This month, I had the pleasure of speaking to Geof Oppenheimer, a Chicago- and San Francisco-based artist, about his upcoming exhibition, Inside every man, part of him wants to burn down his own house. The exhibition will open October 28 and run through December 11, 2011 at Ratio 3 in San Francisco. Oppenheimer’s most recent body of work includes a sculptural suite entitled The Modern Ensemble and a series of photographs that feature text from key interviews with political leaders. I asked him to describe the sculptures included in his upcoming exhibition:
It is three bulletproof plexi cubes that rest on aluminum bases. Inside each of the three are a series of detonations that have been set off that leave a kind of residue of the event within the cube. The cubes hold an aesthetic of violence within them—a violent history. At the same time, in my opinion, they are deeply sexy. They were designed to be seductively beautiful. I worked with a very traditional ideology of beauty for them because a lot of the conceptual intent is to make something very desirable that is at the same time violent or dangerous.
Below is a list of key texts that influenced the making of his new body of work:
Vanguard / Avant-garde (2006) by Susan Buck-Morss
The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns (1819) by Benjamin Constant
Mao II: A Novel (1991) by Don DeLillo
Hitler’s Architect, Albert Speer; (June 1971) Playboy Magazine by David Irving
Sex Appeal of the Inorganic: Philosophies of Desire in the Modern World (2004) by Mario Perniola
Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means ( 2003) by William T. Vollmann
Oppenheimer and I spoke in person on August 16, 2011 to discuss his reading list and upcoming exhibition.
Kelly Huang: How did Mario Perniola’s Sex Appeal of the Inorganic influence your approach to the artwork, especially in regards to his thoughts on Descartes’ philosophies of the body and objects? I had the pleasure of seeing some of your sculptures in advance and to me, I can see the influence pretty directly.
Geof Oppenheimer: I mean, art is sexy. The stuff of sculpture, especially, is super sexy, and I would be lying if I said there wasn’t that aspect to it. You are dealing with the control of materials, the sort of desire you are working to create both within yourself and within another through an inorganic object. There is a sort of fusing of an organic sexual regime onto an inorganic object to make that connection. In my own work, I hope to make the objects, not figures in the figurative sense, but autonomous characters that have aspects of desire to them.
Each month, Inspired Reading features an interview with an artist or cultural producer about their current project(s), focusing on what texts have informed them along the way. Each column includes a reading list with links to texts cited. Inspired Reading offers insight into the conceptualization of a body of work, exhibition, or other art project, while also giving readers a chance to build a reading list of their own. In the tradition of Frieze magazine’s “An Ideal Syllabus” series, which asks artists, curators, and writers to share their thoughts on the books that have influenced them, this column carries forward that curiosity about literary influences and focuses it on current projects. Inspired Reading lets readers in as ideas are developing—offering a uniquely angled sneak peek into upcoming projects. This column publishes the fourth Monday of each month.
Each column will also feature photographs by Juliette Tang, a San Francisco-based photographer whose “Still Life With Book” series has been recognized on NPR, Flickr, and by many others. A former English major at Dartmouth, Juliette finds inspiration through reading and sharing her photographic interpretations with others. Literature is her life, and she brings life to literature through her photographs.
In this inaugural post, I am happy to feature Jens Hoffmann’s reading list for the upcoming Istanbul Biennial, Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial), which opens on September 17, 2011. Jens is co-curating the exhibition with the São Paulo-based curator and writer, Adriano Pedrosa. Together, the curators drew inspiration from many sources, but most prominently from the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose art was often political yet personal. In that same vein, the selection of books that Jens provided reflects an interest in how politics shape art and explores how personal identity is formed and defined.
The following is Jens Hoffmann’s reading list, along with my commentary, for Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial).
The San Francisco Bay Area is still new to me. I am still trying to learn as much as I can about both the history of art in the area and look forward to the future while taking in the present. My interest in the global/local dynamic as well as the concept of having art world centers means that I’m always trying to assess what kind of art city San Francisco is within a larger context. Glenn Ligon certainly isn’t the first or only person to claim that New York is no longer the center of the art world. While New York is still host to the largest concentration of galleries and museums in the US, it is also just one of many art world centers around the globe, and Los Angeles is developing quickly as another US center. At the same time, locations such as Berlin have become incubation grounds for artists who want the freedom to experiment outside the art market pressures. Then, there are cities like San Francisco and Chicago that are somewhere in between.
San Francisco is often perceived as a city whose regional artists and local nonprofits dominate the city alongside long-standing galleries. As a recent transplant from Chicago, this structure and attitude is familiar; however, this time there are different forces behind why the city’s art scene has developed or is perceived in this way. San Francisco is home to the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of the Arts—schools that attract curators and teaching artists such as Jens Hoffmann, Hou Hanru, Trisha Donnelly, and Kota Ezawa, among others. The schools also graduate a large number of emerging artists and arts professionals. But, like Chicago, many leave after graduating because the market is not big enough to support them all.
The collector base here is small but strong—and most importantly, values discretion. The flashiness of nearby Los Angeles is not present here. As Ratio3 gallery owner Chris Perez noted in a recent conversation, the collectors in the Bay Area are relaxed but in touch internationally. And it seems that more collectors are looking at work produced in the region now than previously.
So what is it about San Francisco that drives some to call the city’s art scene “eternally becoming”? And is it approaching another moment of “becoming” now that many people from the New York art world are moving to the city and opening spaces? And what does “becoming” allude to? Certainly, San Francisco’s scene (or any other) shouldn’t just be judged on the commercial art market.
I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but as I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve come across a few interesting articles that I would like to share, as well as some links to exciting new spaces in the city. I’m excited to be in a new city with such a vibrant and complex diversity of the arts.
- First, a thoughtful assessment of Chicago by writer and curator, Anthony Elms in May Magazine.
- A feature in SF Magazine about the “young and hungry” in the SF art world
- Recent New York transplant Claudia Altman-Siegel’s new space: Altman Siegel Gallery S/F
- A small (in size) gallery that is building a big reputation for their thoughtful shows: Jancar Jones Gallery
In September, the Bergen Kunsthall hosted “To Biennial or Not to Biennial” in Bergen, Norway. The goal was to gather a group of people in the arts to discuss the effect and the potential of biennials on a global scale. Here are a few observations noted by Quinn Latimer (who blogged for Art21 not too long ago!) in a two-part article in Frieze Magazine (full articles here and here):
Noting that our current biennials are structurally indebted to these perennial exhibitions of the past, [MIT art historian Caroline A.] Jones argued that at the same time the biennial form has created key structural shifts – that, essentially, ‘biennial culture is the term we can use to describe this appetite for art as experience.’ One of her most interesting points was that the 21st century’s emphasis on experiential art works – now sometimes derided as ‘biennial art’ – is an echo of the 19th century, suggesting that the 20th century’s emphasis on form ultimately failed. If videos and installations are the genre of the new millennium, Jones claimed, then biennials are ‘their regulating salons.’ Since biennials have changed the art world, we must acknowledge that the ‘placement of the art object inside a world picture produces both the object’s and the picture’s significance.’ She then laid out her central philosophical question: ‘What are the conditions of possibility for the global work of art?’
Laura Steward, the Phillips Director of SITE Santa Fe, offered perhaps the funniest observation of the conference. Sighing, she asked: ‘Do you think it’s possible to exhaust your local audience?’ Pointing to biennials in ‘exotic’ locales like Santa Fe, Tirana or Bergen, she cited her own biennial, for which international artists often want to do site-specific works with the local community. ‘The Navajos are telling us: enough with your German artists already!’ To laughter, she offered an example for Bergen: ‘Will there be a work about the fish market in every biennial?’
The New York art world is a shell of its former self. And I think that’s because New York is such a hard city to live in, that it is really difficult to imagine advising a young artist to move here. And I think, in a way, that has been good for the art world because it has decentered New York. New York is no longer the center of the art world. I think the NY art world is Berlin.
— Glenn Ligon, Interview Magazine, October 2009
Theaster Gates is an artist living and working in Chicago. Labeling him an artist certainly does not capture who he is and what he does, though. He is often referred to as an activist, community organizer, and performer, among other things. When asked about his art practice and all the labels attached to him, he responds by saying he is a problem solver. His interests are broad, and his solutions lead him into a variety of genres and material. Lately, he has been giving public lectures and presentations. Many times, his work is presented in exhibitions.
Gates’s work often takes place in the public arena with public gatherings or lectures. When asked what draws him to this method of engagement, Gates’s response is that, “there is a type of power in the public”—either in the ability to voice one’s opinion and know that it is being heard, or through the social aspect. As he explains, “I accept that the byproduct of me getting people together is that people might call it art or call it an activist moment, and that’s just fine. The part I’m trying to concentrate on is this: if I have a set of relationships that are broad and wide, how can I bring those relationships into conversation with each other when necessary or when I’m curious?”
To that end, Gates’s latest project confronts a variety of issues through gathering people around a meal. Gates and I spoke on October 28, 2009 by phone to discuss this developing project. His upcoming projects include Theaster Gates: Resurrecting Dave the Potter at the Milwaukee Art Museum (April 15-August 1, 2010) and an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
Kelly Huang: Food has been a reoccurring subject in your work. Back in the spring, we spoke about a soul food project that you will be hosting on the South Side of Chicago in the near future. You describe how food is an important part of every culture—how it shapes people’s memories of place, speaks to history, and has the power to bring people together. Could you tell me more about the project you are working on and how you first conceptualized it?
Theaster Gates: I was approached by Stephanie Smith (Curator of Contemporary Art, Smart Museum), who was thinking about a project called Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art. Feast was to be an attempt at surveying the history of food practices in contemporary art. She asked me pretty simply, “What would you want to do?” And I said, I am feeling pretty good about doing things outside of museums and I would like to try and relocate a food space outside of your museum, and concentrate on soul food, because it has such a rich history on the South Side. I decided to acquire a building on my block and over the next one and a half years, slowly build out that space into a sort of soul food temple, where—in the spirit of critical discourse on art practices and social practices—one could eat really good food.
But, it’s not just about food to the extent that food is a signifier of certain cultural behaviors, rituals. Food acts as a material I can play with to tease out certain rituals inherent in black people, Koreans, Chinese, white people, middle Americans. I think that the project has always been my labor and I will benefit from the fact that there are museums and other types of museums that are interested in what you call the “gastro-arts.”
German artist Tino Sehgal recently spoke about his practice in a discussion with Jens Hoffmann at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Sehgal has been showing his work in the contemporary art context since 2004. It was in 2005 that Hoffmann curated an exhibition of Sehgal’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London that caught the attention of the art world. Since then, the duo has remained connected through an ongoing exhibition at the CCA Wattis Institute, where Hoffmann is the director.
I have been interested in the work of Sehgal since reading an article about him in The New York Times in 2007. Examples of Sehgal’s work include museum guards singing “This is so contemporary” in museum galleries (2003) or a couple locked in a passionate kiss (Kiss, 2002), or a person writhing on the ground in the corner of a museum (Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things, 2000). Sehgal does not allow any documentation of his work, but the pieces can be purchased nonetheless through passing along oral instructions (if he can’t eliminate capitalistic exchange, at least he can change the nature of what is being exchanged). Sehgal recruits and trains people, whom he calls “interpreters,” to carry out the works.
Sehgal’s work is rooted in two main ideas: 1) sustainability and 2) exploring the “technologies of interconnection.” By using interpreters to carry out his works, Sehgal challenges the conventions of experiencing artwork while also eliminating the waste that naturally comes with object-based work. He cites the events of May 1968 with instilling in him the notion that exchange or transactions needs to be challenged.
I’ve personally encountered two works by Sehgal. The first was Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things at the New Museum in the exhibition, After Nature, in 2008. At the opening, there were crowds of people, and most did not notice the woman writhing on the floor in the corner near the stairwell. If you looked at her, she stared back. Her motions were derived from the experimental videos of Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham, but looked more like she was experiencing a seizure or was in pain. You quickly understand that the way you react, internally or outwardly, is part of Sehgal’s work.
I’d like to start my guest blogging with Art21 by bringing up a series of questions surrounding globalization and artistic representation. My primary research interest is in the art market and the forces that shape it. With a background in cultural studies, I tend to approach the market through multiple lenses—analyzing it through its cultural, economic, and social contexts and impacts. In the next few weeks, I hope to present some interesting talking points surrounding this very issue, explore how arts communities are built, and feature artists working in exciting, new ways.
Not only can art expose the norms and hierarchies of the existing social order, but it can give us the conceptual means to invent another, making what had once seemed utterly impossible entirely realistic.
— Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Artforum, October 2009.
Last week, the San Francisco Art Institute hosted a panel discussion titled, “Global Art in the Downturn.” Panelists included Hou Hanru and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. My first question upon coming across the announcement was, what is the definition of “global art”? This is exactly the question that was first addressed by moderator, Dominic Willsdon of SFMOMA. The agreed-upon definition during the panel discussion was that “global art” included the genres and forms of art that are more popular across the globe, and that it is work presented in biennials, art fairs, and internationally-known institutions, and publications.
There are no set terms or definitions or categories for the levels at which artwork is produced, but what became clear to me in my two years of researching art world ecosystems for my master’s thesis is that artists make conscious decisions about how they want their work to be seen and by whom. At the same time, their agency is limited or co-opted by other art world players, such as curators and dealers who control access to major institutions and exhibitions.
There is no doubt that globalization, or the more nuanced French term mondialisation, has affected the art world as a whole—from the expansion of new markets, to the ability for artists to more easily travel, explore, and present a wider range of ideas, or to the proliferation of biennials and art fairs. How, then, does defining “global art” as the work endorsed by the international art community affect how non-endorsed works or artists are read within a globalized art scene?
David A. Ross, best known for his directorships at the Whitney Museum of American Art and SFMOMA, has taken on a variety of leadership positions in the art world. Besides the Whitney, he was also the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and SFMOMA, a board member and former principal of Artist Pension Trust, and was, until recently, director of Albion Gallery New York. As the economic downturn continues, arts administrators and artists are looking for ways to weather the storm and make the best of the current situation. Ross provides a unique perspective because of his involvement in both the nonprofit and commercial sectors, but especially having been the leader of the innovative firm, Artist Pension Trust (APT). APT’s members (artists selected by a curatorial board) invest 20 works of art over a 20-year period. Upon investment, APT cares for the works and promotes them through a variety of means. When the work is sold, the profits are split—40% to the artist, 32% to the collective whole of artists in the trust (a maximum of 250 artists per trust), and the remaining 28% to APT for management and operating costs. APT has trusts in 8 locations, globally. Here, Ross talks about APT, the intrinsic value of art, and what effect the economic recession may have on the rest of us.
Kelly Chen: The model of Artist Pension Trust is one that is artist-focused, providing artists with a type of financial stability that many do not have. On the other hand, APT also prides itself in the fact that it is amassing one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the world (and mostly by artists under the age of 40), and is both duty-bound to its artists to grow and divest the collection. How, then, in this economic downturn, does APT reconcile its promises to and expectations from its artists with the necessary conservatism in the care of its collection?
David A. Ross: One of the premises of APT was to allow artists to hold back from the short-term ups and downs of the market and give them a relationship for the long-term value of their work. The economic downturn, in fact, has no direct impact because the trust is not even remotely ready to return works to the market. On the other hand, the rapid decline in the art market has made many artists more aware of the fact that they should be taking more care in terms of planning their own financial future—whether it is using the APT to help them keep work off of the market or doing other things that we encourage but don’t directly enable. We certainly encourage artists to be buying real estate to own their studios, to save money as basic thrift. It is all part and parcel of an approach to help artists—especially young artists who have come into the art world during a moment where there seems to be a gold rush—to recognize that the art world is anything but that. In order to sustain a long career and to remain in control (as much as one can be in control), certain prudence must be taken.
Artists are like anyone else and they need to generate income. If you’re broke and you have a picture someone is willing to pay $3,000 for and that’s all you have, and someone is willing to pay that, then you may have to sell it. It would be a shame to not be able to hold onto it until the value increases over time. But the risk is, of course, that any particular artist and any particular work may not increase in value over time. That is the reason why the trust is built on the particular formula it is—where income accrues from both the individual work of art and its growth in value over time, as well as the shared piece of the overall growth of all the works of the artists in the trust. That is the hedge, in a way.
KC: What strategies are in place for APT to ensure that the works in the collection build in market value?
DR: Well, the strategies are simple. One is that the works are conserved for the artist. It is very important that they are kept in perfect condition, especially for artists who are young and move studios a lot and don’t have money for storage or even for proper moving (where a lot of works get damaged). That’s a very important strategy, even though it doesn’t sound very sexy. Second, which is a lot sexier, is that exhibitions—both virtual and actual exhibitions—are organized by curators, guest curators, or curators who happen to be under parts of the various curatorial arms of the trust. Third is that the trust actively promotes the work by producing an online magazine, by participating in art fairs and conferences, and by opening up the database to curators who are looking for a work—in that respect, taking a page out of the playbook of Artists Space or any number of other organizations that have for years maintained artist files. In this case, they are all online; the work is available to be borrowed, if the artist agrees. The trust does not lend work to a show that the artist doesn’t want to be in, so it’s another example of where the artist retains control of his or her work and the image he or she may want to create. We recognize that it is not the trust’s job to build value—artists work with dealers to do that and artists do that themselves. But the trust wants to participate in that and help in whatever way that is ethically appropriate and that is fair. So APT doesn’t just help one group of the artists, but helps in a way that is equitable.
KC: Having been the director in three distinct areas of the art world, what is your opinion on how the value of artwork or of artists is judged? Is there such a thing as intrinsic value? Or do market value and network culture dominate valuation?
DR: Commercial value, to a large extent, is still a function of intrinsic value. From time to time, work that has no intrinsic value to speak of generates enormous commercial value. But that’s the exception that proves the rule. For the most part, value even in the marketplace is a function of the direct mission of a work’s intrinsic value by competing players who want to control that work. So the primary issue is always the intrinsic value of a work, and understanding that in being able to predict it or see it and judge on a comparative level, the intrinsic value of works that are reasonably similar. That is a key issue in the art world, and that, of course, is the stuff of connoisseurship. And connoisseurship has to play the role both on the intellectual level—in terms of collection development and collection management and museological issues—as well as on a commercial level in terms of generating different values or understanding of different value propositions in the marketplace.