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Rock Woman

Daiga Rudzāte

28.08.2020

A conversation with Bridget Polk, rock balancing artist

Bridget Polk has become the de facto diva of the 2nd Riga International Biennial’s exhibition titled and suddenly it all blossoms, as curated by Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel. Every day until the end of the biennial on September 13, Polk will come to the exhibition’s gigantic hangar in Andrejsala to practice balancing rocks and rubble in front of biennial visitors, creating ephemeral totemic sculptures with unpredictable lifespans...and not worrying one iota about the capricious nature of her works.

‘They're meant to be enjoyed. While I build them, people enjoy watching me build them, and sometimes they fall as soon as I turn around and walk away from them. And sometimes I'll spend 45 minutes getting the top piece to balance, and I walk away and it falls. It's what I'm doing. It's not tragic’. Made of stones and rubble collected in the vicinity, these sculptures are a story about the different layers and eras of Riga; they are about feeling the moment and about the archival nature of rock; they are about our ability to look inside ourselves and surrendering to miracles. The exhibition’s guidebook likens Polk to a contemporary Sisyphus whose works are an attempt to create and recreate a kind of harmony within chaos.
I met with Polk a few days before the opening of the exhibition, in the same hangar where she is currently building her totems on a daily basis.

How did you start balancing stones, and why?

I think I did the first one in 2009. I had seen photographs – there are a lot of people who do this.
I particularly noticed photographs of the work of a gentleman named Bill Dan in the United States, in San Francisco, who most of us look up to like the grandfather of balancing. But he's been doing it a very long time and just uses natural stones by the San Francisco Bay.
I like to think that I'm pretty good at figuring out how to do things, figuring out how they were done, but it was baffling to me from just looking at the pictures. It was a while later that I googled ‘how to balance rocks’.  A lot of things popped up, but there was a video made by Walter Siebert – it was four minutes long, and it was of him saying a few facts that you need to keep in mind when you're doing this. I watched it twice and went outside and I did it.

The first piece was actually created in California. I was visiting my sister Jenny at her cabin when I decided to try it. Then I went home to New York, where I continued to work on balancing rocks.
We moved to Portland, Oregon, and it was when we lived there that I got the email from Rebecca (Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, curator of the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary art – Ed.). I was truly surprised. ‘What???’ I mean, I had gotten a little attention – a little article here, a little article there, and shows with my photos. That email was just a real shock; it's a gift and it just started a big thing that I'm really grateful for.

The point is to be happy right here.

But why did you start doing it? What was it that drew you to it?

I'm recovering from addiction – drugs and alcohol – and the stone balancing became an addiction also, but a healthy one. It takes me out of myself, but it takes me into myself as well, completely focused and completely aware of everything that's going on around me. And I found that it was just a really peaceful thing to do with free materials. I just started doing and never dreamed how it would all turn out. I began doing it because I wanted to figure out how it was done. I lived in Manhattan at that time, and doing it at Riverside Park, a lot of people rode by and saw me doing it. A couple of people wrote about it, a couple of people took photographs. And that's how Rebecca found me for her show at the Palais de Tokyo. I'm so blessed to have been found and appreciated, and to be available to come to do stuff like this all over the world. I'm very grateful for it and I hope it gives people what I think most people really need right now – quiet, peace, silence.

I'm recovering from addiction – drugs and alcohol – and the stone balancing became an addiction also, but a healthy one.

I watched a video where you performed in front of students. During your talk you said something along the lines of: by constantly using mobile phones, you have one foot in the past and one in the future, but you’re pissing away the present – this moment in time. It is simply lost to you.

Thank you. I really appreciate you complimenting me on that particular event because I didn't feel very good about it. It was in front of four hundred twenty-year-olds. My comment of being on the phone and all that came about after I had myself experienced being in the audience with them while they were listening to somebody else. I was like – that is not going to happen when I'm up there.

It’s also a very precise characterisation of today’s society.

Oh, absolutely. I think it was a slogan I heard, probably in a group trying to stop drinking, some twenty-six years ago – you have one foot in the past, one foot in the future, and you’re pissing on today.
And it's true; it's so hard. I certainly haven't mastered it. I mean, I meditate a lot, but I struggle as well with thinking about, you know, the next hour from now – like, what am I doing after this. But right now, I haven't thought of that since I sat down with you. I'm right here with you. So the point is to be happy right here. It's not easy to do, and especially since we have immediate information and communication. It's hard to do, but it helps me to stay calm, and I get as much done as anybody else. I just think about what I am doing right now.

The rhythm of your work is an absolute contradiction to the 21st century, where everything has to happen right now, immediately, and as quickly as possible. When you work, you can spend up to an hour just trying to find the centre of gravity of one rock.

Yes. Well, I've learned from people that there's something about watching me. I think it's the definition of meditation for me, because the way I've learned it is – be still, be silent, and focus on one thing. It can be your mantra, your words, or your breath. I'm focused on the point at which the two things are touching. I don't need to see it, but that's what I'm trying to find – the three points of balance at one time, and then I can let go. So for me, it can be very meditative, and I have learned from people who've watched me that, for them, too, it can be very meditative because they come in and ask themselves: What is this? And then once they get into it, they kind of come with me – into that space of silence and focus. Without any pre-made plan to meditate. It just happens – they come with me. Sometimes people have come up to me, very moved and emotional, having had some kind of realisation, or memory, or something happened while they were watching me, and they say: ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you...’ And I answer: ‘You're welcome. But it has nothing to do with me, because – when was the last time you stood still and were silent and watched one thing for 20 minutes?’

It's what people bring in; it's what is in people's consciousness or whatever when they're here. Nobody is silent for any period of time anymore, or still. Maybe when we're sleeping, but not really. You know, it's an unusual thing for people to experience when they think they're just watching somebody do something. That was a surprise to me when I did the show in Paris in 2015 – to hear that feedback and realise that people think I did some kind of, you know, miracle. I'm just doing my thing and you're watching me. So you're forced to be still. And then something comes into you, and you think a miracle has happened. But it's what would happen to everybody if they would meditate.

I'm just doing my thing and you're watching me. So you're forced to be still. And then something comes into you, and you think a miracle has happened. But it's what would happen to everybody if they would meditate.

When you perform, do you feel the audience?

Yeah. I do. I'm focused and I'm aware of everything that's going on. Like, I know there's a little kid over there, and there's that lady – oh, I hope she doesn't get too close to that. I notice everything, but I don't let it affect me until I need to.
I enjoy the sense that I have of the people watching. Sometimes they move on before they realise that I'm not waiting until the rocks stick together. At first I had to do some work on myself to not be compelled to make sure that everybody knew that the rocks weren't glued. Sometimes I would be on a break or whatever, sitting to the side and watching people come in – they come through and they leave right away because they just see a mess. And then they go right through to find where's the start (laughs). Some people walk right through, some impatiently stop and nervously linger because they can’t wait until it ends...which is weird, because it's supposed to be calming.

And then there are the people who stay with me for however long it takes. It's really fun being aware of this whole scenario of a movie that's playing out with me. I make connections with people. I don't know if they sense it, too, or if it really happens, or if it's my imagination, but it feels like some people really come right there with me. Sometimes I'll look up and I'll make eye contact with someone and there is kind of... yes, there's some energy that's going, and when I'm finished with the piece, I'll speak with them. It’s a whole process; perhaps it’s a kind of evolution, but something is happening to people. There’s something different about them when they leave the room compared to when they came in. At least it seems that way. For a moment, people might not be thinking about anything else, just trying to figure out ‘What the hell is she doing?’.

You work with something very impermanent, never really knowing how long your created objects will last or when they will fall apart. There’s a rubble/rock sculpture in this room as well – could it survive throughout the whole biennial?

That one I did yesterday. So it lasted the night, and I was happy to see that it's staying up even though the doors are open. There's the breeze coming through, which I was a little concerned about. But you never know how long they're going to last. And that's why it's a performance, sort of – not an installation. If they all fall – and sometimes something happens and they do – sometimes there's a chain reaction, which is beautiful. It's like one falls and hits the other one and everybody's horrified around me.

You never know how long they're going to last. And that's why it's a performance, sort of – not an installation.

What do you feel when they fall? Don't you feel sad?

No, no. Because I could create other things. I make things out of wood and I've built walls and rooms and cabinets, and I build them to stay as long as possible. These are meant to be ephemeral. They're meant to be enjoyed. While I build them, people enjoy watching me build them, and sometimes they fall as soon as I turn around and walk away from them. And sometimes I'll spend 45 minutes getting the top piece to balance and I walk away and it falls. It's what I'm doing. It's not tragic. It's not like, ‘Oh, I spent so much time on that and now it's gone’. Yeah, I spent so much time on that. Everybody enjoyed it and saw it. And now it's gone and I'll do the next one. There's no reason for it to stay, because a big part of what I'm showing is that things don't have to be permanent to be enjoyed, and things need to be enjoyed while they're there because you never know when they're going to be gone. And it doesn't matter. You just keep moving.

A big part of what I'm showing is that things don't have to be permanent to be enjoyed, and things need to be enjoyed while they're there because you never know when they're going to be gone.

Before you start making an object, have you already imagined what you would like to make and how you will do it, or is it a decision that is made on the spot? What is your process?

It depends. Usually I make a base, and here I'm making a lot of bases ahead of time. It's very sturdy.  It might move, but it should be pretty sturdy. So I'm making bases – taller bases – because it's such a big area that I want some tall ones in the middle so they can really be seen well.
It's so fun as I am playing with blocks, you know. It's a little heavy, but I have guys that help me – they’ll put ten pieces of whatever around the bases, and then I will select which ones to use. I just look at what I have. When I'm doing this in nature, by a river or wherever, it's just what's there.

And then I think about the colours. I've started to think more about the whole piece as I'm building it – the colours, the shape, the texture. Just kind of as an extra thing to consider when I have so many beautiful materials. So that comes into play. It just makes sense to look at the shape of what's there and then put the next one, and then to balance the very top one. You need flaws in each surface – as you can see with that one (indicating a sculpture in the room), there's a fine point that's just touching the edge of something that has flaws. The part you need to be concerned with is a little point. It's the same thing as a tripod. I mean, it is a tripod. You're looking for three points with the centre of gravity going through. This is physics. It's just that the three points of the tripod are very tiny and very close together. And it's a matter of just moving the piece a tiny bit at a time. When I see videos of me doing a piece, it looks like I'm just standing there...holding the thing. And I think, oh Jeez, it looks like I'm just waiting. But actually, I'm moving it and I'm feeling through the piece what's happening at that point. You can feel the difference – you have one point, then you have two....
And when it's balanced, when it's ready, when it's found its third point, you’re absolutely convinced that it's done. Yeah, well, unless I'm doing a crazy one, like later on in the last week of the exhibition – I might be just doing ones that I can't even feel if they're done. When I start to get too cute, you know, I want to make it really impossible sometimes. But basically, when it's done, it's done. It's very satisfying when that happens.

When it's balanced, when it's ready, when it's found its third point, you’re absolutely convinced that it's done.

A rock is like an archive that contains infinitely ancient experiences and energy.

Well, I don't take the time usually to really tap into that aspect of each piece of material that I'm using, but I certainly believe that it is there; it is present. I think everything here has the energy of where it's been, what happened with it when people were standing on it, or the people who made it and the people who destroyed it. That's why these materials and their relationship to the history of Riga, Latvia – and of the area, Europe, and the world – I mean, it's very meaningful to me.
Some people will realise the depth of meaning in the layers that are present – they’ll notice that the material that used to make up the foundation, the very bottom, is now going to be on top and held up by new things. That's really meaningful to me. There's so much history in here and so much energy, as you said, that it's going to be unavoidable for people to not be affected somehow.
My wife and I went to the Rumbula forest the other day to see the mass graves from the Holocaust.
I knew it was going to be indescribable, and it was just beyond... I don't have the bandwidth to comprehend what I was standing on, but I did take some stones. It's a Jewish tradition to put stones on a gravestone. I spoke with my wife, who is Jewish, and back home I spoke with our rabbi. I asked if it would be appropriate for me to do a little balance in honour of those who have passed away. And with Rabbi Dunsker's approval, I did. I made a little video and hope that if somebody watches it, they learn a little bit more about the history here. And that was just World War II – it’s like yesterday compared to the history that goes all the way back to the 12th century here.

Here, in Riga, you used building rubble. Why is that?

I think I did my first balance of a cement piece, a building block thing, that first week when I first started, just to see if I could; and I really liked the combination of man-made things with the natural stones. Here, it's mostly rubble. It's mostly man-made, man-destroyed stuff. And I like that a lot. During the weekend we were over on the docks and we got a lot of the pallets that have just bricks – rubble from old houses. Also some of the bigger cement pieces. Yesterday they brought dolomite. I like to rinse off my materials. I don't have to, but then you can just really see how beautiful and different each material is. And the dolomite – I've been rinsing it off, and as I take the clay out of the little holes, you can see that the stuff is just really beautiful. So I'm really pleased with those big pieces. I also have man-made materials – which in the US we call cinder blocks – and they're just great things. They build houses and walls out of them. Some of those will be broken up throughout. When they fall, they'll break. And I like that because then they become a really cool, asymmetrical shape with their still-pointy edges and stuff. I can use those for the top part of the piece.

Some of the pieces were from the ‘Bolshevicka’ textile fabric here in Riga. I went there when I was here last year to talk with people and look at different sources for materials. And when we went there, I was like – Oh! People see a pile of rubble and it looks like a pile of rubble to them. But to me it's...it's art supplies, you know...it's just beautiful. All these different colours and shapes and textures. And here's some stuff that looks like just busted-up concrete, like a sidewalk or something. It's very uniform in terms of material. It's concrete, but the shapes are completely random. Also, when we were on the pier looking for the bricks that I wanted, there were some granite pieces hiding behind something. And I asked for those. And then I learned that, actually, the whole area here is covered by those. With all of this asphalt on top of them. Since I'm interested in creating something with layers of history as well as layers of different materials, that was a great thing to find. They’re very heavy, but I will make good use of those as well.

You used to say that you don’t know if your objects/sculptures are art or not.

Well, the reason I don't know whether or not it's art is because I don't know what is art and what is not art. Everyone will have their own opinion on that. When I think of what I have experienced in art, and what I've felt is art to me, it is something that makes me think, or stop, or see the beautiful shape with colours. I would say that, by my definition, I would call it art but I don't expect that of anybody else. I'm not offended if people don't think that what I do is art. I don't need it to be art for anybody. It's what I do. That first time when I was in Paris for three months, I learned a lot about just that idea of art, and I came to understand that you cannot say that something isn’t art. Maybe it’s not art to you, but someone else will have a different opinion. When you think about art as a commodity, then it’s true that I can't sell this...not really. I have said: ‘I'm an artist and I'm participating in the biennial,’ because it's easier – people will know what I mean. I don't say: ‘I'm a rock balancer and a rubble balancer, and I'm going to do this art thing in Riga’. It's just too much information. So, yeah, I call myself an artist. But I'm also a meditation teacher.

I'm not offended if people don't think that what I do is art. I don't need it to be art for anybody. It's what I do.

Do you know other rock balancers?

Yes, there are lots of rock balancers. When I first met Rebecca, I said: ‘There are balancers, like, all over the place; there are some in France’. She answered: ‘I know. I’ve done my job.’ 

There's this one guy, Michael Grab, and he's brilliant. He does most of his stuff, of what I've seen, in the river, and it's very impossible looking. He's always being doubted – people in the online comments say that it is impossible. But I know it's possible.

There are numerous people who work with rock balancing. In 2016, in Paris, I did Nuit Blanche and the organisers wanted me to invite other balancers – there were three that I knew of in the area, and they came and worked as well. We have different styles. There's a whole network. There's an event in Italy once a year. I haven't been to any of these yet, but I would love to be able to go to one of these events where it's just like a rock balancer convention.

You used to balance rocks in nature as well.

Yes. At the beach and by rivers – that's where I did it most of all.

When you work outside in nature, do you leave your sculptures standing there?

I believe that if you're out in nature, you should take the pieces down when you're finished doing them. I insist that that's the correct thing to do. Leave no trace. It's a very big, big argument amongst us, but I think that when you're messing with materials in nature, you should leave it the way you found it. People say – leave it, people love it, it's beautiful! I say – No, take it down. I always take it down. I did learn that the hard way; I used to think it was OK to leave them. And then I realised it’s not, this is not OK. Because a part of the process is the idea of disturbing. I had been working at a river near my house, and there were frog eggs on one of the rocks I picked up – I realised that I can’t do that. Yes, the river may have a lot of frogs, but that doesn’t matter – I can’t do that. I'm not going to harm anything. So I tend to not do them in the water anymore. But it's really fun. In one of the pictures – I don't know if you saw it – it’s me in the Ganges doing balances. I would always make an exception for doing it in the Ganges. But I don't really like doing it where I'm going to do any harm. I'm pretty safe in here, in this hangar. I think there were some angry pigeons at the beginning, when I started, but I don’t think I’ve bothered anyone else.

The people of today are so far removed from nature that, in a certain sense, they’ve lost any sense of empathy towards it. Is this pandemic a kind of punishment for our hubris?

I think the planet – Mother Nature, Mother Earth, whoever – said: ‘OK, you're not getting it. You're not understanding what you're doing.’ This whole time, we haven’t been able to do anything in terms of the climate, nor any other of the big problems; we keep putting it off to some other time. I think that Nature made a decision: ‘If I need to drop a ton of bricks on you, that's what I'm going to do. So here you go.’ I think that was the Earth's way of beginning to heal itself. By ridding itself of too much, of several different things. It's a being. It's a living thing. And we were just messing it up. There's certainly a tragic factor in what this has caused, but it was a necessary shift in how the planet was hosting us. What else could it have done to tell us – ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And then the Riga biennial that was supposed to be about the end of the world was almost cancelled because the end of the world happened, proving the point of the biennial before it even opened.

I think that Nature made a decision: ‘If I need to drop a ton of bricks on you, that's what I'm going to do. So here you go.’

Will we be any smarter after all this?

Some of us will, a little bit. You can't hope that everybody is going to be different. I think there are still people who think of it as a hoax. There are some people who are not going to learn because they can't even see the evidence. For reasons that I can't quite figure out, I don't believe in... well..
I'm trying to think if there's something that I would defend as fiercely as people who have opposite beliefs than I do. It's very frustrating, but it's the way we are. As a species, we could advance forwards a bit, but unfortunately there will always be people who think that something else is more important. I don't know how long it will take for the whole to rise above where it is.
It's frustrating to realise that. Clearly, it happens when those people are in charge. And it's not just the US, obviously. But it's such a drastic example of how bad it could get. It's hard to have hope sometimes. I don't have any choice but to be hopeful. But this doesn't seem to have a lot to do with rocks...

But it nevertheless does have a connection to rocks, doesn’t it?

Yes, because the basic idea around rock balancing is a universally important one – to think about what is happening right now. And to think about how things are dependent on every other thing. An infinite field opens up before us – you can talk about physics by giving a lecture on gravity, or by turning it towards art and looking from the viewpoint of colour and form. You can just as well develop the subject of meditation. There are infinite layers and possibilities of going deeper. Of course, I don’t know how many people can see these layers. Rebecca is one person who sees all the layers. She saw them all before I did, honestly.

The basic idea around rock balancing is a universally important one – to think about what is happening right now. And to think about how things are dependent on every other thing.

At one of your talks you said that you were ‘forty-plus-fifteen’ years old – because you still have things to do that had to be done before fifty. Perhaps this is too personal of a question, but may I ask what were those things?

I'm going to be 60 on Tuesday, the 25th of August. Back then it was only a joke – a way to give an answer to how old I am. I’ve never hidden my age. But sometimes I think about, you know... that this is happening right now and I'm 60, and there are people who saw my 50s... This has to do with my being clean and sober... We often say that we don't regret the past. But sometimes it has felt like, if I hadn't spent all those years doing everything I did, this might have happened so much longer ago. And then when you think about how time flows and how the energy of the universe works, you understand that I shouldn't have been doing this then, because then I wouldn't have met my wife... And so you realise that you don't want to change anything. Of course, there are times when I think: ‘Oh my God, I spent 17 years just like... gone’. But this is who I am because of that!

I can't say that I wish something didn't happen, because if one little thing didn't happen the way it did, I wouldn't be here.

I can't say that I wish something didn't happen, because if one little thing didn't happen the way it did, I wouldn't be here. This is Ganesh, who is the remover of obstacles, but he also puts them in your way.
You know, I get that. But I don't always remember it. But yeah, it's so important.

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