Catherine Opie discusses her work featuring eight images of Lake Erie, applied directly onto the interior spaces of moCa, commissioned in celebration of moCa’s fiftieth anniversary.
Interview with Catherine Opie by Jo Steigerwald
JO STEIGERWALD: Tell me about the structure of this commission. How did it happen? What about it interested you?
CATHERINE OPIE: It came about quite quickly. I was getting ready to travel to Florida, to teach at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. A week before I was to leave, the museum called with the opportunity to do murals within the building. I’ve been to Ohio a lot—I grew up in Sandusky and I did a body of work about Lake Erie for the Cleveland Clinic—so I pulled from my archive of images of northeast Ohio.
In my practice, I think a lot about the inside and the outside, and where you hover between them. What is it like when you experience the outside of your community from the inside of a structure? And moCa’s architecture interested me greatly. I was curious to transform the space in terms of the architecture that’s given to me. The museum shifts in relationship to daytime and nighttime. The landscape is reflected and refracted on moCa’s surface during the day, and then at night, all of a sudden, you see what becomes visible from the invisible.
JS: How did the physical spaces of moCa dictate image choice?
CO: The first thing you see when you enter is Lake Erie. And when you see it at night, the warm inside light of the museum looks like a sunset, with the blaze of sun and the surfer. Then you look up and see clouds and the city. The way the museum is lit influenced where I put the frozen waves and ice shards—one of my favorite things about the lake—how ice freezes and undulates with the water. Next to the shards are the Ohio winter trees with winter light.
Ohio is a transformative place with its seasons. I moved to California when I was thirteen, and while California has seasons, they are not as radical as in northeast Ohio. Ohio holds a meaningful and important place to me, and I wanted the trees and ice to hold the viewer in winter, then you go to the atrium and are held by the huge mural of the beach with people and dogs. It’s late spring, nearly summer, and now a community who might not know each other comes together in one place: the beach. It’s the time of year when the lake is inviting you back.
And the perch (fish) is my sense of humor. What I remember as a kid in Sandusky is asking my mom, “Why are there always all these dead fish on the sidewalk?” Of course, it was in the ’60s and ’70s, when we didn’t take much care of the lake, but she told me that they died of old age! The perch is also the moment that museums are struggling with right now: the selfie moment. So I thought it would be fun to choose a highly recognizable Lake Erie fish, the perch, and put it in a place for people to take a selfie.
JS: Did the order of how the images would be seen impact placement?
CO: Absolutely. I was very mindful of how they would appear in relation to the architecture. I had not been in the space before, but I had seen the drawings and presentations about the building, as well as photos of previous installations at moCa. This is not how I usually work, but I did not have time for site visit for this installation. I had an enormous amount of nervousness just looking at the plans without being physically in the space and interacting with it. When I walked in for the gala, I walked in hoping I felt good about it, and how the space and the art make you think about looking.
JS: What does “place” mean to you?
CO: Place really holds different things. I’ve done an enormous amount of work thinking about identity in queerness and in specificity of place. Ohio is the place where I come from, and it will always hold that importance for me. I grew up in Sandusky; my father and grandfather were from there, too. I had the same bus driver as my dad, and the same nurse who delivered my father delivered me! So place holds a sense of history, and how memories are made. For me, photography has served as a place to create meaningful relationships to the potential history of place, while also reflecting how memory works.
JS: What does “site responsive” mean to you?
CO: It’s how I interact with space. It’s why architecture is important—how it creates a relationship to the environment, how we are moved by different spaces. And art does that as well. You go to a museum and reflect on certain pieces. They become your friends, and you visit them. All of that is so incredibly important to our ideas of community and connecting with humanity in terms of being kind to one another. It’s iterated in how spaces influence us in those ways.
JS: How do you work it—how do you respond to a site?
CO: Well, I look at it a lot. I’ve planned a lot of installations, and I usually work from a model. I have a miniature of where I am installing a work, and I look at how you traverse it, the same way you take a hike. The landscape of a building is part of that same movement, too. I create something with a spatial awareness. As a photographer, you are informed by a sense of recognition and the ability to transport yourself to the space. Sometimes I think of it in terms of Star Trek’s “Beam me up, Scotty,” how I can locate and dislocate myself, ending up in the spaces between. In almost forty years of photography, that’s where I am constantly curious—in the spaces between.
JS: What transfixes you about Lake Erie?
CO: It’s an amazing body of water. I love it because it is not thought of as the prettiest of the Great Lakes. Lake Erie is like the dredge pool for the other Great Lakes! It’s symbolically important to its Canadian neighbor. As a kid, I was aware of how powerful the lake was to the Underground Railroad. I saw spaces in old homes where people waited for safe transport to Canada. So the lake is commerce, and potential freedom, and recreation, and dead perch. I view the lake as something that has been beaten up publically but that still has such a force. I appreciate that force of continued existence.
JS: Tell me about the ubiquity of water throughout these images.
CO: I think water is my superpower! I move really well in water, was always a swimmer and comfortable on boats. I think it will be one of the most sought-after substances in the upcoming warming of the planet. We are made of water; we need water. It’s a place of meditation and a place we need to care for. I am most at peace when I am near water. A lot of my friends are buying houses in the desert. I bought further away, in a place bordered by rivers, and I go walking upstream through river rocks, slithering along.
JS: What is important for someone seeing this work to know?
CO: Hmm. I don’t know what that is. I appreciate people experiencing it. Each will walk away with a different story of their relationship with the landscape of Ohio. I think about the person experiencing it, versus knowledge. I wanted to create a piece that you can immerse yourself in.
CO: How did you experience it?
JS: I was a doofus and came in the back door. I had to exhale right way, in a big whoosh, when a beach met me larger than life and extraordinary. On the atrium wall was the spiral arm of a beach in the mist, scum line of driftwood, people and dogs. Enormous. Containing the uncontainable: frozen respite, torn jeans at the knee, recalcitrant dogs, hypnotic water and light. Who needs Venice, Italy, when we have this?
Then I climbed those stairs (97 to nowhere) through a forest thick with light and trunks—when you free the trees from the neighborhood park, you get this abstract notion: the familiar pivots to the unfamiliar when enclosed.
Along the way, I recognized those snow piles at the landing’s pause. The angle of the ice mirrored the trajectory of the stairs. Kept walking past the snow, up into clouds.
Here was the dis-iconic Cleveland skyline, lower right corner. The clouds made the place, and the seagull—water vapor over concrete, every time. And when I peered over the edge, there were the surfers in the sunset, and the incandescence of light over water, again.
Putting the outside inside freezes enormity: to tame, legitimize, and consider. This installation is a tension-trifecta of expansive, original, mindful composition, and the strictures of architecture.
And I breathed deeply. We live in art constantly. Shift your vision daily, because that’s what we have, and aren’t we lucky?