Left: Cover of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015). Right: The Arroyo Seco, Los Angeles.
Maggie Nelson is the author of Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007); Bluets (2009); and The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), among other books. Her latest volume, The Argonauts (2015), pushes at the elasticity of language and form, family and identity, corporeality and social convention. It was published this month by Graywolf Press.
I HAVE always hated our almost rote propensity to shovel each other into premade life-shapes. I think that’s part of what’s made this book a little painful to see reflected back to me—I can sometimes palpably feel the tension in the reviewer or whomever between needing to create a life-shape and shovel me into it (“becoming a mother,” etc.) and allowing the text to perform its implosions and explosions of identity. People really worry about what will happen if you pull the plug on fixed identities in this way, but they shouldn’t worry so much—in my experience, that’s when good things start to happen.
For a long time, this book wore an epigraph from Roland Barthes. In it, Barthes says that in his own writing, there are always two different texts—Text I, “reactive,” paranoid; and Text II, “active, moved by pleasure.” I put it at the book’s opening to remind myself, each time I opened the document, that it was OK to write in both a reactive and active mode. Because often I would judge my reactive mode as simply grumpy, defensive, combative, unpleasant to read. I would cajole myself: Get to Text II, get to the pleasure! But Barthes then goes on to say that as his work gets “written, corrected, accommodated to the fiction of Style, Text I becomes active too, whereupon it loses its reactive skin, which subsists only in patches (mere parentheses).” I really wanted that to happen here—I really wanted Text I to bleed into Text II, so that whatever warlike aspect was present, it wouldn’t fight with the “pleasure” part; their skin would conjoin, like a Mobius strip.
There’s a corollary here to Eve Sedgwick’s interest in the relation between paranoia and reparative practice; The Argonauts quotes her line about how often it is “the most paranoid-tending people who are able to, and need to, develop and disseminate the richest reparative practices.” This book is rich in action and reaction, in paranoia and reparation. I wouldn’t even say it vacillates between them—it’s almost performing them in a strobe.
The interweaving of my partner Harry’s words into the text at first was just kind of a whim, or a problem solver—I wanted to tell the story of his mother’s death, and I knew he had written it more beautifully than I could ever paraphrase, so why not just use his. But once it occurred to me to weave his words in, it suddenly seemed utterly necessary. It performs a kind of endgame interpenetration of the text that the book’s wagers about interdependency and intersubjectivity seemed to invite, or even demand. It suddenly felt necessary, in a text that talks to and about him so much, to pause for a moment and let the reader feel the force of his own words, not his represented words or represented self as utilized by me.
Of course I’m still utilizing his narrative in service of my own, but I think the power of his words acts like a breeze (or a wind, really) in the room—a reminder of the separateness, the specificity, of others, as well as our conjoinedness. It’s the part of the book that makes me cry every time I read it aloud, probably because the words aren’t mine. He’s testifying to something I have never experienced—watching his mother die—but he’s also testifying to something he didn’t experience, death. It made sense to me to pair that with my own testimony of something he witnessed but didn’t literally experience—my labor with our son. We are deeply with each other, perhaps we even are each other, in some material or spiritual way, but we also stand apart. Whether that apartness is illusion or reality I cannot say. But I wanted to get at the question, the wonder of it, the tragedy of it, and so on.
I do believe in incantation. My account of taking walks in the Arroyo Seco during late pregnancy while listing aloud the names of everyone who was waiting on earth to love my son as a means of luring him out is a primary example of how we might perform a spiritual reverence for the word, for names, even while understanding deeply how fucked up or limiting words or names can be. This brings us to the book’s opening wager, from Wittgenstein, that the inexpressible is contained, albeit inexpressibly, in the expressed. Skilled as one may be as a writer or artist, I don’t really believe one can ever be in total control of that inexpressible thing. You’re in charge of the expressed. As Wittgenstein noted, when we try to control or directly express the inexpressible, we get into trouble. We might not literally be able to call something into being. But we can always sing.
Andrew Bujalski’s fifth feature film, Results (2015), is a romantic comedy about personal fitness that unfolds primarily in Austin. As in Bujalski’s previous works, such as Beeswax (2009) and Computer Chess (2013), humor arises from how the characters’ carefully made plans lead to unpredictable ends. Results opens in New York and Austin on May 29, 2015. Here, Bujalski discusses the ways in which the film is a continuation of his “kicking away [his] crutches.”
RESULTS is my version of romantic comedy, a genre that has fallen into ill repute. Romantic comedies are fun to write, but they also tend to be challenging on a technical level. They’re typically Rube Goldberg machines of unlikely causes and outsize effects—signals perpetually misinterpreted, situations exposing the heroes’ flaws, and neat illustrations of how yin and yang must complete each other.
When I started writing Results, I knew that I wanted to bring a looser, stranger form to the genre. The movie is essentially structured in thirds. The first part focuses on the relationship between the strong-willed personal fitness trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders) and the newly wealthy, divorced, and out-of-shape stoner Danny (Kevin Corrigan). The story then shifts gears to Danny’s unlikely friendship with the Australian fitness guru Trevor (Guy Pearce), and, finally, we wind up with amorous outcomes between Kat and Trevor. I felt at times like I was in Bergman’s Persona territory, with my male leads gradually morphing into each other. The overlap between them was much of this movie’s raison d’etre.
Every film that I’ve made has been an experiment in kicking away my crutches. Results is my most “mainstream” film and it had the biggest budget. I had to throw out most of what I thought I knew. The main shift was from working with nonprofessional actors to highly experienced veterans—the two groups communicate differently, both on-screen and off. As always, I aimed to build a story that would accommodate its performers’ talents. Something that Kevin and Guy have in common is that they’re both very inward, hard-to-read people, and so I put Cobie between them to create something like a constant human explosion; they’re all such strong and seasoned performers, but with three distinctive flavors.
Additionally, in the past I’d shot with throwback cameras—16 mm and Super 16 for the first three features, outmoded video for Computer Chess. Here we worked with up-to-date color digital equipment to make the film look and feel as contemporary as possible. I figured I’d try participating in the twenty-first century, rather than denying it (my natural inclination).
Trailer for Andrew Bujalski’s Results, 2015
I wondered if my voice could survive “going with the flow.” The reviews I’ve seen so far—both complimentary and unflattering—suggest that it has, which is nice for my ego, if a tad worrisome for my pocketbook. Working this way feels different to me, but then again, life feels different now. If you gave me the same materials with which I made my debut feature, Funny Ha Ha (2002), there is no way that the present-day me could come up with the movie that the twenty-four-year-old me did. This notion that every cell in the human body regenerates over the course of seven years has always resonated with me, so I figure I’m literally a different person at least twice over since then.
The processes of building your body and building a relationship have some things in common. In both cases you’re sold on this idea that if you go and work at something, and play through the pain, then there’ll be a reward awaiting you at the end. I think that this is, or at least can be, true. However, it’s also human nature to let yourself slip and conflate reaching a goal with solving all of your problems.
People get addicted when they latch on to that kind of metaphor. There are certain things at the core of you that no amount of external build-out can change. No matter how much you work on yourself, there’s always going to be a lot of you with which you’re simply stuck. You can—and should!—do your best possible work, but when unrealistic expectations creep in, as they usually do, we make ourselves miserable. That misery is a great vein for comedy to tap.
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.