Liz Glynn's studio, on the second floor of a mildly shabby Chinatown office complex, is modest in size and extremely cluttered. Shelves are crammed with boxes and bins; tables are loaded with books, piles of snapshots, and odds and ends from various projects. It would be difficult, at a glance, to get a very clear sense of the work Glynn makes, or the scale on which she makes it: sculptures, installations and participatory performances involving crowds of volunteers, feats of DIY engineering and a thematic range spanning centuries of history.
Nor is her manner particularly revealing: 29 and slight of build, she has a quiet voice and a calm demeanor. In her studio as in her often hectic performances, she seems always to be poised in the eye of the storm. As she speaks, however, drawing objects and anecdotes out from the clutter like an archaeologist drawing from the rubble of a dig — given her interest in ancient history, the metaphor is irresistible — a picture gradually begins to appear.
Ten minutes into a recent visit, for instance, she tells an animated story that epitomizes the scope of her current interests concerning the discovery of what's known as the "gold of Troy" by the German-born businessman-turned-amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who was obsessed with establishing the historical veracity of "The Iliad." Schliemann unearthed the gold — a cache of ancient jewelry — in northwest Turkey in the 1870s and gave it to a museum in Berlin. In World War II it was seized by the Russians, who hid it in the basement of the Pushkin Museum for 50 years until an outside scholar tracked it down.
"So this curator who'd been there the whole time was like, 'Yeah, we have it, and we're not giving it back because the Germans did such damage to our culture,'" she says. Meanwhile, she adds, "you go to the museum in Berlin and there are these really crappy copies there and this thing about how the Russians took it, the Germans were the victims of World War II, and the Germans want their gold back. The whole thing is totally insane. So I made copies and I snuck them into the museum and shot video of me sticking them in. Then I brought some other copies to Troy and shot a video of me walking through all the trenches and stuff."
Tracing the paths of artifacts through the world, including the splintering paths of copies and replicas, is a central preoccupation for Glynn, who sees objects like the gold of Troy, and the charged, often irrational disputes that tend to surround them, reflecting larger forces of growth and decay, creation and destruction at play in the operations of history.
Again and again, the work calls attention to the odd ways in which the distant past intertwines with the present. For instance, she has plans for an installation involving the construction of a tunnel intended to invoke both the tunnels in the Egyptian pyramids and those constructed today between Egypt and Gaza, drawing a parallel between antiquities being smuggled out and provisions being smuggled in.
Raised near Boston, she graduated from Harvard before going to the California Institute of the Arts and has been closely allied with the genre-defying Echo Park art space Machine Project. Her work tends to play out on two different scales: the hand-held and the very large. She's of a generation conscientiously indifferent to categorical labels and is uneasy with what would seem the most convenient designation.
"I don't think I make sculpture," she says. "I think I make objects, at the scale of domestic use objects: very small things. Or else I make architecture." On the architectural scale, she is perhaps best known for building Rome in a day — a room-sized model, actually — out of cardboard and salvaged building material in a 24-hour performance staged at Machine Project in 2008. Last summer, she built a 17-foot pyramid out of shipping pallets on an East L.A. hillside and staged an elaborate series of interactive performances based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead. (Works developed from remnants of these performance were later acquired by the Getty Research Institute.)
This fall she'll be orchestrating a trio of performances as a part of MOCA's Engagement Party series in which she aims to confront the question of the museum's relevance in the wake of its near demise in 2008. The details have yet to be hammered out, but the theme, she says, is "resurrection — coming back from the dead — or the question of can you come back from the dead." (She's building the first performance, in October, around simulated ruins of London's Crystal Palace: a "utopian icon that was forgotten and later burnt to the ground.")
Glynn's performances are less theatrical presentations than invitations to others to conspire in her creations. She built Rome with the help of anyone who happened to show up, the communal labor being part of the point. The pyramid performances, which included sleepovers, discussion groups, the ritual eating of cake and dance parties, were designed to involve a quantity of people that increased proportionally over time in the manner of a pyramid scheme.
She comes to the MOCA performance with a touch of informed wariness, alert to the gaps that persist in the institutional comprehension of her sort of work. For many curators of an older generation, she says, "there are the object makers who make the work that's on the walls, and then there are the people who do that crazy thing out there, and these are two different people entirely — but it's not really true anymore. I make stuff. I'll stay in here for two weeks rolling tile and actually care about doing that. And it's not like doing things that involve people means there isn't stuff involved. It doesn't occur to me to separate them."
What is perhaps most striking in Glynn's fascination with artifacts is the attention she pays to their emotional resonance. For someone with a highly developed intellectual language for her work, she speaks with touching poignancy of her encounters with objects: the countless relics in the Egyptian Museum ("I almost cried for the first half-hour"); a pile of dead flowers at a Soviet war memorial ("the saddest thing ever").
Having lost both her mother and grandmother in a short stretch of time, she says she is sensitive to the weight of feeling that objects carry. "So every time I've broken a bowl or something — all those feelings of loss," she says. "One of the things I've tried to experiment with in the work is the possibility of imperfect return, of recycling or taking the ashes from the fire and transforming them into a new object. Instead of there being a rise and fall and that's the end, there's this aftermath and what is that? Something comes up and maybe you don't like the thing that comes up but there's always this cycle. We have agency in that regeneration."