Friday, June 20, 2008

Interview: Helena Reckitt on the Power Plant's summer show

It frightens me sometimes that even in my early thirties I fail to remember things that were on the tip of my tongue five years (or five days) ago. So even though the memory/reenactment theme is getting a bit overdone in the art world, I was interested to see what curator Helena Reckitt did at the Power Plant for its summer show "Not Quite How I Remember It." (BTW I loved some of the pieces, esp. Sharon Hayes, above.) Read on here for the condensed National Post interview published today, or continue after the jump for the full interview transcript.

This transcript is from an interview of Helena Reckitt conducted by Leah Sandals on Monday, June 16 at the Power Plant, Toronto.

Q One of the first things that came to mind looking at this show and the theme is that there seems to be a kind of obsession that artists and art institutions have right now with revisiting memory. You know, or reenacting memory. Why do you think this is such a compelling theme in the art world right now?

A You’re right it’s a big one. I think there’s a few things happening. I think partly there’s enough in terms of the history of the avant garde and the history of conceptual art, whatever legacy we think we’re working within, there’s enough of it behind us that we’ve become very self-conscious about this legacy, about this sort of particular art history.

And so I think a lot of artists are finding their place in relation to this lineage is something they really have to figure out. They know that they are not doing something for the first time. I mean so many of the vanguard positions feel like they’ve already been staked out. So they’re not under any illusion of being this heroic, breaking the mold [figure]. It’s more well how do I work within a realm where I still want to be challenging and critiquing yet I know I’m not the first.

Very little is being done for the first time. We can look in a few areas like you know stuff with new technologies or whatever that there is pioneering work. But it’s done with a real consciousness of historical place.

And this isn’t particularly about the art world, this is about you know artists but also artists are very well educated these days. So many have MFAs and so they’re very conscious of their place within contemporary art history. So this is kind of a self-consciousness and perhaps a bit of anxiety as well about yeah what position.

Although one of the things I was interested in in this show… I quote this Harold Bloom, you know, this very famous text on the artists way? And his anxieties… where he talks about the modern poet who battles with his forebears even unto the death! This sort of 1960s idea of the artist as being a macho figure who takes on the past, whereas the artists that I was interested in have a totally different relationship to their precursors. They are kind of embracing their relationship to the past in sort of acknowledging that they are extremely subseptible to influence. And it’s a much more receptive and reciprocal relationship with the past.

So that’s the kind of art history bit. But you know a lot fo the work in this show some of it is concerned about art history but more of it is concerned with historical memory of the 20th century, particularly postwar but not exclusively.

And some of that may be generational as well. And a similar I think it’s a similar tendency to the one I was describing in relationship to avant-garde art. That we you know a similar sense that there were these kinds of moments May 68, anti-vietnam protests, the feminist movement, which hugely influential but by the time most of the artists in this show, many of them are in their thirties and forties, got going this stuff was already kind of behind them and to some extent had clearly failed to greater or lesser degree.

So but this still kind of longing for some sense of political radicalism or utonpinaism. So a sense of recesutating some of these moments and done in a way that’s very conscious that we can’t go back, we can’t be May 68 again. We can’t have that optimism, we can’t have that burn down the house revolutionary fervour, but we don’t want to be totally co-opted into market-based capitalism. The question is how do we kind of tap inot those countercultural political legacies and one of the things I thought was interesting about the artists I was drawn to is that they were doing in a rather embodied way. They weren’t just quoting the past or thinking abou the past, they actually wanted to put themselves through a kind of teim based or labour oriented process that would give them some kind of corporeal understanding of what that might mean.

Q I wanted to ask you more about this theme that you’re on about how artists in the show reflect these themes. So there are a few that kind of stuck out that I was wondering if you could speak about in that way. Like Sharon Hayes for example. Can you talk about how if someone saw her on the street with this sign “I’m a Man” they might know what she’s referring to and what she might not. Can you talk about that a bit?

A That’s something that’s exactly right. If you saw her on the street with “I am a Man” you wouldn’t exactly A) Know what the reference was, but you might, because that was an important protest. But even if you knew what the protest was you might be like why is this white woman holding up a sign that if I know the context I associate with black sanitation workers in Memphis Tennessee, what’s this chick doing with the sign? So and I think that’s what’s interesting about her work. It’s a question, it’s a question about a) what gets remembered and then how it gets represented. So with luck it would prompt some kind of question about historical memory and mediation.

One of the things that we don’t see when we see the piece in the gallery but that was important for the actual events is that she is being circled by photographers. So she invites friends to come out and document the event. So it’s pretty obvious that this woman is not actually demonstrating. She’s making a piece about the representation of physical demonstration and she’s being circled by these photographers an

I think what’ interesting about that is it was… I would say…. An early example of media manipulation, there have probably been other ones earlier. But it was quite early in terms of understanding how the press works and how imagery like that gets taken up and reproduced through the press so the kind of importance of a snappy slogan. It says “I am a Man” and “am” is underlined. So there’s a visual impact as well as a graphic role fo the political slogan.

Q There’s something in the exhibition text that that reminds me of where there’s a question of “if something isn’t recorded did it actually happen.” Can you talk about that a bit?

A Yeah some of the work in the show, it tends to divide between the iconic and the really ephermeral the really marginal. But the iconic stuff, you know the artworks that are being referenced or remade or the historical events that are being referenced and remade are the ones that have been reproduced through photography mainly.

So I think and I don’t know if this is where it crops up in the text but one of the pieces where this is very clear is there is a large silkscreen canvas downstairs and the base image is from the Birmingham Alabama race riots of 63 I think. And we know those images, we know them partly because they got a lot of press coverage and that was through Martin Luther King apparently introducing those images to the press. So he understood that if something happens down in Alabama but no one outside Birmingham knew about it, it may as well not have happened. So he manipulated the media in that.

So the artist has taken some of this press imagery and it’s from a sort of bigger series and he’s taken them from the Black Star picture agency. And he’s scanned them and also scanned other things so it’s not just a Richard Prince style of appropriation. He’s also kind of using the image and then he displays them upside down or at 90 degrees because he’s quite skeptical about the kind of flattening out that happens in the media images of violent events and so on and how we can sort of look at this stuff fairly passively over our morning croissant. So he’s trying to make it harder to read those images. But there’s another thing on that because Andy Warhol of course appropriated those images for his works on the Birminham race fights, the one of the protestor and the police with the dogs. You know attacking the protestors. So I think the artist sees himself as an heir to Andy Warhol but these days he can’t just do what Andy Warhol did. It’s a different time.

Q Yeah that’s quite a striking work that uh comes up. I was wondering if this could lead to Gerard Byrne’s work where eh constructs conversations of sci-fi authors of the past talking about what life would be like in the 80s and 90s. And part of this that comes up is how will we be remembered, what will they think of our ideas of the future? Do you think that these artists are hinting at that? Do you think that we could be as ridiculous as these guys talking about “the robot will be getting my breakfast” and all these kinds of things.

A Yeah, I think …. I do think Gerard Byrne’s work often has a kind of satirical view on a kind of confident contemporaryism. You know these men hypothesizing—I find what they wear very amusing, their cardigans and their ties and their pipes and they’re all smoking and they’re like a stereotype of a certain type of intellectual so I think he’s very conscious of gender. You know there’s a very particular kind of male pontification that they embody. So um, yeah, I think he’s definitely I think a few things about him. On the one hand he is amused by our confidence about our ability to even understand our own historical moment. I mean, we’re right in the middle of it. How can we be so sure of what’s going on? But I also think he’s also thinking about our own clich├ęd ideas of the 60s. You know the original Playboy magazine discussion was 63 or 65, so we have this sort of quite wooden ideas of a 60s man or the 60s. So I think it’s also kind of thinking about our sort of banal ideas of generations, our banal ideas of an era. But by exaggerating it, it’s funny because it’s so close to the original, but the original discussion was edited for publication. So it’s polished up and there’s no ummmms or uhhhhs and it’s very poised… so where was I going with that? Sorry…..

Q No I think you said a lot. But also that leads to another thing I wanted to talk about. Is part of the attraction of talking about the past and memories of the past have to do with the fact that our present era is so unwieldy to deal with the present.

A I think that could be true. I think it’s sort of daunting to um, yeah socially sort of incisive work about the present is a pretty daunting task. And I think we’re very skeptical about documentary, anything that professes to be transparent or accurate or even anything that professes to be political is quite difficult. So a most of the work in the show is political, but it’s done at one remove. Which makes it perhaps more um less overwhelming as a project. But I also think and this may not be specifically this show… but the world has changed so much in the past 20 years. I mean since the Berlin Wall came down that it’s like the histories are being made and remade all the time.

And then particularly in relation to sort of what’s happened in the former totalitarian regimes where there was only one version, there was only one political version, one story and of course there were a multitude of stories that were not aviallble, that were not allowed. I think the whole idea of an official version when there are all these grassroots stories have become such a huge issue. And there’s no one in the show I can think of….

Q So the Berlin Wall being evidence that ther’es not just one story. Yeah it’s interesting I think it comes across. Now I know that a lot of the people in this show are in their 30s, so they may not be affected by something that’s in the media a lot these days in regard to memory, which is baby boomer like memory loss, that kind of anxiety about memory, like can I remember that person’s name, stuff like that? How would the show be related to that at all, if at all?

A It is really interesting. Because I’ve been I think some of it might be personal for me. Because I’ve moved around, not a lot but this is the third country for me that I’ve lived in. And I kind of think for me that I have a sense that some of my history has got lost because I don’t see the people that are part of my own personal history. And I’m sure that’s not why I decided to do this show. I don’t know how relevant this might be. But I know when I moved here, I literally knew one person in Toronto. And it felt kind of spooky to be presenting myself as a blank slate to people here without any sense of being part of a bigger memory bank.

And so I do think there’s a kind of collective history and wanting to tap into my own lineages that were important to me but that maybe were not visible to people who would meet me. It sort of became on a personal level very important. And it’s not like I’m worried about Alzheimer’s disease just yet. But it’s losing people who hold large parts of your memory. You know as you get older, we all experience that not just people of our parents generation we experience people of our own generation dying. And taking chunks of our lives with them. We don’t see friends from certain parts of our lives anymore. I think that’s a poignant thing for me.

So yeah. But I also think like maybe less of the Alzheimer’s thing. But for me it did start to become important… I wanted sort of my own to honor my own intellectual foundations in some way and you know this is the first big show I’ve done here. So this is a way of saying, we may have never met, but here’s some stuff that especially that the Sharon Hays and Mary Kelley, that is really very personal, it really speaks to some of my own [Q your own memories?] yeah and desire to keep a sort of activist flame going. It’s probably not what you asked but…

Q No it’s interesting. Everybody has their motivations, intellectual and otherwise. Also I did notice the BBC documentary [laughter] I was thinking this is interesting but I guess this really speaks to British intellectuals

A or middle class, we were raised on that stuff

Q Yes, just like the CBC here. Definitely it resonates in a certain way with emotion. So I thought that was kind of funny.

Um you’ve told me a lot about some of the things I was interested in. Um let’s see, I just want to check here.

I was wondering a little bit about…. This connects what you were saying to people holding memories… or holding memory for other people. Dario Pobleto constructs a room that resembles his mother’s bedroom from when she was a teenager. And that raises the question of how much can we keep the memories of others going. Do you think there’s a burden that way? Even if you could just talk about that work that would be great.

A Hm. I think uh, you know I think for him he actually believes that there’s some kind of he’s very attached to objects and materials. He’s almost kind of sort of obsessed with them. And he actually believes that on some kind of molecular level there’s some kind of level of meaning that you can pass from one kind of generation to the next. And I do think he sees it as a responsibility to tell people’s stories not in a literal way but it’s almost an animist belief in materials. So and in the case of Dario he’s really interested in funeral rites. And I’m not sure if I’m making the connection exactly right here. But you know there’s that work in the middle, the reconstructed skeleton of the Lucy who was supposedly link between monkeys and humans. And just chatting to Dario is he said one of the things he’s really interested in is the theory that the human race began when we started to bury the dead. That the culture of memorial is intrinsically linked to the culture of being human vs any other species. So that really interests me.

Do I think it’s a burden? Um to me it’s more like yeah honouring the dead, honouring the spirits of the dead, not getting fooled into thinking that it’s all about the now, it’s more that we are living repositories of everything that has gotten us to where we are and finding ways to express that.

So I think that for me it’s a lot about homage and feeling that we are somehow carrying you know there’s a sort of educational theme in some fo the works and I think I’ve always felt very indebted to certain teachers not necessarily in academic situations … be it a book that I read that was incredibly significant or a person I knew who was very inspiring, I feel like I wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t had those encounters. And so it’s a way of kind of living that carries forward some of those gifts that you were given by people who helped to shape you. And Dario really believes that that you’re given these gifts of be it things like music that he’s listened to that he somehow wants to carry the spirit on or you know like with Felix Gonzales Torres, Dario takes the candy wrappers and he makes this mobile, it’s a way of um passing the gift on you know.

Q That’s great! I just want to ask you one more thing about the Nancy Davidson..

A That’s Davenport.

Q Oh god my memory is going! Nancy Davenport’s pictures of universities where protest occurred. Why do you think those are important to include?

A Well I think it’s some of the same stuff that I was discussing earlier with a longing for an earlier, more radical time. And so you know the late 60s campus was such a hotbed and there’s no place like that now and the university now, important as it is, is sort of corporate and it’s about training people to enter the workplace rather than you know become rabble rousing intellectuals. So there was kind of a nostalgia for that period. But I also think on a less serious note Nancy did have undergrad at York. So we went to York and I think it represented it was very radical you know when it was established and it represented so much that was contemporary and exciting about education. And the campus for itself was derived from sort of Brutalist architecture from California which was all about the landscape, the interaction with the architecture and it clearly failed dismally in York, it’s a very alienating environment. So I’m interested in each one of those sites relates to a specific not just a protest it wasn’t just the universities were sites of protests but those buildings were protested against. In fact one fo them was the A & E building at Yale, which the students burnt down. And I have an email from Nancy if you’re interested where she talks about what happened on each site and this building became a flashpoint. There were pamphlets being passed around weeks before it was burned saying “Come and see the fire” and it became this sort of flashpoint for protests about access and elitism so I think that’s just kind of interesting that an idea a theoretical concept that sounds so good can just fail dismally if you’re not really joining the dots.

Or actually you can’t predict how these experiments will go down. I mean, we think about public housing, and skyscrapers being modeled on what were the most radical and admired ideas within modernism. This coupled with the poverty when then ghastly roads going up all around it was a failure. You can’t take a pure idea of progress out of context. You can’t just drop it into a place and expect it to work. So I think that’s what interests me about those pictures.

But then she has this light, this lovely sort of otherworldly light which says we can still hope, we can still aspire to having the radical campus, I don’t know.

Q Hm… we can try! Well, we’ve reached the end of our time. Thanks again for talking with me.

A Thank you.

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