Lundahl & Seitl, The Memory of W. T. Stead, 2013. Performance view, Steinway Hall, London.
Swedish duo Lundahl & Seitl’s most recent installation, The Memory of W. T. Stead, in a collaboration with experimental pianist Cassie Yukawa, places the visitor inside the structure of classical music by enhancing the experience of listening through the amplification or nullification of tactile and visual senses. Produced by NOMAD and co-commissioned by NOMAD and the Montblanc Cultural Foundation with support by Steinway & Sons and Arts Council England, The Memory of W. T. Stead will run at Steinway Hall in London from March 27 to April 6, 2013.
FOR ABOUT A YEAR AFTER GIVING BIRTH to our daughter, we both couldn’t escape an image that appeared on our retinas, an image that looked not like a void but rather a passage. When we would focus visually on that passage, it was clear to us that it was sealed; time was flowing in two different directions and it felt as if those forces were conducting us. We were empty vessels where things could just pass through.
Born in 1875, John William Dunne, an aircraft engineer, had similarly strange visions as well. But these more resembled premonitions by way of precognitive dreams. He once dreamt about a catastrophe in Haiti in the beginning of the 1900s where thousands of people were going to die. He didn’t think much of it until he happened across that news a few days later. Upon realizing this, he started having more dreams. What could they mean? After investigating them in parapsychological experiments, he discovered the concept of serialism—that many different time periods could exist simultaneously, every person having his or her own time within them as they walk through space.
After the Steinway & Sons showroom in London closes at night, we’ve been granted use of the space for our latest work, The Memory of W. T. Stead. In this site-specific piece, people are invited into the dimly lit building where they are first greeted by a man who has worked there for over thirty years. He ushers seven visitors at a time to a silent room that is filled with pianos. It is also filled with portraits of past employees and pianists—a room of memory, as it were. As the visitors sit on piano stools for some time, someone comes in and gives them headphones. After putting them on, the visitor hears a minimalistic sound, fragments of a Bach Fugue in A Minor and Ligeti’s Pour Irina, which are played by pianist Cassie Yukawa as if on the ghostly, surrounding pianos. While listening to these three-dimensional recordings, the visitors wear whiteout goggles, which blind them.
Déjà vu is a concept readily present within the fugue in its repetitions, reversals, and spirals. The title of our piece comes from the true story of William Thomas Stead, a journalist who predicted his own death at the turn of the twentieth century. He once wrote about himself drowning, a fate he would later experience on the Titanic. Accounts by several of the survivors described him as just sitting there, quietly reading a book as the ship sank. In Pour Irina, there’s a sense of expansion that refers to time, whether in the future or remembered from the past, at one point collapsing like a euphoric drowning of the present moment. The music doesn’t have an end either; it just continues further away from the listener, like a life slipping away.
Fully blinded, the visitor in the piano room then hears a voice that says, “If you stretch out your hand, you will feel my hand.” The voice acts a narrator in a way, predicting what is going to happen. The listener won’t know whose hand it is they reach out to, but that’s not important. When you cannot see, absences are actually felt more strongly than the pressure of touch because you don’t know where its source went. This creates the sense of a three-dimensional presence around the body, activating the spine as if someone were standing behind you.
The disembodied hand also acts as the embodiment of the voice in front of the visitor. It expresses space and time as it physically and phonetically guides the visitor through different rooms, be they real or in the mind, making them crouch or contort through the halls and doorways of the sound’s architecture. The music and voice, in a sense, together create a more accurate room of memory by forcing the visitor to recall the a priori acoustics of childhood or a walk alone in the forest.
When you gaze at a sunset, it is perceived like a postcard. The earth doesn’t turn; east and west do not rise and descend. The experience of looking at art has also fallen into this quick and selective treatment, pushing it away and flattening it while passively standing in front of it. When you use peripheral vision—and peripheral senses—it is as if the world comes forward to wash over and change you psychologically. When we started working together as an artist duo, we just merged with the other. We saw this passage but never thought about it relating to birth. Perhaps it was a vibration of another sense, or an echoing throughout the body.
For her latest exhibition, Kara Walker draws upon two white supremacist texts from the twentieth century, building a breadth of work that centers pointedly on the present moment. The show is titled after a line in Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams of My Father, and presents five sweeping graphite drawings and forty mixed-media works that image racist fantasies, providing an indictment of the way these drive contemporary politics and culture. The show also marks a return to her seminal cut paper silhouettes, which polarized the art world when she debuted them at the Drawing Center in 1994 and have been peripheral to her practice for a number of years. “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 11, 2013.
JUST A FEW MONTHS AGO, one of my drawings was veiled at the Newark Public Library in New Jersey. The work depicted a lynching as well as a scene of sexual violence and was part of a series of forty-four drawings I exhibited in 2011 at Sikkema Jenkins in New York in 2011these were on loan to the library by a private collector. One of the so-called more explicit sections of this drawing provoked a strong reaction from the staff, which led to its eventual censorship and caused the complicated imagery that defines my practice to become a topic of conversation again. Controversy has always been a constant to my work, but in this particular instance it was not my silhouettes that sparked the reaction but my drawings, which are far more about the present than the cutouts. The silhouettes literally turn away from the here and now—they’ve always contained this kind of manic cruelty, but the job of the silhouette is to feign a very neutral front—it is duplicitous in this way.
My drawings erupted as a kind of backhand slap to my cutout work. The point of the silhouettes was to locate racism, blackness, and, in particular, my draftsmanship in an anachronistic nonspace: a place that would allow the work to exist as a fully realized second-class citizen poking at the margins of mechanical modern art practices. This gesture quickly became a useful shortcut for others to illustrate dissertations on history, politics, and feminism. Taking that social cue—that my work serves as good graphics for historians—I decided to illustrate texts. Making sweeping graphite gestures is all about being in the moment, but I hope to retain that question of what moment are we? Or, what moment is this? Is it all moments?
As we approached Election Day this past year, I became absorbed in an unsavory paranoia about mass violence in general and the expedience with which racist fantasies provide leverage to messy actions. I wanted to understand how narrative unfolds in the production of dangerous mythologies. I began reading two white supremacist texts, which my Chicago show is based upon. The first was The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, written in 1905 by Thomas Dixon Jr., which was also the premise for the 1915 film Birth of the Nation. I then looked at William Luther Pierce’s 1978 The Turner Diaries, a book the FBI described as “the bible of the racist right.” Narratively, the two works couldn’t be more different. The Clansman, written just after the close of the nineteenth century, is a reverent call for a romantic era in which everyone knew their caste. It’s a melodrama soaked in perfume and truthiness; the entire narrative pushes the reader forward toward the tantalizing allure of an impending rape, so that fury and vengeance will unleash history from the bonds of law.
By contrast, The Turner Diaries is a dystopian novel depicting a bloody overthrow of the United States government by Aryan militants. The novel begins in 2099: The nation is run by Jews and blacks, civilian firearms have been outlawed, and the book depicts white men and, to a lesser extent, young blonde women as tragically and grotesquely disenfranchised, which prompts a barbaric overthrow and ethnic cleansing. The narrative is a convoluted jumble of munitions instruction, futuristic diary entries, and end-of-days scenarios. The effect is jarring for its relentless lack of irony and reckless dependence on the hapless other to serve as foil, enemy, disguise, and cleaning crew for the protagonists’ escalating bloodshed—grubby anarchy that misidentifies itself as pure order.
So what can be said about this work for Chicago? The exhibition is titled “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!,” which was Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey’s activist call that Barack Obama references using an ironic voice in his book Dreams from My Father. In order to deal with these texts visually, I have had to delve unapologetically into language. To do this, I have brought together drawings and silhouettes plus a number of watercolors. I am thinking of it as a first chapter—laying out the terrain needed to work with these obscure fictional accounts. The watercolors function as a kind of anchor to the novels; some quote Pierce and extrapolate images from the text. The large graphite drawings pose as grand history paintings and add thoughts about racial codependence, black separatism, and Civil War reenactment into the mix. Looking at what I have created, I see the aesthetics of Thomas Dixon, whose prose is all about the nobility of aggression. In future pieces, I’ll aim toward an overwrought multipart piece where I can burrow further into the devastating and artless conclusions each novel proposes, and take a look at the problems that develop as an “author” inserting herself into a text whose only purpose is to destroy her.
Mark Dion, Curator’s Office, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.
New York–based artist Mark Dion has moonlighted as an amateur geologist, ichthyologist, and archaeologist, while working with a wide range of research material. His recent work, Curator’s Office, 2013, is currently set among the many period rooms at the Minneapolis Institute of Artsa departure from the confines of the artist's now famous Wunderkammern. Here books, furniture, and personal effects do not reveal their collector’s taste or knowledge (as traditional curiosity cabinets would have it) but rather spin a fictive tale about a curator gone missing in the 1950s in a period of American anticommunist paranoia. Curator’s Office is on view in the touring exhibition “More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness,” which originated at SITE Santa Fe and is now on view at MIA until June 9, 2013. Dion’s current solo show at Tanya Bonakdar in New York is on view until April 13.
BARTON KESTLE, THE “FIRST” MODERN ART CURATOR at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is an East Coast–educated intellectual. He once lived in New York and had lots of artist friends. He’s quite erudite but also egalitarian. He’s known to be retiring and shy but perhaps only is to hide another life he leads where a collection of matchbooks from exotic bars and other strange places in the Minneapolis area begin to tell a different story. He is Walter Benjamin by day and Dean Martin by night.
I became interested in curiosity cabinets in the early 1990s. During the pre-Enlightenment, they were like microcosms of a diminutive projection of the world, which at that time seemed tangible. There were no established rules in the culture of display back then, just competing models for reality since there yet wasn’t a consensus of how to represent it. Prevalent was the Judeo-Christian model of willful ignorance embodied by blind faith. But there were also these quirky hermetic and mystical traditions; their histories show a lot of roads not taken. They had the idea that objects were more than they are—that an object could have metaphysical properties.
Actual curators’ offices from Kestle’s time in the 1950s were a real hodgepodge. A curator may have had a high-end designer lamp on his desk, while the desk itself was from the ’40s and behind him stood a cobbled-together DIY bookshelf made of bricks and boards. Encoded in these details was a period of rampant suspicion and red-baiting, of anti-intellectualizing, and the maltreatment of gays, women, and people of color. The intense romanticizing of that era today comes from popular culture, through television shows such as Mad Men, which is set in 1958, where everything in Don Draper’s office is from 1958. It supports this false notion that one would never have had anything the slightest bit older than what was current in the immediate present.
The Curator’s Office, with its cigarette butts and coffee stains, is like a crime scene, motivating the viewer to uncover the identity left behind by this illusive figure. It is a lived-in space: Among stacks of paintings, one might find a sock on the floor or a crumpled-up newspaper, or the half-finished glass of orange juice from a hasty morning. You can see the watermarks from where Kestle would leave his galoshes. I wanted to create someone who was an intellectual, a liberal, who was perhaps gay, perhaps a communist, or just merely worldly—residing slightly outside of this prepackaged society. In the literal sense, because plastic and cardboard weren’t much in use for packaging at the time, if Kestle were to have bought a typewriter, the ribbon would have come in a tin container. A roll of cellophane would have come in a circular canister made of fortified metal. Everything was built of a much more robust material, which for me has meant that everything had the potential of being a better hiding place, even for truth.
Douglas Davis, Images from the Present Tense, 1971, black-and-white TV, 16 x 22 x 12”. From “Video Art,” Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1975. (Photograph: Will Brown)
Primary Information was formed by James Hoff and Miriam Katzeff in 2006 and has since published a range of artists’ books and writings by artists, in addition to reissuing seminal magazines such as Avalanche and REAL LIFE. Hoff and Katzeff recently curated the final entry of the Excursus series, organized by Alex Klein, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. The show runs March 20—June 16, 2013, and leads into the fiftieth anniversary of the ICA this fall.
THE ICA ASKED US to go through their archive and let the process determine the show, and we began by searching for artists and exhibitions that we thought would be of interest to us, an approach that was later coupled with the idea of—in keeping with what we already do—taking ten catalogues out of their fifty years of publishing them, and then digitizing and putting these projects online. We knew we wanted to canvass a large area and then focus on a few important people and shows. We also knew that we wanted to show work by artists that we’ve had past relationships with or material we’ve already worked with, which complements the archival material we’ve pulled from the ICA’s archive. Curtains (Vidas Perfectas), a large hanging canvas by Sarah Crowner, will be a framing device for the show.
It got interesting when we came across thirteen folders for a video art exhibition that happened at the ICA in 1975. Suzanne Delehanty, the director and curator at the time, started working on it in 1973, and it seems that she wasn’t afraid to embrace all the different ways that people were working with video in the ’70s—a lot of radical installations. From the ample documentation in the archive, it looks like the exhibition was exciting—something you’d want to see then, or even now. In 1973 there had only been a handful of ambitious video shows at museums, so it was great to see all the different requests to so many people trying to figure out how to preview and exhibit this medium—everyone was comparing notes or trying to get sponsorship for the equipment, which was incredibly expensive. An artist who came up repeatedly in the archive in a number of different ways is Douglas Davis, who was the art critic for Newsweek for a long time. It seems as though he was constantly connecting people while at the same time making amazing work himself. Meanwhile, all these video art distribution channels or microdistributors were springing up. For the most part it seems like a bunch of people having to figure out how to do video art shows, let alone make video art, because everything is really impractical. We’ll present a good deal of this correspondence—fascinating diagrams from artists about their installations, for instance Vito Acconci’s drawings, and instructions from Robert Morris.
It was compelling to us to get a sense of the political and social issues surrounding those networks, not only because the issue of distribution is so fundamental to what we do but also since this was such a new model in the mid-’70s. It was really a moment when people were beginning to think about how to produce and show videos and artists’ books on an institutional level—from Art Metropole in Canada to Printed Matter in New York to Bill Viola’s work at Art/Tapes/22. These kinds of discussions provide a nice background for what we’re talking about with regard to putting something out in an exhibition space versus publishing it in book form or putting it online. We hope this show provides an opportunity to highlight or think about those conversations, which are really important to us as an organization.
We were also thinking hard about our work after Hurricane Sandy basically threw it into relief. We lost about a quarter of our inventory in our storage space in Lower Manhattan, and about three quarters of our annual budget was wiped out by that storm. After that, all of our efforts went into hurricane recovery, which meant talking to insurance companies and corresponding with individual supporters. It was heartening to see all these organizations, individuals, and galleries sending out e-mails on our behalf for support, and it was incredible to receive this help—Artists Space gave us a humidifier, and librarians from New York Public Library and MoMA came down to help us when we were cleaning out the storage unit to see what could be saved. Later, White Columns, Triple Canopy, Light Industry, and others organized a benefit for us and other organizations. Sandy pushed everything back three or four months, but we are now able to focus on our new projects again. In addition to the ICA exhibition, we have a new artists’ book with Florian Hecker. We’ve also been working with Andrew Lampert and Haden Guest on a George Kuchar reader, which we’re really looking forward to. It should be out later this year.
Robert Bordo, The Future, 2012, oil on canvas, 35 x 49”.
Robert Bordo is a Brooklyn-based Canadian artist known for his quasi-representational paintings that play with the pictorial language of the medium. He is an associate professor at the Cooper Union, School of Art, where he leads the painting program. His current exhibition, “Three Point Turn,” is on display at Alexander and Bonin from March 16 to April 27, 2013.
THE DRIVE BACK FROM MY STUDIO in upstate New York last winter triggered a road narrative of my experience. I felt like I was affected by the repetition of thoughts that typically occurs on this journey, simplified by what I now call life markers: backs of road signs, long winding descents or narrow climbs, stone walls and road dividers. I’ve memorized many of them, so the drive for me has become one that’s more internal.
It’s probably because I’ve recently been rereading a lot of Beat poetry and novels by Jack Kerouac. But really, displacement has always been a prevalent theme in my life. Even when I was younger, I made work with ideas of travel—old camping maps, globes, air mail envelopes—because I saw painting as an act of rediscovery and exploration, as if the void of modernist abstraction could be reimagined as a wilderness.
Last winter, I had been essentially working in total isolation. I think I had cabin fever, because things became heightened and exaggerated, which is prime for making expressive paintings. I would watch the news on the television, read newspapers and online blogs, all seemingly talking about the same dramatic political polarization in the country. In the language of the conservative media, more specifically, I kept hearing an echo of the strident threats that were around in the 1950s, the conformity and the repression that eventually inspired the beginning of the New York School.
The material practice is the vehicle for this transference, one that must have physical evidence of the painting process (of painting, and repainting) to satisfy until image, content, and surface comply as a record of experience. I draw a lot before starting a painting, creating a whole ensemble of variations of compositions that begin to circle around a metaphor. I don’t have a specific image in mind, but I can have a specific idea. There’s a shift from the balance of abstraction and representation to a correlation between images and allegory.
I’m still struck by the stark differences between Kerouac’s On the Road and a desolate novel by Cormac McCarthy from a few years ago called The Road. Imagine hitchhiking and jumping freight trains across a wealthy postwar America as a hobo on a journey to self-discovery, sustained by the generosity of a subculture providing food and drink, sex, freedom, and the agency of art. Or, on the other hand, crossing postapocalyptic America with your father while fending off unimaginable threats and hunger, scrounging for existence in the debris of a fallen consumerist society. I keep coming back to this idea of reenactment, digging around in the material of painting to unearth an existential landscape made of dirt, hills, and roads, perhaps even a rearview mirror, so space and time can go forward and backward, creating a kind of twilight-zone hysteria and an escape narrative.
Bridget Everett is a New York–based performer and lead singer of the band the Tender Moments. A denizen of Joe’s Pub—Everett is former cohost of Our Hit Parade, along with Kenny Mellman and Neal Medlyn—she currently performs at the venue monthly with her band. Here, she talks about her love for singing and the community of performers who feed her passion. In addition to releasing their first album this spring, the Tender Moments will be playing at Joe’s Pub on March 20 and April 24, 2013.
I MOVED TO NEW YORK in 1997 to be a singer but I never had a clear idea of how that was going to happen. Before that, in Phoenix, Arizona, I was singing at karaoke bars and performing the national anthem at baseball games during spring training. I think there must be something locked up inside me that is a little dangerous or violent. While singing at those karaoke bars, I would get up on the bar and shake my fists and scream because I needed to. So Phoenix was fun but I reached my limit. In New York a friend took me to a Kiki and Herb show and it blew my mind. Then I started going to see performers like Murray Hill and Sweetie. I knew that these downtown performances were exactly what I wanted to do. After a Kiki and Herb show in Washington, DC, I met Kenny Mellman, aka Herb, at a karaoke bar. He heard me sing and then asked me to perform at one of his shows. I swear to God: All roads to success have stemmed from karaoke for me.
Neal Medlyn was one of the regular guests of a show I hosted with Kenny called Automatic Vaudeville. Seeing Neal’s work was another one of those mind-blowing moments. He taught me a lot about body empowerment. He used to do this crazy thing where he would come out onstage in just a sweater and nothing else, and then sing a sweet song. He’s been really instrumental for me in learning how to let go. For instance, I think a lot of people aren’t used to seeing someone my size move around in tiny clothes—I’m not enormous, but I’m a tall and big woman. But I feel very comfortable in my body, especially when songs speak to me.
It took me a long time to get where I am now: I’ve given myself permission to let go. My performances tend to be very physical with sometimes loud and aggressive movements, but it really stems from love. I have learned a lot from the performers around me—Erin Markey, Jenn Harris, Molly Pope, Murray Hill, Cole Escola—about doing whatever the fuck you want and committing to it. They’re all really entertaining and wild and dangerous. I feel like my performances encapsulate that danger and unpredictability too. But what’s really allowed me to develop into a persona has been my audiences. At Joe’s Pub, they kept allowing for more—letting me, or maybe even asking me, to go further and further. I think that’s why Our Hit Parade was so successful: because of the way the audiences and the staff at Joe’s Pub really welcomed us and never said no.
I don’t think most people understand where to put me, because I’m not really a performance artist or an actor or a comic or a singer; I’m a hybrid of things. I’m not saying I’m reinventing the wheel in any way—I’ve just learned a lot from a lot of different places and I’ve had to make a language that made sense for me. My training is in opera and vocal performance, which in some ways has really nothing to do with where I am now. But if I hadn’t trained my voice, I wouldn’t be able to use it in the way that I do without destroying it.
I’m excited to have an album; it’s been a dream of mine. One of the musicians in my band is Adam Horovitz, aka Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys, and he has given me a lot of creative support. I thought our album should just be covers but Adam encouraged me to write my own songs. He embraced, supported, and encouraged the ridiculous work I was doing. For instance, one day I thought up this song about different kinds of titties while we were playing catch with some friends and he said: “Sounds like a hit, go home and write that.”
James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook are New York–based artists who, in 1984, opened the East Village gallery Ground Zero, which showed pioneering installation, performance, and multimedia work. One of their earliest artists was David Wojnarowicz, the painter, photographer, performance artist, and filmmaker whose provocative work helped define the downtown scene and the rising tide of AIDS activism.
In the mid-1980s, the trio began collaborating on 7 Miles a Second, a comic book based on Wojnarowicz’s autobiographical writings. Drawn and edited by Romberger and colored by Van Cook, it is a stark, often hallucinatory portrayal of Wojnarowicz’s childhood years spent hustling on the streets of New York and exploring the city’s more forlorn quarters, and of his adulthood—he died at age thirty-seven—during which he created an unflinchingly personal body of work and raged on behalf of social and medical justice for AIDS victims.
The book was published by Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics, in 1996, and was recently reissused, with additional art by Romberger and Van Cook’s original colors, by Fantagraphics.
WHEN HE WAS A TEENAGER, David had made a bunch of comics, underground-y Robert Crumb–looking things. They’re pretty funny. And in the early 1980s, he was doing things for Tommy Turner’s Redrum magazine—stuff made with Archie comics where he cut apart and collaged the speech balloons to make the characters like the Manson family. The story showed Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica doing drugs and murdering their principal, Mr. Weatherbee. He didn’t have the patience to sit and draw a rational narrative: By that time he was more interested in painting and filmmaking.
We started talking about doing a comic book with him around 1985, when David was showing his work with us at our Ground Zero Gallery. He knew that we were doing a strip together. He said he’d like to do his life story in that form and we began to meet about it in 1986. He was totally open to collaborating in any form he could think of; he would touch any medium he could get his hands on. At that time in the East Village, art was more fluid, and it wasn’t such a reach to move from one medium to another. So David saw comics as a means of expression just like anything else.
He gave me a pile of sheets of monologues and conversations and records of experiences and dreams he had when he was younger. He outlined a rough structure of himself as a child, as a teenager, as an adult and asked me what would work for a comic, and I picked things that would work visually. I began penciling it in 1986, and was quite slow in those days—we weren’t in any sort of rush; this was before David was diagnosed with HIV. The next year, Marguerite and I left to live in Belgium for six months, and I inked the first ten pages there. We came back in 1988. David liked it, so I started working with him on the second part. That’s when he showed me A Fire in My Belly for the first time.
In 1991, I finished inking the second part and then we had a few meetings and we talked about what David wanted. At that time he was doing his final works, which were really important, and meanwhile he was having problems with the NEA and Reverend Wildmon and having to go to court, all while he’s very, very sick. And he just kept getting sicker and sicker and then, by that time, the ranks of people taking care of him closed around him, and we just couldn’t get in to see him. And then he died in 1992.
David Wojnarowicz discusses arts funding, ca. 1990
Most of the first two parts of the book aren’t anywhere else in David’s body of writing—it’s really specific to the comic—but in the third part there are also sections of text that overlap with Close to the Knives and his essay “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” which he wrote for the Artists Space show Nan Goldin curated in 1989, “Against Our Vanishing.” But by the time I actually got to sit and draw this thing and edit it—after David’s death—there wasn’t anything like that in his texts; there was no beautiful day, so the book ends with him dying.
Certainly there are very long blocks of text, which make that section less straight comic book and more illuminated manuscript. But I couldn’t cut them. There were rants that he did that have their own logic and need to be fully intact or they wouldn’t make sense. In those cases I was rendering them more obliquely with the art, trying not to be too redundant with the text or just commenting on them with what I drew.
DAVID HAD GIVEN JAMES the gist of what he wanted for the third part. He said: “I want to show myself at the current time, mourning the deaths of my friends and then in the end it’s a beautiful day and I’m happy to be alive.” His choice to turn away from a nihilistic view of life to a brighter one was happening at the same time people were starting to be diagnosed and become ill. The book, especially the third part, expresses a vulnerability we all feel: No one really sees themselves dying.
The intensity is not simply on David’s side, but on James’s side as well, because we lost our friend, so the book was done with the double pressure of completing someone’s work and honoring their memory and also being in the grieving process and thinking about how to handle the epidemic in terms of your voice as an artist.
With the color, I wanted to do something completely different, because I didn’t think it should look like anything else that had come before. And I also really wanted to both have a psychological impact with the color and to help tell the story by drawing attention to certain aspects of it. It requires a certain amount of courage to commit to a painting: You have to get the paint to a certain consistency and you get one go to put it down. So this particular book was emotionally challenging, but I was trying to commit to making these choices, to get it right the first time, to create an emotionally heightened state. We’re in a whole other world here.
Jack Pierson is best known for his lush photographs and sculptures of words made of letters salvaged from roadside diners, Hollywood marquees, and Las Vegas casinos. He gained notoriety in the early ’90s when he, along with peers like Karen Kilimnik and Laurie Parsons, was termed a “slacker artist” by Jack Bankowsky. Over the past six months, Pierson has mounted an entirely new body of work, beginning in October at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels and then continuing in Los Angeles at Regen Projects. On March 2, he opened “Ennui (la vie continue)” [Ennui (life goes on)], which is on view at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris until April 6.
EVEN IF YOU’RE MADLY IN LOVE, even if it’s all working out perfectly, the deeper you fall, the faster you will realize you can’t fully be one with another. There are people who are probably so in love that this must be devastating. When I think of melancholia, I tend to think of this, of the impossibility of it all, that two can never really be one. Nostalgia and melancholy are feelings people generally don’t want to embrace, at least in art. Art is supposed to endure, to be ultimately immortal. For me, in order to create, I had to let go of the idea of immortality. Perhaps that’s why I don’t paint so muchI’ve always made work that can be disassembled, that if taken apart leaves you with nothing. Photography is a system of ghosts: The photograph is never the thing itself, and that thing in its actual form is certainly not eternal. The photograph may be actually better than what it depicts, which is why I love and despise it. In contrast, for me, to paint is to grab at eternitysort of like deciding to have a kid. Photography is homosexual and painting is heterosexual, which is not to say its finest practitioners may or may not have been either one of these.
Last month, I mounted an exhibition in Los Angeles, which I titled “The End of the World.” Unlike much of my output, there was no nostalgia in the work I presented here; this was supposed to be a contemporary blockbuster, a statement in 3-Dthis is LA, after all. It was the first time I felt like I worked completely in the now. Paris, however, is a different kind of Hollywood, and I wanted to bring the location to the work. I tend toin a way that most serious artists won’tplay to the audience, and I love Paris. I find it as melancholic as I find it euphoric, and if I am in Paris for more than a few days, there will come a moment when I am so overwhelmed by either mortality or beauty that I want to throw myself in the Seine. Over the years it’s happened a million times and I never quite get it. And so, for the Paris show, I landed on the word ennui. If you look it up in the dictionary, ennui means melancholia and also boredom, but I think it really means something closer to killing time, waiting for the next thing to come along. Apropos.
My first concept for the Paris show was to render the word dreams in big, gargantuan letters, after which I planned to burn them. However, the general notion of burnt dreams is one that I have done many times before, and I wanted to keep the possibility for broader interpretation open. While I still constructed the word dreams, I painted the letters silver instead. I also made neon elements depicting the moon in various stages of waxing and waning and then complete fullness. Each moon is a different color and will reflect onto this big forest of letters that are silver and reflective. I’m hoping for the effect of wandering around the Pantheon or an Egyptian temple. How’s that for grandiose?
When I was in my twenties, living between New York, Miami Beach, and Boston, I wouldn’t pay for art materials. Everything I used had to be scavenged or found, which kept the process of artmaking simple. I had parameters; it led me to that sort of aesthetic that I work from now. Currently I’m making these huge works that are fabricated and made of plywood and the only boundary is that there is no boundary. Maybe it’s because I’m past fifty and looking for immortality: Next time they’ll probably be cast in bronze or stainless steel. Much of my work is language-based, but I am moving in a glacial way toward something that isn’t text-driven, if only to be more universal. I hope when I am eighty I will put a kernel of corn in the middle of the room and call it a day.
Wolfgang Laib installing Wax Room (Where have you gone–where are you going?), 2013, at The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (Photo: Rhiannon Newman)
The German artist Wolfgang Laib is well known for his meticulous installations. Pollen from Hazelnut, 2013, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until March 11, 2013, and the permanent Wax Room (Where have you gone–where are you going?), 2013, opens at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, on March 2, 2013; for more information click here. In addition, some of Laib’s output will also be on view in two overlapping solo exhibitions in New York: “Without Beginning and Without End” at Sperone Westwater, March 1-30, and “Photographs and Other Works” at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, March 15–May 4.
I FIND IT VERY BEAUTIFUL that these two very different projects, Pollen from Hazelnut and the wax room, are happening so close to each other. The work at MoMA is in a very public space, where many people can see it—at the center of the museum, in the biggest city of the world. It radiates throughout the whole institution, like the glowing sun, and it can be seen from all the floors. The pollen piece in a public space is always an incredible attraction and stirs up emotions and inner feelings in people’s hearts, which is very moving. It is always like that.
At the Phillips, it’s the opposite. The strength of the Phillips is its intimacy and privacy, and here the wax chamber will be in a very small room. What attracted me, especially, was their Rothko Room. In the United States people often say that my pollen pieces are like a Mark Rothko on the floor, but that is much too simple. Over the past two years I have read quite a bit about Rothko. My work is very different from painting, but I was not surprised when I discovered that our interests are similar, and we have the same favorite paintings by Fra Angelico and Giotto. Somehow, we have a close relationship that is much more than the visual similarities between our works. I said to the staff at the Phillips that if we could make a wax chamber near his room, that would be my real relationship to Rothko.
I have made beeswax chambers over the past twenty-five years or so, and more recently I have felt that I would not make them for temporary exhibitions, one after the other, but only if they could be permanent. A wax chamber is something like a house, anyway: You build a house and you don’t take it down. A wax chamber is also something that you could never explain, and it would be a pity to try to do so, because it’s so simple and also very complex.
For instance, people always think that pollen and wax are natural materials, which is true, but they are also more than that. These are materials that of course I did not make, and that is a major difference. The pollen and the beeswax are not mine; they are much more than myself. This is a very important issue. These materials exist beyond the individual. In Western culture there is an emphasis on the individual doing something and it belonging to him. But while that has an incredible power, for me it also has its limits, because then you are not connected to the rest of the world. Something like pollen, it’s not me—it is something bigger.