Artist Interview: Alison Ruttan

Today, we share an interview with Alison Ruttan. Alison Ruttan is an artist who primarily works within topically focused projects. Each project comes out of her attempts to understand perceived contradictions in the world around her. For the past ten years she has been engaged with various questions surrounding the nature of violence as a part of the human condition. In the series “The Four Year War at Gombe”, Ruttan references Jane Goodall’s research on primate aggression to construct a parallel narrative of our own history of warfare. Throughout the making of that work and the research she was doing, Ruttan found herself becoming increasingly concerned about an endless state of war and what that said about human nature. The U.S. was in the middle of the war in Iraq, that would quickly engulf much of the Middle East. I began this ceramic work as a means of trying to understand something that was beyond my experience. It started from a place of empathy.

While the subject of this work focuses on the destruction caused by war, specifically, the damage that civilians endure, it is equally impossible to ignore how strange and interesting these images of destroyed cities are. Modernity’s presence can be seen in the gridded structures revealed by the destruction as well as the directional movements within the collapses themselves. A feeling of the uncanny is present in the juxtaposition of buildings that feel familiar, yet now strange in their mutilated forms. The experience is further complicated as looking becomes entangled in remembered images from film, video games and other fictions, not to mention the engagement we might have with the formal language of abstraction while contemplating these destroyed cities. The uncomfortableness we experience navigating these thoughts, frames a perspective that is perhaps American, after all, we are safely looking from here and not there experiencing.

Conceived of as a tool, Weight of a World presents artworks that elicit lessons to be learned – and to be taught – from global conflict, local lore, and cultural identity. Presented in partnership with Facing History and OurselvesWeight of a World comprises sculptures, paintings, film, and supplementary programming that pivot upon two vast, inextricable categories: history and identity. The works on view recognize the roles of individuals within the long arc of history: how we are formed by our contexts, and how we may impact what comes next.

Weight of a World is on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from July 13 - September 15, 2018.


Triple Collapse, 2018, inset ceramic, black nested tables, 20 x 25 x 33 inches


Weinberg/Newton Gallery: How did you first become interested in addressing violence and its relationships to human nature through your artwork?

Alison Ruttan: I have always been interested in trying to decipher human behavior. I suppose it relates to growing up in multiple environments and cultural customs that I had to negotiate. As an adult, I have been interested in the ways culture and biology determine behavior. I am particularily drawn to the kinds of behavior that are part of patterns of learned behavior and those that are seemingly hard wired. I made work about sex and appetite for many years but switched to looking at aggression soon after 9/11. I use my art practice to try to understand the deep anger that fuels aggression. I have looked to fields like evolutionary biology, feminism, political science and history as sources of my inquiry. My most recent work has concerned itself with the state of endless war.

WNG: Our partner organization for this exhibition, Facing History and Ourselves, approaches history through the lens of identity and the individual. I feel your work does this in a unique way even without depicting any people. Through focusing on the destruction of urban homes, and often placing your sculptures upon or within domestic furniture, we’re constantly brought back to the effects of war on community. Can you tell us more about your choice to focus on civilian structures as opposed to civilians themselves?

AR: It is the feminist side of me that led me to the war work. I often feel that those who start wars (mostly men) are driven, (at best), by principles that often exclude consideration of the cost paid by those who have to live with the consequences. Chris Hedges writes in the book, “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”, writes about the terrible seductiveness of war and the problem with the idea of “herocism” that war promises. I was very affected by the images I saw on the nightly news during the war in Iraq. I was also very distrustful of my own countries involvement in the Middle East. I did not think we knew what we were doing.

Initially I was working in video and photography in related projects exploring the origins of violence. When I began the ceramic work, I initially tried to include people in the wreckage but I quickly saw that it too easily pointed to the emotion you should feel but left little opportunity for a more reflective experience. By removing the people and presenting only the shell, the remains of a home, it points to those who are now gone. The building most damaged are often built in “The International Style”, a type of architecture found in cities all over the world. Many of the buildings look like the same kind of homes we also live in. In the more recent work that integrates home furnishings with the suggestion of rubble or shattered buildings, my intention was to point to a domestic life lost.


Pile, 2018, White Console and ceramic debris/parts, 14 x 27.5 x 34 inches

WNG: As spectators, removed from the direct impact of warfare, we may see photographs of ruin and devastation but we can often become oversaturated with the images we encounter through our screens every day. Do you think the physicality of your sculptural installations provides the viewer with a heavier impact than the photograph is able to?

AR: We live in news world that largely focuses on one sensational story at a time. I think that when people see blown up cities night after night they begin to lose their shock. Andy Warhol speaks about repetition as having a numbing effect.  Sadly the horror of these images can become ordinary. In my work, I think the physicality and intimate scale invites you to peer inside to maybe understand more, the craft of how they are made also distracts your attention, but I believe the distraction holds your attention and your thoughts are allowed to linger as you move between the various emotions that the pieces elicit.

WNG: In your piece, All Down the Line, you show a row of nine buildings -- each one more crumbled than the next. This piece in particular hints at the passage of time and the perpetual state of unrest, as I can imagine one building slowly collapsing after the other. I wonder what role does time play in your work? From the fact that some of the ceramic structures you build are based off of images of specific buildings which may no longer be standing, to the fact that you personally have to painstakingly construct that which is destructed.

AR: The time I am describing is gone, these sculpture represent an in between state, neither livable or bulldozed over into empty lots. They are records of a sort, as each building is based on source photographs of specific buildings. This particular scene of the white row houses, all the same, looked like dominoes falling, I wondered how it might be to live at the end of the block that was hardly touched. Perhaps later or even now, new cities will begin to build on these same sites and the events will become just a memory.

All Down the Line, 9 Ceramic Buildings, table, slip covered plywood top, Table, 26 x 84 X 32 inches

WNG: You mention on your website that you began the ceramic work as a way to understand something that was beyond your own experience, starting from a place of empathy. What do you feel you’ve learned or helped others learn throughout the making of this work?

AR: In some ways I have learned nothing that points to making any of this better. I have learned that we don’t learn from our mistakes very well. Maybe that is something that should make us more wary, more cautious. I have tried through this project to make myself more knowledgeable about the history of this region. That is the least I would expect from those eager to start wars.  I am trying to humanize these events, to help people empathise with those who have been caught up in them. To see themselves in such circumstances. I am horrified that the US, has let in only 11 Syrian refugees this year. I see this work as contributing to the work of many artists, journalists and concerned citizens who are trying to keep these issues visible. It is especially important now, when our attention is continually diverted by the antics of a president who dismisses the value of being an informed leader, preferring to rely on his instincts instead.


Weight of a World installation at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

To view more of Ruttan's work, please visit her website.