Blogs Untitled (Blog) Behind the Scenes

Members Making Trouble!

Walker members have more fun taking advantage of A Think & A Drink: Member Events. Last Friday, after most of the museum shut down, we toured the exhibition Absentee Landlord, curated by John Waters. Almost 60 of our favorite members were in attendance to celebrate the arbiter of trash!

A Think & A Drink: Troublemaker

Walker members have more fun taking advantage of  A Think & A Drink: Member Events.  Last Friday, after most of the museum shut down, we toured the exhibition Absentee Landlord, curated by John Waters.  Almost 60 of our favorite members were in attendance to celebrate the arbiter of trash!

We started off the evening with a tour of the exhibition.  Below you’ll find one of our fabulous tour guides Tanya!  Tours become a little more conversational during A Think & A Drink.  Is it the think? Or, is it the drink?

Following the tour, members had a chance to debrief over cocktails and cheese.  John Waters definitely provided ample talking points.  Conversations ranged from art to terrible roommates and everywhere in between.  Shockingly enough I didn’t witness the use of any fake cockroaches or other gag items now found in the Walker Shop.  I like to put them in my bath tub.

Everyone was all smiles after the tour, here’s some of our regular attendees.

If you’d like to join us for the next A Think & A Drink member event please visit membership.walkerart.org for more information.

Cold Storage and New Brightness: The Cunningham Acquisition Moves in at the Walker

ARRIVAL: Many items from the Cunningham acquisition are now living at the Walker.  In preparation for the November opening of Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg, the art storage basement is filled with Robert Rauschenberg-designed costumes and set pieces (or decors, as Merce referred to them).  Rauschenberg collaborated with Merce Cunningham on pieces from 1954-1964, […]

R-L: Details from Robert Rauschenberg's costume designs for Summerspace (1958) and Antic Meet (1958). Photos by Abi Sebaly.

ARRIVAL: Many items from the Cunningham acquisition are now living at the Walker.  In preparation for the November opening of Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg, the art storage basement is filled with Robert Rauschenberg-designed costumes and set pieces (or decors, as Merce referred to them).  Rauschenberg collaborated with Merce Cunningham on pieces from 1954-1964, 1977, 2000, and 2007.  The pieces in the Walker acquisition reflect this broad span.

IMMIGRATION AND PASSPORT CONTROL: Following their journey from New York, all items must undergo a thorough inspection, cleaning, and cataloguing before they can fully move into the Walker’s collection.  While the rest of Minneapolis sweats it out in the midsummer swelter, the art storage, and the acquisition items within, remain stable in a temperature-controlled environment that is cold, very cold.   Last week, textile conservator Beth McLaughlin visited to school us in preparing the costumes, decors, and other performance ephemera for their new lives as museum holdings.  Each costume (and there could be well over 1,000) will be vacuumed with the Nilfisk (more than your average Hoover—a device with special brushes and filters), inspected, and carefully tagged and folded into boxes layered with acid-free tissue.  Décor backdrops, which typically measure a very large 30’ x 60’, will have to be hung in an actual theater setting to allow their storage folds and wrinkles to relax, before they are then rolled onto long dowels.  A bear fur coat, which Rauschenberg found for the piece Antic Meet (1958) will have to be frozen at the Science Museum of Minnesota so that potential fur-loving pests stay away. The painting vacuum, appropriated for cleaning costumes. Photo by Abi Sebaly.

EMERGING QUESTIONS: Until now, these items have been cleaned and cared for with the aim of sustaining their use in performances.  But now they are now handled with cotton gloves.  In light of this transformation, how should we treat the traces of performances past, such as the lingering residue Merce’s stage makeup on a shirt collar?  Should gummy labels and fabric wrinkles be treated and repaired, or stabilized and left as intact as possible? How do we create new spaces for this acquisition in the art storage area, in the catalogue database template, in the way we share these items across departments and disciplines?  How do we convey the multiple stories of these items as objects of function, objects of design and aesthetic interest, and launch pads for broader learning?

NEW BRIGHTNESS: Items that were once meant to be observed from afar, in motion, on bodies, lit by stage lighting, are now stationary objects exposed to close, raw-light scrutiny. This may sound like a more clinical vantage point, but as I begin to examine the costumes, I am constantly surprised by the unexpected details that pop at this close distance.  For instance, Rauschenberg’s Summerspace (1958) costumes look uniformly dotted from stage.  But up close, you can see that he applied the colorful dyes in more layered, varied patterns. And even after more than 50 years, the day-glo hues and intensely saturated colors keep blazing.

 More updates to follow soon!

L: Detail from Rauschenberg's costume design for Summerspace (1958). R: Derry Swan in Summerspace. Courtesy of Cunningham Dance Foundation.

L: Summerspace (1958) costumes. R: Textile conservator Beth McLaughlin holding Rauschenberg-designed hooped tank tops from Antic Meet (1958).

 

R: Detailing from Merce's Antic Meet (1958) tank top. L: More detail of Rauschenberg's tattoo motif on the Antic Meet tank tops (scooping the likes of Christian Audigier and Ed Hardy, 50 years before their time!).

Baby Marx…Coming Soon

This is the original teaser for Baby Marx, an ongoing project by Pedro Reyes that explores the intersections of mass entertainment, ideology and contemporary art. The teaser was produced for the Yokohama Triennial in Japan in 2008, and was followed by a television pilot shot in Mexico City in 2009. He worked closely with Japanese […]

This is the original teaser for Baby Marx, an ongoing project by Pedro Reyes that explores the intersections of mass entertainment, ideology and contemporary art. The teaser was produced for the Yokohama Triennial in Japan in 2008, and was followed by a television pilot shot in Mexico City in 2009. He worked closely with Japanese master puppeteer Takumi Ota for over a year to design and build the puppets, which Reyes explains as crafted “to cast the personality of a character in the simplest form […] a silhouette.”

The Walker version of Baby Marx uses the tools and procedures of documentary filmmaking, as well as the handmade puppets and monumental library set used to film the pilot episode, to develop and expand on the questions raised by the entire project to date.

Baby Marx is on view at the Walker August 11 – November 27, 2011.

En Route to ‘Baby Marx’

Baby Marx began as Mexican artist Pedro Reyes’ idea for a television sitcom in which puppet versions of key figures in the history of economics are brought back to life. Intended as a way to make the lofty and often distorted fundamentals of socialism and capitalism accessible to a broad audience, the piece has undergone […]

Baby Marx film still, 2009. All images courtesy the artist, Detalle Films and Labor Gallery, Mexico City.

Baby Marx began as Mexican artist Pedro Reyes’ idea for a television sitcom in which puppet versions of key figures in the history of economics are brought back to life. Intended as a way to make the lofty and often distorted fundamentals of socialism and capitalism accessible to a broad audience, the piece has undergone several iterations since its inception four years ago. For his upcoming exhibition at the Walker, on view August 11, 2011 – November 27, 2011 Reyes will use Perlman Gallery and the entire Walker campus to begin filming a documentary version of Baby Marx that examines its development to date as well as the complex issues with which it grapples. This past spring Reyes joined curators Bartholomew Ryan and Camille Washington to discuss the project in depth.

Camille: How did Baby Marx begin?

Pedro: I first had the idea for something I was working on in London, but it was too ambitious and was rejected. So, I put it in my drawer of unrealized projects. Then, in the lead up to the 2008 Yokohama Triennial in Japan, I was riding the Tokyo subway with Akiko Miyake, one of the curators of the exhibition, and I told her, “Well, I have this idea for a TV puppet show whose main characters would be Karl Marx and Adam Smith.” I like that there is a saying in Japan that says “A samurai doesn’t know the word impossible.” Miyake-san responded like is a true samurai, she said, “If that’s what you want, we’ll do it.” From there deciding what kind of puppets to use led to a super interesting exploration of the Japanese tradition of puppeteering.

Bartholomew: Why puppets?

Pedro: I think that puppets require a mastery and spontaneity not found in stop motion or animation. Also, puppeteering has been the historical equivalent to political cartoons in the performing arts. It is a form of critique similar to the ventriloquist or the court joker who was the only one who could make jokes in front of the king. The joker also often used some kind of doll or puppet. So, the puppet would spit out truths that would be unbearable from the mouth of a person.

Bartholomew: This was around 2007. Can you remember what it was about Smith and Marx that felt relevant at that moment?

Pedro: They didn’t feel relevant at that moment. This is the time before the credit crisis and the collapse of the markets. It felt like a subject which was precisely not fashionable. People would ask, “Why Marx?”However, there was something I wanted to find out not only about the state of the world, but also I wanted to know where I was standing in the political spectrum.

At a certain point in your life, you have this negotiation of your own ideas. When you first read Marx it makes so much sense, but then if you read Smith it also makes sense.Marx tells you “In order to have some rich people, others need to be poor” and then you read Adam Smith who tells you “Hey, what is all that equality business? You work more; you shouldn’t earn the same as the lazy one, right?” You may just ignore these voices but in my head I continued to hear these two people debating. So, I thought it could be interesting to stage this conflict. Here you have two philosophers who didn’t have the chance to meet in real life talking to each other. But also you have two conflicting sides of human nature. The task at hand was to choose fragments from Marx and Smith (among others) and weave a story, hopefully with the idea that it would become entertaining.

Smart-O-Wave logo

Camille: How does the Smart-O-Wave microwave oven that you used for the initial teaser and pilot of Baby Marx fit into the picture?

Pedro: Actually, the invention of the Smart-O-Wave was a turning point. It became a dimensional door that allowed me to bring any thinker into the story by placing the book they wrote in the oven. So by “defrosting” their thoughts they come back to life. It’s like a flying carpet, it can take you anywhere.

Camille: You speak a lot about mobile seminars and radical pedagogy. Is that something that also really underpinned the project in the early stages as much as entertainment did?

Pedro: Yes, Baby Marx was thought of from the beginning as a primer, or you could say Political Science 101. Sometimes you see the movie before reading the book, and for this subject puppets seemed the perfect treatment. Plus there was no Marx movie, no Adam Smith movie.

Bartholomew: The puppets were designed in collaboration with famous Japanese puppet maker Takumi Ota. I know the process was quite extensive. Can you talk about working together?

Pedro: Takumi Ota was the perfect match for this project, because he is a genius at leaving out everything that is not necessary and using the simplest forms. My obsession was the use of abstract shapes both in fine art and folk craft. In Japan, wood carved toys made in the wheel are very similar to Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus costume designs. So, fascinated by this extreme degree of abstraction, I started to design the characters using only platonic volumes; to cast the personality of a character in the simplest form. In fact the simplest form is a silhouette.

Solids of Rotation, 2009

Bartholomew: This is when you made the Solids of Rotation studies…

Pedro: Exactly. This limitation was very productive. I gave Frederick Taylor a silhouette based in a hyperboloid, like a sand clock, because Taylor was obsessed with time management. With Marx’s it was obvious that I had to use his characteristic hairstyle which is like a trapezoid. Then, when you turn it into a solid of rotation it looks like a bit like samurai helmet. For Friederich Engels I took his long beard and made it into a spiral, like a party-blower; Che Guevarra has his beret and his goatee, so I made the head and the goatee like a top, and with the addition of the beret the solid of rotation looks like a hazelnut.

Camille: Did you work on the initial design alone or in collaboration?

Pedro: Takumi Ota  made three-dimensional versions of drawings that I worked on in discussion with him. In the 1970s he designed characters for a series called Hyokkori Hiotan-jima, which means “the pumpkin island,” because the puppet heads were made with pumpkin seeds. The creative dialogue was great because I was thinking of what Ota San would like, almost trying to please him. It was almost a telepathic thing of trying to speak the same language, seeking the most extreme abstraction possible.

Bartholomew: You both passed these designs back and forth via the internet. He was in Japan and you were in Mexico for the most part.

Pedro: Yes, exactly. Due to the 15 hours difference Akiko and I met with Ota-san at 9pm, which would be his night. After seeing my drawing I would go to sleep and he would go on working all day making a clay model based on our conversations. Then, at 9 am in the morning (his night) we would meet again and review the progress. We went like this it a year and a half.

Camille: So, did you go there and finalize your designs with him or were they finalized by the time you arrived in Yokohama?

Pedro: There were several trips and meetings during that time. One of my favorite parts was the mechanics of how specific puppets operate. For instance, the Milton Friedman eyes turn and blink like dollar signs. Also, one side of his mouth is smiling and the other side is angry. His personality changes depending on which side of the camera it is facing. It is a way to show that two sides of capitalism: one charming and seductive, and other greedy and cruel.

[They laugh.]

Milton Friedman puppet, 2008

Pedro: So, there are some interesting philosophical limits to the characters, but also the way they are built conditions their performativity.

Camille: Before the pilot you made a teaser. In fact, you exhibited the teaser along with the puppets for Yokohama. Was the trailer an exercise in how the puppets ultimately would move and function and be filmed?

Pedro: Yes, in the beginning I met Ryo Ito who is an amazing puppeteer and became the leader of the puppeteers. He could take a shoe and make it perform Hamlet. So the movement design for each character was genius: the arrogant manners of Adam Smith, the tidy and nervous movements of Taylor. Again Frederick Taylor was obsessed with time management, so he would say, “OK, we’re going to make him swing like he’s a metronome for music.” Just perfect.

Camille: How does the type of puppet you use for Baby Marx differ from others?

Pedro: Rod puppets move very differently than glove puppets. Glove puppets like in Sesame Street look at the camera and open their mouths. In Japanese puppeteering the rapport between characters is conveyed more through the eye contact and with almost no mouth movement. Is much more subtle, and the intent is not necessarily to make you laugh. They can also perform on a darker note, which is something difficult with glove puppets. I like this style, which is not necessarily for delivering puns all the time.

Bartholomew:  When you made the trailer, you had these gestures and a very distinct choreography for each of the characters. Camille and I were watching it again, and it’s very funny. It’s very enjoyable how each puppet moves and the ways in which they come into the piece.

Pedro: The election of the characters had to do with its potential for the plot. As much as you have the Marx and Engels duo, you have Adam Smith and Freddy Taylor, who are like the ideologist and the technocrat. The first is a persuasive courtesan and the second is an obsessive-compulsive. The characters fit in with certain roles. You need the archetype of Lenin in the revolutionary section, the Bolshevik giving grand speeches, but that rhetorical power has its counterpart in the pragmatic Che Guevara, who is willing to open (a loving or a fighting) fire. As the story unfolds Che Guevara ends up having a romance with Miss Lena, the librarian.

Bartholomew: There’s that moment at the beginning of the trailer where I think the titles are saying we’re living in a post-ideological age, and then the camera which is looking at this beautiful librarian zooms in and runs its gaze up her leg.

Camille: As she flicks her heel!

[They laugh.]

Pedro: I use the joke as a mechanism. Wittgenstein said that a serious philosophy book could only be written through jokes. The marvelous thing about a joke is when it presents the thesis and the antithesis in such an abrupt way that you synthesize it as laughter, a sort of airbag that cushions the collision of reality with your expectation of reality; the collision of ideology and realpolitik.

Camille: What is the time period for the original Baby Marx pilot?

Pedro: The story takes place in the present time. Crisisville, the city where the library is located, is a way to say that whatever we consider the status quo or “final state” of the world can change sooner than we expect. The last decade has been a good example. From 911 and the stupid wars that followed, the collapse of the economy, and today the revolutions in the Middle East, or the nuclear accidents in Japan. We have seen the map of the world shaken and transformed within a matter of hours…

Camille: I’m sure all this influenced your decision to set the entire Baby Marx narrative within a library as a place of ideas. Can you speak a little bit about the decision to use that setting?

Baby Marx set installed at Labor Gallery, 2009

Pedro: The library is a space which represents, on one hand, the post war idea of humanism. The capitals of the columns are like those in Le Corbusier’s Assembly building in Chandigarh, the tables and chairs are inspired by Jean Prouvé, the handrails are like Niemeyer and the lattice like México’s modernist Mario Pani. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a generic modernism that could belong to any country, like Korea, Brazil, Mexico, the U.S. or southern Europe. The fight to take control of the library also represents the current debate regarding the privatization of public services that used to be associated with the state. In general, it’s a caricature of the political-economic doctrines and models that decisions are based upon today.

Bartholomew: One thing that is really interesting about Baby Marx is that it’s a project that has emerged in stages where you re-imagine the project over time. Now we are coming up on a stage where the question really seems to be, “What are the terms of this piece?” This leads to wider questions about the intersections of ideology, entertainment, distribution, and so on. In terms of this journey was the pilot ever linked explicitly to Japan? Was it something that you imagined could be on Japanese television?

Pedro: Even if some of best talent for making puppets was in Japan it did not mean the best talent for writing was there because the humor in Japan doesn’t translate into the rest of the world. Or it translates but not in this register of political critique that you find in the United States, which has become in recent years one of the more sophisticated globally in terms of political satire. It seemed to be the most interesting challenge to reach or to try to be attractive to an audience in the United States because ideas have greater currency and potential for distribution.

Camille: When we were first talking about showing Baby Marx at the Walker, the project was still a pilot for a U.S. television show. Then a transition happened last year and you decided to make a feature film. Can you talk about that?

Baby Marx pilot in production, 2009

Pedro: TV and Film are two different markets. You cannot launch yourself into making a TV series without having a sale for a whole season. My producer Moises Cosio and I had very good meetings from different people from HBO, Sony, etc. They were interested, but none were ready to commit. I remember one “suit” who explained to us very clearly that “TV series are only a means to sell ads,” so I loved the contradiction of having a capitalist venture with a socialist content. However in TV, you can be on hold for an indefinite amount time. We realized that we didn’t need any approval to go ahead and do a movie on our own.

Camille: How did you go about drafting a script that would satisfy those demands?

Pedro: Well, during the writing process we discovered that the people who are best acquainted with the history of economics and politics are not funny. [Laughter] And the people who are funny as writers are not acquainted with the history of politics.

Bartholomew: That’s quite a predicament.

Pedro: Yes. I didn’t want to do something funny but superfluous, or to have something which is serious but boring. So, I have this rule of life that says “If you have to choose between A and B, do A and B.” Ergo, the decision to have both serious moments and funny moments. This is something you can do more easily in film than in TV. In TV the tyranny of the genre is harsher. If you are making a comedy you have to deliver one joke every 5 seconds.

So, with the film I also want to have pleasurable moments of seriousness because there you can have philosophers and political scientists comment on the subject. In between those moments of cleverness is where the opportunities for comedy arise, sketches, animation etc. That’s the stage we are in now.

Bartholomew: A while back when we were still thinking in terms of television the three of us visited PFFR, the television writing group that did the MTV2 puppet show Wonder Showzen using puppets a la Sesame Street but with outrageous content and approaches. It was super entertaining to listen to them just throw a few ideas around. Their instant suggestion was that Karl Marx and Adam Smith had to make love and have a baby. There was this sense that yes, this could be really funny, this could be really entertaining, this could be ridiculous and absurd but how hermetic it might become, in the sense that the “radical pedagogy idea” or any kind of instructive parallel to the comedy would likely have fallen away. In this sense perhaps moving towards the documentary structure which is, again, more open-ended and less resolved as an operating premise, feels like a natural move for the project.

Pedro: I think that one of the very interesting things about our meeting with PFFR was realizing that a variety show structure (episodic scenes with different approaches which they used in Wonder Showzen for instance) would be an ideal way to proceed. I realized that mixing the universe of real persons with the universe of puppets, and including devices such as animation, interviews, etc., we would make a more agile and diverse piece. The documentary is a little like a variety show in this sense. If you have too tight a structure it becomes harder to tell the jokes, and harder to tell the interesting facts. It’s not that the previous approach was wrong; it’s more than the addition of all the different approaches combined is much more powerful. So I do believe that, for the public, it will be much more interesting to have this embedded quality where you’re moving between universes.

Camille: Right, so the exhibition as Smart-O-Wave.

Pedro: Yes!

Camille: As curators, this development has led us to ask how we would articulate the exhibition to other people. And in asking that we discovered that the real way to talk about it is to be up front about that questioning, to see the Walker as a moment of reflection in the project, one that asks, “What is this thing?” What does it mean to bring together entertainment and ideology in some kind of popular format?

Pedro: One of the privileges of being an artist working with curators is having the room to ask these purely ontological questions. To question form and content entirely.

Camille: Yes.

Pedro: We have asked very important questions. How will be to shift from TV to film? How do we negotiate the exhibition space as a production space? How do we engage the public as participants in the critique of the content and of the medium? What is the design and function of the public events we are planning in relation to this new structure?
Basically, beyond asking what this project is, we are asking what the project is becoming.

Bartholomew: One of the questions that Baby Marx asks implicitly – something that mirrors PFFR’s suggestion that Smith and Marx make a baby together – is what could be a point where Adam Smith and Karl Marx could meet ideologically? Is Baby Marx about marking and pointing out the presence of the ideological inheritances we are all sifting through, or is it more interested in moving towards some kind of future model?

Baby Marx film still, 2009

Pedro: Ideologies indeed intermarry in our minds and then give birth to our own thoughts which, obviously, inherit the beauties and defects of their parents. What interests me is to present these genealogies in progress, not as a final conclusion but as a tool. One such tool is called counterfactual history, which means: What if…? To imagine parallel histories that could have occurred. In this case, interesting arguments between two characters who did not have the opportunity to meet during their lives. An example of this is The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu by Maurice Joly, which exposes the ideas of the state from two different perspectives. These two characters debate their doctrines and analyze human nature. Staging philosophical conflict is the aim of the project. Though, it never reaches a conclusion. It’s more about showing that instead of there being one right answer, there’s a myriad of answers, none of which should be embraced dogmatically. They should be used on a more ad hoc basis, according to the occasion and actuality. When we say, “OK, this is the truth and it should be applied in every case,” that’s when things go wrong.

Bartholomew: For some reason I once read a book on how to write day-time soaps for American network television, and they pointed out that the most durable storyline that can carry an entire run of a show over many years is that of a love divided, that it is the most engaging device and should never be resolved. The best storylines will always just toy with resolution.

Camille: So, Baby Marx as an ideological cliffhanger…

Bartholomew: Right.

Camille: That’s built into the system!

Bartholomew: Exactly!

Camille: There is no ultimate truth, no finality. It’s all ongoing. And so really the idea that this documentary is constructed in a similar way makes it really relevant to the ideas.

Pedro: Yes, I think that often documentaries are used also with a rhetorical purpose designed to drive you to some conclusions. I’m more interested to lead you to questions, than to drive you towards a dogmatic embrace of a particular idea. In the twenty-first century, we should read Marx like any other classic. However, we should examine the idea of capitalism as the hegemonic final model. That is, people assume that capitalism is a natural law, that the world simply functions that way, and that a different model of social organization is impossible to achieve. During the twentieth century, the United States demonized left-wing ideas in such an emphatic way that the word communism had the meaning that terrorism has today. All this had a very clear objective, which was to impose a transnational economic model under the name of “liberal democracy.”  History is full of examples of crimes committed in the name of this paradigm.

Q & A with Clara Kim, the Walker’s new senior curator for visual arts

China, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia … and now Minneapolis. Clara Kim arrives here August 1 after some particularly intensive globetrotting (more on that below). She was was most recently gallery director/curator at REDCAT, downtown Los Angeles’ center for innovative visual, media and performing arts, where she has worked since its inception in […]

China, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia … and now Minneapolis. Clara Kim arrives here August 1 after some particularly intensive globetrotting (more on that below). She was was most recently gallery director/curator at REDCAT, downtown Los Angeles’ center for innovative visual, media and performing arts, where she has worked since its inception in 2003. In her new role, Kim will continue to shape and develop the Walker’s program of exhibitions, artists’ residencies, acquisitions and special projects.

In between finishing a curatorial fellowship, preparing to host a two-day conference on it for international colleagues, and continuing her work at REDCAT — not to mention preparing to relocate — Kim has few moments to spare. However, she graciously used a few of them to answer some questions:

REDCAT is a relatively new institution for contemporary art, and you played a key role in building its international influence. What aspects of your work there are you bringing to the Walker?

REDCAT is a much smaller institution than the Walker but residencies and new commissions have been the core of its programming. Like the Walker, artists are central to the institution, which serves as a safe and supportive place for new artistic production. That along with an international, interdisciplinary perspective on contemporary artistic practice — which has also been very important to REDCAT, especially the Pacific Rim i.e. Asia and Latin America, as these regions are critical to Los Angeles and increasingly important in the global economic and cultural community.

You’re completing a circle of sorts by coming to Walker, since you began your career here as an intern in the late 90s. How have you seen contemporary art and the museum world evolving since then?

Immense changes. The boom and the subsequent downturn of the economy has greatly affected cultural production. As museums all over face pressure to meet the bottom line, we need to act and think creatively, and not lose sight of the things that matter.

What kinds of trends and ideas have dominated your practice as a curator?

I suppose a commitment to a diverse, international perspective on cultural production. I believe that art should challenge and open up our minds to new ideas and thoughts; as well as speak to the social and political moment we live in.

Can you talk about exhibitions, projects, or commissions you’ve undertaken that have stood out in your mind?

Two memorable projects for me at REDCAT are with the Tokyo-based architecture studio Atelier Bow-Wow — who created three original structures in response to their three-month residency in LA investigating the Case Study House program; and, more recently, Irish film/video artist Jesse Jones’ film shoot on the Russian choreographer Meyerhold’s studies in biomechanics that involved student actors and crew from CalArts. Integral to both projects was the collaboration, participation and engagement of many individuals across different fields and disciplines. The process of building relationships and trust became as critical as the end result. In fact, after the exhibition of Bow-Wow’s structures, which were made of recycled wood acquired through a local non-profit, we ended up dismantling the structures plank by plank and put the raw materials back into the cycle of use and circulation. It makes me very happy knowing that Bow-Wow’s houses morphed into skatebowls for at-risk urban youth and also helped beautification projects for Edgar Arceneaux’s Watts House Project.

Thanks to a curatorial fellowship from the Warhol Foundation, you recently had the opportunity to travel  throughout Asia and Latin America exploring alternative art spaces and independent projects. Any findings or experiences or travel anecdotes you can share from this experience?  

The research has been fascinating — full of surprises and contradictions — for instance, a region as wealthy as Hong Kong does not yet have a major contemporary art museum and a politically and economically unstable place such as Colombia has so many dynamic, critical artists and curators.

What did you learn from the fellowship that might affect your new role at the Walker?

That you need the support and participation of everyone in the building from top to bottom, from bottom to top, in order to make it work well.

What will you miss about Los Angeles? And/or what are you looking forward to in re-locating to Minneapolis/St. Paul?

Getting fresh produce year round. And taking up winter sports.

 

Outtakes from John Waters’ media session for “Absentee Landlord”

This morning John Waters shook hands with a fan at the downtown Minneapolis CVS Pharmacy en route to the Walker, where he appeared in front of Claes Oldenburg’s giant French fries sculpture to shoot a short video welcome for his new exhibition, Absentee Landlord. He then proceeded to the Cargill Lounge, where he charmed a group of media folks […]

"Just Pathetic," yes? John Waters behind a Claes Oldenburg, shot with one of those underpowered iPhone apps.

This morning John Waters shook hands with a fan at the downtown Minneapolis CVS Pharmacy en route to the Walker, where he appeared in front of Claes Oldenburg’s giant French fries sculpture to shoot a short video welcome for his new exhibition, Absentee Landlord. He then proceeded to the Cargill Lounge, where he charmed a group of media folks before leading them on a preview tour of the aforementioned show — his first foray into curating. 

During a post-tour Q&A, his mention of a 1990 exhibition in Los Angeles called Just Pathetic as “one of the greatest contemporary art shows ever” prompted a Google search. Many agree, it would seem; it was the first show curated by Ralph Rugoff, who was until then primarily known as an arts writer. Since then, says the Guardian UK, Rugoff has “shaken up art audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, inspiring them to engage with the kind of puzzling, cerebral work that tends to put off all but the most dedicated of contemporary art aficionados.” Not unlike Waters’ own aim with Absentee Landlord, perhaps … though he noted repeatedly throughout the tour, in so many words, that contemporary art only puts off those who refuse to give it a chance.

Spinning things out a few more degrees: Just Pathetic traveled from L.A. to the legendary American Fine Arts in New York, whose founder, “art dealer and aesthetic provocateur” Colin deLand, was the first to show Waters’ own work in photography (as he notes in an interview in the upcoming Walker magazine, Waters is pretty emphatic about not calling himself an artist).

And now that Rugoff is director of the Hayward Gallery in London, it’s hard not to wonder what Waters’ future holds. He did note during the Q&A that “you can never have too many careers”; and he has, after all, just returned to the States from the 54th Venice Biennale, where he was one of the jurors who awarded artists on June 4. Of that experience, he singled out Swedish artist Klara Lidén, whom he and the other jurors gave a special mention to for her Untitled, (Trashcan) installation — a piece he didn’t think much of until he later saw some trash cans lined up along a beach elsewhere in Venice. He and the other jurors commended her work for  “its wit and rage, as well as its ability to bring the logic of public intervention into the museum space.”

Another item too amusing not to mention: Waters — a collector with his own very astute sense for art’s monetary value — recalled looking at wall labels for artworks with his dearly departed friend Divine, whom he said would note the names of the collectors and start plotting a home robbery. “That’s why those labels say ‘Private Collection’!” he explained.

Two incarnations of “Vanitas: Flesh Dress”

Longtime blog readers may recall a 2006 interview with assistant curator for Performing Arts Michèle Steinwald – who was then the Walker’s new program manager — in which she mentioned modeling a dress made of meat, a work titled Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Anorectic Albino by artist Jana Sterbak. That artwork, also part of the Walker’s collection, is currently […]

Longtime blog readers may recall a 2006 interview with assistant curator for Performing Arts Michèle Steinwald – who was then the Walker’s new program manager — in which she mentioned modeling a dress made of meat, a work titled Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Anorectic Albino by artist Jana Sterbak.

That artwork, also part of the Walker’s collection, is currently on view in the new exhibition Midnight Party, an occasion that prompted Steinwald to dig up a 1991 article from Montreal’s Gazette that features her in the dress.

Interestingly, the Gazette article concerns objections to Sterbak’s piece based on food waste and hunger. Yet 20 years later at the Walker, despite being in another recession (or arguably just emerging from one), complaints about the work so far have been related to animal cruelty, in addition to the perennial comments about it being gross/disgusting/etc.

Those different objections may actually stem from the two versions of Flesh Dress Sterbak created. The Gazette notes that the meat used for the National Gallery of Canada’s Flesh Dress would decompose and fall off its hanger (Steinwald did not model the dress for the duration of the exhibtion), then be replaced by a new dress every five or six weeks. The Walker’s Flesh Dress is designed for longevity, with cured meat sewn onto a dress form; instead of falling apart, it gradually dries and shrinks (a good thing, since Midnight Party is on view until 2014). One might liken it to picking up the latest “disposable fashion” from H&M or Old Navy versus investing in a couture piece by Chanel or Givenchy.

For Steinwald, the experience was especially memorable, and not just because she donned a meat dress when Lady Gaga was just a preschooler. “The outrage [over Sterbak’s work] hit the papers the same day that Martha Graham’s death was in the papers,” Steinwald remembers. “As a young dancer in training, it was a thrill to have my picture next to hers.”

Making Jana Sterbak’s “Vanitas”

My first thought was, Huh, this doesn’t smell as much as I thought it would. But then, it’s cooking or decomposing that creates the aroma – 60 pounds of fresh, raw meat[1], as it turns out, is more of a visual spectacle. Especially so when laid out on a table in the Walker’s basement photography […]

My first thought was, Huh, this doesn’t smell as much as I thought it would. But then, it’s cooking or decomposing that creates the aroma – 60 pounds of fresh, raw meat[1], as it turns out, is more of a visual spectacle. Especially so when laid out on a table in the Walker’s basement photography studio, having already been tenderized and in the process of being assembled into a dress. 

Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, a work by Jana Sterbak, was originally created in 1987, and as one might imagine, must be recreated each time it’s exhibited[2]. It’s an intense, 12-hour process that gets messy, what with all the fat trimmings and strips of sinew. This version of Vanitas is being assembled for the exhibition Midnight Party, which opens at the Walker on Saturday. (Be sure to read more about Vanitas on its Walker Collections page , which includes Sterbak’s intentions in creating the work.) When I visited the studio this morning, the hardworking Meat Dress Team (M.D.T.)[3] was busy with knives and upholstery needles, cutting the slabs of flank steak to fit the dress pattern, back and front; the more sinewy sides faced up, though they would eventually become the inside of the dress.

Even though, as a vegetarian, a tofu dress might be more my style, the meat dress isn’t really about meat at all, but about bringing together the ideas of fashion, flesh, and body image[4]. In the coming weeks and months, each time you visit the galleries you’ll get a different impression of Vanitas, as “the aging process drastically changes the appearance of the work” (Midnight Party, as a showcase of works from the Walker collections, will be on view for a while). But you might not get a sense of the craft and construction behind it.

From a craftsperson’s standpoint, one of the remarkable things about Vanitas is how Sterbak alters our perceptions of a repulsive material like raw meat. Granted, there’s (hopefully) a lot of hand-washing and sanitizing on the part of the M.D.T., but there’s just as much careful consideration of the visual qualities of the meat and how to best put the pieces together. I saw two M.D.T. members weighing the options (literally) when it came to choosing the slabs that would form the upper back of the dress. And when one of the chosen pieces ended up being just a bit too thin, they pulled from the waste pile to beef up that area. Meanwhile, veteran M.D.T. members were busy sewing together the front of the dress, which had already been trimmed into form. They all could just as easily have been working with traditional fabrics. And while food has been an element of fashion in the past[5], raw meat, most likely for health reasons, is an unusual, shunned material.

After the individual pieces had been sewn together, the M.D.T. began a three-hour curing process, using 60 pounds of salt to dry the meat and prevent bacteria growth. After a final fitting onto the dressmaker’s form, Vanitas will be ready for placement in the exhibition, amid more than 200 other works. Photos of previous incarnations show that the dress actually looks kind of nice. The dried meat creates a unique texture, especially in its ragged edges. But Vanitas tends to be seen as disgusting upon closer inspection, and the creation of the work gets forgotten at the viewer’s visceral reaction to it. So when you visit Midnight Party, consider the hard work put into assembling Sterbak’s artwork. In the meantime, I’ll be drawing up designs for a three-piece tempeh suit.


[1] Provided by D’Amico, who also run the Garden Café and soon-opening Walker restaurant Gather.

[2] Meat, unlike diamonds, is not forever.

[3] Comprised of

  • Diane Anderson, member of Walker Contemporaries
  • Susan Brown, exhibition installation
  • Pamela Caserta, registration
  • Masami Kawazato, development
  • Jack Randol, development
  • Susan Rotilie, tour guide
  • DeAnn Thyse, visual arts
  • Elena Vetter, visitor services
  • Cameron Wittig, photography
  • Lucy Yogurst, Northside Arts Collective
  • Honorary Meat Dress Team Member: Barb Economon, library/archives

[4] See also Lady Gaga, 2010.

[5] See macaroni necklaces or certain episodes of Project Runway.

“Peace or misery”: The making of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing

  “The draftsman and the wall enter a dialogue. The draftsman becomes bored but later through this meaningless activity finds peace or misery. The lines on the wall are the residue of this process. Each line is as important as each other line. All of the lines become one thing. The viewer of the lines […]

 

“The draftsman and the wall enter a dialogue. The draftsman becomes bored but later through this meaningless activity finds peace or misery. The lines on the wall are the residue of this process. Each line is as important as each other line. All of the lines become one thing. The viewer of the lines can see only lines on a wall. They are meaningless. That is art.”

—Sol LeWitt, 1971 

Over the years, Sol LeWitt developed relationships with a cadre of assistants that he trusted to create his wall drawings — or more precisely, to carry out his legendary instructions for making them. Among them are Sachi Cho and Chip Allen, who cane to the Walker last November to install three wall drawings in the Walker collection; they’re part of the exhibition Sol LeWitt: 2D+3D, on view through April 24. Working with them were two members of the Walker’s installation crew, John Vogt and Loren Smith. Over several weeks, the quartet clocked some 525 hours in the Friedman Gallery, drawing lines, holding a straight edge while someone else drew lines, cleaning up drawn lines, sharpening leads for to draw more lines, and once in a while taking breaks from drawing lines.

Recently, John and Loren reviewed images below showing the installation of two of the drawings, taken by Walker photographer Gene Pittman. Here they weigh in on the whole process from start to finish: interpreting LeWitt’s directives, working with his master draftspersons, dealing with the aforementioned “peace or misery,” and more.

  

Loren: Sachi and John worked on Wall Drawing #9 A [at left above], which was made with all graphite. For Wall Drawing #9 B [at right], Chip and I drew one layer of graphite and then drew primary colors over it. This subtle difference in materials made a huge difference in our working conditions. The colored leads are more forgiving than the dark graphite ones, so lines made with those required more going back.

John:   It’s also important to note how these wall drawings really don’t register in pictures— you have to be in the gallery to see them.
Loren: Up close you can see the tiny imbalances in the lines, further back things look even and precise, and at the distance in this photo they kind of merge into a single, very subtle color.

 

John: This was on the end of one of the walls where we were drawing. It’s not part of the artwork, but is a practice area. We needed a place to practice how to shift from one draftsperson to another in drawing the same line, to see how that transition would look. You need to get the weight of the line right so there’s no apparent difference.

Loren: This testing space was also important because each wall is different, depending on how it’s prepped: what kind of paint was used, and how much it was diluted.

Primary materials: Staedtler two-millimeter drafting leads, both colored and plain graphite. (above and below)  

John: This is the supply table and work area. We also used this green paper to protect the wall after it’s been drawn on. Drafting tape was also used extensively, because it doesn’t leave a residue. You’ll also notice the bundles of red leads: We created drawing tools by taping together three leads with two shorter leads as spacers in between them. It makes the process more efficient, as you can draw three lines at once. Sachi and Chip have fine-tuned this with years of practice—they found that if you use any more than three leads it becomes hard to apply the right amount of pressure. Other technicians have developed their own methods over the years.

Above: Chip Allen and Loren Smith

John: After the wall was prepped, we used drafting tape to mark off the edges for the drawing are, and the cash-register receipt paper on the outside edge was used for marking measurements. It took us a day just to do those measurements, which are like mile-markers to help in checking on your work. The idea was to get approximately nine lines in an inch, but it was amazing to see how far off course you could get with measurements this small.

Loren: You get a regular rhythm going in doing this work, and it involves regular breaks. Resting is as important as drawing; this work becomes physically intense, and your body needs a break.

John: But it’s not like we were totally resting – most of the time, during breaks you’re sharpening leads at the work table.

Loren: So much of what LeWitt was after was not the finished piece, but the concept of the piece. So looking at these pictures of us working, seeing his concept for a wall drawing being carried out, is in some ways closer to his intention. Chip has worked on hundreds of these pieces, and he said that the instructions are really the art—and the act of carrying them out. Apparently LeWitt never actually saw all results of all of his instructions carried out. And he knew people could do them in their own homes, or on a wall anywhere – they just wouldn’t have the original instructions.

Above: Sachi Cho and John Vogt

John: This work becomes intense. Keeping everything mathematically precise required constant adjustments, because even being slightly off over the expanse of the wall would create lines that went way off track. You also try to avoid major accidents, like dropping the straight edge, which could do a lot of damage to lines on the wall.

Loren: I found it interesting that at the top of the wall for Wall Drawing #9 B, there is a visible fracture line, a seam in the sheetrock. The decision was made that this was part of wall’s nature, and we should leave it as is — as evidence of reality, as opposed to perfection.

John: There is no erasing with these wall drawings. Using an eraser would leave a sheen on the wall. Instead, if a line went astray we would ease out imperfections by using drafting tape to lift graphite off the wall, or scrape it off with a razor blade. We could also use paint to cover mistakes, usually as they were made but sometimes later.

 

John: Each wall is about 16 feet tall by 13 feet wide, and obviously, you can’t draw lines across that entire expanse. So we broke up the wall into several sections, and single lines were often drawn by two different people.

Loren: The lines we would all draw would be different in part depending on our “wingspan” – how far your arm extends, or how close to your body you can draw. If you try to stretch and draw farther than your hands and arms can comfortably reach, it creates an inconsistent line. So we needed to avoid patterns emerging in all these lines, and also to avoid any sense of character in the line—you don’t want it to look, say, crisp or authoritative.

 

 

Loren: We saw how the size of a draftsperson was a factor in other ways, too. Sachi drew faster but stopped more often, while Chip, who is considerably taller, was more of a slow-and-steady type. You might think that being taller would be an advantage, but it’s not necessarily so. Chip worked with a longer straight edge, but then he had to deal with it bowing out from the wall, and we would be checking on a line the whole time as we drew it.

John: I would get frustrated if things went off course in making the lines, but Sachi was always very calm and reassuring. We’d talk about Sol LeWitt’s ideal of the “not straight straight line” and debates among draftserpersons about how far that can be taken.

John: Here, Sachi is going back over lines to touch up.

Loren: I think one reason Sachi would return to kind of touch up lines already drawn has to do with something she told us often: it’s always important to have a human feel to the drawings. You don’t want it too perfect, because the evidence of the human hand is key.

In his earlier work, LeWitt was more into man-on-the-street instructions – things anybody could do – but over time, the nature of work changed. He began to make pieces that on some level would be affected by the personality of the person making them, so he wanted those people to have training in how to carry out the instructions. The kind of patience and dedication required to make this work isn’t something that everyone has. So in some sense it’s how he’s made personality a factor in his later work.

John: “Fresh” leads are sharp and ready to be bundled into the 3-lead drawing tool. We used the rags to wipe dust from leads, in order to prevent smudges on the wall.

John: Here, Sachi is marking the center of the wall – one of many reference points we’d make using blue tape and sharpies. The red line on either side of her hand comes from a laser level to make sure things are plumb, or level. With that tool, you quickly find out that even the smoothest-looking floors have lots of undulation.

Loren: We introduced Sachi and Chip to the laser level; before, they had been using old-fashioned levels and plumb lines. In most ways this whole process of measuring and mark-making is very hands-on; it’s kind of retaining a craft tradition, one that in LeWitt’s case goes back to the 1960s. In preparing to draw, there was an emphasis on making tools. John cut down masonite boards for a hand-made version of a straight edge, which had advantages over the manufactured metal kind. They could be longer and were definitely lighter, which is important considering how long you’re holding them against the wall. 

John: We also got them to use the scissor lifts instead of building scaffolding. They were a little unsure of these new tools at first, but they came to like them. There was a kind of a balance between finding new, easier ways to doing things and trusting in Sachi and Chip’s experience and the methods they’ve developed over the years – such as that 3-lead drawing tool. You might be tempted to think there could be different or quicker ways to do something, but in most cases you come to understand the reasons for doing it the way it’s been done for years.

John: Ultimately you just have to accept that it’s a long process, and there’s no way for it to go quicker. It was definitely a marathon, with a pace to it.  I couldn’t do it over and over again—my patience doesn’t go that far. When you start it’s a daunting task, and you quickly realize that it doesn’t go as fast as you might imagine. So you see how it’s going to take time, and you can try to enjoy the ride—you have to—but you also have to focus on what you’re doing all the time. It’s not one of those monotonous, tedious jobs where you’re just going through the motions and trying to use your brain for other things. You have to keep track of measurements, stay focused on making sure your line doesn’t go off course.

 

Loren: Chip and I ended up talking a lot, and we kind of got into a pattern of measuring, drawing, measuring, drawing. Initially I wanted to fight it but if you don’t, it becomes more peaceful actually. Still, if you’re having a day where you felt like you just wanted to be done, it could be agonizing. Your experience depended on what you were bringing to the job on any given day.

John: I’m really glad we did it. It’s an amazing end to all this work. You can imagine what a grid on a wall might look like, but I had no clue as to how gorgeous it would be in the end.

Loren: Taking off the green paper and the tape was like unwrapping a present.

John: I kind of wanted to smash a bottle of champagne on it.

Links to more on Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings and the people who make them: 

Video footage of the installation in progress at Mass MOCA’s Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, a monumental exhibition of 105 works, which opened in 2008 and remains on view until 2033

 A video with Takeshi Arita, one of the most experienced of LeWitt’s technicians, installing a piece at The Art Institute of Chicago

Blog post about the making of LeWitt’s “scribble” wall drawing in a stairwell at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which was completed last October and is, at 2,200-square-feet, the largest ever conceived by the artist

Also on the Walker blogs: an interview with an eight-year-old math-and-geometry whiz who made his own version of Wall Drawing #224, also on view in Sol LeWitt: 2D+3D.

Digging In: Aaron Spangler on “Government Whore” and other sculptures

Artist Aaron Spangler recounts his inspiration for the carved and painted basswood sculptures currently featured in the exhibition The Spectacular of Vernacular. Spangler, whose work is shown at the Galerie Michael Janssen in Berlin and at Horton Gallery in New York City, lives 20 miles outside of Park Rapids, Minnesota, on 150 acres of land. “These […]

"Government Whore," 2009-2010

Artist Aaron Spangler recounts his inspiration for the carved and painted basswood sculptures currently featured in the exhibition The Spectacular of Vernacular. Spangler, whose work is shown at the Galerie Michael Janssen in Berlin and at Horton Gallery in New York City, lives 20 miles outside of Park Rapids, Minnesota, on 150 acres of land.

“These three sculptures came into focus while I was digging a hole for my friend Bruce. We were hand-digging an addition to his underground house, which is a classic piece of hippie back-to-the-lander architecture. As happens when people are toiling with shovels, stories broke to the surface throughout the day, many of which we’ve told to each other before in the course of our 25-year friendship. But this time, Bruce’s narratives about the time following the Vietnam War, during which he moved to the woods and built his homestead, found a different hook in my imagination.

I had been working on an epic twenty-foot-long piece, carving out burrows and protective islands of rural isolation, and I was thinking about how and why young Americans turned to the woods in search of a more meaningful, self-directed life—and how that was mirrored in the western migration of the early pioneers. Bruce started talking about a group of young hippies in Oregon during the 1970s who were living an extremely primitive hunter-gatherer life in the federal forest. When two “shaman” came to join the tribe, they proved disruptive to the sexist arrangement of the commune–women doing women’s work only, the men hunting, and so on–so they were beheaded.  The National Guard then decided to take the tribe out of the forest, and a gun battle ensued. All this is just to say that I had a plan for the piece, but it was at that moment too sensational and not yet detailed, and then I find myself digging a hole for Bruce, a Vietnam vet still trying to find his way forward. Adding onto his bunker by digging out one wheelbarrow-load of dirt after another, we were just working to make things a little more comfortable, putting in a kitchen sink drain so that he could get rid of the buckets. A song that he had written during the first Gulf War kept going through my head: “Government Whore.” Around the campfire it was the song that always seemed to shut the party down, like the sudden bright lights of a bar at closing time. ”

Bruce Brummitt

Listen to an MP3 of Bruce singing “Government Whore” — a field recording made recently by Michael Dagen at Abandoned Scout Camp in Hewitt, Minnesota. Lyrics:

“I spent two years on a foreign shore
Bein’ a government whore
Sold my body, they stole my mind
Told me, “Boy, now you’re mine.”

Those two years ‘neath the southern cross
Turned out to be my country’s loss
Kill commies for Christ, the Chaplain told me
As I prayed on a wounded knee.

Cuz,’Might makes right, can’t you see boy?’
It’s ‘Our country tis of thee, boy’
But killin’ people to set ‘em free … boy,
Seemed like fuckin’ for virginity.

What do you know when you’re only 18
Twelve years of school’s the only life you’ve ever seen
Always taught from government books
Always caught in propaganda’s hooks

So I moved to the woods, where I tried to forget
I had to admit I just didn’t fit
I fight the war most nights in my dreams
I wake myself to the sound of my own screams

But the country didn’t seem to learn from our mistake
We’re still fightin’ wars for big money’s sake
Yellow ribbons decorate our stores
We all have become the government’s whores

What do we learn when we watch our televisions?
We’re lettin’ other people make all of our decisions
Our name’s on the government’s books
We’re all caught in propaganda’s hooks…”

Time Out New York review of Aaron Spangler: Government Whore at Horton Gallery in 2010

Artforum review of Spangler’s 2007 show at the Zach Feuer Gallery

"To the Valley Below," 2009-10

"I Owe My Soul to the Company Store," 2009-10

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