Born in Amsterdam in 1972, Gabriel Lester currently works in Brussels. Since his graduation from Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, he has exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including in Europe and South America, and last year, he took part in ISCP New York’s residency program. For the 2005 Goteborg Biennale, Lester extensively researched New York Public Library’s archive of silent film scores and presented a performance piece together with a professional pianist using rerecordings of compositions dating from 1899 to 1929. His work is currently being shown in the Busan Biennale in Korea.
In one of the gallery spaces at Wako Works of Art, Lester’s silent video A Man of Action Returns features a figure on top of a mountain moving in ways that are at first hard to define. The artist has in fact depicted a man performing a mime of a pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and the work seeks to demonstrate the frustrated impossibility of miming a magic act when deprived of the props on which it depends. In the other room, Lester has set up Lights for Riots and Fights and Music for Riots and Fights, an installation consisting of a series of colourless lightbulbs wired up to a sound-sensitive sensor. The lightbulbs flicker on and off in response to a CD of dramatic piano music used as the soundtrack of silent films. In this room there is no image, merely the music that conjures up images in your head.
You work in a wide range of media. As well as making video and sound works, you have set up installation works that make architectural interventions, such as Cross Section and Fish, Bird, Deer, Bear. Can you tell me a bit about the ideas behind these works?
Well first and foremost my work always comes down to the idea of composition. I started composing music at a very young age, then I started writing and finally I studied cinema at film school. Even when I make work now, I always return this process of sequencing things, editing things and creating narrative compositions. As well as dealing with architecture, these two pieces respond to the issue of how you would edit a movie. To a certain degree buildings have a similarity to cinema: for example, a lot of films start with what is called an establishing shot, so that you know where you are. It is much the same with buildings, these tend to start with and overview — an entrance — and then lead one into smaller parts, rooms, hallways and so on. In film, the camera starts from the outside and then moves through a passage, then through a door and so on.
Architectural space always has a desire to tell a story; maybe it’s not so explicit, but it’s definitely implicit. With a piece like Fish, Bird, Deer, Bear, I’m taking architectural interventions back to a simple childhood principle by which a cut-out continues throughout a book, increasing in size, but in fact it all fits together. Imagine a book with a boy on the cover and he’s holding a red balloon, but the balloon is a cut-out that extends through all the pages to the inside back cover, which is red. It interests me to see how a monochrome, completely red room could become these concrete shapes and images. But at the same time it’s a strange conceptual joke within contemporary art where people seldom make use methods as simple as those of a children’s book.
These architectural works inevitably recall the work of Gordon Matta-Clark. Does that comparison have any relevance to you?
Yes, surely, with Cross Section it does. It doesn’t have so much relevance to Fish, Bird, Deer, Bear, because that’s also a reflection on contemporary art and art theory by deciding to use the most primitive images that humans have replicated over history; it’s almost about the idea of cave paintings… but that’s another story.
With Cross Section, it’s definitely a cross-reference to Matta-Clark, however the challenge I found with this particular piece is that I tried to do the opposite of Matta-Clark. Whereas he goes to a building and cuts through it, I started with the cuts and built around it. The idea of a cross-section in industrial design and architecture is to give the spectator a plan that shows them the inside of something while they are looking at the outside. But the interesting thing about that is that you would never build a cross-section, and yet we have these images and there is a fascination for me to see everything at once. The installation Cross Section has this: it doesn’t matter where you are or at what point you are at inside the installation, you always have visual access to every layer of it, including its building materials. You have the continuous possibility of being everywhere at the same time, which is different from Matta-Clark. My work is a cross-section realized as an architectural proposition and then the cross-section functions as a sort of window, offering the possibility to see through things.
Highlight (Plan B), a work entirely made out of periscopes, is also about offering people the chance to see through things. What led you to make this work?
This work also relates to the issues of cinema, music and dramatic compositions — themes that are very important to my work — but on the other hand I am also interested in the point where we start to distance ourselves from the things that we deal with on a daily basis. For example, you and I both know how to operate a telephone, and we both know how to read a clock, but neither of us are likely to know how the clock’s mechanisms actually work or how a telephone functions. The area between where we understand what’s going on and something that is beyond our understanding is where I like to work. When something is at once magic and recognizable, the spectator becomes aware of his or her cognitive codes and conditions. For example, the Fish, Bird, Deer, Bear piece works with an elementary principle that is neither magical nor evident. In a way it’s a dilemma and such phenomena is on the border of what we understand but still tends to estrange us.
With Highlight (Plan B), I worked with the principle of a periscope. The periscope was invented during the Renaissance; it’s of the same era as the telescope and microscope and it represents a moment when humans started to look in further detail at the world around them. The periscope enables us to look around a corner: a strange experience in which you are using a mechanism of mirrors to look straight ahead at something that you know you can’t see otherwise. Highlight (Plan B) does exactly that: it’s basically twelve periscopes of differing heights; if you look through the lower periscopes you will see something higher and vice versa. It makes the border between what you do and don’t understand very apparent, recalling one’s early understanding of physics. At the same time, framing part of reality evokes a sense of drama, much like the camera image evokes a sensation of what is in and what is out of frame.
Do you make conscious distinctions about how you make work in each of the different media you use? In what ways do they each work differently for you?
When an artist starts out it’s very much about trying to find a specific vocabulary or a sort of signature style. In our time we’re part of an instant society in which we want today’s efforts to be success of tomorrow. From a commercial point of view it can be good to have a kind of clearly recognizable style, but people sometimes make the mistake of thinking that by repeating a certain kind of form or a certain kind of theme several times then that’s when they will create their own kind of brand or signature style. By contrast, I think that if you let go of the desire to have everything instantly determined, and you give things some time, you will see that works start to contextualize themselves. Creating a signature style is not so much done by repetition or by keeping a tight frame on what you are talking about, but in fact by letting it grow and have a measure of dynamic development.
To answer your question, if you look at various pieces I have made, you can see them as totally different pieces of art, but equally you can see with the video work A Man of Action Returns at Wako Works of Art that it’s about a pantomime, about the illusion of the possibility of doing a pantomime of a magic trick. How can you produce a rabbit out of a hat if you have neither a rabbit nor a hat? You find the idea of pantomime in my earlier works in which I use light. In 1999 I built an installation called How to Act, consisting of fifty colored spotlights programmed to mimic a cinematic edit onto an audible soundtrack. As such the installation was much like the image one sees when looking at houses by night, where the light of TV sets lights up the spaces from the inside. To me it is like a film in mime, since the sound and the light together evoke images and illusions. Even a piece like Fish, Bird, Deer, Bear relies strongly on the idea of putting two things together that are impossible and then letting them constitute each other as something solid in one’s imagination.
So what you’re saying is that you have a conceptual and thematic signature rather than a formal one?
Yes, that’s right. However, even on a formal level there are pieces I made years ago that I could well imagine being made again in a different form, but they would have a different narrative. It isn’t impossible to look at my art from the point of view that the media as quite consistent.
The works on show at Wako Works of Art are some of your more conceptual pieces. Particularly with the A Man of Action Returns, for a viewer who sees the work not knowing that it’s portraying a man performing a pantomime of a magic trick, it could be interpreted just as a man dancing in an empty space. Do you mind if people approach your work without knowing your intention?
With A Man of Action Returns, I would explain to somebody that there’s the impossibility of miming a magic trick. But even if you don’t know this, it’s clear that what’s happening in the video is not any old traditional dance, it’s not Tai Chi and it’s not a drunkard standing on a mountain. I think the meaning is implicit in this work in the sound piece also.
But your question does highlight one of the problems with contemporary conceptual art that it’s only to be understood and appreciated if you know something about art. I desire quite accessible art — definitely not superficial art — but I want it to be accessible just like music. I can enjoy a song just for its melody while somebody else might like it for the particular rhythm it’s being played in and somebody else might be into how the harmonies are played; people’s understanding of the complexity of a piece of music may vary, but it doesn’t mean that people can’t enjoy it equally.
That video work definitely requires that the viewer think. There’s a lot of art out there that is very easy to look at without questioning about it and without questioning your own role as the viewer and what bearing that may have on the work. I think that that can be a big problem with the way in which people end up perceiving art: it’s a vicious circle in which people are often too quick to criticize art and call it pretentious or dismiss it as ‘bad’ art when actually often they are responsible for the breakdown in visual communication because they haven’t made enough effort to understand what they are looking at. It’s akin to dismissing an Italian opera as pretentious just because you don’t speak good enough Italian and you weren’t paying enough attention during the performance. Do you have an opinion about the role of the viewer?
It’s very difficult to say. Art has inconspicuously moved into the realm of the mainstream; before that music went that way, as did cinema and it didn’t do cinema much good. The dominant American film industry hasn’t really made cinema any more interesting since it turned it into such a mainstream art form. So you have to ask yourself if it’s a good thing that art has become such a mainstream form of expression.
Before I became an artist, I would say, “if it doesn’t speak to me, it doesn’t work”. Now, of course, I see more works by the same artists and I have become able to see how a work by an artist relates to what he or she has produced before. Hence, you become one of those people who know about the artist’s intentions and background and you can learn to appreciate it. Do we really want ‘good’ art to be immediately recognizable? Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis’ records are regarded as good music — we understand it – but there’s a thin, blurry line there: many people like Miles Davis and yet a ‘real’ jazz lover might say that nobody can appreciate him without knowing anything about jazz. The question is, where’s that line?
I think that’s exactly the problem. There are no lines, so that can frustrates some people. So talking a bit about your video and later about public art and public space, one of the videos that struck me as relating to both of those fields is SEEN, projected onto the side of a building and using images inspired by Jacques Tati. Can you tell me how that project came about?
I was invited by a curator who I had worked with before who was recently appointed to be the new director of the Bonniers Konsthall art space in Stockholm, a newly-built museum without a collection. I wasn’t asked to make something for the interior of the building, but actually for the outside. When I visited the building, I immediately thought of this scene from Tati’s 1967 film Play Time, in which suddenly you’re looking into the apartment of a family and they’re watching a boxing match on TV. The TV is set into the wall and on the other side of that wall is another family with a TV set inside of the same wall and the families on both sides of this wall seem to be watching each other. So it’s a moment when those who are observing become the observed and vice versa: one of those moments in cinema when all of a sudden you become very aware of your position as a spectator and yet you also feel observed. I think that’s another example of the border between where we understand things and where things become magic or illusion.
So this scene came to mind because this building would soon open as a kind of institute for watching and I thought it would be interesting to use this technique to set up a similar situation to the one that Tati depicted and try to evoke that sensation in passers-by. There were six projections, each set to the exact dimensions of the windows so that projected onto the building from sundown until sunrise, it appeared as though you were able to see inside. I was also playing with the idea of not being able to enter the building and yet still having a view inside that was in fact an illusion.
Do you view it as an autonomous video work or do you see it as a public artwork? It seems to tread both territories…
It’s difficult to say because it was only earlier this year that I made it. I must say I was a little bit disappointed when I saw the rushes, because I had hoped it would surpass the site-specific and at that particular moment I felt it wasn’t going to. However, works continue to grow, so it could be that my understanding of this piece will change over time and end up relating to another work of mine or to somebody else’s art piece. Perhaps in the future if there were a group exhibition about the concept of observing and being observed and they wanted it to be shown there, then yes, it would make sense. So in short, it was a site-specific artwork and still is, but who knows, what it could be in a few years.
What was the inspiration for your work All Wrong, in which you made a video entirely out of images taken from the internet. It seems different, more about concepts of virtual space, online information and issues about the appropriation of images.
I can see why you would think that it’s different. People often think of it as a new media kind of work, that it must be different from ready made-sculptures or paintings.
It seems almost like open-source artwork.
Basically, it’s the same as Hip-Hop or other sequence-based music. In 1986, Public Enemy made Yo! Bum rush the show, a hit album for which none of them even touched an instrument; they had sampled everything from the likes of James Brown and George Clinton. That was a moment when music started to exist as appropriated reproduction. Now we’re coming to an age in which it’s becoming possible to do this with visual media. You can have a story with anything in it: I can have George Clooney in my film, so long as I can grab a clip from somewhere and use it.
All Wrong was one half of a two-part project: All Right and All Wrong, two films that tried to raise the question of how can one make a film without a cameraman, without a crew and yet have everything a film has. It’s a form of open source, but it’s much more about attitude than any media fascination. It’s this attitude that led to the sampling of music: it wasn’t some conceptual desire to bring together a variety of musicians and create something new, it was about the attitude of taking something and adulterating it for your own purposes.
Talking of adulterating something for your own purposes, this is an issue that can relate to public art and space. There are issues surrounding how you define exactly what public art and public space really are. For example, what’s the difference between public art and graffiti? One has been criminalized and yet the other hasn’t. Do you think public art relates to the issue of ownership? If the definition of ‘public’ art were to be that all members of the public own it, then shouldn’t that mean they can do whatever they want with it, including damage it without fear of arrest?
If you question the idea of public art, then you should question how it functions within the idea of democracy and how it functions within a dictatorship. Public art in dictatorships is always a kind of advertisement for the ideas and the image of the dictator, whereas public art within a democracy always pertains to be an art form resulting from the specific desire to have an artwork placed somewhere and a selection of what would be most appropriate; there is a public demand for it and this is not the case with graffiti. In Germany, if the majority of the community does not like the sculpture, then it will be taken away, and if nobody understands that it’s art then it will be damaged. For it to be public art, it requires that people understand that it’s art and except it, whereas in a gallery or a museum, you don’t have to understand it or accept it.
I recognize that there’s the ideology of democracy attached to public art and that it’s not going to please everyone but as long as it pleases the majority or the majority isn’t bothered by it, then it’s considered to be acceptable. So perhaps it was a bit excessive to talk of having the right to damage the artwork as a condition for it being in the public realm, but in reality, whether people approve of the artwork or not, the majority of people is not even allowed to touch it. Public artwork is often accompanied by a sign telling you not to touch, particularly in Japan. And so that raises whole questions about where public art work is situated: for example, art placed outside banks gives the illusion that it’s public art in public space when in fact it’s private art on private property.
In most European countries, anything that is built with government money needs to have a certain percentage of its total budget spent on art or culture in general, about one or two percent. When a new stadium was built in Belgium and more than half of it was paid for by the government, then they had to incorporate murals or light installations and so on. This is real public space — libraries, schools, highways, roundabouts, stadiums — these are places you don’t have to be a member of to enter. You may have to buy a ticket to get in but you don’t have to be from a specific kind of group in order to go in, except maybe if you’re a child you need to be accompanied by an adult.
A collector like Donald Trump can decide to put one of his sculptures outside his building, especially if he owns the street, but that doesn’t make it public art. You can say it’s in the ‘public’ space because you can see it but then that doesn’t make a window in a museum a public space.
As an artist who makes works that go in the public realm, do you have a particular approach or ideal about how to make this kind of work?
One of the rules I have is that I try to accept jobs that allow me to make work that I can recognize as mine; if that can’t be realized then most probably I won’t do it. I do have to admit that I also make public art for economic reasons: it makes good money.
Lastly, what are your upcoming projects?
I’m in the process of preparing a 240 page book about my installation work, which is very exciting. I have a show at the Museum van Loon in Amsterdam, a show called Being in Brussels at the Argos in Brussels, as well as some other shows lined up. I’ll be going to the Frieze Art Fair in London to show some work and I’ll also be starting work on a solo exhibition to be held at the Bloomberg Space in London, beginning on the 13th January. It’s like being a musician on tour: you go through an intensely active, busy period and then you have time off for two months. This is the busy period.
To see Gabriel Lester’s homepage, click here.
To read the interview with Jordan Wolfson, click here.
To read the interview with the show’s curator, Yukie Kamiya, click here.