The highway passes quickly through Summerville, Georgia. The roadsides fill with small houses, businesses, and the ghosts of fastfood architecture. It is easy to miss the turn to Paradise Gardens. The houses that surround Howard Finster’s home, installation, and “life’s work” part suddenly to reveal the expansive sculpture gardens, rambling buildings, and layer cake tower of the World’s Folk Art Church.
It is easy to think we know Howard Finster, “man of visions.” His paintings grace the covers of pop albums. His portraits and hand painted words fit into our perceptions of an outsider artist. He was outside enough to be embraced by the art world and savvy enough to know how to eat up the celebrity that came along with it.
Paradise Gardens is empty, as I arrive. I talk to the attendant about the slowly unfolding and changing history of Paradise Gardens, hear his stories of coming to visit on a school field trip and being told to return to church on Sunday afternoons while peeking through the fences at Finster working. As recommended, I start at the back corner, and, before I get there, my preconceptions of Finster fall away.
Paradise Gardens is a stubborn refusal of the outside world that embraced his artwork and public persona. It resists visual and economic consumption. It arises from an unassuming, largely poor, small Southern town that, at best, tolerated his work during and after his lifetime. The World’s Folk Art Church, the most striking and visually alluring building, has been closed for decades due to structural concerns. The work of other artists and admirers intermixed with Finster’s work blurs lines of authorship and individuality. Paradise Gardens is full of beauty and wonder, but it is also full of Finster’s enormous collections of the “inventions of mankind” that, under different circumstances, would be called hoarding.
Life and death comfortably coexist in Paradise Gardens. The area surrounding Paradise Gardens abounds in life. Workers repair the sewer outside the fence. Neighbors come and go without giving Finster’s Mosaic Garden and paths a second glance. The Casket of the Unknown Body, which used to have a viewing glass so visitors could see the girl’s teeth, the constant reminders of the Christian life after death, and the many memorials to Finster embody and keep death present.
The many collections of bicycle parts, sewing machines, typewriters, Coke bottles, and more hold the lives of the people who made them and the man who placed them. They cast shadows of their original uses as they hang lifeless. The bicycles, televisions, and scraps writhing up out of the weathered, increasingly uniform mass in the center of the garden are transfigured into the Bicycle Tower and reborn into pop careers.
I recently visited an old bakery-turned-warehouse filled with tens of thousands of plates, saucers, coffee cups, teapots, ramekins, the remnants of restaurants closed in the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s. The stacks and stacks of plates filling the warehouse were caked in dirt, filled with rainwater, surrounded by pigeon droppings. They are a treasure trove and a filthy testament to objects. They are the left overs of failed businesses and abandoned identities and the china that holds the memories of a generation of Americans who ate at roadside diners and fraternal order lodges. Like Paradise Gardens, this warehouse full of dishes straddles the line between collecting and hoarding, between objects and memories, between life that ends and death that continues. Life and death are so deeply intertwined they are indistinguishable from one another.
I just moved to a new town, a new climate, a new part of the country that has much to teach me. I cannot help but think of making a new life, of reshaping my inward and outward habits in conjunction with the physical move. Both Paradise Gardens and the warehouse remind me that the life we have is short, that the death that awaits us is not far. More importantly, they help me hold close the fact that life begins again and again, when we move to a new place, when we wake each morning, when death comes to find us. Finster believed in a very specific idea of life after death. Whether or not we ascribe to that belief, Paradise Gardens confronts us with death and the lives that come after. It is well worth the trip.
I met Debora Delmar and Andrew Birk, co-runners of NO Space, at Cantina Riviera, on Chiapas in Colonia Roma. I recommend the lechon and the taco de pulpo asado, if they have it. We drank Dos Equis lager exclusively. In early February, in the midst of the Material Art Fair, No Space will present a show curated by Keith J Varadi at Bikini Wax in San Miguel. After establishing that they had moved to Mexico City from Bushwick, where Debora had lived at 538 Johnson Ave—you know, that house they go to in Girls—and Andrew had had a studio, I asked how the art scene in Mexico City differed from the art scene in Bushwick. After we talked, Andrew mentioned that they had no idea I was going to record our conversation and/or post it (in truncated form) online.
DD: There’s not the culture here, like there is in Bushwick, of buildings full of studios. There’s all these young kids coming out of art school, they’re all in a building together, making work, and that becomes a stronger community. Even if the work is shitty, they’re there.
AB: In a place like Bushwick, the bind is making work. I think with the arts community here, its bind is partying.
DD: There’s also not much funding. The market isn’t strong. There’s rich people here, like Roma and Condesa are all full of rich kids who have come from rich parents—
JW: But having rich people doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re buying art. The Bay Area is full of rich people, none of whom are buying art. They’re all buying—what are those jackrabbits with antlers?—jackalopes.
DD: It also goes hand in hand with the culture here. There is a lot of culture in Mexico, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is an interest in contemporary art. I think that factors into there not being much of a market for young art, for what we’re doing.
JW: What made you guys start NO Space?
DD: We were tired of going to every show and seeing always the same names. We wanted to contribute, to bring attention to other artists that we relate to.
AB: There’s so many people living in this city, but there’s so few galleries, and none of them want anything to do with the kind of art that we make. Everything’s really fixed.
DD: Even outside of here, we have friends whose work we’d like to see shown here, to expose this kind of work that we like to other people from here. We don’t want to be a gallery or anything like that.
JW: Why don’t you guys want to be a gallery?
AB: We don’t want to get this project confused with questions of money, because that changes the vision of things. With all the international artists that we invite to the show, I think the really cool parameter that we’re putting is zero budget. What can you do with zero budget? The bigger we get in our own careers, the more we expect a budget, the more interesting and constricting the parameter of no money becomes, and the more creatively you have to respond. Actually, one of the things that I feel the most guilty about and that I’m kind of ashamed of, with the former No Space documentation, is that the photos are really nice. They’re really white, they’ve been Photoshopped, and so on. I think the new thing that’s going to happen is that documentation will just get shitty. I want to start using social media documentation more.
DD: We are always looking at websites like Contemporary Art Daily or whatever, or people just posting their work online. That’s what we do, too. That becomes our approach to the way we’re looking at art, the way we’re thinking about where it will end, about where the image will end.
AB: Contemporary Art Daily is amazing, I love it, but it’s changed the way we hang work, we photograph work, we make work, everything. You’re making work so it goes on that website. You’re hanging work so it goes on that website. You’re photographing and processing that work so it goes on that website. What’s the next thing that could possibly happen? It’s making work that can’t go on that website. Or photographing work in a way that they would never accept.
JW: What if someone wants to buy something that’s being shown at one of your shows?
AB: Well, how can you stop that from happening? When we originally started, we didn’t even ask prices of anything from any of the artists. If somebody was interested, we’d give their e-mail to the artists. We also decided to have no texts, nothing to read, because we were tired of the culture of walking into a show and having to read text to understand the show. People expect not to have to use their instincts to interact with the art, because there’s a text there that does it for them.
JW: I was just reading something really nice about a problem in criticism regurgitating whatever it is that artists say about their own work. I think it’s a similar problem to what you describe, where you read the wall text and you’re like, oh great, that’s what that means, or you go on the artists website and it’s like, “I do x by doing y,” and you’re like, oh great, that’s what that means, and then that artist’s statement of “I do x by doing y” gets repeated by whoever reviews the show, or talks about it, and so actually it’s really pointless that anyone made anything or went anywhere.
AB: It also creates this strata in which people who have less experience with art, or who know less about art history, or have less ability to place contemporary gestures into a grander context, depend on the text to understand art, as if these art objects don’t relate to them or they don’t have a point of entry in the art, which of course they do! If there’s a shoe on a fucking tabletop in an art space, you have a pair of shoes, you’re wearing them right now, and you have a table at your house, what do these things mean to you? How can you enter into the piece?
JW: Would you say that there’s a through-going aesthetic through all the shows that you guys have produced?
JW: Do you think there’s anything lost in this—not randomness, but all this variety? Does it create its own kind of homogeneity?
AB: All of the shows that we’ve put together come from my sensibilities about art that can be seen in my work, and Debora’s sensibilities about art that can be seen in her work. It’s not just totally floating. But I wonder. It could be. One thing’s for sure: we’re taking as many measures as possible to prevent us from capitalizing on this project financially.
DD: We like their art for a reason. Our choices come from us looking at other people’s work and thinking, oh, this should be shown somewhere. It’s not just about giving people a platform for the sake of giving them a platform. We don’t want to have a tight curatorial thing, because we’re not representing artists or something like that. Yes, of course there’s common grounds between some of the artists, because they’re young, but we’ve shown older artists, too, and we like that, for example we’ve picked Mexican artists that have careers outside, but their work doesn’t really fit into the bigger dialogue here, the discourse.
JW: What is the bigger dialogue here?
DD: Kurimanzutto, 90s style political and social stuff.
JW: You guys are talking with a little bit of disdain towards politics in art. Am I hearing that right?
AB: Personally, I feel like if I wanted to make a change in politics, my career path would be inside of politics. I wonder if making a political art gesture to a bunch of rich people who have doctorates makes any political change. Or if talking about really, really poor, abject conditions in an art language that has nothing to do with the people that are living inside of those conditions has any effect. For me, art is its own language for itself.
DD: I understand why artists want to talk about politics, because there’s so much shit going on, how can you not be affected by it? Of course! But I don’t know, my interests in art became separate from those interests. Maybe art is political in itself, but for me illustrating doesn’t really change or contribute so much to a change. If you were selling the pieces and giving the money for a good cause, maybe that would make more sense for me.
JW: I wonder if, at a certain point, art just serves to justify the existence of otherwise heinous individuals. Like, sure, I’m a wealthy financier who’s making billions screwing the poor, destroying the middle class, blah blah blah, but look I’ve got this artwork, so it’s cool. It kind of ameliorates their position in society.
DD: For example, the first show that Andrew and I had here, we had a show in this project space around here, and all of the students from the Esmerelda came with the teachers. They came from a pool party that they had all been at together, dressed in Hawaiian shirts—
AB: With leis and all that!
DD: —tons of people in Hawaiian shirts, and they were all super drunk, and they started yelling at me like “you’re so superficial, this work has no meat, you’re just a superficial bitch that has money and you don’t care!” It was crazy. Even the teachers were yelling at us, telling us all this super mean stuff, until we found a way to kick them out.
AB: It was also kind of cool, because that shit just doesn’t happen elsewhere. As much as we complain about the five teachers bringing their 75 students drunk as fuck to the show, and lighting off fireworks and shit in the hallway, that’s also what’s super cool about this place. Things are so infrastructurally underdeveloped that we can actually like build whatever we want here, and occupy positions in the landscape where there would be no space for us in other, more developed systems.
JW: How do you categorize NO Space? Can you?
DD: It’s been referred to as a project space…
JW: But that seems so funny, because it doesn’t seem like you have a project and it also doesn’t seem like you have a space. And then, if you’re a curatorial team, you’re having this show in a couple weeks that is curated by Keith, so you’re a curatorial team that’s curating a curator…
AB: I like that!
DD: I like it, too! Because we’re into what he’s into. I just saw this documentary that came out about YouTube people starring in each other’s videos to build audiences. It was on PBS maybe? It’s called Generation Like. It explains about how likes mean power and money, in terms of influence, popularity, and so on. There was like this one kid who was a skater and he was really cool and really young, and he started getting all this money from brands to do his videos, and people wanted to take selfies with him, and put them on Instagram, because then if you’re in a photo with this guy, you’ll get likes. There’s agencies for these people to place YouTube people with other YouTube people.
AB: Your agent talks to her agent and you guys co-star in a video, and all of your viewership goes to her account, and all of her viewership goes to yours, and you build something up together. That’s kind of the way we’re interested in working. Not to bring attention to NO Space, but to bring attention to artists that we don’t otherwise have the means to make more available. It’s a matter of taking the entire community and combining networks to form a platform for the artists.
Work by Melika Bass.
Hyde Park Art Center is located at 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Reception Sunday, 3-5pm.
Work by Harun Farocki and Trevor Paglen.
Gallery 400 is located at 400 S. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Alberto Aguilar.
Kitchen Space is located at 2716 N. Monticello Ave. #1F. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.
Work by Nick Bastis.
Regards Gallery is located at 2216 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Saturday, 4-7pm.
Work by Lali Foster.
Born Nude is located at 1711 S. Halsted St. #2. Reception Saturday, 6-9pm.
When reporting has become about shock, ratings and theatrics, and less about accurately and responsibly relaying news, reports like Steven Emerson’s completely fictitious account of “no-go zones” are able to air as solid facts. Fortunately, since it was on Fox, no one with any intelligence believed it to be true, and it was derided immediately by the public. News dispersal is political, but how we filter it is by choice, accepting one view while ignoring others that conflict.
“The News” is a product which sells us ideologies and cars. It defines who we vote for and if the vote counted or not. It gets us angry, even violent, because it is the best theater America has offered the world to date. It is on the level of Shakespeare, NOT because of its eloquence or quick wit, but through its spin and ability to reach every public as if it is speaking directly to YOU, you red-blooded, hard-working freedom-loving educated and compassionate American. YOU, who are able to see the beauty of this land and defend its love of freedom, no matter how flawed, and understand that buying an assload of shit made in China at Christmas is what fuels our country. That our cars run on a full tank of freedom, and our Flag doesn’t run on anything, because them colors don’t run. Even if we only watch the news as a comedy show (cause network news is), we still get this shit filtered into our brains, flossing out logical thoughts with a steady stream of ticker tape spouting useless stock numbers and baseball scores, and real human lives lost compressed down to a number, marching along in the same rhythm of what Miley did what now.
The deprofessionalization of the news is such that even if you understand that a particular source is horribly skewed and the hateful vitriol can’t be trusted, you still have the idea in your head. Abstraction from false facts create an image of the world that is as limited as our own vision. More than limited, as we can’t see how much we are missing; we can only see certain colors or waves.
Real life must correspond with OUR vision, otherwise we contest it, fight it, protest it, bomb it, we shut them down, we come out on top, or our vision is taken under. More and more ideas get posted and reposted, linked and tagged to stay alive, climbing to the top of a neverending avalanche of information. In the end, the most popular will survive, which of course, may be the least truthful and most biased version. “Facts” become as self aware as a 17 year old using social media, as if they can see themselves in the mirror, thinking what to change, how they are perceived. To know something to be true is to see it played back to us. Since telecommunications have anchored its dick in the soil of the “greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth”, we have been engaged in seeing ourselves act, do and live through the screen. This delayed portrayal may offer us viewpoints which we couldn’t see in the moment, such as our physical selves as an other, instead of a disembodied entity we normally experience things as, and it may even show facts that have been ignored willfully or accidentally. Shit gets lost in the mix. The Bible was a delayed news source a few decades, and was altered for centuries after that. What happens is we become locked in an endless loop with our own image, the image of humans. Segregate it anyway you want it to make it an “us vs. them” situation, it still puts You on top, and why shouldn’t it?
This loop, or feedback, as David Joselit calls it, responds as any reflection or copy does — it degrades more and more, every time it is recopied. Information gets subject to other advertisements, commentary; things are gleamed and obliterated to tell a different story.
As we take more and more selfies, our food “takes” selfies and our cats “take” selfies, and this crap thats not meant to have any life to it, just a response to boredom, or not having enough attention paid to you goes out there, with all the Fox and MSNBC shit, CNN and the Onion, weightloss tips and 13 celebrities with the best fake breasts and 7 best life hacks and this suburban mom just learned that you, yes, YOU are a goddamned asshole with too much privilege to be meaningful, but not enough to be powerful, and what he did next will shock you click bait bullshit. It flashes at us as we scroll, trying more and more to grab our attention. There is too much crap smacking us in the face, so that the real news that happens seems less and less like news, just more trash to bury under a steady stream of garbage. We’ll post even more insipid crap to the interspace, a web of digital garbage that rivals the physical landfills, creating an alter universe. These images and content become creations of ours, abstractions of reality. It seems as though there is less interest in knowing what is actually happening the world than creating or defining it ourselves, no matter how painfully egoist or mundane it is. Standing in the way of spectacle just won’t do.
Thanks to Jessi Patuano for the conversation, to Emily Gustafson for the inspiration, and to Dana Bassett, Caroline Picard, Jamilee Polson Lacy, Claudine Ise, Duncan MacKenzie and Richard Holland for the chance. Thanks also to Sarah Margolis-Pineo for getting the conversation started. Thank You.
Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen.
Jetlag is the Devil’s work!
Or is it a First World problem?
First World problems are the Devil’s work and jetlag is the hands-on reminder that in this day and age it is never really enough, if at all possible, to be in one place at a time, when you can be all over the place.
A yuletide melt-down with your sister will tie you down claustrophobically to the here-and-now, where this house (or indeed country) is not big enough for the two of you, and have you gasping for a breath of fresh air. Luckily, on this crisp boxing-day morning, your muddy Heimat was transformed to a magical winter-wonderland, located somewhere between a secular Caspar David Friedrich and a Thomas Kinkade you can believe in. You are here now. On a cross-country train-trip with the seats across the aisle from yours occupied by a middle-aged couple with Down’s syndrome. She is wearing a sequined sweatshirt with leopard motif very similar to something you recently saw in Kenzo’s fall collection online, and he is the voice of reason as he is giving commentary on the trip:
It is really cold, it is freezing –it is below freezing. Look at the trees outside, aren’t they pretty? Look how it is hanging from the trees. It was a good enough Christmas, good food. It was lovely, but now I am tired. You must be tired too, you should rest; we had an early start and we will be there soon enough. Just rest now. Isn’t it nice?
With this buildup, Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (in Humlebæk just north of Copenhagen) cannot but disappoint –and yet it does. Traversing through the entire south wing of the museum, Eliasson walks 10.000 men, women and children all the way to the top of the hill and all the way down again. And when they were up they were up, and when they were down they were down, and when they were halfway up they were neither up nor down.
In real time, this hotly anticipated merger of nature as culture and culture as nature, of museum mystique and Iceland experience (or vice versa) is like Kate Moss up close: sexy and photogenic, but ultimately too thin and too shallow and too readily commercialized –the perfect extension or backdrop to the vastly expansive collection of sleek Scandinavian design objects in the museum shop. Nordic Light as commodity.
In another part of the exhibition we are given the illusion of a behind-the scenes look. Here, Atelier Eliasson’s geometrical models are laid out in tasteful abundance; hexagons and dodecahedrons, spheres and pyramids in various stages and finishes are bathed in amber light, to theatrical effect.
As we admire the display, my long time friend Lars (the sweet Swede) conspiratorially whispers in my ear an anecdote of how Eliasson politely declined the proposed budget for a project for AROS (Museum of Contemporary Art in Aarhus); this super model does not get out of bed for 2 million kroner!
Eliasson instead suggested they called him back when they got together the funds for a rainbow panorama on the roof…which they did and the results were truly double-rainbow-all-the-way-across-the-sky motherflippin’ awesome – and this off course both is and isn’t why we are here today—we want more!
Still it is smugly satisfactory to see how Eliasson is cut down to size in the museum’s Kids Corner. Here glue guns, paper cones, and wooden sticks are lined up for one and all to create their own Eliasson for the Christmas tree, like the workshop of a scientifically ambitious Santa.
In summary, the exhibition does exactly what it says on the box; yes, it radically alters your experience of the museum’s architecture and yes, it ambitiously challenges the museum as site and brings it back to its original narrative as a walk in the park. But paradoxically, there is nothing you can learn here you couldn’t have learned from the privacy of your own home, experiencing the work second- or third-hand. There is no song of your self to be sung on this stage –only Eliasson’s boastful, tinny earworm of the artist as brand.
How different and deep in contrast it is to leave the Riverbed and delve into the nether regions of the museum; a subterranean catacomb, which—for a moment that lets forever be—is transformed into a life-affirming mausoleum containing the oeuvre of Paula Modersohn-Becker.
Everything is right here; from early academic studies—some a little heavy-handed or earnestly clumsy, others almost a caricature –to the self-assured work of a grown woman who has found her place in the world. These were unfortunately to be her last, as she died from an embolism at the tender age of 31, less than 3 weeks after having given birth to her first child, a daughter. A tragedy, and all the more so as this was a life event she had both anticipated and preemptively celebrated in her body of work. But let us not skip to the end quite yet.
At 16, she writes to her parents from England, about the St. John’s Wood Art School: “I shall have lessons there every day from ten until four. At first, I shall be only drawing, beginning with very simple arabesques and other designs. If I progress, then I shall make charcoal sketches after Greek plaster casts […] If I advance further, I shall begin drawing and painting from live models.”
With this simple program she sets herself a task, which she follows trough with devotion and bravura. Modersohn-Becker’s lifework, as a fully equal member of the artist’s colony in Worpswede, is remarkable in more ways than one. Her traveling to Paris on the New Years night between 1899 and 1900, her pioneer work as the first female artist to paint the female nude (including several nude self portraits), and her untimely death, is the stuff of myths.
But more impressive is the work itself. Not for its monumental scale or dazzling visual effects: the formats she administers are modest and never larger than life. Her palette is muddy as the northern European landscape from which most of them hail, and her brushstroke fat and fuzzy as if she is almost sculpting her paintings rather than painting them – or perhaps just pulling them out of the clay and pushing them back in – in one simple, matter-of-fact, gesture.
The self-portraits –though both peculiar and provocative in their time—are showing her neither as whore, nor holy. She is simply there, present, with her mental and bodily functions intact and fully alive. An important source of inspiration is Egyptian mummy portraits, which she studied in the Louvre and whose oblong format and frontal view she often employs—as if to remind us that in the midst of death we are alive. A longish amber necklace with large oval beads is a recurring motif that she paints in the same impasto ochre as the flat circular disk of her own iris, because they are both part of the same eternity. In painting after painting, her fat, terse, brushstrokes drag and push our own eyeballs around, as we follow their trail across the barren canvas and her own gaze as she travels across Europe.
She paints women and children first, not unsentimentally –because what would be the point of that? — But with no false modesty either: unflinchingly and always at eye level. Suckling babies find the teat with the unwavering conviction of instinct and all is in the world.
With her willing- and able- bodied being in and of this worldly world –a worldliness that combines the two meanings of the word and is both cosmopolitan and sophisticated as well as concerned with the earthly, terrestrial and mundane repetitiveness of this mortal coil— Paula Modersohn-Becher’s life work is not only the perfect antidote to the spectacle of Eliasson’s five-minutes-in-Iceland, but also to our jet-lagged existence. It is a poignant reminder that wherever you go there you are and you take yourself with you. Nowhere else but right here and right now could you get over yourself and make right by your sister, or could you be eye to eye with an amber oval disk that is both a smear of ochre paint and at gateway to your soul.