Jordan Casteel for Interview Magazine
Jordan Casteel applied to Yale’s MFA program on a dare from her mother. “She and I were googling ‘best art schools,’” says the 28-year-old Colorado native. “Yale popped up first. I applied with no expectations.” The university responded favorably to the young artist’s leap of faith, and three years after graduating, Casteel still considers the experience a formative one. “I was lucky enough to grow up with work by Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, and Jacob Lawrence,” she says. “But it wasn’t until I got to school that I found artists like Kerry James Marshall and Henry Taylor. They helped me formulate my own voice, my own style.”
Like Marshall and Taylor, Casteel focuses on representations of the black body. Where she differs is in perspective: her canvases are informed by the female gaze, and as a result, she tends to focus on men. Pushing against the preposterous yet pervasive generalizations of black men as aggressors, the artist infuses her subjects with tender contradictions, such as Miles and Jojo, a 2015 painting of a father and son with a toothy stuffed monster propped in the son’s arms. The intimacy of the work can be traced to her painting process, which begins with photography. “I take hundreds of images,” Casteel says. “Very rarely does a singular shot determine the whole composition.” Casteel’s muses have varied from actors to friends, often posed in cramped domestic interiors in various states of undress.
Recently, she’s begun approaching strangers she encounters on the street during her commute from her apartment in Harlem to her studio in Brooklyn. “So often in New York we just walk by each other,” Casteel says. “I wanted to find a way to engage.” To her surprise, most have been open to posing for her camera. “When I ask someone if I can take their picture, I have to step outside my comfort zone,” says the self-proclaimed introvert. “I think if that discomfort went away, I would find something else to paint. For me, it’s about this kind of two-sided generosity.”
For her solo show at New York’s Casey Kaplan gallery in September, Casteel plans to unveil a new series inspired by Harlem nights. Such scenes include a painting of a man with dreadlocks walking two small dogs down the sidewalk and an elderly man, illuminated by an open door, lounging in a plastic lawn chair. As with all her shows, Casteel will invite her subjects to the opening. “A huge part of my work comes from the desire to create community,” she says. “The paintings have the lifespan of an object, but the relationships have a history, a life, of their own.” –Kat Herriman
Photography: Sebastian Kim; Styling: Michelle Cameron
The New Yorker: Goings on About Town
With his invention of the Dramastics, a fictional punk band, the Texas-born, Brooklyn-based artist introduces figuration to his abstract lexicon, crossing the biomorphism of Miró and Calder with a confetti-colored cartoon realm. The band stars in Carter’s short film “The Dramastics Are Loud.” But the action, while undeniably charming, pales in comparison with the meticulous detail and handcrafted beauty of the paper-and-wire figures and the dioramalike sets, which were used to create the stop-motion animation. This bright, appealing world, which might have been built by a team of sophisticated bowerbirds, is displayed in the gallery, where we see the young women rehearsing, performing in dives, and touring the world (with a noteworthy stop in Paris). Airy sculptures and colorful drawings—Carter collectively titles these abstractions “The Fascinators”—fill out the installation, but it’s the Dramastics who steal the show.
The New York Times: What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week
The Dramastics are an all-girl punk band that invaded the imagination of the sculptor Nathan Carter in 2014. He hadn’t made figurative work before, but the band’s members came suddenly to life in his studio as paper dolls with exaggerated, slender proportions, naïvely drawn faces, and a perfect pop color scheme of Parisian bleu, blanc and rouge. He also constructed friends, rivals and venues, all on display in his latest show, in a busy, eager-to-please installation; wrote and recorded songs; and made an entertainingly silly animated concert video, which screened at the installation’s opening.
But the stars of this gallery show, as such, are six wall-mounted sculptures more in line with Mr. Carter’s earlier work. (Their connection to the band is that they are notionally “fascinators,” or decorative hats for the characters.) Made from found aluminum painted in an old-school but eye-catching palette of pastel and primary colors with latex enamel, these explosive swoops and swooshes balance the fun-for-fun’s-sake cheer of the Dramastics project with enough formal rigor to make the immediate hit of optical pleasure more lasting. In “Fascinator for Abby Abstract,” a spiral of thin lines is ornamented with half-moons of magenta and blue; in “Fascinator for Hyped-up Harriet,” a small yellow circle perches atop a lavender bow like a diffident moon.
Nathan Carter Film Screening and Live Performance
Liam Gillick in Conversation: We Need to Talk About Community
Artist Liam Gillick, designer Peter Saville and curator Matthew Higgs discuss New Order + Liam Gillick: So it goes.. and True Faith, two MIF17 projects exploring the ongoing legacy of New Order and Joy Division, and will analyse the mercurial chemistry that unites artistic communities.
We Need to Talk About Community is part of Interdependence: We Need to Talk, six themed sessions of provocative conversation and new ideas staged every Saturday during MIF17.
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* President John Kennedy once said to former Vice President Richard Nixon, “It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a President to handle, isn’t it? I mean – who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25 in comparison to something like this?” Nixon couldn’t agree more. But Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, who inherited the office at 12:30 p.m. on Nov 22nd of 1963 wasn’t so comfortable with the idea. While he succeeded in making Congress work like no one before or after and achieved the most forward domestic reforms since Roosevelt, the rest of the world would be his undoing. Especially a distant corner of the planet known as South East Asia.
How one makes decisions says a lot about how one governs. Many of the events of the 1950s and 60s can be understood by tracing the different decision making templates of the different administrations. L.B.J. preferred close intimates upon whom he could insist on loyalty and control. The glacier of information concerning Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia would be condensed over and over again until it reached a private room of 4-6 men referred to as the “Tuesday Lunch Group.” The group of intimates would meet weekly in the Whitehouse Dinning room to decide matters ranging from general policy to bombing targets. What was to be America’s longest war* was an around the clock concern, but many of the most important decisions were faced over the Sheraton dining table aside Truman’s china set. – M.E.B., 2017
Jordan Casteel featured by Art21
Frustrated by her twin brother’s experiences with racial profiling, Casteel began painting portraits of her those in her community—friends, family members, boyfriends, and eventually strangers on the streets of her adopted neighborhood of Harlem.
The ARTNEWS Accord: Kevin Beasley and Kellie Jones in Conversation
Kevin Beasley is an artist in his early 30s whose work with sculpture and sound has drawn on his upbringing in rural Virginia and, from his current home in New York, his communion with markers of African-American history, among other sources. Disused housedresses suggestive of empowered domesticity and abstract samples from the music of deceased ’90s-era hip-hop stars are just two aspects of his work’s evolving internal language. Kellie Jones is an art historian who grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s in New York with epochal parents—the writers LeRoi Jones (a.k.a. Amiri Baraka) and Hettie Jones—and whose work as a curator and scholar has focused in part on hidden histories of African-American art.
Over dinner at Red Rooster in Harlem, Beasley and Jones joined ARTnews to discuss Jones’s new book, South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (Duke University Press), and Beasley’s recent project at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, an installation inspired by a historic image of black activist Huey P. Newton and an altarpiece by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome. For Jones, dinner included Helga’s Meatballs, a dish created in tribute to Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson’s grandmother, and iced coffee. For Beasley, the Fried Yardbird and a Harlem Mule (scotch, ginger beer, lime, and basil).
Kevin Beasley: I just spent five weeks in California and, when I left L.A. for the Bay Area, I got your book: the energy, the vibe—everything about it is amazing.
Kellie Jones: Thank you! You went to [collector] Pamela Joyner’s spot? I remember you mentioned that when we saw each other at her book launch. Did it turn out to be everything you thought?
Beasley: It’s a small compound she has in Sonoma County with her husband [Fred Giuffrida, with whom she helms the Joyner/Giuffrida collection of African-diasporan art]. It’s a house that you can work in, and there’s a garage you can use as a studio, with tools and anything you need. It’s like a vacation from the diligence of being in the studio. You can relax and have the means to make work. I produced a lot more ideas because I wasn’t tied to the regularity of my studio. It was out of my routine, so it has been rejuvenating to come back, rethink, move things around.
ARTnews: Before we get to the specifics of California, let’s wind back to the beginning: What are your earliest memories of art—when were your interests kindled?
Jones: Let the artist go first.
Beasley: I was always drawing, but when I was about 9 or 10, my mom intervened. At the public school I was in, there were no art classes I could take. If you were on an academic track that was advanced for whatever reason, there was always a conflict with anything considered extracurricular. So my mom was like, “You’re going to take private lessons,” and she would drive me every Saturday to a little shopping center where this woman and her husband taught classes. It was a framing and art supply store. They would show me techniques of shading, drawing cartoons and video-game figures and all sorts of things. Then I remember an acceleration of materials. They would start everyone with graphite and move you into colored pencils, pastels, watercolors, and then slowly graduate you to oil. By the time I was 13, that was all I was doing: oil paint, turpentine, killing brain cells.
Jones: You had to become an artist after that. [Laughs]
Beasley: I was cultivated by my parents: there was always support from my mom and dad, and that was pivotal for me.
ARTnews: Kellie, how about your early years?
Jones: I was born into a family of artists. I grew up in downtown New York, so I was always around artists and musicians like Al Loving, Jack Whitten—I used to babysit Jack’s daughter. I was around the people who made SoHo. Elizabeth Murray was my elementary school art teacher. In my book EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Duke, 2011), I describe a painting by Bob Thompson called LeRoi Jones and His Family, from 1964. It was unfinished, and I actually signed the painting: you can see “KELLIE.” Joseph Hirshhorn bought it before it was finished and, to every director of the Hirshhorn Museum, I say, “I signed that, so you can give me the painting.” It doesn’t really work. [Laughs] That’s one of my earliest memories—my earliest memories are all about artists.
When I went to college I was shocked that people thought artists meant dead artists, because all the ones I knew were alive. That was a gift. I never wanted to become an artist because I didn’t want to be broke, but I realized it was a great privilege to have grown up with artists. Both of my parents were poets—who has that opportunity?
ARTnews: When did you start traveling to California?
Jones: I started going to L.A. in the ’80s. One of the first places I went was Charles White Park in Altadena. I was amazed by a park named after an artist; I like that. The genesis of the South of Pico project in particular came from my work with David Hammons as a curator. In an interview with him from 1986, he told me about all these artists I’d never heard of, particularly Noah Purifoy. I wanted to know where David came from. David became well-known in the ’90s as a genius, but he actually comes from a community, and I wanted to know more. He talked about it very reverently. He always gives credit to that California scene for nurturing who he is. So the seed was planted, and then, working with Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, and Melvin Edwards, I heard more about artists I’d never known. People always say New York is the center of the art world, and that we started talking about ideas of multiculturalism and diversity in the art world in the ’80s and ’90s. But for me, it begins with these people coming from L.A.
ARTnews: Kevin, how much or little did artists in South of Pico figure into your early education?
Beasley: I grew up in a small town, and it wasn’t until I moved to Detroit that I had access to shows in person. The first working artist I met was a local artist I apprenticed with. He wasn’t featured in Artforum or ARTnews. Going to Detroit introduced me to artists like Hammons. It’s hard for me to know how they influenced my work, but I know that it hasn’t been conscious—in part because these artists weren’t getting big features like Richard Serra or other white artists who were having major shows and retrospectives. Martin Puryear’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2007—that, to me, felt like the first time I’d seen a major retrospective of a black artist in person.
ARTnews: You grew up exposed to that history from birth. Were you aware that other people were not steeped in the same knowledge?
Jones: I had no idea. I got to college and I was shocked. I also went to an arts high school: some of my peers were Hilton Als, Whitfield Lovell, Fred Wilson. Three of us from that high school are MacArthur geniuses, from a public high school. It was a diverse place, and we would look at books and nobody looked like the people in our school. We would think, “Hmm, this is weird.” Later, when I got to college, I realized none of the books had the people I knew, so I had to search them out. When you’re a child, you think the whole world is like your world. Growing up in New York, you think everyone knows the world as a varied place—but sometimes they don’t.
Beasley: When I think about the exclusion of people like Hammons from books, it’s systemic in the way it functions and operates to exclude people from the conversation. There’s energy to remedy that with what institutions are doing now, but it’s like, Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series on view at MoMA—really, that just happened, after such a long time? It’s good but also frustrating.
ARTnews: When you went to Detroit for school, it took a little while before you moved fully into art. What was your trajectory there?
Beasley: My initial interest was in automotive design. I felt I had an artistic ability but didn’t want to be broke, and I had an interest in car culture. My dad was really into it, and my first car was a 1970 Dodge Dart Swinger—bought it for $900 and fixed it up. My first teacher was actually on the design team for that car. In Detroit you had access to designers who worked directly in the industry, but there were all these ethical issues—like what the auto industry stands for—that were severely problematic. Detroit is a brown city, and it’s struggling intensely on all levels. There’s racism and segregation; people are leaving. I realized I didn’t want to put my creative energy for the rest of my life into that industry. I felt like what was most important to me was taking my creative energy and addressing things that were important to me.
ARTnews: We’ve talked some in the past about your aversion to the design concept of “planned obsolescence.” How did that figure in?
Beasley: Money and technology don’t necessarily mix, because technology affords us something else: possibility. The idea of making income and revenue always controls business decisions. In order to continue gaining revenue, you’ll design a product that will last only a year or two. You design it that way intentionally, knowing it’s going to be obsolete. For me, it was overwhelming to think about that, so I was like, “Fuck this, I’m going into painting.” I just walked over to fine arts and said, “OK, I’m going to put my energies to this and have more control over the kinds of questions I want to ask. And if I bring something up in a conversation or critique, the room would consider it rather than suppress it.”
ARTnews: One theme running through South of Pico is how these artists related to the materials they used in an attempt to transfigure objects that had been neglected or disused—and how radical such a choice was at the time.
Jones: What’s radical is to see the years of intense assemblage practice. Part of that is tied to urban renewal and tearing down buildings, many of them in black or mixed neighborhoods. The essence of the work was basically built on the destruction of neighborhoods of color. That’s assemblage in one aspect, for artists like Edward Kienholz or Bruce Conner, who were going into these neighborhoods and thinking about this stuff. Kienholz’s installation Roxys (1960–61) is made from buildings on the Central Avenue strip in Watts, which was a thriving black center until it was labeled “blighted” and torn up. That’s where he got his stuff, from a nightclub that was torn down. The destruction of a black space becomes the fire for making art.
For African-American artists, one of the key events was the Watts Rebellion of 1965. People like Purifoy decided that, since they have already been getting into assemblage, they’re going to take from the destruction and do a show, which became “66 Signs of Neon” [a collective work and exhibition]. That started this thought of consciously taking aspects of black rebellion and refiguring them into art. It’s different from urban renewal—something instead about rebellion and the efficacy of rebellion as the basis for art. Through this black agency, or black power, artists said, “This is what happened, and we’re going to make something live from it.” It was an interesting turn, and you see John Outterbridge, Purifoy, Betye Saar, and John T. Riddle Jr. really move into it. Hammons is there at the time and approaches it in a slightly different way. These are his mentors.
ARTnews: It’s interesting to think about work by those artists in contrast to the “finish fetish” art then gaining favor elsewhere in L.A.
Jones: Finish fetish is an L.A. version of Minimalism, taking things and shining them up, taking the dusty edge off. It turns on materials from the aerospace industry, which is big there, versus the kind of industrial East Coast aesthetic of Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris. It’s all about car-customizing and surf boards—very California. And then you have “funk” in the Bay Area, which is a kind of more aestheticized assemblage.
ARTnews: Kevin, when you began thinking of your project for the Hammer Museum, how did you conceive of working there, in a different place?
Beasley: It was the first major thing I’ve done in L.A., and it all started with the chair [from an iconic photograph of Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party]. That image burns into your retina—it has stayed in my life for a very long time. The Bernini altarpiece I saw when I did an exchange program in eighth grade and went to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I was awestruck. But it all really came when I started loosely searching for that chair on eBay and Craigslist, not really knowing what I’d do with it but wanting to have it. It took me three years to find—people throw them out because they fall apart and are not worth selling. That decor—no one really wants it.
When I found the chair, I brought it into the studio. I looked at it and was thinking about it next to sculptures of mine of housedresses that referenced configuration and bodies or the lack of bodies. The conversations for those were around Renaissance sculptures, so I went directly to Bernini at St. Peter’s. I was apprehensive because they’re both iconic, and putting them together means having to answer a lot of questions. But that’s what made me pursue it: putting two powerful representations from very different places in one context and then thinking, “What is my relation to it? How can a conversation take place?” We’re talking about the Black Panther Party and Catholicism and how, for artists, sculptures are meant to represent the ultimate, most powerful presence in the world. I have no connection to St. Peter’s beyond going and being amazed. As an artist I was interested, but I didn’t see myself in it. Whereas this image of Huey Newton—I could immediately see myself in that.
ARTnews: How is the space at the Hammer significant for you?
Beasley: I learned the space in the Hammer was actually specifically constructed for Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester—that’s why it has an arched ceiling, to provide an ethereal experience when you were looking at this da Vinci that the Hammer actually sold. Bill Gates bought it, and it funds their programming. So that means, in some weird loop, the sale of a da Vinci allowed me to have a production budget. It’s a long stretch, but it’s also not that far. All throughout, I tried to interject references, like guinea fowl feathers instead of a dove—the guinea fowl is native to Africa, a bird of protection and defense—or putting Zulu and Maasai warrior shields in a space with housedresses that come from a shop in Harlem. I was able to take my experience and things I was thinking about and put them in that space.
ARTnews: Kellie, in South of Pico you write powerfully about a sense of place in relation to Los Angeles. What was most distinctive about L.A. during the period your book covers?
Jones: What we know about African-American culture in the 20th century doesn’t really take into account how things were changed by a massive migration of people all over the country. L.A. was kind of the end point of that migration. Communities are more separate there than in New York, but people created communities where they could go. Because there was no real place for black people to show, they had to create their own. For me, it parallels the way, if a black person got hired in a shipyard or in the aerospace industry, they would have these informal schools in people’s garages and teach each other the necessary skills. Have you seen Hidden Figures [the 2016 film about African-American women working at NASA], when Octavia Spencer gets a book about IBM from the white section of the library and teaches a whole group of women how to program computers? That’s real—that’s what happened.
Beasley: That was one of the remarkable things I found in the book: how, for so many of the artists, their connection to the community was synonymous with their practice—it was just something they would do. There is a collectivity in that. Even if the work is different and you get into arguments about how to arrive at a certain idea, the fact is that you’re still in all of it together. I think about Purifoy, how he didn’t really consider himself an artist, but then the space that he created was so generous to artists and the kinds of conversations and things they were making. It was so much about creating a particular kind of energy that would cultivate a free-thinking but also challenging space. That’s what I want, but it’s really difficult.
ARTnews: What do you think are the prospects for that kind of collective energy now? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
Beasley: L.A. seems more viable for that. Look at the Underground Museum and Noah Davis—what he embarked on, his vision, what he wanted to do, and, before his untimely death, what that involvement was like. The institution is doing a lot of amazing work now too. In New York, honestly, it doesn’t seem viable unless you have lots of funding, which is what it ultimately comes down to. In L.A., it still feels like you don’t need the kinds of money you need in New York. I have a really pessimistic view of New York being able to cultivate.
ARTnews: How about the notion of political art in the present? Kellie, how do you feel about the prospect of art meaning what it did in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s?
Jones: Art always responds to its time. There are so many creative posters at all these marches, pussy hats—there’s always a response. When I worked on the exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” [at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014], people were shocked to find that artists like Frank Stella and Jim Dine had done work that was political, that sold in galleries to support racial equality. The Stella we had was called Malcolm’s Bouquet, which was painted in 1965 after Malcolm X died. At that time, the idea of political art for canonical artists wasn’t really talked about because it might change their sales. But, also, art historians were not as interested. I didn’t even know about these works until I started doing research.
Someone like Norman Rockwell—I’d tell people he was an artist of the civil rights movement and people were like, “What?!” His works that are most radically about the diversity of our country he couldn’t do for the Saturday Evening Post, so he left after decades and went to Look magazine, because they allowed him to do works where people are seen as equal, not in a hierarchy of white subject over black subject. And then think of Philip Guston, when he starts doing those Ku Klux Klan pictures, going from abstraction to figuration in conversation with people like Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam, Betye Saar. People haven’t really thought about conversations that American artists were having at the time about changing the world and changing our country. Those conversations were happening, and they will happen again. They are happening.
Beasley: I can’t go into the studio without thinking that there’s some kind of politics to what I’m doing. For me, I’m trying to understand the kind of works I’m making. Where are they going? What are they for? For some of these things you don’t have as much control as you think, but for a lot you do—to make a decision, to put something out, to invite someone into your space, to have a conversation. I feel like artists have potential in political movements by the simple fact that we’re here. Artists have always been a part of political movements, as human beings willing to voice opposition or support. There will always be responders, and I think it has an impact because it affects people’s way of reading and understanding the world with a different perspective than you would get from political talking heads. There are other forms to the way people receive information and experience the world, and artists are part of that.
ARTnews: Where do you see it most prominently?
Beasley: On a local level, streetwise, come to Harlem and just walk around. When I was at the Studio Museum [as an artist-in-residence in 2013–14], I used to love walking down the street, because I knew that every day I would see an image of civil rights leaders without having to search for them. Just walk down the block and they’re there. That reminded me: that’s what artists can do.
ARTnews: There is a resonant quote in South of Pico from John Outterbridge: “When I use the term art,” he says, “I always think of it as whatever I need it to be. You’re lucky when you can do selfish things that have relevancy to someone else. Who needs a little box that I build out of my anguish? Maybe I do for the moment.”
Jones: I think art and creativity are an intervention. Artists like Purifoy and Outterbridge were all about creativity, and without creativity we can’t change. That’s what artists bring into the world. For Outterbridge, that was a privilege, and it also came from histories of black people creating vernacular installations and yard shows that were about beautification and protection—things you would put on your property, like scarecrows to protect your crops but also to protect the land from confidence men and the like. Outterbridge drew on that, having grown up in the South and seeing how people marked the land in ways that gave them power. It could be some throwaway thing recycled, but it is actually an object invested with great power of possession in a space that is inequitable.
Beasley: Did you read about how Nina Simone’s house has been bought by Rashid Johnson, Adam Pendleton, Ellen Gallagher, and Julie Mehretu? They pooled their money and bought the house she grew up in, in North Carolina. To take over a historical space—to have it, keep it, maintain it—as artists, that’s something we can do.
Jones: That’s part of what’s interesting to me about your work: you being from the South. Many artists in the book are from the South or part of that generation that came out of the South. Charles White, who was born in Chicago, his family was from Mississippi. Every black person in modern and contemporary times is touched by that. My family was from South Carolina, and reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration , I saw some of the same stories, almost word-for-word, in the book. It’s amazing how much the world is touched by that movement, that migration of people, which still resonates. I see it in your work, in the kind of burden in your work recently and the confluence of urban and Southern space remade through your housedresses and other things.
ARTnews: Do you go back to the South? Have you gone back since the presidential election?
Beasley: I did the Rauschenberg Foundation residency in Captiva Island, Florida, last December. Captiva Island is in the Gulf of Mexico. My gallery said I should come over to Miami for Art Basel Miami Beach, but as I was turning it around in my head I was like, “I’m in Florida: I’m not going to get in a car and drive three hours across the state—that’s like a death sentence.” It was the first time I thought maybe I shouldn’t. I didn’t need to go, and I could just avoid something maybe happening. I didn’t need to go find a problem, find an issue. But that was already there before the election, which was just the most public declaration of how deep-seated racism is. No one can deny it, not a single person, so that emboldens people and made me think, “Do I have to go home to Virginia for the holidays?” Instead I invited my parents here, and we drove around Harlem and went and saw family in Brooklyn.
Jones: That’s also a parallel with people like Outterbridge, who couldn’t go to school near his home [he was born in Greenville, North Carolina] so he had to go farther away, to Chicago and then California. He knew he couldn’t go back there, and Hammons and Purifoy knew they couldn’t go back. I think it’s the same idea: something is still home, but there’s that space in between—between appreciation and reality.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 24 under the title “Kevin Beasley & Kellie Jones.”
Kevin Beasley Review in Frieze
By IAN BOURLAND
Beasley, a graduate of Yale’s sculpture program, is an unquestionably rising star, set to join the ranks of other mixed-media artists who deal with signifiers of urban blackness, like Theaster Gates, Rashid Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas. But ‘Sport/Utility’ more clearly calls to mind a cultural moment from over three decades ago. In the early 1980s, Jeff Koons consciously updated Marcel Duchamp’s proposition that an artist is a ‘chooser’ who gives once-useful objects new meanings (and later, a new commodity status) by placing them in a fine art context. Many wondered, though, whether Koons’s recontextualized Hoovers or basketballs served as a canny critique of the art world, or merely as a self-enriching joke. At roughly the same time, David Hammons’s Higher Goals (1986) merged urban detritus with the lofty possibilities associated with basketball during the era of Michael Jordan. That work was a cautionary tale, suggesting athletics was a narrow, even illusory, path. But the collaborative, public installation also suggested a ‘higher’ goal of collectivity and community. Hammons also resisted the commodification of his work, famously sculpting with dung, or selling melting snowballs. Beasley seems to have both precedents in mind: the text that accompanies the show points to his desire to ‘re-establish the meaning of a symbol or image’ in the gallery, but he also has large-scale acoustic reflectors on display as part of inHarlem, the Studio Museum’s initiative in a public park.
In ‘Sport/Utility’, the most powerful works are precisely the unspectacular ones. Untitled (Petrified) conjoins two colliding NFL helmets in a spongy, putrefied mass, evoking the gladiatorial quality of professional football and the brain trauma it often causes. Billy’s Clubs nods to the police billy club, but highlights the disturbing name of an actual brand of golf driver, here pooling in inky liquid. It is concise and visceral, a perfect index fossil of an era of police violence and a governing class that takes its meetings at golf resorts that were long served by black caddies.
Still, one leaves ‘Sport/Utility’ unsettled not necessarily by the work itself, but by its context. Beasley’s play of sublimation and desublimation is technically skilful, but it still works mainly to shift potent symbols of black poverty and consumerism into a different register of consumption altogether – another déjà vu moment. Those who participated in the debates of the 1990s will likely remember David Samuels’s 1991 New Republic article that demonstrated that gangster rap’s core audience was composed primarily of titillated white suburbanites; and by 1999, Kobena Mercer warned that the price of a ‘multicultural’ art world might be that diaspora artists were expected to traffic in signifiers of ‘hyperblackness’ while meaningful equity remained elusive.
Beasley’s work confirms that these are still meaningful provocations, and it is difficult to see ‘Sport/Utility’ without wondering whether, in another context, the artist’s work would court racial fetishism or subvert it. This risk is, arguably, why Kara Walker paired her own spectacular 2014 installation at Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar factory with a retrospective video titled An Audience, reflecting on the commodification – either in money or in social media capital – of black suffering. Perhaps, then, this show is something of a Trojan Horse for Beasley, an augur of more conceptually-subtle work to follow.
Group Show “little lower layer” at MCA Chicago Including Simon Starling
What lies below, within, or beyond a surface? The thirteen international artists included in little lower layer—an exhibition drawn largely from the MCA collection and spanning the 1970s to the present—scrape, scramble, puncture, or otherwise interrogate surfaces. Breaking down the walls, blockages, and fixed assumptions that their materials present, these artists engage a political imagination that is particularly urgent now: moving from what is to what could be.
Not coincidentally, techniques like digging through layers and rearranging patterns result in works that take a critical approach to their subject matter, whether buried histories, stubborn borders, or entrenched narratives of power and control. Jack Whitten scrapes away paint to reveal repressed symbols, Paul Chan reorders constellations as monuments to imperiled civil liberties, Simon Starling exposes photography’s connection to ecological exploitation, and Kate Gilmore dons stilettos to punch and kick her way through solid matter.
The title comes from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which Captain Ahab is transfixed by his quest to hunt down the white whale. Yearning to grasp the mystery at the center of his obsession, he is certain that some “little lower layer” of meaning exists below the veneer of appearances that masks the truth. “If man will strike, strike through the mask!” he declares. “How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” With an eye toward withheld images and untold stories, the artists in this exhibition challenge us to look deeply, think critically, and confront a politics of what we can—and cannot—see, discuss, and access.
The exhibition is organized by Nina Wexelblatt, Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow. It is presented in the McCormick Tribune Orientation Gallery on the museum’s second floor.
Sarah Crowner Wall (Hot Blue Terra Cotta) at MASS MoCA
Sarah Crowner’s 10 × 20 foot tile mural Wall (Hot Blue Terra Cotta)— fabricated for her recent MASS MoCA exhibition — now guides visitors in and out of the museum’s new gallery spaces. Known for her bold and graphic work in a variety of mediums spanning the fine and applied arts, Crowner finds the forms and patterns of abstraction in the everyday. Her monumental structure transforms painting into architecture (and vice versa), with the imperfections and eccentricities of the hand-glazed tiles functioning like a painter’s gestures.
Kevin Beasley in conversation with Francesco Tenaglia for Mousse Magazine
Silence is not neutral: Kevin Beasley
Sport/Utility is Kevin Beasley’s second solo show at Casey Kaplan in New York. Beasley uses sports, cars, headgear, and more to produce complex and allusive stories that speak to black histories and realities in the United States. Here he discusses recent works and latest concerns, from Cadillacs to du-rags to Detroit to activated air conditioners.
Francesco Tenaglia: A couple of years ago I left work late, hungry, and went to a pizzeria near my house in Milan. There, the TV was showing—with the volume turned off—a game of a minor foreign soccer league. I sat there, eating alone while watching the game, and started to think about how sports are the major entertainment industry on the planet, but if you just watch the basics and don’t have any cultural or social involvement, you can see it as a very formalized, non-narrative, hyper-regulated spectacle in which little unexpected is likely to happen. For me your Casey Kaplan show is interesting because it operates the other way around: by taking the side of exuberant cultural references and taming them, making them formal. Are you interested in sports yourself? And how do you use sports in the pieces in the show?
Kevin Beasley: I was an athlete until my final year of high school, but I never really thought deeply then about how sports operate in society. That was something that gradually came along within the development of my artistic practice, and it provides me with a way to ask deeper questions about sports’ political, social, and cultural relevance. I have discovered that I’m interested in bringing these issues back home—or, rather, recognizing them as existing on a daily basis. Not that the reality of certain conditions experienced on the field aren’t important, but I feel the need to connect to, as you have described, these encounters as we watch them in our homes. As an example, Colin Kaepernick’s protest against the US national anthem became a lightning rod for discussing police brutality, race, and nationalism, while also literally bringing the issue into every sports fan’s living room.
The exhibition is laid out like the interior and exterior of a home. As you walk into the gallery, you are outside and all objects pertain to being outdoors—the back of the air conditioning unit, the golf clubs with the police enforcement billy club and American football helmets—all revolving around an exterior bodily trauma. As you proceed, you enter the driveway/garage where the car is located, and the interior of the home is where the NBA jerseys are used as elements of sound control, the face of the AC unit projects an audio of blowing air, and the du-rags—intended to be worn inside and overnight—hang among other objects. So I’m using sports as an entry point to some complicated issues we’re all struggling with: race, police brutality, power.
FT: You’ve used du-rags in a consistent way in various shows. For readers who aren’t familiar with their history, can you explain them, and your interest in them?
KB: Alright, bear with me on this, because I’d like to give some context. The du-rag is a hair-care product – one of many that are not only used to style and condition black hair types, but are also at the center of both establishing empowerment and reconciling repression. The history of black hair and how society has made it its business to say what it should be and look like runs deep, so products like the du-rag, although they’ve been in use for centuries, are politicized in order to destabilize the individuality and strength of black culture. Many people favor straight hair over kinked and curly, so there has been an active effort to reverse that perception. From Marcus Garvey to Angela Davis, cornrows and afros didn’t just pop up as a trend over the past twenty-five years—they were strategically worn for several decades to give rise to an empowerment movement and keep folks alive. So images of black bodies have been under constant attack, down to the way we treat our hair. There are very recent instances where, under the law, the wearing of natural hairstyles is not protected from discrimination. For instance the case of Melba Tolliver, a television news anchor in the 1970s who was fired for wearing an afro while covering a high-profile wedding.
The history is vast and appalling, and I would be lying if I claimed to understand it in its entirety. In any case, these gestures of using the du-rag in my practice became an entry point for me and hopefully others to better understand the implications of the multiple behaviors, attitudes, reactions, and declarations surrounding a black aesthetic. The du-rag was banned by the National Football League and National Basketball Association in America in the late 1990s / early 2000s, and I am asking why. Because when you ask everyone why, there are a million different answers that either address respectability politics or refer to its relationship to criminality. As if the du-rag was a cause and perpetuator of violence. In the end, it’s worn to protect the hair and condition its texture. It’s similar to hair rollers, which are rarely worn outside, but black folks are creative like that and asked, why not? It became subversive, and the powers that be have been trying to shut it down ever since. And this is why, for the show, the du-rags are entangled with neckties because they represent opposite ends of the spectrum, yet both are used to present an image. The dichotomy is that oftentimes, black men are caught in between, which presents certain fragility and vulnerability in the male construction, which I think is very important to expose and confront.
FT: I love how there is a form of mineralization, of becoming detritus or an archaeological find, in some of the works in the show. Would you explain your interest in this, and your process of manipulating ordinary objects and materials for your sculptures?
KB: It’s a way for me to process and crystallize the way I am thinking about these objects culturally, socially, and politically. To form them, mold them, shape them, and recognize time. It is a way of making sculpture that allows me to pack what I’m thinking about into the work. This might happen literally, or it might be a matter of what I’m thinking about—imbuing a form with a sense of purpose just by allowing my concerns into the studio.
I made the billy clubs while at the Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva, Florida, so there are artifacts such as seashells and debris from his estate in that work. In some strange way I wanted the work to feel crystallized in its current state, as if it has been that way for ages. My hands literally rub and touch every surface, and that kind of contact is important to me in order to transfer something into the objects that maybe a more fabricated process cannot achieve. Dipping the objects in resin or pouring foam over them is an important part of the process—especially rubbing the material into the pockets and crevices—because there is a transfer of information.
FT: You studied as a car designer in Detroit. Is there an influence or a direct reference to that background in the work Sport/Utility (2017)?
KB: I studied automotive design for almost two years and decided it wasn’t where I wanted to put my creative energy for the rest of my life. But because I love Detroit and the people there, I’ve always been apprehensive of creating work that directly references my time there and/or the conditions of that city—really out of a profound respect for the complexity of its situations. But when this project came around, I was deeply thinking about Detroit and my relationship to that city. What brought me there? The racial tension that I felt there—what was that about? How do I process its economic and social class problems? All of that is not exclusive to Detroit but became a real experience for me during my time there and could be addressed through the automotive industry.
Cadillac became the most complex narrative for me to address because there are so many layers to unpack. The Cadillac brand is the most luxurious American automotive brand one can buy, which translated into it being one of the most desirable for the black community over the past century. It was quite frankly the most valuable purchase a black family could make, besides a home, which was largely prohibited for the black community. It was interesting to discover how Cadillac fostered discriminatory policies by literally not allowing dealers to sell to potential black owners. So this is a reflection of the institutional racism that not only prevents advancement and self-worth, but also creates traumas that extend from generation to generation. Of course I can own a Cadillac now, but the knowledge that my ancestors couldn’t at one point pervades my gesture with another layer of possibility and resistance.
I contemplated buying the Cadillac from Detroit, crushing it there, and having it trailered to New York for the show, but that didn’t feel right to me. I don’t think I was ready for that kind of gesture, even though conceptually it would make sense for me. I was so invested in living with the Escalade. I have a deep interest in automobiles, and there is also a profound criticism I carry in regard to energy, class distinctions, gender marketing, race, and so much more. It becomes an object that can hold a lot of discussion about these issues, and it becomes utilitarian in its abundance of stimulation.
FT: You have worked with sound as a sculptural material in your responsive installations and performances. In this exhibition sound is used in a subtle way, disguised behind an air conditioner shell. Can you speak some about this?
KB: This is a very important work, because it enabled me to exercise my interest in sound and its multilayered effect on a space and the people within it. It is a very subtle work, but also a relentless container for a lot of major problems society has been coping with. To get back to this idea of interior and exterior: the sound is a two-channel audio projected in two separate rooms. You hear it throughout the entire exhibition, but experience it differently in each space. I worked hard to create a three-dimensional sound, not because it would be fun, but because it needed to be that in order for the object to be perceived as an air conditioner, at least initially. I wasn’t trying to fill the space with sound but rather present the many faces of audio from the object.
There is a reveal within the work, spatially and content-wise, that is increasingly important to me. This is where all of the audio from political protests, riots, interviews with black victims’ parents, and so on becomes essential. All of this content that I had been seeing and collecting had a home within an object that could literally condition the room, and that conditioning demands visibility, recognition, justice, and equality for those who are consistently marginalized for unjust reasons. It is not a happy work, and it doesn’t quite produce comfort. This is a subversion I am interested in.
FT: Again with respect to Detroit and sound, you’ve used in one of your performances a track by Theo Parrish, an innovator and cult figure of the Detroit house scene, who lamented recently the genre’s practitioners’ lack of support for Black Lives Matter, given how this art form was birthed in struggle and rooted in reactions to racism. What, in your opinion, are the most effective roles and tactics for people operating in culture to address such complex political and social issues?
KB: Techno and house have evolved significantly in productive ways, but have also been used in very regressive ways, in my opinion. This won’t be an answer solely about music, but it’s an interesting lens to look at how social and political content is dealt with by artists because some folks choose to, or choose not to, engage with it, while others can’t avoid it. Political movements, resistance, and revolutions are typically formed and propelled by language, oratory, phrases, and words, so it makes sense that the kind of music that uses poetry and various kinds of verbal language becomes our most revered political music.
Looking at why techno music came into existence, one can conclude that it was almost solely based on a disadvantaged social and economic situation for black people in Detroit. Simply because the music is celebrated and digestible doesn’t mean it isn’t politically situated. For many marginalized groups of people who are oppressed, discouraged, and/or neglected, insisting on one’s existence or “a seat at the table” is a political statement.
That said, there isn’t a single brushstroke that can determine how every practitioner should address their relationship to political and social issues. Silence is not neutral, especially when you have the ability to speak. So I prefer that we focus on being ethically situated human beings first, so that the art can express and question the complications and nuances of those varying ethics. I encourage a holistic approach to living and making so that we are building relationships in real ways, not just through aesthetic signifiers and gestures.
FT: What are you working on these days?
KB: I am working on quite a few projects that have been in the works for years, and some that will take even more years to fully realize: installations, sound compositions, performances, many many sculptures. I have been visiting more of Europe this spring and summer, particularly Rome and Athens, so as a sculptor and materially sensitive person these places have been invigorating. How do I consider this energy within my own world, and vice versa? On another note, I feel like I’m on the cusp of an LP release, as many ideas keep surfacing that I need to work out through a recording. I’ll keep listening to this intuition, and we’ll see what happens.
DIEGO PERRONE: WAR GAMES at MUSEO D’ARTE CONTEMPORANEA VILLA CROCE, GENOA
CURATED BY FRANCESCO GARUTTI
MAY 26 – JUNE 23, 2017
The Museo D’Arte Contemporanea Villa Croce is pleased to present WARGAMES, a site-specific work by Diego Perrone, realized as the first edition of the Davanti Al Mare project.
Conceived and directed by Vittorio Dapelo, and produced by the Museo D’Arte Contemporanea Villa Croce in Genoa, “DAVANTI AL MARE – ATTO I” is an experimental and open format project. Thought to be an expanded residency, the project investigates Genoa’s environment as a metaphorical and physical production space. “Davanti al mare” is presented to the public as a zone where an artist, in collaboration with a curator and publisher, constructs a site-specific work and produces an artist book using the museum’s atmosphere, and the architecture and landscape of Genoa as inspiration.
In direct relation with the weave and warp of the sea and military scenes of the Battaglia di Lepanto tapestries on display in the Sala del Naufragio, Perrone’s piece, opaque and transparent, liquid and sculptural, observes and references the images embroidered onto the Lepanto series. Fragments of boats and oars, allegorical animals and coastal landscapes are reflected ambiguously on Perrone’s newest sculpture.
From the ear and the cranium of the bas-relief in glass by Diego Perrone, two little hands emerge clasping a model of a navy ship. Between the cerebellum and the ear, by the part of the skull called the ‘temporal fossa’, objects and liquid dreams melt: a military ship as an involuntary and accidental memory, a miniaturized model maker finds himself among the hulls and embroidered weapons of the Lepanto tapestries.
WARGAMES takes its start from the desire to set up an encounter between the concave and convex, the dense and extended ideas of space typical of Perrone’s work and the city of Genoa, a place able to boost and expand the shape and the thought of it. WARGAMES takes form with the intention of building up a space where “miniature and mania, dream and violence” get close and touch each other.
ENEMY OF THE STARS ORGANIZED BY ARTIST JASON DODGE AND KRIST GRUIJTHUIJSEN
ENEMY OF THE STARS
RONALD JONES WITH DAVID HAMMONS, LOUISE LAWLER, HELMAR LERSKI, AND JULIA SCHER
ORGANIZED BY ARTIST JASON DODGE
AND KRIST GRUIJTHUIJSEN, DIRECTOR OF KW INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
KW INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART, BERLIN
MAY 20 – AUGUST 6, 2017
OPENING RECEPTION: FRIDAY, MAY 19, 7 – 10PM
Ronald Jones, Untitled (DNA Fragment from Human Chromosome 13 carrying Mutant Rb Genes also known as Malignant Oncogenes which trigger rapid Cancer Tumorigenesis), 1989, Courtesy Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection
American artist and critic Ronald Jones (born 1952) gained prominence in New York during the mid-1980s by using disparate formal and minimal languages to explore history as a medium. Through juxtapositions of historical events, innovations, discoveries, violence and fear, he explores the complex interrelation of events as they define our perception of ourselves and the world often through connecting seemingly unrelated occurrences. The relationship between the modernist code and the codes of power is the persistent theme in his work.
Following his show at the Grazer Kunstverein in 2014, which presented works to the public for the first time since his withdrawal as an artist in the mid-1990’s, the exhibition Enemy of the Stars aims to reflect and expand upon Ronald Jones’ practice.
In order to open a critical dialogue on how political ideas relate to biography, text in relation to form, and identity in relation to subject, crucial works will be placed in close dialogue with peers at the time such as David Hammons, Louise Lawler and Julia Scher as well as with historical works from Helmar Lerski.
The exhibition will be accompanied by the series Addendum,featuring worksby Jenna Bliss, K.r.m. Mooney, Sidsel Meineche Hansen and Ishion Hutchinson. Through temporary sculptural insertions, performance, film, readings and collaborative practices the series temporarily expands on, complicates, and probes the premises of the exhibition.
The exhibition Enemy of the Stars is organized by artist Jason Dodge and Krist Gruijthuijsen, Director of KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Addendum is organized by Anna Gritz, curator at KW.
The exhibition is generously supported by the U.S. Embassy Berlin, KW Freunde e. V., Members of KUNST-WERKE BERLIN e. V., and Julia Stoschek Collection. The presentation of the work of Helmar Lerski is supported by Museum Folkwang, Essen (DE). With special thanks to Christine König and Christiane Rhein.
KW INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART, BERLIN, AUGUSTSTRAßE 69, 10117 BERLIN
Geoffrey Farmer is representing Canada in the 2017 Venice Biennale
A WAY OUT OF THE MIRROR
VENICE BIENNALE 2017
MAY 13 – NOVEMBER 26, 2017
A geyser of – Allen Ginsberg reading in Washington Square Park, 1966, book wide open, bearded, right hand in pocket and then myself as a student, curious, sitting on the edge of the fountain in the courtyard of the San Francisco Art Institute waiting anxiously for a John Cage performance to begin in 1991. A duvet freshly slept in by Karl after an LSD trip in the rock formations of the Maggi River, I had to drive us to the airport the next day. The memory of standing on a cliff on the edge of the Pacific Ocean spreading the ashes of an acquaintance who died of complications due to AIDS. Listening to Kathy Acker read Gertrude Stein’s Tender buttons with Jay DeFeo’s The Rose entombed in the wall behind her and the view of Alcatraz from that conference room. The discovery by my sister of photographs from 1955 of a collision between a train and my grandfather’s lumber truck. The grandfather I never knew, whose death somehow was connected to this event, whose name I removed from my name at age 23. The death of an architect, the founder of BBPR, who died in the Gusen concentration camp. Gian Luigi Banfi. Ten years later the firm designed our Pavilion. A page from an epic poem that quotes an artist “the key is in the sunlight,” page 33, Kaddish. Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, water from Walden Pond. An image of a man penetrated by a wide variety of weapons like the ones found in Johannes de Ketham’s Fasciculus Medicinae, Venice, 1491. A tortoise stool found in the coffee room of a foundry meant for the chief to sit on. Germaine Richier’s La Mante, grande (1946 – 1951) as a self-portrait at age 18, when I didn’t die like I thought I would. Pieces of metal removed from the ruins of Peter Pitseolak High School which burned down in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, and the promise I made to help rebuild its library. A livestock water trough that survived WWII in an open field in St. Gallen, Switzerland, given to me as a gift from a farmer. Masegni stones found by Luca, excavated in the Euganean Hills some as old as the 1600s. 20 minutes from August 15th, beginning at 2:00pm, the women set on fire on a train heading north and what Karl told me at 1am the night before about his father and what fathers can do and I understood too. Dug through the foundation of the pavilion using a shovel and pick-axe from WWI, bought from a museum 400 meters away. Dug into the Napoleonic rubble from the former Castello district, demolished in the 18th century to make way for the Giardini, and all the rubble piled up to create the hill where the pavilion sits. My restlessness, anxiety of never seeing the whole. The loss, the lost ones, hoping to escape, while I sat looking at my phone, not knowing and unable to help while they were drowning. My teared-up eyes of the news of Luca’s death and the memory of the last cigarette I smoked of his next to the doorway soon to be punched out of the side of the pavilion. The garden behind butchered by the workers to make way for a deck that has yet to be built. The surprise of the metal fence put up at the last minute. The struggle for the removal of the Canada sign; if it is still on the front of the pavilion, I lost. The war reparation money in every brick. The 71 planks from my grandfather’s accident printed using a lithographic process; at first I thought they were exclamation marks, and then later, peacock feathers. The myth of how the peacock got its coloured feathers by eating the poison berries of the garden. All this, as I stand here, looking out at the lagoon. All souls, all living, all gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes, all nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages, all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe, all lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future. This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d, and shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them. –Geoffrey Farmer
Kevin Beasley, Movement V: Ballroom for CounterCurrent Festival
MOVEMENT V: BALLROOM
PRESENTED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH PROJECT ROW HOUSES
THE HISTORIC ELDORADO BALLROOM, HOUSTON, TX
APRIL 18 – 23, 2017
OPENING RECEPTION: THURSDAY, APRIL 20, 7 – 9PM
PERFORMANCE: SATURDAY, APRIL 22, 8PM. GET TICKETS HERE.
Artist Kevin Beasley is taking over the Eldorado Ballroom, the iconic Third Ward venue, and creating an original site-specific sculptural and sound installation. Sixteen sculptural works amplify the sounds produced by the movement of visitors, with the sound in turn producing light, creating a combination of a movement-based performance and listening sessions, an installation that exists—visually and aurally—only with the movement of bodies and a physical engagement between visitors and the space.
The Eldorado Ballroom featured a who’s who of the great blues and jazz players—and was the place to cut loose—from the 1940s to the 1970s. Beasley explores the cultural, personal, and historical contexts of the materials and spaces with which he assembles his art, then radically transforms and reinterprets them. Movement V: Ballroom continues a series of experiments in materiality and sound, exploring the fading in and out of culture, and the erasure of predominately black cultural spaces.
On April 22 at 8pm, Beasley will engage the installation with his own movements for a performance.
Since 2013, Kevin Beasley has created Movements I-V, performance installations that explore the implications of liveness and the body—including his own—within varying spaces. These works are invested in how the body, an agent of motion, affects the experience in multi-faceted ways, including visually, sonically, physically and culturally. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Movement V: Ballroom is part of Performing the Neighborhood, a five-year partnership between the Mitchell Center and Project Row Houses to commission and present major performance-based works by contemporary artists in the Third Ward neighborhood of Houston. These large-scale co-commissions will draw upon the neighborhood, as well as the rich, often complicated intersection between the university campus and its surrounding community.
NOTE: Movement V: Ballroom is based in darkness, with minimal lighting and visitors moving about. The installation might be disorientating for some.
Movement V: Ballroom is an unticketed installation open to the public during the following hours: April 18-23, 12PM – 8PM
Mateo López in The Valise at the MoMA
Museum of Modern Art
Mezzanine, Education and Research Center
The Valise, a collective artists’ project, unites seven South American artists—Johanna Calle, Mateo López and Nicolás Paris, Maria Laet, Rosângela Rennó, Matías Duville, and Christian Vinck Henriquez—with the Argentine writer César Aira. This exhibition presents a selection of artworks from the printed edition, published by the Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art. The works were made in response to the idea of travel and to Aira’s novel Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero (An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter), both the original Spanish edition (2000) and the English translation (2006) on view here. The novel concerns the surreal story of an 1837 journey through South America by the German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas, an associate of the explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Designed to fit in a special valise (carrying case), the works include original prints, maps, artists’ books, airmail envelopes, origami toys, posters, a sound recording, and a handblown glass sculpture, all reflecting the artists’ shared affinity for geography, travel literature, and bookmaking.
Organized by May Castleberry, Editor, Contemporary Editions, Library Council Publications, with Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, The Museum of Modern Art.
SIMON STARLING IN CONVERSATION WITH MARCIA E. VETROCQ FOR BROOKLYN RAIL
Peripatetic and prolific, Simon Starling (b. 1967) has traveled to and across five continents since the early 1990s to research, fabricate, photograph, film, perform, and install his work. Extravagant labor and a disarming absurdity—the operative questions seem to have been “what if?” and “why not?”—were wedded to the punctiliousness of a historian in early projects such as Rescued Rhododendrons, 1999, for which Starling drove seven of the unwanted bushes from Scotland (where they have proliferated as weeds) “back” to Spain, whence the plant had been imported in the 18th century. The straightforward action of the syllabically baroque Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006) consists of powering a boat across Loch Long by feeding its steam engine the very wood of which the boat was made. The predictable swamping of the cannibalized craft is a strange hybrid of success and failure. You would be forgiven for reading the project now as an allegory of mismanaged resources and rising waters, particularly in light of Starling’s recurring investigations into the systems and outcomes of the global transport of materials.
Marcia E. Vetrocq (Rail): The “Golden Door” of your title evokes the Statue of Liberty, and immigration policy has become a raw, divisive issue in this country since the 2016 campaign. But the migrant crisis has been mounting on both sides of the Atlantic for years. When did you first consider doing a project on immigration for your show in New York?
Simon Starling: The project has many precedents within my practice in general. For me The Liminal Trio plays the Golden Door is very closely related to the work that I made at Mass MoCA in 2008, The Nanjing Particles, which was triggered by the story of Chinese migrant workers coming to North Adams to break a strike in a shoe factory. I came across the story at a moment when America was obsessing about the effect of the booming Chinese economy on the American economy, a conversation which is still running, I suppose. On a political level and also on a formal level, the idea of the “archaeology” of a photographic image—trying to get below the surface—is key to both projects.
I feel that there’s also a connection to other shows that I’ve made here at the gallery. The Bird in Space project in 2004 was about a Brancusi sculpture brought by Marcel Duchamp to the United States that was not allowed free entry as an art work but was taxed as a piece of metal. That project was prompted by the then-current situation with a steel tax, which George Bush had imposed to curry favor with the Rust Belt vote. He was subsequently forced to rescind it because the World Trade Organization deemed it to be an illegal tariff. So, again, the trigger for investigating the art-historical story was very much a contemporary situation, and I tried to conflate those two stories into one work by importing a lump of Romanian steel as an art work to avoid the tax. There are also the birdhouses I made earlier for Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (House for a Songbird), which was an investigation into the arrival of European Modernism in Puerto Rico during the 1960s. Somehow most of the works that I’ve shown here at the gallery have had some kind of relationship to the movement of people and things in and out of America. Thinking about my context and the moment in which the shows are being made is very much embedded in the way I conceive of works.
Rail: How did you arrive at the Augustus F. Sherman photographs as your way into the subject of immigration?
Starling: There were a number of different reasons for thinking about the Sherman photographs in the Ellis Island archive. One was seeing the rhetoric play out around the Brexit vote in Britain, which was at times absurd and hard to watch. You saw first- and second-generation immigrants railing against immigration. Also, over the summer I read this wonderful biography of Willem de Kooning, who came to New York around the time of the arrival of these immigrants who are at the center of my exhibition. De Kooning came from a very impoverished and tough life in Rotterdam, and it was interesting to read about his transition into American life, the urgency to forget the past and assume an American way of being. So, all these things came together to connect me to the Sherman photographs. I’d seen some of them years ago—I can’t remember exactly where, though I think one of the professors in my photography training had shown some of them in a lecture.
Rail: Can you take us through the components of the exhibition that arose from the photographs you chose?
Starling: The exhibition presents three characters—musicians—three times. There are enlargements of the rather small Sherman photographs, two of the three cropped, all blown up to be physical presences in the show—but images still. There are re-creations of their clothes and instruments, which are like theatrical costumes for some kind of reenactment. And then there is a twenty-six-minute audio recording. The first experience in the gallery is the music, which is played from three speakers, two on stands—almost figurative in a way—with the clog dancer’s speaker sitting on the floor, which seems appropriate. Then there are the costumes and instruments, which have been re-created in grayscale, and then the re-photographs of the originals, also in a kind of grayscale. So the three figures are each represented in three different forms. It’s the notion of the in-between or liminal state that these immigrants would have found themselves in on Ellis Island. It’s a trio that becomes nine figures in the exhibition. They’re “fractured.” I guess the idea is that the characters themselves occupy the space between all those representations.
Rail: Sherman’s subjects genuinely were in a kind of limbo.
Starling: Yes, the people that Sherman photographed had all been detained for various reasons, probably in what Trump would call “extreme vetting.” Some of them were sent back, and others eventually were let in. There were multiple reasons to do with documentation. And also I think at that moment there was a concern about certain groups coming, as there is now. So they were a kind of captive subject for Sherman.
Rail: How was the music created?
Starling: As well as making costumes we’ve also made grayscale instruments, which was quite a project. The instruments were used at the recording session by three contemporary musicians—Livia Vanaver, a clog dancer; Winne Clement, a kaval player; and Sean Folsom, a zampogna player. The recording session in Brooklyn had a very appropriate kind of energy, because the three of them had never met before. It was a sort of negotiation among people from different places and different traditions. It was awkward, and I think you can feel that in the recording in a very interesting way. The project is about the idea that three musicians who didn’t share a language could have come together and just started to make music in an informal fashion. In the recording, too, there’s a sense of three musicians exploring their relationship, finding out what works, what doesn’t. There’s a lot of ambient, empty space, with just squeaks and odd shuffles. It goes from being very sparse and nonmusical to being vast. When the three of them all get going, it’s quite something.
Rail: I don’t recall the human figure generally having a significant role in your work. There are exceptions, of course, like the Chinese laborers in the stereograph used in The Nanjing Particles. When you re-imagined the Noh performance in At Twilight or enlarged the Sherman photographs, did you feel that you were working with the human figure?
Starling: For me it’s more about ghosts—human figures but in dematerialized forms. I suppose it goes back to At Twilight and the Japanese Noh idea of ghosts possessing actors in the mirror room, which is where they put on their masks. The physical manifestation of the immigrants in The Liminal Trio is a sort of invocation, an attempt to summon the ghosts, perhaps, to occupy this liminal space that I’ve tried to establish. If three musicians found themselves in this kind of in-between state, sharing no common language, what might they have done? It’s a sort of speculative proposition.
Rail: When we first spoke about At Twilight and your effort to reconstruct Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well, you used the expression “creative misunderstanding” to describe the idea that not having the information for a complete re-creation allowed—
Starling: —Yes, something new to be born. In the video based on the performance we did at The Common Guild in Glasgow, Javier de Frutos talks very beautifully about how this was what attracted him to the idea of choreographing the “Hawk’s Dance.” The entire At Twilight project is based on so little information. Only these tiny fragments have survived—the odd drawings by Edmund Dulac, the little fragment of music, these few photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn, and, of course, Yeats’s script of the play itself. There’s the feeling that you’re dealing with a sort of amnesia, a gray area of knowledge. It was this very rarefied event in high society, a performance in London in 1916 which was witnessed by a handful of people, never reported by the press because the press was effectively banished. All that exists is hearsay and gossip and odd fragments. In both projects there is this beautiful space for a reimagining of things. The grayscale costumes for the Hawk and for the three musicians all speak to that sense of amnesia, or partial amnesia. You don’t know this beautiful Romanian kaval player pictured by Sherman or what the color of the decoration on his jacket was. With the reconstruction of At the Hawk’s Well, there was a powerful sense of not knowing. It became an evocative thing to dive into. And the not knowing was as important as the facts, the concrete things. I think it’s very much the same with The Liminal Trio.
Another interesting thing is, after I had started looking at the Sherman photographs again, I discovered that there was this project underway to colorize the black-and-white photographs. I guess there’s serendipity involved, but because of the political situation at the moment, these things have a kind of currency. In a weird way, that colorization process is doing something similar to what I’m trying to do, or, rather, what I’ve done is actually the opposite—to accentuate our lack of knowledge of the color through the re-creation of these costumes in grayscale.
Rail: In a 2013 interview you described yourself as being “interested in what it means to make something in a culture in which our connections with making and manufacture are increasingly distant.” You’ve used advanced digital technology in your work for some time. How do you view the connection between digital fabrication and “making”?
Starling: It’s a reality of “making” now. The large black-and-white silver prints were made for The Liminal Trio by Griffin Editions here in New York. They were made from black-and-white negatives that were scanned and then written onto the paper, essentially by a laser. As I experience it, there are these shifts all the time from the material to the immaterial and back again in any kind of making process now. I like that. We talked about this idea of the potentials of misunderstandings or mistranslations, and there’s this potential in the “slippage,” as I call it, that happens from one state to another. It seems to be an ongoing aspect of what I’m doing physically, and also in terms of the way forms and narratives change and evolve through time.
Rail: The creative misunderstandings intrinsic to your re-creation of At the Hawk’s Well in At Twilight build upon the initial creative misunderstandings of Yeats and Pound as they set out to stage an “authentic” Noh drama. In the case of The Liminal Trio, did you supplement the information that can be gleaned from the Sherman photographs in any way?
Starling: To some degree, yes, but for me the most interesting thing was how the musicians would respond, because they’re all very knowledgeable about the history of their instruments. I asked each of them to think before the recordings about what these three individuals might have brought with them in terms of their musical language from Romania, southern Italy, and Holland. Then the recording session was about trying to find a point of connection. It was a tough day, in a way, because they all have their own sense of quality, and I suppose they all projected prior to the recordings what they thought was going to be born out of this. The hope is that you feel that process of negotiation unfolding in the music that’s been generated. It’s a tentative conversation as a piece of music.
Rail: Is it just the impression that one gets from the successive presentation of these two shows in New York, or are you exploring collaboration in your work more deeply via theater, dance, and musical performance?
Starling: It goes back a long way in the work, but I’ve found it so amazingly energizing and enriching to bring other people on board and also to be able to take a step back from the making and allow a certain critical distance. Being able to work with Yasuo Miichi, this extraordinary mask maker in Osaka, and to start to analyze his creative process, working with musicians and choreographers—it’s a real luxury. For The Liminal Trio we put on the gallery wall an extensive credit list of all the people who’ve been involved in making this show. In a way it’s a list of immigrants, and their names become very powerful in relation to the themes of the show. You see a complex geography played out just in the names of the people who’ve been involved—tailoring, hat-making, recording, mixing, framing. It seemed a very fitting statement to make.
Rail: Apropos of the acknowledgments at the gallery, you share credit with Graham Eatough for conceiving, writing, and directing the performance of At Twilight at The Common Guild, and the list of creative and technical contributors to that work is pointedly titled “Collaborators.” Similarly, the heart of the current show is an improvised composition performed by three musicians. Tell me more about this progression from research to collaboration and performance.
Starling: In a way, my approach to the play At Twilight evolved from making these rather more narrative film works, like Project for a Masquerade or Black Drop, in which there was a kind of authoritative narration, and also from the way I’ve used artist’s talks as a central part of the practice. The lecture theater has become an important space for me to “perform” the work. I think At Twilightcomes from thinking about the way that ideas are pieced together in that kind of context.
The collaboration evolved from our working relationship, with Graham being a specialist in staging and myself more of a storyteller. And it also lent a nice dynamic to the other relationships—Yeats and Pound, the characters of the old man the young man. And it was actually very seamless. The first time I met with Graham to talk about the collaboration, I had pieced together this “mind map,” just as a sort of tool to start to discuss the areas of interest and how that all connected in my mind. It was extraordinary how fast Graham was able to lock into that and come on board in a very generous and open way. We decided quite early on that we were both nervous about the idea of putting words into the mouths of poets, because that seemed like a foolhardy operation. So we decided that rather than “write” the play, it would be more of a process of collaging. I had a folder of texts, a huge reservoir of letters that Yeats had written to various people at that time, correspondence between Pound and Gaudier-Brzeska, texts by Pound about Noh and by Yeats about Noh, and so on. I’d gone through all that material and cut out texts that I thought could work very well. I have these pin boards in my studio which I wheel around the place, and I started to collage those on. Then Graham arrived for the first time, and we started to pick things out and define certain kinds of scenes. The transition from the research process to the making process was seamless. When I read or watch the play now, it’s impossible for me to decide which bit is Graham and which bit is me. We had an incredibly symbiotic relationship, and it’s not always like that with collaborations. People can get kind of territorial about ideas. But I think it was a very smooth, very natural transition from the beginning stage of research. And I think Graham felt quite excited by the volume and the nature of the material that I had put together, so he dived into the writing process—“compositing” is perhaps the best word for it—very easily and very fast.
Rail: I’d like to return to your earlier comment about the Bird in Space project and the pertinence of President Bush’s steel tariffs. Elsewhere you’ve pointed out additional contemporary connections, such as the fact that the Romanian company which provided the steel for your work had been acquired by an Indian steel magnate who was a big contributor to Tony Blair’s Labour party. In Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) you recast a 16th-century Noh play as a Cold War yarn, and included the collector Joseph Hirshhorn, who made a fortune in uranium mining thanks to the Atomic Energy Commission. For the 2013 – 14 show Pictures for An Exhibition, you traced the provenances of the Brancusi sculptures in the 1927 Chicago Arts Club exhibition to their current owners. Your essay on provenance is deeply detailed, yet understated, very unlike a Hans Haacke-style exposé. You seem to approach hot issues in a very cool way. What are your thoughts on the politics of your work?
Starling: The Pictures for an Exhibition work was made for the Arts Club, which is a very particular organization whose members are generally wealthy business people with an interest in the arts, often patron-collectors. It seemed an interesting situation within which “unpack” that culture a bit. The work took two installation views of the 1927 exhibition on a crazy, long detour. In order to reconstruct them, I had to first find out where all those sculptures were now. And in doing that, you start to move back through time to connect the present with the various hands that those things have gone through. Interesting characters suddenly pop up—the president of Microsoft or Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Samuel Bronfman, the whiskey and oil billionaire. There are, of course, gaps in the history of all of those things still, even though Brancusi is well researched. It became a kind of mapping of the lives of these objects, and the notes that I wrote for the piece are for me a very important part of the work. I think there are a few instances in the way I’ve formulated those notes where I probably betray a bit of my political sense. But I always try to hold back from a didactic political approach. For me, the politics should seep out of the work in a much more surreptitious way. It’s subtext, but it’s all there.
Rail: The title you chose for the Arts Club essay is from a Picabia painting called This Thing Is Made to Perpetuate My Memory. Tell me about that choice.
Starling: The painting is in the collection of the Arts Club, and it was one of the first things I saw when I arrived there to start work on the project. It stuck in my mind. Who is the character whose memory this is? The implication is that it’s almost a machine in the work. It seemed to embody very nicely, but very lightly, the venture that I was on with the making of my work and the writing of that text. It was a very simple system or mechanism to get from one place to another, or in that case to get back to where you start. I guess that Picabia title talks to the camera for me, the act of photographing. One of the thirty-six photographs in the series I made for that exhibition is an image of the part of the painting which contains the written title, and you can see my camera reflected in the glass of the painting.
Rail: Your notes on Brancusi provenance add up to an intricate and vivid account. After reading those and attending your lecture at Japan Society, I’ve come to think of you as very much a storyteller. Archival research and narrative performance—which can remain distinct areas of practice—come together happily in your work.
Starling: In the end that’s what connects it all—the desire to tell a good story. It’s no more complicated than that, in a way. I was thinking about lectures again the other day. I went to see Mark Leckey’s show at PS1. He does these amazing performance/lectures which for me are the most interesting part of his practice—he’s thinking in a very generous way for an audience. You feel that more and more. There’s Hito Steyerl, who was in Copenhagen recently doing a lecture, and she’s fantastic at it. It’s very interesting, this kind of interdisciplinary realm where artists find themselves acting as an entertainer and a maker and an intellectual, all at once, in this very particular zone: the lecture theater.
Rail: Given your lectures, the extensive traveling that you do, and the value you place on being on site to undertake research and personally source materials for projects, would it be fair to detect an almost diaristic quality in your work?
Starling: In a way my body—how I move through the world and work and travel—is always there or thereabouts in the thing, but always pressed into the background. And I suppose that’s how I feel comfortable with it—always stepping back a little bit. I also think this sense of the diary grows as the practice grows. The life lived becomes more and more important, and inevitably seems to haunt the work.
Haris Epaminonda on the cover of Camera Austria International 137
Zones of Memory
BY Aurélie Verdier
The works of Haris Epaminonda are neither strictly minimalist nor thoroughly conceptual. However, if her works leave the question of method very much open, we can still say that her multimedia work is considerably more intuitive. Her methods revolve around the migrant nature of images–and essentially also around that of symbols. Her tools are installation, sculpture, film, found images, books, and collage; and her formal lexicon, established from her earliest exhibitions in the first decade of this century, is made up of a rather limited number of objects. These include metallic structures (plinths, frames, display cases), gold leaf, fragments of pastellone (a mixture of marble powder and lime) placed on the floor or the wall, exotic artifacts (vases, sculptures, miniature pieces of architecture), pedestals or podiums that punctuate the space, and collages of found pages that are remounted and framed. Epaminonda often includes living beings-plant, animal, human–in her installations, and from these there emerges a specific ritual quality, perhaps a certain insistent form of the sacred. Like paintings that await their colour, Epaminonda’s images carry within themselves their own future inscription. They are the locus of reinterpretations to come of a history whose code or meaning she has deliberately abolished. Her objects, tied together by invisible links that are active in their very disappearance, are, to take and redirect one of Georges Didi-Huberman’s fine expressions, crystals of historical unreadability.‘
In her installations, it often happens that a caption calls to us; it is carefully framed but has no image. For example, in “View of the distant Himalayan peaks from Almora” as in “Untitled #05 t/f’ (2014), the description of the phantom image functions exactly like a second image that it redoubles in absentia. What Epaminonda’s work loses precisely in “historical readability” (through the concealing of an image or a collage, or through the erasing of a caption) it regains within a fragment of private remembrance, staged by means of images that embody major archetypes or the typologies of objects–classical statuary, plants, ruins, a specific body language that crosses civilizations and epochs, a Japanese ritual. The photographs that Epaminonda appropriates often have a single subject–a Chinese vase, a waterfall, a classical multi figure statue, a palm tree, or a heron. They bear witness to what Jean-Christophe Bailly, discussing the plates in The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot, calls the “conditionnement par I’unite” (conditioning through unity), recalling that this typology through a single object was there at the very beginning of photography. The migration of images that traverses all of Epaminonda’s work rests upon a vast diversity of sources, ranging from popular imagery to scholarly writings. The artist’s sources, for instance works in anthropology or ethnography or art monographs, come from a time before the mediatization of all images–a time before our consciousness of the image’s mediality. Thus, a number of these snapshots show landscapes as they were before the age of mass tourism, and they allow for the persistence of the illusion of an untouched natural world. It is the deliberate refusal to assign things a fixed place in the scheme of knowledge that sets Epaminonda’s work apart from an anthropological classification or ordering of the world. As we know, nothing is less mute than an image, and nothing is less neutral than a collection. The “images” collected by the artist take on the most diverse forms, including those that are sculptural: a polished stone, a small gilded temple, a framed page from a book placed alongside pedestals, frames, plinths. By resituating them within new streams of meaning, she renews their existence. In this way, she is like true collectors whom Walter Benjamin understood as “interpreters of fate”. Haris Epaminonda, for her part, allows each viewer to become such an interpreter.
For Benjamin, the collector’s passion for acquisition is the product of a subjective work of memory that is displaced onto each of his or her chosen objects. These objects, like so many boxes, thus become the receptacles of memory.’ In a text from 1931, Benjamin sums up, in an enigmatic phrase, the phenomenon that links the memory of the collector with his or her object. “Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property.” There, in all its mystery, lies the compelling agency of Epaminonda’s art: “zones of memory” materialized in a choice of objects whose arrangement in space appears choreographed and in strict resonance with the place. These pedestals, frames, and support structures are present everywhere in her installations. They are the support and counterpoint of the objects that she put back into circulation.
Benjamin was writing in a period of historical urgency; it was the time before the catastrophe. It was important to preserve a trace of the past, a trace whose vestigial object, unburdened of its usefulness, could be reborn in the very act of collecting: “I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth.” Benjamin adds: “This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age. For children can accomplish the renewal of existence in a hundred unfailing ways. Among children , collecting is only one process of renewal…” Haris Epaminonda collects in order to renew existence. Her work does not stop short at acquisition because the choice of an object is the sign, on the contrary, of the possibility of a history. Epaminonda’s play within the space of the exhibition frees the object from the thin layer of knowledge that we have of it–a Kodachrome photograph from another time, a polished stone, an Asian antique emerging from sand. In so doing, she brings about the persistence, around the object, of the “magic encyclopedia” that Benjamin saw as the collector’s object.
The photographer Luigi Ghirri wrote in 1973: “an atlas is the book, a place where all the features of the earth , from the natural to the cultural , are conventionally represented: mountains, lakes, pyramids , oceans, villages , stars and islands.” It was Ghirri, and also the geometer in him that he had ceased to be (Ghirri gave up that profession in 1974, although it did nonetheless continue to influence his photographic work) , that saw in the atlas an “expanse of words and descriptions.” For a long time now, the visual forms of the archive and the atlas have been the paradigmatic forms of contemporary art. Insofar as it is a “vision document” (documented vision), the atlas links together things of the world and images collected in assemblages of heterogeneous times. Epaminonda’s art seems to desire this totality; yet, as with Ghirri (with whom she has more that one thing in common if we think of their extraordinary chromatic mastery), this is only to better distance herself from such a desire. Many of the documents that Epaminonda appropriates appear to embody this attempt at totality: maps, calendars, measuring instruments, reproductions of artworks from a great, universal, imaginary museum. An archive of a past, actualized in the present, they suggest a journey of ambiguous exoticism, a fragile economy, a certain poetic precariousness modified by the action of the space and the architecture of the environment that the artist creates. Beyond the architectures of affect, the plinths, the bases, and the columns of Haris Epaminonda’s works are tangible scansions in space, juxtaposition of temporalities: the image’s past, the walking about in the present time of the exhibition, the projection of the look towards the future. Her formal syntax is, in fact, nothing other than the fictional and stratified time contained within the chosen object. For Ghirri, the ideal form of atlas would be one where he could travel within a range that was as limited as possible, even going so far as to imagine the complete disappearance of the journey itself: “I endeavored to carry out a journey in a place which effaces the journey itself–because, within the atlas, all possible journeys are already described, all itineraries already traced.” With Epaminonda, as in Ghirri‘s work, the construction of the image rests upon what has already been photographed. At the core of Epaminonda’s work is the status of archetype and universal, peculiar to a certain imagery and to vernacular cultures conveying the idea of memory better than other images–the common reserve of remembrance that, in his own work, Ghirri called “the imprecise precision of remembrance”.
Two photographs, taken by Ghirri around 1978 in his house in Modena, show his bookcase full of books. One of these books , the only one whose colour is black, appears instantly more visible than the others. It is a book about Marcel Duchamp, probably one of the most elusive figures in twentieth-century art. The book’s title highlights a semantic game that, for Ghirri , consists in underscoring the very idea of disappearance. Precisely because of its title, Duchamp Invisible, this focal point, the black book in the photograph, makes paradoxically visible the possibility of disappearance and the concealment of the object. A similar question mark concerning the exterior of the image is at work in each of Epaminonda’s works; or, to put it another way, there is an exteriority shot through by disappearance or erasure. For Ghirri, “ … the only journey now possible seems to be the one found inside signs and images-in a destruction of direct experience. The word ‘ocean’ can immediately take us back to the world of possible images that we already own… reality and its conventional representation seem to coincide, and there’s a shift from the question of its meaning to that of its imagining. And so, the journey lies within the image, within the book.” The journey–this now banal form of self-exteriorization is always to be taken up again, in the obliteration of time. This is because Epaminonda’s projects have no beginning and no end; the objects from the past, she says, have no telos. Her works are so interlocked, one within another, that they are patiently set out, one by one, and named simply “Volumes”. The ongoing project, “The Infinite Library”, that Epaminonda has been working on since 2007 with Daniel Gustav Cramer, and that involves the cutting and recomposing of pages from books, is based on the very premise of its own interminability.
Epaminonda’s installations are marked by the permutability of images, their geographic and historical mobility. “Images have no bones, no flesh,” she says, “they are more like hair, they have a capacity to resurrect.” The image will surface again somewhere else, inexorably, like grass or hair, and the proliferating ecosystem of the Internet makes this rhizome construction of the image rests upon what has already been photographed. At the core of Epaminonda’s work is the status of archetype and universal, peculiar to a certain imagery and to vernacular cultures conveying the idea of memory better than other images–the common reserve of remembrance that, in his own work, Ghirri called “the imprecise precision of remembrance” visible in real time. The migration of objects and themes, the artist’s quasi-ritual arrangement of the pieces, has something of the plasticity of an actor appearing differently at different times in the same film. Her themes and objects are distributed through and across exhibitions in a metamorphosis that partakes of the organic. Like the actor, Sofiko Chiaureli, performing five roles, alternately male and female, in Sergei Paradjanov’s film, “Sayat Nova” (1968), Haris Epaminonda’s images are stagings of a similar poetic metamorphosis of interstices.
Giorgio Agamben reminds us that the most commonly accepted etymology of the word “religion” is religare, that is, to bind. He considers this etymology to be “insipid and incorrect”. Agamben prefers relegere, meaning “the stance of scrupulousness and attention that must be adopted in relation with the gods, the uneasy hesitation (the “rereading [rileggere]”) before forms–and formulae–that must be observed in order to respect the separation between the sacred and the profane.” “Religio,” he adds, “is not what unites men and gods but what ensures they remain distinct.” Epaminonda’s work has something of the same dialectical tension – the union of objects and their separation in an identical moment. The images that she brings together are the trace of a form of suspension of belief, and the arrangement of objects throughout the space of the exhibition is the sign that there was in actual fact a separation – from the gods, meaning, and history. Haris Epaminonda’s zones of memory are precisely these works of scrupulousness and attention; they are in a stance of watchfulness, always open.