Grace Ndiritu Artist Talk 6.15.16
Deb Klowden Mann: Thank you so much for coming on a Saturday, it’s nice and beautiful outside. I’m so excited to show this body of work, and honored to be working with Grace and to have the chance to introduce her to Los Angeles. Grace has an extraordinary exhibition history, but Grace, I feel like this is your first solo commercial show?
Grace Ndiritu: Well I did one, but it was a smaller gallery in Madrid, 2007. The gallery actually closed down, not because of me [laughs] I had nothing to do with that. We went to ARCO. I was showing videos so this is the first gallery show with painting properly in a commercial space.
DKM: Those of you who have attended our talks in the past know that usually I do this a little bit more informally—I like to start by talking about the show we are exhibiting and let everybody jump in as we go along when they have comments and questions. But this time I’m actually going to shift it up a little bit, and thought it would be fun to do a more linear history of Grace’s work within the context of a very nonlinear exhibition [laughs]……… So we’re definitely going to have more time for
questions at the end, but this is going to start out as a dialogue between Grace and I. We will go back and forth for a while, which should be fun as Grace is one of my favorite people to talk with, and I’m excited to get to do that.
So, looking at this body of work, I think one of the reasons I wanted to go back and begin with where you started in your practice is because I see this particular exhibition as continuing so many different overlapping themes that you’ve been working on since you first started out. Can you please talk a little bit for us about that?
GN: Ok so I was in textile art, I was studying in Winchester so the textile art department was not in the fine art department, it was in the fashion design department, but during my course while I was there, I basically started making secret videos and printing on bags and I basically wasn’t doing the curriculum. I was making work, but I wasn’t following the rules and about two weeks before graduation, the examiners came and said, “Oh we’re not sure we’re going to let you graduate because you haven’t fulfilled,” but then one of the tutors was like, “No she has to graduate this is good work even if it’s not fitting.” So I got my degree. Two weeks before my degree.
DKM: Did you get any feedback as you were going along?
GN: No, they were like, ‘do what you’re doing, carry on’ and so I carried on and during that period, I did a small exchange in Amsterdam. I did a four month period in the art school there, and then I went back to England, and so when I graduated I decided to go to De Ateliers, and this was the same school in Amsterdam many years ago. So in this school you were allowed to do whatever you want, basically and so I started really working on videos and traditionally it was a painting school, but I wasn’t a painter back then so I was making little sets and filming things and typing things, very experimental. It wasn’t until I really left then I felt like I found my only category because when I left I really got into a lot of esoteric things so I went to India. A couple of times I started doing yoga, I went to a guru, I was meditating all the time and that kind of got me into performance was actually doing the spiritual stuff. I was looking at artists like Bruce Nauman, Ana Mendieta and Marina Ambramovic and Land Art. So not from California, you know, so that’s how I actually got into performance.
DKM: So it was through the sort of personal practice?
GN: Yeah, it was spiritual because I was really into this idea of transmitting different states of being. So using the camera as like a blank canvas and kind of in my early works what I would do was I would go into trance and I would do the performance and I would kind of transmit positivity or energy through the medium of video because I was very interested in how advertisements and the news they kind of would have a cultural fear and they would do the opposite, they would transmit negativity and they rile people up and so I interested in how you can use video in a blank way and so that’s what it’s like to bring all my practices together. I would put the textiles in, my collection of music that I was collecting of African world music, writing and it all went into the video.
DKM: Do you feel like the first pieces that people, or at least the forces—the powers that be—started paying attention to from you were the video pieces?
DKM: And those were textile-based?
GN: Yeah, they were kind of textile-based. I mean I’ve made some early videos and because of the tutors in Ateliers you know they already made me kind of understand that ok maybe I should focus on this medium and so I did, but it was really—I did this one video called The Nightingale, where I brought a piece of fabric and I traveled with it, I bought it in India and I traveled with it because of the dust and things, but then after September 11, I started to think about how racial stereotyping in airports happen, how I can look like so many different people with one piece of fabric. So I made this video, I just made it very simply and then this video kind of took off and then I showed it in Venice and things, and it was good because at that time I had the chance to work in an old church and project it above the altar so then it became like a fresco with the video and stuff and so I’m always very interested in site specific things.
DKM: How did it all take place, in terms of the video and then taking it to the Venice Biennale and the installation at the church… how did that come about?
GN: It was just a very rare coincidence because in Birmingham… So, I kind of grew up between Birmingham and Kenya, and in Birmingham there’s this really good gallery called The Icon Gallery which is like a contemporary art space, and I’d been going there for years when I was a teenager. I went there, and when I finally moved back to England after living in Amsterdam for five years, I just went there. I was quite innocent and I think they had like a talk and I went there and said, “Oh how can I show my video here?” And they said they accept people to submit, because we were using video tapes still then, it wasn’t like it was on the internet back then or anything like that. So I remember I sent my tape in and then they had a meeting and they looked at the tape… Normally they don’t look at things like that or they really just dismiss it, but they looked at it and were like, “Oh wow it’s really good.” So then I came from that, and then I showed in Island and won this prize and then the guy who was running the prize in Island, he had this space called Nuova Icona—so ‘new icon’ in Venice—and so the two icons came together and they made the show.
DKM: So they were totally separate Icons? [laughs]
GN: Yeah totally separate icons, they came together and made the show.
DKM: And you were specifically playing with things that were iconic?
GN: Oh no, not like that, it was just quite a funny thing that happened. And then after that I moved to London and I was there for like 6 years, 7 years, and I did a residency there. That’s how I moved to London, because it’s quite difficult as an artist to move to London without anything, it’s expensive and stuff as we know. So I managed to get some grants and some money to move there, so that was really good, and also I got to know the London art scene like the YBAs and all of that kind of history. My work didn’t really fit in and so I was always caught between the two politics of people saying things like ‘oh you’re not British enough’ and it was like ‘you’re not African enough’, just being in this weird middle zone. So that continued for years when I’d do things in England I felt a little bit out of it, and I’d do shows in Africa and felt out of it, and there was no way.., But I feel like in America I’m more weirdly accepted, you know.
DKM: That’s interesting.
GN: There’s more spaces you know, more in between the two, here. I’m an inbetweener so…
DKM: I wanted to ask about… one of the things you’ve already talked about a bit, is looking at these themes of shamanism and spirituality and politics very clearly in your work. I feel like, in my perception and experience, those are all subjects that the art world in general has a difficult time with. Just like with overt politics, it seems to me that overt references to spirituality really enter into the space of something that makes people, or the powers that be, uncomfortable. But also, in the same way, I think that your work refuses to let people know how to categorize it, or how to look at it using the more objective language and vocabulary that contemporary art finds the most comfortable. How do you navigate that? Do you feel like those challenges are something to be navigated, or have you just found your own space and decided to keep pushing it?
GN: No, I mean my work was always political even when I was doing the textile art, I came up with this questionnaire where all the norms are kind of inverted, so the questionnaire was like homosexual, bisexual, other. If you’re a white, straight man, you’re ‘other’ in the questionnaire. So I was doing that kind of stuff when I was young, but I grew up with my mom she was like an activist and a feminist and so it was very normal to be political and have that kind of conversation. But actually, studying in Holland is very design-based as a culture, so I find it difficult to make political art there, to be honest. So that’s why I moved to London because I thought it would be easier and there are political problems—actually there are more problems to do with spirituality there—and so I let it come to life in many years. Not purposely, but it seemed like people didn’t take me seriously when I would say ‘I’m interested in yoga or meditation and I’m an artist’. I felt like I would have to choose and people would be like, ‘Ok we like that part, but we don’t like that part of it,’ which is really offensive, but that’s why I like LA because it seems like you can be anything here. You can have a gallery, and also have it be a yoga school.
DKM: We were just talking about somebody wonderful in LA who has that sort of thing, they have a sound bath, and studio, and gallery. It does seem like there’s more of that space. Grace and I actually met at an art fair in Houston which is not necessarily the traditional place to form long lasting relationships and connections, I don’t know how many of you have been to art fairs and whether or not you agree [laughs], but much of that experience is a little bit more surface oriented. Grace actually came over to my booth where I was showing Debra [Scacco]’s work, who is here today, and I feel like we started talking about Debra’s work and then went into a 45 minute conversation about feminism and shamanism and experimental writing and it was great… And then we got to the point where I was like, “Hey are you an artist?” and she was like, “Yes, are you the gallerist?” [laughs] What I kind of loved about that was getting to know you before I had even seen your work.
GN: Exactly. I feel like that’s important. I feel like a lot of the time, people if they just meet you, they like to see a small sliver, but if they just see your work, they see a smaller part of you, than if they knew you… because I’ve had so many different experiences. With myself as an artist I really believe in living, not just reading about things, but actually doing things, so I think that helps. Even with the shamanism thing, I’d had many experiences when I was young, but I hadn’t really thought about them until I started training in it when I was in Amsterdam. They just came together and that was kind of my access point, bringing let’s say more esoteric things into the artwork. It was actually because shamanism is kind of acceptable, because it’s a study from anthropology and anthropology is about humanity. So I feel like being in the art world when I say ‘shamanism’ they’re like ‘oh it’s more’ whereas if I go on more about yoga, they’re like, ‘uh’, you know what I mean?
DKM: Kind of like creating the academic context for this sort of non-objectivity thing?
GN: Exactly, but it’s not something that I do to be cool or fashionable, I actually believe in it. I think that’s the other thing, I don’t reference things that I’m not actually interested in or generally interested in.
DKM: When was the first time that you did a performance that integrated the shamanism training with your work?
GN: Well the first performance I did was in 2013 and it was a two-night performance, and I always do things a bit ridiculous. The first performance was in Paris and it was in the Pompidou, so it was like a lot of pressure. One night was in this museum called The Museum of Hunting and Nature and it’s a small museum, it’s like a little palace and has all these dead animals, these stuffed animals and guns and things, but it looks like Versailles. It’s like beautiful and regal and everything. So that night I did a shamanic performance where I brought twenty people to go on a journey to connect with the animal spirits, and kind of release the animals that were in the building, and I was really excited because a lot of these people have never done anything like that. They were mostly art people at that time. There was one woman who… if you’ve ever heard of anything about shamanism, there was this guy from like Harlem in the 60’s that came up with this methodology about shamanism, and one of his main students was there, and she did [the journey] and I knew who she was and afterwards found out that she really liked it. So it was really exciting to bring those worlds together. Then the second night, I did a trance possession in the Pompidou and that was very interesting because I had been training about transpossession—how to let a spirit in—and the most important is how to get rid of it, because you don’t want it there all the time. So to understand that… and I showed videos of some of my work and some in the collection and then I actually channeled, funny enough, I channeled Patti Smith, who’s alive.
DKM: Can you channel her later so I can talk to her [laughs]?
GN: But it’s weird, I actually sounded like her, like in this American voice and then I channeled Jim Morrison, but I sounded in this operatic voice so it was like [laughs] a really bizarre thing. I also did Black Elk who was a Native American like 19th century. So I had these three kind of voices that came through and then in between the films.
DKM: Were they private events or…?
GN: No it was like 70 people there, so it was fun.
DKM: I wanted to talk about the shamanism in part because I think there’s so much depth to your work that feels like it comes from there.
DKM: And I feel like in this body of work has been— you’ve been working with A Quest For Meaning. This is the seventh iteration of Grace’s A Quest For Meaning series. This one is called Bright Young Things, which I love and we need to talk about it, but you started the series in about 2014, is that right or you started earlier than that?
GN: No I started in 2010, because basically it’s an encyclopedia about how I began and I got all these categories, but the original idea came out of a shamanic journey. So in shamanism, the shaman believes in the lower, middle and upper world. So briefly, the lower world is like a place that you go to heal physical problems, emotions, relationships and it’s to do with nature. Then the middle world is like this world, so you can go to CVS, or you can go to Trader Joe’s in the middle world, but there can be like one thing that’s wrong: there’d be a talking dog or the gravity will be upside down, this interception. In the upper world is where you connect to all the star systems, and it’s like an overview of the world and so like birds, anything that’s higher, let’s say. So I was talking to the upper world and showing that it looks like actual bodies very far away and very close and it was like a zoo in action, and it kind of reminded me of how the camera sees the world, and so all these different fragments of still fragments. And that’s how idea of the constellation began. And so this is also why I don’t put any labels on the exhibition, because I kind of want people to have these different thoughts and history and iconography and to make up the story themselves, so that it is connecting still to the nonlinear time. Kind of like a holistic way of thinking rather than like prescribed and dogmatic way.
DKM: That makes sense to me, and I don’t know if we’ve talked about this but I felt really drawn to this work before I knew any of the background. Just from images, before I had talked to you about the specific body of work. And one of the things I had been obsessed with in my studies was looking at the way sort of Cartesian linear thinking as the dominant mode of thought shifted things in relation to the way women are perceived, and the way in which anything intuitive or holistic is understood. And so you’re coming in with this nonlinear way of doing history, and forcing it to be a much more embodied experience, where you don’t get to apply labels to what you’re seeing.
GN: Yeah, I mean in a lot of my video work, I was very interested in the gaze. So I would give the camera the gaze, like I did this video called Desert Storm. I gave the camera the male gaze and I would lay down and I would perform, I was in trace and I would perform in front of the camera. In the video basically it’s sepia and you would see me lying down on a piece of muslin cloth and then at the bottom there are these countries being listed, and all these countries are countries where rape is being used as a weapon in a conflict. But my body movements are really ambiguous, because you can’t tell if I am being pulled off camera, or if I’m actually dancing. And you know, if I have my own remote control. The reason why I did it was that it was inspired by Operation Desert Storm, so I was really interested in how most of the journalists and most of the photographers were male journalists. I wanted to find a way to get a female perspective, but not in a cliche way.
So that’s one way of doing it, but there’s also this kind of non-rational, I call it non-rational methodologies and they’re all about healing the museum so I have it subtitled to a lot of my performances, it’s called Healing the Museum or Birth of a New Museum. So the idea is that the museum is dying and it’s like a space that needs to be reactivated by new ages because it’s so disconnected with what’s going on outside of the museum. It doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s going on. Until more recently, there was more political work again in the museum, but it was always quite disconnected. I really enjoyed bringing in people who don’t normally go to museums into those spaces as well. So trying to open up audiences, but doing it through an energetic way.
DKM: How does that idea of shifting the gaze and also sort of challenging the institutional way we think about things… How does that relate to…
GN: Oh to this [laughs]. Ok so critical meaning—basically it’s a utopian idea because I’m trying to document everything from the Big Bang. So from the beginning of the universe until now. So obviously that’s an impossibility so I was really drawn to how in the history of encyclopedias, there were certain people who have done this kind of thing like Gerhard Richer he has his encyclopedia and also Aby Warburg, who was also done stories of the Victorian age, but the great thing about Aby Warburg he was a German guy living in London who made his own encyclopedia about art history. He actually became initiated into the Hopi religion, so he became a shaman and yet in Western culture people thought he was schizophrenic and he was put into a mental hospital. So there was like this balance of who’s correct in that way, and he was a very intelligent man and if you look at his works, they’re amazing. I was really interested in also this is a very rational way of collecting images, but I’m also interested in Einstein’s theory of everything and how it was a failure because it was impossible to have a theory about everything. But A Quest For Meaning is kind of like in that way thinking about the universe, and so I have these different volumes and they’re always different. One time I did it in a warehouse in Buenos Aires and it was like an artist’s project space and so they didn’t have any budget, so I used photocopies of images and so I had stacks of photocopies from the archive, and then I actually threw a rave. [laughs] I actually had a rave in the warehouse for the opening, so in the daytime you’d come to the warehouse and you’d see these piles of photocopies, and then I had these gestures of rave, these small interventions within the warehouse, but at nighttime it would actually be a rave and I’d hire a DJ/VJ, and so he’d play like trance music—so there’s two types of trance happening. It’s trance in terms of shamanic, indigenous trance, but there’s also like rave trance. And I’m also really interested in new age culture, basically the western fascination with new age and finding your roots, and you know… I’ve been to places like Burning Man and seen that, and I’m also with the way I was brought up as well was quite a bit hippie, so I have a weird mix between things. So I’m like that kind of double meaning of trance.
DKM: It’s always kind of interesting to me how the Western attempt to go back to understanding the roots of ritual so quickly becomes usually mainstream and commercial.
GN: Yeah because all those advertisers they just go there, but I feel like for example we did a volume in the art fair last year at Paris Photo LA. So in the presentation, I graffitied in the art fair Generation 00. Generation 00 is like this idea with a new generation, like art ravers, so like they’re meant to usurp the idea of an art machine. So, I do it in funny ways like that with smiley faces, but taking them out of context.
DKM: And you used the Generation 00 again in your show. Grace had a show this fall at the Reid Gallery at the Glasgow School of Art, and you used that as the outside sort of invitation that you could see from the street. There are great photographs of people walking down the street in Glasgow, and they’re walking by this bright fluorescent paint in orange lettering of the Generation 00.
GN: Yeah and that was funny because that was an art school, and so it’s interesting to see how conservative art schools really are when you’re just about making money and then it’s so depressing. I mean, maybe it’s like that here all the time because you have to pay for education, it’s changed. The UK’s changed ever since you have to pay, so there’s all these people who work at the art school who don’t know anything about art, but they’re just like middle managers. It’s really so depressing and to even get the permission to graffiti in the school. The Glasgow Art School used to be in the Mackintosh building which was like 200 years old and that got burnt down accidentally by a student, basically the projector caught on fire with a can of expanding foam during the degree show and burnt everything down, the whole building. Because it was all wood panels and the roof and everything was gone and so they invited me to do a performance in the burnt out building and then I was going to bring the building back to life and connecting with the Egyptian god Osiris, and it was a really powerful performance. With the performances people really do see things, so like people see dead relatives or things they hadn’t seen since childhood. One girl, she saw Mackintosh, the architect. Also some things happened, it’s a very safe space, but it’s very powerful to cleanse the building. Now they’re rebuilding it and it’s going to reopen in 2020. Opposite of the Mackintosh building is the Reid building which is like a new glass…
DKM: Much more kind of corporate.
GN: Yeah corporate building. [laughs] Luckily they opened it three weeks before the old one burned down. Because otherwise if they didn’t have that building, they wouldn’t have anything. But what’s funny, out of that fire, all the students that lost their work, their three years of work, they were actually given the opportunity to do residencies around the world so they were paid to. So people would say yeah I want to go there and they were sent off. So that was like a very interesting thing that happened out of it.
DKM: In that show, I know the way that you engaged with the space was also very transformative. I’d love to have you talk a little bit about why where you interested in engaging in that kind of transformation and also why the show here is called Bright Young Things.
GN: Ok So Bright Young Things, they are actually the name I use for all these squares. I call them squares even though it’s rectangles. I’ve used them before. For this show, I decided to make it much more immersive and I’m very interested in the line between design, art and interiors. I’m trying to play with that, but without losing the depth because in an exhibition, two subtexts go on. One is using painting as a medium of photography, which you can see in some works that are more like paintings, and were paintings and turned into photos, and then I’ve printed them again like paintings because they’re printed on canvas. Then the other subtext is to do with colonialism and the relationship between Europe and Africa. So start of the relationship, that’s also affecting today’s relationship, and you can see in the piece that cartoon up there. This is a cartoon from 1910. It’s a chess game between Arab Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. So this has to do with migration, not just from Syria, but from West Africa to Europe and the problematics with that. I went to Morocco when I went on a residency for 5 weeks, and I traveled alone and I had difficulties. I mean you know Morocco’s a democracy and it’s much more up-to-date or whatever, but there were some problems where I would get hassled just for being a woman, and I would get hassled just being black and being from Sub-Saharan Africa, and people thinking I was a refugee from Syria trying to get to Spain. People would ask me for my passport all the time—police, and then I even got thrown out of a bank,… some really terrible things happened. It’s funny because it was in this area, which is the Rif which is in the north of Morocco. So you if you’re in Spain you can probably see the Rif, and this is where this war called the Rif war in Spain and Morocco happened in 1910-1920’s. And this map here, and some of the more secret ones I’ve found in archives in Morocco, so I either photograph the photograph itself or they photograph them, because some of them are on glass plates. Also, I’m using this mix of film photography and digital photography. The two [black and white and color] trees, for instance. They’re not photoshopped. It’s literally film, so I would just stay very still and change the canister of film to get the new image.
DKM: So you would go from color to black and white and just switched the canisters?
GN: Yeah I think I did it in black and white first [laughs] if I remember correctly. I think I did. And then there’s a history within that, there’s also the story of modernism up there. This is Le Corbusier’s bed, the French architect, and it’s his apartment in Paris, and I went there and took that photo. It’s a funny photo because the bed is really high, and you have to get on steps to get in it, and so there’s these different voices within— even this picture down here, this is the painting Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix, so again we got the history.
DKM: And this is a photograph you took in a museum?
GN: Yes I was doing a residency at the Louvre in Paris and they gave me permission to go to the Louvre when it was closed so I could see things and take pictures.
Audience member: This is the perfect time to ask this question and I was thinking about it about doing art about shamanism, it’s like a whole thing… and maybe part about design and then politics and colonialism and then photography and the relationship between photography and painting. Do you ever get to the point where you say I can’t push any more mediums of this stuff? Like, do you have any problem with it? You know what I’m saying, it’s like trying to take on too much at once it and not focusing on any one part of that thing.
GN: But I don’t work like that, I’m very intuitive as a person so I make things intuitively and then I’d see, even in the placement.
Audience member: So for a person to find a meaning, they’re not here. You’re making a story out of this that isn’t what you’re exactly trying to tell them.
GN: That’s because there’s not one meaning. There’s not one history. Even though you’re told there is, it’s a history of white men. [laughs] That’s not half of the history.
DKM: I think that is what is really interesting about watching people come in, because I think that not everybody necessarily engages with every dialogue that’s happening in the show, but most people engage in at least one. If somebody is going to ask me a question, the question might be, “Oh is this a painting?” “Oh it’s a film, why is it that? How does that relate to the walls and what does that mean about the hierarchy of mediums that we’re used to?”
Audience member: And design.
Audience member: So design, it’s hyper-designed out with the space.
GN: But remember my background is in textiles and craft.
Audience member: Oh, I missed that.
GN: So and there’s all these ways through hierarchy, between fine art and craft. When I was making videos for the first ten years, I was very interested in this idea of handcrafted videos because I would make everything myself. I would film it, and edit it, sometimes I was in it. So this idea that it was a real labor, and this idea of female labor of craft… you know, versus high production of films where you have a whole team in it, and it becomes an advert like it can be so overly beautiful and mean nothing. So these two things I’m quite aware of in terms of video/film practice, and now it’s coming through into photography, and into even the painting practice, because the painting practice is definitely connected to craft and textiles and fashion.
DKM: And for those of you who haven’t seen that, who haven’t seen the show before, there’s some of the painting works in the back room, along with the video. And there are also definitely some of the works from that series in my office, which that are related to the pieces we showed at Zona Maco in February.
GN: Yeah to decide what type of painter I was because I didn’t study painting so you know painting was the last medium that I came to. I started from video to performance and photography then went into painting. I did it the wrong way back, normally you paint then you go into video, but I felt like I needed to wait to find out what kind of painter I was and so I call my type of painting, Post Hippie Pop Abstraction, because I realized that’s actually what I’m interested in. I’m interested in pop and abstraction. In this show and in my practice in general and I’m interested in modernism and post-modernism because normally let’s say within the contemporary African debate, I would only have to talk about post colonial things, but if I was a white female artist from England, then I could talk about abstraction and modernism quite easily.
Audience member: They look like Helen Frankenthaler, classic modernist paintings, abstract paintings.
GN: So that’s what I’ve tried to do, I’m a mix of African and Western cultures. So I want to talk about both modernism and post-modernism because they have benefits and problems. So I think that opens up the dialogue even more to do with the hierarchy of riches and the intellects voice. I can’t be a modernist painter, so I’ve made my own paintings, but I made them on felt and it’s a mix between felt and industrial paint.
Audience member: Oh that’s felt? Oh.
GN: Yeah that’s the texture, and my choices in materials in for example painters, the textiles are in so much thicker photo papers because they look more like more fabric, so I’m really precise in my choice about texture.
DKM: And I think we sort of touched on this without saying directly before, but everything here is based on a film or photograph that Grace has taken.
GN: Film or digital.
DKM: Film or digital photograph Grace has taken, and this one [Abstract Expressionism, 2014] was actually a much smaller print that you photographed, right?
GN: Yes and I’ve made it modern and that’s also the thing that if it’s bigger, then it’s more important which is part of the whole history of art and even today.
DKM: Since you opened up the idea of simultaneously an African narrative and a Western narrative, and neither being the legitimate voice, but what I love about watching people engage in this with whatever level or whichever dialogue they seem to engage with, there is an understanding I think of being in a slippery space. You know, being in a space where we’re made to question your preconceived ideas—whether it’s related to the photographs, or related to paintings that aren’t necessarily paintings, or are editioned, or originally paintings. I want to relate that with the video that’s in the back. I think a number of you have had a chance to spend some time with it. That video is called Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I love, but it has two different elements going on.
GN: Oh yeah
DKM: I was wondering if you would like to talk about that for a little bit.
GN: Yeah, so that video actually, the reason why I put it in the show was because that kind of sums up the rest of the show. It sums up this installation. Ok so the image in the video is filmed in Ethiopia. I was there in 2010 doing a show and so we had a day off—me and one of the curators—and we decided to go to a town outside of Addis Ababa. We ended up discovering this rock church. This means it was like a church that was made, I don’t know, thousands of years ago and it’s carved into the rock, into the caves so it’s got all the markings of all the rituals that take place, but it’s abandoned so it was covered in forest and greenery. I filmed our discovery while we were there. It was two guys and they showed us everything so I filmed that and I forgot about it I was just like what am I going to do with that? How do I work with that? That sometimes happens, I’ll film something and then I’ll wait many years to use it. Then the soundtrack of the film is— in 2012 I actually left London and I threw my furniture away and I decided to live in all these different communities. So I went to live in a Buddhist community, I lived with Hare Krishnas, I lived with new age communities, I lived in a van, I lived in a forest, like all these things and I was documenting it, but not really. Not on purpose for like a show or anything, just for fun. So the soundtrack is with me and this guy, we were living in a Tibetan monastery. This Tibetan monastery is the biggest monastery outside of Tibet and it’s located in northern Scotland. So we’re living in Scotland in the winter. It’s freezing. There’s no cell reception or nothing, and we live here let’s say in these cottages and the monastery’s here. It takes 40 minutes every day to walk there, but the walking is through these narrow paths and these streams and waterfalls and there’s trees and in the winter it’s so icy you need to wear crampons just to walk to work. One night we’re walking home and we’re talking about all the different star systems and we started having this really like kind of ridiculous conversation about UFOs and new age things and conspiracy theories. I recorded our conversation because it was really funny, it was like a really funny conversation. So what I’ve done is that I’ve overlaid that conversation with the footage from Ethiopia and I’ve also put subtitles. So the video, at points, matches up and at other points, it’s out of sync. So the sound can be out of sync with the image and vice versa, but there were times when it kind of just all comes together. So for example, in the soundtrack, where we’re talking about certain star systems and I’m like, “Oh look at that! Look at that star,” and in the video, the camera is facing like a certain symbol that’s painted in the cave or some sort or architectural feature in this cave, but looks like a star. So sometimes things line up and sometimes they don’t. I really enjoyed that piece because you have three different locations that you would never normally put together. You would never put together Ethiopia, Tibet, and Scotland together and when you’ve got all these different points of history as well. So you’ve got thousands of years ago, you’ve got the Tibetan history of culture and then you’ve got the present day. I think that’s really important, it kind of comes back to this idea that the shaman believes that all the different worlds and realities that he can see that are actually happening now. So we can be having this conversation, but we can also be connected to us 50,000 years ago and that’s really important and I think that video is like a— it’s a funny video because it has some sort of narrative because of the conversation, but it kind of recapitulates with the show.
DKM: I also love that conceptualizing Raiders of the Lost Ark, it also talks about a love affair with very glorified ideas of anthropology and iconography.
GN: Exactly. That’s one of my pet peeves, with iconographers and artists as anthropologists about how we can be anthropologists, but we don’t have any kind of strict— we don’t have to prove anything and how we quote anthropologists.
DKM: And with over there that you guys pointed to, what was that museum?
GN: Oh that’s taken in the Museum of Ethnography in Paris. One of the most terrible museums. It was really controversial when they made it because it’s just so blatantly racist. There’s just no subtlety to it, in fact it had another name and basically there was this massive campaign to change the name of it because it was so offensive as a name.
DKM: I like that they didn’t bother changing the inside or anything.
GN: No just to change the name [laughs] If you go to there, you would be like oh my god because it’s not subtle it’s not like… the best museum of ethnography I’ve ever seen was the one in Mexico actually. That’s amazing. I felt like it was really detailed and in depth and it was kind of like really responsible for what it was showing. A lot of museums they’re just like hmm…
Audience member: One thing is that you’re talking about postmodernism and the work that I was responding to was sort of the de-aestheticized, post modern work with all these kinds of categories and hierarchies, I feel like when I look at these I think that the one that’s the most seductive is the image of a painting. It’s kind of like this saturation of color, but the space itself is so saturated with color, that’s so much like painting responding to that aesthetic. The other thing to be about having relationships is that you have these images here and the little ones and they’re like deliberately different than the other ones, the sepia, the black and white and like small. I get a sense of authority even though like kind of saying no I’m putting this into any hierarchy, you decide for yourself. At least that’s my understanding of your placement. But then it’s like giving us these low and high on the walls and wash of color. Oh I didn’t know you took that I thought this was an image from history so then there’s this authority of where it’s like oh it’s cut out of a book or it was taken from something… So anyways, I’m curious.
GN: But I played with that on purpose. I purposely made— this photo looks vintage, it looks like a historic photo.
Audience member: Do you want to dupe the audience?
GN: It’s not about duping. It’s about undermining so you’re not feeling so safe in your ideas. And then I’ve done this from the beginning even in my video work, the ambiguity. I mean ambiguity is just a natural consequence or thing that happens in my practice. I don’t try to make it ambiguous, it’s just the way it works. The color in terms of the flatness, I agree, that’s an important point because that’s to do to with contemporaneity at this time of making it super-flat rather than decorative. Even though there’s a lot of colors, it’s not what I would say decorative.
Audience member: it pushes me out of storytelling. I feel like I’m left out and pushed out.
GN: Yeah that’s the point because it’s about going in and out. There isn’t a one fixed perspective all the time, you’re not just the person I’m speaking to right now, you’re not that person all the time. It’s like we’re going in and out. Probably two hours ago you felt different or five years ago you felt different. Sometimes you’re in the picture and sometimes you’re out of the picture. I’m very interested in that movement so that’s why even with the colors, it makes it much more now and that’s to do with also the dialogue of contemporary art and now, you know what I mean? A lot of shows and in the last 20 years, I look at the timeline as a painter, you know there is this flatness anyway within color so there’s that aspect. But then these are kind of like— this one for example is like a full stop in the sentence and these two up there is like a conversation between those two. I placed the small ones last actually, not first.
DKM: It’s interesting because in some of the earlier versions, like the one that you did at MACBA it was just on just the white walls?
GN: Yeah it was white and it was just 3 walls.
DKM: It was such a— I mean I only saw it in photos, but it looked like such a strong presentation, but I think that there was with the all white walls more of the desire and ability to just shift into it narratively and feel like you are putting together a story. Exactly what you’re talking about, how you just can’t do or think about—
GN: Exactly because it’s really moving into something else. Because my practice is obviously and changing. When I first started I was just doing walls where I always had the squares in the very beginning.
DKM: So the white walls with the squares?
GN: Yeah, but now it’s becoming the whole aspect. Even the fact of painting this whole section yellow, even the wall that’s not being used, it becomes like a sculpture, the actual architecture.
Audience member: I feel like I’m being brought into some kind of psychology, it’s welcoming on some level and something that’s like enveloping the more I think about it. Then the images for me are like the opposite. I’m like confused then there is feeling of being set off center.
GN: For example I made this video, I think it was called Absolut Native with the Absolut vodka, but in the video I’m dancing and underneath there were like tape, you know Joseph Stiglitz who used to work at the World Bank, and so people project that the dance that I’m doing must be ritual or it has to have a national Geographic connotation. It must be something ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ and yet I could actually just be dancing. So in terms of authenticity especially to do with the idea of Africa with National Geographic and CNN, they all do it, they exoticize it or they demonize it, but they don’t ever show people just going to work on their computers or sitting in traffic like that’s not Africa. It’s either war, genocide, famine, or women lying around half naked. It’s like only those are the only options, you can’t just like be a normal person. So I like to play with that because I think that it’s important.
DKM: That reminded me of this first moment with humility of where I had my first understanding of how history worked, I was probably like 18. And with growing up and going to museums with my mom for a long time, and loved doing it and also feeling comfortable talking about the art and the connections between the artists. And so when I was a freshman in college, a bunch of friends and I were in New York—I don’t remember which museum it was—it was The Met probably, as I remember it being encyclopedic and people started just asking me questions and I was taking everyone on sort of this mini tour. It was great. I was a big nerd, in case anybody wondered if that was a new element of my personality [laughs]. So I was taking everyone on tour, and a friend I had, who was ridiculously smart and a poet and a total pain in the ass, stopped me and was like, “I don’t think that’s actually true. The world doesn’t work like that, like this artist directly influenced this artist who made these things and that this exactly had to do with the political strife that was going on in the country at the time, as opposed to his love affair or her parents dealing with health issues, or any other element.” It was just one of those moments where I was jolted and realized I really needed to go in and rethink my understanding of what history means.
GN: Exactly. I do understand that. I’ve got two funny stories about that. One was when I went back to Morocco after the residency eight months later. I went to do a show in this place called Apartment 22, which is a very small apartment, opposite the constitutional building. So on the constitutional building in front, there’s always protests, and while I was there, there was so many feminist protests. So thousands of women and families walking and marching for women’s rights. So I was really interested in trying to make a connection between what I was doing in the gallery and what was going on outside, and this idea as well as kind of using the window. It was like a balcony, and a window kind of like this idea between public and private information and so that was good because also there was also all these ideas. I didn’t know you can demonstrate or have feminist demonstrations just publicly in they call it in the Maghreb. So like Arab Africa because obviously we’re told like in Iran, women can’t even drive, there’s all these stereotypes about Arab countries. So you wouldn’t think thousands of people would be allowed walking around wearing pink and doing these feminist marches.
And there was also a funny story about The Nightingale, the piece I made with the fabric. After 9/11, it ended up a few years later, actually being in a show in The Met in New York. It was very controversial because in The Met, it’s so politicized about which department was more important, so the African galleries are next to the Greek galleries. So in order to get my video into these African galleries without headphones, the amount of political maneuvering that had to go on because obviously the music in the video would go into the Greek gallery. So there was all these arguments about do we want African music going to all of these perfect Greek sculptures and like what does that mean, is that allowed? But somehow the curator managed to do it and it was like—I don’t know how she managed, but she got them to do it. It was one of the first videos that had ever done that because it wasn’t in the contemporary room because it was in the main collection. It just shows you that even in the museums how much tension there is and how people don’t want to give away power and it’s just like being in the U.N. or any kind of negotiations, but this is about art, so you would think it would be easier?
Audience member: It’s like they want to protect their own version of history.
GN: Yes exactly.
Audience member: It’s like everyone’s got their own perception and that guy said to you well maybe not.
Audience member: About the colors, does that have to do with like spirituality and chakras?
GN: I wouldn’t say, not obviously, I mean I do use things to do with color and chakras in other works, but not in this show. Not particularly in terms of painting. When I do the painted squares – The Bright Young Things— this is also a way to do with the 1920’s when all the flappers they were called bright young things and I liked this kind of aspect of it.
DKM: I had a question about the colors that you chose. How did you choose them though? Was it just design based or did you have a—
GN: No it’s very intuitive. Maybe in a few years time I’ll know why I did it in this particular way, but I just know— it’s like emotion you get a different emotional response to different colors especially different colors on color and also the placement you know, when you come around the corner, you’ve got this yellow painting and that’s connecting to the yellow there and so you see more yellows or like having sepia on peach and then you see the other sepias more so like in that way.
Audience member: It feels kind of like Scandinavian design.
GN: Yeah that’s true as well. When I first made a piece, I designed all these different types of frames, so frames that were like glass like this one, or the hanging frames just with the rod and it was really inspired by Scandinavian furniture from the 1950s. So and the color of— this is bubinga wood. So that’s how it originally came out, the furniture and then it’s changed because it’s grown, the idea of the color. The color palette opens up.
Audience member: Like you said a psychological thing and if this whole room was red, it would have a completely different feel.
GN: Yes, but the thing is you personally are a painter, and a painter, painter. So your understanding of color and my understanding of color, you’re probably like more advanced in understanding color because I’m just coming from textiles and fashion. You know what I mean with like the color theories like Joseph Albers, you know there’s like books and books on color.
Audience member: I don’t think I would seem as advanced as you [laughs]
DKM: Well for me, I feel like the different colors, they make it a much more physical experience.
DKM: And I think there’s something in the way that they work so well, but I also think somehow it’s a little uncomfortable and underlies what you’re talking about.
GN: That’s my work. Yeah because it can look very beautiful and simple, but that can also be uncomfortable and also I’ve also had this idea that the work keeps working so watching with the gallery, the work should carry on working so you might not understand everything you see the first time, but maybe later on, the next day or a month or whenever you’ll make connections. This is the thing about the subliminal, because I’ve worked a lot in like my early video works I was very interested in connecting with the subliminal mind and I’ve studied the hypnotherapy and NLP which is Neuro Linguistic Programming, which is all about the subconscious and subliminal mind so I’m interested in doing that, you know, but not for reasons (negative) like as we would say like the government or advertising, you know the normal…
DKM: We’re not saying a specific…
GN: Right, it’s not about consuming.
DKM: Well I feel like that’s what I like about your work in general, if you’re trying to implant something, it’s not necessarily like a specific aim. You allow it to go to different places…
GN: Yeah exactly. Because you interpret it and make it your own.
DKM: Does anybody else have any questions? Grace, thank you so much.