Amanda Charchian is an artist living an working in Los Angeles, CA.
Amanda Charchian is an artist living an working in Los Angeles, CA.
He's a brilliant renaissance technician with hip-hop subject matter. His latest work focuses on young black men in a sadly familiar posture: Down. But in a world where bad is good, being down is not always such a bad thing.
The public perception of black male youth has arguably changed since artist Kehinde Wiley began painting his formal portraits while in residency at New York's Studio Museum in Harlem in 2000. Part of Wiley's process was lifting his subjects straight from the street and rendering them-complete with sneakers, track pants, tank tops, and team caps-in the visual language of classic European portraiture; the result wasn't so much brashly iconoclastic as brilliantly inclusive, a mash-up of museum treasure and the urban life outside of its gates. What remains so surprising about these works today is that the 31-year-old Los Angeles native's black males remain a rarity in the fine-art world, despite their prevalence, even dominance in pop culture. Wiley may have redefined portrait painting for a new century, but he's still cutting his own path in a field that purports to be progressive.
Wiley's practices have changed in the last decade and the results are increasingly visible. His recent show at the Studio Museum in Harlem called "The World Stage" took him all over the globe, from Lagos to New Delhi, to cast his models from the street and capture them in poses representing a larger world. His solo exhibition "Down" opens at Deitch Projects in New York City this month; "Down" features eight large-scale paintings of black youths based on iconic images of fallen warriors in art-from bullfighters to Christ. Here he talks about his work with his friend, fellow sampler, and pop star M.I.A. She managed to get stung by a bee during the interview, but the two still got around to tackling the demise of hip-hop and the death of the New York art scene.
M.I.A.: I wanted to ask you about the progression of your work these days. How are you finding it? Because New York is a really different place to make art compared to what it used to be.
KEHINDE WILEY: I came here almost 10 years ago now. It was my first experience of making a life for myself outside of school, and my career kind of snowballed at once. So there's really not much in the way of an alternative experience for me to contrast it with. These days I'm spending quite a bit of time on the road, which finally has allowed me to get some perspective. I'm starting a new project where I open up studios in different nations and do street casting. I just got back from Brazil and Nigeria and Senegal. Actually, tomorrow I'm leaving for New Delhi.
M: Does leaving New York change your art?
KW: That type of process becomes the work in many ways-physically removing yourself from what your work was based on before. By and large what I'd been doing was mining the streets of African America, using a sort of urban vernacular. That changes radically when you remove yourself physically, especially around the world.
M: Manhattan seems pretty developed, you know what I mean? Like it has peaked in culture. The Village Voice called it McHattan. It's just become impossible for young, creative artists to live in New York.
KW: Where do you find it most fruitful to work?
M: I think traveling really helps. I know some musicians who have studios in Trinidad. There's a collective of artists and painters there now who went to Central Saint Martins College [in London] with me. They live there and make art. It's neat to see that-[people] not led by money or pretentiousness. It's a small community, but you really have the space to observe and digest the culture. You go to a place where social commentary is rare and important and you can serve people. That's what's inspiring to me-finding someplace where people haven't already seen themselves in a certain light.
KW: Yeah, I know.
M: You create that light, you create that visual or image.
In America, everything has been done. We've had everything. And now we're rerunning what's already been done.
KW: Right, recycling. The recycled object.
M: Exactly! I performed at a show at the MoMA. There was this big dinner there, and I was seated in this hall with the mayor of New York and all these extremely wealthy art-
supporting and art-buying people. There was a piece of work hanging in the hall-it was a fan. This fan was supposed to swing by the momentum of its own propeller. So, while we were having dinner, the fan was stopped, and the guy next to me, a curator at P.S.1, said, "Look, this is what art symbolizes today." Like, that piece of art is supposed to be moving, but just to have dinner we've stopped the art. That's what New York is like today. You can't have real art happen in an institution because rich people can make the world stop. The stuff on the street is a lot more interesting.
KW: I think so, too. There's a freshness. I remember being in West Africa and thinking about my father's country-he's from Nigeria-and I was there, opening up a studio, doing a lot of street casting, stopping people, and there was this film crew with me because we were doing a documentary on my process, and I was contrasting the experience I had there with the experience I had doing the exact same street casting in places like the Fulton Street Mall, in Brooklyn. And it's amazing how, in New York, there is almost a feeling of entitlement by the public-this very palpable lack of surprise at being stopped in the street and being asked to be the subject of a 12-foot monumental painting. I think part of that is mediated by a very televisual sense of instant celebrity, something that's sort of "just add water"-an age where reality television mediates the way that we see new faces entering our lives. Whereas when I was in Nigeria, in places like Lagos and Calabar, there was a very ineffable exchange where these guys were really curious but also so far removed from this artificial environment that I was creating. It gave something new to the work. In some ways, there is a look in the paintings that seems a bit more fragile.
M: It's like cinema, when you put someone onscreen who's never been on before. You show it to them and say, "This is you. This is what you look like on a 60-by-60-foot screen." It's a different understanding of art. Take India: Even though it's got a major movie industry, when it comes to contemporary art, artists on the streets don't see themselves as artists-it's like a skilled job. When they're painting a car and they decorate it with all this crazy stuff, I think, "Wow, this is amazing! It's something I would hang on my wall." But they're always really shocked when I go up to them and ask them to do something for me. Do you think that's what you're going for, looking for ideas outside of the disposable "just add water" kind of thing?
KW: My desire is to restart the conversation. It's akin to this idea that most 18-year-olds who are going to be voting for the first time this year in the American elections were 10 and 11 years old during the 9/11 attacks-this idea that we're all kind of collectively correcting and rebooting, this desire to throw away the old rules. This is something that, as artists, we constantly deal with-throwing away the past, slaying the father, and creating the new.
M: Yeah, change. You know, what really drives me mad about art is that, in America, the only thing you can do is to take it apart. As artists, that's the best commentary you can do because there's just so much vacuous content. For example, yesterday I stayed in bed for 24 hours and watched TV. I do that, like, every six months, where I just don't answer phone calls and the only thing I do is watch television. And it's insane! I couldn't tell the difference between the news and an advert. It's all Fox News, 30-second sound bites, and there was nothing I got from it at all. Where the fuck are all the Michael Moores in our culture? Where are the cool Democrats? Where are cool people on television? Where has cleverness gone?
KW: The trouble is that the traditional targets have been so co-opted. It's hard to know where to cast your aim. So much of what changed American society in the '60s had to do with a very strong set of targets-what we can physically do with ourselves and our bodies. Now it's much more subtle. It's almost debilitating in a way because we can't organize either, artistically or politically or socially, against any specific thing, because it's more like an essence, an ether that floats in the air, poisoning our ability to really have an authentic moment.
M: That's what I miss, being a real human. Like, I'm just so grateful for the 10 years that I had in Sri Lanka when it was in the middle of a war and I was getting shot at, because now and again I remember glimpses of those times and I just go, "Wow, I'll never, ever see that again in my life. And I'm never gonna feel that, and I'm never gonna feel for a human being like that."
KW: When was the last time you were back in Sri Lanka?
M: Just before September 11th happened. After that it was insane to even try to go back, with all the new restrictions. When I was there I was already having a machine gun held to my head every five seconds, and every 50 yards I'd have to show my ID. I wasn't a singer at the time-I was just a random girl, an artist. I was making films, and I had just graduated from Saint Martins in London. I thought I was invincible. Like, I'm getting harassed and I have a British passport. I have a letter from the Ministry of Defence! What if I were just a random Tamil girl from the village. I could be dead! It was the weirdest experience. I couldn't even make a movie because you can't make one without having it okayed by the Sri Lankan embassy. So you can only have a one-sided story. Do you think art in America is like all other industries? That there are certain parameters you can't go past?
KW: Certainly. I think I've come through the art-industrial complex-I've been educated in some of the best institutions and been privy to some of the insider conversations around theory and the evolution of art. But that doesn't necessarily get spoken about outside of a very small group. When you operate outside those rules, you are changing the vernacular. I think that's partly the success of my work-the ability to straddle both of those worlds, the ability to have a young black girl walk into the Brooklyn Museum and see paintings she recognizes not because of their art or historical influence but because of their inflection, in terms of colors, their specificity and presence.
M: Yeah, that's how I felt about your work the first time I saw it. It felt establishment, but it was also breaking it a little bit and twisting it. Do you feel a responsibility to teach something in your work?
KW: That's a question I have always grappled with. Is that even my job? Is that gonna slow you down?
M: In the beginning I definitely felt a responsibility because I was representing a bunch of people who never got represented before. I felt this responsibility to correct that situation, to be like, "Look, you can't discriminate against refugees and Muslim people and blah, blah, blah . . ." Now I don't feel that so much . . . It's complicated. Hold on a second. Are you there? I just got stung by a bee.
KW: Are you serious?
M: Yeah. It's the first time I've ever been stung.
KW: You have to be careful with that. Some people have
major allergic reactions!
M: I know. I'm wearing flower-print pants. I think he thought I was a bunch of flowers.
KW: Drawn in by the flowers. That's great.
M: Anyway, getting back, do you feel a responsibility?
KW: That's a very complicated question. When I was growing up and going to art school and learning about African-American art, much of it was a type of political art that was very didactic and based on the '60s, and a social collective. I feel sometimes constrained by the expectation that the work should be solely political. I try to create a type of work that is at the service of my own set of criteria, which have to do with beauty and a type of utopia that in some ways speaks to the culture I'm located in. But Americans are so overly fixated on racial identity-and on identity in general.
M: I know. As an artist I could either sit there with a chip on my shoulder and just chip away every day, or I could transcend all of it, which really makes it about what you're actually saying-not being based on the burdens of the past but trying to make the world make more sense to you. If I actually had a chip on my shoulder and started, like, race bashing, they would have been more used to that. In school I was like, "I want to be a filmmaker." And they were like, "Well, you can't be a serious filmmaker if you're not wearing a plaid shirt." You can't turn up at college in stilettos and say you're gonna be a filmmaker. They were teaching me avant-garde filmmaking, where I had to make films that were, like, an hour long about nothing. [Wiley laughs] I just refused to do it, you know?
KW: It seems incredibly self-indulgent.
M: I just couldn't be like that, because this week this is what's happening in my life: So-and-so is going to jail, so-and-so got evicted, I'm getting busted for this, and blah, blah, blah. There was just, like, real-life shit going down in my house all the time. There was no need for me to go to college and learn how to film a blue screen for half an hour. I did my thesis on CB4 . Everyone freaked out. They tried to have me kicked out of school. They thought I was disgusting.
KW: I think there's something important in going against the grain, and perhaps finding value in things that aren't necessarily institutionally recognized.
M: Exactly! I want to find a taxi driver in India and ask him where he got the sticker that goes across his windshield. That decorative choice comes from the idea that maybe it's good to tell your vehicle apart from everyone else's when you get off of break.
KW: Right, very real.
M: They also do it because they want to show off. If they buy a shop, they're gonna name the shop after their kid. If they drive a taxi, they name the taxi after their mom.
KW: This sort of reminds me of growing up in South Central Los Angeles back in the '80s, you know, where so many people were flossing down Crenshaw Boulevard with their lowriders and hydraulics and stuff, and it was this major scene. For me it was always important to internalize that type of flossing. When I was at Yale, most of the students there were obsessed with this type of neo-minimalism that thought that any garish display or show of emotion or visceral beauty was something to be scoffed at. I think conversely it made me revert back to some of the more ornate or baroque features of black American culture.
M: That's exactly what happened with me. Because I spent time in L.A., too, growing up on gangster rap. My cousin was a gangster bitch, and she knew the Bloods and the Crips and she was Sri Lankan, so we'd go to all these clubs down on Crenshaw. Then I would come back to college at Saint Martins, and I was learning a whole other way. Like having that whole '90s hip-hop from L.A. and then going to Saint Martins, where it's all the Britpop stuff about being shy and hating yourself. I was a Sri Lankan refugee, like, the scum of society, and then I went right to Los Angeles, into African-American culture, and it was just incredible. I've never seen black people like that in England. In England black people still live within the parameters of white society. It was an eye-opener. Then I'd be in school and the students would be like, "I'm white, and I'm male, and I don't know what to do, I hate myself." I was just like, there is this contemporary culture in America that's writhing with so much good shit and bad shit that no one is really making art out of yet, you know?
KW: Sometimes there's that tipping point, where societies -embrace who they are without necessarily needing a dominant culture or center to recognize the periphery. I remember being in Nigeria back in 1997 and meeting a bunch of MCs practicing their skills outside this bar and I was just like, "This is an amazing scene!" And how many people really know about what was going on in the hip-hop scene in Nigeria back in the early '90s? These guys were really complaining about how they just couldn't get any play at home and how most of what was consumed in terms of black culture was American. Of course, now you go to Nigeria and it's a completely different scene. It's just overrun with amazing acts. And I think that's kind of indicative of a type of self-confidence that people develop when they recognize their own ability to create.
M: Yeah. Also, it could be the sort of declining grip of the American MTV-nation culture-the fact that MTV doesn't play so much music anymore. When I would go to Africa I used to get really pissed off that people would listen to 50 Cent in, like, a mud hut and want DVD players and a GPS in their SUVs, you know?
KW: Now, why would that piss you off?
M: I felt pissed off because I realized that you have to teach people in a clichéd way how to be happy-and happiness has become too one thing in American media. Achieving happiness is not really about having a flat stomach and the best car.
KW: Personally-and this comes from my experiences of seeing people from very hard lives, working their way toward a sort of middle class, and really wanting to embrace the signifiers for success-the question has always been, who am I to tell them that that's crap? You know, it's not for me, perhaps it's not my style but . . . [sighs] I know your feelings.
M: That's fine! You can say, "Get the SUV," but you can't say, "Get the SUV before you get a house." You know what I mean? Okay, there's a kid in a mud hut. I don't want to teach him bad habits because I live in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, New York City! And I feel like I'm living in the dead weeds of hip-hop. I live in the graveyard of what went wrong with hip-hop.
KW: Well, what went wrong with gangster rap?
M: It's not even gangster rap-it's just what's wrong with hip-hop. It became so one-dimensional; itbecame like a businessman thing. It's run out of creativity. It went so far off about making money that now everyone can do it.
KW: I wonder, though, because I think about this quite a bit when I think of someone like Jeff Koons, whom I admire quite a bit, but aesthetically this type of emptiness is the point-this type of soullessness and devotion to the signifiers of happiness and consumption. Are you prepared to say that that type of hip-hop-soulless, empty hip-hop-is interesting on some level?
M: Well, I would have said, "yeah, it was," 10 years ago. But now I've had 10 years-
KW: [laughs] It's not funny anymore!
M: Yeah, it's not funny anymore. It's good you're taking your work everywhere and you're making it global. I think all relevant work needs to be like that.
KW: One of the really great things about working in Lagos is that it's such a crazy assault on the senses. The population has been rising since oil was discovered there in the late '60s, but public sculpture has been there since even before the colonial years. All my models are asked to choose which pose they're going to assume, and those poses are derived from portraits of former colonial masters or generals or military dictators or what have you, many of them cast in public squares. What comes out of people's minds about which person they'd prefer to be, now that they've been asked to sort of open their eyes to what's been there in their own backyard-
M: I have this artist I work with called Afrikan Boy. He was on my album, and he's from Lagos, Nigeria, and he's always like, "I want to be the African dream!" I think that's so cool. I like the way he represents more than that modern outsider.
KW: If I were going to paint you, if I could paint you as any historical figure, who would it be? Now, you have to realize it's all your look and feel, but I'm asking you about the pose.
M: A historical figure?
KW: And think about it in terms of a preexisting iconic work of art. For instance, when Ice-T came by, he wanted to be this really great painting of Napoleon by Ingres.
M: It's really hard. There are so many people who -inspire me. I'll have to think about it and e-mail you.
As a first generation Iranian-American, I have been exposed to diaspora through my family’s emigration from Iran in the 1970’s. The Middle East’s constant political unrest has created many diasporic subjects throughout the world. The sudden shift from one culture to another, from Orient to Occident, has provided two female Middle Eastern artists ground from which to make profound work on. These two women experienced a vital discontent in their homeland and left their settled territories to become residents in areas far removed from their former home. This essay will focus on the work produced by two women that bear several identities at once which in turn contributes a special point of view, a consolidation between the East and West. Their work employs transnational feminism, Orientalism, and minimalism as underlying philosophies that strengthen the multivalence of their work.
Mona Hatoum is a female artist who uses her body as a metaphor for exile, displacement and dislocation. Her identity has had a strong tie to physical locations and despite her denial of “illustrating her personal experience,” I believe she represents an artist who displays an acute awareness of transnational feminism. She was born in Beirut in 1952 and studied at the American University there. Her parents were Palestinians living in Lebanon, who were unable to gain Lebanese identity cards, so they became naturalized British citizens instead. In her 20’s, Hatoum traveled to London for what she thought would be a brief visit, but she could not return to Lebanon when the airports were closed due to a civil war that broke out there. She was not able to return home, so she attended art school at The Byam Shaw School of Art and The Slade School of Art. Hatoum has lived in the West ever since, and splits her time between Berlin and London in addition to the various artist residencies she has participated in. I think this nomadic lifestyle and her personal history divided between East and West has informed her work with a uniquely global perspective. Space is a central theme in Hatoum’s work as she creates environments that prompt the viewer to reference a psychological or mental space as opposed to a specific location. Her installation works and sculptures employ space physically, while the work’s aesthetics induce confinement, fear and dislocation. In the late 80’s her work moved from narrative and time based work to installation which she says, “articulates [her] concerns through materials and formal aspects instead of delivering a message to a passive audience.” Creating a direct, physical experience for the viewer became a matter of importance with a work called “Light At The End” in which 6 metal heating bars are evenly spaced between a vertical metal structure. Because the title refers to light, you expect the yellow bars to be made of light, but when you walk closer towards them, you feel the intense heat coming from the work. Initially you may be drawn to the work’s beautiful light, but as you experience the work closer to your body, curiosity shifts to fear and danger.
I highlight a work like this because of its specific need of bodily participation in order for the work to be fully realized. She says in an interview with Michael Arfiero in Sculpture Magazine, “A work like this may refer to situations of imprisonment, pain, and torture without pointing the finger at any specific place, leaving it to viewers to make their own connections and identify with either the jailer or the jailed.” Here she emphasizes the importance of the viewer’s body. The work becomes a site of projection for their own experiences, memories and desires. Although she probably created the work from her own experiences in space, she turns the local into the universal by utilizing tools of minimalism to distill the work’s concept to its form.
In her sculptures, “No Way” and “No Way II”, she plugs the holes of a strainer and a colander with metal bolts, and thus creates objects that look like a mace and a land mine. She says she drew inspiration for these works from roads that were obstructed by military police in the Middle East. Perhaps even more, the impact of Lebanon’s civil war and the weapons of destruction permeated her consciousness and planted the seeds for this work. Here again, the body is referenced through the household items, where the relationship to humans is implied rather than shown. In addition, the household items, kitchen utensils specifically become these objects of war, alluding to the war in her homeland. But Alix Ohlin offers another perspective in Home and Away, “No Way and No Way II seem to express a sense of claustrophobia and blockage, even deep rage, experienced by women alone.” He suggests that the use of kitchen utensils can be read in a feminist language, a metaphor for a socially oppressed body.
Although under my close inspection, I am tempted to see her work as highly personal and very much about her identity, she rebells against being over-identified with her biography. She has said that she is often asked about what aspects of her work come from her own culture to which she responded in a 1998 interview with Janine Antoni, “As if I have a recipe and I can actually isolate the Arab ingredient, the woman ingredient, the Palestinian ingredient. People often expect tidy definitions of otherness, as if identity is something fixed and easily definable.” It is this very notion that no single “ingredient” can present an understanding of her work that is so fascinating to me. She is not just coming from a feminist perspective, in fact I read that she grew great discontent for feminism in its second wave because of its strictly Western stance. And as feminism in art grew into the 90’s hot topic of identity politics, feminism in particular was not a starting point for her. However, I still believe it plays a vital role in her existence as a transnational feminist with aims of destabilizing boundaries around nations, gender and race. Central to a transnationalist feminist framework is the need to consider gender in an integrated analysis with race, class, nationhood, ethnicity, etc.
To go back to her quote, the “otherness” she refers to is an obvious reference to the Palestinian scholar Edward Said who has written about Hatoum’s work and deals with “otherness” in his own writing. The mutual influence of East and West is significant in understanding why Hatoum’s identity cannot be formulated with named equal parts. In The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables, Edward Said analyzes the way in which identity as a subject is present, albeit ulterior. “Her work is the presentation of identity as unable to identify with itself, but nevertheless grappling the notion (perhaps only the ghost) of identity to itself. Thus is exile figured and plotted in the objects she creates.” Each ingredient becomes a mirror in understanding another ingredient in a similar way that Said sets up the Occident’s creation of the Orient as an idea, a reflection on the Occident itself. When asked about Said’s interpretation of her work, Hatoum explains how each person that interprets her work does so depending on their own experience. In referring to Said she said, “his experience of exile and displacement is that of the Palestinians so he read specifically the Palestinian issue in my work, but it's not so specifically to do with the Palestinian issue. It could be related to a number of people who are exiled, who are displaced, who suffer a kind of cultural or political oppression of, of any kind.” In this same quote she talks about how because he is a writer, he is predispositioned to look for a literal meaning, where the content in the work is more important than the form. Unsurprisingly, she finds difficulty in accepting this because it limits the multivalence of the work and provides, again a “fixed” meaning. In the same way she approaches her mixed biography, she champions the multiplicity of meanings that art work can produce.
But of course I do not want to create a negative picture in discussing Hatoum’s views on Said, as in fact his influence was very fruitful and eye-opening. They became friends not long after her nomination for the Turner Prize in 1995. His work made her realise, she says, that she wasn't alone in "feeling an in-betweenness, of being out of place and of not relating completely to where I am". Aware that no artist can control how their work is interpreted, she is sensitive to how she might be perceived as a Palestinian artist. "People often don't credit me with the intelligence to have an awareness of western art history," she says. "They might assume that someone with my background doesn't have the capability of being aware of what's going on and making comments upon it. But for me that was part of my education and my culture. And what's often ignored about my work is that I'm also making reference to [western] art and art history." I am not sure how one can “ignore” her sensitivity to minimalism, Sol Lewitt in particular whose modulars are obvious influence in her cage like structures. I am not surprised however that writers and critics try to pigeon-hole her work, as they seem to have that tendency as a means to their own ends.
In a work called “Homebound”, Hatoum, stretches two parallel horizontal electric wires which take up the entire length of the gallery. The wires form bars that enclose you from a chaotic mix of kitchen utensils and household furniture that are connected to each other through another electric wire that produces an alternating current of electricity. Light bulbs flash intermittently throughout time while a faint buzz steams through audial vibrations in the gallery. The wires form a barrier that creates a tension between the viewer and the work as it cannot be entered nor exited. This highly controlled and seemingly threatening space can allude to various spacial forms of confinement.
In Uncharted Territory: New Perspectives in the Art of Mona Hatoum, Sheena Wagstaff points out moments in the work where a bed is sporadically illuminated by one of the light bulbs which alludes to electric beds as instruments of torture or dissection, or morgue tables. Where at once the work seems to be overly fictionalized and repulsive, it still seduces the viewer in “entering” the installation even though we can not physically do so. “It is through Hatoum’s ambiguous relationship between entrapment and freedom, emphasized by the spatially dislocating flux of light and shadow, that Homebound exercises the ever-fascinating ‘mechanism of alienation’ by which the subject is caught.” This work is perhaps the most illustrative display of a woman in exile. Not only do the formal qualities and spatial relationships of the work elucidate exile, the title of the work also cleverly plays on the literal and figurative meaning of the word “bound”. It refers to the state of being on the way home as in “homeward bound”, as a subject in exile typically can not be. But in an increasingly globalized world, where diaspora no longer refers to people in exile, and where people are able to go back and forth between their new and “old” homes, the meaning changes. The word “bound” can also refer to the state of being tied up to something, and in this case it would be the home. Again, issues regarding domesticity and multinationalism, creates a transnational feminist dialogue in the work of Mona Hatoum.
Another Middle Eastern female artist who employs the politics of representation in order to navigate their transnational identity, is Shirin Neshat. Like many of the members of my own family, she emigrated from Iran at the at age of seventeen to the United States, ultimately escaping Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. After returning from studying art at Berkeley, she came back to a foreign Iran, one transformed by a totalitarian regime. The Islamic Revolution had altered the country completely, and the regime had come to determine every aspect of the lives of the people, from what they ate and drank to what they wore. During this period the country had been barely accessible to journalists from the West and was almost exclusively associated with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism, and since has created ground suitable for exploration, albeit at a distance. Neshat, like Hatoum has been living a nomadic life, as it is the only way in which she can realistically deal with her situation as a diasporic subject. Although she has, “battled with the pain of cultural disjoinment and alienation,” her distant relationship with her homeland has granted the space to observe and interpret her subjectivities through her work.
Her earliest body of work, “Women of Allah” was inspired by a trip back to Iran after twelve years of absence. Before this body of work, she had not been inspired to create anything at all since her schooling. But the changes the Islamic Revolution brought to her home country were so shocking that she finally felt that there was something that she could passionately make work about. “There was so much that I didn’t understand: for example, how and why the revolution was formed and what were the main philosophical and ideological ideas behind this change. In a sense, coming to terms with this subject strangely made me feel less distant and more a part of the community.” Perhaps creating work about the woman she could have been had she not left Iran, allowed her to consolidate the tension between her escape and her constant return.
She was particularly interested in the Revolution’s effect on women: the chador (the farsi word for the burka or veil), and the potential of female resistance in an oppressive regime through aesthetic means. “Women of Allah” is a photographic body of work which are all composed of an image of Neshat herself, calligraphy of Iranian female poets, weapons, and the veil. Each of these elements have symbolic value that discuss the issues of contemporary Iranian women. For example, the veil is a highly controversial symbol of the repression of women’s rights and individuality and at the same time a sign of liberation against Western influence.
These photographs beg an Orientalist read as they feed into how Edward Said discusses the “inherent violence” and “lascivious sensuality” of Orientals which the images of a weapon and a woman provide respectively. The veil further exploits the “exotic” Orient which in the nineteenth century became at the same time mysteriously secretive AND understood through the lens of the Occident. The exemplary exposed yet mysterious object is the veil and thus the veiled woman. The veiled woman fed into Oriental paradoxical fantasies, where she is represented in the context of colonial literature and art as mysterious yet knowing, convertible and assimilable. The projected availability and vulnerability of Eastern woman supported a desire of the European colonizer to enlighten the Islamic world and “free” its women from opression. This ambivalence still carries on in Neshat’s work where a tension between the illegible calligraphy (to people who cannot read Farsi) and the inherent “truth” of photography creates a space of contemplation of the image. When Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, “The world of images is dominated by words. Photos are nothing without words.” the familiar incrusted symbols in the photographs become undeniably multivalent and deep.
Neshat’s work simultaneously communicates her sense of geographical dislocation and the gendered divide of Islamic culture. “Turbulent” from 1998 and “Rapture” from 1999 illustrate these two themes perfectly by opposite groups of men and women separated in space that investigates the ideological implications of private and public space. The films are installed opposite from each other, so the viewer is caught in the middle, only being able to see one screen at a time, thus becoming the editor. The two projections seem to address each other as though one could not exist without the other. In “Turbulent” a man and a woman are seen on opposite sides of the gallery. First, the man sings a song to an all male audience. When his song has ended, the woman performs her own piece that contain no lyrics and no audience. The work focuses on the separation of sexes in Islamic culture. The fact that the woman’s delivery is wordless and solitary is exemplary of a law in Iran that does not allow women to sing in public. Another interesting aspect of “Turbulent”, is that it was made as a collaboration between a Iranian writer, film maker, singer, cinematographer and art director who were all living abroad. This sense of community among diasporic subjects seems to be prevalent, as the need for a common understanding perhaps fills a lonely, displaced void. It is also quite interesting that the films are not shot in Iran, but in a near-by country. Neshat says this is due to the controversial nature of her work and that she fears that creating the works in Iran would put her at great risk. Additionally Neshat’s work has barely been shown in her home country, Iran. Due to its political and anti-fundamentalist approach, the only work of hers that has been shown in Iran, is a film called “Tooba”, a poetic piece whose main feature is a garden. Gardens are a symbol of spirituality in Iran, and thus its neutrality prompted a pleasant reception in Iran.
“Soliloquy” is probably Neshat’s most personal film in that it displays her experience as a woman with divided and seemingly oppositional cultural and religious influences. In the installation version, we see her walking in two different cityscapes: one in a small Middle Eastern city visiting a mosque where she joins some kind of ceremony with other women dressed in similar black veils. On the other side of the installation she is again dressed in black, in an urban modern city where she joins a Christian religious service. Standing between the installation, the viewer can quite literally interpret the work as insight into the artist’s psychological struggle to understand her place between two very different worlds, her past and present. In her past, she might fear losing her individuality as a traditional Islamic woman, but in her present she may feel isolated and separated in a modern Christian based society. This work clearly presents her divided worlds where she consciously used the architecture to emphasize the difference to the viewer. She says “The architecture became an essential aspect of Soliloquy as the buildings represented each culture in its traditional values.”
Both Hatoum and Neshat were included in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking”. Its mission was to present work by artists born in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia but who live and work in Europe or the United States. The curator of the show who is the director of contemporary painting and drawing at the museum, Fereshteh Daftari says the underlying point of the show is that borders between art and artists have been enclosed, whether they are formal, political or religious, hence the title of the show. Because these artists are of the Middle Eastern Diaspora, and they are among the global elite, their work can and should not be labeled as “Islamic” as such a classification falls short. Neshat and Hatoum’s work clearly shows how globalization and its various aspects have allowed artists of multiple origins to become global citizens, and their work be read with universal issues. The show also displayed how an artist can maintain a balance between loyalty towards their roots without becoming ethnographic.
Similar to Mona Hatoum’s complaints that she cannot be understood as a Western artist of Palestinian descent, Shirin Neshat discusses a similar discontent: “Much of the criticism towards my work is more reflective of Western critic’s own inability to accurately analyze non-Western artists.” However, I would argue that both artists have mastered the task of consolidating between their Eastern and Western identities through their work, and that they can not be one without the other. They have studied and lived in the West despite being born in the Middle East, they speak of contemporary Middle Eastern issues with contemporary Western art historical discourses, and thus the East is as integral to their work as is the East. Every exile and immigrant carries a sense of their cultural homeland in addition to the individual perspective on the country they inhabit now. Unlike the black and white contrasts of Neshat’s photographs, these women’s works can not be read as such.
READ THIS WHILE LISTENING TO "OH YOKO" I UPLOADED IT ONTO THIS BLOG ENTRY. IT SHOULD BE TO THE RIGHT OF THIS POST. PRESS PLAY.
I have to admit, I am in love with Yoko Ono. Or at least the IDEA of Yoko Ono, as I don't actually know her. So after reading her biography, watching many interviews online, defending the "breakup" of the Beatles, and emphasizing her pivotal role in conceptual art, I have begun to examine and experience "Grapefuit: A Book of Instruction and Drawing." It has a Buddhist undercurrent as it allows me to Be Here Now, and sparks the imagination. I just learned that the name 'Grapefruit' was chosen as title because Ono believed the fruit to be a hybrid of an orange and a lemon, and thus a reflection of herself as 'a spiritual hybrid'. It has a lyrical and romantic quality that I think a lot of conceptual and Fluxus work lacks.
PAINTING TO BE CONSTRUCTED IN YOUR HEAD
Go on transforming a square canvas
in your head until it becomes a
circle. Pick out any shape in the
process and pin up or place on the
canvas an object, a smell, a sound
or a colour that came to your mind
in association with the shape.
Bandage any part of your body.
If people ask about it,
make a story and tell.
If people do not ask about it,
draw their attention and tell.
If people forget about it,
remind them of it and keep telling.
Do not talk about anything else.
Light a match and watch till it goes out.
Smell Piece I
Send the smell of the moon.
Smell Piece II
Send a smell to the moon.
Instead of obtaining a mirror,
obtain a person.
Look into him.
Use different people.
Old, young, fat, small, etc.
I stole it from http://homepage.ntlworld.com/carousel/pob10.html
An interview by Steve Turner 1971
We came together to talk about Grapefruit, Yoko's book of poems, and ended up talking about Jesus. Somewhere in between, we mentioned the Beatles. John and Yoko are currently facing the plight of 'super-stardom'. Within two weeks they had become the third set of artists I had met who were complaining of being sold as people rather then for their art or for their music. James Taylor was the first, complaining of being used only as a headline or a photograph to sell more newspapers, and Pete Townsend was equally determined that "he won't get fooled again" into being a "superstar".
"Being misunderstood", John explained, "is being treated as if I'd won the pools and married an Hawaiian dancer. In any other country we're treated with respect as artists, which we are. If I hadn't bought a house in Ascot I'd leave because I'm sick of it. It's only because it's such a nice house that I'm staying. I'm a fantastic patriot for Britain. Ask Yoko - I never stop selling it! But she finds it hard to love England when they never stop shitting on her."
Yoko feels very much the same way and is waiting rather apprehensively for the response to the paperback edition of Grapefruit. She's been feeling misunderstood for the past fifteen years and has come to the conclusion that she must be the supreme optimist to ever carry on. "I just get this feeling that it's going to be the same thing again, but I have to go on knocking on the door."
John says: "An artist is not usually respected in his own village, so he has to go to the next town. It's a bit of that with us really. I think it's also like Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan - they both died of drink. Artists always die of drugs, drink and all that. Like Jimi and Janis -it's just that they're so misunderstood and tortured that they kill themselves. I refuse to do that. I've found the way out. You are here, live for the day, minute by minute. That's the essential way."
"You are here", meaning that this is all we can know of life's purpose, is the pervading message behind the art of both John and Yoko, The message is short but conclusive. In his song God, John lists fifteen people and philosophies that he no longer believes in and claims that he has now arrived at a position where he only believes in, "Yoko and me/that's reality". When I asked him what he considered reality to be, he answered, "Reality is living, breathing, eating and dying". So, outside of the undeniable fact of our own existence they claim that there is no need for questions or answers. As far as any ultimate reason, purpose or meaning to this life is concerned, John states, "There isn't an end product to life or a reason for it, it just is, It's not a game, though," he assured me, "it's very serious."
"You are here", is the statement they offer, and "what you can do while you are here" seems to be the message behind Yoko's poetry. They all take the form of a simple instruction, often of a single line and are divided into sections titled Painting, Event, Dance, Film, Object etc. When life itself has no meaning, there is no reason why the activities we perform during that life should have any ultimate meaning either. This would seem to be the philosophy behind the poem Line Piece, which says "Draw a line/Erase a line" or Map Piece - "Draw a map to get lost". Probably the best poem in this line, once you have an understanding of the underlying philosophy, is the one line ‘Lighting Piece‘. Here it is important to see both the meaninglessness inherent and the allegory between the match and our lives. The poem says simply "Light a match and watch till it goes out" Without purpose we seem to have been brought down to the level of a matchstick, and our lives are as a flame which burns awhile and then extinguishes. The matchstick is then discarded.
Yoko of course, is no newcomer to the art world having been associated with such avant-garde artists and musicians as Andy Warhol and John Cage. Warhol has explained his own art as being, "to stop you thinking about things". Francis Bacon, another contemporary artist who shares the same philosophy, has said, "Man now realises that he is an accident, a completely futile being and that he can only attempt to beguile himself for a time. Art has become a game by which man distracts himself."
In these cases, art has lost its power of Man communicating ideas and emotions to Man. It merely becomes a game to amuse ourselves with while in death's absurd waiting rooms. I feel that it is absolutely necessary to understand the thoughts of John and Yoko before their art becomes understandable.
"People seem to be scared of being put on", says John, commenting on a recent review of Grapefruit."I don't understand people who say they don't understand it because even a seven year old can understand it,"says Yoko. I commented that it's not the how of the instructions that were misunderstood but the why? Yoko explained: "You see, we live and we die. In between that we eat and sleep and walk around - but that's not enough for us. We have to act out our madness in order to be sane."
I asked John whether he'd been influenced a lot by Yoko's ideas. "Yeah, it's great, It's amazing that we think so alike coming from different ends of the earth. She's come from a very upper class scene, going to school with the prince and all that shit, and I'm from wherever! It just shows that colour, class and creed don't come in the way of communication. You don't even have to speak the same language. We made a calendar with some Grapefruit quotes on and some from my books. The ideas behind it were quite similar. Yoko was a bit further out than me when we met - and I was pretty far out, you know - but she really opened my head up with all her work."
I wondered whether he found a great difference between the poetry that he puts into his songs and the poetry that Yoko writes. "The last album I made was very much the same as Yoko's poetry, There weren't many words to it. It was pretty simple and so is the one I've just made which is called Imagine. We work well together in music too, except when I'm doing completely straight rock. But things like Revolution Number 9 would make a good background for her voice." John reminded me that his meeting with Yoko hadn't been the factor that made him write his songs of personal statement. He was writing the same kind of song back in his days as a Beatle, but again he was famed for just 'being a Beatle' rather than for the content of his work. "Help was a personal statement, In My Life was a personal statement and so was I'm A Loser. I was always on that kick but they were just considered to be 'pop' songs at that time. That's why I gave it up. It was all Beatles."
Halfway through our interview, John went out of the room for a few minutes and returned with a magazine which had been sent into the Apple offices for him, the cover contained his picture and the inscription 'Dear John', indicating an open letter to him which was inside. "You ought to see this, This is a message to me from the Jesus people. This is the Jesus freaks in America." He then sat down again and began reading aloud:
"Dear John, I've been through a lot of trips with you. When I was down I put your records on and you'd bring me back to life. We've been up mountains together and I know you know where it's at. But the main reason I'm writing to you is to tell you of a friend I met last June. He said that he is the way, the truth and the life. I believed him and gave my life to him. I can see now how he can boast such a claim. Since then I've heard that you don't believe in him, but you can see in your eyes that you need him. Come on home Johnny, Love a friend."
"I think they've got a damn cheek, I think they're madmen. They need looking after." I reminded him that this same suggestion had often been levelled at himself and Yoko. "That's my opinion you know, You asked me what I thought and I think they're crackpots."
As our earlier conversation had been on the topic of prejudice and how to remove it from society, I asked John whether he wasn't himself guilty of prejudice here. "I don't think it's a prejudice I just think it's a lot of bullshit, I think it's the biggest joke on earth that everyone's talking about some imaginary thing in the sky that's going to save you and talking about life after death which nobody has ever proved or shown to be feasible. Why should we follow Jesus? I'll follow Yoko, I'll follow myself." John's opinion of the Jesus Freak cult, is that they are following in the same tradition that he and the rest of the Beatles followed when they enlisted with the Maharishi. "It's the same as I did when I went looking for gurus, It's because you're looking for the answer which everybody is supposedly looking for. You're looking for some kind of super-daddy. The reason for this is because we're never given enough love and touch as children."
On another subject John very much sympathised with the attitude that Spike Milligan had presented when he ended his TV documentary with the question of whether it was he that was insane or the man who drills holes in pieces of wood for fifty years. "That is complete insanity....Don't you see that the society creates insane people to do their insane work, so that they can wank each other off on fucking yachts. That's what it's all about. And everybody's screwing holes in and going to school and going to work so that fifty people in Britain can fuck about on yachts."
After these comments, and as a leg-pull, I suggested to John that he ought to have his very own political TV show. Taking it rather more seriously than I had intended, he stated With firmness, "I am a revolutionary artist, not a politician". At least it gave me an extra understanding of what John Lennon thought about John Lennon rather than what critic and journalist number 5739 thought about John Lennon. It is precisely this assertion that he is an artist, which is the difference between Beatle John and the post-dream John, ("The dream is over... Yesterday I was the walrus/but now I'm John").
Song writing is now just one of his arts as he dabbles further into the field of film, sculpture and happening. Yoko is certainly the person who harnessed and directed the Lennon potential but his talent has been evident for years. His anti-organised religion attitude was evident from his early books and as he himself said, the personal songs go back as early as I'm A Loser on the Beatles For Sale album. Previous to meeting Yoko he seemed to be a philosopher in search of a philosophy and an artist in search of something to say. Now with Yoko, he sings the songs explaining the philosophy which has made Yoko's poetry a possible and indeed valid art form.
John and Yoko are two very warming people to be with. They both speak as if draining knowledge from the same mind, feeding each other with ideas. John hasn't lost the humour which was enjoyed so much in the Beatle days and he pounces on any opportunity to make a crack. When you see a copy of Grapefruit, only laugh at it if you feel that what you are doing that day has more meaning to it than Yoko's instructions. When you get John's albums, use them as reference works to gain an understanding of his wife's poems. And then next time someone tells you that John and Yoko are a couple of crackpots who could do with two years in the army, tell them that they're a couple of misinterpreted but nevertheless brilliant artists who are honest to their beliefs, and tell them that it was I who said so.
"When I ran away from home at 16, I took three things. A pair of socks, my dog Sparkle, and a copy of Yoko Ono's Grapefruit. Sparkle died, but Grapefruit is still with me." - Cyndi Lauper
Humans are naturally narcissistic, that is we love our own image. Just as the term hails from the Greek myth of Narcissus, who rejected the advances of a nymph, and was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water as punishment. Perhaps the lucidity and fleeting nature of water prompted a more permanent likeness. The early Greek freestanding figures or group sculptures of ivory and bronze (900-700BC) have paved the way for centuries of figurative sculpture. And since then, there have been myriad examples of this same type of fascination with solidifying of the human form. At least nine tenths of all sculpture has been devoted to the subject of creating realistic representations of the human body.
Perhaps we are inclined to make such heavy and monumental human resemblances as a way of dealing with death. Or perhaps it is the product of our living egos. Whatever it may be, even the humblest of men wouldn't mind having a marble statue of their likeness in their town square.
This tradition has carried on to contemporary artmaking. In the 60’s the body lost its prominence as the prime subject for sculpture, to simplified geometric forms, heralding the beginning of a new sculptural movement. This was also the time that saw the proliferation of nuclear missiles developed by the two world superpowers, Russia and America, which caused a widespread mood of anxiety, Artists in America and Europe began using their own bodies in performance and happenings. However, at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, there was a return to figurative art (paintings and sculptures).
A huge range of approaches to figuration had been practiced throughout the history of sculpture, and the sculptors who turned to the figure in the late 70s were only too aware of what had been tried in the past. It did not seem relevant to follow the tradition of working from a live model, or from other methods or mimicry like photographs. The few figurative sculptures that were made in this time were stiff in appearance, as though the body had to be reinvented.
Then, in the early 80s a romantic, mysterious, or expressionist style emerged for a short time period. But the AIDS epidemic had a powerful effect, causing the human body to be seen less as a conquering hero or embodiment of symbolic virture, and more as a victim of global disease and threat. The 1982 writing of Julia Kristeva, and her significant publication entitled Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection had a lot of influence on the art world at the time. For those that do not know, abjection is a concept by the Surrealist writer Georges Bataille. In contemporary critical theory,abjection is often used to describe the state of often-marginalized groups, such as women, people of color, prostitutes, convicts, disabled people, poor people,, and queers. In this context, the concept of abject exists in between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, something alive yet not. Kristeva describes the abject as the private and intimate aspects of the body, such as bodily function and fluid (as we will see illustrated by Kiki Smith later on), which are deemed inappropriate for public display. There was also a show at the Whitney in 1993 called ‘Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art’ which included the work of Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Robert Gober. The body was presented as damaged, suffering, wounded, distorted, and conveying political aspects attached to its sexuality, gender and ethnic identity.
The second surge of figuration in sculpture since the late 90s. This time the artists are not looking to the past, but to the present, concerning themselves with mass media and popular culture. Figuration is not as big of an issue as it once was. Now, it is just one choice among many for sculptors. There have been a few figurative sculptures I have seen (in real life and virtual) that have really struck me for their strangeness. Here is a “list” of these favorites.
(I have added all of these works (and some of the artists that weren't previously in the database) so you guys can check them out here in A+C.
1. Louise Bourgeois
“Arch of Hysteria” 1993
Bronze with silver nitrate patina
83.8 x 101.5 x 58.4 cm
This person describes this work beautifully, so thank you to http://cybermuse.gallery.ca (There was no specific author for this bit.)
"Stemming from her interest in the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of pain and fear, Bourgeois was drawn to the arch of hysteria as theorized and represented by the nineteenth-century neurologist Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893). While working at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, Charcot sought to represent hysteria by documenting the performances of his female patients. The physical tension of the hysterical arch - an intense muscular contraction, resulting in immobility and paralysis of the limbs - is emblematic of an equally extreme emotional state. Bourgeois makes this highly vulnerable position even more so by suspending her male figure from the ceiling. In choosing to represent him in an attitude traditionally associated with the female, the artist transgresses the social and sexual roles assigned to women, challenging the misconception of hysteria as a female malady."
2. Juan Munoz
"London Conversation Piece II" 1993
Resin, Fiberglass, Sand
157.5 x 144 x 70cm
Munoz rejuvinated figurative sculpture in Spain. His figures exude a sense of melancholy and isolation. This particular work is smaller than life size and positioned away from the viewer which in turn increases their diminution. These figures have lumpy sacks as legs and seem stuck in an eternal state of mindless gossip. A gloomy glance at soul-less living.
3. Kiki Smith
"Pee Body" 1992
Wax and glass beads
68.6 x 71.1 x 71.1cm
Kiki Smith primarily represents women as her subjects, often as battered, concentrating on fragility, but what makes the work so intriguing is that even though these women look vulnerable, they have a strong sense of endurance which is supported by her materials. The inspiration from her work comes from her strong Catholic roots and the suffering endured by saints and her formal training as an emergency medical technician at the Brooklyn Hospital, both giving her firsthand knowledge of damage to the body.
4. Berlinde de Bruyckere
Wax, HorseHair, Iron Colored Resin
180 x 31 x 54 cm
I do not know too much about this Belgian artist other than she works with horse hair and hide and te women and horses have begun to intermingle. She has started to cover the bodies and faces of her nude female figures with long horsehair which acts as a protective veil.
5. Olaf Nicolair
"Self-Portrait as a Weeping Narcissus" 2000.
Polyester, clothing, water, electric pump.
90 x 269, 156cm
I chose this one for the sake that it goes with my thesis in addition to the artist's ability to make such realistic sculptures. In this one, he creates an amalgam of the everyday and the mythical. The artist, dressed in casual clothes, kneels on a grassy bank and gazes into a small pool. Every few seconds a concealed electrical pump causes tears to fall form his eyes into the pool. This refers to the aforementioned classical myth. Amazing!
6. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu
"Old Persons Home" 2007
2007 13 x life size sculptures and 13 x dynamoelectric wheel chairs Dimensions variable
This is a hilarious Interactive installation of world leaders in an old age home. Quite funny. The work was originally installed at the Satchi Gallery in London as part of the The Revolution Continues: New Art From China show. Very controversial, hilariously wicked and satirical.
7. Marc Quinn
Blood, Stainless Steel, Perspex, Refigeration Equipment
82 x 63 x 63cm
This amazing sculpture just astounds me everytime I think about it. It is both cerebrally pleasing and viscerally stimulating. This work was created with the artist's own blood which he drew over a 5 month period. (About 8 pints). It examines the human condition of being mortal and meditates on the mortality, while it is tenuously held in frozen animation, and dependent on a regular flow of electricity. Hmm.. I wonder if he is implying that we would all use technology as a life support. I mean how many of us could go through the day without the internet? Well not many of us at A+C.
8. Time Noble and Sue Webster
"New Barbarians" 1997-1999
Fiberglass, translucent resin 137 x 68.7 x 79
I love Tim and Sue (considered "Post-YBA) for their wit and humor. Although they are usually known for sculptures using trash, shadows, light and symbols like the McDonalds and money signs, this offbeat sculpture strikes me as a welcomed change in their body of work. The pre-historic couple in love, are walking out together, naked and brave. This piece was made between 1997-99 - perhaps this is Tim and Sue's pre-millenial gesture, humanity walking onward in curiousity and ignorance, into the 2000s.
If I were to put in another one of their works on this list it would be Dirty White Trash (With Gulls), 1998.
9. Yue Minjun
"Contemporary Terracotta Warriors" 2000
acrylic on fiberglass
73 x 28½ x 19½ in. (185.4 x 72.3 x 49.5 cm.)
This work goes with what I was saying in the introduction to this list, about how one might create a sculpture of themselves in order to deal with death, to immortalize. Here the chinese contemporary artist, freezes himself in a state of laughter. As if he was entering death, as an enlightened and ecstatic being. This work was included in his first museum show in the United States which took place at the Queen Museum of Art in NY. The show, Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile featured bronze and polychrome sculptures, paintings and drawings and ran from October 2007 to January 2008.
If you've enjoyed this list, and want to add your own, please do so in the add comment section.
This is an article from the NYTimes from February
... But I think it will be pertinent for a long time because it calls for a change in the way we think about our (the artists) place in the world. This change however, is not just going to come about through this recession, because there will be another market boom, and everything will go back to normal. BUT we should still think about how and why we create. We don't have to be factories! We can "fail in peace."
Being educated at an art school, I have high expectations for my career. But this article is one BIG reality check. It also a huge relief that there IS time for my labor intensive paintings. The part about opening up the art education to other fields really resonates with me, because after all, you can make art about anything, so expanding one's educational horizons at school is a MUST.
And this picture of Damien and For the Love of God is quite funny, he looks big headed. : )
The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!
Published: February 12, 2009
LAST year Artforum magazine, one of the country’s leading contemporary art monthlies, felt as fat as a phone book, with issues running to 500 pages, most of them gallery advertisements. The current issue has just over 200 pages. Many ads have disappeared.
The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more.
Anyone with memories of recessions in the early 1970s and late ’80s knows that we’ve been here before, though not exactly here. There are reasons to think that the present crisis is of a different magnitude: broader and deeper, a global black hole. Yet the same memories will lend a hopeful spin to that thought: as has been true before, a financial scouring can only be good for American art, which during the present decade has become a diminished thing.
The diminishment has not, God knows, been quantitative. Never has there been so much product. Never has the American art world functioned so efficiently as a full-service marketing industry on the corporate model.
Every year art schools across the country spit out thousands of groomed-for-success graduates, whose job it is to supply galleries and auction houses with desirable retail. They are backed up by cadres of public relations specialists — otherwise known as critics, curators, editors, publishers and career theorists — who provide timely updates on what desirable means.
Many of those specialists are, directly or indirectly, on the industry payroll, which is controlled by another set of personnel: the dealers, brokers, advisers, financiers, lawyers and — crucial in the era of art fairs — event planners who represent the industry’s marketing and sales division. They are the people who scan school rosters, pick off fresh talent, direct careers and, by some inscrutable calculus, determine what will sell for what.
Not that these departments are in any way separated; ethical firewalls are not this industry’s style. Despite the professionalization of the past decade, the art world still likes to think of itself as one big Love Boat. Night after night critics and collectors scarf down meals paid for by dealers promoting artists, or museums promoting shows, with everyone together at the table, schmoozing, stroking, prodding, weighing the vibes.
And where is art in all of this? Proliferating but languishing. “Quality,” primarily defined as formal skill, is back in vogue, part and parcel of a conservative, some would say retrogressive, painting and drawing revival. And it has given us a flood of well-schooled pictures, ingenious sculptures, fastidious photographs and carefully staged spectacles, each based on the same basic elements: a single idea, embedded in the work and expounded in an artist’s statement, and a look or style geared to be as catchy as the hook in a rock song.
The ideas don’t vary much. For a while we heard a lot about the radicalism of Beauty; lately about the subversive politics of aestheticized Ambiguity. Whatever, it is all market fodder. The trend reached some kind of nadir on the eve of the presidential election, when the New Museum trotted out, with triumphalist fanfare, an Elizabeth Peyton painting of Michelle Obama and added it to the artist’s retrospective. The promotional plug for the show was obvious. And the big political statement? That the art establishment voted Democratic.
Art in New York has not, of course, always been so anodyne an affair, and will not continue to be if a recession sweeps away such collectibles and clears space for other things. This has happened more than once in the recent past. Art has changed as a result. And in every case it has been artists who have reshaped the game.
The first real contemporary boom was in the early 1960s, when art decisively stopped being a coterie interest and briefly became an adjunct to the entertainment industry. Cash was abundant. Pop was hot. And the White House was culture conscious enough to create the National Endowment for the Arts so Americans wouldn’t keeping looking, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., like “money-grubbing materialists.”
The boom was short. The Vietnam War and racism were ripping the country apart. The economy tanked. In the early ’70s New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, bleeding money and jobs. With virtually no commercial infrastructure for experimental art in place, artists had to create their own marginal, bootstrap model.
They moved, often illegally, into the derelict industrial area now called SoHo, and made art from what they found there. Trisha Brown choreographed dances for factory rooftops; Gordon Matta-Clark turned architecture into sculpture by slicing out pieces of walls. Everyone treated the city as a found object.
An artist named Jeffrey Lew turned the ground floor of his building at 112 Greene Street into a first-come-first-served studio and exhibition space. People came, working with scrap metal, cast-off wood and cloth, industrial paint, rope, string, dirt, lights, mirrors, video. New genres — installation, performance — were invented. Most of the work was made on site and ephemeral: there one day, gone the next.
White Columns, as 112 Greene Street came to called, became a prototype for a crop of nonprofit alternative spaces that sprang up across the country. Recessions are murder on such spaces, but White Columns is still alive and settled in Chelsea with an exhibition, through the end of the month, documenting, among other things, its 112 Greene Street years.
The ’70s economy, though stagnant, stabilized, and SoHo real estate prices rose. A younger generation of artists couldn’t afford to live there and landed on the Lower East Side and in South Bronx tenements. Again the energy was collective, but the mix was different: young art-school graduates (the country’s first major wave ), street artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fab Five Freddy Braithwaite, assorted punk-rebel types like Richard Hell and plain rebels like David Wojnarowicz.
Here too the aesthetic was improvisatory. Everybody did everything — painting, writing, performing, filming, photocopying zines, playing in bands — and new forms arrived, including hip-hop, graffiti, No Wave cinema, appropriation art and the first definable body of “out” queer art. So did unusual ways of exhibiting work: in cars, in bathrooms, in subways.
The best art was subversive, but in very un-’60s, nonideological ways. When, at midnight, you heard Klaus Nomi, with his bee-stung black lips and robot hair, channeling Maria Callas at the Mudd Club, you knew you were in the presence of a genius deviant whose very life was a political act.
But again the moment was brief. The Reagan economy was creating vast supplies of expendable wealth, and the East Village became a brand name. Suddenly galleries were filled with expensive, tasty little paintings and objects similar in variety and finesse to those in Chelsea now. They sold. Limousines lined up outside storefront galleries. Careers soared. But the originating spark was long gone.
After Black Monday in October 1987 the art was gone too, and with the market in disarray and gatekeepers confused, entrenched barriers came down. Black, Latino and Asian-American artists finally took center stage and fundamentally redefined American art. Gay and lesbian artists, bonded by the AIDS crisis and the culture wars, inspired by feminism, commanded visibility with sophisticated updates on protest art.
And thanks to multiculturalism and to the global reach of the digital revolution, the American art world in the ’90s was in touch with developments in Africa, Asia and South America. For the first time contemporary art was acknowledged to be not just a Euro-American but an international phenomenon and, as it soon turned out, a readily marketable one.
Which brings us to the present decade, held aloft on a wealth-at-the-top balloon, threatening to end in a drawn-out collapse. Students who entered art school a few years ago will probably have to emerge with drastically altered expectations. They will have to consider themselves lucky to get career breaks now taken for granted: the out-of-the-gate solo show, the early sales, the possibility of being able to live on the their art.
It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.
At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.
Art schools can change too. The present goal of studio programs (and of ever more specialized art history programs) seems to be to narrow talent to a sharp point that can push its way aggressively into the competitive arena. But with markets uncertain, possibly nonexistent, why not relax this mode, open up education?
Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.
Such changes would require new ways of thinking and writing about art, so critics will need to go back to school, miss a few parties and hit the books and the Internet. Debate about a “crisis in criticism” gets batted around the art world periodically, suggesting nostalgia for old-style traffic-cop tastemakers like Clement Greenberg who invented movements and managed careers. But if there is a crisis, it is not a crisis of power; it’s a crisis of knowledge. Simply put, we don’t know enough, about the past or about any cultures other than our own.
A globally minded learning curve that started to grow in the 1980s and ’90s seems to have withered away once multiculturalism fell out of fashion. Some New York critics, with a sigh of relief one sensed, have gone back to following every twitch of the cozy local scene, which also happens to constitute their social life.
The subject is not without interest, but it’s small. In the 21st century New York is just one more art town among many, and no longer a particularly influential one. Contemporary art belongs to the world. And names of artists only half-familiar to us — Uzo Egonu, Bhupen Khakhar, Iba Ndiaye, Montien Boonma, Amrita Sher-Gil, Graciela Carnevale, Madiha Omar, Shakir Hassan Al Said — have as much chance of being important to history as many we know.
But there will be many, many changes for art and artists in the years ahead. Trying to predict them is like trying to forecast the economy. You can only ask questions. The 21st century will almost certainly see consciousness-altering changes in digital access to knowledge and in the shaping of visual culture. What will artists do with this?
Will the art industry continue to cling to art’s traditional analog status, to insist that the material, buyable object is the only truly legitimate form of art, which is what the painting revival of the last few years has really been about? Will contemporary art continue to be, as it is now, a fancyish Fortunoff’s, a party supply shop for the Love Boat crew? Or will artists — and teachers, and critics — jump ship, swim for land that is still hard to locate on existing maps and make it their home and workplace?
I’m not talking about creating ’60s-style utopias; all those notions are dead and gone and weren’t so great to begin with. I’m talking about carving out a place in the larger culture where a condition of abnormality can be sustained, where imagining the unknown and the unknowable — impossible to buy or sell — is the primary enterprise. Crazy! says anyone with an ounce of business sense.
Right. Exactly. Crazy.