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.
Harmony Korine, Trash Humpers, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 78 minutes.
After runs at the Toronto International, New York, and SXSW film festivals, Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers opens in New York on May 7 at Cinema Village and at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles on May 14. Korine directed, wrote, and also stars in the film.
THERE ARE THESE REALLY LARGE TRASH CANS in the alleyway behind my house and they have lights shining on them, like they’re in a play or something. While walking my dog, I would often stare at them and they started to take on a human form, a kind of human identity. They looked like they’d been kicked around, shoved, or punched in the gut, like in a war scene. Some of them had ivy growing around them, strangling them.
I grew up in Nashville, and I remember a group of elderly peeping toms who lived down the street in what I assumed was a makeshift nursing home. These guys only listened to Herman’s Hermits. They wore white nursing shoes and black turtlenecks. Late at night, I would look out my window and catch them staring into my neighbor’s bedroom. I couldn’t tell what they were doing but I knew it wasn’t good. I think because the alleyway where I live now is very close to the one where I grew up, I imagined there was a connection between the beat-up trash bins and the peeping toms, as if the old guys had somehow lived forever.
There were also these ladies living in the basement of the nursing home who would throw mattresses and other trash into the alley. I remember finding discarded videocassettes under their window. They had taped an entire year’s worth of CNN and also every single episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It had to have some significance to them. I’m not sure why they only wore nursing shoes or what any of it meant, but it was the type of thing that had a big impact on me as a kid. The shoes in the film are very close to the shoes in my memory.
When I was making the movie, I didn’t think much about the viewer. Honestly, I don’t really know who this film would appeal to. I didn’t want it to be a film in the traditional sense but more like an artifact or documentation. It was this idea that maybe there were no mistakes; that it was a found object––the kind of thing you could imagine finding in an attic somewhere, in a ditch drenched in blood, or floating down the river in a plastic bag.
To start, I would dress up my assistants in crude masks that made them resemble burn victims. We would go out late at night and I would take photos of them. I would make them fornicate with trash and generally vandalize the neighborhood. I would only bring the worst cameras, and use the worst developing processes, the absolute worst technology. I was excited by all of that (and still am). I got these photos developed and there was something compelling and creepy about them. That’s when I started thinking, “Maybe this could be a movie.” I didn’t want the look of the characters to be grounded in anything too realistic, so I decided they should look like old people but move like young people. There’s something horrifying about old people who move really well.
Trash Humpers is somewhat like a science fiction movie. These people turn vandalism into an art form. They turn horror into something transcendent. It’s admirable in a way. They see beauty in destruction. They seek what others don’t. They’re like shape-shifters. While you’re sleeping, they’re up, living under bridges and overpasses and behind abandoned strip malls. Murder is part of their vocabulary, how they express themselves. It’s a primal thing for them, a performance, a transfer of energy that is at the core of the film. These are the characters. This is the energy that lurks in the darkness. This is what’s below the surface. It’s something deeper. It’s been here a long time.
The Academy Award–winning director Gus Van Sant is well known for his unparalleled vision in cinema, and for his original screenplays. An accomplished artist as well, he is debuting two bodies of photographic work in Oregon this month. “Cut-ups” opens at PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, on May 5, and “One Step Big Shot: Portraits by Andy Warhol and Gus Van Sant” will be on view at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon, Eugene, from May 16 to September 5.
THE FIRST TIME I USED A POLAROID CAMERA was during the making of Mala Noche (1985). When I bought the camera, I was very excited, although I didn’t have a particular purpose for it. At the time, I was just starting out, so things were slow. I remember that I felt like I had spent a lot of money on a device I didn’t need. But as time went by, it became very useful. I was attracted by the large negative that I could get from using 665 film. The photographs at PDX are created from Polaroid 665 negatives. Eventually, the camera became a tool for making a record during casting, but I also had the negatives to work with.
These works are produced on a computer, but I sort of wish they were cut up from prints. When I tried to do that, it was a little strange, not so organic––and not even “organic-looking.” I liked the digital cut more than the physical cut, so I went with that instead. In the end, these are all digital prints, and many originate from black-and-white Polaroid negatives that were shot during the 1990s––casting reference pictures for the films that I was making at the time.
I see the subjects in these works as new beings created from elements of others, like in William S. Burroughs’s concept of the cut-up where something new is made from cutting words together. There’s an oddness to the expressions of the subjects, which I always thought was because of the size of the camera I was holding; it was pretty big and old.
The works look Cubist because they show separate angles of the human form, fused together. They might be called erotic, but that isn’t something that I can pinpoint easily, because the images are perhaps appealing to some and not to others. Shirtless boys are easy to eroticize, and in my films I have had a number of them. They are usually shirtless because it is a little harder to have them more unclothed.
Warhol surely took more pictures than I ever have, because he was so into documenting everything. But he also used the camera as a shield, and that happened a lot when I was using it with the casting subjects, meeting them for the first time. When the conversation lagged I would grab the camera and take a picture, which would give me an opportunity to get people out of their chairs and out the door. It was a way of saying good-bye to the actors I met.