Mousse is a bimonthly magazine published in Italian and English. Established in 2006, Mousse contains interviews, conversations, and essays by some of the most important figures in international criticism and curation, alternated with a series of distinctive columns in a unique tabloid format.
In this conversation, Shahryar Nashat talks about Image Is an Orphan, his latest show at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, the background to the video that titles the exhibition and his interest in pedestals. Nashat’s investigation into the body considers fragility and vulnerability, absence, projection and desire, choreographing and staging, taking into account the material quality of the image and its social existence.
Mousse: Image Is an Orphan, on view at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, features the debut of a new series of wall-based sculptures, as well as a major video installation that first appeared in your 2017 solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel. How do you conceptualize the relationship between the two shows?
Shahryar Nashat: They are fraternal twins, in that they have very similar DNA but different personalities.
M: Can you open up about the genealogy of the video that gives the show its title?
SN: I like to think that images die as much as bodies do, and that they have an origin and filiation. And that a way of negotiating their materiality is through their low or high resolution, their compression level, or the glitches that they produce every now and again. In the video there is this conversation between the flesh of the body that is made of “water and cells” and the flesh of the image that is made of “zeroes and ones.” Three lines—“How will I die,” “Who will carry me,” and “Who will feel my aftereffects”—are repeated throughout the work to accompany this procession of images, where the body is in turn brutally absent or brutally present. Image Is an Orphan is different from the rest of my work in that, with the exception of one sequence, there is no footage of bodies that I shot myself. All the body imagery is found footage, and it all comes from two Instagram accounts that I’ve been obsessed with in recent years, @hazards and @allfails, which both feature accidental pratfalls. I was looking at these feeds all the time and trying to articulate why I was so into them. What struck me finally was the lack of agency that the depicted people have over their bodies, whether they succumb to gravity, fall inadvertently, are punched in the face, or are startled with fear. I’ve ever only put people in front of the camera who are pictured for what their bodies can do in real life, where they use muscle memory: a worker pouring concrete, an art preparator moving a sculpture, or simply my friend Delphine, who is a dancer, tying her shoelaces. Also, what is common to most hazards is that the accident doesn’t only concern the subject, it also concerns the camera, which assumes the role of a surprised witness, and produces an interesting image by complicating its relationship to the subject.
M: But falling, or losing control of the body, happens in some videos you’ve shot.
SN: But it’s always staged, fabricated for the camera. You might be thinking of my video Modern Body Comedy (2006), where one guy sits on a chair and the chair breaks down. But it was a choreographed stunt, with everything staged. Similarly, in Hustle in Hand, which I produced for the Berlin Biennale in 2014, you see bruises and wounds on elbows and knees, but they’re all special-effects makeup.
M: What relationship do you perceive between frailty, vulnerable bodies, and abstract geometrical forms, all of which feature prominently in your work?
SN: I want the picture of a bloody wound on a knee to feel as impenetrable as a block of stone, or a marble sculpture to feel as porous as skin. Showing a bruise or an open wound goes beyond the cosmetic and activates the agency of the body because it shows its vulnerability. And when a body has agency, it becomes political.
M: Mother on Wheels (2016–18) seems to tackle a long-running interest in pedestals in your practice.
SN: The work is kind of the culmination of my interest in the pedestal, which started in 2009 when I visited the Frick collection in New York. The Frick has these lovely small-scale Renaissance sculptures depicting mythological figures, and at times, the pedestal is almost bigger than the object. I photographed the plinths, thinking to myself: “Ah, it’s interesting, the support is stealing the show.” Back in Berlin, I redesigned them so that the base would be mirrored atop, but downscaled. The works were like Siamese twins, attached at the middle, and it was my way of saying, “Okay, pedestal, you don’t need to support art anymore. You can take a break and look after yourself for a change. After all this time of subordination, you’ve earned your freedom.” I continued the narrative with Chômage Technique (2016), which I showed at Portikus. The title comes from French and refers to when the workers of a factory are laid off temporarily because there is, say, a power outage, but they keep getting paid their salaries. These pink minions were sort of like that. They hung around the gallery, enjoying their newly found liberation. Morgan Fisher did this brilliant film called () (2003) where he liberated insert shots from their subordinate function of narrative enhancement. I was quite inspired by this simple gesture that shook up the hierarchy within a system—in Fisher’s case, film editing, and in my case, museology.
M: The Broken English (2018) series, which is featured in the exhibition, are sculptures that seem to bear scars on their “bodies.”
SN: I don’t think of them as scars as much as bite marks or extractions. I started “revealing” exposed, fleshy parts on the sides of my sculptures in the Cold Horizontals (2017), and it continued to evolve with Broken English. With those, it’s like as if I had long fingers that hugged that bulbous essential shape too hard and ripped its sides out.
M: Could you say a few words about the titles of your works?
SN: My boyfriend, Adam Linder, always talks about my wrong use of English in the titles I come up with. I like to think that the Broken English series, for example, does with the canon of minimal art what I do with English, another canon. Adding an imperfection or working against proper grammar is a kind of bastardization that interests me. It makes the works more diverse and therefore more relevant to me.
M: You come from Central Europe, which has rediscovered, rescued, and studied the classic canon of human representation, and you now live in Los Angeles, a place that arguably determines and promulgates the contemporary canon of the human body (via training culture, dietary systems, entertainment industry standards, and so forth). How has your thinking about the human body been shaped by all this, if it has?
SN: Stereotypes always prevail. But the Los Angeles I’ve gotten to know is a much more uncanny place, where the bodies you describe form only one layer of a very diverse population. Los Angeles has this thing where illusion and reality are so intertwined that if one day you come across an actor you’ve seen on-screen, you find yourself wondering whether that body you’re looking at in real life in front of you is actually real.
For let’s start this day again at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ugo Rondinone covered all ten thousand square feet of the museum’s spaces with fluorescent colors from the entire spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. In this way the exhibition became a big, enveloping, three-dimensional painting in which all nine key bodies of work from the color spectrum series were carefully orchestrated. The fulcrum was vocabulary of solitude. This is the third of a five-chapter publication series by Ugo Rondinone.
For Ludwig Feuerbach the philosophical element in a work is its Entwicklungsfähigkeit, literally its timeless capability to become inchoate. It is an element that remains unsaid within the work, but which demands to be unfolded and embodied. To quote Walter Benjamin this “philosophical element” is similar to the fragment of “messianic time” scattered and disseminated in profane time. This is an analogical paradigm we could assign to Cally Spooner’s oeuvre. Her spatializations are continually changing, depending on and reflecting performative actualizations of society’s orders and regimes. In DRAG DRAG SOLO, Spooner’s largest solo show to date, hosted by Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, dystopian replays of present day narratives found metaphysical and epistemological implications. An overemphasis on space and extension explored across three floors, dividing CAC into a past, present, future. Starting from And You Were Wonderful, on Stage (2013–15), this monumental five-channel film installation, presented on the second floor, appeared as a live choreographic event in a cinematic enclave, where time itself is perceived in spatialized terms. In the installation, a succession of re-stagings, from the not too distant pop cultural past, show moments where real time and living matter becomes measurable and linear as they are delegated to technics. But it is on the CAC’s third floor that the perspectival model makes man the measure and measurer of all connections. In Self Tracking (the five stages of grief) (2016) a wall drawing circles the gallery walls, depicting technologized rationality as it meshes with personalized measurements of biology and health. In other works (ranging from audio, objects, live performance and film) language and non-linguistic sounds meet individualistic, competitive human resistance. This living reflection, on epistemological, and insidious questions hints at moments where desires are repressed in the interest of more ‘rational’ aims such as the control and possession of time. A degree of disorder arrives as a novel-in-progress titled Early Research: Methods (2015–ongoing). Flowing astray from a narrative that continuously folds back on itself, a story of Western humanity’s ‘self-improvement’ arrives. Fractured, it reflects on our present state of chronic-stress, whilst seeking possibilities for the creation of a “non-normative” form of reason. Finally, on the fourth floor, a future prospect unfolds.
GINEVRA BRIA: Which kind of action, definition, or gesture does the term “to drag” represent within this monographic show?
CALLY SPOONER: The Drag appears in a silent film I made called DRAG DRAG SOLO (2016), and from which the whole exhibition takes its name. This film appears halfway through my show at the CAC, on the third floor. In the film, two dancers drag each other across a wide shot of a static camera in opposing directions, while a soloist performs, unobstructed, in the foreground. In its muteness, the film finds its soundtrack from sources external to itself.
GB: Could you describe the structure of DRAG DRAG SOLO and what kind of poetic declaration it makes?
CS: DRAG DRAG SOLO — the exhibition — is taking place at a moment when reality can feel “degraded”—a description I borrow from Masha Gessen’s review of Michael Wolff’s instant best-seller Fire and Fury (2018). Wolff’s scathing attack on the Trump administration prompts Gessen to voice a more general critique: “Part old news, part bad reporting, [Fire and Fury’s] success is symptomatic of our degraded sense of reality under Trump.” This degraded sense of reality, she holds, is a language problem. A problem that affects us all in a moment where we find ourselves caught in a middle ground, where there is “neither restraint nor accuracy” in the president’s utterances, nor in the words of his most publicly outspoken critics. This meant Fire and Fury occupied “so much of the public conversation space that it degraded our sense of reality further whilst creating the sense of affirming it.” DRAG DRAG SOLO is not an exhibition about Trump or his tweets or his low-grade vocabulary. Nor is it about his critics. It is an exhibition that renders the language climate I am a partial product of into a partial fiction, using sound, movement, choreography, and writing—an attempt to find ways of speaking about and resisting those moments when language breaks down or folds into itself, grinds to a halt, or does damage.
GB: How did you “exploit” CAC’s architecture to get it in dialogue with your work? Did it enhance DRAG DRAG SOLO? What will we watch at CAC’s Cinema Dynamo?
CS: I was invited to create a retrospective, but this could not quite make sense to me. So now the show is billed as “an exhibition which sits somewhere between a retrospective and a rehearsal”, and this feels more appropriate. I used the three exhibiting floors of the CAC to present three bodies of work. The second floor is in the past, it’s a closure. The third floor remains in the present, in formation. The fourth floor is the future, as a speculative event. On the second floor is And You Were Wonderful, On Stage, a five-channel musical for six continually rolling cameras, shot in a first, single take. This is the first time the work has been screened since its premiere at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2016, but I still would say it has more in common with a live choreographic event than cinema. On the third floor, there are a number of works created between 2015 – 2018: objects, sound, drawing and live events, in varying states of aliveness and deadness that together create an ecosystem of fact and fiction, and hint at a novel in progress.
On the fourth floor is a wall text announcing a yet-to-be-realised performance company called OFFSHORE. At the time of going to print OFFSHORE has met seven times. We understood our meetings to be an exercise in building vocabulary and knowledge through less semiotic, more bodily means. To help OFFSHORE evolve, I will host workshops in Cinema Dynamo, on the last days of the exhibition, with students from HEAD – Genève, Haute école d’art et de design, and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. The workshops are called “AGAINST THE PERFORMATIVE.” Until then, a lone, live dancer stretches continually on the fourth floor maintaining a state of repair and rehearsal. This is a work by me called Warm Up (2016).
GB: What kind of critical weight does the rehearsal have in your methodologies?
CS: Rehearsing, presenting, then rehearsing my work again, over long durations, across a variety of venues, with casts of others and in public—this has so far been how I have operated. This in itself presents a kind of drag, a maintaining of simple gestures and projects over many years before audiences. Further, collaboration is never as straightforward as working alone. In a rehearsal room we are practical, very hands-on, we try to listen to one another and pay attention to a shared reality that we are working on creating in that room at that time, while endeavoring to throw one another sympathetically and reasonably out of sync. If we are rehearing well, we are retaining the capacity of acting and thinking simultaneously, and in doing so, it becomes clear what is fact and what is fiction, what is true and false. Right now, this feels like the right way to work.
GB: How can human language be silenced by digital insidious autocracies? What are the threads killing, day by day, our subjectivity?
CS: This sounds very dramatic. I could start with a detour. It’s via a false tear, engineered in 1856 by Rodolphe, the adulterous lover of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The tear is dripped onto a breakup letter and sent to the heroine via messenger. The Casanova’s nineteenth-century emoticon arrives at a moment when the life of the other becomes inconvenient and emotion cannot be conjured from his own body. “There ought to have been some tears on this; but I can’t cry; it isn’t my fault,” he says, but not to her. Then, having filled a drinking glass with water, Rodolphe dips his finger and lets a big drop fall onto the paper, leaving a pale stain on the ink. Taking the incident of the false tear as a linchpin—a barely wet metaphor—allowed me to consider, in the most expanded sense, how life and communication is “outsourced” or assessed in the present day, and what distances are thereby created between bodies. I wanted to call this tear “performative.”
“The performative” is a concept that has been handled in many ways over the past decades, for instance in 2014 by Maurizio Lazzarato. In his Signs and Machines “the performative” is understood as a codified system of linguistic system of triggers and prompts; an invisible, attritional subjugation, where a subject’s utterance is created by sources outside of their body and experiences (by institutions, government, advertising / media etc.). Language is handed to a subject to consume, use and carry, as though it were their own, degrading and quantifying a subject’s agency. While present forms of digital communication allow us to open new futures and draft alternative scenarios to the world we live in without us having to rely on “performative” handouts from Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon etc, DRAG DRAG SOLO starts with observation of our relationship to those digital autocracies you refer to. It is asking what happens when we do (obliviously or accidentally) accept those handouts, so much so that we begin to shape ourselves by outsourcing our communication and knowledge to their terms and protocols.
GB: What do you see in our future? How, for instance, is the human conception of time being bent by the imposition of chrono-normative history?
CS: There is an audio work presented on the third floor called He wins every time, on time and under-budget (2016). It is a two-channel stereo piece, and it’s title is a prophecy that came true. Through the left channel is the voice of Maggie Segale, a dancer I work with often. She is performing a rugby exercise (which trains players to catch and throw the ball correctly) with a bad head cold. In the opposite speaker, panned right, is the voice of Ivanka Trump. Her voice is extracted from a filmed interview she made with Fortune Magazine, in which she discusses her business venture “#womenwhowork, a seemingly product-less enterprise that trades in female empowerment tips and household life hacks, and which helped her father secure women’s votes during his presidential campaign.
For Fortune Magazine Ivanka’s vocabulary runs smooth. The regular register of her voice fluently and self-assuredly talks of “leveraging her assets” and “architecting her life.” This is a language question, and a question of power. This woman can talk, and she talks only in turns of phrase that correlate to her private reality, modelled on her family’s corporate politics that have become a national affair. Alongside, I understand the sound of Maggie’s head cold to be one of the most alive things in the exhibition. I made this work before Ivanka’s father won the presidency, and the title of the work is a not-quite-verbatim quote from her. At a Republican rally, she welcomes her father to the stage, promising the audience that codes of corporate performance—the mastery of time, money and the defeating of competitors—would be fulfilled with her father in office. (“He, wins.” She says. “Every time. On time. And under budget”.) So, in some sense she was right.
If chrononormativity in its simplest terms is us all running on the same clock, this clock can often render invisible things that are slower and more durational, such as maintenance and care, that are crucial to our survival and to more sustainable approaches to living. Chrononormative history goes hand in hand with this and is often criticized as supporting linear, often masculine or accelerationist, accounts of history, accounts that are usually written by those who hold most power and who fix and determine their narratives according to their watch and profit. I’m trying to speak of the damage that chrononormativity can do, or at least render and make visible the moments where it’s present, thereby understanding better how a resilience to it might be developed. I was thinking about chrononormative history when I made this sound work, but also when I created DRAG DRAG SOLO (the film) in 2016. In absorbing and being affected by sound sources outside of itself the film can always be very different, depending on what it comes into contact with. It is not entirely pinned down and fixed. Then DRAG DRAG SOLO (the exhibition) is similar; neither entirely fixed nor totally complete. The works in the show are installed un-synched, or made, in ways where they cannot be seen the same way twice.
GB: How does this project enhance or contain or amplify the themes in Soundtrack for a troubled time?
CS: Soundtrack for a troubled time is an audio soundscape depicting a fictional present, set against the premise that fiction is often only a few degrees removed from reality. I made the work at a time when I was having a yearlong conversation with a psychiatrist about the moments in which a body cannot lie. In Soundtrack for a troubled time, a performer counts in his native Spanish in the right channels of the sound system. The numerical monologue is choked by barrages of water being bucketed over him. From the left channel, the sharp thwack of a golf club obliviously and relentlessly drives the ball and cuts through the exhibition space. The two-channel sound is presented on three white Bose FreeSpace speakers, designed to invisibly blend in with their environment and create atmosphere or affect from no discernible source. I came upon these speakers in an immersive sound installation at Gatwick Airport, where the bank HSBC replicated the sound of the Yangtze River throughout the South Terminal. It was unclear what particular product this installation was attempting to sell. In Soundtrack for a troubled time, the performer’s language appears to disintegrate while the presence of a counting, jogging body is increased, and rendered into fiction.
GB: Could you express a wish or formulate a thought to accompany DRAG DRAG SOLO ?
CS: In October 2016 the British pound, already in a state of decline following the Brexit vote, plummeted overnight to its lowest value in three decades. Responses from financial institutions and currency specialists were swift. HSBC bank immediately declared the GBP was in the gloomiest and most terrible ‘stage of grief’. This humanization of the currency, by a chief currency analyst, led me to wonder why it was useful to evoke the poetic register of a grief-stricken, weeping pound sterling. This in turn inspired Self Tracking (the five stages of grief). The work is a wall drawing. A continuous line of spray tan, circles all peripheral walls of the third floor galleries. Standing in for a typical average or “normal range” skin type, the spray line becomes the mean range on top of which biological, economic, and environmental data (extracted between 2012 and 2016 from test results or automated points-based systems) is plotted in pencil. The gallery walls are divided into five sections, representing five years of data. So, at the CAC, one year translates to being about twenty meters long. You enter the exhibition in 2012 then exit in 2016. Throughout the galleries, dipping above, below and sometimes right on top of the spray tan, are three lines of data.
A first line, in light grey, traces my artist’s career rank as measured by the database Artfacts.net. Using a points-based system, this website rates artist’s according to how many shows they’ve made, who they have exhibited alongside and where they have exhibited, in order to quantitatively measure sustainability, and thus most accurately predict future appreciation of work produced. A second line in pink tracks the fluctuations in my metabolism, according to my T4 thyroxine levels (which in my case are synthetic and medicated, given I do not in fact have a Thyroid). A third darker pencil line charts the value of the British currency measured against the Euro. It ends in a steep downturn; the grieving pound.
GB: I wanted to talk about this work because it relates to the ubiquitousness of “performatives” and how they might relate to methods of self-tracking. Humans have self-tracked since diaries and calendars were invented, yet how it hooks up with those digital autocracies you previously referred to is new. “Health”, the app on my i.Phone, (which counts my steps) is something I would like to be able to delete, but it is inbuilt, and fairly immoveable. Artfacts.net is a website I would so much love to not be listed on; I did not ask to be ranked. Yet, it seems cultures that make us “measurable” are increasingly incorporated into our tools and lives and against our volition.
CS: Self Tracking (the five stages of grief) also allows me to formulate another thought, which is the use of prosopopoeia— a literary device, that mobilizes the dead or inanimate things as mouthpieces to speak through. In this case, the gloomy pound is used by a bank to express discontent with Brexit. Right now, I am thinking about instances where minor metaphors, images, objects, and people are used to another’s advantage, and how we might speak for and through one another more carefully.
GB: What can you tell us about your future programs—events, residencies, shows, and so on?
CS: A solo show at Castello di Rivoli in November means I can think more about prosopopoeia, mouthpieces, as well as the novel-in-progress, which currently finds “exhibition” form as Early Research Methods. Some of these are exhibited on the third floor at CAC. They are stacks of my writing; offset printed fragments of fiction, science, fan mail, held down with a bronze cast of my ear. Then, be it in pieces, or as a more coherent published whole the novel will be the basis for my solo show at the Swiss Institute, New York in December, which itself is an editorial version of my show at the CAC. Next month, I am collaborating with philosophers from Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University to build foundations for OFFSHORE, at Stanley Picker Gallery. OFFSHORE IN CHICAGO will be presented by The Art Institute Chicago (in early 2019), and by that point, I hope to be able to better explain the project as “a radical philosophy school for embodied knowledge.”
Milan Unit, Ramak Fazel’s installation, on view for a one-year period at Viasterna in Milan, is an interpretive and physical archive. It is composed of personal photographs, negatives, prints, and ephemera collected by the artist between 1994 and 2009, the years he spent actively in the city. In the ensuing conversation, Fazel, now living in Southern California, talks about the processes of accumulating and selecting; the struggle between producing and collecting; fragmentation and the passage of time; transfers and potential choices.
Mousse: First of all, why did you choose to keep all the objects you collected in Italy in storage near Milan rather than giving them away or taking them with you when you moved?
Ramak Fazel: I wonder about the many ways to find and dissect meaning within a work of art. Intellectual property law makes a distinction between the corpus mechanicum and the corpus misticum. The physical apparatus of Milan Unit is a mystical body over which I would like to claim partial, but not full, authorship. The years 1994 and 2009 bookended the time I spent actively in Milan. Milan Unit is an interpretive archive containing photographs and the ephemera from my life and practice in those years surrounding the millennium. The corpus mechanicum is the physical archive—the metal shelves, the boxes, the graphics/typography and neon color signage. It’s also the individual photographs and the accompanying intellectual property rights. Even though I now mostly live in Southern California, I never doubted that the corpus mechanicum needed to remain in Milan.
M: The show at Viasaterna illustrated a long-standing instinct for collecting. What does this activity mean for you, and how has it informed your practice?
RF: I like that you connect an “instinct for collecting” and an arc of time. It’s true! The impulse to acquire and organize a range of “things” is seductive. I wonder about objects, and whether we keep them or they keep us. The contents of Milan Unit represent a selection, a distillation, of what clung onto me. For complex reasons, they are things that nested and collated themselves within that archive. There are plenty of irreverent and seemingly insignificant fragments that propose themselves with dignity of meaning and specificity. As my practice evolves, I struggle with issues around material culture, particularly in relation to how I make things. Photography remains a central node in my work and research, but the struggle between the impulse to produce and to collect continues to challenge me. I find generative power in this struggle.
M: How has Milan inspired the way you work? And what, to you, was the most interesting material—either visually/materially, or culturally as related to the city—that you portray here?
RF: I feel privileged to have met and worked with a vast array of people in Milan. Their professional diversity and generosity helped raise my consciousness. To its credit, Milan is introspective. My relationship with work in Milan reminded me of the Protestant work ethic in the Indiana of my youth, but aggregated through the Catholic faith. There was no room for complacency. While I was making my attempt at visually decoding Milan through my photographs, Milan was busy programming my ethical and moral relationship to work and life. Beyond the “mechanical” features of Milan such as the weather, the concentric urban plan, and its human scale, I continue relying on its mystical qualities, which still resonate with me ten years after my departure.
M: A piece I particularly liked is simultaneously conceptual, playful, and ironic. I’m referring to the one in which the visitor-collector can choose an image, and a size, and you have these boxes on the wall that give an idea of the outcome while being a wall painting work per se. Would you say a few words about this for the readers?
RF: The room you describe is arranged as a workspace that encourages visitor participation in a selection process. The title of this room is Choose, which refers to the multitude of potential choices being offered. At the center of the room are five binders containing hundreds of analog contact prints. After choosing a single subject among many, the participant decides the other formal parameters (size, framing, titling). The act of turning the pages of the binders is important. It conflates reading and viewing into one act while at the same time shifting the physical scale of our expectations within a photography gallery space. Instead of being confronted by large images hanging on the walls, the viewer-reader is invited to consult and engage with an archive—not only choosing an exhibition image, but also its precise location on the wall. The eventual outcome on the wall is multiple images, to be determined by the collective input of an audience. A viewer is asked to imagine beyond the ghost image toward a final outcome, a room filled with images. This final exhibition of many coauthors. Rather than a “death of the author” moment, this proposal represents empowerment of the reader-viewer as coauthor in collaborative bliss. The exchange of money nags me as a chink in my armor.
M: I discern in some of your photographs—I’m thinking for instance of Maris’s ear or the Scala Theater as seen through a colored glass—a form of benevolent irreverence. Would you agree with this?
RF: The photographic camera is a social instrument; it obliges interaction and participation. An irreverent stance doesn’t necessarily diminish the sacredness of a subject. I continue to play with and experiment with the conventions of representational photography, which might mean contemplating the ear of a subject. Photography has for me revealed itself to be a piece of a larger, more intricate puzzle that involves drawing, installation, sculpture, and performance. It continues to have a central role in my practice; irreverence is a result of “playing photographer” rather than “being photographer.”
M: In the final room, there is the actual archive. The visitor can browse it through it via well-defined and specific categories. What were you thinking when you mounted it?
RF: A feeling of gratitude toward a city, culture, and community that nourished me. Milan Unit proposes convenient starting and ending points. But I have learned that reality is much messier and more challenging to codify.
Mario Codognato: You belong to a generation of artists who took art outside the museum and gallery space into the real world, the realm of everyday life and social politics. Your latest commission is a large installation in a clinic. What is it like to work in this kind of context? What aspects of the role of the clinic are you most interested in?
Joseph Kosuth: I did once say when asked (yet again) what materials I work with that context is one of them. That was a smart-assed defense against modernist presumptions about what artists do and how they work. My point being that the modernist presumption that one’s activity is media-defined doesn’t apply to my work, which was never about how but much more about why. My work at the clinic in Pescara provided me with an opportunity to do a work that is embedded in a life context rather than a rarefied one dedicated to art, where, like in a museum or gallery, the context tells you ahead of time that “this is art.”
MC: You often dedicate and construct your installations around an author’s writings. How do you choose the writers? And how do you undertake the research for selecting the right texts within that person’s oeuvre for a given context?
JK: In this case, the exhibition at Vistamare is centered around the writing of Ovid, who was born less that fifty kilometers from the gallery. I like to work with the cultural production of someone who lived locally, which gives an anchor to the meaning of the work. Ovid’s writing is now international, which plays on the fact that art can be both international and local on levels of attainable meaning. But again, my choice of material to work with is usually provided by the context of where the show is.
MC: How has the function of visual arts changed since you started your career as an artist?
JK: For one thing, the term “visual” in “visual arts” is less descriptive of the activity. The emphasis is now less on visual more on art.This is a result of conceptual art leaving behind the formalist presumptions about what art is. My early point that “artists don’t work with forms and colors, they work with meaning” has manifested itself very much in the practice of art in a general way. Artists are as free to employ, for example, sound in their work as anything else. An investigation into how we produce meaning in art can’t be prescriptive.
MC: Often the texts you choose are reproduced as fragments. Is there a statement being made that we can grasp reality only through fragments? And is there a relation between this kind of work and, say, the work of Cy Twombly, Jannis Kounellis, or Giulio Paolini?
JK: It all begins as a fragment. One can easily understand that the construction of meaning, not unlike the construction of reality itself, is fragmentary. One must have a word before one can have a sentence. The perception of a “whole” is culturally induced (and thus contextually, by the way) as something we bring with our perception; it’s part of it. In this way the viewer of my work is forced to be engaged in the meaning-making process. They put the fragments together themselves and what is perceived as a “whole” is a dynamic experience, and act of construction that is continually in play.
MC: Is there a social-architectural or institutional context that you have not yet worked with, but have always wanted to? And if yes, why?
JK: Yes, October magazine. [laughs] But simply being the two-thousand-pound guerrilla (note, not gorilla) in the room has its benefits!
MC: You were possibly the first artist to use neon as a medium. It has become very popular again with the latest generations of visual artists, despite the fact that it has practically disappeared from the commercial world and the urban landscape.
JK: In truth, the first artist to use neon was a Czech artist earlier in the 20th century. But the intent behind his work and the work closer to the time I began to use it was always formalist, even decorative. I used neon because it was an existing form of public writing that wasn’t art. For my specific work I needed something with a lot of qualities that I could unpack and describe in order to construct a tautology. So it was perfect for my purposes. The other artists of my generation who used it, starting with Bruce Nauman and Keith Sonnier, and then on to Arte Povera,used it without knowledge of my work. With the exception possibly of the Italian artists, none of us knew that others were doing it. The younger artists using it now are in a different situation, as indeed many of them are referencing us, which is probably the only way using neon makes sense. Otherwise it comes off as a kind of sexy decoration, and rather banal.
With the exhibition, SUBHUMAN INHUMAN SUPERHUMAN, presented by Triennale di Milano, Californian fashion designer Rick Owens shows his twenty-year career in a large retrospective that covers clothes, accessories, furniture, and publications chosen by the designer himself.
The exhibition offers an opportunity to dive into the poetics defined by Owens, starting from his first collection presented in Los Angeles in 1994 up to the present, which tells of one of the most influential designers of our time. In addition to his role in fashion, which was recently celebrated with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2017, Rick Owens is among the most radical and acclaimed authors—even beyond the common definition of fashion designer—due his persistent, innovative, and challenging work with forms and materials.
His work became famous not only for the qualities of his clothes but also for the storytelling built around them, using transversal languages and expressive forms to embody a personal and courageous vision that has anticipated many of most debated themes in fashion nowadays, such as gender fluidity, oversizing, and brutal chic aesthetics. With his memorable fashion shows, Rick Owens has also imposed an idea of body and beauty very far from the static and conservative ideals portrayed on catwalks and fashion magazines, expanding the idea of humanity to unpredictable and sometimes outrageous visions, as the title of the exhibition suggests.
“I wanted to take what a dismissive world might mock and create something fine, empathetic, kind, and inclusive,” says Owens, referring to his work and also anticipating two of his great traits: mental freedom and innovation. In this conversation, we talked with him about these issues, trying to deepen the understanding of his relationship with art and design, body, and rituals…
Riccardo Conti: In recent interviews, you talked about your aesthetics as “artifice as formalized ritual,” referring also to Kabuki theater, ikebana, and tea ceremony. How did you get into Zen culture?
Rick Owens: I’m not really an expert on Zen philosophy, but it’s certainly something I’ve started to appreciate since I was young. At home, my father had a large library full of books on these subjects; even if I could not discuss philosophy with my father, those images became part of my references.
RC: Can you expand a bit on this relationship between artifice, excess, and ritual? In sexual practices even…
RO: I am very fascinated by the contrasts that are created in some practices apparently very different from each other. This kind of suspended time, with a weird combination between menace and vulnerability, need and hunger, and kindness… that part of some cultures. In general, every kind of extreme behavior interests me; every way of thinking outside the box interests me. You know, before you die, don’t you want to try everything? Don’t you want to go as far as you can? There are so many things to experience, and unfortunately there is this false morality that tells you what you should do.
RC: Many of your creations seem to allude to clothing items inspired by S&M practices, such as straps, restraints, and the use of some materials. What does that imaginary mean to you?
RO: Initially, I wasn’t particularly interested in submission or domination, but I do appreciate the ritual aspect of it. I appreciate the idea of taking something very simple, like sex, and turning that in a performance or a theatrical ritual. It’s the same reason why I love the tea ceremony: taking a very simple pleasure and elevating it in a ritualized form. I am interested in the implicit simplicity of satisfying a simple pleasure, of having sex or drinking a cup of tea with other people… obviously, however, to achieve something so simple, the process can be extremely dense and artificial.
RC: I am interested in this continuous process of expanding concepts: You consider simple elements and take them to another level of excess, not as a caricature, but giving them new life and meaning. How do you apply this approach to creating clothes?
RO: I want to extend beyond the boundaries of what you’re supposed to be wearing; a lot of time, my clothes have things that are extended or things that are dragging. I think there is a subtle message in this practice: Why keep yourself within the same limits of the clothes that everyone else does? You can go further.
RC: There is always a relationship between one’s own body and that of others’ that seems to me to goes beyond simple dressing…
RO: It’s what I do, for example, with my t-shirts, which are always longer than normal ones. I do it because I want more fabric, because I want generosity. This extension symbolizes going beyond the rules; it’s a declaration to other people. This is what I want to be, this is what I’m training to become, and this is my ambition. I think that clothes are one of the first codes to affirm what one wants to be—and who you intend to be—and it is a powerful and profound thing.
RC: The language of the bodies you imagine and select is fundamental in your poetics. How do you choose them? What meaning do they have for you?
RO: First of all, I think that the use I make of bodies in catwalks is to show beautiful behavior and beautiful emotions. Also, in this case, I want to try to go beyond the limits of what one already expects to see and knows about bodies, going beyond what one believes to be able to use to express one’s self. As a designer, I create clothes that modify something in the body of the wearer, which exaggerates some things and minimizes other existing ones. If I went further than this, I would have to change the real body itself, and that’s what I did with myself.
RC: So are you suggesting that the real goal is to modify the bodies more than to create clothes?
RO: As for myself, I have never changed my clothes. I have always worn a uniform because what I did was change my own body instead; that is much more hardcore than changing an outfit. I do not disapprove of changing clothes because basically it is my job—and I promote it—but for me, personally, the goal is always to go beyond clothes. What I realize during my fashion shows is to explore other physical expressions, rather than having women who wear tight dresses on very high heels…
RC: Your fashion shows are indeed always highly anticipated events by your audience because every time it is a unique experience. Was it a challenge to recreate that emotion in a museum display like the exhibition at the Triennale?
RO: I don’t know if I really felt this kind of challenge. Museums for me are like churches, one of those places where I feel I have to go to on this planet. I didn’t have high expectations for the experience of this exhibition, in the sense that the museum is for me an aesthetic moment where you go to admire the relics. And that’s okay: Contemplating the relics is a way to get in touch with a moment. I didn’t have the feeling of having to recreate the experience at the origin because, for that moment, there are the fashion shows. The essence of a fashion show is to create a unique moment that cannot be replicated—you have to be there at that moment. You can see some photos or videos, as often happens today, but that is physically changing the perception of the lived experience.
RC: About this: Today, the role of fashion shows is increasingly uncertain as a means of communication for a brand for various reasons, above all economic, but also because the fashion audience has changed. What value do these moments hold for you?
RO: Many of these fashion shows are very standard, but on the other hand, I think that fashion shows in some cases can represent very strong moments of participation, communion, and celebration of beauty that, for me, has a profound value. And as I said before, those moments happen only in a certain moment that then cannot be recreated anymore. Then there is an element that makes them even more compelling: the fact that you never know how they will really go. In a video or in a photo shoot, you can control all the elements, but with the fashion shows, there is always this element of risk. I do not mean of accidents or dangers, I mean of very small things that can be gestures or expressions that you cannot completely control. For this reason, I think they are still a great way to communicate and be together.
RC: Still talking about exhibitions and fashion: Was there an exhibition dedicated to fashion that particularly struck you as a project and as an experience?
RO: Well, for example, I really enjoyed the exhibition dedicated to Mariano Fortuny and curated by Oliver Saillard at the Palais Galliera in Paris (Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise). The exhibitions created by Saillard are always interesting because they are not only aesthetic and are not only academic, even if they are always impeccable from that point of view. It has the characteristic of always making fashion culture, showing how much fashion can be relevant for everyone, and you can achieve that when a show is as beautifully documented, researched, and edited as that one was.
RC: Is there another art exhibition that has particularly influenced you recently?
RO: I saw an impressive Modigliani show at the Jewish Museum in New York (Modigliani Unmasked) over Christmas: There was a whole room with only heads, and that room is one of the most beautiful things I have seen for a very long time, together with the Joseph Beuys show at the Tate.
RC: It is interesting, this pair of artists that you mentioned, because in both cases there are elements that also are present in your poetics: exaggeration of the anatomy and use of your own body. By the way, it was fun to see your Allen Jones-style doppelgängers in your flagship stores; where’d you come up with that idea?
RO: I thought it was just funny and weird and disturbing—that’s what it was all about, a kind of novelty because the approach behind my furniture is totally different.
RC: There are several examples at the show in Triennale using particular materials.
RO: Yes, I did a lot of pieces using several materials like alabaster, cow fur, concrete. The first observation of most people is that they are not comfortable. Well, that’s the whole point! There is enough furniture in the world that I do not design furniture to be comfortable. I reject this vision of the world totally oriented to personal comfort… through furniture design, I suggest something more disciplined, more formal.
RC: So your furniture pieces, in contrary to your clothes, suggest a harsher view of reality?
RO: We live in the age of greater access to knowledge and all answers, which is extraordinary, but at the same time people confuse what comfort is with having everything and their desires immediately available to them. But life is about care—and it’s not easy—and people think they deserve the best, but I think that nobody deserves the best… if you’re getting the best, you are lucky! So in a way, my furniture is expressing another way to live, less spontaneous and more stylized.
RC: The benches and other furniture in the Triennale exhibition seem comfortable to me… even though I did not lie on it!
RO: But of course they are! With uncomfortable, I mean that for the materials—their proportions and their weight. They’re not made for people who move often but for stable people who know who they are; I did not conceive them for students, but for adults.
RC: What about that suspended giant sculpture in the curved space of your exhibition?
RO: I have always been interested in land art and artists like Michael Heizer, and I wanted for the show something that communicated an idea of shapeless primordiality and eternity that created a contrast with the beauty of clothes.
RC: That sense of gigantism conveyed by it is again a sign of your aesthetics of exaggeration?
RO: Yes, It was a very long process to have it in that way; it took a lot of pushing to get it bigger, bigger, and bigger!
RC: What were your references when you started designing furniture? Do you have any relationship with Italian design?
RO: In my house in Italy, I have armchairs by Giacomo Balla and other objects from the Futurist period, such as the Continuos Profile of Mussolini by Renato Bertelli. I’m interested in the dynamism expressed by those artists. My favorite architect is Luigi Moretti, and I always been a fan of Luigi Colani’s work.
RC: As you said before, if industrial design has been reduced to creating “nice” and comfortable objects for everyone, fashion in recent years is mainly supported by the sales of bags and sneaker. About the latter: You have been an anticipator of this sneaker culture; how did you start?
RO: Well, sneakers have become the corsage of our generation. Before, women put on beautiful corsages and the previous generation would wear hats that were exaggerated and extreme. I think sneakers have become that element of clothing in which one can elaborate as much as he wants in a very controlled part of his figure; it’s a way of self-expression that changes every generation through different elements of clothing. I think it’s simply this. My part in this is kind of odd because I entered the whole sneakers thing as a kind of parody: I thought that sneakers were the clearest example of conventionality, but at the same time, I was wearing them to go to the gym, so I wanted to exaggerate them. The original ones were oversized… they were bombastic! I never really expected anybody to wear them, but the response was kind of ironic.
RC: What method is behind your creative process, and how do you innovate this language every time?
RO: Based on my routine; there is obviously preliminary research and some evaluations on the collections that I have just finished, but I still don’t have a “formula.” You know, two weeks ago, I was working on the pre-collection, and I was thinking, “I should have this figured out. I should know what’s coming next,” but I was irritated. I started to think that I should be better right now. I should be more adult, sophisticated, self-aware—but once again, I was not capable of visualizing this womenswear collection, and that stressed me out! I was kind shocked: After all this time, you know, later in life, you should reach a level of serenity, of imperturbability that can’t be shaken. Well, I was shaken; I was unstable two weeks ago, and that pissed me off—how can I be so stupid!? (Laughs)
RC: You still have a teenaged behavior!
RO: It’s still like that, it’s still like that! (Laughs) But one of the things that I think I’ve learned is to forgive yourself and let it go, because to think that you have no faults is laughable. Therefore, I’m punishing myself and forgiving myself at the same time!
John Akomfrah (1957) is a respected artist, filmmaker, and one of the co-founding members of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982. His work points at very urgent matters in the world—the refugee crisis or the global warming—articulating non-linear narratives from philosophical and historical perspectives. My phone call interrupted his workday at his studio in London, where he was revisiting the sound on his latest film, Purple, presented last year at Barbican London and now on view from February 20 at Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid—the first collaboration between this institution and TBA21-Academy in Vienna.
Juan Canela: Purple is an immersive, six-channel video installation addressing climate change and its effects on human communities, biodiversity, and the wilderness, which we can understand as your response to the Anthropocene. It is very exciting to discover how you deal with this geological period—many times described as a European issue—from a postcolonial perspective. How do you understand the Anthropocene, and how does Purple deal with it?
John Akomfrah: Maybe the first problem is the word itself. I am not interested in it by itself, but in the work of a number of thinkers who are expanding the kind of work I am doing into profound new forms. People that are beginning to think and theorize the question of the finitude and notions related with the end. But, of course, you don’t have to dive into the entire package of the Anthropocene thesis to be aware that these thoughts are buried in the way we are. To be a metropolitan subject growing up in post-war Europe—especially in this corner of Europe—means living in the routine of being exposed to carbon monoxide everyday, to have all manner of metals in the water you drank, and to eat fruit full of indescribable things. This was my childhood in England, and I want to make sense of that again to myself because that is the way to start understanding the global civilization we have. Living in Europe was a privilege, and living elsewhere was not. I’m trying to understand how one could come to another definition between center and periphery, between the industrial and the underdevelopment by another language, another narrative that is not economic. Of course, all of this has in the background what one could call the Anthropocene; the question is what is the implication of the overlap? What does it allow us to relocate in both worlds? That’s what I’m trying to approach with Purple. It will be also fascinating for you to see it because it’s large-scale, with six screens. It’s very difficult to say, “It’s about this, but it’s also not about this, or not only about this.”
JC: I guess that the decision to work with six channels is related to what you’re saying: the need to challenge the linear narrative by creating an overwhelming cascade of image and sound, which seems consequential to the idea of the global interconnection of local issues, how everything overlaps at some level, and how progress made possible by technologies can be related with destruction and suffering.
JA: Indeed. To begin to force many ways of being and living, I must work with the premises of the cinematic. Nothing will happen that will change that, but I’m not necessarily interested anymore in the arrogance of its spectacularity, but in the unique attributes of the screen, which is that it’s singular and allows you to develop a narrative that has a certain inheritance of journey: a beginning, middle, and end. In terms of form, I’ve been developing an interest in cinematic film—not a passing thing but a religious, devotional interest. I don’t buy into totalitarian assertions anymore; I believe there are other ways in which we could pursue this practice without talking to old clichés. Organizing new spectacularity, new configurations, or what constitutes moving images—multiplicity, overlap, affective proximity, and subjectivity are very important.
JC: You have filmed different landscapes from different countries; for example, during your travels on TBA21–Academy’s expeditions in French Polynesia in December 2016. How do you engage with landscape and nature while filming?
JA: Part of the transformation we are speaking about—the migrations of interests in the cinematic—is taking place in what we can call landscape. Twenty years ago, I approached this notion as the “elsewhere,” the face on which the protocol was supposed to happen. I have an idea, and then I go to a place to realize that idea. Either you have a script or a vision, and you go to certain landscape to confirm a thesis in one way or another. But the premise in this case is totally reverse. The overall project of TBA21-Academy The Current is about climate change, but we go all together in the boat—people from different fields of knowledge—to look, to see, to experience, to live, and only then to think what we can do together. That’s very important because there is always this sense in conventional cinema that the landscape is the space of the planet, the place where one goes to execute something in a very colonial, supremacist way. And, of course, I try to reverse that logic a little bit. So then someone asks you: Do you want to come to work on a boat in Tahiti? I am obviously working in spaces at the opposite extreme of our planet, places where climate change is making a differential impact, and we try to orchestrate a dialogue with it when we are there. Far from the colonial idea of the landscape—something that is out there waiting for us—I leave the question open as long as possible, and the relation between the landscape and me is created in a genuine in-between-us conversation in which we have to figure out what we can offer to each other.
JC: Purple has been produced for Barbican´s Curve gallery in London, a very particular space that has defined the final form of the installation. Now that the work will travel to different locations, how do you work with its itinerancy?
JA: The curve is a very particular space, so the way these images work and how the sound is orchestrated there (and soon in Madrid) is very different. One of the things I am very keen to do is to take the uniqueness specified in any space onboard. I think with moving image shows, you should work with location in a way, you should work with the space, because you will never see Purple in the same way you saw it in the Barbican. Because it is all about experience. So I want to work in each iteration making different changes in the sound, some tones in the pictures, or aspects in the work that enter into a dialogue with each space, because the experience of moving image work is absolutely contingent to the space. It should be really site-specific and change on each occasion, and I am right now in the process of doing it for the show in Madrid. Then working with people like Chus Martínez obviously clarifies some aspects, and in the process of the conversation, some new perspectives appear that you hadn’t thought about before.
Peter Fischli and Riccardo Paratore in conversation
I was driving in my Volkswagen along the Italian autostrada from Milan back to the Swiss border. During a stop at an Autogrill, over a sparkling water, I read Riccardo Paratore’s press release for his exhibition at Federico Vavassori. A few excerpts:
“The exhibition showcases the gallery space as the personal home of Federico Vavassori, who does in fact live in the gallery. Relics of Italian heritage, as well as those personal to his dealer, make up Paratore’s new temporary furnishings for the gallerist’s home… Fragments of hentai manga culture are translated onto canvases by the hands of Florentine artisans… ostensibly an overkill as the artist intends for them to be as if painted by the gallerist himself. … The floor, lined with rubber sheets, is riddled with raised dots to be littered and trod upon, once manufactured by the Milan-based multinational Pirelli. A folding bed, which looks ridiculous, juts out from a spillage of debris and mementos of hopes and disappointments that rarely see the light of day. On a spring day, in the bustle of Duomo di Milano, he stands with a freshly emptied McDonald’s cup in hand and beholds you. His name is Federico Vavassori. ‘For every sale from this show,’ he says, ‘I will play for you with my own fingers Schumann’s Kinderszenen.’”
As I watched the bubbles in my glass, I thought of forgotten (and maybe dusty) ideas of an artist having a muse, like the Nine Muses in Greek mythology, or (maybe more realistically) a wonderful person in your life. But they don’t have to be real, either; your muse could also be a dog. When Édouard Manet replaced the Venus of Urbino with a young person from the so-called demi-monde, a shift occurred—a shift from the holy to the profane. So if your muse can be profane, could the bubbles in my glass be a muse as well? In this case, the artist decided for his dealer to be his muse.
Peter Fischli: Could we talk about your exhibition in relation to ones by other artists who have focused on the theme of “salespeople” or “dealers”? What do they have in common? What’s different? I’m thinking, for example, of the 3D-printed figurine of Lars Friedrich that Mathieu Malouf recently made as an edition. Or a bit further back in time, there was Christian Philipp Müller’s exhibition about Colin de Land. Or Raymond Hains’s paintings of Castelli—a gardener in France with the same name, though, not the real “Castelli.”
Riccardo Paratore: I also have to think of my father, who was a car dealer.
PF: When you started thinking about making an exhibition dealing with Federico and his gallery, did that lead to a kind of cross-fade between you as an artist and him as a dealer?
RP: I’ve gained some small amount of insight into the world of young gallerists as well as into their craft, which involves improvising and being creative as you move from one state of emergency to the next. And this made me think of my father, who worked as a car salesman when I was younger and who was rather creative in transforming defective cars into something people wanted. Keyed cars were primarily sold after dark, and others would be affixed with various buttons that suggested some function they didn’t actually have. It was an almost metaphysical process. Of course, everything had to be processed as quickly as possible so that people couldn’t verify whether things worked. For some people, that was petty crime, but for me, it’s unconscious creativity. It’s the skills of a small-time dealer. I was interested in the creativity of someone like that. In the case of young gallerists, you’ve also got a kind of pubescent mismanagement, the ambition of upward mobility, growing insolvency, and a delight in taking risks. Of course, you also have a fascination with a bohemian lifestyle.
PF: And the ads showing Federico?
RP: We’re confronted so often with the figure of the eccentric entrepreneur: an uptight, hybrid creature combining heroic self-presentation and a decisive search for trust. Through the admittedly exaggerated depiction of Federico, in which he stands opposite the Milan Cathedral wearing a borrowed tuxedo and a Barbour jacket, it becomes clear which worlds he moves between.
PF: But artists can be narcissistic people, too, don’t you think?
RP: That’s a dusty old cliché, as well. I find it more interesting when someone maintains an ambivalent relationship to their own narcissism. You often hear gallerists say they studied art or pursued some similar activity. It’s often the case that their passive participation in art-making only developed later. Sometimes it creeps in, and they want to get involved in making decisions. That’s something I tried to make visible in this exhibition. By opening up a participatory dialogue that was initially limited to specific areas, I increasingly lost control. Authorship over the exhibition changed drastically as a result.
PF: Are you saying (if I understand you correctly) that the exhibition somehow mirrors your own situation?
RP: I think so, because we’ve thrown ourselves into this thing that doesn’t really function economically but which continuously forces us into different kinds of milieu (in terms of class) than what we’re used to.
PF: All of these young gallerists are under enormous financial pressure unless they have some kind of comfortable financial support system. And with your exhibition—which was in fact quite elaborate in terms of production,—you actually increased the financial pressure. In a way, it almost seems like you’re sabotaging things or exacerbating the situation. The question of whether and how Federico can continue operating his gallery becomes even more urgent through your exhibition and through the high production costs that you gave rise to.
RP: Is that accelerationism, in terms of arriving at an outcome more quickly then we otherwise would? Wouldn’t that be better than making three more exhibitions and then having things slowly but surely come to an end?
PF: It’s perhaps better than a slow death… And what about the title?
RP: The title, Do I still have to sleep in the closet?, deals with more than just living space and sexuality. It can also be seen in relation to the idea of a “social closet,” meaning one’s relationship to class identity.
PF: How did you decide that you wouldn’t also somehow be featured in the setup? That was going to be my question regarding the four paintings in the exhibition. You commissioned other people to paint them. You constructed a stage set surrounding this situation; you staged Federico’s reality as a gallerist. In order to complete the scene, you obviously needed artworks. You decided on hentai motifs that Federico had sold to his classmates when he was a teenager. So in a sense, you’re taking Federico’s motifs and turning them into “your own” paintings. According to the logic of a gallery, don’t there have to be pictures by an artist—in this case, pictures by you—on view?
RP: I don’t really care that much about the paintings. It’s a bit like in a theater play with bad props. The exhibition needed something eye-catching. And a few months earlier, I’d seen Federico in a Missoni advertising campaign in a magazine for teenagers. It also included a trivial interview with him, and the very first question was about how he came to be a gallerist, which I’d asked him myself numerous times. In the interview, he divulged this anecdote.
PF: His job and his goal is, of course, to sell the works of the artists that he shows. In the best case, he does more than that. He not only creates economic capital, but symbolic capital as well. The main thing the gallerist has to do is discuss the work, as they say. That’s where the economic and the symbolic capital intermix, because this work of communicating the work’s content is at the same time a sales pitch. To come back to the four paintings in the exhibition: Is Federico forced to tell this anecdote about his own biography and thus, whether he likes to or not, to turn them into “his” paintings?
RP: Given that I’d heard him tell the story numerous times, it became my intention to borrow this anecdote, which he’d decided to emphasize like a bad PR agent. In actuality, the paintings are now located in his parents’ house, in the room he grew up in.
PF: It’s not as simple as if this had been a sociological study and the paintings were instead presented in a vitrine. They are oil on canvas.
RP: They’d be rather passive objects in a vitrine, though. Here, they’re agile, active-seeming objects that look like goods for sale, and less precious.
PF: You didn’t want to paint these paintings yourself. That could have given them a kind of added sentimental value, don’t you think?
RP: I was after a different sense of alienation. By sending these little old JPEGs to Florence, to a painting workshop, without dictating many conditions other than the dimensions and the technique, they developed differently. The process also plays with sets of rules and allows a certain degree of leeway. When the paintings arrived, you could see how much they differ from the JPEGs. Given the format of the original image, the painters had to decide for themselves how to turn them into paintings. For example, they added colors that weren’t in the JPEGs and a strange kind of hatching that’s supposed to imitate pixelation.
PF: So in a way, they belong, like every other component in the exhibition, to the decor or to the stage that you set up? Although it’s not really a stage set because Federico actually sleeps in that bed.
RP: Who says that you can’t sleep in a stage set?
PF: But there is a certain ambivalence. It would be possible for someone to come into the gallery and think to themselves: “No, no. That’s not where Federico lives.” One might even assume that it’s just staged by you, that you set it up to look like an apartment. And what about the decision not to hang the paintings up but to lean them against the wall?
RP: I was thinking about a moment of transition, like before or after an exhibition.
PF: Maybe you could say something about the idea behind the piano. We talked about the fact that Federico is a person who really likes to play the piano and who also likes to perform for an audience. But you connect this, once again, to an economic system, in that a buyer would get to experience this as a kind of reward.
RP: Since he often speaks about how much he misses playing piano, the piano seemed to offer a kind of performative instrument. In other words, I instrumentalized his instrument. But it seems like playing piano also generates a sense of well-being.
PF: That may be the case for him when it comes to playing piano privately. But he also plays for other people, as dictated by the “stage” you set up.
RP: There are definitely people who play piano for their own enjoyment. I also often think about people’s motivations for learning a musical instrument. It’s often the case that kids are made to learn by their parents based on ulterior motives, like discipline, for example. Some people then go on to develop a passion for it, which can come back around and cause the parents anxiety if their children end up pursuing a career in music. It’s a funny thought.
PF: What do you think about the fact that some people like how, by playing piano, they represent an idea of cultivated middle-class intellectuals, and they show that off? Most people who play piano would certainly argue that they find enjoyment in music, in learning and in practicing an instrument, that that’s something they do “for themselves.” What does Federico play? Schumann?
RP: Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), which is also representative of the world that you just described. It was composed at a time when the bourgeoisie changed a lot and more pianos appeared in people’s living rooms. The title of the piece also suggests an idyllic family setting.
PF: What is it exactly that interests you about the subject?
RP: Having it performed and having people watch it. This display of virtuosity—in contrast to one that I see as a kind of instinctive, insurmountable aversion, as a dogma of the petit bourgeoisie. For me, a piano at home is an object representing the bourgeois cultivation of virtuosity. Like at a family gathering, when somebody sits down at the piano and begins to play and the others melt away. Using this moment of melting away as an economic tool is also a comment on this system of entertainment.
PF: That’s certainly the case when we talk about how and when Federico plays piano. So, you’ve also established a set of rules, as a kind of reward for anyone who buys something. It’s not just that Federico sits there and plays piano for anyone who wants him to; he only plays for buyers. When that happens—which amounts to the creation of economic capital for the gallery—then he plays as a reward. Or you could say he plays out of joy because he was able to sell something. That said, you also make sure that it’s not just a reward for people who are highly privileged—who pay a lot of money to buy an artwork—because there were also things for sale for ten euros.
RP: We mimicked the sliding scale pricing that you sometimes find at the theater, in that some tickets are more expensive than others. You end up watching the same performance, though. On various occasions, I sat in the office and listened in on Federico’s conversations, and I noticed how he sometimes acted differently at different times. He was patient with some people and hasty with others.
PF: “We’ll make quick work of it…” Were the decisions all made independent of him, or how strong were your intentions or your ideas as an artist? You already described that to some extent as it comes to the paintings. What about the bed? Or the whole setup with his sleeping arrangements? Or, for example, the decision to install this black Pirelli floor throughout the space, or when it came to the photo of Federico in front of the cathedral? There were actually a number of formal decisions that you had to make.
RP: All the formal decisions were tied to economic themes. For example, when it came the photo of him in a tuxedo, which is a symbol of elegance and of the bourgeoisie, though it didn’t actually belong to him. It’s kind of like the “impostor in the rented tux,” who’s on the way to an event but who doesn’t have a coat that would go with his outfit. So he wears a Barbour jacket, which is a status symbol for a number of younger gallerists, but which was once a hunting jacket.
PF: Do you mean the gallerist as someone who hunts collectors and artists? These jackets were originally worn by people who owned estates and who went hunting as a form of recreation.
RP: The jacket was originally worn on hunts and not necessarily used in other contexts. Maybe the people who wear these jackets in public these days connect to that state of mind in some way.
PF: And what about the floor?
RP: The Pirelli floor is part of the exhibition because it is ubiquitous in Milan and because it, in a way, suggests the public sphere.
PF: Do you mean public space?
RP: The association is actually with something dirty, places that are exposed to a lot on a daily basis. Installing the same floor in the gallery made this connection, and the grand piano set up a sense of contradiction.
PF: But doesn’t something similar happen in the case of the hunting jacket, in terms of what you described? Because the Pirelli floor, if I remember correctly, was developed in the early 1970s for industrial spaces, though it was quickly used by designers and architects to suggest an industrial floor in a middle-class home. There was no need to have a robust floor in that kind of space; it was just fashionable to use it in place of a Persian rug. And what about the cabinet with the folding bed?
RP: For a long time, I didn’t know that Federico slept in the gallery. Sometimes when we’d meet in the gallery I’d see a bed sheet sticking out of his folding sofa. As time passed, I found out that he lives in the gallery, which suggested that there was a certain economic situation that he was hiding from me. In part, the show is about creating a kind of humorous pity.
PF: It creates an identity.
RP: In this case, it’s not self-branding.
PF: Because he hid the fact that he lives in his gallery?
RP: Because I’m the one who makes it known.
PF: And that would also be the difference between you and other artists who are so explicit in turning branding or self-branding into a theme.
RP: I’m not narcissistic enough for that. Better to create a portrait. When you have a person who is so glad to have a portrait made of them, then there’s the chance to reflect something real.
PF: What occurred during the show’s run that your concept didn’t anticipate? You’ve already described how a certain dynamic developed regarding Federico, that he was glad the whole thing happened. What other kinds of dynamics developed in terms of the people who saw the show? How was it understood? What kinds of effects did it have in reality, either in Federico’s life or in the lives of gallery visitors?
RP: Apparently, someone left a concert before it was finished.
PF: We’ve talked a lot about the idea of the show overall. You also created an “image,” though, in the sense of something visible. And in terms of what you made visible with this exhibition, I also saw that you enjoyed doing it, that you did it with a certain level of dedication. Are things like this, for you, something more than the execution of a concept? Did you take a certain amount of pleasure in searching for a particular form?
RP: The form itself shaped the thing, I guess you could say.
PF: Why did you decide not to include any information in the ads showing Federico?
RP: You have to commit to doing the ads way in advance, a couple months ahead of time. At that point, I had no idea what was going to happen, or even whether the gallery would still exist. Had the gallery closed, the ad would have turned into something else, like a fashion campaign or an obituary.
“Teen boy” describes the humor that bands together the irreverent work of Ken Kagami and Trevor Shimizu, which will be on view this February at Mendes Wood, São Paulo—their first duo show since HOT in 2012 at Misako & Rosen, Tokyo. In their work, both take on themes ranging from fatherhood and farts to bros and sports in manners at once hilarious and critical.
Kagami and Shimizu make fun of art and masculinity. Take their spoofs on painting: when Shimizu discovered he shared a birthday with Vincent van Gogh and Francisco Goya, he knew he wanted to paint, but noted that his crude stick figures, like his crude humor, probably would not appeal to his forefathers. Kagami offers a similar irreverence for painting traditions: his Please Imagine series features a painting with scribbled text that reads: “Please Imagine a Boring Abstract Painting.”
At Mendes Wood, Kagami will also show a selection from what he calls his “contemporary art mentor comedies,” including Calvin Klein underwear wherein “Yves” replaces “Calvin” on the elastic waistband. This is not the first time he has made fun of Yves Klein; Comedy Klein (Chucky) (2016)pokes fun at the artist’s use of women’s bodies as literal tools (paintbrushes) by replacing them with inanimate objects (Chucky dolls). I am inclined to read this mocking of Klein as a feminist critique, consistent with the artist’s repeated mockery of bro culture, though not all of Kagami’s humor is so politically correct. At art fairs you can wait in line to have him draw you in thirty seconds, as if he were a caricaturist in an amusement park. If you present male, he draws a penis; female, boobs.
Kagami will also be showing a new series in the same vein as Please Imagine that includes hammer which reads, “If there is a boring sculpture, please break it with this hammer.” Shimizu, then, would be wise not display any boring sculptures nearby—which is actually a bit of a charge for the artist, who regularly takes on subjects that I would never call boring but that are certainly quotidian and banal. His Farts series, for instance, includes a painting of a couple comfortably farting together in bed. The quotidian scenes are a nice, light reprieve, as well as a break from art’s often moralizing function that, in the Western tradition, dates back at least to the Renaissance but today operates under social justice rather than Christian ethics.In addition to a selection from his Farts series, Shimizu will also display works from the series Groupies and Late Works. The Late Works are painted by a supposed future self: a heterosexual male whose passion is the nude female form (which sounds a lot like many nonfictional male modernists). This is not the first time he has taken on such personas: his The Lonely Loser Trilogy (2013) comprises videos shot on Google Glasses wherein the artist began imagining himself as a tech bro whose hobbies include snowboarding, mountain biking, and skateboarding. The trilogy is shot from the (literal) perspective of that character embodied.
But if fictional future Shimizu is obsessed with the nude female form in Late Works,in his Groupies series, it’s the nude female form that’s obsessed with Shimizu—or at least that’s what the spam Instagram profiles of sexy ladies that he paints want him to think. The paintings are of screenshots of spam profiles that have recently followed him. He calls them Groupies because they are scantily clad and usually disappear after a day or so.
Both artists also comment on another side of masculinity: fatherhood. The first thing Kagami mentions in the press release for the show is his daughter. Shimizu’s 2016 exhibition at 47 Canal, New York, included paintings of teddy bears and Miffy toys, which he presented not as comfort objects for babies but rather tools of alleviation for parents: their soft surfaces dull the blows of wailing children and perpetual exhaustion. The show also featured Putting Green (2016), a shoddily re-created golf site that often serves as a respite for fathers. He further mocked the midlife crisis in his video PGA Tour Live (2016).
Both practices, then, contribute to important conversations about gender. Delicately, they balance humor and criticality. I firmly believe that it is imperative for male voices to participate in conversations about feminism and masculinity—to critically and actively reflect on their role, and to divide the labor of criticism—so long as they don’t speak over or for women or non-binary people. But few male artists today, save perhaps Kenneth Tam, are doing this successfully. Others, like Joe Scanlan or Ryder Ripps, have tried but failed miserably.
I also believe in humor as a powerful tool capable of rendering critique palatable. Sometimes both Shimizu and Kagami flirt dangerously with what they critique: norms of masculinity. Rather than critiquing them from a distance, they often embody and exaggerate so as to caricature them. While I savor the critical and ethical aims of both practices, I hesitate to overemphasize this role, which risks justifying their interest in the humorous and quotidian on the terms of the moral and noble. The title of Shimizu’s exhibition Trying to Be a Good Person (at Rowhouse Project, Baltimore, 2015), permits, no doubt, an ethical reading of the work. But not all of their works have grand, critical ambitions. Kagami will also show a series of “missing” posters (such those found in the city advertising missing cats) that search for things that can never be found, like missing acne. I applaud the efforts of both artists to dethrone the moralizing impulse of art through humor, without doing away with morals.
Jeanne Graff and Juliana Huxtable in conversation.
MY THING WITH JEANNE BEGAN AS A SERIES OF COINCIDENCES. I WAS WORKING A BASEMENT PARTY AND SHE CAME THERE ALONE. SHE SEEMED TO SEE SOMETHING LIKE WHAT I SAW IN THE AT-TIMES UNCOMFORTABLY CROWDED ROOM FILLED WITH CHIC AND CHIC-ADJACENT GAY MEN AND THEIR COMRADES. AN OPPORTUNITY TO BE ALONE. SHE HAD LIVED IN A HOUSE I IMAGINED IN A PASTORAL SOMEWHERE IN SWITZERLAND AND HAD A GRACEFUL RESTRAIN THAT SEEMED A BIT ANACHRONISTIC BUT UNSHACKLED FROM A MORALISTIC NOSTALGIA ABOUT WHAT IT MEANT OR DIDN’T MEAN IN RELATION TO WHATEVER THE ABSOLUTE WORST SYMBOLIZED RIGHT THEN. I GENERALLY FELT UNDERSTOOD AND BEYOND THAT HAD AN AFFINITY FOR BEING “THEM” TOGETHER.
THE BASEMENT HAD TRAINED ME WELL TO ENDURE REDUCTION TO MY ELEMENTARY PARTICLES. ALMOST INSTANTLY, JEANNE SEEMED A SALVE TO THE SCARS FROM BEING CUT UP, PROCESSED AS A GRAIN AND UNCOMFORTABLY CHEWED TO BE SPIT BACK OUT PERFORMATIVELY. WHICH IS TO SAY SHE SAW ME WHERE IT WAS QUITE DIFFICULT TO…SET UP AGAINST.
SHE WAS AS CHIC AS SHE WAS DE FACTO AWARE. AS A PRODUCT OF SOMETHING LIKE COMPREHENSION, ABSORBING CONTEXT AND CONTOURS AS CLUES TO A CONDITION, KNOWING THAT SUCH A THING EVADES APPROACH
SHE PROCESSED IN WRITING, WORKS THROUGH GAPS IN LANGUAGE (SEVERAL) WITH INFATUATED OBSERVATION AND GENEROCITY TO THOSE SHE BEFRIENDS. HER TEXTS CHOOSE TO “BE WHAT THEY ARE…” [AS THEIR SUBJECTS DEMAND IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER], GRAPPLE A MONSTROCITY AS A RITUAL OR RITE, ITS META-‘s FAINTLY ENNUNCIATING THEMSELVES IN NOTES FOR A CARD ACCOMPANYING A GIFT… OR ACTUALLY JUST THE CARD ITSELF.
VZSZHHZZ DOES AS IT SOUNDS TO A CERTAIN DEGREE, AN UNCOOTH ARRANGEMENT OF CONSONANTS THAT ENDS UP PRODUCING VOWEL-ADJACENT SOUNDS IN ITS MOVEMENTS. ITS MADE OF RECOGNIZABLE MEMBERS OF A LATIN ALPHABET, BUT ASKS IF SOMETHING IS BEING TRANSLATED (OR REFUSING TO BE ALLOWED TO) (OR DOESN’T WANT TO BE) (OR MUST BE). VOILÀ “VZSZHHZZ”
Juliana Huxtable: Where were you in your head when you first started writing this series of books?
Jeanne Graff: I was in Paris with a group of friends, and then they all left for holiday. I knew I had to do something new but didn’t know exactly what, and decided to spend the summer in Paris, and was really bored. I was trying to find a form for the press release of our show, and decided to simply write about the boxing lessons we just took.
JH: Had you ever written before? What was your relation to writing?
JG: I’ve been trying but was never happy about it. I was looking for a form that was simple, easy to read, and listening to what was around. It started with Stefan Tcherepnin. We were doing a record in New York with the band Solar Lice and I didn’t liked what I was doing, so the last day I thought maybe I should do lyrics for a song. It sounded like a crowd, random spoken words, and it was somehow about languages. Stefan made me sing, and I was happy. That moment I’ve heard my voice for the first time was important.
JH: A lot of the book is about relationships as they develop. In what ways did the fact that you were writing, always keeping these notes, observing, influence your friendships?
JG: Well, for a while there, I never thought I was writing a book.
JH: That’s the best way to write a book, when you don’t think you’re actually writing a book.
JG: I was writing these small texts that were for my friends, that I was self-publishing in little books and giving to them. Somehow it was a way for me to say that I was touched by them. To make them these gifts.
JH: Yes, it’s a kind of a gift. I liked the opportunity to see myself through someone else’s eyes also in terms of context and languages. Seeing me through your eyes added another layer to our friendship and our relationship.
JG: Because it’s an exchange.
JH: It was a lot about translation.
JG: I realized that you liked it, so we had this tacit agreement and I continued to write about you when we were in China. I was taking notes all the time.
JH: A lot of these books seem not overthought, easy to read. Also the size and the presentation are nice, they don’t take up that much space.
JG: I was trying to make it very simple, and the writing is also simple, to write about what I hear, what I see, but then after a while I became more conscious about what I was doing, about how things were constructed. When I did the chapter with Léonard, that’s your favourite one, with the boxes—
JH: Yes, when the boxes became a metaphor, it started to organize how I thought about the others. It was really symbolic—a system to read the other parts. A kind of unfolding.
JG: When I realized that, I thought I should try something else. I was repeating myself. Or, it’s more that it wasn’t natural anymore, because first it was you, Amy, Anne, John. Then I thought, I don’t want to be a portraitist because it’s really not what the book is about. So it became more about situations, cities, the weather. It’s composed, constructed, improvised.
JH: I love the language part.
JG: It’s always about the language because I was learning English as I was writing.
JH: And my version of English is very specific. Even native English speakers can’t understand me most of the time, so you were understanding more of what I was saying than many people.
JG: Your part is very personal.
JH: I’m very open. How do you feel about your person in the book? Self-seeing your reflection in the book? Because your presence in the book is not as explicit as other people in the book.
JG: It’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s too early to answer. It’s through my eyes and through my ears. I’d love to read it from your point of view. What is happening lately in your own writing practice?
JH: Right now I’m doing this cheesy exercise that a lot of writers recommend, where every morning you have to write three pages of whatever comes to your mind. The idea is that if you write enough, it clears your mind and opens space for you to channel these things that otherwise would be feelings, emotions that are built up in your head. I wonder if the process of writing opened you up to experiencing the subjects of the book in a different way.
JG: I work very slowly. It took me three years to write seventy pages, and every chapter, every line, I’ve read it maybe four hundred times. I listen to music—either your music, Stefan’s or whatever pop, film, classical music, which gives a rhythm to each chapter, because I’m trying to focus and not focus at the same time. That’s how I compose.
JH: When I write, it’s not methodical. I don’t have a “practice” that I do. This recent exercise has been interesting. All of my writing is generally observational. When I first started to write, it was very personal for me. What are you writing about now?
JG: Tastes, death, the weather, the fires last summer in Porto, the drivers in Athens. Now, I recognize the moments that will be interesting to write about. I’ve been trained somehow. I never know in advance, but when the moments happen, I recognize them. First it was more that I didn’t want to forget. When I met you that night, when you told me your story, I was so touched that I thought, “I’m going to write it down and give it to you.” It’s an exchange. That’s the night when we really became close friends.
All these words form the people who touch me, I know them all by heart. For example when these Athens drivers started to speak, I thought the way they were describing their situations and the city—I had to write it down and give them back to them. They were saying, “We have been sold, we are for sale, we have been sold like stones, our price changes every day, and here after this tree, after this tree, after this tree, you will see just for a while the Acropolis, it’s so old, it’s war, warm here . . .”
What are you writing about?
JH: A lot of my writing begins in a very diaristic way. I’ve always kept a diary since I was a kid, ten years old. Later, the references became not about me, but external. Writing about myself became a way to write about larger ideas.
JG: Do you hear the voices of certain people in your head? That happens to me.
JH: My father used to tell me, and I could hear his voice saying in a deterministic way, that your weight in high school is always the weight you’ll return to; you’ll never escape. Maybe what he really meant was that I was going to be a failure academically because I was bad at high school. In any case, it always terrified me. Fear of determinism. Your books are also about cities, travels, but without having the labels, without saying, “it’s about relationships, it’s about art.” It doesn’t need to announce these things but it deals with feminism, multiculturalism, all these things that I’m thinking about.
JG: It’s very precise. And you know what I think. Dire les choses sans les dire. It’s kind of strange to think that people we don’t know are going to read this book, no? I have trouble thinking about that. I don’t really like it.
JH: I know. Books are weird. What’s your editing process? For some people it’s about removing, and what’s left is the form.
JG: It really depends. I write some parts, then I leave them for months, sometimes a year, and then there is another situation that could fit, and I find a way to link them together, so it’s smooth to read. I will reread a chapter sometimes hundreds of times to know it could fit with another one. Some of them I’ve done in a day. Other times when I’m not happy about a sentence, or how the paragraphs are linked, I’ll think about it obsessively for months to find the solution. It can take months to figure out a sentence that leads to another one. One sentence leads to another one and another one.