Four years ago when I moved to San Francisco, I would have never predicted that one day I would be interviewing Glen Helfand. In 2009, when I asked a classmate of mine at San Francisco Art Institute, “do you know Glen Helfand,” she responded, “oh my God, no, I wish, he’s like the only relevant art writer in the city”. I kept up with Glen’s writing for a couple years until I finally introduced myself to him at an art opening last summer. Since then, we’ve run into each other a thousand times and this year, Glen has included me in a group exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco titled Proximities. I sat down with Glen prior to the opening of Part 1 of 3 of the exhibition, and by the time this blog post is published, Part 1 of the exhibition will have opened.
Jeff: So you’re not used to being interviewed, are you?
Glen: I don’t think that’s such an interesting question. I have been interviewed before and I was literally interviewed ten minutes ago. I guess one of the interesting things is being on both sides of the equation. Having interviewed people before, I know what the experience is like. Another way to start that is – I do projects. I have on occasion been interviewed. Not often, but enough to know what the experience is like and to be careful of what I say.
J: Okay, good. Well part of this interview process is that you get to look at the document as we compose it.
G: That’s generous of you.
J: What were you being interviewed about ten minutes ago?
G: For the opening of Proximities that I curated. One of the artists, Andrew Witrak, is collaborating with Daniel Hyatt, to create a signature artisanal cocktail for the opening reception. The museum was videotaping it and I got to kibbitz.
J: What’s kibbitz?
G: It’s a Yiddish thing.
J: What does it mean?
G: To give my two cents. Jewish people giving my two cents. There’s a great bar called the Kibbitz Room in LA at Kantor’s Deli. I love that name.
J: Is it normal to have “signature artisanal cocktails” at an opening reception? That sounds so Miami.
G: You could also say it sounds so San Francisco. Isn’t this town such a major mixology center? But it’s also in a sense part of the show because it’s dealing a lot with notions of travel and leisure and the getaway – we want people to imagine being on a tropical beach, though the drink is more complicated in concept.
J: So describe what Proximities is.
G: I like to talk about the show from the standpoint of it being a challenge to solve. The Asian Art Museum has been interested in opening up its audience and to embrace more contemporary work. I had to start with the idea of why I didn’t feel so connected to the institution. I’ve always felt a bit of intimidation, not knowing a whole lot about Asian art, not knowing how to pronounce the names of various contemporary Chinese artists. I figure that people probably feel the same about the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Kibbitz. My initial premise was to highlight how artists have some kind of connection to Asia even if it wasn’t the expected connection.
J: Did you say this in your last interview ten minutes ago?
G: Elements. That is one thing I’ve learned in doing interviews, people always say the same things over and over again. It’s difficult to constantly be original.
J: And just to clarify: you identify as White, right?
J: Your ethnicity. You’re curating a show at the Asian Art Museum but you’re White, correct?
G: Correct. It was the last thing I ever thought I would be doing.
J: Have there been any moments of awkwardness during the curation process regarding your ethnicity?
G: Not from the museum, though part of me expects to get some kind of criticism for it. In a way, the show is kind of about this issue. Am I or the artists allowed to enter into this dialog? I don’t know if that was a question the museum was asking, but it seemed like it was a rich enough question to frame the exhibition. But to answer your question, it hasn’t been an issue with the museum. There was an interesting experience of meeting with the in-house curators, the specialists, who weighed in on the possibility for controversy. Those curators are not necessarily Asian either. That experience was really exciting, and we’ll have those curators in dialog with the artists during the opening reception.
J: When I shared the exhibition website with my artist friends, they immediately pointed out that certain artists that you selected weren’t Asian. So, immediately they were confused. My friends are also White, and so it felt like they were wondering, “well, why wasn’t I selected?” So how did you get about selecting your artists?
G: That’s a hefty question. I don’t think this is a show about race, it’s one about ideas of place, of various artists’ relations to what we think of as Asia. I selected artists based on that connection. For example, I knew that Tucker Nichols has studied Asian art history at a high level and yet his work is not seen in that context. Lisa Blatt had traveled to Shanghai to photograph while on a residency. If the museum was interested in expanding its audience, it seemed that it would make sense to open up ideas about demographics. I chose James Gobel because he was the last person you’d expect to see at the Asian, and yet his work recently has included images of sailors, of wanderlust and ports of call. I hope that your artist friends are more intrigued by the confusion—it’s a fairly small show, and the first part happened pretty quickly, so I couldn’t include everyone.
J: Well, I’m Asian and I’ve told you in the past when we were talking about the show that I don’t have any relation to Asia except for the way I look. I’m sure Tucker knows way more about Asia than I ever will. Aside from my Asian looks, why did you choose me for your show?
G: I thought of you for this project because your work seems more skewed towards an American vernacular. I think that aspect will add a compelling piece of the dialog. The show that you are part of, Import/Export, also includes Imin Yeh, whose project was inspired by a residency in India, a place that she probably didn’t know much about before her visit. I like the idea of thwarting expectations, of looking at the issues from different angles. I think that you do that, using your own perspectives.
J: So I’m in the third show. When this post is published, the first show will have just opened. What’s the structure of the exhibition like?
G: It’s organized along the routes that many of us know Asia, from the perspective of the Bay Area. The first show is about place, the idea that it is a distant land, as I was asked to have the show address the full concept of “Asia” which is unwieldy and impossible to shoehorn into a small gallery. The title of the first one, What Time Is It There?, which comes from a great Taiwanese film, sets up the equation of imagining somewhere else, it suggests a here and there. It’s the landscape show. The second, in a sense deals with portraiture, people. It’s called Knowing Me, Knowing You, after an ABBA song.
J: I love ABBA!
G: The Nordic connection also seemed like a wonderful irony, as they were such a groundbreaking international pop sensation. Barry McGee is in that show, as is Michael Jang, who has a show up now at Wirtz Gallery— they’re photos of his extended family in the 1970s. The third show is the still life show, Import/Export and it deals with notions of commerce. I like your piece’s reference to yoga and Eastern religion as an Eastern commodity. It’s really quite simple, the shows deal with places, people and things.
J: How long is the entire three-part exhibition?
G: The first one is up now, and then there will be a break. The second is in October. The third is in December. The museum initially wanted three solo shows, but my thought is if they want to bring more people in the door, mounting group exhibitions was the way to go. I like the idea of each of the presentations adding different artists, each of whom will bring in their audience. There will be a very different flavor to each of the shows—the first is very colorful, the last will be much more monochromatic. How is this all sounding to you?
J: I like the idea of colorful and I like the idea of monochromatic. For some reason, I’m still fixated on race and ethnicity, so when I hear those two words, I think of the body, skin color, and the flavors and colors of Asia. I’m obsessed! I can’t get past the surface stuff.
G: You are hinting at huge questions, and it’s my hope that the shows really generate a dialog. I noted this earlier, but the entire project is rooted in my own sense of identity, and the shows being about bringing in various shades, to riff on your color comment. Kota Ezawa’s animation in the second show is concerned with his meeting a Japanese television commentator with his same name. He met the guy while in residence in Kyoto. That project deals with the complexity of identity. We’re all obsessed! That said, I hope the shows are aesthetically appealing. I have to admit, when I left during installation today, I thought it was pretty good looking.
Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? is on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco until July 21. Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You and Proximities 3: Import/Export will be on view later this year. For more information visit www.asianart.org.
There are about nine people in the world who can pull off a Clark Kent outfit – you know, the button-down business shirt that is unbuttoned to reveal a giant S. Christopher Kardambikis is one of those people. The Superman reference can point to a number of things: Christopher’s dashing good looks, his nerd-level interest in comics, and/or his weakness to Kryptonite.
While his solo artistic practice is an ever-evolving exploration into the higher realms of mythology and absurdity, his collaborations with other creative folk are consistently grounded in the community zeitgeist. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve RSVP’d “no” (because I was busy!) to the various happenings and events put on by Christopher and Co. From book binding parties to book fair receptions, his collaborative projects reveal a passionate interest in generously sharing and showcasing the wonderful work of various artists.
Jeff: I just drove down from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and boy are my arms tired!
Chris: Wouldn’t it be your feet because you drive a Flintstones car?
J: Well the car that I rented was terrible. I’m not going to mention the brand, but I will never rent it again. Anyway, it’s funny that I’m in Los Angeles interviewing you when I am supposed to be covering the Bay Area for Bad at Sports. Why did I drive all the way here for you?
C: Because it’s warmer here and you like fire. The whole city is on fire right now.
J: Wait, are you serious?
C: It’s hot and dry. The city is full of fire. There’s a danger at every turn.
J: Yikes. There’s been a heat wave in San Francisco for the past week. You know why?
J: Because we’re preparing for your arrival! There it is – that’s how I segue you as a Los Angeles-based artist into my Bay Area-centric column (segue #1).
C: I’m pan-Californian. Southern California cannot contain me.
J: Before I ask you about what you will be doing in SF, what are you up to in LA these days?
C: Outside of working my day job, I’ve been collaborating with various artists on different publications. I’m so new to the city! It’s so big and I’m so small. It’s so expansive and I’m just trying to find my place here. LA is a very strange animal.
J: You moved up from San Diego. Any differences in the art scenes?
C: San Diego doesn’t have a huge art scene. A lot of what I was doing was centered around UC San Diego where I went to grad school and the various awesome spaces setup by alum of the program.
J: What brought you out to LA?
C: It seemed like the next logical step for me. While I was in grad school I was able to drive up to LA frequently and I got to know the city a bit and I liked what I saw of the art scene here. Many people I knew moved to Los Angeles – from San Diego and Pittsburgh, where I did my undergrad – so it seemed like a good support network. I’m not ready to leave California yet.
J: I have the same feelings about San Francisco. I should have moved back to New York after grad school, but I fell in love with California! Have the clichés of surfer life and pot smoking affected your work?
C: Ha, no. I mean, it’s Silver Lake – we’re so far from the beach. I can’t surf the LA River.
J: There’s a river here?
C: It’s really tiny.
J: Speaking of tiny (segue #2), your artwork is super detailed, super tiny pen strokes, super tiny lines – tiny tiny tiny.
C: The whole endeavor is diminutive.
Chris is distracted by a DVD of the film Fantastic Voyage on a table.
C: Fantastic Voyage!
J: What? What is that?
C: Five people in a ship are shrunk down and injected into the body of a patient who needs brain surgery.
J: Tiny! Tell everyone how this movie is super linked to what you do, because from the cover of the DVD case, I can clearly see the connection, at least aesthetically.
C: I’ve been looking at the history of science fiction – early Jules Verne as well as ideas that people have overturned, like debunked science. An interesting thing about Fantastic Voyage is how they’re constructing the sets as these incredibly abstracted versions of what the body looks like – what the respiratory system looks like, what the inner ear looks like, what the brain looks like. I wish movies looked like this now, where you can’t rely on computer graphics to make things look “realistic”. Here, there’s a trick to use material that is at hand to craft a mood or a real three-dimensional environment that has to be interacted with and is utterly transformative, like hanging cotton candy from the ceiling. It looks so lush! They’re crafting a visual language to deal with these environments – these shapes and colors that we can’t readily create.
J: Hearing you speak about their techniques makes me really curious to know what your techniques are when you’re figuring out how to create the environments and backgrounds in some of your work.
C: Think about Mundus Subterraneus. I’m trying to figure out a way to describe something with printed images and drawings that is pointing to a larger system that I can’t actually describe or show all at once in two dimensions. I’m trying to break apart an image-making process with the tools or the material that I have at hand.
J: What do you have at hand?
C: Well right now I don’t have much of anything, but in San Diego where I made that book, I was working with a large format printer and trying to make it function and operate more like a physical printing process like silkscreen.
J: What were you printing?
C: I was smashing together several reference images. I was looking at celestial maps. I was looking at the visual systems with which thinkers like Kepler and Kircher used to describe the interior of the Earth. I was using a lot of my own photography of the desert area around San Diego. I was using Photoshop to abstract all of this information, and then I would break apart the digital images in order to print the actual colors separately. Then I was trying to trick the machine to do something it’s not supposed to do.
We continue to have a lengthy discussion of the process.
J: Oh my God, that’s amazing!
C: Anyway, I didn’t break the printer, but there were a few instances where it looked a little hairy.
J: I want to focus on the “book” part. Why a book?
C: There are a few answers for this. Specifically, this is an accordion fold book. The amount of space it can take up varies. When the book is closed, it’s almost 2 feet by 3 feet with a spine that’s 1 inch.
J: That’s a big book!
C: And it gets bigger! Now we’re going in the opposite direction of Fantastic Voyage. When my book is open all the way, it’s 28 feet long and there’s print and drawn information on both sides, so you can’t ever see the full-thing all at once.
J: Chris, what’s your problem? Just make a normal book!
C: It functions as a normal book! Any viewer can pick up the book and move the pages around – you have to go through the experience with each turn of the page. You don’t see everything all at once – it’s not like an event horizon. And that’s one of the things I really like about artists’ books – it demands a more active engagement from the viewer. No matter what, everyone knows how to interact with a book. It makes the whole thing relatable as opposed to walking into a gallery where someone might be unfamiliar with the space or how the space functions. I’m an artist and sometimes when I walk into a gallery I don’t know what to do with myself. Artists’ books are immediately engaging even if the information is complex or dense.
J: Speaking of dense (segue #3), you are coming to San Francisco with a book that has like, ten thousand artists in it, right?
C: 70! Artists! Writers! Video and Film Makers! From all over the country!!
J: Tell me about the project. Wait, don’t. Let me copy and paste from the website right now.
According to recent scientific reports, there may be between 8 billion and 13 billion life bearing planets in our galaxy alone. With numbers like that we will certainly encounter living beings from outer space someday. When we do, what will they look like? What special parts will they have, and how will they “do it?” Will we find what they do sexy, incomprehensible or just plain gross? You can find the answers to these questions and more in Strange Attractors: Investigations in Non-Humanoid Extraterrestrial Sexualities, an extraordinary 288 page, full color, book and 120 minute DVD encompassing art, writing and film.
Can you tell me about the collaborative process behind Strange Attractors: Investigations in Non-Humanoid Extraterrestrial Sexualities?
C: The book is a collaborative effort between three of us: me, my former professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Suzie Silver, and Jasdeep Khaira. This project started almost four years ago. I was getting ready to go to grad school and Jasdeep and I were running an artist book publication project in Pittsburgh called Encyclopedia Destructica. Suzie pitched the idea of Strange Attractors to us. She had founded a blog called The Institute of Extraterrestrial Sexuality and wanted to work with us on a book project where we would prompt people to use the lens of science fiction to think about sexuality.
J: How did you find so many contributors to the book?
C: We started inviting people whose work we were familiar with through our combined and extended networks of creative friends. We encouraged people to pass it along to anyone they thought would be interested in it, as well as use it as an opportunity to contact people we didn’t know but whose work we enjoyed. It’s really humbling to see so many people get excited about a project like this – contributing to it as artists or supporting it through the Kickstarter campaign that funded a large portion of it, or learning about it through events like what’s happening in San Francisco.
J: An art event about alien sex in San Francisco? Sounds really normal.
C: There’s going to be a screening of eleven of the works from the DVD that comes with the book, and a reading by Suzie Silver. It’s at the Center for Sex and Culture.
J: I don’t remember planning anything at my house! Just kidding. Anything in particular you like about the San Francisco art scene?
C: I think the art scene is really vibrant and unique. It’s interesting to me because San Francisco is much more dense than Los Angeles. I frequently come to San Francisco for zines or book projects and I feel like these things are ubiquitous to the city – you can’t get away from them. I recently participated in the first LA Book Fair with Encyclopedia Destructica and my current publication project called Gravity and Trajectory, which I collaborate on with Louis Schmidt. It was shocking to see how many people were actually from LA. I thought more people would be coming from San Francisco or New York – places with a strong reputation for publications.
J: And with the screening of works at the event – any particular ones stand out? Give me two. I know – it’s hard.
C: The videos are so wonderful. I love them all. Video Science 7: Space Love part 3 – Unregistered Planet 311OPEL by Luke Meeken and Andrew Negrey. Luke and Andrew both have separate mixed-media contributions to the book, and their collaborative video work pulls from their individual practices to create a richly textured environment. The other is Masturbation in Space by Mike Harringer and Joshua Thorson. How do I even describe this? It’s a story about an alien abduction seemingly told over the telephone. I don’t want to say too much about it because I want it to be a surprise.
J: You’re so dramatic. Just like Fantastic Voyage! (segue #4)
C: Way to bring it full circle.
J: I’m the king of segues.
C: We’ve gone on such a journey during this talk.
J: Just like Fantastic Voyage! (segue #5)
Strange Attractors: Investigations in Non-Humanoid Extraterrestrial will be presented at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco this Friday, May 10 from 7 to 10 PM. To view more of Christopher’s individual artwork, visit www.kardambikis.com.
When I curated a group exhibition in 2011 that mimicked Tate Britain’s Turner Prize, one of the first artists I selected was Brooke Westfall. Not only does her artwork reflect everything I die for from an artist working on paper with pencils and watercolor, but she also possesses a fun, light-hearted spirit that is necessary for a neurotic exhibit like mine.
In the last few years, Brooke has established a presence in San Francisco, having worked at the Walter and McBean Galleries at San Francisco Art Institute and being an Artist Studio Resident at Root Division. Regardless of her contribution to the community, her legit studio practice is the kind of behavior that makes me feel bad about my own post-studio practice (or the fancy way of saying that I don’t have a studio – my life is my studio!). It’s no wonder that someone cooped up in a studio into the wee hours of the night would want to start her own interview talking about me.
Brooke: I think it’s a smart idea to start my interview talking about you. Why not, right?
Jeff: I love that idea!
B: I read your first three interviews with Bad at Sports, and I liked that you started Pete’s interview with how you absorbed his exhibition without the art school checklist, started Renée’s interview with her influences and watched YouTube clips, and started Rachel’s interview with your confession about how you had no idea what her work was about.
J: Thanks for researching the interviewer! You’re so prepared tonight.
B: You’re welcome. I was nervous to meet with you, so I took a shot of whiskey, brought you cookies, and now we’re drinking beer.
J: You’re so kind! I’m surprised to hear that you are nervous given the fact that I’ve worked with you on multiple occasions in the past. Do you remember when I spread a rumor to our entire class that the Dean of our school purchased one of your artworks?
B: That was annoying! Yes, I remember that prank.
J: I don’t know why I did that, except that you were superlatively the nicest person in our class, and I thought it was only appropriate to attack you.
B: I think we should explore that idea more.
J: My aggression or your niceness?
B: Well, both, but mostly the niceness. [giggle] I’m just kidding.
J: See! Right there! So nice! Why are you so nice? Is it because you’re from Hawaii?
B: You mean my “Aloha Spirit”?
J: “Aloha Spirit?” What is that? Is that a real thing?
B: Yeah, I have the Aloha Spirit. It’s positive vibes.
J: Is the Aloha Spirit in your artwork?
B: Before I moved to San Francisco, all my work was about Hawaii, possibly the Aloha Spirit – maybe that can be interpreted as my home and culture. When I moved to San Francisco, I shifted my focus away from Hawaii and onto my observations about mainland culture and haole [pronounced how-lee] stereotypes.
B: Haole in Hawaiian originally meant “white ghost”, and today it commonly refers to a white person or foreigner. It’s used as a descriptive term, but it underlines a racist connotation.
J: That is so fascinating! I love white people and racism! Now I can say I love haoles.
B: A lot of people think that it’s interesting and unique that I grew up in Hawaii—
J: Myself included.
B: —but I do the same thing to mainland people. I actually exoticize mainland culture through mass media, television sitcoms, magazines, etc. That’s how my artworks started. A lot of the images that I work with are borrowed from these idyllic scenes – they’re staged scenes of a bedroom, a lady in a kitchen, kids playing in the living room. But, there’s always a twist that you have to find.
J: Okay, time out. I’m guessing that most of the Bad at Sports readers are haoles. When you say to them that their everyday lives are idyllic, I think it might sound a little weird and unexpected. What is so interesting about the everyday of an American person living in the United States of America, minus Alaska and Hawaii?
B: You mean the “contingent”?
J: Uh, what?
B: See, that right there is where language is already separating our biases: I’m describing the contingent United States as the “main” land. I feel like the outsider when I’m talking about the US.
J: Even though you’re a complete citizen. Didn’t our president have this same problem?
B: Probably, but he is half-black in a very Asian/Polynesian-centric island, so he probably had a harder time identifying with his culture, or his heritage.
J: Okay, so what is so interesting about the everyday of mainland culture?
B: Well actually, my exploration into mainland culture really stems from the fact that I grew up with my mother’s Japanese family in Hawaii. When I moved here, I became interested in learning more about my father’s haole family. They had all recently passed away at the time, so I only knew them from a distance through stories and brief phone conversations over the holidays. I romanticized their mainland lifestyle and started investigating their journals and documents. Hawaii culture is very different from mainland culture.
J: Like what? Generalize for me.
B: We don’t wear shoes in the house. We eat everything with rice. We never go to the park – we go to the beach! Mainland people assume Hawaii is paradise and that we don’t have problems.
J: Do you watch HGTV?
B: No, why?
J: There’s a new show called “Hawaii Life” – homebuyers seeking that epitome of the beachy lifestyle.
B: That’s exactly how people romanticize Hawaii! Hawaii is always paradise, it’s always lovely, but it’s not to me. I don’t agree because I didn’t grow up in that paradise. It’s not believable to me. But at the same time, it is believable, right? How do we complain about the weather in Hawaii? We don’t. I don’t. But we still have problems – money hardships, death…
J: I can’t believe what I’m hearing! I’m having love and relationship issues right now and I just want to move to Hawaii so all my problems can be solved!
J: Oh God, Brooke, you’re killing me! Sigh. Okay, so I know you mentioned these themes were primary when you first moved out here in 2008. Are they still evident in your newer work today?
B: My newest series of works are drawings titled White Lies—
J: Haole Lies?
B: Yes! To me, that word is intended. However, if you don’t know what haole means—
J: Then you’re confused.
B: Well, you don’t need to know what haole means to understand what white means. The title is literally about lies that are white – innocent, small. It’s also a layering of white paint. Even though the signifiers of Hawaii are not present in this work—
J: Like sandals and sandy beaches.
B: Actually we say slippers, not sandals, but exactly, none of that stuff. I’m always very self-aware of the fact that I’m from Hawaii and my biases are what make up these images. My newer works are abstractions. They’re about the ghosting of things—
B: I draw an image and then cover the image with another image. They’re layers of drawings made with white paint on navy colored paper.
J: Wasn’t there, like, a serious navy thing that happened in Hawaii like back in the 1940’s?
B: You mean World War II?
J: There you go – nailed it Brooke Westfall.
B: My idea behind the drawings is: you tell a lie and you tell another lie to cover that lie. Is it specific to Hawaii? Maybe not, but it’s an accumulation of all these ideas we’ve been discussing, all these thoughts.
J: Your blissful Hawaiian thoughts.
J: What were we talking about?
B: I don’t remember. So what do we talk about now?
J: Did you see The Descendants?
B: Yes, I did. I loved it.
J: Would you say that is an accurate portrayal of Hawaii in media culture?
B: I would say it’s the most respectful portrayal of Hawaii I’ve seen. But I can also say every other person I talk to about it disliked it. I particularly loved the beginning of the movie where George Clooney says something like—
J: Wait. Let me just google, copy and paste the Academy Award winning quote:
My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation – we’re all just out here sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips and catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we’re immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed-up, our cancers less fatal, our heartaches less painful? Hell, I haven’t been on a surfboard in 15 years. For the last 23 days, I’ve been living in a paradise of IVs and urine bags and tracheal tubes. Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself. -The Descendants
B: I think that quote explains how I feel mainland people describe and define me.
J: Whoa, I don’t want to end this interview on such a sad note!
B: I know! It started off with my Aloha Spirit and how nice I am, and now we’re at this point.
J: Okay, tell me a good Hawaiian joke.
B: I don’t know any. Google one!
J: Okay. [google] How many Hawaiians does it take to change a light bulb?
B: How many?
J: None. Lava Lamps don’t burn out, brah!
March 13, 2013 · Print This Article
To be blunt: It’s been quite difficult to write about Rachel Mica Weiss. Her seemingly simple artwork of woven fibers, heavy rocks, and large tapestries of knots deliver moments of considered contemplation. For me, that contemplation reduces my chances of finding something to write about. It’s like taking a really wonderful bubble bath, and then realizing that you’ve just been soaking in all your grimy dirt, so you have to get up and take a shower. With Rachel’s artwork, I enjoy my purposeful visual wandering around the surfaces of her objects and the physical game of hide-and-seek with other viewers around her stationary large sculptures. After an experience with her artwork, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write about it.
Last month, I attended the opening reception of Rachel’s newest work of art at the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries Window Site – a site-specific sculptural installation titled Engulfing the Elusory. That same night just down the block, Swedish House Mafia was playing a giant electronic dance music concert. As perplexed and hypnotized as I was by the intricacies of Rachel’s artwork, I was happy to be distracted during the opening reception by all the cool raver kids in neon shirts walking around outside. What a coincidence for us, as Rachel was always such a good instigator of a late night living room dance party back in our grad school days. Now that she’s picked up and moved to Brooklyn, it’s so exciting to have her exhibit in San Francisco for a few months.
Jeff: I visited your website, and I noticed that there were already plenty of hyperlinks to different press media in the area. Did you know you were going to get all that press?
Rachel: No, not at all.
J: Would you consider this your first solo show?
R: Yeah, I would, but it takes a really weird format in that it’s a window show. The viewer can’t enter the space or move around the three-dimensional objects.
J: Did Meg [Shiffler, Gallery Director for the SFAC] tell you that there was going to be press?
R: I knew about the San Francisco Chronicle article because Pat Yollin and I did an interview before it was published. But I didn’t know that the show would be mentioned in 7×7 or the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
J: Those are great publications – really popular. Did they interview you, too?
R: Well I think the SFAC press release that went out in mid-December of 2012 got people really excited about it. 7×7’s article mentioned the event as one of five big openings to attend and the Bay Guardian just kind of wrote a review – it was in their ‘Best Picks’ section. They looked a little bit at my website too and wrote about my past work.
J: On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the hardest, how hard or easy is it for you to write about your own work? Because I have to say – writing about your work ain’t easy!
R: Ugh, uhm… Probably right in the middle. It gets easier as pieces get older and I’ve talked about them more, but I had a really hard time writing about this work because I was taking risks I hadn’t taken before and using processes that were new to me. While I have been working with fibers and textiles for a while, this was my first time using industrial nylon net, which I made into rigid panels by coating it in marine-grade epoxy – also new to me. I had to do this in such large quantities that I loaded it out the window of my Bed-Stuy apartment to work in the brownstone’s backyard. I also carted a load to D.C. to work in my father’s garage – you make things work. Since everything was constructed in batches and pieces and had to be shipped, I never saw the installation as a whole until it was finally all together the night before the opening. So it really wasn’t until then that I knew what it really was.
J: Whoa, that’s crazy to think about writing about your own work before it’s actually completed, but I guess artists have to do it all the time. And to make things worse, you’re writing about the work for a press release that is informing the news media, and then they are basically promoting the work that doesn’t exist yet!
R: Yup. But I also think that that’s the way things go at this stage.
J: What do you mean by that? This stage, like, as an emerging artist?
R: Maybe. The SFAC is an organization with a citywide presence and the press takes an interest in the shows it produces. I think that showing at venues like these means that having something published before the project is complete becomes more and more important. I’m not trying to compare myself to someone famous or anything, but take Ann Hamilton for example: she had a huge performance installation at the Armory this fall and banners were made to hang around New York City long before the project went up. I would have to imagine that the details were not all finalized when those banners went to print.
J: Speaking of Ann Hamilton, she’s obviously got to be a huge influence for your work.
R: I’m definitely inspired by her ‘antique aesthetic’ and the way she deals with how politically charged textiles are. I was looking at a lot of her work while making the big rope installation, Torqued Ellipse (After Richard Serra), but I’m kind over that whole thing. For the SFAC installation, I really wanted to change things up. The new work was definitely inspired by Katharina Gross’ huge MassMOCA installation from 2010, One Floor Up More Highly. I’d love to work as large as both of them one day.
J: Can you share some ideas that were present from the start of the project and then some that emerged post-press release?
R: I guess this project, like a lot of my work, started with the idea of self-containment. I’m thinking about the ways in which we place limitations on ourselves.
J: You mean like self-control? “I’m only going to have one more cupcake.”
R: Sure. This project in particular kind of took on a more global or geologic perspective. It was definitely informed by human practices around climate change, but in a more general way, it’s talking about our attempts to contain that which doesn’t want to be contained. These crates – or what should I call them – these box forms are trying to hold on to pounds and pounds of salt, but it’s a ridiculous task because it’s pouring out of the net. It’s futile. I guess the other side of the installation deals with the opposite extreme: trying to hold on to something so tight that you lose access to it, like the plastic bladders of water that are wrapped in net, and then wrapped in another layer of net – it’s this precious resource nobody can even get to.
J: Just like the space – no one can get inside.
R: Yeah, I think that’s sort of a cool thing about it.
J: That I can’t go inside?
R: Well, that the installation is all about limitations and barriers with its human-sized net ‘cages’ and that the whole viewing experience makes you very aware of the fact that there is the barrier of the window right in front of you. A lot of my past work dealt with that – restricting viewers from moving around the work and making them very self-aware. So I kind of think it’s cool that the structure of the show does that for me.
J: Once you did get into the space to install the work, what new ideas started to emerge? Like, what were some things that you could have included in the press release if this weird statement-deadline-before-art-is-completed-issue wasn’t an issue?
R: There were a lot of surprises. I had totally misremembered how the ceilings were.
J: Uh oh!
R: Well, you have to be prepared for unknowns, and I was. But, I had to hang each of the elements individually with string, and so the strings became a major part of the piece.
J: Whoa! I thought that was such a signature Rachel Mica Weiss moment – funny how that happens.
R: The shadows also became really interesting. I adjusted the lighting to try to amplify them. Usually I find intense shadows to be kind of gimmicky, but I felt like they really worked in this space because the shadows made it seem like the net was taking over the room and climbing up the walls.
J: So a lot of surprises regarding technical specifications. Were there any surprises regarding concept or theory or philosophy? Did you discover the meaning of life?
R: Well, I think that the addition of the strings added this layer of precariousness to the whole installation, this sense that everything in the room was sort of artificially held in place and could come crashing down at any moment. During the public conversation about the work, someone commented that they were really anxiety-inducing, so I guess I viewed that as a plus. Hurricane Sandy also happened while I was in the process of making everything back in Brooklyn and so that added a new dimension to the concepts around self-entrapment and vulnerability.
J: With a project that big, I gotta ask: did you have any help?
R: Ha, my God, yes. I really have to give a shout out to my fiancé, Taylor, who is a tireless studio companion.
J: That’s so sweet!
R: He actually made half of the black forms. And then when I was in San Francisco installing, Pete Hickok, Josh Band, and Evan Adams – who makes awesome music by the way – all helped out and I couldn’t have done it without them.
J: That was a beautiful Oscar acceptance speech.
J: What was it like to work between New York and San Francisco?
R: It really defined what I made. In the past, I’d been working with really huge, heavy material but I knew I had to fill this 400 sq. ft. space and had to be able to ship the work. I had to think from the beginning about working with something light and airy.
J: Exactly the opposite of a lot of the work I’ve seen you make when you lived in San Francisco.
R: I couldn’t be pushing around shopping carts full of granite rocks. But I still love working with heavy material. Once I landed in San Francisco for my install, I was able to pick up 500 pounds of salt at Costco and fill up the water bladders which I had custom-made in Australia, so I got my heavy fix.
J: How did you get chosen to show at SFAC in the first place?
R: Meg saw this huge rope/cave/sculpture I made for the Murphy and Cadogan Fellowship show in 2011. So when she saw that piece, she thought that something thematically similar would work well in the window site.
J: Oh right, I was not nominated for that fellowship, so thanks for bringing that up.
R: Oh, sorry Jeffrey. People fly you around the country to hear you talk though, so that’s something.
R: This show coincides with the last show in the SFAC’s main gallery space before the Veteran’s Building undergoes a huge renovation. I thought it would be appropriate to keep working with ideas around loss and transition.
J: Because you’re my friend, I know I can say this to you: when I hear about an artist working with “loss, and transition,” I get really sad and I want to know how bad their childhood was.
R: [laughing]. Um, if you want me to say my childhood was bad, I can say that, but it was actually really good, though I did grow up in two homes.
J: Damn it, I thought I knew everything. But really, those are some intense concepts! Do you think your audiences read those broad ideas?
R: I guess I don’t usually talk about my work in such broad brush strokes but the piece does deal with that transition between two states – the gallery is literally divided into two camps – and I think that the black crates, empting their salt onto the floor definitely address loss in a broad way. I guess the work is really about so many intertwined concepts.
J: That’s the curse of media, right? In a way, one wants to be written about, but there’s so little information in text when it’s supplementing a visual work of art.
R: What I strive for is for a piece to have multiple resonances with the audience. Those themes happen to be the general themes that underlie the past three years of my artwork, but a lot of different bodies of work were made during that time period. They all have specific complexities.
J: No pun intended but do you see any specific string that ties everything together?
J: Do you have a signature thing you like to work with?
R: Oh, totally. I’d say that most of my work involves fibers of some kind, or it uses or refers to a textile process.
J: Do you make scarves?
R: Yes, but generally not.
J: Have you heard of Etsy?
R: Yeah, that’s not really my jam. Even though I started getting into textiles through weaving, I’m probably a horrible weaver. My work now just kinda messes with that process – interrupts it somehow.
J: Okay, and the cohesive string in terms of themes. Are restriction and emptiness everywhere in the Rachel Mica Weiss oeuvre?
R: Not necessarily.
Rachel Mica Weiss exhibits her artwork, Engulfing the Elusory, at the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Gallery at 155 Grove Street through April 27, viewable 24/7. You can view her other artworks at www.rachelmicaweiss.com.
February 13, 2013 · Print This Article
Some time in the 1990’s, two children named Jeffrey and Renée were dancing ballet in separate productions of The Nutcracker. Jeffrey was performing in New Jersey, while Renée was performing in Florida. Years later, these two kids would grow up to be young adults and their stars would align in graduate school at San Francisco Art Institute.
When Renée Rhodes and I started our friendship, her hair was no longer than 2 inches in length. She captivated my interest with her performance-based artwork, utilizing a familiar language of dance that I always assumed was separate from the discourse of fine art. She exposed me to her interests in Yvonne Rainer, Pina Bausch, and Jonah Bokaer. Today, Renée and I jokingly prance around the city of San Francisco, hoping to one day choreograph our own piece for the world to see.
At the start of this interview with Renée for Bad at Sports, we sat down and watched a YouTube clip of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. The clip reminded me of a ballet movement called croisé…
Renée: I think I’m losing my French ballet words.
Jeff: Uh oh.
R: Have you heard of Labanotation?
J: No! What the hell is that?
R: It’s a method for movement notation created by Rudolf Laban. It’s a way of noting dance moves as a graphic score.
J: Have you used it before?
R: No, it’s very complicated. You really have to study it and be trained to properly use it. I’m more interested in the narrative and history of measuring the body in that way.
J: You’re so smart!
R: Are you mocking me?
J: No, but, before we started this interview, I thought I was going to open with, “Renée, your hair is so long”.
R: Oh God. You know what else is long? A Jacques Tati film.
J: Are they really long?
R: No, but there’s not very much dialogue, so it can feel really long, and kind of like a dance. I like how he creates an alternative language out of gestures.
J: Have you taken a ballet class lately?
R: Nope, sure haven’t.
J: But ballet has been a huge part of your artistic practice, or at least, an influence, right?
R: Is this is a prompt?
R: I was taking ballet classes mostly throughout childhood and high school life, and later started using that as creative material. And back to Labanotation, the reason I brought that up was because ballet is another way of measuring how the body moves. Ballet is a sort of geometry when you strip it of its fairytale narrative. It’s about making shapes and forms in this sort of perfection. So I guess I’m not really interested in perfecting my ability to make those shapes, but I’m interested in that sort of quest and narrative. It’s very human to want to achieve formal perfection, and I see that in ballet and that’s interesting, and it’s something I’m critical of, too.
J: I see formal perfection in an Abercrombie & Fitch ad.
R: Damn! Anyway, I think that the idea of making forms and shapes with your body is a way of measuring your own body’s physical terrain. But it’s also a way of measuring the space around your body, or the space that your body is in. It’s a very abstract language, but I see it as a sort of cartography, which is itself an abstract representation of space.
J: Do you mean like Google Maps? Is that a stupid question?
R: No! Yes! I love Google Maps because they make me totally confused!
J: How are Google Maps and ballet related?
R: They both operate on a fixed number of axis points in their movement. They’re both very frontal. It’s more about the grid – working on a grid system, and fixity that appears to be fluid. With projects that I’m working on now, that ballet influence is there in a critical way. I’m more interested in rolling around on the floor.
J: Isn’t that how we met in grad school? We rolled into each other on the floor?
R: Yeah – fun icebreakers.
J: So what project are you working on now?
R: It’s called Navigating In a Whiteout. There’s a lot of rolling on the floor.
J: I’ve never seen a ballerina roll on the floor.
R: (in theatrical voice) “It’s Modern Art, Jeffrey!” Joking aside, it’s a more contemporary form of movement that starts with one simple movement phrase that is permutated along different axis points of the body. It moves from the variation of the movement that’s just in the hands, to the version of the movement that happens through floor work, and then a version of the movement that’s for a body standing.
J: How did you arrive at this type of choreography? Can I call it choreography?
R: Sure, you can. I started the project by imagining myself as an explorer of Bouvet Island via Google Earth. Bouvet Island is tiny and is the most remote island in the world. It’s a place I’d never likely get to in any other way, but I spend a lot of time there! I feel really familiar with the terrain and the topography on the island as if I have a memory of it. That memory is now very visual and cerebral, and I am trying to figure out what my sense and physical memories are of that place. The movement is a narrative about translating mediated landscape – about wandering through that terrain and transposing that topography onto my own body.
J: Whoa, so you’re like explorer and terrain all at once?
R: I think so! When you navigate through a place, that terrain maps itself into your memory and onto your body.
J: How will this project manifest?
R: As a manifesto.
J: Are you serious?
R: No, but thanks for asking. It’s actually a performance for three dancers with four different movement sections, sound, and video. It’s being presented during Scrawl at the Center for Drawing, which has a new monthly performance series created by Mimi Moncier. Mimi’s idea is to present movement and performance-based works that loosely explore the idea of drawing.
J: Are you one of the three dancers?
R: Yes I am.
J: Can you share how you choreograph your work with the dancers?
R: I made all the choreography on my own, before meeting with them. So that’s a lot of time alone in the studio, jumping around, rolling on the floor, and looking for movements that are compelling to me. I’m also spending time with source material, which is the Google Earth footage through Bouvet Island. I think it’s called making a tour in Google Earth. You can save your movements in Google Earth as a data file and re-watch your expedition. In terms of the dancers, I met Laurie Bramlage at a favorite dance class of ours, and Rosa Navarrete at a symposium at Z Lab UC Berkeley where I gave a presentation – or a “movement workshop,” if you want to be more specific.
J: I do not want to be more specific, thank you.
R: In this project, we had a really short amount of time to set the piece, so I wanted to make sure that I had all the movement ready. There wasn’t a lot of time to experiment and change things. It was a process of me demonstrating movement and them developing a memory of it.
J: Whoa, that was a beautiful way of explaining how any dancer probably learns how to dance.
R: (in kid voice) “I’m going to show you this move and you’re going to repeat it over and over until you remember it so we don’t have to use words anymore!”
J: What is “a short amount of time”?
R: We met four times. It really feels like the beginning stages of a project, like it’s in a sketch phase or something. This is atypical for me because I usually spend more time on things. On the other hand, I performed a solo excerpt of it last week in Portland at Worksound Gallery. It felt really good to get it out there.
J: I think that fast paced, “no-time” sense of urgency is actually quite precious, and for me, makes me work really strangely in a super productive way.
R: Yeah, I agree with that. Sometimes it’s good to have limitations so I just don’t go off on every tangent. So now I feel like I have a pretty solid framework for this project that I’d like to develop more in the future. One of the ways I want to develop it more is to collaborate with the dancers more and create a responsive movement with them. Right now, there are some moments with partnering work, and in the future, I’d like there to be more improvisational exploration of what that movement could be.
J: Renée, do you feel like you ever finish anything?
Renée Rhodes’s Navigating In a Whiteout was presented last week as a part of Scrawl at the Center for Drawing in San Francisco on February 8th. You can view her other artworks on her website: www.reneearhodes.com.