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Interviews / January 17, 2014

Maskull Lasserre Q&A: How the Army Changed My Art

Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain, Montreal November 30, 2013 to January 18, 2014

In March 2010, Montreal artist Maskull Lasserre travelled to Kandahar province in Afghanistan as part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program. Little did he know that two weeks in an active conflict zone would fundamentally shift his perspectives on life and art. It’s an effect made clear in an exhibition of new sculptural works that closes this weekend at Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain in Montreal. Here, Lasserre details the lasting impact of his time on the ground with the Canadian military and the powerful resonance of war on the artistic imagination.

Bryne McLaughlin: You travelled to Afghanistan as part of the Canadian Forces Artist Program in March 2010. What interested you in the program in the first place?

Maskull Lasserre: There is a complex and difficult relationship between my life and my work. I don’t make art about art. It always comes from the experiences that I have.

So I try to spend as much time as I can to “curate” my life into interesting places and situations that are productive in some way for my work. I’m not sure which one comes first, but my work as taken me to some interesting places, and Afghanistan is probably the most interesting of those. My work granted me an interesting passport to another world, this other way of experiencing reality that was so foreign to me. There’s something alluring about that.

BM: Was the conflict in Afghanistan something that was already on your radar?

ML: I’m not sure how conscious my interest was in the war there, or how much I’m prepared to admit to that, anyway. The background I come from is not one that ended me up in military service. But for me, there has always been this kind of voyeuristic curiosity about things that actually matter—in the way I’ve conducted my life in general and also in the work I make. I’m always looking for necessity. I’m looking for that edge between what’s comfortable and what’s actually possible, in pursuing the limits of things to find something that’s real.

In some ways, I’m tacitly aware of the listlessness of general existence, especially in Western society. So when I had this opportunity to literally be dropped off in Afghanistan, how could I say no to that? It’s an opportunity to travel through one of these extreme liminal areas of human existence.

BM: Once you got that call, what did you do to get your head around the idea that you were going to be suddenly “dropped off,” as you say, in the middle of a war zone? Or did you take a hold of the opportunity and follow what happened next?

ML: There was definitely a kind of recklessness about it. There’s no way I had time to research—if that’s even possible—the extended nature of the experience that was in store for me. The approach I take to any experience is just to kind of put myself in that situation and deal with it in the moment, rising to whatever occasion is presented.

When they asked me the nature of the experience I wanted to have, my main concern was that I would be overprotected and stuck in a box in the middle of the Kandahar airfield to just waste my time for two weeks. So I was adamant that I wanted to do everything that they’d let me do. Much to my surprise, and chagrin, they totally took me at my word. But even if I’d known then what I know now, there’s no way to prepare for an experience like that given the tools and knowledge that we have outside of that arena. The metrics are totally different.

It’s true going the other direction, too. I tried to explain to people there who were tacitly responsible for my safety that the only thing I knew about what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go was from what I’d read and seen in mainstream media. The universal reply to that was, “You’re going to be fucked up.” I got that exact response every time I said that. There’s no relationship between what we think we know and the reality there. The colours and the sounds are the same, but that’s it.

BM: So you arrive at Kandahar airfield; where do you take it from there?

ML: We flew in on a Hercules resupply run from a base in the United Arab Emirates. I sat in the navigation seat behind the pilots, and as soon as we flew across the Pakistan border everyone started putting on their Kevlar jackets because every now and then a bullet finds its way up into the flight path. We flew in and there’s no descending from cruising altitude…you’re over the airport, and then you drop down onto it.

First I went to this combat first-aid briefing, and, again, there’s no easing into that. In that context, everything is normalized out of necessity. They just show you a bunch of images and tell you the things that you can do with these seemingly barbaric first-aid devices. For example, there’s stuff called “quick cloth” that is essentially powder in a bag, and when it comes into contact with blood, it heats up and cauterizes the wound. And when you travel in vehicles, you have to keep your feet up on a little bar. If the vehicle hits an IED, even if the explosion doesn’t breach the armour, the impact on the bottom of the vehicle can shatter all of the bones in your legs if they’re touching the floor.

So you just run through this stuff quickly, pragmatically. Then they say, “Here’s your body armour, off you go.”

BM: Were you embedded, so to speak, inside of the usual routine of the base?

ML: Yeah. When I was on the Kandahar airfield, which was by far the most secure and insulated area, I had a driver and an armoured military jeep with bulletproof glass. I was kind of self-conscious about that because I was being driven around like some kind of military dignitary.

When I was out on patrol, much closer to anything that could conceivably happen, I was just with the guys. I did very much what they did. You walk five metres apart to spread the damage out if it’s going to happen. There was some argument about who had to walk in front of and behind me because I had different-coloured body armour that made me stand out. The soldiers who were with me were concerned—like, Why is this guy here?—which was kind of disconcerting from my perspective.

BM: How did you come to terms with these extremes—high anxiety on one hand and the attempt to normalize all of this on the other? And what about your place as an “artist” in all of this?

ML: Part of me was definitely self-conscious about being an artist in that context. There had to be someone else out there better trained to occupy my seat in the helicopter or LAV or whatever it was. I was definitely aware that I was the most useless person to have there.

But the way that was met by the military people I was dealing with was not at all what I expected. People were so happy and took such ownership of their situation because they were able to share it with someone who was uninitiated into it. It was like they finally had a witness on whom this whole thing made a certain impression. Everyone else there had gone through this tremendous training process to normalize all of this. But for me, it was as extraordinary as it actually was. Whether it’s the young guys who mark kills on their helmets or people higher up the ranks, everyone there had a tremendously sophisticated and nuanced view of what it was that they were doing.

What interested me was just how quickly I was able to adapt to that level of stress and anxiety. We’re not used to being prey, but when you’re in that situation your biology kind of kicks in. You feel yourself adjusting—but then, you don’t have a choice, that’s the reality in which you find yourself.

I wasn’t there very long, but when I returned it took me a while just to figure out how to care about the stuff back here again, because you realize how little anything matters. That dichotomy of the two existences is no longer fictional. It’s not something that you can ever put out of your mind. You see the very best and the very worst of what our species can do.

Once you venture into that level of experience, there’s no going back. It changes your perception of everything. For the rest of my life, I’ll exist somewhere in a very narrow, middle ground.

BM: It seems like thoughts of making art would be very far from mind…

ML: I went there without the expectation of making anything there or anything specific to it. I don’t work reflectively or even reflexively. I don’t just have an experience or see something and make something that’s derivative of that. There’s a strange third phase in the middle where I have to internalize everything and then forget about it. Eventually it comes out by itself. For better or worse, that’s just how I work.

That being said, I didn’t anticipate the huge gulf between my so-called work and the “work” that was happening over there. If I didn’t know it before, then I knew it when I arrived; there is no common ground between art and war. They are just so far apart.

So to approach it—never mind personally, but professionally—was intimidating. What I did was to work very hard to forget about making work for as long as I could. I took a whole bunch of photographs and made a bunch of drawings, but nothing captured more than the superficial colour and shape of what was there; nothing of the essence.

To me, that experience had to become fictionalized in order for me to make anything remotely related, and the work that came out is probably equally removed from war as it is from art. If it’s true that there’s no middle ground between those two modes of being, then I think that the work that I made is squarely in the middle of that.

It’s interesting, on an intellectual level, to put these things out there that don’t have a precedent—certainly in the connections that I can make between them and my previous work. They really are new facts in my understanding of the world. They’re kind of out there in that no man’s land, and they’re interesting to think about for that reason.

BM: So let’s talk about the work. It took you a couple of years or a little more to let that experience sink into the background and let the work appear. Did the work come together quickly once you reached that point?

ML: Yes, absolutely. I had an image in my mind that I was racing to realize. I stopped thinking about any literal representational element of the work. It had to have something to do with experience, more of a body thing than a mind or eye thing. Looking at a picture of the work and standing in front of it is really a very different experience. The works themselves have a presence and a weight and a severity that you don’t get from an image. We have this kind of haptic relationship with our environment. If you stand in front of something that is kind of big and heavy and hanging, it has an effect on you physiologically that an image doesn’t have. And I think that’s really where the work succeeds, in that kind of physiological response that the viewer has to it.

I’m tremendously skeptical of ideas in general, just because they have kind of this a priori perfection in the mind that you can never really realize in the material world. Ideas are handy to get going in a certain direction, but as soon as possible I try to abandon those and deal with what I’m making.

This work was different, because it had a very definite place that it needed to go. It needed to give me that same feeling as when I was there. The whole time I was making these things, in many ways, I was always looking at my experience of Afghanistan. I always picture these objects in that context.

BM: There is a definite physicality in much of your practice, but this work obviously hinges on elements of anxiety, uncertainty, claustrophobia and trepidation. With Safe (2013), for instance, there is a complex polarization of material elements—an ominous utilitarian object encased by what reads as an ornamental structure of defensive armouring. Then, when you open the door and look inside, you absolutely feel the psychological charge that the work implies. Can you describe your working process for Safe?

ML: If my objective was to create something that evoked a visceral, bodily response to an object, part and parcel of that was to try to nudge this thing from fiction into fact. I chose to work with a 1940s-era safe because of its relationship to that era of a huge global conflict that really set the stage for a lot of the conflicts that are happening today. I basically took that Second World War–era safe and armoured it: I cut holes in the sides for viewing ports, bolted additional steel to the outside and added the RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] grating.

These are all things that get done to vehicles in Afghanistan. In these old tanks that Canada leases from Germany, they discovered that it’s still possible to shoot through the armour with recoilless rifles or whatever, so they bolt extra plates of steel to the body. RPGs still get through, so they add this funny-looking grate on the outside that looks odd and delicate compared to what it’s up against. For me, going through that process of thought and design legitimized my role in the creation of the work and helped me believe in the project as I was doing it. When you look at it, it has that same sense of authenticity. That’s really what was most important.

Stepping back a little bit, it’s also a formal exercise. How much visual complexity makes the object believable? How much makes it interesting? Not only did it have to look like it worked, but it also had to look right, on an aesthetic level. That’s something that doesn’t happen militarily. I don’t think they’re too interested in the optics of these things. But for me, it was important that it looked right.

I tried to make sure it had this kind of patina of use. So there are lots of scuff marks on the inside, some spent shell casings, a bunch of sand and clay that is as close as I could reproduce to the type of soil in Afghanistan because this dust just gets into everything. So I really tried to add that layer of inferred use to the object just to reinforce the illusion that it came from somewhere, that it has this inferred history.

BM: How would you describe the interior space of Safe? What was your intent there?

ML: I travelled mostly in the LAVs, the armoured troop carriers that the Canadian army uses there. The inside of these vehicles is much more tech-oriented than I had imagined. It’s all done in white fire-retardant panelling. The reason it’s white is so that it’s easy to clean out any kind of biological mess that might happen. I did my best to reproduce that.

And then there are the seats. You’re not sitting on a bench, but in a kind of ballistic seat with armour underneath. They are as minimally hospitable as you could imagine. To think that such an uninviting, claustrophobic space is the safest place for you to be is extremely counterintuitive.

BM: What about the other two main works in your current show, Grand Narrative (2013) and Overture (2013), which seem to even more overtly suggest that disconnect you experienced between the reality of war and what we take for granted as everyday life?

ML: Yes, that’s true. As with Safe, these works apply the rubric of one reality to another—nothing works, nothing makes sense.

With Grand Narrative, I was satisfied with how the utilitarian hardware mimicked the ornate indulgence of what those picture frames look like. There’s an interesting kind of inversion that happens there. And also the kind of opacity and denial of any information in the picture plane where you would otherwise expect to see things. It’s just blank. The kind of opacity of that rang through for me in terms of a lot of the overbuilt military hardware that’s out there. It’s so obviously functional but what it does is so obscure. I mean, it’s so clearly consequential, and yet it doesn’t yield any understanding or clues as to what its purpose is. So there’s an inherent impossibility there.

I played the violin for a long time, so I’m familiar with standing up in front of audiences and playing. The visual vocabulary of that realm is still in my subconscious. Overture reads a little bit—and again, it makes more sense if you’re standing in front of it—like a music stand with some sheet music on it.

In some obscure way, I equate music and weaponry; you can affect things at a distance with both of them. There’s this projection of your intent through space, which is interesting to me. And there’s something similar in the way that you hold a violin and you hold a rifle. There’s also something kind of seductive about putting this beautifully polished, delicate wooden instrument in this unforgiving steel structure. To some extent, it’s a surrogate self, it’s a stand-in for the person that would be there.

BM: All things considered, how difficult was it to make this work? Was it a relief? Or did the process simply open up more complexities?

ML: First, getting into this project or this headspace was something that I was apprehensive about. It takes one to a stressful place and it really needed an intense, dedicated focus. It was cathartic to be able to work as hard as I did on it. The struggle and difficulty that I had with these things felt real in some way; it felt like participation in something that otherwise I had just travelled through. When I was there I had no use and no purpose; making the work with respect to that, I finally felt somehow relevant, which is interesting. I was also looking forward to being able to put the whole thing out of my mind after all that happened.

Now that I’ve started down this road, though, it didn’t have the effect that I thought it would have. I find it difficult to think about working on anything else right now. So it’s going to be a much longer working through of this stuff than I had originally intended. Maybe this is very early days in this series.

BM: Finally, what do you want the person who comes to see the show to take away from it? What is your intention or hope?

ML: That’s a difficult question to answer. I typically work on things that are much more accessible and have much more overlap with the quotidian world. This is something very different from that. It obviously comes from an experience that is not common, especially in the art world.

To be completely honest with you, when I was making these things, my mind was not on the gallery viewer in any way. It was just to make these things sincere to their point of origin. They probably make as little sense in a Montreal white cube as they would sitting on the Kandahar airfield. And that’s really what it is.

To some extent, the works hopefully give you the same feeling as when you see a flatbed truck travelling down the 401 with a bunch of tanks on the back of it. You kind of know what it is, but you don’t understand where it’s going or what it’s meant for. I’m not trying to educate the viewer; I’m trying to share an experience. But it has to be shared in a bodily, inhabited way. That’s what the work is for. It’s there to be bumped into.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.