By Anouchka Grose
Lubo Clyfford is always fetching things. During our two-hour interview he leaps out of his chair at least fifteen times, rushing off to rummage in one of the many suitcases and boxes that line the walls of his Brooklyn studio. He produces a fist-sized meteorite, a telephone book from the 1930s, a hundred-year-old jar of pickled meat from a polar expedition, and an array of pencil sketches spanning six decades of his life. It seems that an idea need only to occur to him for a fraction of a second before it launches his body into action, frantically searching for the physical object whose image, or name, has barely flickered into his head. The effect is endearing and exhausting in equal measures. It can be difficult to keep up with such a flurry of thought and movement. Before you’ve fully understood what you’re looking at – and how it relates to the words that accompany it (spoken in a Bulgarian-accented English, untainted by twenty-two years in America) – you are having to shift your jangled attention onto something new.
Perhaps this very exhaustingness in part explains Clyfford’s reluctance to give interviews. This is only the second time he has spoken publicly about his work since the completion of the Kyzyl Kum Palast in 1988. We are here to talk about drawing. This may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Clyfford’s relocation works of the seventies and eighties. Beginning with a series of barely perceptible displacements – a lock of hair from one twin, cut and woven into the hair of her sister, a tin of peaches from Czechoslovakia placed in a French supermarket, a brick from the artist’s family home in Pleven plastered seamlessly into the wall of his Sofia apartment – Clyfford rapidly found himself immersed in a hugely ambitious practice, culminating in the transfer of a bomb-damaged Habsburg family residence from the outskirts of Vienna to the desert of Kazakhstan.
We meet a week before the launch of Quiver, a book of drawings, none of which have previously been shown. Clyfford is apprehensive, and this is expressed as an accelerating profusion of words and gestures. The more he speaks, the more he leaps, until one fears that the speed and intensity of his internal life may one day prove too much for a mere human body to support. Until then, let’s hope he will continue both to over- and underwhelm us with his disconcerting take on movement and objecthood.
What follows is a fragment of one of the most enjoyable and exasperating conversations I have ever had.
ANOUCHKA GROSE: How did the relocation series begin?
LUBO CLYFFORD: It’s not a series. Each relocation is a singular act. You can’t point to any one of those acts and call it the first, as there will always have been one before it. I have been relocating objects since birth. And my birth, like all others, was an act of relocation. One wouldn’t refer to the history of the world, nor the universe, as a series. Nor as a ‘history’ for that matter.
AG: What’s wrong with the idea of a ‘history’?
LC: Everything. That’s not a good question. It would take the rest of my life to answer it. Can you try to ask me things that I can finish answering… without dying?
AG: I can try… so… Did you always like drawing?
LC: Yes, very much. I like to make things appear and disappear. I particularly like drawing with an etch-a-sketch because the disappearance is more absolute. I have one here… [rushes off to find it]. See, always this beautiful red casing? Sometimes more magenta, other times more vermillion, but always red. In America or Bulgaria it’s the same.
AG: And do you document the drawings you make on it?
LC: [Laughs] No, my dear, I do not. A drawing is a document, and if you start documenting documents you’re lost. When things disappear I prefer them to disappear properly. I don’t want to keep them and lose them at the same time. My father didn’t come back from the Second World War – you know we joined right at the end, in 1944. My mother had to bring me up without him. She didn’t throw anything of his away. When she died in 1991 I had to sort through both of their possessions, but his were the objects and clothes of a young man in the 1940s, and hers were the belongings of an old woman at the end of the twentieth century. So, to answer your question, no, I don’t record the images I make on the etch-a-sketch. I prefer to use it knowing that whatever I do will be gone
AG: May I photography it?
LC: Of course. But the photograph will be your problem, not mine.
AG: Thank you… How did the book of drawings come about?
LC: Like most things, it was the result of a crisis. I had stopped working. Or I hadn’t stopped working, but I had stopped moving large objects from place to place, which was what other people considered my work to be. Suddenly it seemed very stupid to me. People wanted me to move things and I didn’t know why any more. They wanted to administrate the movements, I suppose, because that’s what their livelihoods depended on. Those earlier relocations were very pleasurable – I just moved the object from the old place to the new place. It was satisfying. But the larger works were more difficult, the Palast in particular, because they became acts of administration that required the cooperation of large numbers of people.
AG: Well, you did choose to move a Viennese palace to the Soviet Union, and the Soviets were rather known for their love of bureaucracy…
LC: Ah, but the Kazaks were never proper Soviets in that respect. They made it as easy for us as they could. I chose that site because it was the simplest desert to reach – you didn’t have to cross any sea. The problem wasn’t Soviet administration, it was just the fact of getting different people to turn up in the same place at the same time, to do something difficult – something that I didn’t even believe in. It was just an exercise in testing the possible. But I don’t think it particularly matters whether something’s possible or not. Or anyhow I think there’s something tedious about ‘possibleness’. If something’s possible you may actually find yourself doing it, but if it’s impossible you’re spared a great deal of drudgery.
AG: So you might have preferred it if someone had stopped you?
LC: No, because once you’re set on a certain course of action it’s unbearable to be stopped by a person, or people. Even if the course of action is foolish. I would have preferred it if palaces didn’t exist, so that one would never have to think of moving them.
AG: You mean, in a sense, that the palace made you move it?
LC: The palace, and the arts administrators.
AG: So what makes you draw?
LC: [Pause] That’s the first serious question you’ve asked me. The problem is that it’s even harder to answer than your other questions. Certainly habit makes me draw – it’s something I’ve always done – but I have no idea what causes something to become a habit. There must be enjoyment in it, but I enjoy all sorts of other things and they don’t become habitual. I love walking in the park, but I only do it about three times a year. Habit is like an outside force that comes from the inside – something in you telling you what to do. So I make myself draw, but when I say “I” I don’t mean it in the usual sense because I have no idea what it is in me that insists I keep putting pencils and paper together.
AG: The drawings in Quiver seem very much like that – a brief union between pencil and paper, with you as the… I don’t know what… mediator …conduit…
LC: Conductor, yes. It’s like an electrical circuit. The lines are a record of the energy expended to produce them. But they also chronicle any faults in the machinery, the tiny lapses in concentration, shakes of the hand, or imperfections in the drawing surface – wood grain or particles of grit. It’s not just me that quivers, it’s the world.
AG: What do you mean?
LC: Let me show you. [He leaps and rummages, producing a pile of drawings of ne lines roughly centred on A3 sheets.] See this one where the line veers off to the left a bit? Or this one with a tiny snag? Everything quivers. Everything goes slightly out of place. Even buildings. Those are the sorts of relocations that seem worthwhile to me. Nobody has to think about them, to agree to them, to set an alarm clock to turn up on time to do them, they just happen. Things are constantly relocating, but so slightly that we tend to forget it. These drawings, for me, are a reminder that there are still plenty of things going on in the world that can’t be regulated or organized. Maybe even the majority of things.
AG: And what do you think about the technologies that focus on small movements, like lie-detectors that can detect pupil dilations and twitches of the eye muscles?
LC: Are you trying to kill me with a question like that? I don’t want to live in a world where you might be imprisoned for squinting. I don’t think I can speak any more. Can we stop now?
Lubo Clyfford jumps up out of his chair and walks over to the door. I follow him, unsure as to how to say goodbye. I thank him for speaking to me and he responds with a strained smile. I wish I’d asked both more and less questions. It’s the sort of non-physical oscillation I feel he might have something to say about. Still, if he does, we’ll never know…