Roger Ballen

04.10.14

Roger Ballen, Alter Ego, 2010, archival pigment print, 23 5/8 x 23 5/8”. From the series “Asylum of the Birds,” 2010.


Johannesburg-based artist Roger Ballen is well known for his photographic mise-en-scènes of marginal communities. Here, he speaks about his latest publication, Asylum of the Birds, which Thames and Hudson published this month. The book captures scenes in a suburban house outside of Johannesburg, South Africa—images that will be exhibited throughout 2014: at KuK, Aachen, Germany, from May 11 to June 22; at Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Chalon-sur-Saône, France, from June 21 to September 21; and at Circa Gallery, Johannesburg, from July 31 to August 20. Ballen also produced a film on this work, which can be viewed here.

YOU HAVE TO KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN IN THESE PLACES. You can’t pretend nothing is happening. I found the house where I photographed Asylum of the Birds while I was working on an earlier project, Shadow Chamber, between 2002 and 2003. When I first saw the site, I knew it was unique: an extraordinary environment where people and birds were living together in a claustrophobic arrangement; a place that had an incredible atmosphere—surreal, poetic, and psychological. Its inhabitants included people from various walks of society: Somali refugees, people running from the law, suspected murderers, and insane asylum escapees.

I always call myself an “orderer of visual chaos.” That was my job at the asylum; I transformed one version of reality into “Roger Ballen’s world.” But I never go in and think, “I want to make something happy” or, “I want to make something about people living on the fringe.” I lead all aspects of the production—for instance, I would ask the house’s inhabitants to draw some pictures. It’s collaborative to an extent, but at the end of the day, I’m the horse that pulls the sled.

Now, a good way to get people to work with you is to have them hold an animal, because then they feel that the animal is being photographed and not them. This is the case with Alter Ego. For that image in particular, there was this one guy at the asylum who wasn’t too keen having his picture taken. He always carried a desiccated, somewhat flattened, dead owl with him. I asked him if I could photograph him with the owl, and that seemed to strike something in him. He decided to stand behind a paper mask hanging from the ceiling, gripping a dove in each hand. In this room, the walls were covered in drawings left by other inhabitants. I started taking pictures and at some point, I guess he got bored, and he peered out from behind the mask. For me, there’s this discontinuity when you look at that picture—between his body and the mask—which gives you a shocked sense of dislocation.

When you get older you begin to deal with the act of disappearance, and of dying. It becomes more difficult to say that you know where the end and the beginning of something really is. Some of the parts of my personality have opened up and other parts have disappeared, and when I take photographs I feel as though I’m mirroring this process. Perhaps the only thing I can draw from all this work is that, at the age of sixty-three, I don’t really have any hopes of getting to the end of it.

— As told to Joseph Akel

Renata Lucas

04.08.14

View of “Renata Lucas: [ ],” 2014. Photo: Edouard Fraipont.


The work of Rio de Janeiro–based artist Renata Lucas takes a form from its environment—be it a sidewalk, gallery facade, or museum flooring—and changes a common aspect of its recognizable structure. Lucas speaks here about her two latest interventions, collectively titled “[ ],” at Galeria Luisa Strina, which are on view from March 22 to April 26, 2014.

IT IS ALWAYS TRICKY for an artist to describe the meaning of an artwork. In this case, we aren’t using a discursive mode at all, but other ways of talking about the subject, place, and space of a work as well as the environment that puts these aspects together. Reactions to a work are subjective and unpredictable, particularly when it requires the presence and movement of its visitors. The aim of “[ ]” is to establish a correspondence between space and the viewer: It is only when space is stripped bare that we all are stripped bare.

This project is based on taking apart the basic elements of the traditional gallery space, including its doors, panels, and walls. For it, we removed the walls that separated Galeria Luisa Strina’s main building in the Jardins district from its glass facade. We also removed the panels used to divide the exhibition space into smaller rooms, pushing them to the rear; in one case, a panel transposes a rear glass wall and provides an exit to the gallery’s parking lot. But even more dramatically, we installed three moving devices: a revolving door for the entrance, another revolving door for a sideline entrance, and one revolving panel inside the gallery. These three devices move three LPs built into the floor that turn only when the visitor enters and exits the space. It is a completely mechanical system, where the performance happens based on a set of cogs and belts that are activated according to the movement of the doors, creating specific rhythm variations depending on the speed at which the doors are moved. Each LP is caught in a loop that confines its needle to a very small segment of the record, selecting words or phrases—like “I was opening the door,” “But I let the light come in,” and “wall”—from a popular song from the 1970s that would otherwise be easily recognizable.

The second part of the project will take place in the district of Barra Funda, where I made the intervening work Quick Mathematics for the Bienal de São Paulo in 2006. Today many of the city’s most important galleries are proud to open branches in this and other industrial areas, using them to exhibit large-scale projects or simply store the gallery’s collections. Unlike the rest of the overly constructed city of São Paulo, Barra Funda still contains vast old spaces. Together they express the myriad of directions the city’s recent history has taken, bearing clear signs of having undergone industrialization and having lived through a subsequent decline. The area is now the target of real estate speculation, as it is one of the few remaining underdeveloped central zones for new construction in the city.

“[ ]” will build two corners of a phantom galpão, or warehouse, for Luisa Strina in Barra Funda. Much of the warehouse’s structure will remain unconstructed, almost invisible, by acting as a sort of parasite on the current warehouses in the neighborhood. Using only their existing facades or a small part of their interiors, two fragments of a third warehouse will be created, placed at a diagonal on both sides of the same street.

I’ve never thought of my oeuvre as being a part of an evolution, each work neatly leading to the other. In fact, perhaps I have been on the same loop for years. In Third Time from 2011, for instance, there was also an invisible presence: Light from my home in Rio de Janeiro was transmitted to the exhibition space in Milan. But here, I’m looking for the involuntary participant—the true star of the piece. He’s that one who crosses the street, opens the door, and hums a tune that has been trapped inside his head since the radio played it who knows where.

Translated from Portuguese by Wendy Gosselin.

— As told to Frank Expósito

Senga Nengudi, Untitled, 2011, nylon, mesh, sand. 60 x 72 x 8”.


Los Angeles–based artist Senga Nengudi came to prominence in the late 1970s with her sculptural work—some of which will be on view in her latest exhibition, “Senga Nengudi: The Material Body,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver—and with her performance, which will be featured through documentation in “Senga Nengudi: The Performing Body” at RedLine, also in Denver. The exhibitions are on view from April 10 to July 13, 2014, and from June 6 to July 20, 2014, respectively.

WHEN I BEGAN WORKING, it was very personal. I wanted to express how I was feeling about my body and my mind. I had just had children, so I was investigating what my life looked like as an observer as well as a person experiencing it. This led me to work with nylon stockings because I wanted to find something that had the elasticity, the texture, and even the coloring of the body. Horrific things that are done to women, like rape, as well as what we women do to ourselves, like plastic surgery, are powerful afflictions that the type of distortions made by the nylons can directly speak to.

When I was in college, I was an art major and a dance minor. I studied modern dance but did not have a dancer’s body. Still, though, I appreciated this blending between the female form and a love of action. But in dance, there is only so much time to perform; with art, you can seemingly go on forever. In a sense, we all have our dance with materials on a day-to-day basis. Traditionally, pantyhose is worn in stressful situations: at a party, a job interview, a meeting. I’ve incorporated used pantyhose from friends and thrift stores for this very reason—because they contain a residue of energy of stress left over from the person that had worn them before. It’s an ideal material for this type of reflection because it can mostly come back into shape after it has been tested to its extreme limits.

After studying abroad in Japan in 1965, I began teaching at the Watts Tower Arts Center and the Pasadena Art Museum in California. At Watts, performance was being investigated and the medium was being opened up to new interpretations. That’s when this issue of materials came into the picture; we had literally begun stretching ourselves and our conceptions of what was possible in our practices. Some artists, like Noah Purifoy, created work from what was destroyed. Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg created happenings out of nothing. I soon got involved with them—in this place between art and movement—and found people like Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and the Gutai group because of their sense of impermanence. There is permanence in the impermanence, however. Even though we as humans are impermanent, there is a continued sense of how events will unfold. History repeats itself, and that at first seemingly singular moment will just occur, perhaps in a different form, someplace else.

— As told to Paige K. Bradley

Judy Chicago

03.28.14

Judy Chicago, Purple Atmosphere #4, 1969. Performance view, 1969. Judy Chicago.


Judy Chicago is an artist, author, and educator whose long career has focused on women’s experiences and feminist critique. She speaks here about her upcoming exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Chicago in L.A.: Judy Chicago’s Early Work 1963-74,” on view from April 4 to September 28, 2014, and her concurrent shows throughout the United States—including those at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City; the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University, University Park, Pennsylvania; the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, Cambridge; and the New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe. The Monacelli Press has recently released her latest book, Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education, and will publish a study of her key work, The Dinner Party, 1979, on April 8, 2014.

EVEN THOUGH I ALWAYS FELT very grateful that The Dinner Party brought me so much attention, for a really long time I felt that it also blocked out all of my other work. I have a very prodigious production, something that was prominently illustrated in the recent “Pacific Standard Time” exhibition, which also kicked off this renewed interest in the range of my work. From 1963 to 1974, I went through a period of learning about women’s history, studying my predecessors, developing my own iconography. I studied china painting in order to make images more precise than was possible with an airbrush. My original plan was to make a hundred abstract images of historical women on plates—women consumed by history rather than acknowledged by it—titled The Great Ladies. The prevailing attitude back then was that women had no history. When I thought that the plates belonged on a table, that’s when my work on The Dinner Party began.

While I was a student at UCLA, my painting instructors hated my imagery and color sense. It took me a decade to forge my own vision and I can’t tell you how many women I have heard from over the years who have felt literally stranded in school because they weren’t being helped. In fact they were being actively discouraged from their own subject matter, as I had been. CalArts practically erased the history of my feminist art program. One graduate student there, Audrey Chan, decided to convene a symposium in 2007 about the program but could not find the necessary information about it in the school’s records. They wouldn’t provide it to her either. It made me furious because the job of institutions is to transmit culture and pass on the achievements of history so they can be built upon. When they don’t, it’s an institutional failure and it could be and should be part of institutional critique. This is why I wrote Institutional Time.

Institutional Time is about university studio art education and the gap between art school and the art world. In school, you are taught to develop technique and a certain formal vocabulary. But how are you then suddenly going to bring in your own personal content after moving away from what you had just learned, particularly when content-based artmaking is certainly not what’s emphasized in the art world? It also always amuses me when feminist theorists accuse my generation of not being sensitive to issues of race and ethnicity and sexual orientation. I guess they never saw my early Heaven Is for White Men Only. Those flesh bars are multi-colored; the work is about how many of us are barred from freedom.

I told the “Pacific Standard Time” curators that one of the reasons I was so glad for that group of shows, in terms of my own career and my own history, was that it rooted my work back in California. Once The Dinner Party was permanently housed in New York at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, my career turned eastward. My history in California was being overlooked. As macho as the Los Angeles scene was in the 1960s—and as completely inhospitable as it was to women—the spirit of self-invention that characterized Southern California art back then was extremely important to me in terms of my development as an artist. And even though there is probably not a major museum in the world that would accord enough space for a real retrospective of my work, I was just calculating the number of square feet of exhibition space I am currently occupying in what has sort of become my national retrospective, and it’s probably something like twenty thousand square feet across the country.

For my upcoming exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, I’ve been granted the opportunity to carry out a large-scale performance in Prospect Park. A Butterfly for Brooklyn is the first major fireworks piece I’ve ever done in the east. After I got out of graduate school, my first studio was with two other artists, Lloyd Hamrol and Llyn Foulkes. It was located on the corner where the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena passes by. One year, a number of us decided to do a performance for the people who camped out on the streets the night before the parade. I got fog machines and lined them up outside and built a color wheel like in the color studies I was doing then. The smoke came up and the color was liberated into the air. At the time I called these pieces “Atmospheres” because I wanted to feminize the atmosphere, to put the idea of femininity—one of my major goals—out into the air. But I had to stop working with fireworks in 1974 because I wanted them to get bigger and I couldn’t get the funding. I’ve waited forty years to work at the scale of A Butterfly for Brooklyn. How could I not be thrilled by all that is happening around my seventy-fifth birthday? You never know what will happen if you live long enough.

— As told to Paige K. Bradley

Nancy Lupo

03.21.14

View of Nancy Lupo's backyard in LA. Photo: Jody Rogac.


Los Angeles–based artist Nancy Lupo is a participant in “Taster’s Choice” at MoMA PS1, a group show that examines the role of “choice” in art, both as process and as content. Below, Lupo ruminates on her new sculptures in the exhibition, and reflects on the location and circumstances of their production. “Taster’s Choice” is on view from March 23 to May 25, 2014.

THE TACTILITY OF MY WORK traffics in a kind of erotics whose wires have been crossed and confused. Food is used in many of the sculptures—real food and also fake food. Cherries are bright and sexy, while nutritional yeast might remind you of snot, fat, or the gum soles on some shoes. You aren’t sure whether they stir sensations of hunger or disgust—whether they make you horny or have stirred your decorative juices. The black and white “tuxedo” quinoa in the sculpture Tuxedo Feeder looks at once like upholstered furniture, granite, and a treat for a very large family of birds. Each of these connotations has a different tactile resonance and purpose. I push the sculpture further toward a reading as feeding station by embedding four cast aluminum dog bowls into the part of the sofa where your butt would go. The bowls are thick and heavy—they feel as though they could withstand the stresses of many generations of kenneled animals. In this context they are not transformed but rather maintain a clear connection to their function in the world.

There is already a lot going on with the objects and materials that I choose to work with before I ever get involved. I feel that these new works are collaborative, as the objects that I choose, or that choose me, reveal their latent meanings and associations through my intervention. The small Rubbermaid Brute containers in several of my sculptures are the same brand and shape as the big ones that you see in schools, churches, hospitals, and parks—often they are used for trash or recycling. These containers are so ubiquitous that they are almost invisible, and so a smaller version is suspicious. What is its purpose? The gray, yellow, and white versions all have food safe ratings and are used in commercial kitchens for the storage of foodstuffs. These smaller-scale bins present a disconcerting proposition. It would probably feel better if they were redesigned so that it didn’t seem like your food was being stored in a miniature garbage can.

Many of my works are scaled down. The containers are small and so are the furniture works. Small things are naturally endearing to us. Children are small and so are pets. Pet shops and baby stores always seem to be in questionably close proximity to one another as if one were a gateway drug for the other. The aesthetic experience of these stores is complicated and the visual properities of the objects they sell are enjoyed in distinct ways by a parent or pet owner and the child or pet. My sculptures sometimes feel that they are intended for these audiences. The textures seem like they might stimulate sensory cognation in children and there is the suggestion of pet feeders in many works. When searching for such items I often wonder what a dog cares about the way their toys and food dishes look? I wonder why is it that so many pet toys look so similar to sex toys? It seems that a lot of these decisions reflect at least as much on the buyer as they do on the pet or child.

Things aren’t neutral. The objects and materials that I bring into the studio retain the resonance and meaning that they have in the world. Similarly, my works have been shaped and haunted by the circumstances of their making. This group of pieces was made outdoors and was enabled in its production by a historic (though well-timed) period of drought in Los Angeles. It felt like nature had gone haywire. The squirrels in the yard were indifferent to the quinoa, nutritional yeast, and chia seeds but had a ravenous appetite for the Swheat Scoop kitty litter. The squirrel’s gastronomic transgression made me think of human beings who ingest bath salts as a means of transgressing reality. Of course the term “bath salts” is just language used to cloak an intoxicating compound, but then again, for the squirrels, so is Swheat Scoop.

— As told to Chloé Rossetti

Katrín Sigurðardóttir, Foundation (detail), 2013, wood and concrete, dimensions variable. Installation view.


Katrín Sigurðardóttir’s site-specific installations often address collective memory and architecture. For the Icelandic Pavilion at the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale, Sigurðardóttir debuted Foundation, 2013, a raised, decorative floor inserted into the former laundry of an eighteenth-century palazzo. The work is currently on view in her solo exhibition at the Reykjavik Art Museum until April 13, 2014, and will travel to New York’s SculptureCenter. She discusses the piece below.

BY CONVENTIONAL LOGIC, you could say that floors don’t move. We think of the ground underneath our feet as the parameter of movement rather than a moving entity in itself. When we travel, it is the fact that there is a different territory under our feet that bears evidence of our journey. Foundation takes this truth and turns it upside down. People still move to see the work, but it represents a static place that does the impossible: It moves from one place to the next.

The work is comprised of pieces that are designed to exist in modules that come apart and reassemble seamlessly. It is a megapuzzle of close to nine thousand handmade tiles preserved in about 150 sections. When I was preparing this work, I researched decorative floors, focusing mostly on the eighteenth century. I looked at every floor plan I could get my hands on and composed the outline based on pavilions and other types of nonresidential structures in central Europe. Once I had the footprint of the piece, it became a mathematical task to figure out a pattern that works within the shape––it’s not a given. It was a sort of geometrical footnote to the process. Neither the outline nor the pattern is based on a specific place. I found the pattern that is most akin to what I came up with on a small, heavily retouched photograph of the interior of a building that had been destroyed. So you could say that the floor no longer exists; the building no longer exists; even the empire where the building was situated is gone. The floor derives itself completely from a constantly floating referent.

Working with a horizontal surface makes the implication of a moving locus even more dramatic because it is the floor that the viewer walks on; it is the very parameter that we use as evidence of our movement. As the work travels, I wanted the imprint of its past to be visible—not only its fictional eighteenth-century origins but also its recent history, the way it develops as it moves from place to place. In Reykjavik the work is positioned both indoors and outdoors, similar to Venice. However, the difference is that now the outline of the laundry of the Palazzo Zenobio in Venice—where it was first located—is apparent on the surface and starts drawing out a new pattern, in stark contrast with the original rococo-inspired design. Because I had already decided the piece would travel, I wanted to work with its peripatetic nature. The floor is inserted in three different buildings, and I didn’t want to camouflage or ignore that.

What does it mean when a place moves? Can we imagine, while sitting in this room, that the room is now in a different country? No, we are in Paris, and Paris is in France. Or we are in New York, or we are in Reykjavik. Everywhere, we are bound to the laws of time and space. How can we break out of this truth?

— As told to Julian Elias Bronner