Celeste Roberge’s steel and stone sculpture Chaise Gabion is sited on the Museum’s East Terrace, up the steps from Walker Landing. From her early stone-filled gabion figures, to a body of work involving furniture and stones called Stacks, to this blend of furniture and sculpture, Roberge’s work has demonstrated her ongoing fascination with natural stone of all kinds. Some time ago, I had an opportunity to talk with Celeste about her work in general, and about Chaise Gabion in particular. To see more of Roberge’s work, visit her website. –LD
LD: Obviously stone has a strong appeal for you. Can you describe how you got started using stone? CR: It started in Nova Scotia. I was living in Maine, but of course in Maine you’re surrounded by stone, but for some reason you don’t pay attention to your surroundings until you go away and then you come back, so when I got to Nova Scotia, I went “Oh my god, look at all this pink granite everywhere.” And so I began working with stone there, and I started making a series of sculptures galled Geographies and they are about the intersection of geology, geography, and mapping. I was also reading a book by Barry Lopez called Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, and in there I learned about inuksuks, which I didn’t know. It’s an indigenous arctic form of sculpture made by Inuits, made of stones piled up vertically, then a horizontal stone placed to represent the shoulders and then another stone placed on top of that to represent the head. So inuksuks represent human figures very, very abstracted. They dot the landscape in the arctic and they serve as markers because you don’t have trails, right, it’s all just snow, so … from a distance, you can see this marker. So I went “Oh, I can make figures, they would be like my inuksuks.” And so that was my first idea with this walking cairn, and the title cairn is a Gaelic word which means simply “pile of rocks.” So I went “well, here’s a pile of rocks, and I’m holding it in, and it’s in the form of a figure and it’s an inuksuk.” And I was living in Novia Scotia, and I was interested in the North Atlantic and in Northern things and so it all kind of came together over a period of two years: the conceptualizing, the interest in the geology and then introducing the human form, it all just kind of gelled, and then I began that series of cairns which continued for about ten years.
LD: Have you moved away from figurative work now? CR: After ten years of making figurative cairns, I was done. I had exhausted it for myself. For me the furniture is a stand-in for the body. I’m still making things that refer to the human body—because chairs and beds and sofas, they’re designed for us, so they reflect our bodies; so to me there’s still a strong human element to it.
LD: How, in your mind, does furniture (especially something like a chaise, which is intended to comfort and support the body in luxury) relate to stone, which is quite the opposite from comfortable, if we’re lying down on it? CR: There’s also a big play with the steel. The steel is man-made, man-cut— woman-made, woman-cut—whatever. So the steel is like technology and mathematics and logic and industry, right? And the stone, especially the natural forms of stone, the more organic forms of stone, are nature, and so I’m kind of trying to work with nature / culture—smashing together nature and culture, an encounter that’s sort of uncomfortable. So if you look at … the piece outside (Chaise Gabion), that is a gabion… but the gabion itself, it’s not upholstered, it’s not soft, it’s made out of cut steel, so it has a slightly uncomfortable feel to it. You’re a little guarded when you lie down on it, maybe not when you sit on it, but if you lie down on it, you’re a little bit careful about where you put your head down. You have to be self-conscious about your body, self aware when you’re sitting on it, interacting with it. It’s user friendly in a sense, right? But it also makes you cautious, don’t you think? It’s not dangerous, but it makes you think.
LD: Many sculptures are “hands off”, but Chaise Gabion invites viewers to interact with it physically. Did you intend for it to be actually touched and sat upon? It’s not very inviting, it doesn’t look like something you’d want to lie down on it. How do you think that changes how people interact with the work? CR: Actually if you lay down on it, you’re going to find that it’s actually very comfortable. But I think that’s where they look at it as a sculpture and not as a piece of functional furniture. And I want it to sit in-between sculpture and furniture. I call it sculptural furniture. I don’t want it to just be functional and I don’t want people to not think about it.
LD: You must have an opinion about where and how your sculptures are sited. How do you like Chaise Gabion’s site at Crystal Bridges? CR: I love the site. I like it a lot. It’s by itself, it’s a little area of contemplation. People can go there, sit quietly, listen to the brook, read.