Tuesday Talks: Paul Chan and Jerry Saltz

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De Selby: Did you get into the Paul Chan lecture? Someone at SVA said they called Columbia and were told only Columbia grad students can attend those lectures.

I forgot that Jerry Saltz was also giving a talk last night. I arrived at the studios just as some fellow students were headed over there. So I went with them. It was good in Jerry’s “I’m-not-gonna-beat-around-the-bush-with-you” way. His thing is this down-to-earth, no bullshit thing. There was nothing revelatory in his talk. He said many of the same things one finds in his writing and that he regularly seems to mention. For example, he said that everyone has a relationship to the art market, and if you are anti-market then that’s your relationship to the market. You can’t escape it. Interestingly Saltz and Tino Sehgal seem to have similar takes on this topic. However, I would be willing to bet Saltz has nothing to say about Sehgal—unless he has actually seen his work (not just read or heard about it). So, Saltz, it seems to me, is all about common sense and trying to maintain a bit of integrity. I think his position is that it’s the dialogue that matters most. He spent much of the lecture just telling us, the artists, what we can expect from him, the critic. He doesn’t write about his friends. He doesn’t collect art. He doesn’t have sex with artists. And, he doesn’t do drugs with them either. Saltz did say he knows critics who do all of these things but he does not judge them for it. His tone was very conversational and, from the outset of his talk, he demanded audience responses. More than once Saltz said he was going to stop talking if he did not soon get a response to whatever question he had thrown at the audience. I took this to be symptomatic of his interest in dialogue. I apologize for forgetting to mention this to you. I am not sure whether the lecture was open to the public or not. The security guards asked to see my student ID when I entered. It was in the same lecture hall as the Donald Kuspit talk.

The Hanger-On: I really got into the Chan talk. It was interesting, and I liked the Q&A at the end, which is always the best part of these kinds of talks. One Columbia grad student called Chan on this lawsuit—I’m not sure if that’s the right word—against him for stealing a Northwestern University grad student’s work and making it his own (and exhibiting it at least twice, including the Serpentine Gallery in London). Of course MFA students with impending studio visits should be worried. I can explain this in detail later.

The Jerry Saltz Experience sometimes runs on autopilot. His reviews are great to read—I try not to miss them. But he tends to repeat himself about the market, about criticism, etc. It’s good to stick to your guns, but if you read or hear him talk more than once, you’ll end up hearing the same thing. At the same time, though, it’s important for him to keep saying what needs to be said, for example, about women artists being vastly underrepresented. The fact is—as has been the case for decades—the work of women artists is just as good as that of men. Isn’t this a no-brainer? The power structures of the art world are still holding onto (implicit) sexist views.

In the recent CAA News interview, Saltz talks about artists and friends differently. He’s not as harsh. In the interview, he says that it’s difficult to maintain a friendship after he writes (sometimes negatively) about that artist, but it’s usually the artist who gets upset. Which is understandable. If someone trashes you in print, do you want to still be friends with that person? Can you? It’s awkward. But it’s not personal. About not getting responses: yes, it’s hard to get the Q&A session started, but it always happens. Remember João Ribas’s talk in the fall, the one that lasted three-and-a-half hours? By not doing drugs at the after party with artists, Saltz establishes himself as an independent, interesting character who is cool because he isn’t trying to be cool—it’s an act in the same way everyone poses. But at the same time it’s not an act: his passion for art is totally genuine.

De Selby: Yeah, I mentioned Saltz’s market comments as an example of one of his usual routines. Not having seen him talk before, I find it refreshing. But, you are right, he does have a consistent position on certain issues. This is different than what we are talking about, but I noticed recently that Saltz used the same Charline von Heyl quote he had used in one of his November 2006 columns. It caught my attention not because of the repetition but because the first column I saw it in was of special interest to me. My sense about Saltz as a person is that he simply likes people, finds all sorts of people interesting, and really enjoys conversation and dialogue. Many of the things he said at the talk (and says regularly) seem to have to do with the perils of being a critic. I like his openness about this sort of stuff. One of Saltz’s big messages, which is probably common sense, but nonetheless seems to require regularly repeating, is that we can rise above. We can certainly imagine a situation in which a person, say, a critic, might very much like another person, say an artist, enjoy their intelligence and conversation and yet dislike their art. And let us not forget the corollary fact that one body of work or a single show is not normally what constitutes an entire career. I think it bothers Saltz that people, and not just the artists, often take his criticisms so personally (see pieces such as “Looking Back” and “Learning on the Job” which are both in Seeing Out Loud). I think he would like it to be a part of the larger dialogue.

I do not know about the Chan lawsuit. I want to hear more about it.

The Hanger-On: I am not knocking Saltz: I hope I don’t sound negative. I am in agreement with him in many ways. His point of view is refreshing and needs to be said, which is perhaps why he says and writes the same things time and again. I particularly like his idea that people in the art world need to be willing to embarrass themselves in public. Though it isn’t necessary to go see him every time he speaks in town, I’m glad he does, because he gets a new audience each time. I know his point of view, and I feel the same. And I’ll keep reading his columns—they’re refreshing, insightful, challenging, and usually spot-on, even if I disagree.

The theme of the artist’s-talk portion of the night was about change. For Chan, artistic breakthroughs aren’t eureka moments that come charging through the door. Instead, shifts in his work come in small moments. Also, he uses drawing (often charcoal on paper) to free his mind from his more detail-oriented work, and also when he’s stuck. He talked about how a series of drawings of flesh-eating birds, drawn from Leviticus, turned into My Birds … Trash … The Future, which was shown in LA as well as in Greater New York 2005. And drawings and collages of shadows turned into his recent Light series. His hellish experience installing My Birds in LA got him interested in low-tech projection. People, especially in Germany, are building video projectors with three basic elements: a light source, an LED screen, and a lens. An overhead projector with a transparency has the same basic components as a video projector. Chan said his construction, which looked very sculptural, didn’t really work too well. The images were fuzzy. I think he said that that’s what led him to the shadow drawings and the new work.

Some of what Chan said at Columbia—his experience in Iraq before the war, religion and politics, his art and activist work—has been previously discussed in a 2005 interview in Bomb. The highlight of the night, however, was the legal struggle brought up by the Columbia student, who seemed to know the Northwestern student artist or know someone who does. Chan handled the charge gracefully, saying that his lawyers are working with lawyers at Northwestern. That’s taking care of the legal issues on copyright, intellectual property, appropriation, etc. The ethical matter, however, was being worked out between the student and him. He was mum about that.

I guess I need to tell the story now: as a visiting artist at Northwestern in spring 2006, Chan saw a work by one student in her studio that he really liked: a banner with the words “mission accomplished” on them. He told her that she should really do something with the work, which she was unsure about. The matter dropped, at least until the summer, when a Hong Kong arts center asked him to contribute a work to a benefit. He also had a solo show there. For the benefit, he re-created that same banner. But it didn’t sell. A couple months later, in the fall, Chan was asked to participate in a group show at Serpentine Gallery in London. He made an edition of twenty, again, none of which sold. (Perhaps it was the edition in China—my memory is fuzzy.) When the work was in London, he e-mailed the student artist in order to share credit (and income, if there would be any). Responding a couple weeks later, she totally freaked out. A few weeks after that, Chan was contacted by lawyers at Northwestern.

Like I said, Chan separated the legal aspect of the situation from the ethical part. But he was unwilling to say—at least to this audience—that he was in the wrong, and that it was a mistake to directly take (steal) this other artist’s work and present it as his own. He did say that the first thing he should have thought of when first making the banner (contacting or involving the student) became the last thing he thought of. This professional blunder has come back to bite him in the ass.

Overall, Chan was amicable and articulate and seemed well read, quoting Adorno and talking about Freud and Christianity; he has really looked into and seems to understands this writing. This made me think of a concern that I’ve overheard art-history professors talk about: that today’s students lack a basic knowledge of religion, namely Christianity and Catholicism. Identifying people and themes in Western European art is a true stretch for these students, because we now live in a pluralized and secular world, much more than ten and twenty years ago or more. Parents don’t take their kids to Sunday School anymore; no one knows their Bible stories. Art history is, some say, directly suffering as a result. When Chan mentioned that he was taking a class at the Columbia Seminary School on the Apostle Paul, he got blank stares from most of the audience. It makes me want to revisit that New Testament figure.

I reskimmed the review of the London show. Chan’s banner is mentioned right in the first paragraph! The exhibition was The Uncertain States of America. That was a major show, covered by all the art magazines.

De Selby: Chan’s move is puzzling to me. But I am willing to bet that much of it had to do with being under the gun to come up with a project and get it completed in time. It was probably too much trouble to contact the student artist and simply collaborate with her. But, now that I think about it, why would the student artist want to collaborate with Chan? I would think she would rather simply want to show the piece on her own (especially if someone expressed interest in exhibiting the piece). Ah, but there is the rub: the curators in Hong Kong care more about Chan’s name than whatever piece he submits for their show. And genuine collaboration with the student would mean that Chan would have to involve himself with someone he did not really know. The fact the Hong Kong show is a benefit makes Chan’s move seem even more lame. He didn’t want to give away one of his own works?

This instance of corruption may be more interesting to watch because Paul Chan seems to make a point of putting his idealism on display. If a Kelley Walker or a Seth Price did something similar, because there is so much cynicism in their work, it would probably be less interesting to observe (and seem like less of a surprise).

The Hanger-On: Chan did say he was under the gun about making a work for the Hong Kong benefit. I think he said he was asked to contribute the same banner to Serpentine. He should have declined inclusion in that last show—knowing eventually he would be found out, facing a compromising situation. Despite the blurry lines between stealing and appropriation (Jeff Koons won a court case recently, and I know about a handful of others involving Barbara Kruger, Robert Rauschenberg, and other lesser-known artists), he still made a really bad call.

Aside from that, Chan did say some interesting things, namely that he has a conservative view of art, that is to say, that art is a realm of absolute freedom—whatever form that takes and whatever it means—where artists represent not necessarily what is but what can be. He recognizes that his “activist” work is a part of the larger struggle for power, be that antiglobalism or war protesters, established political parties, etc. Activist work is about power (e.g., for disenfranchised groups) in the same way that people in power try to maintain their power. Art—his art—hopefully operates outside this, establishing that space for dialogue that Saltz and Ribas long for. I think his view is old fashioned, not necessarily conservative, but still relevant.

De Selby: I am inclined to agree with the notion that art ought to be a realm of absolute freedom. However, problems perhaps arise when people start signing their names to things. Benefits often accrue to the signatures.

Chan might separate his art making from his political activism and view them as different activities but I don’t think this holds up for me. I read about them both in Artforum. I view it all as one big ball of stuff that Chan does.

The Hanger-On: The freedom in the act of creating something, of making the art, of making the unseeable seeable, or the unknown known, can be separated, however precariously, from the other part: display, sale, collecting, etc. That’s where issues of power come in, that is, the art world. Henry Darger was able to make amazing art apart from that entire world. He had his own freedom, perhaps only in his own head. I mention Darger because Chan has used his stuff in earlier works.

Chan separates his art from his activism. He makes this clear in the Bomb interview, the Artforum profile last summer, and last night at Columbia. While some overlap is inevitable, it seems he divides his creative energies well.

De Selby: I think this separation in the end is an artificial ideal. Why do we know so much about his political activism? Is it necessary that he share this information with his art audience? I think this is a calculated move on his part. It is his way of letting his audience know what type of person he his. It frames, in some small way, my reading of his art. I think the claim that they are separate is, perhaps, clever PR. It’s the kind of PR we can all feel good about.

Darger is an interesting example. All his work ended up being owned by his landlord. Darger spent his last days living in a hospital for the aged and infirm. He took nothing with him. He left all his belongings behind which, of course, includes all of his art. He told his landlord to throw it all away.

The more I discuss Paul Chan’s intellectual-property theft (or whatever it is) with you, the more his behavior pisses me off. If Chan felt so strongly about the piece, he should have helped connect the artist with an opportunity of her own. Isn’t that supposed to be the way it works? Isn’t this a part of what studio visits are about? And it is really the only truly defensible thing Chan could have done. If I were this artist, I would be pissed. I find Chan’s behavior very disillusioning. It is a pathetic or passive abuse of power. And to even consider that collaboration with the student artist would have been the most appropriate thing to do is also suspect. Why should the student artist be required to make this sort of compromise? Why should Chan get to put his name on the project? For discovering her? The scenario sounds like something from the world of advertising. Senior art directors and creative directors can always claim, at least in part, authorship of ideas generated by those beneath them (in the same firm, of course). They may try to smudge their thumbprint onto an idea in order to justify or rationalize their claim to it, but that, if they do it, is a mere courtesy.

The Hanger-On: I think he’s completely irresponsible for doing it. He made it clear that the lawyers are figuring out the legal stuff, which is fine. Can he make a copy or parody of the famous George Bush flight-suit banner aboard that aircraft carrier, whether or not the student artist did? Appropriation is iffy territory, but it’s obvious—and I remember Chan saying as much—that he got the idea specifically from the student. The ethical issue remains, and Chan totally fucked up. Being held in such high esteem in the art world, he’s desperately trying to save face. But—perhaps like Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky—he just can’t come out and say, “I was wrong,” at least not at the outset. He’ll should lose his credibility, at least for now. But I can imagine the art world rallying behind him and supporting him. Insiders have no concern for the outsiders, the little guys. It’s also a shame because his video in the 2006 Whitney Biennial was my favorite work in that show.

De Selby: Jerry Saltz’s comment on Chan’s work (in his review of the biennial) takes on a slightly different meaning in the shadow of our discussion. Saltz: “Paul Chan’s floor piece is evocative but unoriginal.”

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Originally published by Global Warming Your Cold Heart on February 15, 2007.

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IN TERMS OF

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