Blogs Untitled (Blog) Bartholomew Ryan

Bartholomew Ryan is assistant curator in the visual arts department of the Walker Art Center

Sacred Spaces: Ralph Lemon, Okwui Okpokwasili, and April Matthis Discuss Scaffold Room

Artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room is many things: a performance, a musical, a lecture, and an exhibition. In development by Lemon over several years, it also emerges out of a curatorial collaboration between the Walker’s visual arts and performing arts departments. It is in many ways a response to the way in which […]

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Scaffold Room installation with Okwui Okpokwasili, scenic designer R. Eric Stone, and Ralph Lemon, Burnet Gallery, Walker Art Center, September 2014  Photo: Gene Pittman

Artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room is many things: a performance, a musical, a lecture, and an exhibition. In development by Lemon over several years, it also emerges out of a curatorial collaboration between the Walker’s visual arts and performing arts departments. It is in many ways a response to the way in which contemporary art has started to engage choreographers, drawing dance into the gallery and often asking it to behave more like an object: observing a basic structure that is repeatable and digestible throughout the run of an exhibition.

Lemon has sought to question these conditions, including the very idea that performance, or the performing body for that matter, can be objectified.

Scaffold Room features ticketed performances, an ongoing installation, and also a series of refractions: performative vignettes that explode various gestures and scenes from the ticketed performance, and take place spontaneously throughout the exhibition. Prominent in the space is a confined environment made of scaffolding that serves as both theater and installation object. Here, live performances by Okwui Okpokwasili and April Matthis are featured alongside video of a rural Mississippi Delta community embodied by 86-year-old Edna Carter and her extended family, with whom the artist shares a long history. The performance weaves popular culture, nature, and science fiction through personal narrative, memory, found texts, and uncanny scenes created by the artist. Lemon’s project includes language and sources from some of the most transgressive American writers of the past decades, among them punk poet and experimental novelist Kathy Acker, whose prose examines power dynamics through a lens of explicit, sometimes violent, sexuality, and science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, whose work embraces futuristic and pornographic themes.

At the time of this writing the artists are in the gallery going through the work, and the institution is preparing for an intense week. What is obvious about this project is that it is going to be brilliant, entertaining, and difficult, and it’s going to ask questions of the Walker, its visitors, and the field more generally. Back in June I met with Lemon, Okpokwasili, and Matthis for lunch in New York. They had recently returned from a residency at EMPAC, where they had been developing the piece. Ralph has long collaborated with Okpokwasili, and their artistic relationship had developed out of dance. Meanwhile, it was his first time working with Matthis, and her background as an actress meant they were developing a different vocabulary. Reading that conversation now in light of how Scaffold Room has developed, I am struck by the many insights it presents on the work in process at a time of creative transition for all involved.

Bartholomew Ryan: Okwui, you’ve worked with Ralph in the past and most recently on How Can You Stay In the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? How does this project feel different in terms of process?

Okwui Okpokwasili: It feels like a continuation. It seems there are a number of experiences from all the past projects now coexisting at once. There’s a cosmology to this universe and we are receiving signals from it. For me, it begins with Come Home Charley Patton. That’s one way Scaffold Room is different. In the other pieces there was also a collective community of people negotiating a dangerous proximity of our bodies and figuring out what that language was together, and now I’m alone. But I carry the memory of their proximity.

Ralph Lemon: It’s really a collapse of time. There’s the past. There’s the present. And there’s this future sense of real time in what we’re working on.

Ryan: In How Can You Stay in the House All Day there’s a really famous moment of you on stage where there’s this incredibly embodied and dedicated and emotional…

Okpokwasili: Just say it! The crying!

Ryan: Can you talk about that piece, because I think the degree of emotional connection is exemplary of what is not normally brought into performance art. Don’t get me wrong, I realize performance art is also about certain forms of extreme endurance or extreme portrayals of self.

Okpokwasili: But even the crying seemed wrong in a theatrical sense. It was just wrong.

Lemon: Very wrong. People were walking out like crazy.

Okpokwasili: In Washington someone stood up and said, “Will somebody do something! You’re in a theater! Will somebody help her?” It was wrong on every level. It didn’t work theatrically, and it wasn’t supposed to work, because there was nothing preparing you for it, and then it began, and nothing preparing you for it to end. We had to work on that. I had to work on how to get there every night; we had a space for me to prepare in.

We developed a crying book, and I would look at it for preparation. It was filled with images and stories of people, in pain, in joy, in ecstasy. I would go to it and find a person or an event to meditate on and then cry for, and I would open and I would be engulfed. I would think of it as a cry for the world. It was an opening up, like heart shock, or a swollen stomach, with everything heaving up like a gusher or geyser.

Lemon: That whole Deleuzian element, another source. His essay, Fiction, from Pure Immanence. What fascinates me is that Okwui’s crying was real and not real. She was really crying, but it was also fiction.

Okpokwasili: No. It was real.

Lemon: But you were on a clock.

Okpokwasili: I totally disagree with you.

Lemon: The delirium of it.

Okpokwasili: The delirium is real. Fact and fiction were bleeding into each other. To delineate one from the other is so complicated, why do it? It is real. It’s all real. It’s all not real.

Lemon: I meant in a theatrical mindset.

Okpokwasili: But it wasn’t theatrical. I mean, yes, Ralph framed it. He’s talking about my experience of it, not your design of it.

Ryan: This tension is interesting.

Okpokwasili: I think it’s an interesting place for an actor to be, for a performer to be: that place where you’re really slipping though and away; you’re completely yourself and transformed. When the audience is present, there is no fourth wall. When I look into the audience looking at you. I’m looking at you. I see you. And you see me see you. There’s no place where any of us are invisible. Perhaps that’s where it can be interesting, to think of the constructing a self in relation to the presence of strangers. It’s an inevitable layer of performance, the subtle shifts that occur when an audience is invited in.

Ryan: In Scaffold Room, my understanding is that there’s a video that shows you preparing for the work.

Lemon: Which is controversial, because it’s private; I shouldn’t have made that public and I did without asking her.

Okpokwasili: I’m over it—but I hated that. I knew it was going to happen, because someone was videotaping it. I was like: OK, it’s inevitable that this may emerge out of the private archives into the very public playing space. Let’s just say I believe that Ralph makes sacred spaces even when they are public, even though I’m not saying “sacred” in the sense that we all bow down and pray. What I mean to say is his process has integrity. And his work is densely layered with exposure. In the actual performance, my back is to the audience the entire time; in the video, I’m finally facing the audience. It was inevitable that he would find it necessary to reveal it. And I trust him to honor the work.

Lemon: And they are painful because they shouldn’t be made public. There seems to be a demand that they become public. It’s like the Giraffe Boys, too. When I watch those, I’m continually very disturbed. But it feels like it has to be made public.

Can I ask, because we never talk about this really: Is there consciousness in what you guys are working on, that includes acknowledgment that you are a black female body?

April Matthis: I feel like you talk to me a lot about that. And you talk too about how Okwui is like your avatar, physically, and how for you I look like a black woman, a black woman’s body in a way that is not like you.

Lemon: I don’t think I said any of that, but it’s great.

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April Matthis in rehearsal, Scaffold Room installation, Burnet Gallery, Walker Art Center, September 2014  Photo: Bartholomew Ryan

Matthis: Oh, you totally said it! You said exactly that. (all laugh) Because I thought about it a lot! What is secret in this process? I bring it up because I feel I am very aware of that and the questions I have around that. They have been talked about with the costume and me being associated with the red-goat girl and it being necessary that what I wear is body-conscious. I do feel I’m in conversation with that and how we talk about Beyoncé, or how we talk, or don’t talk, about Adele or Amy Winehouse, or how we see your body, Okwui, when you take off your pants, or when we see you in the video and you’re also wearing body-conscious clothing.

I feel like there’s a question that’s being asked where we have to look at our bodies and draw from that whatever kind of associations you have or don’t have. That’s on the table. We’re reading Kathy Acker, and we’re talking about the body and explicit sexual material; all of that is in the container to be considered. I don’t know how guided it is or how open it is, but it’s definitely there and it’s something that I’m aware of in how we exist in that space together and not together. And then, there are images of Edna Carter and these other women, these nameless, sometimes almost faceless women, undulating in slow motion while we’re talking about Beyoncé or whatever. The black woman body is on display. Men, too! And there are images of innocuous little boys in crazy, giraffe heads against text about—

Lemon: Rape!

Matthis: Children raping children and tiny cocks getting slapped. That’s there. That’s there for the taking. That’s what makes you get uncomfortable, and it’s a tension you keep because it’s interesting. All of that is awful. And then there’s what the Scaffold Room is and whatever white space is.

Okpokwasili: As a brown body, our bodies are not neutral bodies. Not in this society that we’re in. If I’m Ralph’s avatar, I’m also masculinized. Sojourner Truth said, “Ain’t I a woman”? The whippings, the mutilations, the hangings of black women with children barely off the breast, they do not occupy the space of the feminine.

Matthis: There’s another world, too, of the dancer’s body and what we read as a dancer’s body versus what we read as not-a-dancer’s-body. There’s a certain phenotype of long, lean, this-is-what-we-enjoy-looking-at versus this-is-something-we-have-to-look-at-a-different-way that is also there too. In a way it does neutralize our skin when all things being equal are black. I always wonder, what does this mean here and now?

Ryan: What is the “here” here?

Matthis: Here is the Walker. Here is New York City, Minneapolis, the dance world, and the names of people…. The vocabulary of people who know this world, and how honestly it’s not people in this restaurant that we are in who are going to be seeing this piece. And not the people who are going walking around on the High Line, they’re not coming to see this piece.

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Scaffold Room work-in-progress, EMPAC residency, June 2014. Photo: Ryan Jenkins

Okpokwasili: Many of these small, sophisticated audiences are largely white audiences, and they may not understand, or feel implicated by, the readings that have been compiled over centuries to land on our bodies. But even a black body, like my body, that may be in the phenotype of that long, lean, dancer body, it’s still a brown body. And it’s still in a space where it normally wouldn’t exist outside of a fetishized discourse. It’s a staged incursion from the outside.

Ryan: Given this idea of what is inevitably on display, how are you anticipating this happening in a white cube gallery at the Walker with probably a largely white audience? Is there any worry about how it might come to feel, like you’re under a microscope?

Matthis: I feel there’s no alternative Utopian space where I wish it were. I feel like it’s designed to be exactly that: to be exactly in a white box space at the Walker with a predominately white, Minnesotan audience, and not whatever the opposite would be, like at the bandshell in Harlem in Marcus Garvey Park. I guess that would be the opposite. I feel this is not for one audience or another. I guess, it might be for an audience that is interested in visual art or performance art and is used to that. For me, coming from mostly a theater background, what I appreciated most were the rules and expectations were not the same at all. I hardly ever got the notes that would be the type of notes I would get if this were a solo show in a regional theater. There are so many different decisions to make about arc, and character building, and emotional response that I’m so glad to be free of. Now if these things overlap or intersect coincidentally or intentionally you do get some of that.

What it’s about for me is shifting relationships with the audience, or with my relationship with the text, or just being inside the piece. It changes a thousand ways all the time as we go through it. It doesn’t feel finished, like a little nugget of a piece to sit and watch. It does feel more slippery than that. It feels like dance to me, and it feels durational. I don’t have any expectations of oh, because it’s here it’s going to be objectifying. People can read it that way, and I can have different moments where I feel exposed or vulnerable, but there’s different clockwork going on inside and outside.

Ryan: Can you talk about why it feels more like dance?

Matthis: It’s highly choreographed. It’s specific. It’s about space. It’s about my body in space at a particular time. There’s rhythm. It’s really about expression and movement in a way that you’re meant to look at. Every gesture that I make, or sigh, or whatever, to a certain extent is something I’m conscious of.

Ryan: As you’re improvising?

Matthis: The notes I get are more technical. Or they’ll be like, “that part was good!” or “how you said that was good.” But it’s not like theater where it would be “I’m not really sure what you’re thinking in this moment” or “I don’t believe that you’re really upset by that” or “this should make you angrier.” I never get anything like that. Something I have gotten “this should move you” or “this should move someone else.” It feels like a physical action either with my voice or with a gaze. Not to make it seem technical, but even just a way of thinking, and a mode of performing; sometimes I feel you’re my audience and that’s all this is: a musical concert. And then sometimes I feel like it is a lecture, and sometimes I feel like it’s anecdotal, and sometimes it feels like I’m going off script.

Ryan: Are you going off script at that moment, technically?

Matthis: No. (laughs). Sometimes things I said off script become a part of the script, because Ralph was like, “Oh, that’s great! Keep that in there.”

Ryan: Ralph’s identity as an artist and choreographer is very mutable, but the cliché of the choreographer is that they are totalitarian. April, what is your sense of your own autonomy as a creator within the project?

Matthis: There’s a lot a freedom and a lot of room, and that’s by design. Maybe in contrast to what Okwui’s piece is. There’s specificity in the coordination with the video, for example: timing of certain things, and accidents that must be repeated in the same way. It’s been drawn on my own execution in the room. It doesn’t feel foreign or imposed as much as it feels organic. Maybe that’s because Ralph knows I don’t have the dance vocabulary that most dancers you work with would have, and so it’s been kind of ad hoc or accidental. For instance, Ralph notes that on a break I’m skipping around because we’re in this big, giant space that we have all to ourselves. Then Ralph says, “I like that. Now do that in the piece.” (laughs).

Ryan: I love this idea of you as this ongoing magpie of gesture.

Lemon: It’s also interesting because she sees it as a dance piece, and I so don’t!

Matthis: Maybe because that’s my perception of you.

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Scaffold Room installation, Walker Art Center, September 2014. Photo: Bartholomew Ryan

Lemon: No, it’s great! It’s like this whole is constantly being reconstituted.

Ryan: I approach this from a visual arts frame. It seems to me that this piece is holding up a certain inability to belong and a lack of desire to perform a structure that would be legible and comfortable from any one of those frames.

Lemon: Yeah. For me that’s the guiding principle behind making work, or my particular practice. You create these questions, or these problems, and out of them there are certain moments that I call accidents, which are not solutions to the problems but just enrich them. I wouldn’t define it as not belonging. For me, it’s closer to Fred Moten’s idea of the Fugitive. That there is a fleeting towards or away from something.That feels like an inherent quality to this work.

Matthis: And more empowered than asking to belong and falling short.

Lemon: I’m going to this white cube, and that’s thanks to the Walker, because you approached me with something that would be so perverse from the initial mind limitation, no museum space, no theater space. But then you were like, but what if it were an anti-museum space? How about if we had the biggest, whitest space we could find? And, I thought that’s so perverse. Yes. Let’s do it because it’s so problematic. That keeps the tension of it, and I’m not interested in it failing, but I am interested in having a really fraught conversation with the politics of both these worlds. I feel we are doing it in this work.

Ryan: That is bringing up a lot of problems for you in what way?

Lemon: In the not knowing, which is also a part of the fugitive work you don’t know. There’s the element of moving. I don’t know! It doesn’t fit in this. I don’t yet know how to make a work for the Burnet gallery space. I do know how to make a work for a theater and I’m trying not to make that work, and that feels counter-intuitive. But all this feels absolutely right. I don’t know how to direct, and I’m working with an actor—a really good one. What I told April early on, what I like about working with her is that I don’t really know her. I really know Okwui, but I like that contrast. There’s no hierarchy here. They’re both embodying the same space differently.

Matthis: Maybe my experimental theater background lends itself to less strict rules of what a relationship to an audience is or what a piece needs to be. So I’m comfortable with wherever and however we do it. If none of it is heard or if only part of it is observed, it still has its own logic. Your question: do I try to be true to it, or do I try to connect emotionally or connect to a character? What Ralph has written, whether or not that’s technical, I feel like this piece is a thing, and an object. and its own weird shape. As long as I’m making that shape, it doesn’t matter where that shape exists. It’s an object; it doesn’t matter if it’s hanging or if it’s on the floor or if it’s on the pedestal or if you happen upon it on a field, it’s still the object that it is. That’s all I’m working at.

Ryan: An object can be transported here or there.

Matthis: It can be looked at. It can be not looked at.

Ryan: But it changes from place to place too, right?

Matthis: It changes depending on who’s looking at it, when they’re looking at it, how they’re looking at it, how much of it they’re looking at. But, it is itself.

Lemon: And how the environment defines it. I find that very encouraging and comforting. Because April and Okwui are not the problem.

Ryan: (laughing) Right, right.

Lemon: And it’s not like I’m the problem either.

Ryan: What is the problem? Is there a problem?

Lemon: Yeah, the problem is how we inherently frame something in these particular worlds. We are going into a very defined, white, gallery space with which comes a social politic about how something is viewed and looked at. I do feel I am obliged to make sure that I am articulating as best I can that this can be looked at in a different way. It doesn’t have to be that binary argument we keep having of “Why is there a theater space in a white gallery space?”

That would be unfortunate if that’s as far as we got with this. (laughs) Or, on the other end, this is a bad performance art piece, right? (all laugh) I do feel the job, or my part of my work, in parallel is to define this thing for myself, and for April, and Okwui performatively and visually. It’s to make sure I’m creating a space where these questions are forefronted and generative. And yes, for some it’s going to shut them down. It’s going to be this or it’s going to be that. But, I do think that we can help that conversation by making it not so certain.

Ryan: Why is it called Scaffold Room?

Lemon: Because it is a scaffold! It is literal. It’s a frame. But to me, conceptually, frames are there and they’re not. If there is nothing they are framing, what are they framing? At the Walker I’ll have a frame that gets framed again by the white space, which is interesting to me. At EMPAC, where we developed the piece, we were framed in a theater. We tried to put fake white walls in the theater, but it still stayed dark.

Ryan: I like this mise en abyme. Is it theater being put on display, or is the gallery being put on display?

Lemon: Exactly!

Ryan: There’s a show opening at MHKA in Belgium in a few weeks called Don’t You Know Who I AM: Art After Identity Politics. Would you relate this work to projects in the 1990s that would have historically been identified with identity politics?

Lemon: No, and it’s a disturbing question, because I don’t want this piece to be that, but it is, in essence, part of that. I think it is a contemporary take on it. What I’m trying to do is go back to Moten’s idea of blackness: the idea of it not being post-racial, because it’s definitely racial. He’s talking about a space of blackness that he calls capacious, a place and time much more generous because lots of people can be inside that space. That’s what I’m trying to do in this work. Yes, I’m using two black, female bodies and not a white, male body and an Asian body. There’s Kathy Acker, and there’s Amy Winehouse, and there’s Adele and, of course, Beyoncé.

Ryan: And there are also other people floating around. You could throw in Amiri Baraka and Genet; you could create a kind of cultural genotype.

Lemon: There’s Henry Miller.

Ryan: Moms Mabley.

Lemon: We are bringing out the fact that Henry Miller was up in Harlem studying and fucking around, I imagine. We’re talking black and beyond black. I feel what we are talking about is an acting-out culture.

Matthis: Black contains all of that. Black is not exclusionary. It’s everything. There’s a part in the text where we say, “White Brits are so white. Whiter than white Americans, so they can hold any color. That’s why they’re black.” (All laugh). But, the same could be said for blackness; it holds all the colors.

Lemon: Which is ridiculous.

Matthis: We’re all black.

Lemon: Yeah.

Matthis: It’s so much more interesting, but it doesn’t take away anything at all. It doesn’t reduce or try to neutralize. It’s vivid and powerful, everything and nothing. I always wonder, what’s the alternative? What would be less ’90s racial politics? What could possibly be less?

Ryan: I just did an exhibition 9 Artists, which was trying to think about this as well. The artists in the show embody and traverse certain identity codes including nationality, ethnicity, etc., they don’t ever truly align themselves with them. They use them when they’re convenient, or will inhabit them when they need collectivity for organization, but they also step away and reject them and create new forms of intimacy and community. Particularly in the context of contemporary art, (which has so blandly historicized this earlier period that we call “identity politics” as if you could historicize it), how does one now engage these questions without bogging oneself down in the inevitable dead ends within which these discourses have been mediated? I don’t know if bringing up that question automatically puts it into a certain kind of space?

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Ralph Lemon and Okwui Okpokwasili, Scaffold Room installation, Walker Art Center, September 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

Matthis: We talk about black and white, and there are times when we’ve talked about taking out some of that language. I don’t feel this piece is bogging itself down. Now, how it gets talked about and how it gets framed fields a question like that, or starting it off with these questions, leads us down that path. But I don’t think the piece itself is doing that. A big part of that are the projections and the Carter family. They’re so removed for me. My expectation for whatever I’m worrying about, not being or hoping will get translated, will just go out the window. It’s a goat head on a woman with a red dress on and she’s fumbling with her clothes. Its not like: Here we go again, another black woman in a red dress wearing a goat head. It’s just not a recognizable enough image to be something that—

Lemon: Well, they are the future. They are so present and so historical. But here’s the problem, Bart, we are still in the ’90s. We have to keep talking about this as it’s changing. It’s different from twenty years ago. There is still something nagging at being black, or gay, or a woman. We’re still living in a society.

Ryan: It’s still a structurally racist society.

Matthis: How successful can those pieces you describe say they were?

Lemon: We are not at a place and time where we can stop talking about it. It’s just, how do we talk about it now?

Ryan: Yes, but how do you talk about it within the art world that has successfully neutralized the last way it was talked about?

Lemon: Think of all the volumes. That’s the question: who has the megaphone at the moment?

9 Artists: Epilogue

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan has been sharing “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to […]

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan has been sharing “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it was view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is final installment of this 10-part journey.

Epilogue

I tell you what a real VIP is
A face that never was nor will be kissed
-Sinéad O’Connor

In putting together this exhibition, I started with a title and a number of artists whose work I was interested in, and whose approach to art in general I felt was challenging and provocative within the field and more broadly. One of the methodologies has been to present these different approaches in proximity and then see what emerges. Throughout the essay, I rarely make pronouncements about the artists as a group, but I am prepared to do that a little now. When I write of complicity, I understand that I am in a sense talking about power, and how artists relate themselves to it. There is a politics to acknowledging that one is positioned in a world of implication, and this acknowledgment can produce surprising intimacies and routes to understanding. When Yael Bartana folds into her project the proud voice of a man whose defense of Israeli militarism and exceptionalism is manifestly opposed to the positions she has developed in her work, she is creating a kind of threshold. We can listen to him, and understand his positions; even as he has taken a step into her structure, one has a sense of possibility. Some years ago, at an opening in LA, Danh Vo was approached by an old white American man who invited him to visit his home. Vo gladly did so. There he found a trove of materials from the man’s time working for the Rand Corporation in Vietnam in the late 1960s, including many voyeuristic and eroticized photographs of young Vietnamese men. I think there is something significant about this moment in time, where rather than decry the colonial and sexual politics of the man, Vo befriended him. He exhibited the photographs almost as if they were portraits of the youth in Vietnam that he never actually had. He became the subject of this erotic gaze, and also duplicated it, creating a call and response with the author and the subjects of the images, one that acknowledged the implicit power dynamics but also sidestepped the dead-end binaries that attended them.1

I am often surprised within the art world—which is, after all, such an open space—by the degree to which people simplify complex ideas based on ideological assumptions that they do not question. I don’t want to relitigate battles that have been fought over the past thirty to forty years in art, but I do think it significant that there is such a resurgence of interest in art from the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, particularly work associated with identity politics. There was a sense toward the end of that period, which many people associate with the aftermath of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, that people got tired of the subject position battles. There was a backlash as artists, critics, and institutions grew weary of defending their privilege and more or less decided that the whole identity politics thing was over.

Attendant with that has been a simplification of the art of the time, as if somehow it was lacking in formal or material complexity, and was merely artists stating self-essentializing positions as a way to make space for marginalized positions within an art world that had hitherto excluded them. And yet, of course, much of the art of that era continues to inform and enrich the present. While I am not suggesting that the artists in this exhibition represent Identity Politics 2.0 (as if identity politics ever ended, for that matter; it is everywhere, all the time, de facto, and we are all participants), they do represent artists who are unafraid to engage the world in broad and ambitious ways, and who deploy their identity, or at least a conscious acknowledgment of its existence, within the work. What feels different to me is that they all reconsider notions of loyalty to a group away from identification based on class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality and toward some less codified organization of alliances. This happens most overtly in Bartana’s JRMiP (Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland) that welcomes, in effect, anyone who in theorist Julia Kristeva’s famous formulation feels like “strangers to ourselves.” But it’s also there in Hito Steyerl, who pits the organized oasis of the gated community, with its silhouettes aimlessly enjoying a purgatory of leisure time, against the dancing pixels of the wide-open desert who disarm US helicopters and fly away with drones. It’s there with Natascha Sadr Haghighian, who uses a productive animism to commune with the object of the graph, decoupling it from its utilitarian function in the service of the narrow profit-based metrics of ArtFacts, and setting up a subjective model for engagement with the world through selective and strategic over-identifications with the object of one’s oppression. Nástio Mosquito’s “army of the individuals” is about a shifting contextual range of allegiances, a receptivity and openness to alliance, and—dare I say it—a relativistic embrace of community formed around elusive but contagious moments of participation and intimacy. Even Bjarne Melgaard’s gay separatist terrorist group is less about a trenchant ideological position than it is about presenting, through excess, the redundancy of mainstream notions of intimacy, collectivity, and behavior. When Liam Gillick asks the visitor to his exhibition at Venice, “How are you going to behave?” it’s as if he is throwing down the gauntlet, saying, “It’s not about me, it’s about you … if you are willing.” He has in that moment, to my mind at least, laid himself bare, and what you make of it is partially dependent on your capacity for empathy or generosity. The you that he addresses personalizes the interaction, turns the visitor from an identification with a group—here possibly the art world cognoscenti drifting in an opinion-fueled haze from one pavilion to another—to an engagement with their own individual subjectivity and agency. Gillick’s question could be echoed by Mosquito’s “What are you going to do with your education, become part of a structure or build a structure?”

An acknowledgment of one’s complicity and ability to display a self-awareness in relation to the structures one navigates, of course, is not in itself a panacea for forging an optimistic path into the future. But it also can’t be ignored as a position. It certainly proceeds with a greater integrity and sense of possibility than work that assumes that language and culture and the artist, for that matter, are transparent carriers of meaning—imagine, for example, an exhibition that is titled 9 Artists because there are nine artists in it. I like to think that everything is more complicated and then simpler than it initially appears. From the point of view of subjectivity and representation, we are entering an age of ever-increasing surveillance—with chilling effects on individual expression and the nurturing of difference, but also of access to multiple competing and elucidatory sources of information. It’s a moment of opportunity, of increasingly distributed and enigmatically enacted democratic impulses. It feels like a pivot point in global history, where everything is both possible and impossible.

# # #

1 The photographs by anthropologist Joseph M. Carrier were first exhibited in Vo’s exhibition Good Life at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, in 2007. They were accompanied by other items from Carrier’s archive, including a letter, a business card, and a camera (see plate 15 in this catalogue). The photographs and camera were displayed in elegant spot-lit vitrines surrounded by gold flock wallpaper. The press release accompanying the exhibition was written by Carrier and told how he had come to meet Vo in LA: “I immediately felt attracted to him and knew that I wanted to have some kind of close relationship.” And indeed, Vo and Carrier developed a friendship in subsequent years. See Kirsty Bell, “Danh Vo,” Frieze Journal (September 2007), accessed August 1,2013.

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Yael Bartana

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Yael Bartana Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) (video still). Photo courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw.

Yael Bartana Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) (video still). Photo courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw.

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it was on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the ninth installment of this 10-part journey.

VIII. We Will Be Strong in Our Weakness

In 2008 I was assisting on an exhibition in New York City that debuted at Parsons The New School for Design a few weeks before the presidential election. Titled OURS:Democracy in the Age of Branding, it featured a fairly global array of artists, many with activist leanings, and was an attempt to look at the political sphere from the point of view of the manufacturing and manipulation of desire.1

One participant was Israeli artist Yael Bartana, with whom I helped organize a performance in Union Square on a sunny fall afternoon. The piece was based on her video Wild Seeds (2005),2 in which a group of teenagers roll around on a hill overlooking a green scenic valley. They are playing some kind of rough and tumble game—it’s difficult to determine the rules, but they are clumped tightly together, some screaming, some gripping each other while others try to pull them apart. It’s a two-channel video; the second is a black screen with white subtitles that translate the Hebrew cries: “Desert the army, traitors,” “A Jew does not deport another Jew,” “Shift up a bit (girl grunts).” There’s tenderness to the piece; despite the violence, the kids seem involved in a shared secret, an intimacy that transfers itself to the viewer. In a recent publication, the artist describes the origins of the work:

[…] created by a group of young Israeli activists, some of them just before their IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] recruitment, others future objectors. I met the group through my niece, who is now nineteen. She was among the few young people who refused to be recruited by the Israeli army. The video was taken in the Occupied Territories, in the beautiful landscape of the Prat settlement, but the game may be played any place and at any time the group chooses. Named “Evacuation of Gilad’s Colony,” the game was the youngsters’ response to the forced withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Occupied Territories and the resultant violent confrontation between the soldiers and settlers at Gilad’s Farms in 2002.3

If anyone remembers that confrontation, whatever your political position in relation to the Occupied Territories, the withdrawal from Gaza initiated by then prime minister Ariel Sharon was fairly unprecedented. Video footage showed rows of seated settlers with arms entwined challenging the IDF, who pulled them one by one from their ranks to cries of “traitor.” The historical violence accompanying the vision of Jew against Jew was moderated (or perhaps accentuated) in a fascinating way by the obvious respect and tact with which the forces of the state went about their business. Here then were some kids, who in reenacting the whole affair were perhaps mocking it, puncturing the national mythology of unity of intentions and asking new questions about identification. But they were also duplicating by default the conditions of the event—the lines between oppressor and the oppressed became blurred; the ultimate sense being that of people locked within a structure, the rules for which have been ordained, which must play itself out whatever their personal feelings on the matter.

A constructed scenario then, found by the artist, was documented and translated into an artwork and then transferred to a performance on the concrete landing of an idyllic New York urban park, itself associated through the years with various activist movements. Titled Wild Seeds in America, the game commenced at Union Square, about fifteen of us clumped on some dusty blanket. We had been instructed to occasionally throw out sentences such as “No, we won’t move” or “You can’t force us.” I remember starting it fairly nonchalantly, surrounded by a gathering random audience, and thinking that I should be careful not to hit my head (the game was potentially lethal, by the way; I had helped secure the permit, so that was another concern). Two big guys began patiently pulling us out, looking for the weak link, starting on the edges, like friendly wolves.

About fifteen minutes in, it became obvious that this was not a game but an unfurling tragedy: each time someone left the group you could feel the gasp of the crowd, feel a heaviness and loss. The stakes became higher, the imperative to remain together stronger. As the wolves tired, a member of the crowd joined them, gleefully participating in the dismantling. At some point I was extracted, fingers ringing as they were unclasped from someone’s leg. I stood with the crowd, watching as it came down to two women holding each other tightly. They were being pried apart when one of them screamed, “You’re hurting me.” The wolf unclasped her, and she quickly grabbed her comrade again, clamping in tight, laughing. But yeah, it was a pyrrhic victory.

Bartana had a solo exhibition opening at PS1 MoMA that day. Later, a number of us sat in the museum in Queens watching Wild Seeds (the real one) and understanding that there was something epic about these human relations. What, I wondered, had Bartana achieved by her decontextualization? The original piece involved an abstraction of a real event, but this transferral to Union Square was completely displaced from the original sociopolitical context. Why was the structure she set up so enervating? In earlier videos, Bartana made selective documentations of real world events, choosing often-ritualized aspects of Israeli society, and observing them. What perhaps was not so evident then, but what became more obvious from Wild Seeds on, is a key theme in the artist’s work: an investigation and then intervention in the processes by which communities convene, subjects are formed, national mythologies maintained, gendered behaviors enforced.4

All that good stuff that goes into the making of who we are or believe we are as people in distinct places at distinct times. With Wild Seeds in America, the artist had created a very simple social experiment; each participant in the event in the park naturally identified with their role, and despite the looseness of the ideological underpinnings of various positions, felt a desire to unify, to protect, to be part of and to defend a group.

Perhaps this interest in how groups form themselves is partly influenced by the fact that Bartana has spent much of the last decade outside of Israel, first in the Netherlands, then Poland, and now Berlin. In a recent conversation, she spoke of the condition of being an immigrant: “The writer Eva Hoffman said that every immigrant is an amateur anthropologist. You’re always an outsider as an immigrant: you look at society in a different way. The same thing can partially happen when you step outside of your own nation and look back at it.” Bartana became increasingly interested in the inherent conflicts of Israeli society and identity, the Utopian promise of socialized collectivity and unity offered by the state’s formation and Zionist rhetoric, together with the inherent blind spot: the problem of displacement that necessarily attended the formation and maintenance of a state formed around Jewish identity. Where initially these investigations were focused specifically on Israeli identity, they became abstracted to a more general interest in how individuals and groups are socialized.

Yael Bartana’s and Europe will be stunned. Neon. Photo courtesy the artist and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam.

Bartana has taken up this impulse to create scenarios that border on social engineering in subsequent works, but always with an eye toward creating a self-awareness in participants that mitigates any sense of pure (i.e., fascist) manipulation. Such works take on a feeling of reality through the artist’s clever casting of real political and social figures and keen attention to, and reuse of, past documentary conventions. The most celebrated project within this body of work is and Europe will be stunned (2007–2011), which recently entered the Walker’s collection. It is significant in and of itself that the work debuted in a dramatic installation at the 54th Venice Biennale, where the artist represented the Polish Pavilion, the first non-Pole to do so.

At the time of the project’s conception, Bartana had spent time in Warsaw, and noted a nostalgia among the intelligentsia there for the Jewish culture absent since WWII and subsequent pogroms. The works document the rise of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), a real group founded by the artist, but with a fictional history that the videos relate. In Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) (2007), a charismatic young man played by Polish activist Sławomir Sierakowski, founder and chief editor of Krytyka Polityczna magazine and a co-author of the speech, stands in the empty and overgrown Olympic Stadium in Warsaw, surrounded by a handful of children dressed up as scouts (or proto-Fascists, depending on your point of view). Standing on a small dais, with a 1940s-style microphone, white shirt, red tie, and a leather coat cast about his shoulders, the speaker makes an impassioned speech that echoes around the stadium. He calls out to “Jews” and declares that Poland is haunted by their absence. He describes an old woman who wakes at night experiencing nightmares provoked by the repressed memory of how the Polish people betrayed their Jewish neighbors. He declaims, “Let the three million Jews that Poland has missed stand by her bed and finally chase away the demons. Return to Poland. To your country. … This is a call, not to the dead, but to the living.” Meanwhile the children use stencils to spell out large chalk letters on the grass, and the camera pulls back to give a sweeping view: “3,300, 000 Jews can change the life of 40, 000, 000 Poles.”6 The speech is a cry for diversity, a statement that challenges both the Polish history of anti-Semitism and its current rising tide of nationalism and raises provocative questions about two key and at times competing visions of Jewish identity: the diasporic versus the Zionist. The aesthetics of the film borrow from Leni Riefenstahl’s legendary Nazi propaganda documentaries of the Nuremberg Rallies, such as Triumph of the Will (1935), full of pulsing crowds, impassioned Aryan youth, and rhetorically savvy Nazis. Yet, rather than duplicate Hitler’s anti-Semitism, the speaker embraces the Jews as crucial to a healthy Polish culture. And rather than address a throng of supporters, here the man receives the attention of a few children. The film ends with the leader and the children marching a motley and disorganized crew around the stadium.

In the second film, Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower) (2009), the JRMiP has become an emerging force within Polish society. Inspired by the words of its founder, a group of Jewish immigrants labor to build a kibbutz in downtown Warsaw on the site of the former Jewish ghetto. The film is highly idealized, featuring visual stylizations (close-ups of workers staring optimistically into the distance) and an upbeat soundtrack borrowed from Zionist propaganda films of the 1930s. The effect is of a people determined to build a new life, steadfast in their faith in the possibilities of the future. The enthusiastic laborers design a flag that combines the Star of David with the Polish eagle; they learn Polish, and seemingly embrace their new life. Yet all is not quite as it seems; the kibbutz is surrounded by barbed wire, and it becomes a symbol of communitarian liberty, while also conjuring concentration camps (keeping people in or defense (keeping people out). At the film’s close, elderly Polish citizens stare at the kibbutz warily. Perhaps they are not as ready for the return as one might hope: there are ghosts, after all.

With the final film, Zamach (Assassination) (2011), the movement reaches full maturity and self-awareness. The leader has been assassinated and the film features his funeral and memorial. Here the JRMiP has reached out beyond its Jewish beginnings and mushroomed into a diverse, multicultural, and hopeful community. They demand that identification move beyond ethnic, nationalist, and other forces, making the values of displacement, otherness, and independence the key rules for a revised notion of citizenship. Walking through Warsaw in a mourning parade, they dress in uniforms reminiscent of Fascism, yet the group is too diverse and too individualized to be identified with that movement. Young and old, people with tattoos, nose rings, and yes, even blond hair and blue eyes convene to mourn the loss of their leader. But for the uniforms, it could be a march by Occupy Wall Street; there is a distinct queering of the properties of Fascism, and an almost flatfooted optimism in the possibilities for change. This army of individuals is unified around the manifesto of the JRMiP, which seeks to “revivify the early Zionist Phantasmagoria” by creating a new home in Poland. It insists, “We direct our appeal not only to Jews. We accept into our ranks 195 all those for whom there is no place in their homelands—the expelled and the persecuted. There will be no discrimination in our movement. We shall not ask about your life stories, check your residence cards, or question your refugee status. We shall be strong in our weakness.”7

The formation of the JRMiP becomes allegorical for the formation of a state, attendant with many of the same foundational myths (a call to arms around a specific goal, an early enthusiasm tempered by tragedy and martyrdom, a new unity born from maturity and suffering), yet Bartana injects a strong sense of pragmatism into the work that militates against the utopian rhetoric. Or, to put it another way, she makes clear her own acknowledgment of the proposal’s utopianism, offering space for voices that reject it on its merits. The artist invites three speakers to address the crowd, and gives them carte blanche to make of the JRMiP’s proposals what they will. Two are Israeli nationals who temper the JRMiP’s utopian call with the historical weight of the Holocaust. Alona Frankel, an Israeli writer and illustrator of some note, relates her biography as a Jewish Pole who departed in 1949 during a renewed spate of anti-Semitism. She eloquently demands the return of her Polish citizenship that was violently stolen from her, while making clear she has zero desire to return. Frankel is followed by Israeli journalist Yaron London, who steadfastly mocks the idea of a Jewish return to Europe, calling it a “brainless task.” He continues, “For us, the Jews, this isn’t a hopeful promise, it is a nightmare.” He celebrates the strength of the Israeli army, declares that the Jew will never be defenseless again, and mocks the naiveté of the JRMiP. He concludes, “The Jewish diaspora, ladies and gentlemen, ended in Auschwitz.”8

His speech is compelling, and one can certainly see his point, yet as he talks a woman emerges from the crowd, suitcase in hand, and approaches the stage, standing below him, looking steadfastly into the camera. She is the Polish Rivka, a fictional character that has haunted the films through their three iterations; she is the “ghost of return” that refuses to go away, the embodiment of the Holocaust but also a spirit of renewal. Trapped in the loop of history, she says in an earlier monologue, “I am here to weave the torture of identity from the threads of forgetfulness.” In the context of Bartana’s film, Rivka is the enigmatic ghost who reaches beyond language, who bypasses the rational rhetoric of London. She might represent equally the right of return of the Palestinians, of the Jews, of citizenship, of memory, of a certain kind of hope or justice. Perhaps it is with Rivka that we find Roelstraete’s theology? I hope so. Whatever the case, Bartana has woven from the tortured strands of identity a trilogy that ultimately opposes itself to nationalist posturing, that seeks to suture and expose the wounds of history, that takes language out of the mouths of the eloquent and passes it into a cavernous realm of complexity and possibility.

1The exhibition OURS: Democracy in the Age of Branding was hosted and organized by Parsons The New School for Design and curated by Carin Kuoni, director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. It launched the center’s 2008–2009 program cycle titled Branding Democracy. Along with Jakob Schillinger, I served as a curatorial assistant for the exhibition. Accessed June 10, 2013.

2Bartana’s performance Wild Seeds in America (2008) took place in New York’s Union Square on October 19, 2008. It was commissioned for the exhibition by Parsons The New School for Design.

3Yael Bartana, och Europa kommer att häpna = and Europe will be stunned, Moderna Museet Malmö Utställningskatalog Series no. 357 (Malmö and Berlin: Moderna Museet Malmö and Revolver Publishing, 2010), 24.

4In a conversation convened with Bartana and several others in Frieze art journal in 2004 to discuss the relationship between art and documentary, it emerged that they had little in common: some intervened within the fabric of reality to construct their scenarios, others such as Bartana apparently did not. Yet, when artist Anri Sala asked, “Why are we all around this table? Our practices are all very different,” Bartana responded, “But we have one thing in common. We are not documentary filmmakers.” What precisely the artist meant by that was not perhaps so clear at the time, though it certainly seems prophetic now. See Jörg Heiser and Jan Verwoert, “‘What’s the Difference?’: Discussing the relationship between art and documentary filmmaking with artists Yael Bartana, Annika Eriksson, Anri Sala and Gitte Villesen,” Frieze 84 (June–August 2004), accessed June 10, 2013.

5Yael Bartana, “A Conversation Between Yael Bartana, Galit Eilat & Charles Esche,” in och Europa kommer att häpna = and Europe will be stunned, 47.

6See Yael Bartana, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), YouTube video, posted by “Yael Bartana” on March 5, 2012.

7See Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), YouTube video, posted by “Yael Bartana” on March 5, 2012.

8The speech, which lasts about five minutes, closes with the following statement: “Voices are heard today saying the Zionist Movement was conceived in sin, that it is outdated and has no future, that it is on its deathbed. The Holocaust, it has been said, indeed took place in Europe, but the reparations for it are at the expense of the Palestinians. Dear members of the movement, for all your good will, you fail to understand the simple, incontestable fact that the state of Israel and its army are the only guarantee against another Holocaust. The Jewish Diaspora, Ladies and Gentlemen, ended in Auschwitz. May you rest in peace, dear innocent Pole.”

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Renzo Martens

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Renzo Martens’s Episode III 2008 (video still). Courtesy the artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London.

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, between May 9 and July 13, 2014. Here is the eighth installment of this 10-part journey.

VII. Enjoy Please Poverty

Renzo Martens has become known over the last decade for two documentary works in which he plays a central role. In Episode I (2003) he travels to Chechnya, ostensibly to document the fallout of the war between Russian soldiers and Chechen militants. To make the feature-length Episode III, he spent two years in the Congo, one of the world’s most ravaged and impoverished countries, and set out to prove that poverty is in fact the region’s greatest resource. The films each function as Western meditations on Western narcissism, with Martens uncomfortably intervening in the action, making the subject of the film as much himself as any of the material conditions he is investigating.

The press release accompanying Martens’s 45-minute film Episode I began as follows:

Renzo Martens pushes his way into Chechnya—alone, illegal, and carrying an Hi8 camera. He takes the role of the ubiquitous, yet forever undefined, television viewer whose attention everyone is fighting for. Against a background of ruins and bombings, he does not ask refugees, UN employees, and rebels how they feel. Those stories are already known. They already play a role. Instead he asks them how they think he feels.1

Martens spends time with NGO workers, wanders the refugee camps interacting with people, visits the city of Grozny, and surveys the ruins. At a checkpoint a Russian soldier laughs at the impertinence of Martens’s question, “What do you think of me,” responding, “You’re just an idiot looking for adventure.” Clearly an outsider in the situation, the artist exploits his own position as a documentarian to gain access to people, homes, and situations, with the subjects of the film assuming that he is there with a “theme” in mind, an approach that will at the very least raise awareness, create images to join the countless others that reveal the trauma to viewers elsewhere. Used to being hailed as victims, the refugees are both understanding of the mechanisms of aid and the need to be viewed within a regime of humanitarianism, and also tired of it all, suspicious ultimately of the intentions of those who capture them within their pixelated prison and depart satiated.

As indicated in the release, Martens is not presenting a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with its implicit call and response to the subject to narrativize their exploitation and misery for a sympathetic audience in lands far away. His is more personality driven, bordering on the fly-in-the-ointment characteristics of a Michael Moore, Louis Theroux, or even Werner Herzog. Yet, unlike these directors who seek ultimately to use their personalities to drive forward a theme that will prove elucidatory in some way, either revealing a deep universal truth about humankind (Herzog) or raising awareness around a tangible issue (Moore), Martens makes the subject of his films himself. By extension, he is the consumer, because his distracted, narcissistic behavior becomes a correlative for persons who engage with television or film as just one of many incidents throughout their day, for whom the documentation of trauma is conceived as both an address meant to raise awareness but also a form of entertainment, a mode of communication that always constructs the viewer as somehow outside looking in, rather than implicated and somehow always also responsible for that which is being viewed. (more…)

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Danh Vo

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts  from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the seventh installment of this 10-part journey.

VI. Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ In Water

Any of the recent copious articles or features on the work of artist Danh Vo generally begin with a story: Danh Vo (pronounced “yon voh” according to a helpful recent New York Times article) was born in 1975 in Vietnam; in 1979 he escaped on a boat built by his father.1 The boat was picked up by a Danish vessel and because of this Vo and his family ended up in Denmark, where they eventually became naturalized citizens. That’s it. After that things diverge. There are different stories to tell, different moments in his industriously productive career to explore. The narrative has taken on the status of a foundation myth (albeit empirically provable), one that the artist has variously resisted or manipulated, which has paved the way for work that engages, among other things, questions of identity and biography, though not as one might expect. In an interview in Dutch magazine Metropolis M in 2010, the artist talked about his emergence: “I just started to do things but my work was quickly categorized as ‘working with identities.’ But I thought: if I am working with identity, then it should be a bit more fucked up, because identities aren’t stable nowadays, they are complex and schizophrenic.”2

Vo’s work can be seen as a philosophy of practice that runs through his many projects, exhibitions, and relationships—a keen attention to art-historical precedence as well as geopolitics and the implications of living in a world that is more imbricated than ever before. People, objects, history, and various identity formations all become material in his expanding and accumulating oeuvre, producing a profound portrait, not necessarily of himself, but of the complicities and complexities of life today. In this sense, Vo can often use the personal as a bridge to wider considerations, or fold contexts into his work less as a form of appropriation than as a meditation on context and relation that spans time and geography. What happens if I bring this into my lexicon? And now this? And now this? It’s a shifting, rich, and provocative world of references and strategies that also sidesteps a binary approach to, say, the history of colonization or questions of sexual identity. Biography is mutable and contextual, history fluid and unsettled, always inhabiting the present as an evolving open work capable of producing new revelations. Friendship and intimacy are key and often reflected in unexpected quarters; the artist has turned the incidents of history into so many collaborators as eclectic and vital as his roving and expanding entourage (friends, family, artists, writers, and supporters), many of whom have become key agents around and within the work.

To give an example, in 2002 Denmark became the first country to legalize gay marriage, but the rights afforded to LGBT couples did not include several afforded to straight, such as the right to adopt children. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, city authorities began clearing trees in a park that was traditionally associated with gay cruising. Vo felt that the institution of marriage being offered to gays and others was about the exertion of a certain form of control. And yet life is full of institutions with which we can engage that are meant to serve specific functions. Vo wanted to make the institution meaningful for himself, so he decided to use the marriage system as a way to project personal memories within his name (I think of it almost as marriage-as-tattoo). He married people with whom he felt some personal affinity, and then divorced them while retaining their legal names. So far he has married two individuals, a Rosasco and a Rasmussen, but conceptually the project is still ongoing, and theoretically he could (as one critic pointed out) marry people until ultimately there are too many words to fit on the marriage certificate.3

Danh Vo Good Life2007. Courtesty the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin. Photo: Adam Reich.

Danh Vo, Good Life, 2007. Courtesty the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin. Photo: Adam Reich.

There is something fascinating about this project and how it relates to a story Vo once told me about coming out to his parents. Catholic and socially conservative southern Vietnamese, they seemed fine with it, and began trying to get him to marry acquaintances in Vietnam so that they too could escape to Denmark. His point was that with their Vietnamese make-do attitude, they could always find the use in something even if they couldn’t find the meaning. The Rosasco Rasmussen project is interesting when aligned with that sensibility. Vo finds the use in marriage, even if he can’t find the meaning. But then again, the opposite could equally be true, and perhaps that’s the point—it depends upon your position in relation to the something being discussed.4

It’s worth noting that when Vo arrived in Denmark as a child, the authorities mixed up the family’s names. Many Asian countries put the family names first and the given names second. Vo’s name in Vietnam was Vo trung ky-Danh (“trung” means “middle” and “ky” means “special”). On his arrival in Denmark, the authorities simply shuffled the “Vo” to the end so his middle name became his first, Trung Ky Danh Vo. When you add in the names from the marriages, and then the different combinations with which the artist uses them, you have someone who has embedded within his legal nomenclature a shifting range of potential identities. This is something with which the artist plays in his own movements, as his existence is fairly nomadic—constantly on the go from one project, exhibition, residency, or opening to another—requiring him to have at least some structure in various cities where he lays his head. The names become tools in the process of navigating through the various legal, immigration, and financial bureaucracies he encounters. Vo often sends his acquaintances JPEGs of images he has shot on his travels. A few years back, I received one of a debit card from Bank of America. He had chosen to have a themed card, and his template featured the words “Military Banking” in large black type and a Blackhawk helicopter hovering in sinister silhouette against a sunset. The name on the card reads “Trung Rasmussen.” Somehow this simple gesture, one that is likely never intended to be viewed in an “art” context, captures so much about the ways in which Vo both utilizes and points to the bureaucratic absurdities that condition our world. The gay Danish artist of Vietnamese descent with a militaristic banking card that features a US air force helicopter and names that are as apt to describe the owner as any other: the army of the individuals indeed.

Danh Vo Tombstone for Phùng Vo 2010. Collection Walker Art Center. Installation view, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Photo: Gene Pittman.

Danh Vo Tombstone for Phùng Vo 2010. Collection Walker Art Center. Installation view, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Photo: Gene Pittman.

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” So reads the inscription on a black stone with gold-leaf engraving that was installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in the spring of 2012. Titled Tombstone for Phùng Vo (2010), it’s one of several works by Vo recently acquired by the Walker Art Center. On the death of the artist’s father, Phùng Vo, the stone will be shipped to Denmark and placed over his grave in Vestre Kirkegård, a large cemetery in Copenhagen. It is in part Vo’s history that has given him a profound understanding of the importance of documents, which the artist has described as “equivalent to a performance, since through paper and institutions our society has already determined our movements and actions.”5 Just as immigration documents have controlled his family’s movements in life, the Walker’s acquisition of Vo’s work has led to contractual obligations that will impact various activities after his father’s death: among them, Phùng Vo has created a will for the Walker that confirms arrangements for his funeral.6 In addition to other details, the will bequeaths to the institution four artifacts of personal significance, including a gold crucifix with a chain and three objects he purchased soon after he arrived in Denmark. These items—a Dupont lighter, an American military class ring, and a Rolex watch—have since been “upgraded” to newer models. Phùng Vo bought them originally because to him, as a recent immigrant from communist Vietnam, they symbolized a particularly Western brand of success and masculinity.

Whereas the tombstone will rest within the protective enclave of the Walker until it is sent to the cemetery in Copenhagen, these four objects will be part of Phùng Vo’s daily life until he dies. After the tombstone arrives in Copenhagen, the artifacts will be delivered to Minneapolis, where they can be installed in a vitrine designed by the artist. In this regard, the work can be seen as a performance scripted by a series of documents—the contract, the will, export papers, etc.—that enacts itself over many years and involves many players, from Vo family and Walker staff members to the lawyer whose expertise was needed to ensure the purchase and anyone else who finds out about the work and becomes engaged with it over time. The tombstone is not just the sum of its parts, but also the stories that coalesce around it in its journey from the institution of the museum to the institution of the cemetery.

One of the remarkable things about the tombstone is the way in which it manifests relationships and lines of thought that move across geography and history: relationships, for instance, between two individuals who were buried in exile and one individual who will be, someday. Near the end of his life, French playwright and activist Jean Genet taught his lover and his lover’s son to mimic his handwriting so they could help him forge the old manuscripts he sold to stay afloat. After his death in 1986, Genet was buried in the Spanish cemetery in Larache, Morocco. When the plaque on his gravestone was stolen, his lover’s son carved Genet’s signature into the rock. Because he was trained to write in Genet’s hand, it was as if the playwright had signed his own grave.7 This story was a key strand in Vo’s thinking about the tombstone work, as was a visit to the Protestant Cemetery in Rome in 2009, where the artist came across the grave of Romantic poet John Keats, who died in the city in 1821 at the age of 25 after traveling there to seek a cure for tuberculosis. Largely unknown at the time of his death, Keats asked that the words “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” be carved on his grave. Vo later wrote, “When I first encountered Keats’s tombstone, I believed everybody deserves such a beautiful inscription.”8

The artist asked his father, a skilled calligrapher, to make sketches of the inscription. Phùng Vo experimented with a number of treatments before settling on a Gothic type style (prevalent in Rome) because he found it “exotic.” Using his father’s design, Vo had the inscription carved onto a slab of black absolute granite and inset with gold leaf. At some point in the process, he asked his father if the work could serve as his tombstone. Phùng Vo assented.9

In the future, people wandering through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will come across the rock sunk into the earth amid a line of trees on the fringes of a pathway just feet from the traffic of Hennepin Avenue. Then someday on a return visit, they will perhaps notice that the stone is gone. If they care to dig further, they will realize that it has made the trip across the water to Copenhagen. The stone will remain a part of the collection, though the Walker will have no legal obligation to maintain it over time. Rather, it will act as any gravestone would, kept in good care by the Vo family until the reasons for doing so are forgotten.

1Roberta Smith, “Awash in a Cultural Deluge: ‘The Hugo Boss Prize 2012,’ Danh Vo Works at the Guggenheim,” New York Times (March 14, 2013), accessed June 13, 2013.
2DanhVo,interview about his then current Stedelijk Museum exhibition Package Tour, in Erik van Tuijn, “Danh Vo: Identities are complex and schizophrenic,” Metropolis M (July 30, 2008), accessed June 10, 2013.
3See curator Luigi Fassi’s fascinating text on the artist in Luigi Fassi, “Terra Incognita,” Artforum International (February 2010): 152–159 .
4 The artist in conversation with the author, 2011.
5 Francesca Pagliuca, “No Way Out: An Interview with Danh Vo,” Mousse Magazine 17 (February 2009), accessed June 10, 2013.
6The contract that governs the acquisition was negotiated over the course of a year with the assistance of Mary Polta, the Walker’s chief financial officer, Walker registrar Joe King, and lawyer J. Hazen Graves of Faegre Baker Daniels LLC. It also required the collaboration of Marta Lusena and Isabella Bortolozzi of Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, in addition to, of course, the artist, his father, and family. The negotiations included a provision whereby Phùng Vo drew up a will establishing his assent to the terms of the agreement, and the Vo family was obliged to buy a family plot in the graveyard in anticipation of the exchange.
7The incidents of this event are elaborated in Edmund White, Genet: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).
8The artist in conversation with the author, July 2010.
9This work was first shown in the exhibition All your deeds in water are writ, but this in marble were presented at the Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, October 2 to November 7, 2010. See also the Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie website, accessed June 10, 2013.

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Natascha Sadr Haghighian

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Natascha Sar Haghighian de paso courtesty the artist andJohann König Gallery, Berlin.

Natascha Sar Haghighian, de paso, 2011. Photo: courtesy the artist and Johann König Gallery, Berlin.

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the sixth installment of this 10-part journey.

V. I Can’t Work Like This

In 2004 Natascha Sadr Haghighian created bioswop.net, a website for the free exchange of résumés and biographies. She described the project as arising from a gut reaction the first time she was asked to send a CV for inclusion in a catalogue. The CV acts as a legitimizing filter, conferring status within an art-world economy. For Haghighian, it simplifies, distorts, and excludes the complexity of contemporary practice, the means with which artists make their decisions, the range of collaborations, and the networks they develop. It also has a tendency to situate artists in terms of points of origin, nation- ality, ethnicity, etc., which is all very well if you can play a part in what that might mean, but in an art world and institutional culture obsessed with proving its global credentials, artists can often be instrumentalized for their points of difference along lines of geography and ethnicity, rather than mediated for their work in which these factors may or may not play a strong role. In a 2007 interview with curator Max Andrews, Haghighian describes the origins of bioswop.net. It’s worth quoting at length:

The idea for exchanging artist’s biographies which bioswop is based on originated from my multiple attempts to play with the conventional formats of art catalogues. If you want to study the mechanisms of representation, catalogues are a good thing to start with. Actually there is almost nothing about an art catalogue that I don’t find funny. More than anything else it shows that there is a great doubt about the value and necessity of art in general but also about every single artwork. So its foremost purpose seems to be validation and valuation. First it usually starts with a text by a specialist who is appointed by the art world to validate meaning and quality. Then it continues with presenting the artwork mostly in an iconic, fetishist, absolute fashion in order to make it impassible. Lastly it ends with the artist’s biography which localizes the imagery that one just saw in places of appointed significance. It proves the artist’s acknowledgement by the art world and helps evaluating his or her importance and relevance. In my eyes this format is the result of sheer paranoia and lack of confidence. But more importantly it is mostly just not interesting…. So starting the website bioswop.net first of all had practical motivations. As it is tiresome and time consuming to come up with new bios all the time I wanted to have a place where I could just go and click on something. But secondly I thought that it might be an interesting practice to share with more people. Maybe it would become a new movement. People exchanging, borrowing bios just like anything else that you get tired of.1

Haghighian’s desire to study the “mechanisms of representation” is also a desire to evade them, or at least to disjoint the easy flow of prescribed information, the ready formats with which the institution of art ascribes and maintains value, and the ideological currents, albeit shifting, that underpin this. At this point the artist is still generally introduced by way of bios constructed or shared from bioswop.net. However, in an art world conditioned by strategic placement and positioning, the gesture itself can become shorthand leading to and identifying the particular strategies of the artist. Her calling card as it were: something that situates her within the discourse, a gesture absorbed like most others into the ongoing building of cultural capital.

Yet, as Haghighian points out in her contribution to this publication (page 4), even in the years since 2004, the artist CV has become an increasingly archaic tool, with less and less utility in light of the expansion of the World Wide Web and its associated social networking and search capabilities. Now an artist, dealer, critic, curator, or the rare art historian who might attempt such a thing is much more likely to simply Google an artist’s name than to request or even search for an online résumé. There they will find a much more satisfyingly colorful portrait of their object of study by way of Facebook pictures, artist statements, interviews, YouTube records of lectures, scrappy reviews, or in-depth features.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian  Solo Show, 2008  sound installation, mixed media, publication, in collaboration with Uwe Schwarzer.  Format variable

Natascha Sadr Haghighian Solo Show, 2008 sound installation, mixed media, publication, in collaboration with Uwe Schwarzer. Format variable.

In her text, Haghighian describes her surprise when a friend e-mails her a link to the website ArtFacts.Net, which collects data on artists and posts it online, creating a basic metric of success based on institutional affiliations, and ranking the artists accordingly for the elucidation of bottom-line cautious collectors. Despite the fact that the algorithms and data-collecting bots deployed by the website have miscategorized her biography based on data that she herself inserted into circulation, she is disturbed by the website’s assumption that it has the right to undermine her own artistic project, and also to present her within such a narrow metric. Yet, despite an initial attempt to have the information removed, Haghighian comes to the conclusion that to fight the cloud is as futile as Don Quixote tilting at the windmill. Instead, she embarks on a meditation about the shifting sands of identification within a world where the body and the subject are becoming ever more imbricated within that cloud. She takes up the call of Hito Steyerl and others to identify with the object, rather than the subject, exploring the possibilities for a renewed form of agency within this approach, one that acknowledges the power of market forces to manipulate how we are formed and subjugated as subjects, by way of commodities that act as portals to this or that lifestyle and construction of one’s sense of self.2

She thus identifies with the object of the graph, which on ArtFacts indicates her rising and falling fortunes as an artist since 2006. She converses with it, animating it through her address, so that ultimately it is decoupled from its narrow function and can be seen, at least provisionally, as an entity participating in a conversation. In a sense, what happens with this approach is that she subjectivizes the object (an interesting reversal on the objectification of the subject). The reader becomes aware of the curve as something with agency, and then can meditate on its enslavement by ArtFacts, see the structures that contain it, and embargo its freedom. After all, perhaps it is just as unhappy with the situation as Haghighian? Perhaps it would rather redefine the metrics of its own rise and fall along more intuitive lines in dialogue with the artist. Rather than go down in the months where the artist does not exhibit, why not go down when she has a cold? Or conversely, rather than go up because of an exhibition at the Walker, why not go up when she is reading a pleasant romance novel on a breezy afternoon in Berlin? She and the curve enter into a complicity that, even if only provisionally, sidesteps the narrow intentions of its owners and consumers, emancipating it through a kind of perspectival displacement.

Haghighian further problematizes and explores these questions in her text, so I will dispense with my summary here. What’s important to hold onto is the contextual and shifting means with which the artist engages the world and her place within it, whether through videos, online projects, texts, installations, or designed events. Haghighian is known for her site-specific projects, or investigations of the format with which she is invited to participate, often highly collaborative engagements with other writers, makers, and thinkers whose ideas influence her and whom she in turn influences. It’s a shifting practice, certainly associated with the history of Institutional Critique for the way in which it can subvert, upturn, and point out the workings and inherent ideologies of institutional processes. In my first conversation with the artist, she mentioned that her New Year’s resolution might be to stop being reactive in relation to a prospective project, to be able to accept the terms and then proactively pursue her own interests within it (as many artists do). Yet often she feels like that very pursuit is inevitably closed down by the way in which the invitation demands her participation with it: that the structures of inclusion or exclusion are such that she has no choice but to deal with them first. Nevertheless, rather than adopt arch positions that situate her in the role of heroic and enlightened outsider, she, like every artist in this show to greater or lesser degrees, navigates her involvement with a sense of the complicity with power dynamics that is inevitably associated with participation within an art industry, or any industry for that matter.

For example, when invited by her gallerist in Berlin, Johann König, to contribute a work for an art fair, she ultimately agreed (it remains the only work she has produced for this purpose), and after a month of being in a bad mood submitted the piece, an installation constructed out of nails hammered to a wall in such a way that the negative space spelled out the declaration “I can’t work like this …”(PLATE 35).3 The piece had a conceptual richness, deploying the same material of construction that is used to mount art fair displays, an economy of means that also draws attention to the most proletarian signals of labor itself (hammer and nails). It is perhaps unsurprising, given the universality of the sentiment and the clarity of the final piece as an “object” (i.e., collectible item), that this work might be termed Haghighian’s most successful to date (following the metrics of success that ArtFacts would enjoy). That is: it is featured on the gallery website as the introductory work to her oeuvre, and was snapped up by collections, including that of the Guggenheim Museum.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian's I can't work like this

Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s I can’t work like this, 2007

To give another example of Haghighian’s way of working, she was on her way to the Sharjah Biennial and met Uwe Schwarzer of mixedmedia Berlin, a company that helps with the manufacturing and development of artworks.4 She befriended Schwarzer and visited his Berlin factory, scene to the production of countless artists’ works in different styles bound for various art fairs, biennials, and gallery exhibitions. While Haghighian rarely works with assistants, she doesn’t dismiss anything that fails to arise from the artist’s hand. Nevertheless, she was curious about Schwarzer’s dis- avowal of his own contribution (or that of his staffs) to the authorship of the works, his claims to be following the personal style of a given artist to the letter, despite the obvious occasions where he would need to intuit or interpret what such a personal style might mean. She wished to look into these questions further, but Schwarzer was understandably reluctant to have her document the inner workings of the company, given the discretion with which he must often proceed. Haghighian and Schwarzer devised a foil with which they could continue their investigations, namely the fictitious artist Robbie Williams, whose debut exhibition would be composed of works produced by mixedmedia Berlin. They settled on the name because, as Haghighian relates, people would generally be satisfied not to ask too many questions so long as she clarified “the artist, not the singer.” She expanded:

The name also carries the connotations of the glamour and tragedy of a solo career. And that is an important aspect of the Solo Show project. It is about the construction of the “solo” artist, whose name floats above the Tate Modern in big bold letters. But actually he relies on a huge team of people, specialists, technicians, architects, assistants, engineers, management staff, etc. At best, their names will be listed in the imprint of the catalogue. But the public is fed the intact image of a singular individual whose extraordinary talents or whatever have enabled his works to float so boldly above the Tate Modern. There is a discrepancy, a distortion of the actual relationships in the art scene that is increasingly veering towards a mega-event culture. So we needed an icon to engage in iconoclasm. And “Robbie” took the job.5

Robbie did a really good job; his exhibition Solo Show opened at MAMbo in Bologna in 2008.6 The white cube exhibition had two entrances; in one was a series of five sculptures that took show-jumping fences as their inspiration—they were made in a number of styles with a host of materials that acted virtually as quotations of contemporary sculpture. For example, one was composed entirely of televisions, another of fabric folds, and a third of a birdhouse platform with ensconced dragstyle wigs. A Frieze review at the time described it as “looking like weird hybrid mockups for artists such as John Armleder, Monica Bonivinvi, and Liam Gillick.” 7 The mixed-media installation certainly mined the history of postmodern sculpture, from contemporary pop culture–inspired assemblage works to media-based installations and feminist craft-based reclamations. The gallery included the title of the show and Robbie’s name. In the next gallery, a series of elegant speakers were hung in the round with a looped surround sound of a horse galloping and jumping. Here a vinyl text listed the names, without hierarchy, of some fifty individuals who had contributed to the project, including Haghighian and Schwarzer.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the reviews of the exhibition concentrated on the structural conceit of its instantiation rather than the material and conceptual properties of the exhibition itself. What would it have meant to review it on face value, to tease out the relationship between the horse and the sculptures, the delicate and perceptive play of the materials, the deliberate vulnerability displayed by the artist(s) in making such an over-determined relationship between the objects and the jump- ing horse? Is the horse the figure of the artist, on show for the pleasure of its owners who move from vernissage to vernissage following the upward and downward curve of its motion, waiting for the next horse to take its place? Is the horse a stand- in for the career of Robbie Williams? (The singer, not the artist.)

Perhaps it is obvious that we are not trained to consider the decisions of a collective as deserving of such consideration (the group of individuals who authored this collaborative work). At the same time, there is a sensibility to the project that belies any idea of a one-liner. Why not collectivize under a name and produce for a market? Is it because you are doomed to simply imitate the production of a more singular voice? Or isn’t it true that without the parameters of imitation of this particular structure, the collective might be capable of something far more radical?

 

1Max Andrews, Uovo Magazine 12 (2007): 156–173. See also Johann König Gallery website.

2Hito Steyerl,“A Thing Like You and Me,” e-flux journal 15 (April 2010),.

3For more on this work and the artist’s oeuvre in general, see the excellent artist talk she gave, “when night falls in the forest of static choices,” at the Guggenheim, organized by associate curator Katherine Brinson: “Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Conversations with Contemporary Artists at the Guggenheim,” YouTube video, artist talk presented as part of the Conversations with Contemporary Artists series at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, on January 21, 2012, posted by “Guggenheim Museum,” March 12, 2012, accessed June 10, 2013.

4The artist discussed the project in some depth in Raimer Stange, “Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Nobody Does Anything on Their Own,” Mousse Magazine 15 (October/November 2008): 72. See also Johann König Gallery website.

5Ibid

6The exhibition Solo Show, curated by Andrea Viliani, was on view at Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo) from September 7 to November 2, 2008.

7“Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Institutional critique and collective author- ship; money, fruit and Robbie Williams,” Frieze 119 (November–December 2008), accessed June 10, 2013.

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Liam Gillick

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Installation view.  Liam Gillick, The state/commune itself becomes a super state/commune. Natasha  Sadr De Paso in foreground. Photography by Gene Pithman

Installation view. Liam Gillick, The state/commune itself becomes a super state/commune. Natascha
Sadr’s De Paso in foreground. Photo: Gene Pittman

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the fifth installment of this 10-part journey.

IV. On a Dark Day in a Dark Building

At key moments in his 30-year career, Liam Gillick, an artist who is rarely talked about in relation to biography, has turned to his own identity as a person with Irish roots growing up in England during the 1970s to help explain his particular abstract approach to language and art-making. Intimately invested in the legacy of modernism, Gillick makes sculptures, text-based works, and publications that owe much to the programmatic failure of its Utopian promise to design a more egalitarian society. One of the preeminent representatives of a discursive turn in art, Gillick is often grouped with a number of artists associated with what has become known as Relational Aesthetics of the 1990s. In a famous defense of this moment in art, Gillick situated his mercurial approach and that of his immediate peers (Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Philippe Parreno) as being influenced by hybrid cultural backgrounds (Irish, Thai, Columbian, Algerian) that refused to take a didactic position in relation to society, adding, “This is a group whose complex and divided family histories have taught them to become skeptical shape-shifters in relation to the dominant culture in order to retain, rather than merely represent, the notion of a critical position.” 1

Gillick’s career has been situated along lines that privilege a determined opacity against a universalizing transparency, a philosophy that takes place on the level of language, form, and content, and represents an ethics of practice that is deeply articulated across his many texts, projects, exhibitions, collaborations, and public lectures. It should be said at the outset that for Gillick the idea that form and content would unite into a cohesive unity of intentions (what he refers to as the “singularity problem”) is deeply suspect, and one of the features that marks his art-making is a determination that these strands should exist as parallel tracks, informing each other, certainly, but never meant to cohere in a single work.2 His practice is complex, and for many frustrating, in its refusal to decide upon a definitive site in which the “art” exists; rather, he insists on multiple points of engagement.

A graduate of Goldsmiths College London in the late 1980s, Gillick was grouped for a time with the artists who became synonymous with the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the 1990s, and indeed was featured in the Walker Art Center’s celebrated 1995 exhibition Brilliant! New Art from London, which was the first international presentation of that now canonical group.3 Yet from the beginning, Gillick felt uncomfortable with both the rhetoric of the “movement” and the conceptual premise of much of the art that arose from it. For this, he partially blamed the pedagogical structure of Goldsmiths, which encouraged an individualism that for Gillick was anathema to his way of working.

Liam Gillick Del Charro 1994. Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York; Private Collection installation view.

Liam Gillick Del Charro 1994. Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York; Private Collection installation view.

This disdain for what Gillick has related as a near-Thatcherite individualism among the YBAs was born from the artist having been deeply influenced by the labor movements of the 1970s, and the fact that he came of age in the 1980s under the systematic destruction of labor by the Thatcher government. For the artist, this failure and ideological defeat played itself out most tragically in the built world with the political determination that a planned society was no longer sustainable or practical—that all that was left was speculation: a neoliberal embrace of the forces of the market and privatization rather than an ambition to work communally toward a more equal society. For those familiar with Gillick’s sculptural objects, design aesthetic, and graphic sensibility this may be hard to fathom, in part because of the obvious sleekness of production, high design values, and structural abstraction, all characteristics that many have come to associate with a corporate design culture. But Gillick stresses the roots of his aesthetic in an applied modernism that actually sought to give everyone access to this level of infrastructure: where architects, engineers, city planners, and politicians believed in an egalitarian public sphere.4 He has often stated that he is more interested in the work of Anni Albers than Joseph Albers; in other words, he is more invested in the applications of modernism in the lived world as a compromised applied negotiation of contexts than in any notion of purity in relation to the creation of form.

In 2008 it was announced that Gillick had been selected to represent Germany at the 53rd Venice Biennale to take place the following year. Nominated by German curator Nicolaus Schafhausen, then director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, the selection was met with some surprise and controversy, particularly from conservative elements in the German national media.5 His selection also received a positive reception and was seen as an example of Germany’s mature and receptive cosmopolitanism. Gillick had exhibited regularly in that country since the 1990s, and had a strong reception and context there, at least among an influential cadre of critics, collectors, and institutions. Meanwhile, Berlin had developed into a celebrated international art center, home to a range of contemporary artists who flocked there for low rents and an international and diverse milieu.

While many see the national pavilion structure of Venice as outmoded in an era of globalization, the tradition has been (un)surprisingly resilient. The core of national representation in Venice is found in the Giardini, inhabited by some 30 national pavilions, most built at a time when Europe’s colonial nations were competing for prestige. The German Pavilion, originally erected in 1909, was “refurbished” in 1938 by German architect Ernst Haiger to better represent Nazi aesthetics, becoming an icon of Fascist architecture with the addition of monumental and austere pillars and the word GERMANIA engraved on its facade. Naturally, in the postwar years artists have felt compelled to contend with this troubled legacy. Perhaps the most famous response was by Germany-born, American-based artist Hans Haacke, who in 1993 simply tore up the marble flooring in the central room of the pavilion, leaving the fragments for viewers to navigate.

This episode in Gillick’s prolific career is a useful point of concentration for this text, because the artist undoubtedly faced a moment of reckoning, what he himself has referred to as “a test,” where the limits of his contextual, shifting, and adaptable practice came up against that resolutely over-determined slab that is National Socialism. 6 In a key interview with critic Saul Ostrow in the lead-up to the biennale, one gets a sense of Gillick’s working method. His is a process of interrogation of context and mediation, a field of expectations that he is both responding to and creating for himself. The essential problem as he sees it is that the context here can’t be ignored; to do so would be too irresponsible. And yet, if he as an artist needs to intercede in the fabric of the building as a historically burdened site, then surely he also needs to interrupt his own comfort zone, to shift his practice in some way as a necessary consequence? Furthermore, is the very choice of Gillick as a non-German national—the first artist to represent a full national pavilion without having a passport from that country—meant as a symbol of Germany’s progress? Is he in a sense the figure who renders symbolically the maturity of German culture in relationship to its history of identitarianism? If he proceeds as normal, does he sanction this reading and become his own form of amnesia? And so he explores a range of possibilities, some of which move toward a “grand gesture” that normally would be anathema to him. For example, on a visit to the site he realizes that Haacke’s famous destruction of the pavilion floor encompassed the center of the building, not the anterior spaces. He debates calling Haacke and inviting him to finish the job. In another idea, he considers “turning off the building” by showing video, literally making the walls disappear into a black box. Still another approach—riffing off a joke Gillick would often tell about there being no toilets in Fascist buildings— was to install some basic amenities in the pavilion.7

The text by Gillick reprinted in this publication is a key component of the artist’s effort to contend with the challenge of the invitation. Asked by Schafhausen in typical contemporary art style to build a discursive armature around the exhibition, his response was to compose what has become perhaps his most concrete statement about his own work. Titled Berlin Statement, it was delivered at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in March 2009, some months in advance of the biennale. For Gillick, there was obviously a sense of responsibility, a desire to buttress his selection with a certain kind of contextualizing gesture. And yet that gesture also became a way for the artist to protect his process, in a sense to liberate him- self from the burden of the symbolic move, the big idea that the pavilion seemed to call for. A deeply thought-out exposition of artistic principals, it marked an important milestone in Gillick’s distinctive, discursive approach to art practice. One of the more nuanced defenses of the poststructuralist stance of endlessly deferred subjectivity and meaning, the piece brushed the glitter off Gillick’s dandified lapels, and focused retroactively on a practice whose deeply articulated ethics were of- ten suspected, but rarely so carefully confirmed.

Having itemized a fascinating mise en abyme of potential responses to the problem of exhibiting in the German pavilion, Gillick closes his interview with Ostrow (made a few months before the exhibition), relating how the composition of the text allowed him to finally divest himself of the search for the grand gesture; to once again privilege production over consumption, an ethos that he has always placed at the heart of his art-making:

But the question really is how do you find a working method or a working, productive context within which ideas can be produced? And that’s really the key. It doesn’t help you to know whether you’ll arrive and there’ll be no building, or there are great toilets, or a large number of rather mute, corrupted formalist artworks. I became truly free—in fact I’m not stressed at all—when I realized the problem wasn’t what to do, because if I’d asked myself over the years, what should I do, I probably wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done done a different kind of art.8

Liam Gillick's Wie würden Sie sich verhalten? Eine Küchenkatze spricht (How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks) 2009. Installation view in the German Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia 53, Internazionale d'Art, Venice, 2009. Photo courtesty the artist.

Liam Gillick’s Wie würden Sie sich verhalten? Eine Küchenkatze spricht (How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks) 2009. Installation view in the German Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia 53, Internazionale d’Art, Venice, 2009. Photo courtesty the artist.

Gillick traveled to Venice with a team of fabricators from Berlin, and worked on-site for a number of months. A viewer visiting the pavilion on the opening day of the biennial would have entered through a colorful plastic strip curtain at the entrance into a large, white-walled pavilion structure. Running through the main space and passing into the anterior galleries was a long row of modular kitchen cabinetry, surfaces, shelving, closets, all cut from an unvarnished pine. On top of one of the cabinets sat an anima- tronic cat, a roll of paper in its jaw, who tells a story (with Gillick’s voice) about a talking cat who is visited by two children. The story is told in the future anterior (which will have been the best tense ever, by the way), framed as something that “will have happened,” someday. The children, we learn, are nervous and shy, the cat “will have been mildly depressed, suffering from ennui and even bored by its role as the only talking cat in the whole world.” 9 The mood of the story is not unlike one of Oscar Wilde’s children’s fables, which pack both a romantic punch and a great deal of tragedy, yet Gillick’s recorded story doesn’t resolve itself, but loops back to begin again:

The cat will know that school starts in five minutes and the children will definitely be late. But today of all days, it won’t care. It won’t mind if the children miss out on their lessons or their playtime. It won’t care if they miss lunch or free time in the library. All it will care about is that someone is here on a dark day in a dark building. It will sniff. The breath of the children will be close. It will have learnt that humans know that cat’s steal their breath. The cat will know that this is nonsense. It is buildings like this that steal people’s breath. Anyway. What’s wrong with borrowing some child’s breath for a while? All cats know that it smells sweet and is full of intelligence and goodness and fun.

It will take a deep surreptitious suck of the children’s breath and as they reel and swoon, glide and dream, it will begin to tell them a true story about the wisdom of a kitchen cat. …10

Titled How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks, the exhibition was covered widely in the press. For many foes of Gillick’s way of working, both old and new, the profile of the event afforded them a perfectly scaled target with which to finally pin that Scarlet Pimpernel. For example, Adrian Searle in The Guardian called it a “strained performance,” saying that Gillick’s work was always, “a heavy-handed mix of the decorative, the intellectually arch and the overdetermined.” 11 Writing in Texte zur Kunst, on the other hand, Tom McDonough celebrated Gillick’s surprise decision to move away from his more “familiar forms and colors” and also to avoid addressing the building through some grandiose move, finding a critical dimension for the project within the critical context of the talking cat.12

Gillick’s kitchen was inspired by the 1926 Frankfurt Kitchen of Austrian designer and anti-Nazi activist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, a major work of applied modernism that democratized access to a kitchen designed as an efficient and ergonomically aware environment. It also riffed off of Gillick’s own post-studio practice—the artist spent many hours in the run-up to the exhibition sitting in his kitchen in New York smoking, being bothered by his son’s cat. He remembers asking himself, “Who gets to speak? And who has the authority to do so?” Ultimately, of course, it is him in this context, but he can only bring himself to do so through the filter of the cat. In a sense, what Gillick did was bring together the domestic, the subjective, and the social: elements that militate against the building’s grandiose ideological structure. With the kitchen, Gillick enters the mid-space location typical of his work: an interstitial conduit through different moments of the day—at once the most vital part of a home while also being the least formal. Germany in the 1920s saw a battle between two visions of the utility of standardization within design, one (associated with the Marxist-leaning Bauhaus) dedicated to social inclusion and equality through making good design universally accessible, the other dedicated to militarism and a nostalgic re-creation of past tropes of German aesthetics (Fascism). In a sense, Gillick was using German history itself as a model to contend with the legacy of the building, resurfacing a contestatory vision within the culture that had opposed Fascism at the very point of its rise.

Virtually libertarian in its worldview, meanwhile, the cat does not do well with training, and has a scant opinion of anyone who would have it step in line. Less interested in charismatic speeches than some chow and a good nap, the cat has an integrity all its own and is surely less than susceptible to Fascist indoctrination (certainly less so than the dog). In the story the cat steals the children’s breath, but only enough to make them woozy, to make them receptive to his tale and open to the mesmeric task of representation. The building, meanwhile, has the real power: it can rip the oxygen from their lungs. In Gillick’s oeuvre, there is a constant quest to test the limits of a deluded and distracted engagement with the world, using art as a device to skirt the obvious, to privilege the gaps that in themselves are the elusive foundations of all determined structures. It’s a complicated position, and one that continues to resonate in the work of an artist who is surely one of the more influential, and strangely complicit, of our time.13

 

1Liam Gillick, “Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,’” October 110 (Fall 2004): 106. In an interview with critic Saul Ostrow, referred to a number of times in this text, Gillick further qualified the relationship of biographical background to his working practice, “I don’t think every artist has to deal with their biography, but I come from a background of strong identification with Irish Republican politics, which is full of subterfuge, misleading statements. It’s not imbedded in my way of seeing things, but when I’m told that the correct way to be a politically conscious artist is to have transparency throughout everything you do, I’m not sure that I think that every politically conscious activity is surrounded and best served by transparency. So while I have moments of clear positions, they’re often muddled by this distrust of transparency, distrust that the good artist and the good political artist is always a transparent artist, who will always reveal sources, desires and needs.” “Venice Preview: Liam Gillick Practical Considerations: An Interview by Saul Ostrow,” Art in America (June/July 2009): 130–136.

2LiamGillickconversationnotes, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York (March 2009).

3“Brilliant!” New Art from London,a 1995 touring exhibition curated by Richard Flood and organized by the Walker Art Center, featured twenty-two young British artists and was the first major institutional show to cover the emerging tendencies of British art of the time.

4For more on the relation of Gillick’s work to design culture, see Mark Owens, “Liam Gillick on Repeat,” Dot Dot Dot 11 (April 2006): 79–85.

5For an interesting take on the recep- tion and exhibition more generally, see Tom McDonough, “Liam’s (not) Home,” Texte zur Kunst 75 (2009)

6Ostrow, “An Interview by Saul Ostrow,” 130–136.

7Ibid.

8Ibid., 136.

9Liam Gillick, One Long Walk… Two Short Piers…, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Bonn) (Cologne: Snoeck, 2010), 32.

10Ibid.,33.

11 Adrian Searle, “Bodies, babble and blood,” The Guardian, Monday 8 June 2009, last accessed, July 30, 2013:

12 McDonough,“Liam’s(not)Home,”147.

13 It is interesting, a few years after the fact, to go back and read an interview with Gillick in which he discusses the aftermath of the exhibition: “I wanted to do something new; I wanted to push something that’s quite hard. You suffer a little bit when you do that, even if you know in the back of your mind it’s the right thing to do. I left the pavilion on the day of the opening with the clearheadedness that you get sometimes after a breakup or after something’s gone wrong, or after you’ve just witnessed an accident: It’s not elation or satisfaction, it’s the feeling that you know that this is the only thing you could do, but it’s not going to achieve a certain satisfaction.” Louisa Buck, “There’s a Perversity in My Method,” The Art Newspaper 229 (November 2011): 54

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Bjarne Melgaard

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Exhibition view of Bjarne Melgaard's The awakening and consumption of Heidi Fleiss as she talks to a brioche named Austin, 2013, archival pigment prints on aluminum 8 1/ 2 × 12 3/4 in. (21.6 × 32.4 cm) each of 212, Photography by Johannes Worsøe Berg

Exhibition view of Bjarne Melgaard’s The awakening and consumption of Heidi Fleiss as she talks to a brioche named Austin, 2013, archival pigment prints on aluminum, each of 212, Photography by Johannes Worsøe Berg

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the fourth installment of this 10-part journey.

 

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For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Still from Nástio Mosquito's Nástia’s Manifesto, 2008.

Still from Nástio Mosquito’s Nástia’s Manifesto, 2008.

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the third installment of this 10-part journey.

 

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9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Hito Steyerl

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

AFuckingDidactic_11 (2)

Still from Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.Mov File, 2012

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the second installment of this 10-part journey.
 

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One of the fascinating things about the work of Hito Steyerl (born 1966 in Germany; lives and works in Berlin) is its restlessness. Since the 1990s she has become one of the leading voices among artists who play with the conventional formats of the documentary genre, borrowing from its reputation for objectivity while acknowledging its ongoing history as a means of propaganda and indoctrination. Yet her mode of engagement with these questions has evolved as rapidly as the dematerialized digital world itself, ebbing and flowing with new breakthroughs in pixelated resolution, escalating social media engagements, the ever-shifting and evolving world of Internet memes, YouTube virility, 3-D animation, and digital printing capabilities. Not so much an early adopter as an eager adapter, her work has an eerie sense of timeliness, of being able to read the tea leaves of historical materialism within the present. (more…)

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