An interview with Lewis deSoto by Frances Colpitt
FC: Most of the work that you have done up to this point has been site-specific. Can you explain the working process for determining an installation or exhibition?
LdS: There are two modes in which I have been working. One is site-specific and the other is culturally specific. I have done a number of projects about cosmology, which are never oriented to a specific space. Those have been about science, Native American beliefs, about Christianity, and Buddhism. But, the site-specific works are simply generated by visiting the space. I have never been able to think of a site-specific work without visiting the space first.
FC: And what inspires you?
LdS: The inspiration has to do with what I first notice when I go into a space. There are all sorts of things: sound, temperature, and the quality of light. Most museums don’t have windows, so I always respond to any place that has a window with something to look out at. What I like about working in a gallery, museum, or alternative space is that each parameter is so unique that it becomes its own entity. I could go to a studio and work in a familiar architectural situation all the time and not understand how much the architecture in my studio is really manufacturing the object. For example, if I don’t have a crane to lift something very heavy, I won’t make heavy things. If I don’t have a door wide enough to get something that is six feet wide out the door, I am not going to make something six feet wide. Likewise, this situation allows me to do some things and doesn’t allow me to do other things. At ArtPace, it was more or less a response to the architectural origins of the space, which was a Hudson auto dealership. The idea came up immediately and I didn’t analyze it or think about it too much. I had wanted to do a piece about the sublime, based on Edmund Burke’s writings, for a long time. I was thinking about the idea of the automobile as a sort of shroud or a hiding space for a very powerful motor. We put an engine in a nice body and paint it a pretty color to conceal its dangerous qualities. But, in essence, it is an extremely violent machine that uses exploding gas to make motive power.
FC: So this is a site-specific installation rather than a cosmology issue you’re dealing with here?
LdS: Yes, although the quote that I am using (from Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful) is apocalyptic in nature. Burke puts this particular quote in italics and everyone assumes that it is a biblical quote. However, I have been unable to find it, even by using the biblical concordance. I have a copy of it and I can give it to you…. This is the quote.
FC: “…Whose neck is cloathed with thunder, the glory of whose nostrils is terrible, who swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage, neither believeth that it is the sound of the trumpet.”
LdS: I’m sure that the trumpet is a reference to the trumpets of Armageddon. This text is on the valve covers of the motor, and in silver ink on the wall at the entrance to the space.
FC: What is the title of the exhibition?
LdS: The Sound of the Trumpet is the name of the piece. The idea is that the motor is like a trumpet. It is a thing that pulls air into it and blows it out in back and it has a particular sound. This vision of the trumpet is very much a part of my thinking about motors.
FC: Tell me about the motor you have in the middle of your space. How big is it?
LdS: It is a 427 cubic inch General Motors, what would be called a “large block.” The engine was built by Donnie Anderson of Performance Engineering, a racing engine manufacturer in San Antonio. He tailored the engine for this use and he was very sensitive to what I needed. It’s like going to Stradivarius for a violin.
FC: Above this powerful engine bolted to the floor is an incredibly soft natural light coming into the space. Can you talk about the skylight that casts a red light on the floor?
LdS: It is a beam of red light on the floor. Instead of covering it completely, I used the skylight to set up an external reference so that there is a way for whatever is inside the gallery to get out, and vice versa. There are also holes in the wall where the exhaust goes out. I was thinking about internal and external realities, about the insulated engine being red hot. If you were to touch the motor after it was running for a while you would burn your hands, but that is not visually apparent. We don’t want anybody touching the engine because it could hurt them. This relationship of danger to the notion of the sublime has got to be there or you’ve vacated that aesthetic.
FC: It seems to me that the lights—both natural and artificial—working with that engine suggest energy or power being created in different kinds of ways.
LdS: Another way to think about it is in terms of “red shift.” In astronomy, as stars are moving towards us, their spectrums shift to blue because their spectrums are compressed. The “blue shift” refers to the object coming towards us, while objects racing away from us spectrally shift to red. So, the red is analogous to the idea of speed and power, and things moving away from us. But it is also a very warm color. We respond to colors by associating them with certain types of emotional feelings. I find that the red beam of light coming into the space feels very primal. The sound and the beam of light seem to merge together. The analogous color for thunder would be red because red is the lowest frequency and thunder is a very low-frequency sound.
FC: By pumping the exhaust out into the parking lot behind the building, you’re also opening up the inside to the outside space.
LdS: Yes, and the gas tank and the radiator are mounted on the outside of the building. It’s a practical thing, too. I tried to eliminate as much visual clutter as possible. A quartz lamp, like they use in the pits at the drag races, lights up the space, but it does so gradually while the engine is running. The lights get brighter and brighter, and then at the very end of the cycle, when the lights are at their peak, they turn off simultaneously with the engine. The red light in the room appears more intense for a few moments while your eyes adjust. There is this moment of terror when the engine starts, then you get comfortable with the idea of the motor running in the space. When the lights and the motor shut off, there is another moment analogous to the sublime’s idea of the void, a terrifying emptiness.
FC: How is the timing controlled?
LdS: There is an infrared beam and a control unit, designed by an engineer I work with in Oakland, with a certain number of variables which start the engine, pull the throttle cable, and race the engine at certain points, then shut off the engine along with the lights. The engineer has a laptop computer which he hooks into the control unit to adjust the variables while the engine is running. When he unplugs it, it’s set and will run consistently within a certain set of variables.
FC: Could you talk a little bit about using multimedia?
LdS: Well, I have been concerned about this term “multimedia.” It assumes that there can be a separation in media, as if you could have some purely visual thing. I think that’s a problematic way of thinking because when we go into a museum or we look at a painting, there are always other factors that we unconsciously take in about the environment. It could be the cultural environment: there is a difference between seeing a painting in the Louvre or seeing it in the San Antonio Museum of Art. There are heat and light, the surface of the floor, the color of the wall, and how many people are looking at it. Exhibition designers have very sophisticated ways of thinking about placing an object in a space, and to say that it is not a “multimedia” environment is kind of silly.
FC: I’ve been wanting to ask you about your other work with Native American myths, and what you thought these myths had to offer the non-Native viewer.
LdS: One of the things that I felt was that all of our understanding of the world is based on stories. So, why is one story necessarily more valid than another one? I was interested in relativizing all of the stories by interjecting a new one. Of course, it’s not a new one, it’s an old one.
FC: Is The Sound of the Trumpet narrative in that sense? Are you telling a story?
LdS: I don’t know yet. Most of time I don’t know what the pieces are about until they’re done. I have an idea, but it shifts as the piece is actualized. So, I haven’t figured it out yet.
FC: I guess we will all be figuring it out at the same time.
LdS: Yes. That’s kind of a nice thing.
May 27, 1996