David Hammons

David Hammons talks about “Six Sites in Alexandria”

Left: David Hammons, Elephant Chair, Location: Sultan Hussein Street in Front of the Faculty of Medicine, Alexandria University, 2008. Right: David Hammons, Pink Tree, Location: Sultan Hussein Street in Front of Sultan Hussein Cafe, 2008.

David Hammons has been making art and challenging the conditions of artmaking for nearly forty years. In 1991, Hammons was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his work in the field. Recently, the artist was invited by the nonprofit multidisciplinary arts initiative Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum to realize a project in Egypt, which opens on November 24. Here he discusses his artistic intervention, called “Six Sites in Alexandria.”

LAST YEAR, Salah Hassan, the curator of this project, went to Egypt to take part in the Alexandria Biennale. I said, “Let me tag along and see what’s happening.” I hung out in the city while he was doing his thing. He showed me this small gallery of young people—the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum—and I told him to ask if I could do something there. They agreed, and here I am.

The hotel I’m staying in, the Windsor Palace, is about twenty minutes from the gallery. Walking the streets between the gallery and the hotel, I found five separate sites; I was looking for abstract things that normal people don’t look at. I found a wooden chair chained to a pole—I guess some security guards use this chair to sit in. There’s a puddle of water in the street; a piece of cardboard caught on a light fixture, hanging on a wire. There’s an appliance store filled with televisions and refrigerators and stoves—the music was so loud at this place that I decided to call it a sound installation. There’s also a tree painted green. It’s so green I decided to call it the Pink Tree. The sixth site was Sight Unseen—I leave the audience to find their own.

At first, the sites were further stretched out, but there’s no way people could have gone to see them all. So I narrowed it down to sites between the hotel and the gallery. I only had forty-eight hours in which to do it, and this factor helped to quicken the pace. I had to think spontaneously as opposed to intellectually. It’s like being on a boat that’s going down—you just grab on to whatever’s at hand to stay afloat. There wasn’t time to overthink anything.

I had to explain that it wasn’t going to be in their gallery. They had hoped it would be—it’s a very nice space, a marvelous, beautiful restoration of an apartment. As beautiful as the space was, that was too easy to do. I don’t particularly care for galleries. I’d rather walk through the city and find my own spaces.

I do that a lot in New York. I’ll find something and call people up with the address and tell people to go look at it. It could be a stack of wood in the subway or something that looks like a Joseph Beuys or something lying around.

We made a little sketch of each piece with the address and the title. The gallery director said that if there wasn’t a visual clue, then the people wouldn’t even go to look for them. I don’t really care much if they go to see them. The concept is more interesting than the actual objects, because the concept is invisible while the objects are visible. Except for the sixth site—there they have to use the mind’s eye.

The adventure of coming here is more important to me than the exhibition—to get to faraway places is more exciting than to do something in a normal space. Have you heard of the White Night in Paris? It is cosponsored by Fondation Cartier and the City of Paris. I think it’s been going on for some time. Each year, they invite thirteen artists to do installations around the city, and everyone stays up from 7 PM to 7 AM. I was invited to participate this year. For my piece, I predicted that a double rainbow would appear over the city at night on the fourth of October. Actually, I saw a double rainbow about just two days before I met with representatives from the Fondation Cartier and the City of Paris about the project. Both agreed, but then approximately three days beforehand, the City of Paris removed my name from the exhibition. I think they canceled it because they couldn’t explain it to anyone. But how do you stop or remove the rainbow from happening?

For a piece at Skulptur Projekte Münster 2007, I predicted rain on the eighteenth of August. It didn’t rain. However, I wanted them to follow the concept more than the act. I was more interested in shifting the idea of how artists think about producing art. Artists are often more interested in the act itself. I choose artworks that are ephemeral because, well, life is that. It’s such a temporary journey.

I was watching a video on YouTube in which Ornette Coleman presents a tune called “Spring” in Germany; he tells the audience, “Follow the idea of the song, not the song itself.” He also said, “Follow the idea, not the sound.” I was impressed with that. Follow how my ideas are put together, as opposed to whether the rainbow appears or the rain comes. I use this logic a lot. It moves in the realm of poetry as opposed to the actuality that people are used to or expect.