An interview with Peter Von Tiesenhausen by Marina Black [May 2013]

A Canadian artist Peter von Tiesenhausen worked for a month [May of 2013] in Louis Odette Sculptor-in-Residence in the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University in conjunction with the Intensive Sculpture Workshop, a fourth-year course that was offered by the Department of Visual Art & Art History. 

Peter and I sat down on the stairs of the back garden of the Goldfarb Art building on May 30th for coffee and a conversation. Here is a transcript of this informal interview.

PVT:    I always wanted to be a writer.

MB:     Do you write poetry, Peter?

PVT:    Not really, but, I guess, visually. My language-poetry is wanting. That is why I am so reluctant to even to talk about any specific work. I can tell you how it was made, or I will tell you about the joy of making it but I am reluctant to tell you what it means. Because it is, hopefully, far richer than what I can convey in words. When I am asked to write an artist statement, I think of how come writers are not asked to do paintings.

MB:      It’s a strange thing to do, isn’t?

PVT:    This is not my language. As you can tell from the presentation I made, [ed. public talk about his work as part of his residency] I do love to talk.

MB:     And you are good at that. You are an excellent storyteller…

PVT:    Yes, I really enjoy telling stories, engaging people and through that engaging myself and getting a different perspective. I am just in wonder of the world. I am excited about everything. I feel so fortunate just to be able to observe. And by observing more you make things happen, and then observe them. If I explore through the making of things, the chances are that more things will happen that are somewhere in my memory banks.

MB:      Do you remember where it all started? You were born not very far from the place where you live now. Your father was a farmer. At what point did you realize that you want to become an artist? Were there a special person, or an event that prompted you to make this decision or was this desire growing gradually?

PVT:    Right from the very start. I remember I was 4 years old and my cousin would come to visit and I would ask her: draw something for me, because she drew better than me. And she would say: I’ll draw the school bus or the road going to town. And I still remember these drawings. The wonder of seeing something transcribed from here to there, even when it wasn’t me doing it, was fascinating!

When I was 6, my father was building a house. On one of the nights it rained, and the siding wasn’t on the house yet. I remember being on the back of the house, there was a puddle of mud and I was taking this mud in my hands and drawing a giant face on the wall of the house. My father was so disgusted: “it’s a brand new house and you put mud all over it!” But it was good drawing (laughs)

MB:     …in some countries, in old Ukrainian villages for instance, they used to put mud and mix it with straw and cow’s dung in order to make the walls steardier.

PVT:    I ‘ve done that too. There is something so honest about that. It’s right here. You take what is here and build a little shelter from the things you have. All I have to do is to open my eyes. I love this idea! This way you can live anywhere.. And coming from where you came from… you probably have seen much more than we have. I remember before the curtain came down hearing about the shortages of food…

MB:     yes, in the early nineties…

PVT:    You didn’t have the availabilities and ridiculous abundance of what we have here. In some way you are far more fortunate then all these people here for having experienced that.

MB:     and being able to appreciate this...

PVT:    I grew up in the country, and we were poor but we always had good food because we were farmers. But things like oranges, or something like this, were only on Saturdays, for instance. My father was Baltic German. Our history is from Russia as well, so lots of Russian traditions were there. His father was aristocrat and they had lots of money. My father said that it was important for us to understand that. So occasionally, he would treat us with a good food, so that we knew what it is like.

MB:     When was it?

PVT:    When I was a little kid. He wanted us to be exposed to something that was possible for the appreciation: good meal, good company, and nice home. I can go on…

MB:     You don’t hear these stories from artists often. Most of the time artists talk about how to survive, exhibitions, etc rather than what makes them create things.

PVT:    Survival is just happens, if you trust. I can’t explain how and why but somehow over the last 22 years I didn’t have another job, and my wife didn’t either. We live in the middle of nowhere. I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity. And Teresa [ed. Peter’s wife] is just an incredibly supportive person, she would say to me: don’t worry; we’re not starving yet. Sometimes it gets pretty tight, money wise, but never tight enough so that we loose the farm. I hope it continues but if it doesn’t, I’ll have to do something else. And it always works somehow. It’s some kind of faith, and not the one in anything outside of my own capabilities, but trusting that something will come along. Even if it’s hardship, it’ll be a good thing to experience. And to learn that every minute is valuable whichever way it presents itself. 

That thing broke today [ed. a bronze stove Peter was making while in the York residency] We have worked for almost 3 weeks on that box. All of the student had worked so hard if not more than I had. I felt sorry for them because they didn’t see anything for their work. And they were all looking at me saying: you must be so disappointed because it could have been in a show.

And for me it was not a big deal. We just hope that the next one works a little better, but it’s not the end of the world. And we had a good time in the process, even through failure.

MB:      It seems that you look at your life in a very similar way that you look at your artwork.

PVT:    I think it’s the same thing. I can’t discern anymore a difference. I am here [ed. at York’s residency] and am I making a product? Not really. I am for the students and for myself and for the teachers, for the school and the reputation of the place. The biggest thing I can do is to be present, and to see what presents itself, and enjoy the people and the making of things.

MB:     So you rely on your intuition. Can intuition be learned or is it something we inherit? How do you become one with nature? Would you say that it is possible to deal with life experiences in a way that we ‘train’ our abilities to deal with ‘essential questions” about life?

PVT:    Intuition can be learned to some degree. I think it’s there anyway but it has certainly gotten richer when I embarked on my own track, when I quite my job and took art on full time. Intuitive aspects of my world just expended unbelievably: intuition, coincidence, synchronicity and all kind of things. I can hardly believe in all of them. And even though to some degree, it was always present but it got profound and even ridiculous.

MB:     Could it be also be due to the lifestyle that you lead. You are pretty isolated, away from many urban pressures, excessive socializing. There is solitude there that requires certain strength of character. For many people being alone is the hardest thing to do.

PVT:    I think it’s the easiest thing to do. And the older I get the more I love it. I have recently picked up meditation over the last 3 years. There you are with yourself to begin to understand what is the essence of life within this particular being. One of the reasons why I made the face cast is to observe my own aging, my own demise. Every ten years I do a cast of my face to see that time goes so fast. And then you realize that you’re alone in this world no matter what, even if you’re married and have kids, and friends but in the end of the day you are completely alone. And the sooner you accept it, the better: what do they say, die before you die, right? And what you did, is one of the most precious experiences because it cuts out the bullshit [ed. 2 years ago Marina went through an experiment by setting up the day of her own fictional ‘death’ to live with it in mind for the whole year. The experiment was inspired by Stephen Levine’s book ‘A year to live’]

And from this point every day becomes like a bonus, a pure gift. How many times in our lives we had close calls, and every one of these chances is a reminder. To be alone, you get a chance to look at that stuff and be astounded by that. And I am learning that.

MB:     You are still learning that…

PVT:     It is an ongoing thing. You don’t know it and you have to continue to know it. It’s easy to forget. It is like if you see the bus and you think you have to run to catch it but I stop for a moment and think, maybe there is another bus and I’d rather walk and feel the weight on my feet.

MB:      You are using the same approach when preparing for your installations. You often look for the material to complete them just a few days before the show, scouting the local area in order to spontaneously find things. It seems to me that you are forcefully putting yourself into a state of crisis in the face of potential failure. It’s rather an unorthodox process, many would find uncomfortable and extremely stressful.

PVT:    I got a lot of failures in my life. Not at the shows but in other areas, I guess we all have. What happens, just like this failure here [ed. at the YorkU residency], we can take a safe way or we can take a chance. Maybe it will spur another idea and change the way I think. With the installations it’s the same thing: I am trying to get into the new territory that is interesting to me. I can kind of paint and draw but it’s kind of boring. So why not to push myself to do something that surprises me? And I am moving to the territory that is like a new country every show. And it allows me to grow faster and deal with a fear of it. There is lots of fear because it might turn out like shit. But usually it’s not.

MB:     How do you deal with that stress?

PVT:    You have to calm down. It’s like in meditation. My mind is racing and I have to calm down. All the materials, just like all your food, are right here. Everything I need is right here. I just don’t always know what it is yet. 

I’ll give you one example. I went to Warsaw, Poland, to do a show. There was 2 days because the tour around Poland took 28 days and I hadn’t brought any work with me. Well, I brought 2 photographs.

MB:     This is a lot for the installation [laughs]

PVT:    I got there and went to see the building. The building manager showed me around, there was a bunch of material, all floorboards. I thought: this is the same material I use at home to make my figures, for instance. I thought of doing something about Warsaw and for this I would need a torch, white wash, salt and an axe. I got those at the hardware store but forgot to buy salt. I am sitting in the parking lot, thinking that my time is running out. There was a dumpster down there and I decided to look, what if I’ll do something else? And what do you think I find in the dumpster? One hundred salt shaker, the little ceramic shakers from the Soviet era. And all of them were full. Every piece of material that I needed was within 100 feet from the gallery where the show was going to take place. And then I needed something to hold these boards up, and went to the flea market. There were old rot iron hinges that would work too. They were cruciform the way they were set up. And later on someone comes up to me saying: you’re Baltic German, there was battle where Germans lost to Polish people and the symbol for this battle was 2 swords stuck in the ground. That’s what they saw in these two hinges. It had a huge meaning for them. Here we are coming together again after centuries after that hierarchy. I couldn’t even make it up, it just happened because of the materials I found. 

MB:     I remember on one of your interviews you mentioned that you’re an atheist. However, the experience that you have just described, this perception seems to be rooted in your knowledge of spiritual traditions that see human experience differently from our western scientific world view, and assume that ‘knowledge’ has not only to do with intellectual activity but also the result of the totality of our sensual perceptions? Am I going in the right direction here?

PVT:    I think what rings closest to my way of understanding the world is Daoism, Zen, and recently Vipassana meditation, I don’t know if you are familiar with it.

MB:      I am a Vipassana meditator too. [Laughs]

PVT:    Really? Well, you know what it’s like then. This body is not who I am or what I am. Right now it is but it is my vehicle to understand the world. From the experiential level this is what really hit home for me. Just being part of nature. Somebody has constructed this need to identify all but we are just this flow of energy. Because of my artistic practice, I was already exploring that naively. But when I went into the meditation it became so clear. So am I an atheist? I don’t believe in a hierarchy. I don’t believe in anybody being greater than anybody else. I just believe we are part of this whole thing and all of the sudden there is no fear of death because we are morphing into the next thing. I did the meditation strictly as a technique because I had to, because I was an angry person.

MB:      You were an angry person?

PVT:    Yes, and it forced me into there. Because it becomes too painful to live in this world. We have to find the way to survive it. With this community project, the building, the politics were a nightmare. The building itself, the people who worked there were awesome but there were lots of people who showed the side of them that I had no expectation of, no understanding. It hurt like crazy! Psychologically.

MB:     Did it change your perception of what people are capable of doing?

PVT:    You think that because I am in the arts, and people in the arts, for the most part, are thoughtful, they reflect and you can usually reason with them. They are smart and usually left wind, compassionate but there are lots of people out there that are not, and those who are willing to engage or trusting. I was just blindsided. I went into the massive depth of sadness and disorientation. I had no idea where to go from there.

MB:      How do you reconcile with the fact that people who enjoy looking at your work may not necessarily share your environmental concerns, or support your political environmental activism?

PVT:    It’s like writing on a railroad track. I can’t change people but I can take my drawings and mash them up and stick them into my cabin walls and use them as insulation. I know that I can purify my own mind; it’s all I can do. It became more evident as I went into Vipassana. Thank God, somebody pushed me this far! Thank God! I have always been a happy person but now even when I don’t make work, in all these in between times, when I am away from my family, lonely in a hotel somewhere,  it’s different.

MB:     You don’t seem to believe that art can change anything about people who look at it? 

PVT:    They have to be open to change. The community center was an attempt to that. And people who didn’t want to be changed, didnt. And you realize; it’s your loss. Those who were willing to change were amazing. The relationship that I build with them, they were strong before, but they became rock solid. Because they had confidence in themselves, they didn’t mistrust because they were trustworthy themselves. You can imagine someone else doing what you are capable of doing. We ran up against some people who were negative because they didn’t trust us. 

MB:     I believe it was an American critic Susan Sontag who once observed that focusing on the question of whether or not an art work retains the capacity to produce a strong emotion sidesteps the problem that having a strong emotion is not the same thing as having an understanding and neither is the same thing as taking action? Because my own work over last years particularly has been dealing with the subject of loss and hope, I often wish that it will not only affect people but that someone actually needs it. So it’s not only for myself. Do you get disappointed when it doesn’t happen with your work?

PVT:    Of course, but less so now. It does affect people but sometimes it doesn’t work till 10 years later. The work has to be an end in itself. Somebody said, and I totally agree with that, ‘I make work for the audience of one’. And anything that happens beyond that is a bonus. It’s not my fault because I did it with a purest intention. If I do something at all, lets doing with a best intention. That’s what writing on railroad track is all about. It’s a kind of prayer, a belief that the world will be better. It can be better.

MB:      It does look like a prayer. In China there is a tradition of making little wooden boards, tablets, with prayers on them when someone passes away. And when I looked at your board with the outlines of a person, it struck me as similar.

PVT:    I’d like to see that!

MB:      It amazes me when someone in a different part of the world, not knowing what you are, is thinking about similar ideas, and you may not be even aware of it.

PVT:    We are all stem from the same thing. There are common thoughts that happen. I don’t understand it and I don’t have a need to understand it. 

When my father died, I was hundred miles away and I knew what happened. I knew it immediately, even though he wasn’t unhealthy necessarily. I was working on a gold mine on a very loud piece of equipment. It was a beautiful sunny morning, all of the sudden, bang! I even said it out loud to myself. It was an instant! An hour later my wife comes, she wasn’t my wife then, and she didn’t have to say a word. By the time I got to her I was already crying. What is that? Collapsing of space and time? It’s almost like you can remember the future.

What is that when you make an artwork, you suddenly recognize that it’s powerful? How do you know what the last brush stroke should be if it never existed before? Light is on the inside. 

MB:     Over the last 5 years, after the community project, you also did a project Celebration of the Bow River, that involves collaboration with other people. This is different from the work you were doing before.

PVT:    I did the Celebration of the Bow River project while building a community center. I also do installation involving the community, like here for instance. I am teaching, well… but I am not really teaching, I am just hanging out with a bunch of kids. And I like that. But after the community center the work became very introspective: like ‘The Thousand Drawings’ that are packaged up. It was a regrouping. Community project alleviated my need to do something for the community. I always worried about what can I do for a planet or sustainability, and now I have done most of what I could do.

MB:     Someone mentioned to me that you wanted to claim the copyright on the land around The Forest Fence that you built to keep the oil companies at bay.[Peter has built a life line fence on his property near Demmitt which he has been building for 22 years.]

PVT:    We have done that. We have about 800 hectares of forest and a couple of fields. We bought them over the years to protect them, and I built the fence around. I grew up there, and oil and forestry industry have just devastated it. And whenever there would be a piece of land that we loved, we’d buy it even though we don’t have much money, but somehow it worked. The oil company wanted to come across with a pipeline. And I said: No! And they said that I don’t have any choice because we own the top 6 inches and they own everything else underneath, the mineral rights, etc. That’s the way it works in Canada. And I said: you can put your pipeline as long as you don’t disturb the surface. Of course, it’s pretty much impossible or very expensive. But it’s not the field or just a forest, it is an artwork! And they realized that they have a case. But for last 15 years they have left me alone. We will see how long it goes, so far we had a couple of disputes with them, but we always win. We always settled it before the court. They realized that I am not going to budge. Of course they can win. It’s often who has more money, or more corrupted.  The authorities are. I am just happy that we bought ourselves some time and are consistent and give the same answer. As long as you don’t compromise…

MB:     You are fighting against a big machine.

PVT:    Yes, but we are wining!

MB:      You were also planning to bury an iron sculpture beneath the downtown Sarnia Street in reaction to Prime Minister's Stephen Harper's negative comments on art and culture in Canada. (Shawn Jeffords, "Art Gets Down and Dirty," The Sarnia Observer, 21 October 2008).

PVT:    No, it was one of the takes of it but it was more like a seed. It coincided with Harper’s saying these things but it wasn’t a political move, more like an intuitive thing. They were digging up the street; my sculptures had been made in the gallery, the Giant Feet…

MB:      This is when you son went through the heart surgery. 

PVT:    Yes… The reason I made the feet is because when I made The Watchers, the wooden sculptures, and we transported them by helicopter from the ship to the barge, one of them lost its feet. If you go see the sculpture on Queen Street you can see that one has bolts and has remade legs.

MB:      The guy went to war at sea [laughs]

PVT:    He went to war and he lost his legs at sea. There was something crazy about this metaphor. The test piece for making the steel iron sculptures, it s bust, and it was so nice that I made 2 or 3 of them. Then Lisa said to me..

MB:     Lisa Daniels is curator of the gallery in Sarnia?

PVT:    Yes, she said: would you like to donate something to the collection? And I agreed on the condition that they had to bury the sculpture under the street. They were digging up the street anyway, and when they’d get into the main intersection, this was where I wanted it, underneath the pipes, so that they’d never dig it up again. And she said, OK! And it’s a lot of work. But she had this trust. There is poetry in that… this bust would be buried underneath this street, one block away from where the coast guard head office was. There was a woman working there that said that I could put my figures on the ship across Canada. She worked in that office! Without that woman and that office these Giant Feet wouldn’t exist and iron sculpture wouldn’t exist. You can put these things in a gallery of course but then it’s just an iron bust that kind of nondescript. Or you can bury it under the street where it captures an imagination of anybody who cares to think about it. Or they can start to imagine: what is that iron bust? There are many good photographs of it; it’s just the idea that everybody becomes a creator. And it’s like a seed. Does it make any sense? [Laughs]

I am not a great artist. I am just a person who wants to be interested and excited by everything. And I generally am. It’s a pretty good life! It’s getting better all the time. 

MB:     Is it? [Laughs]
PVT:    That’s what you make of it. You make lots of mistakes in the first 50 years and in the next 50 years you’re trying not make as many.

MB:      A Bavarian artist Nils-Udo once mentioned that: ‘Even if I work parallel to nature and only intervene with the greatest possible care, a basic internal contradiction remains. It is a contradiction that underlies all of my work, which itself can't escape the inherent fatality of our existence. It harms what it touches: the virginity of nature...

I’m interested in the specific idea “It harms what it touches: the virginity of nature…Is it possible to protect without harming?

PVT:    No, I don’t think so. I just did dharma service up in the Vipassana retreat center. We were cleaning up the site, chain sawing; this is so not so Buddhist [laughs] I grinded up so many bugs! And I was saying: do we really need to grind all this stuff? I had a hard time meditating after this [laughs] I just killed hundreds and thousands little things!

Even when I am making an ice boat, which seems benign, I’m trapping fresh water shrimp in the ice, cutting them, killing them, there is always harm by being alive, just by walking, but out that death comes life. I think the biggest thing is to not toxify beyond your own life with radioactivity, for instance, or introducing toxins into the environment. I am casting bronze and it’s toxic as hell and uses up ridiculous amounts of energy. That’s why I wanted to use sunlight. But there are still all kinds of toxics going on. But it is about the principle of it, to head towards more benign. The iceboat feels better than a giant thing on a concrete.

MB:     Do you think that it could be one of the reasons why many of your pieces are in the state of decay/collapse/disappearance? Things in nature are constantly dying and yet it is a different kind of death, the one that is more akin to the cycle of transformation. It probably dictates the choice of these materials?

PVT:    When I am casting the rotten wood into bronze, something is going to fall apart. You are turning wood into a solid bronze, one of the more durable materials, and I handle a piece of rotten wood casted into bronze to someone, not you in particular, because you are already sensitive, but to others. And they go all of the sudden: Wow! They look into details, and lines, and the growing moss, which is the way I’d like to look at the world all the time.

MB:      You are not inventing much you are just taking what’s there…

PVT:    I am not inventing a damn thing! I am limited in my capabilities for thought. 

MB:      But lots of people like your work…

PVT:    Just enough…

MB:      You mentioned once that ‘art shouldn’t look down on people’

PVT:    Did I say that? That’s good. I still agree with that [both laugh]

MB:      What I am trying to say is that there is a gap between the general Canadian public and the Canadian art world. Most of the people who are going to exhibition openings are artists themselves. For many, art represents something that regular people ‘don’t get’. My impression is that sometimes audience is not comfortable finding itself in the state of ‘not-knowing’ that you often talk about, on one hand, but on the other, the work itself might be so overly intellectually elite that it has very little relationship to people’s lives. 

You refuse to explain your work, the path that many artists unfortunately began to choose often lately. What can bring more people into the art or rather the other way around, in order to escape the aesthetic elitism we find ourselves in?

PVT:    The journey around Canada was in a way about that. I ran into people who hated me for it and loved me for it.  I realized it had nothing to do with me, but their interpretation of what I was doing. And I was just doing and observing, having my little adventure. But it engaged a lot of people. It’s not that I have heard from them again, but one of the stories I remember when I was putting gas in my truck somewhere in Ontario, I used to do it a lot. One of the gas station attendant said: What’s this? What are you doing?

MB:     This was when you had to travel with The Watchers at the back of your truck…

PVT:    Yes, yes. I had just started to answer him but he started telling me what he wanted to do. It was empowering him! He started telling me about his dreams of building something, I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it seemed that I opened some possibility for him. I have always been disappointed when my audience is always artists. I always hoped to hit the audience of real people who are searching for something. That’s why I love to give artist talks because this is exciting, not my work, but the freedom of being able to express yourself and things you stumble upon by searching. I didn’t make any of this shit up, it just happens, and I happen to recognize it. I am not really good at anything except for living really. This wooden sculptures, the patina on them from travelling 10000 km in a sever weather, is better than the carving that I did. 

MB:     You let the nature to take over.

PVT:    I love to make marks but then I hate my own marks because they are just ego. And who cares? But when you can stick a bunch of stumble weeds in the wall trying to make them look like what I have seen before in a forest.

MB:   Let me ask you the last question. Iris Murdoch, the Irish-born British writer and philosopher, once suggested that in order to understand any philosopher's language we need to ask ourselves what it is that frightens them.  I like to apply this same idea when attempting to understand artist's work, including coupling the notion of fear with the question of what an artist loves. Because artistic practice is often about the the hidden that brings these two essences, fear and love, together. What are you afraid of and what is it that you love?

PVT:           I used to fear a lot of stuff. But there must be something. ….

I love a lot of things. I love everything… life. I hopefully will love death. 

MB:             but you are not there yet?

PVT:           It’s coming, I think, in phases. There is part of me that is already dead. When I first pulled out the mask of my face, I thought this 30 years old guy is dead, pretty much soon this 50, 57 years old will be dead too. And I’m kind of enjoying that. I’m trying not to fear the death of people that I love. I have accepted the demise of the world or what it is going to be. And I have lots of small fears, like not making enough money to live on but then I think, what’s a big deal? My father’s family lived in the same place for 700 years and had 2 weeks to leave in 1939. Or with you in Russia, everything changed in a instant? Where is the security? 

         But the big fear…I suppose I fear screwing up in a big way, messing up the last half of my life or wasting it. I’m trying to make sure that I don’t fuck up. 

Forest Figures [Charring of 5 wooden figures, willow boat].jpg