In his widely celebrated book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, anthropologist Alexei Yurchak describes the paradoxical structure of Soviet subjectivity. Although the system was understood to be permanent, its unexpected collapse was received as a natural outcome. Appropriating this eloquent title, chief curator Katerina Gregos has consciously decided not to make another nostalgic or fetishistic show about the post-Soviet condition. Rather, she extrapolates the regional problems of post-Soviet Latvia onto the universal experience of change under late modernity. If in previous stages transformations were taken as traumatic and violent, today the condition of “shock” — similar to the “shock therapy” reforms that affected all post-socialist countries — becomes the new normal. Acceleration becomes so rapid it is as if “it was no more.”
The Faculty of Biology at the University of Latvia, the main exhibition venue, greets its visitors with the shocking sound of an electric charge clashing between two artificial apples suspended above a staircase, symbolizing the toxic marriage of art and science (Michael Sailstorfer’s Zwei Äpfel, 2017). Located throughout auditoriums, museums, and labs, the works question how change is experienced — both perceptibly and imperceptibly — under current conditions of ecological crisis and scientific innovation. As if following the Invisible Committee’s conviction that the main threat posed by humanity is not the disasters per se, but the mathematization of these disasters, some of the participating artists have aestheticized omnipresent methods of measurement and calculation themselves (Danilo Correale’s A Spectacular Miscalculation of Global Asymmetry, 2018, or Femke Herregraven’s A timeframe of one second is a lifetime of trading – I from 2013). Other artists, such as Julian Rosefeldt (In the Land of Drought, 2016) or Julian Charrière (Tropisme, 2016), instead try to reestablish a sensible connection with the outside world by demonstrating its vulnerability. In his essay film A Sense of Warmth (2013), Sven Johne narrates an eerie story of ornithologists secluded on a small island. After realizing ominous signs of global warming, the protagonist stops releasing birds captured in their nets, condemning them to painful death in order to help sustain more transient migrant species. The idea of “shock therapy” expands here from human to nonhuman economies.
At the second location, the splendid residence of Kristaps Morbergs, artists reflect on how the new order has affected spatial relations in urban environments and interior design. For his deliberately kitsch installation Selected Objects from Eurotique (2018), Henrike Naumann constructed an absurdist “euro-repaired” flat with a giant Euro sign applied directly onto a fake window. The refurbishment compensates for the alleged misery of living conditions under socialism, and here becomes a witty remark on European integration. At the former Bolshevichka Textile Factory and Andrejsala Harbor, topics of obsolescence, deindustrialization, and gentrification in European cities are expanded from inner spaces into a city-specific study.
Two other biennale locations — Sporta2 Square and the Zuzeum art center — treat acceleration as a shared existential, political, and performative dimension, as in the way new communication devices and social media platforms penetrate our daily life and transform our subjectivities. In a sound installation titled Dear R., R., K., S… (2018), reminiscent of Susan Hiller’s sonic environments, portable speakers of various chassis, brands, and sizes installed on tripods whisper opening phrases from email correspondences. In this way artist Taus Makhacheva studies the human voice as it becomes automatically apologetic and confessional under constant time pressure. In his research project Euthanasia Coaster (2010), Julijonas Urbonas demonstrates accelerationist sensibilities with a concept for a steel roller coaster designed to kill its passengers via fatal plunge into an ultra-rapid terminal spiral.
Trying to satisfy a mixed audience, the Riga Biennale masterfully balances austere retrospective art and accelerationist or post-internet aesthetics. But after seeing all of its projects, the trope of acceleration begins to feel like a somewhat meaningless hot topic. Urging viewers to respond to a range of global issues, the exhibition sometimes disregards or synecdochically simplifies local conditions of inertia. In particular, there is a recurring focus on “Putin’s assertive presence in the region,” culminating in Johne’s Dear Vladimir Putin (2017). As if dragged by an external locus of control, the show ignores Latvia’s own inner discomfort. The only work that touches on the current discrimination against the Russian-speaking population is the delicate Pidgin Tongue (2018) by Stine Marie Jacobsen, who constructs a hybrid language of Russian and Latvian together with children. While glorifying an “epoch of the nanosecond,” the Biennale hides its counter — stagnation, deceleration, and regress. Here, the exhaustive overflow of works and abundance of information make acceleration the very modus of art apprehension.
After successfully raising 3.5 million of a five-million-dollar capital campaign goal, the Swiss-born, New York–based nonprofit Swiss Institute (SI) announced plans in March to move out of their now-former Wooster Street space in SoHo into a permanent location in the East Village at 38 St. Marks Place. The conversion of a compact, four-floor complex — formerly a Chase Bank branch — was designed and overseen to completion by Selldorf Architects, an architectural firm with a history of art institutional and ivy-league university clientele.
SI inaugurated its eastward leap with a celebratory, filled-to-the-brim group show titled “READYMADES BELONG TO EVERYONE,” curated by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen, co-directors of exhibitions at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) at ETH Zurich. Featuring roughly fifty artists, architects, and collectives from sixteen different countries, the exhibition aims to track a history of exchange between artists and architects who employ found objects associated with urban space. It is scheduled to run through August 19.
The “readymade” as a term and perhaps a strategy as set forth by Marcel Duchamp via his urinal-cum-Fountain (1917) — the performance of an authored gesture placed on display — has had a lasting imprint on art’s discourse, causing a myriad of fractalized courses of influence stemming from this necessarily singular gesture. Each tangential journey leads one down a path closer to success in the form of an exhaustion of all options — a goal that may have led to the curatorial logic so playfully demonstrated here.
Crowning the accessible roof area, artist Valentin Carron’s built Vecchio Cuore (2018), or “Old Heart,” is a purple heart-shaped platform made from painted wooden planks that stands as a casual stage or platform. Crowds naturally congregated here during this first weekend of private preview events, proving it a natural gravitational center for social bodies.
This piece by Carron, along with a selection of other commissions, is conceived as an architecturally site-dependent work, but still manages to find dialogue with the works on view as part of Fischli and Olsen’s curated group show. The commissioned works are the first of more to come as part of the newly launched SI ONSITE program. This ongoing initiative will continue to present special projects as a series of semi-permanent, continually unfolding installations that meaningfully activate aspects of the building’s non-gallery sections and sub-spaces — the reception area, reading room, stairways, hallways, roof, and elevators.
Hans Haacke’s Swiss Institute Visitors Poll (2018), also an SI ONSITE commission, surveys attendees and lets the resulting demographic information speak for itself. Visitors navigate the prompts of an iPad as they would a standardized test, and upon completion of the questionnaire are encouraged to suggest a question they would have liked to see included. The participants who have successfully filled in and submitted surveys are counted in real time, and the corresponding statistical results are continuously updated on-screen.
In response to questions regarding the expedited changes that jolts of cultural prestige may impose on a neighborhood, SI’s director, Simon Castets, offered a two-fold explanation of why he considers the institution’s presence to be roundly positive. Noting the unarguable reality that the Institute has physically replaced what had always been a bank since the building was erected in 1954, Castets explained how certain shifts in programming — for example, the introduction of SI ONSITE in addition to new educational initiatives that acknowledge a perhaps broader audience than before — are being formulated in close conjunction with participating artists, in keeping with the Institute’s remit as “a space for artists, by artists.” Transparency is the intended effect here. As Castets explained, “SI’s artist-led education programs take place in a dedicated Education & Public Programs space, and provide opportunities for families with children, teenagers, university students, and seniors. These education programs are unique in that artists — either in current, past, or forthcoming exhibitions — are at the center of the workshops, directly driving forward dialogue and experiences in art-making together with a core group of teaching artists.” SI’s inaugural education partners include GO Project, Little Missionary’s Sara Curry Preschool, Sirovich Center for Balanced Living, and School of the Future. Free admission is also a major aspect of this effort to accommodate a wider public.
The East Village has been an active site of cultural production and presentation since its heyday in the 1980s. While there are surely identifiable distinctions between the stark appearance of a multi-million dollar building and the outcrop of small hubs of commercial galleries, the picture does begin to change when not only higher-end galleries proliferate, but also museums and prestigious nonprofits with dedicated, large-scale donors. This shift may be described as a reconfigured network, equally as dense as before, but whose main players are no longer the artists. Patrons and executive-level staff are the substantive forces present and at work.
Connecting back to the readymade as an inaugural exhibition theme — and as a potential ideological marker of the institution’s intended long-term ethos — there is a trickiness to navigating this conceptual foundation relative to what art can accomplish within society. Those who are not especially steeped in visual art can tend to be alienated by such work, which they see as fundamentally elevated in an exclusionary way. But this irresolvable dilemma has been at least acknowledged by Fischli and Olsen’s title for the show, which is something of a readymade itself. A footnote as footprint of the mysteriously self-disavowing French artist Philippe Thomas’s fictional public relations agency readymades belong to everyone®, active from 1987 until his death in 1995, the title as slogan speaks a simple yet contradictory truth.
An excerpt from the accompanying text for Project Native Informant’s 2016 exhibition “Philippe Thomas with Interventions by Bernadette Corporation, DIS and Emily Segal” reads as an expanded homage to the artist: “The reason why readymades belong to everyone is certainly not because everyone can become a collector, but because everyone can make themselves sensitive to the potential, to the possibility harbored by every vulgar mass-manufactured object to be or not to be a work of art. Everything can become a readymade, anyone can be an artist; it is enough just to develop the sensibility that allows one to unmask, behind social classes, the almost physiological universality of the ‘whatever-singularity,’ which in our societies only appears in debased form in total institutions, in the form of naked life.”
Thomas had created the agency as a bureaucratic entity through which the rights of authorship would pass, dissolve, then rematerialize as credited to another person entirely, namely its buyer. Housed in Cable Gallery in New York (also on Wooster Street during its days of operation), visitors would encounter Thomas sitting behind a desk surrounded by plants — evoking the atmosphere of a 1980s office suite or a Marcel Broodthaers décor — as well as advertisements for the agency and works waiting anonymously for their prospective authors.
—Khajeh Shamseddin Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi, Iranian poet,
circa 1310–1390 AD
My trip to Tehran was confirmed around the time President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear deal. Some might argue this would not be the right time to visit Iran, but somehow my timing could not have been better. The first reason for my trip was to visit Hamidreza Pejman, a young, local Renaissance man who is behind the foundation that carries his family name, Pejman. The foundation is divided into three locations: the first, Kandovan, is a nonprofit space and residency that aims to promote international exchanges by hosting foreign artists, curators, and critics. The space is often used to host workshops and talks, and it will also be my home for a week in Tehran, while I prepare for a talk and meet the local art scene.
A few minutes away from Kandovan, the second location of the foundation is a former drink manufacturing facility called Argo Factory. Built in the early 1920s, this fascinating brick building’s smokestacks dominate the Ferdowsi neighborhood, named after a nationalist poet (Iran celebrates its poets as much as, if not more than, its gods). Currently undergoing heavy renovations under the direction of Ahmadreza Schricker, the site will feature an exhibition space, bookshop, and café, all scheduled to open in 2020.
The-third space is the Café Musée Project, another non-profit organization located inside the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA). The museum was stylishly designed in 1977 by architect Kamran Diba, and houses a spectacular collection. I notice a pair of Giacometti sculptures beneath a Calder as I wander the spaces. The sculpture garden is a gem and includes works donated by sculptor Tony Cragg.
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Argo Factory, Tehran. Photography by Daniele Balice.
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Argo Factory, Tehran. Photography by Daniele Balice.
Tehran is massive, spanning 1748 square kilometers and with a population of more than fourteen million people. Traffic can be a little intense, but not more so than any other large metropolis. There is a weird energy, a chaos that somehow makes total sense-Inspired by the environment-I ask the foundation to organize a series of studio visits with local artists. And that’s where the surprises begin.
The first stop is the studio of Nazgol Ansarinia, whose work focuses on the complexity of a fast-growing city in a country that quickly transitioned from a rural to an intensely urbanized state following the Iranian Revolution. This is followed by a visit with Yousha Bashir, a multimedia artist whose obsessively complex body sculptures will haunt me for the remainder of my Iranian nights. In Bashir’s studio, I notice a wonderful painting by Hoda Kashida, whose show at Etemad Gallery goes onto my agenda.
The following day I meet Neda Razavipour, a multimedia artist whose work best encapsulates the anxiety that characterizes being an artist in Iran. I learn so much in her studio, and I’m seduced by her unique performances and drawings. Following an hectic schedule, I also stop at Nima Zare Nahandi studio, an incredibly skilled drawer. But the more artists I visit, the more I realize that this trip won’t be long enough to see everything; I’ll need to come back.
Sina Choopani is my last studio visit. His critical approach to both Iranian and Western pop culture leaves me wondering about how the local art community manages to operate in isolation. Sina gives me a sticker with a portrait of Pasolini on it, which reminds me that I have to leave for Isfahan, the city where the director filmed parts of his Arabian Nights (1974) (— as movie experts at Pejman reminded me). Once in Isfahan, in the middle of Naqsh-e Jahan Square, and before Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, I start to question the so-called supremacy of the Western world. The-incredible-beauty and sophistication of Tehran leaves me speechless, and there’s no more room on my phone for pictures. No words can describe the magic of Isfahan, and as I walk through the streets, bumping into mosques and churches, I’m reminded that this was once one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.
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Monir Museum, Tehran. Photography by Daniele Balice.
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Monir Museum, Tehran. Photography by Daniele Balice.
Back in Tehran, I am ready for my talk at the Pejman Foundation’s Kandovan building. I will be joined by Hormoz Hematian, owner of Dastan Gallery, one of the edgiest spaces in Tehran, representing artists such as Sam Samiee, Ardeshir Mohassess, and Amin Akbari. Hormoz started as an engineer before falling in love with art and spinning an interesting web of events, spaces, and out-of-the-box projects like Dastan +2, Dastan’s Basement, and the Electric Room pop-up. Throughout our conversation, we explore different ways of starting a gallery and integrating within the community. The room is packed, and people seem curious. Broaching the subject of art in Tehran, I quickly realize that we are only at the beginning of a much broader conversation. I haven’t met enough artists, visited enough galleries, or met enough people to understand the local circumstances well enough to give a constructive analysis. I know I must return.
Pejman brings me to the Monir Museum, opened in 2017 in honor of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Dedicated to a female artist, it’s the first institution of its kind in Iran. Now ninety-five years old, Farmanfarmaian once traveled extensively throughout Iran, exploring her interests in traditional craft and modernism. The museum is located in the Negarestan Garden, where a collection of classical pieces, including enigmatic portraits of Jafar Petgar, is also on display.
My two guides, Shakiba Abdollahian and Ali Hassan Zadeh, bring me to the very last stop of the trip: the Tehran Fine Art School directed by Ehsan Aghaie, a facility that can only accept 120 students at once due to its basic infrastructure and tight resources. The enthusiasm of its manager is contagious; he is probably the thirtieth poet I’ve met in less than five days. Perhaps because this is the end of the trip I’m beginning to feel very emotional. I begin wondering how isolated Iran actually is, or how commercial Western society might prefer to keep Iran in isolation.
During my time in Iran, I came to understand that the power of people and the individual takes precedent over the sometimes-absurd logic of supposedly dominant countries. The art community offers a diversity that makes Tehran a true reservoir of creative, independent practices. The real oil of Iran is its poetry. Nobody can dominate or imitate it. I did not see victims in Tehran, just gentle, elegant, and proud fighters.
It was only a matter of time until we got our Harald Szeemann show. In 2011 the Getty Research Institute announced the acquisition of the archives of the auratic Swiss curator — tens of thousands of books and photographs, boxes of papers, correspondence, and ephemera — the single largest collection to enter the institution’s vast holdings.
The material had filled a former factory in the Alpine valley village of Maggia, out of which Szeemann had worked from the mid-1980s, coming and going on an endless international itinerary, curatorial journeys that marked, among other things, the emergence of the vaunted globalization of art. Freewheeling and wild-haired, Szeemann cuts an iconoclastic figure — a man possessed of distinctive, sometimes eccentric, tastes, the prototype of the independent curator, a term that in his case seems to carry an ideological sense. But his boxes, now arrived in the hills of Brentwood, would be subjected to the kind of rigorous cataloguing and historicizing for which J. Paul Getty’s well-endowed center is known.
Postcards from Harald Szeemann’s collection of ’pataphysics material. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30
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Harald Szeemann (seated) on the last night of documenta 5: Questioning Reality–Image Worlds Today at Museum Fridericianum, 1972. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30. Photo: Balthasar Burkhard
In this, the curators of “Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions” have not disappointed. The viewer gets a thorough survey of Szeemann’s life and career, structured around noteworthy exhibitions and illustrated with documentation, artifacts, letters, and notes. The first section, “Avant-Gardes,” covers his intimate engagement and extensive promotion of the advanced art of the 1960s and ’70s: post-Minimalism, performance, Arte Povera, and conceptualism, inter alia. This takes us from his tenure at Kunsthalle Bern in the 1960s, and the epochal 1969 exhibition “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” — a platform for process-oriented art and an exercise in the museum as studio — through his resignation following the controversy that greeted the show and his early freelancing under the ironic aegis of the Agentur für Geistige Gastarbeit (Agency for Intellectual Guest Labor), including “Happening & Fluxus” (1970, Kölnischer Kunstverein) and documenta 5 (1972), with its sections devoted to socialist realism, art of the mentally ill, and science fiction in addition to time-based works and performances. “Utopias and Visionaries” covers Szeemann’s turn toward minor histories of modernism, coinciding with his move to Maggia in the mid-1970s, mounting shows like “The Bachelor Machines” (1975), “Monte Verità: The Breasts of Truth” (1978), and “Gesamtkunstwerk: European Utopias since 1800” (1983), which looked at outsider figures, fantasies, and communitarian communities. The final section, “Geographies,” charts Szeemann’s global circuit in the 1990s and early 2000s, helming biennials in Europe and Asia and regionally and nationally oriented surveys of Switzerland, Austria, the Balkans, and Belgium.
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Office stamps from Harald Szeemann’s archive, Maggia, Switzerland, ca. 1970–1974. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30. From Adrian Notz and Una Szeemann, eds., Harald Szeemann: Obsession Dada (Zurich, 2016), vol. 3, p. 40. Composite photo concept and design: Studio Coco, Corina Künzli
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Front of Harald Szeemann’s address list for his visit to New York, 1968. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30
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Back of Harald Szeemann’s address list for his visit to New York, 1968. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30
Staging an exhibition about someone staging exhibitions can’t but emphasize distances and contrasts. Wandering the “Museum of Obsessions,” we see just how thoroughly assimilated, how common, Szeemann’s obsessions have become: the now canonical movements of the 1960s and ’70s, revisions of modernism and minor histories, the figure of the globetrotting curator-as-artist or as-celebrity. Rich in detail and informative wall texts, the Getty’s presentation best evokes Szeemann himself in certain key artifacts: a display of a set of stamps with the name and mottoes of the Agentur für Geistige Gastarbeit and a massive collection of airline bag tags, stuck together and suspended from above, give a sense of the combination of humor and self-mythologizing he brought to the task of exhibition-making.
Across town, in the so-called Arts District, the ICA LA presented a satellite show, a restaging of “Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us,” for which Szeemann exhibited some 1,200 objects that had belonged to his grandfather, a barber, in the curator’s Bern apartment in 1974. What you make of this restaging depends a lot on how compelling you find Szeemann’s mythmaking. While the broadening of the purview of museum display was a vital project, undertaken by numerous curators in the 1960s and ’70s, “Grandfather” rests equally on personal fascination. And it’s exactly the kind of show that, if done today, I would find grating. This might, in fact, be the upshot of the question of Szeemann’s legacy and the banalization of the most radical aspects of his career: he gave birth to the New Curator but left her little opportunity for the kind of iconoclasm he practiced. She can still amass those bag tags though.
Sabrina Tarasoff: Before I ask you about your process, can you introduce the subjects of your recent exhibition “Showcaller” at the Kölnischer Kunstverein? Nudes, cityscapes, flies, nipples in chains: Where do they find family resemblances?
Talia Chetrit: I suppose it is possible to divide this show into three parts which are seemingly in contrast to each other. The aesthetics and approach are very different, but the work is unified by its relationship to privacy.
The Streets (2015–ongoing) photographs were all taken from tall buildings in New York City and were shot through glass windows using a long lens. These numerous layers of interruptions between the camera and the many subjects who walk the city below almost abstract the images. No one is aware that I’m taking their picture, and everyone remains fairly anonymous. I like to think that I’m both respecting and invading privacy in a single image. In the Sex (2016–ongoing) pictures, I am documenting my partner and I having sex in a picturesque, natural landscape. I am tethered to the camera by a long and visible cable release. There is a sense that the viewer is implicated in the act. The third part is a more loosely grouped set of black-and-white images of intimate moments, for example Fly on Body (2012), which captures the fleeting moment of contact when a fly lands on skin.
The sex pictures, the street photographs, and the small black and whites are very different types of work, but once they are positioned together, I hope that one is compelled to consider the dynamics of permission and intimacy. In doing so a triangulation begins between the body of work, the action of photographing, and the people observing the work. By positioning and contextualizing these bodies of work together, in close physical proximity, the process and specific intentions of each are called into question.
ST: Your last exhibition at Sies + Höke in Düsseldorf, “POSER,” repurposed photographs you had taken in your early teens, circa 1994–97. These portraits of yourself and your close friends hold some lackadaisical center, the centrifuge of adolescence I guess, around which other more recent photographs orbit. Bearing in mind that ours is a generation beholden to the soft idling of Sofia Coppola films, the Instagram aesthetic of girlish listlessness, all that diluted Edie Sedgwick-esque sadness idolizing the diabolical school of girlhood, we could probably talk a lot about girlhood and its co-optation in social media, how that relates to your image-making… But let’s start from here: How has your process and relationships to your subjects changed since you first started taking photographs?
TC: Of course, the way I think about images has changed, but the process and relationships to my subjects have not really changed at all. This similarity was articulated in “POSER,” where images I had taken in middle school and high school were combined with three recent self-portraits. My interest in reactivating the early pictures was to examine a teenage understanding of the representation of sexuality and an adult’s projection onto those same images. For the new pictures, I invited Corey Tippin, a prominent makeup artist within the New York scene in the 1970s, and we tried out a series of ideas together. As it turned out, this was not unlike the way my girlfriends and I had dressed up for the photographs taken in my teenage years. These images are a consciously constructed interpretation of self-image in front of a camera, in one case as a teenager and in the other as an adult. The intent, the references, and the relationship to ourselves — psychologically — and our bodies — physically — have evolved, but the dressing up and the posing remain similar. To have taken images from my archive and placed them into an exhibition twenty years later is a distinctive act that is as much a subject of the exhibition as the pictures themselves. At the time, those images were never going to be seen, but today those pictures would have immediately been publicly shared, and are an example of, as you say, the “Instagram aesthetic of girlish listlessness.”
ST: Where does failure come into this? In an Interview feature, you’re quoted saying that you considered your first exhibition a failure, and that it changed your thinking. Perhaps because much of your vocabulary overlaps with avant-garde photography and its formal elegance, your work often feels very calculated and finished. For example, “POSER” seemed to locate spaces (or faces) of intimacy in your youth and carry them into the present for reevaluation, which in itself might be considered as a reevaluation of what intimacy meant then and what it means now — as an affect, need, coping mechanism, fantasy, or something entirely else. There is so much margin for error in that, so much psychological murkiness. Does thinking about failure — such as past works that didn’t pan out as planned, or more to the point, photography’s inevitable shortcomings — help guide you through these spaces?
TC: In the Interview article you are referring to, I was speaking specifically of how I felt about my first exhibition, which was about ten years ago.
But, failure in the sense of vulnerability is something I seek to achieve. Sometimes imperfection is symbolic of vulnerability, and those intentional or unintentional flaws add dimension. For example, in the Murder (1997–2017) pictures that I took in high school, which were also included in “POSER,” I staged different murder scenarios with my friend. At the time I was experimenting with the boundaries of fictions, but what I like about them today is how flawed they actually are. In most of the pictures, my friend’s tightly laced-up boot appears to have been thrown off her foot. At the time I didn’t see this flaw, but I now see that mistake as a metaphor for the predatory situations that girls are forced to try and understand at a young age. I also allow for and encourage flaws in my work. I refer to the temporal aspects of the performance for the camera by showing clothing imprints and bra lines and often keeping the debris, like the clothing that was taken off and the equipment, in the edges of the frame. As you mentioned, these “failures” break down the fictions that are built in to the medium itself. There is a never-ending dialogue between fiction and the photograph as evidence.
ST: This feels closely related to problems that arise within the biographical format. As a writer, when stuck with the messy shape of a life and the slipperiness of writing, doubt can be entertained through speculation — through various accounts, through literary devices, even through the spaces of silence that come from subjects who are either dead or reluctant to share. What can be known about a subject, and what kind of meaning we can tease out from them, their expressions, are a difficult thing to convey in an image — and seems to motivate your practice. Photographing your family, covertly, or your friends; revisiting old materials; even in photographing yourself having sex with your partner. Biographers will often pursue their subjects because they are, in some aspect, unknowable to them. How does the “unknowable” within your subjects, or the impossibility of ever really knowing someone, inform your thinking about form?
TC: I agree that a subject is not knowable through a lens. But the presence of the camera both creates and reveals vulnerabilities in my subject (which is sometimes me), which can give access to understanding.
Sometimes it’s about setting up a situation in which my relationship with my subject is challenged in order to incorporate the camera. For example, in the sex pictures, I asked my then-new partner if he would be willing to participate. In some ways this was an attempt to challenge him and provoke an involvement in and a relationship to my work. There was also nothing at stake at the time, because these pictures could have never actually been shown to anyone. With that in mind, we were more engaged with the shoots as a performance between us and the camera.
The presence of the camera itself can also reveal an unknown side of the subject. An example of that dynamic occurred during a photo shoot with my parents. During the shoot, their interaction inspired me to videotape them without their knowledge. I only started taking the video because the photo shoot elicited a flirtation between them that I had not been a part of before. In Parents (2014), my dad is seen kissing my mother’s neck as she coyly asks: “Aren’t you glad I showered?” By revealing on video these in-between moments, when we were negotiating the pictures, I was able to capture a glimpse of the insecurities and shifting power dynamics that are inherent to being both in front of and behind the camera. In this particular instance, the parent/child dynamic was further complicated by the reversal of power.
ST: Of your 2015 show at Sies + Höke, “I’m Selecting,” Art Writing Daily described your portraits as “l’origine du monde-selfies,” which is a nifty way to account for how sexuality in your work happens through convergences between historical and present considerations of self-image. In many of the earlier works, like Crotch (2012), a triangular shape of pubic hair photographed as a sort of geometrical composition, or even in later works like Untitled (Bottomless) (2015), in which your legs act as framing devices for splintered images, sexuality seems implied through an abstraction of form. There is a noticeable difference between the work from 2011/12, which was more fragmentary, composed, and clearly “experimental,” and your current work, which is in a way more fluid and tactile. Can you talk a bit about this? Is it only a formal change, a shift in interest, or also a shift in your thinking about sexuality? Or just what modern womanhood is?
TC: I appreciate that you were looking so closely to notice this shift. Power dynamics, agency, sexuality, and the psychology behind imagery have always been an important part of my work. Earlier I was signaling to and questioning the history of photography and Surrealism as a way to start the conversation. Over the last six years or so, I have found that using the specificity of my own life — experiences, body, family, partners — is a way for me to challenge far more. I am continually reacting to my own work, to shows and to the sequencing of the shows; and trying to build upon, expand, and undermine ideas already laid out in my work.
ST: That leads me to another category of your work: the Celine, Acne, Helmut Lang… With an aesthetic surface that seems to so easily seep into the mainstream, how do you complicate, disrupt, or think through a commercial lens vis-à-vis your artistic practice? It seems really difficult to know what photography is supposed to do these days when the distinction between private and public is so uniquely murky, and image management and self-branding have become full-time jobs for some. I wonder, for example, what it would mean to slap brand logos onto some of the photographs in “Showcaller”: How would they change? Could Streets #4 (2018) function just as well as a menswear ad for the nouveau business casual guy? Or Untitled (Outdoor Sex #1) (2018) act as a sequence in the new Natalie Portman “Miss Dior” ads? I’m not saying this to offend or be facetious, but to consider what happens to an image — and how easily — when it slips between what T.J. Clark has called “notions of virtuality and visuality?”
TC: There’s very little that separates an Instagram photo from an ad campaign from an artwork when the image is looked at on its surface level and in isolation. With a logo slapped on top, most images could function as a more-or-less successful ad. A commercial photo is an offer of sale and is a collaboration between a photographer, a client, a stylist, etc., to manage or massage a viewer’s perception of a brand. There is a directness and transparency about this that I appreciate. An ad is an end point or conclusion. An image for an exhibition is a starting point and is seen within a particular context, surrounded by a curated collection of other images, to hopefully begin a dialogue and encourage a viewer to delve into their own perceptions of the work.
ST: What about power’s relationship to intimacy? “Showcaller” might designate a lack —maybe reverie? — through its hazy distances. But your claim to authority over the images, the reminders of our complicity in their construction, make me think less about how photography as a medium works through those tensions, and more about how intimacy is forged and constructed through similar tensions. This may be returning to my first questions, full cycle — but what do you think? If we are to assume that a part of your pursuit in photography is to forge or construct intimacy, then to what end?
TC: Yes, this is full circle. That exhibition was titled “Showcaller” as a theatrical reference. A showcaller is the person who calls out cues, someone in an authoritative position but who ultimately is not in control. In this case, it was meant to point towards the performative aspects of the works in the exhibition. I consider this to be a good title for my work as a whole. The constructed situations and performances are controlled and staged for the camera, but so much of what then transpires can be seen as metaphorical and echoes current human experience. Conversations about overexposure and privacy arise; we are complicit in the permission to look, to analyze sexuality and to project our personal and cultural biases onto an image. With the pace in which the world of images is changing, it is important to critically unpack and analyze how things are evolving and what the evolution means.
Sabrina Tarasoff is a writer and independent art critic living in Los Angeles.
If you are a fan of the enigmatic musician Sun Ra, you’ll already like Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher’s exhibition “Better Dimension.” It’s a handsome show, and Ra inspired most of it. His oft-cited philosophical writings are reproduced in several works, notably in The Wisdom of Ra (2018). And though the musician is absent from the film installation Highway Gothic (2017), the work pays homage to Ra’s Afrofuturism by addressing segregation in New Orleans from an ecological perspective — even the prog rock soundtrack is in the spirit of his psychedelic imagination.
All art could be made about Ra for the next thousand years and I’d never get tired of it. But ultimately the show is a practical tutorial in utopia, which explains why Cleijne and Gallagher choose to focus on the peculiarities of Ra’s philosophy, rather than on his music directly. “That which is true in the world of one is only semi-true in the world of two,” reads a statement printed on the wall of Better Dimension (2010): “1 is a number / 1 is an alphabet.” The math might be hazy, but it still conveys Ra’s bountiful conviction that a better world is to be made from the basic stuff of this one.
It’s with some amateur magic that Cleijne and Gallagher take visitors to the promised land. Better Dimension’s four-sided structure is spotlit, and images from Ra’s notebooks cover the exterior. For those curious enough, the panels slide open and grant access to a comfortable if flimsy sanctuary. Inky psychedelic slides are projected on each wall, and a hologram of JFK’s disembodied head reflects the late president’s friendly demeanor. You really feel like you could remake it from stuff you have at home. Elsewhere, Nothing Is… (2013) couples Ra with one of his successors. The film is illustrated by hand, and bookends a quote from Ra’s poetry with a monkish portrait of science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. The text is clearly meant to inspire grand, new worlds: “The nothing and the air and the fire are really the same.” Like the rest of the show, the film convert’s Ra’s utopian vision into material resourcefulness, and asks visitors to listen carefully. After all, the film’s spacy soundtrack is actually the amplified sounds of the projector itself.