Lyle Ashton Harris, Jenny and Cathy, Sunset Junction Street Fair, Los Angeles, Circa Early 1990s, 2015, chromogenic print, 15 x 20 1/2".
Lyle Ashton Harris’s current solo exhibition at Miami’s David Castillo Gallery features a series of unstaged pictures from his archive of Ektachrome slides from the past twenty-five years. As a curator, he recently cocurated—with Robert Storr and Peter Benson Miller—the group show “Nero su Bianco” (Black on White), which examines radical shifts in perceptions of African identity, subjectivity, and agency. It will be on view at the American Academy in Rome from May 25, 2015, through July 19, 2015. The exhibition at David Castillo Gallery, which Harris discusses below, is on view through May 30, 2015.
IN LATE 2012, I received a Facebook message from my longtime friend Isaac Julien asking to use some of my photographs in his autobiography, Riot (2013), a book that was published on the occasion of his MoMA exhibition. This inquiry reconnected me to an archive of 35-mm Ektachrome reversal slides that I had stored in my mother’s basement in the Bronx before moving to Rome in 2000. I hadn’t given these slides much thought over the past fifteen years and was surprised that I had amassed at least three thousand of them, dating from between the late 1980s and 2000. I dived into this archive—in hindsight, this was partly due to the ending of a seven-year relationship. The experience of editing was cathartic and helped me to reengage with the pulse of New York City after having split my time between Accra and New York from 2005 to 2012.
The exhibition at David Castillo includes a concise distillation of images from that archive. There are candid portraits and snapshots of friends and acquaintances, such as the late Marlon Riggs taking AZT while on break from shooting his last film, Black Is, Black Ain’t (1994); bell hooks in repose at home in New York; Nan Goldin applying eyeliner in Berlin; and Catherine Opie in an embrace. Also included are photos of family, boyfriends, and lovers, plus self-portraits, landscapes, and interiors of bedrooms and now-closed nightclubs. It is the quotidian quality of these images, which captured people, places, and moments long—and often tragically—gone, that most intrigues me and stands in stark contrast to the theatricality of the more iconic works that have become a hallmark of my practice.
This show is the first time I am showing prints of the slides. Last year, Visual AIDS commissioned me to produce a video version of the archive for “Day With(out) Art.” Also, as part of Carrie Mae Weems’s “Live Past/Future Tense” retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum last April I staged a performative lecture with projected images from the archive accompanied by a mash-up of Grace Jones’s Nightclubbing album. This presentation functioned as a memento mori of sorts for several of the audience members who were intimately familiar with the subjects and the texture of that period.
Lyle Ashton Harris, Selections from the Ektachrome Archive, 2014
In contrast to that audience, I recently showed this work to photography students at Yale. They were equally engaged, but they focused on the more formal aspects of the work. In this way, the title of the exhibition, “Lyle Ashton Harris: Ektachrome Archive 1986-96: Part I – Recovering Identity and Desire,” is a red herring—I see the archive not as a repository of things past to be unearthed but as something that shapes the now and the near future in ways that I am just beginning to understand and which has a relevance beyond me.
Brian O’Doherty, The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven—Christina’s World, Rope Drawing # 123, 2015, nylon cord, water-based house paint, dimensions variable.
Brian O’Doherty’s three “Inside the White Cube” essays were first published in Artforum in 1976. Only a few years earlier, the artist and writer had begun making his “Rope Drawings,” 1973–, which offered new ways of negotiating the space of a gallery. The latest work from this ongoing series, The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven—Christina’s World, Rope Drawing #123, 2015, is currently on view in “Fragments,” a group show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin consisting of works from the museum’s permanent collection, through July 26, 2015.
WHEN YOU LOOK AT A BLANK WALL, it has a stare that looks back. Robert Henri, one of “The Eight” and a great teacher from the early days of American modernism, said that the look of a wall or a window is a look into time and space. The wall carries its history, he said.
The blank wall is not easy. Corners and whole rooms are easier, but the wall is a complete, enveloping experience. A dialogue is established between those continents of inside and outside.
Most members of the public are not used to engaging with an artwork. I’ve seen people walk past the great Poussins at the Louvre. The ideal viewer works with a piece and develops a certain relationship to it. As an artist, when you’re installing a work, you’re searching for the optimum viewing point for this ideal viewer. Hopefully, at certain moments, the viewer’s body vanishes and you’re just an eye. People can be old-fashioned about this, but the spectator completes the work, as Duchamp said.
There is a long history to my rope drawings, but this new one is unique and that makes me feel good. I worked with Christina Kennedy on the extraordinary color orchestration—it was a collaboration, bit by bit. Fergus Byrne, an excellent artist, worked on it too. Back in 1972, when I did the first one at 112 Greene Street, I had a big space to fill. I wanted to draw in space, so I tried wood—I tried everything. I had a rope in my studio with one end nailed to the wall. The other end had a very fine cord attached, which I pulled tight to the opposite wall, so there was this Indian rope trick in my studio. And then I thought, Oh bejesus, I can do a whole gallery, I can draw in space. I feel I invented my own means, which is rather nice.
Color and line are essential. Rauschenberg once said to me, “You’re always a line man.” I resented that, though he never saw the glories of the entire rooms I did; some are like houses of parallax. When you outline with ropes, something very mysterious happens. The perspective gives way and one’s frame falls forward, so there’s a Greenbergian push and pull. When you frame that and everything falls into place, you’re choreographing yourself according to the piece. You become the ideal spectator. You also become the vanishing point. From the point of view of perspective, all the lines are now converging in your eye: The wall and the rope drawing are both looking at you.
For this new work, I have this extravagant title, very unlike me. It’s from Andrew Wyeth, who is poison in America, though he’s having a slight revival now. He was a great image maker, full of nostalgia. Americans don’t go in for poetic soft romanticism; American art is harder than European art. Rothko said something wonderful: “Wyeth is about the pursuit of strangeness.” He added, though, that Wyeth “is not whole as Hopper is whole.”
I usually give museums the piece at the end of the show, so smart museum people take color notes, measure everything, and because the rope drawings are all site-specific, the museum can reproduce them whenever they want. Other people take down the ropes, coil them up very beautifully, put them in a cardboard box, and send them back to me, saying, “I’m returning your rope piece.” So these corpses arrive. There is a heap of colored rope in the corner of my studio at the moment, and I was going to throw it out, but then I thought, Let me retrieve that; it could make a nice piece—somewhere in a corner of a museum.
Yoko Ono's advertisement published in the Village Voice, December 2, 1971.
In December 1971, Yoko Ono famously announced that she was to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The supposed exhibition was, in fact, a conceptual artwork, executed without the participation of the museum itself. This month, though, Ono will open a solo show at MoMA, which will feature her early works on paper, paintings, installations, performances, and audio and instruction pieces. Recently, Ono spoke from her apartment in New York about her unauthorized MoMA exhibition and being asked to realize a show there today, as well as the groundbreaking performances that happened in her loft on Chambers Street in the early 1960s. “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971,” is on view from May 17 to September 7, 2015.
WHAT I DID between 1960 and ’71 seems to have influenced more people than any other periods of my work. But I really don’t know how I survived. Whenever an idea for an artwork came to me, I would act on it. I would get so excited and make the work, and, at the time, it seemed nobody wanted to know. So, I always thought, “OK, on to the next idea.” I’ve gone through life like that; there was never any time to commit suicide or anything.
To drop out of school in 1960 was sort of an unusual thing to do, but for me, college was too much and so I left and went to New York City. It was an exciting time. I already knew a few people in the music world. Many of them had far-out ideas about art; they couldn’t just do a show in an ordinary gallery. Most were composers who didn’t fit in at Carnegie Hall. At the time it seemed there was no good venue to present work. I decided I would get a place and begin doing concerts there. I remember I first had this thought while walking on Broadway, around Ninety-Sixth Street. I noticed the second floor of a building, where you could see everything that was going on—ballet dancers were exercising. So I went up there, and I, perhaps witlessly, asked, “Is this place for rent?” They were very polite about it and said, “No, we’re using it.” Not deterred, I thought there must be a location like that, and finally a friend of mine told me to go downtown and check out the “lofts.” In those days people didn’t really think about lofts as places to live or work—they just thought they were dangerous. But I got a loft and it was really great.
Many people came to see the concerts, probably because there were no other loft concerts going on. Also, I think the fact that John Cage, Peggy Guggenheim, David Tudor, and others came to the very first show, right after a very heavy snow, was important. But every event was very exciting. I eventually did my stuff too, though I didn’t want to be the first one. I also ended up sleeping there. I felt that it was important. I don’t know why. I collected about six orange crates and put them together as my bed. It was right underneath the skylight. It was beautiful.
The incredible thing about this MoMA show is that in ’71 I staged my “first” show at MoMA from December 1st to the 15th. In those days the museum hardly presented women or Asian artists. Nobody thought much about it. I put an advertisement in the Village Voice for my “one woman show” at the museum. I also printed a catalogue titled the Museum of Modern (F)art. And I posted a sign on the museum’s entrance that said I had released flies in the museum, and that everyone was invited to find them throughout the city. What was great was that MoMA came to me recently and said they were interested in “my show” that I did there ’71. They said that wanted to do it now, as a real exhibition. And I thought, well that’s pretty hip, OK.
Again, this was something I had I mostly forgotten about, so I was glad when the curators said that we could transform the idea. People always say to me, “Yoko, you know we’re never going to have world peace, right?” And I think, Yes, we’re going to have it if you believe in it. So even from that point of view I can say, this happened and then forty years later it became a reality. It’s not going to be a reality the next day. But what you’re thinking of, what you’re envisioning now, is going to be a reality—so just be careful.
From the feminist point of view, it was important to me to be open about my experiences. There was a time, about five years ago, when people started to not want to talk about feminism—as if it was a dirty word or something. I think that some people successfully made sure that we became intimidated. But, logically, feminism should go on. It’s not natural to keep women down. For one thing, it’s essential to have women’s energy, and without it, there’s an incredible imbalance in the world. That’s why we have all this illness, violence, and war. It’s really basic, if you just think about it. It doesn’t have to be so complicated; things can be simpler than that.
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian artist based in New York. Her upcoming survey “Shirin Neshat: Facing History” takes a sweeping look at her output and will present her iconic black-and-white photographic portraits—which she discusses below—as well as her nonnarrative videos and her recent forays into cinema. Incorporating archival material to contextualize her practice, the show confronts Neshat’s decades-long exile from her homeland. It is on view at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden from May 18 to September 20, 2015.
I HAVE BEEN UNFAITHFUL to any one medium, and my work has gone through cyclical uses of more and less overt political references. In my earlier photographic series, such as “Women of Allah,” 1993–97, I addressed the philosophical and ideological principles related to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although these photographs were taken after I left Iran and well after the revolution, I was trying to face the pivotal moment of the Islamic Revolution. What was my place within this greater historical narrative? It had caused a long and painful separation from my family, which defined my path and life alone in exile. I want “Facing History” to offer not only a sociopolitical reading of Iran but also insight into the challenges of an Iranian female artist interpreting her personal and national history.
In more than one series, I explore repeated conceptual patterns such as the subject of martyrdom. If in the “Women of Allah” series we are faced with militant women who willingly sacrificed their lives for their higher devotion to their religion, in 2012’s “The Book of Kings” series, young activists also put their lives at risk—if not for religion, then for a call to democracy. In the second case, the Persian epic poem Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) covers the figures. In a way, all of my photographic work is inscribed with poetry. Poetic works allow us to say everything; they offer a subversive language that can transcend the law. When we were children, these stories were read to us. Both series are similar in depicting how the notions of patriotism, faith, and self-sacrifice always intersect with violence, atrocity, and ultimately death.
For me, “The Book of Kings,” “Women of Allah,” and 2014’s “Our House Is on Fire” are aesthetically and conceptually linked. They are all human portraits that are less about the identity of each individual character, and more about how the collection of images create a portrait of a country.
While working on my upcoming film, Looking for Umm Kulthum, I went to Egypt; during my time there, I also made the photographs for “Our House Is on Fire.” If “The Book of Kings” mainly focused on the youth who were in the foreground of the revolutions of the Arab Spring, in Cairo I specifically chose to photograph elderly people. They had endured the loss of their young children during the upheaval. This series captures the tremendous collective sense of despair in Egypt at the time. I set up a studio at Townhouse; people came one at a time. As my collaborator Larry and I photographed them, we asked each person to think of a tragic moment in their lives. I told them my story of exile, and Larry shared the recent loss of his only daughter. A human exchange began. Nothing was recorded, as we had no intention of making their private statements public. This project became one of my most important artistic experiences to date.
I no longer feel like I am in exile but rather I feel like a nomad. I am no longer as nostalgic about Iran as I was in the past, nor do I dwell on the desire to return home. Having worked in many other countries, in particular in the Arab world, I find that being a nomad has become an acceptable way of life.
Société Réaliste, Universal Anthem, 2013. Performance view, Szabadság tér, Budapest, April 26, 2015. Photo: Aknay Csaba, the Orbital Strangers Project and OFF-Biennale Budapest Archive.
Hungarian artist Ferenc Gróf and French artist Jean-Baptiste Naudy make up the Paris-based artist duo Société Réaliste. On April 26, 2015, the group organized a performance of Universal Anthem, 2013, which Gróf describes here as a “parody of contemporary musique concrète,” for the OFF-Biennale Budapest. As Gróf describes below, the event was performed with a brass band in front of a controversial monument. Gróf will also present a lecture-performance in Budapest on May 13, 2015, during the Former West conference. The OFF-Biennale Budapest runs through May 31, 2015.
WE COINED SOCIÉTÉ RÉALISTE as the name for an unrealized exhibition that would have analyzed parallels between contemporary art and socialist realism, which was the official artistic style of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. It was not meant to focus on the former Soviet countries but to excavate some of their underlying algorithms that are related to the ideologies of contemporary art. When we started this collaboration more than ten years ago, it was the high time of relational aesthetics, especially in Paris. So our practice was meant to be a kind of critical relational aesthetics, analyzing how economics, politics, and language modify or influence contemporary art.
For Universal Anthem, we developed software that can calculate the average of any number of musical scores, note by note. We created a database of the national anthems of the member states of the United Nations, ran it through the software, and then worked with a composer to clean up the result, which is almost unplayable by any human. The score is a parody of contemporary musique concrète—Stockhausen on LSD. Our goal is to deconstruct one of the main national symbols. It’s a vandalist attitude, but sometimes criticism itself is more pertinent than proposing a new construction, or a bright new future.
It was important for us to play Universal Anthem right now in Hungary because of the country’s recent nationalistic tendencies and its anti-Roma, anti-Semitic, ethnicist discourse of the last few years. The performance took place in Budapest’s Szabadság tér, or Liberty Square, where last year the government erected a monument to the victims of the German occupation. For many, the monument symbolizes a denial of the Hungarian state’s responsibility during World War II and the Holocaust. The organizers of a countermonument, the Living Memorial, have been demonstrating against it since then, a kind of sustained protest that has never before happened in Budapest. They invited us to perform Universal Anthem with a brass band in front of the two monuments as part of the OFF-Biennale Budapest.
The performance was a great moment with great coincidences. The organizers of the Living Memorial explained to me how to position the audience around the border of a fountain that is in the center of the square, which temporarily shuts off the fountain, so the noise wouldn’t overpower the musicians. The musicians stood in the middle of the audience. It was very powerful with the kitschy monument behind, the police circulating around, and this usually very loud, but now silenced, fountain near the musicians.
Right now I’m researching some of the cultural icons of central Europe. For the Former West conference, I will present a sequence of graphic works titled Švejk in the Third World War, 2015. It is an imaginary continuation of the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek’s novels The Good Soldier Švejk and follows Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 sequel play Schweik in the Second World War.
View of “Yuji Agematsu: Walk On A,B,C,” 2015. Photo: Paula Court.
Since the late 1980s, New York–based artist Yuji Agematsu has amassed a collection of photos and detritus assembled from his daily perambulations around the city. For inaugural programming at its new location, the Whitney Museum of American Art commissioned the artist to develop Walk On A,B,C, as well as performances with live sound improvisations that continue his investigations into the overlap between the forces of habit, dislocation, and trauma that structure everyday urban experience. Here he discusses his process and the show, which runs from May 6 to May 11, 2015, in the Susan and John Hess Family Theater at the Whitney.
PRIOR TO THIS WORK I HAD BEEN COLLECTING small objects for years. I don’t own a laptop or a smartphone, so I keep a notebook on me to record the location and atmosphere around objects at the particular moment I find them. Since I couldn’t physically take the shadows and the stains around them, I walked around the city with a camera. I started to shoot pictures around Times Square right before 9/11, and after that the atmosphere changed because of tight security, fears, and the police. People had gotten so nervous, so I moved to walking around midtown, shooting the ground or at people, their gestures, and their attitudes.
For the Whitney show, I started shooting in September 2014 and continued until the beginning of last December, while the new building was still under construction. On Fridays and during the weekend when I wasn’t at my day job, I brought a camera and took photos around the neighborhoods along the High Line area. I was drawn to the density—the vertical contrast between the artificial gardens lining the High Line and the mess beneath it. I divided the area into three sections, A, B, and C. I walk around in circles to see places again and collect things again at the same spot, but since nothing stays the same in the city, the pattern and the point of view change each time.
The photos I made were an attempt to equalize the contrast between the stains on the street and the manicured sections of the High Line. To create the slides of these pictures, I used a microscope and would occasionally layer an image with things I had found. With the microscope I could zoom in on all the flowers and trash to make the details visible but strange. People ask if I manipulate the objects or their shape, which is kind of a boring question to me. Transporting these objects from one point to another constantly changes them, so they’re always being manipulated.
In the theater at the Whitney I project the slides onto several plywood screens in two different sizes. One size corresponds to the size of subway kiosks and maps that tell people where to go while they’re waiting. The other size is based on construction site fences around which growth seems to metabolize. I’m showing my photos using ten analog slide projectors that all eventually phase out of sync with each other.
It’s really important for me to think about the conversion between analog and digital technologies in relation to memory. For example, when I go from this building up to the High Line, my memory is constantly exposing or experiencing both spaces, as if in a layering of film. My memories are constantly being double-exposed. When I recorded cicada sounds from my hometown in Japan in 1997, I remembered the sounds as being much slower than they ended up being on record. The BPM is too fast for me, so for my performances in this installation, I wanted to manipulate the frequency in order to hear the adjustments I make between the natural, the analog, the digital.