Mike Bouchet interview: From psychedelic Watershed to symbol of the economic crisis (2015)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 25 October 2016
This interview was previously published in Sculpture.org’s member’s only section in January 2016 with the title "From psychedelic Watershed to symbol of the economic crisis: A conversation with Mike Bouchet".

Sometimes installing artworks go according to plan. Sometimes artworks are left open for external factors to performatively determine how events unfold. And sometimes things go absolutely pear-shaped with comical effect—and generate new interpretations, shifting the discussion further. Such was the case in 2009 when Mike Bouchet exhibited his suburban-American, psychedelic Watershed on— and unexpectedly later in— a Venetian lagoon at the 2009 Venice Biennial. In this special one-artwork focus, R. J. Preece interviewed Mike Bouchet looking back at the iconic Watershed.

Born in California, Bouchet graduated from UCLA in 1994 and has exhibited extensively in the United States and Europe. His recent solo exhibitions include those at Peres Projects, Berlin (2014); Marlborough Chelsea gallery, New York (2013); Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Germany (2010); and BAWAG Contemporary, Vienna (2010). He has lived in Frankfurt, Germany since 2004.

R. J. Preece: I understand that you actually developed the idea for Watershed in some way in the middle/late 1990s. What were you thinking at the time?

Mike Bouchet: I had the idea then and with occasional visits to Venice over the years the idea felt better and better to me. I’ve been interested a long time in the psychedelic quality of brand new suburban homes. The realization is such a popular fantasy that they seem almost unreal. And I thought it would be interesting to put it in Venice to doubly intensify the effect by placing it on the water like a modern mirage, and also have the historic and very weathered backdrop as a contrast to intensify the fantastical effect of these houses.

R. J. Preece: At that time, did you know that you’d have future opportunities at Venice?

Mike Bouchet: It was more like a dream. Every time I would go to Venice, I would think of this idea. Some ideas don’t leave you, and it seemed more and more interesting to me.

In a lot of my work, I’m interested in what human beings like around the planet as a species. I think that object, that home, is one of the most basic wishes of people. So this is not only a general interest in my work, but also that it specifically fit in Venice.

R. J. Preece: What led to the decision to install it at the 2009 Venice Biennial?

Mike Bouchet: Daniel Birnbaum, the director of the biennial, approached me. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s very familiar with my work. He has included me in exhibitions over the years. At one point, I brought up the idea for this piece, long before he was invited to be the 2009 director. After he was appointed the director, he contacted me about the possibility of it being realized there.

R. J. Preece: How did you go about getting the house built? What was actually inside the house— any plumbing, floors, or was it a shell?

Mike Bouchet: There was no plumbing or electrical. It was an actual, two-story, three-bedroom house— with rooms— and a two-car garage. It was built at a port facility [along the mainland] directly across the water from Venice. The house design and the materials came from a totally standard house supply company in the US. There are these companies that build all of the elements for a house. They aren’t pre-fabricated. The entire materials are pre-cut and packed into shipping containers and sent for assembly. Everything from the roof shingles, to the front door columns, even all of the screws and nails, are packed in these stacks in containers. Then the carpenters assemble all of these materials.

R. J. Preece: Did you have to bring North American carpenters over, or were there Italians that knew what to do with it?

Mike Bouchet: I had a team of 8 German contractors and they knew what to do with it. There were some other considerations. We put a steel frame at the bottom to hold the flotation pontoon. There were a couple of things we added onto it to make it stable for floating.

R. J. Preece: How did the house get onto a floating pontoon? Was that a big undertaking?

Mike Bouchet: The house-sculpture was built onto a metal standing frame, like a stage, and the fiberglass pontoons were installed underneath it. That part wasn’t difficult. Putting the whole house into the water involved a fair amount of planning. Engineering how you lift an entire house on a crane without it falling apart was a big issue. Big houses like that aren’t meant to be moved around like an object.

R. J. Preece: Were you completely surprised by Watershed sinking? What led to its structural failure?

Mike Bouchet: I was completely surprised that the house sunk. It happened within 60 minutes of it floating in the lagoon there. It was not a planned event. [1] Luckily it did not sink completely underwater.

When it first sank, I was sort of shocked. But there is this thing in my work where I don’t know what is going to happen, ultimately. So, I just deal with it. When I got onshore and looked out at the house, it looked kind of interesting there half sunk underwater and I wanted to leave it like that.

R. J. Preece: With its exhibition, interpretation developed that the work was a potent symbol of the financial crisis led by the subprime mortgage crisis. What did you think about this interpretation then? And looking back, what do you think of the interpretation now?

Mike Bouchet: That the house was seen as some kind of metaphor for the housing crisis reflects on the time it was exhibited. But anyone familiar with the logistics of a project of this scope, they would clearly understand that it would have to have been started long before the subprime mortgage crisis actually was in the media. I do have a history of artworks that coincided with historical events and I look at this as a natural occurrence with art.

I think that it wasn’t a planned event is an important thing to consider. With a lot of my work, I don’t have a clearly rigid idea of how an artwork will ultimately manifest or be interpreted. The doors of chance are open to some extent. And I’m interested in that undertaking of an artwork and the formal opportunities that those works can present. The evolution of a sculpture. And making artworks that can be resolved in many ways and interpreted in many ways. So it leaves the work open to multiple discussions.

But I think time and a larger overview of my practice shifts the reading away from topical or superficial discussions into something that has deeper roots, a central experience— aesthetics, and a conceptual gesture.

R. J. Preece: How was the house removed from the water after it sank, and when exactly?

Mike Bouchet: It was a very large undertaking to salvage the house. It involved a team of divers, 3 floating cranes and a large land crane. The house was literally towed underwater and brought to the edge where this 60-ton crane lifted the whole house out of the water. Then the house was placed onto rented steel pontoons. Then it floated on these steel pontoons for the remainder of the exhibition. So, it was only underwater for 24 hours.

When it was refloated, I had all the materials to repair the house. But I opted to leave the house as is and show [the effects of] what happened. And it really fit into Venice at this point as well, from being in contrast to Venice to being this strange fit to Venice. It was a brand-new suburban home, but it now had this weathered look to it. There was seaweed hanging out of the windows, the garage door had a huge dent in it. One of the columns was bent at a crazy angle. The porch on the back of the house was ripped off as was the siding on the back of the house. And I just left it all like that.

R. J. Preece: You later repurposed the material for the Frankfurt exhibition. What was that process and what were you aiming for with the installation?

Mike Bouchet: I had been planning to have Watershed brought to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and anchoring it there, halfway between the US and Europe, as an installation.

R. J. Preece: Is that possible?

Mike Bouchet: It is. I even had the anchor made for it, with a 4 ½ km-long chain. That was the plan.

The style of the house is actually “Northern Atlantic” and the title of the model is “Sir Walter Scott”. I thought of it as this interesting bridge between the English-speaking lands there. But around this time, I was asked to make an exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. And thinking about it, this led to exhibiting Watershed in a different form.

I liked the idea of trying to return the house back into the stacks of materials that it came in, to revert it back to that, sort of an absurd gesture about trying to do that. I was also very interested in the physical experience of chopping down a house. I assume this is a common fantasy with people. Overall, I did that with 4 other people. We cut the house up with chainsaws, axes and sledgehammers. At the end of this action, the result was transformed into a series of 15 stacked piles. The new form that this new sculpture was in, I titled Sir Walter Scott.

[1] In interview, Mike Bouchet described at length the negotiations that occurred after the house unexpectedly sank. However due to legal concerns, this was omitted from the published interview. Bouchet plans to release a book in the future with plans to include an account of the events that took place after Watershed sank, detailing the entire process, including his interaction with the Italian navy.