Song-Ming Ang’s “Guilty Pleasures” listening party with artists Nadim Abbas and Magdalen Wong at Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, August 18, 2013. Photo: Ken Fung.
Singapore-based artist Heman Chong makes work that often dissolves boundaries between literature, performing arts, and graphic design. Moderation(s), his latest project, is a two-year experimental platform that involves collaborative institutional programming between artists, curators, and writers. It is being held at the Spring Workshop in Hong Kong and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, and it concludes this month at the latter venue with “The Part in the Story Where a Part Becomes a Part of Something Else,” a group show on view from May 22 to August 17, 2014.
MODERATIONS(S) occurs between two very different institutions. Spring Workshop, a very new space, provides artists with a residency program in which to think and reflect on their work; Witte de With, on the other hand, is a twenty-year-old institution that has dedicated itself to making rigorous content-driven exhibitions. Each part of Moderation(s) is designed to use the strengths of each institution and to suggest new ways of engaging between these two models.
The entire program hinges on perceiving artwork as a selection process. It allows the participants to do what they want within a given structure, which is designed around a series of encounters or situations. There is often an open-ended “task.” For example, the participants may be given the task to write a short story in a week or to produce a presentation at a conference. But the content within these tasks is not predetermined; the participants must arrive at that themselves.
It is not important for me that the results of these situations be legible or that they produce a coherent vehicle. I consider the structure of Moderation(s) itself to be the artwork, not what’s happening within it. I do not claim authorship for the project at all; I instead take on the role of a specter. Letting go is part of the work. That is what makes Moderation(s) different from relational aesthetics: The output is not merely an exhibition but a series of situations that involves elements that are not normally dealt with in an exhibition.
The work mostly involves enabling people by finding out what they do best. This comes from my background, when I first started working as an artist in Singapore in 1999. My generation of artists—Matthew Ngui, Chun Kaifeng, Ming Wong, Song-Ming Ang, Michael Lee, Genevieve Chua, and Charles Lim—is a loose network of individuals concerned with looking at each other’s work and discussing what it is we are making. We began projects by acting like what we know curators to be today. We wrote the proposals, spoke to the funders, dealt with the institutions directly. We all performed this two-as-one role simply because there were no professional freelance curators doing it back then. Now, it has become more interesting for me to try and understand the skins that lie between these porous roles, producing ideas in a more fluid manner with less bureaucracy.
Much of art history concerns description; but having said that, a lot of its failings have come from the inability to describe a work using its critical language. Still, I do feel more comfortable talking about Moderation(s) nowadays. I still haven’t found a better way to document it.
Susanne M. Winterling is an artist based in Berlin and Oslo. “Complicity,” her project at Amsterdam’s Kunstverein, gathers works by painter Romaine Brooks, architect and designer Eileen Gray, and the writers Carson McCullers and Annemarie Schwarzenbach and will also encompass film screenings, dialogues, as well as the launch of The Correspondence Book, which comprises newly published correspondence between McCullers and Schwarzenbach. The show is on view from May 21 to July 5, 2014. Here, Winterling discusses the project and her recent work.
THIS EXHIBITION continues on from other projects I began in 2008 around Eileen Gray’s life and influence. For me, she always represented the “other” modernism—a more human approach to design practiced by her and her contemporaries. It’s a part of early-twentieth-century architectural history that’s been largely ignored. Brooks, Gray, McCullers, and Schwarzenbach all brought a body-consciousness to their work that now seems very contemporary. The sensibility of these women was informed by empathy, and that is what makes them seem so fresh.
One of the shortcomings of classical modernism is its neglect of the visceral. The more mundane, bodily aspects of living had to be sacrificed to achieve an idealized cleanness. These women engaged with some of the same design issues as their modernist contemporaries, but came to different conclusions. I think this is largely because their engagement with formal questions was never wholly divorced from their own lives, their consciousness of how they were living. These are some of the ideas that contributed to Eileen Gray, The Jewel and Troubled Water, the installation I made for the 2008 Berlin Biennale. In “Complicity,” I concentrate more on the aesthetic “community” and friendships that existed between Gray and her contemporaries while looking at what has been transformed from the domestic to the public realm. Art history thrives on singularity. I prefer to focus on the relations themselves and the dynamic between these iconic figures. Their connections, rather than their individual personas, become the exhibition’s unifying visual, sensual marker.
All of the projects I’ve worked on during the past decade have been at least laterally related. In 2008, I invited girls who worked in a manufacturing/assembly plant to perform a traditional Chinese childhood game as part of my exhibition at the Shenzhen Biennial. This was to be the most important part of the exhibition, but the performance never took place, because it was censored. Clearly, the biennial’s administrative committee recognized the implicit cruelty of this gesture when they forbade it: I was asking fourteen-year-old girls to perform scenes from a childhood they’ve been deprived of. Since then, the misery of Chinese migrant workers has become more internationally visible: Strikes and riots erupted in 2013 in response to the mass suicides of Shenzhen workers manufacturing iPhones under appalling conditions. Yet this hasn’t stopped most of us from using iPhones. Still, my idea for that piece was at primarily architectural, driven by ecological and urban observations. Considering Shenzhen, I was struck by how the new city had been conceived without any provision for games, play, or informal entertainment. There is no public space: just corporate glass cubes, with security guards or military everywhere, even in places where play might be possible. In a cruel vision a la Hunger Games or Snowpiercer, all the teenagers are inside the factory.
I did another project that year in Berlin, a performance called On the displays of light, inside and outside – there might be no victory over the sun, which featured four girls dancing with light projections in Le Corbusier’s 1957 Unité d’Habitation in West Berlin. The house is famous largely for the number of youth suicides committed there. During the 1980s, I think it had the highest number of suicides committed in Germany.
I believe this focus on the entanglement between architecture and communication informs “Complicity,” which is organized around correspondence between Schwarzenbach and McCullers—a fragmented but tender exchange of letters written after their unhappy romance. There’s also an amazing, early self-portrait by the Brooks. The room is arranged so that viewers can immerse themselves in the art works, letters, drawings, furniture and thoughts of these artists, and experience the connections between them. It’s a kind of asylum for friendship and solidarity.
Mark Handforth, Painted Phone, 2013, aluminum, bronze and stainless steel, 25 x 4 x 2'.
Miami-based artist Mark Handforth is widely recognized for his large-scale public sculptures. For his latest project, he has created four new works on Governors Island in New York. Along with artist Susan Phillipsz, he is an inaugural artist of the island’s new public art program, which is curated by Tom Eccles. Handforth’s project, “Sidewalk Island,” opens to the public on May 24, 2014, and will be on view until 2016.
GOVERNORS ISLAND IS a strange, unlikely, and wild chunk of nature floating in Upper New York Bay; it is both mannered and totally abandoned. Parts of the island have beautiful rolling hills and empty Georgian mansions; elsewhere there are burned and curdled buildings that endure like a dystopian memory. And still other parts of the island have been completely relandscaped as a defiantly contemporary vision of a park. It’s also usually and weirdly full of activity—wild concerts, retro costume balls, art of every description, performances, hot dog trucks, bicycles, and on and on. I thought a lot about how an artwork could hold its own there but also simultaneously give itself over to all of these varied experiences. I made pieces that want to be surrounded by people—completed by crowds.
“Sidewalk Island” consists of four sculptures situated in close enough proximity to form a conversation among themselves but far enough apart to be a kind of journey, a walk, a surprise. Yankee Hanger is a massive languid hanger that droops into noodley linear form—it is a line in space that frames the people in and around it into a kind of landscape. There is a floating phone caught in a totemic lopped-off bronze tree, Painted Phone, that echoes the wonderful arm of Lady Liberty in the (surprisingly) close distance. Also a small cast iron hydrant, Weeping Hydrant, collapsing into a liquid pool of itself, and Saffron Star, a faceted and disjointed star that balances on a grassy knoll, projecting itself across the water toward Brooklyn. These pieces have some elements of abstract formality consuming meaning and an absurdist nature that verges on melancholia. This basic conversation about the strange poles of living seemed appropriate for a park, for a place where everyone’s dramas are acted out.
There’s always a kind of dual responsibility when creating a public work: You need to be open to and respectful of the sensibilities, the mood, the basic realities of the place, and, simultaneously, you have to approach the work with the same rigor with which you would approach a gallery or museum show, making sure not to compromise the integrity of the work or somehow dumb it down. It’s a strange thing to be among all these hot dog carts and still remain clearly your best self. It doesn’t always work out—hence the rather odd reputation that public art has. I’m nevertheless a true believer in the need for a visceral public art dialogue, and I’ve tried to make that a core component of my work.
In Miami, for example, I created Electric Tree, which is essentially a fluorescent light drawing that delineates the limbs of an enormous and auspicious banyan tree canopy in a Haitian neighborhood. The work effectively takes the tree’s highly social pool of daytime shade and mirrors it with an equally social and soulful pool of light at night. In Paris, I crumpled a stadium lamppost at the Porte de Bagnolet (the posts are ubiquitous on the nearby Peripherique), twisting it into a star form for Twisted Lamppost Star. Its kinetic movement feeds directly off the frenzied rush of a crazily busy intersection, of which the sculpture forms the axis. These movements create a different formal reading from each canyon-like street approach. The piece is as much about this daily process of passing through as it is about holding place: It feeds off that urgency but also holds it at bay, a twisted city dancer. Often, public spaces—especially one like Governors Island—are a polar opposite to the protective white cube we so easily occupy, and so I decided to feed off that rather than be devoured by it. I wanted to speak to that messy freedom but not cramp it.
Lucy R. Lippard’s latest book, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, pinpoints vexing environmental issues, such as gravel pits and fracking, and contextualizes them within a spectrum of larger problems, while also considering histories of the West, photography, adobe buildings, ruins, Land art, and more. Here she speaks about the origins and inspirations of her book—which was published recently by the New Pressand she reflects on the leftover questions that arose from the project.
THIS BOOK began when the Tate Modern asked me to speak at a symposium on cities and I said I didn’t know from cities any more. They said, Well, talk about whatever you like. An exchange about gravel pits that I’d just had with a local developer from my community had popped into my mind, so I said, OK, gravel pits. There was a silence…
But the talk was fairly well received, and afterward I realized there was much more there, connecting urban and rural. I published a brief piece on a local gravel pit in New Observations and after a while just forgot about it. Then I resurrected the idea for a related talk years later in San Antonio; Chris Taylor, from Land Arts of the American West, was there and said it would make a good book, which had been occurring to me too. One thing leads to another!
In terms of influences, J. B. Jackson is a longtime inspiration, but I didn’t go back to him much in this book, which is really just a rant about what’s happening right now in the West. The influences were mainly local activism: articles in High Country News and my local paper, and our battle in 2008 to keep oil drilling and fracking for natural gas out of the Galisteo Basin. Another influence was artists’ books. I wanted to do a small book for a change—an extended essay with a lot of images, a parallel visual/verbal narrative. (I notice some readers are getting that and some aren’t.) The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s take on the world—and its work on gravel pits—is an ongoing influence. Native American art in the Southwest is another. A lot of younger native artists are activists around land use issues, for obvious reasons, given the way Indian lands have been trashed. They helped me tie to the present to the past.
One problem is that as I was writing, and even since I saw the last proofs in December, the “facts” have been constantly changing. Corporations bought out other corporations. Lawsuits were initiated or settled or not. Statistics changed. This book should not be read as a factual textbook. I just hope it raises awareness of what’s going down, and encourages readers and artists to follow some of these stories on the Internet, or wherever, and act on their own. For instance, since I stopped writing, the dangers of fracking—earthquakes, methane gas release, etc.—have become more widely known, and they are direr than we thought before. The mainstream media is finally, grudgingly, acknowledging them to some extent. And climate change is obviously the big one.
Right now the most pressing local issue—which came up after the book was out of my hands—is a plan to take crude oil in tanker trucks and offload them into railroad cars at Lamy, another tiny village that is five miles from Galisteo, with a dead-end road. If there were a spill, no one would be able to get in or out. And nationally, spills and pipeline leaks have wildly increased since I stopped writing. Everything is getting worse.
Obviously everything isn’t local and I’m not recommending blinders. But the message of my 1997 book The Lure of the Local was that everybody, artists included, should take responsibility for wherever they find themselves, as long as they’re living there. Once you know the local you realize how connected it is to global capitalism; its tentacles are everywhere. It’s multinational corporations that are buying up local resources—just as my friend said years ago about gravel pits. CLUI tells us that the aggregate industry may be the largest in the US. And it’s all interrelated—gravel, development, water, tourism, adobe architecture, Land art, rock art, and so on.
After finishing the book, I was left with a million questions—mainly about where the hell we’re headed. I offered very few answers. But one of the obvious questions is the role of art in coming environmental catastrophes. Photographers, and “high” artists using photographic media, obviously have the best access to communicating information about these endless crises. For better or worse, people “believe” photographic imagery more than paintings and sculpture. Activist DIY groups are also doing their part. But it’s difficult to concentrate on the causes, and the causers, because the art world doesn’t like naming names. Hans Haacke is the rare artist who’s more or less gotten away with it. And of course the indomitable Yes Men and their growing cadres. More power to them.
Ben Kinmont, Sshhh, 2002–. Distribution of engravings at Centre National de l'édition et de l'art imprimé, Chatou, France, February 1, 2003.
Since 1988, Ben Kinmont’s work has often unfolded through real-time exchanges—over meals, in conversations, and through gestures. In 1996 he began his publishing project, Antinomian Press, which focuses on ephemera and archival material; he also has an ongoing antiquarian bookselling business, founded in 1998, that specializes in books and manuscripts about domestic economy and food. Here, Kinmont discusses the origins and evolution of Sshhh, which is currently on view in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. On Saturday, May 10, Kinmont will distribute part of this work to participants in the museum. He will also have a solo exhibition at Air de Paris from May 24 to July 8, 2014.
IN 2002, for Documenta 11, I went out onto the streets of Kassel and into strangers’ homes for ten days to ask people what was the most meaningful thing in their lives. I also asked whether that meaningfulness could (and should) be understood as art. Then, we talked about the difference between that meaningfulness and what they typically experience in the museum. Their responses were summarized into a flyer that was then printed on the sidewalk in front of their house and distributed in the neighborhood in which the conversation occurred. The project was called Moveable type, no Documenta.
A few months later, the flyers were again printed (with the same portable equipment and format) and distributed as a group show of ten conversations. At that time, I wondered about the difference between, on the one hand, writing conversations in a domestic setting and reading the text in the participants’ neighborhoods and, on the other hand, doing a similar thing in the context of the museum.
Then, a year later, I was invited to France to do a project with the Centre National de l'édition et de l'art imprimé (CNEAI) in Chatou, France. I proposed a new piece titled Sshhh, which was an invitation to families in Chatou to have a private conversation among themselves as an artwork. When the conversation was finished I asked them to tell me their family name and the date on which the conversation occurred. I also requested that they not tell me anything about the subject of the conversation or what it meant to them. Lastly, I explained that I would be making them an engraving and that they should pick the engraving’s ink color and size.
Once the conversation had occurred and the participants had sent me their information, I printed each engraving in an edition of four: one copy for the family; one for the project archive; one for CNEAI; and one for the Bibliotheque Nationale (which receives one copy of all printed works produced by CNEAI). The engraving is almost entirely blank. At the bottom of each sheet, however, are the name of the family and the date of their conversation in small letters.
The Sshhh engraving is an artwork that can circulate within the art world while referencing a conversation had by a family on a specific day. To all but the family, though, it is a closed door to a private, domestic moment, the subject and meaning of which was determined by the family. And to the family who participated, their engraving is an aide-memoire to a conversation once had. They can look at the sheet and remember what they said with their family members on a given day about a given subject. It is an artwork that remains private.
In this sense, the engraving functions within two different value structures: that of the art world and its discourse around engravings and participatory art as well as that of a family’s domestic life where conversations regularly occur with various levels of meaning and yet often pass by unnoticed or forgotten.
For the Whitney Biennial, I am displaying the archive for Sshhh and am also reactivating the project. I again invited visitors to send me a note containing their name and the date—but not the content—of a conversation they have had at home. The archive is out on a table for visitors to handle and the documents are available for free download on the Whitney’s website. The budget for the reactivation allows for one hundred family participants (in Chatou it was fifteen). This time each engraved sheet is printed with lead type in an edition of two: one for the participating family and one for the project archive. The sheets have just been made and their distribution to the participating families will occur in the room where the archive is on display: Whitney Museum, fourth floor, this Saturday, May 10, at 11 AM.