Centerfield | Transforming Space into Place: An Interview with Leyya Tawil, co-creator of The Grand Re-Map
At what point does space become place? Questions relating to geography and identity are most often left to urban planners, ethnographers, and cultural theorists. Locality is defined as the social relationships produced by and through the built environment; in essence, a bringing together of cartography and sociology. There is disparity though between the permanence of municipal infrastructure—timeless architectural landmarks and preordained civic identity—and the evolving tangle of day-to-day lived social interactions. The context-specific experience of place is the research interest of choreographer Leyya Tawil and composer Lars J. Brouwer. Through their ongoing project, The Grand Re-Map, Tawil and Brouwer seek to observe, record, and reinterpret the perceptions, sounds, and physical interactions between body and landscape as a means to unpack locality and remap place.
Tawil and Brouwer’s journey through cities, neighborhoods, and even specific buildings captures the embodied experience of each location. They interweave sounds and gestures to create elaborately choreographed compositions that reveal the extraordinary character within mundane interactions. The two artists are urban travelers, surveying locations by foot, bike, bus, and car, to approach each site with the untarnished ears and eyes of vacation-happy tourists, even when the city has been frequented a number of times before. The Grand Re-Map proves that locality is necessarily an incomplete project, and much to the advantage of cities like Detroit, the project indicates that every place is ripe for remapping and reinvention. In effect, The Grand Re-Map transforms space into place, anchoring each location in time in order to cultivate narrative and meaning.
I spoke to Leyya Tawil in her Oakland, CA studio about The Grand Re-Map, Detroit.
Painter Hernan Bas is known for unabashedly dabbling in the glittery realm of cliché, populating his work with red roses, flamingos, and most recently, fairies, as a whimsical retort to the perpetual tag of neo-romantic, Miami-based, gay artist. It only makes sense that since relocating to Detroit, paintings once read as decadent are now being labeled portraits of decay. It’s true that Bas’ work has certainly expanded in scale; the precious vignettes of years past evolving into epic, sprawling landscapes. These precariously balanced landmasses—multifarious collages of abstract brushwork and screen print, do appear on the verge of collapse. The eminent failure of the stage set merely serves to accent the ambiguous, and perhaps even suspect nature of the drama. Indeed, Bas’ boy scouts have been evicted from their childish hiding places to make way for the mythological, the paranormal, the sinister, and the absurd.
In conversations I have had with Bas over the preceding months, the painter often cites J.-K. Huysmans’s nineteenth century novel, Against Nature, as a source of intrigue. In essence, the novel is about surface, and one character’s quest to cultivate artifice that surpasses the beauty of the natural world. “Nature has had her day,” muses des Esseintes, “there’s not a single one of her inventions, reputed to be so subtle or grandiose, that human ingenuity cannot create.” Bas applies paint to canvas to present a veneer of another world. Unlike his literary predecessor, Bas does not attempt to rival nature, but rather, open up the possibility for imaginary alternatives—a magic circle in which elements of the miraculous and supernatural are at play. Saints intermingle with demons, lost folklore is revived, and momentary encounters between shadowy figures become fodder for myth.
Bas himself is a collector of paranormal oddity, and once purchased a haunted jar containing a Ghostbusters soundtrack cassette tape on Ebay. Of course, the jar contains a story, not a member of the spirit world (although the painter has refused to open the jar “just in case!”). An apt metaphor for Bas’ paintings, the haunted jar is a vessel housing belief in the unbelievable, existing far away from the conventions of nature and the world’s established truths.
I spoke to Hernan Bas in his studio in Detroit’s Eastern Market.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: You’re of course best known for your depictions of waifs and dandies—characters very conspicuous in your earlier paintings who have been subsumed by vast landscapes in your more recent work. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on your concept of “fag limbo,” and articulate how it has conceptually framed your work?
Hernan Bas: I started producing work that entered the art world at 18, 19, 20 years old—a time when I was still dealing with identity issues—being the waif or the skinny boy, and identifying with that character. The whole idea of fag limbo to me begins with a character or an identity that doesn’t quite fit the clichés that one would expect for a young homosexual character. I wasn’t necessarily the young, flamboyant gay—I didn’t fit that cliché, but I didn’t fit the male, straight-boy cliché either. I always felt like I was sort of in the middle and not quite sure what to identify with. That’s sort of where it stemmed from, but oddly enough, even in this new painting, The Jack of the Lantern, the character is of course stuck in limbo. I guess, after all, I am sort of still playing with limbo in one way or the other. These characters have always been described in these landscapes as being solitary and lonely, but in a sense, it’s sort of a purgatory. On TV right now is “Children of the Psychics.” I watch all those kind of paranormal shows, so I’m a firm believer in the afterlife, ghosts, and all the things that go bump in the night. If you think of it that way, I’m always sort of in limbo so to speak.
SMP: How did the adolescent version of limbo become the more paranormal and existential version that it is today? A few years ago you described your work as “individual chapters in a coming of age novels for queers.” Is this still accurate?
HB: I think the characters have really grown up alongside me….The characters that I was painting would, today, be thinking about different issues besides the jocks beating them up and looking like Calvin Klein models. Now, they’d be reading Dickinson and Thoreau. The characters have grown up, and obviously I’ve grown up.