by Leah Gallant
Margaret Halquist is a Milwaukee-based artist who earned her BFA in sculpture at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2015. Her work employs drawing, installation, and video to question the presumed truthfulness of text. Her thesis, “IMPRESSED YET,” involved a 30′ x 40′ banner that read ‘are you so impressed with authority’ displayed backwards on the MIAD design building.
Margaret in her studio at the Birdsell Mansion
How did you start working with text?
Text has this reputation of being the easy way out—of being too literal for certain ideas or ways of thinking. There’s this weird hierarchy in art, where if there’s both abstraction and text, the words are always the real answer even if it’s mixed in with something else. It’s like, “Oh, I’m going to look at this text because it’s going to tell me what’s really happening.” Whereas most people expect language to provide an answer rather than a question, I use text to confuse and complicate the subject.
Who are some of your major influences, both artistically and philosophically?
As I started working with text, people would often associate me with these artists who are much more literal with their texts, but I shied away from that. I like Sharon Hayes’ work, which employs text in a way that’s much more ambiguous—Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, a lot of people in that era. I also really like Sarah Sze for her abstraction and her ways of working with material. And I’ve always been a big fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is a philosopher, and his discussions of the failure of language and how language isn’t an absolute communication. I consider John Cage a philosopher—I really enjoy a lot of what he does, whether it’s his music or his art.
Although language is a major part in most of your work, you use it to push your art in pretty different directions- for example, collaborative social practice with the Washington Park project, where you employed six homeless men to apply words cut out of carpet tape to sidewalks of the neighborhood. What interests you about using text specifically to raise questions of place and community?
I think text is associated with the everyday—we’re confronted with it as being absolute. We think—this is a fact because it’s written down, or on a sign. We’re constantly being fed information. I get a lot of inspiration from advertisements, or things you see on the street and mindlessly take in, and so I’m interested in obscuring that or redefining certain words or objects. With the Washington Park exercise, where I was able to talk with the people who were helping me, they had their own definitions of the words, associations, but they never isolated the words in that way, and that was interesting to me. They told me that throughout that week the text would change. And so meaning and material and language can all shift. It’s in constant flux, and I’m interested in that.
Magaret Halquist, Washington Park
What reactions did you get from community members for the banner piece?
I talked to everyone from the industrial design faculty to random people on the street about their reactions. Overall people on the streets were curious more than anything. I was there during the five hours of installation, so I was watching—it was very windy, it was this really epic installation, the whole piece was flying one way. People would stop by and take pictures or make comments, and since I was the only one standing there, they would ask me questions—like, ask if it’s on right because the text was backwards. On Facebook, there were a few posts of people being like “I don’t know who did this but this is really cool” and other people being like “why would the school put this up” – some people thought it was the school – and other people were offended by it.
Magaret Halquist, IMPRESSED YET
How do you go about selecting a text and matching it to a particular space or community?
It depends on the project. With the Washington Park project, that was associated with when I spent time in Washington Park and talked to the people there, community members, people on the streets. I took casual surveys and asked them what they associated with home and Washington Park and what was important to them, and I filtered through and found these words that were most prevalent and used those. For other pieces, I appropriate language—sometimes I’ll just be reading, and there will be a random line that sticks out to me, and I’ll change a couple things about it so it makes sense. That displacement of language – and it’s not necessarily present to anyone else that observes it – is important to me. I read a lot, and I like this idea of translation.
What do you mean by translation? How does that factor into how you make work?
I use the word translation a lot, not because it’s literal translation—my work is in English—but because there’s a shift or a new perception of the way you look at something based off its physical surrounding—what it’s made out of, how big it is, all these factors that go into it can completely change what it means, even though it may say the same thing. There’s a lot that can go into it—even spacing, or a lack of a question mark. For example in “IMPRESSED YET”, there was a very specific decision that went into that. It makes it more of a statement than a question.
Speaking of the absent question mark — I’ve also noticed that text is conspicuously absent in some of your other work, such as “To Scale.” How do you see the absence of clear text in that series communicating about the subject matter?
I use photography in a similar way to text. I like using blown up images, or distorted things, not because I manipulated them, but because you can’t see it, but putting them in these settings where they’re abstracted, they don’t mean anything. That’s what the “To Scale” project is, there would randomly be a section of black pages or text and that would be it. Or maybe there would be a part of a railing or an ‘N’ next to a section of a tree, so there would be interesting moments but it takes a lot of patience to get to them. It’s not instantly gratifying. I want to continue that series in different locations—I’m going to take some photos here. The books are all named after their latitude and longitude, so it’s nice to have it spread out.
Margaret Halquist, To Scale
For that piece and some others, your work is installed in a gallery space. How are you planning on translating the ideas you’ve been working around into your installation this Summer, in a space that you have more control over (or access to)?
A lot of the gallery work on my website is from last Summer, when I was in New York and had a studio space. At the School of Visual Arts I mostly stayed in my studio space and made work there. But early last year, I started to understand that what was important to me was making this guerrilla art—art in public space that isn’t necessarily easily understandable. I decided that I didn’t want to make precious objects. That is definitely something I want to push while I’m here, ways to work where you can distribute things, or take them apart, or ways to leave something behind, rather than make “art objects.” I’m still figuring it out, balancing my values and place and very challenging space I have to work with.
Magaret’s Installation space in the Commerce Center
Is there a favorite piece you’ve worked on?
I think I’m able to communicate my carpet tape pieces conceptually, even just by explaining it to people. Non-artists are able to grasp what I’m saying, and that’s really gratifying. I plan to continue with the series, and because it’s a place piece—it changes depending on where I’m installing it—I think it will always be interesting to me.
Margaret Halquist, tape
For more of Margaret’s work, go to www.margarethalquist.com.
Photo Credits: Leah Gallant, Margaret Halquist, Andrew Strong