An Interview with Liz Magor


Liz Magor, Alberta/Quebec (2013), wool, fabric, thread, dye, plastic, metal and wood, 133.5 x 54 x 8 cm. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver

Canadian artist Liz Magor says her sculptures are conceptualized, created and polished by contradictions. What observers may see as a meandering, “aimless” path to develop a sculpture is, in fact, a very deliberate commitment to respecting its evolution.

Magor explores themes such as shelter and hiding, hoarding and consuming, history and survival. She uses sculpture and photography to delve into both natural and developed worlds, and revels in materials that have lost the lustre of their original use or purpose.

Based in Vancouver, Magor won the 2014 Gershon Iskowitz Prize, which is presented annually to an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to the visual arts in Canada. The award includes a $50,000 cash prize, and a solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario the following year.

Magor is an associate professor at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art + Design. She studied at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the Parsons School of Design in New York City, and at the Vancouver School of Art.

Magor has exhibited internationally at private and public galleries, and is represented in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. 

She recently spoke with NGC Magazine about her creative path, and how her art continues to evolve.


NGC Magazine: You almost seem to delight in the “double take.” Are you trying to get viewers to look, and then look again to verify what it is they are really looking at?

Liz Magor: Generally, I prefer experience over reference. I like situations that proceed without a script or a guidebook, because they enlist my full attention and I feel uniquely employed. However, sculpture doesn’t unfold over time the way other events do; so, if I want to make work that depends on that kind of active engagement, I have to overcome the static nature of the object. I find that conventional conceptual art, where the idea commissions and informs the image, is detrimental to the phenomenological condition that I value. So I work to keep the organizing idea or meaning at bay for as long as possible, by initiating a series of operations that grow into a process. Each step is determined by the one before it, in a meandering fashion. This isn’t aimless wandering — I do have a subject in mind; I’m just wanting to stay fluid in terms of how I will cover it.

But even in the middle of doing something, when I’m ostensibly committed to a process, I find myself trying to control the outcome by comparing this current, unique event to something I’ve seen or known before. The pleasure of discovery is accompanied by the discomfort of uncertainty, and uncertainty in sculpture is costly, literally, in terms of materials and labour. Sometimes I cave and conclude things prematurely, before all possibilities have emerged. I decide what it’s about, and go there directly. I can distinguish those works from others as not fully being what art can be. For me, this is what studio work is — a struggle to block predictions and biases in order to let the unknown come forward. It might be in the way a material behaves, or an unfamiliar association for an image.  To make progress in knowing something means accumulating many “takes” as to what the thing is, or how it operates. Artworks are privileged in that they can entertain contradictions. They can remain inconclusive. I want my work to operate that way — to vacillate, or digress. I want a work to maintain a position where more than one “meaning” can persist as part of its identity.  

NGCM: Where do you get your ideas for your sculptures — what inspires them (e.g., Nature; human waste; architecture)?

LM: I get my ideas from humans: their behaviours, responses, beliefs etc., especially as they pertain to the material world.


Liz Magor, Being This (detail), 2012, 24 boxes: paper boxes, textiles. Installation dimensions variable. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver

NGCM: Some of your work has been referred to as an “ongoing salvage and reconstruction operation.” Can you describe what types of materials you like to work in?

LM: I usually start with a “thing,” which I will define as an object, or a material, or even a process. I want to hold on to this thing for awhile, to observe its specific characteristics. The studio is a quiet place devoted to material engagement, so the “thing” can be very present there. Often I’ll fetch something from the realm of “useful” things, which means that I may have had a long association with such a thing without really thinking about it. In the studio I stop using it, and pay attention to qualities which were always there, but which have been obscured by the obvious. I usually avoid “famous” things: things that have been really worked over culturally, like significant artifacts from art history or popular culture.

NGCM: Two themes you frequently explore are clothing and shelter. Could you expand on what draws you to those themes?

LM: Much of what constitutes our lives is historical, on a range from the personal to the institutional. As we proceed, moment by moment, we refer to these histories and mix them into our immediate concerns so we can move along at a reasonable pace. This is fine, but kind of predictable, repetitive, not very thrilling. I notice the things that resist this kind of reference. Often they have an anomalous appearance — shape, colour, scale. Or the means of manufacture is obscure: how was it formed? Or it’s a form that’s reliant on the intelligence of the body. So I’m not really seeking themes — more like categories of experience.

Entering a small space is a physical event that lets me regard my body differently. It could be that the room becomes an outer shell — a carapace — making me, as the thing inside, the soft centre, or the soul or mind of the space. Certainly, my physical appearance is less available to the world when I’m covered by this construction. That might be why cabins are associated with retreat: they simply provide a hiding place. Hiding from the eyes of the world.

Clothing can also be regarded as a form of shelter and a shifter of appearance, but the multitude of signifiers associated with garments makes getting dressed more language-based and talkative. In both cases, the influence of material over my experience as a person is taken seriously. Some materials are potent: food, liquor, cigarettes. Often I’m experimenting with the idea that the material world governs, uses and directs me, rather than the other way around.


Liz Magor, Hudson’s Bay Dou­ble (2011), wool, fab­ric, metal, poly­mer­ized gyp­sum, wood, 163 x 399 x 2.5 cm. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver

NGCM: Even though clothing and shelter are two basic human needs, you rarely have humans in your work — just the sense that people are either about to arrive, or have just been there. Why is that?

LM: You might call these “basic human needs,” but they operate far beyond “basic” and maybe beyond “human.” A “simple” cabin in the woods, today, is not simple. It emerges at an intersection of desire, nature, opportunity, politics, status, technology, etc. It’s an artifact of complex human motivation, employing a range of material and social resources. Human behaviour is mysterious and interesting. But the interface of psychology and material creates a multitude of form. Let novelists imagine the lives of people, and let sculptors imagine the lives of objects.

NGCM: The National Gallery of Canada has 12 of your works in its permanent collection. In some of them — Time and Mrs. Tiber (1976) — for example, you are showing the possessions or the life journey of particular people. Is this a way of paying homage to these people, or to their accomplishments?

LM: No, it’s not about the people. Even in 1976 — when I was very inexperienced in making art and often didn’t know what I was doing — even then, I knew that these jars of preserves were the main event. I recognized their extraordinary persistence and defiance of time. The glass jars, their seals, the vacuum, the acidic fruit, etc., all conspiring to keep the contents able and active. These soft purple plums were almost 30 years old when I found them on the last standing wall of a house that had collapsed decades before.

The title is ironic. The physical existence of the Tibers was well over when I found the jars. Time had dealt with Mrs. Tiber in its usual rough fashion, but was thwarted in how it dealt with the fruit, which was processed in the late 1940s, and outlasted its lifespan by 200x. I was born in 1948 — my brother, three years older than me, died in January 1976 — so when I found the jars I was newly aware of how short human life is, compared to the life of the world. I also saw it as a material analogy. In the little recipe box on the shelf, I put excerpts from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where the doctor explains to Hans that death is simply a case of accelerated oxidization, which subsequently transforms the body. All that grieving over basic entropy. Finding the preserves let me set up a kind of objective contest: would I outlast the fruit? I was sure the fruit would win, but as it turns out the seals have broken and the contents are no longer good for food. Whereas, I am still alive. But that’s another story.


Liz Magor, Time and Mrs. Tiber (1976), wooden shelf with jars of preserves, recipe box, forks, glass tops, rubber sealers, metal lids, cardboard boxes, enamel cup, tin can, 214.6 x 90.5 x 32.4 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver

NGCM: You frequently “play” with contrasts: reality vs. artifice; dreams vs. disillusionment; wealth vs. poverty. Do you do this as a means of drawing attention to social concerns?

LM: No. It’s more a mental trick to remind myself that, when presented with a choice between two opposites, take both, they’re small. Then look for a third and fourth choice, and take those as well.

NGCM: Your work also explores the vast amounts of waste and human detritus that we generate. Do you love it, or do you hate it?

LM: Love it. I mean I don’t think of it as waste, just stuff in process. Step in where you will.

NGCM: How has your work evolved from your earlier work, to the present?

LM: I hope that I have become stronger: more secure and able to let the art proceed, unimpeded by my needs — the need to say something, or influence people, or to be known or well regarded. Art is out there, already in the world. Artists work to clear spaces for it to emerge. It’s unfortunate when they do all that work, only to fill the space with their own obvious, strident selves. I hope I have grown out of that.

NGCM: What is your daily routine? I understand you like to frequent the local Value Village shops.

LM: The East Hastings Value Village is just a slight jog off a direct line between my home and the studio. So I like to start the day there, to see how things are doing after their retail allure has been rubbed off. Some items are better for it; it’s interesting. Fashion has a very strong effect, but it’s a thin coating, very fugitive. When it’s gone, the material beneath is revealed in its own right, and the conditions that formed the attraction are barely remembered. I look for things that have had erratic careers, ups and downs. They are good indicators of how the interpretation of what we see is influenced by context, or by what we’ve been told. If I find something that records this fluctuation, I bring it to the studio for consideration. It may or may not make its way into a work. Some things get started, and then stop. I have shelves for these things and keep them there, in clear view, until they’re ready. Sometimes they get going again, years later.

The studio is organized for physical work: making moulds, casting, remaking or resituating a thing so that its latent properties are apparent. I usually do this work myself. I may only be sure of the first step, and having other people in the studio makes it hard to follow a process honestly. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do: pay attention to suggestions that come from the material as to what has changed in the status of this object.

So I spend the day alone, following a thread. In the evening, I hope for a simple domestic interlude so that I’m in good shape to find the thread again the next morning.

To view works by Liz Magor in the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection, please click here.

About the Author