Blogs Untitled (Blog) Exhibitions

Becoming American: Fionn Meade on Less Than One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judge: What is your profession?

Brodsky: Translator and poet.

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

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

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

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

                        Life, that no one dares

to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,

bares its teeth in a grin at each

encounter. What gets left of a man amounts

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

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

Installation view of Less Than One

Installation view of Less Than One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shahryar Nashat, Hustle in Hand, 2014

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

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

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

Schöneich: Does imperfection define desire for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance

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One Sound After Another: Film and West Coast Minimalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

The Visual Music of Hippie Modernism: Scoring The Ultimate Painting

In 1965, on the outskirts of Colorado, in the desert fields of El Moro, one filmmaker (Gene Bernofsky) and three artists (JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit, and Clark Richert) established an alternative space of communal living. It was coined Drop City, not only because the founding members and transient visitors had “dropped out” of mainstream societal strictures, […]

Clark Richert, View of Drop City, "the Complex," in El Moro, outside Trinidad, Colorado c. 1966

Clark Richert, View of Drop City, “the Complex,” in El Moro, outside Trinidad, Colorado c. 1966

In 1965, on the outskirts of Colorado, in the desert fields of El Moro, one filmmaker (Gene Bernofsky) and three artists (JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit, and Clark Richert) established an alternative space of communal living. It was coined Drop City, not only because the founding members and transient visitors had “dropped out” of mainstream societal strictures, but also because the artists-turned-architects “dropped” mini-complexes that took on the form of geodesic domes, in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, atop the landscape’s topology. Although they were influenced by Fuller’s architectural strategies and philosophies, they took an ad hoc approach to the production of their living structures—acting as bricoleurs, they repurposed refuse, using car tops to form their dome habitats. By the late 1970s Drop City was abandoned, evacuated of hippies performing alternative lifestyles and left in ruins.

Like many dissolved art collectives, the living members of Drop City are neither in agreement as to the original aspirations nor the legacy of their now iconic commune. For some, Drop City was meant strictly to be a functional living space. Despite the frequent leaks caused by rain falling through the cracks between the composite metal fragments, some defended the domes’ structural integrity, pointing to the maintenance needed for the upkeep of even the most urban of apartment units. Others, however, posited Drop City as an art project in which aesthetic and social aims outweighed utilitarian purposes. For them, the commune was a realization of the mission of modernity, an albeit short-lived fusion of art and life. The domes provided a theatrical backdrop to the bodies that circulated the commune and formed a constellation of aesthetic radicalism and social upheaval.

UP J

Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit, Gene Bernofsky, JoAnn Bernofsky, and Charles DiJulio, The Ultimate Painting, 1966/2011

While the artistic intention behind the geodesic domes and the commune remains in contention, there is one art object—recreated in 2011 and on display in the Walker’s galleries—whose status is undisputed: The Ultimate Painting (1966/2011). The work, which took the form of a circular canvas covered with trippy, quasi-futuristic poly-chromatic shapes, was attached to a rotary apparatus that allowed it to spin at various speeds. Increasing the dynamism of this early participatory and kinetic artwork was a control panel with arcade-game-like buttons that projected various stroboscopic lights onto the rotating circular composition—creating indeterminate, immersive, and at times discombobulating, visual experiences. The Ultimate Painting presented viewers-turned-players with hundreds of different visual computations depending on their own rhythmic engagement with the five red buttons at their disposal.

ex2015hm_ins_gal3 Visual Arts; Exhibitions; installation views. Hippie Modernism - The Struggle for Utopia, October 24, 2015 - February 28, 2016, Galleries 1, 2, 3, and Perlman. This Walker-organized exhibition, assembled with the assistance of the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, examines the intersections of art, architecture, and design with the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. Curated by Andrew Blauvelt. Tour schedule includes Cranbrook Art Museum, June 19–October 9, 2016, and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, February 8–May 21, 2017.

The author puts The Ultimate Painting in motion inside the exhibition, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.

Although one might not readily link the product of a hippie commune characterized by “droppings” of junkyard-made dome living structures with avant-garde visual music, there is an uncanny parallel between The Ultimate Painting and the visual music apparatus known as the Optophonic Piano invented by Russian Futurist artist and composer Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné (1888–1944) in the early 1900s. The “optophone”—which, translated from the Greek, means “visible sound”—comprised many hand-made elements by the artist that would presage the color-wheel projectors of the 1960s, especially The Ultimate Painting. The Optophonic Piano was a hybrid audio-visual apparatus comprising a piano keyboard plugged into a screen onto which variable circular color compositions unfolded based on which keys were struck.

The color configurations of the circular projections were determined by a number of small, abstract hand-painted disks (gouache and watercolor on celluloid) that in hindsight share a striking resemblance to the Ultimate Painting in miniature. These discs were linked to chords within the organ.

 

Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné, Optophic Piano, c. 1916

Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné, Optophic Piano, c. 1916

Baranov-Rossiné explained how his intermedia instrument operated:

Each touch of the keys of the organ, which are fixed in a chosen position, make a certain apparatus move quicker or slower, together with the transparent filters, through which a beam of white light passes … Light filters … single colored filters and optical elements…prisms, lenses or a mirror are employed. The complex filters include elements of graphic art… Add to this the possibility of changing the position of the projector, the form of the screen, the symmetry of the compositions, their movements and intensity, and you can imagine this light piano.1

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Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné, painted glass disk of the Optophonic Piano

Irrespective of whether the Drop City artists who collaboratively created The Ultimate Painting would agree that “light” was their primary medium, it was this natural, yet painterly element that turned a static painting into an “ultimate” ever-changing kaleidoscope. In the words of Baranov-Rossiné one month following his November 1924 Otophone performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow: “My apparatus … provided unusual expanse in dynamic painting, the sort of color painting one might only dream about… In one second, billions of pictures: a willful, universal kaleidoscope.”2

Baranov-Rossiné turned his colorful dreams into reality, scoring new possibilities for future experiments in the interstitial space between the visual and the auditory.

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Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné, detail view of painted glass disk of the Optophonic Piano

The “light piano” Baranov-Rossiné describes could very well be Drop City’s Ultimate Painting, which likewise moves at various speeds due to the choreography of the player’s fingertips and the resulting light forms. Whereas the “graphic art” of the Optophone lies in the painted disks hidden within the apparatus, the painterly gestures of Drop City are readily apparent on the surface of the circular canvas. The key similarity, however, is the shared importance of light in creating a multi-sensory experience. It is the manipulation of light that allows for the generation of a myriad permutations of color patterns, allowing for an audio-visual experience that bridges the material and the immaterial. Both the Optophonic Piano and The Ultimate Painting rely on the player to take an active role in the unfolding of a synaesthetic orchestra—the intermingling of the tactile sounds of keys and buttons being pushed and the mechanical noises of the projector humming and the circular canvas accelerating and decelerating in rotation.

Notes

1. Rossine, Vladimir, Aleksandra S. Shatskikh, and N. B. Avtonomova. Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné : the artist of Russian avant-garde, St. Petersburg: Palace Editions, 2007, p. 40–41.

2. Ibid., p. 41.

2015: The Year According to Jack Whitten

Jack Whitten. Photo: Gene Pittman To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist-musician C. Spencer Yeh and choreographer Trajal Harrell to filmmaker Tala Hadid and theater director Daniel Fish—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the […]

2015-header

Jack Whitten. Photo by Gene Pittman.

Jack Whitten. Photo: Gene Pittman

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist-musician C. Spencer Yeh and choreographer Trajal Harrell to filmmaker Tala Hadid and theater director Daniel Fish—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to                                 .

2015 was a momentous year for Jack Whitten. A 50-year retrospective of his work was shown in three cities—San Diego, Columbus, and Minneapolis (its Walker presentation closes January 24), and he witnessed the publication of his first book, the catalogue for Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting. But, as he notes below, it was noteworthy in so many other ways as well. Here, he recaps the year that was in a list that ranges from hedgehogs to quantum mechanics, Picasso sculptures to an exhibition of art he says contains “every fragment of ancient memory buried deep in my psyche.”

2015-01

LewisN760px A Mentor Remembered

Sunday November 29, 2015: My New York Times is delivered every morning at approximately 7 am. I stepped out of the elevator in my bathrobe, picked up the newspaper, took off the blue plastic protective cover, and saw Norman Lewis on the front page! That made my day. What a joy for me to see one of my mentors on the front page of the New York Times.

2015-02

ex2015jw_ins Visual Arts; Exhibitions; installation views. Jack Whitten - Five Decades of Painting, Target and Friedman Galleries, September 13, 2015 - January 24, 2016. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.
Curator: Kathryn Kanjo, Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Walker coordinating curator: Eric Crosby, Associate Curator, Visual Arts.

A Career Chronicled

The opening of my 50-year retrospective at the Walker Art Center and the publishing of my first book: Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting. Perseverance, hard work and dedication is starting to pay off, I’m still alive and working at age 76. Not bad, eh?

2015-03

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Atopolis at Mons

My participation in Atopolis, an exhibition honoring the ideas of Édouard Glissant in Mons, Belgium, was a beautiful experience. I knew Glissant, and his books have been helpful to me. I especially liked Lawrence Weiner’s installation mounted on the front of the gallery: “We are ships at sea, not ducks on a pond.” Somehow, this summed up the whole show in terms of the significance of place.

2015-04

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Picasso at MoMA

Clem Greenberg was asked what did he think of Jean-Michel Basquiat? Clem sardonically answered, “No one can have that much freedom.” Viewing the Picasso Sculpture show at MoMA, my reaction was how is it possible for anyone to have that much freedom? The man did whatever he wanted with totally unabashed freedom. He was a master! Personally, this show came at the right time for me and sent me a powerful message: Just Do It!

2015-05

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Melvin Edwards at the Nasher

Mel Edwards’ retrospective at the Nasher Sculpture Center was the best installation of his work ever. Mel’s control of molten steel in binding diverse elements taken from an infinite variety of sources directed at a specific symbol reveals the hand of a master. This was one of the best shows of the year.

2015-06

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Thanksgiving

Family Thanksgiving dinner at cousin Tom Tryforos’ home was especially celebratory this year. We had several bottles of Brunello di Montalcino from different vintages and different producers. All were superb! Turkey has never tasted better.

2015-07

Quantum Moment_978-0-393-06792-7 (1)The Quantum Moment

Science is one of my main sources of inspiration it triggers my imagination. Our age is defined by science and technology and I believe that for art to qualify as significant form it must signify the age in which it is made. Most of my reading is philosophy and science, and The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty by Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber opened up my mind tremendously and gave me another level of consciousness.

2015-08

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Hedgehog Visitation

My woodcarving studio is shaded by a large fig tree, and in August, when the figs are ripe, they attract a large variety of birds and animals that gorge themselves senselessly. My memory of this hedgehog is especially potent, he would eat so many figs that his stomach was extended like a balloon! It doesn’t get any cuter than this.

 

2015-09

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Trump Exposed

I thought that Sarah Palin was the ultimate political comic book character until Donald Trump entered the scene. How much worse can it get? The good thing is that Donald Trump and people like him expose the loophole in our Capitalist Democracy. Freedom of speech works both ways; everything is possible in America.

2015-10

PJ-CD468_kongo_G_20150921173550Kongo at the Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty sums up the season for me. These works contain every fragment of ancient memory buried deep in my psyche. I identify so much to the Nkiski. Without a doubt, they are a major influence in my thinking about art.

 

In the Studio with Lee Kit

On May 12, 2016 the Walker Art Center will open the first solo museum exhibition in the US by Lee Kit, a Hong Kong artist based in Taipei. Lee (b. 1978) creates subtle object-based installations that are fashioned from quotidian forms/materials (soap, towels, cardboard boxes, plastic containers, and other domestic wares and products associated with […]

leekit4On May 12, 2016 the Walker Art Center will open the first solo museum exhibition in the US by Lee Kit, a Hong Kong artist based in Taipei. Lee (b. 1978) creates subtle object-based installations that are fashioned from quotidian forms/materials (soap, towels, cardboard boxes, plastic containers, and other domestic wares and products associated with personal hygiene) that he transforms through subtle gestures of painting, drawing, video, as well as placement. Lee frequently imparts political commentary in his work. His repetitive use of foreign products and English words makes reference to the presence of market capitalism and Hong Kong’s sociopolitical history. Conceived as a site-specific installation, the Walker’s exhibition will feature a selection of paintings, drawings, objects, and video drawn from the last five years of the artist’s production, including an ambitious 13-channel video installation acquired by the Walker, I can’t help falling in love (2012).

leekit1Lee Kit’s studio is also his home. It’s spare but warm and personal. The rooms are filled with Danish furniture, and surfaces are mostly bare save a few travel-sized hygiene products (lotion, toothpaste, matchbooks) collected during his travels. His art is tacked up casually on the wall, as well as images that inspire him: classical sculpture, found imagery, and hand gestures. The apartment is in the Xinyi neighborhood of Taipei, where the Hong Kong artist has lived since 2012. I just returned from a visit there, where Lee and I spoke about his upcoming exhibition, his interest in hands, and his attachment to hygiene products. He and I concluded an interview that will appear in the exhibition catalogue for his presentation at Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst Gent (SMAK) in May 2016. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

leekit2Misa Jeffereis: When you were in Minneapolis earlier in the year we talked about depictions of hands in art. We were at the Minneapolis Institute of Art looking at religious paintings and you said you always pay attention to the hands. In your work there’s a specific recurring image of hands, and you also made that piece called Scratching the table surface (2006–2009), in which you scratch a table with your fingers until a hole forms, and the installation Something in My Hands (2012). What’s the fascination?

Lee Kit: In paintings from the Renaissance or even earlier religious Italian and Flemish paintings, the artists all paint these hand gestures that are very symbolic, and everybody understands their meaning. They don’t question the gesture or why they understand it. And now we’ve lost this feeling or sensation or sensibility—somehow we lost it. I don’t want to bring it back, but I’m curious about it.

leekit6Lee: And also, hands do things and touch things. I think hands are the most honest language. I don’t mean sign language. For example, when people feel nervous, it’s a pure feeling and your hands shake. It’s something you cannot control. So it is a super honest language, but it can be very intimate as well. For example, when you love someone, you hold each other’s hand, and you are the only one who can feel it. You cannot explain it to someone else, and even the person whose hand you’re holding will have a different experience than you. On the other hand, if you hate somebody and you want to kill them, you also use your hands.

I just cannot get rid of this fascination. When I look back on my art practice, since day one when I started making art, there were hands: the picnic photographs and scratching video. It’s about hands, I realized.

Jeffereis: In your earlier work you were making hand-painted cloths that you then washed by hand and infused wear and use into the fabric before incorporating the picnic blankets, tablecloths, and curtains in your daily activities.

Lee: Yes, exactly. When I touch things, I experience something I cannot describe. And even if I could describe it, you won’t get it. And going back to my belief is that if I can understand something clearly, then I don’t need to make work.

leekit7Jeffereis: In the movie Chungking Express, by Wong Kar-wai, there’s a scene in which Tony Leung is moving around his apartment and speaking to his belongings, giving pep talks to his hungry soap bar, crying dish cloth, lonely shirt, and hopeless stuffed animal. The intimate moment in the film reminds me of your works that incorporate personal hygiene products like Nivea and Vichy lotions, and domestic wares like worn tablecloths and sheer curtains. There’s an intimacy and softness to these works. Wong Kar-wai is also from Hong Kong—a very populated city with small, isolated living spaces. Do you think that there is a desire to connect more deeply to things and people, rather than just buy and consume products? Maybe it’s a rejection of the hyper-capitalist nature of the city.

Lee: When I was younger, I did tend to talk to objects. It’s simple if you think of it like this: Who is seeing me naked, and who is in the bathroom with me? Johnson & Johnson. Nivea. And while taking a shower, a lot of people talk to themselves, or are deep in thought. That moment is very intimate, and some of these conversations you just don’t want to share with other people. It’s so intimate and you’re naked, and you’re cleaning yourself like animals. No one’s around but all these bottles—I mean, they are looking at me. Since you don’t have enough physical space, you are forced farther into your mental space. You talk to yourself, you talk to objects. You have no privacy; the only privacy you have is the moment you talk to yourself.

leekit3Lee: When Chungking Express first came out in theaters, I went to see it. The audience didn’t understand this artistic side of Wong Kar-wai—they wanted his gangster action movies. They threw things at the screen; they “booed.” But I felt a connection to the film, because, like him, I talk to bottles. I project my thoughts onto these objects. I think we all have this kind of projection. You see a cup and you might associate something with it, and that’s part of our nature.

Jeffereis: We’re constantly evaluating things around us and gauging our relationship to them. Your art-making process begins with a curiosity for the things that you don’t know or understand, and you seem to work toward expressing inexpressible feelings.

Lee: Yes.

Jeffereis: Thank you for speaking with me, Kit. We’re looking forward to your show at the Walker next May.

leekit8Over the last several years, Lee Kit’s work has received increasing attention in Asia and in Europe. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award, awarded by the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai (2013), and represented Hong Kong in the 2013 Venice Biennale. He has exhibited his work at the Sharjah Biennial (2015), Staatliche Kunsthalle in Baden Baden (2014), the Liverpool Biennial (2012), and Museum of Modern Art (2012), and has held solo exhibitions at Mother’s Tankstation in Dublin (2015), Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai (2012), Western Front in Vancouver (2011), and Para/Site in Hong Kong (2007). Lee’s work is held in the collections of the Walker Art Center, M+ in Hong Kong, S.M.A.K. in Ghent, and The Hong Kong Museum of Art. He is represented by Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou, Aike-Dellarco in Shanghai, Jane Lombard Gallery in New York, and ShugoArts in Tokyo.

Andrea Büttner and the Aesthetics of Humility

Despite the bright blue fabric walls that, at first glance, seem to make a bold declaration of sorts, Andrea Büttner is an exhibition that operates at a quieter level. It is an exhibition that seems to ask for little more than patience, curiosity, and close looking, and in placing such a premium on the activities […]

ex2015ab_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions, installation views. Andrea Büttner, November 21, 2015 – April 10, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The Walker presents the first US solo exhibition of the work of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), including a newly commissioned installation. Büttner’s work often creates connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, value, and vulnerability, exploring and challenging the belief systems that underpin them. Curator: Fionn Meade

Installation view of Andrea Büttner at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Gene Pittman

Despite the bright blue fabric walls that, at first glance, seem to make a bold declaration of sorts, Andrea Büttner is an exhibition that operates at a quieter level. It is an exhibition that seems to ask for little more than patience, curiosity, and close looking, and in placing such a premium on the activities of the viewer, confers an equal footing to artistic production and reception. Perhaps not in the sense of calling for an active form of looking, as in the need for the viewer to “activate” the piece (the works are all of a passive nature, and I mean this with the greatest regard), but rather her practice seems to respond to a careful and thoughtful type of looking. It is in this realm of psychological safety, where the artist trusts the viewer and the viewer trusts the artist, that Büttner inserts supposedly small or shameful subjects into the space of the gallery. From mosses that grow close to the earth (humus in Latin) to beggars who also lower themselves to the ground in supplication, Andrea Büttner offers a meditation on the aesthetics of humility.

ex2015ab_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions, installation views. Andrea Büttner, November 21, 2015 – April 10, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The Walker presents the first US solo exhibition of the work of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), including a newly commissioned installation. Büttner’s work often creates connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, value, and vulnerability, exploring and challenging the belief systems that underpin them. Curator: Fionn Meade

Installation view of Andrea Büttner with Limestone with moss (2015). Photo: Gene Pittman

Limestone with moss (2015) is a limestone rock covered in a variety of mosses native to Minnesota. Moss, as the artist points out in an adjoining work, was deemed a “lower plant” among early botanists (in comparison to “the higher, or perfect, flowering plants”). In fact, it is still widely considered a primitive plant form, as evidenced by the fact that it is often described by what it lacks: flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, and apparently any basic internal vascular system that would enable it to conduct water. Yet, by placing a moss-covered rock in the middle of the gallery, Büttner prompts the viewer to bend down and appreciate the multi-faceted beauty of mosses—the fine threads of these tangled green tapestries, the softness and sponginess that seem to demand touch, or simply that a living, breathing organism currently resides in the white cube of the museum. Moss, in Büttner’s hands, becomes not something to discard or trample on, but rather something with which to engage, or at the very least, take notice of.

ex2015ab_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions, installation views. Andrea Büttner, November 21, 2015 – April 10, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The Walker presents the first US solo exhibition of the work of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), including a newly commissioned installation. Büttner’s work often creates connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, value, and vulnerability, exploring and challenging the belief systems that underpin them. Curator: Fionn Meade

Installation view of Andrea Büttner with two woodcuts, both titled Beggar (2015), in the background. Photo: Gene Pittman

Similarly, two large-scale woodcuts of hooded beggars introduce the perhaps shameful act of seeking charity into the gallery. Fittingly, the German expression “Ohne Moos nichts los,” or “without moss you don’t get anywhere,” connects the two works in question (moss serving as a metaphor for money). Here, Büttner introduces another supposedly dirty concept into the space of the gallery—money or the solicitation thereof. Yet, the brown inked background of one of the woodcuts evokes the brown habit associated with St. Francis of Assisi, a frequent reference for the artist, who renounced his wealth and imbued poverty with a spiritual virtuousness. In Büttner’s presentation, then, the beggars suggest a holy dignity as opposed to an earthly desperation.

In both instances, moss and beggars seem to languish in the spotlight. The moss curls into itself, as if shielding itself from the bright light of the gallery (a far cry from the damp, darkened spots in which it prefers to flourish). The beggars, too, fall to the ground, pulling their hoods entirely over their heads. Yet, despite the urge to hide, both maintain a level of vulnerability out of a necessity, if you will: the moss, though naturally conditioned to roll inward due to the absence of moisture, exposes its green shoots, as if asking for water, and the cloaked beggars with their bare forearms, money. Whether seeking water or money—or, more broadly, patience and time—Büttner’s work seems to ask another party, the viewer, for mercy.

ex2015ab_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions, installation views. Andrea Büttner, November 21, 2015 – April 10, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The Walker presents the first US solo exhibition of the work of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), including a newly commissioned installation. Büttner’s work often creates connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, value, and vulnerability, exploring and challenging the belief systems that underpin them. Curator: Fionn Meade

Installation view of Andrea Büttner with Benches (2012). Photo: Gene Pittman

Seen in this light, the bright blue walls, which hug one another at a perpendicular angle, can be attributed to another gesture of generosity—specifically, that of bringing attention to an often overlooked part of a room, the corner. Nestled into this corner are three Benches (2012) constructed of planks of wood placed atop plastic crates. These benches offer the weary museum-goer a moment of respite, a place to rest her feet. In the case of Andrea Büttner, then, mercy is reciprocal—between artist and audience, production and reception—ultimately demonstrating Büttner’s tacit acknowledgment that symbiosis (as in the relationship of moss to nature, or beggars to society) is a necessary, and welcome, condition of art making.

Announcing Galleries, a Digital Home for Walker Exhibitions

I’m excited to unveil a new initiative of the Walker’s Visual Arts, New Media, and Design departments: Following the recent launch of the Cinema page for our Moving Image department and Stage for Performing Arts, the Walker’s Visual Arts department is excited to launch Galleries, a new landing page that offers visitors an augmented presentation of the in-gallery experience at […]

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 12.06.57 PMI’m excited to unveil a new initiative of the Walker’s Visual Arts, New Media, and Design departments: Following the recent launch of the Cinema page for our Moving Image department and Stage for Performing Arts, the Walker’s Visual Arts department is excited to launch Galleries, a new landing page that offers visitors an augmented presentation of the in-gallery experience at the Walker Art Center.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 12.07.30 PMWith eleven spacious galleries, the Visual Arts team mounts between eight and ten exhibitions per year of contemporary, historical, group, monographic, thematic, and media-specific shows. Beginning with the last year and a half of exhibitions, this new slideshow format will showcase a virtual walk-through of our gallery spaces and exhibitions on view. From the first US solo exhibition of work from Andrea Büttner and the retrospective Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, to the art historically layered and multi-faceted Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia and Art at The Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections, this new page will provide a dynamic level of in-gallery presence for audiences. This will be ongoing as we continue to go back and add select exhibitions from over the years, offering visitors not only a closer look at the curatorial approach for each individual show currently on view but also a visual understanding of the Walker’s history of presenting innovative and multidisciplinary exhibitions.

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Becoming Zira: Coco Fusco Transforms into an Ape Psychologist

Next week, artist Coco Fusco will again undergo a transformation a few of us at the Walker were lucky enough to witness a year ago: she’ll become—outwardly, at least—Dr. Zira, the chimpanzee psychologist from the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes. The in-costume talk Observations of Predation in Humans, A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal […]

Coco Fusco performs

Coco Fusco performs Observations of Predation in Humans, A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist at the Walker Art Center, November 6, 2014. All photos by Gene Pittman, © Walker Art Center

Next week, artist Coco Fusco will again undergo a transformation a few of us at the Walker were lucky enough to witness a year ago: she’ll become—outwardly, at least—Dr. Zira, the chimpanzee psychologist from the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes. The in-costume talk Observations of Predation in Humans, A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist was presented at the Walker November 6, 2014, as part of the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, and on November 18, 2015, Fusco will reprise the piece at New Jersey’s Monmouth University. In honor of Zira’s return, we decided to share some of what went on in the green room last year, as Fusco—her voice occasionally muffled as she underwent her simian change—shared her thinking about the performance.

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Over the course of nearly three hours, a professional makeup artist turned Fusco into Zira, the scientist who studied human behavior in the 1960s and ’70s film series. Using film industry makeup, costumes, and prosthetics, the transition involved adhering facial features, a mane of human hair, and tufts of fur to Fusco’s knuckles. But getting into character mentally and intellectually took much longer—starting with a request from the Studio Museum in Harlem to re-perform a past work for the New York presentation of the CAM Houston-organized Radical Presence show in 2013.

pa2014rp_Dr.Zira-makeup Visual Arts; Performing Arts. Artist Coco Fusco becoming Dr. Zira for her performance of: Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist. November 6, 2014, Walker Cinema. Part of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, Target and Friedman Galleries, July 24, 2014 - January 4, 2015. Join artist Coco Fusco for her performance of Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist. Fusco will personify Dr. Zira—a chimpanzee psychologist who studies human behavior in the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes—taking a look at economic violence from an evolutionary perspective.

Her initial reaction to that request: “I’m not Marina Abramović! I don’t do that. I’m not gonna get in a cage again!”—a reference to her performance with Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992–1994), in which the duo appeared in a cage. As the Walker’s Mia Lopez wrote last October, citing the work’s 1992 presentation in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden:

During the performance Gomez-Peña and Fusco presented themselves as members of the fictional Guatinaui tribe, inhabitants of an uncolonized island in the Gulf of Mexico. Wearing leopard print loincloths and artificial feathers while contained in a gilded cage, the artists told stories in a made up language, performed fictionalized ritual dances, and ate bananas fed to them by docents/zookeepers. Despite exaggerated theatrics and outlandish costumes and props, many museum visitors believed the performance to be authentic and reacted accordingly.

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Fusco sees a deep link between her depiction of Dr. Zira and that early work with Gomez-Peña. “For Two Undiscovered Amerindians, I researched how the scientific discourse of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to popular understanding of non-Europeans as subhuman; I was exploring the boundary between humans and other animals,” she told Elia Alba, writing for Art 21. “That returns in Zira’s monologue. Zira studies humans through the lens that humans use to study nonhuman primates.”

But not wanting to rehash a work from two decades ago, Fusco proposed a new piece. She had been teaching undergraduate classes on race, science fiction, and Afrofuturism and noticed that whenever she’d show films from The Planet of the Apes series, students would connect—deeply. “I had this realization: damn, these films—there’s a lot of material in here to work with,” she recalled. “And the one book that I used with the students about it had to do with the connections between the race riots and the Apes films, and it underscored how there’s so much overlap. So, this works, I thought, and also, you know, what is the most overused stereotype of blacks? It’s that they’re like monkeys, right? So, I was like: OK! A talking ape in the Studio Museum is a pretty radical presence.”

pa2014rp_Dr.Zira-makeup Visual Arts; Performing Arts. Artist Coco Fusco becoming Dr. Zira for her performance of: Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist. November 6, 2014, Walker Cinema. Part of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, Target and Friedman Galleries, July 24, 2014 - January 4, 2015. Join artist Coco Fusco for her performance of Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist. Fusco will personify Dr. Zira—a chimpanzee psychologist who studies human behavior in the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes—taking a look at economic violence from an evolutionary perspective.

What also appealed to her about the original movies—for her use as an educator and for this performance—was that they contained “full-on social commentary about that time—a really strong anti-nuke message, anti-war message, all about race relations.”

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To develop her embodiment of Dr. Zira, Fusco says she did hours upon hours of research. She watched nature shows, online lectures by scientists like Stanford primatologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, and documentaries like Project Nim (2011) and Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978). “I would look for films about primatology, science—National Geographic–style stuff—and just watch the people talking about them. Jane Goodall, of course. But she’s so particular. She has this combination that’s kind of like Zira, of being very arch and very superior on the one hand and then very excited on the other. When she starts imitating the chimps, she starts going, ‘Oh ooh ooh ooh!’ and all that, and you can see that she’s all happy that she gets to play with chimps.” (See an excerpt from Observations of Predation in Humans.)

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Were zoos part of her research? A bit, but more for Two Undiscovered Amerindians than Observations of Predation in Humans. “Zoo animals are depressed. They’re not very active. So it’s more instructive to watch science films about them in the wild, to see them interacting in the wild.”

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pa2014rp_Dr.Zira-makeup Visual Arts; Performing Arts. Artist Coco Fusco becoming Dr. Zira for her performance of: Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist. November 6, 2014, Walker Cinema. Part of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, Target and Friedman Galleries, July 24, 2014 - January 4, 2015. Join artist Coco Fusco for her performance of Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist. Fusco will personify Dr. Zira—a chimpanzee psychologist who studies human behavior in the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes—taking a look at economic violence from an evolutionary perspective.

This close observation underscored the similarities between humans and chimpanzees (geneticists say there’s only a 1.2 percent difference between the two species’ genomes). “Even without recognizing the DNA, you can see it,” says Fusco. “When you see them interacting with each other—having sex, playing with their kids, feeding each other… There’s really practically nothing separating us from these other animals.”

pa2014rp_Dr.Zira-makeup Visual Arts; Performing Arts. Artist Coco Fusco becoming Dr. Zira for her performance of: Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist. November 6, 2014, Walker Cinema. Part of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, Target and Friedman Galleries, July 24, 2014 - January 4, 2015. Join artist Coco Fusco for her performance of Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist. Fusco will personify Dr. Zira—a chimpanzee psychologist who studies human behavior in the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes—taking a look at economic violence from an evolutionary perspective.

And that—grappling with the animal in the human—is one of the main reasons Fusco has repeatedly undergone her transition into Dr. Zira. As she told Artforum in 2013:

Studies of animal behavior often focus on aggression and predation. We tend to think of predation usually in terms of the hunt for prey—carnivores attacking other animals to feed themselves. But in a broader sense predation means “to plunder,” and in animal psychology it is understood as goal-oriented aggression for the accumulation of resources. Dr. Zira comes from the future and focuses on our species’ drive for status, territory, and material. These are aspects of behavior that humans share with primates and many other animals.

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