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9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Danh Vo

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

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

VI. Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ In Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Natascha Sadr Haghighian

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

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

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

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

V. I Can’t Work Like This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

5Ibid

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

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

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Liam Gillick

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

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

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

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

IV. On a Dark Day in a Dark Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

7Ibid.

8Ibid., 136.

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

10Ibid.,33.

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

12 McDonough,“Liam’s(not)Home,”147.

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

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Bjarne Melgaard

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

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

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

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

 

III. He Wants to See You Again, and Just Be Two Fags Who Kill

Since his emergence in the mid-1990s, Bjarne Melgaard (Norwegian, born 1967 in Australia; lives and works in New York) has situated his entire career as a mode of subjective excess, a dedication to an expressionistic self-realization through art, a belief that art presents a total freedom unbounded from imperatives to “correct” expression. He attempts to represent reality as it is rather than as we pretend it to be, de-sublimating the netherworld of human experience. Citing influences ranging from Edward Munch to New York–based writer Kathy Acker, Melgaard also performs a kind of fictional self-biography. His life experiences, desires, and thoughts permeate his work in such a way that the viewer walking through one of his installations or reading his writing experiences a state akin to an aghast voyeurism: where does this person end and the fiction and projection begin? (more…)

9 Artists Bartholomew Ryan on Nástio Mosquito

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

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

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

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

 

II. Our Interdependency Is Not about Love, It’s about Function

The core of artist Nástio Mosquito’s (born 1981 in Angola; lives and works in Luanda) work is an intense commitment to the open-ended potential of language, arrived at through deliberate strategies of reinvention. At stake is a rejection of transparency, of the linear way in which meaning is conferred through politely digestible approaches. Mosquito makes music, performances, objects, and videos, often under a range of monikers such as Saco, Nasty-O, Cucumber Slice, and Zura, Zurara. He has performed and exhibited at various places in Angola, Europe, and elsewhere. Several years ago I came across the artist’s manifesto online (well, the manifesto of Nástia, an alter ego and the feminine form of Nástio in Portuguese). Titled Hypocritical, ironic and do not give a fuck it features seventeen instructions for the good life, delivered in rhythmical succession by the artist in a rich, put-on Russian accent. His face is framed in close-up with a projected screen behind him showing dissociated outtakes, past performances, etc. His pearls of wisdom are also delivered visually, Karaoke-style, line by line in loud, graphic tabloid headlines. The instructions are counterintuitive, crude, and elucidatory, mining various clichés and stolen pastiches. They are a mix of clownish nonchalance, perception, and arrogance. (more…)

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Hito Steyerl

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

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

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

I. Happy Pixels Hop Off into Low-Resolution, Gif Loop!

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

9 Artists: Essay Introduction

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

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

 

If You Are Willing:
The Army of the Individuals

Many of today’s contemporary artists have nomadic, dematerialized, and adaptable practices—traveling from biennial to residency to gallery exhibition. Often based in cities far from their place of birth, they inhabit hyphenated geographies that speak to their embeddedness in the contemporary global spirit. Leveraging funding from the public and private sectors, they build consensual transnational networks of colleagues,collaborators, and supporters. They could be said to be ideal representatives of one of the blandest discourses of globalization: the cosmopolitan agent who is well traveled, urbane, tolerant, and a sophisticated interpreter of cultural difference. While the eight artists in this exhibition share many motifs from the above sketch, they also proceed with a deep understanding that in spite of increased proximity and the smoothing narratives of neoliberalism, material forces continue to determine access and marginalization. They witness firsthand the entrenched nationalisms, the unequal distribution of wealth, the myriad exploitations, exclusions, and stereotypes that continue to condition our world. They see defined identities as a means of freedom and organization, but also as a mode of containment and control. Rather than function as new masters of the universe (the aforementioned global citizen), they are implicated, compromised, and self-aware. Some are adept manipulators, entrepreneurial spirits who cohabit with the market while attempting to maintain critical and ambivalent positions in relation to the worst excesses of the free-market culture. It goes without saying that they might be parents, divorcées, lovers, alcoholics, difficult, brilliant, witty, selfish, driven, or whatever you are having yourself. At the Frieze Art Fair they deliver talks on “refusal”; for e-flux journal they pen essays on “occupation.” Endlessly caught up in the necessity for contemporary self-positioning, they nevertheless pursue political-aesthetic approaches that are dedicated to exploring this complexity. Using their own backgrounds and identities as material, frequently in antagonistic or subversive ways, they operate with an understanding of their own complicity within geopolitical dynamics, seeking to use that awareness as a means to arrive at a more realistic representation of the foundations of the present. (more…)

“Sex and the Office”: The Many Interpretations of Office at Night

Within 10 years of finishing what is now one of his most recognizable and provocative paintings, Edward Hopper sold Office at Night (1940) to the Walker Art Center. It was one of ten works acquired after an exhibition of American painters titled New Paintings to Know and Buy, a 1948 “purchase exhibition” copresented at the Young-Quinlan department […]

Within 10 years of finishing what is now one of his most recognizable and provocative paintings, Edward Hopper sold Office at Night (1940) to the Walker Art Center. It was one of ten works acquired after an exhibition of American painters titled New Paintings to Know and Buy, a 1948 “purchase exhibition” copresented at the Young-Quinlan department store on Nicollet Avenue. Then-Visual Arts Curator Norman A. Geske, Walker Assistant Director William Friedman, and Walker Art School teacher Mac Le Sueur selected artworks to add to the collection, including Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Lay Figure and Gregory Prestopino’s Death of Snappy Collins. Initially, only two of the three voted to include Office at Night.

The painting’s situational ambiguity has led to a variety of interpretations over the years since then, the bulk of which suggest a sexual tension between the two figures — although Hopper never offered clear clues about the work’s narrative content.  “My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning for me,” he wrote in a letter to the Walker. Then, after a brief discussion of lighting within the painting, he added: “Any more than this, the picture will have to tell, but I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended.”

In planning for our showing of Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process, we considered ways we could tap into the painting’s openness to interpretation. In partnership with Coffee House Press, we decided to use Office at Night as the point of departure for a fully realized story. The resulting commission — to be released a chapter at a time each weekday between March 31 and May 2, 2014 — takes the scene out of Hopper’s grasp and places it in the hands of two dexterous writers, Kate Bernheimer and Laird Hunt.

But other interpretations can be gleaned from the numerous rights and reproductions requests we’ve received since 1948 from publishers, writers, and filmmakers seeking to use imagery of Hopper’s iconic work. Many of the inquiries have come from other museums looking to print it in Hopper exhibition materials such as postcards and brochures. In academic texts, it has been included in books on erotic art, American office design, Freud, and, possibly the most surprising, geology. Then there’s the relatively unglamorous mass production of recognizable art that is wall calendars, many of which have included this painting.

Here are some of the more intriguing places Edward Hopper’s Office at Night has turned up:

In no other reproduction of this painting is the erotic nature more implied than in this book cover. Published in 2012, author Julie Berebitsky says Sex and the Office “argues that from the first moment women entered the white-collar office Americans worried about sex.” A professor of history and director of the Women’s Studies Program at Sewanee: The University of the South, Berebitsky chose this painting for the cover because its ambiguous nature lends itself to her discussion:

Office at Night is wonderfully evocative: the cramped space and her voluptuous body—it’s hard not to at least consider the possibility that some erotic interaction has already or might happen. The question of who is in charge also seems unsettled. He is clearly the boss, but she conveys agency as much as submissiveness… The painting’s indeterminate narrative allows the viewer to think whatever he or she wants to think about what’s going on.”

In 1998 the image was requested by Valentino Films LTD to be used in the Keith Gordon film Waking the Dead, a film about an aspiring senator (Billy Crudup) and an activist (Jennifer Connelly) who is helping Chileans escape from the military dictatorship that began in 1973, although the painting doesn’t appear in the trailer (above).

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Minnesota poet John Engman’s second book of poetry, Temporary Help, was finished but not yet published when he died of a brain aneurysm at 47. Published shortly after in 1996, the book has been praised by authors like Mary Karr as an underappreciated gem.

Writing for Star Tribune, Wisconsin poet Thomas Smith had this to say about the Engman’s connection to the painting:

“Like the painter Edward Hopper, John Engman illuminates alienated urban office spaces and apartment buildings with piercing compassion and intelligence. Like James Wright and Alden Nowlan, he is one of those lonely poets we read in order to feel less alone.”

2007-04-27_J_Cat3 2007-04-27_J_11

In episode #5220 of Jeopardy — which aired Friday, April 27, 2007 — the painting was featured as the $800 clue under the category “The New York Times Arts.” The clue was:

“The Times noted that ‘Office at Night,’ seen here, was one of many works by this artist on display at the Whitney.”

I know you all would have gotten that one right.

Have you seen Office at Night in a book, movie, calendar, or somewhere else in the world? Let us know in the comments, tweet us, or post a photo on Facebook of where you’ve seen it!

The Road to Opening Day: Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take

When you walk into any gallery at the Walker, you’re instantly offered entry points into an artist’s work — a Nástio Mosquito video installation or Dan Madsen and Forrest Wozniak’s hand-painted map of Tangier. This immersive experience is essential, but what is frequently not considered is the road that led to it. The day before […]

Senior Registration Technician David Bartley preparing to install Jim Hodges' Changing Things, 1997

Senior Registration Technician David Bartley preparing to install Jim Hodges’ Changing Things, 1997. Photo: Gene Pittman

When you walk into any gallery at the Walker, you’re instantly offered entry points into an artist’s work — a Nástio Mosquito video installation or Dan Madsen and Forrest Wozniak’s hand-painted map of Tangier. This immersive experience is essential, but what is frequently not considered is the road that led to it. The day before the opening of Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take I spoke with one of the people who has spent the last four weeks installing everything from a 342-piece silk flower arrangement to a secondhand denim sky.

Senior Registration Technician David Bartley has been at the Walker installing every kind of art imaginable for the past 21 years. We walked around the galleries discussing how he assembled specific pieces in this exhibition and what it was like working with Hodges. Then he got back to the growing list of last-minute changes. Here, he recounts what it took to install some of the exhibition’s major works.

A Far Away Corner, 1997. Photo: Alex Lauer

A Far Away Corner, 1997. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

“First of all, we start by bringing the crates up and placing them in the galleries they’re going to be in. This particular gallery is very open as there are only these two works in here: A Far Away Corner and the massive denim Untitled (one day it all comes true). Untitled was the priority to hang on the wall so Jim could get an idea in terms of height and placement. At first it was hung too high so we had to lower it, which — as you can see — is quite a process.

“Dallas made a template of A Far Away Corner that fits on the wall. It took a long time to determine the height of it in relation to Untitled. Jim and Olga [Viso, exhibition co-curator and Walker director] were thinking of having it low, then thinking about having it really high, not too in the middle of the wall.

“Each web is pinned, each one is numbered, and each point where the web hits the wall is numbered — I had a set of elaborate instructions to read through. There are 13 webs that have to be hung in numerical order, but they don’t necessarily go from top to bottom because they overlap and intertwine.

“First I had to trim the pins down because they’re too long, and Jim likes them really, really tight to the wall so the webs don’t look like they’re hanging from pins. Then you, very gently with a fine hammer, hammer them to the wall. The webs are made of a really fine chain, like a necklace. They’re very fragile but surprisingly heavy. If you wore them like a necklace you would feel them. They have weight.”

Jim Hodges, Untitled (one day it all comes true), 2013. Photo courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

Jim Hodges, Untitled (one day it all comes true), 2013. Photo courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

“With the denim piece, there are 52 screws that hold it up. Since we had to lower it, and it took eight to ten people to move it, we now have to patch over the old holes before the show opens. It’s a long, involved process, whereas [A Far Away Corner] was just a one-person job, but it took me all day. Because of the nature of the artwork, if two people were working on it they would just get in each other’s way.”

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Jim Hodges, the dark gate, 2008. Photo: Alex Lauer

Jim’s work is interesting because it goes all the way from a very small piece that takes five minutes to install, if even, to something like the dark gate where the installation was part of the building’s architecture. When they were building and constructing walls for this exhibition, that’s when they were constructing the room it’s now in. The whole process of installing that artwork — tearing down old walls, building new walls, painting the insides and the ceiling black, putting in a black plastic floor, installing the art from three huge crates — took almost four weeks.

“For each show, generally, they’ll start with a teardown, because they already have the architecture predetermined for each show. If certain walls can remain they’ll keep them, but otherwise they completely get rid of the walls, open the gallery up, and then build all new walls.

“From my understanding, there are a lot of differences [between the layout here and the one in Dallas]. The room for the dark gate in Dallas was much smaller. Here it will be a totally different experience.”

Changing Things, 1997. Photo: Alex Lauer

Jim Hodges, Changing Things, 1997. Photo: Alex Lauer

“For this piece, I did the whole thing by myself. There are 342 individual flowers. As you can see, some are bigger than others, some are tiny little things. Jim outlined the flowers on the template, which helped identify the exact position for each, but it still took me half a day to place. This was one of the first works he wanted up in this gallery because it was going to determine a lot of the other works in the space — what’s in and what’s not.”

The wall sculpture Changing Things arrives in a box with each silk element pinned and labeled. Photo: Gene Pittman

The wall sculpture Changing Things arrives in a box with each silk element pinned and labeled. Photo: Gene Pittman

“Jim tends to not like things on-center, as you can see in the galleries. With this one being off-center, Jim and Olga would sit on the steps a lot and say, ‘Move it over. Move it here. Move it there.’ Once it was up it was similar to the spiderweb piece: you go through with a tack and put in all of the holes, but because the physical template is up against the wall you can’t put the flowers on. In Dallas they came up with this weird system of being underneath the template and someone handing you the flowers — it didn’t make much sense to me. So I put the template [on a wall to the side] and did it myself. Each flower or petal is numbered in the box with a pin so it makes it easy to look at the #1 hole and match it with the #1 flower. With a very fine pair of pliers you take each of the 342 pieces out of the box one-by-one and force them into the holes. At that point, Jim would just come by and joke with me.”

Jim Hodges, He and I (detail), 1998

Jim Hodges, He and I (detail), 1998. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

“Jim is a multitasker. For the wall drawing in the next gallery, he taught John Vogt how to do it and let him at it. But one morning Jim came in and felt like drawing, so he just took over immediately and started drawing on the wall. When he was done with that, John got back on and kept drawing again. That one piece took over a week to do, believe it or not.”

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Latin Rose, 1989. Photo: Alex Lauer

“For this in here, we worked closely together because this is very particular for Jim. We had to build an entirely new structure so we could adjust it—it was on tripods with wheels so we could move it in and out of the space and turn it until he decided where he wanted it. There are certain points where it hangs from and it is literally hanging from tape. The whole thing is made of tape. I’ve never hung an artwork from tape before, but it is Jim’s system, it’s how he’s done it, so we figured it out.

“It took us half a day, for sure, to get this hung up and in exactly the right place. So Jim focused on this, and once this was done, boom, off he went to do something else.”

Hodges discussing his work with members of the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC). Photo: Gene Pittman

Hodges discussing his work with members of the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC). Photo: Gene Pittman

“In my experience working at the Walker, it’s always much different when you have the artist here for a full two weeks [before the exhibition opens]. You begin to develop a sense of not only who they are but where the artwork is coming from. You get a better understanding of their language. This is opposed to an artist who is no longer living or who just shows up for the opening and makes changes the day before the opening. [Laughs]

“A lot of the time I’m not really that familiar with the body of work of some of these artists, so when they’re here you get a much better understanding. The same could be said working with Thomas Hirschhorn. You understand why he is using tape. He’s got all this energy — he shows up, wraps his tape around himself to keep his pants up, then just dives into the work and starts ripping tape, which is why his work has that haphazard look. But you’d never know that about his process from simply looking. You get that extra little understanding by watching artists handle their work.”

Rosy Keyser: Medusa Backstory

In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. Here artist Rosy Keyser presents a new video documenting her life and work in Medusa, New York. Rosy Keyser was born 1974 in Baltimore, Maryland, and lives and works in Brooklyn […]


va_2012_painterpainter_bug_alphaIn Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. Here artist Rosy Keyser presents a new video documenting her life and work in Medusa, New York.

Rosy Keyser was born 1974 in Baltimore, Maryland, and lives and works in Brooklyn and Medusa, New York. She received her BFA from Cornell University and her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Recent exhibitions include Medusa Pie Country, Peter Blum Gallery, NY (2013); Pink Caviar, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark (2012); Science on the back end, curated by Matthew Day Jackson, Hauser and Wirth, NY (2012); Immaterial, Ballroom Marfa, TX (2011); and Promethean Dub, Peter Blum Gallery, NY (2011).

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