Interview by Martabel Wasserman
Editor: Frank Carino
“I approach my subjects obliquely, from many angles and media
—Flore Koain order to derive and offer multiple forms of knowing.” — Flora Kao
Examining architecture and technology, multimedia artist Flora Kao explores the poetics of human relationship with environment. Kao has exhibited solo at Pasadena Museum of California Art, Commonwealth and Council, Gallery 825, Art Merge LAB, UC Irvine University Art Gallery, HAUS Gallery, and the LA Art Show. Her work has also been featured at various California venues including Intersection for the Arts, Edward Cella Art & Architecture, Beacon Arts Building, Irvine Fine Arts Center, Torrance Art Museum, West LA College, CSU Long Beach, and La Sierra University. Kao holds a MFA from UC Irvine in Studio Art, a BFA in Painting from Otis College of Art and Design, and a BA in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College. Kao’s work can be viewed online at http://floratkao.blogspot.com
Martabel Wasserman is an artist, writer and curator living in LosAngeles. She is the founding editor of RECAPSmagazine.com.
Flora Kao is anchored in honed methodologies, precise observational techniques, and solid political beliefs. It is from this stationary core that she is a constant wanderer. She is a traveler careful to avoid the pitfalls of tourism, a post-Situationist cartographer, and an artist with the tools of a scientist or a scientist with the intuition of an artist.
My first introduction to her work was through large scale living sculptures made out of moss. I have been fortunate to watch the themes of entropy develop and morph in her work over the past few years. She recently presented an ingenious installation, Homestead, which took histories of the North American desert to explore ideas of place, structure, and time.
For Rethink Environment, a three daylong exhibition and happening corresponding to a special two-part issue of RECAPSmagazine.com, Kao contributed a 10 x 23 foot map of Los Angeles infrastructure hand-printed on tar paper. Over the three-day weekend, which will be featured in Issue in conjunction with the launch Rethink Environment Part II, Kao participated in a discussion with Hilary Mushkin titled “Tracing Landscapes.” This interview developed out of our conversation.
Martabel Wasserman: How do you navigate Los Angeles? How does City of Angels relate to your embodied experiences of the built environment?
Flora Kao: I did not learn to drive until I moved to LA ten years ago. As a pedestrian, I explore, I wander. As a driver, I speed from A to B. The car mediates my experience of the city, blurring and abstracting details. I find myself traveling the same routes over and over. As I move between nodes of beauty like farmers markets, gardens, museums, and galleries, I glimpse LA’s bare bones construction, its tangle of power lines and crush of vehicles.
City of Angels responds to the vast sprawl of Los Angeles. It is composed of hundreds of overlays of the LA street grid, echoing the repeating paths that we weave through the city. This web of white street lines stretches across a ten by twenty-four foot expanse of black tarpaper. Visually, this imagined landscape flips between night sky and cityscape. The faint smell of tar recalls roofing and asphalt, pointing to Southern California’s unbounded, petroleum-fueled growth.
MW: Homestead is a book, a sculptural installation, a series of drawings, and an archive of photographs. Can you comment on how you move between mediums and how the multi-pronged approach relates to the themes you are addressing?
FK: My projects start with an immediate emotional connection to a specific form. In the case of Homestead, I fell in love with a ruined shack that I encountered during a walk in the desert. There was something so surreal and evocative about this lone gable on the verge of collapse. The photographs and rubbings are desperate attempts to capture this structure at a specific moment in its decay. My research and writing explore how this homestead came to exist in its current state. In combining photography and rubbing with thoughts on roads, maps, building techniques, huts, and homesteading, I am crafting a story through trace and context. I approach my subjects obliquely, from many angles and media in order to derive and offer multiple forms of knowing.
“I did not learn to drive until I moved to LA ten years ago. As a pedestrian, I explore, I wander. As a driver, I speed from A to B.”
— Flora Kao
MW: How does your experience studying environmental science and public policy inform the materiality and content of your art practice?
FK: I am still investigating our relationship to environment, but now with an emphasis on the visual and phenomenological. Environmental science and public policy was a great excuse to study almost anything under the sun. My studies in landscape architecture have amplified my sensitivity to my surroundings, to architectural and environmental forms, and the many ways that space can be sculpted. I am constantly examining my surroundings, and questioning why things look the way they do. Through my installations, I seek to counter the rote experience of environment. In constructing moments of poetic beauty, I hope to inspire a heightened awareness of one’s body in space.
MW: How do you see the relationship between the supposed binary of public and private space? How do they inform each other?
FK: I think of space as something malleable and full of transitions, where public and private flow into each other. To me, the separation of public versus private space is somewhat arbitrary – it is an architectural, social, or even personal distinction. However, perhaps I am drawn to gabled palimpsests and ruined houses not just because they are sites of trauma, but also because they are remnants of once private space now that now exist exposed in public.
MW: What artists, writers, or thinkers are currently inspiring you?
FK: I really connect with the work of James Turrell, Kim Sooja, Ann Hamilton, and Steve Roden. I savor the writing of cultural historians like Rebecca Solnit, Michael Pollan, Witold Rybczynski, and Gaston Bachelard. Solnit writes so lyrically about the pleasures of wandering, walking, and land. Pollan and Rybczynski offer fascinating insights on the dream to build a room of one’s own by hand. I constantly return to Bachelard’s musings on the intimate nature of space.
My next show is actually titled after a poem by Louis Guillaume from The Poetics of Space. The installation is inspired by the idea of a home unmoored and features rubbings of the collapsed homestead, hanging askew throughout the gallery, breathing with the movement of the viewer.
With each memory I carried stones
From the bank to your topmost wall
And I saw your roof mellowed by time
Changing as the sea
Dancing against a background of clouds
With which it mingled its smoke
Wind house, abode that a breath effaced will be installed at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana from June 7th to August 10th.