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Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

“Hold your breath, dance slowly,” invites artist Lee Kit. As you walk into the dimly lit galleries, wandering from space to space, or nook to nook, you find yourself doing just that: holding your breath in quiet anticipation of what is to come. And perhaps if the gallery assistants were not standing guard you would […]

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Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly. All photos: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

Hold your breath, dance slowly,” invites artist Lee Kit. As you walk into the dimly lit galleries, wandering from space to space, or nook to nook, you find yourself doing just that: holding your breath in quiet anticipation of what is to come. And perhaps if the gallery assistants were not standing guard you would dance, or at the very least catch yourself swaying as you move to the melody of Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love (1961), a karaoke instrumental version of which permeates the exhibition space.

Curated by Misa Jeffereis, the Walker exhibition marks Lee’s first US solo show and is presented as part of a two-part exhibition. (A small sound in your head, curated by Martin Germann at SMAK, Ghent, will open on May 28.) With gentle care and great sensitivity, Lee offers us an interior space, a domestic space, and perhaps what is usually coded as a female space. Forgoing the open-plan galleries many contemporary artists and artworks seem to favor these days, the architecture of the show evokes an interior with many walls, doorways, hallways, and closet-like niches that are populated with wardrobes, tables, and other household furnishings.

ex2016lk_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions; installation views. Lee Kit - Hold your breath, dance slowly May 12 - October 9, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The first US solo museum exhibition of artist Lee Kit (b. 1978) features work from the past five years, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker—I can’t help falling in love (2012)—alongside a newly commissioned site-specific installation. Lee creates poetic object-based installations fashioned from everyday materials and household items such as soap, towels, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers, which he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, and placement. Originally from Hong Kong and based in Taiwan, Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work through an embedded use of foreign products and English words that reference the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history as a global city living under the principle of one country, two systems. The artist received shortlist nomination for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Curator: Misa Jeffereis

Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

Using floor lamps and the soft light that spills over from the many projections that punctuate the gallery, Lee casts a warm glow on the unremarkable actions we tend to perform behind closed doors: The works in the show incorporate objects of an intimate nature, ranging from bathroom products (Nivea cream, Smith’s lip balm, Johnson’s baby oil, etc.) to a shower stall situated in a corner of the exhibition. Beyond these direct references to commonplace consumer products, his works more broadly evoke the daily regimen of personal hygiene and care that we conduct in private. We are shown fragments of hands and soles of feet, body parts that heighten our sensations of touch and which we can imagine caressing with the various creams and lotions alluded to throughout the exhibition.

Though deeply personal, the show suggests an intimacy not limited to the artist himself. You can feel traces of the body, an unspecified, non-gendered body, that had inhabited the space before: Folding chairs are arranged throughout, variously opened or left leaning against walls, while rugs are displayed both rolled and unfurled so you can imagine yourself taking up where the previous tenant had left off, tidying and rearranging objects as you might at home.

ex2016lk_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions; installation views. Lee Kit - Hold your breath, dance slowly May 12 - October 9, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The first US solo museum exhibition of artist Lee Kit (b. 1978) features work from the past five years, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker—I can’t help falling in love (2012)—alongside a newly commissioned site-specific installation. Lee creates poetic object-based installations fashioned from everyday materials and household items such as soap, towels, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers, which he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, and placement. Originally from Hong Kong and based in Taiwan, Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work through an embedded use of foreign products and English words that reference the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history as a global city living under the principle of one country, two systems. The artist received shortlist nomination for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Curator: Misa Jeffereis

Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

This sense of familiarity resonates throughout the exhibition: When presented with the phrases “Fuck you” and “You feed yourself everyday” (transferred via inkjet onto a piece of cardboard or, in the case of the latter, at eye level directly onto the wall), you can easily imagine moments, the most private of moments, when you might look up into the bathroom mirror after washing your face and, assessing your reflection, offer up words of uncharitable condemnation or, if in a more generous spirit, of self-encouragement.

ex2016lk_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions; installation views. Lee Kit - Hold your breath, dance slowly May 12 - October 9, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The first US solo museum exhibition of artist Lee Kit (b. 1978) features work from the past five years, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker—I can’t help falling in love (2012)—alongside a newly commissioned site-specific installation. Lee creates poetic object-based installations fashioned from everyday materials and household items such as soap, towels, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers, which he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, and placement. Originally from Hong Kong and based in Taiwan, Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work through an embedded use of foreign products and English words that reference the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history as a global city living under the principle of one country, two systems. The artist received shortlist nomination for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Curator: Misa Jeffereis

Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

“When we talk about places, we seldom consider our emotions,” Lee says. “People don’t often talk about emotions, particularly in art. They talk about concepts and ideas, but emotions are also very important. I’m not talking about expression. I’m referring to feelings that are subtle and often indescribable.”1 Lee’s installations, or what he calls “situations,” can be described as meditations on feelings that are subtle and indescribable. Like emotions, the exhibition possesses a dematerialized presence that feels at once ethereal and embodied, imagined and very real. The works that inhabit the spaces are themselves fragile and ephemeral (digitally projected images permeate the installation; lightweight, translucent plastic bins are stacked up and scattered throughout the space; and paintings on cardboard and paper are casually tacked onto the wall). The modes of presentation also suggest a transience or impermanence (projected images fade into one another; passersby cast shadows onto the projection surfaces, the shadows ostensibly becoming a part of the experience of the artwork that is impossible to hold onto). There is no beginning, middle, or end, no narrative structure to grasp; instead, you get the sense that you have experienced an all-consuming sensation that, albeit pleasurable in the moment, begins to slip away the moment you walk back into the daylight.

ex2016lk_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions; installation views. Lee Kit - Hold your breath, dance slowly May 12 - October 9, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The first US solo museum exhibition of artist Lee Kit (b. 1978) features work from the past five years, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker—I can’t help falling in love (2012)—alongside a newly commissioned site-specific installation. Lee creates poetic object-based installations fashioned from everyday materials and household items such as soap, towels, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers, which he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, and placement. Originally from Hong Kong and based in Taiwan, Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work through an embedded use of foreign products and English words that reference the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history as a global city living under the principle of one country, two systems. The artist received shortlist nomination for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Curator: Misa Jeffereis

Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

But perhaps the act of forgetting is precisely the point. Upon entering the exhibition, the space stirs up a feeling—a tender, loving, comforting feeling—guided by Lee’s sensitivity to the poetics and aesthetics of touch. We indulge in this feeling as we wander in and out of the various recesses of the physical architecture, an analogue to our subconscious mind, but it eventually recedes from our memory once we exit the gallery. In other words, Lee prompts us to actualize through movement the fleeting nature of our feelings, and in turn the impossibility of rendering them permanent or concrete. “I focus on a moment that attracts my attention and then I extend it,” Lee says. “When I stretch it, I begin to see it more clearly. Then I pull in other things from the moment and extend it again, until I cannot extend it any further.”2 Despite the artist’s attempts, and by extension our own, to stretch a moment, to prolong a memory by visiting and revisiting it over and over again, the original feeling inevitably fades. And so the exhibition, despite being sweet and romantic, is also tinged with sadness. Because for every good feeling or memory had, there is always the possibility of subsequent longing. Dance ever so slowly, Lee seems to suggest, for this feeling, too, will soon evaporate.

Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly is on view at the Walker from May 12 to October 9, 2016.

ex2016lk_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions; installation views. Lee Kit - Hold your breath, dance slowly May 12 - October 9, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The first US solo museum exhibition of artist Lee Kit (b. 1978) features work from the past five years, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker—I can’t help falling in love (2012)—alongside a newly commissioned site-specific installation. Lee creates poetic object-based installations fashioned from everyday materials and household items such as soap, towels, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers, which he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, and placement. Originally from Hong Kong and based in Taiwan, Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work through an embedded use of foreign products and English words that reference the omnipresence of market capitalism surrounding Hong Kong’s history as a global city living under the principle of one country, two systems. The artist received shortlist nomination for the 2013 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Curator: Misa Jeffereis

Installation view of Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly

Footnotes

1 Lee Kit in conversation with Misa Jeffereis and Olga Viso; “Lee Kit: The Good Traveler” in Lee Kit: Never (London: Koenig Books, 2016), 25.

2 Lee Kit in conversation with Misa Jeffereis and Olga Viso; “Lee Kit: The Good Traveler” in Lee Kit: Never (London: Koenig Books, 2016), 25.

Building Bridges: Symposium at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

This past weekend, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin hosted Building Bridges, a symposium reflecting upon curatorial practice and how curators move from educational to institutional contexts. The conference was held on occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Young Curators Residency Program (YCRP), which annually brings three non-Italian recent graduates of curating courses to […]

Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin

Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin

This past weekend, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin hosted Building Bridges, a symposium reflecting upon curatorial practice and how curators move from educational to institutional contexts. The conference was held on occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Young Curators Residency Program (YCRP), which annually brings three non-Italian recent graduates of curating courses to Italy to research contemporary Italian art. During the residency, the curators travel across the country, meet artists and visit museums, and complete the project by curating an exhibition drawing on their research.

The symposium audience

The symposium audience

Following a welcome by foundation President Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the foundation’s curator, Irene Calderoni, introduced the symposium’s aims and key themes. Looking back at the residency since its inception in 2007, the symposium sought to evaluate its goals, structure, and influence on the field. Firstly, Calderoni addressed how training and educational contexts facilitate a move into institutional employment and, in particular, how study, research, and experimentation translate into professional modes of working. Secondly, Calderoni positioned the conference as a means for the foundation to evaluate its approach as both a contemporary arts institution and an educational organization (aside from YCRP, the Foundation runs Campo, a curating course established in 2012 for students based in Italy).

Beatrix Ruf, Dr Simon Sheikh, Mark Rappolt, Tom Eccles, Pavel Pyś

Beatrix Ruf, Dr Simon Sheikh, Mark Rappolt, Tom Eccles, Pavel Pyś

The first panel brought together Beatrix Ruf (Director, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), Tom Eccles (Executive Director, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College), Dr. Simon Sheikh (Reader in Art, and Programme Director of MFA Curating, Goldsmiths College), and me, moderated by Mark Rappolt (Editor-in-Chief, ArtReview). All of the panel’s participants had arrived to curating from a variety of paths—semiotics, dance, sociology and art history. Each emphasized the very inceptive nature of contemporary art, which has meant that curating is inherently cross-disciplinary, informed by lateral thinking and hybrid approaches that pool together knowledge from vastly different places. How then do you teach a profession which doesn’t comfortably sit within a single discipline and university department? Eccles and Sheikh both agreed on the importance of combining theory and practice and providing young curators with practical experience while still studying. We all emphasized the importance of the physical, embodied encounter with art, rather than its digital representation. As an example, Eccles pointed out that the first assignment students at Bard College face is to select a work from the CCS Bard collection and propose its display and interpretation. Ruf, Sheikh, and Eccles all drew attention to the waning viability of working as a freelance curator, and the shift from the model of the “independent curator” popular in the 1990s to professionals increasingly affiliated with ever-larger institutions. Following a round of questions, all of the panel’s participants noted that curating courses lack a more informed and detailed approach to teaching fundraising, as well as management and leadership skills.

João Laia, Joanna Warsza, Mark Rappolt, Francesco Manacorda, Kate Strain

João Laia, Joanna Warsza, Mark Rappolt, Francesco Manacorda, and Kate Strain

The second panel brought together João Laia (Co-Founder and Curator, The Green Parrot), Francesco Manacorda (Artistic Director, Tate Liverpool), Kate Strain (Director, Grazer Kunstverein), and Joanna Warsza (Head of CuratorLab, Konstfack). The afternoon’s conversation centered on themes of audience engagement and fostering relationships between institutions and visitors. Strain argued for curators to work in a variety of contexts and cited her own experiences ranging from running a vegan cafe to collaborating with universities as giving her a strong sense of the importance of hospitality and working with a different demographics. Warsza responded that it is the curator’s very responsibility to deal with their audience, while Laia argued for sensitivity towards the geopolitical nature of local contexts and how projects are translated and adapted to these. Manacorda stressed the need for institutions to collaborate directly with audiences and cited the recent Tate Liverpool exhibition An Imagined Museum as an example of the museum engaging in direct dialogue with local audiences. The exhibition drew on Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 to propose a fictional scenario in which the exhibited artworks will cease to exist. As part of the exhibition, Tate Liverpool asked local audiences to memorize the works, and then removed these from view in the exhibition’s final weekend. Visitors were then invited to return to Tate Liverpool and recollect and narrate the missing artworks, sharing their personal experiences and readings.

Elisa Caldana, Molly Everett, Cesare Pietroiusti, Rä di Martino, Stefano Collicelli Cagol, João Laia, Rosalie Doubal, Gianluca e Massimiliano De Serio

Elisa Caldana, Molly Everett, Cesare Pietroiusti, Rä di Martino, Stefano Collicelli Cagol, João Laia, Rosalie Doubal, Gianluca e Massimiliano De Serio

Sunday’s sessions brought together past YCRP participants and artists previously invited to exhibit their work as part of the curators’ final exhibition. Moderated by Stefano Collicelli Cagol (Curator at Large, Trondheim Kunstmuseum, and previous YCRP co-ordinator), the discussion focused on the curators’ and artists’ experiences of collaborating, their expectations and the challenges they faced. Artists including Rä di Martino, Cesare Pietroiusti, and Chiara Fumai shared their experiences of working with non-Italian curators and the memories of the final YCRP exhibitions they participated in. In particular, the artists noted their enthusiasm for establishing relationships with curators, which often translated into long-term conversations. Curators including me, Rosalie Doubal (Associate Curator, ICA London), Kate Strain, and Andrey Parshikov (Head of Research, Manege Museum Association) recounted their expectations and experiences of working in Italy, the challenges of working with curators they had previously never collaborated with, as well as questions of sensitivity towards local context and artists. Both the artists and curators discussed the long-term results of the YCRP, which has nurtured ongoing collaborations and extending invitations to artists to participate in further exhibitions. The legacy of the YCRP program lies largely in this network of ever-growing exchanges and dialogues between Italian artists and non-Italian curators.

Building Bridges made apparent that there is no fast-track, linear, logical, and formal path for curators to move from the educational to institutional contexts. Instead, curators enter institutions through a series of both formal educational experiences as well as self-organized professional ones. The YCRP, along with opportunities such as the Walker Art Center Curatorial Fellowship and Cubitt Curatorial Fellowship, provide a vital in-between stepping-stone from study to work. Crucial to the YCRP is the ability to spend time with artists and peers, talking, exchanging ideas and engaging with a new cultural context. Driven by research, the residency teaches young curators how to work together, often beyond a linguistical boundary, and collaborate to create a culturally sensitive and timely exhibition. Here, at the Walker, the Curatorial Fellowship program provides young curators with a wide scope of experiences. The program places fellows at the center of the visual arts department, offering the opportunity to work closely with senior curatorial colleagues and directly with artists, the collection and across the visual arts program. The fellowship provides a firm grounding in curating in an interdisciplinary and institutional context and allows young curators to contribute to an exhibition from its conception through to fruition. Fellows are also exposed to good working practices, such as team-building, management skills and collegiality, which as Building Bridges saw are usually values and skills learned on the job, rather than as part of a structured working environment. Opportunities such as the YCRP and the Walker’s Curatorial Fellowships are key ways of developing professionals in the field, embedding curators right at the heart of an institution’s mission.

 

Artists Installing: Lee Kit

Hong Kong artist Lee Kit spent the past two-and-a-half weeks in the gallery working on his site-specific installation for his first solo museum exhibition in the US, Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly. The installation features new videos and paintings, as well as everyday objects sourced from Home Depot and IKEA: cabinets, lamps, rugs, chairs, […]

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Lee Kit at Home Depot stacking up storage containers, which will function as projector pedestals in the installation. All photos: Misa Jeffereis

Hong Kong artist Lee Kit spent the past two-and-a-half weeks in the gallery working on his site-specific installation for his first solo museum exhibition in the US, Lee Kit: Hold your breath, dance slowly. The installation features new videos and paintings, as well as everyday objects sourced from Home Depot and IKEA: cabinets, lamps, rugs, chairs, and storage containers. Opening Thursday, the exhibition is a poetic, sensorial, immersive environment that invites viewers to experience it in their own way. Please join me and the artist—as well as Martin Germann, senior curator at SMAK, which is opens Lee’s first solo exhibition in a European institution on May 28—for the opening-day artist talk on Thursday, May 12. In the meantime, here’s a look at the artist’s preparations for his Walker show.

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Figuring out which videos play on each monitor in I can’t help falling in love, a 13-channel video installation in the Walker’s permanent collection

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Technicians John and Michael installing the shower stall purchased at Home Depot

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Hot off the press! Kit eagerly opening the exhibition catalogue produced for the concurrent exhibitions at SMAK and the Walker

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Lee and graphic designer Gabriela Baka in the gallery, working on the exhibition didactics

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Lee securing one of his paintings to the wall

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Light plays an important role in the installation.

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Putting the final touches on the installation

 

Second Thoughts: Fred Sandback and the Virtual Line

How does an exhibition accrete meaning, gain relevance, or shift shape over time? In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Jordan Carter writes about how the discovery of a 1977 book of line drawings by American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003) prompts new thinking about the artist’s sculptures made using yarn or elastic cord. […]

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Pages from Fred Sandback, Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions, 1977, artist’s book, offset lithography, Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

How does an exhibition accrete meaning, gain relevance, or shift shape over time? In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Jordan Carter writes about how the discovery of a 1977 book of line drawings by American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003) prompts new thinking about the artist’s sculptures made using yarn or elastic cord.

Mining the Walker’s Rosemary Furtak Collection of artist’s books, I came across Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions (1977), a book-as-exhibition by Fred Sandback. The thin, pamphlet-like publication, devoid of text, comprises renderings of drawn-line constructions that emerge from a white grid atop a starkly contrasting black field. Sandback’s bold U- and L-shaped linear constructions appear three-dimensional within a two-dimensional plane. The artist achieved this by plotting forms onto matrices of 120-degree angle intersections of white gridded lines. This trompe l’oeil is facilitated by a process known as isometric projection, in which specific angles and intersections give “flat” surfaces the illusion of three-dimensionality. What appears to the eye as an object extending from the page is referred to as an “impossible object,” a term that can be readily applied to Sandback’s transformative drawings and minimal sculptures. The artist’s works transcend dimensions and, in the hindsight of our post-digital age, open his practice up to a discourse surrounding the virtual. The isometric process afforded Sandback the ability to work in an “imagined” space, positing the page as a virtual plane with indeterminate spatial possibilities for his linear constructions—literally blurring the lines between drawing, sculpture, and architecture.

This slippage between media and this expanded notion of virtual space transported me back to Fred Sandback 64 Three-Part Pieces, a 2015 exhibition of the artist’s Untitled (Sixty-four Three-part Pieces) at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. The work consists of 64 drawings that together present all of the possible configurations of the associated yarn sculptures. The sculptural realizations of these drawings were presented in three adjacent, walled of spaces. The exhibition marked the US premiere of the work and its first realization since its 1975 debut in Munich. Each week, the three sculptures on view—each comprising three taught strands of yarn—were replaced and by the end of the run of the show 20 iterations of the work were constructed, the most ever shown in its history. Even though 44 configurations remained unseen, the level of variability achieved in this rotating display speaks to the virtual possibilities of Sandback’s minimal constructions, which challenge the viewer to actively engage in a dialogue with line and space.

Installation view of Fred Sandback, No. 1-64 from 64 Three-Part Pieces for München Kunstraum, 1975, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

 

Sandback view 2

Installation view of Fred Sandback, Untitled (64 Three-Part Pieces), 1975, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

Sandback’s practice upends conventions of artistic autonomy and authorship, as curators, registrars, and art handlers become what art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson describes as “art workers,” renegotiating the relationship between art and work as they labor the works to life in real time and space.[1] They do not simply place an object on the wall or on a pedestal, but put in motion an experiential mise-en-scène, in which sculpture unfolds in a relational space between bodies and the imagined “object.” Sandback noted that his works were meant to exist in a “pedestrian space,” and the yarn constructions, primarily placed along the ground or connecting the wall to the ground, invite viewers to enter a newly demarcated space. The taught fibers frame mundane spaces and create apertures onto a field of virtual possibilities.

Sandback view 3

Installation view of Fred Sandback 64 Three-Part Pieces, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2015, Artwork from the Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

 

Sandback view 4

Fred Sandback, Untitled (Study for Kunstraum Munich), c. 1975, Felt tip pen, marker, and pencil on isometric paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches (21.6 x 27.9 cm), Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

The 64 drawings displayed alongside the rotating yarn sculptures at the Pulitzer, which represented all possible yarn constructions, were accompanied by a series of preliminary sketches. These “flat” diagrams acted as instructions for the realization of these works within the gallery space. The lines of the drawings, which float within the two-dimensional field, beg to come off of the page and it becomes the role of curators, registrars, and art handlers to translate the image from one dimension to another. Sandback distills the sculptural object into information, returning the material process to a germinal “zero degree” state of absolute potential, in which lines on a page become platforms for reimagining the relationship between bodies and objects in space. Sandback’s drawings and sculptures exist in and out of time; in and out of space—the artist relinquishes his authority and provides an indeterminate platform for viewers to reimagine the temporal and spatial possibilities of what appears before their eyes. In this manner, Sandback implicates the proverbial “art worker” in a virtual negotiation with the line and its unstable dimensionality.

Although Sandback had no concrete association with the Fluxus movement, his Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions and his Untitled (Sixty-four Three-part Pieces), as well as his drawings and diagrammatic elastic cord sculpture certificates within the Walker’s collection function analogously to Fluxus scores and instructions. The lines, whether emerging from the grid or floating in space, activate viewers and prompt them to imagine construction in mental space or to actually physically realize the sculptural form within architectural space.

Untitled drawing Sand

Fred Sandback, Untitled, 1973, felt-tip pen, graphite on paper, Walker Art Center, Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, in honor of Kathy Halbreich, 2007, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

Held in the Walker’s collection, the 1973 Untitled drawing is a minimal work on paper in which the artist uses a felt-tip pen to draw five parallel lines within the center of a field of negative space. Like his preparatory drawings that are directly intended for sculptural realization, this work can be seen as a potential prompt for mental and physical constructions that transcend the two-dimensional page. Furthering this precarious boundary between score, instruction, and finished product are the certificates that accompanied the Walker’s collection of Sandback’s elastic cord sculptures upon acquisition.

pink sand

gray sand

yellow sand

Top to bottom: Fred Sandback, Pink Corner Piece; Gray Corner Piece; Yellow Corner Piece, 1970, elastic cord, donation of Virginia Dwan, 1986, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

The three 1970 elastic-cord corner constructions—which predate the artist’s turn to acrylic yarn—in the Walker’s collection (Pink Corner Piece, Gray Corner Piece, and Yellow Corner Piece) were acquired in the form of a certificate of authenticity, on which the artist has used a color pen—signifying the pigment of the cord to be used—to sketch out the measurements and spatial orientation for which the sourced elastic cord is to be taught and affixed to the corner of an exhibition space. The two-dimensional certificates bare an uncanny resemblance to their three-dimensional counterparts, further complicating any fixed dimensionality of Sandback’s sculptures or works on paper. The idea of a certificate or a score as a stand-in for an object-based work is emblematic of Fluxus scores and instructions (of which the Walker has significant holdings). Inserting Sandback’s works, “flat” and otherwise, into a Fluxus discourse allows for a recontextualization of his practice beyond the limiting categorizations of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Within the frame of the Fluxus score, Sandback’s oeuvre becomes open to indeterminate manifestations on the part of the viewer-turned-participant. Sandback’s works across media take on a virtual dimension, transforming the line, at once a static signal of order and structure, into a rhizomatic network in which museum staff and passerby take on the role of “art worker”—laboring with their minds or hands to determine and redetermine the dimensionality of the work.

Note

[1] See Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkley: University of California Press, 2009).

The Peripheral, the Edges, the Off-Screen: A Conversation with James Richards

James Richards recently presented a cinematic program in collaboration with Leslie Thornton on the occasion of the Walker premiere of Thornton’s Moving Image Commission They Were Just People (2016), as well as the opening of the exhibition Less Than One. Richards’s own Moving Image Commission, Radio at Night (2015), can be viewed online for a limited run as well […]

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

James Richards recently presented a cinematic program in collaboration with Leslie Thornton on the occasion of the Walker premiere of Thorntons Moving Image Commission They Were Just People (2016), as well as the opening of the exhibition Less Than One. Richardss own Moving Image Commission, Radio at Night (2015), can be viewed online for a limited run as well as in its first in-gallery presentation until the end of this year, within Less Than One. Rosebud (2013), centered on a series of censored images Richards came across in a Tokyo library, is also featured in the exhibition. The library bookscontemporary monographs on artists Robert Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Man Rayhad been stopped at customs, where Japanese officials were instructed to use sandpaper to scratch away at any suggestive photographs before they could enter the country. Here, we talk about  the seduction of touch, the sculpt-ability of sound, and the perverse pleasures of looking.  

Victoria Sung: You gave a short interview about Radio at Night when it premiered at the Walker in 2015. Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap has also written about the piece and its sense of flow in relation to how the human body serves as a site of sensory integration and reception. I’m curious to hear you speak more about Rosebud, which the Walker acquired this past year. It seems to be a very tactile and textured piece, especially when I think about how your working process involves editing digital files on a laptop. Can you speak about this emphasis on tactility in the context of video?

James Richards: The premise of the video developed out of something utterly analogue and tactile—the sandpapering of a book page. It felt natural to then take this notion of touch or caress as a starting point and make a work that explores types of sensuality. It’s about the seductive idea of someone sitting in a customs office sandpapering away genitals, and the caressing or devotional feeling you can somewhat imagine that inducing. I guess it also touches on the idea of people queuing to rub the heel of a saint; the idea of accumulated touch as a sort of devotional thing. There’s also something in the way that the violence of the removal during the censoring process only seems to draw you in more or make you look harder, so to speak. When starting to make the work I knew I wanted to do something about different types of looking, of peering and scrutinizing.

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James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

More broadly speaking, I became interested in video through ideas like sensation—and the moving image as a source of sensation, like sculpture—rather than through an interest in cinema or television. I view the frame of the image not as a window into something but more like a surface across which sensations pass. I guess I was also interested in finding another way of looking at something familiar. I don’t think my work strictly adheres to this, but Stan Brakhage, the American Structuralist filmmaker, spoke of looking in a way that was more akin to how a baby looks—before cognition develops to the point of its being able to differentiate and name what it is seeing; prior to this, everything is just colors and shapes.[1] This idea of a precognitive relationship, of an uninterpreted, sensational kind of looking, is definitely one of the interests that run through my videos.

Sung: Brakhage made films without sound, for the most part, as he thought it would detract from the purity of the visual experience. Sound is a central, if not predominant, element in your work. Your videos are at once ethereal and physical, and I think much of this can be attributed to your ability to weight sound or give it a certain gravitas. Can you speak to the tangible, sculpt-able nature of sound in your work?

Richards: I like this idea of the unseen affective force you can have with sound. In the visual arts, of course, sound is read as secondary, in some ways, but it can be such a powerful tool. You can address someone directly with the human voice using words, language, or a song, but then you can also do things that are much more figurative—like the sound of something happening, which conjures something very visual in the mind’s eye, or how rhythms and punctuation can return viewers back to their own bodies. You can also do things that are more tonal and emotionally filter the space or filter the images that are in the space. I feel you can control a lot in very particular ways with sound, and in quite contrasting ways. Sound is something I’ve been working with for a long time now, longer than moving image, so perhaps on a very practical level it’s the medium I feel I can manipulate and control the most, the medium with which I can create the most.

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

In Rosebud there are points where the sound is literally the sound of the thing you’re seeing: you see a camera submerged in water and you can hear the sound of water on the microphone of the camera, so you are in and of that moment. At other times, that sound has been replaced by an extract of a song or a percussive element, and it completely alters how you read the image; the relationship between sound and image becomes much more imagined. It generates a third sort of space, or a third sensation, between the way you’re interpreting the sound and the image.

Sung: I know you began your artistic foray with sound—the sequencing, synthesizing, and sampling of sound—and I wonder if you find yourself returning more and more to working with solely sound.

James Richards, Crumb Mahogany 1 (2016); 6-channel digital audio, computer system; 15 minute loop. Installation view, Crumb Mahogany, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, February 26 – April 3, 2016. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: Definitely. The last work I made, presented at Bergen Kunsthall in Norway (Crumb Mahogany, co-commissioned by Bergen Kunsthall, ICA London, and Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover; traveling through 2016) was all about trying to spread and smear the elements of a single video across a number of rooms. In some spaces we presented configurations of speakers playing audio compositions, and other rooms had video components; rather than synchronizing the two by showing a video with two speakers on either side, for example, things were allowed to just bleed between the rooms. I find myself making further moves from the cinematic or televisual idea of synching sound and image and letting them be in discrete spaces, to convene accidentally or through people walking between them.

Sung: In hearing you talk about sound and how it possesses the potential for a certain direct or immediate address, and the moments when the sound you’re hearing might not match up to the image in front of you, I’m struck by the immersive soundtrack in Radio at Night in relation to a sense of visual distanciation. There seem to be many distancing mechanisms—you frequently use a black frame to border an image, or when you show an eye it’s not just a naked eye but an eye as seen through a handheld lens as seen through a viewfinder. Can you talk about this possible tension you’re playing with?

James Richards, Radio at Night (2015); still from digital video with sound; 8 minutes 10 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: Perhaps all of these quite graphic, distancing pictorial devices create space that the sound is then occupying, because sound always is in a way immersive; maybe there is something in that tension, a kind of moving around and in between those two, the pushes and pulls between sound and image. Then conversely it’s almost like the visual emphasis on shifts in aspect ratio or the resolution of an image—or in Rosebud the scratched image—actually encourages people to carry out a kind of intense viewing. It’s as if the distancing is producing almost a strange scrutiny of sorts, and then sound steps in to somehow modify that looking.

Sung: The self-referential nature of video as a durational, time-based medium is particularly captivating in Rosebud. I recently read an essay about how art invites a particular way of looking, a slow looking, which in turn may encourage patience at a time when we are accustomed to receiving visual information immediately. Can you tease out the durational aspect of your work here?

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: I think that’s definitely one of the pleasures of Rosebud. Even in the filming, before I knew I would make a piece with the footage, I came across these books in a Tokyo library on the last day or two of a residency and thought I’d just go and film as many of them as I could before I left. For some reason I chose to film them rather than to scan them, and I think it was totally about the perverse pleasure of introducing a time element to a still image. It speaks to a kind of gorging, or ways a camera takes something in. I like the idea of the wide open aperture and the image just flowing in. With the underwater scenes I wasn’t really looking through the viewfinder but was using the camera as a sort of vessel, as an extension of my hand that could be submerged into liquids.

Then there are shots of iconic but also shocking images of Robert Mapplethorpe or Wolfgang Tillmans in S&M scenes that have been sandpapered away at in a strange, impotent “desexualizing” gesture. But at the same time you can hear birds squawking outside, and the rustling of the hushed library where these images now reside, and all of this has a sense of “meanwhile” or “despite this.” I guess that’s something that happens with duration—I’m showing you this with an intensity, but at the same time something utterly unrelated is left in and seemingly happening. This concentrated, over-held attention on the one hand, and a shifting, wandering attention on the other—and moving between those two—is probably where a lot of the drama in the piece occurs. I guess it’s also one of the logics in the work that because the “center” or focus of the photograph has been removed, I end up working so much to accent or emphasize the peripheral, the edges, the off-screen.

Less Than One is on view at the Walker from April 7 to December 31, 2016.

Footnote

[1] Known for his experimental, non-narrative films, Stan Brakhage viewed cinema as a way to liberate the act of looking. In “Metaphors On Vision” (first published in the journal Film Culture in 1963), he wrote: “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘green’? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?”

Becoming American: Fionn Meade on Less Than One

The first in a series of entries exploring Less Than One, on view through December, “Becoming American” begins with a consideration of author Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996), whose essay provides the exhibition title, and Flags (1965), a painting by Jasper Johns included in the exhibition. At an early age Joseph Brodsky experienced much of what it […]

Installation view of Less Than One, with works by Jasper Johns and Kara Walker

Installation view of Less Than One, with works by Jasper Johns and Kara Walker (foreground)

The first in a series of entries exploring Less Than One, on view through December, “Becoming American” begins with a consideration of author Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996), whose essay provides the exhibition title, and Flags (1965), a painting by Jasper Johns included in the exhibition.

At an early age Joseph Brodsky experienced much of what it means to be an exile in one’s own country. Born Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky in 1940 in St. Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad), he grew up in poverty after his father lost a ranking position in the Russian Navy due to a surge in anti-Semitism against Jewish Russian families in the postwar years leading up to Stalin’s death in 1953. Brodksy quit school as a teenager and embarked on his own self-styled education, beginning to develop the cultural imagery that would eventually win him the 1987 Nobel Prize for literature.

Dodging many of the very real barriers of his time and place, Brodsky grasped intently for something different, working odd jobs—including as a coroner’s assistant, metalworker, and as part of a geology research team traveling to Central Asia—all while assembling an unusual arsenal of artistic skills. Brodsky taught himself Polish, for example, in order to translate poet and dissident Czesław Miłosz (a Nobel laureate who also became a US citizen), and learned English so he could translate John Donne and read Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Out of the prejudice and censorship surrounding him, Brodsky fashioned a unique style of direct observation and an unflappable belief in individual freedom and what he called the importance of “world culture,” a phrase borrowed from Russian essayist and poet Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938), a touchstone figure for the young artist. Indeed, Brodsky’s idiosyncratic style is one that evaded authorities for some time due to its unusual bearings.

As Brodsky writes in the title essay of his collection and intellectual autobiography Less Than One, he was part of a group of young artists and thinkers imagining something new beyond the strictures of Soviet life: “If we made ethical choices, they were based not so much on immediate reality as on moral standards derived from fiction…. In its ethics, this generation was among the most bookish in the history of Russia, and thank God for that. A relationship could have been broken for good over a preference for Hemingway over Faulkner.” This “uncommon visage,” as Brodsky would later come to term his imagining of an ethics based in aesthetics, is exactly what guided the poetry he wrote and distributed as a young man, a form of underground literature printed on mimeographed sheets (called “samizdat” to describe the censored DIY publications of the Soviet bloc era) and often recited by Brodsky and others on street corners.

 Joseph Brodsky with his cat Mississippi, 1991, photo: Bengt Jangfeldt

Joseph Brodsky with his cat Mississippi, 1991, photo: Bengt Jangfeldt

Writing with a great wit and flare for the intimate observations of daily life, but with little to no overt political address or commentary, Brodsky gained steady recognition in the underground Soviet literary scene of the time and eventually acquired the counsel and mentorship of the great Russian poet and witness Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966). It was just this flare for the observed beauty of daily life that eventually caught up with Brodsky as he was forcibly committed twice to mental institutions by Soviet authorities and later sentenced to five years hard labor in a work camp in the Artic, accused, tried, and convicted by the Soviet state. Even as Brodsky’s real crime was the circulation and popularity of his essays and poetry in underground forums, it was the charge of his not having a steady full time job, hence “social parasitism,” that was officially leveled at Brodsky during a trial that would add to his international notoriety upon the leak and distribution of his eloquent self-defense. A transcript of his trial was smuggled and distributed in the west, highlighting the following exchange, one that eventually reached an international reception:

Judge: What is your profession?

Brodsky: Translator and poet.

Judge: Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?

Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?

Due largely to coordinated efforts on the behalf of Brodsky via an international network of writers—including notably the New York–based English poet W.H. Auden, an adopted American citizen as well—Brodsky was released from his five-year prison sentence early after 18 months and allowed to return to Leningrad. Harassed continually upon returning, Brodsky was encouraged to leave for Israel, which he refused to do, before being forcibly exiled from the Soviet Union at the age of 32 to Austria where he met with Auden and was eventually received as an immigrant to the United States.

Brodsky would eventually translate much of his own poetry from Russian into English, and he increasingly wrote prose in an adopted, inimitable English. As American poet Mark Strand once put it regarding Brodsky’s full embrace of the English lexicon, “The English he writes is exotic. The choices of words he makes are those that no native-born speaker would make.” Reinscribing and revitalizing language as many American innovators before and after have done, Brodsky’s English is both arresting and nervy, a remix of styles that is formal in flourish yet fresh in its oddity.

                        Life, that no one dares

to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,

bares its teeth in a grin at each

encounter. What gets left of a man amounts

to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

Taken from the poem A Part of Speech, written shortly after coming to the States in 1972, the excerpt above echoes a primary theme in what would come to characterize Brodsky’s mature work, namely the repeated acknowledgment of the responsibility in the “spoken part” of protecting individual artistic expression and freedom, a part that Brodsky identifies with the agency and urgency of protecting the place where art is encountered, where “a work of art addresses a man tête-à-tête, entering with him into direct—free of any go-betweens—relations.” What gets left is a part, Brodsky implores, a part to play in protecting the space of direct artistic encounter.

Installation view of Less Than One

Installation view of Less Than One

When Brodsky eventually became the first immigrant to be appointed US poet laureate (in 1991), he was asked if there was any particular significance to be gleaned from the selection of a person born outside the United States receiving the honor. His immediate call and response was worldly and characteristically crisp, “Would you ask the same of Lafayette, who was from France? It’s the history of the place.” Referring to the French aristocrat and military officer Marquis de Lafayette who fought for the United States in the American Revolutionary War, Brodsky quickly added with self-awareness and self-effacing wit that he very much regarded himself an American. “I’ve been here 19 years, I pay taxes here,” he said, further declaring that in his new post as US poet laureate he would advocate that poetry be published and made available in hotels and supermarkets throughout the country: “People who buy The National Enquirer would buy poetry. They should be given a choice. I’m absolutely serious.”

Now on view at the Walker, the exhibition Less Than One takes its title from a 1986 collection of essays that would help Brodsky win the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year. A poetic meditation on the nature of human existence and artistic expression, his text suggests that a person—defined in political and aesthetic terms—is always “less than one.” We can never be a discrete whole at any moment in time, Brodsky argues, as we are inextricably tied to our past and future selves. This drives the writer and artist to attempt to meet reality through words, images, and an uneasy embrace of artistic personae.

Brodsky wrote passionately throughout his career of art’s ability to trouble consent, question power, and disrupt the “heralds of historical necessity,” arguing instead for a “polyphony” and multivocal resonance that exists in the place “where art has stepped.” Exploring such themes as iconoclasm, the graphic use of silhouette and shadow forms, and the questioning of identity through performance, Less Than One celebrates the differential urge and unruly spirit that lies at the heart of artistic practice.

Jasper Johns's Flags (1965), installed in Less Than One

Jasper Johns’s Flags (1965), installed in Less Than One

The uncommon visage that can result within the space of direct artistic encounter, “free of any go-betweens,” as Brodsky put it, introduces what American philosopher William James described as the positivity of many-sided perception, not unlike a boulder or gem. Elongating perception into a shape that is sensed as duration suspended, the “direct relations” of artistic encounter are not unlike experiencing time with a friend, when you lose track of time. When Jasper Johns wrote the following note in his sketchbook in 1964, he underscored a pragmatic method that placed repetition and a startled awake active perception at the heart of his practice, and that resonates to this day: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” Breaking away from the dominant painterly mode of the 1950s that consisted of highly personal and expressive abstraction, Johns looked to “things the mind already knows,” incorporating flags, targets, numbers, and other familiar signs and symbols into his artistic production. These ordinary objects take on an iconic, emblematic presence that articulates a particular type of postwar American iconoclasm—represented here by the various doubled, inverted, and multi-colored flags on view in Less Than One.

The initial encounter with Flags, 1965, at the entry to the exhibition is one of immediate recognition coupled with a companion estrangement, the familiar design of the American flag outlined in green, black, and orange (top), and gradations of grey (bottom) against a mottled grey background, with a white dot centered above and a black dot bullseye below. As an exercise in visual perception, Flags asks the viewer to focus on the dot above for a time, then close one’s eye briefly and switch focus to the dot below, activating a red, white, and blue afterimage as our retinal receptors tire from holding the initial impression and seek out a fuller range of the color spectrum triggered. Looking at Flags is an exercise in active perception where one must submit to a time beyond the clock, beyond constantly updated information, beyond the flatness of visual compression and image production, beyond ever widening abstractions of finance, beyond the atomizing nature of networked communication, and, also, beyond the rhetorical demagoguery of our moment. It is rather an opening to the active looking and “uncommon visage” that Brodsky adopts, into “direct relations” with the cultural imaginary of becoming American.

 

A Narrative for the Body: Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore

Artist Shahryar Nashat recently made Present Sore (2016), a composite portrait of the 21st-century body mediated by substances both organic and fabricated. In this new interview, Walker Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich ask Nashat what drives his work—the politics of the body, its digital and physical augmentations, and its obsolescence. Present Sore is presented on the […]

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016, video, 9 minutes. A Walker Moving Image Commission

Artist Shahryar Nashat recently made Present Sore (2016), a composite portrait of the 21st-century body mediated by substances both organic and fabricated. In this new interview, Walker Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich ask Nashat what drives his work—the politics of the body, its digital and physical augmentations, and its obsolescence.

Present Sore is presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016, as part of the Walker’s Moving Image Commissions. It is also featured in the Portikus exhibition Model Malady (April 22–June 19, 2016).

Fabian Schöneich: Your most recent video, Present Sore, streams online via the Walker Channel and is installed in your gallery exhibition at Portikus. The format of this work is vertical: 9:16 instead of 16:9. It reminds me of the way people shoot video on their phone. Can you tell us what led to your decision of rotating your camera?

Shahyrar Nashat: It’s true—smartphones have generalized the use of vertical framing. When I came to Portikus for an initial site visit and saw the gallery, I immediately saw how a 16:9 format video would be crushed by the height of the space. On top of that, I had always struggled with the horizontal format of 16:9 because you can never fill the frame when you want to capture a limb vertically. Present Sore is an oblique high-definition figure study of a composite body. The video’s upward progression (from feet to head) necessitated a vertical format.

Schöneich: Your work often questions and highlights the homogeneity between object and body. Abstract but clean objects are representational of the body, or else the body is representational for the object or the sculpture. In Present Sore, we see the human body not as a whole, only in detail—like a close-up of the knee or the hand.

Isla Leaver-Yap: Totally. Present Sore’s focus on detail fragments the subject, showing the mechanical moving “parts” of the body and isolating their function as tools. This fragmentation implicates a wider cultural landscape that has preferences for certain types of bodies, pointing as well to an economic landscape that obfuscates the parts of labor—both human and inhuman. Shahryar, I was wondering if you could speak to this “composite” quality you referred to earlier, and talk about the bodies, types, and genders you choose as your subjects?

Nashat: Mainstream cultural representation of the human body privileges a homogeneous and wholesome body. I have always searched to represent bodies that sit outside those traditional ideals. The bodies I’m interested in might have diverse motor functions, cosmetic interventions, and applications. Like the injured elbow in Hustle in Hand (2014, video, 19 minutes). That’s why I like wounds or prosthetics. They signal injury and, therefore, anomaly. Limbs are similarly interesting. Framed away from the rest of the body, they question it, while also allowing some psychological distance from the notion of persona. For me, this is where you open the door for desire and projection.

Shahryar Nashat, Hustle in Hand, 2014

Shahryar Nashat, Hustle in Hand, 2014, HD video, 10 minutes
Courtesy Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin.

Leaver-Yap: What do you mean by “desire” and “projection”? Both terms seem particularly resonant with how your work intersects with ideas of queerness. Your work blurs lines between fetish and tool and often trades in promiscuous formal relations, by which I mean things that resemble or “stand in” for that which they represent but also complicate that representation: a vertical format as a body, a Paul Thek artwork of a rotting piece of flesh for a psychic human wound, or an artificial prosthesis as a 21st-century ideal tool for the body.

Nashat: I think art has always operated with the mechanics of desire and projection. Not only as an incentive for an artist to make work but the way the work is appreciated and consumed by the audience. The “stand-in” is a powerful strategy because it works through deception, which is another powerful ingredient. It all sounds very theoretical, but what I guess I am trying to say is that the frustration of meaning is central to any work because it creates desire. The tools I use in my work—framing, editing, a geometric object next to the close-up of a wound—participate in that enterprise.

Schöneich: Does imperfection define desire for you?

Nashat: “Perfect” versus “imperfect” sounds like “good” versus “bad.” I don’t think it’s about morals. When I watch a movie or TV show, for example, the interesting characters are not necessarily the ones that have personality flaws or act inconsistently. I don’t care whether they’re good or bad people. But I do like it when there is a perversion in them, some kind of inconsistency. Incoherency creates a compelling and complex character. That’s desire.

Schöneich: How important is gesture in this work? I’m thinking especially of the sections of Present Sore where a lip is pulled or an ear is touched or plugged.

Nashat: Capturing a body that is inanimate or frozen in action made sense in the 1990s when photography was concerned with creating tableaux vivants. But for me, the body in action is more interesting because it’s not just “on display” for the camera to get the best shot. It competes with the camera and forces it to find different strategies. It’s less mannered than a pose perhaps, and the formal and aesthetic gesture is not coming from what you look at but the way you look at it. When you invest the body with actions and gestures, you write a narrative for the body. You give it agency. I must say, though, that there are very active ways for the body to be passive—like a smoker or a sleeper, which are equally powerful images.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016, video. A Walker Moving Image Commission

Schöneich: How did you film Present Sore? Tell us about the overlayering of images throughout the video.

Nashat: The layering was an accident that I ended up keeping. I have been relying on software bugs and my own technical mistakes a lot lately.

Leaver-Yap: Your work is so carefully choreographed and edited that it’s really interesting to hear about the importance of accident within your practice. Accident seems to me to be such a human quality, while being attentive to accident is something very digital—a quality of being watched or surveilled. I was struck by something Moyra Davey said to me about shooting video last year. Moyra shoots mostly analogue photographs, and now she shoots digital video. She told me she liked how “video hangs onto accident” in a way that is particular to the form. The digital captures physical vulnerabilities as much as it can augment or erase those very qualities in post-production. I was wondering if you could speak to the notion of error, mistake, and accident in your work a bit more?

Nashat: In Hustle in Hand, my editing program was interrupting the playback of my video. One frame from a completely different section of the video would intrude into the clips. I ended up keeping this glitch because it breaks the linear narrative of the timeline—it’s like a preview of the footage that is yet to come. In Present Sore, meanwhile, I brought the wrong resolution into the project, but then I decided to keep it as it complicates the view of the body. Capturing body limbs is such an ordinary image to do. You need these kinds of tricks to ramp up attention. Technological accidents are what make the work more vulnerable. If you keep them, you can of course normalize them, but I find it useful for them to remain as anomalies that serve the work.

Shahryar Nashat, Factor Green, installation view, 54th International Venice Biennial, 2011. Courtesy of Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin. Photo: Gaëtan Malaparte

Shahryar Nashat, Factor Green, installation view, 54th International Venice Biennial, 2011
Courtesy Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin. Photo: Gaëtan Malaparte.

Schöneich: Already in early works, like in Factor Green (2011), or in your exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, you investigated the meaning and the visual presence of the pedestal or plinth itself. At Portikus and the forthcoming Walker exhibition Question the Wall Itself, you present a series of sculptures—pedestal blocks—resting on chairs that you say are designed for them to “relax.”

Nashat: Yes, the pedestal is to the artwork what the foot is to the body. It provides the support that allows the artwork to stand and be on display. It’s like a pair of crutches. Present Sore toys with the fact that high-definition imagery being now at the service of “supporting” the body. It makes the pedestal obsolete. Chômage technique is a French term used when, say, a factory lays off its workers but maintains their salary. In a world of bodies shown in pixels, pedestals are a kind of “chômage technique”—they have no one to support anymore. In my installation, they can retire and enjoy the viewing of the bodies they once would have supported. The pedestal has always been an underdog, or in the service of something else. But in this configuration it as if it’s won the lottery and is off to retire in Florida.

Present Sore is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support from the Bentson Foundation, and Portikus, Frankfurt/Main.

Meredith Monk: 16 Millimeter Earrings and the Artist’s Body

At once a choreographer, composer, actress, singer, and director, Meredith Monk is known for a body of work that is often considered unclassifiable. Since the 1960s, her practice has spanned across disciplines of dance, theater, visual arts, and film, and has included solo as well as ensemble pieces. Monk’s self-fashioned degree in “Interdisciplinary Performance,” obtained […]

Installation view of one of the Meredith Monk galleries in the exhibition <em>Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones </em>, featuring elements from <em>16 Millimeter Earrings </em>(1966/1998)

Elements from 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966/1998), as installed in the 1998 Walker 1998 exhibition Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones

At once a choreographer, composer, actress, singer, and director, Meredith Monk is known for a body of work that is often considered unclassifiable. Since the 1960s, her practice has spanned across disciplines of dance, theater, visual arts, and film, and has included solo as well as ensemble pieces. Monk’s self-fashioned degree in “Interdisciplinary Performance,” obtained from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964, remains the best definition of her work, as the artist often combines multiple performative elements in individual pieces. Her approach results in works that cannot be singularly defined as dance, theater, concert, or film works, but are instead a unique synthesis of artistic disciplines, most broadly described as simply “performance art.”

One of Monk’s earliest pieces is 16 Millimeter Earrings, created in 1966 and originally staged at the Judson Church in New York. The performance began with Monk seated facing away from her audience while playing the guitar and singing, then went on to combine vocal recordings, theatrical acting, and film projections, and finally ended with the burning of an effigy meant to represent the artist herself. 16 Millimeter Earrings incorporated physical props, such as a slinky and red crepe paper streamers, as well as less tangible components. Audible during the performance were partial recordings of the traditional English folk song “Greensleeves” as well as passages from The Function of the Orgasm, written by the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, which argues for sexual liberation as a panacea for all ills, both physical and psychological. Reflecting on the work in 2010, Monk commented: “With the concept I had in 16mm Earrings I realized that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally… It wasn’t that I felt I was doing a confessional piece at all… It was taking anything of my being and making that a plastic material, like paint.”

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance

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Nam June Paik: Television Has Attacked Us for a Lifetime

While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video […]

Nam June Paik, 'TV Cello' (1971), video tubes, TV chassis, plexiglass boxes, electronics, wiring, wood base, fan, stool, photograph. © Estate of Nam June Paik. Courtesy Walker Art Cente

Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 1971, video tubes, TV chassis, plexiglass boxes, electronics, wiring, wood base, fan, stool, photograph. © Estate of Nam June Paik. Courtesy Walker Art Cente

While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video art,” and the point at which the television became both the subject and object of an artwork. Originally titled Symphony for 20 Rooms, Paik’s exhibition was considered a total environment, drawing on the spirit of Surrealism (a severed ox head greeted visitors in the first room, while in a bathroom a human mannequin lay submerged in a tub) and Fluxus (via treated instruments, such as “prepared pianos,” adapted by wedging objects between their strings). The exhibition also brought together an installation of 13 television sets, arranged either directly on the floor or stacked on top of one another. Each transmitted distorted live signals—some as stripes or wavy lines, others collaged so as to simultaneously show overlaid moving images.

Nam June Paik, 'Kuba-TV' (1963) seen as part of Exposition of Music – Electronic Television. © Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, Kuba-TV, 1963, seen as part of Exposition of Music—Electronic Television. © Nam June Paik

A number of TV sets on view required activation by the viewer. One television was connected to a microphone and transmitted a signal affected by the one’s voice. Another TV was attached to a pedal and would similarly show a distorted image if handled by an audience member. “Television has attacked us for a lifetime, now we fight back,” declared Paik, who conceived of the television as an object to be exploited, tinkered with, and ultimately humanized. As in his later works, such as TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and TV Cello (1971), Paik subverted the notion of the TV as a determined instrument of power. Instead, under his influence, television sets and the televisual became instruments for performance and play, either by invited performers, such as Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991) or the active, participating viewer.

Wolf Vostell, Dé-collage (1962), Offset lithograph on paper, Copyright retained by the artist, Courtesy Walker Art Center

Wolf Vostell, Dé-collage, 1962, offset lithograph on paper, Copyright retained by the artist; courtesy Walker Art Center

A few months after Paik’s exhibition, German artist Wolf Vostell (1932–1998) opened Wolf Vostell & Television Decollage & Decollage Posters & Comestible Decollage1 at Smolin Gallery in New York. Vostell presented a number of TVs placed on office furniture, each set to receive a slightly different, modified signal. Upon entering the exhibition, audience members received bottles of liquid, which they were encouraged to smear on wall-mounted LIFE magazine covers. For Vostell, the exhibition was a place of activity, where one could “participate in the creation of Décollage at the opening […] to eat art and to make art by eating.”2 Vostell had begun to orient his practice around the term “dé-collage” in 1954, upon spotting the word used in a newspaper to refer to an airplane crash. For the artist, “dé-collage” meant the inverse of collage—the erosion and destruction of an existing image, as opposed its formation through cumulative addition of multiple elements. Vostell applied the term to his engagement with televisions, which he incorporated into his work as early as 1958 in Theater in the Streets, a happening staged in Parisian public spaces. Throughout his practice, Vostell posited on the very materiality of the TV set, embedding these in concrete, arranging motorized TVs on broken glass, and “dé-collaging” live television signals.

Photograph of Wolf Vostell's 'TV Burying' (1963), © Peter Moore

Photograph of Wolf Vostell’s TV Burying, 1963, © Peter Moore

While both Paik and Vostell employed the television as an object for performance, Vostell’s happenings emphasized destruction, a theme he believed it was his duty to reflect upon as an artist. Staged contemporaneously to his exhibition at Smolin Gallery, TV Burying was an event Vostell organized as part of the Yam Festival in New Jersey, which included actions by artists Dick Higgins (1938–1998), Allan Kaprow (1927–2006), and La Monte Young (b. 1935). In Vostell’s performance, televisions broadcasting live footage were attacked with custard pies, wrapped in barbed wire, and then carried in procession and buried in the ground. Part flagellation ritual, part crucifixion, TV Burying ceremoniously sacrificed the TV set before an audience.

Cover of Marshall McLuhan's first edition of 'Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man' (1964) published by McGraw-Hill

Cover of Marshall McLuhan’s first edition of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964, published by McGraw-Hill

Paik and Vostell developed their 1963 exhibitions while Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) would have been writing and editing Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published only a year later in 1964. The book includes McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message,” whereby “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”3 Paik and Vostell were among the first artists to critically engage with the television as an everyday object, stripping away its connotations as a prized possession or marker of class distinction. Slathered with concrete, upturned, or placed casually on the floor, their TVs are ordinary, part of everyday life. By turning televisions into playful instruments and modifying their signals, Paik and Vostell subverted the notion of the TV as a conduit for the passive reception of ideology. In their hands, televisions were controlled by human will and manipulated by the body. They rendered the viewer a participant and the television as subject to anyone’s influence, a medium for play and experimentation.

Notes

1 McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 9

2 Also referred to as TV Trouble or 6 TV Dé-coll/age in existing literature.

3 As can be seen on the exhibition preview card.

One Sound After Another: Film and West Coast Minimalism

Morgan Fisher and Jack Goldstein—both featured in the exhibition Ordinary Pictures—belong to a small community of Los Angeles–based artists who applied structural critiques to the industrial Hollywood apparatus during the early 1970s. Both were employed for short periods within the studios themselves, drawing insider knowledge from their day jobs while maintaining a critical distance from […]

Morgan Fisher, Picture and Sound, 16mm, 11 min. 1973. © Morgan Fisher

Morgan Fisher, Picture and Sound, 16mm, 11 min. 1973. © Morgan Fisher

Morgan Fisher and Jack Goldstein—both featured in the exhibition Ordinary Pictures—belong to a small community of Los Angeles–based artists who applied structural critiques to the industrial Hollywood apparatus during the early 1970s. Both were employed for short periods within the studios themselves, drawing insider knowledge from their day jobs while maintaining a critical distance from cinematic production and a keen analysis of how this social phenomena, so unique to Los Angeles’s identity, could engage with and comment artistic production.

Fisher’s Picture and Sound Rushes (1973) is a documentary adaptation of Hollywood industry material. Introduced dryly by a monotone narrator seated at a nondescript desk in the manner of an ironic John Baldessari, Fisher explains that the film will demonstrate the “cases,” an industry term for three portions of production use film: synch (image and sound, both recorded in real time), MOS (an acronym for mit out sound or without sound), and wild sound (a filmed recording of only the sound element of a scene). Also presented is a final fourth option, “null case,” in which neither sound nor image is recorded; as this option has no industrial use, it is not part of the Hollywood lexicon. By working with film as a series of industrial, standardized units, Fisher contributed towards a West Coast adaptation of Minimalism.

Fisher has described his work in film as being in relation to the material limits of the medium: How do the intrinsic properties of film lend themselves to what is available for production, and what types of images can it support? Fischer would later summarize: “Film of all kinds is unified by its material facts.” Breaking down the film into its material properties sheds light on the systematic units of cinema production—the film itself and the strikingly non-cinematic way in which they were used in day to day studio functions. The utilitarian use of film, in which its status as material is laid bare, is what interests Fisher. The film is still taken as a single unit of a film reel. Mathematically precise, each reel contains the same number of stills. In the case of the Fisher’s Picture and Sound Rushes, each still can nearly be isolated as an entity; there is no narrative arc or unfolding of a drama. One image, one still, one object after another.

As Fisher has elucidated, this articulate attention to the material properties of film is tied to his study of Minimalism, of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Walter de Maria, and Blinky Palermo. For him, the reel is a unit composed of a set number of units which have material properties in and of themselves. Picture and Sound Rushes presents the four cases in equal number. Examples of each are provided six times, all 27.45 seconds long to show that “each case is equally important.”[1] Or equally unimportant, as none of the cases contain significant footage—the work maintains an aspect of outtakes, or throwaway footage only maintained for daily memorandums and then soon left on the cutting room floor.

Jack Goldstein, Untitled, 1969-1971/ 2013. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, © Estate of Jack Goldstein.

Jack Goldstein, Untitled, 1969-1971/ 2013. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, © Estate of Jack Goldstein

In the 1970s, Los Angeles balanced the influence of East Coast Minimalism with a critical engagement in “throwaway” commercialism. In January 1971 Jack Goldstein, shortly before enrolling as a graduate student at Cal Arts, installed a series of stacked precut wooden blocks, resting one on top of another, at the Pomona Art Gallery. At once weighty and monumental, the sculptures equally bore a temporal fragility at one moment, with any gust of air they could fall, their existence impermanent as celluloid. “I am interested in the simplest relation of parts,” Goldstein would explain.[2] Like Fisher, Goldstein worked for a short time in commercial film production and embedded his practice with a critical fascination for the industry’s tropes.

 

Jack Goldstein, A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records (The Tornado), 45-rpm records; pressed color vinyl with offset labels and sleeves, 1976. Walker Art Center, McKnight Acquisition Fund, 2014

Jack Goldstein, A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records (The Tornado), 45-rpm records; pressed color vinyl with offset labels and sleeves, 1976. Walker Art Center, McKnight Acquisition Fund, 2014

Goldstein’s A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records (1976) are brief recordings of wild sound—the audio effects of a burning forest, dying wind, wrestling cats, or a tornado. Loosened from their signified, the sounds become multipurpose units, which are at once generic enough to meet any range of uses and specific enough to convey, without viewing, a direct image. Goldstein did not record these sounds: they are appropriated sounds, re-recorded onto colorful SPs. Goldstein’s act of authorship rests in the critical reveal of Hollywood production, a laying bare of the disparate, absurd elements of how films are made.

Goldstein’s distrust of the finished cinematic product is consistent with Fisher’s close reading of the industry’s commercial and social power. For Fisher, pulling back the curtain on Hollywood’s facade was an innately political act, grounded in a Benjaminian distrust of cinema and the manufactured social experience. By creating a fourth possibility in Picture and Sound Rushes, a “null case,” Fisher allowed the cinematic construction to fail, ultimately contradicting the status quo of an industry from which it is derived. Coming of age as the motion picture studios began to collapse from the citywide giants of mid-century, Fisher provides a close read of the celluloid foundation on which these industries stood and undermines their possibilities for future expansion.

Carl Andre, Manifest Destiny, stacked bricks, 1986. Installed at Donald Judd House, 101 Spring Street, New York. © Carl Andre.

Carl Andre, Manifest Destiny, stacked bricks, 1986. Installed at Donald Judd House, 101 Spring Street, New York. © Carl Andre

Notes

[1] Morgan Fisher “Picture and Sound Rushes” in Morgan Fisher writings (Generali Foundation and Museum Abteiberg: Cologne, 2011), 38.

[2] Jack Goldstein quoted in Willoughby Sharp “Rumbles,” Avalanche 2 (Winter 1971): 8.

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