Sharon Hayes and the “Near Past”

Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism.[1]

– Giorgio Agamben

Although Sharon Hayes is a contemporary artist, reviewers of her work almost always discuss it in relation to American art and culture of the 1960s and ’70s. Critics such as Quinn Latimer and Paul David Young write of Hayes’s “plaintive missives [that] recalled songs from the ’60s and ’70s by Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone”[2] and that her art “speaks of a longing for the golden era of artistic and political radicalism of the late 1950s through the ’70s.”[3] During the Q&A following Hayes’s February 24, 2015 talk at the Institute of Fine Arts (part of the Artists at the Institute lecture series), Professor Robert Slifkin addressed this theme, asking the artist about any sense of nostalgia in her work: either for that period of American history, or for the radicality the era offered.

The question followed naturally from the artworks Hayes chose to highlight, which included Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003), Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love? (2007), Parole (2010), An Ear to a Sound in Our History (2011), and Ricerche: three (2013). Many of these were exhibited in her 2012 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Hayes presented them as examples of engagement through video art. Of these five works, four explicitly reference or build upon art and events of the 1960s and ‘70s, from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore (1964) to Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army (1974). Hayes explained that, having been born in 1970, she had a “temporal” relation with that decade, but could not at the time process that moment’s politics and culture in which she finds such rich inspiration now. She told the audience that she does not mourn the loss of that era, but uses it as “the past that exists in the present,” or the “near past.” For Hayes, this “near past” has an unfinished relationship to our present moment, and sets the parameters for the questions and issues with which we still contend.

Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003) was Hayes’s MFA work at UCLA. In it, she “re-speaks” the words of Patty Hearst on the videotapes released by the SLA, but without any of the fidelity of a reenactor, which is a purposeful distinction. Hayes explained to the audience that she finds the concept of “reenacting” problematic because such endeavors attempt to make whole the past, without its natural ruptures.[4] Instead, in the Screeds, the “notness” of the work is foregrounded: she is not Patty Hearst, it is not 1974, the camera crew is not the SLA. As Hayes stumbles through her partially memorized monologue, the audience eagerly jumps in to correct her mistakes, emphasizing the video’s disjunctures—not continuities—with the 1974 tapes. In 2006, Julia Bryan-Wilson astutely described Hayes’s approach as “investigations into the stutters of history, its uncanny reoccurrences and unexpected recyclings.”[5]

Hayes then screened Ricerche: three, a video of her interviewing Mount Holyoke students about gender- and sex-related topics, directed by Brooke O’Harra. I was surprised by Hayes’s blunt, direct, and leading questions, which contrasted so starkly with her usual careful speech, and often derailed the conversation or stymied the students. After the video, Hayes explained that the piece was formulated on director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore, and her interviewing style mimicked his, sometimes using the same questions. As did Pasolini, Hayes talked to the students in a group, “as their social selves,” and as they developed debates about feminism, identity politics, and trans issues, rifts formed: between the students who found “feminism” a welcoming label and those who didn’t, or those who saw sex as central to their identity and those who didn’t. During a lively and often provoking debate about current understandings of sex and gender, the transposition of Pasolini’s 1960s method and questions was often jarring and frustrating. And this fidelity to her source material displayed what Hayes called “disrupted time,” emphasizing, as in the Screeds, the distinctions (not the similarities) between the two contexts.

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James Elkins in Conversation with Claire Brandon

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 9.14.55 AM
Screenshot of draft provided by James Elkins.

James Elkins, Professor in Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, delivered a lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts on February 10, 2015 as part of the Institute of Fine Art’s Daniel H. Silberberg Lecture Series. The lecture, “The End of the Theory of the Gaze,” explored the shortcomings of existing theories about the gaze and presented several aspects of Visual Worlds, the book that Professor Elkins is currently working on. IFA Ph.D. Candidate Claire Brandon spoke with Professor Elkins after the lecture.

Claire Brandon: Your lecture presented the failure of the theory of the gaze in the context of the new book you are working on, Visual Worlds.  Could you talk a little bit about the digital format for this project?  You mentioned that you and Erna Fiorentini are writing and editing this document using Google Drive, allowing for open-sourced authorship in some instances.  How does this process work?  How did you decide on Google Drive as a tool?

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 9.16.06 AM
Screenshot of Google Spreadsheet provided by James Elkins.

James Elkins: Well, we chose Google Drive (link here) just because it’s simple and it includes spreadsheets (which we need to keep track of word counts, illustrations, etc.). I have tried several WordPress sites, Nings (some are quite expensive), and other collaborative tools; they’re useful if you need video conferencing, separate discussion groups, etc.

The co-authoring part of the project works extremely smoothly: we have a document called “What’s new” where we exchange ideas; two spreadsheets to manage the many tasks of accumulating words, images, and arguments; a third spreadsheet for managing word counts; a document that records the Oxford Press “house style” (that’s something authors usually don’t see until the end, but we’re making our own “house style” for citations and usages).

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Augmented Reality Enters the Conservation Laboratory

On October 22, 2014 at the Institute of Fine Arts, Jens Stenger gave a talk titled “Non-Invasive Color Restoration of Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals Using Light from a Digital Projector” on behalf of his team (Santiago Cuellar, Rudolph Gschwind, Ankit Mohan, Yasuhiro Mukaigawa, Ramesh Raskar, Katherine Eremin and Narayan Khandekar).

Stenger presents the team's target image, the compensation image, a painting's present faded state, and its appearance with the projection in the IFA Lecture Hall. Photograph by the author.
Stenger presents the team’s target image, the compensation image, a painting’s present faded state, and its appearance with the projection in the IFA Lecture Hall. Photograph by the author.

Like many conservation chronicles, this riveting lecture on the recent restoration of Mark Rothko’s storied Harvard Murals had all the elements of a blockbuster drama. The story’s stakes ride not only on the status of the artist—an immeasurable giant of post-war modernism—but also on the works’ conservation history. The five paintings on canvas that comprise the murals were completed in 1962, making these Rothko’s first site-specific grouping of paintings (they were followed by his canvases for Houston’s 1967 Rothko Chapel). The Harvard Murals, as they are known, were made for the boardroom of the university’s new Holyoke Center, designed by Josep Lluís Sert, then Dean of the Graduate School of Design.

The Holyoke Center’s conference room boasted excellent natural light, and over the years the paintings—originally grounded in a deep, winelike crimson of Rothko’s own making, with a different intense hue in each canvas’s foreground—faded abysmally. In the 1980s, a team of conservators determined that the main culprit in the fading was Lithol Red, a highly fugitive pigment that provided the backbone of the murals’ striking crimson. Following this discovery, the paintings were put on public display for the first time in 1988—to general outcry. The paintings that had languished in seclusion during Rothko’s canonization now struck art historians, critics, and the artist’s heirs as withered corpses, shadows of their original glory. After this debacle, the paintings were kept in storage, rarely to be seen again. Until, that is, Stenger’s team proposed a radical new solution.

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Notes from the Street: Charles Simonds at the IFA

On October 7, for this year’s inaugural Artists at the Institute lecture, Charles Simonds delivered an energetic and astute summation of his career to date. He began with his earliest Dwellings—miniature architectural structures, made of clay, sand, and small bits of wood—which in the early 1970s seemed to emerge organically from the gutters, broken walls, and empty lots of downtown New York, springing up wherever the city’s crumbling infrastructure afforded a place for their putative inhabitants, whom Simonds dubbed the “Little People.” Simonds’s rich practice, which incorporates elements of sculpture, architecture, urban planning, craft, performance, conceptualism, narrative fiction, and social engagement, has taken many forms in many places since those early breakthroughs. Yet even today, viewers seem perpetually drawn back to the original Dwellings, which remain landmarks of his artistic practice and of the downtown scene though they exist only in photographs and in memory.

Dwelling, East 6nd Street, New York, 1974, clay, sand and wood. Photo courtesy www.charles-simonds.com.
Dwelling, East 6nd Street, New York, 1974, clay, sand and wood. Photo courtesy www.charles-simonds.com.

There are many reasons for this consistent focus on Simonds’s early work, not least the powerful charm exerted on us by things that are gone. The Dwellings’ loss helps establish them as a kind of founding myth—both for Simonds’s mature work and for the narratives he wove within it. But at play here is also the art world’s typical exhaustion with itself, the self-disgust that has, since Duchamp, drawn art irresistibly toward things it hasn’t yet absorbed. For that reason viewers may think that the Dwellings’ natural habitat is the city, and the white walls of the museum can showcase only taxidermied specimens, removed from both context and life.

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Blowing Up                                                   The Koons Effect

The Koons Effect, A Symposium at the Institute of Fine Arts, September 12, 2014. Photograph by Jason Varone.
The Koons Effect, A Symposium at the Institute of Fine Arts, September 12, 2014. Photograph by Jason Varone.

Adding to the ever-increasing influx of (add preferred noun here: airtime, hype, prestige, simple volume of written or spoken words) about Koons’s work in the wake of the Whitney’s current retrospective, the joint IFA-Whitney symposium, The Koons Effect was a game participant. Unlike much of the other dialogue around the show, however, The Koons Effect aimed for tough methodological questions from the start; indeed the symposium could be said to have centered on the question of whether Koons’s work proves itself beyond the pale of established historical interpretative frameworks and vocabularies, warranting something “new.” Two points were immediately clear: facile and default recourse to models (like the commodity fetish) or to figures (like Duchamp and Warhol) bear little fruit in the collective effort to advance the discourse on Koons, and the lighter the reliance on the artist’s own manicured explanations and language of self-presentation, the deeper the insight.

Rather than synopsizing the conference here, however, what follows are abbreviated summaries of four of Friday’s eight presentations, in part to signal their diversity (I consider only part two of the event, the September 12 proceedings, which were fully recorded and are available online). The challenge of precisely summarizing any individual talk points not only to the complexity of the ideas grappled with and the lines of inquiry opened up, but—and maybe more importantly—the supremely unresolved state of current thinking on the artist. Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf’s show is revelatory for bringing the full trajectory of Koons’s production into view, enabling—unbelievably—for the first time what one hopes will be a spate of ambitious art historical work based on direct experience and study of the objects.
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Modes of Defiance: Latin American Art, 1970 to the Present

For the inaugural meeting of this year’s Latin American Forum on September 9th, Professor Edward Sullivan moderated a panel discussion titled Modes of Defiance: Latin American Art, 1970 to the Present, which met in conjunction with the exhibition Bearing Witness: Art and Resistance in Cold War Latin America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (now closed). The panelists included two IFA alumnae, Dr. Estrellita Brodsky, a chief curator of the exhibition, and Dr. Jason Dubs, the Museum Research Consortium Project Manager at The Museum of Modern Art, as well as Dr. Joaquin Barriendos, Assistant Professor at Columbia University, and Dr. Claudia Calirman, Assistant Professor at John Jay College.

Looking at artwork from Latin America during moments of violence and oppression – both historical and contemporary – the panelists spoke about the ways in which art can engage in various strategies of resistance. In discussing the scope of Bearing Witness, Dr. Brodsky laid out a few questions taken up by the exhibition that also served as touchstones for the following panelists. Probing the roles that historical images of violence play in today’s world (one already saturated with violent imagery), Dr. Brodsky asked if a work of art can help us understand our own complicity in the acts of injustice represented in the show and how it might compel us to respond. This raises important questions about what an artwork can accomplish through implicating the viewer. While not explicitly addressed in the panel, I found myself wondering: is the primary function of artwork that engages with powerful images of violence to spread awareness? Can, or should, the artwork do more? Perhaps most significantly, what is the responsibility of the viewer when encountering this kind of work? Questions about an artwork’s political agency emerged as the underlying framework for each of the panelists’ presentations.

Speaking on issues of witnessing and documentation, Dr. Barriendos discussed the ways in which archival material has been employed in exhibition settings as a way to provide witness accounts of violence. Calling for the creative reactivation of historical context within the space of the museum, Dr. Barriendos outlined several projects, such as Luis Camnitzer’s 1969 work Masacre de Puerto Montt (Massacre of Puerto Montt). Examples like this one offer alternative, often performative, methods of bearing witness in an endeavor to eliminate the perceived distance between the viewer and the artwork.

Lotty Rosenfeld, Una milla de cruces sobre el pavimento, Santiago, Chile, 1979.
Lotty Rosenfeld, Una milla de cruces sobre el pavimento, Santiago, Chile, 1979. Image courtesy Espaivisor.

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Melissa Chiu on ‘Generational Ruptures’ in Chinese Contemporary Art

Dr. Melissa Chiu gave a lecture titled “Art + Politics in Chinese Contemporary Art” as a part of the Daniel H. Silberberg Lecture Series on November 27th, traveling the few blocks between the IFA and her role as Museum Director and Senior Vice President of Global Arts and Cultural Programs at Asia Society. Chiu has published many books and articles within the field of Chinese contemporary art as well as the broader topic of Asian Contemporary Art. Her full lecture can be accessed via the IFA’s Vimeo page.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/54538281 w=500&h=281]

This year the Silberberg Lecture Series is focusing on “Violence as a matter of disciplinary concern.” Violence is a recurring theme within the history of art and its various manifestations help set the tone for the understanding of a period or a particular artist precisely because it is a thread of humanity that can be represented with such variety. Chiu’s lecture thus was an inquiry into the theme of violence in contemporary Chinese art. Continue reading “Melissa Chiu on ‘Generational Ruptures’ in Chinese Contemporary Art”

Architecture In Uniform talk by Jean-Louis Cohen at NYPL

Architecture in Uniform, published by the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Hazan Editions, 2011.

On February 29, 2012, Professor Jean-Louis Cohen gave a public talk on his new book, Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for WWII, at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library.

Cohen began research for Architecture in Uniform—a project that would be some fifteen years in the making—as a way to pay some long overdue attention to architectural production during World War II. In the existing scholarship, most of the focus is placed on the avant-garde 1920s, groundbreaking interwar building, and post-WWII reconstruction. The years 1937 to 1945–during which time the preparation, mobilization, destruction, and reconstruction associated with WWII took place–are noticeably absent from many survey texts of modern architectural history. Cohen’s aim was to investigate and ultimately to close this curious gap in the scholarship, which the author indubitably does. Continue reading “Architecture In Uniform talk by Jean-Louis Cohen at NYPL”

Carroll Dunham: Artist as Medium

When Carroll Dunham loaded his PowerPoint presentation for his Artists at the Institute lecture, “Carroll Dunham Speaks About His Recent Work,” at the IFA on March 22, he requested that the projectionist leave the screen blank before he began his talk. My guess is that he didn’t want to scare away the audience with his first image–either Hers/Dirt/One (2009) or a similar painting–-which is part of his most recent series and features a naked female figure bending over. Sometimes bathing, sometimes just bending over, usually with face obscured and arms spread in a landscape setting, his characters’ genitalia (often depicted in “shockingly pink” colors) are typically the central focus in these paintings.[1] Clearly self-conscious and a little embarrassed about the direction his art has taken, Dunham began his lecture by saying that he “knows very little about it.” His lecture, followed by a provocative Q&A session, was the personal account of an artist who has seemingly let go of artistic agency and has become something of a medium, passively channeling his expression.

Hers/Dirt/One (2009). 51 x 66 inches. Mixed media on canvas.
Courtesy Carroll Dunham website.

This female series is not the first time that Dunham has steadily riffed on a theme for many years during his career. For roughly a decade, from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, Dunham’s work mostly centered around a cartoony male figure with a top hat and phallic/pistol-like nose. In describing that series, Dunham curiously verged on speaking in the third person. He said that at a certain point this male character–“a simple, dumb figure”-–entered his work and after a while he couldn’t imagine a painting without it. Following the compulsion to depict this subject matter, he began to “close in” on the character, cropping it in different ways, adding new elements, and even eliminating color, in hopes of eventually ridding his canvases of the invasive figure. Continue reading “Carroll Dunham: Artist as Medium”

The many authoritative faces of Walid Raad: Thoughts from the lecture hall at the IFA

Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, "Already Been in a Lake of Fire_Notebook Volume 38," 1999. Digital color print.
1 of 9 plates, 30 x 42 cm each. Via The Atlas Group: http://www.atlasgroup.org/

My internal conversation with the work of Walid Raad began as I paged my way through a monograph of his work, entitled Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: Some Essays from The Atlas Group Project (Cologne: Walther König, 2008), before the artist’s recent lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts on February 23, 2012. A Lebanese-born artist and associate professor at The Cooper Union, Raad is perhaps best known for his work under the guise of The Atlas Group, a fictional collective founded to examine the political, social, and psychological effects of Lebanon’s Civil War through archival documentation.

This archival documentation takes on a variety of forms, ranging from photographs of Raad’s personal collection of bullets, found during his teenage years in Beirut, to reproductions of documents attributed to (fictional) figures like Dr. Fadl Faukhouri, a leading historian of the Civil War until his death in 1993. The assembled contributions of Dr. Faukhouri and others seem to treat the war somewhat objectively by focusing on minute details and empirical data. In actuality, however, they suggest both the extreme psychological effects of the war upon the Lebanese people and the concomitant difficulty of portraying this people’s experience of war. For example, notebooks in The Atlas Group archive that belonged to Dr. Faukhouri show that the historian would obsessively walk the streets of Beirut in search of intact versions of models of cars recently destroyed by car bombs. He would then photograph his finds, to document the frequency with which certain makes and models were used in these bombings.

The aforementioned monograph, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow, published on the occasion of the exhibition The Atlas Group (1989-2004): A Project by Walid Raad at Culturgest in Lisbon, contains reproductions of articles, interviews, and documents that relate to Raad’s work and to the archive formed by The Atlas Group. Following Raad’s practice of exhibiting photographs of documents and objects, rather than the documents and objects themselves, the book comprises a series of overhead scans of papers, magazines, and articles. Each is related to Raad’s oeuvre in some way, although his role in their authorship is not always immediately clear. Even when he explicitly states that the Group is an imaginary foundation, as he does often in exhibitions and lectures, he notes that his audience sometimes fails to grasp the “imaginary nature” of the Group and its documents.[1] For Raad, “this confirms to me the weighty associations with authority and authenticity of certain modes of address (the lecture, the conference) and display (the white walls of a museum or gallery, vinyl text, the picture frame), modes that I choose to lean on and play with at the same time.”[2] I would add to this list of confusingly authoritative documents the monograph he has published.

Raad’s remark sets the stage for my comments on his recent lecture at the IFA, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow.” Continue reading “The many authoritative faces of Walid Raad: Thoughts from the lecture hall at the IFA”