Snow in Los Angeles
In this new series, frieze d/e invites an artist to talk about their working process. Swiss artist Peter Regli gets the ball rolling.
In 2003, during a motorbike trip from Saigon to Hanoi, I stopped off in Da Nang where I met the Hànhs, a family of sculptors who specialize in making large marble figures for Buddhist temples. Visiting their workshop to take photographs, I was impressed by the way they used limited technical means to produce sculptures up to eight metres tall. I decided to realize a project with them, and today, the Swiss headquarters of Price Waterhouse Coopers is home to five Happy Buddhas (2005) sitting in a circle under a tree. Once a month, they all laugh together for two minutes, via built-in loudspeakers.
After this project, I asked the Hành family if they would be prepared to make a series of large marble snowmen for one of my exhibitions. At first, they categorically refused, insisting that they only made figures for temples. During my next visit, they relented but set two conditions: I had to work alongside them during the production phase and had to organize the transport myself. I agreed to work six days a week, from seven in the morning to five in the afternoon, in their workshop. It was hard, but by the end of the project I was more or less part of the family. I’ve been going back there for ten years now, and I enjoy immersing myself in southeast Asia.
With such custom-made products, it’s essential to be on hand to develop the prototypes and basic forms. I start by making sketches, photographs or models. Then I fly to Vietnam and discuss the details with Mr. Thièn, the son of the family. We spend a week or so determining the motifs, dimensions, price and deadlines. I pay a first installment, and they source the blocks of marble. The low production costs are an advantage. In Italy, the price of a block of marble for a three-metre tall sculpture is higher than the total costs for a finished sculpture from Vietnam, including customs and transport to the United States or Europe.
A few months later, when the blocks have been located, I fly back again and stay for a month or two. It’s important to invest enough time to adapt to the rhythm of Vietnam and its climate. When you work outside during the hot months or during the monsoon, this tropical paradise can easily become hell on earth. We select the stones, I define the proportions and we draw the outlines. Once the raw shape has been hewn, the sculptors in the workshop proceed without me according to my guidelines. Once the figures have reached an advanced state, I fly back once again, and we work together on the final details and the finish.
There are around 20 workers in the family, and none of them has ever seen snow. They are familiar with snowmen from films and the Internet, of course, but having never experienced snow, they are unable to fully understand the figures. I chose the snowman because of its Buddha-like nature. They appear briefly in the world, bring joy and evoke memories of childhood, then disappear again, melting away without complaint. You can’t teach Zen to a snowman.
Lotti’s Garden (2009–12) in Los Angeles – a project including not only marble snowmen but also hares, demon quellers and mythological creatures, all custom-made by the same workshop – was a godsend for me. The plot of land belongs to the artist Urs Fischer, who gave me carte blanche to design a sculpture garden after having bought several of my marble sculptures. During the process, we worked our way up to a total of 36 tonnes of marble, resulting in 40 figures.
Transporting them from Vietnam was relatively easy. They were put in special crates and shipped in three containers by local cargo firms. But before they could be installed in LA, we had to terrace the hillside and build earthquake-proof concrete foundation blocks. We asked various crane hire firms in California, but none would take on the job because the access road and the site itself were not large enough for their pneumatic cranes. So I put together a team of old friends: optimists with experience in building cable cars, industrial climbers and forestry workers. The engineer Franzi Brun from Arizona managed the project. We bought a truck and had a steel sled made, as well as a portable aluminium crane capable of lifting six tonnes. We carried the crane up the hill in pieces and assembled it on site. Finally, we dragged the sculptures up the slope on the sledge using rollers and winches, before setting them on the waiting concrete plinths with the crane. After seven long weeks, everything was finally in place.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 7