Monica Ross


2007 promotional image for Monica Ross, Anniversary—an act of memory, 2008-13. Photo: Bernard G. Mills.

The works of British artist Monica Ross employ drawing, performance, video, and text to address questions of memory and history. Ross’s project Anniversary—an act of memory celebrates its culminating fifth year this year, with the concluding section taking place at the twenty-third session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 10–14, 2013. At the work’s completion, nearly a thousand individuals will have spoken the two thousand words of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights in sixty public recitations in over fifty languages. The artist speaks here about how this work began.

I DEVELOPED ANNIVERSARY—AN ACT OF MEMORY in 2005, in response to the British police’s shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazillian electrician living in London. Two weeks after the July 2005 terrorist attacks, police began surveillance on de Menezes’s apartment building and saw him for the first time when he was leaving for work one morning. They identified him as a terrorist suspect on the spot due to his supposedly “foreign” appearance. They followed him into the London Underground, where a team of armed police pushed him to the ground and shot him repeatedly in the head. The officers were following a covert shoot-to-kill procedure that’s still active in UK policing, although it has no democratic sanction. It was a terrifying demonstration of the power of law enforcement to overstep its responsibility and kill an innocent man.

In effect, the officers had failed to exercise presence of mind; they were responding to instructions via earpieces, following some distant voice of authority telling them to attack and shoot. I recalled Hannah Arendt’s comments about evil rising from thoughtlessness, and I wondered if I would have had the courage and temporal focus to disobey. I asked myself how a society might nurture these qualities in its citizens. I speculated that having the bravery to resist injustice might be connected to a strong sense of communal commitment to a clearly articulated ethical code.

This idea took me to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a secular statement with a rarely quoted preamble, which urges “every individual and organ of society” to strive “by teaching and education” to promote awareness of and respect for the declaration’s rights and freedoms. This ignited my interest; in addition to being an artist, I’ve also been a teacher for a long time, yet I had never paid any attention to this historical document.

The recitation format of the final work developed in three stages. First I learned the entire declaration by heart. Then I worked on its spoken delivery. The third step was to cross the significant divide between my personal recitation and a public one; the challenge of dealing with pressure in an exposed context is symbolically very important in this project. The first few solo recitations in 2005 took place in various settings, including the Beaconsfield gallery in London, the National Review of Live Art, and the foyer of the British Library. This last recitation marked the sixtieth anniversary of the document and began the series of sixty solo, collective, and multilingual recitations that will conclude in Geneva.

In the mid-2000s, I saw these “acts of memory” as a modest strategy, but to my surprise, individuals and groups all over the UK took up the process. I think this is a sign of the times. People today seem more aware of history, which, as Walter Benjamin observed, is never safe from the victors. See, for example, the widespread anger sparked by Margaret Thatcher’s funeral earlier this year. That event was emblematic of the political right’s bid to maintain its own historical narratives through performative gestures, and it infuriated people. I’m delighted by the reception Anniversary—an act of memory has received. Crucially, though, expression isn’t the same as action. It isn’t enough to simply reiterate the declaration. One has to commit to the actualized defense of human rights. The act of recollection forms just a part of that urgent process.

— As told to Rachel Withers

Tony Feher


Tony Feher, Come Out and Play Stephen Jay (detail), 2013, painter’s tape, 8 x 8’. Installation view, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.

Artist Tony Feher is the subject of a twenty-five-year retrospective that originated at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston and is on view at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, until September 15. Feher, known for redeeming everyday objects and consumer goods through careful juxtaposition and placement, speaks about the new works he made for the deCordova and about surveying his art career.

AS SOON AS I DROVE into the parking lot at the deCordova, I knew I wanted to create a work for the building’s grand staircase. The building is nestled into a hill, and you enter at the bottom. A window wall goes up the side of the staircase; at its base, the windows are probably forty feet tall. Horizontal mullions define the panes of glass, and they seem to want to accept, very readily, two-liter bottles filled with dyed water—a mechanism I have used a lot. In total, nearly three hundred bottles filled with water tinted by McCormick food dye—red, yellow, blue, green—make a linear progression across the diagonal staircase. The light pouring through those spots of color looks like medieval stained glass from France. They’re just glowing.

I made two other pieces for the deCordova. One is at the end of a twenty- or thirty-foot-long hall, on a glass pane that’s approximately eight feet square. I blotted out the view onto the park completely with bits of blue painter’s tape. From a distance, it’s an ethereal, sapphire pattern lit from behind. It keeps you inside the space of the exhibition. If you look outside other windows you’ll see a forty-foot-tall fluorescent magenta pole I specified. At all times of day, it glows. It looks like it has been plugged in. Now everything is as green as possible. But in the fall, when the leaves go orange and red, it will play off of those colors. In the depths of winter, with skeletal tree limbs, the contrast will be quite dramatic. The deCordova has decided to leave it on view for two years.

The survey has helped me to realize how fortunate I am in terms of my health—that I’m still alive, still fat and sassy. A lot of the work of my coming-of-age period, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, was made in the social climate of HIV/AIDS. So many people were confronting their mortality thirty or forty years sooner than you normally do. The intimacy, the fragility—the almost pathetic quality—of some of my early work has given way, over the years that I’ve survived, to works with more substantial qualities. That might have something to do with the fact that I no longer feel like I might die tomorrow. In 1989, when I found out I was positive, I said to myself, “Well, you’re gonna be dead in ten years, so you better get busy. This is not a time to mope around and feel sorry for yourself.” Now I’m lucky to be in a situation where sometimes I can even forget about it. I take my medication and everything’s good. This show reminded me of what was going on at the time, and how far I’ve come—and we’ve come. I thought it would be easy to look back over my shoulder, but all it has done is remind me that the future is tomorrow, and there’s much more work to be done.

— As told to Brian Sholis

View of “Polar Eclipse,” 2013. Photo: Tom Powel.

The artist representing the inaugural Bahamas pavilion at the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale is Bahamian Tavares Strachan, who has had solo shows at the MIT List Visual Arts Center as well as at the Brooklyn Museum, where in 2009 he exhibited The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want (Arctic Ice Project), 2004–2008, a block of ice Strachan brought back from an expedition to the North Pole. Displacement is a theme that runs through his work, whether in the context of geographical distance and scientific measurement or in the context of cultural dislocation and loss. Here, he talks about his forays into research settings and how those experiences relate to his work for the Bahamas pavilion.

COSMONAUT TRAINING is a simulation of the physical and psychological conditions of space. You’re turned, spun around, submerged. At MIT, I spent some time in the microfabrication lab and optics lab, in their zero-gravity simulations, and working with infrared video. We also hung out with an amazing scientist, Deva Newman, who is designing a new space suit for NASA. This was all part of my investigation of orthostatic tolerance—the ability of the human body to withstand hypotension during gravitational stress.

Extreme physical and cultural discomfort, and the achievement of a goal in a hostile environment: In some sense my work at the Bahamas pavilion is an attempt to negotiate these ideas within an artmaking practice. You could say there’s a recurring theme of loss and invisibility in my work. With Robert Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson—the two explorers who are remembered for reaching the North Pole—they knew one another and collaborated on expeditions for over thirty years. But after making it to the pole, they were never as close again. Essentially, they stopped speaking to each other. Peary went on to win medals, while Henson went unrecognized and worked as a federal clerk for decades after their expedition. Success tends to change people’s relationships. I’m also reminded of that quote “There’s no food on the table, but whitey’s on the moon”. . . ? Or something like that.

On my last Arctic expedition, I found out that ayaya—an Inuit folk tradition—was starting to fade away, which I found discomforting but also interesting. Teaching it to children was the best way to ensure that it would continue to live in some way. We had children from Nassau, the Bahamas, learn an Inupiaq song that is virtually untranslatable to other languages. Its meaning relies heavily on contextual clues—speakers move and enunciate in a certain way, and gesture has an equal value to words. The project involved a big leap for the kids from Nassau—but kids are ready to take on complexity in a way that adults tend to resist.

I actually think the discourse on nations and nationalism is not that interesting. A real richness has evolved out of the dichotomy between this project and the national organization of the Venice Biennale. I didn’t come in thinking my project would relate to the context of Venice, but the work of bringing forty kids here has been an aesthetic encounter and a social experience that feels very fruitful.

— As told to Dawn Chan

Julie Mehretu, Invisible Line (collective), 2010-11, ink and acrylic on canvas, 11’ 2/5” x 24’ 9/10”.

For her first exhibition in a New York gallery in over a decade, Julie Mehretu has strategically installed her new paintings to mimic the curatorial approach taken in her current show at White Cube in London, which terminates in the expansive vista of Invisible Line, 2013. This will in effect create a dialogue between the two spaces, pitting in situ experience against a broader, globalized consciousness. “Liminal Squared” is on view at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, from May 11 to June 22 and at White Cube, London, from May 1 to July 7, 2013.

I’VE BEEN RECENTLY thinking a lot about algorithms as a medium (Amy Sillman got me on it). I work with a research assistant who is extremely meticulous in going through every image she can find of particular buildings in different public squares. My latest paintings come out of these images, which are mostly found on the Internet. They have a very different type of information because they’re not just from the news—the source of a lot of earlier work. We instead have to cull through this vast system to find them, personal photos of soldiers that come from Flickr or other such places, often posted directly from the center of the military presence.

Swarming elements coalesce and dissipate in the paintings that include these appropriated spaces, creating a shift in the image as it participates in the evolution of this other form—though it’s not even considered a “form”: I won’t call it that. I won’t give it a body. The architectural renderings rely on a certain wire-framed language. Maybe each work is actually a location in and of itself, a place to ponder experiential pressures.

I used to work with marks that were very small and were much more like little glyphs or characters; they would plot and move and journey through the canvas in very social ways. I think now my marks have become more notational and gestural—smudges that suggest or even register a trace of action, like the imprint of the towel I was using, my fingers, or my palm. It’s as if these marks now function from a place of retreat in order to reconstitute themselves. And that might be how one rebuilds what was once so seemingly whole.

There are moments when one can see what looks like a typical colonnade, though it may belong to a stadium in Kabul. As these different architectures become immersed in the mark, they create together what I refer to as a third place, a new possibility. The desire of trying to make sense of it plays with the idea of the algorithm, a tool predominantly utilized in science to predict a particular kind of ending.

But there are always breaks in predictability, always a return. The Atlantic historically separated and rejoined populations in a constant crossing—the slave trade, the evolution of the colonies, cultural, economic, and psychological imports. I’m interested in that liminal condition because of the present social moment that faces another threshold of being in between. In Cairo, the revolution was co-opted in some ways; in Syria, there is still a horrific war; in Libya, an incredible intervention has left complete disorder. Every revolution turns out differently and some end without a resolution, as with the dissolution and shift of Occupy Wall Street. The revolution in Ethiopia in 1974 shifted my life as a young child, relocating my family to an area previously unfamiliar to us—East Lansing, Michigan. It was a huge break that has forever left an imprint on me.

Within the revolutionary impulse there typically exists an idealism and a desire for the impossible. These core aspects are processed in my studio through a highly pressurized distillation system with loud music and beats. The hand marks, flings, percussive chops, and morphs build something entirely different: an unknown.

— As told to Frank Expósito

Tomás Saraceno, Poetic Cosmos of the Breath, 2013, translucent foil. Installation view, M+ Mobile Project, Hong Kong.

“Inflation!” surges as a continuation of the M+ Mobile project, an initiative started last year by M+, a museum for visual culture that is set to open in Hong Kong in 2017. The exhibition, featuring seven colossal inflatable sculptures from local and international artists, sits on the tip of the West Kowloon Culture District and has attracted an unprecedented number of local visitors. Tobias Berger, curator of the show, speaks here on the origins of the inflatable concept and the transformation of art awareness in Hong Kong. “Inflation!” is on view until June 9, 2013.

I NEVER THOUGHT I would curate an exhibition consisting of solely one medium. The medium specificity was inspired by certain conditions; we wanted something that could be temporary, sculptural, visible, and challenging all at once. One could say that all the works that were included fell under this same idea of the inflatable, but the approach taken by each artist varies. Liu Jiakun’s strategy in With the Wind, 2002/2009, is very different from Jeremy Deller’s taken in Sacrilege, 2012, which includes strong references to a bouncing castle. But this exhibition is not about research into the history of inflatable sculpture. It is more about this new space where the museum will be built.

The venue for this exhibition is the interface between the site of the future museum and its surrounding park. M+ will soon be responsible for all of the public art in West Kowloon Cultural District. For us, it was important to delve into the idea of public sculpture as well as to explore the parameters that apply when sculpture is installed in a natural setting. Public sculptures are made to be encountered without preparation; one often stumbles upon them in spaces such as plazas. But the term “public sculpture” in its normative sense doesn’t necessarily apply in this case. At the moment, the venue is not easily accessible via public transportation. It is disconnected from the city infrastructure. In this way, “Inflation!” is a very contained exhibition. Anyone who wants to see it has to intentionally go there.

The artists we invited are testament to M+’s mission toward a diverse visual culture, which at the built museum will include art, design, architecture, the moving image, and performance. Choi Jeong Hwa, for example, was initially known as an interior and shop designer; Jiakun is an architect. We also wanted to bring in iconic works from overseas, like Paul McCarthy’s Complex Pile, 2007, while supporting art from the Hong Kong region. That is how we hope to frame the entire M+ Mobile program and our future museum shows.

Seven years ago, there wasn’t much contemporary art in Hong Kong. People used to describe the city as a “cultural desert.” Now that has completely changed. This exhibition alone had one hundred thousand visitors in the first week. In the early days, the audience was evenly split between expats and locals; today we have ninety-five percent of visitors coming from Hong Kong. There is a huge local interest in art, especially challenging art set within the public domain.

— As told to Xue Tan

Brigid Berlin, Self-Portrait Polaroid, ca. 1969,
 Polaroid, 4 x 3 1/4”. 
Courtesy Brigid Berlin and Loretta Howard Gallery.

Brigid Berlin is an artist, actress, and one of the most memorable personalities to emerge from Andy Warhol’s coterie. In 2000, she was the subject of a documentary, Pie in the Sky: the Brigid Berlin Story, which was directed by Vincent Fremont. Berlin’s diaristic recordings of her life and milieu during the 1960s and ’70s—her Polaroids, audiotapes, and journals—recall much of early Conceptualism’s documentarian impulses, but include an acidity and dark wit that is entirely her own.

I GOT INTO POLAROIDS even before Andy got into them because of some pictures I saw in Vogue in the early ‘60s by Marie Cosindas. She was one of the first photographers to use Polaroids seriously. I wanted to take pictures like hers.

I used a Polaroid Electronic 360 camera with a diffuser and different lenses. The double-exposure works happened when I would take pictures of the Empire State Building from a plane at night leaving New York, on my way to Paris. I’d take just one shot, and I’d frame it in the right, and then when I got to Paris, I’d photograph the Eiffel Tower, but frame it in the left, and I’d leave the picture in the camera for both shots. I just loved that camera. And I was so hooked on buying the film!

A lot of the trip books I made in the 1960s were sold when I had a show with John McWhinnie in 2006. Very few people had actually seen the Cock Book—a book filled with pictures of cocks made by a wide range of artists, celebrities, and personalities, like Taylor Mead, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Leonard Cohen, Larry Rivers, and Peter Beard. For the longest time it was this mythical object that most people had really only heard of. When I used to go out late at night, I’d carry it around with me, and once in a while I would give it to somebody to do a drawing in. But I never really liked that, because most of the time I’d be absolutely stoned and doing things in it myself. It became so full I couldn’t even hold it anymore—it was huge. When I showed it at the Gramercy Hotel International Art Fair in 1995 it was in a vitrine, and Lou Reed came to see it, and then Brice Marden came to spend some time with it too. Richard Prince ended up buying the Cock Book, along with the Cock Book for Poets, and the one for Germans. They’re all in his collection, but the Cock Book is the centerpiece.

I’ve also been working for a couple of years now with somebody in my apartment building to digitize all of my audiotapes—and frankly, I don’t even really know what “digitizing” means. I have a lot of them, and when I made them, they were all catalogued, so I know what’s on every single tape. They’re in perfect condition, too! But I get into terrible bad moods when I listen to them, they’re so incredibly intense. At one point I just wanted to throw them all out, put them on the sidewalk. I just can’t listen to them anymore.

They capture an era of New York art culture from the late ’60s to the early ’70s. Of course, there are lots of recorded conversations with Andy, but there are also conversations with Larry Poons, John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, and so many other people and characters from that time. And I had access to all these people because I was a peer, I was considered one of them. I was never a groupie.

Here’s something really funny: My very close friend Robert Vaczy, the audio engineer who’s working on digitizing my tapes, was waiting for me when I got out of my recent back surgery, which lasted about six and a half hours. He was right there when I came out of the operation, and I must’ve been stoned on morphine, but he said the first thing I started talking about, lying on the stretcher, was my filing system. Filing is an art. And cleaning is the best kind of art. But to call me an artist is ridiculous.

— As told to Alex Jovanovich