Charwei Tsai, Multiple Truths, 2016, ink on color photograph, 57 x 57“. From the series “Universe of Possibilities”, 2016.
Charwei Tsai is an artist based in Taipei and Saigon whose works, grounded in impermanence, often use writing as a medium for meditation. In addition to her artmaking, Tsai also publishes the journal Lovely Daze. Here, she speaks about the launch of its tenth issue, her new photography series “Universe of Possibilities,” and an exhibition that shares the same title, which is on view at TKG+ Projects in Taipei through November 20, 2016.
“UNIVERSE OF POSSIBILITIES” contemplates the immense capability of one’s mind to transform perceptions of an accepted reality. These planetlike images are in actuality close-ups of small shells that are discarded in mass quantities by commercial fishing boats along the coast of central Vietnam.
I find it fascinating how, when observed closely, the little shells look like striking images of all the components in our natural environment. Some of the growth patterns reveal earthy textures found in mountains or marble, while others contain water elements like waves or body tissues; some reflect lusters present in metal, or display airiness like clouds or fog, or appear like black smoke as if burned by fire. Each image is a world in itself and is framed in a circle to symbolize that world. On the photographs I wrote simple phrases such as “unforeseen freedom,” “gentle forgiveness,” and “altruistic motivations” as reflections upon the specific imagery.
This observation on reality and mind expands to an understanding of the cycle of life and death. In the same exhibition, the video Bardo takes you on a guided journey of consciousness from the moment of your death to rebirth. Tibetans believe that it is possible to guide your consciousness, even after death, to see reality as it is and abandon all illusions carried on from life. This new work is based on the Bardo Thodol (popularly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and was made in collaboration with the Tibetan filmmaker Tsering Tashi Gyalthang. The video was originally conceived for the waiting rooms of the Mortuary Station at this year’s Sydney Biennale. It was projected on the floor where coffins used to be placed. When the station was active, the rooms were used for keeping coffins while they waited for the train to go to the cemetery. At TKG+, we used ashes collected from temples as the surface for projection.
I also recently launched Travelers & Magicians, the tenth issue of Lovely Daze, a project I began while living in New York and working at Printed Matter. The title comes from a Bhutanese film. I often think of artists as travelers and magicians in a metaphoric sense: We are constantly seeking to explore beyond the limitations of our ordinary mind. The works I selected for this issue look at topics such as displacement, inequality, and environmental devastation. I see both my art and the journal as part of a lifelong process to understand the reality of interdependence. This understanding will eventually feed a deeper concern for the welfare of others, and thus will evoke a more meaningful and relevant creative practice.
A sequel to her acclaimed 2011 video Les Goddesses, Moyra Davey’s new video Hemlock Forest, 2016, weaves together references to Mary Wollstonecraft, Chantal Akerman, and Karl Ove Knausgaard along with her own family stories. The forty-two-minute work will be featured in La Biennale de Montréal on October 18, 2016, and it will be on view there through January 15, 2017. The work will also be shown in Davey’s solo exhibition at the Bergen Kunsthall in Norway, which runs from October 28, 2016 through January 8, 2017. Here, the New York–based artist discusses the origins of the piece.
BERGEN KUNSTHALL asked me to make a new work on the occasion of a big show I’m doing there, in their very beautiful space, and then Montreal came on board as a coproducer. I decided to make a video, but without knowing what it would be about. The one I’d done before that, Notes on Blue, was also a commission, but in that case the Walker Art Center had handed me an assignment to make a piece in response to Derek Jarman’s work. It’s a gift to be asked to respond to something like that. In the case of Bergen it all had to come from me.
I had made Les Goddesses, which taps into the biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft and her progeny. She’d traveled to Scandinavia, so I reread the letters she wrote to her lover Gilbert Imlay on that trip. I’d also been reading Karl Ove Knausgaard and loved the idea of having him figure, albeit in an understated way, in the video, since it was going to show in Norway. I was struck by the image of the forest in both his and Wollstonecraft’s writings, of the forest as a kind of restorative, nurturing, protective space. I also wanted something to represent the social, since Wollstonecraft was an activist, very concerned with social justice and rights for women. The idea of the subway came to me, and specifically a scene in the NYC subway that was part of Chantal Akerman’s 1977 film News from Home, an incredible shot by Babette Mangolte that’s always fascinated me. I started with those two paradigmatic images, the one of the forest, of nature, and the image of the subway car, a very urban, social kind of context.
So right from the beginning I had decided I was going to re-create the subway shot from Akerman’s News from Home. As I mention in the video, I did that and the next day I read in the paper that Akerman committed suicide the day before. That sent me on this whole jag of delving into Akerman, who’d been a big influence on me when I was a graduate student in San Diego. Her death led me to watch and rewatch her early films and to find some incredible interviews online, which changed the direction of Hemlock Forest and made it as much about Akerman as anything else I’d been thinking about up to that point.
Excerpt from Moyra Davey’s interview for 500 Words.
My son became part of the film: his leaving for college, and my ambivalence around writing or talking about that. The idea of the empty nest is such a cliché, but at the same time the feelings are very real. I was also thinking about my sister Jane losing her youngest daughter to an overdose, and those (hugely) different registers of loss. I was reconsidering Les Goddesses, and thinking that the picture I’d constructed of my family in it was too rosy, wondering if I should try and tell the story differently. I was preoccupied by the idea of truth and the highly subjective nature of my narrations. I liked the title Hemlock Forest because it suggested two things, the forest as a beautiful refuge, but also hemlock as a poison. In the film there’s a lot about opiates and alcoholism, poisons that we humans gravitate toward.
I read a lot and from many different sources. Unfortunately I waste too much time on the New York Times, but when I come across something that interests me I note it down. I start with these notes, and then as I’m compiling a text, if I find connections I pull them together. For a video such as this, I write everything beforehand, mostly in fragments. Once I start filming, some things might be dropped because I realize they work on the page but not for the camera. Shooting a scene might give me an idea for another scene, in which case I go back to the writing and rework it. One of the things I do more and more in my videos is to reveal the process of making them, the process of thinking and writing. They’re fairly transparent, in that they disclose how I came to tell the story.
In Notes on Blue, I talk about confession, quoting Borges especially. I’ve always had an urge to tell stories that are personal and intimate and I thought it would be a solution to link these personal anecdotes to narratives from literature and history, like the Wollstonecraft-Shelley biographies. I thought if I could make these connections across time—not just speak of my inner world and personal memories, but link them to other histories, especially literary ones—it would give the “confessional” a visibility that can be hard to secure with this type of material. Surprisingly, or likely not, viewers often tell me they crave the autobiographical over the historical. I like to invoke Fassbinder in this regard, who said, and I paraphrase: The more honestly you put yourself into the story, the greater will be its reach.
Elana Mann is a Los Angeles–based artist whose interdisciplinary performance, sculpture, video work, and collaborative organizing practice address the radical political potential and material aesthetics of listening and speaking. With Robby Herbst, Mann recently organized “Chats About Change,” a series of grassroots conversations with artists involved in creative social change. Here she discusses her public mural Talk Through the Hand, which is on view at Baik Art, in the La Cienega Boulevard art corridor, through December 16, 2016, and her solo exhibition, “The Assonant Armory,” which is at Commonwealth & Council through November 5, 2016.
IN 2014, I started working on a series of sculptures that originated as listening devices but also function as speaking devices. I began work on hands-up-don’t-shoot-horn during the protests in Ferguson. I went to school in Saint Louis to study sculpture as an undergrad and lived maybe ten minutes from Ferguson, so the Black Lives Matter protests there were really resonant to me. The sculpture is a cast hand that covers up your mouth, but the palm of the hand has a hole that you can speak into and the arm extends into the bell of a trumpet, so it actually works like a megaphone. I was thinking about the forces of society trying to quiet the voices of people resisting state oppression and white supremacy, and those voices of resistance still being so strong regardless.
While working on this piece, I saw a performance by LA artist Derrick Maddox in which he recounted his own experience of police brutality. I approached him and we did a photo shoot together of him interacting with the sculpture. The mural Talk Through the Hand at Baik Art came out of that. While working on it, I also began talking to Black Lives Matter Los Angeles organizer Shamell Bell about allyship. What does being an ally mean to specific movements and causes? Creating these kinds of dialogues is another way for me to engage and support the larger project of racial justice.
Hands-up-don’t-shoot-horn is in my show at Commonwealth & Council, as is an earlier sculpture that also covers the mouth and has a trumpet shape. I made ten of each sculpture, because for me as a Jew, the number ten is very symbolic: You need ten individuals to actually make a community. There is also a singular The Donald Trum(pet), a megaphone with the golden cast of an anus plugging the speaking end, effectively muting it. Anybody can use and experiment with these sculptures. Some have straps so they are easily transportable. I am excited about starting to bring these sculptures to protests or to different sites and employing them on the streets.
The horn is actually one of the first sculptures I’ve made that’s about speaking rather than listening. Since 2010, I had been making work focused on listening as an inherently political act. When you are listening, the sounds of another body are literally penetrating your body. You can shut your eyes, but you can’t shut your ears to other people’s voices, both physically and metaphorically. And if you truly listen to somebody else you can’t remain the same. I interviewed an Iraq War veteran about the sounds of war and did a series of listening pieces inspired by Pauline Oliveros in tandem with Occupy. At Occupy LA, the musician Juliana Snapper and I organized a listening parade and workshops, and we performed Oliveros’s scores as well as others we wrote specifically for that context. We formed an ensemble, the People’s Microphony Camerata, to play with the people’s mic as a political and aesthetic instrument, and we published a songbook of political music scores written by experimental composers and poets. All of this work explored ideas around the radical potential of listening in order to change society. I’ve come to think about listening in terms of a tuning knob. Not every voice needs to be listened to at the same volume. You have to check your own impulse to tune in, or out, too. When am I dialing down the volume when I shouldn’t be? When do I need to dial up the volume because this person is saying something I really need to consider?
View of “Carmen Herrera,” 2016–17.
Carmen Herrera is a Cuban-American painter who has been based in New York since 1954. Over the past seven decades, her practice has evolved in tandem with, but often separate from, the dominant aesthetic trends of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from post-Cubist abstraction to Minimalism. Herrera’s career is now being celebrated with a survey exhibition, focusing on her work from the years 1948 to 1978, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition is on view through January 2, 2017.
SOMETIMES ways of working from fifty or sixty years ago return in my work. This is why I continue to make black-and-white paintings, for example, and in fact I was trained to paint that way—directly on raw canvas. Not only in Havana, but especially in France. While I was there I showed with the Salon des Réalitiés Nouvelles, which was very important to me. Materials were so scarce there after World War II that I was forced to use horse blankets as canvases. I learned to use bare material as a finished product. Even though that was hard, thanks to a German company we were able to use acrylics very early on. I was attracted to acrylic paint for the same reason I use it today: because it dries quickly, you don’t have to wait. In twenty-four hours you could paint over it.
When I came to New York I tried going to the Cedar Tavern, but they were always drunk there, and I can’t stand drunkards! I like to drink but I don’t get drunk. However, I met many of the older generation of Abstract Expressionists, like Barnett Newman, who had gone to school with my husband, Jesse Loewenthal. We used to have lunch every Sunday. I knew Ad Reinhardt and others too, but it was hard because they didn’t like the work of women. See, women are just like men. But in those days, no, it wasn’t like that. Me, I like all kinds of artists, even figurative ones. Georgia O’Keefe, Rufino Tamayo, and Stuart Davis are among my favorites. I especially like Zubaran, whose work I saw in monasteries in Spain. Not a brushstroke too much, not a composition too busy. I have always tried to stay away from looking too much at other artists, though. If anyone gives me a catalogue on Picasso I give it away immediately, otherwise I will start painting like him! I have also always loved architecture, which I studied before painting. As a student I liked most the work of Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx. But all modern architecture was interesting to me. I loved spaces, shapes, and lines.
I have always sketched and worked from sketches. As I was getting older I started working by cutting up my sketches to make plans for my paintings, since I cannot work things out on canvas anymore. I have to be able to tell Manuel, my assistant, what to paint. Late in his life Matisse had a nun to help him with his cutouts, and I have Manuel. I show him my final collaged sketch. I select the colors, then he gets going while I watch—we do it together. I am lucky. At this point he’s doing all the things I can’t do and he’s very precise. No more and no less; he doesn’t get creative on me.
The main thing has always been to take things out and refine. I like things very simple. I never saw a straight line I did not like! My visual language is based on the idea of contrasts and on the juxtaposition of shapes. As for color, my feelings depend on the color. Colors are really intuitive. There is no formula. I like to juxtapose shapes and colors until they tell me to stop. Then I know I have a painting.
A few things that I had the idea for in the 1960s, which I am finally able to do now: sculptures and relief paintings. I only did a few back then, since my carpenter died and he was very good. Now I am working with Donald Judd’s fabricator, Peter Ballantine, to realize drawings I made back then. With the reliefs, it’s the space between the top and bottom parts that’s important. I light them so that a shadow is cast and there is some mystery. One I am having made now is an homage to my brother. It’s two pieces covered by a third. I think of it as being like hands in prayer.
My recent show at Lisson in New York was my first chance to see my work in a very large space. It surprised me how the pieces seemed to grow in size in there. It was such a shock that at first I felt that I preferred an intimate space for my work, like I have here in my studio. But then I returned and I grew to like that show very much. I am excited to now be showing at the Whitney. I used to go there when it was on Eighth Street, and then it went uptown and I didn’t go. Now it’s back downtown and I’m there!
View Herrera’s portfolio for the October 2016 issue of Artforum here.
Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy teaches at Princeton University and is the founder of the Dublin-based Crash Ensemble. Here, he speaks about his latest opera, The Hunger, which was commissioned by Alarm Will Sound and coproduced by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It is based on Asenath Nicholson’s first-person account of the Great Famine and features Irish folksinger Iarla Ó Lionáird and soprano Katherine Manley, whose singing is interspersed with video interviews with Noam Chomsky and Paul Krugman, among others. The Hunger will be performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 30 and October 1, 2016.
I HAD WANTED to do something on the Irish Famine in the nineteenth century for a long time. There were actually many Irish famines, but this one is the famous one because it was so catastrophic. Out of a population of eight million, at least a million died, at least a million emigrated, and over the next fifty years, millions more emigrated. I’d been working with a Sean-nós singer named Iarla Ó Lionáird. (Sean-nós means “old style,” and it’s a type of unaccompanied vocal singing in Ireland.) I’d done a piece with him, Grá Agus Bás, for which I made analyses of his singing and noticed that I could do overtone versions of it. It was a meeting point of sorts, as I was doing more with overtones and then realized that this old tradition held a lot of possibility. It became a very fertile area for me, so I wanted to write more for him.
The Hunger had a rather complicated genesis but ultimately became a duet between two people. One is an outsider: an unusual American woman named Asenath Nicholson, who was a vegetarian and involved in the temperance movement. She traveled around Ireland and documented what was going on. Katherine Manley, an amazing English soprano whom I discovered while writing my last opera, sings Nicholson. The other voice is of the insider, a person of the people who suffered, the Gaelic-speaking majority—Ó Lionáird, whose voice I knew. Then there are video interviews with Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman, Megan Vaughan, Branko Milanovic, and Maureen Murphy, which cut in and out of the opera, so they become like singers. It starts coming at you quite fast and thick after a while. We asked them questions like: Is a famine an agricultural phenomenon, is it a political or economic phenomenon? When the famine happened in Ireland it was during a period of the greatest inequality that’s been measured to this day—and we seem to be approaching similar levels of inequality now.
The great thing about doing different versions of this piece over the years was that I got Alarm Will Sound used to my musical language. I make a lot of use of overtone-derived material. I had been doing that gently over the years, on natural harmonics, but I became braver and braver about what I wanted to accomplish acoustically. So it was helpful to hear what the ensemble could do each time. Each time I went back and went further in my writing.
There’s no doubt that I am strongly influenced by the Minimalism of the 1970s and later that came out of New York, like Steve Reich, early Philip Glass, David Lang, and Michael Gordon. They had a huge impact on my rhythmic language and on my sense of how harmonic motion works. Charlemagne Palestine and James Tenney also influenced me, for their single-minded, distinctively American, maverick quality. I think that in terms of rhythmic quality, my music is more volatile, though—it could shift or lunge into something else in a way that is less predictable than for the standard-bearers of Minimalism and post-Minimalism. I was taken with spectralist composer Gérard Grisey’s music as well. I loved his piece Modulations. It was like a window opening up into a whole new world for the ways the timbre and harmony fused, and because of his use of the overtone-derived material, rather than it sounding like funny microtonal music. Luminosity of sound is something I am obsessed with.
As for the traditional Irish singing, my first encounter with Sean-nós was through my mother’s family, which was incredibly sociable and had all-night parties with singing. Some of them were fine singers, but there were also versions that were even more out of tune than the standard ones. Somehow those resonated with me in particular. There was an attraction toward not just perfection of overtones but also the imperfection, the buzzing quality. Sean-nós opened up vocal music for me, almost like an emotional catalyst: I became aware of possibilities because of the spectral qualities of this tradition. So I came at spectralism from a personal, experiential perspective.
Larry Poons, Tantrum 2, 1979, acrylic on canvas, 5' 5“ x 13' 5”.
Art historian, filmmaker, and curator Barbara Rose is a force of nature with a penchant for the rarified fine arts. Her latest undertaking, “Painting After Postmodernism: Belgium – USA,” features sixteen painters—half of them Americans, half Belgians. An exhibition that encourages exchange, the show asserts a need for a new discussion surrounding the condition of contemporary painting, as Rose discusses here. “Painting After Postmodernism” is on view in the historic Vanderborght building and Cinéma Galeries in Brussels through November 13, 2016.
THE ONLY THING anybody knows about me is that I wrote that article with the title I didn’t give it, which was “ABC Art,” and then everybody insisted that I invented Minimal art. Well, that is seriously wrong. I don’t invent art movements. I just notice coincidences, and those coincidences began to make sense to me as a worldview, which the Germans call weltanschauung. I once brought up the idea of a worldview to some young people and they did not understand what I was talking about. That is troubling to me. I think the artists in this show—who range from age thirty-eight to ninety—have a similar worldview, which is that we live in an extremely unstable and changing time, and that the problem of life, which can be expressed in painting, is a search for equilibrium in this fluctuating landscape.
The artists in the show are expressing a common worldview and it is strangely related to Cezanne. Matisse said that Cezanne was “the father of us all,” and he really was. He’s the real founding father of modern art. He had a different worldview than even his contemporaries, the post-Impressionists. There’s nothing in a Cezanne painting that’s standing still or stable. It’s all in a state of being resolved. Cezanne worked on his paintings for a long time, and all these artists do too. They’ll go back to them, change them, revise them, and rethink them—they are critical of their own work. And they work very slowly. They try to get all of the elements into equilibrium despite constant shifting. They take accident and chance and structure it in some kind of meaningful way so that we can deal with it and the composition doesn’t fall apart. And that’s what we have to do now. Every day you wake up and find out new horrible things have happened, and the question is: How do you regain a sense of equilibrium and stability?
The building where the show is installed is a miracle of modern architecture. The Vanderborght was originally a department store, designed in 1932—around the same time as the original Museum of Modern Art, which opened in 1929. It was the beginning of the International Style in architecture, so it’s actually a historic monument. It’s constructed around this glass atrium so that you can have all of the pleasure of say, the Guggenheim, because you can look across the building. I installed it in such a way that there would be a dialogue between the Belgian artists and the Americans. And in fact they started to write to each other, which makes me happy, and I write to them and they write to me—I have correspondence with all these people now. Another weird common denominator: They’re all incredibly interested in music. Jan Vanriet, who is a poet as well—he’s more interested in classical music, but most of the others are interested in American country western music. Larry Poons is really fantastic; he can sing and play any kind of country western tune. Paul Manes, who’s from Texas, plays a mean guitar. Poons and Bart Vandevijvere are also really interested in Morton Feldman. Bart plays Feldman all the time when he paints, and Morty was actually a friend of Larry Poons, so there are these kind of strange interactions.
All of these artists have no social persona. None. They’re real artists—they stay in their studios and they talk to themselves and listen to music. Or they read and think. None of them make sketches for their paintings. There’s no strategy, no plan: The image emerges out of the process, in all cases. For me, that’s really important. You don’t know where the road is taking you. A lot of the processes they use—again, this was something I found by observation—are Surrealist processes. Not Surrealist imagery, but the Surrealist processes that cause an image to emerge and coalesce. If you look at some of Ed Moses’s paintings, they look like Rorschach tests. The viewer interprets, but the painter is evoking the image in the sense that Pollock did. The same is true of a lot of the other painters in the show as well.