Chen Chieh-jen, Happiness Building I, 2012, three-channel HD video, color and black-and-white, 82 minutes. Production still. Photo: Chen You-wei.
Chen Chieh-jen is a Taiwanese artist whose most recent film is titled Happiness Building I. Here he discusses the film’s collaborative framework and his “active social practice.” Happiness Building I is on view at the Shihlin Paper Mill until January 13 as part of the 2012 Taipei Biennial, and at the Guangzhou Triennial until December 26. The film’s set is open to the public at the Yi-Ping Construction Material Company in New Taipei City, Taiwan, until December 31.
I HAD ALREADY BEGUN WORK ON HAPPINESS BUILDING I when I was invited to participate in this Taipei Biennial. As with my previous “staged” video projects, which are sometimes shot on site, at the actual places that the film refers to—as with Factory, 2003, Bade Area, 2005, and The Route, 2006—I created the film in collaboration and cooperation with a diverse group of people. In my earlier films I worked with unemployed middle-aged laborers, but in this case, I worked with young people who do not have a steady form of employment—university graduates, masters degree students, and doctoral students. Most of them have already received a lot of education and they have a great ability to think independently. But the problem is that in a neoliberal society it becomes harder and harder for them to find jobs. They wrote short poetic and prosaic impressions of their fragmented lives for me, and these stories became the basis of this fictional narrative film. They also helped to build the set and some were also cast as characters in the work. Half of the film’s participants are amateur actors from a theater in Taiwan, and they portrayed participants who could not appear in the film.
Happiness Building I is about a rental apartment building that is slated for demolition, but it is not based on one particular site. “Happiness Building” is a common term for buildings in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In some way, the naming reflects our craving for an absent happiness. During my search for a location at which to shoot this new film, I kept seeing the Chinese character for “happiness” as the name of roads, buildings, and restaurants all across New Taipei City and Taoyuan County. Most of these industrial districts are residential areas for blue-collar laborers, migrant workers, and low-income families.
Today, we can see all sorts of interventionist works at biennials, museums, and galleries. But art audiences never really step into the real sites. For a long time, I have wanted to include the actual filming site as part of my project, making it possible for the audience to see the film at its filming location and what has been accomplished by the film’s participants. But for many reasons and limitations, it could not happen until now. Finally, I have had the opportunity to realize this project even though I know that most visitors to the biennial would not come to this place. It is about a fifty-minute drive from the center of Taipei, and as of the mid-1960s the area was filled with small-scale factories and recycling centers for discarded objects. Even now there is even a leprosy sanatorium that was established during the era of Japanese occupation. When viewers come to the set, they not only see the reconstructed old apartments and the sets built from the discarded and dismantled objects retrieved from the street and factory interiors, but also documentary pictures that the participants took of each other while working together. The machines at the surrounding factories emit what becomes part of the background sounds of the film and the set, and also serve as constant reminders of the true living conditions of many people. Viewers are also not just outsiders to the set, but become a part of it. As with my past films, Happiness Building I does not have paraphrastic and strong dramatic characters. The “vacancy” in the film, therefore, provides the possibility for discussion with the audience. On the average, every three days since the set’s opening I have had various discussions with visiting students, with some discussions lasting until 10 or 11 PM.
The stories and traumatic experiences we see in this film, such those from the young women who are employees at an electronics reclamation center, are not special stories, but ones that we hear and see around us all the time. I’m not interested in simply narrating these stories, or undertaking another critique of neoliberalism. I’m much more concerned with how to adopt an alternative method of art production within the capitalist system—a new method that makes use of the individual power of creation that is discarded or excluded from current economic systems. I’m interested in making works that signal a joint creation, but that can still maintain each individual character’s independence. Filming this piece for me was not just an aesthetic experiment within the discourse of film. It was much more about maintaining an active social practice and opening up a site for this kind of engagement.
Translated from Chinese by Angie Baecker, Amy Cheng, and Joyce Lai.
Left: Cover of Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica (2012). Right: Jess, Tricky Cad, Case V (detail), 1958, collage, 13 1/4 x 25”. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Photo: Lee Stalsworth.
Michael Duncan is a critic and curator as well as a corresponding editor for Art in America. He is co-curator of the forthcoming traveling exhibition “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and their Circle,” which opens in June 2013 at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California. Here he discusses his enduring interests in the artist Jess, the poet Robert Duncan, and the impact of the G.I. Bill on the culture of California. He edited Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica, a book of Jess’s rarely seen book works, altered comics, word collages, and paste-ups, which was recently published by Siglio Press.
I’VE BEEN INTERESTED IN JESS for a long time, and the show I’m now curating is going to have a large selection of his works, as well as pieces by the poet Robert Duncan, his partner. The entire exhibition is designed around Jess and Duncan’s community and the art they had in their house. During my research, I kept coming across collages—which Jess called “paste-ups”––that were gifts to friends or made in very small editions. For instance, I found a wonderful book in the Archives of American Art of collages, poems, photographs, and drawings that Jess and Duncan had made together in a collaboration that was a gift to Patricia Jordan, the wife of the experimental filmmaker and artist Lawrence Jordan. I went to a variety of publishers with this book, hoping to make a facsimile edition, and Lisa Pearson—the fantastic one-woman band of Siglio Press—was very interested. She talked me into expanding the project to include this unseen and lesser-known material that I kept finding, and so quite a few things included in Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica have never been reproduced anywhere before.
Duncan and Jess definitely were one of the most interesting literary/artistic partnerships of the twentieth century, one that has yet to be acknowledged and explored. So much of their experience was centered in their house and the domestic scene that they set up––their home was a true bastion of literature and visual art. They elevated each other in their work, which is something they both talked about in letters to friends. Also in some of Jess’s interviews he gives Duncan all the credit in the world for educating him to a broader expanse of literature and art than he had been aware of before they met.
Jess had been drafted out of CalTech in 1943 and worked as a scientist in various atomic labs during the war. When he left science, he also left his last name, and he announced to his father that he was gay—it was all kind of over at that point. He enrolled at the California School for the Arts, which was a really fortuitous thing to happen because it was during its incredible moment when the faculty included Elmer Bischoff, Edward Corbett, David Park, and Hassel Smith. The student body was filled with artists on the G.I. Bill who had seen the world and were open to experimenting with things like Abstract Expressionism. West coast AbEx was such a lively and innovative free-for-all in terms of ideas. For students there was no stigma against figuration, so it was easy for somebody like Jess to explore Ab Ex and allegory at the same time. He felt free to develop openly as a “romantic” artist, something that is totally taboo today but is really at the heart of the kind of proto-postmodernism that both Jess and Duncan explored. They both tracked a different tradition than what we’re taught in the art history books, one open to fantasy and the imagination and steeped in Dante, Blake, Joyce, and Pound.
Jess and Duncan were masters of myths. Duncan was an incredible scholar whose interests spanned almost everything, but in particular mythology and the history of culture. They had seven libraries in their house—an old, four-story Victorian in the Mission District in San Francisco. There was a Gertrude and Alice library for modernism, a philosophy library, a French library, and so on. The whole intellectual side of Jess is so apparent when you start pondering the transitions and juxtapositions in the collages. At first glance everything looks totally absurd and illogical, but then the visual logic begins to click. Everything centers on metaphor––metaphor as a kind of a transubstantiation of reality into cultural thought. The associations of various images expand your whole experience of the world. It’s what literature and art is supposed to do.
It’s all kind of packed inside Jess’s collages. They’re like night skies with various constellations telling all sorts of stories. They require a kind of intimacy that a book like Jessoterica can foster. The fun thing that you can do with the book is to take off your glasses, hold it up to your nose, and dive into the sky. You enter and get lost in a mythic cultural world that’s beyond the scope of what you could ever have expected.
Helen Marten is a British artist based in London. She graduated from the Ruskin School of Fine Art at Oxford University in 2008 and has since had several solo exhibitions, the most recent at Kunsthalle Zürich. Marten’s film Evian Disease plays until July 2013 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. In 2011, she was awarded the Prix Lafayette and in 2012 the Prix LUMA. Here, Marten discusses her latest exhibition, “Plank Salad,” which is on view at Chisenhale Gallery until January 27, 2013.
MY LIST OF MATERIALS COULD RUN FOR PAGES, ranging from spaghetti and foliage to silk-screened leather, tequila, and bent rebar. It’s pornographically tactile; there is so much saturation in the skin of it because the surfaces have traces of touch invested in them. The list is madly indulgent—an engorged yet stylized stuffing of substance. Because the majority of objects are recognizable, they have a weirdly slippery, slightly uncanny status that activates a process of slippage or breakdown: Things are continually folding in and around themselves. There’s a lot of density, but at the same time I hope the work possesses a kind of lightness; there are recognizable outlines and things we can index or name. There is a universal hook as each substance is translatable: pasta, keys, chairs—all things that add up to images with related functionalities, histories, or social temperatures.
Recently, I have been quite frantic about the idea of tracing around outlines of things, creating approximations of identifiable stuff: domestic objects, banality, or boredom. But in each, there’s a surface foil or an interruption or some other hidden linguistic trap that trips up meaning, pushing the object into a new space. The objects I use are already saturated with languages, so there is a lot of punning, linguistic jokes that never quite deliver a punch line. So everything is activated in a perpetual shuffle where the grammar of objects is either forced or overstylized.
Rhythm is another thing I was thinking about. In some ways, my work is a prolonged stammer of information. There are groups of very flat ramps machined from inlaid hardwood, which are butted together and sit very low to the floor. They become like typographic punctuations or laterally flattened commas. On top of each sit these small steel panels, each airbrushed with remixed fabric or fruit packaging motifs. They’re terrifyingly gorgeous, and more so because the process of airbrushing removes any sense of the touch involved in their making; they look laminated or digitally printed, so there is something completely totalized or violent about them as objects. They are quick, but of course the manufacture of them is painfully slow. Alongside these packages are a handful of objects: a friendship bracelet, a coffee cup, a plastic heart wrapped in foam off-cuts, a discarded sock, and some broken glass.
We’re grubby humans, always scuttling around at street level; layers of activity and history are built upon pavement. The street is a different optical space from the one we visit when we stare up at the sky, so there’s a joke about sedimentation, of perpetually stomping down layers of grime—cigarette ends and wrappers—layers of activity and history. Street level becomes some kind of weirdly hallucinogenic space—and yet, the space above street level is glorious. The ramps speak explicitly about this relationship to gravity, to defiant flatness, lateral spread, and what it is to pedestal overlooked debris or trash into something with posture.
I am interested in how everything has a social beginning. Certain materials have an inherent temperature and you can ask materials to behave in certain ways. Formica is cold because it’s seamless, you can’t get behind it, and it’s wipe-clean—the language of hospitals and schools. At the same time, it possesses a weird treachery: There is something about it that has information. Wood is inherently warm, it’s organic, you can make it do anything; it’s an analog material. Steel can be both, because you can fold it and give it the impression of weightlessness but it has its own natural density. By flexing these materials you can thwart expectations of how they should perform as substances. By fucking with their materiality you can exploit their seams.
Daniela Andrier, creator of Untitled, 2010. (Photo: Givaudan)
Chandler Burr is a journalist, author, and curator of olfactory art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Here he speaks about his latest project, “The Art of Scent 1889–2012,” the first major museum exhibition dedicated to olfactory art. The show presents twelve pivotal fragrances, dating from 1889 to the present, which will be experienced individually in a special installation designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. “The Art of Scent” is on view at MAD from November 20, 2012–February 24, 2013.
AS A JOURNALIST, the thing that always fascinated and shocked me about perfume was the degree of the unknown in what is actually an incredibly beautiful and major art. There’s a huge amount of design and practical labor that goes into an olfactory work, which is completely different from aesthetics. There’s the diffusion, the volume—it’s voice, whether it’s loud or soft—and the effect of it. How could you ever write about a work of art in which you didn’t discuss the artist?
In December 2008, I gave a lecture at the Times Center on works of olfactory art. I handed out my samples and compared them to music and paintings. Some people were completely supportive and others found it strange and unfamiliar. Thankfully, though, the New York Times was on board, giving me an opportunity to explore further through my column, “Scent Notes.” It was around that time that I realized I wanted to take the next step. I knew that I could do so much more as a curator, as a cultivator and champion for olfactory artists and for perfume as an artistic medium.
I had the opportunity to meet with Holly Hotchner, MAD’s director, and David McFadden, the museum’s chief curator, and they were enthusiastic in completely different ways. David thought it was fantastic, that it offered a completely new way of thinking about intersections between art and design as well as assumptions about what makes up a work of art. But Holly realized that this show—the first of its kind in the US—could establish scent as an artistic medium in a similar way to how photography was elevated to high art by various museums in the twentieth century. She saw it as a game changer, a new way to push the boundaries.
Liz Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro became very interested in the project and ultimately we selected her to develop the show’s design. We had several very interesting creative sessions in which I presented her team with works of olfactory art. In those meetings we came up with several crucial specifications. One, that the sense of smell obviously be privileged in the show. Two, that the exhibition shouldn’t be overly visual. We also emphasized the social aspect in the experience of scent. When people experience works of olfactory art, they should do so together. Art is typically a very solitary experience, primarily because we have the vocabulary and knowledge to understand the work. Olfactory art doesn’t have that vocabulary yet. There is virtually no serious aesthetic language applied to scent as a medium. But this will change, and it’s exactly what this exhibition at MAD is all about: creating a vocabulary for scent and presenting it in an art historical framework.
To wit, and I’ll only touch on five of the twelve scents in the show: Jicky, by Aimé Guerlain, is perhaps the greatest work of Romanticism that olfactory art ever created. It was among the first fragrances to include synthetic molecules alongside natural materials. Ernest Beaux’s Chanel No. 5 is likewise an extraordinary work of modernism, with its combination of a traditional structure that Beaux reimagined, in the quintessential modern style, by placing a synthetic skin around it. Drakkar Noir, by Pierre Wargnye is the most important work of functionalism for olfactory art and fundamentally changed the medium. It came out in 1982, during a time when Roy Lichtenstein, for example, was democratizing the arts, and attacking the very idea of fine art. This type of discourse was very much incorporated into the creation of Drakkar Noir. Osmanthe Yunnan, by the great artist Jean-Claude Ellena, is a brilliant example of Ellena’s luminist school of olfactory art, which fundamentally and fascinatingly contradicts, deconstructs, and reinvents virtually all the ideas, concepts, and principles of the turn of the twentieth century. And Untitled, by Daniela Andrier, is undeniably a hallmark of post-Brutalism, referencing nature in a brutal and abstract manner.
Dana Levy, The Wake, 2011, video, color, sound, 5 minutes 24 seconds.
New York–based Israeli artist Dana Levy is known for her poetic video and photographic works, which often investigate boundaries between the natural and man-made. Her first artist’s book, World Order, was published this month by the Center for Contemporary Arts Tel Aviv and Braverman Gallery in affiliation with Sternthal Books. Levy’s solo exhibition at Galerie Ron Mandos in Amsterdam is on view until November 24.
FOR THIS BOOK, I wanted to focus on nature and history. I’m very interested in how a story can give meaning to the most mundane objects. The monograph begins with an image of a path in woods that leads to the caves featured in my new video Refuge. I read a short article a few years ago in The Guardian about these caves in Caen, France, which is about an hour away from Le Havre, where I participated in a residency program last year. Thousands of people hid in them during the summer of 1944, protecting themselves from the bombing of the Allies. I was intrigued, so I contacted Laurent Dujardin, the historian mentioned in the article, and we went there to film. I ended up making a dual-channel video that documents the remains in the caves—everyday items such as a comb, a mirror, and a tin cigarette box. The work focuses on the few selected objects that the refugees brought with them—so here a shoe is no longer just a shoe; it becomes a symbol for man’s struggle to survive in the midst of war.
As you flip through the book you encounter my latest video work, Dead World Order, which was filmed at Maison de l’Armateur, one of the few houses in Le Havre that remained intact after the city was completely destroyed in the bombings of 1944. The house is filled with artifacts collected at the time: rare shells, a gun collection, old musical instruments, and taxidermy. In the film, the museum’s curator Elisabeth Leprêtre walks through the space and organizes these artifacts; she too appears to be trapped in time. I’ve become fascinated with objects, perhaps because as a filmmaker I don’t make “objects” per se as painters and sculptors do. I’ve always been drawn to secretive places that I’m not supposed to be in. I’m really an explorer at heart. The book’s designers, Koby Barhad and Noa Schwartz, understood that aspect of my work and suggested to create a picture book with the texts as a separate insert. In the end, the texts are inside the book but separate from the images. I like the challenge of telling a dramatic story without a dialogue, and in a way that’s what happens in the book. I wanted the images to provoke curiosity and emotion without explaining too much.
Dana Levy, Dead World Order, 2012 (excerpt)
As an Israeli, you carry a past: biblical stories, the Holocaust, and wars. There is always a dualism between the past and the present. I also find that there usually is a dualism in my work: something whole, something broken; something wild, something tamed; nature and man; life and death. For The Wake, which I made in 2011, I searched for a location where I could find plenty of specimens of butterflies categorized in drawers, and brought one hundred live butterflies to fly in the Invertebrate Zoology Room at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. I remember when Dr. John Rawlins, head of the section where the work was filmed, asked me why I wanted to do this work. My answer to him was simple: “Why do poets write poems?” He approved and very generously permitted me to film there. I finished editing just as the Arab Spring had begun. It suddenly became clear that, for me, the work was about an awakening from an obedient slumber into a revolution.
View of “Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms, Works from 1959–79,” 2012. Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut. (Photo: Alyson Baker)
Over the past five decades Wendell Castle has created furniture works with organic forms in wood, plastic, and metal. An exhibition of his most celebrated pieces is on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut through February 20, 2013, and another exhibition at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville runs November 29–February 4, 2013. Two concurrent gallery shows at Barry Friedman Ltd. and Friedman Benda in New York can also be visited until February 9. Here, Castle discusses some of the ideas underpinning his prolific works.
I HAD SOME SLIGHT INTEREST, but never really considered furniture as a career. My breakthrough came in graduate school. I was using plywood to make a box with drawers, and my sculpture instructor made a derogatory comment about how I was wasting my time making furniture. It prompted me to think: Why isn’t furniture art? So in 1959 I made Stool Sculpture and never mentioned to my instructor that it could also be a piece of furniture. To test my success—that one couldn’t tell the difference between furniture and sculpture—I entered it in a juried show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in 1960. It was accepted and exhibited as sculpture. Interestingly, I had the highest price of anything in the show.
Sculptors like Brancusi, Arp, Miró, Henry Moore, and architects like Gaudí influenced the vocabulary I began to use. I wanted to get volume into furniture, which typically didn’t really have volume. I was fortunate because I didn’t have any idea how to make furniture—I kind of invented a new technique that came from the sculpture world where you laminate, by gluing up blocks of wood, and then you carve. I didn’t really know how to make dovetail joints, how to veneer, or how to do parquetry. I didn’t know how to do any of these furniture things—but I knew how to do sculpture things.
When there were group exhibitions, I’d usually get the attention of the press—I was making something peculiar. We were the top people in the 1960s: Wharton Esherick (the elder statesman), Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, and Art Carpenter. But I was very different. Other furniture makers thought I was wasteful, that I was misusing wood. “You let the wood tell you what to do; you let the character of the wood influence the design.” I never felt it should. I thought of wood just like clay—I’d make it do whatever I wanted.
I wanted my work to be considered on an equal basis with fine arts. In the 1960s I thought, if I could just sell a table for $2000—since you could buy a piece of sculpture for $2000—then I’d be up there with the rest of the fine artists. I remember the day I sold a coffee table for $2000, and realized it didn’t mean anything. By virtue of its function, it wouldn’t ever be considered a work of art. I never thought I’d make nonfunctional furniture: I don’t make a chair that’s impossible to sit in or a cabinet impossible to get anything in. I believe in function, but it’s not the most important part. The form is most important. I like softer forms, some borrowing from nature, but I never wanted to do a literal figure; instead I wanted things to be bit more figurelike.
During the Pop period, color was very important. Initially, in 1968, I tried to paint wooden pieces, but that didn’t give me the surface quality I wanted, like automobile forms and surfaces. The only way to get that would be to go to fiberglass, and to keep the vocabulary simple. The first things I made were the Leotard Table in 1967 and the Molar Chair in 1968. George Beylerian asked me to expand the Molar line into an unlimited edition. But plastics are not pleasant to work with. In 1972, I went back to wood.
The works in the Aldrich show, which are from 1959–79, are valued highly on the secondary market. Right after, I moved to doing more trompe l’oeil wood pieces but realized that anyone can do that. No one else could do what I’m doing with the organic pieces. For instance, with Environment for Contemplation from 1969 or Library Sculpture from 1965—where two chairs hang on a treelike element with a lamp on top and a desk at the back—nobody’s made anything remotely like that. I own that vocabulary.
In my work today, there are real volumes. In December, at Friedman Benda, I’m going to have by far the biggest piece I’ve ever produced: forty-five feet long, and fifteen feet at the tallest part. My vocabulary is certainly organic still, using the same technique from the ’60s, bringing together wood and carving it by hand, but we’re joining the digital age: 3-D printing, laser cutting, a machining robot.