Altering Space and Forming Place at The School
Initiating a dialogue between four artists of diverting origins and mediums, “A Change of Place: Four Solo Exhibitions” opened yesterday at Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School, a converted schoolhouse two hours outside of Manhattan in Kinderhook, New York. With works ranging from Pierre Dorion’s quietly evocative, minimalist site-specific paintings to Richard Mosse’s surreal infrared photographs of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s scarred landscape, the four-fold show covers vast territory, but its atmosphere remains constant: introspective, unselfish, and challenging.
To call the practice of each included artist (Dorion and Mosse, plus Hayv Kahraman and Garnett Puett) unique would be accurate, albeit an oversimplification. As a painter keenly aware of formalism, Dorion has created works based on the exhibition spaces in which he shows for the last 10 years. After photographing the space, he reconstructs each image with his brush and a canvas, intimating how space forms experience. Through sculpture, audio, and painting, Hayv Kahraman elicits her experience as a refugee who fled Iraq as a child. Her recent paintings—perhaps most aptly classified as sonic shields—depict nude women and are delicately pierced, allowing pyramids of acoustic foam to poke through the surface, altering and absorbing the sound of the surrounding space. The results pose a formidable counterpoint to the sirens of war. Mosse’s photographs also emerge from the violence of war, as he shot in Iraq during its occupation by the United States military, as well as among sectarian violence in the Congo for the last five years. For Garnett Puett, a beekeeper by trade, the show marks a return to the art world and an opportunity to revisit his “apisculptures,” sculptural armatures upon which bees have worked, forming their signature geometric comb. Puett also allows bees to enter and exit beehives inside the gallery through holes in the wall (he will technically be working throughout the show’s duration). As a whole, the varied works and artistic practices suggest a multifaceted understanding of place and, furthermore, how it may emerge out of space.
Prior to the opening, we spoke with each artist to learn more about their origins.
BORN: 1959 in Ottawa, Canada
BASED: Montreal, Canada
SPACE AS SUBJECT: My subjects are always the spaces in between, those kinds of spaces that are easy to overlook because you’re going to a gallery to focus on the art object, the installation, or whatever is there. I’m looking at the absence of the art object and the space that’s in between in [those] visits, like the architecture.
MY FIRST PAINTINGS WERE BASED ON… photos from the 19th century, from Nadar. They were historical figures borrowed from that body of work. This was almost 40 years ago, but I think it’s quite close to what I do now. I was interested in some abstract approaches to figuration or images, and also the presence of the history of painting or the history of making images and photographic practices, and those concerns are still pretty present in my work. At the time I was using portraits—the human figure. Now the figure is absent but its [absence] is still perceptible in those spaces.
BECOMING SITE-SPECIFIC: A long time ago, 30 years ago, maybe more than that, I was creating installations using the whole architectural setting I was exhibiting in as support material. At that time I would really invest the whole space with paint, with my work, my paintings, but I would also paint on the walls, the ceiling, and everything, creating a kind of fictional, cultural space—a fictional art gallery or maybe a fictional artist studio. It was more postmodern and in tune with the kind of art that was happening at that time, and it was also a distanced way to approach painting with a bit of irony but without dwelling too much on the practice. From those installations, I started to work very closely every time with the space that I was going to have an exhibition at.
THE SCHOOL: I was very intrigued by the fact that there are these two classrooms that have been more or less been left in their original state. They moved all the accessories, all the blackboards and everything, but you can see the traces of the past of those rooms. It’s in contrast with the very designed, white cube, contemporary architecture look of the rest of the space. I wanted to have those two aspects cohabit in my installation.
REMEMBRANCE… is a constant interest in my work—a strange presence of absence, in a way.
BORN: 1981 in Baghdad, Iraq
BASED: Los Angeles, California
THE SIRENS: The trigger was this sonic memory I have of growing up in Baghdad, and that was the sound of the sirens. The siren is basically a warning for an air raid. Whenever we’d be hit by air raids and bombs, etcetera, the siren would start. This was during the Gulf War in Iraq, so in 1991. Come to think of it, I’ve heard that sound throughout my life and childhood because the Iran-Iraq War actually started when I was four. My parents, when I asked them about the sound of the sirens, they recall having me as a little baby driving in the car in Baghdad and hearing that sound, and just completely panicking and driving into an alleyway, ducking in the back seat of the car holding me underneath them, waiting for it to go away. My experience, I wouldn’t say was that traumatic. I was nine, 10 years old and heard it and remember running inside and we would just take cover, basically.
RESISTANCE: Sound waves shift around the surface of the [foam] pyramids and then they disperse. I started incorporating the foam into the canvas work by cutting the linen and having the foam penetrate from the back to the front. That act of surgically slicing through the linen was cathartic. There was a resistance there to the whole idea of war. That action was really significant. The paintings became objects that would alter the sound of the space they’re in; they’re not just paintings hanging on the wall.
SEEING HERSELF IN HER WORK: My work is very, very personal and autobiographical. Being a refugee going to Sweden—that’s where we fled to during the [Gulf] War—I felt that I had to somehow assimilate and leave myself behind in order to be able to survive, to blend in, and become one of them. When you do that, you lose yourself somewhat and these are teenage years, so add that to the mix, all the hormones and everything. I’ve also been through an abusive marriage and I think the violence in the way that the body is dismembered [in my work] probably also stems from that. I remember when I first moved to the U.S. and I was still married in that abusive relationship, I started painting these figures. The subject matter was female genital mutilation, honor killings, and beheadings—really violent things—and my mom would call me from Sweden and say, “Hayv, are you okay? What’s going on?” I’d say, “Well, yes, I’m fine, I just feel an affinity with these women, with their stories.” At the time I was in denial about what I was going through and a lot of it surfaced in the work and still does. The dismemberment is very personal in that sense, but a lot of the subject matter and the theories are very research-based.
THE IDEA OF PLACE… obviously is very loaded, especially for me having left my home, moved places, and being of this nomadic [experience]. It carries a lot. If you were to ask me where my home is, I wouldn’t know what to answer. I would never be able to say I’m an American; Iraqi-American does not feel right; I’m almost more comfortable saying an Iraqi-Swede but that’s also incorrect at this point in my life. If I say I’m Iraqi, how Iraqi am I? It’s really problematic. My parents left at an older age so they have a sense of an archive of memories from that place and that time that I don’t have—mine are very limited. In a way, that’s probably why I obsess about them in my work. My work deals with memories, archiving them, and reliving them. I miss [Iraq] but I’m a foreigner and I would be a stranger in Iraq. And what do I really miss? It’s really a memory that I miss.
BORN: 1980 in Kilkenny, Ireland
BASED: Brooklyn, New York
BEING A “CONCEPTUAL DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER”: I do think conceptual art tends to be very dry, and sometimes even approaching emotionless; there’s no space for emotion. It’s almost like emotion is a very dirty thing. That’s the only place I think that the term “conceptual documentary photographer” may not be the most accurate [way to describe me]. But at the same time I wouldn’t want to be called a romantic, either.
THE LAST TRIP, FOR NOW: This show is sort of a finishing point, a summing up. I wouldn’t say a conclusion, but it’s a final show in some respects, at least emotionally for me. I went back to Congo last May, June, and July to bring [back] The Enclave, which is a multi-screen video installation that I made. I’d shown it around Europe at various museums and at a few museums in the U.S. and Australia, so it had a good run, but I didn’t feel like I could really say I’d finished the project or completed the circle until I brought that work back to Congo. It was a very symbolic thing to do, really, but it was also the right thing to do—to bring the thing back home and show the subjects the work that I’d made of them in their landscape. It was not without risk as well, as you can imagine in a place beset by war crimes, intimidation, and all kinds of conflict; the war in eastern Congo [makes it] quite an unstable place. In the end, it worked really well and no one got killed, no one was hurt, it was very well received—not by everybody, there was a lot of criticism from certain people, but a lot of people responded well to it. We had visits from groups of former child soldiers who recognized it and had fought in the remote locations where we’d shot. There was a real sense of catharsis for people like that and even moto-taxi drivers just came in, they’d heard there was a free show, and they were overwhelmed emotionally when they came out. I’d love to go back in 10 years on a holiday, but my heart is in a different place. It does feel like a while ago, Congo, for me; it feels like it’s in the past even though it’s not that long ago since I was there.
8 X 10 CAMERA: It’s still my best friend. It’s the person I go to when I’m feeling my most blue and it knows all of my inner secrets. [laughs] It’s a very beautiful tool, like a fly fishing rod. It’s very simple, in a way, very pure. I’m never letting that go.
THE HUMAN CONDITION: I’ve met a lot of war criminals in Congo, shook a lot of hands with blood on them, and everyone’s got a side, everyone’s got a story to tell; even the ones that are deeply suspicious of photographers or the press, and who are regarded as pariahs, even they have their side of the story, their historical narrative. We’re talking about people who carried out the Rwandan genocide, who live deep in the bush in Congo or are hiding from their own acts and have nowhere to go. The victims of conflict tend to have this extraordinary sense of not just gregariousness but also a sense of the world that we in the West don’t understand—a sense of the absurd. That sounds very flippant, I don’t mean they have a great sense of humor, I mean that they understand the world in a very different way than people who are not used to living with tragedy. In the most miserable refugee camps, kids are completely overwhelmed with joy, and it’s amazing, actually, how much survival instinct there is, how much people can deal with.
BORN: 1959 in Hahira, Georgia
BASED: Kona, Hawaii
NUMBER OF BEES ABUZZ: 30,000
A RETURN: I pulled out of the art gallery scene in the mid to late ’90s. For this show I worked on several pieces that I never finished in the ’90s that I’ve had stored. I had a chance to finish them and repair a couple that got damaged in transit years ago. [I’ve] re-birthed them actually—that’s sort of what this show is all about. It’s great to finally get the time to come and do this.
A FOURTH GENERATION BEEKEEPER: We were beekeepers in south Georgia during the gold rush of queen breeding. The queen is very essential to the hive and my great-grandfather started producing queens at about the turn of the century, around 1910 or 1920. I got my first hive for my birthday at five years old. I’d go out there and get startled—it was an adventure. Once you work with bees and have been stung hundreds of thousands of times, you have no fear and it’s just like a boxer getting punched; one punch isn’t going to do it. I learned that immediately, I think the four generations bred that into me. I tried to get away from it after working with bees all of my childhood and teenager years; I went to college and threw the whole bee world away for the art world, but obviously I couldn’t get away from it. I went through the process of doing hundreds of pieces and that whole process just got me back to my innate knowledge of bees from when I was five years old. I sort of went full circle in my life.
DAY-TO-DAY: I’m doing 95 percent honey production. We produce probably 400,000 pounds of honey per year. When I get time I go and work on the sculptural work.
THE HIVE: Once they’re installed with the queen and the feed in the [sculptural] form, they want to go out and forage to bring in pollen and nectar. They’ll fly just a few feet at first, and then a few yards, and it’ll end up being maybe half a mile that they’ll fly and come back. They navigate themselves and want to come back to that queen, that’s one of the keys to it. I design for the scale of the sculpture so I know what kind of comb building they’ll do and where they’re going to do it, so I lead them that way. They go their natural way but with direction—just like with a normal hive, you have wooden frames that you can pull out of the hive. It’s the same technology; we’re leading them into a form that they do their natural work on.
NATURE IN MIND: I wanted people to be aware that these bees are out there—they’re living, they’re dying. I knew this was a way to get people focused on the environment. I was interacting with the bees in this collaboration, and I wasn’t doing it for honey production or the commercial aspects of bee keeping. I was actually working with them very closely and giving them a nice place and a good notoriety, and making people more aware of how fascinating bees are.
“A CHANGE OF PLACE: FOUR SOLO EXHIBITIONS” IS CURRENTLY ON VIEW AT THE SCHOOL IN KINDERHOOK, NEW YORK AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC EVERY SATURDAY.