Digging Deeper with Marianne Vitale

Archeo, an outdoor group exhibition about technology and obsolescence, brings together the work of artists who employ outmoded technologies and outdated machinery as a reflection on humanity's continuous fascination and frustration with technology.

The following Q&A with artist Marianne Vitale (b. 1973, United States) is part of a new series, Digging Deeper. Organized in conjunction with Archeo, Digging Deeper will offer a closer look at the exhibition's artists and work.

High Line Art: Much of your work relates to railroads through a variety of materials and images – frogs, rails, and models of bridges – how did you first become involved with this subject? What draws you to railroads?

Marianne Vitale: At some point I plunged into researching the American frontier for ideas, looking at early photographs, newspaper clippings, and books such as The Frontier in American Culture, among many others. This platform allowed me to adopt, for example, 18th century covered-bridge design, which I would then abstract or disengage from its colloquial context. An idea needs to begin somewhere, and for me, the excavation of history and legends is ripe with visual metaphors of power, progress, and their demise. This excavation is what initially led me to wander through steel track facilities, which is where I discovered the "frogs" found in Common Crossings.

HLA: You have spoken about your work being "all theater." Can you extrapolate on this idea in terms of your Common Crossings?

MV: Generally I find it difficult to discuss my work. I feel like my visual object language is "enough said." But, okay – the notion of "all theatre" maybe has something to do with the opportunity an artist has to create a dramatic experience for the spectator. Even if there is just one painting on a wall in a huge gallery.... it's show time. In some circumstances I think producing the artwork itself is half the battle. It must then have the capacity to expose its meaning, or non-meaning, etc., with concentrated intent while on view.

HLA: What does the term "common" imply for you – something banal, something shared, or both?

MV: I'm not sure why these track components were named "common crossings" in the industry; perhaps it was because the cast pieces of steel, designed to literally "cross" the train from one track to the next, were more widely distributed than more complicated forms. I didn't need to invent a title – the poetics of the term was already implanted. I suppose the High Line itself could be considered a "common crossing," a thruway built for the good of the people, though hardly ordinary.

HLA: Was it an obvious choice for you to show these railroad elements on the site of a former railroad?

MV: Curator Cecilia Alemani approached me with this High Line opportunity and stressed her enthusiasm for these particular structures – she had the initial vision. It was not obvious to me how well they would work until we discussed it at length and built models of how they would be installed on the High Line.

HLA: What does it mean to you to literally raise up these decommissioned objects, almost as if they are rising from the dead?

MV: To me, they are unexpected, spontaneous erections infusing fresh viability and vigor into the majestic, utilitarian design of yesteryear.

Photography by Timothy Schenck

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