At a moment when many artists are collaborating with fashion houses, it seems worthwhile to speak with a fashion designer with a fine-art background and conceptually oriented projects. Designer Mary Ping is known for both the classic pieces of her signature line and the anthropological investigations of her side project, Slow and Steady Wins the Race.
I BEGAN MY PROJECT Slow and Steady Wins the Race a year after I first produced my signature line. The September 11 attacks had just occurred, right on the cusp of Fashion Week, and like others I began to question the meaning of fashion: Why do we wear it? How is it relevant? What part does it play in our lives, anthropologically, sociologically? The conceptual aspects of fashion I learned from my time in the studio art program at Vassar. Among other things they wouldn’t tolerate were one-liners. What I’ve done, I hope, is to approach each collection in a simplified way—to appeal to a large audience, to be democratic—while still going beyond an initial twist or irony. For example, I’ve kept it seasonless: Everything I made five years ago is still available. I want to break the rule that fashion has to constantly change and that you can’t wear something from two seasons ago.
While preparing Slow and Steady’s third collection, called “The Bag,” I was looking at handbags, and each one looked junkier than the next. They were meant to be no more than status symbols and moneymakers. It was an odd phenomenon: The designs had become driven by those two factors—the idea of creating something really beautiful was dead. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny to strip everything away—the expensive leather, the hardware—and distill a classic bag down to its shape and scale? It would be like a blank canvas.” So, using canvas, I re-created the shapes, sizes, and proportions of the iconic bags I’d chosen. I wanted to pare them down and see what happened.
When artists have collaborated with fashion houses on handbag lines, it’s often about matching fashion and art and using the handbag as a billboard to advertise that pairing. My handbags are more subversive, I hope, but are also special homages that emphasize how iconic these bags have become—because they’re not about the material and not about anything else other than the visual impact that makes certain bags so recognizable. With the bag inspired by Chanel, all you need is the basic fingerprint—the right scale and proportions, and then the quilted fabric and the chain—and many people recognize it.
My newest project is an attempt to make a one-hundred-dollar wedding dress. It is proving to be quite a challenge. Keeping the production cost low is definitely part of it, but also my process involves relentless experimentation and research. I’m exploring the history of the wedding dress and what it signifies—a very emotional exploration, and I want to incorporate that same feeling in the design. But it’s also about upending expectations: The reason a wedding dress costs what it usually does is that it’s supposed to be the “ultimate” dress. The wedding is traditionally the most important day in a woman’s life, and the dress is supposed to be the most glamorous piece of that day. So how would a one-hundred-dollar wedding dress affect that equation? And what associations would it bring to the table? All the while, I’m trying to avoid creating something that automatically screams, “This is just an affordable wedding dress.” It’s not about that. I still want to keep it in within the very specific Slow and Steady aesthetic—a balance of conceptual meaning and beauty; something smart, elegant, and desirable to wear.
Left and right: Joan Jonas, Infernal Paradise, 2008, stills from a multichannel color video installation.
As part of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and titled “Revolutions—Forms that Turn,” artist Joan Jonas will present Reading Dante, 2008. A performance will take place at 11 AM and 6 PM on June 22 at the National Art School’s Cell Block Theatre. Here she discusses the work.
I'VE KNOWN ABOUT Dante’s Divine Comedy for what seems like all my life, but I never read it before last summer. A few years ago, an artist described to me Dante’s own life, and it made me think about how fascinating it might be to work with his magnificent text. I began with the Inferno last summer, which I eventually read three times. The Paradiso, which is more difficult, I’ve read once. Fragments from both are incorporated into this performance and installation.
In my mind, Dante connects to Aby Warburg, who was central to my last large-scale work of this kind, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. Both had an overarching worldview. Dante thought epically during a moment—the medieval era—when people were very isolated, and Warburg attempted to synthesize widely disparate cultures through the lens of art history. For me, they both represent characters that are on a journey through life that involves thinking about the world as a whole, not just what’s immediately around them. The portions of the Inferno I’m particularly attracted to are the most abstract, or philosophical; I quote a fraction of the text and have been helped greatly by a wonderful book, The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses. I think Hilda Doolittle, who wrote the poem “Helen in Egypt” (which I’ve also used recently), thought similarly, although she incorporated much more quotidian experience. The everyday is how I relate to these broader issues; I try to translate these visions according to my vantage point on the present moment. The medieval era of Dante and the first half of the twentieth century of Warburg were both periods of extraordinary change, and I think the same can be said of today.
Reading Dante is composed of footage shot in four locations, although two are intercut so there are three “scenes.” One of the sites is in Canada, where I go in the summer. There, in a wooded setting, I perform as different characters, and I work with children. Another location is New York. I redeploy nighttime footage shot in the 1970s in the city streets with Pat Steir. We had a cameraman, and we improvised with my long metal cones and a hoop. A strange man joined us, and you can see him, too. This footage in particular, with steam billowing from pipes, steps everywhere, and dark vistas up canyonlike avenues, seems appropriate to the Inferno. The third location, a kind of circular modernist ruin surrounding a lava field, is in Mexico City, near the university. The artist Carlos Amorales told me about the location, and I filmed his wife, Galia, performing there. This footage is intercut with a shadow play I conducted in a church during a workshop in Italy. Obviously I’m translating Dante into my own eccentric, very personal visual language; I’m not attempting to illustrate the text.
Earlier this spring in London, I presented a related piece titled Infernal Paradise; for this, I played the footage I just described across five screens, while a monitor displayed video documentation of a reading at Orchard, in New York, for which I asked friends, including children, to recite portions of Dante’s text. It was a way of invoking Dante’s vernacular in the forms of the everyday speech I hear daily in New York. I’ve made a new edit for Sydney, and there will only be two screens. Also, I learned from a workshop in Barcelona last autumn that I should not say the words themselves during the performance, so I’ve recorded my voice. In my yearlong preparation for the Sydney performance, most of my time has been spent thinking about such questions of form and structure and how they relate to this amazing content.
Left: Ilka Hartmann, Child at Black Panther Party Rally, San Francisco, February 11th, 1970 (detail), black-and-white photograph. Right: Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.
Earlier this year, William Cordova, whose artwork frequently references human rights struggles, organized two exhibitions for Ingalls & Associates in Miami. One, titled “Casa de Carton,” features an intergenerational range of contemporary artists, and the other, “Up Against the Wall,” the photographs of journalist Ilka Hartmann. Both exhibitions will open at Branch Gallery in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday, June 20. Here Cordova discusses Hartmann’s work.
TWO YEARS AGO, while doing research into commonalities across various radical groups of the late 1960s and early ’70s, I gradually realized that many of the documentary photographs I was encountering were taken by one woman: Ilka Hartmann. She was one of very few photographers who had covered such a range of activist groups—anti–Vietnam War protestors, Black Panther members, migrant workers—and she began doing so long before it was a common practice. When I discovered that she lived only an hour’s drive away from another place at which I would be an artist in residence, I resolved to meet her.
She was incredibly generous with her knowledge about that time period and offered background information on a large portion of her archive; from her, I learned about photographers like Ducho Dennis (of the Black Panther Party) and Hiram Maristany (of the Young Lords). This information is important to the exhibition; I’ve made sure to include materials that explain how her photographs were initially used and other contextualizing ephemera. Doing so hopefully slows down the way the visual information—her pictures, in this case—is disseminated, and how quickly and carelessly such images can be consumed in the fine-art world. I don’t want her images to become the bastard children of a generation or of a movement; it is important they do not become T-shirt-ready, like a photograph of Che Guevara.
Having earlier done an installation in a storefront in Durham, I was somewhat familiar with the city’s past and knew of a number of radical organizations in North Carolina, including the Lumbee tribe, which is still seeking full recognition from the US government, and a Black Panther branch in Winston-Salem. As with the presentation in Miami, I hope that visitors will connect the photographs—and, for that matter, the works in “Casa de Carton”—to the social history of the environment around them. In the past forty years, Durham has seen some extreme social conditions; once the “Black Wall Street,” it has since fallen on harder times. Even if such changes aren’t addressed by the mainstream media, they remain present in the daily lives of those who reside there. Presenting Hartmann’s photographs is an attempt to reactivate acknowledgment of these facts, to make visible aspects of the landscape that are invisible.
Performance view of Really Queer Dance with Harps, Dance Theater Workshop, New York, 2008. From left: Johnni Durango, Luke Miller, Shelley Burgon, and Kristen Theriault. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Neil Greenberg danced for Merce Cunningham from 1979 to 1986, when he left the company to pursue his own choreography. Greenberg has been known for his use of projected text in dance, as well as for making dances using material culled from videotaped sessions of himself improvising. His most recent work, Really Queer Dance with Harps, which features three harpists on stage concurrently with the dancers, is having its premiere at Dance Theater Workshop in New York, June 11–21. Here, Greenberg traces the trajectory of some of his ideas.
THE FIRST PIECE I created that I really owned, in 1987, wasn’t the first thing I made after leaving Cunningham. It was called MacGuffin or How Meanings Get Lost—referring to Hitchcock’s term for the red herring. This was the first time that I incorporated the extra-dance element of projected text, and it was also the first time that I really let go of the idea that I had to know what I was going to do before I arrived at the studio. MacGuffin had a sort of burlesque element, where I would do the same movements several times and propose different meanings using the text, like “a flower blooming,” or “hope,” signified by the same flick of the wrists. It wasn’t until Not-About-AIDS-Dance (1994) that I began to include personal information about the performers.
The first time I began to videotape, and then relearn, my own improv was with Destiny Dance, which premiered in 1991. This was the year I got my own camera, and it was also when I was studying somatic techniques, which freed me up to improvise. Before that, I would combine and recombine known vocabulary. It wasn’t until 1992, though, that my dancers and I began explicitly to learn the improv verbatim, hewing to the idiosyncrasies of the movement, looking at the specificity of the wrist, or the turn of a forearm, or the way that a shoulder might be inverted. This generated interesting material, more three-dimensionally complex than traditional dance vocabulary, which is typically based on Euclidean geometry and forms (front, side, and back). I was using the “natural” complexity of the body to produce elements for a complex choreography.
For Really Queer Dance with Harps, I took a different direction and drew material from videos of each of my performers improvising. After seventeen years, I felt that I had mined the majority of the gems in my own body. I was also getting a bit uncomfortable with the idea of making everyone dance like Neil. It’s a bit old school, like Martha Graham technique, which is basically about getting a coterie of acolytes to imitate you—there’s something deeply creepy about that.
By rigorously approaching the re-performance of this spontaneously generated material, it would often become more formally articulated. I’ve tried over the years to get at some of the other qualities of improvisation; for this dance, I tried to veer away from the tendency to make the movements more boldly drawn—I kept saying, “Don’t draw it with Magic Marker when it was originally written with a fine lead pencil”—and we would pull back. To some of the dancers, this would feel like we weren’t really dancing.
Up until the final section (the coda) of this new dance, there had been almost no physical touching in my work. This didn’t begin as an explicit artistic plan, it was just inherent in the things I made, this interest in maintaining individual boundaries. Obviously, there can be connection and partnering without physical touching. I used unison, or certain canon forms, a great deal to create the sense of making one out of two. Groups could become this whole “stage shape” that would pulse and morph.
Also, in my dance background, which was pretty conventional—Western dance, ballet, and forms of modern dance that used ballet—the roles of partnering were very gendered. If you were a man, and you couldn’t lift a woman above your head, you couldn’t be a male dancer, because this was, by definition, what a male dancer did. The lack of touching, in this way, also became a method of avoiding these gender hierarchies.
My introduction of touching in this piece has something to do with the subject matter—to the extent that I have something like subject matter in my dances, but I did put a lens on it by calling it Really Queer Dance with Harps. The touching in the coda is very explicit, and to me, it’s sort of a joke: It’s like, “OK, the first real touching in Neil’s work is going to be two men touching and then two women touching.” And it’s not contact improvisation, it’s a sort of utopian “hippie ballet,” because they’re basically doing cygnets—just holding hands. It’s both tongue-in-cheek and not; it straddles that. It both comments on the thing and is the thing.
Jane and Louise Wilson, The Silence Is Twice as Fast Backwards, 2007. Exhibition view, “Reconstruction #2,” Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe, UK, 2007.
Last summer, Jane and Louise Wilson unveiled their sound installation The Silence Is Twice as Fast Backwards, commissioned for the exhibition “Reconstruction #2” at the Sudeley Castle in Winchcombe, UK. On June 14, the sisters will present this work along with two series of photographs as part of their fourth exhibition at 303 Gallery in New York. Here they discuss the making of the piece.
ELLIOTT MCDONALD AND MOLLIE DENT-BROCKLEHURST invited us to participate in an exhibition last year at Sudeley Castle, where much of the work was to be site-specific. Mollie was interested in having an artist place an artwork in a corridor of yew trees that are at least a century old—if not older. With such a dramatic setting, it seemed wrong to make a physical object, so we decided to use sound instead, a sound that animated the site. Several years ago, we made an audio piece for an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which was exhibited in the plaster hall and required headphones. At Sudeley, we felt that the sound should be more expansive and have a filmic quality, like a soundscape. We wanted it to be immersive, to have some of the same qualities we bring to a video installation.
The local church in Winchcombe is Saint Peter’s. We think it dates to the birth of the town, which itself was celebrating the thousand-year anniversary of its switch from being a county to becoming a village. We discovered that the church was commemorating the occasion with a full eight-bell peal—a three-hour ceremony—that we decided to record. Later, we worked with one of the bell ringers to record each of the eight bell tones separately.
We are very interested in the composer Georges Auric, who frequently worked with Jean Cocteau and is not nearly as well known in the UK as he is in France. In making this installation we were specifically inspired by Auric’s score for Cocteau’s Orphée (1950). At one point during the film, a bell rings to signal that it is time for Orphee to descend into the underworld. Moments of transition appeal to us, from one state to another (as in hypnosis) or from one space to another (as in the journey from the base of a launch pad to its apex, which overlooks the desert).
For the installation, we decided to randomize all eight tones, so that the composition is never fixed. Each note comes from an individual speaker, and you can’t predict where the next one will come from; each visit inspires its own score. At 303 Gallery, we’ve used invisible speakers, so the piece becomes a more immersive experience—the sound will hover in the rooms. We wanted to create an atmospheric intimacy; we don’t want the bells to be too overpowering. It’s not a big sound, but one that lends itself to walkways, passageways, and stairwells and encourages movement through the space in which it’s installed.
Left: Montana Blues (detail), 2005, neon light, black adhesive letters, white translucent Plexiglas, light-gray light box, electronic dimmer, and transformer (in two parts). Installation view, Moscow Biennial, 2005. Right: View of “58:22 and Some Words,” Galerie Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin, 2007.
The French artist Saâdane Afif, who lives and works in Berlin, will have his first museum survey this summer at Witte de With in Rotterdam. The exhibition, titled “Technical Specifications,” opens on June 13. Here he discusses the show.
NICOLAS SCHAFHAUSEN AND ZOË GRAY invited me to survey a decade’s worth of my work. Soon after I saw the symmetrical rooms my show will inhabit at Witte de With, I knew I didn’t want to present a straightforward overview of my practice but instead wanted to structure the exhibition playfully. I wanted to challenge myself. But explaining it requires me to back up a bit.
Last year, I was asked by Valerie Tevere and Angel Nevarez to discuss my work on 95.2 FM WUNP, the radio station affiliated with United Nations Plaza in Berlin. Rather than talk about my art, I decided to make a playlist of several of the songs I’ve asked musicians to make in response to my pieces. (I commission a writer to respond to many of my artworks and often use the texts as wall labels; later, I ask bands to record songs with these texts as lyrics. Repetition and riffing like this is central to what I do.) So, to create an hour-long program, I selected a handful of songs and wrote an introduction and banter in the style of a radio DJ. To mark the occasion, I organized an opening at my gallery in Berlin, Mehdi Chouakri, which featured posters of the radio set list, the text of the program introduction and conclusion on the invitation card, and two radios in the space, each tuned to the proper station. It was an exhibition of the songs: People gathered, and a hush came over the crowd when the broadcast began; an hour later, the celebration started up. After that night, the FM transmitter created a kind of second space for the gallery, a virtual instantiation of my exhibition.
For the exhibition in Rotterdam, I will take the idea one step further. In one of the galleries devoted to my work will be a series of black-and-white transfer labels and two posters designed by DeValence, with the technical specifications of the fourteen or so pieces that Nicolas and Zoë have selected. (I asked them to choose from among my artworks for which there are lyrics and songs.) There will also be radios tuned to a looping broadcast of a program we will record live at the opening reception. It will be very minimal, like the presentation in Berlin. I think of it as an explosion of sorts—a survey based on artworks that became lyrics that became songs that became a radio program that was once again incorporated into a gallery.
On the other side of the hallway, in a room the exact same size, viewers will find new works made to the same technical specifications as the ones described in the labels in the first room. They will be placed in the same locations within the room, as well—there will be absolute symmetry. I’ll become like a cook with a recipe: Everything is technically the same, but the results can be quite different. It’s a way for me to achieve the logically impossible—to return to the avenues I closed off in my decision-making process the first time around. For example, the piece Montana Blues, 2005, which was presented at the first Moscow Biennial, is a rectangular light box with black text and a dimmer. It’s like the sign for a restaurant or a bar—a bar where dirty things happen. For the new piece, I’m once again using lights and letters. I created an anagram of the text UNTAMABLE SON, but this time each letter is placed individually: The letters of the first word will hang on the wall, and the letters of the second will be piled on the floor. It’s the same basic material, the same “technical specifications”—light boxes with lettering—but a very different form. But for it to be successful, it must not only be a trick, and I know that each new piece has to be good on its own.