Two years after the first iteration of his epic USSA 2012 project opened at threewalls in 2011 in the form of the hyper-conceptual “orphanage project” (after a controversial Bad at Sports podcast about an orphanage the artist had allegedly proposed on the South Side drew confused ire), Zachary Cahill brings the third and final installment of his world to the Smart Museum. USSA has grown up and outward over the years, its hallmark institutions morphing from orphanage to gift shop (the People’s Palace Gift Shop at the Cultural Center last summer) and now a riff on a mountain sanatorium. Each iteration has also gotten even more ephemeral, diffuse, and challenging: the Smart Museum show, entitled USSA 2012: Wellness Center: Idyllic—affair of the heart, consists of a banner declaring “A Sea of Wellness,” a number of watercolor paintings scattered in offices around the museum, and both analog and digital postcards from the Wellness Center. (There’s also some heart-wrenching confessional poetry and estranging emoji, among other digital objects, on the show’s website.) For Smart Curator Sarah Mendelsohn, the challenging evasiveness of the show, and Cahill’s world, is part of the pleasure: “The difficulty of locating the USSA is part of what makes the conversation around this work so enjoyable,” she reasons.
This kind of logic is certainly in line with Cahill’s larger themes. USSA 2012 has taken on vast aesthetic, political, and increasingly personal topics for the artist over the years, and this latest iteration is no exception, with references to different kinds of modernisms within the history of painting, Thomas Mann, and the relationship between wellness and art, within his ever-present wide-ranging institutional and cultural critiques. I spoke with Cahill over email after the show’s soft opening last week. (nb all strikethrough text is intentional)
Idyllic—affair of the heart banner
MW: Can you write an introduction to an imaginary travel guide for USSA? The culture, the people, the flags, the scenery depicted in the postcards, the social institutions, the art, the vibe… Is it an Olympic village? Cosmopolitan (as I imagine sanatoriums to be, as the art world is?)
ZC: ok here goes:
Sochi 2014 Cultural Olympiad
2013 – The Year of the Museum
USSA 2012:Wellness Center
The fourth year of the
Sochi 2014 Cultural Olympiad USSA 2012:Wellness Center is devoted to museums. As always, the organizers of the first Winter Games in the history of Russia USSA will present the public with hundreds of the best cultural events. They include dozens of exhibitions, shows, competitions, festivals, and special exhibitions, as well as forums, workshops and educational programs that will be held throughout the country.
Sochi 2014 Cultural Olympiad Wellness Center is a unique project by the organizers of the USSA 2012, offering the best cultural events in the country. In 2014, visitors to the Olympic host city will not only be able to evaluate the sporting competitions, but also Russia’s the USSA’s cultural diversity at dozens of performance venues located in Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana. Therefore, since 2010, the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, along with dozens of regions throughout the country, has been carefully selecting the best of Russian USSA culture. Between 2010 and 2014, thousands of diverse cultural events have and will be taking place throughout the entire country. Each year, the Cultural Olympiad is dedicated to a different art form: 2010 was the Year of the Cinema, 2011 the Year of the Theater The Orphanage Project, 2012 the Year of Music The People’s Palace’s Gift Shop, and 2013 is the Year of the Museum/Wellness Center 2014.
The national scale of the project will make it possible to involve every resident of the country in this grand celebration of music wellness, maintaining and increasing the cultural riches of our country. All of the events of the Cultural Olympiad can be followed on
That’s kind of what I imagine it would sound like, but maybe written in the style of Thomas Mann (who is something of a spiritual grandfather to the wellness center-his book The Magic Mountain is especially important)…The artist Susan Hiller I think once said about her project From the Freud Museum…something like, “I think we all live inside the Freud Museum, metaphorically.”..not meaning (obviously) that we live inside her installation but i think something along the lines that today we all are are living in and through the influence of Sigmund Freud and the life of the unconscious…possibly the Wellness Center is a bit like that…it’s not something I made exactly…it’s just something we all are living in…wellness as a perfume-y like presence that can’t be nailed down to any one specific location…
Wellness Center watercolor 13
MW: What do you think of USSA as a kind of “worlding”? What is its ontological status?
ZC: I am sure that is probably right but I feel like maybe the USSA isn’t so much a form of “worlding” but rather marks the condition of being world-ed…moving in and by forces that are in many respects beyond our control…maybe the difference is negligible … I guess I’d say for me that the project…the totality of the USSA 2012 is really ontologically unstable and that’s kind of the point…it’s not that I am looking to create fiction….or create an alternate universe or what have you… it flickers…my understanding is that these alternate universes are what we all create and inhabit everyday…we can’t stop doing it…even the most so-called unimaginative person is a hardcore world-builder and imagineer…they maybe even the best at it… seeing as it’s their boring hum-drum world that we (for lack of a more credible option) seem to buy into and slog through most often….I guess everyone is worlding…so many worlds colliding…
MW: The project has reached the end of its lifespan– the orphanage story, childhood to adulthood, and now (after) the end. It’s also getting arguably more conceptually challenging as well as seemingly more personal. Is it getting more permeable with the real world for you? Where do you leave the world?
ZC: I always hoped that the USSA 2012 project would have something like a life span that could be mapped onto the different iterations…youth (the orphanage project)…middle age (the gift shop) and old age (wellness center)…and maybe..who knows …an afterlife?
Yes, it is getting more overtly personal in a sense… and these different life phases are meant to reflect a kind of growth through time…
MW: Re: getting personal: is the painting genre as personal a genre for you here as the confessional poetry? What kinds of approaches do you take to both?
ZC: I think so…in each instance [painting and writing] for the Wellness Center Project I try to be as honest and forthcoming as I can…Still, the confessional poetry piece is difficult for me to talk about…I wrote it…It’s out in the world and that’s about all I can manage to comment on at this times….
Some of the paintings work this way too…but I suppose different modes of working are put to use for different parts of the project…so for example, with some paintings I try to imagine what the wellness center patients would make…what kind of paintings they would do as guests at an early 20th century European sanatorium…Of course, the imaginary is pretty close to the real in these efforts…I think the choice
of color gets at the personal for me…especially the use of fluorescent…I think if Munch were alive today…he’d probably use a lot of fluorescent paint…is that a way of answering the question?
MW: You have talked about the difference between internal and external experience, which also comes up in the curatorial writing for the show. Those experiences seem to map onto the painterly influences here: the small human figure in an overpowering landscape (Friedrich), the hugeness of subjectivity and interiority in expressionism. I guess this isn’t really a question. Here’s my question: is this hunch right? How is it more complicated than I suggested?
ZC: The blurring of the internal mind scape and the outside world is definitely an interest…In fact, I am teaching a class on the subject next year [Cahill is a Lecturer & Open Practice Committee Coordinator in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago]. I have been pretty influenced of late by a book a friend of mine recommended, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, by the art historian Robert Rosenblum, where he describes the psychic economy of painters like Van Gogh, Munch, and many others while tracing a Romantic lineage back to Caspar David Friedrich…It is a fantastic book of art history!…Illuminating sections abound. For instance,I had always wondered what is the opposite of the notorious commonplace “art for art sake”…Rosenblum points out that Van Gogh was interested in art for life’s sake…I never heard it formulated so simply and that is something that interests me…
For the banner at the Smart Museum I was thinking about CDF…it is “after him” as they say, or some sort of perversion of his Monk by the Sea painting… which has always held a special place in my artistic heart because it so vividly merges an inscape with the landscape…I am sure you’ve experienced that feeling when…it’s raining and somehow it just suits your mood perfectly and some kind of equilibrium is reached between your mood and your surroundings…that was what one of things I was going for in that painting…and how the psychic landscape might attach itself to the “real world” of human activity too.
MW: Past iterations of the USSA seemed more explicitly political than this one. How cynical or sincere are you politically in this show? Aesthetically?
ZC: Well I am sincere but I am not sure that matters much…my sense it is of little consequence to viewers whether I am sincere or not…they don’t need me to be…that said the politics are there… in other projects of mine the political element has been pretty foregrounded and some might say strident…like nails on a chalk board (or so I hoped)… but this project for me has to do with psychology… a turning inward and trying to a concoct propaganda of the self…like what if your unconscious started to make banners and agitate… a revolution of the psyche…could that be political?
MW: What’s with the flowers you’ve been posting on Facebook?
ZC: Slow to the party…I recently began to grasp the significance of flowers after talking about them with a couple of friends…and I started taking photos and looking closely at them over the summer around my neighborhood and discovered…shocker…flowers are amazing…they do all sorts of crazy things to light to get the colors they do…natural fluorescence…
I started thinking about bees and pollination…and how people use flowers in front of their homes, at weddings, funerals, …rituals…and I concluded that flowers must perform some apotropaic function….like a teddy bear or church gargoyle… they are meant to keep the bad vibes away…
and then I starting thinking of flowers in relation to propagation and propaganda..etymologically tied…and realized flowers are supremely political…so with all the NSA data collection going on I thought…well, if they want to know something about me…let them know that I love flowers..so the flowers on Facebook were a kind of protest but also a kind of advent calendar before the project at the Smart Museum opened.
Flowers for Bad at Sports
MW: Art and mourning: these are the two huge driving themes for the show. What is art mourning? You’ve talked regarding previous USSA projects about economic depression, the way we’re all “waiting for recovery,” and healing from the trauma of the Bush era. Can art help us mourn? What is mourning?
ZC: I suppose I can only answer for myself here…But speaking in generalities (knowing I am going to say this all wrong and embarrass myself) …I think art is a very fundamental human thing… By that I mean art is a lot like one of the  senses…it’s a way of apprehending the world around us…now Art clearly gets caught up in all other types of associations like the art market and folks tend to get hung up on that stuff but I think art is just something we do as people…market or not…
Therefore, I guess I’d say art can be an outlet for mourning …or that grief can pour out into your art …just
like it can pour out into any other aspect of your life…art might be a healthy outlet and also a way of sharing the experience…commiserating…when you suffer a major loss in your life you look for ways to cope …perhaps if you’re an athlete your pour that energy into competition, or if you’re a writer you write, but sometimes the grief can be so overwhelming that none of the things that once made you strong and “together” can fend off the sorrow…so if art fails it’s a bit like having another part of your body cave in…but hopefully you find the resources to just hang in there…friends and family are important here and…well… so is therapy.
In terms of a larger geo-political situation that you mention…I do think art can have a similar function, it can help society recover, but it can no more make the world a better place than breathing…or sleeping… basic things humans do…true, when put to good practice things like breathing and sleeping and even art can make an enormous impact on the state of the body politic…that’s encouraging and why I am big fan of political art and art that may or may not realize its political efficacy.
MW: People are going to be really confused about this show. At least I still find it ineffable and often difficult to parse symbolically, like a warren of rabbit holes. At lunch the other day you talked about an artist (I forget his name) who loved Apollinaire because his criticism was always wrong. You’re interested in misinterpretation. Are you interested in critics getting this show wrong? Is this why so much of this project is oblique: to allow room for misinterpretation? What do you think about calling this show an inhibition instead of an exhibition?
ZC: The quote, if i remember right, was from Georges Braque, whose work I adore…and it’s not so much that I am interested in people getting my work wrong or baffling the critics…it’s just in some sense people will always get it right …even if I have no idea what they get out of it … my take on the project is simply one view among others…which is to say I am a tad mistrustful of artist’s intentions (not that i unreservedly accept other interpretations)…It’s just I think we often tell ourselves what the work is about for a whole host of reasons but there is (I think) always this weird secret cause behind the work…maybe it’s not always secret exactly, but maybe some artists (myself included) have to look past that secret thing in order to create the work…it’s a blind-spot that helps animate the work…this is a good thing…do people instinctually connect with that blind- spot…my guess is that they do…they don’t know how or why they feel that blind-spot but when it gets to them if stuff is working right…maybe the rabbit hole analogy is a good one…I guess my work is made for the diggers…people who like to get down into things….and I hope that I create enough spaces for them to tunnel into….because I have that interest….I like being onto something too…
I mean I very much like the direct experience of being in front of an art work, but I enjoy being haunted by art works too…a visceral quality that occurs with the work of some of my favorite artists…they infect me and I can’t stop thinking about it…Ideally, I’d like my work to do both: give off an affecting sensation for the viewer and to haunt them after they walk away from it… my work wants to have its cake and eat to….
To your last question…I am very much interested in what I think of as in-hibition, as a kind of balance to the idea of exhibition…perhaps stemming from a sense that we share a fatigue of living in public constantly…and wanting to create work for specific people that might not get seen by the “viewer”…this is why I made works to be displayed in the offices at the Smart…they are on view but just for the people that work there, not the generally audience…it’s for the people that live and work at that institution everyday…or: the material posted to the Smart Museum’s website, the post cards in the gift shop, the Smart phone performances… in each case I am looking for another type of connection to the viewer that play off one another….
So while i do think the traditional the exhibition setting of the gallery is great and the most efficient format for art— having potential to form something like a commons…which is how I hope the banner functions….I am interested in other ways people might encounter the wellness center too …live with it and in some sense make it their own… in-hibition and exhibition…perhaps it’s a type of swinging door
Various exhibition and performance elements of the “USSA 2012: Wellness Center: Idyllic—affair of the heart” show will take place between now and August of 2014 at the Smart Museum of Art. More information is available on the museum’s website.