at Wako Works of Art
in the Roppongi, Nogizaka area
This event has ended - (2006-09-12 - 2006-10-14)
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The interplay of the two artistsā work has produced a show that works like a āfour-handed performance using a single piano… a harmonious, collaborative installation in a single spaceā. This is the first in a series of three interviews with each of the participants in this exhibition.
Born in New York in 1980, Jordan Wolfson currently divides his time between working and living in his home city and Berlin. Following a series of residencies in the United States and Sweden, he was the focus of much critical acclaim for one of the works he presented at the 2006 Whitney Biennial: a 16mm silent film, which takes the last speech from Charlie Chaplinās The Great Dictator and translates it into sign language. While the film is silent, the complete speech of 706 words is rendered as the workās title.
Two of Jordanās works are on show in the current exhibition. The first is Day, a sound installation of matches being struck played out on an open-reel tape recorder. The second is Instructions for Returning, an unfinished drawing of words, reminiscent of film subtitles, instructing those who are lost on how to find their way back to civilization.
Also on display is a DVD of his past video works. I talked to Jordan about the ideas and influences that inspired these works and how they relate to the works in this exhibition.
In your past works you have used certain icons such as Charlie Chaplin, Christopher Reeve, Eric Satie, and Michael Jackson. Can you explain your interest in these subjects and how you see them functioning in the development of your work as a whole?
Iām interested in the unconsciousness that exists within our culture and using these icons as references to connect with the viewer. In Jiem-No-Pedti you can hear Satie being played but Iām not interested in Satie; I think his music is great, but that work is not about referencing Satie himself. Iām not an audiophile or a filmophile: I just use these subjects as beginning points and then combine them with something else so as to create a question. In Infinite Melancholy, Iām not intrigued by Christopher Reeve beyond the point of wanting to make a work referencing him.
Music is a recurrent feature in your work, and in most of your work the music seems to be classical piano music. Is there a particular reason for that?
As I said, Iām not interested in formalities as being content in their own rights, but instead the goal is to use this combination of both contextual and formal references to create an open question.
While you may not be interested in Satie himself, in this case you are also integrating a strongly personal element to Jiem-No-Pedti: itās your mother playing the piano, isnāt it?
Yes, itās true of course that I have some person connection to the references I am using. All I can really say is that Iām also a viewer of my own work and that I cannot avoid having an experience with the work that is personal to me.
And with the use of Christopher Reeveās name in Infinite Melancholy — which also has your mother playing the piano soundtrack — if youāre not interested in Reeve himself, what does he represent to you? Some reviewers have focused on the contrast of the soaring sensation viewers get out of that video — recalling his role as superman — versus our knowledge of the physical reality of what happened to him.
Of course it has to do with the physical reality of what happened to him but in a more complex way. I saw the name Christopher Reeve as a symbol: a symbol of the sediment of the United States at that moment post 9/11. Itās like a temperature reading, so instead of saying ā94 degreesā or ā98 degreesā, itās āChristopher Reeveā. I thought that it was a reading of culture, that his name became a symbol of a way of how we perceived our culture at a certain moment. For example, you could say that Christopher Reeve was optimistic and paralyzed at the same time, a kind of āparalyzed optimismā. This was the feeling that prevailed in the US after 9/11 and I donāt think thatās how we feel now. Now weāre confused and lost.
Can you explain your interest Chaplin as a symbol?
At a certain point, Charlie Chaplin was the most recognized person on the face of the planet, even more than Jesus Christ. I am interested in universal symbols of global culture. For example, if you travel Africa, people are reciting Snoop Dogg songs, even if they donāt really speak English; everyone knows who Michael Jackson is in Africa, and Charlie Chaplin was huge in the Middle East, right when cinema began. In the beginning Charlie Chaplin communicated objectively without language in his silent films; The Great Dictator was his first ātalkieā. In the final scene, Chaplin breaks character and makes this irrationally idealistic communist-utopian speech about the plight and hope of mankind. My reproduction of his speech resilenced this moment of incongruity and brought him back to silent film.
Was this a reaction to the impossibility of what he proposed in the speech? Do you think of your act of resilencing him as a political statement?
It was a reaction to impossibility of what he proposed in the speech but I would like to state that there is a very thin line here when it comes to judging whether Iām making a subjective political statement. Of course this is a fair assumption and yes I have political values and beliefs. However, historically this speech was one of the reasons why Chaplin was deported during the McCarthy era just one year before the US entered World War II. Iām not stating an opinion that human beings canāt live in peace but itās more about using the assumption that the work is a political statement and the history that the work references as an opportunity to propose questions about the world we live in. So in that sense it’s political but itās not my politics.
What about the reference to Jorgen Lethās film The Perfect Human?
The aesthetic of the work was taking directly from that film, made in 1967. The bridge between The Perfect Human and the Great Dictator is that they are both proposing two different views on the possibilities of mankind living in harmony. The Perfect Human proposes it ironically, as an impossibility, while Chaplinās speech idealistically insists that we can make it. My intention was to combine these polar opposites into an opportunity to ask a question.
Whatās the question?
Thatās up to you to decide, not me. I just made the work.
The title of the work is the entire speech, written out for those who canāt understand the sign language. How does the transcription of the title relate to the film itself?
The work is not so much a film but more a conceptual gesture. There was a negative review of the work that stated that once you read the title you never need or want to watch the film again. That critic got it right because itās not about watching a film but recognizing the construction of a film. The film element constituted only 50 percent of the piece and the title made up the other 50 percent. So it was a conceptual gesture: it wasnāt about having a complete formal, visceral experience with the artwork.
In Neverland, you took what is probably the only original, natural feature left on Michael Jacksonās face — his eyes — and by erasing everything else, including the speech he was making, you allowed his eyes to do all the talking. They swing from side to side, as though he were communicating the word ānoā again and again. This work was made in the same vein as the others?
Michael Jackson had made a live broadcast from his own home and I remember thinking that this was the worst moment of his life, this incongruent humiliating moment when he crossed the line between public and private and addressed the world. That was my first work to take me in this direction and I think that it brought up connotations that āthe eyes never lieā.
On one level, his eyes could be seen as giving the same message as his speech, that ānoā he didnāt commit this crime. On the other hand, I couldnāt help but think of them as saying āno, no, this isnāt happening to me, I canāt believe thisā, that while heās giving a public speech, he continues to retreat into denial and cocoon himself in his childish world. Were you aiming to highlight this disconnect between that physical message and the verbal message he was trying to give?
Well, I canāt say much about it because this is your experience of the work.
But youāre happy for people to make their own interpretations?
Yes. I try to have a lot of openness with this. Iām not making a judgement call: I can have my own opinion of my own work as a viewer, but Iām not going to fence the work for anyone. I create a situation of recognition, but Iām not going to define it for anyone.
Someone once described your work as āpoetic conceptualismā. Does that sound like a contrived category to you?
I donāt think of it that way as Iām making it, but I canāt prevent the way Iām bracketed into categories and Iām not going to negate that kind of description. If someone wants to say that about me or they want to define what it is I do, then thatās fine because itās their experience of the work and I have to respect that.
Have there been any particular sources of inspiration that you have had for your work?
I have rare moments of a sort of unfamiliar sense of recognition and clarity. Itās similar to when you go to the optician and have your vision calibrated; everything is out of focus and then for a moment in focus and then āclickā itās out of focus again.
For example I was walking down the street in New York and I lit a match for a cigarette and that was it, the sound piece Day. I also got it when I heard my mother playing the piano. There was so much melancholy in it: it made me so sad to hear this person struggling to play the piano and suddenly everything became about time and death. That led to the soundtracks for Infinite Melancholy and Jiem-No-Pedti. I remember I was at a party, stoned out of my mind in Italy and I saw Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator bouncing the globe on his knee and at that moment I knew I had to go into that and I knew that I wanted to make a piece with Chaplin in it.
So itās the human experience Iām interested in, as well as these moments of consciousness and unconsciousness. I try and retranslate that kind of clarity into the work.
Itās interesting that you should answer that way. I realize now that when I asked you this question, I didnāt specifically say āwho are your inspirations?ā but I was actually thinking of who the artists are that have inspired you. Itās refreshing that youāve responded by talking about life instead. Having said that, who are the artists that have inspired you?
It changes a lot. Artists who Iām interested in areā¦ of course, Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I would say he’s the most important artist to me. I respect Carsten HĆ¶ller, Elaine Sturtevant, Ceal Floyer, Koo Jeong-A and Mike Kelley, who are all artists I find pretty interesting. While I was at art school, I used to go into libraries, pick up art books and be totally absorbedā¦ but now Iām more looking outwardly towards culture rather than looking inwardly back at art.
In terms of technique, your work uses a variety of different approaches. You have works that are projected on both a large scale and a small scale. Some have the projector concealed and some have it exposed and youāve also made use of animation. For a start, how did you achieve the rolling effect in the Figure 8 piece?
That was a 3D animation program, so thereās no construction residue within the work and thatās important. Except with the piece here in Tokyo, Iām showing the viewers that itās a recording and thatās also important. The recording is presented as being on a machine so as to make a demonstration of that recording, that thereās this machine in the physical space. It exists as a recording when you hear the sound and it exists as a sound when you hear the recording. Itās more isolated than it would be if it were just on a CD player, which would be mundane and cold.
Can you explain the intention behind how you installed the Charlie Chaplin/Great Dictator film at the Whitney Biennial?
I had an interesting moment at the Whitney Biennial discussing with the curator Chrissie Iles how I was going to present the film. We talked about having it behind glass so that you donāt see the projector; but if people walk in and donāt see the projector then they’ll expect that itās a film and will sit down. But if you put the projector in the middle of the room, then the viewer will see that itās a construction and look at it as a machine projecting a film. Without creating this gesture in the installation, thereās no bridge to the title.
Your work Dreaming of the dream of the dream also presents the machine as an integral feature of the projection. Except in this case, you allow the film to be played all day long, with the knowledge that the images on the film will degrade or the film stock itself will eventually be worked to destruction. And once that happens, you have no intention of remaking the work.
No, then itās over and thatās the content of the work. It isnāt just the water but itās the defining of how it will be exhibited and reproduced. It becomes a life.
So much of the information that weāre given now is neither interactive, nor does it have any particularly useful function. On the one hand you have technology, which has always been essentially about function, and on the other hand, with the so-called āinformationā age, despite all the other advantages it has brought, there is so much useless information being produced. Faced with this situation, I think itās quite a challenge for artists, who are each adding to the mass of information out there, to know where to situate themselves and their work. So, with a work like Dreaming of the dream of the dream, which shows the functional side of itself so clearly, it shows that you are, in some sense, responding to that problem.
Right, thatās a really interesting point. For example, Iāve recently started applying rules to my work, because I wasnāt just satisfied with making work for the sake of having work. The drawing Instructions for Returning on show here in Tokyo is unfinished, because without that itās just a drawing. By being unfinished, I it opens up so much more: itās not just a drawing anymore, itās this unfinished action. Dreaming of the dream of the dream is one edition that will slowly kill itself. When I made that piece, I wasnāt satisfied with having made a formalistic water film; I thought it was an unnecessary work, that thereās no reason for this work to exist. Thereās been enough work done using filmed appropriation and I had to reconcile it by giving it the rule that it would only have one life. It was originally going to be this long, abstract film about water, but then I limited it to being one minute long, to be repeated over a day-long period; it became one edition, one single print and eventually itāll die.
When do you expect it to die? What happens when it does?
Actually, I almost accept any offer to show it; wherever the gallery or museum can facilitate the work Iāll show it, because if I donāt show it, then it becomes an undemocratic decision for a work that was so democratically created. Itās currently showing at the Daniel Reich Gallery in New York. Will it break there? Maybe, I donāt know. Itās okay if the film splits apart because ultimately thereās no way of saving it. Iāll tell you, itās a miracle that we managed to play it for a month at Kunsthalle, ZĆ¼rich in 2005; it was also shown for one week at the CrĆ©dac in Paris and now Iām showing it in New York and I think this will probably be the ending.
As for the question of what to do when the film breaks, I was thinking that maybe I would just leave the projector on without any film in it, just playing out for the rest of the show. Or the projector could be turned off and/or removed from the space. Should I give a kind of funeral for the piece, or approach the end of its life in a ritualistic way? In a way, I donāt think I should, but I canāt just deny that the piece existed. I think that it should be just left projecting blank light into the gallery. All of these things become quite tricky because youāre not just dealing with image-making, youāre dealing with the articulation of an image. Thatās really what Iām interested in: not just articulating the imageās form, but its consequence.
To see Jordan Wolfsonās homepage, click here.
To read the interview with the show’s curator, Yukie Kamiya, click here.
To read the interview with Gabriel Lester, click here.