Left: John Baldessari, Noses & Ears, Etc.: Blood, Fist, and Head (with Nose and Ear), 2006, three-dimensional digital print with acrylic paint, 43 1/4 x 52“. Right: John Baldessari, Kiss/Panic, 1984, gelatin silver prints with oil tint, mounted to board, in eleven parts, 80 x 72”.
Relentlessly innovative and influential over the course of a five-decades-long career, John Baldessari (b. 1931) was a progenitor of conceptual art and among the first to explore the possibilities and implications of appropriation—constantly isolating and re-cropping images from television and film both to underline the elasticity of their meaning in changing contexts.
On the occasion of his traveling retrospective, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through January 9, 2011, as well as his solo exhibitions at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York (through December 4) and the Fondazione Prada in Milan (through December 26), the artist sat down with Artforum editor-at-large Tim Griffin to discuss themes and techniques, explaining, among other things, how he arrived at such signature blocking devices as his red, yellow, and blue dots.
John Baldessari speaks with Tim Griffin.
Recently featured in the Whitney Biennial and “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1, the Berlin-based artist David Adamo is known for his proplike wooden sculptures and seemingly violent installations. His latest solo exhibition opens at FRI ART: Centre d’Art Contemporain in Fribourg, Switzerland, on November 19.
WOOD IS A COMPLEX MATERIAL. I feel like a total beginner when I work with it. There’s probably a lifetime’s worth of learning to be done about the material and its behavior, particularities, varieties, and everything else. Maybe it’s a kind of knowledge you develop over time.
People have called my sculptures violent, but I don’t necessarily think about aggressive things when I’m in the studio . . . although I guess I do work myself into a sort of frenzy. I start out listening to some very soft music, usually some classical stuff, and as my thoughts progressively get going, I’ll begin to listen to something harder. Lately, I’ve been trying to teach myself this style of dancing called hakken, to Gabber music; I jump around the studio at about 200 beats per minute. When I feel good and ready, I chop the wood. I usually work around it in a circle. As my sculptures have gotten bigger, the music has gotten harder. I mean, it’s all very heavy—heavy material and heavy tools––so I can only do it for thirty minutes or so, and then have to regroup and relax and rest and do it again.
The new pieces are more abstract and definitely more physical. The past work always connected to some kind of figurative object––a hammer, a baseball bat, a cane. The latest sculptures are more like construction beams that have been whittled down. I suppose these bigger works are like putting a magnifying glass onto those smaller sculptures, or being able to walk inside a different environment with more material intensity, since the wood is much more dense in the room. The sculptures in this show will be made with the largest chunks of wood I’ve used so far. I went to a local mill and chose ten or so pieces. Some will reach to the ceiling. There’ll be a variety of sizes and shapes. So there are always two parts to these sculptures—the thing that’s there, in this case construction beams, and what’s lying on the ground. And for me, the stuff on the ground is evidence. I see my feelings and emotions when I look at those chips. And now that I’ve done so many of these sculptures, I have a large archive of them. When you look at the chips you can also see the other small things that were swept in, like cigarette butts or candy wrappers or whatever else was in my studio or the gallery. I can always tell where I was or where they were made from the garbage in the pile.
I tend to think about my sculptures being more like performances, and my performances being more like sculptures. In my latest series of performances, I stand and look at something for a long period of time. The most recent one was at MoMA in the design section, where I stared at an Italian-made flight board. It took me a while to find a place to stand and the right work to look at. The board seemed poetic in a sense, because it’s just flipping time. And so the installations are kind of like performances without the performer, and the performances I do are more like performances without the audience. I want to keep removing certain elements from both and see what happens.
Left: Veneer Issues One to Seven, subscriber and retail editions. Right: View of Veneer in “The Social Life of the Book,” Kabinetten van De Vleeshal, Middleburg, Netherlands, September 2010.
The Portland-based artist Aaron Flint Jamison is editor of the publication Veneer. When its run concludes in six years, the series will comprise eighteen issues, including a bookshelf to house the complete set for subscribers. Past contributors to Veneer include Sturtevant, George Kuchar, Kevin Kelly, and Ray Kurzweil. Jamison’s work will be featured in a solo exhibition next February at castillo/corrales in Paris.
VENEER comes out of my love for long-term projects and anything that seems to be in progress and slowly unfolding. Books have always been very important to me, but it wasn’t until art school that I started to understand how to complicate the medium through using disparate materials and content. When I began, I was focused on the limitations of materiality, but it was also important to do it in a way that I had never seen done before.Veneer was published twice a year in 2007, 2008, and 2009. I’m currently finishing the eighth issue. After the eighteenth is produced, the project will be over. It could be said that there is a master rubric for the series, but that is an oversimplification, because I think about the ideas behind each issue on a micro and macro level.
Anyone who subscribes will receive all the back and all future issues, including ephemera that I send out between issues, such as little books that I’m working on, prints, a bookcase, and other surprises. The materials of each issue change in response to the content––different paper stocks, offset and letterpress printing techniques, bindings, and various inserts. It’s important to me that bodies interface with production, so as much of the work as possible is done by hand with friends and colleagues––for instance, actions like embedding cubic zirconium gems into the pages of issue three, or rubbing Brut deodorant onto page 127 of issue four. There aren’t any names of artists (or editors) on the spine, and the issues are not that wide, so they can be pushed to the back of the bookshelf pretty nicely. They aren’t easy to display, present, or even sell. Sort of like a lot of art that is important to me.
For issue five, I spray-foamed the edges of every edition so that the book is very difficult to open. Untouched, it is reminiscent of sea foam, but it actually makes a melodramatic flaky mess when you try to rip it off. The most beautiful thing is that once you actually get it off the sides, you have to individually pull the pages apart, kind of like peeling away a sunburn. And that process relates to the issue, which for me was about feeling the edges of the ocean, waves coming in and out. Adrian Piper’s article, for instance, talks about these rhythms, pacing, and repetition in yoga and philosophy.
Issue three was filled with stolen advertisements from other magazines––mostly French, but also some Turkish and English. After it was printed, I letter-pressed these really boring invoices and sent them with a copy of the issue to the companies that had inadvertently advertised with us. I received quite a few cease-and-desist letters because I was reverse-advertising, invoicing for contracted monies that were never agreed upon. Subsequently, I worked with a lawyer in San Francisco to write a document to protect me from getting sued. The document became a significant part of that entire issue for me.
The economy surrounding this publication is minimal. There are a few galleries and shops out there that engage with the books and their audience in a way that makes it possible for Veneer to be sold. But I’ve developed relationships with various retailers all over, and bless their hearts if they never pay me and if you still see copies of those early issues around on dusty bookshelves. I think I’m too invested in the process to be any help on a distribution level. But I recently saw a copy in a glass library vitrine and that was really nice.
This month sees the release of Contra Mundum I-VII, the inaugural volume from Oslo Editions, a new publishing imprint initiated by artist Alex Klein and designer Mark Owens. The book gathers edited transcripts from a series of talks held at the Mandrake bar in Los Angeles last year, and it includes contributions from seven artists and critics. In addition to being distributed by RAM in North America, the book will also be available at the Ooga Booga booth at the New York Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1, November 5–7.
THE INITIAL invitation to curate a lecture series came in the spring of last year from Justin Beal, who asked us to put something together for the Mandrake, an artist-run bar in LA. The title Contra Mundum comes from Brideshead Revisited, the 1945 book by Evelyn Waugh, which follows the relationship between wayward aristocrat Sebastian Flyte and aspiring artist Charles Ryder as they retreat to Flyte’s family manor, Brideshead, to spend the summer alone together. They refer to this period of their friendship using the Latin motto “contra mundum,” or “against the world,” and in this space––away from institutional, familial, and societal frameworks––they experience a kind of aesthetic awakening. We were inspired by this idea of building your own world, and although in Waugh’s novel contra mundum is a temporary phase, we wanted to use the talks and the book as a kind of proposal: What would it mean to inhabit such a state as a subject position?
Right away the series gained momentum in the extra-institutional, ad hoc space of the Mandrake. The talks were held in the back of the bar on the first Sunday of every month in the early evenings, and each was accompanied by a DJ set, which the speaker or an invited guest would curate, so that the lecture format would give way to a more informal discussion. The idea of world-making really came through in the first talk, by artist Rupert Deese, who was a furniture fabricator in Donald Judd’s studio and who still makes furniture for the Albers Foundation. Deese talked about building your own world—as Judd did in his building at 101 Spring Street and in Marfa, Texas—and then living in it: So, for example, not treating a Judd chair like a museum object but rather thinking about what happens when a piece of furniture is used to reorient the coordinates of lived space, including the geometries of the earth itself.
As the series progressed, the topics began to complement one another in unexpected ways, which you can really see in the book. Following Rupert, artist Anthony Pearson, who spent a period in the late 1990s as a successful record dealer, discussed Private Issue New Age, a subgenre of rare records created by solitary musicians in the late ’70s and early ’80s that has seemed to elude commodification. Next, artist Elad Lassry discussed animal photography and the animal as subject in Hollywood, foregrounding the idea of the herd v. the individual set against a sublime natural landscape. Later, this dialectic of the individual and the collective returned in critic Evan Calder Williams’s talk on zombie films, which worked really well alongside historian Matthew Taylor Raffety’s discussion of pirates and piracy. All of this complemented Frances Stark’s discussion of Mark E. Smith, legendary vocalist for postpunk band the Fall, which closed the series.
For us, the fulcrum or pivot of the series was a talk by poet and critic Aaron Kunin, who discussed Molière’s misanthrope and the trope of self-banishment in Shakespeare. He brought up the idea of the misanthrope as a figure whose retreat from the world creates a society of “association without relation,” which seemed to us a productive model for what we were trying to get at, a kind of collectivity that isn’t attached to categories of identity but rather approaches something more universal. It’s less about warm and fuzzy ideas of community and more about what the series itself ends up being: a room full of strangers sharing a space, coming together against the world. In the end, this amounts to a deliberate rejection of dominant notions of networked relations, but without reproducing sentimentalized ideas of “the personal” or “togetherness.”
That said, Contra Mundum was a no-budget, self-financed project—all the speakers and DJs volunteered their time, intelligence, and energy, and the Mandrake gave us the space—so there was a real sense of generosity underwriting it. The Oslo Editions imprint was something we had been talking about for a long time as a project we could work on collaboratively. In addition to being an artist and a designer we are both writers, and we wanted to create a platform to present material across a broad range of interests. Contra Mundum I-VII is our inaugural publication and consists of edited transcripts of all the talks with images from the slide shows alongside the accompanying DJ sets. We already have plans for a number of future projects, including a follow-up to this first installment in the Contra Mundum series, and it is our hope that Oslo Editions will be able to reach multiple audiences, both within and outside the art world.
Susie Linfield, director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University, is a journalist and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Review, Bookforum, The Nation, and other publications. Her new book, which she will discuss on November 11 at Book Culture in New York City, is The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. It is available from the University of Chicago Press this month.
IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME—several years—to figure out how the different subjects I was writing about, and the different arguments I was making, were connected to each other. My magazine editors were saying, “You should be writing a book,” but it took an internal push to write it; I had to find the intellectual thread to connect and develop these disparate arguments. Ironically, I am a very squeamish person when it comes to violence. I don’t even watch the beginning of Law and Order: SVU; I don’t want to see bloody bodies, even though they’re fake, as entertainment. Looking at images of the Holocaust, and of children deliberately mutilated during the recent civil wars in Africa––which are definitely not fake––was emotionally grueling. I went through periods of great desolation while I was writing, which is probably reflected in the book.
But it seemed necessary to look closely at such images in part because of what I view as the weakness of much photography criticism. I teach criticism and read a lot of it, and some years ago I realized how different photography criticism can be in tone and approach from criticism of film, or music, or other cultural forms. Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus, and others are very immersed in their subjects; they write analytically and critically but with love. By contrast, Susan Sontag and her postmodern heirs in the realm of photography criticism were very removed from, even hostile to, the subjects they discuss. That observation, in concert with lessons derived from reading Brecht at the same time (albeit for different purposes), highlighted for me the antipathy to subject matter and the antipathy to emotion in books like On Photography.
It is precisely an attention to subject matter that propelled several of the book’s arguments. On the one hand, the depiction of atrocities and of physical suffering is today much, much more explicit than it was seventy-five years ago. I use James Nachtwey’s images from the past few decades as an example. If you compare his photographs to those of say, Robert Capa or David “Chim” Seymour, you can see how photography today is far more graphic; it gets much closer to physical agony than it once did. There are several reasons for that. But one of the things that makes looking at such images especially difficult today is that we no longer have the same kind of moral and political framework to help us understand the violence. Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, or of China after the Japanese invasion, were very clear on political context. You knew what to do with your anger and your horror. Today, looking at images from Sierra Leone or the Congo, one can feel horror, disgust, and great sadness—but what to do in response is much less apparent. Which of the twelve militias now fighting in the Congo do you support? Visual atrocity is much clearer today, but we no longer have the political clarity to accompany it.
At the same time, a lot of what passes for “visual literacy” today is merely visual cynicism. People, especially young people, are very used to saying “photographs lie,” to pointing out how images are manipulated by Photoshop or other means. Such suspicion and skepticism aren’t entirely bad, but I don’t think of that as visual literacy. I don’t urge either naive acceptance or cynical rejection of photos of political violence; the book makes a plea for us to use photographs of atrocity as starting points to engage with very complicated histories and very specific political crises. If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn’t merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation, and defeat. We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming, and bewildering an experience that may be.
Click here for Parul Sehgal’s review of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence on bookforum.com.