Blogs Untitled (Blog) Exhibitions

Pop Virus: Shigeko Kubota and International Pop

International Pop exhibition view. the Walker Art Center.
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Shigeko Kubota, Flux Medicine, 1966/1968. Collection of the Walker Art Center. © Shigeko Kubota/VAGA, New York, NY

On July 23, 2015 Shigeko Kubota—a seminal Japanese female figure in the international Fluxus collective—passed away. But it is not too late to take a dose of her Flux Medicine (1966/1968). The Walker’s extensive Fluxus collection includes Kubota’s iconic multiple of this title, comprising a plastic box with a label depicting a small white tablet with the word “FLUX” engraved on it. The contents are Kubota’s medicinal concoction: one white ball, one empty capsule, one Styrofoam disk, a clear bottle of unidentified liquid, an eye dropper, crushed eggshells, packages of Alka-Seltzer, Calcium-Lactate, and Neo-Synephrine, accompanied by a plastic tube and a needle for injection. Like most Fluxus multiples, Flux Medicine can be read as either an absurdist, apolitical gesture or a radical renegotiation of the role of the artist and art object in our commodity culture. This slippage between commerce, art, and life epitomized the zeitgeist in which artists from the 1960s and early 1970s were working, as exemplified in the exhibition International Pop (closing August 29). Kubota’s “Flux-formula” presents art that can be injected, an aesthetic “supplement” for transforming art—and  perhaps the role of the artist—into a consumable commodity. International Pop posits “Pop” as a pill—akin to Kubota’s Flux Medicine—that was being popped by artists across the globe.

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This Day in Pop: Jasper Johns Visits Japan

In conjunction with the exhibition International Pop we’re presenting a regular feature that will highlight events in Pop art history. Look forward to curated posts featuring archival images, exhibition installation views, excerpts from catalogs, artist ephemera, and behind-the-scenes stories. In May of 1964, Jasper Johns was invited to visit Tokyo under the auspices of the […]

In conjunction with the exhibition International Pop we’re presenting a regular feature that will highlight events in Pop art history. Look forward to curated posts featuring archival images, exhibition installation views, excerpts from catalogs, artist ephemera, and behind-the-scenes stories.

Jasper Johns posing with Kojima Nobuaki’s Standing Figures, Tokyo, 1964 Photograph by Jun’ichi Takeishi; courtesy Tsubouchi Kazutada

Jasper Johns posing with Kojima Nobuaki’s Standing Figures, Tokyo, 1964.  Photo: Jun’ichi Takeishi, courtesy Tsubouchi Kazutada

In May of 1964, Jasper Johns was invited to visit Tokyo under the auspices of the Minami Gallery for a two-month artist’s residency, facilitated by Tōno Yoshiaki. Tōno took Johns to the Tsubaki Kindai Gallery to see a number of Kojima Nobuaki’s Standing Figure (1964) works, which, like many of Johns’s own works, used the American flag. Johns returned to the gallery the following month to view the Off Museum exhibition. There he met Shinohara Ushio and saw the latter’s imitation of Johns’s Three Flags (1958), which replicated the painting’s composition but substituted its colors with their opposites on the spectrum. This in turn influenced Johns to borrow from Shinohara’s palette for a painting he would show in the 1965 Whitney Annual Exhibition in New York.

Also:

  • While in Japan Johns corresponded with his gallerist, Leo Castelli, about various business matters, including an exhibition with Robert Rauschenberg. The Smithsonian Archives of American Art have digitized one of the letters he sent while traveling and made it available in their online collection.
  • On May 1, 1928, Oswald de Andrade published the Manifesto Antropófago or Cannibalist Manifesto. It would become a foundational text for Brazilian modernism and introduced the concept of “cultural cannibalism” that would influence intellectuals and artists for decades.

 

This Day in Pop: The 1964/65 World’s Fair Opens in New York

In conjunction with the exhibition International Pop we’re presenting a regular feature that will highlight events in Pop art history. Look forward to curated posts featuring archival images, exhibition installation views, excerpts from catalogs, artist ephemera, and behind-the-scenes stories. With a theme of “Peace through Understanding,” the third world’s fair to be held in New […]

In conjunction with the exhibition International Pop we’re presenting a regular feature that will highlight events in Pop art history. Look forward to curated posts featuring archival images, exhibition installation views, excerpts from catalogs, artist ephemera, and behind-the-scenes stories.


Roy Lichtenstein designed the cover for the April 1964 issue of Art in America, depicting a "pop panorama" of the New York World's Fair

Roy Lichtenstein designed the cover for the April 1964 issue of Art in America, depicting a “pop panorama” of the New York World’s Fair. Image courtesy Walker Art Center Library and Archive

With a theme of “Peace through Understanding,” the third world’s fair to be held in New York opened fifty-one years ago this week. The fair would run two six-month seasons between 1964 and 1965, and celebrated achievements in culture and technology, presenting a particularly optimistic view of the future. Mid-century modern architecture dominated the grounds, while international pavilions represented nations ranging from Vatican City to Thailand. American industry took center stage, with Ford and General Motors each claiming their own buildings and Disney contributing to multiple entertainment areas.

Although the grounds featured a fine arts building and several dedicated exhibitions of contemporary and modern art, popular consensus was that the most successful artistic interventions at the 64/65 fair were incorporated into the architecture and displays of other buildings. The Spanish pavilion was lauded for featuring works by Goya, Picasso, and Miró, while the Better Living Center received strong reviews for its inclusion of works by Sargent, de Kooning, and Pollock. Contemporary American art was most notably represented in the Phillip Johnson–designed New York State building. The architect commissioned murals for the building’s facade by several Pop artists, among them Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and James Rosenquist. Controversy ensued just two weeks before the fair when Warhol’s mural, Thirteen Most Wanted Men, was mounted and revealed to feature 22 mugshots of fugitives screen-printed onto masonite. Under pressure from government officials including Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Johnson requested that Warhol revise the mural or remove it from the building. The artist responded by suggesting that he replace the mugshots with portraits of Robert Moses, the head of the World’s Fair Corporation. Johnson refuted the idea, and Warhol’s work was quickly painted over with aluminum house paint. Although the original work was never exhibited as a public mural, Warhol reused the silkscreens for a series of prints that same year. More than five decades later Thirteen Most Wanted Men and the ensuing scandal continue to prompt discourse around Warhol’s position within mainstream popular culture.

Also:

  • Following the fair’s conclusion in 1965, two of the murals from Phillip Johnson’s New York State pavilion moved to Minnesota. The works, by Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, were donated to the Weisman Art Museum in 1966.
  • In April of 1960 French critic Pierre Restany introduced the Nouveaux Réalistes—a group he founded and named—through his manifesto “The Nouveaux Réalistes’ Declaration of Intention.”

Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, Again

"Man on a Balcony" Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, Walker Art Center, April 1966

Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, installation view with Seated Woman

The Walker now holds three large reflective works by Michelangelo Pistoletto, thanks to the recent gift from John and Sage Cowles of Man on a Balcony (1965), which is currently on view in 75 Gifts for 75 Years. The other works are Three Girls on a Balcony (1962–1964, on view in International Pop) and Seated Woman (1963). All three pieces entered the Walker’s collection separately over several decades, but they were all together years ago—during the 1996 Walker-organized one-man show Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, the artist’s first exhibition in North America.

"Man on a Balcony" Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, Walker Art Center, April 1966

Man on a Balcony as seen in the 1966 Walker exhibition Michelango Pistoletto: A Reflected World. All images courtesy Walker Archives

The young Italian artist captured the attention of Walker Director Martin Friedman in the mid-1960s. It was around the time Pistoletto began working on his reflective paintings and in March 1964, Ileana Sonnabend Gallery, Paris presented an exhibition of his new paintings. At the same time, Ettore Sottsass Jr. wrote an article on Pistolettos’s work for Domus (published in 1964, it was entitled “Pop e non Pop, a propsoito di Michelangelo Pistoletto”). The Walker assembled 30 of these new paintings for the spring of 1966.

Installation view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World," with "Seated Woman" center, Walker Art Center, April 1966

Installation view of Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, with Seated Woman at center

Pistoletto made the paintings from tissue paper on stainless steel. The life-size figures float in the shiny reflected surface of the steel that captures the world outside of the painting. As one looks at the paintings it produces the affect of gazing into the space with the figures. The spectator and all he sees becomes part of the canvas. Many of the paintings are seen in mundane poses like Seated Woman. Some, like Three Girls on On A Balcony and Man on a Balcony, are seen from behind and one is left to wonder what they, or you, are gazing at. The paintings are very contemplative, as Pistoletto explained, “The world that surrounds me is really the inner world. … Everything is within me just as everything within the figures I paint is an interior reality.”

"Three Girls on a Balcony" installation view from "Michelango Pistoletto: A Reflected World," April 1966

Three Girls on a Balcony in Michelango Pistoletto: A Reflected World

The Walker’s 1966 presentation also included an element of fun, as WCCO-TV’s footage demonstrates, showing Public Relations Director Peter Georgas and the news crew on a tour through the galleries.

At the close of the show in May 1966 several of Pistoletto’s works remained in Minneapolis including the three now reunited in the Walker’s collection. Although Pistoletto could not attend the Minneapolis show he was quite pleased with the result. He wrote to Martin Friedman, “I feel quite pleased to have a personal exhibition at Walker Art Center and I am specially proud of your personal interest.”

Installation view "MIchelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World," April 1966

Man on a Balcony in A Reflected World

This Day in Pop: Pop Art and the American Tradition

In conjunction with the exhibition International Pop we’re presenting a regular feature that will highlight events in Pop art history. Look forward to curated posts featuring archival images, exhibition installation views, excerpts from catalogs, artist ephemera, and behind the scenes stories. On April 9, 1965 the Milwaukee Art Center opened Pop art and the American tradition, a month-long […]

In conjunction with the exhibition International Pop we’re presenting a regular feature that will highlight events in Pop art history. Look forward to curated posts featuring archival images, exhibition installation views, excerpts from catalogs, artist ephemera, and behind the scenes stories.


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On April 9, 1965 the Milwaukee Art Center opened Pop art and the American tradition, a month-long exhibition that contextualized artists such as  Rosalyn Drexler, Roy Lichtenstein, Marisol, and Ed Ruscha within the history of “American artists’ interest in the common and the banal.” Eighty-six artists were included in the exhibition, which also featured late 19th- and early 20th-century painters including Paul Cadmus, Marsden Hartley, and Reginald Marsh. Although the exhibition focused exclusively on American art, the curatorial premise of Pop having an ancestry in sign painting, commercial art, and Dada correlates with contemporary perspectives on international influences on Pop artists.

Also this week:

  • On April 4, 1966 the Walker opened the first U.S. exhibition of the artist Michelangelo Pistoletto.  This short film shows footage of Michelangelo Pistoletto: Reflected World, which was curated by former Walker Art Center Director Martin Friedman.
  • On April 6, 1967 Nova Objetividade Brasiliera (New Brazilian Objectivity) opened at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. The exhibition featured artists including Lygia Pape, Nelson Leirner, Rubens Gerchman, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica. Oiticica’s contribution, the environment Tropicália, was particularly influential and gave its name to the emerging Tropicalia movement.

Radical Presence Looking Back: Holding Court

“Strangely enough these artists were hiding in plain sight. They’ve always been here, they’ve just never been presented or recorded in this way.” —Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art Theaster Gates’s installation See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court was included in Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, and […]

“Strangely enough these artists were hiding in plain sight. They’ve always been here, they’ve just never been presented or recorded in this way.” —Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art

Theaster Gates’s installation See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court was included in Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, and was an important forum for the six months it was on view at the Walker Art Center. Artists—Ralph Lemon, Benjamin Patterson, Coco Fusco, and Gates himself—activated the piece with their stories and ideas. I had the pleasure of curating a concurrent series of community-generated conversations with partners who have produced works of art and created community-based institutions that serve the hearts, minds, and movements of people that have been here all along but were hidden in plain sight.

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Theaster Gates, See, Sit, Sup, Sip Sing: Holding Court (2012)

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Robert Smith III introducing Theaster Gates’s Holding Court to Macalester College students at the Radical Presence opening-day performances and reception, July 24, 2014

Holding Court: Tell Me Something Good and Northside Pop-Up Museum

Northside Pop Up Museum

Artwork by E. Raelene Ash, Ariah Fine, Donyelle Headington, Amoke Kubat, and Keegan Xavi, Holding Court: Tell Me Something Good and Northside Pop-Up Museum, October 4–5, 2014

Artist, writer, and community organizer Amoke Kubat has lived and worked in North Minneapolis for almost thirty years and wants you to know something about it—something good. In early October, the Walker hosted Tell Me Something Good and Northside Pop-Up Museum, a two-part program she curated and has toured around the city. Over three days, storytellers, musicians, filmmakers, activists, and visual artists brought a slice of the Northside to Lowry Hill, two Minneapolis neighborhoods that are geographically near but socioeconomically worlds apart.

The Tumblr blog Judgmental Maps, founded by a Denver-based comedian, called the neighborhoods that make up the area the “Compton of the North” and “too scary to investigate” compared to Lowry Hill’s “art snobs” and “millionaire Democrats.”[1] Although meant to be tongue-in-cheek send-ups of everyday thinking, these maps hit close to home.[2] Named after the 1974 Rufus and Chaka Khan record of the same name, Tell Me Something Good is a storytelling program meant to challenge these predominant narratives about North Minneapolis and provide an alternative story to those posed by the evening news.[3]

“This project is important to me because I believe it is becoming a movement—the movement away from being isolated and redefined and red-zoned,” Kubat said.

The Northside Pop-Up Museum challenges isolation with its flexibility as a portable gallery for the work of artists from North Minneapolis. A diverse set of Northside artists–including Keegan Xavi, Phira Rehm, E. Raelene Ash, Ariah Fine, and many others–showed collage, sculpture, drawings, photography, multimedia works, and literature, while others exhibited the material culture of everyday life, including an artist’s inclusion of her late father’s trusty guitar. Rather than activating Holding Court through embodied performance, the artwork and artifacts of the Pop-Up Museum used the platform to hold court, tell stories, and provoke questions from insiders and surprise passersby alike.

For Kubat, this project recalled another artwork-cum-platform in Radical Presence, Satch Hoyt’s installation Say It Loud (2004), in which hundreds of books about the African Diaspora are stacked around a stair case. The installation is topped with a live microphone and set to the James Brown classic “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud).” Kubat said that the piece posed a set of vital questions to her community:

“What if we have a stack of knowledge? We have a knowledge base and we decide to ease out one piece of it – Does it collapse or fall or make a difference? And that’s how our presence has been in art and history and literature and everything. We don’t know if we’ve been eased in or pulled out half the time.”

 

Holding Court: Andrea Jenkins

“This Holding Court opportunity came to me at the same time that I was in the midst of an artist residency at the Kulture Klub Collaborative, so I was able to incorporate the young people, most of whom were or have experienced homelessness, into my performance. They were so delighted, and I believe inspired, by the opportunity to see a Transgender Woman of Color presenting at the Walker Art Center.” – Andrea Jenkins

Dressed in gown, sash, gloves, tiara, and heels, Andrea Jenkins performed as Miss Trans Life for the evening. Jenkins entered the room escorted by a young minder, a member of the Kulture Klub Collaborative, who carried a wooden picture frame around her face, recalling Lorraine O’Grady’s 1983 performance and photographic series Art Is… (1983/2009), featured in Radical Presence. Photographers and videographers, professionals and iPhone-wielding amateurs, sent the glare of flashbulbs across the room.

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Holding Court: Andrea Jenkins, November 20, 2014

Lorraine O’Grady’s iconic series of performances as art-party-crashing persona Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire called attention to racial exclusion in the 1980s art establishment and the mainstream feminist movement’s elision of race and class concerns. Like Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire, Miss Trans Life demanded our attention to her body and to the exclusion of trans people more generally, especially transgender women of color, from privileged cultural spaces, while also drawing attention to the violence they face in the wider world. Deeply inspired by O’Grady’s career, Jenkins said she “attempted to incorporate some of the tropes that she employed by creating a spectacle and using the empty frame to highlight the notion that the body itself is a work of art.” To figure Miss Trans Life, a black transgender beauty queen, as a work of art was a powerful and poignant assertion. Transgender women bear the brunt of hate and biased violence against LGBTQ people. According to a 2014 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 72 percent of LGBTQ homicide victims in 2013 were transgender women and 89 percent of those victims were people of color.[4] It was a fitting celebration of life for an event held on International Transgender Day of Remembrance, the annual memorial for those who have been killed due to anti-transgender violence.

Repetition was a key motif of the performance. Miss Trans Life read Andrea Jenkins’ poem eighteen three times—once, alone, atop Satch Hoyt’s installation Say It Loud and twice in unison with the audience of fifty. In joining the poet in the reading, audiences embodied the poem about trans bodies surrounded by traces of black bodies. The collaborative recitation of the poem over and over and over took on a trance-like quality with many voices commingling in the imperfect unison of a classroom’s daily Pledge of Allegiance. This time, however, it was a pledge to honor the lives of the dead by confronting present prejudice. eighteen is built on repetition—the repetition of the title, of the psychic stresses of survival, of the names of notable activists in the movement, of the institutions that regulate the lives of trans people, and of nascent progress. Between each reading, Miss Trans Life led her followers through the galleries as a queen might show off her collection to envious courtiers. The juxtaposition of the royal air of Miss Trans Life with Jenkins’ somber verses was stark.

“18 candles on Transgender Day of Remembrance, 18 Trans women of color murdered
And not always by those who hate them, but by men who have made love and shared
Love with them, but want to keep those secrets in the dark” — from eighteen, Andrea Jenkins

After a final reading in front of Daniel Tisdale’s aptly titled Transitions, Inc. (1992), Miss Trans Life led participants, now her fellow performers, to Holding Court for a conversation about passing, inter-sectionality, and, importantly, resistance. Jenkins uses her poetry to show that transwomen of color are not simply victims but are fighting back. Reina Gossett, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, CeCe McDonald, and many others, all mentioned by name in eighteen are working to turn the tide through their activism, organizing, literature, and performance.

On December 13, 2014 hundreds of artists and activists gathered in downtown Minneapolis under the banner “Million Artist Movement” to protest police killings of unarmed black men, including Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Joining dozens of other artists at the microphone in People’s Park, Jenkins rephrased the mantra of the current movement against racism and police brutality: #TransLivesMatter.

“18 Trans women of color gathering
for an out pouring of self love,
sistas are doing it for themselves” — from eighteen, Andrea Jenkins

 

Holding Court: Students Hold Court

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Students from University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Walker Teen Arts Council, Penumbra Theatre Company, and the African American Registry, Holding Court: Students Hold Court, November 22, 2014

Holding Court is made up of tables, chairs, and chalkboards salvaged from a public elementary school on the South Side of Chicago. The installation has since travelled from those humble origins to international art fairs and to museums around the United States. Much of the power of the work is the way that it plays with context, changing white-walled galleries into classrooms, chalk dust and all. Given the origin of the installation’s materials, it was only fitting to activate Holding Court with students and young people while it was on view at the Walker. Students representing the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, the African American Registry, Penumbra Theatre Company, the Walker’s own Teen Arts Council, and others participated in a wide-ranging discussion that used works in Radical Presence as a springboard for talking about the here and now. In the spirit of the installation, students generated their own questions and posed them to each other. A key question interrogated the title of the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. Why “radical”? Why “black”?

Participants ably debated the complexities of calling out race in the art world. One student argued in favor of naming race in the title of the exhibition as a crucial signal to audiences. If the everyday viewer assumes that the producer of contemporary art, especially the abstract or the conceptual, is white, isn’t it important to disrupt that assumption by marking that the work was indeed produced by black artists? Art historian Darby English’s book How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness and recent statements by artist Adrian Piper present challenges to race-based curatorial projects and to “black art” as a category more generally. Perhaps without knowing it, these students recapitulated these important debates. This is hardly a surprise as these are pressing questions in public life, as we continue to grapple with the significance of the Obama presidency and debate the rise of what have been termed post-racial ideologies, which are increasingly called into question by the cries of #BlackLivesMatter—some by these very teens—emanating from the nation’s streets.

 

Holding Court: Choreographers Hold Court

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Deneane Richburg, Kenna-Camara Cottman, Deja Stowers, and Kendra Dennard, Holding Court: Choreographers Hold Court, November 30, 2014

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott asked readers last fall: “Is our art equal to the challenges of our time?” He went on to say, “Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.”[5]

Kenna-Camara Cottman, curator of November’s Choreographers’ Evening, answered Scott’s call with a resounding yes. The urgent program of dance that she assembled was followed up by a dynamic conversation with the Evening’s performers who held court to discuss contemporary dance making alongside the pressing contemporary questions of race, place, resources, and power in the Twin Cities.

With its intended use as a forum for questioning institutions, Holding Court lends itself to self-reflexive conversations about location, space, and context. In this case, participants discussed the complexities of presenting their work in the Walker. As an artist-centered institution, the Walker made its resources, staff expertise, facilities, and publicity available to carry out the vision of the curator and dance makers. In the context of this particular presentation, however, the dance makers noted some of the byproducts of that support—a largely white audience when nearly all performers were of color; ticket prices that were out of reach of some members of the desired audience; and the performance’s limited run. This conversation really points to some of the ongoing challenges of genuine inclusion and equity in the arts. As many of the dance works at Choreographers’ Evening made clear, long histories have produced our present quandaries.

The limits of the broader dance community came to the fore as well. Many dancers and choreographers voiced their experiences of not feeling at home in the Twin Cities dance community. Some choreographers couldn’t tell the stories they wanted to tell without skilled black dancers, while others felt that they needed to leave the area for larger cities in order to have a fair shot at success. Still others are putting down roots here in the Twin Cities to build institutions that train and present the work of black choreographers and dancers to make this set of problems a thing of the past.

 

Holding Court: Congressman Keith Ellison

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Holding Court: Congressman Keith Ellison, with guest panelists: Rose Brewer, Pierce Canser, Chrys Carroll, Elliot James, Andrea Jenkins, Tricia Khutoretsky, Nicole Smith, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, and Gregory Rose, December 6, 2014

Eric Garner died in Staten Island, New York, at the hands of a police officer who put him in a chokehold during an arrest. Garner, a father of six, had been accused of illegally selling loose cigarettes. On December 3rd, the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted by a grand jury. The following day, Congressman Keith Ellison, an outspoken supporter of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, joined a standing room only crowd to activate Holding Court one final time at the Walker. Garner’s death was top of mind.

Congressman Ellison immediately injected class and economic inequality into a conversation that had been largely structured around race. Garner’s hustle was a sign of economic precariousness that many families have always faced, now with the heightened effects of the recent recession. Pointing to the ways in which race and class have been historically linked in the United States—and are particularly visible in the death of Eric Garner—Ellison foregrounded the racial and class politics of the art which surrounded us.

A key question was the efficacy of what might be called activist or political art to foment social change. The global art market’s profit motive circulates objects, at times despite their original context or potential meaning, as one of a number of valuable commodities. This circulation in galleries, museums, and auction houses creates conversation about the work but does this circulation subordinate other concerns to economic ones? In other words, a theme of discussion was whether a “radical” object on a collector’s wall makes a sound?

Another important conversation was more a self-reflexive one: What did it mean for the Walker to host this conversation in its galleries and in the context of Radical Presence? Even as the exhibition and the programming held at Holding Court offered a way forward, it also raised ever more questions: What is the relationship between institutions, their desire to survive and grow, and the broader community? What are the challenges to building inclusive and equitable institutions? When and how do we start our own institutions and hold court where we already do?

 

[1] http://judgmentalmaps.com/post/48615076593/Minneapolis

[2] http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/205142031.html

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9uZOCEl7v0

[4] http://avp.org/storage/documents/2013_ncavp_hvreport_final.pdf

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/30/arts/is-our-art-equal-to-the-challenges-of-our-times.html

Brian J. Evans on Performing Costume Made of Nothing

Costume Made of Nothing is a performance created by the artist Pope.L and is featured in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. It debuted at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) in 2012 and its most recent iteration at the Walker Art Center involved a weight-bearing structure and new movements. The performance takes […]

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Opening day performance of Costume Made of Nothing at the Walker Art Center, July 24, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

Costume Made of Nothing is a performance created by the artist Pope.L and is featured in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. It debuted at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) in 2012 and its most recent iteration at the Walker Art Center involved a weight-bearing structure and new movements. The performance takes place in the galleries, thirteen times over the course of the exhibition’s five-month run.

Prior to the final performance of Costume Made of Nothing, I sat down with the performer, Brian J. Evans, who worked with Pope.L to develop this new piece. Join us on January 4, 2015, at 2 pm for Evans’s final performance, which coincides with the closing of Radical Presence.

Tell me about your background and training.

I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, but I moved to Gaylord, Minnesota when I was seven. I went to Gustavus Adolphus College for liberal arts and left with a dance major. I didn’t find dance until I was a sophomore and studied abroad as a junior, so I only had three semesters and two classes of dance training before I got into the field. I had always done performance and I got super lucky when one of my professors, who was in Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, set me up with an audition. At the end of two rehearsals they asked me to come dance as an apprentice, and eight years later I’m a professional performer and teaching artist.

How did you find out about the opportunity to perform in Pope.L’s piece and what was your audition like?

I found out about the audition from a friend of a friend, and when opportunities like that come up, I take them. So I looked at the video of the performance at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and my first inclination was that I didn’t want to do it. In this iteration the performer just stood there and put his arm into a hole in the wall, so I wasn’t so sure about it. But I did a little research on Pope.L and was impressed by what I found on Google. So I auditioned and went through the poses, and what then really peaked my interest was having a Skype conversation with Pope.L directly afterward. I remember he gave me directions to try out different movements, and he told me to go away and come back after thinking about it, but I decided to try to incorporate those instructions right then, on the spot. That’s when the collaboration started. I thought, ‘Good, let me try to do something that would inevitably start us on a process of collaboration.’

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Pope.L at the opening day performance of Costume Made of Nothing at the Walker Art Center, July 24, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

What was it like to work with Pope.L for that brief time that he was here in July? What was the working process?

There were three rehearsals, two to three hours each. In the first one, he said right up front that he’s not a choreographer and he’s not going to try to choreograph anything. He said that he would need me to collaborate with him to figure out the movements. He didn’t want to do what he did the other two times. The structure at the Walker is three times as big and is weight bearing. Right away we talked about his influences: Bauhaus and the German stylistic movements. We talked about character, and I thought to myself, ‘why the structure, why the costume?’

In the second rehearsal we got into it and he had this image of me hanging from the pipe. How to I get up there? Do I jump or crawl? So I improvised and crawled up and he said, “Yes, keep that.” We decided that I would say “Well” three times at different pitches and volumes. There are headphones attached to the piece, so what am I listening to? There were terms like ‘step and fetch it,’ ‘the funky chicken,’ and butoh—that’s where the walk came from. He would then send me away with different assignments like, how does this character walk, how does this thing look, how does he interact, why is he traveling, what does he do every day, and why does he continue to go to this structure? In the third rehearsal we had a set of instructions and a character sketch, and for opening night that’s what I had to work with. Since then, the character has evolved into a more multi-dimensional entity.

How has the audience reacted to this piece?

Pope.L and I talked about how it’s unimportant that there’s an audience. The character will do the performance regardless of an audience. There have been a lot of people that want to imitate me or block me when I’m moving through the space. I remember on opening night after it was done, Pope.L told me that this character doesn’t want to be touched, doesn’t want to be messed with, isn’t really inviting. I have to fight the temptation of allowing people to influence me. I don’t think this character is human so I don’t feel like I’m being mean to anybody, but I do find myself thinking, ‘Don’t touch me, don’t come close to me. I don’t know how I would react if you did.’

So it’s been interesting how people interact with me, whether they move or not. Older people tend to have a slightly more reserved reaction. I know I’ve startled people. Teenagers are always running away, but kids are fascinated. It’s performance art in a gallery, which is very different from performance on a stage. As a performer you’re trained to think that if people leave early you’re not doing your job correctly, but because this is not that, it’s been fine that some people stay for five minutes. It’s a different way of thinking about performance art.

Tell me how the performance has changed over time.

From the first time to today’s, and this was the twelfth time, it’s gone from more of a hollow character sketch of making sure I did all of the instructions right, to allowing myself to let the character interpret those instructions. That usually always changes because I, myself, as Brian, come to it differently everyday, because something’s happened or I’m thinking about something, or I’m totally focused, or I’m trying to reach a goal.

There were some performances where no one moved except for leaving and coming, and there were others where the audience would surround me and circle the structure. It’s different every time. When nobody is here I’m usually hoping that I don’t perform too quickly because there’s no one to feed off of. This was new today: when I was approaching the exhibition, I felt totally alone, so I thought, ‘I’m going to do my solo and no one’s going to see it and that’s fine.’ So that was a different mindset. I recognized people were watching me after a while, but my way into it was a solitary one.

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Opening day performance of Costume Made of Nothing at the Walker Art Center, July 24, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

The structure is like a prop or a second performer. How does its presence affect your performance?

I haven’t yet (maybe it will happen in the thirteenth performance) attached an identity to the structure. I will say that the structure does feel different. And that’s partly because of my physical stamina and how I’m able to approach it. The structure is the thing that keeps me grounded in what I’m doing. I always go back to it and everything is about that interaction, so I don’t ever really feel like I’m alone. Then it doesn’t really matter if anyone is watching, because this structure is consistent, unlike most things in my life [laughs]. Once we bolstered the structure, the thing became unbreakable. It’s always going to be there to support me.

Have you done any other performances that are like this—in the contemporary art realm, as opposed to performing arts, on a stage with a seated audience?

No, I’ve never performed when it’s called contemporary visual art. I’ve done things that are more along the lines of visual architecture or improvisations that had minimalistic movement parameters. This is something more in-depth. This performance has been different in that it’s just me and that structure. Every time I’ve done it, it’s gotten a bit more involved. Most of the time you don’t get to dive into a piece, you just have your weekend of performances.

Have you ever had to do something multiple times over the course of many months?

I’m part of a dance company, Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, so we do a lot of touring. There are three or four full-length works that I’ve done anywhere from 30 to 50 times over the span of five months on tour. Costume Made of Nothing is different because it’s the same space, the same apparatus, the same lighting, the same area, and we’re shooting for the same duration. In the work I do with Stuart Pimsler we really want to know what the audience is thinking and feeling, and in this piece, I feel very autonomous. I wonder how many people saw me perform and what they felt and thought—and I’ll never know.

Pope.L asked me to record one of your recent performances with the idea that he would send you feedback and ask you to change aspects of the piece. I wonder how Pope.L envisions the final performance.

The little I interacted with him, I got the impression that he was very respectful of my process. The last thing he said to me, which has really influenced me, was that he was going to come by at some point. In the back of my mind I didn’t think he was actually going to, but because he said that, I always perform it like maybe he will that time. I think it was part of his plan.

 

 

Brian J Evans - Head Shot

Brian J. Evans of Gaylord, MN is currently in his seventh season with Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater. In addition to performing, he serves as the company’s Musical Director. He is a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College, where he earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts with an emphasis in dance. In 2009, he was recognized by the Star Tribune and the following year received a SAGE Award for Outstanding Performer. He also teaches at the Saint Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts and Young Dance, and served as Dance Program Administrator for SPDT at FAIR School Downtown. Evans has also worked with numerous directors and choreographers on productions throughout the Midwest and performed as a singer/dancer at Valley Fair, as well as appearing in a feature film.

Light & Space: Liz Deschenes’s Gallery 7

Since the early 1990s, New York–based artist Liz Deschenes has produced a singular and influential body of work that has done much to advance photography’s material potential and critical scope. Making use of the medium’s most elemental aspects, namely paper, light, and chemicals, she has recently worked without a camera to produce mirrored photograms that […]

Installation view

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, 2014

Since the early 1990s, New York–based artist Liz Deschenes has produced a singular and influential body of work that has done much to advance photography’s material potential and critical scope. Making use of the medium’s most elemental aspects, namely paper, light, and chemicals, she has recently worked without a camera to produce mirrored photograms that reflect viewers’ movements in time and space. Her carefully calibrated installations of these pieces have probed disparate histories of image production, abstraction, and exhibition-making while also responding to a given site’s unique features.

On November 22, the Walker Art Center opens its newest exhibition, Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, with a gallery talk and reception at 2 pm co-hosted by mnartists.org. For this yearlong installation, Deschenes has transformed the space of the Walker’s seventh-floor gallery with a photographic intervention. Eliminating the room’s temporary architecture to reveal its east-facing windows, she has allowed natural light into the space and installed a series of free-standing rectangular panels. These large-scale abstractions, which occupy the space of the viewer more than the conventional space of the photograph, result from the artist’s distinctive silver-toned photogram process as well as her new experiments in digital pigment printing on acrylic.

Installation view

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, 2014

Deschenes produces her photograms by exposing sheets of photosensitive paper to the ambient light of night before washing them with silver toner—a process contingent on temperature and humidity. The resulting images offer a foggy, mirrored cast, reflecting the viewers who encounter them as well as the spatial context of their display. Since these materials are prone to oxidation, her photograms “develop” slowly over time, changing color and sheen.

More recently, Deschenes has begun to employ digital pigment printing on acrylic to produce large blue monochromes that can be viewed in the round. Her chosen colors are derived from the printing industry’s Blue Wool Scale, a professional standard used by conservators to gauge the lightfastness of pigments ranging from textile dyes to oil paint. With a surface not unlike the texture of ground glass, these new pieces capture and refract incidental light, suggesting a photographic calibration of the gallery’s space.

Installation view of Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, 2014

The temporal and spatial implications of these two imaging processes—one alchemical and reflective, the other digital and absorptive—find a particular context within the history of the Walker and its seventh-floor gallery. Her title for the exhibition, Gallery 7, which is the former name for the current Medtronic Gallery, orients us toward the past. Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes’s original designs for the Walker’s 1971 building and curator Lucy Lippard’s 1973 group show c. 7,500, featuring work by an all-women roster of conceptual artists, were important points of departure for Deschenes’s intervention here. Finally, the artist has chosen to fit the space of her installation with a picture-hanging rail system reminiscent of the one used in the Walker’s now demolished 1927 building, further collapsing the institution’s spatial histories of site and display.

Installation view of the exhibition 92 Artists, Walker Art Center, June 1943 (Long & Thorshov, architects, 1927)

Installation view of the exhibition 92 Artists, Walker Art Center, June 1943 (Long & Thorshov, architects, 1927)

Cross-sectional drawing of the Walker Art Center auditorium and galleries, circa 1969 (Edward Larrabee Barnes, architect, 1971)

Cross-sectional drawing of the Walker Art Center auditorium and galleries, circa 1969 (Edward Larrabee Barnes, architect, 1971)

Exterior view, Walker Art Center terraces, circa May 1971 (Edward Larrabee Barnes, architect, 1971)

Exterior view, Walker Art Center terraces, circa May 1971 (Edward Larrabee Barnes, architect, 1971)

Installation view of the exhibition c. 7,500, curated by Lucy Lippard, Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, November 1973

Installation view of the exhibition c. 7,500, curated by Lucy Lippard, Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, November 1973

Installation view

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, 2014

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, November 2014

Installation view of the exhibition Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7, Walker Art Center, 2014

Recently described by the New York Times as “one of the quiet giants of post-conceptual photography,” Liz Deschenes has exhibited her work regularly since receiving her BFA in 1988 from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. She has recently mounted exhibitions at Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; Campoli Presti, London and Paris; Secession, Vienna; and Sutton Lane, Paris and Brussels. Featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, she is most recently the recipient of the 2014 Rappaport Prize awarded by the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Her work is represented in the collections of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Since 2006, she has been a member of the faculty of Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont.

Winding Up Toy Frogs with Benjamin Patterson

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming Benjamin Patterson to the Twin Cities. Patterson is participating in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art and, at age 80, is the oldest exhibiting artist. Born in Pittsburgh and living and working out of Wiesbaden, Germany, Patterson is a founding member of Fluxus, and his […]

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming Benjamin Patterson to the Twin Cities. Patterson is participating in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art and, at age 80, is the oldest exhibiting artist. Born in Pittsburgh and living and working out of Wiesbaden, Germany, Patterson is a founding member of Fluxus, and his practice has incorporated music, visual arts, and performance—challenging traditional art-making modes. His oeuvre has been widely influential for generations of artists, including many in Radical Presence such as Clifford Owens.

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Benjamin Patterson, Pond (1962). Photo: Erin Smith

Throughout his career, Patterson has explored the notion of systems in art, music, and text. Like many of his Fluxus peers such as Robert Filliou, Ben Vautier, and Daniel Spoerri, Patterson has also complicated and enriched the interaction between audience and performer, imposing situations that encourage direct engagement. Included in the exhibition, Pond is a performance that Patterson first executed in 1962, and 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. Eight students from the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC) performed the piece twice for an audience of 250 people, engaging in this dynamic Fluxus work and having fun while doing so. Patterson noted that this was the youngest group ever to perform Pond and did so with great success.

The following day, Patterson generously agreed to sit down with the public for a conversation at Theaster Gates’s table within Radical Presence. Gates’s See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court is an installation made up of tables, chairs, and chalkboards salvaged from Crispus Attucks, a now-closed public school on Chicago’s South Side. The classroom setting encourages a democratic, roundtable approach to learning for and by the people assembled around it. The Walker has been hosting a number of programs over the past few months including conversations with artists Ralph Lemon and Coco Fusco, events and tours led by community members such as Andrea Jenkins and Amoke Kubat, and forthcoming discussions with Congressman Keith Ellison and Theaster Gates.

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Holding Court with Benjamin Patterson. Photo: Erin Smith

In his Holding Court talk, Patterson weaved through a number of topics, from his early classical training in double bass to his interest in natural sciences (cleaning alligator cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo) to his years in the army playing internationally in its orchestra. He has a sharp memory and a keen ability to recount stories, so this talk was a truly special moment for those who were present. (For those who weren’t, please find clips from the talk below.) One of the central topics was Patterson’s position as an African American musician in the mid-1950s, before the Civil Rights Movement. Patterson explained that he auditioned over twenty times for orchestras in places such as Portland, Maine, and San Francisco, always being told, “we have a problem,” when conductors faced him in person. Patterson dealt with this racial inequality with aplomb, never compromising his ethics, and finally moving to Canada to play with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, and later spending the majority of his life in Wiesbaden.

Patterson recounted his first meeting with Karlheinz Stockhausen, a prominent German composer, and his subsequent encounter with John Cage the following day in Cologne. He explained that Cage invited him (as a wide-eyed 22-year-old) to perform with musicians such as David Tudor, Christian Wolff, and La Monte Young the next night. Patterson’s relationship with these artists grew over the next few years, and soon he was living in the Gate Hill Co-op in Stony Brook, NY with the likes of Cage, David Behrman, and Stan VanDerBeek—playing poker and sitting down for weekly suppers together. For Patterson these years were incredibly influential in shaping his thinking and his outlook on life. It was after this that he adopted an interest in indeterminacy and chance operations in artistic practice, “preparing” his double bass by attaching clothespins and other objects onto the strings, and eventually becoming even more theatrical by turning the instrument upside down.

When he lived in Paris in 1962, Patterson befriended Robert Filliou and Daniel Spoerri, two key figures in the Fluxus movement, who collaborated on various projects such as Filliou’s gallery in a hat. The idea came from Filliou’s exposure to his Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, where a gentleman’s hat seemed the perfect venue for an exhibition. Patterson and Filliou created a mobile exhibition in a hat, moving through Paris by foot, subway, and bus for twelve hours, selling each of Patterson’s Puzzle Poems for 5 francs. Patterson claimed it to be his most successful vernissage, having nearly sold out the entire show.

Patterson took part in the first Fluxus festival of new music in Wiesbaden in 1963, during which time George Maciunas (founding father of Fluxus) released his first Fluxus magazine. Patterson revealed that the festival took place there because Maciunas was ducking the debt he accrued at his gallery in New York, and enrolled as a civilian draftsman for the U.S. army in Wiesbaden. For Patterson, Fluxus cannot be conclusively defined; it was more than an art movement—it was a new way of thinking. At the time there were no categories such as performance art, intermedia art, or interdisciplinary art, so he rather cunningly compared Fluxus to a circus. There were many performers with various talents—the lion tamer, the acrobat, the musician, the tightrope walker, and Maciunas as the ringleader cracking a whip—all under one big tent, arriving in town, performing, and packing up and moving on. The group was truly international, with a wide scope of interests and backgrounds: Filliou was an economist and wrote the recovery plan for South Korea after the war (and he was also a Coca Cola salesman), George Brecht was a chemist and invented Tampax, and Robert Watts was an electrical engineer. Patterson has led an inspiring life. He is a generous storyteller, and one of the few Fluxus members still alive today, making this event truly invaluable.

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Benjamin Patterson, A Penny for Your Thoughts (2011). Photo: Erin Smith

Following the talk, Patterson performed his recent piece, A Penny for Your Thoughts (2011), which promotes an exchange of ideas between artist and viewer. Patterson invited participants to care for their minds by getting rid of excess thoughts, writing them down, and selling each for a penny. Through this humorous and interactive Fluxus work in which shredded newspaper is attached to one’s head, Patterson encourages his audience to reframe how they think while investigating the commodification of the transfer of ideas. Patterson is still making work to this day, and is one of the most active artists I know. His travel itinerary includes Seattle, Nanjing, Brno, Siegen, Blois, and Karlsruhe—all before the end of 2014. We are grateful that he took time from his impressive schedule to visit us and share his stories with audiences in Minneapolis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okpokwasili: Just say it! The crying!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okpokwasili: No. It was real.

Lemon: But you were on a clock.

Okpokwasili: I totally disagree with you.

Lemon: The delirium of it.

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

Lemon: I meant in a theatrical mindset.

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

Ryan: This tension is interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lemon: Rape!

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

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

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

Ryan: What is the “here” here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan: As you’re improvising?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan: An object can be transported here or there.

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

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

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

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

Ryan: (laughing) Right, right.

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

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

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

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

Ryan: Why is it called Scaffold Room?

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

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

Lemon: Exactly!

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

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

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

Lemon: There’s Henry Miller.

Ryan: Moms Mabley.

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

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

Lemon: Which is ridiculous.

Matthis: We’re all black.

Lemon: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan: It’s still a structurally racist society.

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

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

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

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

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