Born 1973 in Poughkeepsie, New York; lives in New York, New York
Phoebe Washburn recycles discarded industrial materials in large-scale installations that transform exhibition spaces into visually compelling architectural environments. Washburn’s favored materials are cardboard boxes and wood that she scavenges from Dumpsters, sidewalks, and businesses near her Brooklyn studio and Lower Manhattan home. She cuts the material into roughly uniform pieces that she ships to galleries and then assembles into loosely designed constructions, sometimes incorporating items found on-site as well.
For Vacational Trappings and Wildlife Worries (2007), a recent piece shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, she converted a sloping ramp into a walk-through tunnel with walls composed of scraps of wood screwed together in an overlapping, shinglelike patchwork that suggested a rustic shack. Windowlike openings contained fish tanks and a small pond with water plants, alluding to the natural world outside.
Like artists such as Nancy Rubins, Vik Muniz, and Sarah Sze, Washburn composes her pieces with items from the world of manufacturing, and this choice seems to comment on the profusion and waste of consumer culture. But she says her recycling of refuse is not an ecological act: “A lot of my working process involves skimming off of other industries, but my decision to collect and repurpose materials was not born out of trying to make a statement at all.” She explains that her compulsion to accumulate discarded materials to feed her art is motivated by “greed” rather than notions of conservation. Yet her work continues to resonate with ideas about economy and sustainability.
For the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin she created Regulated Fool’s Milk Meadow (2007), a mechanized factory for the production of its own grass sod. Within a crude ovoid wooden structure, a computerized conveyor belt moved eighty-five rectangular planter boxes of grass through watering, drying, and grow light stations, simulating ideal growing conditions. Each week, gardeners transferred mature sod from the factory’s conveyor loop to the sloping roof, where the grass eventually wilted and died. “People read it as a sad gesture about the cycle of life and death, and that surprised me a bit because initially the grass was just an excuse to have a factory,” Washburn explains. “The sculpture is the industry producing its own parts, and the cycle of production and waste is right there in the gallery.” She aspires to make an installation that is a kind of “organism” that consumes its by-products and regenerates.
Though she modestly describes her handmade installations as “clumsy, labored, slow-growing events” and refers to her factories and mini-ecosystems as “antiindustrious” and “irrational,” they have an elegance of form that captivates viewers with their raw beauty, while providing a “green” critique of design and industry. JASON EDWARD KAUFMAN
Phoebe Washburn, It Makes for My Billionaire Status, 2005 (installation view, Kantor/Feuer Gallery, Los Angeles, 2005). Mixed media, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist