Isaac Julien


Isaac Julien, The Abyss (PLAYTIME), 2013, Endura Ultra photograph, 62 x 94".

Isaac Julien is an artist and filmmaker whose exhibition “RIOT” at the De Pont Museum in Tilburg, the Netherlands, surveys the past thirty years of his work and presents earlier pieces in conversation with a new seven-screen installation PLAYTIME, 2014. “RIOT” is on view from January 31 to May 31, 2015.

PLAYTIME is a film installation representing three cities and their relationships to capital: London, a city transformed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism, and bank deregulation; Reykjavik, where the 2008 financial crash stopped capital in its tracks; and the new art and financial center Dubai, an oil-fueled metropolis that sprang from the desert. It features six main characters whose lives are entangled via the global flow of capital and labor: Maggie Cheung as a Hong Kong reporter who converses with Swiss auctioneer Simon de Pury (appearing as himself); Mercedes Cabral as a Filipina domestic laborer, who describes her workplace imprisonment in Dubai; an American art adviser, played by the debonair James Franco; Ingvar Sigurňsson as an Icelandic artist bankrupted by the financial crash; and a cocky black Brit hedge fund manager, played by Colin Salmon.

Each character is based on extensive research in film, artworks, newspapers, and literary representations, as well as on interviews I conducted; the characters are both empirical presentations and archetypes. For instance, Colin’s role is in part modeled on banker Keweku Adoboli, who was found guilty in 2012 of an estimated two-billion-dollar embezzlement. Colin’s masculinist performance may seem alluring and authoritative, but in essence it’s a disjointed, riddling patchwork of quotations derived from theoretical texts, film scripts, novels, and other sources. Later, we see how, through the act of “performing himself,” the auctioneer creates what David Harvey calls “fictitious capital”—capital literally generated through speech. Behind Simon’s mastery of language and theater is a meticulously organized army of auction-house researchers, whom we glimpse behind the colored glass of an “office” that is actually a film set—a cinematic fabrication, as is the interview between Simon and Maggie. Their performances were filmed three weeks apart; in reality, they’ve never met.

Mirroring these complexities of representation, including how an appearance of masculinity is performed, is James: the straight/queer icon and bęte noire of the art world, whose own speculative art practice I think nicely mirrors and intersects his performance here. Questions of labor and transparency are further developed in Mercerdes’s performance as a maid in Dubai. Her acting is deliberately emotionally haunting, to produce a more empathetic reading, but again, this is not an issue of authenticity. My work is sincerely inauthentic. For me, the pleasure of making film lies in the manipulation of the various identifications viewers can make.

PLAYTIME also has a sister project, Kapital, 2013, from which it was originally developed. Kapital is a two-screen video work presenting a conversation between Harvey and myself. Staged as part of a seminar I organized at the Hayward Gallery in 2012, the event involved theorists, critics, and curators—including the late Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Irit Rogoff, and Colin MacCabe. In the piece, Harvey declares that the architecture of capital has not changed since Marx’s Capital, but PLAYTIME offers another possibility. In today’s markets, digital technologies have given rise to the “dark pools” described by author Michael Lewis in Flash Boys—private securities-trading forums where the sheer speed of digital exchanges allows capital to reduplicate and perform itself in microseconds. In PLAYTIME, digital technologies similarly permit a diversity of special effects, creating slippages of meaning, significance, and identity. In both Lewis’s book and PLAYTIME, the faster data travels, the more things become opaque and less accessible.

A retrospective exhibition shows how I have always been interested in societal and economic hierarchies in relation to aesthetics and art—which capital is embedded in and exacerbates. My 1984 documentary Territories, for example, is an aesthetic critique of politics that includes trenchant images of police violence and explores shifting perceptions of labor and the working classes. Territories relates to both PLAYTIME and Capital in that it looks at systems of self-performativity and power.

— As told to Rachel Withers

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Untitled (Sculpture 2), 2008, mirror, paint, plaster, wood, 29 x 29 x 19”.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian was born in Iran in 1924 and is well known for her dazzling approach to geometric abstraction, primarily in the mirror reliefs and drawings she has been making since the 1970s that derive from ornamental elements in traditional Islamic architecture. The first museum retrospective of her work, curated by Suzanne Cotter, was on view at the Serralves Museum in Porto, Portugal, from October 9, 2014 through January 11, 2015 and travels to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from March 13 to June 3, 2015.

LAST SPRING, I had a survey exhibition at the Third Line in Dubai which then traveled to Doha. Suzanne Cotter had seen these shows, and she invited me to bring my drawings and sculptures from the past forty years to Porto. My work is largely based on geometry, which, as you know, always begins with a single point and can move from there into a circle. Or a point can become three leading to a triangle, or four to a square, five to a pentagon, hexagon, octagon, and so on—it’s endless. I was inspired by the geometry I found in old mosques with their tile, metal, wood, and plaster work. A master metalworker that I studied with once told me, “Everything is in geometry.” I then found out that with a hexagon you could do so much. And today, I still work on geometry—it’s at the base of my art because it has an infinite amount of possibilities. You can create thousands and thousands of designs in textiles, metal, tiles, everything.

These recent shows have been a remarkable time in my life because for so long I was really a nobody. Little by little, I’ve become…I don’t know…better known? Certainly the Guggenheim wasn’t giving me a show until now. I lived in New York for almost forty years, and moved there initially in 1944 to be a student. I was friends with many poets and artists at the time: Calder, Mitchell, Avery. I used to go to a club once a month on Tenth Street; all the artists would gather there and one would give a talk. I remember Philip Johnson, de Kooning, Newman, and then after that they would all go to the Cedar Tavern. I would follow but I wouldn’t drink. I had a lot of fun, though. Anyway, these days in Tehran the disco doesn’t let me in!

I met Warhol a little later on. After studying at Parsons, I got a job through a classmate of mine at Bonwit Teller. I met the head of the art department, and they hired me for eighty dollars a week. I used to also do freelance work for them, drawing a bottle of perfume, slippers, or a bag. Andy was drawing his shoes. He was very friendly, and at the time we thought we were making a lot of money. We used to go to picnics for lunch. When I returned to Iran in the ’60s, I knew Andy was becoming a very famous Pop artist in New York. So he came to Tehran to make a portrait of the queen. I had a big luncheon for him and his crew. My daughter arranged it. At the time we exchanged some works. I had so many great works in my collection until they were confiscated during the revolution in 1979, which also marked the beginning of my twenty-six-year exile in New York. Thankfully, many of my drawings were still in New York at Denise René’s gallery, where I had a show in 1977, as well as at her Paris gallery that year.

The Serralves show is an honor for me. Suzanne was the first one to notice that my drawings are something different and deserve a special focus, particularly those that were made when I didn’t have a studio following the early years of being exiled in the US. Many of these drawings will be in Porto and New York, and they’ve never been exhibited before. Honest to God, I’m grateful to those who have helped me to get my work back into the world. From Chris Dercon at Tate Modern to Gary Tinterow at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to Hans Ulrich Obrist to Frank Stella to Suzanne, and to everyone else I might be missing.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Left: Laurie Simmons, How We See/Sisi (Gold), 2015, color photograph, 70 x 48”. Right: Laurie Simmons, How We See/Peche (Pink), 2015, color photograph, 70 x 48”.

Laurie Simmons is a New York–based artist. The photographs in her upcoming exhibition “Laurie Simmons: How We See” signal a shift in her work—each depicts a female figure with painted eyelids that emulate open eyes, and frames her within the banality of conventional portraiture. Accentuating the gap between the real and the presented self in the age of social media, these images will be on view at the Jewish Museum in New York from March 13 through August 9, 2015.

I’VE BEEN TRYING TO REJECT the notion of nostalgia in my work for a long time, but I feel I may’ve only gotten there recently. Reminiscence, remembrance, recollection, wistfulness, sentimentality: These don’t interest me at all any more. Longing, on the other hand, is an idea I’ve always felt a kinship with. While nostalgia alludes to a past time, longing isn’t temporally specific. It is, like regret (another favorite theme for me), the desire to know the road not taken, curiosity about a parallel life, about what might be missing, and even the future.

“How We See” is a shift for me, and it was a struggle to get here. I’ve tried so many times before to bring human figures into my pictures, mostly with some degree of failure. In my 2006 film The Music of Regret, I attempted to sum up, condense, and bid farewell to my visual language from the prior twenty-five years. I saw an opportunity to exit a place where I felt trapped, but it took several more years for me to find my way to a human subject―with a sidestep to a sculptural approximation of a girl that I found on a 2009 visit to Japan. You mentioned Barthes’s Empire of Signs, which somewhat captures my experiences there: Accepting my inability to go native, everything was new to me; everything was a jolt. I actually found comfort in feeling uncomfortable, not knowing where I was or understanding the language. I loved the dislocation. Then I found a life-size Japanese sex doll, which I could shoot in human scale. The work that followed led me to a kind of scalar disruption that was familiar to me from years of shooting miniature setups.

My new pictures, titled “How We See,” are partly concerned with the hierarchical nature of language. “How We See” could’ve been the title of one of my first or second grade reading books—it’s an announcement and maybe even a directive. When I was a kid, education was delivered to me/us in declarative sentences. There was an assumption of a kind of universality—boys and girls, dogs and cats, chocolate and vanilla, day and night, red and blue. In “How We See,” I’d like to direct you how to see while also asking you to make eye contact with ten women who can’t see you. Their closed eyelids have realistic eyes painted on them by experts (makeup artists Landy Dean and James Kaliardos). While shooting, I had to find the sweet spot where it looked like they were looking at me. I also looked toward popular, formal conventions of portraiture like school photos and engagement announcements for inspiration.

Social media allows us to put our most perfect, desirable, funny, and fake selves forward, while naturally raising questions about our longing, yearnings, and vulnerabilities. I certainly think about masking when I think about the way we present ourselves online. I’m definitely not as involved in online life as I might be were I much younger. Would I be using Tinder? Would I cyberstalk an ex-boyfriend? It’s tempting to play with the Internet, to get on board and just reinvent or invent a new reality. I had a brief flirtation with Second Life when it first came out around a dozen years ago—probably because of my attraction to constructing worlds in another scale. I loved the idea of my avatar getting friendly with other residents, but in reality it actually frightened me a little. I could imagine moving there and never really coming back. The virtual was pretty appealing in that realm; I don’t think I could’ve predicted then that there would be such a seamless synthesis of the human and digital worlds today. There is a kind of subtlety to that relationship that couldn’t have been anticipated in the early days of virtual reality.

Now, I guess people don’t have to meet and can have all of their interactions via Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I recently read about a Skype-inspired plastic surgery, where you could refresh your lower neck to look better on Skype. I find it intriguing that presenting yourself online could influence ideas of beauty in such a profound way and galvanize a wave of “body transformations”—it seems less technologically determinist but more about a fluid dialogue between the human and the virtual. Will it one day be a radical act to own or present the face you were born with? The possibilities for constructing a visual, physical, and theoretical identity are pretty overwhelming now.

— As told to Andrianna Campbell

View of “Melvin Edwards: Five Decades,” 2015. Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. Photo: Kevin Todora

Over fifty years’s worth of work by sculptor Melvin Edwards is now on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Well-known works from his ongoing “Lynch Fragments” series, 1963–, hang next to surprises—a roiling, hanging tumble of metal titled Cotton Hangup, 1966, for example, which was used as a prop in “Crazier than Cotton,” an episode of the anthology TV program Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater. “Melvin Edwards: Five Decades” runs through May 10, 2015.

BETWEEN THE AGES OF SEVEN AND TWELVE I lived in Dayton, Ohio, home of the Wright Brothers. In those years the headquarters of the United States Air Force—or its closest approximation—was housed at Wright-Patterson Field. It was like our NASA, and I enjoyed anything that had to do with experimental flying. The reality of that time, during World War II, was that everybody was conditioned to look out for planes in the sky—it was part of living. It sensitized me, possibly, to these feats of engineering. Obviously, I don’t make sculpture that looks like airplanes, but seeing the planes on exhibition at the airfield helped me understand how three-dimensional things in the world were designed, that the planes were sculptural in some way. That experience ended in 1949 when my family moved back to Houston.

I don’t tend to use the word influence. If we were talking about football you could say I was influenced by Lou “The Toe” Groza, by watching him kick. I learned technique from him—how to hold your toe when you kick. But no one talks about influence in that way. With my sculpture, I’ve evolved independently. I understood that abstraction meant to take form and develop something else, or just start from nowhere—but also that these are all your developments and you keep it personal. My work doesn’t look like it came from another source; I make my own music.

For example, I continue to push my ideas by creating circular rooms. This is actually an old idea of mine, and it came from a book I was reading about the aesthetics of perception and how people who live in round architectural spaces are less attuned to optical illusions than those who live in square spaces. In Oklahoma I designed an exhibition with one room that was an equilateral triangle, one that was absolutely square, and one that was octagonal to approximate the idea of a circle. The difference was nothing I could describe, but it was different, without question. Factually, the experience was different.

I have a capacity to dip back into the past, whether it’s four days, two years, or forty years. This is why I returned to the “Lynch Fragments” series I started in 1963. Seeing my work hung in the Nasher makes me consider how I would group it differently. Again, a feeling but not something I could describe. In that sense, your life is just as old and just as new. Yesterday always proposes tomorrow.

— As told to Andy Campbell

Iman Issa


Iman Issa, Heritage Studies #1, 2015, blackened wood, vinyl text, dimensions variable. Sharjah Biennial 12, Sharjah.

Iman Issa is an artist based in Cairo and New York. Her sculptural series “Heritage Studies,” 2015–, which revisits forms drawn from history, will be featured in the Twelfth Sharjah Biennial from March 5 to June 5, 2015. New iterations of this project will also be on view this year in Issa’s solo presentations at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami (April 2 to October 4) and the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (May 18 to June 28).

THIS SERIES started from the feeling that I was coming across elements from the past that resonated with subjects on which I was working at the time. It emerged specifically out of a project I completed in 2013 titled “Common Elements” for which I produced a large amount of material based on existing museum objects and displays. It was interesting to me that I found such material appropriate for illustrating what I deemed as familiar in the personal narratives of four public figures on which I was working at the time, even though these elements had nothing to do with those texts and, in some cases, were separated from them by thousands of years.

And it was while working on that project that I started to wonder why any artist would feel the need to revisit forms from the past, and if this need is identified, how does one go about it without succumbing to an oppressive political project or social agenda? It seemed to me that whenever one looks back, a line is drawn to the present and possibly the future; whether it is one of progression or decline or mere continuity, it didn’t matter.

A project emerged from all of those questions and concerns. I had a feeling that it was indeed essential to revisit these elements and forms from the past, that they would have something relevant to say to the present. Thus came the idea of titling the series “Heritage Studies.” Unlike history, whose study might appear self-evidently constructive, heritage studies seemed to be framed with a practical relevance to the present. As a field it is presented as serving a function, and in many cases that function is clearly articulated. I was drawn to this. In a way, I preferred the essentialist claims of a clearly instrumental field to other ones that might have less apparent agendas when revisiting the past. I was also interested in the idea that these studies I was undertaking would serve a clear need in the present—that they too would have a function.

I was slightly unnerved, though, by the actual forms I ended up producing. I like to think that I go for the most compact way to adequately present my ideas. But for this project, it was clear that the forms had to be large-scale sculptures made out of specific materials, whether from steel, wood, plaster, copper, bronze, aluminum or other. And even though I have made many three-dimensional objects in recent years, I’ve always imagined them to function more like images, whereas it was clear that these elements would function differently. I was enticed to place them in the middle of the room and not against the wall as I had done before. I imagined them to occupy and account for their space as well as the potential movement of the viewers who encounter them in a more aggressive manner. I imagined that they would beg for a different sort of interaction from other recent works.

I also would not be comfortable in calling them copies or remakes since most look significantly different from the objects on which they are based—which brings me to the question of, What do these new elements share with their sources if it is not the material, color, appearance, or shape? The answer that I have been able to come up with, thus far, is that they share a speech act. They are addressing or saying something similar to each other, and it is perhaps through doing that that they become the “same.” It is an ambitious claim to make but one I am eager to propose. And having said that, it is important to stress their status as studies, since in no way am I able to posit these as final or conclusive forms, regardless of how finished or precious their presentation may be. You can think of them as propositions waiting for the one who will come by and say: “No, they should actually look different than this. They should be smaller, bigger, a different color, material, or shape.”

The captions are also an essential part of the work. I rarely think of myself as someone who produces objects, films, or photographs. Rather, I view these works as displays with various elements that interact with and rely on each other as well as on the time, space, and various conditions in which they exist and are presented. Even though the sources sometimes appear hidden in much of my work, I am not interested in hiding things or in having the viewer engage in some sort of guessing game. On the contrary, my ideal imagined viewer is the one who would interact with what is present in the space and only what is present. If I can get someone to look, to truly look and perhaps engage in the conversation I believe I’m starting, then I think I am off to a good start.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Simone Leigh


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.

— As told to William J. Simmons