Pioneering Artist Bruce Nauman Releases a New Monograph
Throughout his long career, the famously reclusive artist has rarely agreed to interviews, so this month’s publication of Phaidon’s book on the artist, ‘Bruce Nauman: The True Artist,’ is truly a red-letter occasion
Pioneering Artist Bruce Nauman Releases a New Monograph
Throughout his long career, the famously reclusive artist has rarely agreed to interviews, so this month’s publication of Phaidon’s book on the artist, ‘Bruce Nauman: The True Artist,’ is truly a red-letter occasion
By Carol Kino
May 1, 2014 1:53 p.m. ET
FOR MANY YEARS, Bruce Nauman has occupied an unusual position in the art world. Known as a vastly influential pioneer of everything from performance to video to conceptualism to installation, with nearly half a century of international biennials and museum exhibitions behind him, Nauman is the rare artist who seems entirely uninterested in pandering to the demands of his own celebrity—and he’s been able to get away with it. In 1979, he moved to New Mexico, and he now spends most of his time on a 700-acre ranch south of Santa Fe, emerging from his cluttered studio only to train, breed and ride horses (and presumably to spend a little time with his wife of 25 years, the painter Susan Rothenberg). Communication with the outside world is conducted via his studio manager and gatekeeper of 29 years, Juliet Myers. And inquiries are often fruitless, as Nauman is known for almost always saying no to retrospectives, interviews or anything else that might “totalize,” as he’s said to put it, his work and career.
So this month’s publication of Phaidon’s monograph on the artist, Bruce Nauman: The True Artist, is a red-letter occasion, if only because it represents one of the rare moments when Nauman said yes. Written by Peter Plagens, an abstract painter who was the art critic for Newsweek from 1989 to 2003, the book has been in the works since 2008—or even longer, if you count the fact that Phaidon’s co-publisher, Amanda Renshaw, had been trying to get Nauman to agree to a project since she joined the company more than 20 years ago.
Early on, Renshaw says, “I made a list of the artists I thought any self-respecting publisher of art books should make a book on. Nauman was one of the artists on the top of my list.” Over the years, she adds, she must have suggested 20 different writers to him, always in vain. “‘I don’t want anyone to write a complete career retrospective on me,'” Renshaw recalls hearing from Nauman’s studio over and over. “‘That’s not what I want.'”
But when Plagens came on board, the obstacles evanesced. The two men had known each other in Los Angeles in the 1970s, when Plagens was trying to establish himself as a painter and critic, and Nauman was, as Plagens writes, the “neighborhood famous artist,” jetting off to shows and grappling with his first career survey, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in late 1972, traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and then toured Europe and America until 1974. For most of that decade, Plagens and Nauman had studios on the same block in Pasadena and they played in a weekly Santa Monica artists’ basketball game. Plagens also performed in Nauman’s 1975 film Pursuit, which features more than 24 minutes of footage of men and women running on a treadmill against a black background, panting desperately into the void while staying in place.
But other than that relatively casual acquaintance, “I couldn’t say why Bruce said yes to me,” says Plagens over lunch in the East Village, as we retrace the footsteps of his last interview with Nauman in New York. Maybe it was because they used to shoot the breeze about the Lakers, he suggests, or because they’re both originally Midwesterners—Plagens born in Dayton, Ohio, and Nauman in Fort Wayne, Indiana. On another occasion, Plagens posits that it might just be because “we are grizzled old white guys of a certain age.” (
Either way, they make for a curious pairing. While Nauman looms as a cross between the Marlboro Man and an art-world Greta Garbo, Plagens, who contributes art criticism to The Wall Street Journal, is an unrepentant chatterbox who tends toward mighty digressions. But that’s also what makes the book such a delight. Full of riffs on subjects ranging from the use of neon in art to the history of the Venice Biennale, it’s as much a social history of the modern-day art world as it is a guide to Nauman’s life and career.
Plagens begins with Nauman’s graduate-school days at the University of California, Davis, where he starts out as a figurative painter but ends up making sculptures from studio detritus and using his own rangy body to create performances and films. He also conceives of his first sculptures of negative volumes, like A Cast of the Space Under My Chair (1965–68). Next come the early years in San Francisco, where working in a storefront studio, he makes his first neon sign, a blue-and-red spiral that reads “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths” (1967).
During this period, Nauman also makes a lot of punning color photographs that show him enacting verbal clichés, like Bound to Fail and Eating My Own Words. Plagens, encountering the images at the 1968 German art exhibition “Documenta,” writes in the book that he found them “superficial” and “smart-alecky.” In 1973, he gave Nauman’s LACMA retrospective a damning Artforum review, which he quotes from extensively.
Yet as Plagens grew to realize over the years—”I was wrong,” he writes—Nauman’s work seems discomfiting at first, precisely because it is so original. With time, it also grows increasingly hard to categorize. In New Mexico, as Nauman starts training horses, his pieces become more challenging, and oddly grotesque, as in the 1988 sculpture Hanging Carousel (George Skins a Fox), which puts taxidermy casts of animals circling on a merry-go-round. There’s also the cartoonish 1987 video installation Clown Torture, featuring clowns who perform gags ad infinitum, one screaming, “No, no, no, no, no!”
‘”I just found him kind of regular. He was never censorious. He never said, ‘I’d really wish you didn’t say this about me.’ “’
A strong sense of Nauman himself emerges in the book. In Plagens’s description, he’s certainly taciturn but also loyal and straightforward—a man’s man who loves horses, picks up technical know-how quickly, maintains old friendships and enjoys good food. (“For all his everyday-ness, Nauman has a way of ferreting out good restaurants when he’s out of town on a project,” Plagens writes.)
Nauman also, surprisingly, comes across as quite funny, even something of a wry practical joker. Asked to contribute an earthwork to a 1969 show in Pasadena, he plans to hire four planes to skywrite “Leave the Land Alone”—a counterintuitively pollution-spewing project that wasn’t realized until 2009. And years after trying to skip large rocks across a river with the painter Frank Owen, who shot Pursuit, he gathers 40 pounds of perfectly shaped skipping stones from California and lugs them across the country to Owen’s New York loft as a gift.
Despite the wealth of anecdotes and quotes, however, it turns out that Plagens interviewed Nauman for the book only three times: once at the ranch, when they stayed up most of the night watching Elvis Costello on TV while Nauman drank neat whiskey; once in Venice, Italy, when Nauman represented the United States at the Biennale in 2009; and once in New York, over lunch at the same restaurant we are visiting today. How did Plagens get so much out of him? “Bruce makes it sort of easy,” he says. “I just found him kind of regular.” Plagens was also surprised to find that Nauman, whose work is often described as “controlling,” never once tried to control his depiction. “He was never censorious. He never said, ‘I’d really wish you didn’t say this about me.’ ”
People who are close to Nauman seem to agree with this portrayal. “Bruce controls his sphere, his output, his production, his art,” says Angela Westwater, his longtime New York dealer. “But if it’s someone else’s job or profession, he sees it differently.”
Maybe that’s why Nauman finally agreed to be “totalized” by Plagens. Maybe he realized someone would do it eventually, and he’d rather it be someone who was unlikely to indulge in hagiography.
But when I try to interview Nauman to find out if this is true, he won’t speak with me directly. Instead, he sends a message through his devoted studio manager, Myers, who calls as Nauman is returning to the studio. “Bruce said yes to this monograph,” Myers repeats carefully, as if she is reading from a script, “because Peter is a different kind of writer and he’s known him on and off for many years.” Then she delivers the kicker: “But what Bruce really loves about Peter is that Peter does all the talking.”
As one of the contemporary art world’s pre-eminent jesters, Bruce Nauman is hardly a barrel of laughs; known as much for his deadpan wit as for his dire take on mortality, his art engages bleak themes (the failure of language; the body’s betrayals; the repetitive, claustrophobic nature of daily life) even as it sparks a knowing, gallows grimace. How else to react to, say, “Sex and Death/Double ‘69,’ ” one of his trademark neon sculptures, which arrays four figures of indeterminate gender in an arrangement (two hang down between two standing) felicitous for simultaneous oral and genital copulation by both pairs? The iconography may owe a debt to high school bathrooms, but the tension between the pulsing colors and the matter-of-fact postures of these doleful sybarites evokes the title’s universal and enduring linkage, as well as the more particular moment of its creation at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in 1985. The scary sense that the core of our human enterprise may be nothing more than a garish amusement park diversion feels inescapable — and as such we are invited to grin and bear it.
“Bruce Nauman: The True Artist” offers the fullest survey yet of this protean artist’s work. Still, even with its numerous reproductions of Nauman’s sculpture, photographs and drawings, the volume necessarily falls short of adequately representing his videos, performances and installations (included stills and photos must suffice), and that is no small issue for an artist whose efforts in those media are regarded by many critics as decisively influential. Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about the careers of any number of contemporary video artists without referring to Nauman. Peter Plagens’s accompanying text takes smart measure of that current relevance, while also providing a detailed account of Nauman’s aesthetic evolution in California during the 1960s. A longtime art critic for Newsweek who kept a studio in the same Los Angeles neighborhood as Nauman, Plagens bolsters his strong art-history chops with a memoirist’s site-specific insights. He recalls his early ambivalence — “Nauman’s art bothered me. It was both psychologically and culturally threatening, and the very fact that it bothered me bothered me” — and notes that his first reviews of the artist were negative. This first-person, journalistic tack is a welcome approach to an artist who often attracts jargon-fond academics.
That’s not to say Nauman doesn’t warrant high-energy contemplation; his vigorous connections to, say, Wittgenstein and Samuel Beckett animate his representations of language’s doubleness and the intrinsically comic nature of repetition. The philosopher’s influence marks a 1967 sculpture titled “From Hand to Mouth” that literalizes the locution by presenting a disembodied, snakelike hand, arm, shoulder, neck, chin and mouth. The macabre object undermines the commonplace quality of the expression by charging its conventional meaning with corporeal fact: To live hand-to-mouth is to be hungry, perhaps feeble. Plagens notes how “like Beckett, Nauman was compelled to exteriorize these troubling thoughts” and finds that the incessant permutations of the famous “sucking stone” passage from “Molloy” “in cadence and content parallel Nauman’s way of artistic thinking.”
The kinship is borne out as if scripted by the Irish author in “Clown Torture,” a 1987 video installation featuring four monitors and two video projections set in a darkened space on which audiences watch perpetual loops of a clown screaming “No,” opening a booby-trapped door, balancing a fishbowl on the end of a broom and retelling the same joke. Loud, abrasive and disturbing, the “torture” the clown endures isn’t funny. But it is. Or at least we are, as we stand there in the dark subjecting ourselves to what Plagens calls the “pointless seriousness — or serious pointlessness” that makes Nauman’s art a test of our own tolerance for his grim vision.
Onward and Upward with the Arts June 1, 2009 Issue Western Disturbances
Bruce Nauman’s singular influence.
Probing relentlessly into the darker aspects of American life, Nauman helped to break the grip of Minimal art. Photograph by Steve Pyke.
Bruce Nauman and Susan Rothenberg have lived for the past twenty years on seven hundred acres of open, windswept land near Galisteo, New Mexico, south of Santa Fe. Rothenberg, a painter whose imagery hovers between abstraction and figuration, is sixty-four, high-spirited, talkative, small, easy to like. Nauman, who is four years older, and well over six feet in his made-to-order cowboy boots, has the watchful reticence and the physical bearing of an old-time Western movie star. His primary medium is sculpture, but he has used such a wide range of materials and media—including film, video, drawings, prints, performance, sound, and neon light—that his work has no signature style. Art lovers looking for beauty or visual pleasure are advised to look elsewhere; they find much of Nauman’s work boring or irritating, and sometimes highly offensive. “PAY ATTENTION MOTHERFUCKERS,” he suggests, in a 1973 lithograph that spells out this message in large mirror-image capitals. To see it is to comply.
Nauman’s and Rothenberg’s studios are in separate buildings behind the functional one-story house they designed for themselves. A hand-lettered sign just inside the door to Rothenberg’s reads “HI HONEY YOU’RE HOME!” In Nauman’s, which is about sixty feet long by thirty feet wide, mounds of leftover detritus from completed art works take up most of the floor space, along with heavyduty tools, empty cartons, extension cords, and a small enclave harboring two battered armchairs and a table piled with assorted books: two Ross Thomas paperbacks, Gabriel García Márquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” Ezra Pound’s “Cantos,” Xenophon’s “The Art of Horsemanship.”
The couple live alone in Galisteo. Nauman has no studio assistant. His studio manager and archivist, Juliet Myers, whose hot-pink-and-orange hair style is a Santa Fe landmark, drives out every Wednesday. “I have the job mainly because I can say ‘No, thank you’ in about a thousand different ways,” she jokes. “Bruce appreciates that I can keep the world at bay.” The Naumans go into Santa Fe now and then, but they steer clear of the thriving art colony there. Non-art activities occupy a lot of their time. They both like to cook. Rothenberg feeds the chickens (they have six), and takes their three mixed-breed dogs on long hikes. She combs the dry hills behind the house for potsherds, arrowheads, and other artifacts of the ruined Galisteo pueblo, where a Tewa-speaking people flourished from the late twelve-hundreds to about 1690, on what is now the Naumans’ land. Her finds fill many drawers and shelves in the house, and she has assembled a dozen or more complete pots. Nauman gets up at seven each morning to feed his fourteen horses, which he breeds, raises, trains, and sells. They are quarter horses, “working horses,” he explains. “Some turn out to be pleasure horses, but they’re bred to work cattle.” His partner, Bill Riggins, runs a horse-and-cattle ranch that they own jointly in Santa Rosa, sixty miles to the southwest. It provides income, as well as steaks.
When I visited Nauman’s studio in March, two rows of square white ultra-thin loudspeakers, clipped to floor-to-ceiling cables, ran the length of the room. This was his “Days/Giorni” project, a new sound work that will début on June 7th at the Venice Biennale. He fiddled with an audio keyboard on a table, and played a bit of the Italian version. Four male and three female voices intoned the days of the week—domenica, lunedì, martedì—skipping or adding days in varying sequences. (An English-language version will be installed at another location in Venice.) Walking slowly between two rows of speakers, arranged so that each voice comes from a pair on opposite sides of the room, was like moving through discrete ribbons of sound. The effect was hypnotic. What might have been merely monotonous seemed rich and full of nuance—the human voice making unintentional music as it evokes the passage of time. More than thirty other works by Nauman, from all phases of his career, will be on view in Venice. “Vices and Virtues” (1983-88), seven of each, intertwined in flashing neon letters seven feet high, will encircle the cornice of the United States pavilion on the Biennale grounds. Inside, and in two venerable buildings on the other side of the Grand Canal, Nauman’s videos and animated neon sculptures will share space with flayed animal sculptures, hanging male and female heads, and other works, including, in a window, his mockingly cryptic 1967 sign: “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” The survey, which was organized by Carlos Basualdo and Michael Taylor, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a long-delayed public affirmation of Nauman’s status as the most influential living artist.
To many people, Nauman’s influence is hard to fathom. Ever since his first show, in 1966, at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, his prickly, uningratiating work has disturbed viewers, infuriated more than a few critics, and fascinated artists. His early films, which were influenced by the single-image films of Andy Warhol, carried an emotional charge that seemed mysteriously unearned, and so did his blobby, awkward-looking sculptures in latex and fibreglass. As he went on in later years to explore new materials and stranger means, the impact deepened. “Matthew Barney, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Tony Oursler: none of these catch-names in contemporary art could have arrived without Nauman,” Andrew Solomon wrote in the Times Magazine, in 1995. He could also have named Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, and most of the other Young British Artists. By bringing social and political content back into art (without cynicism), and by probing relentlessly into the darker aspects of American life, Nauman helped to break the grip of Minimal art. He forces you to experience his art viscerally, not just look at it. “Is there anybody like him?” Maurizio Cattelan, a conceptual master of startling images (such as his sculptural installation of the Pope struck down by a meteorite), asked me recently. When I said no, he muttered, “Damn.”
After an hour in the studio, we walked over to the main house, through a raffish garden whose main feature is a Nauman fountain made out of three bronze foxes stacked in a pyramid. It was late afternoon. Nauman poured himself a small glass of bourbon, neat, and sat down at a zinc-topped dining table. He wore work clothes—jeans, boots, and a frayed gray shirt. His large head reminded me of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, with its prominent nose and high, tapering forehead. Talking about his work or his life doesn’t come easily to him, but the bourbon helps. Nauman speaks slowly, with frequent pauses to work out what he’s going to say. We talked about the two years he’d spent in art school at the University of California’s newly established graduate program at its Davis branch, near Sacramento. He had arrived in 1964, when the barriers between painting, sculpture, photography, film, dance, theatre, and music were eroding so fast that more and more artists felt free to use any and all of them, in any combination, for whatever purposes they had in mind. Coming from his undergraduate art studies at the University of Wisconsin, where the faculty had no patience with Abstract Expressionism or any later trends, was “like stepping out of the Middle Ages,” Nauman said.
In Wisconsin he concentrated on painting, working his way (against faculty disapproval) to abstract landscapes in the style of Willem de Kooning. He quit painting soon after he got to Davis, and never went back to it. “I had to find some other way,” he said. He tried performing—using his body as an impersonal object—but he wasn’t comfortable with that, so he started filming his performances instead. “I’d buy out-of-date film stock, which was cheap. I’ve always liked to use what’s cheap and possible. I even tried writing poetry. Much later, some of that gets into the work.” The abstract sculptures he was doing at Davis had a raw, unfinished look—like fragments of something else. Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, and a few other New York artists were using non-art materials and processes similar to Nauman’s; he saw reproductions of their sculptures in art magazines, along with works he admired by Jasper Johns and Richard Tuttle. None of his classmates were moving in this direction, though, and some of them thought Nauman was aesthetically challenged. Others were in awe of him. His most important teachers, the painters William Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud and the ceramic artist Robert Arneson, encouraged his experiments. “I was impressed with his openness,” Wiley told me. “We shared an interest in what art could do, where it could go.”
Unlike most art students, Nauman was married. His wife, Judy Govan, was a girl he had known slightly in the sixth grade in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. They went to the same high school—Judy was pretty and popular, Bruce was shy and serious—and started dating at the University of Wisconsin. Immediately after graduation they got married, mainly because, as Nauman explained, their parents would have been “very, very upset if we had gone to California together” without doing so.
Nauman’s parents, Calvin and Genevieve, were solid, middle-class Midwesterners—Bruce was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana—with strong moral and ethical codes of behavior, which they imparted to Bruce and his two younger brothers, Craig and Larry. Their dependable but somewhat remote father was an engineer and a salesman for General Electric. His company kept moving him to different cities when the boys were growing up, so they went to several different schools. Bruce did well in all of them. Something of a loner, he was mainly interested in math and music—he took piano lessons as a child, switched to classical guitar, then to string bass. At the University of Wisconsin, he planned to major in physics, but, realizing that he lacked the passion for math that the best students seemed to have, he decided (“and it’s something I never quite understood—what made me think I could do that?”) that he was going to be an artist.
Reports of the strange-looking sculptures and films he was making at Davis got around. Nicholas Wilder, a young Los Angeles art dealer with an eye for new talent, saw one of Nauman’s fibreglass pieces and couldn’t get it out of his head. Wilder visited Nauman’s studio at Davis soon afterward, and eventually offered him a one-man show in the spring of 1966—something that now happens to young artists regularly but was almost unheard of then. Nothing sold, but a couple of the pieces appeared later that year in a group show called “Eccentric Abstraction,” at the Fischbach Gallery in New York. When he cleared out his Davis studio that spring, some fellow-students went through the Dumpster he’d used and pulled out the relatively intact pieces, which they held on to until he became famous.
Bruce and Judy moved to San Francisco, where they rented a former grocery store in the Mission District. Their living quarters were in back; the storefront became Nauman’s studio. He taught two days a week at the Art Institute of San Francisco, which provided health insurance. That helped, because their first child, Erik, had been born in August. His studio process, then and now, was to read and think until an idea took hold of him. He reread Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” and John Cage’s writings on chance and contingency, both of which he had discovered in college, and he devoured Samuel Beckett’s novels and plays. “I was trying to understand what art is and what artists do,” he told me, “and a lot of that, for me, seemed to involve watching and waiting to see what would happen. When I’m desperate enough just to do anything, even if it seems completely stupid, it’s such a relief.” In those days, he hoped that sooner or later he’d figure out how to make art without such a struggle, but it never happened. “My dad once said, ‘You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day,’ but I think you do,” he told me. “Maybe not every day, but pretty often.”
The process, in any event, produced a torrent of work, some of it pretty silly. Nauman constructed and photographed a series of three-dimensional puns or wordplays: “Drill Team” consisted of five drill bits in graduated sizes, embedded in a block of wood; “Eating My Words” was Nauman poised over a plate containing pieces of bread shaped into letters of the alphabet. Others were more enigmatic, such as his wax cast of Judy’s hand, arm, shoulder, neck, jaw, and mouth, which he called “From Hand to Mouth.” He made a convex lead plaque with the inscription “A Rose Has No Teeth” (the phrase comes from Wittgenstein); it was to be affixed to the trunk of a tree, so that “after a few years the tree would grow over it, and it would be gone.” Judy, who knew better than to ask him about his work, assumed that a lot of it was Bruce being playful. “There was a lighthearted side to his personality,” she said recently. “I thought he didn’t take himself all that seriously, but I found out later that he did—very seriously.”
Nauman devised two window signs with messages that stretched irony to a higher level. One read “The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain”; the other was “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” Both were inspired by a neon sign for beer that had been left in the big plate-glass window of his studio when the New California Grocery moved out. The first, inscribed in large capitals on a sheet of transparent Mylar, echoed Nauman’s slightly earlier “Self-Portrait as a Fountain,” a photograph of himself, bare-chested, directing an arched spout of water through pursed lips. The photograph was a clear enough spoof of classical themes and garden ornaments. But “amazing” and “luminous”? He was kidding—wasn’t he? A similar uncertainty surrounds “Mystic Truths,” which Nauman did soon after visiting a Man Ray show at the Pasadena Museum. It is a five-foot-high “wall or window” piece that he designed and had executed in pink and blue neon tubing, in the spiral form of the beer sign in his window. Nauman said he was interested then in making art that didn’t look like art, something that looked, in fact, like a commercial display. As he told Brenda Richardson, the curator at the Baltimore Museum, “In that case, you wouldn’t really notice it until you paid attention. Then, when you read it, you would have to think about it.” The piece, he told me, “was like a little test, to see if I believed it or not.” And did he believe it? I asked. “Probably not,” he said, smiling. “But then why not?” He got up and poured another two fingers of bourbon.
Leo Castelli, the New York dealer who represented Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and several stars of the Pop generation, heard about Nauman from Richard Bellamy and other art-world insiders. In January, 1968, he gave him a solo show. There were almost no reviews—Robert Pincus-Witten, in Artforum, described the work as “adolescent and contemptible”—and few sales at the time (though everything sold eventually), but none of that mattered. Joining Castelli’s star-studded roster put Nauman, at the age of twenty-six, into the front ranks of contemporary art.
Nauman and his wife and son were spending that winter on the East Coast. The painter Paul Waldman, whom Nauman had met in San Francisco, had offered to let them use a house in Southampton that he owned jointly with Roy Lichtenstein, with strict instructions not to make any marks on the wall of the studio they had built in the back. “That’s when I got a video camera,” Nauman said. “Leo bought one of the first handheld video cameras for the gallery, and let me use it, and then Richard Serra had it.” He used the camera to record himself performing banal and repetitive activities in the studio, such as walking a square pattern “in an exaggerated manner.” Conceptual artists who made “installation” works on site, or gave instructions for others to make them, were opening an era of “post-studio art,” but for Nauman the studio was the place where he got his ideas and carried them out. One of his first audio works, done in 1968, consists of a small empty room with concealed speakers, through which his voice can be heard repeating, in tones that range from a plea to a snarl, “Get out of my mind, get out of this room.”
A crucial shift was taking place in Nauman’s work, from a focus on himself and his own body to a more direct engagement with the viewer. In a 1969 group exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, soon after his return from his first trip to Europe, he showed “Performance Corridor,” a narrow wood-and-wallboard construction that played perceptual tricks on people who ventured into it. He had made the corridor for a video piece in the Southampton studio, which showed him squeezing into it, and then realized that others could have the experience for themselves—but on his terms, not theirs. “I wanted them to do it my way,” he explained. Nauman admired the revolutionary dance theatre of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, who used chance operations in composing sounds and movement, but he wasn’t ready to do that in his own work. When asked by Johns to design a set for Cunningham’s “Tread,” though, he came up with an eminently Cagean solution: a row of industrial-size electric fans at stage front, blowing out toward the audience.
The New York sojourn had been highly rewarding, but Nauman had no inclination to stay there, or to become enmeshed in the intensely competitive New York art world. “I really needed to get away from that,” he said. The city had whetted his ambition, however, and he didn’t want to go back to San Francisco. “The San Francisco artists tended to be anti-intellectual and uptight,” he said. “A lot of energy went into hating New York and Los Angeles.”
The Naumans went to Los Angeles, where they settled in Pasadena, in a large, rambling, shingle-style house that belonged to Walter Hopps, a curator who had a habit of getting fired from one museum after another. Hopps didn’t live in the house, and he liked to let artists stay there. (The Naumans paid seventy-five dollars a month.) An artist named Richard Jackson and his girlfriend, Christine Langras, were living in another part of it when the Naumans arrived, and the four of them became friends. Although Nauman kept his distance from the L.A. art scene, he took on some protective coloration during the nine years he lived there. He wore cowboy shirts and Stetsons from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailor. Ileana Sonnabend, his Paris dealer and Castelli’s ex-wife, owed him a substantial sum for European sales, so he got her to buy him a classic Ferrari. His work was selling for up to ten thousand dollars, and he supplemented his income with teaching jobs. “I paid attention to how the art market worked,” he said. “I wasn’t blindly bumping along. If you were a New York artist, you got more attention. Being in L.A., I needed to be a little tougher, a little meaner.” During this period, Judy Nauman began to question her role in the marriage. With feminism gaining ground, she was less content to settle for being a housewife and mother, or to accept the emotional distance that her husband seemed to require. “My feelings are in my work,” he told her. The birth of their second child, Zoë, in 1970, brought additional strains. Bruce was a supportive husband and an attentive father, she said, but “he was an artist first.”
Nauman continued to produce a lot of new work—more corridor pieces, videos, flashing neon signs that conflated punning wordplays: “Raw War,” “Eat/Death,” “Run from Fear, Fun from Rear.” His work found fewer buyers in the U.S. than in Europe, where Nauman’s anti-formal objects had precedents in the work of Joseph Beuys and the Italian Arte Povera movement; at home, their rude intensity made people uncomfortable. Artists, though, took note of everything he did, and so did several museum curators.
In 1972, at the age of thirty-one, he had a major retrospective. It opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, travelled to the Whitney, and went on to tour four European museums. The show was almost certainly premature. Hilton Kramer dismissed it in the Times as “pretty cold stuff, and pretty boring” in its slavish adherence to “Duchampian territory.” In fact, Nauman had never thought much about Duchamp. While he agrees that Duchamp’s influence was impossible to ignore, he says it got to him secondhand, filtered through the Duchamp-influenced work of Man Ray, John Cage, and Jasper Johns.
The 1972 retrospective lasted into 1974 and stopped Nauman in his tracks—a fairly common experience for artists, who often find it hard to move forward after such an effort of looking back. He couldn’t work for several months. “It had never happened to me before,” he said, “so I was trying to figure out if I had to find a different career. I was having such terrible stomach pains that I went to the emergency room. The doctor said, ‘Well, try Tums.’ ” Nauman, whose reticence masks acute sensitivity, was more vulnerable than people realized. The first important pieces he made after the dry period were “Double Steel Cage Piece,” a steel-mesh room set inside a slightly larger steel-mesh enclosure—viewers could enter the outer cage but not the inner one—and “Consummate Mask of Rock,” a sculptural installation of sixteen limestone cubes in two sizes, plus a typewritten text, taped to the wall, that was based on the child’s game Rock, Paper, Scissors. Really a long poem, the text includes these lines: “This is my mask of fidelity to truth and life. / This is to cover the mask of pain and desire. / This is to mask the cover of need for human companionship,” and then, farther along, “PEOPLE DIE OF EXPOSURE.”
The Naumans’ marriage came apart in the mid-seventies. “I needed something that he just couldn’t provide,” Judy said recently. “I left the marriage emotionally, and then he left. It took him a long time, but when he decided, the door was shut.” She eventually remarried and had another child. By then, Bruce was living with Harriet Lindenberg, Zoë’s kindergarten teacher at a Quaker school south of Pasadena. “I asked him to dinner,” Lindenberg remembers. “It would never have happened if I hadn’t. He was painfully shy.”
Lindenberg was a vivid, independent, sometimes irresistible force. Born in San Antonio, she had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Latin America, and was passionate about social and political issues. Nauman, who told me he had been “barely aware of the Vietnam War, because I was too focussed on wanting to be an artist,” was impressed. Lindenberg had no idea what Nauman did at the time she asked him to dinner, and no interest in getting married. They lived together for more than ten years. It was Harriet who persuaded him to leave California and move to New Mexico, in 1979. Her brother lived in Santa Fe, and she knew about Pecos, a village about thirty miles to the east, from an old friend in the Peace Corps. “Bruce was very resistant at first,” she recalls. “He said he was an urban artist, that he’d shrivel up and die in the country, but then he adjusted quicker than I did.” They bought a “funky little cabin that Bruce added on to himself,” Lindenberg said, and got someone to build a studio for Nauman just up the road. She took a teaching job in Santa Fe. Zoë came to live with them soon after, when she was ten. Her mother’s second marriage had failed, and she was having a difficult time raising three children alone. Two years later, Erik moved there, too. Harriet became a highly involved stepmother. “I was a little afraid of her at first,” Erik remembers. “She was quite emotional, the opposite of Dad. But it was good to have someone who tried to get us to talk about things, which my dad certainly didn’t.”
Nauman’s reputation had been in decline ever since the retrospective. Producing relatively few works and being so far removed from the New York art world had a lot to do with it, and his distaste for self-promotion didn’t help. For several years, he subsisted mainly on his two-hundred-dollar-a-month stipend from Castelli (paid against future sales). At one point, he felt so discouraged that he thought seriously about turning his avocation—forging handmade knives—into a real business. (“I never sold enough to pay for the material.”) Nauman, whose art does without fine craftsmanship, has a very high regard for it in his personal effects—knives, hats, boots, saddles, cars.
In the early eighties, he began a series of large sculptures with political overtones. “South America Triangle” (1981), his first overtly political work, had a cast-iron chair hanging upside down inside a suspended steel triangle. This grim image referred to methods of political torture he had read about in the work of V. S. Naipaul, and also in a book by the Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman, which Harriet had told him about. Increasingly, his frustration and anger over what was happening in South Africa and Latin America, and over the way people treated one another in general, became an inspiration for new work.
The anger came out more directly in the neon-tube sculptures he did in those years. “American Violence” (1981-82), shaped like a swastika, has short, rude phrases, like “STICK IT IN YOUR EAR,” that flash on and off in vivid colors. “One Hundred Live and Die” is a ten-foot-tall tower of alternating multicolored three-word commands, such as “LOVE AND LIVE,” “HATE AND DIE,” “FUCK AND DIE.” These vivid, startlingly gorgeous constructions progressed to animated neon displays, some quite large, whose moving images featured group sex, masturbation, aggressive insults, and death by hanging. He also produced several new videos, his first since 1973. Made with the help of a video editor in New York named Dennis Diamond, these were longer and more complex than his earlier ones, and their content was considerably more disturbing: a domestic spat that escalated into a double homicide (“Violent Incident”) and, in his “Clown Torture” series, the agonies and humiliations of circus clowns. For some Nauman admirers, myself among them, to watch a fully costumed clown saying “No, no, no” in every conceivable inflection and intonation, and ending up writhing on the floor, screaming the word in terror, is more punishment than we probably need. When they were shown at the 1989 Whitney Biennial, a shocked visitor stood outside the room for quite a while, warning people not to go in.
The scatological nastiness in some of Nauman’s work in the eighties put a lot of viewers off, but the new work, which coincided with a booming art market, revived his reputation. Museums here and abroad showed the videos and neons, reviewers praised them, and American as well as European collectors bought them. None of this disturbed the even tenor of Nauman’s personal life, where emotions of any sort rarely surfaced. Harriet Lindenberg saw him get really angry once, soon after they moved to Pecos; a telephone argument with the man who was building his studio made him so furious that he drove his right fist through a wall, breaking a finger. Nothing like that ever happened again. His feelings went into his work, but soon after the wall-punching incident he got interested in horses, and his life changed in deep and subtle ways.
Before dinner at the Naumans’ house one evening, we watched a videotape of Ray Hunt working with horses. Hunt was a professional trainer who travelled around the West, giving clinics. By the mid-nineteen-eighties, Nauman had acquired two saddle horses of his own. “I’d heard about Ray Hunt,” he said. “I took my horses up to Farmington, Colorado, where he was doing a clinic. Watching Ray was kind of like a Zen experience. Western horsemanship can be pretty rough, but his idea is that if the horse isn’t afraid there’s no problem. To get along with your horse, you have to give up trying to be in charge. You have to get to be where the horse is.” People have known this for millennia; Xenophon talks about it in “The Art of Horsemanship.” Watching the tape of Hunt, on foot, working with a horse that had never been ridden, using just a loose rope to persuade him, very gently, to turn in one direction or another, was mesmerizing—a lesson in converting fear into trust. “Ray didn’t give you an inch,” Nauman said. “You had to pay attention every minute. His teaching really had to do with how you lead your life.”
Nauman now spends nearly as much time working with his horses as he does in his studio, and in his mind the two activities are related. When he was making the “Clown Torture” videos, in 1987, he would hand a simple scenario to the performer and let him (or her) improvise. This was a long way from the tight control he’d maintained over his corridor pieces. “I don’t know if there’s a connection, but I started to give up control when I was learning about horses,” he said. “I think the work got richer.”
He went to several more clinics with Hunt over the years, and the two men, in their nonverbal way, became friends. A week after I’d been to Galisteo, Nauman e-mailed me, saying, “Ray Hunt died yesterday.” In another e-mail, an hour later, remembering his first visit to Hunt’s clinic, he wrote, “Going home to Pecos I was a few miles out of Farmington and had to stop—was teared up and had to get out and touch my horses—tell them I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
Susan Rothenberg, who was born in Buffalo, moved to New York City in 1969, two years after she graduated from the Fine Arts School at Cornell. Gregarious and a bit wild, she hung out at Max’s Kansas City, met dozens of artists, musicians, and dancers, explored other media, took dance classes, married the sculptor George Trakas, and had a child with him in 1972. Two years later, doodling on a small canvas, she drew the outline of a horse divided down the middle by a vertical line. The image, which came out of nowhere, led to the paintings that made her famous: spectral horses embedded in abstract, densely worked backgrounds, mysterious images that carried a strong emotional charge. They were key works in what would come to be known, in a 1978 group show at the Whitney, as “New Image Painting.”
Like most of her artist friends, Rothenberg had followed Nauman’s work for years. They’d met a few times, at art events, and they met again at a New York dinner party for Nauman in October, 1988. Rothenberg was no longer married and had just ended a relationship with a Hungarian banker. Harriet Lindenberg had recently broken up with Nauman. The hostess, Angela Westwater, whose New York gallery, Sperone Westwater, had started to represent both Nauman and Rothenberg, seated them together. A day or so later, Nauman called Rothenberg and invited her to lunch. He went to a party at her apartment the next week, and stayed on afterward—stayed for several days. He had to go back to Pecos, but returned to New York in a hurry, and three months after that they were married.
Nauman offered to move to New York, but “I didn’t want him to give up New Mexico and the horses, and New York wasn’t really calling to me,” Rothenberg said. A lot of her artist friends had moved away, and, besides, she was deeply in love. (“It was a shock, at forty-four, to feel that kind of emotional intensity, and know it was mutual.”) They commuted for the next year and a half, until Rothenberg’s daughter, Maggie, finished high school, and then Rothenberg packed up and moved to their unfinished house near Galisteo. The marriage was something the art world rarely sees: two major talents working at a very high level, without competition or interference.
Her painting changed in the high-desert country. “Colors,” she said. “Animals. Brighter palette. Different points of view, looking down at things and up at things.” She painted a strange portrait of Bruce, called “Blue U-Turn,” a deep-blue, male-ish ellipse. As a wedding present, she had given him the first horse painting she ever did, in 1974; it hangs in their living room. Nauman gave her a horse, a Spanish barb called Cece, and the horse image, gone from her work for several years, returned in a new form. She tried to enjoy riding, for his sake, but, she said, “I was never really comfortable up there,” and eventually she stopped. “I’m a walker, not a rider.”
Nauman’s work also changed. He had found he could buy, on the Internet, ready-made polyurethane forms that taxidermists use to stretch animal skins over. These ghostly, featureless animal shapes became the basis of a series of new sculptures: animal pyramids; dismembered and reassembled hybrids; carrousels with dangling animal forms whose feet or hindquarters scraped the floor as they revolved. He made bronze casts of human hands, paired in expressive positions and gestures, and casts of the heads of people he knew—the heads were often suspended on wires, some of them upside down, or in embarrassingly close proximity to each other. Because he didn’t remove the marks and imperfections of the casting process, the heads have a rough look that makes them seem vaguely threatening. A similar unease pervades the videos he made with Rinde Eckert, a singer and performance artist, who also posed for many of the heads, and it reaches a near-unbearable pitch in “Shit in Your Hat—Head on a Chair,” a video installation in which a female mime attempts, with increasing distress, to act out inane, rapid-fire commands she’s being given by an off-screen voice.
The full range of Nauman’s power to disturb was laid out in a 1994 retrospective, his second, organized by the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, which also appeared at the Reina Sofía, in Madrid, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, predictably polarized critical opinion. “I think he is the best—the essential—American artist of the last quarter-century,” Peter Schjeldahl, an early supporter, wrote in Art in America. Time’s Robert Hughes called the work “so dumb that you can’t guess whether its dumbness is genuine or feigned,” although he glumly conceded that “Nauman, beyond much dispute, is the most influential American artist of his generation.” More radically than anyone else, Nauman had led the way out of Minimal art’s austerity and into the new world of scorched-earth freedom, with its endless pitfalls and opportunities, and he had done so in near-total isolation from art-world politics and promotions. He had even conquered the art market. The French collector François Pinault paid $9.9 million in 2001 for “Henry Moore Bound to Fail,” his 1967 wax-over-plaster sculpture of his own back with his arms bound. Nauman had outdistanced criticism.
He retreated to his studio after the retrospective, to read and think. The dry spell this time was a long one—Rothenberg says it lasted two or three years. He took care of his horses, and rode one or more of them every day, unless the weather was too bad. Now and then, Rothenberg tried to get him to talk about his block. “The answer was always ‘Don’t know,’ ” she said. “I used to get so mad at his inability to communicate, but that stopped around three years ago. I went to a shrink for a while, and then we both went, and the shrink lost interest in me. The shrink still calls Bruce about every three months, and leaves a message asking if there’s anything he’d like to talk about, but Bruce doesn’t call back. I’ve finally realized I don’t need to know the stuff Bruce is unable to tell me. I think we love each other very much. There have only been three women in his life, and he’s never been alone for more than a few months. I’m very satisfied with him, and very happy living about ninety-two per cent of my life by myself. I don’t think I’ll ever know Bruce, but he’s mine, and he’s a beauty.”
One day in 2000, sitting in his studio, Nauman began to wonder what happened there at night, when he wasn’t present. He had a video camera with infrared capacity, which he set up in one corner and turned on before he went to bed that night. When he looked at the footage the next morning, he saw that quite a lot had happened. Moths flitted by, leaving momentary white streaks. Mice scurried in and out, their tiny eyes flashing red as they caught the light. Coyotes howled, far off. The studio cat appeared, sat down, wandered off again; once or twice the cat and a mouse were in the picture at the same time, but they ignored each other—there had been an infestation of mice in the studio that year, Nauman explained, and the cat had caught so many that he’d lost interest. For many nights over the next couple of months, Nauman deployed his camera in seven different studio locations, and put the footage together to make a film lasting nearly six hours. “Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage),” as he called it—the reference was to Cage’s use of chance methods—was shown at the Dia Center for the Arts, in New York, for six months in 2002. Plenty of people found it excruciatingly boring, but plenty more stayed for hours, gliding around in the wheeled office chairs that Nauman had asked the gallery to provide. “If you tried to watch it, you missed out,” Nauman said. “You just had to wander through and let it work.” He also made, at Rothenberg’s suggestion, an “all-action edit,” showing only the footage with moths, mice, or cat, and lasting about half an hour.
Two years later, in 2004, invited to do a temporary installation in Turbine Hall, the colossal entrance plaza of the Tate Modern in London, Nauman created a sound environment. He used twenty-two soundtracks from his videos and sound pieces over the past forty years, an aural retrospective that enthralled and shook up large numbers of visitors, and provided both the model and the audio technology for his “Days/Giorni” installations in Venice.
On one of the afternoons I spent with Nauman, he told me about Lennie Tristano, a blind jazz pianist he used to listen to in Los Angeles in the nineteen-seventies. Tristano had played with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other jazz legends. Nauman handed me a pair of earphones and cued a Tristano recording on his laptop. The man’s style was fast and driving. “He doesn’t lead you into it, he just starts and goes,” Nauman said admiringly. “At one point, I wanted my work to have that kind of immediate impact, just being there, all at once.” When I asked if he still wanted that, he thought a bit, and said, “No. Maybe sometimes. It’s as though, earlier, there was an intention, and as the work’s gotten more spread out there’s more waiting to see what will happen.” Nauman’s recent work did seem less harsh and more meditative than it used to be, I suggested; did this mean that the level of anger and frustration had subsided? He considered the question. “I don’t think I operate out of that anymore,” he said, “and I don’t think I did when I was younger. That was more during the eighties, and it was about the larger world—although there was also some frustration with the art world.” I asked him whether, after forty years of thinking about what art was and could be, he’d come any closer to an answer. “I have enough trouble working that I don’t think about that as much,” he said quietly.
The Naumans come to New York fairly frequently. They keep a small penthouse apartment in the East Eighties, and a year ago they bought an 1830 house on the Lower East Side, which they are currently renovating. It will have studio space for both of them, and they will be able to spend more time with Rothenberg’s daughter, Maggie, an artist who lives in New York, and with Nauman’s son, Erik, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and teaches at the Hewitt School in Manhattan. (Zoë Nauman, a photographer, is in Oakland, California, where she helps her husband run a combined bar and motorcycle-repair shop.) Because of the horses and the dogs, Bruce and Susan probably won’t spend much time in New York for the next few years. Susan, breezing in from her afternoon outing with the three dogs, said their plan was “to wait until the dogs die, and Bruce makes up his mind about the horses. In five years we’ll know what we’re doing.”
Two small drawings of a strange-looking head were pinned to the wall of Nauman’s studio. “I’ve been thinking for a couple of years about self-portrait drawings,” he explained, when I asked about them. The idea came to him after seeing a number of Rembrandt self-portraits in a show at the Metropolitan Museum, but, of course, being Nauman, he couldn’t just start drawing his face in the mirror. Instead, he rescued, from a pile of stuff on the studio floor, a mold he’d used years earlier for a wax male head (not his own) and hung it up to use as a model. It was the reverse image of a face—if you poured plaster into it, the correct image would emerge. “I haven’t really drawn at all for two years,” he explained. “It’s a drawing exercise, to get myself back in shape. This is a tough thing to try and draw, because it’s a reverse image. So I’ve set myself a difficult problem.” ♦
Bruce Nauman review – an electrifying carousel of ideas
The artist’s new Paris show combines works that play on adult fears with childlike instructions and repetitive movement – a compelling lesson for young and old alike
Monday 16 March 2015 14.09 EDT Last modified on Tuesday 17 March 2015 13.45 EDT
The carousel goes round and the voices go round and the dancers go round and I return to Bruce Nauman once again. The Cartier Foundation’s Nauman exhibition in Paris is a mix of older works and new, Nauman at both his most electrifying and enigmatic and his most obtuse and apparently slight.
Nauman is a compelling artist, not least because he constantly asks the question of what a creative act is, at its most irreducible. An idea might begin in nervous fiddling and footling, a distraction or a simple gesture. You get inspiration where you can.
Anger, frustration, anxiety, boredom, distraction, the stray words in his head, repeated thoughts, creative blocks and a sense of emptiness and depletion are all important to his creative process, if it can be called that. Sometimes they become the work’s subject.
In one work, Nauman is playing with pencils in his studio. He holds a sharpened pencil in each hand, and uses them to pick up a shorter, stubbier pencil – sharpened at both ends. This requires steady hands, concentration and a bit of luck. Occasionally you get a glimpse of thumbs and forefingers, and hear Nauman talking with his assistant, Bruce Hamilton, who is filming this delicate game. The work is projected on a grand scale, on two giant LED screens. The pencil-lift on the left screen is performed against a blank white background. On the right, we see Nauman’s scarred old work-table, with piles of papers shoved aside to make space, the studio clutter beyond.
But the act is the same in both instances, the same knife-whittled pencils with their yellow shafts, the same work-bitten fingers. Sometimes the pencils are all aligned across both screens, making a precarious bridge. They sway and rise and fall, point to point, as Nauman keeps them aloft. He checks with Hamilton that the pencils aren’t drifting out of shot. I imagine him holding his breath and furrowing his brow to keep the whole thing going. On the screen on the right Mr Rogers, Nauman’s cat (he gets a name-check in the title – Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers) pads lightly over the table. There’s something about the cat’s poise that chimes with the game.
That’s it. That’s all that happens, over and over again. This exercise in dexterity is the sort of thing you might do to amuse the kids, and teach them something about keeping a cool head and a steady hand. A voice leaks in from the next gallery. “For children, for children, for children”, repeats Nauman, over and over again, filling an otherwise empty space with his deadpan voice. His voice fades, replaced by another, repeating the same words in French. “Pour les enfants, pour les enfants”, it says. What is for children? Fading and flowing between languages, the words become a kind of empty music. Is Nauman telling us that his work is for children, is dedicated to children?
Some years ago, Nauman came across a series of piano compositions, written to accommodate the size of children’s hands, by Béla Bartók: it was called For Children. Nauman has also adapted this idea for his For Beginners (Instructed Piano), a solo played by artist and musician Terry Allen, using, I think, the same instructions as a video Nauman had made of his own hand gestures, which he filmed to the accompaniment of a series of commands. The music proceeds and falters. It is always beginning again, the notes finding their way around the keyboard’s middle C. Tinkling away in a little sunken seating area in the Cartier Foundation’s garden, For Beginners is a series of false starts. Writing and making art can be like that too, groping towards something that won’t or can’t be said or done. Keep going and something might be discovered. There is almost something pedagogic in these works.
Down in the basement of the Cartier, things take a darker turn. A carousel drags taxidermy moulds of deer, lynxes and coyotes round the floor. Beyond, the head of performer and classically trained singer Rinde Eckert is projected three times on the darkened walls, seen both right way up and inverted, and again on six video monitors stacked on the floor between the giant projections.
Nauman’s 1991 Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera) is one of his most powerful works. Rinde is seen in closeup, repeating three phrases: “Feed me/Eat Me/Anthropology”, “Help me/Hurt me/Sociology” and lastly “Feed me/Help me/Eat me/Hurt me”. I last saw this in Nauman’s major show at the Hayward Gallery in 1997 and it has stayed with me ever since. In a surprising essay in 1999, British painter Bridget Riley talks of the intelligence and humour in Rinde’s face, and that it “ensures that the work is not experienced as either menacing or threatening”, and she describes the polyphony created by Rinde’s classically trained voice, overlayed and competing with itself as it chants the one-man roundelays: “rather like a madrigal resounding in the space of a cathedral.”
Unlike Riley, I find the work immensely threatening, and painful. For anyone who has never experienced Anthro/Socio, it is worth making the trip to Paris for that alone. “All those messages have to do with making contact”, Nauman has said. Developed out of some prints he made in the 1970s, this video installation is an endless appeal and plea for human contact. In the next room, two dancers turn on a mat, which is divided into 16 radiating quadrants. Positioned like the hands of a clock, the dancers lie outstretched, their hands making contact in a play of fingers and palms as they roll over and over, moving their legs as though they were walking on a treadmill.
The camera views them from above. Sometimes the camera itself turns, making the floor and the room the dancers occupy seem to revolve like a dizzying panoptic machine. The scene is projected a second time onto a wrestling mat on the gallery floor. Untitled 1970/2009 is both measured in its slow and regular movement and exhausting to watch. It seems interminable. The quadrants spin like the spokes of a wheel as the dancers move over the face of their contained world, touching and parting, reaching out and coming together, going nowhere and being somewhere. It is a lesson for adults and for children alike.
The Riddle of the Sugar Sphinx; Kara Walker at Creative Time
The marvelous sugar baby. An homage to unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchen of the new world on the occasion of the demolition of the domino sugar refining plant. AKA: A Subtlety.
The title is apt, not just because it is a paragraph describing the intent, but because, in confectioners parlance, ‘a subtlety’ is a shaped sugar treat. A sugar baby is normally a woman, one who is kept by a sugar daddy. The arrangement is one of money for companionship. Let’s be less subtle. A sugar baby is a product of a patriarchal society that sees a beautiful woman as an object to be paid for; sugar babies use this to their advantage.
The centerpiece is a giant sugar sphinx with Mammy’s head. Aunt Jemima when the syrup has all been wrung from inside her. The show aims to explore the world of sugar, the triangle trade from Africa to America. Creative time calls it ‘a conversation’. We are talking about slavery, racism, sexism and exploitation; those are the topics of conversation, but feel free to discuss any socio-economic ramifications of sugar production.
Who are these overworked and unpaid artisans? The slaves of the Caribbean. Who are these overworked and unpaid artisans? They are the cooks. Who are the overworked and unpaid artisans? They are the workers? Who are the overworked and unpaid artisans? They are the previous residents of Williamsburg.
Photography by Ryan Kobane, Courtesy of BMF Media
Raw sugar is brown, bleached sugar is white. Sugar has been industrialized in the last 132 years, factories popped up to process the once rare and expensive treat into a commodity. Walker speaks about ‘the desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming American’. Built on the backs of the working poor Dominos made white, American sugar in the building on the East River. Dominos didn’t pay their workers enough, ever, but it took until 2000 to have a strike, and a 20 month one at that. Dominos shut the factory down. Now it will become overpriced housing, setting aside 660 units for ‘affordable housing’. How far we have come.
Mammy’s bleached white head looks down at the factory floor with a blank stare. Mammy has been bleached and sanitized, just as the factory will be sanitized and turned into housing that no one in the current neighborhood can afford. In a word: ‘Gentrification’. Gentrification is racist. And to be clear, it is racism we are talking about.
Mammy has a vagina, no one wants to talk about it. The giant bleached sugar sphinx has a vagina and is probably paid about 30% less than other giant sphinx. The sphinx is unapologetically a woman. There should be more pictures of the vagina, photograph the sphinx from behind and see her 7 foot derriere and sugary vulva.
Some claim that the real war is the class war and the workers must unite against their common oppressor regardless of race, religion, or gender. This is a false metric and simply isn’t applicable in the United States. The struggle has to be viewed intersectionally. Mammy is a black working woman who will soon be removed from her home so that new apartments can be built – that’s intersectional.
Photography by David Prutting, Courtesy of BFA
A Subtlety is beautiful. The Sphinx was resplendent in the under lighting, terrifying, commanding, glowing, dominating her room. Walker created a piece that was much more than just aesthetically pleasing, but that should not discount from the beauty – it was really very good art on all levels.
The opening was attended by everyone in the art world. They dined as a conveyer belt served mixed drinks. Then none other than inventor of breakbeat, pioneer of hip-hop, the original, the legendary head of the Zulu Nation himself Dj Afrika Bambaataa took control of the dance party. Its difficult to express how cool that was.
Bambaataa creates a frantic situation.
Photography by Ryan Kobane, Courtesy of BMF Media
Photography by David Prutting, Courtesy of BFA
Anne Pasternak, Raquel Chevremont, Mickalene Thomas, Solange Knowles.
Photography by David Prutting, Courtesy of BFA
Incredibly attractive Waris Ahluwalia and the lovely Jamie Tisch.
Photography by David Prutting, Courtesy of BFA
Kim Gordon! (Body/Head was really great!) and Chole Sevigny
Photography by Christos Katsiaouni, Courtesy of Creative Time
After dinner, the end of eating everything. : Wangechi Mutu
top photo credit The Artist; Kara Walker, and a subtlety of ‘A Subtlety’
Photography by David Prutting, Courtesy of BFA
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Images: Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Photography by Jason Wyche and Tim Daly, Courtesy Creative Time.
OnSaturday, May 10th, Williamsburg’slegendary Domino Sugar Factory will open its doors to the public for the first time since factory operations ceased in 2004. In a highly-anticipated public art collaboration between Creative Timeand artist Kara Walker, the abandoned factory will house a massive, sugar-coated sculpture that resembles a combination between the mammy archetype and the sphinx. Resting at 75-feet-long and 35-feet-tall, the massive piece is fully titled,A Subtlety: The Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World.
While the inspiration behindthe sculptureis undeniably fascinating, The Creators Project was curious about how exactly Walker and her team built the boat-sized figure inside the mythological warehouse. Was it built in a studio and brought inside, Trojan Horse-style? Is it actually a colossal piece of candy, molded to look like an African-American archetype? And if so, how exactly does one go about sculpting a piece of sugar that big? For comparison, the Guinness World Record for the largest piece of marzipan was 53-feet-long and 40-feet-wide.
To gain insight into the project, Creative Time connected us with several of the project’s collaborators, including artist Tim Daly of design company Dalymade Inc., casting expert Mike Perrotta of Sculpture House, lead modeler and milling guru Jon Lash of Digital Atelier, and artist Eric Hagan, the project’s “Director of Sugar” (“It’s probably the best job title I’ll ever have,” he told us).
The production team clarified several aspects of A Subtlety that could be easily misunderstood: first off, the sphinx is not a giant piece of candy; it’s a colossal foam sculpture that’s been encrusted in a layer of powdered sugar. Resting beside the sculpture, however, there are fifteen smaller statues that are, in essence, giant lollipops. All together, this might be the world’s largest creative experiment with sugar.
Walker was approached about a year ago to collaborate on a project inside the factory. It was the space itself that caught her interest, and it inspired her to make a sketch of an iconic sphinx, modified to look like a stereotypical image of a female laborer:
“[My sketch] came to embody something I would never want to see, something that was about slavery and industry and sugar and fat and wastelessness. It was a kind of finger-wagging gloom-and-doom kind of sketch that embodied all of the themes about industrialization that the space contains: post-industrial America, the grandiose gesture of the industrialists, and sugar as the first kind of agro-business.
For example, you can’t get sugar without heavy-duty processing; you don’t get refined sugar, you get other things. This desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming an American were fascinating to me. Sugar is loaded with meaning, with stories about meaning,” she said in an interview with Brooklyn Rail.
After Walker shared her sketch with the production crew, Art Domantay (the project consultant and director of fabrication), Tim Daly, and the rest of the team made a physical mock-up and gave the copy to Digital Atelier. The laser scanning/CNC milling/coating technology experts were then able to manipulate the body on a computer using various 3D-analyses, in order to perfectly prepare the shaped foam blocks needed for the very-curvy design.
Digital Atelier laser-scanning the mock-up of the sphinx.
“They wanted us to hot wire [the foam blocks]” said Jon Lash of Digital Atelier. “We kept saying it wouldn’t work well because we needed the radius of each form. If you start having compound curves in all directions and you have to stack these blocks, you can’t see the composition and have to guess about the building process. The last thing you want to do is interpret the artist’s idea yourself.” Lash and engineer John Rannou instead milled the structure’s entire bottom instead of hot wiring it, which takes three times as much time. This process laid the entire foundation, and the team could work their way up from there. Eventually they milled 440 bricks at 3′ x 4′ x 8′ each.
“The good thing is that [the main sculpture] was made just like the real sphinx,” said Lash. “Instead of stone blocks it was foam blocks, but it really was the same kind of construction.” After two and a half months, the crew had a sphinx of their own in Brooklyn. Walker eventually dusted the entire statue in over 30 tons of sugar by spraying it with a hopper gun and using some good old fashioned shovels—yielding a goddess-like sculpture that’s bright white.
Off to the side of the sphinx, however,there are fifteen statues of little boys. Each is 60-inches-tall and weigh 300-500 pounds a piece. Five of them, called the Banana Boys, are made of solid sugar. They are, in essence, giant lollipops shaped to look like fruit-picking child slaves. The other ten—five that are boys holding banana-holding baskets in front of them, five with baskets on their backs—are made of resin and coated in molasses.
Tim Daly, the crew leader of the figurines, explained that they were made after Walker bought ten-inch-tall tchotchkes she found on Amazon. These figurines were laser-scanned by Jon Lash’s team at Digital Atelier, and then they were blown up so silicone molds could be made by Mike Perrotta at Sculpture House.
The team used white granulated sugar, light corn syrup, and water heated to 300 degrees with turkey fryers before getting poured into the molds. While the Banana Boys could stand on their own, the boys holding baskets were weak at the wrists and ankles, and would either break or melt due to a lack of structural integrity. “The first one melted into the pallet,” Daly told us. “It disintegrated after a week, and we realized the only way the [basket-holding sculptures] would last was if they sat in a refrigerator.” Thus, the ten basket-holding boys ended up getting made with polyester resin and coated in molasses, white sugar, light brown sugar, and dark brown sugar, which explains the color inconsistency among the children.
This might be the largest creative endeavor with candy in the modern age. Walker told Brooklyn Rail that in the 11th century, people in the East began making marzipan structures. Royal chefs in Northern Europe began following suit, and would present the sculptures, called “subtleties,” as gifts. According to Eric Hagan, the project’s director of sugar, there’s been few (if any) sugar sculpture pieces this century that rival the size of the Banana Boys or the 30 tons of sugar used to coat the sphinx. He did mention German artist Joseph Marr, who also makes granulated sugar works, but at a smaller scale than Walker’s children sculptures, and not inside an actual sugar factory.
“Sugar is a temperamental thing,” says Hagan. “It’s not uniform, it’s going to decay, and as a fine art piece you can’t say how long it will last or if it will change over time.” Walker echoed his statement in her Brooklyn Rail interview, but added the positive note that “[Sugar is] such a fragile and volatile substance that doesn’t like to take on too many forms, which is fine. I keep trying to tell everyone that I’m not a stickler for conformity, so if each piece is wildly different, then that’s an attempt at freedom I guess.”
“A Subtlety” is on view at Domino Sugar from May 10th-July 6th, Fridays 4-8pm, Saturdays and Sundays 12-6pm. For more information, visit Creative Time. A special thanks to Tim Daly, Mike Perrotta, Jon Lash, Eric Hagan, and everyone at Creative Time for helping with this article.
From her all-enveloping cycloramas and iconic wall-mounted silhouettes to her searing films, drawings, and prints, Kara Walker’s work has remained fearlessly stalwart in its condemnation of social and racial injustice. With her most recent project, executed in collaboration with Creative Time, Walker shifts her focus from the cotton plantation of America’s antebellum South to its sickly sweet cousin: the sugar trade. At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant opens to the public on May 10th, and, as its title suggests, avows to be anything but ordinary. Earlier this month, Walker took the time out of her schedule to speak with Rail Managing Art Editor Kara Rooney about her hopes for the installation as well as its complex socio-political implications.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Kara Rooney (Rail): The executionary details of this project were largely developed in secret, so that very few of us in the press are aware of what the final iteration will look like. Can you describe what viewers will encounter when they finally walk into the space on May 10th?
Kara Walker: I hate talking about it. The great thing about having a secret is that it just stays a secret.
Rail: In that case, let’s start with narrative, since that’s historically played such a significant role in your work. How did the story of the sugar trade influence your decisions on both a formal and intellectual level for this project?
Walker: It started with thinking about the space. I was approached by Creative Time a while back, maybe a year ago, about working with the Domino Sugar plant. One of the selling points for me was the plant itself, along with this amazing history of sugar and its attendant legacies of slavery. There are decades of molasses that cover the entire space; it’s coated—it’s an amazing relic or repository vessel that contains all of these histories, and so the venue is actually doing a good portion of the work. I began to think about how to arrive at a piece, given the work that I’ve done in the past, which has been primarily two-dimensional, and even with film and video thrown in, is large, but not this large. So I started with a lot of sketches; each sketch went from very minimal gestures to this maximal output with all kinds of moving parts. It came to embody something I would never want to see, something that was about slavery and industry and sugar and fat and wastelessness. It was a kind of finger-wagging gloom-and-doom kind of sketch that embodied all of the themes about industrialization that the space contains: post-industrial America, the grandiose gesture of the industrialists, and sugar as the first kind of agro-business.
For example, you can’t get sugar without heavy-duty processing; you don’t get refined sugar, you get other things. This desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming an American were fascinating to me. Sugar is loaded with meaning, with stories about meaning.
Rail: What were some of your resources in looking into the history of the sugar trade and Domino’s role in particular?
Walker: There is a passage in a book by Sidney Mintz called Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), where the author talks about the Middle Ages in Europe and England and how sugar there was a highly prized, expensive commodity.
Rail: It was for the aristocracy.
Walker: Yes. Sugar was rare, even considered medicinal. It was like gold, extremely precious. At a certain point coming from the East in the 11th century, there began an enormous effort, at the bequest of the sultans, to make these strange, grandiose marzipan structures. Once they were fashioned, they would present and give them to the poor on feast days. This tradition made its way to Northern Europe where the royal chefs began making similar sugar sculptures. The thing that really struck me about these sugar sculptures was what they were called—subtleties—there it is. [Laughs]. They were intended to represent the power of the king, not just in their being made of this prized commodity, but also in their representation of the signing of a treaty, or the hunt. So you had these sugar sculptures of the deer and the king, and there would be some kind of oratory or maybe a little poem that would be said, and then everybody would eat them. They would be presented between meals as this beautiful, edible trophy. It was after reading this that I realized I had to make a sugar sculpture and a large one. So that answers the first part of your question: the sugar sculpture. She is basically a New World sphinx. A New World thinking of the sugar plantations, the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that sort of Rolling Stones-y brown sugar dovetailing of sex and slavery as it reaches the American imagination.
Rail: Does this New World sphinx—what sounds like a veritable femme-fatale—relate in any way to the black feminist literature that emerged in the ’70s, initiated by Alice Walker, for example, or is it something more visceral and personal?
Walker: Something more personal, definitely. I think the scale of the piece will probably embrace and eclipse almost anything that you bring to it. [Laughs.] We have 80 tons of sugar in this structure, which measures approximately 80-feet long by 40-feet high, so it doesn’t occupy the entire space but it does occupy it in a very specific way. She also has some sugar candy attendants who are about a third of this in scale.
Rail: What is their origin?
Walker: They are actually taken from 10-inch tall tchotchkes that I bought on Amazon—little black slave boys carrying baskets and presenting different things. They’re very goofy.
Rail: How has working with sugar as a medium challenged the way you approach themes such as white fears of black potency, violence, shame, and resistance? Is the transmission of these ideas still as direct for you as it has been with the cut silhouettes, drawings, and films?
Walker: It’s so much better, honestly! No, I don’t know if it’s better. I like the cutting paper thing, but—maybe it’s simply because it’s something that I’m doing that it feels similar, because it’s my own body. There is a similarity in working with cheap materials. [Laughs.] The cheapest materials available. They’re both temporal, ethereal materials to work with, very finicky. It feels cathartic in the way that working with silhouettes was for me coming from painting. There is a similar kind of movement into another set of dimensionality and scale. I am moving my body around it in a way that’s very new and exciting. The sugar itself is really just a paste, just sugar and a liquid. Once these components are mixed you have something that you can model and play with. Then, depending on whether you’re using heat or not, you get different properties, wildly different properties.
Rail: So this sticky sweetness of the 18th-century silhouette, and the craft tradition that goes along with that, has translated for you in a very physical way.
Walker: I think so, and even in a literal way. We’re literally sugarcoating history. [Laughs.] There are two different things that I’m doing with the sugar and those are what I need to clarify. The main object, the sphinx, is sugarcoated; the smaller objects—these servant figures, or procession of servants—are basically just like big lollipops. Those have been very problematic to work with. We’ve got these molds and they’re solid but we’ll see if they hold up. The first one just collapsed. It was really terrible at the same time that it was kind of awesome to look at because it became this pile of beautiful, caramelized amber. It’s such a fragile and volatile substance that doesn’t like to take on too many forms, which is fine. I keep trying to tell everyone that I’m not a stickler for conformity, so if each one is wildly different, then that’s their attempt at freedom I guess.
Rail: What color are they exactly?
Walker: They’re different colors. At the moment the one that is standing is mostly brown. He burned. He went from caramelized to burnt so he’s a little marbleized, really dark. The first one came out a beautiful amber color. Like when you see caramelized sugar drizzled on your plate, he was that color, but like I said, too soft.
Rail: And the larger sculpture is amber as well?
Walker: The sphinx is white, bright white.
Rail: The element of color is something that I want to discuss. With the silhouettes, the color black is inherent to the 18th-century art form you employ, whereas with sugar there is a transfigurative chemical process that must take place in order for it to become the white powder with which we are all familiar. In a sense, the silhouettes require little conscious agency on your part in order to elicit the desired references. But with these pieces, an additional step is necessary in order to enact that same physical transformation. How did this reverse process of moving from dark to light, a natural to an artificial state, resonate with you? For example, why did you decide to make the sphinx this gleaming white as opposed to brown, or even black?
Kara Walker “Selfie,” 2014.
Walker: I had my options: brown and white. I was thinking about all the products of sugar—molasses, brown sugar, natural sugar, and refined white sugar. I was experimenting with these different kinds of sugar, cooking at home, making all types of different candies, testing different boiling points, then just dumping it out and seeing what would happen. The white against the molasses of the walls of the interior of the refinery will be visually striking. I was also thinking about the fact that I am in a black interior. The plant is not a white-box situation. The project presented an opportunity to invert this paradigm and maybe call into question the desire for the refined—to ask what is lost in the process of refining. This is a testament and monument to the quest for whiteness, the quest for whatever that means. Authority—even as it’s presenting itself on its last legs—this ideal of mastery over continents, people, bodies, ecology. Yes, the sphinx is inverted in multiple ways. But part of it was really part of a visual oooh-factor. The way the light comes in, what the sugar looks like when it has been crystalized in a certain way. It’s a little bit crazy actually. Crazier than you imagine it. [Laughs.]
Rail: With the silhouettes, you’ve said that the minimal formalism of the cartoon profiles resonated with your idea of racial stereotypes, functioning as reductionist versions of actual human beings. With three-dimensional sculptures, this flattening of identities is disrupted. How did you contend with this dimensional shift?
Walker: Physically, it is a shift, but there’s something that resonates between those works and this work. I would not have thought, “this is the same as the silhouette,” but it does feel like it kind of operates in a similar way—it sets up an expectation in the viewer and then starts to complicate that expectation over the course of the viewing. With the three-dimensional shape, and specifically this sphinx-like one, the work becomes iconic, hugely iconic; it does the same thing in the way that the silhouette stereotype figures do. It transcends humanity in the way these other forms reduce humanity. So it’s larger than life, a set of representations that can’t be fully embraced all at once.
One aspect of the process that is different, however, is that I can’t be as hands on. For example, I’m not there now. I was there yesterday working on it along with a team of people and fabricators. It’s a way of working that I’m not used to.
Rail: You typically fabricate all of your work by hand, correct?
Walker: Yes. After the fact there’s often fabrication that happens because of the archival needs of the paper works, but that’s usually after the work has already been created.
Rail: What has that letting go process been like for you?
Walker: It’s a little weird. I feel very contrite when I’m around the folks who are working. Contrite and thankful, they’re doing a wonderful job translating my sketches, notes, and drawings and such.
Rail: The significance of titles seems critical to your output, usually appearing as very long and narratively descriptive. The title for this particular installation is similarly lengthy. How does this mode of naming serve your work?
Walker: In this case it’s kind of funny because the whole thing is so theatrical. In the gallery setting I like to play with the idea that we’re not entering into a dialogue with modernism or even, necessarily, with art. Rather, we’re entering into my universe, whether you like it or not. It’s kind of a coercion into liking it. There have been a few moments where I try to be subtler with my titles for a show, but it has felt like a weird capitulation or some demand for an austere, protestant kind of approach to good art or taste. So, yes, my titles are theatrical or maybe a little overbearing or hyped up. The idea of the artist as a kind of truth-teller is sort of hilarious, so why not go with it?
Rail: So they’re meant to be simultaneously theatrical and a way for you to re-write history?
Walker: Or to claim it, along with my own agency within the gallery setting—to maybe, for a moment, wrest control away from the white box or something.
Rail: They do leave little room for interpretation on the part of the viewer. I’m wondering if this type of, for lack of a better word, heavy-handedness is something you feel is necessary if we are to redirect our gaze effectively?
Walker: You think they’re heavy-handed? I think they’re hilarious.
Rail: I think they can be both. That’s what is so brilliant about the way they inform the work. They don’t back down.
Walker: They are bombastic, yes. There is a little bit of voodoo attached to it, I guess. By assuming authority over my own work I might actually have some authority over my own work, and I might actually convince the viewer that that, in fact, is true! It seems to work [laughs], although even I don’t always buy it.
Rail: You’ve spoken about the influence Adrian Piper had on your work as a younger artist. In light of your emphasis on titling and the way you’ve used text overall, I’m particularly interested in how her relationship to language has affected yours.
Kara Walker, Studies, 2014.
Walker: I guess the influence would be in my thinking about addressing the “other,” the other being the viewer or the objectifier of my work or my body. Sometimes you forget that it’s not all in your head and that viewers of your body and viewers of your artwork are objectifying and limiting, creating alternate realities and alternate narratives for you to reject. Piper’s work has been important for me in trying to understand or recognize what the relationship is that I have with myself as a subject and object.
Rail: Censorship is still a very present issue for you. Even almost 15 years after having received the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the controversy that surrounded that award, as recently as 2012, a drawing of yours was temporarily banned from display at the Newark Public Library. It was shocking for me to think that in a community whose demographic is largely African American this imagery might be deemed too “racy” for the population. Since the Domino plant is also a public space that places you again in the position of addressing a non-artworld audience, was this something you had to consider as you developed the project?
Walker: Yes, this is a point of conversation we are having now. It may be an issue, and maybe it’s the representation of women that becomes the issue, maybe it’s the features on her face—her representation of blackness—is she iconic? Is she stereotypical? Is the figure strong? Is she debilitating? But as far as potential controversy, I don’t know what will happen with this piece. I’m not strategically thinking about these sorts of things when I work, but the imagery does come from my own sensibilities, my own ways of moving through the world. It has my own mixed-up sense of humor in it that is really present, the same type of humor that was embodied in the drawing displayed in New Jersey. I felt good about that work, and then it disappeared to who knows where before it turned up in the library in Newark. At the same time, in the way the conversation and controversy surrounding that event evolved, it presented an opportunity for me to be an educator.
I’m not there to convert people into loving my art, but to explain that there is a process. Because sometimes for viewers—especially those who don’t have a lot of exposure to the arts—art just comes at them; it’s just there and there is no explanation. There is no understanding that along with this presentation comes a definite process, that there is an individual behind it. There are aspects of the museum and gallery world that are problematic for viewers, in that there isn’t an opportunity to answer back. Or you have to utilize these staid forms such as a panel discussion or an artist talk. In light of this, what should a viewer do if they’re upset or moved? Are you supposed to just hold it in, or do you react? There is something about the call and response of other aspects in the black community—in the black church, in music, in dance—where there is a way of activating the art so that it is alive and living and not this dead thing on a wall that you walk away from, that you feel or don’t feel or are terrorized by.
Rail: It reminds me, to a certain extent, of the controversy surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio in the early ’90s, and how the institutions that exhibited the work took the stance of aestheticized distance as a response—looking at the imagery and the idea of the other through a purely formal lens. Thankfully, you had art critics like Dave Hickey who rejected this viewpoint saying, “No, this is a cop-out. These images are supposed to be provocative, they’re meant to provoke. They’re meant to be dangerous and seductive and sexy.” So in that sense, I think that piece really did do something. There probably wouldn’t have been an occasion for discussion there otherwise. It means that your work has agency in the world.
Walker: I’d like to think so.
Rail: I want to return to the subject of the Domino Sugar Factory itself because it is such a loaded place; loaded with industrial history as well as a turbulent one of racial and class struggle. The original refinery was built in 1882. By the 1890s it was producing more than half of the sugar in the United States. So it is not only an iconic landmark in terms of its architectural façade, but served as a locus of activity and consumption in America for more than 100 years.
Even in the latter 19th century, after sugar was no longer grown and processed by a slave population, the plant continued to have an ongoing association with minimal wage earnings and extreme poverty. As recently as 2000, it functioned as the site of one of New York City’s longest labor strikes, with over 250 workers protesting wages and working conditions for 20 months.
Walker: Which didn’t turn out well.
Rail: Right. When you walk into a space like that, when you know this information, this factual history, how does that affect your vision for the space? How does the building itself influence the objects you create in response to it?
Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (in process), 2014.
Walker: It messes with them. It messes with the space, or rather, it messes with the histories, which I always do too. [Pauses.] Imagine gathering all the sugar in the world in one location. This demands immense amounts of physical labor, from the Dominican Republic to Cuba and other sugar islands, that brought that product onto that site, and are still bringing that product onto the other site in Yonkers. Then there’s this insane amount of pressure, heat, centrifugal force, and manpower necessary to bleach the sugar. Not to bleach it, exactly, but to turn it from its natural brown to white state. There is all this knowledge that comes with that, the learned knowledge of the men and women who have worked on this site for years and years and years, not to mention of the families of these laborers. There is a living memory of the smell and the steam—this heavy molasses odor that’s still in the space.
Rail: It’s like the gooey, sticky manifestation of America’s original sin.
Walker: Yes. There’s this grassy, pungent, almost nauseating sugar smell that lives in the tissue of everyone who has worked in that plant. I wasn’t aiming to depict an accurate representation of labor, but to evoke the associated ideas of empire, of the past—their relics and ruins; you’re always cognizant of those mythical humans, for example, who built the Pyramids of Giza. There is this awe and wonder that goes hand-in-hand with these places but it’s without the thoughts of the sweat and labor behind it. I wanted to make something that would contain that sweat and labor in the histories of the totality of sugar production—the here and now and the past and present of it—but that would also elicit this terribly sad memory of all that’s lost. It’s colossal and at the same time temporary, made from something completely vulnerable to the elements and time. Hopefully that awesomeness will also be there.
Rail: My last question, which you just touched upon, circles back to this issue of class that’s raised in the setting of this work. Given the building’s future fate and the rampant gentrification currently taking place throughout New York, coupled with the fact that sections of the plant are already being dismantled for what is slated to be the largest residential construction on the Brooklyn waterfront, what are your thoughts on how this space’s identities as a historic site of racial and class warfare and its future trajectory as luxury condos coalesce or diverge from one another? [It should be noted that 700 of these units have been slated for low-income housing, but that represents a mere 30 percent of the overall construction.]
Walker: I don’t know if I have a satisfying set of answers to that question. When I think about the space, and even before I was working in it, I recognized it as emblematic of the kind of shortsighted progress—the entrepreneurial, industrial, moneyed, ever forward, ever onward, no matter what, no matter who gets hurt—that has taken hold of the city.
I am an agent of tricksterism, and I knew I could use that. In order to bring myself to build something as heroic and herculean as this effort, I had to get into that mindset of industrial conquest. Now, whether or not the builders who are behind some of this project will get that, I can’t be sure. And I don’t know what that says to the people who are left high and dry by this constant moving, constant gentrification, constant building. I’m in a really tricky position because with this project, I wound up being both the beneficiary and the hand-biter. I have lived in the city for 12 years now and the work never seems to be done; the city is constantly pushing people out. I don’t know where everyone goes. Struggling, striving, there is a weird engine in the city that is constantly being fomented. The question that arises with the waterfront there is if we reach the pinnacle of condo building, when does it stop? When do we make space for everybody else?
Rail: And how do we make a stand against that? I imagine this project is one way of doing so.
Walker: I don’t know, do you think? I don’t know if this piece will do that. My feeling is—and this is a kind of pipe-dream poetic feeling—of the piece being present, and the piece disappearing. My greatest hope is that when all is said and done that the aftereffect is still there. That it’s not just another lost memory, like the lost memories and collective knowledge of the people who worked at the sugar factory. [Sighs.]
Over the past twenty-five years or so, ever since her spectacular New York début at the Drawing Center, in 1994, the now forty-four-year-old artist Kara Walker’s visual production—sculptures, cutouts, drawings, films—has beendiaristic in tone. But the diary Walker keeps is not explicitly personal; it’s a historical ledger filled with one-line descriptions about all those bodies and psyches that were bought and sold from the seventeenth century on, when slavery became the American way of life and its maiming shadows pressed down on black andwhitesouls alike.Walker knows that ghosts can hurt you because history does not go away. Americans live, still, in an atmosphere of phantasmagorical genocide—we kill each other with looks, judgments, the fantasies that white is better than black and that blackness is bestial while being somehow more “humane”—read mentally inferior—than whiteness. But what do those colors even mean? In Walker’s view, they are signifiers about power—the power separating those who have the language to make the world and map it, and those who work that claimed land for them with noremuneration, no hope, and then degradation and death.
In her silhouettes, Walker’s black characters are often fashioned out of black paper—the color of grief—while her white characters live in the white space of reflection. But, in recent years, this scheme has begun to change—radically, upping the ante on what Walker might “mean” in her gorgeously divisive work. Take, for instance, the success of Walker’s latest piece:
At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant
The title says it all, and then not.
Located in Williamsburg, the Domino Sugar Factory was built in 1882; by the eighteen-nineties, it was producing half the sugar being consumed in the United States. As recently as 2000, it was the site of a long labor strike, in which two hundred and fifty workers protested wages and labor conditions for twenty months. (I saw the piece before the installation was complete and look forward to going back.) Now the factory is about to be torn down and its site developed, and its history will be eradicated by apartments and bodies that do not know the labor and history and death that came before its moneyed hope. The site is worth mentioning at length because Walker’s creation is not only redolent of its history, it’s of a piece with the sugar factory—and its imminent destruction.
Measuring approximately seventy-five and a half feet long and thirty-five and a half feet high, the sculpture is white—a mammy-as-sphinx made out of bleached sugar, which is a metaphor and reality. Remember, sugar is brown in its “raw” state. Walker, in a very informative interview with Kara Rooney, says that she read a book called “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.” There, she learned that sugar was such a commodity that, in the eleventh century, marzipan sculptures were created by the sultans in the East to give to the poor on feast days. This tradition made its way to Northern Europe, eventually, where royal chefs made sugar sculptures called subtleties. Walker was taken not only with those stories but with the history of the slave trade in America: Who cut the sugar cane? Who ground it down to syrup? Who bleached it? Who sacked it?
Operating from the assumption, always, that history can be found out and outed, Walker’s sphinx shows up our assumptions: She has “black” features but is white? Has she been bleached—and thus made more “beautiful”—or is she a spectre of history, the female embodiment of all the human labor that went into making her?
Walker’s radicalism has other routes, too: in European art history, which made Picasso and helped make Kara Walker. But instead of refashioning the European idea of coloredness—think about Brancusi and Giacometti’s love of the primitive and what they did with African and Oceanic art—Walker has snatched colored femaleness from the margins. She’s taken the black servant in Manet’s “Olympia”—exhibited the same year black American slaves were “emancipated”—and plunked her down from the art-historical skies into Brooklyn, where she finally gets to show her regal head and body as an alternative to Manet’s invention, which was based on a working girl living in the demimonde.
Walker’s sphinx is triumphant, rising from another kind of half world—the shadowy half world of slavery and degradation as she gives us a version of “the finger.” (The sphinx’s left hand is configured in such a way that it connotes good luck, or “fuck you,” or fertility. Take it any way you like.) Now she’s bigger than the rest of us. Still, she wears a kerchief to remind us where she comes from. She is Cleopatra as worker: unknown to you because you have rarely seen her as she raised your children, cleaned up your messes—emotional and otherwise. Walker has made this servant monumental not only because she wants us to see her but so the sphinx can show us—so she can get in our face with her brown sugar underneath all that whiteness. And, if that weren’t interesting enough, Walker has given her sphinx a rear—and a vulva. Standing by the sphinx, you may recall the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1995 essay “The Rear End Exists”:
Legend has it that when Josephine Baker hit Paris in the ’20s, she “just wiggled her fanny and all the French fell in love with her.” … [But] there was a hell of a lot behind that wiggling bottom. Check it: Baker was from America and left it; African-Americans are on the bottom of the heap in America; we are at the bottom on the bottom, practically the bottom itself, and Baker rose to the top by shaking her bottom.
The sphinx crouches in a position that’s regal and yet totemic of subjugation—she is “beat down” but standing. That’s part of her history, too.
And then, again, there’s art history. Over the years, we’ve seen the sphinx at the Pyramids, but have we ever wondered what was beyond that mystery? Walker shows us the mystery and reality of female genitalia while calling our attention, perhaps, to all those African women whose genitalia have been mutilated because they are “slaves” in blackness, too. When has the sphinx ever had a home? What is her real secret? The monumentality of her survival, the blood of her past now “refined,” made white, built to crumble.
Refining, as Creative Time’s Chief Curator Nato Thompson reminds us inside this 30,000 square foot former Domino Sugar facility, is a process whereby coarse cane is decolorized, and brown is turned powdery and crystalline white.
Armed with such loaded symbolism, internationally renowned artist Kara E. Walker unveils her Subtlety installation this week, completely commanding this steel girded chamber of the industrial north and jolting you from your sugar haze. Towering over our heads is the resolute and silent face of a kneeling nude polystyrene white woman with African features, posed to resemble a 35 foot sphinx encrusted with sugar and to receive your questions. Subtlety indeed.
“I’m grateful to Creative Time for inviting me to create work in a place like this that is so loaded with histories and questions,” says Ms. Walker of the nonprofit organization that commissions and presents public arts projects like this one. She describes the turbulent process of creating her new mammoth piece, and all of them really. She says that her work often makes even her uncomfortable, which is somehow comforting.
The left hand gesture of the mysterious sugary Sphinx captures the eye of artist Mike Ming who asks Ms. Walker what it signifies. The artist fingers her necklace and displays the charm hanging from it – a forearm and a hand forming the same fist-like pose.
“It means many things, depending on the source,” she explains, and she lists fertility as one and a protective amulet as another. Our ears perk up when she says that in some cultures it is a signal akin to “fuck you” and she has also heard that it can mean a derogatory four-letter term for a part of the female anatomy. And what does this thumb protruding between the index and middle finger mean here? “You’ll have to ask her,” she says smiling and nodding her head upward to the bandana crowned silent one.
Speaking of female anatomy, Ms. Walker deliberately and remarkably screams silently in the face of sexual stereotypes that prevailed and dehumanized women of African descent for the majority of North American history with this exaggerated caricature and her arching back quarters hoisted to the heavens. We only use past tense in that sentence to reassure ourselves that those stereotypes are distant and not at all connected to us today, but this may require a healthy helping of sunny denial to maintain the perception as we travel throughout the land.
The spectacle here is pushed by the extended pelvis, the protruding nether regions, the amply plump breasts rather pressed together. The presentation may summon pleasant perturbations in some viewers, while setting off murderous riots of horror in others, but we’ll all keep our associations to ourselves, thank you.
This is the giant white sphinx in the living room, sparkling white and sweet. Congratulations to “Subtlety” for at least partially hushing a PC crowd of normally chatty New Yorkers who struggle to make cocktail talk in the shadows of our heritage, and for that matter, our present. We feel lucky that this sphinx does not speak, for she would likely slaughter much with her tongue.
Accompanying the sphinx are more human scale children of molasses coloring, “Sugar Babies” standing before craggled industrial walls that are coated with the thick, dark brown syrup obtained from raw sugar during the refining process. She says the five foot tall figures are based on the trinkets of porcelain once sold widely, featuring adorably cherubic slaves carrying baskets into which you may place colorful hard candies for special guests of some refinement.
On a technical note, she offers special thanks to the fabricating sculptors who struggled with the amber candy material as it reacted to changes in temperature and humidity. The floor itself had to be power-washed to loosen and dispel an inch of thick goo, and as we spoke she pointed to the dripping of a molasses type of liquid from the ceiling onto the sculpture. Asked by the CT team if the sphinx should be whitened each time there was a drip, the artist decided that she likes the dripping effect so they will leave it as is and watch how the piece ages with the history of the building.
For those who will be drawn like bees to honey to this unprecedented monument of site specificity in a place directly welded to Brooklyn’s maritime history, America’s industrialization and its slave economy, Ms. Walker now transforms into a stomping giant before our eyes. To those who prefer the truly subtle, this show will be overlooked as too obvious.
Kudos to Creative Time, its director Anne Pasternak, and Ms. Walker for putting our face in it, even as we bemoan the loss of this soon-to-be demolished building and its connection to our history.
At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: Kara Walker – A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.
Midway through my maiden visit to the derelict Domino Sugar refinery near the Williamsburg Bridge, while gaping in awe at Kara Walker’s great gaudy monstrosity, her towering naked sphinx with the head scarf and features of a black mammy, I had something like a vision. That’s the crazy comical power Walker’s best work can have. Particularly this work, elliptically and archaically titled A Subtlety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. This behemoth, part Cecil B. DeMille parade float, part alien, is accompanied by a retinue of life-size deformed black figures, boys carrying bananas or baskets with parts of other boys, all made from molasses and brown sugar.
I imagined this mad theatrical 35-ton thing—more than 35 feet high and 75 feet long, fashioned in refined white sugar over blocks of Styrofoam—pulled across the United States by the crew of misshapen brown attendants. I saw its ambiguous anarchic meanings, its otherness, stunning all who saw it. I fancied this an American ghost ship, never coming to rest until … what? I don’t know. I saw a new American Pequod, some Melvillian symbol for the original sin of slavery and its disquieting contemporary connections to the kind of hubris that brought us Iraq and then Abu Ghraib. Things that make America lose its humanity. Walker, who called A Subtlety “a New World sphinx,” has said that her work “is about trying to get a grasp on history … it’s kind of a trap … the meaty, unresolved, mucky blood lust of talking about race where I always feel like the conversation is inconclusive.”
That trap looms in this incredible sculpture, impeccably presented in the decrepit Domino refinery by Creative Time. This dank building, where layers of history are caked on the walls with molasses, this place where brown sugar was turned white, multiplies the lurking meanings in Walker’s work. Especially as no one captures and portrays the implicit connections between sex and power like this gifted artist. Sex is simultaneously visible and implied in her work, the abject violations of slavery and its long aftermath always close to the surface. (Her other art runs amok with mammies, pickaninnies, and Sambos being raped, beaten, or wooed by slave masters and southern belles.) Whiffs of Goya’s depictions of evil come to mind.
Walker has been an artistic force since 1992, when she first got the idea of using the so-called “minor art” of paper silhouettes to render—in vast, wall-filling panoramas—horrific, violent, and sexualized scenes of the antebellum South. I first saw her work while she was still a risd student and hadn’t yet hit on this device, one that reduces the world to monochrome and that, she once said, “kind of saved me.” Still, I gleaned, in a large drawing of black girls, done in chocolate, what I perceived as a new barbaric yawp come into America. Since then, and after receiving a MacArthur Award in 1997 at the age of 27, Walker has only gotten better, more wicked and out-there.
A Subtlety depicts a black-featured woman with enormous hindquarters arched and exposed, her protruding vulva presented as if for sexual delectation. She crouches, her breasts visible, her left thumb thrust through split fingers in an ancient visceral symbol for sex called the fig. Walker has never worked in three dimensions like this. Maybe no one has. This massive sculptural juggernaut—all this white in the midst of this dead factory coated in congealed brown sugar—suggests hidden causes and effects, cosmic condemnations, menace, cruel pleasures, and inscrutable things. I imagined birds of prey circling over it. Vitriol, fatalism, and grandiosity merge. James Baldwin once wrote of the white American remembering slavery as “a kind of Eden in which he loved black people and they loved him … everything … is permitted him except the love he remembers and has never ceased to need.” Baldwin suggests that this is partly the malignant cause of the “hysteria” of racism. As Walker puts it more concisely, “This sugar has blood on its hands.”
As I considered this while pondering A Subtlety, allusions to the Pequod gave way. Something darker, universal, and more unknowable formed. The white sculpture morphs in the mind into a stand-in for Melville’s white whale itself. The psychic bottom falls out. I remembered D. H. Lawrence’s incredible analysis of Moby-Dick: “Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom! … Doom of our white day … And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day.” Then my vision came to an end.
A Subtlety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. Kara Walker. Domino Sugar Refinery, Williamsburg.
*This article appears in the June 2, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
Kara Walker in New York
An artist sculpts America’s dark history
SUGAR is a cheap, seductive pleasure. But its sweetness belies a bitter history. For centuries it was a commodity harvested by slaves and refined into something white. Lately sugar has also become the villain of choice in the campaign to fight obesity. Leave it to Kara Walker, a provocative American artist, to turn the crystals into a work of art.
Last year Ms Walker was asked by Creative Time, a New York-based non-profit organisation that specialises in presenting art in public spaces, to create something for a cavernous disused sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Ms Walker was a clever choice. For more than 20 years, she has been making work that is visually compelling even as it condemns some of the darkest moments of America’s slave-owning past. Her best-known pieces use Victorian-looking silhouettes to depict brutal, racist scenes from the antebellum south. Surprisingly, these works don’t nag. Rather, they are repulsively titillating, as if she is seizing skeletons from the country’s closet and making them dance.
Ms Walker, now 44, has had her share of big museum shows, but she has never before filled a space as large or as freighted with history as the Domino sugar factory. More challenging still, she decided to confect her work out of the sweet stuff itself, in all its sticky grit.
The full name of the installation (capital letters included) says it all, and perhaps too much: “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”.
The work itself is more subtle, and more powerful. A procession of amber-coloured boy sculptures, five-feet high, sweet-faced and creepy, guide visitors to the main attraction. At the far end of dark factory, hunched and glowing, is a gigantic sugar-coated sphinx. With stereotypically black features, her hair wrapped in a bandanna, she crouches suggestively—perhaps submissively, despite being more than 35-feet high. Her powdery skin contrasts with the molasses-caked walls. A saccharine smell hangs in the air.
A monumental mammy sphinx hardly sounds nuanced. And yet the work is both surprising and complex, evoking not only the slaves of the sugar trade, but also the women who became sex toys, as disposable as lollipops. Like the sphinx in Egypt, this one presides over a site of ruins—after the show ends on July 6th, the factory is destined for the wrecking ball. A shiny new waterfront development will be raised in its place.
Working with sugar was a challenge. Sculptures either melted or broke into pieces. Some of the boy figures fell apart days before the show opened. “No one works with sugar,” says Nato Thompson, the curator. “Now we know why.” But for Ms Walker the real work involved transforming her ideas for the piece (which could sometimes be “finger-waggingly angry”) into a work of art. Her aim was to create something that would be “sweet on the eyes”, albeit a bit tough going down.
FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON
May 25, 2014 9:01 pm
Kara Walker, Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, New York – review
Just outside Natchez, Mississippi there’s a restaurant called Mammy’s Cupboard, set inside the ballooning skirt of a 28ft-tall black woman. Built in 1940, the eatery has cycled through spells of decay and restoration, but it – or rather she, with her recently bleached features and polka dot headscarf – still towers over the low landscape, a degraded stereotype radiating queasy charm. It’s impossible to tell whether Mammy’s keeps operating as a straightforward statement of tradition or as an ironic twist on a racist reverie. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Kara Walker may never have patronised that particular establishment, but she has built a sculpture in Brooklyn that draws on the same mortifying imagery and outlandish size, turning the mammy into a mythic creature. The title is a lyric artwork in itself:
or the Marvellous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the Demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant
Walker has attached the head of a black house servant to the body of a giant sphinx, made out of refined white sugar over a polystyrene core. This agreeably menacing beast slouches towards Manhattan, its hour come round at last. Her slow thighs rest in the empty Domino Sugar warehouse on the Williamsburg waterfront, where the smell of burnt caramel lingers in the air. Granulated tides once rose in this cavernous space, so deep and dense that for years nobody ever saw the floor.
Walker’s work transforms the industrial structure into a para-religious one. You enter the dim, rusting basilica at one end, and sense the sculpture’s presence in the distance before you quite get the measure of its size. To approach, you file down the nave to the bay where she crouches, three storeys tall, bathed in the pallor that flows from a skylight above her kerchief-crowned head. There is only one way to exit: past her mountainous, proffered behind.
The work’s title, “A Subtlety”, refers to a common furnishing of the medieval European banquet, a sugar sculpture moulded into curious and sometimes political form, such as an eagle, a battleship, a philosopher’s head, or a famous literary scene. But subtlety is an odd word for Walker, whose 1994 debut at the Drawing Center spotlit starchy silhouettes wallowing in crude sadism. Ever since, she has honed her rage on installations, films, drawings and paintings that adumbrate slavery’s shadow over American culture. Morbid, grotesque and funny, she shows how no one, black or white, remains unscarred by the destructive history of race.
Racist caricatures hold a strange appeal for her. In the same way that victimised groups adopt their persecutors’ slurs as a badge of pride, she heaps her work with pickaninnies, Sambos, mandingos and Uncle Toms, exorcising awfulness through brutal reiteration. “A Subtlety” unites two racist tropes in a single, succulent hybrid. The covered head and stoic face, with every feature a symmetrical ellipse, invokes the mythic maternal nursemaid who caters without complaint to the caprices of a white family. The bared breasts, cocked buttocks and swollen vulva suggest that whatever the female slave’s official job, she had other duties as well. Walker’s sphinx is all about nurturing and sex, loyalty and ruthless trade.
It is also weirdly adorable. Before reaching the big white mama, visitors pass a small army of molasses boys, balancing baskets filled with amber shards of crystallised sugar. Walker enlarged them from made-in-China tchotchkes discovered on Amazon. With their round limbs and big soft eyes, they are cute, in a Koonsian sort of way, producing Walker’s desired effect of “giddy discomfort”. They melt slowly in the spring heat, their dark bodies oozing on to the floor. Walker tempts us, then shames us for succumbing to her subversive wiles.
“A Subtlety” merges the literal and the metaphorical in a tour de force of subtext. To a great extent, New York was built on sugar, one of its earliest and most durable industrial products. The first refinery opened in 1730, and the business created many of the city’s most prominent families. The Havemeyers built the Domino refinery in 1856 and, by 1870, it was turning out 1,200 tons of lily-white powder a day – more than half of all the sugar in the US. When the plant shut down a decade ago, it ended the city’s 274-year tradition. The walls of the warehouse remain coated with a sticky residue, so that it looks as if they’re simply dissolving.
Soon, a new waterfront neighbourhood will rise on the site, a mixture of apartments, offices, stores, and open space – a microcosm of the post-industrial city that seems to have little room for working-class blacks. We keep hearing about the poisonous effects of sugar on our brains and waistlines; Walker delves deeper into the historical ravages: the field hands who grew and cut the cane and hauled it to ships sailing north; the workers in the refineries who “purified” the product until it was white enough to reimport for use on plantation tables. The ironies never cease: today, refined sugar has gone from being the gentry’s expensive consumer good to the scourge of poor black communities, where obesity and diabetes have reached epidemic proportions. Meanwhile, pricey organic food stores now dispense sugar in its rougher, browner, more putatively authentic forms.
Walker has a whole other repertoire of references, too. Sugar Hill was Harlem’s most comfortable neighbourhood in the 1920s, when it was named after the sweet life its residents enjoyed. Langston Hughes conflated the phrase with chocolate skin tones in his lascivious ode to women of various shades:
Brown sugar lassie,
Sweet enough to eat.
Walker responds to this male praise of dark skin and luscious flesh by creating a statuesque black woman who is whiter than white. She invokes the great marble colossi of the ancient world, Egyptian divinities, and fertility goddesses of yore – but she also brings up the less elevated history of skin-lightening, hair-straightening torments that blacks have regularly subjected themselves to in an effort to improve their status. Is that why we like this representation of a coffee-coloured woman, made artificially light and sweet? With this tangle of slippery meanings, Walker dares viewers to admire her creation, challenging each of us to ask why.
Should you find yourself in New York this summer, one of the things that’s been heralded as a must-see (and must-smell) is the mammoth sphinx sculpture artist Kara Walker has created in the Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn. You’ll probably wait for about 20 minutes; Walker’s piece, free to view, is commanding lines that stretch around the block. But once inside, you’ll find not just Walker’s mammy sphinx but smaller, disintegrating sculptures crafted from resin and covered in molasses.
Walker’s installation is called “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” It’s 35 feet high, and it took four tons of sugar to create. The installation closes July 6. Afterward, the refining plant will be torn down. (Medieval sugar sculptures were known as “subtleties.”)
NPR’s Audie Cornish spent time with Walker in the factory, which resulted in a piece for All Things Considered:
She’s doing what she does best: drawing you in with something sweet, something almost charming, before you realize you’ve admired something disturbing. In this case, that’s the horror-riddled Caribbean slave trade that helped fuel the industrial gains of the 18th and 19th centuries; a slave trade built to profit from an insatiable Western market for refined sugar treats and rum.
“Basically, it was blood sugar,” Walker says. “Like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands.”
She explains that to make the sugar, the cane had to be fed into large mills by hand. It was a dangerous process: Slaves lost hands, arms, limbs and lives.
“I’ve been kind of back and forth with my reverence for sugar,” Walker says. “Like, how we’re all kind of invested in its production without really realizing just what goes into it; how much chemistry goes into extracting whiteness from the sugar cane.”
Like Walker’s “Subtlety,” these novels were inspired by Caribbean slave trade and the way it affected the women of the West Indies. Though by no means a comprehensive list, here’s a jumping-off point:
Significant parts of “The Book of Night Women” are, understandably, very difficult to read. Rape, torture, murder and other dehumanizing acts propel the narrative, never failing to shock in both their depravity and their humanness. It is this complex intertwining that makes James’s book so disturbing and so eloquent. Writing in the spirit of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker but in a style all his own, James has conducted an experiment in how to write the unspeakable — even the unthinkable. And the results of that experiment are an undeniable success.
As must be obvious by now, it is in Kincaid’s extraordinarily elegiac style, peppered with flashes of rage, that we see the artist at work. “See Now Then” is a novel written in high dudgeon. You are warned of this from the very start: The portrait she gives us of our heroine is bleak, unremitting. “Her legs were too long, her torso too short; her nostrils flatted out like a deflated tent and came to rest on her wide fat cheeks; her ears appeared just where ears should be but then disappeared unexpectedly and if an account of them had to be made for evidence of any kind, memory of ears known in one way or another would have to be brought forth; her lips were like a child’s drawing of the earth before creation, a symbol of chaos, the thing not yet knowing its true form.” In other words, Mrs. Sweet was an aging black female. The last thing her white, effete husband expected her to become.
Wide Sargasso Sea speaks of the history of cruelty and suffering that lies behind some of the West’s accumulated wealth, a history which in Jane Eyre is secret and mysterious, and only appears in brief glimpses. This is a book that gives voice to neglected, silenced and unacknowledged stories, exploring different inflections of marginality – gender, class, race and madness. Where historical events, recorded in written discourse, have shaped the opinions of many of the people of the former British colonies and education is exclusively from a Eurocentric perspective, the recovery of “lost” histories has a crucial role to play in allowing access to events and experiences which have not previously been recorded. This idea of “writing back” by breaking down explanations for events and favouring more localised narratives and perspectives has informed my own work, especially in the voices of the former slaves in my latest novel. Wide Sargasso Sea is an inspiration. Certainly, before the phrase was coined, Jean Rhys was a post-colonial writer whose work reminds us that “there is always another side, always.”
History remembers Tituba as the West Indian slave who supposedly cast a spell on the young girls of Salem, Mass., and set off a tidal wave of paranoid accusations that left 19 “witches“ dead in its wake. But in the hands of novelist Maryse Conde, Tituba`s life becomes a marvelous canvas for exploring a particular dimension of the slave experience — how a young woman`s sexuality and skills as a healer ultimately made her an object of wonder and terror. …
Like Jean Rhys, Conde, who was born in Guadeloupe, is able to blend the fictional with the factual and imbue island scenes with remarkable lushness and enchantment. Author of five novels, five plays and a collection of Caribbean folk tales, she wrote this novel in 1986. Her husband, Richard Philcox, supplied the graceful translation from Conde`s native French. Just as Tituba`s voice should never have been silenced, Conde is too important a discovery for American audiences to ignore.
If the American South had Scarlett O’Hara as its Civil War antiheroine, the English-speaking Caribbean of the 1800s had Annie Palmer. The real-life mistress of a Jamaican sugar estate during the final days of slavery, Palmer was the subject of legend and many lurid novels, most enduringly 1929’s “White Witch of Rosehall.” Lore says (most likely inaccurately) that Palmer practiced obeah, or sorcery; bedded slaves, then killed them; and murdered three husbands. She set the standard for cruelty and debauchery in a woman presiding over a plantation. …
But Santiago’s plantation mistress isn’t a shrew who derives sadistic pleasure from flogging her slaves. Nor is she their ministering angel, although she tends to the sick and oversees baptisms and prayers. Ana is something much more elusive and contradictory. She delegates the flogging, but flinches when the slaves scream.
“Starting out in the late 1980s, Korean artist Lee has witnessed some big changes within the global art scene. She was one of the first women artists from Asia to exhibit in major international art museums during the Asian art boom of the ’90s — a time when many Asian art biennales were being launched, and exhibitions focusing on Asian artists were still quite rare in Western art museums.”
“In the 1990s, the label ‘Asian Woman Artist’ was a term that caused me a lot of grief, actually,” says Lee at an interview during her recent visit to Tokyo for an artist talk.”
“Despite her upbringing in a very political family, Lee has never personally identified with South Korea’s late-coming feminist movement. “I don’t believe in any ‘isms’ ” she says. But she is an artist who constantly questions political ideals. Specifically, she questions what she sees as civilization’s chronic belief in utopianism.”
“Lee Bul seems to be famous for all the wrong reasons. The major Korean contemporary artist, who has a retrospective at the Mori Art Museum, had her first big break in 1997 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, when an artwork she was exhibiting, containing dead fish, literally started stinking and forced the exhibition to be shut down. The controversy this caused led her to get noticed by the wider art world. Yes, once again, as with Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, Chris Ofili’s elephant dung paintings, or Damian Hirst’s pickled animals, a contemporary artist gained fame by doing something repulsive to normal people.”
“Lee Bul address the dualism between a highly traditional society and tremendous technological advances.”
“Lee Bul explores through her pieces trends in popular culture, themes of feminine identity, and representation of femininity interpreted in a science fiction fantasy key, such as her “Cyborgs” pieces, a series of coloured smooth silicone sexualised armours with female shapes but with several limbs.” missing, aimed at analysing the relationship between woman and machine.”
“Lee’s artworks seemingly display a fascination with dichotomies such as art and bioengineering, utopia and dystopia, virtual reality and investigations of contemporary forms of popular entertainment.”
“Do you feel that Lee Bul’s production somehow reflects her home country progression from military dictatorship to democracy?”
“KM: Social and political history of the environment where she grew up is obviously reflected in her practice and in all details in the most subtle or allegorical ways.”
“There are three buildings in the Lees’ compound. Their home is a modernist structure of heavy cantilevered concrete slabs, its brutalism also its appeal. Lee’s husband James explains that it was built many decades earlier by a pioneering arts patron who decided not to reside there.”
“Bul was born in 1964 in a remote South Korean village where her dissident parents were in hiding from the oppressive government. Something of a renegade in the Korean artworld, she made her mark in the late 1980s through outlandish street performances. Her first sculptures were designed to be worn: covered in freakish protrusions and decked in sequins, they suggested a metamorphosis that was both grotesque and sensual. In the late 1990s her sci-fi inspired, mutant cyber-women, with missing heads and limbs like the female torsos of Renaissance sculpture, established Bul’s international reputation. As with the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, her work pointed to a terrifying future where technology is less freeing than debilitating.”
excerpts culled from online sources in the style of Walter Benjamin’s writing project of compiling and excerpting the texts of others and making new statements via those writings – by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles.
The Mori shows the feminism and femininity of the avant-garde Korean artist
Lee Bul’sStembauNo3, on display at the Hayward’s exhibition The New Decor. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guard===
SCAI the Bathhouse Kashiwa-yu Ato, 6-1-23 Yanaka, Taito-ku Tel: 03.3821.1144 12:00 – 19:00 Closed Sun & Mon. through December 8
“The Studio” by Lee Bul is on display at the Artsonje Center, downtown Seoul through Nov. 4.
Courtesy of Artsonje Center
In one corner of “The Studio” are 29 abject maquettes of various medium and color. Laid out in rows, they provide evidence of the work that went into creating “Secret Sharer,” Lee’s recent crystal-and-mirror sculpture of a dog in mid-vomit that is based on the artist’s own pet.
MON GRAND RÉCIT: WEEP INTO STONES…, 2005, polyurethane, foamex, synthetic clay, stainless-steel, aluminum rods, acrylic panels, wood sheets, acrylic paint, varnish, electrical wire and lighting, 280 × 440 × 300 cm. Courtesy the artist.
MON GRAND RÉCIT: BECAUSE EVERYTHING…, 2005, wood, paint, glass crystals, synthetic beads, aluminium, foam, polystyrene, fibreglass, epoxy resin and lights, 230 × 250 × 500 cm. Courtesy the artist and Kukje Gallery, Seoul.
THAW (TAKAKI MASAO), 2007, fiberglass, acrylic paint, black crystal and glass beads on nickel-chrome wire, sculpture: 93 × 212 × 113 cm, trail of beads: 250–500 cm long. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg/Paris.
Installation view of AUTOPOIESIS (2006) and STERNBAU NO. 2 (2007) at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, 2007.
Who we are is determined to a considerable extent by what we are. The what includes our origins in time and place, gender, race, social status, sexual orientation, education, and political and religious convictions. Once we have this information, we believe that we know enough about a person to be able to classify and judge him or her. We have a tendency to embrace stereotypical thinking.
The South Korean artist Lee Bul moves away from what we know—or what we think we know. Her work examines how the mind functions by exploring some of its dreams, ideals, and utopias. Interviews with Lee over the years have shown her to be a highly sophisticated and articulate thinker, with a wide range of interests in the history of ideas, the cultures of both East and West, and science and technology. Her work argues that everything is in a state of flux, that many of the notions we accept as laws are often the product of bias and can—therefore—be corrected, and that the imagination constitutes an all-conquering power. Surrealism is an important source for Lee’s ideas and images. She understands imagination’s ties to cognition and knows from firsthand experience how it can free one from physical and ideological bonds, thus becoming of critical importance to survival.
Fiberglass, resin, acrylic paint, black crystals, and mixed media, 93 x 113 x 212 cm.
Photo: Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, NY.
LEE BUL, Untitled sculpture W4-2, 2010. Stainless steel, aluminum,mirror, wood, polyurethane sheet, acrylic mirror, glass beads, 218 x113 x 87 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York.
LEE BUL Yulia Tikhonova
LEHMANN MAUPIN – NEW YORKIn her past spring exhibition Lee Bul departed from previously opulent chandelierlike sculptural structures. This time the artist manufactured metal and other materials into intricate hard-edged constructions. Twelve sculptures were constructed from pieces of mirror, wood and plexiglass, harnessed by a mesh of stainless steel and aluminum. Drawings of the structures were also on display.
LEE BUL, Untitled sculpture W4-2, 2010. Stainless steel, aluminum,mirror, wood, polyurethane sheet, acrylic mirror, glass beads, 218 x113 x 87 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York.
Although a 28th edition of her crystal and glitter sculpture Sternbau No.28 (2010) included in the show is familiar to anyone who has seen Bul’s works before, this exhibition looks different.Untitled W2-1 (2010) is an intense configuration of the sharp angles formed by reflecting surfaces. Its pointy side extensions covered with metal resemble menacing fuselages and shields. When suspended from the ceiling this structure seems to be ready for attack like a missile boat from a Star Wars game. The other nine editions of Untitled W are rigidly welded together with horizontal and tangential metal rods. They hover in the gallery space, erratic andaimlessly dangerous. These large assemblages are manufactured by as many as five people at Bul’s workshop. They are produced in bulk, with each piece different and yet a variation of another. Their cold aesthetic doesn’t sparkle rapport, but their crafty appearance suggests high-cost fabrication to meet high-end retail prices. Her earlier works from the ’90s were elaborate human-scale silicone sculptures resembling space-fad cyborgs, derived from the ideas of feminism. Korean-born, Bul’s more recent works have been noted for their architectural motifs drawn from the avant-garde language of Vladimir Tatlin’s Tower or Bruno Taut’s glass domes. Less visionary, this exhibition seems more concerned with introducing references of danger and anxiety. In one of her recent interviews, the artist commented about pressure to produce better works: “Pressure is a part of my life. It’s killing my body, I’m getting sick.” Working on her upcoming retrospective at the Mori Art Museum next year, Bul might recognize that less is more.
Lee Bul, widely considered as the leading Korean artist of her generation, talks to The Korea Times at the Bartleby Bickle & Meursault office, downtown Seoul, Friday. / Korea Times
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
World-renowned artist Lee Bul, whose cyborg sculptures and decomposing fish installations made her a name to be reckoned with on the international art scene, offers an interesting piece of advice to aspiring artists: “Don’t ‘try’ to be an artist.”
“Becoming an artist is not possible from trying. If somebody tries ‘not’ to be an artist, the person will have a greater possibility of becoming an artist,” the 46-year-old Lee told The Korea Times, in an interview at the Bartleby Bickle & Meursault office, downtown Seoul, Friday.
Based on her own experience, Lee certainly did not “try” instead simply “is” an artist.
She was born in 1964 in a secluded Korean village where her dissident parents were hiding from the government. Growing up during the turbulent ’70s and ’80s, Lee majored in sculpture and graduated from Hongik University in 1987.
“I don’t remember ‘beginning’ as an artist. It’s too far back for me to remember. Sometimes I think about what an artist is. I have a childhood memory that I wanted to be an artist, but every artist is probably the same. Maybe I was an artist when I was born,” she said.
The following year, Lee became a finalist for the prestigious Hugo Boss prize at the Guggenheim Museum, and in 1999 she received an honorable mention at the 48th Venice Biennale.
Futuristic as her works may be, Lee constantly finds ideas from “everywhere and from life, not just mine.” The process of creating her art is simple: she gets an idea, writes it down, puts it on a wall and lets it stay there until one day she feels like expounding on it.
“Almost every day, I take notes and drawings of my ideas, even small ideas because sometimes I forget them. I put these pieces of paper on the wall. Every day, I pass these drawings. Some days, I suddenly want to develop an idea. After that I draw and make notes again. This is the usual process. I am not focused on one piece from start to finish because I have too many things ongoing,” she said.
When looking at the work of Ai Weiwei, what first comes to mind is the incredible degree of refinement of his sculptural objects, and the great expensive and time that each work must have cost to produce. Where I a led then is not into his discourse on his pursuit of a Western style freedom to critique the the Chinese government, but the immense power he has to be able to cause exquisitely refined ideas for a work of art to come into existence by the hands of others. This astonishing level of artistic production power places Ai Weiwei in the same league as the American Jeff Koons and the British Damien Hirst, as that power has positioned those artists and himself at the highest positions of artistic achievement in China, America and Britain. So Weiwei is not concerned then or suffering from a lack of economic power; or running from sexual freedom. That he worked with Herzog & Meuron on designing the Bird’s Nest for the Olympics in China speaks to his royal position in Chinese society. What is also of great interest to me is how Weiwei’s works appear to be unaffected in terms of style or taste in their capacity to be from the Nowhere That Is Everywhere, the part of the world that controls the world through vast accumulations of wealth and power. Were Weiwei able to speak out and be a critical agent for the commencement of Western style freedom of speech and of the press, as versus being beaten by the local authorities for doing so, how would this new political philosophy affect his aesthetic position and future decision making as an artist? How would it affect his agency as a creative being – were he to critique the production of wealth itself, for example? Ultimately I ask is Weiwei’s deepest concern with wanting one part of the world to operate and have rules and laws and codes like another part of the world, without him organizing hoards of like minded citizens who would at some point be asked to pay the ultimate price for attempting to radically transform their society. Just look at America during the 1960’s for how difficult that can be, from the assassinations of both the president, and his high ranking brother, to the murdering of the chief civil rights advocates in the U.S. at that time. Weiwei is able to have a dream and have it become an actual object of art in the world. That is a degree of freedom most persons will never know, or even know that this form of freedom ever existed on this earth.
If Ai Weiwei, the much admired Chinese dissident artist, were a character in a novel, I would know exactly what to think about him. I would regard him as a fascination, at once formidable and absurd, courageous and disingenuous, unquestionably brilliant and downright moronic. I would take in stride the outlandish paradoxes that are integral to his reputation. I would cheer his stirring advocacy of the victims of Mao’s successors and recoil at the terrible brain injury he suffered at the hands of the Chinese police, while discerning a streak of ugly nihilism in some of his best-known artistic acts, such as smashing an antique pot for a photographic triptych titled Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn and dipping Han dynasty vases in garishly colored industrial paint for a work known as Colored Vases. I would go wherever the novelist who had invented this fierce, funny, bearded, barrel-chested impresario wished to lead me, and in the end I would have a tremendous picture of a man with a quick mind, indomitable energy, and no particular aptitude for art.
I wish I could leave it there. But of course Ai Weiwei is anything but a fiction, and the contradictions between his life and his art—and perhaps within his art as well—are as real as real can be. He is currently the subject of a large exhibition called “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. My sense, at least on the weekday when I visited the show, was that visitors welcomed the opportunity to focus on the hardships of life in contemporary China as well as on Ai’s extraordinary courage as a social activist. Although some museumgoers may be surprised to discover that Ai often favors a chaste minimalist style as he spotlights some of the horrors visited upon the Chinese people by the country’s authoritarian regime, others will take the style in stride, regarding it as a generic documentary approach perfectly appropriate for Ai’s torn-from-the-headlines subject matter.
Certainly one need know nothing about Robert Morris and Donald Judd and the other 1960s artists from whom Ai takes many of his formal strategies to get the point of Straight. This arrangement of steel rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses in Sichuan, following the earthquake in 2008 that killed more than five thousand children, is strikingly austere. Ai has been an outspoken advocate for the children’s parents as they seek at least some modicum of justice. At times the Hirshhorn exhibition is close to pure documentary. There is a list of the names of the children who died in Sichuan posted on a wall. And Ai includes an ink-jet print of an MRI of his brain, after his beating by police in 2009. In the face of such facts, some will wonder if there is any point in discussing the art historical background or in determining exactly what belongs in an art museum. At this late date, wouldn’t only a philistine question whether a list of names or an MRI of a swollen brain counts as a work of art? A work of art is whatever anybody says it is. Why even bring it up?
Pull up a chairGrapes by Ai Weiwei, 2010.
I wish I could leave it at that. But the problem with simply saluting Ai as a political activist is that he insists on pleading his case in the art museums. The Hirshhorn exhibition—which originated at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2009 and will conclude a five-city North American tour at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014—takes its title from a 1964 painting by Jasper Johns, According to What. The Ai Weiwei who admires the conundrums of Jasper Johns, that most beloved of contemporary aesthetes, is very much in evidence at the Hirshhorn in a work such as Surveillance Camera, a white marble simulacrum of one of the tools of the police state (which is also ubiquitous in democratic societies). Whatever the message Ai means to send with Surveillance Camera—and the Chinese autocrats certainly have many cameras trained on Ai—it is notable mostly as an example of made-to-order ironic neoclassicism, and for all intents and purposes it is indistinguishable from the marble rendering of a garbage can by the New York bad boy artist Tom Sachs. (Some may recall that Sachs got the gallerist Mary Boone into trouble a few years ago when he placed live ammunition in a vase in her gallery and invited visitors to take cartridges as souvenirs.) With Ai, one wonders where the political dissent ends and the artsy attitudinizing begins. At least that was what I found myself wondering at the Hirshhorn, where Ai marries his somber subject matter with a slyly luxurious less-is-more aesthetic. I suspect that this synthesis is part of what museumgoers find so satisfying about the show. Some visitors seem awfully pleased with themselves, as if by coming to see Ai Weiwei at the Hirshhorn they are doing the right thing and killing two birds with one stone: acquiring both art cred and political cred.
I admire Ai’s courage. As the son of a well-known poet who suffered enormously during the Cultural Revolution, he is perfectly aware of the dangers of confronting a powerful regime that has little or no interest in human rights. In the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Ai was something of a political insider, working with the architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron on the design for the Bird’s Nest Stadium. But even before the Olympics opened, Ai had become an outspoken critic of the regime, using whatever partial protection his international fame accorded him at home to shed light on the darkest corners of contemporary China. Since then he has been hounded, investigated, jailed, and refused permission to leave the country, but not silenced.
In interviews, statements, and writings—many for a blog that he maintained from 2006 until 2009, when the Chinese government shut it down—Ai speaks with eloquence about the struggle for justice and the impossibility of developing an expansive cultural life in China while living under an authoritarian regime. Writing on his blog in 2006, Ai announced that “China still lacks a modernist movement of any magnitude, for the basis of such a movement would be the liberation of humanity and the illumination brought by the humanitarian spirit. Democracy, material wealth, and universal education are the soil upon which modernism exists.” These are stirring words, suggesting that in Ai’s view China remains more than a century behind the West, its cultural development hopelessly crippled by its economic and political systems. (The artist’s writings are collected in Ai Weiwei’s Blog, published by MIT Press in 2011. I find the new Weiwei-isms, from Princeton University Press, less satisfying, an ironic riposte to Mao’s Little Red Book.)
Ai’s meditations on the nature of modern culture can also sound strangely old-fashioned, their talk of “humanity” and “spirit” a bit fulsome to Western ears. And here we come to the poignancy of Ai’s situation. While Ai’s socially engaged art has emerged in a country where modernism has never taken hold, he finds his most responsive audience in the West, where the core principles of modern art–its fervor, its independence, its individualism–are increasingly imperiled. So Ai turns out to be both pre-modern and postmodern, which probably explains how neatly he fits into our current artistic free-for-all, uniting as he does an early modern evangelism and a postmodern irony. Invited to contribute to Documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007, Ai dreamed up Fairytale. This quintessential work of social engagement involved bringing to Kassel 1,001 Chinese citizens who under normal circumstances had little or no chance of ever leaving the country to spend some time in Germany. Were these Chinese citizens being turned into a living work of art–a kind of performance piece? Was Ai liberating them, or using them as pawns in his own bid for fame? The novelistic possibilities are endless, suggesting an exploration of the vanity of good works worthy of Dickens or Tolstoy.
Table or chair?Table with Two Legs on the Wall by Ai Weiwei, 2008.
With socially engaged art now a global phenomenon, some practitioners worry that the “activist art milieu” is all too often “simply digested by the conditions of power,” as Nato Thompson puts it in a new book, Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991-2011 (MIT Press). I imagine that Ai’s Fairytale might be open to this line of criticism. In the context of the localized cottage-industry character of a lot of socially engaged art, Ai has set himself apart by taking as his canvas a country even larger than Russia, which was in some sense the very starting point for modern political art, when once upon a time Tatlin, Malevich, and El Lissitzky imagined that they might unite radical art and radical politics. Remembering how the Russian avant-garde was crushed by Lenin and then expunged by Stalin, Ai’s supporters can hail him as the inheritor of the socially engaged avant-garde, now rising against the inheritors of Mao’s China.
Which is not to say that Ai will not meet some resistance on the left, where his taste for the bold gesture may not sit entirely easily with those who disdain the international art world’s addiction to spectacle. The Hirshhorn has recently purchased Ai’s more than thirteen-foot-high Cube Light, which, with its row upon row of jazzily back-lit gold-toned crystals, suggests the retro-glam décor for an upscale bar or nightclub. While a wall label explains that Cube Light “interrogate[s] conventions of culture, history, politics, and tradition,” it seems to me that the only reasonable response to this caramel colored concoction is to order a martini and make it extra dry. I confess that Ai lost me completely with Cube Light, part of what the people at the Hirshhorn refer to as his “celebrated chandelier series.” The glitz of Cube Light reflects a side of his sensibility that some progressives will dismiss as high bourgeois kitsch, although at times it is unclear whether Ai is parodying a taste for swank Chinese porcelains and beautifully crafted wood furniture or celebrating it. The truth is that he may not be entirely clear about this himself.
Ai is probably at his best when he works as a designer, considering form in its social aspect. From what one can gather from photographs, the studio that he designed and built for himself in Shanghai—which the authorities bulldozed in 2011—was eloquently straightforward, in a style reminiscent of some of Judd’s architectural works, of which Ai is surely aware. In recent years, one of the most attractive aspects of Ai’s activity has been his engaging various craftspeople—especially workers in wood and ceramic—to create works that Ai designs but hands over to others to produce, in keeping with tried and true post-Duchampian practice. At times he suggests a Dadaist William Morris, corralling skilled woodworkers to make absurdist constructions out of antique tables, stools, and doors, or overseeing the creation of millions of tiny porcelain sunflower seeds that filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2010—the seeds evoking the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese people were said to be sunflowers turning toward Mao even as the seeds themselves provided much needed nourishment.
When Ai, who as a boy lived through the terrors of the Cultural Revolution, dreams up projects for skilled workers, he seems to be designing the monuments for a luxurious utopia, with his Moon Chest (elegant boxes with openings related to the phases of the moon) and Map of China (a construction of salvaged wood from Qing Dynasty temples). He has long been something of a collector, a frequenter of antiques markets in China. And his work often has a curatorial character, the gathering together (or the purposeful distortion or transformation) of found objects, or of objects made to his specifications that he regards in the spirit of Duchamp and his readymades. “My work is always a readymade,” Ai has said. Such readymades, he argues, “could be cultural, political, or social, and also it could be art—to make people re-look at what we have done, its original position, to create new possibilities. I always want people to be confused, to be shocked or realize something later.”
Whatever the admirable consistency of Ai’s stand against the Chinese regime, when it comes to art he is a little too fond of jokes and ironies that have a way of multiplying into inanities. Could it be that the 1,001 Chinese citizens he brought to Documenta were somehow regarded as readymades? And to the objection that nearly everything he has done seems a version of something already done by an American artist—whether his boxes that suggest Judd’s boxes, or his ambiguous furniture that suggests Richard Artschwager’s furniture, or his piled pieces of steel rebar that bring to mind Robert Morris and Carl Andre—would he reply that this is precisely his point, that the American “original” idea becomes for him a readymade? And when he breaks or otherwise transforms what we are told are genuine antiquities, is this his version of what Duchamp once called a “readymade aided”?
A splash of color Colored Vases by Ai Weiwei, 2007-2010.
I have no idea what to make of Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads. This is a set of twelve animal heads representing the signs of the zodiac, realized in editions in bronze and in bronze with a gold patina. Ai closely based the heads on originals, some of them lost, made in the eighteenth century for the pleasure palace of the Qianlong Emperor, by Jesuits living in China. (A substantial book about the project, Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals, was published in 2011.) Once part of an elaborate water garden that was left in ruins after the Opium Wars, the site on the outskirts of Beijing was a haunt for bohemians when Ai was a young man. (Two of the original heads have in more recent times been in the news, included in an auction of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent.) Ai, on his blog in 2009, had some rather scathing things to say about the originals, arguing that they “are not Chinese culture and they have no artistic value.”
So why, you might ask, did he go to the trouble of creating replicas or reconstructions of these heads, which have now been exhibited in London, New York, and Washington? Asked more recently about the project, Ai had this to say: “Because the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is animal heads, I think it’s something that everyone can have some understanding of, including children and people who are not in the art world. I think it’s more important to show your work to the public. That’s what I really care about. When Andy Warhol painted Mao in the 1960s and 1970s, I don’t think many people understood Mao, either—it was just this image that people knew, like Marilyn Monroe or somebody. So they might see these zodiac animals like that—like Mickey Mouse. They’re just animals.” Ai may be a hero when it comes to speaking out for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, but when he talks about his art he is jeeringly manipulative. It is hard to have patience for an artist who justifies his work with references to Mickey Mouse.
Much of the fascination of a substantial survey of an artist’s work consists in the ways it deepens our understanding of origins and evolutions, but the Hirshhorn exhibition offers only the sketchiest sense of Ai’s early years. The problem may be that his artistic beginnings are pathetically thin, at least that is what I surmise from the little early work included here and what I have seen in reproductions. As a young man Ai spent a decade in New York, from 1983 to 1993, returning to China when his father became ill. At the Hirshhorn a good deal of space is given to photographs he took while hanging out in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side, and they are nothing more than the snapshots of a somewhat aimless fellow: he meets Allen Ginsberg, witnesses the Tompkins Square Park riots, passes the time with friends from back home.
One work from those years that has received some attention—although it is not in the Hirshhorn show—is a wire coat hanger that Ai manipulated so as to replicate the profile of Marcel Duchamp as seen in his Self-Portrait in Profile. What other work there is from the 1980s strikes me as only more of this highly diluted Dadaism: Château Lafite, a bottle encased in two shoes; a book with a half of a shoe attached to it; a violin with two shoes clamped to its body; and another violin with its neck replaced by the handle of a shovel. Is the shovel an homage to Duchamp’s readymade that consists of a snow shovel? Does the violin have something to do with Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres? Or with the French artist Arman’s interest in violins? Whatever the answers, Ai’s Dadaism never strikes with a personal force, the way Robert Gober’s sometimes does. The work is pale and derivative, after which it becomes loud and political without ceasing to be pale and derivative.
Although Ai is a darling of journalists and editorialists around the world, his work may be a little overly explicit for some connoisseurs of late modernism or postmodernism, better suited to Art and America and The New York Times than to the pages of October. I suspect that many museum professionals in Europe and the United States who have supported Ai’s projects also regard him with a slight condescension, as something of an artistic naïf, albeit an extraordinarily self-possessed naïf. His paradoxes lack the house-of-mirrors richness that is admired in Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture videos, in Cindy Sherman’s recent photographs of aging upper-class suburban housewives, and in William Kentridge’s scratch-pad films. There is much that is blunt and programmatic about Ai’s ideas about the relationship between art and social action, which perhaps explains his appeal for the audience that only occasionally goes to museums and galleries and so admired his millions of sunflower seeds in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.
For Ai, there is not even a question as to whether the artist can simultaneously be a social activist, because art is not a separate arena with its own laws and logic. All actions, whether compiling a list of children killed in an earthquake or dipping Han dynasty vases in industrial paint, are related in that they are expressions of “creativity.” Creativity, Ai explained in a blog post in 2008, “is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one’s imagination—perhaps more importantly—creativity is the power to act.” What is lost in this talk about creativity and action is the ancient requirement that a work of art be realized in a particular medium. That does not seem to matter to Ai. Asked by an interviewer whether the millions of porcelain sunflower seeds at Tate Modern “relate[d] back to China,” he argued that “mass production is nothing new. Weren’t cathedrals built through mass production? The pyramids? … Paintings can be painted with the left hand, the right hand, someone else’s hand, or many people’s hands. The scale of production is irrelevant to its content.” This is an extraordinary comment. If the scale of a work and the way the work is produced are irrelevant to its meaning or its content, then what on earth is a work of art? Isn’t a work of art by its very nature a matter of particulars, of size and scale, of who does what and how?
When Ai complains that China has never developed a modernist culture, he surely regards himself as an exception. But the crudity with which he connects creativity with action and action with art reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of modern art, and indeed of all art, that is as pervasive in democratic societies as it is in countries with authoritarian regimes. Artistic crudity knows no national borders, and while I would never discount the importance of the freedom to create whatever an artist wants, I would insist that art proceeds according to laws that politics can at times thwart or control but never fully contain or comprehend. It is tempting to say, in summing up “Ai Weiwei: According to What?,” that I admire the politics and am left cold by the art, but that lets the art off too easily. When Ai hangs an MRI on the wall or places thirty-eight tons of steel rebar on the floor, he fails to meet, much less to grapple with, the challenges of art. In this way, he creates his own kind of political kitsch. It is not the kind with muscular working men that Stalin and Mao preferred, but it is kitsch nonetheless—postmodern minimalist political kitsch, albeit in the name of a just cause.
The political causes that Ai embraces are noble. This cannot be said often enough. But when he takes his place inside the Hirshhorn Museum, with its Matisses and Brancusis and Mondrians, I cannot help but feel that he poses a threat to the artistic universe he dreams of inhabiting. This is not a question of left versus right, or of communist versus capitalist, or of political art versus art for art’s sake. It is a question of what an artist is actually doing when he makes a work of art. I am reminded of something that John Berger, himself a fervent leftist, wrote in 1978 in an essay called “The Work of Art,” arguing against a rigid Marxist interpretation of art: “When a painter is working he is aware of the means which are available to him—these include his materials, the style he inherits, the conventions he must obey, his prescribed or freely chosen subject matter—as constituting both an opportunity and a restraint. By working and using the opportunity he becomes conscious of some of its limits. These limits challenge him, at either an artisanal, a magical or an imaginative level. He pushes against one or several of them.” Berger is writing about a painter, but what he says holds true for any artist. What never happens in Ai’s work is this pushing against limits, this sense of the means as constituting an opportunity and a restraint. With Ai, the means are purely instrumental, just a way to get to an end.
The trouble with most critiques of political art is that they pay too much attention to the politics. This is not to say that an artist’s politics do not matter; not at all. But the great challenge today, at least for those who find themselves in a museum wanting to take full advantage of what an art museum has to offer, is how deeply the artist is exploring the means that are available. Therein lies artistic freedom. As an artist, Ai Weiwei remains imprisoned, unable to speak in the language of forms, which is the only language an artist can really know. A novelist might make something exciting out of Ai’s predicament. But Ai, as I say, is not a character in a novel. He is a man who makes works of art. They are bone-chillingly cold, the thoughts or attitudes of a great political dissident who remains untouched by even a spark of the imaginative fire.
Last year, the editors of ArtReview magazine named the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei the most powerful artist in the world. It was an unusual choice. Ai’s varied, scattershot work doesn’t fetch the highest prices at auction, and critics, while they admire his achievement, don’t treat him as a master who has transformed the art of his period. In China, Ai—a brave and unrelenting critic of the authoritarian regime—has spent time in jail, was not allowed by the government to leave Beijing for a year and cannot travel without official permission. As a result, he has become a symbol of the struggle for human rights in China, but not preeminently so. He is too quixotic a figure to have developed the moral gravitas of the great men of conscience who challenged the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.
So what is it about Ai? What makes him, in Western eyes, the world’s “most powerful artist”? The answer lies in the West itself. Now obsessed with China, the West would surely invent Ai if he didn’t already exist. China may after all become the most powerful nation in the world. It must therefore have an artist of comparable consequence to hold up a mirror both to China’s failings and its potential. Ai (his name is pronounced eye way-way) is perfect for the part. Having spent his formative years as an artist in New York in the 1980s, when Warhol was a god and conceptual and performance art were dominant, he knows how to combine his life and art into a daring and politically charged performance that helps define how we see modern China. He’ll use any medium or genre—sculpture, ready-mades, photography, performance, architecture, tweets and blogs—to deliver his pungent message.
Ai’s persona—which, as with Warhol’s, is inseparable from his art—draws power from the contradictory roles that artists perform in modern culture. The loftiest are those of martyr, preacher and conscience. Not only has Ai been harassed and jailed, he has also continually called the Chinese regime to account; he has made a list, for example, that includes the name of each of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 because of shoddy schoolhouse construction. At the same time, he plays a decidedly unsaintly, Dada-inspired role—the bad boy provocateur who outrages stuffed shirts everywhere. (In one of his best-known photographs, he gives the White House the finger.) Not least, he is a kind of visionary showman. He cultivates the press, arouses comment and creates spectacles. His signature work, Sunflower Seeds—a work of hallucinatory intensity that was a sensation at the Tate Modern in London in 2010—consists of 100 million pieces of porcelain, each painted by one of 1,600 Chinese craftsmen to resemble a sunflower seed. As Andy would say, in high deadpan, “Wow.”
This year Ai is the subject of two shows in Washington, D.C., an appropriate backdrop for an A-list power artist. In the spring, “Perspectives: Ai Weiwei” opened at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with a monumental installation of Fragments (2005). Working with a team of skilled carpenters, Ai turned ironwood salvaged from dismantled Qing-era temples into a handsomely constructed structure that appears chaotic on the ground but, if seen from above, coalesces into a map of China. (Fragments embodies a dilemma characteristic of Ai: Can the timber of the past, foolishly discarded by the present, be recrafted into a China, perhaps a better China, that we cannot yet discern?) And the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden will present a wide-ranging survey of Ai’s work, from October 7 to February 2013. The exhibition title—“According to What?”—was borrowed from a Jasper Johns painting.
The question that is not often asked is whether Ai, as an artist, is more than just a contemporary phenom. Is Sunflower Seeds, for example, more than a passing headline? Will Ai ultimately matter to China—and to the future—as much as he does to today’s Western art world?
Ai lives in Caochangdi, a village in suburban Beijing favored by artists, where, like an art-king in exile, he regularly greets visitors come to pay homage to his vision of a better China. A large, burly man with a fondness for the neighborhood’s feral cats, Ai, who is 55, is disarmingly modest for one who spends so much time in the public eye. He recently told Christina Larson, an American writer in Beijing who interviewed the artist for Smithsonian, that he remains astonished by his prominence. “The secret police told me everybody can see it but you, that you’re so influential. But I think [their behavior] makes me more influential. They create me rather than solve the problems I raise.”
The authorities keep him in the news by, for example, hounding him for tax evasion. This past summer, during a hearing on his tax case—which he was not allowed to attend—his studio was surrounded by about 30 police cars. The story was widely covered. In 2010, he established a studio in a proposed arts district in Shanghai. The regime, fearing it would become a center of dissent—and claiming the structure violated a building code—destroyed it early in 2011. According to Ai, “It made every young person who may or may not have liked me before think I must be some kind of hero.”
Ai lives well enough, even under house arrest, but there’s little about him that’s extravagant or arty. His house, like many in the district, is gray and utilitarian. The neighborhood doesn’t have much street or café life; it’s the sort of place, one Beijing resident said, where people go to be left alone. His courtyard home consists of two buildings: a studio and a residence. The studio—a large space with a skylight—has a gray floor and white walls and seems much less cluttered than other artist studios. Both the studio and the residence have a neutral air, as if they have not yet been filled, but are instead environments where an artist waits for ideas, or acts on impulse, or greets cats and visitors. Like Andy Warhol, Ai always has a camera at hand—in his case, an iPhone—as if he were waiting for something to happen.
His life seems steeped in “befores” and “afters.” Before the modern era, he says, China’s culture had a kind of “total condition, with philosophy, aesthetics, moral understanding and craftsmanship.” In ancient China, art could become very powerful. “It’s not just a decoration or one idea, but rather a total high model which art can carry out.” He finds a similar and transcendent unity of vision in the work of one of his favorite artists, van Gogh: “The art was a belief that expressed his views of the universe, how it should be.”
His more immediate before, however, is not ancient China but the totalitarian culture into which he was born. Ai’s father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, ran afoul of the regime in the late ’50s and he and his family were sent to a labor camp. He spent five years cleaning toilets. (Ai Qing was exonerated in 1978 and lived in Beijing until his death in 1996.) To Ai Weiwei, there was also another, less personal kind of emptiness about the China of before. “There were almost no cars on the street,” he said. “No private cars, only embassy cars. You could walk in the middle of the street. It was very slow, very quiet and very gray. There were not so many expressions on human faces. After the Cultural Revolution, muscles were still not built up to laugh or show emotion. When you saw a little bit of color—like a yellow umbrella in the rain—it was quite shocking. The society was all gray, and a little bit blue.”
In 1981, when it became possible for Chinese citizens to travel abroad, Ai made his way to New York. His first glimpse of the city came on a plane in the early evening. “It looked like a bowl of diamonds,” he said. It was not the city’s material wealth that attracted him, however, but its dazzling freedom of action and speech. For a time Ai had an apartment near Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, where young Chinese artists and intellectuals often gathered. But he had no particular success as an artist. He worked odd jobs and spent his time going to exhibitions. The poet Allen Ginsberg, whom he befriended, told Ai that galleries would not take much notice of his work.
Although he has a special interest in Jasper Johns, Warhol and Dada, Ai is not easily categorized. He has a wandering mind that can embrace very different, sometimes contrary, elements. The same artist who loves the transcendental oneness of van Gogh, for example, also admires the abstruse and sometimes analytical sensibility of Johns. Much of Ai’s best-known work is rooted in conceptual and Dadaist art. He has often created “ready-mades”—objects taken from the world that an artist then alters or modifies—that have a strong satirical element. In one well-known example, he placed a Chinese figurine inside a bottle of Johnnie Walker Scotch. Yet in contrast to many conceptual artists, he also demonstrated, early on, a keen interest in a work’s visual qualities and sent himself to study at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League in New York.
Ai’s interest in design and architecture led him, in 2006, to collaborate with HHF Architects on a country house in upstate New York for two young art collectors. The house is four equal-sized boxes covered on the outside in corrugated metal; the small spaces between the boxes permit light to suffuse the interior, where the geometry is also softened by wood and surprising angles. The award-winning design is both remarkably simple and—in its use of light and the grouping of interior spaces—richly complex.
But Ai’s interest in design and architecture has less to do with being a conventional architect than with rebuilding—and redesigning—China itself. Returning to China in 1993, when his father fell ill, he was discouraged by two new forms of oppression: fashion and cronyism. “Deng Xiaoping encouraged people to get rich,” he said, adding that those who succeeded did so through their affiliation with the Communist Party. “I could see so many luxury cars, but there was no justice or fairness in this society. Far from it.” New consumer goods such as tape recorders brought fresh voices and music into a moribund culture. But rather than struggle to create independent identities, Ai said, young people instead settled into a new, easy and fashion-driven conformity. “People listened to sentimental Taiwanese pop music. Levi’s blue jeans came in very early. People were seeking to be identified with a certain kind of style, which saves a lot of talking.”
Ai responded to the new China with scabrous satire, challenging its puritanical and conformist character by regularly showcasing a rude and boisterous individuality. He published a photograph of himself in which he is shown naked, leaping ludicrously into the air, while holding something over his genitals. The photo caption—“Grass mud horse covering the middle”—sounds in spoken Chinese like a coarse jest about mothers and the Central Committee. He formed a corporation called “Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.” He mocked the Olympic Games, which, in China, are now a kind of state religion. The CCTV tower in Beijing, designed by the celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is regarded with great national pride; the Chinese were horrified when a fire swept through an annex and a nearby hotel during construction. Ai’s response? “I think if the CCTV building really burns down it would be the modern landmark of Beijing. It can represent a huge empire of ambition burning down.”
Ai’s resistance to all forms of control—capitalist and communist—manifests itself in one poignant way. He refuses to listen to music. He associates music with the propaganda of the old days and prefers the silent spaces of independent thought. “When I was growing up, we were forced to listen to only Communist music. I think that left a bad impression. I have many musician friends, but I never listen to music.” He blames the Chinese educational system for failing to generate any grand or open-ended sense of possibility either for individuals or the society as a whole. “Education should teach you to think, but they just want to control everyone’s mind.” What the regime is most afraid of, he says, is “free discussion.”
Ai will occasionally say something optimistic. Perhaps the Internet will open up the discussion that schools now restrain, for example, even if the blog he ran has been shut down. For the most part, though, Ai’s commentary remains bleak and denunciatory. Few people in China believe in what they are doing, he says, not even the secret police. “I’ve been interrogated by over eight people, and they all told me, ‘This is our job.’…They do not believe anything. But they tell me, ‘You can never win this war.’”
Not soon anyway. In the West, the artist as provocateur—Marcel Duchamp, Warhol and Damien Hirst are well-known examples—is a familiar figure. In a China just emerging as a world power, where the political authorities prize conformity, discipline and the accumulation of riches, an artist working in the provocative Western tradition is still regarded as a threat. Chinese intellectuals may support him, but the Chinese generally have no more understanding of Ai than a typical American has of Duchamp or Warhol. “There are no heroes in modern China,” Ai said.
The West would like to turn Ai into a hero, but he seems reluctant to oblige. He lived in postmodern New York. He knows the celebrity racket and the hero racket. “I don’t believe that much in my own answer,” he said. “My resistance is a symbolic gesture.” But Ai, if not a hero, has found ways to symbolize certain qualities that China may one day celebrate him for protecting and asserting. Free discussion is one. An out-there, dark and Rabelaisian playfulness is another. But the most interesting quality of them all is found in his best works of art: a prophetic dream of China.
Much of Ai’s art is of only passing interest. Like so much conceptual art, it seems little more than a diagram of some pre-conceived moral. Art with a moral too often ends with the moral, which can stopper the imagination. Consider Ai’s amusing and well-known Johnnie Walker piece. Is it suggesting that China is enveloped within—and intoxicated by—Western consumer culture? Of course it is. Once you’ve seen it, you don’t have to think about it anymore. Jokes, even serious jokes, are like that. They’re not as good the second time around.
But several Ai works are fundamentally different in character. They’re made of more than morals and commentary. They’re open-ended, mysterious, sometimes utopian in spirit. Each calls to mind—as architecture and design can—the birth of the new. The oddest instance is the “Bird’s Nest” stadium of the 2008 Olympics. While an impassioned critic of the propaganda around the Olympics, Ai nonetheless collaborated with the architects Herzog & de Meuron in the design of the stadium. What kind of China is being nurtured, one wonders, in that spiky nest?
According to Ai, governments cannot hide forever from what he calls “principles” and “the true argument.” He decries the loss of religion, aesthetic feeling and moral judgment, arguing that “this is a large space that needs to be occupied.” To occupy that space, Ai continues to dream of social transformation, and he devises actions and works that evoke worlds of possibility. For the 2007 Documenta—a famous exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany—Ai contributed two pieces. One was a monumental sculpture called Template, a chaotic Babel of doors and windows from ruined Ming and Qing dynasty houses. These doors and windows from the past seemed to lead nowhere until, oddly enough, a storm knocked down the sculpture. His second contribution was a work of “social sculpture” called Fairytale, for which he brought 1,001 people from China—chosen through an open blog invitation—to Documenta. He designed their clothes, luggage and a place for them to stay. But he did not point them in any particular direction. On this unlikely trip through the woods, the Chinese pilgrims might find for themselves a new and magical world. They too might discover, as Ai did when he went to New York, “a bowl of diamonds.”
Sunflower Seeds, his most celebrated work, yields similar questions. The painting of so many individual seeds is a slightly mad tour de force. But the scale of the work, which is at once tiny and vast—raindrop and ocean—seems no crazier than a “Made in China” consumer society and its bottomless desires. Does the number of seeds reflect the dizzying amount of money—millions, billions, trillions—that corporations and nations generate? Do the seeds simultaneously suggest the famines that mark Chinese history? Do they evoke China’s brief moment of cultural freedom in 1956 known as the “Hundred Flowers Campaign?” Do they represent both the citizen and the nation, the individual and the mass, endowing both with an air of germinating possibility? Will China ever bloom, one wonders, with the joyful intensity of van Gogh’s sunflowers?
Christina Larson in Beijing contributed reporting to this story
Mami Kataoka, Kerry Brougher, Charles Merewether Ai Weiwei: According to What?
(Prestel Verlag, 2012)
Visitors to the Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D. C. are offered two varied forms of learning additional information: a traditionally produced hardcover book ($39.95) and a double-stapled magazine format ($5). Beyond an omitted index and curriculum vitae, there is little difference in the less costly version other than distribution and physical constituent parts. You can only purchase the magazine format at the exhibition. Is there a preference? According to a museum shop employee, the hardcover has sold approximately 500, while the magazine, says the Hirshhorn press officer, has been reordered after exceeding the expectation of selling the initial printing run of 10,000. All of this is to say that the exhibition is extraordinarily popular and timely . The catalog formats readily evoke the complexities of information flow between the United States and China, and may be seen as modeled after Ai Weiwei’s collaborative underground distribution of Black, White and Grey cover artist books in the Chinese art world in the late 1990s. Greg Lindquist and Mary Mattingly read the catalogue before visiting the Hirshhorn Museum exhibition.
Greg Lindquist: Ai Weiwei’s angular, blocky forms of American Minimalism seem to rely on a recontexualization with China’s cultural histories. For example, Ai Weiwei uses a cube made of rosewood, a favored material of traditional Chinese artisans, or arranges glass crystals into a cube of light. Both recall formal strategies used by Donald Judd, among others.
You have some misgivings about the role of these forms in relationship to American art history and culture. Do you think these sculptures are pandering to our nostalgia for this time in art history or our cultures’ love for the perfection of this Ikea-like reductionist design?
Mary Mattingly: Yes, I found this work to be heavily dependent on our knowledge of the work of artists like Judd, Andre, Holt, and Morris, to name a few. Perhaps Ai Weiwei saw it as a way for the art world to couch the political content and charged materials he uses in art. Or maybe it was a response to China’s own process of industrialization (as Minimalism is said to be partly a response to industrialized factory production in the U.S.). Critical to understanding the politics of Minimalism are the questions that were being asked through the works of participating artists about assembly-line fabrication and materiality through increasing mass production in the U.S. and the Vietnam War.
Unlike past works by Ai Weiwei (such as “Sunflower Seeds,” 2010) where the relationship between forms of production, material, and the message of his work resonate with me, I had to reconcile the use of Minimalist tropes with materials that are steeped in dynastic histories or tragic current events. Ai Weiwei’s work in this exhibition becomes formally reliant on these tropes and therefore disconnected from the potent meaning of his materials and the stories behind them.
I don’t think that you felt this way. I think you wanted to come away with the greater messages of his work and therefore didn’t get caught up in the same details I did, would you agree?
Lindquist: I experienced the forms and the content simultaneously without as much conflict about the derivation you speak of. Broadly, Minimalism was as much about artists exerting the power of a physical object as it was about a search for ideal forms and purity. It was about removing the narrative from the experience of the object, as well as emphasizing formal elements of repetition and symmetry. Of course, the deeper one goes in examining Minimalism, the more contradictions and complexities are imminent.
Yet, for these reasons, Ai Weiwei’s homage to Minimalism is an effort of recontexualization and strategy in order to critically question tradition in China. He also intends to fully reinstate narrative to these geometric forms. I think it was the most successful the more immediate the viewer’s relationship to the material and its inherent narrative. For example, “Snake Ceiling,” (2009) the sculpture memorializing with almost identical backpacks the more than 5,000 students who died in the Sichuan earthquake, was extremely powerful. Also, “Teahouse,” (2011) the Monopoly-like cube of compressed tea, was pan-sensory. You could actually smell it as well as physically and visually experience it.
Even more formidable were Ai’s various attempts to destroy or transform various authentic vase and urn artifacts. Whether he was breaking them or painting them with Coca-Cola labels, they were visceral and offensive, an act of cultural defiance. The works are more immediate the more transparent the signifiers are, too. But, maybe also the most memorable work Ai has done has no centralized form, such as “Fairytale,” (2008) in which he brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Germany for Documenta 12.
On the other hand, the work that felt the most flaccid was “Moon Chest,” 2008, which was a clever contemplation of lunar phases, but so politely stated and overtly crafted with intricate inlays. It resembles a lot of work prevalent in recent New York institutional shows. Ai’s woodwork on the inner ring of the Hirshhorn seamlessly blended into the museum’s permanent collection. At one point, I mistook a Barbara Hepworth sculpture for another Ai work, which was a problematic aspect of presentation.
Having acknowledged your skepticism, can you say what work had the most impact and why?
Mattingly: When political artwork such as this is institutionalized and purchased by U.S. museums I can’t avoid being more interested in the current power dynamics between the U.S. and China and, furthermore, the back seat democracy inherently takes to capitalism. The object-based work in the exhibition is heavily reliant on Ai Weiwei’s stories of political activism and tragedies in China. While the personal stories behind his work are alarming, powerful, and even empowering, I wasn’t moved by the work itself. My favorite piece in the exhibition itself was the book documenting his blog, Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006 – 2009 a window into the life of Ai Weiwei through blog entries (until it was shut down by the government in 2009), which brings his activism to the forefront.
Lindquist: Wait, that book was in the exhibition?
Mattingly: Yes, in the inner ring on a table with other catalogues.
The According to What? catalogue was more thorough than the exhibition could be, though. It depicted pieces like “Installations for Venice Biennale” in 2008 (in collaboration with Herzog and de Meuron), and “Through,” (2007 – 08) with tables and parts of beams and pillars from dismantled temples from the Qing Dynasty: abstract interpretations of architecture gone wrong that were experiential and impactful, as well as a brief description of “Fairytale” at Documenta. The catalogue also documents two collections of fragments of stone Buddha sculptures the artist amassed in 2003 titled “Hands” and “Feet” from the Northern Wei and Northern Qi Dynasty displayed on thick blocks of wood, poetic and understated.
What did you enjoy most about reading the essays and interviews inside of the exhibition catalogue?
Lindquist: In re-reading much of the text after the show and our debates about the role of Minimalism, I grew tired of the overt imposition of the American art historical narrative on Ai’s work, which tried to also align with the time he spent in New York in the 1980s. As the photographs attest, this time had little to do with Minimalism of the 1960s and reveal more of the political climate of that time. The catalogue also downplays the influence of Dada and the idea of postmodern appropriation.
At the heart of the catalogue was an Ai interview with Kerry Brougher that was excellent. The interview was so dense and potent that the Hirs hhorn reconfigured it into an artist statement for the exhibition. Ai is serious and intense, and his voice is philosophical in tone and ambitious in scope. I was inspired by Ai’s discussion of the Internet as not only a tool, but also a condition of life that has much unrealized potential for art and political change.
Ai also has a good sense of humor, such as in the “Study of Perspective” series in which he extends his middle finger to the Eiffel Tower, White House, and Tiananmen Square. Of course, there are critical implications in each of those images, they are not simply one-line jokes. Maybe we Americans love that defiant attitude directed at ourselves and especially a t China. For example, in the political debate of the last election, both Obama and Romney agreed there was a need to have China play by certain economic rules of trade, but little acknowledgment of our continued dependency on China for manufacturing. In that sense, Ai Weiwei may be seen as a sort of American hero and martyr against Chinese oppression and censorship, but this posture also serves certain economic and political motivations for us.
Mattingly: I agree, he does claim to be a brand for liberal thinking and democracy and it does seem like his role could easily become that of a martyr figure for a United States wrestling with its own position as a superpower that needs China economically while being simultaneously undermining and wary . A conceptual thread running throughout the exhibition and catalogue is one of destruction and rebuilding, a cycle repeated anywhere there is opportunity for a rush of development, something that the housing boom in the United States shares with China’s megacities-to-be. Ruins are not nostalgic but rather the motivation for newer, larger building projects, cities, and in this case, artworks.
About the Author
GREG LINDQUIST and MARY MATTINGLY are artists, readers, and writers who share a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They met at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council exhibition space at Governors Island in 2010, thanks to Melissa Levin and Omar Lopez-Chahoud.
Adel Abdessemed work seems to not only want to make naked the tragic and the terrible in the world, but to create and use the works as a kind of counter-force in opposition to and against the real. From his most recent work of making a barbed wire chair of a seat of power found in Westminster Abbey, to showcasing airplanes turned up like bananas, he seems to be saying that by doing what he is doing in art, he can be a certain type of master, he can create and or destroy or merely show acts of creation and/or destruction, just like life itself. Evidence of this is seen in his photograph where he appears to be on fire with his arms folded as if in an act of total defiance against the order and disorder of the world. How can I accept that his work is exclusively focused on the unreal realities of violence and sometimes blind human cruelty, perhaps he is seeking a cure to the impossible. Yet I myself have made the claim on multiple occasions that it is Literature than has changed human consciousness, and it is a higher art that is able to come into the world because of this heightened state of positive consciousness. What does this mean for the current production of Conceptual Art by fabrication and machine?What would happen if it were determined that yes, add more of these forms of images into the world, and the world will be made more whole or even completely whole, free of violence, full of love. Which would be that all human beings act at their highest levels of being, as versus sink into mindlessness madness without even a consideration of the effects on the world and all of time.
Though this exhibition is based across two floors it essentially boils down to three installations, all revolving around the central theme of war and conflict. Downstairs we have a large copper pot sat atop what appears to be a large bomb, complete with gas cylinders and sticks of dynamite.
Upstairs we find ‘Cri’, a life size replica of the famous image of Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm attack.
Lastly we have a video of labyrinthine smears across four walls as a homage to the HM Maze Prison hunger strike where prisoners smeared the walls with their excrement. It’s fast paced and erratic to project the intensity of this event but feels at odds with what was in fact a lengthy and slow protest.
Adel Abdessemed: The negative and the positive co-exist in violence. The violence or impact of a work of art is always positive, as it never leaves us. My images are not closed. They are multilinear and can be understood on various different levels. I like works to have a lost corner, a freedom corner, a blind corner….
Paul Ardenne: Whatever his medium, an artist adds matter to the world because he lives with a feeling of inadequacy. I would express a slight reservation about what you say. You profile a work of art as tearing the veil from Isis – in order, as you put it, to empty the pond and ‘find the fish.’ But the therapeutic side to artistic creation, as shown by Freud and many others, is also a pacifying process. Even if a work is violent in itself, it always leads to a situation being pacified. There are works, as you know, which deliberately belong to the repertoire of calm and harmony, like Picasso’s Joie de Vivre – even though it dates from the violent period just after World War II and the discovery of its horrific death-toll. There was widespread rationing, people were traumatized, we were going through a crisis of humanism, and the Cold War was looming. Yet when you look at this work, or at Matisse’s Blue Nude, we verge on the repertoire of the sublime; the viewer is drawn into an instant annihilation of reality, with a feeling of triumphant, blessed idealism. Artists whose work is more to do with global harmony, and its links with salvation, create a visual world that is radically different from yours, but ultimately just as effective. I say this because you’re often criticized for the violence inherent in your work – a violence that implies that, if you don’t put the violence of the world into your work, then that work is worthless. Take those two metal circles you made, with diameters the same as your height and that of your partner Julie (Wall Drawing, 2006): the circles were in barbed wire! You’ve used live animals in your work – but only after tearing them away from their natural habitat, and throwing them into the alien world of humans. In Mexico, you filmed animals being slaughtered (Don’t Trust Me, 2007). You hung crucified Christs, made of barbed wire, alongside the Issenheim Altarpiece in Colmar – an Expressionist work from the darkest period of the Late Middle Ages, a period racked by recurrent outbreaks of plague and a violent religious crisis that led to the Reformation. You were really beating the drum – irrespective of the title you gave the work (Décor). A décor of violence, then? Personally, I admire your work as an artist. But, Lord knows, I like calm works too…!
Adel Abdessemed: To me, Barnett Newman’s work is very violent.
Paul Ardenne: Perhaps what you find violent are his colour oppositions on large surfaces…
Adel Abdessemed: It’s the void he leaves that I find violent. To me, a work of art should only exist through tension. It should be all about the force of compression, as when I crush a lemon and the juice spurts out (Pressoir Fais-Le, 2002). A work does not need to justify itself. The comments that surround it are not enough. My comments about my work will never say more than my work itself. In fact, I often speak next to my works, to avoid speaking about them.
Paul Ardenne: We need to build a home for mankind.Adel Abdessemed: I see no difference between a home and a path.
Published — Lundi 24, 2012
Adel Abdessemed: “I am innocent”
From 03-October-2012 to 07-January-2013
Adel Abdessemed, “I am innocent”
Since his appearance on the art scene in about 2000, Adel Abdessemed’s work has been fuelled by the disaster of contemporary history. The artist uses the language of art to reclaim the forces of violence and destruction: the plaited aeroplanes of Telle mère tel fils [Like Mother Like Son] (2008) or the folded fuselage of Bourek (2005) recall the trauma of the attack on 11 September 2001 with which the century began, the blackened terracotta car bodies of Practice ZERO TOLERANCE (2006) are the vestiges of the urban riots that shook the French suburbs in the Spring of 2005 ; the rows of barbed wire punctuated by double-sided blades and sharpened points of Wall Drawing (2006) refers to the logic of imprisonment (Guantanamo Bay) and territorial division…
The Butcher: A Q&A With Controversial Artist Adel Abdessemed
By Juliette Soulez, ARTINFO France
How do you go about creating your artworks?
Kippenberger said “not having a style isn’t my style.” I work, I don’t wait. I work like Brecht with a center for the work, meaning that I organise things and create a hypnotic center. I am very fast but at the same time the image itself is slow. Sometimes it takes me three years to finish a piece. Then, when I find my axis, everything happens very quickly. I can share it, I can free myself in some way. Images are internal prisons and with them you liberate yourself, you make your cage bigger. Metaphor would be a nightmare. A nightmare is human, all too human. And, as Baudelaire said, images can sometimes strike hard without hatred, like the butcher. Through my work, I give more than I have. An artist gives everything. The artist is like a gambler, he gives everything he has.
Have your travels had an impact on your work?
Cities have always influenced me. I am like Joyce‘s Ulysses. As soon as I’ve moved in, I’m already moving out. Once I have my third pair of shoes, I have to leave. I like leaving my comfort zone. I just came back from two years in New York, which is an extraordinary city with an incredible density and one of the most beautiful populations in the world. Claude Levi-Strauss stayed in this city for a long time, he let himself get completely emptied out and absorbed. But I’ve also lived in Berlin. My second studio was in Mitte. In Paris, the street I worked with was Lemercier Street. And in New York, it was Belfort Street. I am like a detective who is gathering evidence of a crime.
What role do death and violence play in your work? Innocence is violent, sleeping is violent, and giving birth is, too. I don’t know of anything that isn’t violent, except my soul. I always say that we have to be born, love, think, and die. Death as guilt is not the subject of my work. There is nothing negative, unlike what Christian art produces. Panofsky actually wrote a wonderful essay about the pain associated with death. For me, death can be a path, and eternity is a house. The paths lead to the house and vice-versa. So the question would actually be: which is more difficult, death or eternity?
Adel Abdessemed lives in the increasingly fashionable area near the canal St Martin in Paris. His studio is below the flat where he lives with his wife and four young daughters; he says he needs to have his work and his family close together. The girls are always in the studio – “one may be doing a drawing, one an arabesque,” he says, mimicking a dance movement.
Abdessemed was born in 1971. He came to France from his native Algeria to study art because, as he reminisces, “in Algeria they assassinate hope”.
As an art student in Algeria he made a painting, Paradis (1990), portraying a naked woman bathing by a waterfall. Abdessemed recalls the consternation of staff and professors in the school: “What do you mean showing a naked woman – the school will close down.”
It is hard to believe this reaction now when peering at this modest work. “I was so shocked that the directors and professors don’t accept thi
Having heard how close to his family Abdessemed is, it is poignant to hear that when his daughter saw the photo of him engulfed in flames, she cried, “I don’t like this photograph, daddy!”
‘Abdel Abdessemed, Je Suis Innocent’ continues at the Centre du Pompidou until 7 January 2013
The Paris-based conceptualist on upside-down drawing, his favorite neighborhood spots and the romantic reason he always wears blue pants
Jason Schmidt/David Zwirner, New York/LondonAGENT PROVOCATEUR | Adel Abdessemed
JUST STEPS FROM the fashionable quais of the Canal Saint-Martin, Adel Abdessemed’s Paris studio is teeming with sketches, fabrication plans and prototypes. Tabletop maquettes of exhibition spaces around the globe are adorned with to-scale models of the artist’s recent work. The world is about to see a lot of Mr. Abdessemed.
This is an artist who likes to think and work big—he uses entire airplanes or a foundered boat the way a sculptor might use clay or wood. His recently opened survey, “Adel Abdessemed Je suis innocent,” at the Centre Pompidou (through Jan. 7), greets visitors with intertwined passenger planes (“Telle mère tel fils,” 2008) and a larger-than-life sculpture depicting French soccer star Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt (“Coup de tête,” 2012). Meanwhile, the 41-year-old artist is working with German publisher Steidl and his New York-based gallerist, David Zwirner, on a multi-volume catalogue while preparing major solo exhibitions for Mr. Zwirner’s new gallery space in London (2013), the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow (2014) and the Yuz Museum in Shanghai (2014).
My art is an extension of myself—not only conceptually, but physically as well. When I make a drawing while hanging upside-down from a helicopter, I become part of the medium.
To work, I need the noise and presence of my family. I have four daughters: Ksu, Elle, Rio and Elektra, who are welcome in my studio. One will be doing arabesques, the other flying around like a bird and another on my knee. None of it breaks my concentration, but we do have to look out for the youngest, who is only 2.
I always wear blue pants. Bright cobalt is the color of typical workmen’s pants. It’s also the color of the Mediterranean. But for me the color symbolizes something different. I was wearing this blue when I met my wife, Julie, and she loved it. So I made her a promise—I didn’t have a ring, but I vowed I would wear blue from that day on. Yves Saint Laurent has been making these blue pants for me for years.
While I work, I listen to everything from Mahler to Burmese harp music to Charles Ives.
I don’t distinguish between works I make with my own hands and projects that require outside manufacture. Historically there have always been artisans and technicians involved with the fabrication process.
I like to give and receive gifts as a gesture of friendship, but I rarely buy things for myself. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky, When an artist or a poet has nothing more to say, he collects.
For poetry, I love Paul Celan. I often come back to Nietzsche. A writer I enjoy, who is also a good friend, is Gilles Clément. He writes fascinating essays about gardens and public squares.
An artist I would have enjoyed meeting is Barnett Newman.
A great local haunt is Le Pont Tournant, which I discovered by chance. I was walking by and the wonderful Raï music drew me in. It’s charming and lively but also a bit raw—sort of a coin perdu.
I often eat lunch at Le Verre Volé, which is around the corner from my home/studio. They serve inventive dishes but nothing overly complicated.
One of my first memories is from when I was about 3, in Algeria. I saw a poster advertising the circus with an image of a lion putting its mouth over the head of the trainer. This image was my first experience of art.
—Edited from an interview by Mara Hoberman
adel abdessemed: who’s afraid of the big bad wolf
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adel abdessemed: who’s afraid of the big bad wolf
Feb 23, 2012
‘hope’, 2011-2012 by adel abdessemed in ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york
adel abdessemed: who’s afraid of the big bad wolf
installation view of adel abdessemed ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ at david zwirner, new york
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york
the boat in ‘hope’ was found abandoned on a beach in the florida keys of the united states of america.
installation view of ‘coup de tête’, 2012, resin, 88 1/2 x 62 x 37 1/2 inches in the foreground with
‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’, 2011-2012, taxidermy, steel, and wire, 143 x 307 inches in the background
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york
in ‘coup de tête’, abdessemed has created a sculptural representation capturing the moment in which french footballer zinedine zidane
headbutted italian player marco materazzi during the 2006 world cup final in germany.
the wall-sculptural installation, ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’, is the piece for which the installation is named. the massive work
is comprised of taxidermy animals which have been burnt to a darkened red-black color palate.
detailed view of ‘coup de tête’, 2012 in foreground with
‘mémoire’, 2012, video on monitor, 20 sec. (loop), color, sound, dimensions vary (aspect ratio 16:9) in the background
edition 1 of 5, 2 APs courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york
‘l’avenir est aux fantômes’, 2011-2012
98 x 224 x 223 inches
image courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york
installation view of ‘décour’, 2011-2012 razor wire
88 x 68 1/2 x 16 inches
‘décour’ is a collection of four to scale representations of jesus on the cross. the piece references ancient history, religious iconography
and contemporary perceptions of these concepts
. detail view of ‘décour’ by adel abdessemed in ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ at david zwirner, new york
all images courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york
installation view of adel abdessemed ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ at david zwirner, new york
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york
‘la grande parade’, 2011-2012
charcoal on paper
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york.
installation view of adel abdessemed ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ at david zwirner, new york
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york
Paris – Paris has a brand-new tourist attraction, people of all ages and origins can be observed posing for photographs with a giant sculpture in front of the Centre Pompidou. The work shows a bald man sinking his head into the face of a younger one, the latter falling back in obvious pain; both carry shorts and jerseys. For our American readers: this is about soccer.Yes, exactly, that boring game for arm amputated Eurosissies!
More precisely it is about an episode that got deeply implanted in the world’s cultural memory. In the 2006 World Cup final Zinedine Zidane, an Algerian born French international player and the star of his team, had a little disagreement with Italian team’s defender Marco Materazzi. Materazzi’s repeated pulling at Zidane’s jersey resulted in the following dialogue as it has been established afterwards: (Z.:) “If you want my jersey, I’ll give it to you after the match” – (M.:) “I’d prefer your sister, the whore” – (Z.:) Headbutt, expulsion and France lost the match. An episode that obviously exceeds the world of sports and remains in memory as the most significant event of that day (hardly anybody still remembers the final score). It marked the end of Zidane’s career, who in France is remembered as the Michael Jordan of soccer, and in other nations as a good player. Presented in overnatural size, sculpted in the tradition of antique Olympian athletes, the two personages also symbolise the attention paid to sport idols but this is not the major concern of the artist; we will come back to it later.The sculpture is a first teaser for Adel Abdessemed‘s exhibition and crossing the Centre Pompidou‘s
(French call it the “Beaubourg“, important thing to hold back if you want to be considered an insider), we are confronted with three intertwined airplanes in the entry hall. Abdessemed took actual cockpits and attached them to cotton tubes, thus creating three entangled snakes or one giant hydra; two of the “heads” feature the American and Texan flag respectively.
But hold on a second, an artist of Arabian descent doing this? With airplanes – two heads got cut off about a decade ago?
Quite irritated we get a first idea of what this exhibition may be about, without really understanding it for now.
Proceeding to the principal exhibition space a sign informs us that some of the works are not deemed suitable for minor audiences; our expectations rise even higher.
The first room is harmless though: a
the wall carrying the French inscription “Thus spoke Allah“, alluding to Nietzsche’s “Thus spoke Zarathustra” next to a sculpted horse (donkey? It is female, in any case) with blinders kicking out.
Upon entering a separated section another sign warns about works of explicit violent and sexual content. – “Yeah, this is gonna be fun, now let’s get the party started!”
Inside a naked guy plays an oriental flute on video.
On a second screen a foot is crushing lemons.
Finally the first work to meet the dirty promises (more or less): a film of a red haired woman
a piglet. Yes, take it literally.
The whore of Babylon with a haram animal, and the image of Western civilisation in the eyes of a Taliban. Next to it the artist placed a cube built from exploded airplane parts. Rather obvious, isn’t it?
The piglet is really cute and did you know that sociology ascribes the contempt certain desert religions hold for pigs to the animals’ exorbitant need of water, breeding pigs in a desert is an extraordinarily decadent thing to do – today you should declare champagne and caviar impure, if ever you intend to found a religion (please excuse me for playing the smarta%#)?
Next are flurry images of a small arena where the artist placed numerous living animals. Scorpions, spiders, toads, cocks, snakes. A snake eats a toad, two cocks fight, as do three wild dogs, we listen to the loser screaming. Is this necessary?
We don’t allow cruelty to animals in movies anymore, but Abdessemed takes us back. And he is incorrigible; obviously he has learned nothing of the scandal he caused in 2008, when the San Francisco Art Institute was forced to end an exhibition containing a slaughterhouse movie of his. Sure, Abdessemed did nothing himself (have I mentioned already, the exhibition’s title is “I am innocent“?) but he arranged the disgusting spectacle that we are to witness.
Wondering if this was all of the promised debauchery we continue to the next room where a wall relief of hundreds of taxidermic animals – foxes, deer, rabbits etc. – takes most of the space. To its side a Bosch like painting from Monsu Desiderio: “The Infernos” (1622) and a paradisiac scene from Abdessemed’s own hand. And finally we get a little bit more, a video from a performance he organised at his New York gallery, with spectators cheering at a circle of copulating couples; it strongly recalls that 90s music clip of The Beloved (yes, the song was s%#&).
Primal instincts in a supposed place of high culture. Oh, and the images are not that explicit, the artist would definitely make a lousy porn director. Though on the other hand, given the totality of his works, forty years ago he could easily have adopted an Italian alias and directed some mondo trash.
Leaving the adult section we may admire more works: four impressive crucifixions in razor blades on one wall; four big metal circles on another one; a projection of more ornamental forms; three resin car wrecks (bombed?) and a boat carrying sculpted garbage (or body) bags in the middle of the room.
After my visit it took me a while to make up my mind. Some interpretations are easy at hand, but the artist’s motivation is much harder to grasp. Adel Abdessemed presents the old perception of human being as a beast among others. Islamic fundamentalism on the one hand shares and teaches this belief, not only with regards to modern Western culture: the reason to cover your women with a veil is that you don’t trust men like yourself to behave, to control your instincts, to behave civilised. The image of a man in those cultures is much more degrading than that of a woman, as men are supposed to automatically fall on any unveiled women like a hungry lion on a sheep.
On the other hand, defining man as brute means dehumanisation and may easily justify violence/terrorist acts that according to the underlying theory should be condemned as belonging to the “animal” sphere (the grounding dualism man-animal that is continued in man himself, of course is a highly irrational concept).
The contempt for human nature and the animal within is shared by most religions, or to put it positively: Religious cults of all kinds teach self-denial and purification, saints and buddhas need to overcome their worldly wants. (This is by the way the major difference to modern ersatz religion
that equally reduces man to instinct driven beast, but formulates it positively, defining “sanity” and “happiness” as fulfilment of instinct and any longing beyond as vain delusion.) The Centre Pompidou makes a secret of Abdessemed‘s beliefs, neither is his Algerian origin mentioned in the official documentation, but as it seems he has chosen his camp.
A friend of mine told me he was sure Abdessemed belongs to an extremist catholic cult; of course he might also be a Copt… (I really wonder if the exhibition title has been fixed before all that fuss about “Innocence of Muslims“).
The last room may appear like an inadmissible comparison of religions. Abdessemed‘s crucifixions are masterpieces without a doubt; after a famous French collector (yes, that one) bought them they have been exposed next to a medieval Alsatian church’s Grünewald earlier this year. In comparison the ornamental forms that strongly recall Islamic art look kind of boring. (Abdessemed should visit the newly renovated Department of Islamic arts at the Louvre, maybe it could appease him). And even if there is nothing left of Christian culture but some garbage (again: or body) bags, at least those will be rescued by an ark?
Finally there is the story of Zidane. Professional sports can be traced back to Gladiator arenas (that again are comparable to Abdessemed‘s fighting animals). The soccer player is a Muslim, but not a fanatic at all; here he is presented as another example of savage violence and lack of self-control. Abdessemed is a fellow Algerian, but self-flagellation is a very catholic tradition. Among Westerners a phrase like Materazzi’s would be worth but a laugh, the times of duels are long over (and even they were highly ritualised). Terms like “honour” sound almost ridiculous in today’s Europe and are rarely expressed without irony, we abandoned these abstract values for good reasons. Would Zidane be of European descent he would have continued the above reported dialogue with something in the line of “Great, that will pay my dinner” or “So your wife’s free tonight?” – if he had bothered with an answer at all (his opponent knowing this, the provocation most certainly had never taken place). Contrarily, a person raised in Arabian culture (even in exile) is – a prejudice confirmed by empirics – supposed to use violence in defence of his “family honour”. Zidane’s action is – on a much lower scale – comparable to that of a suicide bomber.
After all, “I am innocent“, it is but my nature (or my culture), can hardly be a serious excuse for any human action. The artist implicitly reminds us that humanity is a lot more, that man can and should control his instincts and be free. It is a good thing, when an exhibition encourages discussion, and though Abdessemed crosses the line sometimes, he gives us much to think about.
Adel Abdessemed, “I am innocent”, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 3 October 2012 through 7 January 2013
Man on fire: Adel Abdessemed brings his work to Mayfair
Controversial artist Adel Abdessemed brings his latest works to Mayfair’s David Zwirner gallery next month. From a sculpture of a Vietnamese napalm victim to a portrait of him setting himself alight, his best ideas are sparked by battle, he tells Ben Luke
Adel Abdessemed has a knack for making viewers uncomfortable. Rather like the Chapman brothers, the Algerian-born artist brutally pushes boundaries while questioning our morals. He has made a film of a woman breastfeeding a piglet; instigated a performance in a Milan gallery where people had sex in front of an applauding audience; set himself on fire for a photographic portrait, and created sculptures of Christ made from barbed wire.
I meet Abdessemed at his studio, near the Gare de l’Est station in Paris, to talk about his final preparations for the show which will open at Mayfair’s David Zwirner gallery on February 22.
Given his background, I find it impossible to look at Abdessemed on fire in his photograph — which he did for real, burning his neck and hands in the process — without thinking of another Maghreb man, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose self-immolation sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world in 2011, an event regarded as the genesis of the Arab Spring.But Abdessemed dismisses the connection. “I am not a chronicle,” he says. Instead, he quotes another artist-provocateur, Francis Picabia, the Dadaist, who said that a man could surround himself with fire to protect himself. So is the photo a kind of manifesto? “All my work is a manifesto,” he shoots back.
For his London exhibition, the British context will be fundamental, with many works taking on the theme of empire. Abdessemed has recreated the coronation chair from Westminster Abbey in barbed wire, a regular material in his armoury, “because empires are always connected with wars, I think — war and justice,” he says.
Around the studio are images inspired by some of the great works in recent British art history. “When I started to work on the show, I thought of the [British] Empire, and it came to me that a ‘colleague’, Richard Hamilton, made The state and The citizen.”
“What I like about Richard Hamilton is that he was one of the first pre-pop artists, and has a sensuality which American pop art doesn’t have,” Abdessemed says.
He frequently refers to artists from the far or recent past in his work — or invites them into his studio, as he puts it. His barbed-wire crucifixions, called Décor, were based on Matthias Grünewald’s 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece, featuring a distressingly diseased Christ. But he feels his relationship to the past is different to contemporary masters steeped in the European painting tradition, such as Gerhard Richter.
“I don’t have this debt because I am not a European, I am a Mediterranean,” he says. “I am aware of history, but I don’t feel any responsibility or debt to it.”
Size and grand gestures matter to Abdessemed. Last year, he created a storm in France with a 5.34m high bronze sculpture depicting the moment French footballing hero Zinédine Zidane headbutted his Italian adversary Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, a devastating coup de grâce to an otherwise coruscating footballing career. It towers over the entrance of the Pompidou, like a warning to those entering. “It is odd to celebrate defeats,” he says. “From the ancient Greeks until today, sculpture always celebrated winners, it was heroic. Mine is an icon of a defeat.”He was interested in Zidane being “trapped by his identity”. Zidane’s parents were also Algerian — does he mean as a North African? “Maybe. He didn’t behave as a professional, as a footballer — he expressed himself as a human.” I ask if he sought controversy with the work. But he insists his interest was more sculptural — the challenge was how to “recreate the effect of when Zidane gave the head butt” in three dimensions, “because when he headbutted Materazzi, it was something like a mass crash”.
“My work is not pessimistic,” he counters. “At the base of it there probably is despair, but inside it is the force to create, and if there is a creative force, then that as an activity is something positive. My work is extremely positive — it is the world that is negative.”
As I leave, I take away a sense of an artist with a profound need to speak to his audience. “Of course, I want my work to be universal,” he explains. “My work is talking about our humanity — we are monsters.”
Adel Abdessemed: Vase Abominable is at David Zwirner, W1 (020 3538 3165, davidzwirner.com) from February 22 to March 30. Open Tues-Sat, 10am-6pm; Monday by appointment. Free.
The attitude of Algerian-born, Paris-based artist Adel Abdessemed (b. 1971) is distinctly embodied in an installation that anchors his current exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea — a foundered dinghy that he discovered in the Florida Keys, shipped to New York, filled with cast resin sculptures of black garbage bags and perversely titled Hope (2011-2012).
Abdessemed surmises that the “refugee boat” was used by immigrants to come to the U.S. The contrast between the ugly, heavy trash bags and the picturesque vessel, with its rusty rudder, exposed caulking and panels of peeling, blue-painted wood, seems to say something about the uncertain fate of seekers on U.S. shores, and hints at the falseness of the American dream.
Abdessemed, who is preparing for an October 2012 survey of his work at Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou, is certainly no optimist. Although he was born and raised in Algeria, his adult life has been marked by wandering, and he describes himself as a modern-day Ulysses, a world traveler — and an eternal exile. Critics have explained his work in terms of a life lived without national identity, lacking roots, but his art reflects more tangibly the violence he has unwittingly encountered at every step.
He left his civil-war-ravaged native country in 1994, after
at the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Algiers — where its progressive director was murdered on the school steps — and enrolled at an art school in Lyon, France. He arrived in New York for a residency at PS1 just in time for 9/11, and almost immediately returned to Europe. His transfer from Berlin to the rough outer boroughs of Paris in 2004, where he has been based ever since, nearly coincided with the ethnic street riots of 2005. While Abdessemed does not like to revisit these experiences, he is quick to express the realization to which they have led him. “Reality is ill,” he says.“Hope is the only negative thing in the world,” he told Artnet Magazine last week, while guiding a walk-through of his exhibition, titled “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” on view at Zwirner’s two West 19th Street galleries through Mar. 17, 2012. “We don’t need hope. What we need is truth.”
And “truth” is what he has sententiously resolved to show us, a brutal, dire truth that places cruelty, suffering and every sort of “ism,” from racism to chauvinism, at the heart of human existence. Working in sculpture, installation and video, he favors stark imagery and masculine
; his provocative works have included the crushed fuselage of a commander jet, which he folded into itself like rolled pastry dough and exhibits upright (Bourek, 2005), a cast terracotta model of an overturned car he found on fire in the street (Practice Zero Tolerance, 2006), and the enormous Telle mère, tel fils (2008) — three braided airplanes, their bodies replaced with felt-covered armatures and literally woven together.Despite their lack of subtlety, his smart, meticulous artworks make lofty philosophical and historical references. Abdessemed frequently quotes Heidegger, and he invokes Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal (1857) to assert that the image, like the word, must “strike like a butcher — but without anger or hate.” To that end, he envisions his “performances” as “acts,” which do not merely evoke or represent violence, but enact it. Not surprisingly, the more “striking” of these have courted controversy.
Don’t Trust Me, six looping videos of animals being slaughtered by a blow to the head, brought vehement opposition from animal rights activists and death threats against the artist when presented at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2008. Abdessemed issued a statement in response but refused to justify, excuse or contextualize the killings, instead declaring his commitment to preserve the status of “an act of slaughter,” full stop, “without spectacularization and without dramatization.” The show was shut down.
Wild animals figure frequently in his works, and he often places them in dangerous situations. In 2007, he let seven wild boars loose on a Paris street to produce a photograph called Sept frères (Seven brothers), and his 2009 video Usine (Factory), shown in his first solo show at David Zwirner, featured snakes, spiders, frogs, dogs and cocks thrown together into a pit to fight it out. “Other artists use animals to represent something else,” he explains, “While for me, they are a real presence; our interaction is direct.” This, of course, echoes the relationship between Joseph Beuys and a wild coyote in his 1974 performance I Like America and America Likes Me.
If Abdessemed is a “pitiless young festivalist,” as the New Yorker described him in 2009, the art world
him for it. He has had solo shows at New York’s PS1 (2007), Grenoble’s Le Magasin and MIT’s List Visual Arts Center (2008), and London’s Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art (2010), and his new exhibition at David Zwirner had nearly sold out even before it opened last Friday, with buyers including mega-collector François Pinault and prices ranging from $800,000-$2 million.The show gets its title, “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” from one large tableau hanging on the wall, to which Abdessemed has affixed 500 densely packed taxidermied hunting animals, like a morbid homage to Mike Kelley’s tapestry of stuffed dolls, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987). The creatures are frozen in every position imaginable, necks tangled, hooves over muzzles, eyes wide. Abdessemed has taken a blow torch to the lumpy surface of brown limbs and varnished it with cedar oil, which lends the charred composition an eerie monochromatic sheen.
Who’s afraid is equal in size — 12 x 26 feet — to Picasso’s Guernica, the great artist’s most pronounced political artwork. Abdessemed more gothic version, which could be an elegy to the end of nature, effectively transfigures meaningless slaughter into a disturbingly decorative taxidermied landscape. (The artist has reportedly chosen to keep this work for himself, though it will be included in his survey at the Pompidou.)
In its undifferentiated tangle of limbs, where predatory wolves and foxes are entwined with their prey, the work underlines what Abdessemed sees as a universal capacity for destruction. He does not frame his perspective in terms of victims or perpetrators but cites Dostoevsky’s proclamation, in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), that “each of us is guilty.”
Mémoire (2011-2012), a short, looping video presented on a monitor in the same room, features a trained baboon who affixes magnetic letters to a chalkboard one by one, spelling out the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” — warring Rwandan ethnic groups who committed mutual genocide during their country’s civil war. The gallery is filled with the mechanical echo of each letter as it is slammed into place, an unpleasant aural reminder of the clangor of battle. The video suggests that meaning is like a bowl of alphabet soup, from which we can fish out whatever suits our purposes.
Décor (2011-2012) is an installation that consists of four life-sized sculptures of a crucified Jesus Christ, made from barbed wire and hung, arms extended and head drooping, in a row on the wall. Abdessemed has described religion as a bunch of “pretty stories,” and his use of a loaded religious icon for a work presented as mere décor is polemical. Its sharp metal barbs have been bent into smooth, rounded submission, and they suggest the sublimation of a tool of oppression — barbed wire, religion — into something else that is acceptable, and even innocuous, like a decorative work of art. (Its buyer, François Pinault, has agreed to lend it to a museum in France for temporary installation alongside its inspiration, Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, before it travels to the Pompidou in October.)
Lastly, Abdessemed turns his attention to the future. L’avenir est aux fantômes (The future belongs to ghosts) (2011-2012), shares a gallery with Décor, and consists of 30 nine-foot-tall microphones on stands made entirely from hand-blown glass, clustered together in the center of the room. The work’s title references a statement made by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in Ken McMullan’s 1983 film Ghost Dance, and is perhaps the artist’s sole acknowledgement of the potential for redemption. While in Décor, Abdessemed desiccates a loaded presence and reduces it to something empty, L’avenir offers presence by way of absence. The unmanned microphones, delicate despite their size, issue a silent
to be occupied — who will speak into them? Who will write the future?“When I look at the work of an artist,” Abdessemed mused, suggestively, “I am not
in his biography. I want to be struck by what he makes; I want to hear his cry.”Abdessemed’s cry, grim and dramatic, resounds in the stark gallery. “If I need to deform the truth in order to touch it, then that is what I’ll do.”
“Adel Abdessemed: Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” Feb. 17-Mar. 17, 2012, David Zwirner Gallery, 525 & 533 W 19th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011. EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact