Larissa Harris is a curator at the Queens Museum of Art and has recently organized “The Curse of Bigness” with the curatorial counsel of Jodie Vicenta Jacobson. Here, Harris discusses a few of the projects in the exhibition, which closes October 3.
THE QUEENS MUSEUM HAS a lot of individual character and, in a city full of contemporary art institutions, my impulse is to do something that could only be done here. In these projects, the artists and I attempt to embrace certain facts about the place: the play with scale, embodied in the Panorama of the City of New York, the 900,000-building scale model of the city that takes up about 60 percent of the current museum (it’s large and small at the same time!); being under construction (a major expansion will be finished in 2012); and a largely nonspecialized art audience. All this prompted me to invite folks with one foot planted firmly outside the art world—theater types, designers, Bay Area flame-throwing-machine inventors, etc. There’s definitely something of the circus sideshow going on here—one of the works is a scale model of the Queens Museum, made by electronic musician Jessica Rylan, that’s about one twenty-fifth the size of a grain of salt. I just spent four years at MIT where I was exposed to an intensely creative, bottom-up problem solving/pranking culture, which is also why design and humor play a big part in “Bigness.”
The title is a phrase coined by Progressive-era activist lawyer and eventual Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, whose trust-busting and advocacy of an independent, entrepreneurial, sustainable work life was grounded in an acute, and sympathetic, understanding of human limitations. (I started reading his 1914 Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It during the financial crisis.) Most work in “Bigness,” in fact, was made for pennies from whatever was closest at hand, and uses the special magic of limitations, of doing it yourself.
The experimental theater group Great Small Works’ tabletop theater news serial The Toy Theater of Terror as Usual, 1991–2002, is a recent classic of surreal political photomontage: Putin, Clinton, Jack Smith, naked people snipped from Benetton ads, and Walter Benjamin’s angel of history in the form of a winged metronome all appear in thirteen newspaper and magazine tableaux surrounding the Panorama; you can see the way the puppets work by looking in from the sides. The other puppets in the building are in Survival Research Laboratories’ terrifying machine performances, present here through three hard-to-find films the group made in the mid-1980s, which offer a dark vision of an influential cultish group that has fully subverted the tools of bigness, in this case found or stolen equipment from, say, area aircraft manufacturers.
Also implicit in a critique of bigness is a critique of specialization—in large organizations and in the way we live our lives. J. Morgan Puett’s two-level tableau vivant and garment-based microeconomy “entangles” (her word) work, life, and style. What you see is a crush of disused sewing machines on the ground floor and, about twelve feet up, a silvery Oz-like studio, accessible only via a scissor lift that Morgan charmingly annexed from museum facilities, where she and her team will design and produce an as-yet-unknown fabric product on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays this summer. Also in the business of collapsing distinctions are self-reflexive designer/editor/publisher/distributors Dexter Sinister. For the show they compiled and summarized (!) some of the Progressive-era writing that’s a kind of spiritual source for these projects into a book using a beautiful new font designed for the purpose, with which they also reinstalled all museum signage—not just the wall text for “Bigness” but also the café, bathroom, and shop signs, even the customized maps and legends located at thirteen different points around the Panorama walkway. And all this will far outlast the show.
Dominic Nurre, Objection Room, 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view. Photo: Jason Schmidt.
Dominic Nurre is a Brooklyn-based artist participating in the third iteration of MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York.” Here, he discusses Objection Room, his contribution to the exhibition, which opens on Sunday, May 23. Nurre will perform The Funambulist on August 8, walking from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn to the museum in Queens while carrying a three-foot metal pipe.
A YEAR AGO, I went with my father and a few of his buddies to Zimbabwe for a big game hunt. I’m not a hunter—I went just to document. I wanted to experience the culture of hunting, the searching and stalking of animals. While there, I became interested in the way recordings of hyenas howling are used to attract the animals. The recordings are pretty crappy for the most part, but they totally work.
Our guides hooked up their iPods, opened the doors of their Land Cruisers, and just blared the sounds at an extremely high volume for ten minutes. It’s nearly unbearable. Then they would shut it off and do it all over again until you could hear an animal coming. The lights would go on and there was a hyena. You’d have about a second––if even that––to try to shoot it.
I tracked down the same MP3s that the guides use, as well as a recent study about hyenas and an interpretation of their noises through various recordings. I’m using a mix of these in my work. In my research, I also learned that there is very little sexual dimorphism in the species. The females are actually slightly larger than the males, which is unusual in the animal kingdom. The females have an enlarged clitoris, and early Europeans believed the species was homosexual, possibly hermaphroditic. I became interested in the idea of hyenas as a spooky, sneaky, giggling, conniving, and scavenging animal and how that relates––especially the sneakiness––to Western ideas of what homosexuals are like: giggling, sneaky men.
A sample recording of hyena howling.
The room has a freestanding wall with glory holes and a black plumbing pipe jutting out, so that people have to duck as they enter. This is one way of making the space more physical; this physicality will also evolve organically as the room gets hotter over the summer. It’s a corner room with these great windows; they are going to be open all summer, so the humidity and the weather will enter the space. The atmosphere will be heavy, especially compared with the rest of the air-conditioned museum. The curators were fine with leaving the windows open, as well as with having the sounds from the room penetrating the environment, and the environment (birds and flies, so far) penetrating the museum.
I’ve used salt licks in two sculptures. Cattle ranchers use salt licks to nourish their livestock, and hunters use them to attract deer to their property. The bigger the deer, the nicer the trophy. This is a much easier hunt because you know where the deer congregate. I like the idea of the salt licks as a meeting place for consumption and demise. This relates to the glory hole as a meeting place—it’s a trope for community (people “meet”) but also for anticommunity, because of the anonymity. I’m attracted to the thought of something being nourishing and constructive but at the same time not allowing a real community to grow. The hyena recordings are like this too: They seem to say, “Hey, come join me.”
Still from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Phantoms of Nabua, 2009 color film, 10 minutes and 56 seconds. Photo by Chaisiri Jiwarangsan.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an acclaimed Thai filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer whose films include Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) and Tropical Malady (2004). His latest video installation, Phantoms of Nabua, is on view at the BFI Gallery in London until July 3, and his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives recently won the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Here, he discusses both works as well as recent political unrest in Bangkok.
PHANTOMS OF NABUA is a very different undertaking than my film at Cannes. The idea behind my large-scale project Primitive, of which Nabua is just one part, is to explore the memory of Northeast Thailand through one village and its history. Uncle Boonmee, on the other hand, delves into the memory of one man. In the video work, the people of Nabua try to forget––they don’t want to remember the violent abuse and hardship of the communist era. The character in my latest film, however, remembers much from just one lifetime.
Typically, I only work with my own memory; this is apparent in all of my films. But for Primitive, I am branching out. This work examines my memory of the landscape that I grew up with, but since my memory is haphazard, the film is told through the eyes of others. It feels very spontaneous at times. For previous projects I’ve always had a particular subject to spark my memory, but for Nabua, I didn’t have any plan. When we started, we just traveled, explored, recorded, and met with people until we reached this village that has a particularly violent history. From the 1960s through the ’80s, the government occupied this part of Thailand in order to curb communist insurgents. I felt a certain kinship with the teenagers there who are the descendants of the rebel farmers, so I decided to work with them.
There’s a ship that appears in Primitive that is handmade by kids. It is kind of a tool to signify or reflect the idea of a dream, or something that can transport us to another place or time. When we were in the village, the political conflict was quite intense, like it is right now. Part of my idea was to introduce the idea of escape or some kind of dream out of this mess. I made this work during 2008 and 2009, and during that time the “red shirts” were gathering momentum throughout the country and they had started street protests in Bangkok that had already led to the clash last year.
The relationship between pleasure and destruction is very interesting. It’s like light and darkness, or violence and peace. These are ideas that can coexist. Sound can play off the same paradox: It can express both violence and fun. My sound designer found out that the whoosh of the flaming soccer ball we used in Nabua is the same used in Hollywood to create flame noises. So fire can, on the one hand, destroy and burn things, but on the other, when it is being played with, it is a pleasure.
Left: Cover of Phil Chang’s Four over One (2010). Right: A view of the book.
Los Angeles-based artist Phil Chang considers the recession by imaging economy and obsolescence in his first artist’s book, Four over One, published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A launch party for the project will be held at Printed Matter on Saturday, May 15, 5–7 PM; Art Catalogues at LACMA will host a reception on Sunday, May 23, 4–6 PM.
THIS PROJECT STARTED IN 2007. I was very interested in what was happening in the world of economics––namely the recession and the jolting destabilization of our collective notion of something as seemingly basic as a house. I wondered whether I could depict the recession through photography. Would that mean photographing unemployment lines or foreclosed homes in Riverside, California? Or would I need to go to Lehman Brothers or AIG and take shots of their buildings in Los Angeles? That wasn’t that interesting to me. I wanted to do something where the structural procedures, the way of making the photograph itself, could address the recession. I started by using an archival book scanner: I laid out a sheet of expired photographic paper so that it was exposed to the light of the scanner, which in turn transformed the surface of the paper as it registered the light. It’s really important to me to create a digital image that renders the paper useless—the zero-sum process mimics capitalist cycles of built-in obsolescence.
In July 2009, Charlotte Cotton, then head of photography at LACMA, asked me to turn this body of work into a book. It had never occurred to me to present the work in that format, and she was very generous and really believed in it. I began to work with designer Jonathan Maghen of Textfield, Inc. We read a lot of popular business literature from August to October. We read Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, who wrote this provocative book Free about the regulation of digital information. We were reading Lawrence Lessig’s lectures about rethinking copyright laws, and some of Malcolm Gladwell’s writings, as well as Astra Taylor’s insightful essay “Serfing the Net,” which looks at how the notion of “free” has been marketed to obscure the uneven economic relationship between art and commerce.
We looked at popular business writing because Jonathan and I were thinking about developing ways to employ an economy of means in both my photographic work and the production of the book. For example, with a single sheet of paper I can produce nine unique images. That economizes the production of the work. Jonathan conceived of a format, a signature structure for the book, a color and imposition scheme, and an experimental use of parent sheets in order to economize printing and stay within a limited budget. With offset printing, the more you print, the cheaper everything is; we worked hard to use certain business strategies to maximize efficiency, while producing a minimum number of books (500), printed locally at Typecraft Wood & Jones in Pasadena.
The title, Four over One, refers to the color scheme we used. Instead of printing “four-over-four” full color, which would not be cost effective, we printed four colors on one side over one color on the other—it’s a direct way to keep everything in line, from the business tropes we were thinking about to the importance of production. The number four itself is significant because it speaks to the specific way color gets reduced in offset printing to cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Since the photographic paper being scanned is outdated, it is weak and registers light in a strange way that ends up connecting back to a corporate palette of colors, really pacifying colors––an Old Navy palette, if you will.
Recognized for her contributions to painting theory and to feminist art history, the painter and writer Mira Schor has a new book available from Duke University Press. Here she discusses A Decade of Negative Thinking and her new blog, A Year of Positive Thinking.
AM I A NEGATIVE THINKER, AS THE TITLE OF MY BOOK SUGGESTS? I don’t think so, although it may seem that way because I speak out when I suspect that other people are just drinking the Kool-Aid. It’s necessary to dig beneath press-release culture, and not just take the promotional sound bite as gospel and let it go viral into art discourse. So I decided to give myself the test or the experiment of A Year of Positive Thinking. There are so many things that I love in art, film, art history, and political history, which help me to be an artist; I really want to share that part of my experience.
I’ve been doing a lot on Facebook, posting links to things I think are beautiful, funny, moving, inspiring, while venting on various political issues that make me angry. The blog will be a battle between the two sides of my personality, maybe like Cassandra and Pollyanna. Cassandra tells truths no one wants to hear. But it’s good to keep in mind that Pollyanna actually does the same thing: She’s not at all the sweet, cloying kind of character we think of when we use the name in a disparaging way; instead she’s more like a realistic, grounded character in a Kurosawa movie, albeit via Disney—she confronts with a generous curiosity the repressed private griefs of the inhabitants of the little town she has come to live in, as an orphan.
My father, the artist Ilya Schor, died when I was eleven. The Archives of American Art asked my mother for his papers sometime in the 1960s, when I was a teenager. My father didn’t do that much writing, but they said they were interested in everything––the ephemera of his life, art supply bills, that kind of thing. I helped put some of the material in order. At that time they did microfiches. Later, I was an art history major in college and I studied with H. W. Janson for one semester, which was in some ways very tedious and in others very interesting and an honor. It also pretty much persuaded me not to pursue art history! One of the things it taught me is that classic art history is actually doing things like researching Donatello’s laundry list––you know, his receipts, where he lived when. I decided to study art in graduate school instead of pursuing art history.
I’ve been an inveterate self-documenter since I was a child. For example, I preserved carbon copies and early Xeroxes of all my letters from when I was a twenty-one-year-old grad student in the Feminist Art Program at CalArts and working on Womanhouse. I read them at the F-Word conference at CalArts in 1998, and I’ve included some of them in A Decade, in a chapter titled “Miss Elizabeth Bennett Goes to Feminist Boot Camp.” I’m kind of amazed at how articulate and outspoken I was as a twenty-one-year-old, and how much the character of my writing voice was already in place. It’s at times highly critical, but also passionate and politically engaged.
If I don’t paint over a period time, I start to go crazy. Painting is a primary language that I need to “speak” and “hear” in order to survive at a very deep level of my existence. I love the process of drawing and painting, and I love creating images, but I can’t imagine not writing––it would be like not thinking or speaking.
Peter Eleey has worked as a curator for Creative Time and, since 2007, at the Walker Art Center. Recently Eleey was appointed the curator of MoMA PS1, a position he’ll begin on July 1. Here he discusses his most recent exhibition at the Walker, “The Talent Show,” which runs until August 15.
I FIRST LEARNED ABOUT GRACIELA CARNEVALE’S PIECE a number of years ago in Lucy R. Lippard’s book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, where she mentions the 1968 action in Rosario, Argentina. It is also described in Mari Carmen Ramírez’s writings, and Claire Bishop included Graciela’s statement accompanying the piece in her 2006 anthology on participation. I’ve always been interested in hostile art––Bruce Nauman’s voice banishing you from his mind and the gallery, for example, or Tomas Schmit locking people out of the theater, or Vito Acconci sitting at the bottom of the stairs menacing people with a pipe––and Graciela’s hostage taking fascinated me with its quieter and coercive violence. Chris Burden also did a hostage piece, in Milan in 1975, but locked himself in with the audience; Graciela simply locked the door and went home. (In both cases, however, the audiences were freed by people breaking in from outside after about an hour.) I had raised the question with Graciela of whether she would be willing or interested to restage the action. Not surprisingly, she felt it was tied very specifically to the political conditions in Argentina at that moment, and did not wish to do so. I don’t know that I would have wanted to try it, necessarily, but it was an interesting thing to consider from within the boundaries of the museum. At the time I was thinking about how vulnerable we are willing to make ourselves in the presence of art, and I liked how Chris’s and Graciela’s actions each used art as a trap.
Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” from 1951, which use blankness as a particularly effective trap, were central to my initial thinking about the exhibition (though I wasn’t ultimately able to borrow one). When you see one, you naturally approach it to examine its surface, but when you get close to it, you often find that your shadow is cast onto the painting by the gallery lights. This shadow play is part of what Rauschenberg considered to be the content of this series, which is a nicely coercive twist on his desire to work in the gap between art and life. Of course, there is something exciting and empowering about being in a Rauschenberg painting, but it is the undercurrent of fascism in that encounter that I was interested in, and Graciela throws that particular dynamic of participation and control into relief against the backdrop of a military dictatorship.
For almost five years in the United States we’ve known that our government spies on us, and we accept it. The corporate collection and use of our personal information has arisen in perfect parallel to the “war on terror” that provided the impetus for the government’s expansive surveillance, and popular culture from American Idol to Facebook has concurrently encouraged us to perform our private lives as public theater. These shifts in attitude toward privacy and their commingling with security and entertainment, which I view as fundamentally coercive, made me look differently at the blank stage of Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” and find in them something with a darker possibility. An artist told me recently that being contemporary means being constantly on view, and I think he’s right. I was trying to create an experience of that evolving condition, in all its pleasures and discomforts––and, as Graciela aimed to, to make us aware of our own responsibility, whether as hostages, witnesses, or willing participants in systems of control much bigger than ourselves.
Left: A view of a half-demolished wall outside the Rockbund Art Museum with the slogan “Peasants make the city better.” Right: Workers prepare a UFO by Du Wenda outside the museum.
Concurrent with the opening of the 2010 Shanghai Expo, Cai Guo-Qiang has invited more than fifty rural engineers to display their homemade submarines, airplanes, and various robotic creations in “Peasant Da Vincis,” the inaugural exhibition of the Rockbund Art Museum. Cai began collecting peasant-made works in 2005 and has traveled extensively through the countryside to document these objects and their creators, whose stories will also be on display. The show runs May 4–July 25.
ALL OF THE PEASANTS will come for the opening reception of this show, including Wu Shuzai, who made a wooden helicopter; he is over seventy years old. He resides in Jiangxi, a very poor mountainous region where Mao Zedong and others fought their guerrilla war. We invited him to fly to Shanghai and it will be the first time he’s ever flown.
When they see their creations in this city, appreciated and talked about by so many people, they should feel esteemed. It will show how they too have made a contribution to the arts in China. Perhaps seeing what others have made next to their own objects will make them curious––they can converse and compare. Some people will think their works are superior, or more extraordinary. For example, a wooden plane that can fly is amazing, but what about a plane just made of steel?
Some of these pieces are not in my collection, but I know the stories behind them and will offer them here. My objective, anyway, isn’t to exhibit my collection but to present the work of these peasants, whose creativity should be realized by everyone. Chinese society is typically regarded as a single entity, but I hope to demonstrate the importance of individuals––not a collective or a nationality.
It’s not important for people to regard these objects as contemporary art. We are using my name and the framework of this new museum to tell these stories, but these objects aren’t necessarily art, in the same way these peasants are not artists. I asked one of them if he considered himself an artist, and he responded, “No, I think I’m a dreamer.” Then I said, “Have you ever thought your plane looks like an artwork? Can you imagine that it is an artwork?” And he said, “When I was making the model it seemed more like art, but when I made the actual plane, it was more like a product.”
Local television news shows will report on this exhibition as if it’s a big joke: “Ha-ha, peasants can make planes and stuff too.” But perhaps some people will feel like we’ve elevated these objects to the position of art and these peasants to the role of artists. Only when the individual is meaningful can a nation be meaningful.