Vittorio Santoro, Les vingt-quatres heures, April–September 2010 (folded to trace a pre-established itinerary on a September afternoon) (detail), 2010, pencil on paper, 13 1/2 x 10.”
Vittorio Santoro is an artist based in Paris and Dublin whose post-Conceptual mixed-media works probe questions of reception and interpretation. Here he discusses his latest solo exhibition, “Les vingt-quatre heures” (Twenty-Four Hours), which is on view at Campagne Premičre, Berlin, from September 2 to October 15.
THE TITLE OF MY EXHIBITION loosely references Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, which takes place over two consecutive days. I frequently incorporate references to books, plays, films, other works of art, historical facts, and more in my output to give a new perspective on them. They are the springboards from which I construct alternative narratives.
The title of the show recurs in Les vingt-quatre heures, April–September 2010 (folded to trace a pre-established itinerary on a September afternoon), a time-based text work realized by writing the words “Les vingt-quatre heures” in pencil once a day for five months on the same sheet of paper in exactly the same spot. My intention was to juxtapose precise indications of past time expressed in months, days, and hours with the unquantifiable experience of the present. I also wanted to show that incessant repetition calls attention to the arbitrariness of the relationship between a word and its meaning. This same work also contains references to Parisian locations that were important to Beckett. After visiting these places, I sketched out my trajectory on a map. I then folded the sheet of paper bearing the written phrase in accordance with the lines I had traced on the map––the folds being a way of giving the sheet of paper character and a history. There is no direct or logical link between the folds and the writing, but they are nonetheless connected: The events to which they refer resonate with one another, offering a glimpse of the hidden undercurrents of thought, meaning, and intention that underlie and bind together each of our actions and gestures.
Goodbye Darkness IV, Elephants Don’t Play Chess (a loose conversation on some aspects of BWV 1001–1006 with Kerwin Rolland) is also based around words, although they have been transposed into another medium. Here, two electrical bulbs light up at varying intensities and intervals, each of them silently mirroring the modulation of a different prerecorded spoken text containing repetitions and variations. The flickering bulbs illustrate the compositional principles––such as repetition, variation, and the combination of different voices or parts––used by Bach to create the effect of polyphony. I am constantly surprised at the emotion that Bach’s music elicits, despite its technical rigor. There is a similar duality in the flickering lights, which convey both the text and its rhythm, and might help the viewer to understand how logic can be “sensual.” Dualities such as these can demonstrate how much our apprehension of the real is dependent on our bridging the interstitial spaces between thought, emotion, text, and image.
Two large sheets of paper titled Notes I, January–March 2011 and Notes II, April–July 2011 open and close the show: I jotted down sketches, thoughts, and even to-do lists on them in the months leading up to the exhibition. These notes can be regarded either as a preparation for something to come or as a simple record of daily action. Some of them directly relate to the realized works, while others contain traces of ideas that might be implemented in future pieces. Notes such as these are not usually presented as artworks, but in this case they serve to demystify the creative process and make visible an internal consistency––the network of cross-references on the basis of which I put together the show.
Views of “Paul Etienne Lincoln: An Aurelian Labyrinth and Other Explications,” 2011.
Paul Etienne Lincoln is a New York–based British artist whose work often integrates technology, nature, and archival research. His latest exhibition is on view at South London Gallery until September 18. Here, he reflects on a key work in the show as well as another piece, which will debut in spring 2012 as part of the Raumsichten sculpture project in Bad Bentheim, Germany. He will talk about his practice on August 24 at SLG.
IN 2005, I was asked to propose a work for the South London Gallery’s Fox Garden, and I envisioned an idea regarding a very rare butterfly, the Camberwell Beauty. It was first spotted in the eighteenth century, in close proximity to the garden. In the current exhibition there is a scale model of my proposal, Aurelian Labyrinth, and it shows how the garden would be composed of a field of genetically modified pansies apeing the velvety appearance of this enigmatic butterfly. Above this six-and-a-half-foot-square field of pansies resides a mechanical gantry with a cutterhead dipping into this field. In close proximity, there is a statue of Mercury personifying the chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, the second major inhabitant of this area of London; it is also close to his birthplace where the second sighting of this rare butterfly occurred.
According to the model, visitors could enter the garden crossing an uneven flagstone, and would approach Mercury, whose body sports a copper wire transformer around his midriff. Mercury stands on top of a model of the Faraday Memorial, which I planned to construct out of copper, and would house the switching circuit for converting the energy from the flagstone.
Over three months, a specially prepared score of Bach’s, Kleines Harmonisches Labyrinth, created in the year that those butterflies were spotted, would be played in segments each day through a large trumpet. The sound would activate the gantry to start to cut a labyrinth into the pansy field, leaving a vapor trail in the process.
The cut petals would be extracted and stored in a gland in the gantry’s canopy. After three months, the labyrinth, nearing completion, would release the purple pansy-petal pigment over the Faraday sculpture, shorting its transformer coil and energizing a glass evacuated bulb in the hand of Faraday, thus fleetingly illuminating the vapor trail in the furrows of the pristine cut labyrinth. There’s an explicatory print next to the model that fully describes the project.
This project is a method of describing a delicate idea, which links all these different characters. It is a way of making physical things that have happened in my imagination into a reality. The chosen music has the ability to register in memory something that I can’t achieve in the making of a sculpture, so that’s why I use combinations of sound and architecture and genetics. It’s this operatic use of different parts that I hope registers a very pure and precise idea, if but fleeting and ephemeral.
Bad Bentheim Schweinin is going to premiere in Bentheim, Germany. It is a town known for at least two things: an incredibly rare pig, the Bad Bentheim swine, and a failed eighteenth-century attempt to build an elaborate French formal garden in the forest of Bentheim. I came across these old drawings in Bentheim and really wanted to replant the main axis avenues of the garden over a twenty-year period, so I proposed to build a mechanical singing pig housing it in a miniature folly on an island in Bentheim castle’s lake. The life-size cast pig is clothed in a suit of armor, to challenge the locals to think about saving this garden, and its rare breed.
On display in the South London show is the explicatory print and a model of the pig with Schloss Schwein, the pig palace. Inside the armored pig is an elaborate barrel organ and a voice analyzer. Of course, all these elements are parts of German history. I wanted to use a sound that was synonymous with the country, so I built woodwind pipes that mimic the sound of this pig’s twenty distinct grunts, as well as twenty-tuned organ pipes.
Inspired by a savings scheme from Northern Saxony, where bars keep money boxes for emergency situations, I have designated nine savings box venues. The barman at each is encouraged to select a single person to represent the bar, whom he sends to the island twice a year for a performance. These nine people are picked up by the “pig master,” who ferries them to this pig. They enter the folly and each pull on one of the pig’s teats, setting the voice structure; one of them is chosen and operates the organ by cranking the tail. As the pig is singing away, the pig master drops a fresh acorn under the tongue of the animated pig and by the end of the song the little acorn is pushed out of the pig’s anus fully gilded, like a gold egg. Three oak trees are later planted, with the organ player’s name engraved on a little plate around the trunk of a tree. Over the next twenty years I hope that the names of some three hundred inhabitants of Bentheim will be put around the necks of 900 oak trees and the pig will never sing the same tune twice.
Kellie Jones is an associate professor in the art history department at Columbia University. Her book EyeMinded: Living And Writing Contemporary Art, was recently published by Duke University Press and offers a selection of her essays and art writing from 1985–2006. In addition to an introduction in which Jones recounts growing up around artists and art on the Lower East Side, EyeMinded includes commissioned texts from Jones’s parents—poets Amiri Baraka and Hettie Jones—her sister, Lisa Jones, and her husband, Guthrie Ramsey. Kellie Jones is also the curator of “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980,” which will open at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in October 2011.
THE TITLE EYEMINDED comes from a Martin Puryear essay I wrote. It was a word I discovered that means visual thinking, and I thought, “Yeah, that kind of describes the whole project.” Actually my mother was the one who helped me with its subtitle—“Living and Writing Contemporary Art”—the gerund form making things exciting, keeping everything in the present.
I wanted EyeMinded to show that academic routes aren’t the only way to understand art: what it means to you, what artists are doing. It wasn’t by accident that I ended up in my field. Art was everywhere during my childhood, and that gave me a really unique perspective. As I see it, one can grow up appreciating and understanding art without the trappings of art history.
Just as important, the spaces I describe were much more diverse than history tends to tell us. There are people, Americans, who grew up part of a world—the New York art world in the 1960s and ’70s, the world that we write about now—who are nonetheless usually erased from these histories. That has to do with why I love a photo you can find in my book, a photo of my sister and me—these African-American kids—running around in Paula Cooper Gallery.
But even taking race and gender out of the equation, I just wanted to represent as a curator. I realized that no one ever writes about the curators; it’s as if shows just spring up on their own. When people talk about, say, Puryear and his appearance at the Săo Paulo Bienal, do they say who curated it? (Me!) Sometimes it seems like the only curators you ever really hear about historically are Walter Hopps and Harald Szeemann.
In this book, my essays are framed by pieces written by my father, mother, sister, and husband. At first they couldn’t understand why I wanted them to be part of it. They said, “You have all that writing, why do you need ours?” And I said to them, “Essays are essays. But being able to include the frame of your perspective—that’s really part of why I did the book.”
My family appears in many books—including their own. Both of my parents have written their memoirs, and they’d always said, “You’re next!” Growing up, my sister and I were always aware of being in the public eye. We had the sense that there’s a public life, and then there’s a private life that you don’t share. My husband was the one who really helped me see that people will interpret your life anyway, so you might as well take control of that process. At the same time, people can so easily discount your voice, or take you to task for your writing. So I guess I wanted to prove that, no matter what you think about what I write, I have been there. My book is evidence of that.
Sophie Fiennes, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes.
Sophie Fiennes’s latest film, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, documents Anselm Kiefer working in La Ribaute, a dilapidated silk factory in Barjac, France, which Kiefer bought in 1993 and transformed into a massive artistic center. Fiennes’s films include The Late Michael Clark (2000), Hoover Street Revival (2002), and The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006). She is currently working on a second film with Slavoj Zizek as well as a film about Grace Jones. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow runs August 9–23 at Film Forum in New York.
WHEN I FIRST SHOWED SOME FOOTAGE TO ANSELM, he said, “the framing is good, but can you take the people out?” I understood from this that he sees La Ribaute as unpeopled, so I shot much of the film this way, as if everyone has left and what remains is something almost archaeological. For much of the film all you see is an abandoned place.
Some parts of the film were shot with a flying camera so the point of view is more like a disembodied gaze. While watching Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow you can fly through the spaces of La Ribaute and experience it in ways you never could otherwise. This is a childlike way of playing with a source in Kiefer’s work that evokes the Shechinah, a Judaic divine female presence who might be the point of view in this footage. It’s a deliberately childlike idea, but I think childhood is extremely important to Anselm. He said to me once, “After five years old, it’s over.” For him nothing is as intense as the first five years of life. I even think by being an artist he attempts to reexperience something of the intensity he felt as a child.
In the film you see a wild excitement in both destruction and creation. There are ambiguities in Kiefer’s work that have frustrated people because he plays with diverse references, some of which are historically loaded and others pretty obscure, but often it’s not clear what he means to say exactly. But part of the experience of childhood is precisely this sort of lack of comprehension, the unnerving feeling of not knowing what it all means. It’s these paradoxes that emerge in Kiefer’s work and make him such a brilliant artist. There is at once a frenzy in being human, in the fragments of myths and poetry, and of course the monumental scale, but also a morbidity in that everything is falling apart, everything is already dead.
Sophie Fiennes, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, 2010 (Trailer)
I think of Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow as a landscape film where storytelling isn’t about plot but about how you reveal information and create a document. There are the ateliers in La Ribaute where Kiefer works with his assistants, creating paintings and sculptures, and then there is this parallel world he has created that is an internal landscape that he has rendered physical. Watching the film, the viewer traces La Ribaute through two layers: One is unpeopled and set in a kind of omnipresent time. The other unfolds through a series of present-tense moments, where the viewer observes human beings in the process of work.
As the filmmaker I have invented some formal strategies to document this extraordinary place Kiefer has created. But with documentary filmmaking, everything comes through the edit, and so I’ve attempted to go the very end to discover what is possible to do with the material I have.
The artist and writer David Robbins moved to New York in 1979 and worked for a wide range of luminaries, from Andy Warhol to Diana Vreeland. During that decade he also began exhibiting his work at Gallery Nature Morte and published interviews with artists in REAL LIFE Magazine, among other publications. His latest book, Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy, will be published this month by Pork Salad Press.
“CONCRETE COMEDY” is a term I coined in the late 1980s or early ’90s to describe the comedy of doing rather than saying––the comedy of things and gestures. It’s a broad class of comedy, a sensibility that’s manifested in lots of disciplines, and it includes some objects that appear in galleries or museums. We’ve grown accustomed to gallery-sited objects or installations that aspire to perform comedically, but believe me, when I started exhibiting that kind of work in New York in 1984 and ’85, it was definitely odd man out. New York art at that time was neo-expressionist, Pictures generation–derived, deconstructive-slash-critical, or Dia high-serious. Comedy in art was performed––think Mike Smith or William Wegman––but it definitely wasn’t integrated into objects that hung on the wall or stood on the floor. There was a hole, and I started filling it.
In 1988, Christian Nagel, who knew my comedic bent, turned me on to the work of the German comedian Karl Valentin. Celebrated for his film and stage comedy, Valentin also made comic objects, producing them from 1915 through the 1930s. A revelation, they made me realize that my instincts were more in a comedic than an artistic tradition. Finding out about Valentin derailed my “art” career––ask any of my ex-gallerists!––because from that point on I really put comedy first. I stopped thinking through an art framework and instead dug into the idea of the comic object, which work occupied me for more than a decade.
Valentin was clever enough to realize that his objects needed their own context, and he created one: the Valentin Panoptikum, housed originally in the basement of the Hotel Wagner in Munich. I too felt the need to make a context that naturalized my instincts, so I started researching the history of materialist comedy. Valentin’s context creation involved a physical space, whereas mine became a book that pulled together an alternative history of modern comedy, a book that took me ten years to research and write. Last year, Jacob Fabricius volunteered to publish it, Carol Greene and Greene Naftali extended a helping hand, and this past spring we completed production. It’s a completely different take on comedy—not a history of, in curator-speak, “artists who use humor in their work,” but a history of comedy that has taken material form. It’s the first of its kind. The world will never be the same!
Since the early twentieth century, concrete comedy has shown up in every area of material culture and public theater—art, fashion, politics, sports, advertising, pop music, architecture, film, and TV––it’s in every aspect of public life. Sometimes it announces itself––Maurizio Cattelan’s marble sculpture of an enormous hand giving us the finger, sited in front of the Milan bourse, comes to mind––and sometimes it’s super subtle. Harold Koda, curator at the Met’s Costume Institute, educated me about the sly wit of Coco Chanel, who, for instance, made a few design changes to maid’s uniforms and sold the result to wealthy women. These two examples give you some idea of materialist comedy’s range. There are hundreds more; as a basic human invention comedy accepts the imprint of an infinite variety of sensibilities.
Concrete comedy is a hallmark of the modern sensibility. It begins with Valentin, the first person to consistently create objects of comic intent, and with Marcel Duchamp, who was the first to thematize the question of the artist’s seriousness, and then it spreads. Warhol during his deadpan ’60s phase, Andy Kaufman, Martin Kippenberger—all can be regarded as concrete comedians. Something caused comedy to expand beyond merely verbal wit, and the innovation held. Why? We can only speculate. Perhaps a concrete comedy that engages the theaters of the real world felt more empowering than did just speaking funny lines. Comedy is always about a relation to power. There’s always a jester and always a king, even if the “king” now takes the form of mass media, capitalism, and the other ruling abstractions of our time. And the jester always represents a threat, because the jester, in accepting his role, has announced his intention not to seek the throne. He’s playing another game, and that makes him dangerous.