In Washington, D.C., Towering Candles Shine as a Beacon of Hope in Dark Times
Artist Sterling Ruby reflects on the recent installation of his sculpture Double Candle at the Hirshhorn
When the sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden finally reopened last month in Washington D.C. after being closed off to visitors for the past 20 weeks due to the worldwide pandemic, the occasion was marked by a beacon of light.
The 24-foot tall tapers of Sterling Ruby’s bronze sculpture Double Candle was one of a pair of monumental sculptures installed in the interim to be part of a slightly redesigned and reshuffled garden. For the 48-year-old artist, it was the latest in a wide-ranging career in art that has covered a number of disciplines, from recreating a Supermax prison at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008 to soft work that incorporated the American flag. An earlier version of Double Candle, covered in American flags, appeared as part of a Ruby retrospective at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art earlier this year.
Born on an American Air Force Base in Bitburg, Germany, Ruby was raised in rural Pennsylvania and informed by the punk rock shows he’d drove down to Washington D.C. to see several times a week in high school. He worked in construction before entering art school at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he became Mike Kelley’s teaching assistant.
His king-size Double Candle, reflected in a small pool installed before it, joins Huma Bhabha’s 13-foot-tall We Come in Peace as the newest pieces in the reopened sculpture garden. From his studio in Vernon, California, south of Los Angeles, Ruby recently answered a series of questions via email about the artwork and his upcoming projects.
What is the origin of Double Candle? How did it come about?
The candles have evolved over many years. I’ve always been drawn to their simplicity as objects and wide-ranging iconographic meaning. They are experienced intimately on a personal scale, yet also as religious and memorial symbols. The sculpture includes two candles as a nod towards their duality and fluidity of significance.
What was the process? Was it originally created as a soft sculpture and then cast in bronze?
It was a soft sculpture that was then cast in bronze using a traditional lost-wax technique. The challenge of this is pulling a platinum silicone mold off of a non-rigid form that also has a nappy and fibrous surface texture (from the polyfleece). It took a lot of experimentation to stiffen and stabilize the surface, yet still maintain the texture of the fabric. Chasing the welds of the bronze panels proved to be a greater challenge, as the texture is equally difficult to replicate during that process. The only remnants of the fabrication process are a single, straight and unfinished weld down the sides of each candle, where the original fabric seams were. Here the stitches of the weld symbolize the stitching of the fabric from the original soft sculpture.
Partly because of its patina, it has a solemnity to it, especially compared to the Double Candle covered with flags at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston earlier this year. Was that your intent?
I wanted it to be solemn and dark, located in the lineage of bronze sculptures throughout art history. At the same time, the surface needed to convey nuances of fabric, the original material from which it was cast. The patina picks up the depth and texture of the textile, its folds and seams. There is a gravity to the weight and color, it will turn greener with time and hopefully have a gradient that changes from the flame down to the bottom of the candle.
Are there other Double Candle works around, or are there others coming?
It is an edition of three, and we are working on where the next one will be installed right now.
What does it mean for this one to be on the National Mall? The tapers seemed to echo the Washington Monument when they were installed.
I am beyond honored. I spent so much time in Washington D.C. as a teenager, the National Mall always seemed so grand and bold. The Washington Monument and its surroundings were significant in my education and a part of field trips during middle and high school. It was the first monument that I truly understood. Much later when I considered myself an artist, monuments of all kinds became a part of my practice, from civic to memorial markers, to historical and archaeological ones. My work has often dealt with what these objects and sculptures reveal as a public placement. Especially now as monuments are reconsidered throughout the United States due to their historical burden, we see what kind of reaction these sculptures can incite, the positive or the negative that they may contain. The Washington Monument was the first for me. Even though I didn’t consider that Double Candle would wind up here, I think it was probably a formal and conceptual association.
Washington is a place where flickering candles in public spaces are often associated with the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame at Arlington Cemetery. But I imagine you created this before you knew it would end up in D.C.?
I did, but again, it’s hard not to consider the impact of early exposure to something like JFK’s Eternal Flame. Years ago, and prior to completing this work, I also researched the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which was an inspiration for Jacqueline Kennedy, from what I understand.
Some have compared the candles to the Twin Towers of New York. Was that an intent, consciously or subconsciously?
It was a conscious intent, without a doubt. In my mind, the doubling acts more as a means of expressing the breadth of connotations held by the candles, their ability to shift between so many contexts and emotions while retaining the same form. They are both identifiable and abstract, they stand for loss as well as love, they celebrate light while motioning towards an expiration. They are dualities standing, vertical contemplation.
What was the draw of D.C. for you as a teenager?
I grew up in a small, rural, predominantly Amish part of Pennsylvania. There was no art or music beyond the traditional crafts of the area, so I formed my relationship to these realms by making trips out to neighboring cities. Washington D.C. was an hour and a half away, and my parents let me go to see bands play there as long as I got to school on time in the morning. This was from the early ’80s onwards, and I was fortunate at such a young age to have been a part of that scene when bands like Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Rites of Spring were playing frequently. The D.C. scene was so influential that all of the hardcore bands from California toured there as well, which was one of the reasons I started looking to eventually wind up on the West Coast. Some of the shows that I went to were at university and high school gymnasiums, some even in churches, but the 9:30 was the best club to go see bands, it was grimy and broke some of the most important acts of the ’80s and ’90s. The knowledge that I could go and see these shows—sometimes two or three times a week—helped keep my sanity intact as I sat in classrooms in pastoral Pennsylvania.
You have encouraged a kind of punk rock crowd participation with some of your past public sculptures, essentially giving the OK for graffiti or defacement. I assume that is not the case here.
The public’s participation, occupation or defacement, always seemed like a way of gaging reactions to monuments in shared spaces. I have work that has been co-opted by teenagers, establishing it as a place to hang out. I installed public sculpture that inevitably became a background for Instagram; I made work that unintentionally became a playground. I love that when a piece is placed in the public, it is no longer under my control. It seems like one of the best ways to receive outside interpretations and makes for a vulnerable position, which I really enjoy. Nevertheless, this will not be the case at the Hirshhorn. It is the intent of the museum and I to keep the Double Candle free from defacement, and let the only change be to the patina over time.
What are you working on now and does it relate to the Double Candle?
Right now, I am mostly trying to navigate what has happened in the past six months. I have four children, so more than anything my wife Melanie and I have been trying to make sure that they understand the current situation, what it means, and where we all go from here. To me, the candles relate to all of these things, and are symbols I continue to revisit.
Your art has morphed over the years and covered a lot of ground. Where does that restless spirit come from?
I am a manic maker and thinker at heart. I am extremely fortunate to be able to be an artist. It seems like the best fit for my personality.
The Hirshhorn Museum's sculpture garden is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily in Washington, D.C. Visitors are required to adhere to guidance measures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Masks must be worn by those over six (with face coverings strongly recommended for those age 2 to 6, the CDC advises). The Hirshhorn Museum itself remains closed.