The materials of your work often challenge the taboos of the West, however in a lot of indigenous cultures the usage of animal/human body parts in rituals and daily activities remains merely a social norm. Have you been inspired by any of those, or indirectly by any historical pastiche of such practice, like what Hermann Nitsch did in Das Orgien Mysterien Theater.
The failure to see the strangeness or the moral turpitude of something just because it is “normal” and commonplace is exactly what much of my work is about. I’m trying to make us see the obvious, what is right in front of us. It is often exactly the things we accept without thinking that should actually be taboo, whereas it is thinking and talking about them that we have contrived to avoid or to render taboo instead, often through misdirection or fake outrage – the way that “patriotism” has been used to co-opt the racism/national anthem debate, to cite a currently popular example.
We’re touching dead animals all the time, using them in all sorts of contexts, including what we might also call “rituals,” such as dinner, for example, or getting dressed. Though we’re obviously somewhat wary of dead humans, or at least of touching or seeing dead humans, we’re constantly producing them through our social and economic complicity in a system that requires them as a major by-product if not as an outright goal, and I’m far from certain about any benefit of the doubt I’d like to extend regarding the latter. The only thing we really don’t want to do is to admit that fact, and vast social structures exist to make it possible for us to avoid doing so, or to render us incapable of doing so. Look at how perplexed we were when the unfettered Id of Donald Trump, in what should have been a moment of general clarity, spewed the one amazing truth we might attribute to him, when he said, “You think our country is so innocent?”
So, for me, the “taboo” of the material isn’t real, especially since I find beauty or powerful specificity in almost any sort of material. It’s just a sham that we maintain to avoid the real taboos, which are moral, economic, military, and political, and in order to address them I use these substitute “problematic” materials. What does the material represent that we so fear in it, I often wonder? Usually it’s the challenge to our unearned and unexamined privilege, to our thoughtless plunder, to our gluttony, to our systematized prejudices, to our unacknowledged violence or unexamined lives in general.
I certainly appreciate aspects of both the ritual practice of indigenous cultures and the work of an artist like Nitsch, who uses heightened reality, panic, or even terror tactics to intensify the sense that life has become unmoored from genuine meaning, though I’m highly skeptical that there is a “nature” to which we might return and make things all better. And what I definitely don’t abide is the notion that violence has any part in reclaiming nature in ourselves; the alleged connection between violence and the sacred only makes me skeptical of “the sacred” itself, at least as it functions in a patriarchy. Nitsch’s case is more complicated than this, of course, and he’s always playing on the uncertain distinction between the staged and the real and the extent to which ritual, which is another way of saying art, can bridge or affect it, and this has broad philosophical implications, but I am unable to see the killing of even a symbolic hecatomb as justified by the ritual power it may suggest or even secure. If it is done precisely to address the divide between art and life, and the artist thereby becomes a sort of liminal figure whose crimes fall outside the pale of social life, much as Hobbes’s sovereign (and all actual sovereignties) commit their atrocities on behalf of the polity under a standing absolution, it even more forcefully casts the whole social, or art, contract into question.
The kinds of artists who affect me more intensely do often work with natural or unconventional art materials, sometimes dramatically or provocatively, and I am often engaged in thinking about the work of artists like Eva Hesse, Antoni Tàpies, Paul Thek, Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, Michel Nedjar, Dolores Salcedo, Ana Mendieta, May Wilson, Teresa Margolles, Anselm Kiefer, Marc Quinn, or Vic Muniz. The ways in which they might be said to have influenced my work, though, are as obscure to me as the ways in which what I ate ten or forty years ago has affected my body, but they, too, are somehow in its fiber.
You said that your book work tends to be more of a celebration of the book than an inquisition or an attempt to re-define it. However, are you concerned about the nature of such media being the typical objectification of art? We all know that art gets turned into objects anyway when they are displayed at a gallery, but would taking the form of books voluntarily worsen such issue?
I have a different history with the book than most people do. Although there was really only one book in my parents’ house, I learned printing and print-making when I was quite young, and I had a devout relationship with literary culture, probably more devout because I came to it as a foreigner (I mean in the sense that it wasn’t in my upbringing at home), which persists to this day. I also spent twenty years as an antiquarian bookseller, so my sense of what a book is is quite articulated. Although the quote you cite was related to my practice making unique artist’s books and is therefore not necessarily applicable to my relationship to the book in general, I do think of the book as a spiritual entity, a living thing that only looks like an object or a utilitarian instrument, that seems to be one thing when it is in fact something that is constantly renewing itself, constantly changing, and changing us. It is the one unique element of human culture that unmistakably asserts our complicated spiritual being. I’ve spoken elsewhere about making art “subjects” as opposed to art objects, which was profoundly related to the question of material in my work – I want it to be unmediated in some way, to be itself, to be articulate even though it “is not,” to have its own voice – and I think that my insistence that the fundamental form my work has taken is always the book bespeaks this desire, to an even more extreme extent. Nothing is more intractable, more multifarious, more resistant to objectification, less an object in fact, than the book, almost to the point of not existing per se, so, to my mind, far from limiting or stifling the spirit of my work, the book opens it to the full range of possibility, as experience and as interpretation. That we misunderstand and misuse it, or ignore its deeper nature is irrelevant, except in the sense that its tendency to encourage misunderstanding, or to admit only imperfect understanding, is also what protects it and insures that its power is never lost.
Whether it has been my intention or simply the natural expression of my inmost perspective, my art has always struggled with the limitations of space, or of object-hood. It seems to me to resist straightforwardly inhabiting the physical world in spite of its obsession with material. First, the basic objects, the Ur-objects, if you will, have often been inherently ephemeral: They decay and cease to exist as such. (In a way I want to situate them in relation to the gods who have always absconded, or the “forms”/ideals that are always ghosts for us and which have haunted the history of philosophy.) Second, they are presented as documentations, or “appearances” of objects, so they are second-order objects at best from the very inception of their life as art-works. Third, they are deceitful objects from the outset, purporting to be something they are not in order to draw attention to what they are and why they are that way; contrary to the way that art material is typically self-effacing, their material specificity is what they want to assert, but they prevail upon the normal expectation of the viewer and her reflexive response to create a tense and ambivalent relationship between what they are and what they appear to be. Then they are immersed in the dialogue of other artists with whom I’ve collaborated, verbal artists, further muddying the waters, sometimes precisely by clarifying, of where they end and other thought begins or just what the relationships among them are supposed to be. They are situated within a thicket of voices, already buzzing with ambiguity before they’ve even presented themselves, and fixed within a book, prevailing upon conventions of presentation and reception to give the false impression that this is an “object” of a certain very definite sort. They are both recessive, fleeing or eluding the viewer, even as they lie in wait to turn upon her with the truth of their material substance. They seem to me to oscillate between the mundane and the ethereal, which some have mistaken for a literality simply because, as I see it, they occupy two almost perfectly overlapping but radically different spaces simultaneously, the space of image or representation and the space of the thing itself, which constitutes the impetus for or the unease that demands reflection.
Specifically regarding the unique artist’s book, this is a realm in which it is almost irrelevant who has made it, precisely because so few people nowadays care about books at all. It therefore honors the contemplative or private, the “I and Thou” purpose of art in a way that almost nothing being made for “display” these days does, and by people who are uninterested in or dejected by the market aspect of the art sphere. The makers of unique artist’s books speak to a very small and engaged audience, and their modest compensation is at most in the respect of their colleagues and precious few others. Both of these facts insure that the work is despised. I mean that because their very essence runs counter to what most art buyers care about and because most non-institutional galleries would not exhibit them because they are not likely to be profitable, they don’t, in effect, exist for the art world. They resist the market, they resist objectification, precisely because they are rejected by it, a quite natural reaction to the obvious fact that they disdain its enormous self-importance entirely.
You mentioned that you once paused the human ash drawing portrait project since as a German artist such subject would involuntarily conjure thoughts of the Nazi atrocities for many viewers. However while your materials are more profoundly personal and psychological than of social-political means, how do you reconcile such possible conflicts?
The two aren’t separate or separable; I am definitely a political artist in a broad sense of the term, just as we are all political beings even when the last thing on our minds is politics, a truth many of us have been forced to reckon with in a way we never anticipated during the current political terror, or to be generous, let’s say turmoil. So I don’t really want to reconcile the conflicts to which you refer. In a certain way the discomfort that they might inadvertently arouse isn’t necessarily unwelcome, though I occasionally fear that it will distract from what I’m more intent on saying, and in the specific case in point, I was uncomfortable with the possibility that the narrative could be completely overtaken by something that is really peripheral, though far from irrelevant to it. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to forestall those almost inevitable thoughts – after all, I had had some version of them myself – as to clarify what is different in my motivations from what the Nazis were doing, or, really, what is different in art and in “politics” in general, and it wasn’t until I had thought the matter through that I felt I could continue with the work. I wanted at least to be sure that the work itself clearly embodied my own perspective before I was willing to submit it to misunderstanding or possible attack. The fact that the distinction between humane and malign principles or intentions is often not clear in the (historical) moment, means that even the best intentions can easily go horribly awry, a fact that is at the heart of so much human misery and destruction over the centuries. It has far more often been on the basis of what their advocates saw as noble principles that horrific acts have been committed than that evil has been honestly and unequivocally embraced. As deplorable as their views must strike us nowadays, I find it hard to believe that brilliant figures we now readily abominate as anti-Semites such as Heidegger, Paul De Man, T.S. Eliot, Celine, Ezra Pound, or Knut Hamsun, even Wagner, artists and thinkers we know in some powerful sense to be of a deep humanity, would not have recoiled before the consequences of their thinking if they could have understood how it would be enacted in history. Some might conclude that it is well that the life of the mind or the life of the spirit be sequestered from the realm of the political and practical, but I think that the mind of the artist is already polluted, or let’s just say affected, by the world of politics long before it finds itself in its work – we’re living in society before we come to the possibility of understanding or criticizing it. And the reason art and thought have so insistently retreated from the “real world” is often precisely because they understand this insidious dynamic. The historical development of the rift certainly bore Plato’s disastrous foray into political life in mind – it’s interesting that he was more afraid of art than politics – and if we can admit the entertainment career of a Ronald Reagan or a Donald Trump into even the anteroom of “culture” or art, we, too, should be chastened by the consequences for politics, but, to my mind, these salient examples of mis-guided artists and philosophers are as nothing compared to the hordes of loathsome non-artists or would-be artists who’ve ruined the world; it’s only because we rightly hold the creative genius to a vastly higher standard than the typical political operative that we can even entertain the question, but doesn’t that also tell us something about our true values? Hitler was a failed artist, after all; Mussolini was a crappy novelist, Goebbels wrote doggerel, and Stalin, for all that he at least attempted to contribute to the universal dialogue of the mind, wrote mostly gibberish. I don’t see anyone swooning into ecstasies over Mao’s poetry either.
The last thing I want to do is artificially restrict the domain of art or its influence. Like much of the post-high-modern art movement, from Cage, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Conner, and especially Lurie, Schneemann, and Tambellini on, I want my art to be part of the world, to be in and of the world and active in it, too, to have effects in the real world and in the lives of people.
If making the political about the personal has always been a tactic of distracting attention from the most important matters, making the personal political can derail such glib and disingenuous perspectives as moneyed interests and their lobbyists and partisan stooges in government represent.
Your work also appears to be direct and literal. I remember back in art school being taught not to photograph cemeteries or to use footage of vagina tightening surgery regardless the context they serve. It’s funny how the art world is so afraid of falling into the trap of “shock value” materials that it established its own taboos. However, in terms of the effects, do you prefer to create such an immediate relationship between the work and the viewer, or do you expect them to go further?
I think that the critical notion of “literal” is a mistake in art, and I think you are right to suggest that it has been adopted in order to advance an agenda or perspective that, while it is not necessarily illegitimate, is certainly limited and limiting, and imposes a totally unnecessary “taboo,” seemingly in deference to an aesthetic that compels art to be subordinate to or haughtily dismissive of the order of reality, but in any case separate an unequal. That there must be distance, or irony, or whatever reflects one understanding of or one possibility for art, a position that was once of far greater importance and efficacy than it is now, a stage on its way, if you will, but it is also a possibility that seems to me to confine its potential effects to the realm of the imaginary, the utopian, the irreal, ultimately the irrelevant. (At the same time, it may well be that nothing is genuinely literal, since representation is always part of any communication, and it’s only a matter of degree how “literal” any given communication might be.) Are Duchamp’s ready-mades literal? It would seem that nothing could be more literal. And yet what was more provocative in his day, and still so paradoxically compelling even now? It is almost the equivalent in art of Russell’s class paradox, which, silly though it might seem, dismantled the core of Fregean foundation theory in math. Or Joseph Cornell: In some of his most sublime works, he has done almost nothing, a gesture here, a placement there, in which the hand of the maker is all but absent, and the world comes into the work almost as water seeps into the rock. Even an erasure or a removal can be the very thing that makes a work great. I want to invoke many others, as well, but perhaps especially Joseph Beuys, who demonstrated that material alone, with no great physical input from an artist, maybe none at all in the most extreme examples, can be elevated to the heights of human meaning by the addition of, or even the mere implication of a story, even a false story, by which it is redeemed from simple object-hood – what, after all, is a piece of felt to the uninformed viewer – but even without the pseudo-autobiography (or maybe more real autobiography for its being so very “auto”), our mind comes to the thing and invests it with meaning, precisely because that is the nature of mind. So, if simple choice can be the means by which art comes into being, and of course choice is already distance, I don’t recognize the thrust of the quibble over so-called literality.
As to vagina tightening surgery: Who wouldn’t be fascinated with that? That doesn’t mean that its imagery can be immediately translated into art, but it would definitely be far more worth seeing than quite a lot of art, and certainly has the potential to make us think about our relationship to our bodies and how that has been affected by technology, by history, by self-consciousness, by advertising or propaganda, by the Zeitgeist, etc. It would obviously depend on any number of more or less subtle decisions that the artist might make whether it had meaning as art as well. But if death and sex and the body are not suitable subjects for art, we have probably lost its thread.
I expect my work to stimulate thought; perhaps that’s partly why I always surround it with thought in the form of writing. While I would like to agree straightforwardly with Duchamp that art that remains primarily retinal is inert, I’m not even sure that there is such an art, but only greater and lesser degrees of it, and even that whole continuum is subject to change with time, perspective, and values. In any case, the so-called “literal” is often the space in which profound truths are so impacted that they cannot be recognized as anything but themselves, cannot be discussed because they seem so obvious, and it may require a long and imperceptible erosive process before we can come to see them as constructed, articulated, and ambivalent.
It’s remarkable that as a curator the shows you organized are most likely an extension of your own oeuvre as an artist: in regards to flesh, books, death or female identity, all of which the core in your own vocabulary. How do you integrate your curatorial and editorial projects with your own art practice, or do you consider it a separate role?
For me, curating is a creative act in much the same way that Borges saw the anthology as an art-form, and an important art-form, or Benjamin saw the creation of the personal library as a profound work of art, even as the appropriation movement recognizes that the simple act of choice, identification of a significant image, or isolation, or rescue, of such an image from a tendentious or oppressive context, is aesthetically powerful, and we might again invoke the artistic practice of a Cornell as the epitome of this sort of thinking. When I curate, I curate as an artist. Perhaps I see it as a multifarious, three-dimensional, diachronic, multi-vectoral collage. And I tend to introduce a sense of this position into the exhibition by a number of means, sometimes contributing myself under pseudonyms by way of subtly orchestrating the dialogue, tilting it in a particular direction, dislodging expectations, or making connections that are otherwise invisible, which isn’t, after all, entirely different from prefacing a catalogue with an essay or making the selections in the first place; since I’m an artist, this is my particular way of doing that.
I see curation as an opportunity to subtly change the world in which I live by insinuating new epistemology, new ontology even – new objects whose purpose is obscure at first but which may come to hold meaning sometime later or to change some little aspect of the universal falsehood, which, like Adorno, I take as a self-evident given, and which I believe can be fought against only from within.
Being opposed to all reception of the world that is glib and unthinking, I make an effort in my art, however futile, to insist that it be looked at and thought about, and this is precisely what I hope to achieve in my curatorial and editorial work as well.
You’ve been participating in a few chocolate parties lately, that sounds quite distinct from your previous works. Is chocolate a new material that you’re exploring, or are those commercial commissions?
I was asked by a friend and collaborator to do that as part of an ethically-sourced, grower-owned, environmentally sound commercial chocolate project in which he’s involved, and I both welcomed the opportunity to extend our collaboration and to explore the potential of a medium to which I wouldn’t otherwise have become particularly attuned, though I have admired the chocolate works of Helen Chadwick, Dieter Rot, Vic Muniz, Hannah Wilke, Janine Antoni, and Chrissy Conant. It was quite engaging finding ways of working with chocolate, particularly as a book and as a two-dimensional art medium, and I might well pursue that a bit further, but I’m not fundamentally committed to it as far as my own art practice is concerned, even though the typical conditions of its production and use certainly qualify it as a problematic material in which race, class, social, and even gender disparities are rife and which might therefore be used to create awareness. That is seems so benign, even frivolous, which is a pretty sure sign of underlying trouble, means that the suppressed cultural truths it embodies are there to be revealed in unexpected ways, as in the chocolate sculptures of the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League or, comparably, in Kara Walker’s enormous sugar sculpture, A Subtlety. But I’m already doing the groundwork for several large-scale projects, so chocolate will probably remain just a brief interlude, whose depths I never really entered very meaningfully. On the other hand, perhaps somewhat similarly to my work using rust, aspects of what I learned from it will find their way into other more focused projects or lead me to methods of handling material that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to me.