Oliver Rosenberg is a multidisciplinary artist, a dedicated nomad, and the scion of a potent artistic legacy -- his grandfather Philippe Halsman was one of the 20th century's premier portraitists. Oliver wore ornate silver and turquoise jewelry at the interview while Indian raga music played on the stereo around us. What follows is a condensation of his interview with SARF's Samuel Barnes.
SARF: What sort of art do you make?
OHR: My art is idea-based: It can take form as a painting or ceramics or a soundbath or a book or a poem or a photograph, and oftentimes I mix things together in a cross disciplinary way. I give myself the freedom to communicate the message in whatever is the most efficient way.
SARF: Tell us about your recent work.
OHR: I've been doing this "channeled calligraphy" for some time. I started doing it on my own body and have more recently done it on others' bodies, as I have been living nomadically for six plus years and sometimes there is no other canvas around. It's a temporary art: I get into the moment with the subject and channel the person’s energies. I had been working with other photographers—I love to collaborate—but it got to the point where I wanted to photograph the result myself. I love the idea of playing with time; I would take these photos with a digital camera and then edit the print, hand tint them such that the end results look as if they could have come from an ethnographic study of a tribe from any period in history. It's weaving together the past and future.
SARF: There’s an interesting tension amongst your media -- on one hand profoundly visceral temporary bodyglyphs yet on the other the ephemeral yet strangely eternal digital photograph. It's an experiment in flux: one is bound to be washed off and the other in its way will last forever.
OHR: There's a whole dialogue between artist and model. I love to take people into nature, to dance through timeless landscapes playing with the idea of returning to the earth, returning to tribal ways. It's a very earnest process; there's no irony. I'm often asked to turn this work into fashion, but I'm not a makeup artist and I have no interest in turning this into a commercial product. The glyphs are also a reaction against clothing, against this urbanized digital world we live in, even though I use a digital camera to capture it. I'm not against technology; I think it's amazing and will in time help to liberate our consciousness.
SARF: What is it that makes your art "sacred?" How do you distinguish between the commercial worlds of fashion and commerce and the work that you do?
OHR: I tend to not like labels -- I would not even call myself a sacred artist because I don't want to be boxed in in any way. Art is made sacred by the moment of creation, and any art can be sacred. It’s when the artist transcends his own personality, his own ego, and allows the sacred moment to take over. Whether you're producing art for the commercial market and selling pieces for hundreds of thousands of dollars or creating art out of incense smoke for a room of ten people, it's about the act. I always try to be in connection with this in my own art-making process. It can happen accidentally, but for me it’s intention-based.
When I do channeled writing on peoples’ bodies, I never know what’s going to happen. That’s kind of the thrill for me: watching this emerge. I never repeat myself. People see this incredibly intricate stuff, and all that I’m doing is picking up on the other person’s energy. The pattern has a certain familiarity from piece to piece, but it manifests differently every time. For me, the calligraphy is simultaneously like geometry, poetry and music. I do these big compositions on scrolls of paper where I download these fourth-dimensional songs, and I call them fourth-dimensional because the music doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion and you can see the whole composition at once. Given to the musicians of the future I imagine that they will be able to read their instrument and how it all interlocks, this cosmic gearwork. I sing it, and others sing it, and it can come out differently: they can meet this language where they are. The scrolls offer an opportunity for every artist — whether they sing, they dance, they play music — to join in the stream and collaborate with it. There’s a sort of flow to it, a mathematical symmetry that emerges where shapes and patterns grow, repeat, transform, evolve, dissolve. The natural patterns of life are embodied within it. It all comes from a place of no-mind. That is what’s sacred about it to me; it’s like a meditation. It’s where time and space stops and you become unfolding creation itself.
SARF: Is there a moment you can recall when the reality of your practice came to you?
OHR: I have this thing I do call Spherism — my take on Cubism, updated for this vibrational age. It’s very labor-intense work. I would do this hugely intensive work, and then I would get far more reactions from this script thing I do that takes no time at all, that’s wholly intuitive. I refused to believe that this could be it; ‘it’s too easy, art has to be difficult.’ But finally I just surrendered the internal struggle. I still am an artist who is evolving and changing. I’ll do a certain form for six months, say, and then return to my previous experimentations. And each new process informs the previous ones, returning to Spherism say. It’s something of a spiral, and everything connects. Sometimes I can show ten different pieces to people and they’ll think ten different artists made them.
I often work on paper, as I have been living mostly out of a bag for the last six years. There’s an intimacy to the paper that I find on my travels, around India say, that can’t be replicated on a canvas one finds at Pearl Paint. The smells, the bumpy bus trips, all of it turns them into objects with their own history, their own resonance.
SARF: What’s your next journey?
OHR: I’ve just returned from Europe where I was super inspired by the arabesque geometry in Turkey, and the architecture of Gaudi in Barcelona. But I’m headed on to California where I have three books that I’m working on. The first is a book of photography compiling my recent work body-calligraphy that I’m calling ‘Sisters,’ which to me is a sacred way to refer to these women who are often not professional models but share in these experiences with me. The second is a book of philosophy, looking at the nature of the creative process and how it relates to the evolution of the self in all mystical and spiritual traditions around the world. I needed to find a space to do my ‘Shiva Cave,’ a place where I could set up my laptop and concretize the knowledge gained on all of my travels. And the third is an esoteric children's coloring book. It’s a collaboration with kids’ sensibilities of marks and colors. The story is the essential part, but the coloring offers a means of participation. Already I’ve seen some of what has been created and it could be hanging in a gallery in Chelsea. And that’s what it comes down to for me: we are all one, and it’s more fun when we are dancing together.
You can find more of Oliver Halsman Rosenberg’s work here:
— Samuel Barnes
Hari Om Tat Sat