Alchemical Processes: An Interview with Aay Preston-Myint

June 8, 2011 · Print This Article

 

"SMILE II," installation/performance stills 2010

The first time I met Aay, he was was giving a presentation at Version Fest in 2007. Aay, Ilana Percher and Rebecca Grady had just returned from Art Shanty Projects on Medicine Lake, where they installed a soft shanty/sculpture called The Soft Shop. They reinstalled this portable, cloth shanty in the Version’s basement, (where all the other art booths stood) and talked about their residency, hosting some of the same fiber workshops they had hosted in its original location in Minnesota. Since that first encounter I have benefited from Aay’s collaborative work in multiple ways. I have been to Chances to dance-dance-dance, a short story of mine was published in an on-line magazine he organizes called Monsters & Dust. I went to No Coast and convinced Aay to make some covers for the Green Lantern Press. I point this out because his work has impacted a wide audience of which I am a part. He creates public, collaborative platforms while producing a concise, independent body of work. Despite having appreciated his work for so long, I have never taken the opportunity to ask him about how these projects relate to one another, and even how he thinks about his own practice. To me, this interview is suited to the beginning of summer. It’s hot outside, the Critical Fierceness Grant is open again (until June 30th) for grant proposals, many artists and faculty alike are facing a new open schedule, and it’s good to remember the alchemical mixture in aesthetics, politics, the body and imagination.

 

Mess Hall's interior, just before the opening of Celebrate! Celebrate? The Politics and Tactics of Visualizing a People's History, organized by Nicolas Lampert of Justseeds (January 2010)

Caroline Picard: You’ve been in Chicago for a number of years and have continued to work with different organizations—I was thinking as far back as Diamonds/Texas Ballroom for instance, No Coast of course and many others—I was wondering if you could talk about your participation in those different organizations; how your role has varied? Do you feel like your participation in different communal structures has impacted your visual work?

Aay Preston-Myint: Well, Diamonds and Texas were two iterations/sections of the same artists collective in warehouse space in Bridgeport, back in the day. We all did our share of programming and running events, mostly art shows and music, and let’s not forget parties. No Coast was a similar collective/consensus structure but centered around the concept and physical space of a bookstore, shared studio space, in addition to an open community workshop. When I look at these and other organizations I’ve been involved with (the online curatorial project Monsters and Dust, the experimental cultural center Mess Hall, and the microgrant/queer dance party called Chances), the difference is not so much in work or ‘roles,’ but the content of each project itself. These are ventures that have all been run by consensus to serve a specific audience or community. As such, roles can shift depending on interest, ability, and the needs of our contingents. I think the impact on my own work has been that I have a desire to engage, entertain, and encourage dialogue through my practice. I enjoy using color, a richness in materials, humor, mystery/seduction, and participation to engage the viewer. Creating a gravitational pull, drawing people into an active space — that’s what all the organizations I work with have done.

CP: Do you categorize different aspects of your art practice?

APM: In a way those divisions (solo work, collaborations, and design/commissions) are often a matter of convenience — an easy way of categorizing, but the nature of the work is different too. I think my solo work has more of a clear narrative, using conceptual, material, and stylistic threads that weave in and out of the work. Collaborations of course deal with similar concepts and interests. However that work tends to take on forms, processes, or issues that I don’t always deal with on my own because of the influence of my partners — each collaboration tends to stand apart. The design work, while perhaps more aesthetically my own, is a whole other beast, often because it’s not used in an art context, and also because the content is decided by the client and maybe even pushed to the background. I think each category exhibits a different kind of development over time, and it can be interesting to compare how they are disparate but also influence one another. From the subject matter of my solo work, to the clients I choose to design for: there are connections that become apparent when you zoom out.

“Untitled (Habitat) rope, neon lights, oak, enamel and latex paint, satin, sports mesh, thread, flies, shellac, wig-infused rum 10′ x 14′ x 5′
2011

CP: Will you talk a little bit about your relationship to materials?

APM: Responding to materials have always been a key part of my work. For a while when I drew it was almost like I had an issue with attention span; I needed something to respond or anchor myself to, a fabric, wallpaper, a photograph — I disliked drawing on a blank surfaces. Now it’s more about responding to the social, historical, or affective associations with an object or material — rope, a flag, hair, light, even scent. I think in a body of work like mine — which is so about embodiment — the choice of materials is really key when interpreting form.

CP: I’m also really curious about your Hybrid Moments Project—can you talk about that a little?

APM: Hmm, yes — as you can tell from the text banner series that I made a couple years ago, I like to use pop songs as titles and content sometimes. After I made the first series of screen prints, Hybrid Moments seemed to be the right phrase to contain my work at the time — I think of the title more as a container than the name of a single “project.” I think it still works for the prints and maybe some of the discrete/smaller sculptures, but not so much for the larger sculptures anymore. But in general, it’s the body of work I’m engaged with now. The works make propositions of what mutating, unpredictable forms that community, identity, and the environment—both built and natural — may take on in an unspecified future moment — all through the lens of a critical queerness.

CP: Do you have a static, projected future point that your work is speaking to? Or does that future-vision shift, depending on what your working on?

APM: The future I depict is definitely mutable and unpredictable, that’s kind of the crux of my whole viewpoint. I think part of the criticality of my work is that our projections of the future never match up to what we imagine — I use mutation as a metaphor or allegory for that unpredictability. As soon as one struggle is overcome, new power relations form in place of old ones. Often abuses and rivalries emerge instead of coalitions. The future I imagine is always out of reach.

"It Gets Worse," open edition of digital/offset prints dimensions variable 2011-ongoing

CP: It makes me want to ask the same question about your lens. Is your lens of critical queerness also static? Do you apply that lens to the present as well? Or is it solely intended as a future-looking tool?

APM: Going off my last answer, the lens definitely applies to the present. Our current struggles are direct results of what we desire or imagine our future to be. I think the It Gets Worse series points to those connections/disconnections. Is marriage a queer issue? Or are supermax prisons and police states a queer issue? Both? Is one more urgent than the other? Why? The national discourse is really far behind with regard to what’s actually being said, thought, and done in queer communities across class, race, and trans/gender lines. How can we make the definition of queer issues — and following that, queer identity — more fluid and open in order to more successfully meet the challenges of the future?

CP: And your SMILE series too—that struck me, partly, because of the element of performance required. I was thinking about it because in Hybrid Moments you seem to be interested in gestures and the significance of those gestures, but then in that instance (am I right?) the resulting work is divorced from living people….

APM: That’s a great question because I think over time those two projects have influenced each other in ways I hadn’t anticipated and, at least in my mind, they aren’t differentiated anymore. The first iteration of SMILE was, I think, the first iteration of my continuing and relatively “mature” body of work. However at that time it was still lacking a specific goal or agenda in terms of content, despite having established the visual style and material concerns. I started Hybrid Moments soon after this, and through those works I began to lock down the kinds of gestures, characters, and ideas I am interested in. Queerness, futurity, power relations, color theory/theories, toxicity and mutation to name a few. So when I did SMILE a second time (at SFCamerawork in September 2010), it became folded into what had become my practice. Some objects that were previously presented as sculptures became props for SMILE — because all these works now inhabited the same world. I was delighted to see some of the situations in my drawings accidentally re-enacted in performance, and in turn, I’ve used the gestures and actions performed in SMILE to create new drawings (e.g. “Totem Ascending”, which was included in this year’s threewalls CSA). The SMILE performances have also helped me to rethink the concepts of figure, site, and the object/viewer relationship in my sculptural work.

"SMILE II," installation/performance stills 2010

CP: Can you talk more about how you experienced your practice coalescing? It’s interesting to me, because it sounds so evident to your process — like the way you differentiate a “mature” body of work and then that you talk about figuring out your material/styalistic concerns before realizing the ideas you were honing in on…like, how did you discover queerness, futurity, power relations, color theory/theories, toxicity and mutation as a central series of threads?

APM: For me, this happens in two ways. I think the first was the development of a certain intuition, in conjunction with a recognizable imprint or style. When I work, I start with a specific idea, and I gather the materials I need to make the object real, but at a certain point in the execution it seems almost like alchemy, like spinning a solid substance out of air. The work begins to outpace my thought, which is a good thing. After a while, you make enough things and you can kind of sit back and look at what makes them all tick. Almost everything I was making had some connection with the body or a body-to-be (figure-based drawings, costumes, stages/arenas), and it made sense to go from there. Futurity and mutation — bodies as agents of change, and subject to change. Power relations —‚ how our physical bodies place us in a hierarchy arranged around gender, color, etc. Queerness — an embodiment of difference or otherness. There comes this juncture, this arrival, where you are able to say, this is it, this is what I’m talking about.

The second part has to do with the research elements of my practice — looking, reading, writing. As I was working on my written thesis I was isolating these core concepts (embodiment, utopia, queerness, etc). The commonalities between the different works I make, and the works of others that I am influenced by. I started making lists, thought maps, and diagrams which would explode these concepts and then bring them back together in different configurations. With the encouragement of friends and teachers, these sketches and diagrams eventually became works in their own right.

CP: Do you draw a connection between power relations and color theory? Like how certain colors will dominate others; there is an inborn, albeit relative hierarchy. Is your list of conceptual concerns similarly linked? Or do you see that list as a body of distinct, non-relating concepts?

APM: Oh yes, there is definitely a connection. However, in my research I don’t talk so much about the optical domination of one color over the other, as much as looking at the social constructs and hierarchies around color.  I’m interested in how colors carry associations with certain emotions, objects, situations, and even social and political movements and attitudes. I’ve been especially invested in mixed colors, day-glo colors, and pastel colors — my written thesis was titled “Who’s Afraid of Pink, Purple and Brown?” in contrast to Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” I’ve done an artist talk solely on the color pink. It’s a pretty amazing color, not enough people take it seriously. Transgression, difference, queerness, sex, repulsion, obsession, fantasy….it’s all there in that one color.

CP: How has the graduate school structure impacted your process?

APM: I think that grad school has been really invaluable to my process….until now I’ve never been able to totally commit myself to developing an artistic stance or worldview, and turn that into a cohesive body of work over time. I can really reflect on how one piece relates to the next, and engage in intense and productive critique from myself and others at a level previously unreached. As hinted at above, I’ve also been able to take advantage of scale and material in a way I hadn’t had the time or financial backing to do before. I’ve been really fortunate to attend a program (UIC) that fosters community, improvisation, self-critique, and collaboration, due to its size, and in particular, the awesomeness and warmth of my cohort. In that way, it really hasn’t been too much different than my DIY experiences. I think my class in particular has truly been like family.

CP: What are you working on right now?

APM: Interesting that you say that — well, the fact is, I’ve just graduated and am looking forward to a lot of travel this summer, and not really sure what kind of work awaits in the fall (residency? teaching? design? working at a bar? these are all options). This means that for the time being, I’m not going to have the large scale modes of production, storage, and display available to me during graduate school — so I unfortunately might have to put the brakes on the large sculptural work for now. It’s strange how time, place, and life situations can have as much, if not more, impact on the work you do as your own concept/process. That said, I’m focusing on prints, drawings and the web at the moment — things I can do at home and at my shared studio at Roxaboxen in Pilsen. Mostly developing the imagery in the Hybrid Moments prints and the It Gets Worse Series — my long-time No Coast collaborator Alex Valentine and I will be taking these and other print/book projects to the Tokyo Art Book fair in July. Also, I can finally put my nose to the grindstone on Monsters and Dust — which you yourself have also made an awesome contribution to. Our next issue is way overdue. But as soon as I get enough space I think I’d like to start working on a “living vomitorium” idea that has been at the back of my head for a while.

Bottomless Loop, wire, polyester, cotton, false flowers, plexiglas, poured enamel 10' x 12 ' x 2' 2011

CP: How do you determine if a show with your work is successful?

APM: I guess there are a few ways. Of course people might just like the whole thing, which feels great, but I’m often excited when people respond to the work that I’ve had the most doubts about, or the piece that I almost didn’t include. It reminds me to continue thinking outside of myself and to trust other people’s input. If the work motivates people to ask challenging questions rather than just congratulate, that’s great too. I also think a work is successful when people ask funny questions or give things names – “Is that a gloryhole?” or “I like this hair donut,” or “This one is the great birth mother, right?” or “What’s that smell?”

You can see more of Aay’s work by visiting his website.

 

 




Hercules, History and Diamonds : A Little Bit of Bourgeois

April 6, 2011 · Print This Article

Mr Hirst spent the evening playing snooker, but on being told the sale figures, he pronounced: “I think the market is bigger than anyone knows. I love art and this proves I’m not alone. And the future looks great for everyone.” (Economist, 2008).

1. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD

We arrived in Florence last February and stayed for about five days. It was cold and damp in the mid-50 degrees, reminding me of San Francisco. A friend we were visiting said the city was built on a swamp and we climbed up a hill to a Franciscan chapel where the original alabaster windows were still in place. Through the translucent stone, the light shone dark and brown and because it was colder inside than out, we didn’t stay long but climbed back down the hill to wander through the city once more. During those five days I felt a little like a pinball bouncing around a Renaissance amusement park. A classy Medieval Times with boar instead of mutton. Regardless of our haphazard path we inevitably ran into something famous: Dante’s church, for instance, or a squatting boar fountain—even those churches that hadn’t made it on the map still contained gravestones embedded in their walls or floor—some of these dating as far back as the first or second century. History was everywhere and it was bigger than us.

On the third day a bus passed with an advertisement for Damien Hirst’s bedazzled reminder of death. I burst out laughing.

The last thing I  expected to see was Hirst’s glimmering, gaudy skull in a city that seems in constant worship of its past.  Nevertheless, the city seemed to love it. There were banners and posters all over the place. Everywhere it said, “For the Love of God,” and why not?

The skull was on view in the Palazzo Vecchio—an old city hall, adjacent to a square full of fountains and sculptures and ice cream shops. Walking past the David replica, we bought tickets and wandered upstairs to the second floor. There, we entered a giant ballroom. The dimensions of the room itself were astounding—170×75 ft—not to mention the similarly massive tapestries on the walls, or the several larger-than-life sculptures that lined the room. While the tapestries themselves are phenomenal, they are nevertheless replacements for work never made by Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci; both had been commissioned to make work for the room and both, for various reasons (Da Vinci’s fresco allegedly melted when he tried to heat up the drying process with hot coals) were unfinished. In their stead, Giorgio Vasari’s war paintings hang with astonishing authority, depicting a series of Florentine victories in battle. They are massive, complete with impeccable detail. Horses so plump they are cherubic, with lords in armor on their backs, holding spears as shorter personalities–midgets and boys–hustle at their feet replenishing arrows and running swords or torches every which way. In these tapestries everything is in focus, each curious figure serving its own distinct purpose that nevertheless reinforces a greater compositional whole. There is no focal point, rather the harmony stems from the a series of active constellations.

But of course, the room boasts even more cultural capital. The ceiling is indescribable. It’s full of different panels of paintings and due to their detail it feels a little closer than it actually is. Additionally, larger-than life sculptures pepper the room.

Among those sculptures, six statues by Vincenzo de’Rossi depict the Labors of Hercules. As the story goes, Hercules was enraged (by Hera) to kill all of his children. After waking from his madness and discovering what he’d done, he went to the Oracle of Delphi to seek atonement. There he was set to 12 impossible tasks. These he accomplished. He is also attributed with making the world a safer place, in that he killed all of its monsters.

All of these works and figures depicted in the ball room were larger than life for the feats they captured, the size of their depiction and their (to me extreme) historical vantage.

Two ticket attendants stood in the far corner of this room. They clacked our tickets and pulled back a velvet rope so we could step behind them and passing through a very narrow, subsequent room I had the impression  we were walking through an old fashioned toilet, or cloak room. Built-in benches lined the walls. Each surface of this wooden vestibule was also painted and close, so that I could have reached up to touch the ceiling with my hands. After no more than four strides, someone pulled back a velvet curtain. I could not make out this person’s face, only their white gloves. Beyond the curtain lay another small, light fast room no more than 8ft squared. In the center of this room Damien Hirst’s skull sat on a plinth encased in glass. Aside from the very small flashlight of the skull’s attendant, the diamonds were the only thing illuminated in (and illuminating) the small cloak-and-daggers space. We were permitted to walk once around the glittering mask—enough that I could enjoy the diamonds in the roof of the skull’s mouth, the curious third eye and the gritty unglittered teeth—before the same faceless attendant pulled back a second curtain and emphatically (as seen with the rigorous flash light motion) ejected us back into the grand ballroom.

2. Hercules

A few weeks ago I found myself at the Lyric Opera House, on the third floor balcony watching Hercules; it was a pretty psychedelic experience. Tiny figures with massive voices paraded around a massive stage. Whereas in Italy I’d been small with respect to the work, here I could cover anyone’s head with my thumb.

The opera is not personal, it’s archetypal. The characters don’t have personalities so much as they have roles and musical motifs to enact. Except for their voices, they might as well be cardboard cut-outs. In this instance Hercules has returned from war. Peter Sellars took Handel’s four-hour opera and reduced it to 2 with one intermission. The libretto is full of repetitive phrases and the performers trilled through those like song birds. The set did not change shape; most of the stage contained a landscape of rock that no one walked upon with pillars and a pathway around it. Depending on the emotional tempo of the performers, the rocks gleamed in different colors. Sellars’ interpretation pulls out a story of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; the repeating phrases underscore that intent, as each character is constantly reliving their experience. Hercules has returned from battle with the spoils of war–including a young woman who just watched him kill her father. Hercules may or may not be interested in her and his wife, Dejanira, cannot connect with her husband; she remains perplexed and frustrated that, after so much waiting, she would remain alienated in her husband’s presence. She is jealous of the young woman he brought back. They argue. She tries to win him back by dosing his coat with the blood of a centaur. The centaur told Dejanira that his blood was an aphrodisiac where it turns out to be an acidic poison. When Hercules puts the coat on, he burns alive.

While I don’t think about Hercules often, I think even less about his death. It seems that his death is the greatest problem, in a way. No one knew what to do with him once he had been admitted in Olympus. There is an awkward encounter between Hercules and Odysseus, for instance, when Odyseuss has to differentiate between Hercules the God and Hercules’ ghost.

“And next I caught a glimpse of powerful Heracles—
His ghost I mean: the man himself delights
in the grand feasts of the deathless gods on high…
Around him cries of the dead rang out like cries of birds
scattering left and right in horror as on he came like night…”

Somehow these thoughts coalesced then. I started thinking about how one must be large when facing the death of heroes; how the import of these legacies is both essential and arbitrary. Hercules is part of a scaffold that makes meaning. Florence is an early pillar in that scaffold; its Renaissance established a criteria that is still resonating today–whether under Sellars’ directorial agenda (during which one can experience over and over and over again the death of Hercules), or in Hirsts’ work, where, it seems, the hero is dead and the market remains.

“The speech of an elder in the twilight of his life is not his history but his legacy; he speaks not to describe matter but to demonstrate meaning. He talks of his past for purposes of his future. This purpose is the prejudice of his memory. He remembers that which has been according to what could and should be, and by this measure sifts the accumulation of his memory: he rejects the irrelevant event, elaborates the significant detail, combines separate incidents of similar principle. Out of physical processes he creates a metaphysical processional. He transposes the chronology of his knowledge into a hierarchy of meanings. From the material circumstances of his experience he plots the adventure for the mind which is the myth,” (Divine Horsemen, Maya Deren).

3. History

The diamond: something that has been marketed to represent eternity, who’s value is based almost exclusively on market control. Until 1870, diamonds were rarely found in South American riverbeds. Thereafter they discovered huge diamond mines in South America. In order to protect the value of the diamond, these jewel harvesters had to band together to “perpetuate the illusion of scarcity” (Atlantic Magazine, Edward Jay Epstein,February 1982). This is where the value of Hirst’s skull comes from, which is interesting given his consistently unconventional use of auction houses as primary exhibit halls.

The focus of Hirst remains fast on the potentials of an immediate future. He has utilized the auction house as a kind of performance filled with its own intrigue. In one article, there was a mysterious Russian who participated by phone. Everyone is complicit in the staging of this wealth. “Sotheby’s was keen to build its own brand around a celebrity artist rather than the usual assortment of inanimate objects. The sale was marketed on YouTube and through the media around the world, part of a conscious effort to broaden international demand for the work. Sotheby’s filled its exhibition rooms with Hirsts. Never had so much of his art been seen in one place. Many art-world insiders saw the sale as an artistic event,” (Economist, 2010). And of course, like diamonds, the value of the work lies in the demand.

In some way, I want to posit the idea the emphasis is on the market because, contextualized by such predecessors, it is impossible to participate on their terms. If Hercules can die, what is there? I have heard that Hirst has a storeroom of corpses with which he can replace deteriorating sculptures. I have also heard, in response to the suffering market, he has considered opening his own museum, to house his own work. Those are unfounded rumors, but I like them. In the context of that great hall, Hirst’s skull struck me like a peep show at a carnival; it was gaudy and feeble and small. Titillating because of its impeccable surface of expense. A trashy sex kitten with black teeth: perhaps the perfect face for death. Yet here too, we’ve seen the market is not “bigger than anyone knows.” If anything the last couple of years have demonstrated real limits to capital.