Monday, April 27, 2009

Art in America/Shana Moulton

Video Vortex: A Conversation with Shana Moulton

The American artist Shana Moulton is best known for her "Whispering Pines" video series, wherein she plays a house coat-wearing alter ego, Cynthia. Cynthia is infirmed by psychic and physical illness, and bewitched by the "magical" healing properties of dream catchers and crystals. Forever looking for a cure, she explores the deeply American dissatisfaction of body and mind.  

Moulton's aesthetic and conceptual sensibility includes the use of talismanic iconography, a gesture made famous by Kenneth Anger, whose use of symbolism ran in line with his fidelity to occult practices. Equally, in Moulton's work, one finds the irreverence and self-reflexivity of Mike Kelley, whose art has often explored humanity's devotion to ritual. Moulton's videos feature the artist engaging in over-the-top health and beauty regimes wherein extra-thick, goopy green facial masks, and exercise videos helmed by a spry Angela Landsbury, for instance, become metaphors for the absurdist ceremonies of daily self-care we engage in.

Moulton's videos owe much of their feeling of newness to the fact that they eschew art historical tropes in favor of under-explored narratives of American pop culture. They reveal the sentimental pathos around the culture of chronic illness and home health care; one is left to wonder how the aesthetics of American pain have become so deliberately twee. Moulton's videos are packed with mirth, and yet the issues she addresses are far from humorous. Her practice also ventures into  the realm of performance: On May 10th, she'll stage a performance at Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool, to celebrate the closing of her exhibition there; on April 2010, she'll present a weeklong program at the Kitchen in New York. Here, the artist talks about the relationship between performance, video art and avant-garde film in her work.   

AIMEE WALLESTON: I am curious about how you developed your process and aesthetic sense. You use digital video: As a young artist, were you more inspired by experimental film, or was your inspiration more based in video?

SHANA MOULTON: I grew up in a small town on a solid diet of TV and video rentals; television has been my main touchstone. My first exposure to anything remotely experimental was Twin Peaks and that had a huge impact on me. And still does. In fact, someone just noted this connection in a negative review of my work and I had to agree with him. I started to make episodic videos after seeing pre-youtube videos on, which had several serial video shows made by artists in Milwaukee, as well as the flash animations on the Paperrad website. I was never a big fan of Alex Bag and had only seen one of her videos, but recently saw some at a screening at Electronic Arts Intermix and was totally captivated and in stitches the entire time. 

I don't feel connected to (not yet, at least) many aspects of film -- the art of projection, the material quality of film, some of its history. I will probably always stick to video. I'm even reluctant to start using the new, more filmic aspect ratio for video and TV (my preference for the 4x3 ratio probably also has a nostalgic impulse). But in the past year I have become acquainted with parts of the experimental film community. I wouldn't say video art is replacing it, but experimental film certainly has to contend with it


AW: You show your videos at film festivals as well as at art spaces. What feels different to you about those two settings? 

SM: A seated, captive audience makes it easier to draw people into a narrative over a length of time. At several screenings and festivals I've been able to present three to five videos from my "Whispering Pines" series -- around 40 minutes worth -- and then appear on stage in front of a projection and perform live, in character, for 15 minutes. This, for me, has been a surprisingly effective format. The question and answer period following most of the screenings is another aspect that rarely happens in art venues. The first time I was asked to give a Q&A I almost refused. I had just performed and had poured Pepto Bismol all over myself; I was nervous about breaking that fourth wall and being put on the spot. But I went through with it and got useful feedback and found I was able to dispel some misconceptions of the work. I now enjoy that exchange.

Galleries are better for accessing the tactile or immersive qualities of my work-installations with props or specific carpeting or seating can enhance the experience of the videos, and although I've mostly made single channel pieces I've started making multi-channel installations and projecting onto objects. Right now I'm working on video installations for a show at the Migros Museum in August and Art in General this fall. 
Another reason I started to make video and performance is because I often want to go and physically interact with installation and sculpture, or see someone interacting with it.

AW: Do you enjoy the culture of film festivals? It's a different world than gallery culture.

SM: Since I've been attending film festivals in the past year, I've discovered work by people like Stephanie Barber, Michael Robinson and Ben Russell. They all have been involved in both experimental film and art venues and make both videos and films among other things. I first encountered their work in the experimental film world and it surprises me that I don't often hear people refer to their work in art circles. Or why people I've met in the experimental film world aren't aware of an artist like Keren Cytter, and why her work doesn't show at film festivals as much as is does in galleries and museums (although that maybe different outside of the US). Or why they aren't as aware of video artists like Michael Smith or Alex Bag. Maybe its pointless to try and figure out these divisions; one can't do everything and there is more and more overlap between them, anyway. But much of it is new to me and I know that I would really be missing out if I'd never seen works by all of the above. I was encouraged to see works by Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger in art school.

I attend the Light Industry screenings that Thomas Beard and Ed Halter put on in Sunset Park as often as possible-it's been a good way for me to learn more about historical and contemporary experimental film. They also program video art and other new medias and are trying to bring these worlds together. 

AW: You're including performance more and more with your work-how linked is that with the videos you make? Does one require the other?

SM: I don't think one requires the other. That said, my ideal format is to show several videos from "Whispering Pines," and then appear live as the main protagonist in front of a video made specifically for the performance, and interacting with that projection. Thus far all of my videos have been performance based. Not all of the performances include video projections but in the past five years most have.

AW: Your work has a character-driven narrative, I would say. Is narrative important to you? Have you ever thought of doing something long-form - say, a digitally filmed, feature-length video?

SM: I am open to someday creating a feature-length film. I'm not dead-set on doing so though, one reason being that until now the only actor I've really worked with -- except for a small handful of others including my Mom -- is myself. Unless I become comfortable with other actors or characters, I will keep it short. However, I am working on an evening-long performance that will debut at the Kitchen; it will include other actors, at least in video form.


[From the top: Whispering Pines 6, 2004, 7:33 min, color, sound; Feeling Free with 3D Magic Eye Poster Remix, 2004, 8:13 min, color, sound.]

Friday, April 24, 2009

V Blog/modern modern

April 22, 2009  <  >

A group exhibition at the Chelsea Art Museum inspects the language of modernism today

Modernism’s melancholic heart has been beating far more audibly of late, and many young artists seem newly enraptured by the tenets and traditions of the once-forgotten movement. New York’s Chelsea Art Museum is playing host to what is bound to be one of spring’s most well-attended group exhibitions, “modern modern,” a group show that highlights certain facets of modernism through the lens of contemporary artists working in New York and Berlin. 

German-born, New York-based Pati Hertling, the show’s curator, is a much-applauded fixture in New York’s art world—notably for her (and collaborator Marlous Borm's) well-known series “Eva’s Arch und der Feminist,” a monthly one-night event featuring performance and visual art. For this show, Hertling displays an uncanny intuition in her grouping of works. Curation runs on all cylinders when the art exhibited seems to converse, not merely illustrate an idea. Hertling’s assemblage resembles, in spirit, a dinner party where only the most interesting people were invited to attend. 

While the show’s grouping of 49 works continually reflects on and reexamines certain modernist tropes, Hertling chose not to exalt the premise of youth to ensure contemporary relevance. Legendary New York poet John Giorno’s "Welcoming the Flowers" in an auditory delight when recited at one of his luminous live performances—here, made visual in illustrated pop-color screenprints, the poem is equally lush. A focus on modernism’s exaltation of interior life can be seen in the work of artists like Kerstin Brätsch, whose large, nightmare-y painting, Untitled (2007) recalls snippets of acidy landscapes flashing warp-speed through one’s inner thoughts. The artist’s intricate, accordion-minded abstractions make one feel that painting could never be described as dead again. Tobias Buche’s equally affecting curio of intrigue, Wishbone Chair (2006), features several seemingly unrelated photographs and computer prints placed haphazardly on a clear Perspex structure.  

Artist Nikolas Gambaroff's two mixed-media pieces address the canon of art history in a way that is both of and beyond modernism. By producing works with deliberate transparency in both process and materiality, Gambaroff makes inquiries into the personal, historic, and social role of the artist and of artistic practice. One of Gambaroff's works, Untitled (2009), features a self-made, blue abstract "print" on foam core (the artist presses a canvas he has painted against a blank canvas for his process, allowing questions of authenticity and production to come forward). This print is paired with a generic houseplant, and each is placed on either side of a quotidian particleboard structure. The work allows for an exploration of the function and identity of an art maker, as well as the perception of romance and preciousness endemic to belief systems around fine art. Even modernism has to move forward sometime.Aimee Walleston

Above: Andro Wekua, Blue Mask, 2008

"modern modern" runs through June 13, 2009, at the Chelsea Art Museum, NYC.
A full exhibition catalogue published by Starship Publications is available in bookstores now.

Honey Suckle Company, installation view, Non est Hic, Kunsthalle Basel 2006

Cecily Brown, New Face in Hell, 2007

Jutta Koether, Extreme Music: Black Metal, 2009

Nick Mauss, Retrace, 2008

Birgit Megerle, Untitled, 2009

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Last Magazine/Corvi-Mora

The Last Magazine

Tokion/Ryan Trecartin

V Blog/Merce Cunningham

April 20, 2009  <  

Legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham rings in his 90th year on Earth with a beautiful collision of music and dance

If one makes it to ninety, the typical birthday celebration most likely consists of a pathos-ridden spoon-feeding of store-bought cake, amid an aphasic audience of one's nursing home chums. For choreographer Merce Cunningham—the gentleman who revolutionized non-narrative modern dance—it consisted of getting all dolled up in a dashing velvet suit, and sitting center stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to a standing ovation. 

Last Thursday evening, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company premiered Cunningham’s newest work, Nearly Ninety. Cunningham created his company in 1953, and since that time has maintained a relevancy almost unparalleled in the world of dance. His avant-garde performances were often made with long-term collaborators like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, and more recent performances with Sigur Rós and Radiohead have proved that Cunningham’s collaborative agenda remains in epic form. For Nearly Ninety, his exquisitely talented dancers were joined by a live performance from John Paul Jones (formerly of Led Zepplin), Sonic Youth, and mixed-media sound composer Takehisa Kosugi. 

Accompanying the dancers onstage, a Franc Aleu video of close-ups of dancers legs and bodies hearkened early structural films, and his footage of smoke traveling across the stage acted as a reinterpretation of passing time. These films were poised anachronistically against the piece's science fiction-ish motif, which was made manifest by a Benedetta Tagliabue–designed multi-tiered structure housing the musicians. The ever-amazing Kim Gordon sat in elegant sanguinity at the foot of this ersatz space station for some of the performance, and played her guitar in other moments, while Kosugi, Jones et al. created a musical score that paid homage to Cage’s elegant, freeform dissonance. The dancers channeled radiant aliens, communicating with the musicians in a manner that recalled a retelling of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—as seen through the eyes of dance's most inspiring nonagenarian, of course. Aimee Walleston

Photography, from top: Mark Seliger, Stephanie Berger, Amanda de Cadenet

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Moment/Jenny Holzer

Now Showing | Jenny Holzer

Jenny HolzerPhoto by Vassilij Gureev“MONUMENT” (2008) at the Whitney’s Jenny Holzer retrospective.

Alix Browne’s spring design article, Luxe et Veritas (a part of our Web-exclusive magazine content), announces the arrival of two limited-edition lamps from the Italian company Floss. What makes the lamps special — and wildly expensive — are their small L.E.D. displays scrolling phrases by the artist Jenny Holzer, a collaborator on the design. If spending $12,270 these days for a table lamp doesn’t seem like a bright idea, a 20-year retrospective of Holzer’s work is now on view at the Whitney museum for the relatively bargain price of $15.

Holzer is best known for her series “Truisms,” in which she penned politically tinged affirmations and aphorisms including “Protect me from what I want” and “Money creates taste” in public spheres, and the Whitney’s exhibition presents the artist’s work as a profound orgy of literature and litany. Setting her words alight on quick-moving L.E.D. screens and gut-wrenching sculptural tableaux, Holzer delivers information overload at its most elegant. Here, art’s most compelling chatterbox gives her thoughts on Twitter, grad-school loserdom and why shorter is better.


What’s your take on seeing many of your works communing together in a museum, and outside of the “outside”?


I’m made uneasy by having my chattering past around me, so I tend to walk through the museum fast, or at least move quickly through zones with my texts. I like the association with mainstream news (and finance) that’s built into the L.E.D.’s even when the electronics are in a museum. The declassified material from the wars in the Middle East is news, and this runs on several of the L.E.D. arrays. It seemed appropriate to show many easy-to-read declassified pages from these wars as paintings, and to program even more declassified material in the fast-moving electronic displays to signify how hard it is to know this recent history. I thought it useful and fair to include writing from soldiers, a soldier’s father, civilians, commanders, detainees, physicians, policy makers and the White House, in one place.

You often play with an aesthetic that’s sort of “just the facts,” yet with a piece like “Lustmord Table” (1994), the exact opposite is connoted — comprised of bones and blood, it could not be more heart-wrenchingly human and immediately painful, as befits the subject matter it is expressing.

In a way, the bones are “just the facts,” and they work in a manner that writing doesn’t. Usually I stay away from the literal in materials, but the targeting of women in war — and in peacetime — sent me to bones. I can’t bear it that women routinely are attacked, raped, impoverished, tortured and killed — often while trying to protect their children — and that addressing the assaults never seems to be the top priority.

Early in your career, you did an independent study at the Whitney. How does it feel to be having a retrospective there now?

It’s super to be at the Whitney. I worked with the curators Joan Simon and David Kiehl on the show. David has described the exhibition as a homecoming, and it seems like that.

Do you feel that museum in particular had an effect on you as an artist?

Both the Independent Study Program and the museum were influential. I was a loser in graduate school and this was demoralizing because I’d wanted to be an artist since I was a kid. Ron Clark and the I.S.P. delivered and kick-started me.

What would that effect be?

At the I.S.P. I was able to meet miraculous people such as Yvonne Rainer, Alice Neel, Dan Graham, Susan Sontag and Vito Acconci and see/hear their work. I began visiting the Whitney Museum regularly when I moved east, while I was practicing to become an artist. These trips gave me an art crash course.

Your newest piece is titled “For Chicago (2008),” and it acts as an anthology of sorts — all your texts from 1977 to 2001 are represented. What are some of your feelings when reading the texts all together now?

This might be odd but I tend to watch the array more than I read the text. I have an uncomfortable relationship with the writing and myself. In “For Chicago” I have first-time access to a video-compatible L.E.D. array, and I’m in the process of learning how best to program this system. The presentation possibilities, including speed, motion, orientation, brightness, background, and complex double speak are novel and considerably greater than those for older strip signs.

Do you feel like some of your viewpoints have changed?

Yes, I wanted to think that equal opportunity and protection under law for women would be realized during my life. I imagined that it would become possible to talk about human rights for women and girls without eye rolling, and without having culture, religion, custom, etiquette and centuries invoked. But hundreds of viewpoints are in the texts.

Text messaging and Twittering have kind of taken the aphorism and made it a lingua franca in most Western cultures. Do you have an opinion on this kind of communication, which certainly indicates that we as a culture are in need of constant text-based communication with one another?

If Twittering were to help with loneliness, that would be nice. I don’t tweet because, among other things, someone impersonating me and proffering my text does. I am interested in the use of Twitter for frontline news, to assemble demonstrators when other communications are cut, to track flu, or to identify happy trendy fascinations.

How does it link with your Truisms, assuming it does at all?

Shorter is better?

V Blog/Carter and James Franco

At MoMA, James Franco and Carter take the rigor and artifice out of performance

What makes an actor an artist, and not just the fleshly embodiment of a teenaged girl's well-kissed pillowcase, is the ability to transcend craft to become both character and creator. Because Hollywood loves a good pillowcase, James Franco's career initially seemed destined to be imprisoned, by degrees, to the bedding factory of American cinema. Yet with iconic performances in films like James Dean and Milk—and with an upcoming book of short stories being published by Scribner's—Franco has managed to distinguish himself as an artist possessed of kinetic intellect, and not merely a marketable smile. In doing so, he's elevated the thought around his craft, which may be even more important. Further proof of this was offered on Monday night, when MoMA hosted the U.S. premiere screening of Franco's collaboration with the American artist Carter—a 65-minute film entitled Erased James Franco. The work is based in part on Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 piece Erased De Kooning, wherein the artist erased a De Kooning drawing. An elegant, elegiac masterpiece of conceptualism, Erased De Kooning offers the idea that transience—not eternality—is perhaps art’s highest purpose.
This is a theme Carter has often explored in his work. In Erased James Franco, Carter films Franco reinterpreting three actors in three performances: Julianne Moore in Safe,Rock Hudson in Seconds, and Franco himself in a variety of his own television and film roles. Seemingly set in a quotidian house (in fact, the piece was filmed at the Yvon Lambert gallery in Paris, and Lambert also produced the film), the film calls into question the idea of what it is to be a good actor. Carter plays with the idea of a "great performance" by quite masterfully directing Franco to create a rather disengaged one. At Carter's behest, Franco erases the actorly rigor he’s known for, and seems to be intentionally phoning it in—this idea comes literally and figuratively into play in an extended scene of back-to-back phone calls. Props like generic crackers and black rotary telephones and devices like a moment of Franco painting his own shadow also help clue the viewer in to the artifice of performance. According to Franco, his deliberately restrained recitation is meant to give a message all its own, particularly in regard to the re-performances of some his earlier roles: "By not committing fully, it's acknowledging the cliché—it gives an 'awareness' of the acting." Aimee Walleston

The Moment/Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

Now Showing | Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller

“The Killing Machine”, a 2007 work by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, presents a grisly commentary on capital punishment.

Known best for their consciousness-altering “audio walks,” this summer the Canadian artists and co-conspirators Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are once again conjuring strange magic. Currently on view at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland – as part of Edinburgh’s Art Festival, which runs through the end of August – “The House of Books Has No Windows” features six installations that feel as inescapably experiential as a broken heart. In the summer of 2004, Cardiff exhibited “Her Long Black Hair,” an audio walk through Central Park. Guided (via headphones) by Cardiff’s voice through the park’s 19th century pathways, the events described by the artist seemed to magically unfold—as if, by incantation, Cardiff were choreographing real-time experiences to sound off her fictional narrative. In one of the many vignettes, Cardiff juxtaposed the visual of the Central Park Zoo’s polar bears endlessly swimming back and forth with a slave narrative, bestowing on her listener a poignancy that was both utterly surreal and defiantly real.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, “Opera for a Small Room”, 2005.

In this current exhibition, Cardiff and Miller engage directly with the political. “The Killing Machine” (2007) is drawn from the artists’s strong views against capital punishment, complete with a soundtrack full of cinematic dissonance and an eerily roboticized chamber. An older work, “Dark Pool” (1995) evokes the clutter of a cabinet of curiosities, and stays more in line with their dreamy, wallflower melancholy. A makeshift “wish machine,” a flapping bird’s wing, ancient teacups that recall Miss Haversham’s derelict wedding table: the installation jitters full of anthropomorphic wonder.

Another view of the work “Opera for a Small Room”.

“The Dark Pool”, 1995, is a haunting abandoned interior filled with curiously frightening knick-knacks and a soundtrack of voices.

“The House of Books Has No Windows” will be on view at the Fruitmarket Gallery until September 28.

All images courtesy Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Moment/Zero

Now Showing | Zero Rising

Otto Piene working in his studio (Maren Heyne)

The world of art history is a place where art manifestos go to die, and it’s also a place where important movements can become obscured by louder, more lauded voices. The Zero Group may be one of the more unjustly overlooked avant-garde forces of the last century, though that neglect should soon right itself. One need only step into the first room of Sperone Westwater’s catacomb-like retrospective, “Zero in New York,” to bask in the timeless good graces of simple, revelatory art.

In 1957, Heinz Mack and Otto Piene founded the Zero Group in Düsseldorf. Many of the artists who joined the group — Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni being two of the more famous members — were accomplices of better-known movements (in Klein’s case, Nouveau Réalisme); this show allows viewers to look back on their art without the baggage of their later associations. With works from more than 20 artists, the curator David Leiber, director of Sperone Westwater, and Mattijs Visser, founding director of the Zero Foundation, had an enviable embarrassment of riches. Many of the pieces here reflect the esprit du temps of postwar Europe, and a feeling of quiet remorse is eloquently articulated in Günther Uecker’s “Wiesse Mühle” (1964), a mechanized sculpture consisting of two white, nail-covered wheels (literally, a “white mill”) that rotate forever in the same small circle.

Other works are poems of the quotidian, such as Lucio Fontana’s “Concetto spaziale” (1958), a large white sheet of paper with a series of rips. Christian Megert’s “Mirror Piece With Three Cuts” (1963) feels like a Bauhaus reinterpretation of Fontana’s paper work, with three elegant slices disturbing a perfect mirror. Many of the paintings, including Jef Verheyen’s oil-on-canvas “Monochrome Bleu” (1962), underscore the group’s interest in the kineticism of light and purification of color. One room contains a series of monochrome and fire paintings by Klein, the master of transcendental optical form. Inside, a small board saturated with the artist’s “International Klein Blue” acts as the exhibition’s wisest child, communicating an idea of transcendence with one mesmerizing pigment.

“Zero in New York” will be on view at Sperone Westwater until December 20.

The Moment/Dave Hickey

‘American Beauty’ Redux

William P. O’Donnell/The New York Times

Originally released in 1993, Dave Hickey’s “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” posed a radical idea to the art world: lose a bit of the self-congratulatory political posturing, pretty please, and get back to the business of sensuous beauty. Hickey did this, in part, by using his razor-sharp prose to extol the virtues of images that are not for the faint of heart. (See the notorious Mapplethorpe photograph of a man and a fist — and use your imagination.) The art world responded as it typically does when it’s told to drop the attitude. It reveled in being offended —while simultaneously making the slim tome (the original’s only 64 pages) the de facto cocktail talk of gallery openings and dinner parties.

Despite protest from puritan critics, the book quickly — and ironically — became an out-of-print, black market beauty in its own right. Almost 15 years later, Hickey has re-released “The Invisible Dragon” (The University of Chicago Press) in a revised and expanded format, including a new essay titled “American Beauty.” Below, Hickey sounds off on his love of boredom, the Octo-Mom, and being the thorn in the art world’s side once again.


Out-of-print, “The Invisible Dragon” was selling for upwards of $500. By reissuing it, are you denying its existence as an obscure object of desire?


To be honest, the book is not worth $500, and the people who like it don’t have $500, and it was all beginning to feel a bit prissy. I did not become a writer not to publish, and I liked the last essay, “American Beauty.” So, I decided to get over myself. Last time, I was blamed for messing up the “non-commercial art” scam. This time, no doubt, I will be blamed for the market excess that I deplore.

In your essay “Nothing Like the Son,” you describe Mapplethorpe as cultivating a type of tawdry beauty. Is our culture ripe again for the refined beauties to go away and for the Mapplethorpe-esque gutter flowers to emerge again?

Tawdry beauty is not beautiful. It is always an undeniable and subversive candidate for the job. Two old favorites, “Flaming Creatures” and “Scorpio Rising” are, indeed, back on the scene. My friend Jeff Burton, the photographer (not the stock car driver), does pretty good tawdry beauty.

Do you like Andy Warhol’s theory of beautiful monotony?

I am, I admit, a devotee of boring. I like Barry Lyndon, Anthony Trollope, Barnett Newman and The Weather Channel. I do not like bores, however, so there goes Chelsea. This distinction between boring and bores comes courtesy of Auden. It is a good one.

You’re writing a book called “Pagan America.” Does this mean you’re suggesting an idea of pagan beauty?

I posit that the United States is a pagan republic — insofar as we endow objects and people with power by social consensus, from Prada and Obama to the work of Richard Tuttle. We pagans sacrifice to gain the power of their incarnate representation. The history of beauty is the history of our residual and never vanquished paganism.

So do we care about ideas of “inner beauty” anymore?

I don’t have an inner life beyond a few wispy fantasies about Catherine Deneuve.

According to Adorno’s theories of beauty, natural beauty was eclipsed by “art beauty.”

Artificial beauty signifies a social agenda. It seeks to change the world — to take it by surprise. Trees don’t disappear if we don’t find them beautiful. Art does, or did, until very recently.

In many ways, the cruelty of beauty has eclipsed all humanity. Plastic surgery, for example.

Plastic surgery is really about the triumph of interiority. It is driven by the engine of bourgeois social change: Match the external facts with internal aspiration. I look like a frog but inside I’m a prince, so maybe a tuck and just a little lift. It’s easier to get it together and sell the whole frog-prince thing. It worked for Henry Kissinger.

Who is more beautiful: Damien Hirst or the Octo-mom?

I can think of eight human creatures who are predisposed to love Octo-Mom. Hirst, I don’t know.

Are you OK with being “the beauty guy” again, for a little while? Seems like there are worse things to be.

Why not? For a while, I was simultaneously the ‘Mapplethorpe guy” and the “Norman Rockwell guy.” I asked myself. “Who would still be a famous artist if the art world disappeared?” I came up with Robert and Rockwell. Whatever is a little off kilter, I’m your guy.

Art in America/Shannon Plumb

The Park: A Conversation With Shannon Plumb

Despite her reputation for reclusion, poet Emily Dickinson had a little-known gift for mimicry. Dickinson might have found something of a psychic ancestor in Shannon Plumb, a Brooklyn-based artist who creates dialogue-free, performance-based films that are insightful meditations on the act of personification. The artist's newest work, The Park, is a public art project created for New York City's Madison Square Park, and will be shown in daylight hours until April 23rd.   

While making The Park, Plumb filmed herself in Super 8 mm color film in front of a green screen, then superimposed her performances over secondary shots filmed in the park; the process of video transfer gives the work a pixelation that recalls security surveillance videos.  On four flat screen televisions set up in close proximity to the park's ever-magnetic Shake Shack, the series of 12 films-each about two minutes in length-play on an endless loop. In the films, Plumb interacts with herself as different characters; each work celebrates the human encounters urban proximity engenders. The fact that one must read the action in these films through gesture, rather than dialogue, should by no means characterize the work as a conceptual chore. Plumb perfectly executes myriad circumstances, painting a portrait of the park that is both of and beyond reality-full of the humor and hyperbole of New York City's sprawling stage. Though her films give silence its well-deserved substance, if Plumb ever did decide to use dialogue, she'd surely be successful with that, too. Her speaking voice couldn't be more charming.   

AW: One of the main aspects of the films you made is their relationship to the seasons-each season is comprised of three films. Did you film these over a full year?   

SP: Yes. The tough part about it was that when the project finally got going, the springtime buds were gone-when it was time for me to start shooting, springtime was kind of on its way out. That was disappointing. From then on I just started going to the park and getting background shots, studying people-just sitting on the bench and getting to know the whole nature of the park.  

AW: Did you observe most of the situations and characters in the films? Or are they fictive?  

SP: It's kind of a mix of both-you kind of discover situations as you're sitting in the park. You don't know if they're coming from actual happenings or not. There are certain characters I would see along the way: there was a man right around the block, for instance, sitting on the concrete with a whole mess of a banana peels next to him [Plumb's piece features a character with a pile of banana peels] and it's just like: "What's going on? What is that?" So some things are taken from real life. Others are a combination of observations.

AW: I find the animals in that park to be so aggressive; the squirrels practically sit on your lap. So in your film "Magic," I love how the pigeons are dive-bombing your characters-that's such a truism of that park.   

SP: The day we were installing, obviously people didn't know who I am [Plumb's characters are heavily costumed, wigged and made up], so I could just sit there and listen and watch it with them. And they'd talk to me honestly. A man said to me, "This is exactly what happens." I was so excited, because most of the stuff in the films is just relating to being human.   

AW: There's something about Madison Square Park in particular. Public art exists there so well there because as a place it's almost a little anonymous. Central Park is a destination, whereas Madison Square Park is almost like a weigh station in the midst of complete city life. Did you find inspiration in that particular park?  

SP: It's ironic: I wanted to do the park a couple years ago, because I have two sons and I was always going to Prospect Park. I started tinkering with the idea. The park is a great temporary subculture, and so I had been inspired by the idea of parks. But in Madison Square, there are just so many characters-such a diverse crowd.   

AW: Was there a specific decision you had to include multiple characters-all played by you-in one frame?  

SP: I'm not a good collaborator in the performing sense. It was always difficult for me to do something with someone else in the frame, so I decided to play the other characters. I did that with a couple of films prior to this, but with this one it was really important. It's not a park until someone sits next to you on the bench, you know? It makes it tricky and exciting when you're performing. You don't have that person next to you, so you really have to pretend.     

AW: In the first film in the series, you have two characters. The female character has an old typewriter and an old-fashioned telephone. The male character has all the modern gadgets, and is texting away [on his cell phone]. Was that a cultural commentary?   

SP: It's definitely a comment on the isolation of cell phones, and also on how fast everything can be done. It also became kind of rich versus poor. The lady is doing this stuff in the old style because she can't afford the new stuff. Everything is a little bit slower, but she's still determined. With the guy, everything is up to par, and he's got everything he needs to live in 2009. It's kind of a little battle between those who have and those who don't have exactly what they're supposed to.  

AW: And it's interesting that you yourself are playing with advancements in technology. A lot of the viewers of this piece, when I was there, were questioning why there was TV playing in the park. And then of course, they watched and got sucked in by it as an artwork.   

SP: It's funny, the man who did the music for the piece, Dave Wilder -- he's really amazing. And the soundtrack he created for the credits is so much like a TV show -- , like ‘70s sitcoms -- , that kind of pulls people in, because they wonder if it's "Good Times," or something.   

AW: Yes, there's definitely something kind of familiar, yet "off," about the whole thing. The film "Halloween" really highlights this: You play a mischievous little cow bedeviling a park custodian. It's cute, and yet there's something kind of sad about it.   

SP: That's my least favorite, because I couldn't figure it out. I shot that piece two and a half times, because I couldn't figure it out. It ends up being more serious than everything else to me. There's a worker, and he's just trying to rest. Then, all of a sudden, this creepy dude comes around in a cow costume, and all he's doing is messing up the place. Every time people are working hard, there's always someone coming around just to take from them. I could not make that one funnier. That's why I did it again, because I asked myself: "Why is this thing getting so serious on me?" But I guess that's what happens. In the park, there's always something just a little bit creepy going on. For me, I love comedy, and I want to make people laugh, but somehow when you're observing things, the seriousness of life can creep in on you.   

AW: But that tension is what makes that film great. And, for what it's worth, life is kind of creepy. There's something nice about highlighting that.   SP: Even at the last minute, I thought: "I have to re-do this one." But I just figured that there are some things that have to be left as they are, and they say what they have to say. I couldn't change that.    


From the top: Stills from Christmas (2009), Lunch Break (2009), and Maximus (2009); all images courtesy the artist.