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.