get that amount of bats. I suppose I’d experimented with putting it on the wall, and now wanted to put it on the floor. I’ve also tried to cast it in different materials and to create different environments with the same idea. I’ve made several attempts to show these, but it’s funny because the more I try to do different materials and experiment with different things, the more I fail at it, and the more frustrated I am, and the more I chop. So they sort of feed each other. It’s like I continually fail to try to make new pieces, and then in that frustration I find that chopping somehow satisfies that failure. For the show at Fruit and Flower Deli in Stockholm, I tried to do a plaster floor piece that was going to be like The Rite of Spring, a complete floor made out of baseball bats cast in plaster, and then they would break as you walk on top of them. And at the same time, I created these eight new pieces to go inside of the windows as a plan B. But the baseball-bat floor didn’t work out, and these eight things in the window managed to fill the space quite nicely. And so it turned out to be a very simple and elegant show.

NC: The eight sculptures in the show were made out of simple wooden planks rather than specific objects like a cane, or a bat, or a hammer. Those objects created a narrative element, and your installations had a sense of a story. Have you started working with planks as a way to avoid this? These sculptures now have more to do with wood as wood, rather than wood as an object that is or used to be something else.

DA: Well, I think I’m hoping that with the new works, their physicality tells a story; it doesn’t necessarily need
to be connected to an object to evoke the same type of activity. I’ve been looking at a lot of Carl Andre, and he did these cedar pieces, which were basically like large wooden chunks, but they were never carved, just arranged in very modernist ways. I’ve also sometimes combined these more abstract works with canes or with a hammer, but just not using that as the central motif – instead of using twenty canes, one can evoke the same kind of feeling.

NC: The exhibition at Fruit and Flower was titled “Untitled (Monument).” What were the sculptures monuments to, or of?

DA: The initial monument was the baseball-bat floor. I was interested in having plaster as the material, covering the entire space, and to have it break as you walked over it, like a falling-apart monument. That was the initial idea. But I suppose that somehow this series of eight columns in the window – all in exactly the same size, in all of these window frames the same way – really took on a kind of architectural feeling, like columns, placed in a way that could be seen as monumental.

NC: While the plaster casts didn’t work out, you’ve made a lot of cast bronze objects, such as the smashed tomatoes.

DA: Yes, I’ve had some successful casting experiments as well. I suppose I’ve continued with the tomatoes because I think it’s such a great object. Every few months, I make a new series of them. And they’re quite fun to make, throwing tomatoes at the wall.

NC: What are you thinking of when you’re throwing the tomatoes? The canes and the tomatoes are both traditional vaudevillian ways of getting someone off the stage.

DA: Yes, exactly. That was the initial idea behind the tomatoes. The first time I did the tomatoes was after I was working with [choreographer] Maria Hassabi. We were working on a dance together for about a year, and, basically, there was just a major problem with the piece, and the problem was me. And I got fired from the piece. And I suppose that really hurt me in some way. A long time ago Maria told me about this old Greek tradition of throwing tomatoes at performers: People would walk for many days to get to a performance, and so they would have rotten tomatoes by the time they got there.

NC: You performed in an earlier piece of Maria’s – the dance piece Still Smoking (2007) – and before that, you appeared in Michael Portnoy’s The K Sound (2006), both at the Kitchen in New York. How did you get into performing?

DA: It began really because of debauchery—how I met those people was being crazy and drunk on the dance floor.

NC: That’s amazing – everyone hopes to be discovered on the dance floor, and it happened to you.

DA: Exactly, it was like being on the dance floor and really giving it your all, and wondering if someone notices.

NC: Did the performance work influence your artistic practice?

DA: Yeah, for sure. Initially, I wasn’t really connecting the two things. And after a bit of time dancing, I went back to sculpture and had a much more physical relationship with it. Things were more about the body, and more about performance in general. I started to approach my sculptures from the idea that I wanted to make a performance, but there was no audience. And then I started to make installations that for me were like performances.

NC: In terms of the process or the installation?

DA: In every consideration. I think the end result is interesting as a performance rather than the actual action of it. I don’t think it would be that interesting to watch me chopping wood for five hours in a row, but the end result has a residue of this really violent, repetitive action.

NC: Are you still listening to gabba music?

DA: I took a little break from gabba. I’ve softened up a little bit, listening to more minimal things. I did take a recent dive toward deathcore, especially when making the newer works, which are much bigger and require much more physical activity. One has to create some kind of rhythm otherwise the process of creating them, the chopping, can be really annoying. I suppose this kind of music keeps you going, or builds a rhythm, something like that.

NC: This “residue” of action is in part material: Your sculptures retain the detritus created by carving them.
By placing the wood chips around the sculpture in exhibition, you also give the sense that they were carved where they stand, mixing site-specificity and performance.

DA: Well, the wood chips are half of the sculpture, I feel like. It’s important to me to save them. The studio gets quite active – as you see now, wood chips are all over the place, but I understand which ones come from which, so they’re layered in a way. And I try my best to keep everything the way that it had happened. I spend a lot of time archiving the chips.

NC: Some of your early works involved archives. Tell me about your installation Mac-gregor Card (2005), in which you followed a young poet over the course of several months, collecting things that he left behind. How did that work begin?

DA: I had seen Macgregor Card do a reading of his poetry, and I don’t know, there was something about him – not his poetry, but the way that he was saying it, and sweating. I noticed that he had left a big handprint on the water glass that he was using, and when I saw that I thought, I’m going to take that glass. And that’s how it started. I wasn’t exactly friends with him, but I knew his girlfriend, so I was in several different social occasions where we would be at the same dinner, so I started to collect his glasses. I would push it a little bit and try to collect things after he went to the bathroom. Trying to get whatever I could get basically – hair, skin, saliva – and then taking those things that I had found and archiving them.

NC: Did he come to realize what you were doing?

DA: He didn’t. He was made aware at the opening of the show, which he attended because his girlfriend worked at the place where it was shown, the Swiss Institute [in New York].

NC: And how did he react?

DA: He was flattered and then also a bit freaked out. Because I had several, I suppose, rather personal items. He had given me a book of his, it was his favorite book as a teenager, and when I was going through it I found a hair inside of it, and I thought maybe that had been a hair from when he was sixteen or something. So that was an important piece of the archive.

NC: You also created an archive at the Explorers Club in New York.

DA: Yes, I had a friend who had a residency at the Explorers Club, the artist Ellie Ga, and she invited me to collaborate with her on a couple projects there. The Explorers Club has an archive of exploration logs, artifacts, flag reports – they have their own flag, and people can take those flags, and they write a report about that flag, and then those reports get archived. And we started a club within the club called the Microexplorers Club, dedicated to everyday explorations, with a tiny flag. These explorations could even be as simple as walking from the couch to the bathroom, but they were documented in a way that we could put them into the archive.

NC: As much as these works are about archives, they’re also about watching and exploring, which connects them to your explorations inside the museum.

DA: For sure, yeah.

NC: What was the first piece that you did that engaged with a museum site?

DA: The first time was in 2004, and it was a completely unannounced project. I began walking a marathon
through the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the same day as the New York City Marathon. I started at home and walked to the museum and walked some twenty miles in the museum and then walked home again, and that would equal a marathon. I had a little pedometer. It was just a silly challenge for myself, to see if it was even possible to do that. And the Met is my favorite place in New York. I did that piece for some three years before it was included in Performa 07 and documented in some kind of way – it was included in the program, and in the catalogue. And then I proposed at the same time to do the opposite: to stand in one place in the museum for a whole day, in front of [John Singer Sargent’s 1883–84 painting] Madame X.

NC: You’ve described your sculptures as being performances, and your actual performances as being more like sculptures. Is that piece, Museum Museum: XX (2007), also about a way of looking? Is it about duration as a model for how to appreciate a work?

DA: I think there’s many different levels to it. I have those kinds of thoughts in the first hour when I’m there, but then after a while, you drift into different places. I suppose it’s about going to the point where the perception of an artwork becomes physical. This was also the case with the marathon, because typically in a museum you stop to look at things, but when you’re constantly walking you have a totally different experience of artwork, in terms of space and architecture and visitors and everything. And that was a physical challenge as well, to challenge oneself to walk that much.

NC: As these things became “official,” did people come and watch you? Watch you walking or watch you watching?

DA: I had more visitors for the Madame X piece, where I was stopping and looking, but at the marathon, no one has ever visited—actually, no, one curator who knew I was doing it came, and by chance we saw each other, and then we walked together for a little bit and talked, and that was nice. Walking is for sure the most inspirational thing I think I can do.

Untitled (axe n°4), 2010. Installation view at Nelson Freeman, Paris. Courtesy Nelson-Freeman, Paris. Photo: Florian Kleinefenn.
Death Starr 1 (Perform a Death Scene on Your Birthday), 2007. A performance instruction made for Snöfrid N° for Performa 07. Courtesy Snöfrid and Fruit and Flower Deli, New York.
Untitled (Hammers), 2010. Courtesy Ibid Projects.