Is There Anything More Evocative Of Women's Work Than a Beaded Kitchen?
Liza Lou's "Kitchen," currently on view at the Whitney will probably make you think, "No, this it it."
Kitchen, 1991-96. Beads, plaster, wood, and found objects, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Peter Norton Photograph by Tom Powel © Liza Lou
The artist Liza Lou’s work is just as much of a personal practice as it is one rooted in community building. Her work as an installation artist is meticulous: she primarily works with beads, and uses them to create large scale pieces of ordinary things. This practice isn’t just something you can do on your own, she explains to me over the phone. Her work often lends itself to the company of others: “I really love having a shared activity with people where we're doing something and then we're on the Zen highway of the mind,” says Lou of her experiences working in a collective over the years.
She didn’t always enlist the help of various communities in her work. In fact, perhaps one of her most well known pieces to date was entirely a loner sport. Kitchen, which is now on view at the Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019 show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a massive replica of a modern kitchen made entirely out of teeny tiny beads. When I saw it for the first time back in early January I spent somewhere north of 45 minutes with my eyes affixed on its many parts. There’s a sculpture of a bag of Lay’s chips, boxes of sugary cereal, cooking accoutrements, a newspaper and more. On the side of the oven, there’s a panel with an Emily Dickinson poem, and there are several extremely poignant and purposefully offensive representations of women throughout the room. Lou does all of this in jest: above all The Kitchen is a deeply campy and seductive piece of feminist art. Lou and I chatted about irony, the idea of women’s work as something that is coded as obsessive, that multivalency of labor in art, and more. She also invited me to “join,” her cult of cool people who bead, and may or may not have roasted me at least twice.
Kitchen is about female labor, but there are all these different moving parts involved in that definition. It’s homage to labor by women, and it is the product of labor by a woman. I was wondering if you could talk to me about the influence of labor on your work. How has labor, both personally and politically, shaped your work over the past 25 years?
It's interesting because the word labor is always attached to this idea of drudgery and it's always negative. I came to this process organically. I had an idea of how to work with the material and then that passion was like, "Oh man, this is going to take a really long time. Shit." Like, "What am I going to do?" But I was just really passionate about wanting to see what this would look like. So I kept going. I wasn't somebody who was interested in the beginning of what that meant. It wasn't part of the meaning of the work. But it became the meaning of the work as I was doing it. The humor of it, because it really began from a very pop sensibility, opened out into really about labor. Then it let out into thinking about really women's labor, which is typically anonymous and thankless, to wanting to then subvert that in recent years. The way that I work in communities is very much about how work is made. So craft and women, all of that, craft, women, labor, those things are pretty intertwined around the world.
I didn't set out when I began to do something political, but choosing to use beads turned out to be a political decision, and turned out to really align with what I do with women around the world who might view beads as a way to survive. If you can weave something, if you can sew something you can actually can sell it on the lack of place and live. It's not a goofy material. It's something that really contains lifeblood.
You do a lot of work in different communities, and I would love to hear you talk about that.
Well, after I finished Kitchen, which was the product of working alone for five years, I had this idea to make a backyard. I was just the kind of person where I would take whatever I was doing with me wherever I go because it's so labor intensive. So I was making blades of grass. I would go and meet a friend for drinks, and have a little kit with me and sit there making blades of grass. I was with a friend in a bar, and I was making these blades of grass while we were drinking. This guy came over and he's like, "What are you doing?" And I told him, which I don't usually do because it's so weird. I was like "Well, I'm making a backyard out of beads, actually." He timed me and my friend making these blades of grass. And he's like, "It's going to take you 45 years if you carry on like you are by yourself."
So that was when I realized I could work with other people. And it led me to working with women's groups. I worked in a homeless shelter where I would just bring the beads and we would make these blades of grass.And that was really about just the fun of having this activity. And it turned out there were tons of people that really thought it was fun, but again comes back to this idea of labor. It's like real community bonding. There are very few places we can go in our culture that aren't centered around commerce. It's not a group shopping experience. Even at a museum, you're a viewer. There are very few opportunities to participate in doing that with community, with the public. That really led outward, over the years, to working with many kinds of groups. I've worked in a women's prison in Brazil. I started a collective in South Africa working with master bead artisans. And I've been doing that for 15 years. So just that idea of understanding how much collective activity, how much meaning that goes beyond what I might've imagined when I first started out can happen.
Do you view that community building as something that can be therapeutic for a lot of the people that you work with?
Well, I hesitate to call it therapeutic just because it makes it sound like I think I'm healing the community. You know what I mean? I always strive away from that because I can only really speak for myself. I've just found that when we put out the call, if I'm working on something and I end up in a museum or something, people show up. I worked with guys from the military. You couldn't even narrow it down to the person that might really enjoy doing this stuff.
Do you want to come join me, Sophie? [Laughs]
I mean, sure. [Laughs]
I guess I'm really interested in knowing your own vibe on Kitchen and what you took away from it if you had a strong. What do you think you feel like?
I just was really obsessed with how obsessive it is. I'm always super interested in art that is extremely detail-oriented—that's what drew me into Kitchen almost immediately. I was looking at your work and was like, "This was created by a crazy person and I love it." I was also thinking about obsessiveness in the context of gender, and how obsessive and detail-oriented work is something that like, almost inherently viewed as a female practice.
That makes me so happy, and that makes the Kitchen happy too. In the making of it, I remember there was this moment I was 22 years old and I was putting beads on a frying pan. And I just had one of these bird's eye views of myself suddenly like, "Oh my God, you are putting beads on a frying pan with tweezers in the middle of the afternoon." This could go really badly. But I also saw that I had become the labor that I was trying to describe, that I had set out to describe labor. And then I actually became that person that I was trying to valorize. I was trying to valorize my grandmother's grandmother's grandmother who gave up everything because she was a woman. She had no choice. She had no option. As women, we stand on the shoulders of giants who fought for us so that we can have rights, so we can own our own land, so we can vote. I mean, these things weren't handed to us—we had to fight for them. At some point I suddenly looked up and realized, "Oh, I'm one of those people now. I'm joining the ranks of these women who labored. I'm laboring. Shit." That's when it became really poignant for me. That's when I realized I was doing more than I thought. That's when I realized I was on a mission.
It's both totally homage to the hundreds of years of women working in domestic spaces and it's you, actually, taking part in that as well.
Yeah. And in order to make that point, I was going to have to take it all away. I wasn't going to be able to just make one cereal box and people would understand what I was saying. I had to keep going and going and going until finally there was that moment of the apotheosis of labor where the labor, the tsunami of labor, became this other bigger thing.
You also were talking about how it was made, and the word “obsessive,” is interesting. I never used to think I was obsessive. So when I finished the Kitchen, actually, people would say, "Oh my God, you're so obsessive." And I was like, "No way. I'm not obsessive." Because I didn't want to go down that road of just the obsessive little lady doing her little craft. It's like one of these words that we use for women or women get that we call them hysterical, obsessive.
I only use it because I like to use it for myself. I like the idea of reclaiming something that is so often leveraged against women, and being like, "Well, yeah, no, this is my process, and this is like the way that my brain works." I think that can be important.
The way we frame things to ourselves is really important. Really unpacking the word obsessive and what it is that you actually do, is it really that you're actually relentless? Is it actually that you're in search of the excellence that maybe you notice around you other people aren't? It can be actually a lot deeper than that. And maybe it's a friendlier way to get people not to be threatened by you. And we have to do that as women a lot. Find a user-friendly way to get away with how amazing we are. And that's actually what makes you really great. I'm attuned more than ever about the disparity between men and women and how our work is perceived, why something is taken more seriously than something else. I'm not interested in bashing anyone over the head, but I think it's on us as women to educate ourselves and educate our men.
Because you're right, the language that has been leveraged against us it's not the way that I mean, this is just like Art History 101: the way that women's art has always been talked about is so different than the way that the art of men has historically been described.
Yeah. I'm always interested in doing it in a way, and especially with the Kitchen: she stoops to conquer. So I wanted to say something really meaningful about what it is to be a woman. And to do that, I knew that it had to be seductive. You can do a lot more by being funny, by being seductive. That was my way of talking about women's work. So I was coming about it after post-Judy Chicago's Dinner Party. Post some of the more blatant less humorous ways of thinking about feminism. In the '90s, you would never say you were a feminist. A lot of women were really scared of that. It wasn't sexy. So when you were asking it really what's changed in 25 years old. For sure, feminism's become sexy again. And it's much more fluid about gender. It's much more fluid about sexuality. Everyone's doing everything and as much more. In spite of Trump, there's still a lot of sexy activity going on.