Blogs Untitled (Blog) Exhibitions

Installing Ernesto Neto’s otheranimal Decor

In early fall 2004, Merce Cunningham, then 85 years old and still actively looking for a new creative challenge, began working on an adaptation for the proscenium stage of Views on Camera, an existing dance for camera he had developed that summer with collaborator Charles Atlas. The new work for stage, aptly titled Views on Stage, consisted of […]

Ernesto Neto otheranimal decor for Views on Stage, 2001, Walker Art Center, Gift of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, 2012. Photo: Gene Pittman

In early fall 2004, Merce Cunningham, then 85 years old and still actively looking for a new creative challenge, began working on an adaptation for the proscenium stage of Views on Camera, an existing dance for camera he had developed that summer with collaborator Charles AtlasThe new work for stage, aptly titled Views on Stage, consisted of a similar choreographic structure, but was visually redesigned by costume designer James Hall and Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. Upon the invitation of Merce Cunningham Dance Company manager Trevor Carlson and Cunningham, Neto was given the opportunity to expand his design into a wholistic environmental experience, complete with theatrical lights and an eerie score of two John Cage compositions, ASAP (As Slow as Possible) (1985) and Music for Two (1984). Entitled otheranimal, Neto reconsidered a form he had imitated for his contribution to the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001, a horizontal nylon scrim stretched loosely over the ceiling from which hung “socks” of glass beads, rice and pellets. For Neto, the fabric was the skin of a body, the porous barrier between inside and outside, and at once the inside of a living body. Biomorphic, malleable and amoebic, otheranimal appears to be a organism as much as a set design, one that could melt, drip, fall, or embrace the dancers beneath it. Neto’s sculpture is at once foreboding and playful, suggestive of a primordial cave, and bringing to mind the soft sculptures of artists such as Claes Oldenburg.

Ernesto Neto, É O BICHO, 2001,

Ernesto Neto, É O BICHO, Venice Biennale, Arsenale, 2001

In preparation for the February 2017 opening of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, we installed the complete work earlier this month in order to share notes on how to adapt this stage décor into a gallery installation. (It was last on view in the 2012 research exhibition, Dance Works II: Merce Cunningham/Ernesto Neto.) Joining our registration and theater technical crew was Rebecca Fuller Jensen, an expert lighting designer who set to work on re-programming the lighting plot based on the dimensions and light pollution concerns of the gallery space, where otheranimal will be exhibited. Jenson and the stage crew carefully plotted the exact dimensions of the gallery onto the McGuire Theater stage floor, and determined the exact location for each point of the hanging décor. Otheranimal was intended to hang from theatrical line sets, and its installation is determined by a plan in relation to lights that traverse the ceiling above, allowing light to shine directly down into the center of the decor, permeating the material.

Working with registration to carefully unpack the ephemeral decor from its box Photo: Anna Gallagher-Ross

Working with registration to carefully unpack the ephemeral decor from its box Photo: Anna Gallagher-Ross

 

 The décor is tied to the line sets of the McGuire Theater by registration staff before being hoisted 11 feet off the ground


The décor is tied to the line sets of the McGuire Theater by registration staff before being hoisted 11 feet off the ground. Photo: Anna Gallagher-Ross

Once in place, Jensen went to work, translating the relationship of Neto’s original design onto the more compact installation. The artist’s lighting plot makes the installation appear to change color from pink to orange, to white, blue, and green. Over 11 minutes, the lights gradually change color, generating a calming glow. Neto’s “egg”—a soft sculpture of lightweight pellets—sits at the center of the piece, and constitutes an orientation point for the dancers during the performance Views on Stage.

After two days of work, the decor was re-folded in its box (always considering the constant touring and mobility of the company, Cunningham’s instruction to Neto was that the décor be able to fit into a small packing crate). Even with the walls of the theater exposed, and without Cage’s score, otheranimal had transformed the theater into an alien landscape. The stage is a place constantly under transformation, shifting from one world to the next. Bringing this aspect of fantastical transformation and illusion into the gallery an important element to all the preparations for Merce Cunningham: Common Time. 

Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Views on Stage, 2004 . Photo: Tony Dougherty

Ernesto Neto’s otheranimal décor for Views on Stage will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s presentation of Merce Cunningham: Common Timeopening February 11, 2017.

A Reflection on Dinner with Andrea Büttner & Friends

Recently I was recalling a dinner party that was held on the occasion of the opening of Andrea Büttner’s first solo museum presentation in the United States. Like many dinner parties, the November 2015 event was a convivial situation staged to celebrate an occasion (the exhibition launch), but also to provide a social platform for connection and […]

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 Andrea Büttner. Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

Recently I was recalling a dinner party that was held on the occasion of the opening of Andrea Büttner’s first solo museum presentation in the United States. Like many dinner parties, the November 2015 event was a convivial situation staged to celebrate an occasion (the exhibition launch), but also to provide a social platform for connection and understanding. Each course was punctuated by remarks—presented in their entirety in the following posts—delivered by curator Lars Bang Larsen, Auburn University associate philosophy professor Keren Gorodeisky, exhibition curator Fionn Meade, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah Ferrian.

The dinner was open to anyone—which informed a motley crew of gallerists, curators, academics, out of town visitors, artists, and the public (both the committed and curious). This echoed Büttner’s co-mingling of “high” and “low,” where she pulls her images and references from a range of sources, from anonymous content found on the internet to the categorically “in”—validated by academia or aesthetic theory.

A half year on, I contacted Andrea to find out what has stayed with her from that moment.

On 22 November 2015, the Walker staged a public dinner connected to the launch of your solo exhibition. What do you recall from that evening?

It was the third day of the private views, the third evening, the third dinner. It was beautiful because it was a response to the exhibition on so many levels. Lars Bang Larsen, Fionn Meade, Keren Gorodeisky, and Elijah Ferrian each gave thoughtful speeches on my practice: Elijah spoke about foraging, Keren gave a paper on my illustration of Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, a work on display in the show. Lars spoke about appropriation, and Fionn finished the evening with a jubilatory speech on JA/Yes, on affirmation as a mode of criticality and being. What I recall most is the joy of the response to a show—a very silent cultural form in the end—a gestalt. A form of feast and reflection that served as a way of holding the exhibition and overcoming the strangeness of the private view. As a cultural form, the private view can be pretty awkward for artists: the work is already completed, nothing much happens, nothing is performed to channel anxiety and concentration and give a meaning to the temporality and the sociality of the gathering.

This is not the first time that programming connected to a showing of your work has taken the form of a dinner. What were those other events, and did they differ in format or content?

At Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt I organized a dinner with speeches for a solo exhibition in 2013. It was the first time that I have done this. At MMK the dinner was an integral part of the exhibition, which dealt with notions of poverty in art history and centered on an installation of tables. These tables were both real tables, for the dinner, which was a symposion like in Plato’s texts: drinks, food, philosophy. At the same time they were display furniture for research I have done on the iconography of poverty.

At the MMK, the dinner was an integral part of the exhibition and shaped the installation, allowing me to think about display. At the Walker, the dinner was part of the programming, and it complemented the exhibition in a meaningful way. It allowed one to think of private views as a specific type of durational performance.

Noting that in your work you have explored notions of vulnerability and shame, interestingly—perhaps also ironically—you allowed yourself to be subject to a moment that awkwardly combined both the dynamics of invitation and display… 

You are right, it is important to think about the sociality of art as a moment of display and thus vulnerability at the same time. There is still much to discover within this potential. And it is important that vulnerability is contagious: both the person delivering the speech and the person the speech is about are exposed. But they share this moment in friendship.

I love speeches for that reason. If they are good speeches—if they are generous and if they have something to say—the exposure is mitigated. In this regard the generous and meaningful speeches are like art. They transmit a vulnerable moment and hold it, while at the same time giving form to it. I think the Russian toast is exemplary in that way.

Remarks: Lars Bang Larsen on Andrea Büttner (1 + 1: a simple premise, or an idiotic riff)

The following remarks were delivered by art historian, independent curator, and writer Lars Bang Larsen at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: exhibition curator Fionn Meade, Auburn University associate philosophy professor Keren Gorodeisky, and forager and nature enthusiast […]

The following remarks were delivered by art historian, independent curator, and writer Lars Bang Larsen at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: exhibition curator Fionn Meade, Auburn University associate philosophy professor Keren Gorodeisky, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah Ferrian.

Andrea once told me how the Swiss artist Dieter Roth at some point in the 20th century defined the work of art: One makes a work of art, Roth said, by putting one thing on top of another. An object on top of a pedestal, color on a canvas, figure on ground.

(Parenthetically, Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1968) was originally was originally titled One Plus One, but that is another story.)

An example of this one thing plus another in the work of Andrea would be Diamantenstuhl (Diamond chair), (2011) that consists of a rough brown diamond that sits on top of a plastic chair. Diamond on chair: art work.

Optimized-Diamond Chair 2011

Andrea Büttner, Diamentenstuhl (Diamond Chair), 2011. Image courtesy Artspace San Antonio

In her show at the Walker we can also think of the two versions of moss presented there, one digital and one natural. Or the way that Büttner the artist places her work on top of that of Kant the philosopher.

But of course things don’t add up that easily. To talk about the art work as one thing plus another is also way of saying that things are never just 1:1. This is definitely the case with Andrea’s work. It always looks pretty simple and straightforward, no bull—ohne Scheisse, as they say—but there is always more to her work than meets the eye. And what’s so wonderful about it is how it makes us see with our own two eyes again.

Some aspects of Andrea’s work—her woodcuts for instance—spell tradition and craftsmanship but she is not that kind of maker. In fact she doesn’t “do” a lot in the conventional sense that artists do. As much as a doer, really, she is a borrower, a channeling medium, somebody who makes versions of existing images, recombines art history, and employs the voices of other people.

You can call her an appropriation artist. All of culture is the palette of the appropriation artist, who also works in the 1+1 way by taking over objects and introducing them into works of art. These objects can be pre-existing ones, or even existing works of art that are treated as things. We can think of Sherrie Levine’s wonderful piece over at the Walker, Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A.P), 1991 in which she has remade Duchamp’s urinal as a contemporary urinal cast in bronze. Here Levine in a sense puts her 1991 remake on top of Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, as a layering of versions of an art work that lacks an original.

The appropriation artist isn’t committed to any single medium, but picks and chooses between things that culture has already produced, and she moves them around between different contexts and frameworks. The appropriation artist is concerned with art as a sign, and she traffics in difference. The appropriationist is a ventriloquist: she lets an existing object talk, but with a voice that she lends to it.

The appropriation art from the 1980s and’90s was impersonal, de-subjectified. There is nobody “behind” Sherrie Levine’s urinal. When we see a work by Levine or Jeff Koons we don’t go, “Oh, this is just so Jeff. I hear Jeff’s voice so clearly in this. What Jeff wants to express here is this and that.” There’s none of that. In this sense appropriation is not 1+1, it is 0+1; because the artist here takes a certain pleasure in being a nobody, a blank. In the work of Koons or Levine, it is in a sense a question of who has chosen who; is it the artist who chose the object, or in fact the object that chose the artist and thereby makes the artist become someone?

Andrea’s style of appropriation, on the other hand, is anything but blank or smooth. It is dirty and sticky. Her question seems to be: “Well, do I have a choice? Do I have a choice—given who I am, which is not my mistake—do I have a choice to make art about something else than German philosophy, about my fascination with nuns, about my mobile phone and the other mundane stuff that surrounds me?”

In her work Andrea in a sense is more than she does. She gives us small clues about who she is: She is a German woman. She is a sister and a daughter. She has some kind of affiliation with Catholicism. She likes to do things with her hands. She has certain political ideas. She is a contrarian who likes to swim upstream and go against the grain. At the same time, as we never really get to know who she is, her biography is leaking a bit into her work, always just enough to introduce opacity. She would of course never present herself as the full-bodied artistic genius, as the chosen one. Instead, the version of Andrea that we get to know through her work is always half a person—half artist and half amateur, half part professional and half part laywoman, half part private person, half part public persona.

So when an artist makes work by putting one thing on top of another, the one thing plus another never equals two. Instead you break open each of the things as they previously existed. When they are together they form a conspicuous ensemble, a combination that is new but at the same time stands out as suspended or even broken—because it breaks down functions, rules, conventions, and so on. To add one thing to another to break things down, split them into fractions in order to try and get the proportions right.

One makes a work of art by putting one thing on top of another. We can speculate that there was a dirty joke in there for Dieter Roth, the old womanizer. To beget art. I seem to remember that Andrea also knows a good one about a nun, a Wurst, and the holy ghost.

In any case, the two constituent parts of the art work can also indicate a becoming-many, a multitude. This concerns how Andrea’s work, apart from being aware of itself as art, also has a strong social dimension. Not in the sense that she sets out to fashion utopia from whole cloth, but that she shows ways of being together that arises out of the gaps that divide people from one another in everyday life. We can think of how the Rastafarians define their community; they never say “we,” but “I and I” – “I and I,” 1+1….+1+1+1+1. This idea of a collective existence that takes difference into account, and whose qualities are up to us to define, is something that I think resonates strongly in the work of Andrea—and the special way that it is self-effacing and performative, radical and gestural, fundamental and elusive.

I and I: raise our glasses—cheers to Andrea!

Remarks: Keren Gorodeisky on Andrea Büttner and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment

The following remarks were delivered by Keren Gorodeisky, associate professor of philosophy at Auburn University, at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: curator Lars Bang Larsen, exhibition curator Fionn Meade, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah Ferrian. […]

Bilder in der Kritik der Urteilskraft (Images in Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement)” (2014

Visitor’s to Andrea Büttner (Nov. 21, 2015–April 10, 2016) view Bilder in der Kritik der Urteilskraft (Images in Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement), 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

The following remarks were delivered by Keren Gorodeisky, associate professor of philosophy at Auburn University, at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: curator Lars Bang Larsen, exhibition curator Fionn Meade, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah Ferrian.

There are many prima facie reasons to think that Andrea Büttner’s work is as far from Immanuel Kant’s philosophy as can be. For one thing, Kant has for many years been regarded as interested mainly in natural beauty and its judgment, while discussing art and its criticism merely as an afterthought. Why should an artist, particularly one who is so versed and interested in the history of art as Büttner is, turn to Kant? Why not engage with, say, Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, given that they are standardly considered to contain as much art criticism as they contain philosophy? Moreover, one of the characteristic marks of Kant’s oeuvre is systematicity. Not only did he propose a systematic philosophy that claims to unify diverse aspects of human life—the knowledge-seeking, the practical and the aesthetic spheres of human life—but he also instilled the very idea that systematicity is a value. One might think that this is precisely one of the values that are put in question in Andrea’s work, by her use of diverse media and techniques such as woodcut printing, video, photography, fabrics, clay, borrowing, and commenting, among others, and by reflecting on diverse contents such as the organic life of a moss, shame, art, philosophy, convent life, and poverty. Rather than a systematic system, this multiplicity may constitute what the German Romantic philosopher and critic Friedrich Schlegel sympathetically called a “system without a system”: a system that challenges the ambition to systematize as much as it complicates conventional dualities and distinctions.

One may wonder, then, how a systematic philosopher who—it is widely thought—merely pays a lip service to art can meet the artist whose work often devotes itself to humility and to the unassuming life of such organisms as a moss; and if they can meet, where would the meeting point be? Since actuality entails possibility, the two clearly can meet because they actually do. Andrea Büttner meets Immanuel Kant in the gorgeous book, Immanuel Kant, The Critique of the Power of Judgment, a book compiled, indeed made by, Büttner (and thus authored by whom? By Büttner? By Kant?)[1] They meet in this book that, rather than merely questions, also displays love, attentiveness and great efforts at understanding Kant’s work, word, and world; a world, which through the lens of Büttner’s work, is seen to be both his and ours, alien and familiar all at once.

Perhaps, then, first impressions are just that—impressions or mere seemings. Perhaps the dualities with which I opened these remarks—dualities between art and natural beauty, systematicity and the lack thereof—are to be suspended or overcome, just like the many dualities that Büttner’s work challenges. Here is one way of thinking about their suspension. In recent years, more and more philosophers have acknowledged that art and art criticism may be as important to Kant as natural beauty and its judgment. There is a growing consensus that the order of his “Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment”—an order that starts with a discussion of natural beauty and its judgment and only then moves to art—is merely an order of exposition rather than an order of priority, an order required for a perspicuous grasp of the phenomena but one that does not privilege natural over artistic beauty.

There is also no reason to think that the systematic ambitions of Kant’s philosophy leave no room for disruption, heterogeneity, and conflict—for a system without a system; nor that they come at the price of humility. The core of Kant’s critical turn in philosophy—roughly, the view that knowledge and science are possible only insofar as we keep them within the bounds of human reason—can only be viewed as a call for humility. The inclusion of art and aesthetic appreciation within his overall system, as a central aspect of human life alongside knowledge, science, morality and religion, suggests that, not unlike Büttner’s work, his system also includes heterogeneity and even conflict. It may be seen as posing a challenge to the long philosophical tradition, stemming from Plato, of thinking of aesthetics and art as marginal, as an outcast, particularly in comparison to knowledge and morality.

A challenge to conventional dualities is also part of Kant’s picture of aesthetics, his view of art and his understanding of judgment. On Kant’s view, aesthetic appreciation includes a necessary tension and duality. It is based on a paradox inasmuch as it is both subjective and universal. On the one hand, aesthetic appreciation is subjective insofar as it is based on feeling. To properly judge a work to be great or an object beautiful, one must express one’s liking for it. When it comes to art and beauty, Kant tells us, judgment, approval, and responsiveness to value are a matter of feeling. At the same time, unlike judgments based on sensory feelings—for example, judgments about pains or the taste of the palate—aesthetic appreciation is also universal. It makes a claim on the agreement of others. When I make an aesthetic judgment—for example, when I evaluate a work as poor or great—I demand that others appreciate the object just as I do and share my feeling for it. Though based on feeling, aesthetic appreciation is never fully passive or merely sensory, but is itself a form of judgment: a feeling judgment or a judging feeling. This is not only Kant’s way of poking at the alleged opposition between subjectivity and universality, but also Kant’s challenge to a conventional picture of judgment. If Kant is right, judgment could not be understood as the act of applying a concept to a sensory given or as the expression of a belief about a fact. Judgment, he suggests, may be as affective as it may be intellectual and imaginative. While some judgments articulate beliefs, and some articulate intentions to act, other judgments—particularly, aesthetic judgments—express feelings. The feeling expressed by aesthetic appreciation—the feeling that is aesthetic judgment—is not merely sensory, brute, or passively drawn from us, but a feeling that always already involves understanding. As many of Büttner’s works suggest, aesthetic judgment, as Kant understands it, requires an attempt to understand, even though no concept, assumption or knowledge with which the judge comes to the work can constitute proper understanding. Judging beauty and art requires attentiveness, slowing down, and willingness to be challenged, and even confused by the work.

Making art, like appreciating it, is also paradoxical, according to Kant: it is both free and lawful. Making art never merely follows principles of production, never merely applies the laws of a tradition or a genre and is never fully governed by the concept of what a thing is supposed to be. (For what concept would that be? Of a work of art? A painting? A realistic painting? Or the concept of a specific artist, such as Andrea Büttner?) And yet, art is not lawless, arbitrary, devoid of any connection to (or a break with) traditions, genres, and concepts. Art is active and skillful and yet receptive and accepting. It is, or should be, Kant holds, open to surprises, to nature beyond individual agency.

Like Kant’s aesthetic theory, Büttner’s Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment—or as we, Kantians, like to call it, Kant’s third Critique—is also a kind of system without a system, a heterogeneous unity of challenged dualities. Introducing the beautiful book, Büttner claims that the pictures she placed alongside the text have always been there. They belong to the text, invoked by Kant himself, by the very language that he uses. And they are. These pictures are Kant’s as they are Buttner’s. And yet, many of them would have been inconceivable to Kant: scenes of food street culture in Asia taken from the internet; a 2014 photograph of a living room, furnished by mid-century modern furniture pieces that are mainly covered by sheets and blankets, taken from a personal blog; a 2004 DreamHack LAN party taken from Wikimedia Commons; 2014 drawings by Andea Büttner; and many more. The pictures, unified indeed as they are as pictures that belong to the Critique of the Power of Judgment, come from diverse sources—from Kant’s archives and books, from other artists, like Goya, Diego Rivera, Rosellini, and the contemporary artist David Raymond Conroy, as well as from the internet, from Wikimedia Commons, from personal blogs and more. They are made, they are borrowed, they are reproduced. But they are pictures of the text—“of” in the sense of belonging, not in the sense of being about it. These images emerge from the text, comment on it, bring it to light, make it explicit, while, as Büttner once said about criticism, also cover it.

In the same preface to the book, Büttner endorses yet another duality. Some of the pictures, she says, support the text, the passages that they are paired with, while others disturb or disrupt it. She offers no further explanation of the support or the disruption, but the pictures do; more precisely, they offer one explanation of this duality and then challenge it. Or so I will claim in what follows.

At least on the surface, finding the disruptive pictures is a challenging task. You might think that pictures like the 2004 DreamHack LAN party—a party of video games from Wikimedia Commons—and of a food street vendor in Asia taken from the internet can only disrupt a philosophical text from the 18th century. But do they?  Büttner pairs the picture of the video game party to, or rather she finds it in Kant’s discussion of, “games that involve no interest beyond that of making time pass unnoticed” (Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 5:306).[2] The Asian food street vendors are invoked by Kant’s recollection of an anecdote in a book about France, an anecdote about “the Iroquois sachem that nothing in Paris pleased him better than the cook-shops” (CPJ, 5:204). Are these examples of supporting or disturbing pictures?

Perhaps better candidates for disruption are a picture of the facade of a Dior store, from a fashion blog, and the 2011 work of the artist David Raymond Conroy, titled Sometimes I Wish I Could just Disappear—a picture of a gilded, decorated mirror, leaning on a pile of cushions and reflecting a high wooden ceiling and a camera held by a lone hand, as if dismembered from the whole body of the unseen photographer. The relation of the former—the Dior picture—to the passage with which it is paired is at best oblique, for the passage argues, “The highest model, the archetype of taste, is a mere idea, which everyone must produce in himself, and in accordance with which he must judge everything that is an object of taste” (CPJ, 5:232). Perhaps the picture of Dior is meant to disrupt Kant’s discussion of what he regards as the highest archetype of beauty, the beauty of a human being as the only beautiful object who is completely free, determining its own ends through reason? But perhaps it is meant to support Kant’s thought here, the thought that genuine taste requires that each person judge on her own, independently of accepted cultural and social archetypes of taste, like Dior? Conroy’s work too might disturb Kant’s way of connecting art with spirit, but it might also support the passage where Büttner finds it—a passage about objects presented as artworks that are lacking in spirit, if spirit might stand here for the artist’s own agency, the agency that is both in and lacking from Conroy’s work, the agency that Conroy both wishes to remove from his own work and is incapable of removing. (Think here too about Andrea’s wish to let the work fall down.)

On the surface, the placement of a photograph of a horse where Kant speaks about the beauty of a horse, a photograph of a roman sculpture of Doryphoros where Kant speaks of the beauty of the human figure and diagram of a flower from a 1763 book where Kant speaks of the beauty of a rose seem representative of the supporting group of pictures. But are they? Many of the pictures in the book seem to function similarly with relation to the parts of the text with which they are paired—pictures of birds where Kant speaks of beautiful birds and of palaces where he speaks of beautiful palaces. These pictures are literal, perhaps overly literal. In their literalness, they are, I believe, disrupting as much as they are supporting. They disrupt in a myriad ways. For one, most of the pictures in the book are pictures of Kant’s visual examples, not of his arguments, disrupting his main claims, pausing the process of reconstructing the argument for the sake of visually imagining. Does a diagram of a rose support Kant’s claim that the beauty of a rose makes a claim on everyone’s own satisfaction? Does it bring to light this complex thought about the value of art and beauty, its difference from other values, like goodness and truth, the demand it makes on its appreciator and the kind of responsiveness that it calls for?

In one respect, it is exactly in their literalness, in their visual insistence, that these pictures disturb more than support the passages they display. And yet it is exactly in their disruption that they also support those passages, discussions, and arguments. For they slow us down just as required for judgment. They do not allow us to go on. They force us to dwell on the arguments as well as on the pictures and the examples, to explore their connections. These pictures prevent us from taking these examples, the pictures, to be mere examples, mere visual decorations or instruments in the service of promoting the arguments. They challenge the distinction between a claim and an image, between reason and perceptual imagination. They suggest that Kant’s arguments are not made merely in the service of establishing conclusions, philosophical views, ideas. Rather, when we slow down and dwell—when we judge—we see how these arguments and their conclusions are part of a complete world, which is both rational and visual, just as it is both Kant’s and ours.

As in her other works, and as in Kant’s aesthetics, here too, then, in the Critique of the Power of Judgment she made, Andrea Büttner invokes a duality—between supporting and disrupting—in order both to reinforce and to challenge it. Displaying Kant’s pictures both to support and to disrupt the text—to support by means of disrupting and to disrupt by mean of supporting—Büttner’s work, once again, challenges her audience, slowing it down. And insofar as she makes us more reflective by making us more visually perceptive and more imaginative, she is doing philosophy by means of making art and making art by means of doing philosophy. For that, we should all thank her.

Notes

[1] Andrea Büttner, Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft (Hamburg: Felix Meiner/Museum Ludwig, 2014).

[2] Citations from Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment will appear with the abbreviation CPJ, followed by the volume and page number of the Akademie Ausgabe: Kants gesammelte Schriften, hrsg. von der Königlisch Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften [Ak] (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1902-).

A Radical Presence: Remembering Benjamin Patterson (1934–2016)

What struck me most about the artist Benjamin Patterson was his lightness of spirit, and his playful way of approaching just about everything. I met Patterson in 2014 when he visited us at the Walker to present several performances as part of the exhibition, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. I was amazed by […]

va2014po_patterson Portrait of Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014. Photo by Erin Smith.

Portrait of Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014. Photo: Erin Smith

What struck me most about the artist Benjamin Patterson was his lightness of spirit, and his playful way of approaching just about everything. I met Patterson in 2014 when he visited us at the Walker to present several performances as part of the exhibition, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. I was amazed by his generosity, his fierce memory, and his remarkable ability to tell stories, especially at the noble age of 80. Patterson, who passed away June 25, was a founding member of Fluxus, an international, postwar art movement that challenged traditional art-making modes by combining visual art, music, and performance. Like his Fluxus peers, Patterson created instruction-based works—what he called “compositions for actions”—that encouraged situations allowing for direct engagement with participants or the audience, often through humorous actions. Fluxus unlocked the potential of art to be fun, engaging, and accessible to all people, making it perhaps the most influential and significant experiments in the history of art.

Double bass

Benjamin Patterson, Variations for Double-Bass, circa 1962

Patterson was a crucial figure in Fluxus’s founding, although he is rarely recognized in the same light as other American artists of the movement such as Yoko Ono or John Cage. Perhaps his 20-year “retirement” from art in 1963—after creating work and collaborating with artists and musicians in Europe for just three short years—might account for part of his lack of recognition as a Fluxus character. Or perhaps it was his “radical” status as the sole African American artist and musician in the movement that excluded him from the annals of art history, pointing to the problematic way in which history is recorded. Despite his position, Patterson was a determined individual with a voracious appetite for learning and found joy and inspiration in discovery; he embodied and lived in the spirit of Fluxus. He considered the central function of the artist to be “a duality of discoverer and educator.”[1]

Because of his willingness to experiment, he lived a storied existence with a wide spectrum of life experiences—his early classical training in double bass, his interest in natural sciences (which led him to clean cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo), his later role as deputy director of the department of cultural affairs of the City of New York (to name just one of the many arts administration positions he held). As a student of music and composition at University of Michigan, Patterson proclaimed himself on a mission to be “the first black to ‘break the color-barrier’ in an American symphony orchestra.”[2] After several attempts at auditions in which he was immediately turned away because of the color of his skin, he moved to Canada and held the position of principal bassist in the Halifax Symphony Orchestra. Ironically, his time in Canada was cut short when he was enlisted in the US Army, serving for two years in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, based in Stuttgart. It was here, separated from the segregation and charged climate of 1950s America, that Patterson found his place in the experimental music scene of Germany.

paper piece

Benjamin Patterson, Paper Piece, 1960

Patterson moved to Cologne in 1960 and met John Cage, who profoundly shaped his thinking around indeterminacy and chance operations, which led him to marry his experimentations in classical music improvisation with actions tied to musical composition. His earliest “composition for action” work, Paper Piece (1960) consists of a set of instructions that includes the number of participants, materials to be used, and actions to be taken, such as crumpling, twisting, and rubbing together paper. With Paper Piece, not only did Patterson challenge the traditional music score by replacing music with actions, but, like Cage, he also created a system with variables determined by chance.

In an interview with Patterson by former Walker associate curator Eric Crosby and curatorial fellow Liz Glass, the artist explained how important audience participation was for Paper Piece, noting that the work was created for the de-skilled participant: “You didn’t have to study an instrument for 20 years before you could realize this score. Anybody could, with a fair amount of sensitivity, get some interesting sounds and activity out of paper.”[3] The democratic nature of the work appealed to Patterson, which stood in stark opposition to his experience in musical training, wherein the musician’s expertise divided him from the audience. Paper Piece challenged the great chasm between performer and audience. Pushing against the rigidity of classical music composition, where a score is expected to be performed the same way each time, Patterson experimented with openness and indeterminacy in the end result: “I was just fascinated with the idea of the impossibility of actually doing it, you know, of coming to an answer and everybody will have a different answer or different approach or reaction to it.”[4] Paper Piece was hugely important in Patterson reconsidering his thoughts about musical composition and heralding his new approach to art making.

va2014pa_Patterson_022

Benjamin Patterson, Pond, 1962. Photo: Erin Smith

Pond is a performance that Patterson first executed in 1962, and, like Paper Piece, it invokes game-playing, chance operations, and musical components. The piece consists of an 8-foot grid taped directly on the floor, a score created by the artist, wind-up toy frogs, and eight participants that stand around the grid and make corresponding sounds as the frogs hop from one quadrant to the next. The performance escalates into a cacophony of sound as more and more frogs are released, evoking the “ribbeting” of an active frog pond. While Patterson was in Minneapolis in 2014, we executed Pond with eight students from the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC), the youngest group to have ever performed the piece. Pond marks a moment early in Patterson’s practice when his performances began to incorporate objects (in this case, toy frogs), which functioned as both props and as catalysts to engage the audience in a playful action.

Patterson 1989.304.1-.3

Benjamin Patterson, Instruction No. 2, circa 1964, Walker Art Center Permanent Collection

Perhaps his simplest composition for action, Patterson’s Instruction No. 2 (1964) consists of a small plastic box containing a bar of soap in the shape and color of a lemon slice and a paper washcloth on which is stenciled, “Please wash your face.” With this work, Patterson transforms a habitual action that typically happens in the privacy of one’s home into a public performance. The work has been realized in various public settings, and yet Patterson noted the public’s resistance toward performing this activity: “In New York people were a bit hesitant one way or another, wondering whether or not they wanted to do this activity in public because it’s something that you normally do in the bathroom, in private.”[5] Instruction No. 2 asks participants to “concentrate one’s attention and focus on an everyday activity which is very important and taken for granted.”[6] The work marks out an everyday activity as an artistic and collective action, blending art and life, which is at the core of Fluxus. Life is art. And Patterson knew exactly how to help us experience differently, appreciate, and find humor in life.

Footnotes

[1] Crosby, Eric and Liz Glass. Interview with Benjamin Patterson. October 10, 2014.

[2] Patterson, Benjamin, “I’m Glad You Asked Me That Question” in Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us, ed. Valerie Cassel Oliver (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2012).

[3] Crosby, Eric and Liz Glass, interview with Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

Grey People are the Guanaco and the Button Hole: Erin Sharkey on Pope.L’s “Skin Set”

“When Pope.L shakes his head he makes drawings that keep him from laugh-crying to death,” writes curator Helen Molesworth of William Pope.L‘s “Skin Set Drawings.” An ongoing series begun by the multidisciplinary artist two decades ago, the drawings are made using readily available materials—graph paper, markers, ballpoint pen, correction fluid, etc.—and consist of declarative statements about people of […]

by White People are the Camel and its Needle (2001)

William Pope.L’s White People are the Camel and its Needle (2001), part of his “Skin Set Drawings,” as installed in the exhibition Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman

“When Pope.L shakes his head he makes drawings that keep him from laugh-crying to death,” writes curator Helen Molesworth of William Pope.L‘s “Skin Set Drawings.” An ongoing series begun by the multidisciplinary artist two decades ago, the drawings are made using readily available materials—graph paper, markers, ballpoint pen, correction fluid, etc.—and consist of declarative statements about people of various colors (white, black, orange, green, and so on), offering incisive commentary on the absurdity of language about color and race. In commemoration of the Walker’s recent acquisition of a series of “Skin Set” drawings, now on view in the exhibition Less Than One, we invited Minneapolis-based poet, essayist, and educator Erin Sharkey to share her creative response to works in the series. 

I.

A Blizzard of Claims

The message looks bold. A direct statement. No modifiers like: sometimes or maybe. A straightforward statement that sounds so close to something you have always heard you might miss that something is amiss.

But you look really closely, you get up close and break the column of light in front of White People are the Camel and its Needle (2001), and you see marks Pope.L made on its face. Between the bold red letters, in small script is this short musing:

write write write something I can buy. then write it out and write it again. A blizzard of claims like snowfall coating the trees in the park after the lynching

And there are small cartoon bones. The only thing here with strong singular meaning. Bones are bones whether they be food or a reminder. Or a warning.

Always bones.

And snow, clean white snow, on every surface. So quiet and still. What is snow for? To remind us of resistance to the ground? To record footsteps, coming and going? To melt?

Like any night anywhere, in his little drawing, a little house with a fire in its little fireplace, smoke spilling out of its chimney. They are inside. Warm and resting from the activities of the day. Be it farming or factory work or stringing up a black man by his neck.

Selections from William Pope.L's Skin Set, on view in Less Than One.

Selections from William Pope.L’s Skin Set, on view in Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman

II.

Grey people are the Guanaco and the Button Hole

When your mother is gauze and your father a raven, you learn very early you are either sackcloth or ash. Evidence of sacrifice. Storm clouds or an old woman’s hair.

Color without color, undied, undyed.

A cloud on the ground. A heavy buoyancy.

The first math equation I learned=
A black body, a perfect closet for light + a white back turned away.
Calculation. Is there a better warning that race is replica than that it combines?

1+1= alone in this world.

Look here at all that we have built—an industry of industries, a conveyer belt for conveyer belts. All we have added is lack, and simplified by making all of this more complicated. Smoke stacks.

Black can be made.
White cannot be made, it is empty.
Black, full. Black is only everything but what it is not.
Black is pigment
White—light
They want no meaning.

Grey is no color—only want. And certainly it is not a clear thing. Transparent, clean, sterile. Oh god no, not that. Nothing pulls the curtain back on a binary like being both inverses or neither.

There is no word for the opposite of a metaphor. Literally.

I have learned uncertainty. Color is a senseless gauge. How can color be trusted anyway? It changes depending on weather. It changes when another leans in close and kisses its ear. When I was a little girl, I couldn’t understand how one could trust that another person saw the same thing as they did. Ask a friend to draw what they see. They will see what they see and say it’s what you saw.

Picked the prettiest yellow flower in the neighbor’s garden. How can you even talk about it? And trust that when you compared the flower to the brightest yellow yolk or the creamiest stick of butter or the golden light of the moon that they really remember? Or that they make the same shapes on their memory?

A camel, no reserve, somehow crossed the salty ocean with no hump. So quick, her baby was born running before its first breath, air as thin as thread. Hang on dear life.

She was a whale. Not a devil, not a school bus. Simply an extremist wearing a cape of neutrality.

lksdfjsdlkff

William Pope.L, Orange People Are the First Word in the Bible (2012), on view in Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman

III.

My Heart’s Envy is Violet

On a journey on a wide rough sea, insisted by waves towards the end of the spectrum by westerlies, anti-trades, that drag the path of hurricanes—our boatswain, with his tool belt of metal darners, pauses to look out over the stern’s regrets, shrinking at the furthest point as it makes itself smaller and smaller like a scolded child.

I’ve asked you to join on this voyage on this boat of hands, fingers splayed under the surface, reaching down for a hand reaching up in return. Asked that you compound the pigments, use a swirling brush; count each round until you reach the age of a stone at the deepest reach of the ocean’s floor who has never felt sunlit on its face.

Newton calculated the desire for the color of beautyberries, free for no one insisted that they be red or blue, or rather understood how far 380 nanometers away  is the troposphere. The beads of the callicarpa bush—metallic berries—squished under feet, can be used to make a fermented goblet to sustain you on your journey.

—Okay, stop.

You know that we aren’t really on a ship on a journey on a wavelength towards a perfect color that no one would force to be what it is not. We are just sitting here in chairs, or maybe you are reclined in some other way—me writing, you listening with your eyes and your tender hands.

You cannot deny the lure of red with its ordered rituals, its occasional sweets, or the pull of blue’s honest emotion, and you know that to find it is to perhaps balance on the lonesome point alone. No history shared with your conceivers. And from this acme even if you stretch as far as your arms will reach, you cannot hold blood in one hand, water in the other.

I wont convince you, though I have tried, you will agree, mightily, that the pursuit is feckless for colors don’t exist. They are only light, like so many bouncing balls. And that a man sits at a great wide table, lifts up each thing presented to him, spins it once in his hands, hums a great deal, and calls it energy or clean, mystery or nobility.

My heart wants violet. Don’t tell me it’s not its own glorious thing.

This Week in History: Merce Cunningham’s Les Noces

The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s […]

Merce Cunningham and Brandeis University Dancers in Les Noces, June 12, 1952

The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s strict independence of the art forms, although philosophically antithetical, produced some of the greatest dances of the twentieth century. Composers Igor Stravinsky and John Cage are perhaps best known for the work they produced for the Ballets Russes and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, respectively. Diaghilev commissioned stage décors and costume designs by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Ernst; Cunningham would work closely with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Robert Morris. Due to their international prominence, including the American tours of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (the post-war company formed after Diaghilev’s death), the Ballets Russes’s impact on American dance, and on the young Cunningham, are undeniable.

Cunningham would have had his first opportunity to see the famous Russian company firsthand through New York performances by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in the Fall of 1939. Whether he saw the performances of Les Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), Scheherezade, and Petrushka is uncertain, however as Cunningham scholar David Vaughan has stated, the qualities of these works “would have already become part of what is available to any choreographer.”[1] Cunningham’s own exploration of composition, abstraction, and application of Dada and dance’s relationship to the music (or lack thereof) all hold roots in Diaghilev’s ballets. Diaghilev’s influence on Cunningham can be traced as far back as 1952, when Cunningham, still early in his professional career as a choreographer, was commissioned by Leonard Bernstein of the Festival of Creative Arts to create a new choreographic work after one of the Ballets Russes’s most significant ballets—Bronislava Nijinska‘s Les Noces.

This week is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the first Festival of Creative Arts, an annual two-day program of performances of music, dance, and theater at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Founded by composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, the festival continues to be hosted at Brandeis today. In 1952, Bernstein was already an influential figure on the East Coast, having served as conductor of the New York Philharmonic since 1943. By 1952, Bernstein was heading the orchestral and conducting program at the Tanglewood Music Center, a summer orchestral program founded in 1940 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Festival of the Creative Arts, festival program, 1952. Brandeis University Archives

Festival of the Creative Arts, festival program, 1952. Brandeis University Archives

The first Festival of the Arts (June 13–14, 1952) premiered Bernstein’s one-act social commentary opera Trouble In Tahiti and Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, accompanied by symposia on jazz and poetry (with performances by Miles Davis, Aaron Copeland, and a reading by William Carlos Williams). For the first Festival of the Arts, Bernstein also commissioned Cunningham to create two almost entirely different projects—to choreograph an original work to Pierre Schaffer’s composition Pour un Homme Seul (1949–1950) and a restaging of Les Noces (1923), a ballet originally choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by Nijinska to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Bernstein’s invitation was significant, as up to that point Cunningham had only been commissioned by Lincoln Kirsten for the Ballet Society (later the New York City Ballet) in 1947 and received a select few laudatory reviews in the New York Herald Tribune for brief solo works. While Cunningham’s skills as a dancer were recognized as early as his performances with Martha Graham Company in 1939, he was yet to receive significant recognition as a choreographer.

Nijinska’s ballet, a simple narrative of a Russian peasant wedding, was already antithetical to the type of work Cunningham had been producing. As opposed to translating Nijinska’s work, Cunningham rechoreographed the piece, taking the dramatic concept and music as his starting points. Cunningham’s dancers would later remember “leaping movements” and an athleticism not present in the Ballets Russes’s original choreography. Donald McKayle, a dancer in Cunningham’s class, described the movement as “raw, not sophisticated,” which is consistent with the dynamic solos Cunningham had been choreographing since the mid-1940s.[2] Although no recording of the performance survives, the below photographs of rehearsals show the production including full costumes designed by artist Howard Bay, which were more ornate and dramatic than the fairly simple original designs by Natalia Goncharova for the original Ballets Russes production.

Les Noces, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, 1923, Music Division, Library of Congress

Howard Bay, copy of sketched costumes study for Les Noces" 1952. Walker Art Center 2011.313

Both projects required Cunningham not only to develop new a choreography but to teach it to Brandeis University students. Since 1950, Cunningham had been teaching daily dance classes at his 8th Avenue studio in New York, and by 1952 he had developed a small, dedicated group of dancers, for whom he had begun developing a new technique. These dancers made up the core cast for Cunningham’s work at Brandeis. After receiving the commission he worked in New York, developing the movement and choreography for the principal roles, and then developing the structure of the cast with the Brandeis Dance Group later in the spring.

Les Noces, and the far more experimental Pour un Homme Seul, are key to considering Cunningham’s career-long connection between pedagogy and his own creative practice. Although on numerous occasions he would profess his frustration with teaching (“I hate teaching. The repetition that is demanded by [class] drives me crazy”[3]), Cunningham was keenly aware of its importance to his development of new work and its role at the heart of his philosophy of dance. Bernstein also valued the importance of continued teaching throughout his career: “[Teach and learn] are interchangeable words. When I teach I learn, when I learn I teach,” he would often profess.[4] Bernstein, then on the faculty at Brandeis, created the festival not only as a platform to support new work by key figures in visual arts, music, dance, and theater but also as a multi-disciplinary access point for the university’s students. For Cunningham, the translation between his own idea for a movement and the dancer’s interpretation through their own unique style, continued to be a key aspect of his philosophy. “I use class like a laboratory,” Cunningham would later reflect, “something occurs to me and if I could do it myself I would figure it out and show it to them.” [5]

Teaching not only provided Cunningham with his main source of income in the 1950s, but also allowed him the means for experimentation. The Brandeis commissions were only one of a number of Cunningham’s engagements in 1952. Earlier that spring, Cunningham and his partner the composer John Cage, briefly taught a series of classes Black Mountain College. Later in June, Cunningham hosted a six-week summer course at the Dancer’s Studio in New York before again returning to Black Mountain College, followed by a brief engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

Constructing his own approaches to movement through teaching, and instilling a personal dedication to his craft through the ritual of daily class, were key to Cunningham’s development as a dancer. Bernstein’s choice to commission the young Cunningham to work from Nijinska’s existing influential work allowed Cunningham to infuse a historical score with his own interpretation and sense of the present. Filtering historical influences while pushing his own creative boundaries is the nature of Cunningham’s practice—and partly why his work continues to resonate in the present. Always an original thinker, Cunningham’s reflections on history are uniquely his own and always approached as a means to a new creative challenge.

Merce Cunningham: Common Time opens at the Walker Art Center February 8, 2017.

Footnotes:

[1] David Vaughan, “Diaghilev/Cunningham” Art Journal  34, no. 2 (Winter 1974–1975): 140.

[2] Donald McKayle, quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997): 64.

[3] Merce Cunningham Trust, Merce Cunningham: Mondays with Merce, Episode #12 (accessed June 10, 2016).

[4] Leonard Bernstein: Teachers & Teaching (accessed June 11, 2016).

[5] Merce Cunningham Trust, Merce Cunningham: Mondays with Merce, Episode #12 (accessed June 10, 2016).

Erasing the Photographer’s Hand: Phil Collins’s Free Fotolab

Phil Collins’s free fotolab is included in the Walker exhibition Ordinary Pictures, on view February 27–October 9, 2016. In his work free fotolab (2009), British artist Phil Collins presents 80 photographs that exactly fill the standard 35mm slide carousel he uses to project the images onto the gallery wall. Although Collins is a photographer, he […]

An image from Phil Collin's free fotolab, 2009

An image from Phil Collins’s free fotolab, 2009

Phil Collins’s free fotolab is included in the Walker exhibition Ordinary Pictures, on view February 27–October 9, 2016.

In his work free fotolab (2009), British artist Phil Collins presents 80 photographs that exactly fill the standard 35mm slide carousel he uses to project the images onto the gallery wall. Although Collins is a photographer, he is not the author of any of the photographs shown in this work. The artist sourced the images in free fotolab by putting out a public call for rolls of undeveloped 35mm film, which he agreed to process and return to participants free of charge, on the condition that they cede all rights and claims of ownership to him. The images displayed over the nine minute, 20 second slide show depict people engaged in everyday life: celebrating with their families, going to the beach, having a picnic, drinking a cup of tea. In free fotolab, Collins presents a collage of normal, ordinary pictures, the commonplace subject matter of which is contrasted by its presentation in a formal gallery setting.

While no background is given for free fotolab, closely examining contextual clues (such as bottles of the Macedonian beer “Bitolsko” or an entire shelf full of books in Serbo-Croatian) reveals that some of these images can be traced to the Balkans. This isn’t surprising, as Collins has spent a significant portion of his professional career working in the region. The artist’s first video work, a 12-minute piece called how to make a refugee (1999), was shot in Macedonia during the same year as the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Collins created the work after witnessing reporting methods employed by official news media covering the crisis in the region. In how to make a refugee, we see journalists directing and posing a displaced Kosovar Albanian family they are photographing. The reporters appear to show little concern for how their instructions are received by the family they direct; instead the journalists are focused on crafting a saleable news story for their domestic audiences. By filming this process of documentation, Collins exposes the imposed construction of a refugee narrative designed to fit Western consumers’ expectations about what war reporting looks like, and by extension, what refugees look like.

Phil Collins, how to make a refugee, 1999.

Phil Collins, how to make a refugee, 1999

After how to make a refugee, Collins continued with his nontraditional representation of individuals living in crisis zones. In a 2001 work entitled young serbs, Collins presents portraits of young Serbians lying serenely in the grass on a sunny day. “Anyway, here they are,” the artist writes in an email to a colleague, “romantic, sexy, deathly, intimate, posed, bucolic, disappointed, suspicious… I wanted to escape the urban grit and aggressive posturing of Western photography in Belgrade and try and pick at a romantic sensibility.”[1] Collins’s desire to show an alternative side of his subjects often erased in typical crisis reporting results in the production of more human images, immediately familiarizing for his audience what is typically portrayed as “other.” His portraits show individuals as themselves, not as people cast in roles of refugee, victim, or aggressor. The power of such personal images is undeniable on an emotional level, and it is exactly this human intimacy that makes the photographs political. Collins explains this idea succinctly in a comment regarding his work filming Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah: “If you ignore the people who inhabit these places, you don’t feel bad about bombing them.”[2]

A portrait from young serbs, 2001.

A portrait from young serbs, 2001

In much of his practice, Collins attempts to return some measure of control over representation to his subjects through the subversion of traditional corporate media narratives. The idea of agency for the subject is seen especially in real society, a 2002 project in which Collins advertised for anyone willing to remove some of their clothing to come to a luxury suite in the Maria Cristina Hotel in San Sebastian to be photographed. Collins accepted everyone who wished to take part in the project and photographed his participants engaged in any activity they chose. People are seen dancing, talking, lounging, and undressing themselves and others—one couple even took a bath. With this work, Collins reduces the influence of the photographer in the process of image creation, relinquishing control over both the choice of subject as well as the direction of the storyline.

A couple takes a bath for real society, 2002.

A couple takes a bath for real society, 2002

free fotolab can be seen as a further attempt by Collins to erase the hand of the photographer from his final product. These images are objects of truly democratic representation—they were taken for and by ordinary people with no notion of their eventual public display. They are free from any posing, framing, or staging within in aesthetic context, and both the anonymous authors and subjects reveal themselves in an uninhibited way. By showcasing these images, Collins finds a way to present the viewer with photographs untouched by his artistic bias.

By removing the professional photographer from the process of image creation, free fotolab asks its audience to consider the role of the photographer and what influence this editorial role might have over how one ultimately perceives photographic subjects. No image can ever be truly impartial; the photographer is always the unseen third party, the filter through which an image is passed before it reaches its audience. Collins’s work draws awareness to the presence of this filter, asking us to question to what extent our perceptions of the world, and especially of distant others, are based on the photographic narratives that are created for us.

Installation view of free fotolab, 2009.

Installation view of free fotolab, 2009

NOTES

[1] Collins, Phil, and Milton Keynes Gallery, Yeah, You, Baby You, (Milton Keynes England: Milton Keynes Gallery, 2005), 54.

[2] Ibid., 16.

Lee Kit and the Fleetingness of Feelings

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

ex2016lk_ins_012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

Artists Installing: Lee Kit

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

IMG_6017

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

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

IMG_6066 (1)

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

IMG_6059

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

IMG_6076 (1)

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

IMG_6091 (1)

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

IMG_6109 (1)

Lee securing one of his paintings to the wall

IMG_6095 (1)

Light plays an important role in the installation.

IMG_6110 (1)

Putting the final touches on the installation

 

Next