Realigning our Sight: An Interview with MK Guth

December 19, 2012 · Print This Article

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Midway through our studio visit, MK Guth told me about a compass—her father’s compass to be precise—that, throughout her childhood, was contained in the tackle box on her family’s boat. After countless summers of relying on this particular compass to navigate the waterways of the Canadian Great Lakes, it became a talisman of sorts, and it was this heirloom that sent the artist running to Midwest following the sale of the entire rig a few years ago. Out of this experience, Guth began to reconsider objects: how they transition between function and fetish; how they shift and shape social interaction; and how their relation to us and to each other organizes our surroundings and appropriates our actions.

Despite her attachment to the compass, Guth never learned to read it. It wasn’t until she was the sole owner of the object that she fulfilled its agency as a wayfinder, using it to navigate hikes through the Cascades. This notion of object lying in wait, anticipating the grasp of the human hand to become activated as an extension and mediation of human experience in the world, is a theme resonant throughout Guth’s art practice. Her most recent project, When Nothing Else Subsists, Smell and Taste Remain, (2012), is a multi-sensory exploration of the meaning that can evolve from the intersection of subject, object, and context. The exhibition is composed of a series of vignettes—or still lives as the artist calls them—composed of everyday readymades interspersed with one-of-a-kind handcraft and modified found objects. Guth meticulously curated a range of texture in each display. The all too appealing interplay of lustrous forged bronze, hand-blown glass, and polished woodgrain cannot help being touched. Guth intentionally solicits this interaction from her audience, tempting visitors to sit at her handcrafted table, thumb through original artist books, and take various tools for dining in hand.

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As a secondary, perhaps richer engagement, viewers are invited to enact dinners— elaborate rituals explicitly outlined in Guth’s one-of-a-kind books: Dinner for John Cage, Dinner for Crying, Dinner for the Woods, Dinner for a Funeral, Dinner for Getting Lost, and others. In this iteration of When Nothing Else Subsists, the social becomes both medium and content of the project. Setting the stage upon familiar platform of table, flatware, and food, Guth subverts the everydayness of dining, directing attention to the ritual itself—its structure, its narrative, and its social interplay—as a subtle reminder of the small, ephemeral gestures that contribute to grand, long-lasting accumulations.

Guth’s previous work similarly embraced participation as fodder for art practice. Her recent series of braid projects including: Best Wishes, (2011); This Fable is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle, (2010); Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping, (2008); solicited physical material—swatches of fiber—as well as text commenting on issues ranging from desire to security. The material was then woven into yards upon yards of braids to create a generative social work that, in the gallery, was translated into an equally compelling sculpture, installation, or lens-based project, that visitors uninvolved with the initial performance could engage and appreciate. Braids from these previous projects festoon the artist’s studio currently. They are in the process of being woven into vessels—clever plays on the idea of a repository— where hopes and wishes are bound-up in the objectness of the container itself.

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Guth is the maestra of the send-off. At the root of her work is a central line of inquiry—a rhizome-like thread that binds individual, to object, to universe—generating meaning from what is unacknowledged, unarticulated, or unknown. I spoke to Guth in her southeast Portland studio.

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I’d love to start with a quote that came up in a previous conversation with you: “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.” (Robert Filliou, n.d.) Why did that statement resonate?

MK Guth: What I find important about that quote is that it reminds us that art has a job to do. In the case of my work, I tend to use the concept of the everyday—reflecting on the everyday in the content, materials, and processes of art making—to refocus attention on analyzing and addressing everyday acts, rituals, and processes with new appreciation and understanding. My recent work at Marylhurst [University’s Art Gym], When Nothing Else Subsists, Smell and Taste Remain, the project places the ritual of dining within the context of art to attune the viewer to an act that is so familiar that we take it for granted. For example, in the case of the Dinner for John Cage, you perform a composition at the dinner, but you are also enacting a ritual that we do all the time: eating. It’s this combination of producing something collectively as part of a mundane action within the context of an art experience that forces us to reexamine what we already know.

SMP: So, you’re making the familiar strange, or the ordinary extraordinary…

MKG: It’s more about bringing our attention back to the ordinary so we look at it again. For example, when you walk the few blocks to work every day, you notice certain things, but then you take that walk with someone else and they point out a different building or some detail or whatever, all of a sudden, the walk becomes new again—you see it in a different way. So, I’m not even sure it’s about making it special as much as it is about realigning our sight.

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SMP: Food has become such an enormous part of contemporary art and exhibition practice, but in viewing your work, I was brought back to those seminal figures in food and performance, Gordon Matta Clark, Alison Knowles, and to some extent, Rikert Tiravanija. Do you have a relationship to these artists, and how did the contemporary context—cultural and social life—set the stage for this project?

MKG: I’m a bit of a researcher bug. I roll that way anyway. My undergraduate degree is in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and that department is very research oriented and it really influenced the way that I work. In the process of developing [When Nothing Else Subsists], sure, I was looking at all of these different people who engaged food in one way or another; that being said, I don’t want to make the assumption that everyone who works with food shares some sort of similarity. Tiravanija’s way of engaging food and the meaning behind it is very different than somebody like Daniel Spoerri, even though both of these artists are cooking. Both are very different than Gordon Matta Clark and the project Food, or Alison Knowles, who, in a very Fluxus-Happening spirit, highlights our relationship with tools and implements. But sure, I became interested in how art addressed food and eating beginning with very early artworks as a material of life itself that is essential to existence. No matter the moment or context, food makes its way into the artistic realm, from pre-antiquity to present… food is part of what we need and often part of significant rituals that imbue out lives, for example, weddings, births and birthdays all have particular food and food rituals.  It doesn’t surprise me that artists are interested in using it to create meaning.

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SMP: Many of your previous projects including Best Wishes and This Fable is Intended for You are about engagement through the accumulation of matter—generating fiber and text—whereas your more recent work around food and dining is more about ritual—generative through discursive and performative engagement. What drew you away from one form of participation to another?

MKG: In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark coined the term “food theater.” I actually began conceiving [When Nothing Else Subsists] several years ago when I was in the process of doing all the weaving and braiding projects, and that term—food theater—helped develop my most recent work by focusing my attention on what it meant when I was eating with friends and how it is this theatrical event. Everybody is a performer at the table and there are always expectations as the guest, as the server, as the person who’s cooking the meal, or as the person who is directing the conversation. That notion of performance in relation to something that we do together everyday started to inform where I wanted this work, When Nothing Else Subsists, to go.

I suppose this project is the absolute opposite of my previous work in terms of process. These last several years, perhaps starting with Red Shoe Delivery Service, (2002-2006), and continuing through the woven works, the interaction with the public played out in one field, and the accumulated ephemera then went on to form works of art that could be then reflected on in an institutional setting—a gallery, museum, or what have you. In essence, the interactivity was one experience and the viewing of the object that came out of it was a different experience. What was important to me is that residual work wasn’t functioning as a direct document; meaning, that the secondary object was created to offer up a wholly new viewing experience that has different meaning attached.

I know that my work could easily be defined as “social practice,” but in part because I choose not to show direct documentation of the interactive elements of the work in a gallery context and because my work does not exist as documentation of an experience but instead as an object produced from that experience, I feel that my work is set apart. Honestly, I understand why social practice, or any sort of event-oriented project, relies on documentation—there’s an art economy there, and a manner of communicating something that would be otherwise lost.  However, I also feel that showing ephemera can be a fuck you to the audience. It’s like saying: “here’s the event that you all were not involved with. It was great, but you weren’t there.” Also, a photograph or video can never accomplish translating what the original experience was—the related discomforts, smells, sounds, and all the many other things are absent from documentation. An important part of what I do is creating something else that might connect to that initial experience but it isn’t trying to document it in a direct way. I am interested in creating work that offers up multiple experiences and, as a result, the whole project becomes generative.

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When Nothing Else Subsists turns my earlier process on its side. The object is similarly the agent of activation, but the activity occurs through an inverse process: object precipitates event.

Certain things cause us to act in specific ways: a book tells us to read it; a table tells us to sit and use it as a surface. We understand that code and structural system, regardless of where the objects are located. It’s universal. You can put something into a gallery—it doesn’t matter what it is—it could be a clothespin and voila, and it’s art. The thing that I like about the table is that people will go to sit at it because its meaning—its system and code—is stronger than that of the art context. For example, people are still willing to go sit at a table and eat despite its location in a university art gallery.

As far as the little vignettes that hold these one-of-a-kind dinners, those still lives have materials that I had hoped would encourage people to take materials off the shelves and engage with them; in particular, the books. For example, the Dinner for Getting Lost has a copy of Aristotle’s “On Man in the Universe” and a book of Rebecca Solnit as well as the one-of-a-kind book that encompasses the dinner. I made the books to be hardcover sturdy objects that tell the viewer: “I’m not fragile, pick me up.” I wanted these still lives to announce that they are meant to be engaged and, in this way, that body of work starts with the sculpture as a way to promote an action. Really, each piece has three different potential experiences that can be engaged: the initial entry to the project is through the still life and contemplative viewing, the second experience is through engaging with the material of the still life, and the third level is to activate the dinner itself.

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SMP: I’m interested in your ability to engage with the unique properties and etiquette for participation within different spaces, fluctuating seemingly easily between white cube and more public venues, as with your recent work in Las Vegas. How do you leverage the different qualities of different spaces for your projects?

MKG: All spaces have a context—including galleries—and often, it can be difficult to fight against the associations brought on by site. For the Whitney Biennial, my piece, [Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping, (2008)], was installed in the library of the Park Avenue Armory, a space that has very specific meaning and embedded history. In my mind, simply putting an artwork in that space without considering the relationship to site means that both elements—the history of the space and the meaning of the artwork—are in this constant battle. In my work, it makes more sense for me to use history and meaning in the construction of the artwork so that the two could come together and create a unique, mutually supported experience for the audience. At Marylhurst, the Art Gym has a very particular feel with its exposed wooden beams and a huge expanse of windows—a very hallowed hall kind of feel that adds to the sense of ritual. And, of course, you can’t fight Vegas, so it made sense to do a work that connected some of the aspects of the reasons people visit Vegas: the dream, desire, etc. To me, it seems to be a more successful strategy somehow to engage the site, leveraging it to create meaning for the rest of the work.

SMP: The research-based element of your practice is so intensive. I’m wondering if you could continue this thread and speak to blending more empirical truth—particularly history—with mythmaking, which strikes me as being very present in many of your projects?

MKG: I start often with mythic narratives and use them as a way to bring people in. Often with interactive work, people do not like to engage, (including me!), so there has to be another way to invite people into the piece. There are narratives that we all recognize, and these provide a way for people to come to the work that’s familiar. It’s the shifting that happens in that space—engaging audience with familiar narrative—that creates a new mythic site.

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SMP: How did you begin to do participatory work and how do you negotiate the unknowns that come with choreographing this type of performance?

MKG: Late-summer 2002, Red Shoe Delivery Service made its debut in New York. This was a project with Molly Dilworth and, one year later, with Cris Moss. I had been working on a series of photos that were combining mythic representations into everyday scenarios, and one of them was Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers. I had been doing this kind of work for three years and, at that point, I was frustrated with it. In my mind, I was redesigning these representations to make room for ordinary people in the way that you may not be a superhero but you could still have some sort of remarkable power. That series of work just kind of collapsed into the photograph, object, or video, and never really became an experience outside the realm of image or object; Red Shoe developed out of this point of frustration. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my then roommate Molly Dilworth, and I said: “What if I just rented a van, filled it with glittery shoes, and drove around giving people free rides? What would happen then?” And Molly said: “If you do that, I’ll drive.” That’s how Red Shoe was born. We did our first three days in New York with a rented minivan and a bunch of red glittery shoes that I had made, and we literally gave rides to people to wherever they wanted to go. In exchange, they had to give us their shoes for the duration of the ride, and they had to choose a pair of red glittery shoes and click their heels saying: “there’s no place like…” the Post Office, work, the neighborhood bar, or wherever they were going. We took video of our passengers at the beginning and end of each ride, and later edited those two moments together to create a video of people magically transported in a spiral of glitter and heart music to their desired location. As the project went on, we became more sophisticated. Molly started curating the van, so the ride itself became this entirely other experience for the riders. Then Chris Moss became involved when we realized we needed a third person. Chris began working on these interactive DVDs that involved recording the stories of our riders and partnering with writers and illustrators to translate them into texts and images. We began creating this multi-layered, almost rhizomatic project that spoked in all these different ways. We began doing virtual travel agencies, dispatch centers, shoe stores, so something that started out as a mobile project—which we always kept—became all these different ways of communicating notions of risk taking, desire, transformation, and different ideas of home.

When Red Shoe was first developed, it took time for the three of us to understand and evolve the work in such a way that the loss of autonomy that comes with participation was not a problem to be resolved, but rather, something that offered up a range of new possibilities both for the viewers and for us as the artists that made the work more exciting. As time went on, and with the braid projects, I began to weave-in this loss of autonomy into the design of the work. When Sol Lewitt spoke about his instructions-based works, he had an understanding that no one person draws a line the same. So, those works, no matter how well the instructions are composed, will always vary a little bit, and that becomes part of the work. I think that if you pursue a practice that is exchange-based or participatory without that understanding that concept, you are going to be constantly frustrated. Understanding that active audience members will come in and shift the outcome of the work has to be taken into consideration in the design of the piece. This different system of meaning making doesn’t change the authorship of the work however, because the design of that experience is still coming from me.

SMP: So, given that transdiciplinary is the buzzword du jour, I’m curious if you can articulate a bit more about your approach to art making that draws from research, object making, image making, performance, and choreography. Moreover, artists today function in various roles ranging from sociologist, to journalist, to cabdriver. Given the expansion of the field, how would you define the role of an artist in this context and how do you address the anxiety that comes with pushing and crossing traditional boundaries?

MKG: I’m not going to define the role of an artist—each artist is going to define that role differently. But I do feel that art has a job to do and, for me now, my job as an artist involves wearing a lot of different hats: choreography, directing, facilitating.

I come from an object making background, and I still believe in the power of the object to make people act or to change their understanding of an image or event. That being said, I would like to approach my practice as one that offers up a multi-level of experiences including more viewer activated experiences. At the end of the day, I feel that in order to communicate, I need to make use of many different skills: some that are very common and everyday ways of making; others are more cerebral, mining my education and research skills; and some that engage new technology, which in many ways is redefining the role of the artist today. What is an artist? Tough question! I guess I choose the job of cultivating an experience for an audience that communicates something about them back to them.  This is the role I choose.

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MK Guth is a multidisciplinary artist residing in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent project, When Nothing Else Subsists, Smell and Taste Remain, was on view at Marylhurst University’s Art Gym, Oct. 7 – Dec. 9, 2012. She received her MFA from New York University in 2002, and her work has been featured internationally at numerous museums, galleries, and festivals including: The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; The Melbourne International Arts Festival; Portland Institute for Contemporary Art; Swiss Institute; White Box Annex; White Columns; Frye Museum; Henry Art Gallery; and others. Guth is currently Chair of the MFA Program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, (PNCA), and is represented by Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland.