The Alchemist: A Studio Visit with Sadie Weis

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It is often said of desks and other work spaces that their appearance mirrors the mind of the person who uses said spaces – a tidy table equals a tidy mind, etc. What a load.

Take, for instance, the case of multimedia artist Sadie Weis. There is no polite way to put it … her studio is a mess. Starting from the floor, you might find anything from sparkling, mysterious stains caused by unknown concoctions of stinky chemicals to gobs of hard silicone dusted with metallic glitter (and normal dust), to empty spray-paint cans and up, all the way to the ceiling, to massive polychromatic paintings and towering, bubble-wrapped sculptures, hunks of half melted Styrofoam, plus any number of twinkling, glazed found-objects hanging crookedly, indeed menacingly, from the walls.

Part Aladdin’s Cave, part Hoarders episode interior footage, Weis’s studio – to follow the flawed metaphor noted above – ought to be telling us that Sadie Weis thrives on chaos. And maybe Sadie Weis, the person, does. Sadie Weis’s work however (and what else matters?) is as still and meditative as a monk – a monk dressed in Liberace excess, sure, but no less pensive, no less evocative of other, deeper cognitions.

Since leaving her native state of Kansas, where she attended the University of Kansas-Lawrence’s art school, and moving first to New York before her current home of Berlin, the 33-year-old Weis has produced an astonishing amount of original, strange, terrifyingly fragile, and maddeningly intricate work.

Mixing found-object juxtapositions with a keen eye for miniature stage-setting, and then dappling her creations with her own table-top feats of chemical wizardry, Weis makes microcosmic landscapes for imagined theatrical spectacles, tiny worlds that The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale, also of Kansas, also an expatriate, would recognize as models informed by her second home, as dioramas of alternate universes. Yet, any one of Weis’s wonders can be knocked over by a fly.

This tension between the maximalist and the crystalline, the produced and the (seemingly) organic, the truckloads of materials and labor and innovation vs. the simple fact that all of Weis’s work is never more than one stumble away from a shattering demise, is what draws curators from New York and London, San Sebastian, Copenhagen, Miami, and of course Berlin to Weis’s simultaneously luxurious and decidedly not-built-to-last art.

Her show-stopping recent installation at London’s Lacey Contemporary, a mutant forest constructed out of real flowers upon which Weis had patiently grown crystals (yes, grown, not applied), and her upcoming contribution to the CHEMCRAFT conference/exhibition (the work’s a secret, so you’ll have to wait), have increased her artworld profile (such an awful shorthand word for a life’s work), and landed her representation with Berlin’s sexy new The Ballery, a former pop-up gallery turned “legit.”

Meeting with Weis at her mad-scientist studio, we chat about everything from our own experiences living outside of our birth nations to Weis’s precarious relationship with her own practice. Sometimes, she tells me, her devilishly implosion-prone works go up in a pretty cloud, and she wonders why she doesn’t simply go back to painting, her first art practice, and stop mucking about with toxic chemicals and unpredictable concoctions. But sometimes everything works just right. And that’s the best place to start.

RM Vaughan: Your work features rather a lot of melted objects and/or materials. The creation/destruction dynamic is evident, but how do you actually melt, for instance, a room full of Styrofoam?

Sadie Weis: I started to melt things because I don’t have an abundance of technical skill as a sculptor. I was trained in painting. But I had an epiphany: In order to support myself I had a job in Austria teaching English to kids. Every week I was getting on the bus or train from Berlin to a new town in Austria – a long haul. It was frightening at times, being in these small towns and knowing nobody, staying at hostels, and all that. One day I was going through the Czech Republic, and everybody on the train was weird and cold, and I had a strange reflection, a moment, on a train platform, sitting on the steps – what am I doing with my life? And I had a vision, a vision of a portal. If only I had a portal, I thought, a portal to take me somewhere else … I decided to make a portal for myself, but I didn’t know how.

I had a show coming up, so I made a life-sized portal, but I had no idea how to make the structure to support it, so my studio mate handed me a huge heat gun [Weis shows me the heat gun, which looks like a cross between a hair dryer and a bazooka] and I collected a bunch of objects, including trash, and turned it into treasure by melting bubble wrap and colored plastic bags to make a kind of glue that held the portal together. The portal ended up being 13-feet tall, and I burned myself about 100 times.

After that, I was in Vienna once and I saw a sculpture, a liturgical sculpture in a church, that was exactly like my portal – well, a more expensive version! – and I lost the feeling in my legs. I couldn’t breathe. I think the universe was giving me a weird affirmation.

RMV: But plastic and Styrofoam are very toxic. How do you protect yourself while you’re filling the air of this studio, which is quite small, with melted particles?

SW: I have a mask, but I don’t always wear it, because it’s distracting, I can’t see over it. I mean, I open the windows … friends tell me all the time about the scary chemicals in the materials I distort, but I kind of “yeah, yeah” it away. I know I shouldn’t. And I’m not melting as many things as I used to. I have a friend who melts things as well, and she can’t taste or smell anything anymore! The Styrofoam is the worst. It smells horrible, sometimes smoke comes off it, it gives you headaches … but now I’m growing my own crystals and I’m making a whole new set of bad decisions about my health!

RMV: How did you learn to grow crystals?

SW: I taught myself, and did some research. There’s an entire community of people who grow crystals, online mostly, and they’re pretty freaky too. I’m one of them now, I guess. I hang out in chemistry shops where science teachers buy their supplies and meet some pretty wonderful, weird crystal growers.

I started growing crystals by trying to grow them on a neon light – another lesson learned. Crystals need porous surfaces to cling to when they are growing, and glass is not porous. So you have to attach a layer of something porous to the glass. I’m always learning. Anyway, the process is really labor-intensive, growing crystals onto objects. Unless the object is small enough to fit in a jar, you have to build a special-made bath for the mixture of water and chemicals, and the baths always, always leak, and even when they don’t leak, you can’t move them or even jiggle anything around them while the crystals are growing or the process breaks down and the chemicals just clump at the bottom.

I could go on for hours about this process – and every time I do it, I am still not perfectly certain it will work. I’ve gotten really good at the measuring and rationing of chemicals to water, but I can’t control the outside world, a change in temperature, a sudden shake, whatever.

RMV: You’ve grown crystals on webbing, on foam, on found objects, and now you’re growing them on flowers. Is working with natural materials more difficult?

SW: Flowers are actually easier, because organic materials are very porous. But of course, shit happens. Whenever I think, “Oh, now I’ve got it down,” something changes. I started with sugar, which is easier, and the crystals look like rock candy.

RMV: Walk me through a crystal-growing process.

SW: I find something I want to grow crystals on, and then I have to decide if I want them to grow up or down, and from that how to fix the object upside down or right side up in the bath or container. Then you measure and re-measure the water to element ratio, millilitres to grams, exactly, then you boil the water, (well, get it to the point where it is about to boil) and stir in the chemical element, and because the water is super-saturated with this element – sugar, copper sulphate (the same chemical they use to clean swimming pools), whatever – the element, when it cools, begins to attach to other bits of itself, and the form is crystalline or semi-crystalline.

Honestly, I’m not a scientist, but that’s how I understand what happens before my eyes. It’s like the element doesn’t want to be alone! Also, you know, it’s natural … the element takes form on whatever it can grab, sort of like a survival instinct.

And sometimes the whole process fails, because there are factors I haven’t noticed, or the object being crystallized is too dirty, whatever. I found a dead bird once, and tried to crystallize it, but there were too many organic factors, the bird-body’s decomposition and all that.

It’s always unpredictable. I get very anxious at first, and then I throw caution to the wind and see what happens. I’ve had projects that just didn’t work, projects that ended up all over the floor, because the vat wasn’t secure. It goes on and on. Sometimes my life is nothing but moving materials and my huge vats from one strange shop to my studio to my house. I am always lugging some large … thing … around town.

RMV: How long does the process take?

SW: Every chemical element produces a different shape and color, and it can take weeks or just days to grow into a new structure. Right now I have a bunch of crystals growing at my house, all over the house. My partner Cornelius just kind of moves around the jars and vats. He’s very patient.

The process is really tension-making. And I’m impatient. And when I work with plants I know that I am killing something, the plant, to make a new sort of life, and that’s a weird thing to be waiting for, for something to stop being and then start being. It’s a bit like cooking, but way more expensive!

RMV: If SeaWorld suddenly went out of business (as it should), and you could use the killer-whale pool, what would you crystallize?

SW: I have always wanted to grow a massive crystal forest, a rain forest. I love the combination of nature and chemistry, and beauty and distraction. My work at Lacey Contemporary was a smaller version of my dream work – an entire woodland, fake and real – or “different real” – at the same time.

My work is about transformation, and my work process has transformed me. I think of myself as a super chaotic person, so maybe that’s why I make work that requires so much exactness. My work brings order to me, because I have to be in total control or the work won’t come out right. My work makes me sit still.

My dream is to one day have a little garden with a pool, and I’ll make my forest in the pool, and then sit inside my crystal forest. It will be perfect.

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