Liza Lou on Building Community During Coronavirus

Jul 10, 2020 10:17 am

When the United States began lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, artist Liza Lou created the online platform Apartogether to encourage viewers to make work from familiar materials around the house and to tag it with the Instagram handle @apartogether_art. What started as an exercise in combatting long-term isolation has grown into a global community of artisans and makers eager to share new work. Along with a series of artist talks, Lou also hosts “sew-in” sessions on Zoom to facilitate conversation among the participants. The artist first gained recognition in the mid-1990s with an exhibition of her full-scale replica of a kitchen covered in beads. Aptly titled Kitchen (1991–96), the piece will return to view in the US for the first time in more than twenty years as part of the currently pending group show “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. For the last fifteen years Lou has worked with Zulu artisans, who make their livelihood producing beaded items. In 2018, her collaboration with the commune in Durban, South Africa, culminated in the exhibition “Classification and Nomenclature of Clouds” at Lehmann Maupin in New York. The show included both a large site-specific installation and numerous smaller pieces made of painted, woven, and subsequently smashed beads, as well as drawings, freestanding beaded sculptures, and a playful video of the artist humming while at work in her studio. As Covid-19 cases continue to rise across the US, Lou discusses how the idea for Apartogether developed.

Coronavirus hit me quickly and really hard. Apartogether started during the first week of lockdown. I was cleaning when I found my childhood comfort blanket in my closet. As I held it in my arms, I had a powerful recollection of the magical thinking of a child. Back then, I thought that this piece of cloth would protect me. As an adult, I realize what thin protection the blanket actually offers. With my twelve-year-old daughter and husband, I created an open call for people to make art from any material they have in their home that provides comfort. I began by repairing my childhood blanket—working with fabric is a new medium for me—but you don’t have to know how to sew or limit your materials.

My métier lends itself to working in a community. When I started working with beads for Kitchen, I was looking at the material in relation to popular culture and feminism. Beads are a material that speak to me. I was a young woman working alone on an artwork in a domestic environment. That process was not taken seriously, because it did not fit within the scope of the white male canon. But what became clear when I was working on Kitchen was how the physical limitations of body and mind affect art itself. My next project involved making a backyard with 250,000 blades of grass. When I was in my twenties, I took beads with me in a little travel kit everywhere I went. One night I was at a bar with friends, and this guy began secretly timing how long it took me to make each blade. He determined it would take me forty-five years to complete that project alone. I started having “lawn parties,” to which I invited people to help make blades of grass. I realized that if I wanted to continue working with this material, I had to change my habit of being a loner.

Around 2005, after seeing my work commodified and sold, I became disillusioned with the idea of what it meant to be an artist in the art world. In the early days I waitressed, sold prom dresses—I always found a way to make what I needed to make. I never felt beholden to anybody: I dropped out of art school; I never won any grants while I was making Kitchen; and I don’t have any hang-ups about being accepted. I’m independent in that way. My mind is free. But my work had changed. I wasn’t making huge room-size environments, which meant I wasn’t working with lots of people. That connection to the work I created and to other people was lost. I started to question how my practice could be of service to others beyond the art world—not just in theory or as some sort of commentary, but actually embedded in life and the daily struggle for survival. This pursuit led me to South Africa, where master artisans are still crafting with beads. The underlying purpose of my work doesn’t simply stop at the art object, but centers on the idea of service.

Being caught in the middle of a pandemic is a really unique moment to think about community and others’ work. It doesn’t feel like a moment to carry on per usual. We’re so isolated from everything we’ve known, and I don’t see how it is possible to go back. Apartogether is a platform that breaks down the hierarchy of the art world by creating a space where everyone has a chance to be seen and to talk about their work. I don’t interfere at all with what people make. I’m not there to judge or to criticize. The metaphor is to use this experience and the limitations that it offers to fuel the art that we make. I’m asking everyone to start now, in this mess, to see what is possible. Many people have been thinking deeply and sharing why they make art. Now more than ever, it begs asking: what is the point of being an artist? Something happens when you cut through all the bullshit in your brain and in the world, and decide to make something. Obviously, there’s privilege embedded in the ability to do so. But it feels good to create—and doing so is a very courageous act. That question of meaning gets sorted out as you’re doing it. This is the discussion that I want to have right now. And I want to have it with you. I want to have it with a lot of other makers, artists, and people.

Sometimes I fear that I’m wasting my time. Then, I’ll receive the most incredible message about how this project has given someone hope. It reminds me that it’s not just about the finished product hanging in a museum. I feel more than ever that underneath all art is that question that you want to ask yourself—you want to know what it is you stand for, what it is your work stands for. And I hope more than anything that my work is a living invitation for others to make art. That would be the best response.

—As told to Francesca Aton