An interview with Kirsten Hassenfeld by Berny Tan

Today’s post features an interview with artist Kirsten Hassenfeld by VCS student Berny Tan. Berny did the piece last semester as part of Janice Ahn’s Reading, Writing, and Thinking class. The images below show the layout that Berny designed; you can click on each image to enlarge it to readable size. In addition, I have included the text of the interview below.

A Conversation with Kirsten Hassenfeld


The Brooklyn Navy Yard is a strange place. Once a sprawling shipbuilding facility, it now defiantly bills itself as a “modern industrial park” against a colossal structure of rust and broken windows that awaits its fate of upgrading, visible from the Cumberland Street Gate. There are many things that you wouldn’t expect to find at such a place. One of those many things is an artist’s studio with a gigantic starburst of a sculpture, made entirely out of recycled wrapping paper, hanging from the fluorescent light in the middle of the room.

The artist responsible for this is Brooklyn-based Kirsten Hassenfeld. While she is best known for her large scale, chandelier-like sculptures made entirely out of white or translucent paper, she has recently moved on from this 10-year-long phase. She now swears by recycled materials and used objects found in thrift stores or off the street, an idea that grew from her use of eBay-sourced vintage wrapping paper for a window display in Milan. “My focus [became] more and more of the natural world, and man and nature coming together. I didn’t want to just explore those ideas anymore, I wanted to actually not contribute to the problem by making the work.”

And so, Kirsten and I sat down amidst boxes of cut-up wrapping paper, relics from her past work, and cupboards containing what I assume to be an organized system of crafting materials. We began our conversation in the shadow of that wrapping paper starburst.

BERNY I was just wondering what your inspirations are. Even though you use recycled materials, your work doesn’t necessarily say, “Oh, we should save the environment” in terms of the aesthetic.

KIRSTEN It’s interesting because the earliest part of my work was generated out of another equally civic-minded thought on my part. When I first moved to Brooklyn, I was really overwhelmed by the poverty I saw, but also inspired by how people have these amazing capacities to have hope. I was in an area where there were a lot of pawnshops, and that was hugely influential on my thinking. I started making these environments that were about abundance and splendor, but almost in a generic way about the shape of the gem form, the universally understood symbol for treasure. They were made out of paper so they were kind of humble, but the light would infuse them with this magical quality. People could go there and have a moment and experience plentitude and/or fantasize. Everybody usually wants that they don’t have, and sometimes it’s not a material thing and sometimes it is, and [the work was about] being in a state of desire and the human condition. And that evolved into thinking about places where architecture and nature, or the manmade and the natural intersect, so a lot of times there would be natural gem forms and cut gem forms together. And I did a whole body of work that was blue and white that’s also made out of paper…

B You painted that?

K It’s kind of a complicated process where I dyed parts of the paper before putting it all together and I coated it with a clear acrylic that made everything bleed. I was very interested in decorative traditions like ceramics. I worked at Sotheby’s, only for a very short amount of time and not in an important position at all, but I was able to explore all these interests because there’d be these stacks of old catalogs and there’d be one of English bone china and one of jewelry. I went out in all directions and learnt about all these decorative traditions. Decoration is like the stylization or the regularization of nature. I was using that idea as a metaphor for humankind’s interaction with nature.

B How do you come up with the processes you use in your work?

K A lot of it is totally accidental. [For the paper sculptures], I would roll tubes, make a skeleton, put it together with pipe cleaners and then skin it with paper. That was just from fooling around with straws and pipe cleaners. Initially I was using a lot of plastics and they were all falling apart, but then I thought of my background as a printmaker and book artist. I should be using my knowledge and ability with paper to make what I want to make. It’s literally just the hours I put in, things happen and I get other ideas. Eventually that one little thing will blossom into a larger idea.

B You were talking about making “environments” with your work; is that why you decided to go into installation?

K It was the scale I was working at. I wanted to make really intricate things when I was first starting out. But I couldn’t make them small enough. I wasn’t going to make a Faberge egg that was the size of a Faberge egg; I was going to enlarge it, in part because I just thought that was more interesting. And I couldn’t work that small with the materials I had. Once it got larger, it immediately lent itself to being an environment. The earliest pieces I made where I linked gem shapes together to create an environment was in a studio that had a skylight, and that was my light source so I built it around the skylight. It just sort of naturally happened and it was good.

B Do you think about how installations could affect the audience emotionally?

K To me it’s so much about the process of working with the materials. I really care about people’s reactions but I feel like that’s the end. The beginning is what’s the idea and what’s the material I want to work with, and what does that material or idea want to do. What I feel like I learnt, mostly in grad school, was simplicity. Although my ideas or my ways of working with things are complicated, I limit myself a lot and I eliminate possibilities, like it’s just going to be paper, or it’s going to be this form repeated. I explore that until I know what it will be able to do and then sometimes it may take shape. What I feel happens a lot is that sometimes students are afraid that the simplicity of something isn’t going to be enough, and so before they’ve even explored it fully, they start throwing more things in. They add materials or other ideas or other techniques, they sort of dress it up more, but for me it’s more about stripping things down, even though my work is kind of fancy.

B What advantages were there from being in art school and what disadvantages are there?

K The works that I made as an undergrad wasn’t bad work for an undergrad, but I didn’t know what I wanted to make my work about. Even partially through grad school it was that way. But those programs taught me so much about how to be an adult artist, the rigor, the level of commitment to inquiry, really sitting with ideas and thinking what best serves this idea or why am I unhappy in my studio now. I had some teachers who were excellent artists in their own right, and very committed to the students. I know plenty of people that didn’t do a lick of college or grad school or anything and they’re fine. But, I think if I hadn’t been moved along by other forces like the semester ending, I might have gotten stuck.

B I want to go back to the decorative elements in your work. Are you worried that people would just take it at face value?

K That’s okay. It was more about having a visceral connection with what I’m doing; that’s what propels me forward and makes me make the work. I’m a little bit troubled when people, especially with the white work, would look at it as just wholly decorative, even to the point where people were thinking of them as lamps. I felt like maybe I wasn’t reaching people as much as I wanted to, or maybe it was just annoying to me that I was making work about things weren’t necessarily pretty subjects, but the work was very pretty. In a way that was good because it caused friction, but in another way I felt like I was falling off the fence towards the side of prettiness too far. I like the idea of making something that can come together and have an overall visual impact that I find good, but when you look at the individual components, they’re not naturally pretty. I feel like I’m a lion tamer – I’m trying to make things do things that they don’t want to do, I’m trying to get them to play nicely with each other. And that is really satisfying.

B How else do you get materials?

K Right now I’m making these new seats for this set of wooden shaker chairs, and it turns out that when you twist up those really crunchy grocery bags, it actually behaves a lot like the material that you would make these seats out of. They also make this connection to early American vernacular handicraft, like how people used to take flour sacks and make dresses and quilts out of them. It is recycling, but it was borne out of necessity. My process of finding materials had actually become much more integrated into my life and a part of my process that I’m actually excited about. I never in a million years thought that I’d have a son, I’d have less time in my studio, therefore recycling and finding used materials would have a special appeal to me because it would allow me to work in my studio without actually being in my studio. I was always the person who needed a gazillion hours in my studio. Now it’s so much more satisfying to have this variety of paths.

B Well speaking of putting a lot of hours in your work, there are people in the art world who don’t put a lot of hours in their work and still get a lot of money for it…

K That’s a whole other way of making work! I think that some artists are idea people. There is lots of work that I love that had nothing to do with the artist’s hands. But, that’s not me. I learn so much as I’m making it and I have only the vaguest idea of what I’m doing when I’m starting that that can’t be the way that it is for me.

B Do you find it therapeutic?

K Totally! I almost feel like when I find things, sometimes I get itchy fingers. Looking at my son, I think all children want to touch things and manipulate things, and for me that just remains the most consistent part of my life. But, somehow I wasn’t satisfied to be a maker of stuff. I didn’t want to just open a box-making and bookbinding service. As I’m making something, the whole time I’m wondering how this is going to look, and that’s what keeps me going. Once I know how it looks, I’m not going to make another one. That would be really hard to have a business where they’re like, “I’d like 30 of those!”

B Your work is really fragile; do you have any problems selling them?

K It’s funny because the more fragile work that I made, except for the really big ones, they all sold. The contemporary art world is this very strange world with this very small group of collectors who are the bread and butter of the galleries of the world. They have collection managers, and climate-controlled storerooms, and handlers. It’s just that after the art market crashed, I shifted focus and I’m now a lot less interested in my work ending up in the inventory of a collector. I have had opportunities to make things [through commissions]. There are other ways to make a living as an artist than just one of your sculptures ending up in someone’s living room. Sometimes an artist is almost like a brand; I’ve become a brand that people are familiar with and I get a lot of opportunities based on that brand. At some point it’s important to have people start knowing about my work; that would be the role of the galleries to have my work be visible. But now I’m happy to kind of be a little bit more away from that, and a little bit more aligned with institutions, commissions and public work.

Visual & Critical Studies