View of “Simone Leigh,” 2015, Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, Kentucky.
Simone Leigh’s solo exhibition “Crop Rotation” is on view at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville from February 6 through April 5, 2015, and a show titled “Moulting” is on view at Tilton Gallery in New York from March 3 through April 18, 2015. Here, Leigh discusses some of the sources that have inspired her recent work.
WHILE I WAS IN COLLEGE, cicadas emerged from a seventeen-year cycle to mate. It felt biblical. It was as if it had been written somewhere that in seventeen years now would be the time. I’ll never forget the deafening sound—it was like a freight train. So many years later, this moulting, a destiny to change and adapt, seems the perfect metaphor to describe my involvement with sculpture as an ongoing exploration of black female subjectivity. I am charting a history of change and adaptation through objects and gesture and the unstoppable forward movement of black women.
Last year I created an installation inside a black woman’s home. The house was in Brooklyn, and the woman’s name was Josephine English; she had been the first woman to open a private gynecological practice in New York State, in 1958. She also founded the Paul Robeson Theater in Brooklyn. I established my project, the Free People’s Medical Clinic, at her house. I looked around the neighborhood and found a mansion owned by a secret society of black nurses, the United Order of Tents, who have gathered since the time of the Underground Railroad to perform good works and take care of the sick. From this Order, a master herbalist named Karen Rose gave lectures about self-knowledge, Julia Bennet ministered to over one hundred visitors who received acupuncture and her sage advice, and Aimee Meredith Cox–a former Alvin Ailey dancer and anthropologist–taught black folk dance. With this project I spent over a year focused on legacies of black self-determination in Brooklyn. It was so humbling. When I describe my reality, it sounds like someone’s essentialist fantasy—but I really was surrounded by Super Blackwomen. On the last day, I was taken by surprise when two doctors who had worked in an original clinic run by the Black Panther Party in Brownsville, Brooklyn, appeared. These two doctors told me that Panthers had been so embattled in conflict with the police that their clinic was covered with sandbags, like a bunker.
When the clinic closed, I came back to my studio and returned to a body of work that I had started in Atlanta, using an odd restaurant called Mammy’s Cupboard as a point of departure. This metaphorical black woman’s cupboard is a large skirt where you can enter to eat pancakes. Formally, the spectacle of architecture meant to signify the inhabitation of a black woman’s body is stunning. But using the apparatus of its white ball-gown-shaped skirt to cover this embodiment aligns it with many social and political histories. I think immediately of sexual assault but also of “sweating the rice,” as Zora Neale Hurston described a Jamaican folk ritual that can cast a spell and make someone fall in love with you.
I’ve also started making jugs with Lizella clay, one of which will be in my show at Tilton Gallery. I’ve been told that African-American face jugs are made to look ugly to ward off evil spirits. Using the ugly, sometimes literally taking on the garment of your oppressors, is a device used often in the global south. In Namibia, some members of the Herero Genocide committee showed me how to get properly Herero dressed: The garment I tried on had four petticoats. These dresses are understood to be adaptations of missionaries’ costumes. This kind of mimicry can be misunderstood as a desire for the other, an assimilationist gesture. But I see it as a strategy of self-definition—a radical black practice of using what is at hand, as well as a kind of camouflage, which is self-defense. In Haiti, during Karnaval, Chaloskas wear a barred teeth mask and the costume of Charles Oscar Etienne, a police chief who killed many political prisoners in one night in a remarkable feat of police brutality. This reenactment of evil is also a purging.
For my recent installation, Crop Rotation, I worked with local materials and found objects to push through some of these ideas. I attached tobacco hands to a hoop skirt shaped like a cotillion ball gown, and I also incorporated a window removed from my father’s church. This window, its fleur-de-lis and the colored light it casts down, was one of my earliest experiences with art. I imagine it to be a kind of bottle tree, with its borrowed symbolism and illusion of shelter and protection against evil through colored light. I wonder what offers you more protection: a skirt of bananas, or an architecture that functions as a symbol of your own demise.
The 2015 commission for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth Program, Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse takes as its points of departure an etching by George Stubbs and a statue of William IV on horseback that was initially planned for the plinth in 1841. A meditation on capital and casualty, Haacke’s work will be unveiled in London on March 5, 2015, and will remain on view for eighteen months.
I WAS ONE OF SIX ARTISTS invited to submit proposals for the Fourth Plinth on the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square. The plinth has been empty for more than 150 years. George IV, whose equestrian statue graces the plinth in the northeast corner, had spent so much money during his reign that there was not enough left for his successor, his younger brother William IV, to also get a ride on a bronze horse.
The historical background was one of many bits of information that eventually jelled for my idea of the Gift Horse. Contemporary London, and social and political conditions in today’s world, also entered into the equation. It helped that I am a newspaper addict.
After scrapping several ideas, I thought it might be appropriate to allude to the custom of immortalizing rulers on horseback. (I am not the first of the Fourth Plinth artists to do that). Mine was to be a horse skeleton, adorned with a live decoration—and no rider.
I picked up on an earlier work of mine. In 2010, with the assistance of technical wizards, I projected three of the five TV channels of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire live into empty areas of badly damaged eighteenth-century frescoes in a former Franciscan church (Spazio Culturale Antonio Ratti) in Como, Italy. At the time, Il Cavaliere was still holding forth as Italian prime minister. Running through blank bands of frescoes depicting the legend of Saint Francis, I had the ticker of the Milan stock exchange giving us the ups and downs of the moment. This live “collage,” embedded in the imagery of the saint of the poor, served as a precedent for my tying a knot with an LED live ticker of the London Stock Exchange on the raised front leg of the Gift Horse.
Part of the proposal for the Fourth Plinth was the inclusion of an image of what it eventually would look like. Having no experience with horse skeletons—I believe I am not unique in this regard—I asked a librarian whether she knew of any relevant publications. She directed me to The Anatomy of the Horse by George Stubbs. I knew paintings by Stubbs of horses and the English horseback-riding gentry from visits to the Tate. But I had no idea that Stubbs was the son of a tanner, had personally dissected horses, and had published engravings of his findings in The Anatomy of the Horse. I then discovered that a portrait of Whistlejacket, a rearing Arabian horse—commissioned by its owner, Charles Watson-Wentworth, the second Marquess of Rockingham—was hanging in the center of a major gallery of the National Gallery, just behind Trafalgar Square. This Marquess was twice a Whig prime minister of England and, according to Wikipedia, “exceptionally rich even by the standards of that wealthy group.”
As for whether the Gift Horse is a memorial or a monument, if you like, you can take it as a tribute to the City, the Wall Street of London.
Lucy Raven is an artist living in New York. Her site-specific installation Tales of Love and Fear—which consists of a custom-built rig of rotating platforms, a stereoscopic photograph split between two projectors, and sound based on field recordings made in India—was commissioned by the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and will be presented there on Friday, February 27, 2015 at 8 PM.
TALES OF LOVE AND FEAR is a cousin of Curtains, a work I finished a couple of months ago that uses a similar anaglyph technique of separating right eye from left. Curtains is a fragmented portrait of the work that goes into making Hollywood’s 3-D blockbusters, a process that, as it has shifted from production to postproduction with the disappearance of celluloid, has created a global visual effects assembly line, where one film is broken up and sent piecemeal to the lowest bidder, then composited, or reassembled, back in Los Angeles. All visual effects are achieved painstakingly, frame by frame. 3-D conversion is especially labor intensive, as it requires the digital creation of a synthetic second-eye view for every frame in the film. Big-budget films—what the people in Curtains are working on—get distributed on identical hard drives to movie theaters all around the world. You can see Superman in 3-D in Beijing or London or Omaha or Kuala Lumpur, and you’re watching identical files played in megaplexes outfitted with a thousand new features that adhere to Digital Cinema Package, or DCP, standards.
While doing research for Curtains I was also writing a series of illustrated lectures. One of these, Low Relief, focuses on a formal relationship between bas-relief carvings and 3-D images. In that talk, I look at different histories of bas-relief carvings in the US and in India—and each culture’s history of depicting spatial depth—as a way to discuss Hollywood’s outsourcing of the work converting films to 3-D, a process that’s high tech, but also on some level artisanal, done by hand, and subjective. After trips to postproduction studios in Chennai, Mumbai, and Trivandrum, I went to central India to visit some of its oldest rock-cut temples. I came to feel that I was doing very deep background research, examining these ancient reliefs that emerged from the same geography where 3-D images are now being made in virtual space. There has always been a desire to see behind the flat image.
In a way, if Curtains is about labor then Tales is about relief. I mean bas-relief but also relief from work, and a real enjoyment in watching movies. When I started talking to Victoria Brooks, the curator at EMPAC, about what I could do there, I said I was interested in creating a unique instance of cinema. A cinema made for a single film, which contains a single image. I took a lot of 3-D stills on my trip to the ancient caves and temples, and in a way the one I chose isn’t anything special. I like that there’s no figure in it and I was very drawn to the architecture in this image, which rhymes with the columns in the concert hall at EMPAC. I consider Tales to be as much a movie as it is a kinetic sculpture performing the architecture of the theater it is in. I worked in collaboration with EMPAC’s genius production team on the concept and design of the rig, and with a very talented composer, engineer, and producer, Paul Corley, on the sound. The sound, based around field recordings I made during a horror film I went to in Mumbai, takes advantage of the incredible acoustic possibilities in EMPAC’s concert hall.
Despite what Oliver Wendell Holmes says in “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” about the verisimilitude of the stereo photograph, you are not seeing into infinite depth with 3-D. The illusion works best when it is shallow; often that’s when you’re really grabbed by the solidity of forms within it. When I started looking back to the earliest patents for 3-D, I saw that many of them spoke about the illusion created in terms of relief. As it turns out, the etymology of anaglyph is from the ancient Greek for “work in low relief.”
As part of its continuing fortieth anniversary celebrations, Danspace Project invited the poet and critic Claudia La Rocco to curate an iteration of its Platform series of performances and events. Titled “Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets” after poet-critic Edwin Denby’s 1965 essay of the same name, La Rocco has produced a wide-ranging catalogue and brought together thirteen dance artists working in the “three nodal points of Balanchine, Cunningham, and the Judson Dance Theater” to engage in dialogues, workshops, and performances. The Platform runs through March 28.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, as I was phasing out of being a daily newspaper critic, Danspace director Judy Hussie-Taylor and I were talking about this stubborn gulf that exists between various aspects of the New York dance world. Everybody thinks we should have better words for the “uptown”/“downtown” split but we don’t. Why does this gulf persist, and would there be a way to mess with it?
“Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets” is the ninth iteration of Danspace’s “Platform” series, which began with Hussie-Taylor thinking about how to create a context for dance that is richer and more specific than a traditional “season.” She imagined different ways for Danspace to exist in the world. Danspace Project actually grew out of the Poetry Project. In 1974, a group calling themselves The Natural History of the American Dancer approached Larry Fagin, who was the assistant director of the Poetry Project. They were interested in performing in the sanctuary at Saint Mark’s Church, where the Poetry Project was (and still is) in residence. Fagin had been watching dance for a long time, and had credited the poet-critic Edwin Denby with teaching him how to see. There’s a sentence on the Poetry Project’s website that mentions that Fagin had been “shuttling between New York City’s three nodal points of Balanchine, Cunningham, and the Judson Dance Theater.”
This got me thinking about where those nodal points are in 2015. There’s a historical grounding here, but I’m not looking at this as a historical platform. I thought about who some of the artists are that I’m most interested in who are working in those traditions right now. I decided I would take twelve dance artists and make combinations out of pairings.
Really the interest was in finding smart and curious people who would be comfortable moving away from the standard way of operating where you have a gig and you make a piece and there it is. Could we create something that’s more about conversation and research? Something that could result in a finished work or open a window into a process that had really no “results” to show for itself? I really love the idea of the mobile body archive. I wanted to create a container in which failure wouldn’t be a bad thing.
The artists are not meant to be doing anything beyond being in some form of conversation. We’re calling all the evenings “dance dialogues.” It could happen in the form of actual conversations, it could happen in the form of them teaching repertory to each other. At one point, one of the pairings was going to do a carpentry project.
The first weekend, February 19–21, is Kaitlyn Gilliland and Will Rawls and Silas Riener and Adrian Danchig-Waring. Then the second weekend is Sara Mearns and Rashaun Mitchell and Jodi Melnick and Sterling Hyltin. The final weekend is Jillian Peña and Troy Shumacher and Emily Coates and Yve Laris Cohen. Then Pam Tanowitz, who works in all three of these traditions, has a full day, March 23, in which she is building a work with both City Ballet dancers and two former Cunningham dancers with whom she regularly collaborates. The entire thing will be created in a day, with its “premiere” that evening.
A number of these artists are coming from New York City Ballet, the house of Balanchine, and this will be the first time most of them will have worked in Danspace. Many of them had never even been there as audience members. Artists working in ballet and downtown New York traditions can have very different processes. In the downtown milieu, you could work for an entire year or two years and then the piece goes up for three days, whereas at City Ballet you put something together in a few weeks and that could be in the repertory for decades. It’s interesting to bring together artists and audiences who have such different expectations. To think about creating a third possibility.
It felt very important to honor these histories and at the same time to see how one could mess around with them in the present day. It’s just my New York, and this Platform feels very much like a love letter to the city.
William Pope.L, Trinket, 2008, American flag, flagpole, finial, industrial fans, lighting system, dimensions variable. Installation view, Grand Arts, Kansas City, 2008. © Pope.L Photo: E.G. Shempf.
A mainstay of performance and installation art since the 1970s, William Pope.L will open the largest museum show of his work to date at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, on March 20, 2015. Trinket, 2008, the centerpiece work, and also the title of the show, is a large-scale American flag that will be blown continuously during the museum’s public hours by a bank of industrial fans. Here, Pope.L discusses the show, which runs until June 28, 2015.
AN EXHIBITION TITLE can function in various ways: a prompt, pr, or a means to point at something far or near. A broken horizon the sentence incompletus . . . An unused title I entertained was: “Polis or the Garden or Human Nature in Action” . . .
Trinket. TRINKET. It’s the largest work in the show so . . . but the show ain’t about a flag, it’s about, about our mouse nature. How we blot out the sky with our paw and think we’ve vanquished the sun . . .
A Flag points a nation. A flag is an amulet—doo-rag symbol for national booty. Trinkets suggest a past time. The American flag suggests a past-time. It’s what we do when we are not thinking . . .
It’s an object that rifts. It’s a division of—. It’s a dissection of—. It cleaves desire into a design that masquerades as rationality. We call this symbolic capital . . .
A trinket is a bauble, a trifle, shiny and worthless to whom? The American flag is a kind of wampum into our favorite darkness . . .
An exhibition is a favorite darkness. A way of working out a set; an ensemble of effects, things, and circumstances. It’s a hinged thing, always a staged thing (Alas + shit . . .). It’s a perambulation where people witness, encounter, fabulate a world within a world. And that’s the rub I love to negotiate. This drive we have to perform our exhibition-wanking. We go to exhibitions so we can make something of them, so we can make something of ourselves. Use determines meaning . . .
In the show, there are twenty-four paintings, part of a project called “Skin Set” begun in 1997 as mostly drawings. Now painting and film and sculpture and ether . . . The current work is a series which bleats the word fuschia in refrain. For example, “Fuschia Negro,” “Fuschia Ebola,” “Fuschia Abracadabra,” etc etc. Writing is everywhere in my nerves, why not painting? Like performance, writing durates; an act of enduring; want to make it more physical, more ham-fisted lyrical—there are things to be done with words that have nothing to do with paint. It’s like crawling when you can walk . . .
I was a bit overwhelmed by being chosen to appear on the cover of Artforum recently. I was humbled, surprised, flattered, devastated being juxtaposed in an article with Eric Garner, our shame, his death. Apparently AF doesn’t disclose covers before they’re hatched. I realize something. I—I—this sort of thing always seems to happen outside of me. It’s as if someone is performing my blackness for me. All us Eric. Silly AF. It’s funny about smart people—they know a lot and they don’t know anything at all . . .
Tania Bruguera, El susurro de Tatlin #6 (Versión La Habana) (Tatlin's Whisper #6 [Havana Version]), 2009. Performance view.
Artist Tania Bruguera was detained in Havana on December 30, 2014, after announcing her intent to restage her 2009 work Tatlin’s Whisper (#6)—in which individuals are able to talk about freedom of speech at a public podium—in the city’s Plaza de la Revolución without being granted official approval. Here, Bruguera speaks from Cuba, her homeland, about the evolution of the project, which has now become, she says, an “endurance performance.” Bruguera cannot leave Cuba until her passport is released by Cuban authorities, which will not occur until after she stands trial for inciting public disorder and is proven not guilty. The prosecution on the case has just extended discovery from ten days to sixty and is capable, under Cuban law, to extend it up to six months.
I AM A PANGAEA-IST. I have never agreed with the categories of “expat,” “Cuban-American,” or “authentic Cuban” art; they were decided upon by politicians to create a false sense of superiority and by gallerists to profit from politics.
Cuba is an island. It is also a utopia—a place people have consistently looked to political inspiration. With the apparently imminent arrival of American tourists and capitalists, Cuba is now once again susceptible to change. This is a moment that strongly challenges the image we Cubans have had of our country for more than half a century. It could be an opportunity to transform Cuba into a global nation, with a government inclusive of people from many different countries—to become a beacon for global citizenship. But given the current situation, it appears that this reestablishment of Cuban-US relations will instead just be another exercise in formalism based in economic gain. I don’t want to see Jeff Koons in Cuba; I want to see the Guerrilla Girls, Hans Haacke, and Gulf Labor, as well as art that is not a product but that offers a space to generate justice.
#YoTambiénExijo (I Also Demand) is a collective effort that proposed restaging a previous artwork of mine—Tatlin’s Whisper #6—under new political circumstances. The work is part of a series, also called “Tatlin’s Whisper,” wherein I take a recurrent image or incident in the press and I bring it alive for an audience that has no direct relationship with the reported original event. I create a firsthand experience that can replace the anesthetization created by the media with a sense of responsibility, to call forth an emotional reaction to something that has not happened to you (solidarity) or that could happen to you one day (rehearsal). The work aims to transform audience members into active citizens.
#YoTambiénExijo has two simultaneous public spaces: For Cubans outside the country, the public space is online, on the Internet platforms I’ve used to promote the project; for Cubans in the country, it is the city streets. Both now share an inverted image of the Plaza de la Revolución, a site where Cubans have heard talks from government officials since 1959 and where they can now, through this performance, imagine themselves speaking while government officials listen.
There are various ways to approach politics in art. Most frequently, artists denounce or visualize problems, make art a tool to build small-scale prototypes of a different society, or directly challenge the status quo by generating a political situation. From my perspective, it is a misrepresentation when the mere use of an image of a politician or of a political event is automatically deemed “political art.” Political art is uncomfortable knowledge. It is not art of the past or of the present but of the future. I often appropriate power’s tools: a newspaper (information), a school (education), and now I’m working with political desire.
Power’s response to this proposed iteration of Tatlin’s Whisper #6 served as a way to show the world how the Cuban government operates against dissents and critiques it can’t control. The Cuban government has taken over the work, and the battle has now become about the government wanting to become the sole author of the work, while I try for it to have collective authorship. I call a piece that is conceived to be completed by its audience Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art). #YoTambiénExijo has now turned into an endurance performance. It is all about resistance.