Activist Imagination, Research

Artist’s Talks: Rave. Rave. Rant.

Just heard two fantastic artist’s talks tonight!

I love artist’s talks that create narratives and contextualize work with key biographical facts, relevant personality traits and intellectual and artistic interests. It’s a superior means of learning about art and artists than reading C.V.s and looking at still images. I’m much more compelled to hear what the artist has to say and why he/she makes art. I’m looking for evidence that the artist is deeply engaged in an ongoing inquiry.

THE VIEWER AND SCOT KAPLAN

That’s why I loved hearing the talk by Scot Kaplan, a visual artist from Ohio with a conceptual- and performance-based practice engaged with the psychology of contemporary life. He also teaches theory in a university art department, which I believe accounts for his articulate, well-oiled presentation, insightful self-examination, and that driving, insistent willingness to challenge dominant paradigms (a characteristic of all the theory professors I’ve met).

Kaplan’s presentation was great because he was ready to establish the context at the start, posing the questions that drive his inquiry (about examining power relationships) and citing influences, like a Harper’s Index item on the average time spent looking at a work of art in a museum (0.6 seconds). Contending with the typical viewer’s superficial engagement with works of art, Kaplan admitted to feeling belligerence towards the viewer; that as an artist, he would require some investment from the viewer to experience his work. I wholeheartedly agree: I’m not interested in making work for others’ visual pleasure, available at their leisure. The world is full of beautiful, attractive, cute or endearing images, and the avalanche of imagery shows no signs of slowing. So as my work becomes less visual and more experiential, I’m fine with leaving those 0.6 seconds of the typical viewers’ gaze behind, if it means more selective but more meaningful engagement.

Kaplan presented early work clearly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s L’Etant Donnes. He made a series of provocative portal-like structures, such as altered viewfinders, wall-mounted boxes into which viewers insert their heads to hear audio tracks, and even a fridge-disguised portal leading to a hidden listening chamber.

Viewer interaction was required to experience those objects and installations, but Kaplan also presented work where the viewer became agent and subject. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about since my work for Activist Imagination. Kaplan’s work, though, directly addressed power relationships. For example, he created a small room that locked viewers inside for 90 seconds at a time, as well as a tightly-controlled project where individual viewers gave commands to the artist, who inhabited an adjacent room behind a security mirror. It was a performative social experiment that tested the lengths to which the artist and viewers would go, and it brought to mind the work of Marina Abramovich (two wrongs don’t make a right, but I still felt somewhat relieved to see someone other than a woman subjected to the disturbing, violent whims of others) and Philip Zimbardo, the author of the Stanford jail experiment that revealed how quickly ‘normal’ people abuse power. Kaplan executed this project in two locations in South Africa: a privileged university campus, and a Black township. While the performance is an important component, perhaps more so, the work is about the findings of the experiment: college students more often gave Kaplan abusive commands, while the township’s residents allowed the artist more dignity.

Kaplan’s work is provocative, but he seems thoughtful and not the least bit driven by shock value or ostentatious moralizing. His projects may be subversive, but are purpose-driven. The works create a condition where the artist’s vulnerability incites the viewers; they become culpable for completing the work of art, and in the process, making or breaking a social bond.

IVY MA: THE ADAPTOR

Ivy Ma, an artist from Hong Kong, makes poetic, phenomenological installations and photographs, and quiet but impressive drawings and paintings. I was really impressed with the diversity of her media, her capacity to create site-specific projects on residencies around the world, and how true she is to her investigation. Site-specific work can be challenging in your home town, much less thousands of miles away from your studio, tools and materials.

Like Kaplan, Ma makes some performative works involving her body, but Ma is interested in outdoor environments, like the Finnish lakes or her rapidly redeveloping Hong Kong.

She presented her work in a way that was modest and endearing — this style seems characteristic of non-native speakers from East Asia — yet she’s a fierce intellect, methodical in her presentation style, undaunted by tedious projects (like drawing a nearly life-sized tree with a fine-tipped pen, or sorting beach pebbles by color) and citing references ranging from noted Bay Area authors, Rebecca Solnit and Anne Lamott.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ma’s work and presentation. It wasn’t until later that I thought about Ma’s work in relation to identity politics—something that seems to hound A.P.A. arts presenters and the artists working with them. In fact, Ma doesn’t seem interested in identity politics at all. She’s focused on her relationship to nature, solitude, and her physical environment. She may be a contemporary artist from China, but her work isn’t about the hangover from the Cultural Revolution. She may be an Asian artist making art in North America and Europe, but she’s not hung up on re-hashing cross-cultural issues. Maybe we could lighten up about it too.

COLLATERAL DAMAGE IN SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER.

Unfortunately, not all artist’s talks are so inspiring.

Twice, I’ve had the odd experience of feeling invisible as artists of color talked about their work in terms of representing a community of identity. What happened was this: male artists of color used their talks to “speak truth to power” — to call out a predominantly white, privileged, liberal audience on their convenient progressivism and color blindness. To me, their radical or identity-based work became less effective, because the talk essentialized their art. Instead of being artists, they became cultural-political ambassadors.

Of course, I have more to learn about other racial perspectives and identities. Of course, the rarefied art world ought to be reminded of its privileged status. Of course, liberalism can stand to be nudged along by radical insights.

But if the goal is to challenge racism, gross generalizations about the whiteness of an audience — which includes people of color with radical politics like me! — is just a poor tactic. One artist seemed intent on assaulting the audience with his didactic videos played at extremely high volume. [I’ll pass. An aspiring drummer in my teens, I’m entering my thirties a tinnitus sufferer. My ears are ringing like I just left a concert–every day.] Another artist made the statement, “We tend to be color blind” or “We don’t talk about race” (“we” meaning, presumably, white liberals). Actually, I talk about race all freakin’ the time. You talking about race and saying that I never talk about it makes me feel invisible. That is color blind.

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