23 Questions for "Manhattan Oil Project" Artist Josephine Meckseper

An installation view of Josephine Meckseper's 2009 exhibition at Migros museum für gegenwartskunst, Zurich
(Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York and Timothy Taylor Gallery, London)

Name: Josephine Meckseper

Age: 47
Occupation: Artist
City/Neighborhood: Chinatown, Manhattan


What project are you working on now?

A large window installation for the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. Eight self-contained window treatments in the museum’s street front will showcase black sandals, chrome car wheels, mannequin legs and a totem sculpture made out of found consumer refuse such as a coke cans and ash trays.

The Manhattan Oil Project, your new public sculpture made with the support of the Art Production Fund, features two giant drilling rigs on a vacant lot at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 46th Street. How did this project come about?

The Art Production Fund came across this great dirt lot near Times Square. Together with the Times Square Alliance, the Shubert Foundation, and Sotheby’s support the APF developed the “Last Lot” program and invited three artists to realize large scale projects.

What are the challenges of creating a large public sculpture as opposed to showing work in a gallery?

The project involved a trip to Texas to study actual oil pumps, several engineers, an architect, a metal shop in New Jersey, and a construction crew. Thanks to the incredible support of the Art Production Fund and all parties involved it was a very straightforward and exciting process. When we ran into a challenge getting electricity to the empty lot, the Irish Playwright Pub next door generously allowed us to plug the oil pumps into their power line for the entire length of the project.

Your shop windows and vitrines explore the political ramifications of consumer culture. “Manhattan Oil Project” deals specifically with the production and consumption of oil. What questions are you trying to provoke with your project?

I was interested in demonstrating the anachronistic nature of oil and gas exploitation by taking the oil pump jacks out of context (Texas, etc.) and confronting them with the epicenter of American entertainment propaganda that Times Square represents. In this area of diversion and commercialism, the sculptures become the hard-edged reality of a culture that is defined by its control of supplies of natural resources. The presence of the sculpture in Manhattan and Times Square shows that the crisis is now in our back yard, just blocks away from military recruiting stations. Here the pump jacks mirror or simulate consumer madness, and become symptomatic of a cultural pathology that engenders wars fought over oil and irreparable environmental damage.

The Manhattan Oil Project also references the large kinetic sculptures of Jean Tinguely, Alexander Calder, and Mark di Suvero. What is it about these artists that you find important?

I was interested in how Mark Di Suvero’s “Peace Tower” gave voice to an opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and “Joie De Vivre,” at Zuccotti Park became a meeting point and symbol for the Occupy Wall Street movement. At the same time I was thinking about Tatlin’s tower, “The Monument to the Third International” (1919-20) and Constructivists' aim to industrialize and functionalize art in order to break away from traditional art production and consumption. The Manhattan Oil Project pieces are built after technical drawings of actual oil pump jacks, they are average in scale (25 feet tall) and form. The black and safety red are standard oil pump colors.

Much of your work juxtaposes political rhetoric with commodities. You imply that all politics are tainted by capitalist logic. In your opinion, what’s the role of art in a world of rampant materialism?

I see my work as a fragment and window into our time, an archeology of the present. How does one reconcile the symbolic and the monetary value of cultural production? How does one make visible real economic and political realities without just mimicking them? The installations of display forms like shelves and vitrines represent the static face of capitalism. The collective performative aspect of consumption is frozen inside the vitrine. I am looking at how politics is the organization of power and authority, and how this gets channeled into forms of propaganda. The political aspect of my work only shows itself in a sense of instability and uncertainty. There is no affirmative reassurance in the seemingly benign appropriated objects. The fundamental principal of my work is a conceptual process that reflects on the world around us. I am interested in how life in its most normal and abnormal forms can be recycled and reclaimed.

What's the last show that you saw?

Bill Bollinger’s retrospective at the Sculpture Center last night.

What's the last show that surprised you? Why?

The same show, because it was the first time I had seen a full exhibition of Bill’s work. He is the real missing link between minimalism and conceptual art. It’s an incredibly thoughtful and radical show including wall and floor wire mesh pieces, and a rusted 1960s rain barrel filled with water.

What's your favorite place to see art?

The Dodges palace in Venice.

Do you make a living off your art?

The U.S. immigration officers ask me this question too every time I reenter the country.

What's the most indispensable item in your studio?

The security alarm system.

Where are you finding ideas for your work these days?

In transit — on sidewalks, subways, taxis, airports.

Do you collect anything? 

I collected fossils when I was a child.

What's the first artwork you ever sold?

Probably my first etching when I was 7.

What's the weirdest thing you ever saw happen in a museum or gallery? 

Maybe a falcon hired to kill pigeons in a museum in Sevilla. It didn’t seem strange at the time though.

What's your art-world pet peeve?


Do you have a gallery/museum-going routine?


Know any good jokes?

I don’t joke around.

What's the last great book you read?

Michel Houelbeque’s “The Map and the Territory.”

What work of art do you wish you owned?

The “Himmelsscheibe von Nebra,” 2000 B.C.

What international art destination do you most want to visit?

Machu Picchu.

What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about?

Bill Bollinger.

To see more work by Josephine Meckseper, click the slide show.