The story of Ser Serpas’s improvised and lucid readymades

The sculptor, painter, and performance artist on her site-specific installation at Zurich's LUMA Westbau gallery.

Without a studio and working in a place she’s never been, Ser Serpas has been making most of her pieces from things you would probably throw out. This summer, at Zürich’s LUMA Westbau foundation, Serpas presents You were created to be so young (self harm and exercise). In this display of her ‘hoarded’ objects, the Brooklyn-based artist solicits viewers to witness her version of Zürich through a re-contextualization of its domestic waste. Document spoke with Serpas in New York City about her materials, mindset and the flattened contemporary image. 

Document What was it like living and working on site in Zürich?

Ser Serpas—Zürich was incredible. People kept telling me I came at the right time and met the right people, but lightning must have struck or something. I really fell in love with the city and the people I was able to meet. I wish I could be there now and see those new friends every day. It’s so hard to live in New York, so cliquey and isolating. I could not have asked for a better respite. Even so, Zürich is much more than that. I felt my age for the first time in two years. I’m 22-years-old, but I’m a hermit. It was refreshing to see such an invigorating scene up close that was also kind to a relative stranger. That’s somewhat impossible, here. Everything is a threat. I get it. But I don’t want to live it anymore, especially if there is another option.

Document—How did it feel to work with materials knowing less about where or who they came from for this show? Was there a big difference in the types of things you were finding and collecting and the way you went about doing this?

SerpasIn my fabric practice, I work with energy imparted objects gifted by friends. With the furniture and appliance readymades and combines, it’s more about finding trash in the rough that I can change the value of via the art market—like a magician recycler. In Zürich, the building waste was much newer and better maintained. As far as looking for these components, it was a different approach than usual because it was difficult to find large scale trash on the side of the street. In New York City, I never have an issue. On the first of any month I can make a show’s worth of work with two vans and a crew at my disposal. Finding building waste in Zürich involved employing local knowledge. I had to ask which communities here hoard this specific type of waste and why. Do they like it when someone can take unused portions off their hands? Is it annoying? What’s a decent rate for whatever pieces they don’t just want to get rid of? In that way, working in Zürich was more a social practice than I have been able to manage in the states.

Untitled, 2018, you were created to be so young (self-harm and exercise), Luma Westbau, Zürich, 2018. Courtesy Ser Serpas and Luma Foundation. Photo by Stefan Altenburger.

Document—What is your  process like? Do you establish a concept or experience you want to explore or present before you make a piece, or do you start off with the actual construction of a sculpture and let it guide the process?

Serpas—I perform for myself. My building waste sculpture practice is full improv in the same way my fabric practice is, albeit with different aims. The building waste stuff needs to be sturdier in the tension building layering of objects, while the fabric work can really go anywhere because if it falls over on somebody, it won’t kill them. I need music and caffeine and I’m off.

Document—Some of your pieces for this show utilize the facade outside of the museum. Do you view your work as site specific? How do you view site specificity if a piece of yours was installed somewhere else after its original showing?

Serpas—My work is definitely site specific. I prefer to work in the space at every possible point. I also don’t have a studioweird! The piece is site specific once. It ages in that space then fulfills its duty to said space bearing marks of its engagement forever. The facade pieces at LUMA will always bear the markings of being sun drenched in their current positions even when reinstalled elsewhere.

DocumentDo you see your self-portrait pieces as an overall representation of yourself or representations of experiences and their resulting impact on you?

Serpas—Definitely the latter. My self-portraits are more diary entries than snapshots of myself. I try to push away from bringing my body into the conversation whenever possible. I want people to be impressed by my craft, not by a narrative they feel comfortable superimposing onto me. I’ve overshared in the past. I feel like my art practice is damage control. My sculptures are all portions of a storyfictional characters for the most partand if I’m good at what I do, that story is a bit spooky. They are very much not intended to comment on my experiences.

Installation view, you were created to be so young (self-harm and exercise), Luma Westbau, Zürich, 2018. Courtesy Ser Serpas and Luma Foundation. Photo by Stefan Altenburger.

Document—In part of the title of this show you relate your making process to an exercise. It seems like you have a really direct connection with the physical experience of making your work. Is this something you want to maintain? Can you see yourself working in a different way?

Serpas—I want to maintain my way of producing for as long as I am able. Studio time is really special to me. It’s spiritual, dangerous, and exhilarating. It makes me feel powerful, and only I can do it in that way, at least in my head. I have a lot of confidence in what I can get my body to do. I’m lifting heavy things and moving them around in whatever space I am working. Before I had a production crew, I would quite literally lift said objects from the street, bring them into my studio, and continue interacting with them. I made the LUMA show alone—and could have been crushed had I made the wrong move. If I ever became a designer or draftsman artist, I fear I would lose that confidence.

Document—Part of the title of your show is a quote from the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Can you talk a little about your relationship with the film and why you chose the phrase for the title?

Serpas—I love that movie a lot. For me, it was always about my mommy issues. The title is from a special scene. You find the protagonist encased in ice. He is the last link to humanity, and those who created A.I. They are attempting to reconstruct a flattened image of contemporary humanity. In that vein, I looked at curatorial work done at large institutions dealing in artifacts and tried to poke fun at it through the guise of cosplaying as these “future mecha” and arranging an antiquities show of Zürich via their detritus. 

fear in steady carrying, being seen, the dropped load, 2018, you were created to be so young (self-harm and exercise), Luma Westbau, Zürich, 2018. Courtesy Ser Serpas and Luma Foundation. Photo by Stefan Altenburger.

Document—You have done performance work in the past at MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions, and recently reinvented Allan Kaprow’s Nice Walk with India Salvor Menuez for Hauser & Wirth Gallery on the High Line. How do you navigate performing in contrast to writing a poem or making and then showing a sculpture or a painting?

Serpas—In all these instances I work improvisationally. Every medium gets the same treatment: no planning, no extra labor, just what I’m able to do in the moment. I am a very lazy person at my core.

Document—What are some of the ways that you prep to work this way?

Serpas—I make playlists and drink energy drinks. I get into a rave mindset and imagine myself in the midst of a climax in a music video. In that way, I don’t really have a practice at all, just a mindset I have to get into, which is easy enough.

Document—In the book of poetry published in conjunction with the show there are essays by artist Hannah Black and writer Tess Edmondson. Why did you commission them to write for the book?

Serpas—Hannah and Tess know me very well, and I couldn’t think of a better accompaniment for a book of 40 narcissistic poems than essays on me by friends who like me already.

Document—Has your time working and studying in art institutions changed how you operate as an artist?

Serpas—I’ve worked at both The Whitney and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Those experiences have been invaluable for giving me consistent reality checks on the state of contemporary art production in New York. I didn’t have any “Aha” moments, per se, but the reality checks came in the form of having forthright discussions about various artists careers. That there are right and wrong moves artists can make that have impacts on the market value of their work and reception from critics, etc. That aspect more than anything allowed me to take myself less seriously. The myth of the artist as someone doing things in a bubbleI’d like to forgo it. I’m pretty aware and perceptive, marry me!

Installation view, you were created to be so young (self-harm and exercise), Luma Westbau, Zürich, 2018. Courtesy Ser Serpas and Luma Foundation. Photo by Stefan Altenburger.

Document—Are there specific artists, works, or books, that you might say have influenced or are influencing the way you think about your practice?

Serpas—The last book I reread was Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker. I think my studio practice looks a little like Janey Smith’s train of thought throughout in its round about-ness and chaos.

Document—What does it mean for you now that you have had your first museum show? What are you focusing on next?

Serpas—Hopefully a better quality of life. I’m in the midst of landing a studio, nailing down my painting practice, and becoming a regular at a bar. And, oh, going out more. Zürich reminded me that I need that. I’m so grateful.

Document—What is your relationship to painting and why is it something you feel you have yet to nail down?

Serpas—Painting is probably the one hand to material medium that I’ve yet to build my confidence around. Fabric, found object sculpture, and drawings are so easy and at this point, banal to me. Nothing I’ve presented has taken me more than a half an hour to construct in totality. The oil paintings I’ve made thus far have taken me hours. There’s still something to hack there, growth and all that. That excites me. I try to stick it to myself all the time. Being a confident painter was biggest “fuck you” to myself this time last year when I had just finished my undergraduate program. I felt deranged and didn’t know what was next. Go figure!