Interview /

Laurent Grasso Galerie Perrotin / Paris

Claudio Santoro in conversation with Laurent Grasso at Galerie Perrotin in Paris.

Claudio Santoro: The centerpiece of your recent exhibition “OttO” at Perrotin is a film shot in Yuendumu, Australia. You mentioned that indigenous landowners granted you access to sites according to Aboriginal protocol. I take it that this project is largely rooted in their complex history, which you said you wanted to “evolve instead of reflect upon.” Were you able to connect with the Yuendumu community while conducting research in the Northern Territory?

Laurent Grasso: The project doesn’t assume an « unreflexive approach » towards the history of aboriginal people. On the contrary, the very existence of the project was conditioned by a connection with the Yuendumu community. Like many of my projects, it was very intuitive from the beginning. I had an intuition that I would connect with this history and geography, so I asked that my research trip involve traveling to the Australian desert. There, we found many different communities and languages — there is not one Aboriginal culture — so we started searching to find an honest connection between my work and different parts of Australia. We were interested in the Northern Territory and Perth, as there are very strong electromagnetic fields there due to the metal mines. Art historian Darren Jorgensen and I started with very broad research, and discovered different kinds of phenomena and stories in the country that we collected over one year. I like contemporary mythology, as I have always viewed my work as somewhat anthropological, so we studied the light phenomenon known as Min Min light. We were also interested in caves with Aboriginal rock paintings in them, which due to a certain bacteria maintain very strong colors. This temporality and activation of power remained interesting for me, so we began to collaborate with the Warlpiri community, who introduced me to The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, and this began an exchange about Aboriginal people navigating their territories through stories and chapters in the book in relation to cosmology and astronomy.

Laurent Grasso, OttO, 2018
Laurent Grasso, OttO, 2018 © Laurent Grasso / ADAGP Paris, 2018. Courtesy of the artist & Perrotin

Many cultural bodies in Australia rightly acknowledge the history of Aboriginal inequality and dispossession in their programming, which becomes problematic as many of these initiatives are underpinned by a colonialist advantage. Did this political separatism influence the gaze of your research or is this an outsider story?

We had to take these political dynamics into account but We were not intending to talk about these main issues directly, we were more interested in a normal exchange which required being aware of their history.That being said, and beyond the perspective of the work itself, the obvious and clear message to restate is that the aboriginal people want to regain possession of their land. However, My work is not directly political or documentary in that I don’t want to illustrate a singular message and tend to dissociate myself from the kind of art that instrumentalizes political struggles and their victims under the pretense of serving their cause. Instead, We wanted it to be like a usual film collaboration. It could seem disconnected from this issue, but their life is not just about this long-term fight whose importance I however do not mean to minimize. It is also a daily life with an art center and practice. The Sydney Biennale informed us about the necessary protocols for an artist who wanted to collaborate with Aboriginal people over which the Warlpiri community has not much of a say and which at times even impeded the project. What allowed the project to exist was less the help of institutions than a shared enthusiasm with the people in Yuendumu.

I had one picture in mind to connect a scientific measuring of reality with an abstraction of their practice. I had another picture of this experiment in which some Buddhist monks are meditating under electroencephalography: a method of electrophysiological monitoring, and I wanted to connect these fields. We used hyperspectral thermal cameras to continue exploring this nonhuman perspective, which I’ve worked with in the past. It is a machine filming something totally unknown to itself. I was really interested in the research of Eduardo Kohn, and this idea of anthropology and geology becoming studied from a futuristic perspective. This was a way in which I was able to work without knowing too much about these methods of research, using futuristic tools to study something old and sacred, and putting these two fields together to create this imaginary fiction, in which it could be possible to visualize the radiation of these natural sites.

 

Laurent Grasso, Lakhovsky, 2018
Laurent Grasso, Lakhovsky, 2018 © Laurent Grasso / ADAGP Paris, 2018. Courtesy of the artist & Perrotin

 

There are moments in the film in which we see acid yellows oozing out of rock crevices, and a new lexicon emerges between the viewer (human or otherwise) and the land, which is something I see as inextricably linked to Aboriginal Dreamtime.

This is what the Aboriginal people said of the project. I didn’t try to express their point of view or appropriate their forms; it was an interpretation, or re-creation, the real stories of how they interpret the country are secret and, before starting the project, I knew that being interested in the aboriginal traditions meant preserving their secrets. I had to find a way to show the status of these places without access to their historical belief system. So I created this sense of fear, as a kind of visual emanation or exploration of what could be sensed in these sacred sites.

Do you see a sequential narrative in the film?

My work more often deals in a visual narrative or sensation, or something that suspends the viewer in a kind of floating moment, where different meanings are crossing each other, rather than clarifying one particular message or story. There are different stories together in the film. This what I try to do with all the objects in the exhibition at Perrotin Paris — objects crossed by different forces, which create a tension that goes in many directions. I like this floating status between one state and another. In alchemic exercises, one might metaphysically charge something in order to alter its state. My work is in line with this potential power along with a certain radiation: it’s not just readymade objects — I try to create things, and here it becomes obvious in the use of frequencies. The spirals that you can see are inspired by Georges Lakhovsky, who created tools to cure people of illness using frequencies, most famously with the Multiple Wave Oscillator. Here, you have a portrait of Lakhovsky, and of the original machinery he created. I am interested in the power of the machine.

Claudio Santoro is Flash Art Online Editor.

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Review /

Katja Novitskova Whitechapel Gallery / London

I catch sight of a partial phrase, rotating like a mobile above me: “though it lacks eyes, it can still see light.” The text is printed across translucent resin, its gelatinous curves insinuate neuroimaging; black dots court red foci, arrows gesture toward some viral travel.

Several similar signs border Katja Novitskova’s “Invasion Curves”the latest iteration of her roving project, which has traveled from the Venice Biennale to KUMU museum in Tallinn, to London’s Whitechapel Gallery. Here, Novitskova’s scaffold drips in limp, tentacular wires; a sequence of egg-shaped microbial close-ups introduces a hemisphere of bedazzling baby rockers.

Human life has no profound influence; its presence is relict or ostracized. The attraction to colonial expansion is less geographical and more biological, and in this light we rely on the technosphere — big-data analysis, genetic engineering, AI, digital pattern processing — to see in unprecedented depth and detail. In this regard, “Invasion Curves” solicits no projective future, nor science fiction. Rather, Novitskova uncovers and conceives new dimensions previously imperceptible to the naked eye: the surface of Mars, individual neurons of a lab-test worm, or satellite images of storm patterns. Particulate and celestial, the material is produced not only by machines but for other like-minded technologies. With this imaging we recognize the proximity between realism and science fiction — that their difference lies in the level of representational energy each expends to either reflect a past reality or project a parallel one. Novitskova manipulates this coalescence: that to translate the eminently real is to only visualize a further fiction.

Stylistically, Novitskova reduces her complex source material into flat cutouts or kitsch assemblages in ways that ape the stupor induced by big data. Though the resin signs appear liminal, it is the baby rockers that assume the most defining presence. Each is embellished with robotic bugs, Swarovski crystals, stress pills, silicon stress eggs, tree mushrooms, and acrylic massagers. In their laser-strewn jittering, cradling digital scans and accompanied by Kareem Lotfy’s glitchy lullaby, they appear goofy yet sentient, as though humanity were mere precursors to their evolution.

“Invasion Curves” hints at the paradox of automation, that the more machines learn, the more humans unlearn. It is a flirtation with the obliteration of human dominion, a subordinating side-eye. Novitskova recognizes that we are metabolically involved in the world via the data we harvest from it, that the simulation of the world is part of the world, that natural ecosystems are increasingly artificial.

This is true of Annual Reports (2018), sixteen digital prints on clay finished in metallic nail polish. Their information from weather satellites, extinction graphs, and MRI scans are deliberately abstracted and bear the most unsettling and literally graphic tone. It is like a mirroring of what a human eye can recognize — significantly less than what the machine captures or the algorithm calculates. Eyeless yet superior, and as a nearby sign reads: drunk with power.

by Alex Bennett

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Review /

Danh Vo Statens Museum for Kunst / Copenhagen

Nemo propheta in patria is a saying valid for many, but not for Vietnamese-born Danish artist Danh Vo. His art speaks a language, tonally and thematically, that is very close to the prophet’s ability to evoke historical events through images of great emotional impact, thus influencing collective thinking. Many of Vo’s most famous works are powerful and sibylline, sensual and often subtly uncanny. In Oma Totem (2009), the artist creates a bizarre fetish of immigration by piling the objects donated by social services to his grandmother upon her arrival in Germany; or in Christmas (Rome) (2012–13), the shadows left by religious artifacts on velvet wall-coverings once used in the Vatican’s museums are transformed into a visual memento mori.

These and several dozen other pieces constitute “Take My Breath Away” — the almost omni-comprehensive survey of Vo’s production that, after being presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York last spring, has recently taken over a large part of the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. The exhibition rightly rejects chronology and focuses on an installation system that underlines the force of Vo’s artistic personality: that of a “borderline archivist” who combines sources and eras with no apparent criteria, mixing highbrow and popular culture with nonchalance, winking at globalism while celebrating the singularity of each story.

But many choices in the show are perplexing. In one of the two exhibition rooms, the storage shelves take the archival note a bit too literally, and the spotlights create a theatrical atmosphere that exaggerates the works’ dramatic charge, depriving them of that cool touch that suits them so well. The exhibition catches its breath in other areas such as the entrance hall and SMK’s Sculpture Street, where Vo displayed the scattered pieces of We the People in 2013; but if on the one hand these in-between spaces are more appropriate for a less inhibited experience of Vo’s art, on the other hand they become a set for a series of ad-hoc collaborative projects that, among other things, see the artist restyling the auditorium’s cushions and redecorating the new cafeteria with plaster statues borrowed from the Royal Cast Collection.

In general, there is a certain anxiety in curating an artist who is very good at curating himself, and this does nothing but provide him with opportunities to broaden his brand of “serial appropriator.” The impression is that everything Danh Vo touches becomes gold; but as we know from the myth of King Midas, this can be a blessing as well as a curse.

by Paola Paleari

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Interview /

Cole Lu: Animal Fancy

In Western folklore, monsters often undergo processes of bodily manipulation in which they are torn apart and stitched together into Frankensteinian forms. Estranged, dispossessed, misunderstood, and feared — they are eternally othered. In her latest body of work, Cole Lu reimagines myths of monstrosity into a speculative — and at times satirical — fiction that is based on her own personal narrative of illness and alienation.

 

Stephanie Kang: You preface “Animal Fancy” with a quote from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: “And life? Life itself? Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter? Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial?” How does this novel about the isolating journey of a man diagnosed with tuberculosis relate to the narratives you’ve created in “Animal Fancy” and “While Removing the Garbage or Paying the Cleaner”?

Cole Lu: I see the community in The Magic Mountain as a tiny model of society that reflects the very nature of human beings, particularly in the ways that they treat issues of illness and exile. And in this kind of enclosed microcosm, the environment can easily become toxic and isolating for outsiders, who are perceived as atypical and potentially dangerous. When reading Mann’s writing, I sensed some coding for queerness within the language of infectious materials, and the overlap between experiencing otherness as someone who is queer and was once disabled with an illness is eminently relatable. Essentially, how humans perceive otherness is so ubiquitous, so I wanted to express this using the visual language of a very familiar anthropological principle.

 

Yes, Mann’s portrayal of exclusionary communities is, of course, a familiar story for many. How then do the themes in The Magic Mountain relate to your own biography? Looking at the pieces you’ve included in the exhibitions, they all read as deeply personal. How are they infused with your own experiences?

The Magic Mountain particularly relates to my experience of being treated for tuberculosis. It’s an illness that you’re more likely to contract when you have a deficient immune system or an inflammation of the lungs; and because of the nature of its contraction, it sometimes overlaps with HIV patients. Since tuberculosis is such a stigmatized illness and I’m a queer person, I encountered some false assumptions about my status. When I was in the ER for over thirty-six hours with a fever, I was misdiagnosed with pneumonia, offered the incorrect medication, and forced to undergo an invasive bronchoscopy procedure. All of this medical mistreatment could have been easily prevented with a sputum culture, but because the doctors falsely believed that this illness was “less likely to be contracted by a young person,” I was dangerously misdiagnosed. Geographically, emotionally, and physically, I was isolated. I felt othered and stigmatized because of my physical health, sexual orientation, and immigration status all at once. It was like I was being reduced to a nonhuman (a thing or a label) — as a foreign, ill, gay person.

In The Magic Mountain, the protagonist’s three-week visit to a sanitarium is unexpectedly extended to seven years. His time there became like a steep, steady climb up a mountain that seemed to have no summit. The plot felt familiar to my situation as an immigrant, who was also experiencing an extreme illness. While my time undergoing treatment was unexpectedly extended, my visa status review period was simultaneously delayed. There was so much anxiety, agony, and pain in those processes of waiting in limbo.

These perceptions are threaded together in their shared experiences of otherness or, as you say, being seen as nonhuman. This then brings up the subject of monsters, which seems to be a central source material for you in this project. How do you see myths of monstrosity relating to The Magic Mountain’s themes of illness and isolation?

As I mentioned, tuberculosis is a highly stigmatized illness — a sentiment that is often placed on both the queer community and immigrants. When you’re from a certain country (that is not predominantly occupied by Anglo-Saxons) you’re perceived as an alien, someone who carries foreign bacteria. And when the body is constitutively bound to a disease, it is separated into parts, and you’re not seen as a whole human. As Mann writes in The Magic Mountain, “Illness makes people even more physical, turns them into only a body, […] just as disease in an organism was the intoxicating enhancement and crude accentuation of its own corporeality.” Going through such an antagonizing process of being treated like a nonhuman (i.e. through language in medical or daily usage, general stereotyped responses, and behavioral reactions) made me feel ostracized, dehumanized, and monstered. It felt like I was stamped with a label of danger, like I was a monster that needed to be caged so that I wouldn’t spread my disease.

This follows a long tradition of discriminatory viewpoints from this villainizing perspective that decides what is considered a transmittable disease and who is perceived as highly contagious (dangerous).

I believe that mythology is a gateway for introducing these thoughts to an unauthenticated narrative, and I’m particularly interested in how it tends to portray monsters as othered and animalized. And that is where the title of the exhibition comes from: animal fancy, a hobby involving the appreciation, promotion, or breeding of pets and domestic animals. This desire to categorize animals and monsters is very similar to Western accounts of race, gender, and colonialism.

Cole Lu, Some are lulled, then, 2018
Cole Lu, Some are lulled, then, 2018, installation view at American Medium, New York. Courtesy of the artist.

While you speak generally about Western perspectives and their relation to monsters, you point specifically to the iconic tale Beauty and the Beast by inserting visual signifiers and vignettes from the Disney film into your sculptures and reliefs. What is the significance of this particular source for you?

While making this work, I was very aware of my place within Western culture. Personally, I see it as something that I was exposed to unwillingly as a child. So I wanted to use source material from Western culture for this series, and address this experience of being an outsider using the language and collective memory of a certain kind of folklore with a common understanding.

Like many other Disney movies from my childhood, Beauty and the Beast has an embedded problem of othering whoever is not considered white, straight, able, and healthy. So anyone who doesn’t fall into those categories is either a monster, a home appliance (unwillingly), someone with a major personality flaw, or a source of comic relief. I think that makes this film a suitable platform to talk about intersections of diversity.

But while the movie does have its problems, it simultaneously functions as a source of comfort for me. In the story, the protagonist is an independent thinker who doesn’t abide by heteronormative social values, and she falls in love with someone who is not human. They come to recognize each other as mutual outsiders from society. I particularly related to the Beast’s experience of isolation during my time in quarantine. While I was receiving chemo medicine, the most basic actions, like breathing or moving, became difficult. It was like my body wasn’t whole anymore. Thankfully I was still able to read (after five hours of brain-mush from my medication every day), and that allowed me to take my mind to other places. In difficult times, you seek comfort and perhaps cope with magical thinking, so reading and fantasy became my personal antidotes.

 

There are clear distinctions in process and output in “Animal Fancy” and “While Removing the Garbage or Paying the Cleaner” to your previous works. Would you consider it to be a departure, an extension, or an evolution from your previous work?

I see them as a bridge between my old and new works, particularly in their utilization of readymades. And while many of these pieces are about the stimulation of time and tactility, I’m still trying to maintain the same conceptual rigor. I think it’s all about that balance for me now. When I’m putting together a readymade object, I think it through thoroughly and look at every object I have. Then as I begin compiling its form, the idea is composed and finalized in the process. It’s like going through this journey in my head that no one else knows about. But with the more tactile strategy, the idea that I want to execute is already fully formed. They both act as alternative forms of therapeutic release for me.

Cole Lu (b. Taipei) is an artist, curator, and writer based in New York.

Stephanie Kang is an artist, writer, and historian currently pursuing a PhD in art history from Ohio State University.

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Report /

FRONT International / Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art

The theme of the first FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art is “An American City.” Like most art festivals, the idea is not only to present and celebrate art, but to use the work of contemporary artists as an introduction and invitation to experience the host city. This summer saw a profusion of new art festivals springing up in the Midwest — which is doing its best to rightly assert itself as a hotbed of artistic talent and opportunity outside some U.S. capital cities that have become difficult places for artists to make a living.

Events like Open Spaces in Kansas City and Detroit Art Week also debuted this summer, and all of these new festivals are figuring out their identities. FRONT is perhaps the best organized and most heavily financed among them, having taken the last three years to develop its inaugural content and curriculum. It’s clear that curator Michelle Grabner, a Wisconsin native, made a serious and successful effort to engage with the city of Cleveland, in part by not restricting herself to conventional art institutions as settings for dozens of installations featuring more than one hundred artists.

For example, the downtown Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland is a financial institution, and while its interior is elaborately appointed with decorative metalwork, inlaid marble floors, and historic frescoes and murals, these serve primarily to bolster confidence in the abstract system of federal finance and the American dollar. There is a kind of delicious tension, then, to Grabner’s decision to make this venue host to a new iteration of a work by Philip Vanderhyden, Volatility Smile 3 (2018), which directly references ideas of financial insecurity from both a personal and a market perspective. Vanderhyden’s installation is a digital video work that plays out across a series of twenty large flat-screen televisions on stands, arranged to form a kind of digital folding partition along one ell of the Fed’s wing of teller stations. The looping content of the video is a dynamic, psychedelic whirl of morphing and transforming imagery, rotating in virtual space. The figurative elements draw details from the location’s architecture, among other sources; there are telescoping eagles, gilded faces, leaves and wheat drawn from representations of the commodities of the region. The title refers to the smiley-face shape that appears on a pricing graph during moments of great market instability (causing a sharp dip in the value of a given entity), and the work is intended to convey some of Vanderhyden’s feelings about the financial instability of being a professional artist — someone whose stock might rise or drop precipitously, due to forces beyond one’s control — as well as to invoke that same kind of roller-coaster anxiety in the viewer. Certainly, the ceaseless churn and change of Volatility Smile 3 gives the observer no easy resting place. Its modern-ness, both in content and form, stands out in high contrast to the classic and ornate 1923 architecture of the high-ceilinged bank, leaving one with a sense that perhaps these structures were built without being able to predict the change that capitalism would wreak on the future. One wonders if the center can, indeed, hold.

Michael Rakowitz, A Color Removed (2018 — ongoing) installation view
Michael Rakowitz, A Color Removed (2018 — ongoing) installation view. Commissioned by SPACES for FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. Photography by Field Studio.

One thing conspicuously missing from FRONT’s otherwise ambitious and expansive effort to present Cleveland, the eponymous American city, is a lack of Clevelanders. Not only are the bulk of regional artists relegated to a single exhibition space, but most of the city’s local talent — which, it should be understood, comprises a community that has held Cleveland in trust as it struggled through decades of dissolution and financial collapse due to waning industry — was excluded entirely from the festival’s design and content. One cringes a bit at the great investment of resources in a Cleveland art event, when so little of it ultimately ends up supporting the artists of that place, or addressing the concerns of its permanent residents. The exception to this oversight is the exhibition hosted by SPACES, a longtime grassroots exhibition space and residency program that has, for decades, staked its identity as a place for Cleveland art, even as its SWAP program brings in residents from around the country and the globe.

For FRONT, SPACES presented an ongoing installation work by Michael Rakowitz, whose oeuvre demonstrates a similar passion for making art that connects with the people of a given place — especially overlooked or neglected communities. A Color Removed (2017–18) is an attempt to redact the color “safety orange” from the entire city of Cleveland (an effort that would be impossible, even if it were not one of the colors of the football team, the Cleveland Browns) as a response to the 2014 police shooting of a twelve-year-old boy named Tamir Rice. The official justification for the shooting, which took place within seconds of cops descending upon Rice as he played alone in a Cleveland park, was that the toy gun he was holding had the orange cap — which indicates it is not a weapon — removed. Rakowitz’s work raises questions about who deserves safety: if not Tamir Rice, then perhaps no one in Cleveland should have “safety orange.” The work has collected hundreds of objects via street kiosks. These have been installed in the back exhibition space, which hosts a battery of community-based programming. In the front gallery, Rakowitz turned the space over to a curated group of Cleveland-based artists, ruminating on the subject of gun and police violence, and the impact it has on their lives and communities.

These two very different approaches to FRONT show the wide range of possibilities presented by this extraordinarily complex and dynamic festival. Grabner’s work is detailed and will be a tough act to follow. But one hopes, as this American city begins to take its place among the pantheon of international art destinations, it remembers to bring its residents and artists along for the journey.

by Sarah Rose Sharp

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Review /

RAGGA NYC Mercer Union / Toronto

RAGGA NYC is a cross-disciplinary collective of Queer Caribbean artists and their allies. This growing network recently staged an eponymous exhibition in Toronto, their first project outside of New York City. For generations, art in Toronto has been primarily shaped by artist-initiated activities, making artist-run centers the go-to platforms for practices that don’t fit neatly within the commercial gallery or museum systems.

The show was hosted by Mercer Union, a forty-year-old artist-run space that had early support from funding bodies. As a self-organizing collective operating outside of state support, RAGGA NYC’s programming resonates with a new generation of similarly independent artist initiatives in Toronto. The exhibition features the work of Tau Lewis alongside six other Toronto-based artists who join the collective for the first time: Michèle Pearson Clarke, Oreka James, Aaron Jones, Camille Turner, and Syrus Marcus Ware; as well as Sondra Perry and Diamond Stingily.

Framing the entrance of the exhibition are individual works by Perry and Stingily. Perry’s framed photo Acrylic Gel Full Set and Post Holy Land Experience Target Photo Shoot Print (2016) shows a group of women assembled for what appears to be a family portrait. A central matriarchal figure looks out toward the viewer while the other subjects look into their phones, posing for selfies. Perry’s humor offers insight into the contemporary status of portraiture, while the artist’s placement of hands at the edge of the print underscores the persistent tactility of imagemaking. In Stingily’s Kaa (2015), synthetic tresses cascade down the wall and across the floor. Hair is fragile yet resilient — two qualities intrinsic to collective practice and the reproductive labor necessary to maintain it. Both works are exercises in intimacy, apt gestures of the kinship RAGGA fosters.

Diamond Stingily, Kaa, 2015
Diamond Stingily, Kaa, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Simon Cole. Installation view at Mercer Union, 2018. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

In the back room of the gallery, which also includes works by Martine Gutierrez and RAGGA founder Christopher Udemezue, Sweet Country (2018) by Aaron Jones unfolds as a complex composition. A series of collages deconstructing representations of black bodies clipped from art history textbooks, issues of National Geographic, and pop-culture magazines hang directly before a print of a pastoral landscape left rough at the edges and adhered directly to the wall. Suspended from wire, recto and verso are alternatively revealed as the collages slowly revolve — an image arrives, an image eludes, and history turns.

by Jacob Korczynski

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