Faulkner says

18 Sep

Faulkner: At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is, curiosity – to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference.

Audience: How would you suggest that he get this insight? Through experience?

Faulkner: Yes, and then the greatest part of experience is in the books, to read. To watch people, to never judge people. To watch people, what they do, without intolerance. Simply to learn why it is they did what they did.

Faulkner at Virginia

Oscar Wilde says

16 Sep

If a man approaches a work of art with any desire to exercise authority over it and the artist, he approaches it in such a spirit that he cannot receive any artistic impression from it at all. The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. And the more completely he can suppress his own …prejudices, his own absurd ideas of what Art should be, or should not be, the more likely he is to understand and appreciate the work of art in question.

Oscar Wilde

A nugget presented at one of our first classes. We did not read the rest, but a glance at the parts pertaining to art results in this:

An individual who has to make things for the use of others, and with reference to their wants and their wishes, does not work with interest, and consequently cannot put into his work what is best in him. Whenever a community or a powerful section of a community, or a government of any kind, attempts to dictate to the artist what he is to do, Art either entirely vanishes, or becomes stereotyped, or degenerates into a low and ignoble form of craft…

For an educated person’s ideas of Art are drawn naturally from what Art has been, whereas the new work of art is beautiful by being what Art has never been; and to measure it by the standard of the past is to measure it by a standard on the rejection of which its real perfection depends.

I don’t recommend the entire piece. As brilliant as Wilde was as a dramatist, I’ve not yet come across a piece of his prose that isn’t a bit trying. But that last bit is insightful, and bears on the question of how art is evaluated in a pragmatic and non-ideal world with institutions and individual biases and blindspots.


12 Sep

Aesthetics means nothing. There is no such thing as a beautiful or non-beautiful thing. There is art that works and art that doesn’t. It’s about whether a work can touch people. Six months ago I was at a demonstration in Paris about Bosnia and some students had made huge balloons. The balloons were really ugly, but they made one of the best pieces I have ever seen in my life. It as perfect for this day. Now if I’d seen them in a museum I would have said that they were really ugly, but in the streets against the grey sky and all the people around, they were fantastic. Perhaps there’s no such thing as a good or bad piece, rather it’s about whether a piece can work at one given moment, about whether it can move us and speak to us. I don’t believe in aesthetics, but then I don’t think anybody does.

Christian Boltanski

This quote reminded me of a part of our theory class last week, in which the idea of good/bad art came up. I confess that I hate the words “good” and “bad” – it’s a bit of a pet peeve that has developed through years of arguing with music nerds who insist that there is such a thing as “good” music (their definition usually precludes most of mainstream pop music). Over the course of many conversations it has become obvious that “good” and “bad” are simply stand-ins for some subjective set of metrics that the speakers either is incapable of or has not spent the time to articulate to himself.

I will say it like this: if these two words were purged entirely from the English vocabulary, I don’t think anybody would experience a single negative effect. They are the vaguest, least contentful yet most loaded words we use on a consistent basis. The philosophy student in me hates the fact that in casual conversation we absolutely neglect to define these terms. If you ever find yourself using “good” or “bad” in relation to people or artwork, you may want to ask yourself what the hell you actually mean, because you certainly aren’t putting it in expressive terms. We all should try to – I will try to – never use those infernal words again.

All that aside, we talked about the ways in which art is evaluated – through critical discourse, through financial performance, through popularity with the masses, through some sort of cultural minting as it passes through museums, and of course through your own personal intentions and goals for the work. I can’t say that we came to any solid conclusions, except perhaps that you can’t expect your work to be evaluated solely on its merits, not that there is an uniform set of metrics to begin with. We are all still living in a world of marketing babble and money money money. I suppose that is no news flash.

Zhang Ke Chun

10 Sep

Zhang Ke Chun

(via Michael David Murphy)

Dwarf Empire

8 Sep

Sanna de Wilde

The World Eco Garden of Butterflies and the Dwarf Empire – is situated in the mountains of southern China near the new city of Kunming. Created in 2009, it is a tourist attraction boasting two daily performances by 100 dwarves, who live and work in an elaborate fantasy world ruled by an emperor and empress.

De Wilde’s book will be divided into three main sections: her photographs of the little people, their photographs of her, and two foldout posters featuring individual portraits of the performers alongside biographical information – names, dates, places of birth, heights. “Their height is the thing that most informs their lives,” she says, “so it seemed incredibly important to include it.” Likewise, she has included what she calls “anti-postcards” (her images of “the daily reality of life in the park”), as well as an insert of images created by her subjects in response to the question: how would you ideally like to be seen?”

Inside China’s Dwarf Empire

Thanks, Bill!

To see

5 Sep

Now that I’m enrolled, I’m getting many, many emails about upcoming art events. I thought I’d keep track of some of the most interesting ones as they come in. Here are a few things to see in the next month or so:

  • Dear Erin Hart, Jessamyn Lovell
    SF Camerawork, 9/3-10/18
    Artist talk 9/6 2p

    Dear Erin Hart, is the artist’s response to being the victim of identity theft. In an act of retribution, Lovell pursued a woman who was using her stolen identity and made art of her process. Using a camera and occupying the varied roles of victim, stalker, investigator, artist, spy, and vigilante, Lovell offers a body of work that touches on contemporary concerns of surveillance and selfhood within the information age.

    (via Michael David Murphy)

  • Labyrinth, Javier Tellez
    SFAI, 9/9-12/3
    Artist talk 9/9 7p

    In Chess, Téllez deposes traditional chess pieces with psychiatric implements—intricate anatomical assemblages resting on sample miniature beds—to form an uncertain playing field of expectant theatricality. The giant game combines disparate references to psychiatry, art history, literature, and mass culture, such as Lewis Carroll, Bruegel the elder, Hieronymus Bosch, electroconvulsive treatment, the Rorschach test, the Michelin man, and the Sharon Tate murders. Throughout the exhibition, Chess will be activated with historic games and real-time performances.

  • Richard Renaldi on Touching Strangers
    SFAI, 9/19 7:30p

Semester #1

4 Sep

Class started last week. The last few weeks have been insanely busy, what with housing search, packing up, unpacking and outfitting the new place in the East Bay with all the little things a household needs. We cleaned and handed over the keys to the old place the weekend before class began, and I managed to finish moving into my studio space that first weekend of the semester. It looks pretty bare right now, so I’m hoping to go this week to tack up some inspiration on the walls and put my mark on things.

As of now, I am no longer a San Francisco resident, for better and for worse. I expect I’ll still make somewhat frequent trips into the city to interview and shoot, but it does feel different now. It feels distant. But many things feel distant. Everything has happened so fast that I’ve hardly had any time to reflect or even feel anything. I’m looking forward to immersive art making but am having trouble shifting gears since I didn’t have the time to carry out my original plan of catching up on the contemporary art mags and getting into the right mindset in the months leading up to the beginning of the term.

But on the bright side, lots of nice people in my cohort, lots of interesting ideas to flesh out and a space near the water to work in. We have a great view of the city skyline from the field station. It’s a bit strange to stand there staring at it from across the water instead of living in it. But so it goes.

In practical terms, I have five classes, one of which I am auditing. In terms of art, there is an independent study that consists of regular progress meetings with an adviser, a theory course and a weekly crit. These are the classes that all 12 of us in the program have in common (each person meets with their own adviser). The 6 first years are also taking an elective outside the dept. I’m taking a course on the history of and socio-political issues of the southern border with Mexico, as well as auditing an introductory musicianship (theory and sight singing) class. Interestingly, neither of those classes really have anything to do with the work I’m hoping to finish off in time for the first year show next Jan. My plan all along has been to take a few music classes while the program is covering tuition to squeeze in the musical training I never had.

There are already a couple of concrete crit deadlines to chase. That’s the thing I’m most nervous about – it’s one thing to make work your own, but when your crit is an hour or so… I’m wondering if any of my ideas actually are up to snuff. They all seem so great when it’s in your own head, even for years. Then you consider the very real idea of showing it to real solid humans and it all seems different.

It doesn’t help (or hurt?) that I have about seventeen ideas that I really want to start in addition to the writing and the interviewing and the musical stuff already simmering. I suppose it’s a good problem to have, but now it becomes a question of focus. I’ve tentatively sorted them into the pile of things that I could do in a few months and the pile of things that require some research and long term planning. Realistically though, there should also be a pile for things that I can only seed during the next two years without completing. I think I will jump right into trying an action/performance and video edits. Don’t hold me to that though!

Next up: having a one on one with my adviser, and developing a routine alternating between classwork and making. I’m also hoping to blog some of the works made by my cohorts.

Better City in i-Ref

2 Sep

Berlin art/culture mag i-Ref did a short feature on some of my photos from China. The text is in German, so I’m not sure what exactly it says, but here is what I sent them, for you English-speaking masses:

In 2009, I traveled to Shanghai to visit family and witnessed the fury of construction in the city in anticipation of the World Expo slated to open the following year. The state showcased its vision for the future in the city’s Urban Planning Museum as well as on billboards around town. The centerpiece of this vision was the slogan of the Expo, which sounded very much like a promise: “Better City, Better Life.” The exhibition hall featured a scale model of the entire city and took pride in the rate of growth of the city (at that time, 50% of the city had been built in the last 20 years).

What constitutes a “better city?” For China, the answer seemed to be a city in which there is more economic and structural development. The presence of international chain groceries where there had been street markets and new high rises encroaching on the Old City of Shanghai signified an increasingly consumerist culture modeled after western cities and economies. All of this has in fact resulted in a better standard of life for a growing middle class which has begun to engage in leisure activities that previous generations had neither the time nor financial stability to participate in. (See Peter Hessler’s piece in the New Yorker.)

I returned in subsequent years to photograph domestic tourism in Beijing, Shanghai, and along the Li River. In Beijing, I attended a dolphin show at the aquarium. The show was sparsely attended on the weekday of my visit, but the Chinese tourists, for whom such things have not yet become commonplace, reacted with an enthusiasm unrivaled by their western counterparts, standing for an ovation as a trainer rode on the back of a dolphin around the tank. In Shanghai, I walked around Xujiahui, a commercial district of outsized malls teeming with shoppers.

I cruised along a small segment of the Li River, in the area of Guilin renowned for its karst formations. Having seen them in traditional landscape paintings, I had always dreamed about seeing this area of the country, but when I arrived, the most prominent feature of the landscape was not its natural beauty, but the sheer number of cruise boats and sampans. Small boats dotted the banks of the river, and a long line of evenly spaced boats could be seen fore and aft.

I was born and spent the first years of my childhood in Beijing three decades ago before moving to the US. The city no longer looks as it did when I grew up there, and the changes have happened at an impressive speed. Though I am an expat, I feel invested in the future of China, and I find the speed of development both encouraging and terrifying. Most locals see the skyscrapers as a symbol of progress. Some, like a cab driver with whom I chatted, dislike the “unChinese” look of western architecture and doubt whether such monuments have any real utility in the lives of an average person. Whether a better city leads to a better life is yet to be seen.

Flannery O’Connor says

28 Aug

There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction [or photographer?] can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare.

– Flannery O’Connor

Christian Boltanski says

26 Aug

Western Christian culture is all about objects. For an African it is not so important to preserve a mask from the sixteenth century. What is important is to have someone now who still has the skill to make a mask. In many other traditions, it’s not important to keep the object, but what is of value is knowing the idea or story behind it.

…Ideally I want to touch people, and I think that my art is for a large public – it’s not to be viewed by some exclusive crowd. I try to make my art viewed as if it were life, so that people can speak about my art as if it were something they know. This is why I use photos, since everyone can relate to them, and also why I talk about issues like death, which is important to everyone.

Last year I did a big show at Santiago de Compostela and a day before the exhibition opened an old lady came into the church and asked us what was going on. I replied that we were memorializing the dead Swiss, and she accepted it and seemed very touched by my work. She understood my work completely. Now if I’d told her that I had been sent by the Museum of Contemporary Art and that I’m a post-conceptual artist, she would have said what a shame to put biscuit tins in a church, what does it mean? So I try to touch people on an immediate level. Sometimes in order to do that I have to be very theatrical, even melodramatic.

Christian Boltanski