Todayâ€™s green-focused zeitgeist is littered with hybrids, fluorescent bulbs and the occasional sustainable home. For Brooklyn-based contemporary artist, Aurora Robson, the urban waste that plagues the environment is as useful as a tube of paint. Intercepting waste en route to landfills, Robson finds unique ways to completely transform it into beautiful and timeless sculptures wherein the original materials are wholly unrecognizable. â€œIt is important for me to make things that seduce people visually before they realize they are looking at something that was “garbage”.â€
â€œI just like to work with materials that everyone is familiar with and restore a sense of wonder to them. I feel like there is so much to marvel at and so much that we all take for granted. I like to point those marvels out and remind people of how lucky we are.â€
Format: Can you describe the philosophy behind your work?
Robson: My philosophy is very simple: I take something inherently negative and transform it into something positive. It is very basic but difficult to achieve because it has to be done with 100% focus and integrity. I work on shifting trajectories until any downward motion is facing up. It is very “Bruce Lee”. Someone throws a punch and there is sort of an exasperating boomerang effect because of the redirecting of the negative energy – it comes back as a sweet embrace. I consider the biological premise “irritation creates mutation” as a founding principal for my work and practice flexibility as opposed to rigidness in my life and art as much as possible.
Format: What inspired you to use urban materials for your sculptures, as opposed to more common materials like clay, metal, etc.?
Robson: I used to struggle with the idea of making anything. Overt consumption can be nauseating. Unnecessary production facilitates unnecessary consumption. There is an abundance of waste in terms of matter on this planet and mining and manufacturing more material to work with for the purposes of creating art doesn’t resonate well with me. It feels very old fashioned. I was sort of dipping my toes in the pool, starting to make art full-time, when the appeal of the plastic bottles came to me. It was a sunny day; I was working on some paintings in my studio when I kept getting distracted by something sparkling outside. I finally shifted my focus to inspect what was causing the sparkle and saw a littered pile of discarded plastic bottles – soda, water, etc… on the sidewalk, glistening in the bright sun. I was transfixed. I found myselfÂ admiring their curvilinear forms and diaphanous qualities, thinking about the amount of fuel that went into their production and really marvelling at the ability of some people to just throw things out onto the street instead of putting their waste where it belongs. When I looked back at my paintings, it hit me. I was working with the same types of forms but in 2 dimensions: curvilinear, diaphanous shapes that are emerging from a tangled mess. I realized I could create the same forms I was working with in my paintings, by reusing the bottles. It was a natural step for me. Junk mail inspired me in a similar fashion. It bothered me, so I figured out how to love it, literally to pieces. Plus, these materials are free.
Format: Your sculptures, to me, seem to capture a sense of whimsy and imagination, which is interesting since the materials you use can be described as common urban garbage. Was this juxtaposition part of the model behind the sculptures?
Robson: Yes, I like to provide people with a sense of surprise and wonder with my work. It is important for me to make things that seduce people visually before they realize they are looking at something that was “garbage”. Sometimes, people miss it altogether and think the sculptures are made of glass or something. People have to look closely, examine the work, get intimate with it before they notice the Pepsi logo or the Gatorade insignia and then this little smile creeps onto their faces. I am addicted to causing this reaction.
Format: In an interview, I read that your sculptures are based on childhood nightmares. Can you talk a bit about that?
Robson: When I began painting my childhood nightmares in a loving and enjoyable way, the conceptual foundation for all my work became evident to me.
Format: Has creating these sculptures been therapeutic as a result?
Robson: Making my work is not therapeutic to me at all. I thoroughly enjoy it, but it satisfies and stimulates my intellect more than soothing my psyche. It gives me the opportunity to think things through and resolve different aspects of my philosophy. It gives me time to meditate on the principles that guide my work so I can further investigate the type of transformation I am interested in practicing. Time to consider new tactics and approaches to expressing ideas worthy of pondering and sharing is the most indulgent thing I can give myself. I practice yoga for therapy and art to express my sanity.Â One of my biggest heroes, Louise Bourgeois, is known for saying; “Art is a Guarantee of Sanity” and I totally agree.Â
Format: I noticed that a lot of the sculptures you’ve created are reminiscent of microscopic molecules and organisms. Do you have a background in the sciences? If so, how have you drawn from that?
Robson: I don’t have a background in the sciences but I have a keen interest in them. I studied biology, environmental science, computer science and astronomy in college. I would love to be a marine biologist if I could split myself in half and have two livesÂ — or maybe a physicist – or an architectural engineer. Structurally, I think that forms based on spheres make more sense than forms based on grids because the universe is not based on a grid and I am pretty certain that that despite the vast sea of unknowns that we all confront everyday, the universe makes sense. I love to look at things through a microscope and from very far away. Constantly shifting my perspective helps me comprehend and embrace reality.
Format: Your sculptures seem to focus on the urban landscape. What, to you, is the appeal of urban waste?
Robson: I never thought of it like that. I feel like I am a country girl living in a big city where I have been for the majority of my life now. I just like to work with materials that everyone is familiar with and restore a sense of wonder to them. I feel like there is so much to marvel at and so much that we all take for granted. I like to point those marvels out and remind people of how lucky we are. Whether it is urban or rural is of little consequence to me – but because I am interested in the environment and making it part of my work, it makes the most sense to work with materials that are mass produced. There are many artists who have really inspired me in this area – Tara Donovan and Tom Friedman in particular.
Format: What inspired you to create such environmentally conscious pieces?
Robson:Â The environment. The planet. Growing up in Hawaii helped me develop a great appreciation for nature. Despite my urban existence, I continue to be a huge nature lover. I have a sneaking suspicion that plants are smarter than animals…
Format: Do you have a preferred atmosphere to create in? Do you have specifics like lighting, music etc?
Robson: Yes, for me to work I need lots and lots and lots of light. I prefer a mix of natural daylight and pure white light if at all possible. I am very lucky because my husband is amazing with lighting. He is a director of photography and does a lot of lighting for his own work. He designed a multi-directional light for my studio that is awesome. Music is incredibly important and played preferably very loud. I tend to mix it up in the music department. Some days I’ll listen to Led Zeppelin all day, others Ravi Shankar, RJD2, Yo La Tengo, Four Tet, Explosions in the Sky are all recent favorites, I was on a big Animal Collective kick for a while there, but just the other day I was on a Dixie Cups kick. M.Ward is good for painting to, the Bad Plus, The Knife, there are some good bands coming out of New Zealand and Iceland that I have been enjoying lately… I can’t listen to the same thing all the time. I love Last FM for discovering new music and following bands.Â
Format: If you had to describe your art in a single phrase, what would it be?
Robson: Waste not want not.
Format: Do you consider yourself to be an urban artist, or an artist that works with urban materials?
Robson: Sadly, PET plastic is everywhere on this planet in abundance. So is junk mail. Both these materials and myself happen to be in New York, but we could be probably be found anywhere.
Format: You’ve referred to the creation of art as meditative and you seem to have an interest in the preservation of the environment so, just out of curiosity, are you a vegetarian?
Robson: Last year,Â I rescued over 40,000 PET bottles from the waste stream by transforming them into art – and I probably ate about half a cow, a sixteenth of a pig, 12 chickens and a small school of fish.