Conversations /

The Force within Franco

Tatiana De Pahlen and Gea Politi talk with artist, performer and actor James Franco.

Gea Politi: Is there a “force” like the one in Star Wars? Or was Hunter S. Thompson right — there is no force at all, and thus no hope?

James Franco: There is a force, whether it comes from out there or from within us. I have seen people recover — make something of their lives through spiritual means. I don’t know if this spirituality comes from within, a kind of focus, a tuning in to an energy; or if the force is something outside of us. I don’t really need to know.

Tatiana De Pahlen: Your work is transversal on so many levels. You seem to revisit the notion of the “total artist” in contemporary culture. Would you define yourself as a Renaissance man?

JF: Crossing boundaries is how I like to define myself. I like to sit on the borderline between mediums and practices. When I was only an actor, my potential for expression was limited. I needed to find other outlets. But once I found those outlets, I became a better actor, because my acting became more pure. I wasn’t trying to write and direct when I was acting: I was finally just acting. When I was hired as an actor I could focus on that, on my job as an actor, because I knew that I could write or direct or do whatever on other jobs.

I am also very interested in the way that mediums are translated into new forms. When I direct a film I always adapt the story from a source, usually a novel or a nonfiction book. Mostly because I love collaboration, and adaptation is a kind of collaboration — collaboration with the writer of the book.  I do a lot of things, but they all derive from the same place; they all address my interests. Some forms fit certain subjects better than others.

GP: Actor, film director, screenwriter, artist: Which one of these practices would you prioritize? With what form of expression are you most comfortable?

JF: I am most comfortable with acting because I have done it for so long. But I am drawn to directing because it involves telling the story from a more central perspective — it involves more collaboration.

TDP: What was your most formative art experience? And what film was most formative?

JF: Probably working with artists. I’ve gotten to work with Paul McCarthy, Josh Smith, Douglas Gordon, Laurel Nakadate, Ryan Trecartin, Kalup Linzy and Aaron Young. Working with artists, just like working with actors and directors, shows you how others work from an insider’s perspective. You get to really experience the process.

Working with great directors has changed me. Robert Altman, Danny Boyle, Harmony Korine, Gus Van Sant, Sam Raimi, Michelle MacLaren, Seth Rogen, theater director Anna Shapiro, David Gordon Green, and show runner David Simon have all given me something.

GP: Do you mean to provoke the art world? Maybe sometimes? Maybe unconsciously? Is there irony in your recent artworks?

JF: I’m not trying to provoke, but yes, there is irony. I know that I am an outsider — that my entry into the art world is automatically viewed with skepticism. So I try to acknowledge my outsider status with humor and irony. I know I can’t hide that I am a celebrity entering the art world, so I try to address it in the work.

GP: Painting seems to be the weakest of all the practices you are mastering. It’s not only critics who think so — the general public doesn’t seem to take your painting very seriously.

JF: Well, they’re pretty simple paintings. It’s obvious that I’m not trying for something complex or technically skilled. Their significance is supposed to come from the subject matter, the humor, and the fact that I did them. They’re almost like a performance.

And it’s easy to criticize an actor’s painting, just like it’s easy to criticize an actor’s writing. People can’t see past the fact that I’m an actor, so I make the paintings humorous.  But the fact that I don’t have to paint, that I don’t have to put my stuff out there — but I do — should say something. I have a career. I don’t need another one. I do it because it’s a form that is important to me. It’s a conversation I want to be a part of, and I think I have something to contribute. Even if it’s a silly contribution.

GP: Can you tell me more about the series of birds you showed in Gstaad at Siegfried Contemporary? Animals seem to be a recurring theme in your practice. The works are painted in a childlike manner, almost as if they were made by an outsider artist.

JF: I wanted a subject that wasn’t connected to anything in the art world or the movie world. They are connected to my childhood. I grew up in the suburbs, and there were always birds around, especially humming birds because my mother had a bird feeder in the backyard. Like many of the things I do — my books, my art — they are a connection to my youth. Youth is one of my subjects.

TDP: The process of learning seems to be a pivotal aspect of your personal growth. Are you more of a student or a teacher? You come from an academic background, and I believe your mom is also a teacher. What do you find in education? And are you more of a student or a teacher? 

JF: I love being a beginner. I used to have a fear of trying new things. At one time I was afraid of acting, but then I did it, and I worked at it and I became an actor, and now I’m accepted as an actor. I don’t need to be a master at everything I do; I just need it to express a certain aspect of myself, an aspect that wouldn’t be captured otherwise. Or wouldn’t be captured in just that way. So, I am always a student.

But teaching is an incredibly rewarding part of my life. Teaching at universities, high schools and at my own school puts me in touch with students that are still pure — they’re still making things for the love of it.

GP: How important is art history to your filmmaking? Do you think it has any impact? Do you recall your first memorable interaction with an artwork or artist? Did you visit museums as a child?

JF: It’s always been important. My parents and grandparents would always take us to museums. My grandmother and my uncle deal in Japanese art, and my grandfather was an amateur artist, so it was always around. One summer my grandparents took me to Japan to visit with the artists that my grandmother represents, and for the first time I saw artists who made a living as artists. They would just get up and paint every day. That was very influential because I saw that they were actually just doing it.

Later they took me to a traveling Monet show, and the paintings were huge. I think the size had a big impact on me. And then Picasso, and I saw the endless experimentation. Warhol, the same thing — that he was experimenting with form endlessly. Later, people like Jack Smith, Paul McCarthy and Vito Acconci showed me different ways that performance could be altered from a naturalistic approach.

TDP: What do you think about the performance of a public persona as demanded by media?

JF: I don’t know what this question means. But I think you’re asking about the way that a public persona is a kind of performance. It is something that I am very interested in because the public person is a shared creation. The individual is not the only author of this persona — there are many contributors: different media outlets, the movies this person performs in (if we’re talking about an actor), the way he is written about, the way people talk about him, etc. I am very interested in this creation. It becomes material for me to mold.

Tatiana De Pahlen: Have you followed Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker?

JF: Only a little. Gawker is scum.

TDP: It seems that even among academics (e.g. Rachel Dolezal), identity is radically subjective — something to be slipped into and out of. In your experience, is being a performer in the film industry different than the “performative” role of the artist?  

JF: I love this idea because it’s something I understand deeply. I think life is a performance. Every day we choose our “wardrobe,” style our hair, put on our make up, go out into the world and play our role. We have things that are imposed on us, like who our family is, where we were born, just like characters in movies, and then we make choices about how we deal with our situations, what we study, what we do for a living. Sometimes we’re just trying to get by; sometimes our choices are made for other reasons. But these are essentially the things that an actor determines when he creates a character: He figures out what makes the character tick, why he makes different decisions.

The performance of life can be altered, just as an actor can play different characters.

TDP: Do you watch reality television? 

JF: Not really. I watch a lot of documentaries.

GP: What do you think about the many extremely successful television series that have come out over the past two years? Would you say TV series are a kind of “new literature”? Do you think TV is better than cinema in 2016?

JF: I just acted in and directed part of a Stephen King miniseries called 11/22/63, and I’m going to be part of a David Simon (The Wire) show on HBO called The Deuce, so I have been watching a lot of the new television series. Without a doubt they are a new kind of literature. Movies are generally like short stories because of their length — they generally have one rising arc and one climax. But a series can have multiple arcs and storylines, more like a novel.

In Fitzgerald’s last, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, he paints the head of production at the studio, Monroe Star (based on Irving Thalberg), as an all-powerful creator. He controls everything at the studio, from the scripts, to the casting, to the directing. It seems unrealistic — not exactly how movies work — a novelist’s ideal version of how movies are made. Novelists have total control over their work, they don’t have to collaborate, but movies are incredibly collaborative. That being said, the show runners of the new television series are much more like Monroe Star. Many of them are collaborative, but they are in a position where they can control all aspects of the series, much like Monroe Star. So, in that sense they are like novelists, controlling every aspect of their creation.

TDP: What do you think about “reel” life in “real” life? 

JF: I’m not quite sure what this means. But like I’ve been saying, my public persona, my movie persona, is inextricably bound up in my actual persona. The public persona is me and it isn’t me. I identify with parts of it and other parts I don’t, but it’s still part of me somehow.

GP: Why do you think you make and create so much throughout the year? Does one project feed another? What are you trying to build? 

JF: Creation is how I engage with the world. It’s how I socialize (there is nothing more bonding that creating with others), it’s how I make a living, it’s how I relax, it’s how I communicate, it’s how I interpret the world around me. Harmony talks about all-around creation like it’s building a house. As Fassbinder said, one project is the kitchen, one is the bedroom, and one is the bathroom. They aren’t all the grand living room. Sometimes you’re just making the toilet, but everything is needed to make the house.

James Franco is an artist, performer, and actor.

Tatiana De Pahlen is Flash Art Contributing Editor.

Gea Politi is Flash Art Editor.

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Review /

Nervous Systems Haus der Kulturen der Welt / Berlin

Nervous Systems: Quantified Life and the Social Question” is about the manifold nature of human activity, specifically in terms of the ways it can be quantified and how such gathered information is used.

It’s about big data, mined by obscure, secret entities as well as high-profile private companies. As overwhelming as the show feels, due to its wide range of works and the abundant implications of its subject matter, it’s a pity seeing it come to an end. It was no small feat finding a vocabulary to articulate a subject as complex as this. To that end the curators put together a vast selection of mainly contemporary examples that show artists’ and activists’ reflections on big data at work. Without mapping an entirely dystopian landscape, the exhibition succeeds in sharing a sense of fascination and, through the inclusion of historic artworks, a surprising poignancy in this context.

Examples of the latter include On Kawara’s classic telegrams from different locations, apparent acts of self-quantification that simply state I am still alive, and Vito Acconci’s Theme Song video, featuring the artist seducing and manipulating the viewer, echoing online video dating sites with uncanny prescience. But the main thrust of the show concerns the digital present. The glaringly white centerpiece of the show, a manned installation on a slightly elevated platform conveying the artificiality of an Apple Store, is by the Tactical Technology Collective, whose founders, Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski, co-curated the exhibition. Here we see, for example, a microchip that can be tucked into the human body to remotely control female fertility, a development of the Bill Gates Foundation.

So-called “triangulations” punctuate the show, adding historical and/or theoretical information to the exhibits, such as nineteenth-century studies measuring and mapping poverty and crime rates.

Today there is no way out: we’re all connected. The only hope is to develop an awareness of how this gigantic machine tries to shape how we see the world and ourselves, and to develop images that can put this monster into perspective.

by Andreas Schlaegel

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News /

Newly Modern SFMOMA / San Francisco

SFMOMA’s newly designed and greatly expanded spaces by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta make the formerly fortress-like Mario Botta building more porous. The new museum will open to the public May 14.

Among architectural moves to that end: a second grand entrance on a street perpendicular to the museum’s original entrance; and an indoor area just inside the museum proper that will contain a rotating series of large-scale artworks and towering wooden amphitheater-style seating upon which visitors can freely mingle with a few hits of big art nearby, outside any “paywall.”

A massive, occluding stairway has been removed from the original entry atrium and replaced with a much more modest staircase, permitting far more light to pour through not only the atrium itself but also into upper-level floors. The art showcased upon opening includes broader views of the Museum’s collection in new and old galleries, along with three new floors concentrating on the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, on loan for one hundred years. Three rooms are given over to Ellsworth Kelly’s works — timely, given his recent passing. Other rooms cluster works by Guston, Twombly, Warhol, and Chuck Close, among those of other modern American masters, and a half dozen paintings by Agnes Martin, one of the few female artists represented here.

Another “Fisher” floor is dedicated to twentieth-century German and British artists, with Kiefer, Polke and Richter dominating. The other new galleries are impressively tall and spare, and remain more intimate than intimidating, but the space for Martin’s work is exceptional: a small, bright, chapel-like room, set apart from distractions of other work and spaces. An additional new floor is dedicated to photo works, another set of galleries features architecture and design, and yet another set of spaces focuses on “newer” media-based works, together reaffirming a commitment to already well-established creative disciplines.

A slight orientation toward the contemporary manifests in a newly dedicated project space, initially spotlighting a large-scale sculpture by Leonor Antunes (using some of her familiar materials) along with upcoming live public programs and a film series that will play works of contemporary directors against auteur-ish masters from the Criterion Collection. The space, in sum, is expansive, consolidating modernist holdings while veering toward later-era works.

by Brian Karl

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Review /

Tobias Madison & Matthew Lutz-Kinoy MoMA PS1 / New York

The flap of a butterfly’s wing in one location — or so the theory goes — may bring about a hurricane in another. And so when Tobias Madison and Matthew Lutz-Kinoy’s recent live performance of Rotting Wood, the Dripping Word: Shūji Terayama’s Kegawa No Marii at MoMA PS1 began with a joyous flutter of insects — released outdoors from white boxes by a scantily clad male character painted Kermit green — it may well have changed the universe forever.

Yet once inside the PS1 dome, the audience was treated to a reminder of Terayama’s nonlinear approach, one born of a fascination with speed. “After I started to like things that fly here and there,” said the Japanese playwright and filmmaker in a 1970 conversation with writer Yukio Mishima, “it became impossible for me to build up stories in a very logical way, for example, in a logical way in which reasons and motivations produce results.”

And so Madison, Lutz-Kinoy and Berlin-based director Ariel Efraim Ashbel drew upon Noh staging conventions — multiple perspectives, fragmented viewpoints, lurking demons — to interpret Terayama’s tale of a transvestite, the titular La Marie-Vison, who keeps his eighteen-year-old son locked away from the world (young Kin’yai is allowed to chase butterflies, but they are confined to the living room). For much of the performance, the circular stage was limned by one of the “six ghosts of beautiful girls”: draped in a quilt, the wheelchair-bound child propelled themselves in a slow loop around the illuminated action.

Accompanied by a hazy, warped live score by the band STEIKETO, the work unfurled with a dreamlike quality emphasized by mirrored movements and sparing dialogue that tracked a shift from the view of brash Marie (a scenery-chewing William Z. Saunders) that “appearance is paramount over everything” to a closing remark that “everything on the surface is unreal.” Complicating this polarity were the outstanding costumes. Fashion label Eckhaus Latta wrapped and draped the performers in washed, painted and layered textiles that both distinguished their characters and bound them together in a world of rot and delirium, ecstasy and butterflies.

by Stephanie Murg

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Flash Art International no. 308 May 2016

We are pleased to announce that the May 2016 issue of Flash Art International is out now.

Following the death of Italian novelist, semiologist and philosopher Umberto Eco, this issue takes as its point of departure questions posed by Eco’s eponymous theory of the “open work.”

Eco’s collection of essays Opera Aperta [The Open Work] was published in 1962, when chance operations and indeterminacy became constitutive elements of the creative process. In today’s cultural climate, Eco’s thinking on “openness” remains relevant to art practice and criticism, providing “an urgent, irksome protest against the organization and management of all which lives,” as British artist Cally Spooner writes in this issue’s “Macro” essay.

The newly introduced “Micro” essay, placed at the end of the issue, responds to “Macro” from the perspective of Italian art, earnestly bringing into the conversation the creative panorama from which this magazine was born. Here, Michele D’Aurizio finds echoes of Eco’s theory of the “open work” in the phenomenon of Italian Radical Design. Envisioning “objects that assume shapes that become whatever the users want them to be,” Radical Design is probably the most successful but understudied embodiment of “openness” ever born on Italian soil.

The question of “openness” — and its valences — resonates throughout the entire issue, above all in our cover story devoted to American artist David Hammons. Conceived as a series of “open” questions, posed by a Wattis Institute research group under the guidance of Anthony Huberman, this feature riffs on an uncommonly raw, spiritual and politically charged art practice. Like a jazz musician, Hammons reinterprets art-making procedures in ways that result in unexpected, free-form resonances. But, as Huberman reminds us to ask: “What’s the relationship between improvisation and control? Isn’t it similar to that of a needle and thread?”

Also in this issue:

Tatiana De Pahlen talks with Bret Easton Ellis and Alex Israel about their collaborative text paintings and the centrality of Los Angeles’s landscape in both their practices.

“In Los Angeles you only think that you’re coming here to reinvent yourself. While, what actually happens is that the city forces you to become who you really are.”

— Bret Easton Ellis

Myriam Ben Salah discusses the tension between individuality and community in Mélanie Matranga’s environmental installations, objects and videos.

“By giving space to the intimate and allowing singularities to blossom, Matranga creates situations that are saturated with emotion.”

— Myriam Ben Salah

Matthew Evans talks with Bill Kouligas about the role Kouligas’s Berlin-based record label PAN plays in documenting the growing significance of music and art crossovers.

“It’s important for me to accommodate all these types of people who can’t really participate in the really specific, genre-type labels.”

— Bill Kouligas

åyr elaborates on the themes behind their upcoming installations on walls and orbs, to take place at the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art and at the British Pavilion of the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale.

Eli Diner explores Martine Syms’s inquiries into representations of blackness.

“Syms draws her fragments from the vast store of images of black figures. She reifies them, animates them, presents momentary specificity, and each fragment, in turn, slips back into generality. Remember that hers is a show about nowhere.”

— Eli Diner

In “Time Machine”:

In a late-in-life interview with Alan Jones, from Flash Art International no. 140, May–June 1988, William N. Copley discusses his inspirations and working methods.

“Had I taken painting seriously I don’t think I would have had the freedom that I started with. If you know what art isn’t, the whole world is before you.”

— William N. Copley

In “Reviews”:

Fischli and Weiss at the Guggenheim, New York; Adam McEwen at Petzel, New York; Olivia Erlanger at What Pipeline, Detroit; Mathieu Malouf at Jenny’s, Los Angeles; Nathaniel Mellors at The Box, Los Angeles; Jorge Macchi at MALBA, Buenos Aires; Das Institut at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London; Jesse Darling at Arcadia Missa, London; Elif Erkan at Weiss Berlin; Ceal Floyer at the Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau; “The Playground Project” at the Kunsthalle Zurich; Oscar Tuazon at Chantal Crousel, Paris; Guy de Cointet at Culturgest, Lisbon; Lorenzo Scotto di Luzio at T293, Rome; Evgeny Granilshchikov at the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow; Hemali Bhuta at Project 88, Mumbai; “Digging a Hole in China” at OCAT Shenzhen; Miho Dohi at Hagiwara Projects, Tokyo.

Flash Art will be part of the “Reading Room” at the next edition of Frieze New York (May 5–8).

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Review /

Jessi Reaves Bridget Donahue / New York

Anyone Knows How It Happened (Headboard for One) (2016), is the most formally straightforward work in Jessi Reaves’s solo exhibition at Bridget Donahue: two shelves flank a large sheet of plywood with a piece of raw foam stapled bottom-center.

In spite of the candor of the presentation and plainspoken materials, Anyone Knows… absorbs a full abécédaire of art, design, and other vocabularies. The shelves are surreal, biomorphic protuberances; the headboard distorts International Style’s industrial planarity; the staples inscribe medieval crenellations; and a crafty faux-marble swirl decorates the foam. Or it’s trussed dolphin fins, John Chamberlain’s foam contortions, oyster lips, and a bad reaction to an oil spill. The title’s bare-all evocation (and possibly exaltation) embodies the spirit of Reaves’s furniture-sculptures. With basic, short-shelf-life materials, she imbues her Frankenstein-forms with a life-span, and like the monster, they reveal the inscrutable desires—exotic, romantic, abject and ecstatic—behind the dual acts of classification and use.

The remainder of the exhibition is a showroom display of shelves, chairs, couches, cocktail tables, a lamp and an armoire. Viewers are invited to sit on a few of the pieces, which affects the try-it-out comforts of furniture retail, but the experience of any individual work playfully warps the scenario. From its exterior, the use of Night Cabinet (Little Miss Attitude) (2016), is not immediately apparent. But, if one unzips the semitransparent silk bodysock, keys and other valuables can be safely stored on the shelves that comprise its spikey internal skeleton. Night Cabinet undresses intention, its purpose performing a burlesque between object and observer.

Twice Is Not Enough (Red to Green Chair) (2016), is upholstered in iridescent silk, which fluctuates along a chemical-bath gradient of red, green and orange. A square edge suggests it was cut from a loveseat, and its overstuffed plush renders its ad-hoc and unnaturally tumescent appearance pregnant with further upcycling reinterpretations. It is tempting to relegate Reaves’s furniture-sculptures to art’s systems of critique and value, but their generosity, as well as their ironies, traffic just as potently (and perversely) in other function-oriented contexts. Within Reave’s punk theatricality, there is no passive service; her furniture-sculptures free the desire to define, and let it run its course.

by Sam Korman

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