Ron Arad

Boundaries don't exist

An institution in the product design world, Ron Arad captured the eye of the art world with the introduction of his ‘Rover Chair.’ His experimentation with the possibilities of materials has put him at the forefront of contemporary design. He joined us in conversation at NeueHouse to discuss his work, inspirations and the blurred lines between art and product design.

Erwin Olaf

Exploring Americana, Masks, and Emotional Intrigue

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Erwin Olaf a is a veteran of the editorial and commercial world, having collaborated with brands as diverse as Bottega Venetta and Microsoft. His worldwide campaigns for Diesel Jeans and Heineken won him the coveted Silver Lion at the Cannes Lions Festival for Advertising, and in 2010 Louis Vuitton commissioned Olaf for a portrait series in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Olaf’s art captures the unspoken and the overlooked, which typically resist easy documentation. His work inherently addresses social issues, taboos, and bourgeois conventions in a highly stylized and cunning mode of image making.

 

Olaf’s often controversial images have been shown at world-renowned institutions including the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Bilbao Art Centre, Bilbao, Spain; Modern Art Gallery of Bologna, Bologna, Italy; and the Museum of Modern Art.

 

His recent work includes an eponymously titled book for Aperture that takes a noir and muted spin on classic mid-century Americana, as well as the design of the 2014 Dutch Euro coin currently in circulation. We caught up with Olaf to discuss identity, future forays into film, and his current show, “Waiting” on view at Hasted Karaeutler Gallery until February 28th.

 

Why do you make the work that you make?

The second question is the easier one to answer. I make the work because I am compelled to. I do it as a means of expressing myself. I do, however, like as many people as possible to see my work.

 

I don’t really know why I make the work that I make, specifically. It is a way to deal with my own emotions and feelings sometimes. Other times, the work is a translation of what is going on right now in society, stuff that touches me or makes me angry, or things that I am going through. My personal work is like a journal.

 

You’ve talked before about your interest in masks and the role they play in identity. Do you think this extends beyond photography, into the ‘real world’?

Not for myself – I am truly very happy with my own self right now (I would love to be fitter, not ill, etc.) but all in all, I am very comfortable in my skin, so there is no need for role play. I do enjoy diversity – I especially like the more colorful fruits, and the ones that are less common.

 

How do you create complex narratives within single images?

I am looking more inwards these days for my narratives, and as I grow older there is more to tell. Also the issues that I am concerned with are more complex than when I was younger, and this is reflected my work.

 

Your work carry a deep emotional weight for the viewer. As their creator, do your images have the same impact on you?

Some of them do, but the weight is a different one from that of the viewer. I sometimes have a strong connection with my subject, be it a regular person or a model, and this connection results in a moving photograph. The viewers can see something completely different in the image, they recognize the strong result, but are moved by something unique.

 

The style of your work has been compared to that of many groundbreaking artists. How do you use inspiration from the past and create something unique?

I have been influenced by filmmakers and photographers from the seventies and eighties (from my youth and early adulthood- artists like Visconti, Fassbender, Helmut Newton etc). I grew up in a creative surrounding in Amsterdam in the early eighties, and that scene and my curiosity from early on have shaped me into the artist that I am now. I’ve always got my antenna up, and get inspired by everything, even if the inspiration isn’t directly translated in my work.

 

How has your foray into film impacted your photography and how has your deep knowledge of photography supported your work in film?

I am a studio photographer mostly, highly stylized as the say, so to work in film was an adjustment for me. I had to accept that moving image is less controllable than still image, and also that there is a different contact with actors as opposed to models. Basically everything is different on the outside, but the content, the inside character of the work is the same, the heart of the work is still Erwin Olaf.

 

Tell us about your current show “Waiting.”

The show gives a great overview of my years at Hasted Kraeutler, and also showcases some of the pieces that haven’t been exhibited before. The number of pieces is also dictated by the space, but I feel that they give an appropriate feel of my work. I am so happy that my installation “Waiting” is exhibited at the gallery – installations are a new format for me, and it is a challenge to translate my intention into a 3D piece of work.

 

Is there a story behind the title?

The installation is a study of the gestures of waiting. Nowadays, no one is really waiting anymore. Everyone has a smartphone with which they can kill time, so I was really interested in what happens when people have to wait again, without any device at hand. The collapse of posture, the inconvenience, it’s a state that is being seen less and less.

 

Do you have any creative muses?

Mostly my models, all the people who give spice to life, the salts of the earth, but to be honest, I don’t really have muses. I get inspired by the people I work with, but there is no long term inspiration…maybe my partner?

 

What else, if anything, do you want to tell us?

Go see my show! Also, I am going to shoot my first long feature film, an adaptation of a book by Arthur Japin. I am very excited about that.

Alec Soth

The Minnesota native turns his lens onto country life

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Alec Soth’s work is rooted in the distinctly American tradition of ‘on-the-road photography’ developed by Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Stephen Shore. From Huckleberry Finn to Easy Rider there seems to be a uniquely American desire to travel and chronicle the adventures that consequently ensue. Soth’s photographs have been collected and shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the 2004 Whitney Biennial and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

 

We caught up with the Magnum Photos member on the eve of his upcoming exhibition, “Songbook” at Sean Kelly Gallery, on view through March 14th, 2015.

 

What’s the premise of your upcoming exhibition at Sean Kelly, and what was its genesis?
My last project exhibited at Sean Kelly was called Broken Manual. This work was about the desire to retreat from society. Upon its completion, I’d had enough solitude and wanted to explore community life. This new project, Songbook, is about re-engaging with social life around the country. I did this in a variety of means, but the majority of the work was made while working on a self-published newspaper.

 

What was it was like to assume the role of a “small town news reporter,” traveling from state to state across the country?
In my mid-twenties I worked for a suburban newspaper in Minnesota. The stories I covered were pretty generic: a ribbon cutting for a new store, a city council meeting, that sort of thing. A long time after I left that job, I wondered if those same scenes might be interesting, if seen in a different way. So a few years ago, I asked the writer Brad Zellar to accompany me on an assignment. We quickly learned that the world of small newspapers is completely fascinating if approached slightly askew. Twin Peaks is right around the corner.

 

It’s been said that the cornerstone of your photographs is the chemistry you create with strangers, what do you think about this idea?
I’m not sure. A photograph is simply light reflecting off of surfaces – the rest is projection. My camera doesn’t penetrate anybody’s soul, nor do I. I’m not saying I don’t have a relationship with the people I photograph, but I’m not sure that this relationship can be read in the pictures.

 

According to your gallery your images tackle the tension between American individualism and the desire to be united, can you comment on this?
We live in a country that treasures individualism. We have all of these myths of the cowboy and the self-made man. But if I learned anything from my years of work tracking down hermits and recluses, it is that we need other people to stay sane. We long for connection. This dualism can be found in a lot of my work and is at the heart of Songbook.

 

You’ve also said that you’re in love with the process of taking photos, and it feels like a kind of performance, what do you mean by this?
I like the process of moving through the world. Before I was a photographer, I was interested in land artists like Richard Long. I liked the idea that a walk could be a work of art. I feel like the process of driving around looking at people and things is also a kind of artwork.

 

Do you think that your wanderlust fuels your desire to document the world or is the other way around?
The wanderlust is the engine, definitely. The fact that I produce something that looks like documentary photographs is just a happy byproduct of my process.

 

What’s something that’s really exciting you at the moment?
A few years ago I began to realize the creative potential of live slideshows. After creating a workshop to explore this idea, I’ve started experimenting. Last fall I did an event on stage with Billy Bragg. I found the whole thing both exciting and terrifying.

 

What’s the thing or idea that most frightens you?
It sounds corny or cliché, but as an artist I think it is essential to keep listening to that weird little voice inside. I’ve always been nervous about having that voice drowned out by career expectations. But as I get older, this concern has been replaced with fears of my voice becoming atrophied by age.

 

Have you had an epic fail in your life and how did you recover?
Great question. I’ve never told this story, but in college I studied poetry. I had a teacher who thought the world of me. He actually got me published. Anyway, at the end of the semester, he wanted me to give a public reading. I had a terror of public speaking and couldn’t do it. So I drank a bunch of wine. I don’t remember the reading, but I know it was a disaster. Part of the attraction of being a photographer is that it didn’t seem to have anything to do with public speaking. Boy, was I wrong. It took me about fifteen years to get over this fear.

 

What’s next?
That’s a secret for now. In order to preserve that little voice inside me, I’ve found it’s helpful not to blab about it prematurely.

33 Artists in 3 Acts

Sarah Thornton's New Book on "What Makes An Artist"

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In her new book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts (Norton), Sarah Thornton hones in on a question that goes back centuries: “What is an artist?” It’s something that every artist thinks about, but few, if any, can truly distill, mostly because of its complexity. For the book, Thornton, who previously wrote Seven Days in the Art World and Club Cultures, traveled the world — from Santiago to Shanghai, Mexico City to Milan, Los Angeles to London — exploring the practices of 29 art-world figures. Among the book’s main subjects are some of today’s major players, such as Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, Maurizio Cattelan, Damien Hirst, and Marina Abramović. But there are also some unexpected choices, like artist and California College of the Arts director of fine arts Tammy Rae Carland, curator and former Artforum editor Jack Bankowsky, and Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes. Here, we speak with Thornton about how 33 Artists came to be—and a few of the things she learned through reporting and writing it.

 

Spencer Bailey: Your last book, Seven Days in the Art World, was an enormous success and a bestseller. Did you find doing the follow-up intimidating?

 

Sarah Thornton: Foolishly, no. I’m never intimidated about writing another book. This is my third. My first, Club Cultures, was my PhD, and that was a long time ago [in 1996]. I didn’t feel worried about writing my new book. I just kind of plowed on. I found a question that interested me: “What is an artist?” I always felt like it was something I wanted to understand. It follows on from Seven Days insofar as I ask the question in both books. I see 33 Artists in 3 Acts as an extension of Chapters 2 and 6 in Seven Days — and maybe even Chapter 4, which is the Turner Prize one. In 33 Artists, I’m looking at the question through the eyes of artists, but I’m also looking at how certain artists view other artists. So someone like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst or Ai Weiwei — these three artists came up in conversations with the other artists. In a way, they were the three that absolutely had to be in the book. They’re landmarks for what the role could be, against which other artists are distancing themselves, measuring themselves, or aiming to get close to.

 

33 Artists is a longer and subtler book than Seven Days. My PhD was about hipness — the dynamics of being cool. With this book, I’m asking: What are the nuances of credibility? Credibility is really the key currency of the art world. It’s actually more important than money at the end of the day. So what is credibility? It’s about believability, integrity, honesty — but maybe sometimes being artificial is being honest, or saying your mind is being honest. This issue of creating a consensus of belief is what artists have to do nowadays to gather a following. I asked, “How does that play itself out in relation to these different artists and their work?” It’s not a book you can hop, skip, and jump through, like a magazine. To understand it, you need to start at the beginning and read it. Only then will the nods, winks, and nuances come through.

 

What was the genesis for the book? Was it this notion of credibility and you paying attention to that as a reporter and writer?
I’ve long been interested in credibility, and you could say that issues of validation and credibility are a subtheme in Seven Days. But the book’s start was really when I met Maurizio Cattelan in the summer of 2009, and then happened to see him many times in a short space of time, in a lot of different cities. I saw him in Venice, then Basel, then New York. Then I shadowed him on a three-day photo shoot in New Jersey — which in the end didn’t make it into the book, but could have. I became very interested in the way he was playing this game. He’s done a lot of self-portraits; he’s very self-consciously Duchampian. He’s very aware of the dynamics that go on in the art world to validate artists. Interestingly, he’s without an art-school degree. He’s one of the few professional artists of his generation—with his stature—who never went to art school. To be simplistic, you could say Cattelan inspired the book, although I think my interests in the issue was brewing long before, and possibly brewing even before I wrote Seven Days.

 

I feel this book has affinities with my studies of hipness. The question “What is an artist?” is one of those classic ethnographic issues. It’s not a newsworthy question. And actually, the question the book is really asking is “What is a credible artist?” It’s so obvious to those on the inside, but it’s beneath their consciousness.

 

How did you go about selecting the final grouping of subjects in 33 Artists?
In the end, there are actually only 29 artists, and I explain that in a footnote in the acknowledgements by referring to the fact that Gertrude Stein wrote a libretto called Four Saints in Three Acts, and there were actually 20. I’m borrowing her poetic license. Originally there were going to be 33, but I didn’t want overlap and repetition. I had to be super-ruthless.

 

I interviewed 130 artists, and it was only after finishing the first 100 that I sat down with my transcripts and decided what my themes would be. These themes of “Politics,” “Kinship,” and “Craft” emerged from the material as things that seemed to be relevant to the dividing line between artists and non-artists.

 

When I came up with those themes, I had some artists who were definitely going to be in the book, partly because they were interrogating the role of the artist in interesting ways and dealing with the question of “What is an artist?” in their work. Someone like Francis Alÿs has involved himself in his work over and over again, and has, in a way, played a lot of artistic roles in that work, so he intrigued me. Cindy Sherman also intrigued me. When I decided on those themes, another crop of artists came to the fore as ones where those themes were particularly interesting: Martha Rosler became absolutely essential to telling the story of Act 1. Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons became the main characters of Act 2 along with Cattelan and, to a lesser extent, Cindy Sherman. It was a really difficult process. There are some really wonderful artists who ended up on my cutting-room floor. Those I selected were the ones who worked for the book: They answered my questions, were iconic in different ways, and then fleshed out my themes and helped me have a narrative arc to my “acts.”

 

I found Lena Dunham an interesting choice. Of course, her parents are artists, but what was your ultimate reason for including her?

I don’t see her as an artist. She may occasionally call herself an artist, but she’s not a visual artist or operating in the art world the way her parents are. I always interview outside of the box. In the back of the book, you’ll see I’ve got a list of curators and collectors I’ve interviewed. Sometimes they appear in scenes and sometimes they don’t. In Tokyo, when I interview Yayoi Kusama, [Victoria Miro Gallery co-director] Glenn Scott Wright is there. [Kurimanzutto gallery co-founder] Monica Manzutto is there with Gabriel Orozco. I’m always often interested in the collaborators and supporters in the room. Sometimes my outside interviewee becomes so relevant to the main thrust of the narrative that I step aside and look at it through their eyes. That’s what I do with Massimiliano Gioni and Francesco Bonami, two curators who are instrumental in Cattelan’s public self. And I do that with Lena and Grace Dunham, simply because Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons really open up and talk to me about things that artists find very hard to talk about, like crises of confidence, weathering the storm of bad press, and moments when she’s in the limelight and vice-versa. There’s some really rich content there about the ways in which Carroll and Laurie have weathered a 40-year partnership and still maintained their artistic careers and not felt like they were in each other’s artistic shadows. It was actually quite difficult to find an artist couple with comparable levels of recognition.

 

While I was interviewing, re-interviewing, and visiting Dunham and Simmons, Lena — who was just an Oberlin graduate when I started — got an HBO contract and won Golden Globes. That was actually relevant to her parents’ sense of self. Grace gave me a really terrific interview about being the child of artists and growing up in the arts community. I found it so refreshing that I decided to interview Lena. And actually, I’d met Lena several times when I was interviewing her parents. We’d have dinner, or she would be in the next room. I felt that she and Grace both had a lot of interesting things to say about artists.

 

I like it when I can make analogies to TV, film, and music from the art world. There’s a chapter in Act 1 with Tammy Rae Carland, who’s a teacher and also happened to be showing at the Istanbul Biennial, which is the location of two scenes in Act 1. One of the things I liked about her is that she had this previous life in music — she had been part of the Riot Grrrl movement in Olympia — and had casted her life as a professional artist-cum-teacher who’s now the director of fine arts at the California College of the Arts. Contrasting that to the punk music scene is illuminating. You just get a different sense of the different expectations, dynamics, and etiquettes of those different social worlds.

 

There’s a fifth person who’s also not an artist and on the table of contents: Jack Bankowsky. The reason I included him is because I was so interested in the show he curated [“Pop Life: Art in a Material World” at the Tate Modern] that included both Damien Hirst and Andrea Fraser. It was very important that they both be in the book, and for me, Andrea is very much the anti-Hirst—that’s the only show I know of that they’ve both appeared in together. I always need a character to lead us into the work, and I knew Jack from Artforum. He has a paragraph or two in Seven Days, but I brought him back in 33 Acts for some larger scenes.

 

So what answers did you find to the “What’s a credible artist?” question? Do you have your own answer now?
The great thing about that question is that there’s not one single answer. If you could wrap it up into a sound bite, then you wouldn’t be able to write a book about it. I love the fact that there are so many wonderful answers to the question, and actually, everybody in the book answers the question. Whether they do it directly or not is another matter.

 

Jeff Koons is a notoriously slippery interviewee. He rarely gives you a direct answer to questions, but he tells you a lot in the course of it. He gives two completely contrasting definitions — and they’re inadvertent. One of the things he says a lot is: “If you’re in the public eye for long enough, your inevitable fate is being burned at the stake.” Then, when he’s giving me a studio tour — and this is one he has trotted out quite a bit — he tells me this story about going door to door selling chocolates in gift-wrapping paper. He says, “I enjoyed not knowing who was going to open the door. I never knew what they would look like. I was always someone who wanted to be engaged. It’s the same with being an artist.” The artist as door-to-door salesman is something he brings up over and over again. Which in a way suits him, although clearly he’s so much more than that. So even the people who don’t give answers kind of actually can.

 

I hate listing all the answers. Getting to them is actually part of the joy of it, and if you just take it out of context, it lacks punch. But if you read through how they get to the answer, it seems quite moving at times. There are loads and loads of answers, and I think they’re incredibly rich. One of the fascinating things about being an artist is that the role is so customizable. How is it that one artist can be a tattletale and that another can be an enemy of general sensibility? And that one artist can be a crackpot professor and another a midwife? These are all things that different artists evoke in explaining what kind of artist they are. I think it’s incredibly difficult to be an artist — not everyone can be an artist — and to command authority as an artist is hard won. But once you’ve commanded that authority, it can be a very flexible role.

Takashi Murakami

"In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow"

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The first thing you notice when you pull up outside the front doors of Larry Gagosian’s eponymous gallery is the long line pouring down the street. The line is made up of both young and old New Yorkers in skinny blue jeans and black fedoras. You might look down at your phone to double-check the address and ensure you have not mistakenly arrived at the opening of a new hip night club. You have not: the address is correct, and this is the opening reception for Takashi Murakami‘s latest exhibition, entitled In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow.

 

If you are familiar with Takashi Murakami’s artwork and the artist’s ability to both draw from and seep back into popular culture, this scene does not confuse you. The line, the crowd, the entire affair, fits perfectly in line with the career of the Tokyo-based artist whose work has appeared both in the salon of the historic Chateau of Versailles near Paris, and imprinted on a not-so-limited edition of cherry blossom Louis Vuitton bags.

 

However, Murakami’s latest exhibition, on display at Gagosian Gallery’s Chelsea location until January 17th, 2015, takes a dark departure from much of his work that precedes it. Since the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011, Murakami has “explored Japanese art produced in response to historic natural disasters.” His new exhibition is a colorful commentary on traditional and contemporary belief systems as they evolve out of disaster and calamity, combining, “fiction, manga, and Buddhist and Shinto imagery, Murakami investigates the role of faith amid the inexorable transience and trauma of existence.”

 

In the Land of the Dead… opens with perhaps its most spectacular piece, “Bakuramon”, a life-sized 56-ton wooden replica of a sanmon temple, Rashomon, the historical gate to Heian Kyo (Kyoto), Japan’s capital and largest city of the eleventh century. Many Japanese myths and legends begin at the gates of Bakuramon. But here the wooden structure sits heavily in the center of the clean cubed room, its rugged edges and chipped exterior a juxtaposition to the space around it. You may notice the light scent of aged wood that fills the large room, and then the two menacing deities with spiraling horns, towering over the gate at its side – presumably on guard (“Embodiment of ‘A'” and “Embodiment of ‘Um'”). Immediately, you know you are in a land that you have never been to before.

 

Viewers can then walk through the temple to enter the larger exhibition space, first coming face-to-face with the title piece of the show, “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of the Rainbow”. This sprawling mural spans the entire width of the gallery wall with a visual narrative that flows horizontally in the tradition of a scroll painting. At its center and seen prominently from the gate’s entrance are a collection of human skulls. This particular painting was inspired by an 18th century painting by Soga Shohaku, titled “Immortals”.

 

The installation also features two other panorama murals, each both complex and disarming. In a smaller gallery room is a silver sculpture interpretive of the artist himself, a rendition of a piece common to Murakami’s collections of works. Also of note are two shimmering gold totem sculptures in the image of welcoming demons, and discs of smiling flowers, which too find their rightful place among this “Land of the Dead”. Altogether the show is a vibrant blend of both of ancient and modern inspiration, forming something quite removed from and more compelling than both.

 

And since you are familiar with Murakami’s work, it would not surprise you to also find, during the opening reception for his latest exhibition, the artist crowded by a horde of people wearing a helmet of flesh-like material: a triple head with three sets of eyes. In the world that Murakami seeks to portray this too is fitting. Of this world, Murakami says: “chaos is natural, but we have to make sense of it somehow.”

 

Takashi Murakami: In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of the Rainbow is on view at Gagosian Gallery, 24th Street, New York, Nov 10, 2014 – Jan 17, 2015