February 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Recent history tells us that the experience cinema offers is excessive. The belief that it is necessary to go to a theatre to see a film is already a thing of the past. Cinema was an industrial innovation. Based on an economy of scale, the commercial premise of the business is that each member of its audience possesses a quotient of popular taste that the industry can replicate and nurture in each new film it devises. The basic assumption of the format used to be that this mass psyche could be unlocked by a film’s presentation in a setting of anonymous camaraderie; in other words, the belief was that people would want to watch movies together in the dark. But these conditions now appear to be unnecessary, or so the popularity of sub-par viewing formats like YouTube and iPod movies would seem to suggest.
In her exhibition, The Castle and other works, Annie MacDonell looks at this history from the perspective of today, a moment when cinema is being eclipsed by newer formats of entertainment. Giving depth to this view, her show looks beyond film to its origins in Vaudeville. Consisting of remnants from this past, MacDonnell’s exhibition offers insights into the wider cultural demands embodied by these continuities, suggesting that the need for diversion, for a parallel realm of spectral distraction, exceeds any of the formats invented for its possibility. It is this need’s ability to conjure up the means of its realization, if not an explanation of its source that MacDonnell’s show evokes..
In The Castle (2006) a sculpture of a chandelier sits on the floor of the gallery as if it had recently crashed there, or, in more grandiose terms, had somehow fallen to earth. A non-functioning replica, the chandelier illuminates nothing except protocols of ornamentation to which we are no longer accustomed. Ornamentation was, however, once thought of as an important aspect of the movie experience; film theatres were after all referred to as “palaces.” This connects the chandelier to MacDonnell’s Untitled Vaudeville Models (2006), which MacDonnell built in collaboration with Rob Shostak. They consist of three scale models of Vaudeville theatres in Toronto, all of which date from the turn of the 20th century. That Vaudeville theatres tended to be turned into cinemas, which are themselves now on the wane, points to the larger theme of the show. The condition of spectatorship was once located in spaces built specifically for the purpose, but it is less and less dependent on physical circumstance.
In The Castle (2006) a portly man in a video projection is seen falling through space. He stumbles down the stairs and then the action is magically reversed. The cycle repeats. By looping the video, the artist arrives at a kind of perpetual slapstick. The artist abstracts the base humor of Vaudeville, its broad physical comedy, to evoke the idea of entertainment itself. The man’s appearance reinforces this impression. Middle-aged and out of shape, his mustachioed visage evokes an archetype: not a leading man or captain of industry but rather an avuncular figure of fun, like Stan Laurel or Fatty Arbuckle, familiar from the early days of the entertainment industry. A likely inhabitant of both smoking jacket and smoking lounges, he evokes the pathos of manhood past its prime, still the beneficiary of male privilege but some years beyond the ability to make meaningful use of its powers.
Art exhibitions tend to consist of discrete objects ¬– whether of the thing itself or of some form of its representation – presented in meaningful combination. The custom is for exhibitions to occur in a definite space, or make reference to that space, which is known as “the context.” The placement into this context of any artwork that takes the form of a real entity (as opposed to an abstraction of such) should be understood as having been removed from the circulation of utilitarian items for a reason. In the same way that the art gallery is more than just a space for the exhibition of objects, the artwork is both a thing in itself and what it represents. The artwork in itself refers to every possible realization of the idea of art, especially those that have already occurred; and the entity it represents refers to the wider world of meaning from which it derives.
Although susceptible to many definitions, the artwork’s ability to incorporate within itself multiple dimensions of significance means that it always in some sense functions as a synechdoche: the work of art or the art installation is always the part standing for the whole. Writing about literature, the critic Terry Eagleton discusses how the reader of a literary work “unconsciously supplies information which is needed to make sense of it.” “All literature is understated” Eagleton notes, “even at its most luridly melodramatic.” The same could be said for art. MacDonell’s show makes use of the synechdochic power of the artwork, and also makes an exhibition that is about this synechdochic power. The artist doubles the synechdochic resonances of her show in the sense that it is about just how little it is that we need from the real world in order for us to imaginatively exist in the spectral realm, and for that realm to fulfill the wish that we could exist there.
If early cinema took the basic elements of Vaudeville as its starting point, this is in part because film’s illusionistic qualities were so well suited to the art form’s vulgar comedy of physical mishap. The idea that someone can fall without getting hurt, the basic fact that the moving image finds its origins in release from the consequences of the physical, suggests a number of things: that entertainment is strangely predicated on the misfortune of others, and, more broadly, that the cinema fulfils a wish that the physical world could be more benign than it is. This connects MacDonell’s fallen chandelier and tumbling man to another work in the show, Sunset Signature Lounge (2006). Housed inside a small freestanding cabinet with room enough for only one viewer at a time, the work features a slide-projected image of a sunset as seen from the 96th floor of the Chicago’s John Hancock tower. One of the tallest buildings in the U.S., a centerpiece in a city famed for its architecture, the building’s Signature Lounge provides Chicago’s citizens with a cocktail hour ritual. The image was shot at twilight in the lounge, a bar that features floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows. Looking at the phosphorescent and warm transitional hues of the sun as it sinks below the horizon offers the best accentuation of this, as it fuses the experience of the sunset with its image. It is, as MacDonell comments, “an intensely American experience, ” the impact of which is such that the lounge patrons often break into applause upon viewing the sun’s final curtain, so to speak. It is as if each floor of the John Hancock tower was only the premise for the next one, and this continues upwards until the building was tall enough to create the perfect platform for the viewing of each day’s end., The floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows were installed to more perfectly frame the experience, transforming it all into a two-dimensional picture of itself. Finding that cinematic desire lurks even in aspects of the built environment, the artist points out just how eager we are as a culture to step off into the virtual.
MacDonell designed the installation so that the sound of applause, which is preceded by a soundtrack of ambient noise and soft chatter, subtly permeates the exhibition as a whole. If not actually creating an immersive experience for the viewer, the sound in the exhibition points to the aural aspect of spectacle; its aim is to be thoroughly persuasive. To undercut this, and to indicate that what she is offering is not spectacle per se but the means for a critical reflection on its powers, the artist positions the slide projector outside the cabinet, which itself is left unfinished, and leaves the work’s speakers, amplifiers, and their connecting cables and electrical wires exposed on its top.
The artist’s suggestion about how easily natural phenomena are incorporated into an overall cultural preference for spectacle connects to the show’s wider idea that our culture is constantly looking for the means to make our reality into something that is more free of consequences and more under our control than it is or ever could be. This idea applies especially to how we participate in spectacle today, which because of the Internet and portable digital devices extends far beyond the physical space of the movie theatre. This suggests that it’s not the cinema that is excessive but only the cultural desire for its pleasures. If this fact is more apparent than ever, being able to recognize it still tell us little about what it means. Full participants in this virtual onslaught, cinema and other forms of spectacle have only a weak ability to reflect on the phenomenon. Artworks, on the other hand, exist to be reflective, and in the process can reveal an entirely new dimension to, for instance, the fun Vaudeville finds in misfortune.
Rosemary Heather 10.15.06
This text was commissioned by Gallery TPW to accompany Annie MacDonell: The Castle and Other Works, October 26-November 26, 2006.
February 12, 2012 § 5 Comments
Thinking about Brenda Goldstein’s Hereafter begins with an absent body. The work consists of a 35-mm film loop portrait of a nameless woman preparing an unseen body for burial, presented alongside a slide projection composed of quotes from various people about the experience of death. Everything you see in the film is clinical, austere; the only element commanding a visceral response to the subject matter is a jar of red liquid, embalming fluid, visible on the right of the screen. The work constructs a composite representation of the idea of death, within which the only warm body present is that of the viewer.
Goldstein structures her installation so that one can view the film loop and the slide projection inde¬pendently. Complementing this schema is the work’s third element, its “soundtrack,” which is the ambi¬ent noise made by the slide and film projectors. Hereafter’s sombre topic might cause its audience to disregard this sound in the room; to hear but not hear it. Rather than using recorded audio to reinforce thoughts of death, nailing down that signifier, Goldstein instead allows the ambient sound to enhance one’s experience of the space. Like a mechanical version of sentient breathing, the sound made by the projectors is a reminder for the viewer, however subtle, of their own presence. In this context, the instal¬lation’s audibility also works as a reminder of one’s own mortality; one reason why viewers may be less inclined to “hear it.” As well, Goldstein’s use of sound points to other ideas, implicit to the installation and beyond its ostensible subject matter.
Hereafter has no single focal point because the artist’s intention is to create an immersive environ¬ment; one that, through use of shifting points of interest is, arguably, more actively constructed by the viewer than would be the case if it was presented as a film. Between the two types of presentation, seated film viewing or walk-in installation, there is only a fine distinction: it is debatable whether one or the other provides the more “immersive” experience. Differing means of creating that experience is more to the point.
One inescapable precedent for Hereafter is Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971). The film is shot in a morgue and documents a number of autopsies (the title is a literal transla¬tion of the Greek word, autopsia—to see for oneself). Brakhage’s immersion is more confrontational. By viewing the film, one is witness to an experience, that of seeing human bodies dissected, that few would actively seek out. Brakhage made the film as part of his larger project, the exploration of a number of themes that were central to avant-garde film at the time. Over his career, he made a slew of films in which various techniques of abstraction—such as variable focus, asynchronous sound, scratching and painting on the negative, and disjunctive editing—were used to create a poetics of perception. All of his works were predicated on the idea that the film material itself constituted a form of embodied perception and this is perhaps the reason Brakhage worked so hard to make its materiality evident. And if sight is an analogy for being, looking at the body as a starkly mortal entity gives this poetics its ultimate form of expression.
This digression into the world of 20th century avant-garde film is necessary because of what it tells us about the different set of assumptions guiding Goldstein’s work. For one, it gives us a clearer understand¬ing of the 21st century’s comparatively diminished faith in the visual. Hereafter’s visual component is diffused by the atmospherics of the text elements that accompany it. And it suggests that while intuitively a filmmaker like Brakhage understood the visual to be an aspect of embodied experience, Goldstein can make no such assumption. Her concern instead is to construct a different kind of body, one that is, among other things, a decidedly non-poetic being. In addition to the viewer in the room, the body Goldstein summons is the one that is typically elided by technologically mediated existence—especially because liberation from bodily constraints is the specific form of satisfaction mediation can offer. You could argue that locating the body is always the goal of the immersive artwork. It is why such works require an active viewer, one who can orchestrate an installation’s material synthesis simply by walking into it. (It is also the reason why the term “viewer” now reads as something of a misnomer; artworks today solicit a much more sophisticated kind of intelligence.) In the end, Hereafter is less about dead bodies than it is about living ones. The further we as a culture move into the everyday time and space travel of virtual technologies, the more we need to be reminded of who we are; sentient beings, limited and mortal after all.
More info about Brenda Goldstein can be found here.
February 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
By Rosemary Heather
I happened to find myself in Grande Prairie, Alberta. I had never heard of the city before. In Canada most urban life hugs the border with the United States. Canadians commonly refer to this border by its latitude: the 49th parallel. Grande Prairie sits just north of the 55th parallel. If you were driving from Montana, it would take over 12 hours to get there. Call me ignorant of geography. I didn’t know Canada had cities that far North.
I live in Toronto and it cares little about what happens in Grande Prairie; the centre of Canada’s media universe, news emanating out from here barely mentions the place. For the people of Grande Prairie, I’m sure the feeling is mutual. After all, Grande Prairie is booming. In part due to the dirty economics of the Tar Sands, Alberta is an exceedingly prosperous province.
Driving the streets of Grande Prairie, you can draw a map of Globalisms’ franchising coordinates. Starbucks is one outlet we are happy to find. Good coffee is progress, says my companion. Context is everything. In the absence of better coffee, Starbucks is good. Like the prow of a ship breaking ice, Starbucks opens up new markets for capitalism while setting better standards for coffee taste. This is the progress we like, one that caters to our urbanite selves. We can thank the Tar Sands for this, along with its disastrous environmental effects. History is always experienced as a lived contradiction.
At lunch, I read a BBC story on my phone about Lady Gaga. How does she do it? Various experts weigh in on the Gaga phenomenon. Like Starbucks, I don’t doubt that Lady Gaga is popular in Grande Prairie. Shuttling through stations on the car radio I hear Bad Romance and then Classic Rock. I want to understand the changing landscape of mainstream culture. In Grande Prairie, I find myself in the changed landscape itself. To me, it looks like a city that has popped up overnight, the spores of Globalism taking root in the form of big box stores. Seeing duplicates of chains I know from elsewhere makes Grande Prairie a place I both can and can not recognize. Thriving, it still seems to barely exist. It is simulacral, to use that old word.
At Starbucks I had picked up a flyer for a local historical society. This is what culture is in Grande Prairie, I think: Lady Gaga and historically-accurate reconstructed log cabins. Grande Prairie upends what I thought I knew about the world. Globalism redraws the map of the globe, and Gaga looms large on this horizon.
At the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards, Gaga wore a meat dress. Thinking about this, I make the assumption it augurs something new. Not the meat dress itself – that is an artwork made by Jana Sterbeck in 1987 – but the meat dress as an object of mainstream consumption. Claiming to be an artist, Gaga uses the shock tactics of the avant-garde, but not to any avant-garde end. As John Ashbery wrote in 1968, “the artist who wants to experiment [today]…is now at the centre of a cheering crowd. Gaga serves a structural purpose, not unlike that of Starbucks coffee.
Writing about the Pepsi Corporation in the New Yorker, John Seabrook notes that Pepsi products have a dual nature. Every bag of Doritos offers flavour combinations that are the same every time, fused with something more abstract. As Seabrook says, “PepsiCo grafts taste with desire.” The same could be said for any contemporary brand. In Gaga’s case, she embodies the culture social media makes. Gaga is the best example of its aspirational narrative: self-transformation is just a costume change away. This is why the music she makes can be merely adequate.
Art and pop culture are like languages. The parts of speech remain the same, while meaning is generated through the logic of substitution. If history’s substitutions always move from tragedy to farce, Gaga is definitely the farce. She wore the meat dress for the purposes of a photo op, nothing more. It was but a salvo in the arsenal of costumes changes she uses to keep her publicity machine churning. When Jana Sterbeck put the meat dress in an art gallery its point was decay. Not an irony for which Gaga can spare the time.
To claim pop cultural novelty is new is merely to betray my own biases. I am naive like every Liberal Arts student. Study of the modernist canon defines the scope of my formal education. Figuratively, modernism is reducible to clean lines and white spaces; pure abstraction and an absence of embellishment at one time signified a break from the past. It’s a legacy that lives on in the white cube of contemporary art today. And seeing the world from inside the white cube nurtures certain assumptions about what’s important.
The problem modernism always had with kitsch is that it is not remarkable to be a fan – and fans are what popular culture creates. Today, it is unremarkable to be on Facebook; most people participate in the new culture the digital era creates. At the same time, Facebook is not merely the contemporary version of an older form. Facebook, like the internet, is genuinely new, in the way that collage and television once were. This suggests is that nowadays it is more notable to be on Facebook than it is to have an interest in modernism and contemporary art. In the popularity of Lady Gaga and Facebook and Starbucks, we find the cultural formats of the modern era’s irrelevance. Viewed from the perspective of Grand Prairie, Alberta, this becomes clear to me. Not the literal phenomenon of modernism’s end but rather the loss of its importance as a way to understand our culture.
Thanks to Ann Dean for her comments on this text.
This text was commissioned by Animate Projects’ for their Digitalis series of film commissions, which premiered at the London South Bank, December 2011.
The Digitalis catalogue can be downloaded here.
January 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Curated by Kevin Rodgers
Artmaking is always in some way an arena for subtle thought experiments. If everyday certainties fall away and audiences are left to re-think what they thought they knew, the experiment is a success. It is a commitment to the activity of thought, as opposed to its ossification in “knowledge”, which drives artist Kevin Rodgers’ curation of the Fox.
Setting the stage for the performance of thought, Rodgers’ quotes Hannah Arendt from her book, The Life of the Mind (1978), who warns not to “mistake the need to think with the urge to know.” Thinking, Rodgers’ notes, can be bottomless. The art gallery provides an apt metaphor for concept of a bottomless space; or in Arendtian terms, an interval in time between past and future. Rodger’s curation fulfills this ambition, primarily by being more enigmatic, and more successfully so, than your average art exhibition.
The figures of Arendt and her one time lover, Martin Heidegger, frame the exhibition. Giants of 20th century thought, their romantic liaison stands in contrast to key aspects of their respective philosophical positions. Heidegger, the eponymous fox, pulled the thread of his thinking through the holes provided by the meaning of certain words, such as ‘being’, which are central to the edifice of language. Parsing meaning into ever greater depths of subtlety led the German philosopher, in Arendt’s view, into a trap that suggests reasons why he could disavow culpability for his association with National Socialism.
Today Arendt’s thought enjoys ruddy health, in part due to her glamorous theorization of the public sphere as a realm of authentic living. In the exhibition, Rodgers’ presents the two figures in poster format. A scaled-up portrait of Heidegger is hung close to the ceiling so that he casts a dour gaze down onto the exhibition. As in his philosophical writing, Heidegger exists as a remote presence. For its companion piece, the artist prints a poster of Arendt’s parable about a fox in his lair, who is happily cunning but probably amoral as a result. Thinking about the trap of your own presuppositions offers a potential for release from it, by mere dint of thinking about it. By the same token, historical figures presented in visual form can only stand at the threshold of the ideas they represent. Onus for elaboration of those ideas is a job for the viewer.
The idea of an interval is given literal form by Yam Lau’s A-fold-in-two, in memory of Gordon Lebredt (2011). Lau’s work is a reprise of a collaboration he made with Lebredt, who died of cancer earlier this year, for the now defunct Toronto space Cold City Gallery in 1997. Originally accompanying Lebredt’s series of architectural interventions at Cold City, Lau here presents two off-white metallic slabs hung high up on the wall across the room from each other. Both slabs are bent at a right angle at one end, so they slant out from the wall. Implying sight lines that slice the room in two, at the same time Lau’s work brackets’ the gallery inside the legacy of contemporary art’s rhetoric of forms.
German artist, Oskar Hüber, takes a different approach to the encapsulation of space. Gute Nacht! (2011) presents a luscious, tightly-framed, video of the moon turning on its access that is hidden at the bottom of a cardboard box. By virtue of this simple spatial manoeuvre, a whole world is contained for the benefit of our mastery. Looking down at the work, however, also has the effect of relativizing our own place on the planet. Like David Bowie says, “It’s lonely out in space.” Hüber creates an effective portrait of the limits of our world.
Belgian Sophie Nys’ presents a large-scale reproduction of the cover of Heidegger’s Die Kunst und der Raum (1969) that hangs from the ceiling, and a video shot in the German countryside that features a still photograph of the philosopher and standing in front of his summer hut. Without delving into the content of the book, its title alone, which translates as Art and Space, makes for a nice précis of the exhibition as a whole: art plus life equals the steps we take to negotiate the interval between them.
In his book about photography, Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes formulates the concept of the punctum. Derived from the Latin word for wound, punctum can mean the tiny opening the eye has for the tear duct. In Barthes’ terms, it means the part of the photograph that punctures you, bringing on unexpected emotional associations that may be unrelated to the meaning of the picture as a whole. Although not a show about photography, The Fox has a punctum in it; specifically, a rustic toilet seat once used by Heidegger that Nys’ reportedly spirited away from the philosopher’s summer retreat in the Black Forest.
Making reference to the punctum to talk about artworks is to misapply Barthes’ concept. And yet to say I am pierced by the presence of this particular toilet seat in the show is accurate. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, the implications ripple outwards. For one, it invites unwelcome thoughts about the German philosopher’s ass and its related functions. Elevating the discussion a bit, the toilet seat also prompts thoughts about real things and their relationship to art. The toilet seat is a real thing and yet its effect depends on the story that comes with it. Nys’ piece is a powerful example of the type of experience the art gallery is uniquely capable of creating. An interval in Arendt’s sense of the term, it offers the viewer a chance to participate in a thought experiment of the truest kind.
More info about Yam Lau can be found here.
More info about Kevin Rodgers can be found here.
More info about Sophie Nys can be found here.
January 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Ever the rigorous practitioner, Maura Doyle made sure to try the new ‘Unidentified’ flavour of Doritos’ tortilla chip when it was debuted recently by Frito Lay. Deciding they taste like a “ketchup taco”, she imparts this information at the end of a letter she has written to the Universe. Giant in size, like everything in this show, the letter asks after the fate of her DNA sample, which the artist had previously entrusted to a rocket ship.
Querying the Universe on any manner of topic provides a good analogy for art making. In both cases you can ask questions and propose a solutions, but without any hope of definitive reply. Doyle’s practice benefits from a non-didactic approach to questions about our relationship with nature. Her work helps clarify its human component. As she once reminded us: “Sticks [are] made from dead people”. What we understand about nature is a reflection of what we understand about ourselves.
For her show at the Paul Petro Gallery, Doyle presented beautifully wrought bones made of unglazed porcelain. Made in a generalized likeness of the femur, the bones are an end (of a life) product that also make a sly commentary on the redundancy of sculpture. Elaborating on this point is a giant Tim Horton’s coffee cup, slightly damaged and ‘tossed’ on the floor. In a previous project, the artist proposed using a helicopter to drop thousands of empty chip bags into Toronto’s Sky Dome. A funny take on the idea of recycling, the work suggests the city’s premier sports stadium can double as a waste bin.
Seeing the landscape – natural and man-made – as a gigantic found sculpture is one way to overcome our alienated relationship to it. In Doyle’s practice we find a reason for the increasing interest contemporary art practice takes in the world outside itself. Like her notes to the Universe, scaled-up to help them get noticed, Doyle suggests that finding reconciliation with the world we’ve got begins with giving value (and sending notes of appreciation!) to all of its elements.
November 10, 2011 § 15 Comments
Sitting in a café in Vancouver, Ken Lum mentions the intersection of Yonge and Gerrard in Toronto. He offers me, a visitor from Toronto, this point of reference as a way to understand his 30 year retrospective that was presented by the Vancouver Art Gallery this year. The detail has stayed with me. It points to something particular about Lum’s visual imagination as an artist. There is nothing remarkable about Yonge and Gerrard. As city intersections go, it’s a little unsavoury. But seeing it through Lum’s eyes tells a story about a certain socio-economic class I might otherwise ignore. The same could be said for his retrospective as a whole. Aspects of the urban landscape that tend to go unnoticed are central to Ken Lum’s practice. In this interview, Lum discusses formative moments in his development as an artist, how the Real figures in his work, and his current ambivalence about the profession. We spoke this May.
RH: The Real comes up a lot in things that you’ve written. To me this is a vexed topic, to understand what exactly is meant by this. I’d like to hear what you have to say about it because I know it has a special relevance to your work.
KL: To me, the Real can be understood in different ways. The first would be in terms of the relationship between art and non-art: Art having something to do with artifice and contrivance and the historical conventions and all those terms that make art ‘art’; and then on the other side of that would be the question of when is art not art while still having the effect within art? The second issue would be the Real in the Lacanian sense. The Real that exists outside what we can express in terms of language, I’m interested in that limit: When does art become non-art? And then there is the historical question of the relationship between art and life; that is a dialectic that has been in play for many decades. The Real for me comes into play because I am not satisfied with much art. I don’t think art the way it is conventionalized within the art system deals enough with all kinds of experiences. Generally speaking, when art starts shrinking down into the art system it becomes less interesting. That’s why I’ve always been interested in the signifiers of the street, and the relationship of real lives to the form of art. Its art but I want people to think: This is plausible; this could be a real thing. I can identify with the young woman in You Don’t Love Me (1994). It strikes a set of emotions in me as a viewer, because I remember being dumped. I remember being lost to language. That’s what I mean by an approach to the Real, it’s a real scenario that viewers can identify with.
RH: That brings up a lot of things. You make quite clear the ways people can identify with your work, but you also have disruptive elements. For instance, the Rorschach Shopkeeper Signs (2007) suggest ideas about not being able to read a sign clearly, or that you need to look for a deeper meaning…
KL: Well that’s also true of the image/text works. They are about the inability to find suitable language that will express trauma. For instance, the girl in You Don’t Love Me…No amount of language is going to bring that guy back, no amount of language can actually represent or embody the mixture of hate, admonishment, resentment, loneliness that she’s feeling towards this guy, right? That’s what I’m interested in. The other thing I’m interested in is, and this applies to the Rorschach works too, is who is actually standing in front of the ink blot? It’s the viewer. With the texts works, it’s the viewer that reads the work. We attribute what we read to the girl, but it’s the viewer who says it. I’m interested in this triangulation; the viewer is always interpolated in the work.
RH: Can you elaborate more on the idea of trauma because I know that’s central to your work as well.
KL: To me, trauma is linked to degrees of oppression. It’s also linked in a modulated sense, not an exclusive sense, but a modulated sense, to the issue of disfavoured backgrounds, people who are a little bit poorer…that’s my background so I’m interested that background as opposed to a bourgeois background, and I think when you move through the show at the Vancouver Art Gallery you certainly sense that. It’s not the sensibility of Rosedale, right? It’s the sensibility of maybe Yonge St on a Saturday? I mean old Yonge St., not new Yonge St., Yonge St. up by Gerrard. Certainly when you move through the show I think you sense it’s almost circumscribed geographically. I don’t mean geographically to East Vancouver but to certain class, social and economic parameters. I’m interested in that. I think there is a kind of trauma there. Trauma in terms of people who work too hard…I’m not interested in making art in a 1970s sense that is dry and didactic and aesthetically uninteresting to look at. I think my art is aesthetically layered, but in terms of a description of a certain economic and social experience. The other thing is that poor people are just more interesting. I don’t mean that in a novelistic way, and I don’t feel like I’m slumming either because I’m from that background. Some people might be able to look at this milieu with an observant eye and that might make them a good artist. But getting at the psychological part, the nuanced part, if you didn’t have that background or that empathy, I think you can make work that looks really damn good and middle class viewers could look at it and say, “Oh that’s really interesting” but it would be read and received in a way that’s very middle class. My work has always to a degree irritated the middle class. Collectors may say my work is collectable but they have a hard time with it sometimes too. I think it’s because it doesn’t behave properly.
RH: That leads to the question, Who is your audience? Because there are class specificities to the art world. Are you making work about a different class for the benefit of this class?
KL: No, really it’s for no one’s benefit. I’m not trying to limit my audience at all. But I can’t help it; it’s just the way I am. That’s what I know best. I also am never too impressed by the pretensions of the art world, at least of many of the people in it, and that’s not smart. It may cost you in the shorter term, but in the longer term you keep your integrity. In the longer term it pays off.
RH: So we can assume that there is a middle class audience, that’s a fairly safe assumption to make, then is the point of your work to “overturn the cliché”? You wrote a text where you talk about this…
KL: No. Im interested in…this sounds too much like proselytizing, but I don’t mean it like that. I think when people come to the VAG show it makes them think about the city – I’m speaking about Vancouver – in a much wider sense. They are not just thinking about Vancouver: Oh, the Lionsgate Bridge…You know, Kitsilano Beach, sunsets over English Bay, but actually think about the city, about this whole other set of experiences where people aren’t that happy and things aren’t so blue sky.
RH: I think the furniture works, like Red Circle (1986) are a bit of an affront to this audience, in terms of their poor aesthetic content, of the cheap furniture…and then you combine that with this trope of exclusion, where you turn the chairs inward…
KL: I think you hit the nail on the head. It does operate that way. I can tell you an anecdote. I was giving a talk at a well-known art school in California and I told a story about how early on I choose that furniture because I thought it was nice furniture. This was the late 1970s and my mother worked in a sweatshop and I picked this furniture from a rental store, so the range was kind of limited, but I actually liked it. I look at it now and it’s quite garish and awful. But I liked it. It was beyond anything we could have had. And this curator affiliated with the school said to me at dinner: “I don’t believe that you didn’t know the furniture was ugly. It’s clearly ugly.” I was shocked. This was only two years ago. I thought “Wow, it’s 2009 and you can’t imagine that some people might have a different set of experiences than you.” It was quite amazing. And it reaffirmed to me that there was really something awry in terms of the art system. I found it really offensive.
RH: Well, it sounds like you offended this person as well.
KL: Yes, he was so smug in assuming that somehow…
RH: That it was a pose; that you were posturing…
KL: He was saying, “You are in the artworld, how could you like this?” That’s a form of censorship, too. I think these cues are constantly there in the artworld. That’s why savvy young artists coming out of art school learn all those cues, and they learn how to mediate their art that way, and that’s a loss.
RH: It’s like you say: Short term success, long term, maybe not…Following on from that, I really like this text you wrote To Say or Not to Say (2008). I just reread it yesterday…
KL: That was in Chicago. I write about a YouTube clip that was shown at a symposium in Chicago of the Back Dorm Boys lip syncing ‘I Want it That Way’. It was hilarious. Everyone believed that they were non-artists just doing this thing to make affective art. They didn’t know that they were students from the Guangzhou Arts Institute in China. I knew they were art students, I had met them. And so I brought this up and everyone just went “aaahhh.”
RH: You deflated them (laughter)
KL: But what was interesting to me, was when I – well, I didn’t really go to art school – but when I was studying art, if you had experienced something and someone told you it was art, you would go “Oh that’s fantastic.” Now you say, that’s art, and you go “Oh, too bad!” (laughter) It says something about the inverse operation of art now, that it’s just become so…familiar, I guess. Rodney Graham said to me, and I’m sure he is not the only artist who has said this, “If only there was something that took the place of art, that’s not art but could operate like art…” (laughter)
RH: I am interested in this reversal, or this shift, as well. In your text To Say or Not to Say, you write, “Art has become less and less important as it turns more into an industry.” I agree with you, and I thought it would be good to flesh this idea out. I would be happy to make claims for the importance of your art, but I would be interested to hear you tell me, under what terms do you think art becomes important?
KL: Well, I think that’s a really hard question now. That’s my whole point. Not only is that a hard question, so is the accompanying question, which is: How do you continue to believe in art? Given that it’s moving more and more towards business and industry and entertainment. That’s a question has driven me over the course of my career, certainly since the early nineties. Its one of the reasons why I went to Africa, to work as project manager for The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945 – 1994 , which was about art and politics during the decolonization period in Africa. It’s one of the reasons why I developed an Asian journal of contemporary Chinese art, Yishu Journal. It’s one of the reasons why I taught in China and I initiated a symposium at the Havana Biennale, and Co-curated the Sharjah Biennale 7 in the United Arab Emirates. The reason I did all those things is because I had a kind of crisis in terms of my belief in art. I believe in the ideals of art, but I am dismayed by the realities of the art world, and the art system, because one shapes the other so closely now. I developed those different projects to put a hiatus to my art production while still maintaining a hand in art, but in an expanded sense, a geographic sense. So I traveled, I wrote for NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art. I did all those things to answer questions about art’s purpose. Art is still highly relevant when you go to Mexico or Lithuania, and you realize that people still have this view of art that is very true and collated to people’s experiences, and they see it as a kind of necessity. It’s not seen as a kind of…
RH: An accessory…
KL: An accessory, right…when I see kids going to art school, so many of the kids I think, “Why are you in art school? Is it just…something to do?” Because art is not necessarily fun. Art is a lot of work, and it can be heartbreaking. In a way, there are too many art students. So that’s how I revive and sustain a belief in art. I was in China during the so-called first period and I learned a lot about art, about the power of art…
RH: Do you think this is true even in circumstances when a place, such as – well, I’ve seen this, for instance at the Gwangju Biennial in 2006…
KL: Gwangju in China or Korea?
KL: I was there in 2010.
RH: Right. At that Biennial I saw how the language, the international language of contemporary art was adopted. Considering what you’ve been saying, if places like Gwangju or Havana adopt the international language of contemporary art to make art does it retain an importance?
KL: I think in neo-conceptualism there is a kind of lingua franca of art, and people are able to use it in creative ways in respect to their own situation. Often it is about things that can and can’t be said, things that are official and things that are not official. Very often it will function on two tiers. For example, Chinese artists – this is maybe less true now – they had to deal with taboo language, that the government could censor which could cost them in terms of being able to practice, but yet at the same time they were making work and being celebrated in Paris, or wherever. So they would make two types of art. One that addresses the Chinese audience when they are in Paris and one that was external to China but which could sell in terms of meaning to collectors and curators in the West.
RH: The work that was made abroad was intended to say things to the Chinese audience?
KL: I’m just saying they made a kind of work that had two meanings. Many Chinese artists immigrated to Paris, for example, after Tiananmen, but they would still be showing in China, and the work that they made would be a slightly different. The work they showed in Paris would be more critical of China, and the work they showed in China would be more critical of the West. It would still be critical of China but it would be more allegorized. So they were playing a cat and mouse game of critique because they occupied two positions.
RH: Just to make an observation about the West. I was thinking about contemporary fiction, which doesn’t really interest me, but I do love certain authors: Robert Bolańo, who was Chilean; and the Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. So that’s Russian. And then there is Murakami, the Japanese writer…
KL: I love Murakami.
RH: These all suggest that literature in translation is more vital. This is a kind of analogy for what you are saying…
KL: I agree with that.
RH: And I noticed when I was in Gwangju that the Western artists were making kind of very small gestures and the Asian artists, in general, had more history to be processing and reflecting upon. What does that say about our situation in the West?
KL: Well, I think if you are an artist you have to develop a more expanded experience of how art operates, how art is manifested, and how art is received. That’s why I did all those projects. I did this when I had doubts about whether art could still be meaningful. And I think the only way you can resolve that, for me at least, is to travel. I don’t mean travel to just visit but travel in the sense of really involving yourself in projects and engaging in a profound dialogue about what art can do.
RH: Do you have anything to say about how that relates to Globalism?
KL: Well, it relates firstly in how travel mobility is relatively easy for that community. Artists who are successful can travel because they are sponsored by galleries. This is tied into the idea of how, because an artist is ethnically Chilean or ethnically Tongan, or whatever, they are called upon to represent their geographical roots. Even if they are privileged. So that makes for a maybe less significant notion of globalization, a greater mobility of artists. But I think globalization is also a globalization of people who have to cross the border from Burundi to Rwanda or Rwanda to Burundi. It is situations where you have a million people who become refugees within a week. It used to be that people were massing at the border and it took a month before you would have a refugee problem. Now you have refugee problems of a million people within a day. As artists I think it is incumbent upon us to not necessarily be exposed to this, because nobody wants to be exposed to this kind of trauma, but at least be alert to such events. That’s another type of globalization. And I find that the more I am in the artworld, the more it’s about the life of the artist, where you worry about, “Ok, it’s my turn to show again…” I’m not interested in that life. Don’t get me wrong, I like showing. But in the end the point of the life of the artist is having as rich a life as possible, and I don’t mean a jetsetter life. When I was in Poland in `88, for example, I remember there was a fantastic photographer, a Polish photographer who I didn’t know about before going there and his misfortune was to be a great photographer during an age of tyranny. He was an amazing street photographer, but the Iron Curtain came down, and so when I was there, he was driving everyone around. I was so much younger than him…
RH: He was your driver…
KL: He was my driver, just because of circumstance. I learn something from things like that. That to me is the real intervening, in terms of art. I am interested in those things. They don’t make me happy but I am interested in them.
RH: Do you have any thoughts on the lack of a wider political program connected to the ideas you have been expressing in this interview, and that are expressed in your work?
KL: What do you mean, a wider political program?
RH: I mean in terms of the Left…
KL: I don’t know if you can use the word Left in the old sense anymore…I am not fearful of the word ‘Left’ but I don’t think that actively defines me either. People have this fear that we can’t talk about…or, not that we can’t talk about, but that we can’t represent the experience of the disfavoured, or that we are not supposed to – or worse, that we can only represent them in a certain way. Either in heroic form or in a form that’s palatable, in a conventionalized form.
KL: I don’t think my work is sentimental. I think it’s the opposite. It uses black humour and is offputting even, but only offputting because you are only supposed to treat people who are disfavoured in a certain way. I don’t necessarily do that. I can give you an example. I did a piece in Vienna a few years ago for what is basically the employment office for Austria. I was about the 9th artist over four years. I looked at all the previous commissions – and I’m not criticising anyone – and it always seemed to be divided into the worker as heroic, or work as drudgery. So I did something called Schnitzel Company (2004). I made up this fake company, with people wearing this uniform associated with fast food, and they were from different races – because if you go to Vienna, the coloured people are all working in McDonald’s – and the pictures are studio portraits of the ‘Worker of the Month’. People were critical; they asked me if I was making fun of these workers. This is where my work doesn’t behave the way people want it to behave; even though it’s closer to the Real. But if you work in a place like that and you work hard, you are proud to be Worker of the Month. People are often unsatisfied with that answer. That doesn’t mean I want them to do that for life. I remember I was a burger flipper when I was fourteen, at a thankfully defunct place called the Burger Shack. I remember I wanted to be Worker of the Month. You got your picture on the wall. When you are in that context, it’s meaningful to you. I can give you another anecdote that maybe better illustrates my point. I remember I worked in this buffet for the summer, when I was about fifteen, and these two women worked there, who were both middle aged at that point, and they were having a fight. One was serving broccoli and the other was scooping out mashed potatoes. A friend of mine who went to my high school said: “Look at them, they are having a fight.” I thought it was funny at first but then I thought about it overnight, and I thought, yeah it matters because the one who has to scoop the potatoes with the ice cream scoop, that’s a lot more work! That hurts after a few hours. This is what I mean by the Real. That shaped me.
RH: In your statement for the Banff seminar you will be giving next year, you talk about “the deepening interest of art towards its contingencies”, we’ve been speaking about that, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on that and relate it to this other phenomenon that I’m quite interested in, which is Reality TV, which I see as the dominant cultural genre of our time. Do you have any thoughts on that?
KL: Well, Reality TV isn’t real. It’s completely contrived.
RH: Why is the Real so popular as a genre, though?
KL: Why is the Real so popular?
RH: In art, on TV, in popular culture…
KL: I have a theory on that. Our culture that has moved towards a fetish of the everyday, a fetish of drawing attention to yourself as an individual. It’s a trend towards an ultra narcissism, and the emphasis on the individual comes at the exclusion of being able to formulate a critique on a societal level, because it’s only about the individual, and that’s a problem.
RH: Does that also explain the popularity of YouTube?
KL: YouTube is more interesting, because you have input. On YouTube you can have responses to whatever someone else puts up, unlike with Reality TV…
RH: Well, you can become a Reality TV contestant, that’s how you have input…
KL: I think people are looking for something where there is no artifice. Like what happened at the Chicago conference with the Back Dorm Boys. Or the viral video of the Double Rainbow guy. Its funny and its only affecting because you believe truly in the situation. If it was acting, it wouldn’t be as interesting.
RH: Your mirror works, such as the Mirror Text Works (2002), are to me well contextualized within your practice. In the Photo Mirrors (1997) for instance, I seemed to detect in this work a critique of the vogue for interactivity in contemporary art in the sense that you have a very sophisticated construction of your viewer in your work…
KL: It’s also a construction of the role of the camera.
RH: Ah, right.
KL: The original camera, the camera obscura used a kind of lens, a mirrored lens that made an image.
RH: Right. Ok…because maybe you won’t agree but it seems to me a lot of Relational Aesthetics makes use of a very simplistic construction of the audience.
KL: I agree. I mean, I think it can be rich, but I think the worst part of it is that it calls up a contingency and then leaves it at that. So as long as you call up a contingency, or a relationship, than that’s sufficient for it to be art. Or it depends on organizing an activity that is outside the normal purview of art, and that is somehow sufficient. I don’t think that’s so interesting. I think it’s limited. That’s only a starting point, not the conclusion. Then there is also a romanticism about community formation. But that community formation doesn’t say anything about how communities actually formed, often through necessity, often people that don’t even like each other form a community. I mean my Mother in her sweatshop formed a community with her friends that worked with her. That’s a different kind of community than people coming into an art gallery, and saying “Oh, now we are a community, we shared that dinner together.”
RH: That leads onto another question I had about the Mirror Maze with 12 Signs of Depression (2002). You compound the difficulty of navigating the maze with the quotes about the Symptoms of Depression. Why? Are you trying to confuse your viewer? And I had an observation: One interesting thing I found was that one way to get through the maze is to follow the other people ahead of you, so it has that positive effect: it creates community…
KL: Well, I didn’t invent the idea that experience is fractured, that we live in a world in which experience is fractured into a million pieces and the mirror is a symbol par excellance for that breaking up of everyday experience. But if it was just left at that then it would be akin to a funhouse mirror. And it would just say, “Oh, life is fractured.”
KL: But by adding this extra dimension then suddenly its like, “Oh, there are points of identification.” Because the 12 Symptoms are universal, in the sense that, at any given moment we can identify with one, two, or three or four of them. Apparently, if you can identify with the majority of them you are probably in need of help. And the idea of the mirror is also a symbol of the Enlightenment. It’s a rational surface in which you can see yourself, apprehend yourself. But by fracturing it, of course, it disrupts that.
RH: OK, so I will just ask one more question. There is a juxtaposition of your show at the VAG with this quite fantastic Surrealist show. I took a short look at that show, and thought, Oh, I can see consistencies in your work with what the Surrealists did…
KL: Well I am interested in psychology and I am interested in the repressed. And every time you have the repressed, you always bring up the Real. The Real is always about the thing that’s repressed; The Real always comes back to haunt you. Also, the Real is beyond language, and Surrealism was interested in things language couldn’t quite represent. So there are parallels that way. Of course, Surrealism also had a political program, by calling up the unconscious you are freer in some way, by calling up the unconscious world the conscious world will become a nightmare, and that can be instrumentalized.
RH: So would you say that today art can also have a program?
KL: As an artist you always have to have a program. I don’t mean program in the sense of Page 1, Page 2, the Preamble, Forward…I don’t mean that kind of program. But I think if you are making art you have to have a program. Your art is about a kind of development of an individual theory about art, and about life through art. I believe that when you are making art you are making a kind of theory about how you see life, and about how art can theorize life. So yeah, you have to have a program. But it’s not a program that you can proscribe.
RH: Right. It’s in the art.
This interview appears in the debut issue of CACTUS Magazine, which can be purchased here.
Information about Ken Lum’s Vancouver Art Gallery retrospective is here.
October 28, 2011 § Leave a Comment
“For both Manet and Baudelaire, can their invention of powerful models of modernist practice be separated from the seductive and nauseating image the capitalist city seemed to be constructing for itself?” 
At first, I couldn’t understand why Instant Coffee would deep-six itself into a Fallout Shelter. Their motivations for doing this seemed rather obscure to me. Weren’t bomb shelters a thing of the past? The millenialism of the gesture a little late?
A garden today more readily evokes narratives of sustainability. Whatever the state of contemporary geo-politics, there is hardly a nuclear winter on humanity’s horizon.
When I asked IC’s Jenifer Papararo about this she averred — the tale told here was a happy one, it may be “a dark fairytale…but, we are together, even under fallout.”
Ah, survival. So IC sees its future to be much like its past. Improbably succeeding, setting the agenda. Outwitting and outlasting and the competition. Still here. Ha.
And if the terminus point imagined seems a bit grim, well, artworks are never only about the artists that make them. Implicit to Instant Coffee’s Fallout Shelter project is a larger narrative about the fate of all utopias.
Now clearer that my first impression had been too literal, I remembered that I had always kind of misunderstood what IC was trying to do. And I was not alone in this.
Severed from work done in a specific medium, the zone of representation is a tricky substance from which to hone an art practice. This is especially true if you hardly bother to—or deliberately avoid—differentiating what you do from representation’s more mundane existence as the language of commerce.
Perhaps, too, because of the collective’s proven ability to anticipate the forms of their ongoing relevance which is on pace with wider art world trends, but may be a little in advance of their audience, the Instant Coffee project has always been somewhat misunderstood.
Throwing parties will do that to your reputation; enjoyment, for some reason, is one of the more hypocritical realms of human experience.
The art show as party was the original format of IC-engineered inclusivity. In the collective’s own words, creating event-based exhibitions was a way to “renegotiate…traditional exhibition structures”. In the process, they jettisoned outmoded medium-specific hierarchies of the more traditional exhibition venues.
Self-reflexive about their own role as facilitators of art experiences, IC recognized the important part that brand identity could play to formalize the collective as a framework of possibility. Cannily adopting the language of globalism, IC staked its territory as a “service-oriented artist collective.”
The claim is funny in itself. Self-aware and proactive, it lives up to the ideal of truth in advertising, yet partakes of the peculiarly Canadian preoccupation with being nice and non-threatening.
To embrace a plurality of practices means to embrace the plurality of artists responsible for them. And at the point of this connective tissue, we find the core Instant Coffee ethic. Not only were collective members party people, they were people people too.
So, for instance, in early incarnations, Instant Coffee’s parties and their predecessors — Jin’s Banana House and the Money House — used the device of the slide show to provide an easy format of participation for all invited, artists and non-artists alike.
A practical approach to curating contemporary art, Instant Coffee’s democratizing strategy was also a way to contend with the difficulty of assigning value to artworks. This is a problem, one of positively diluvial proportions, that follows in the wake of post-minimalism.
Increasingly, when de-skilled and neo-conceptual, the possible in contemporary practice has become difficult to differentiate from the necessary.
IC’s brand-defining rhetoric energetically addressed this predicament. Starting with their name, Instant Coffee (i.e., the ersatz version), the collective declared itself a non-arbiter of value. Taste, they contended, distracted “from the fundamental reasons for ingesting either the real thing or its substitute.”
The above excerpt from IC’s manifesto—which has served as the collective’s credo throughout their career—suggests that artworks are a medium of social interaction, and in some cases a mere pretext for it; an idea which has subsequently played out in the contemporary art world at large.
In Instant Coffee terms, the figure of ‘the party’ was the refuge—and the metaphor, perhaps—for the demotion of the curatorial role. To explain the circumstances they saw themselves operating within, the collective chose an ironic voice…
Instant Coffee. No Better Than You… Instant Coffee: it doesn’t have to be good to be meaningful…
…creating a ground ripe for misapprehension; but that, too, was part of the act. Those observers who took the IC party for the main event were missing the point.
Because inventing an art scene that accommodated and gave validity to the activity of your peers was a kind of utopia – symptomatic, maybe, and expressive of a wider condition — but a utopia nonetheless.
It is possible to characterize ICs commitment to inclusion as a practice of extreme courtesy, an idea that is fully in keeping with the collective’s ethos. Which is why their Toronto Sculpture Garden project is a departure in more ways than one.
With the inception of the Instant Coffee Disco Fallout Shelter, the question arises as to who now is being served? For the outside observer, a look into the sculpture’s video kiosk reveals the collective to be inside the shelter hanging out; business, for them, as usual.
But six people living cramped together in an underground space – what kind of paradise is this?
By choosing to sequester only IC’s immediate members, and by making an artwork out of that decision, it is as if the collective has devolved into real personalities. They have become the artwork. It is a hard won conclusion to this story—or at least this chapter of it. The IC Disco Fallout Shelter probably has always been IC’s inevitable destination.