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Women Photographers in Exile: A Conversation With Curators Christina De León and Michel Otayek

Images by Kati Horna, “Bombed! Shelled! Besieged for two years – but Life goes on!,” The Weekly Illustrated, December 3, 1938 [author unknown]. Private collection, New York.

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.

I had had this event on my calendar for weeks, looking forward to unofficially celebrating the election of our first woman president at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, coinciding with this wonderful panel discussion on the topic of women photographers in exile. When the night of November 8th turned into the morning of November 9th , and election results were in, there was a different somber attitude across New York City than I’d ever seen before. As shocked and devastated as I was about the results of the election, I decided that I needed to go to the event that I had been looking forward to for so long. When I headed toward the subway to go uptown, the weather outside was grey, drizzly, and dark, and then the energy inside the subway car felt like that of a funeral. But when I got to this panel event put on by Americas Society in the gorgeous ornate colonial building of the NYU Institute of Fine Arts on 5th Avenue, celebrating the work and accomplishments of these incredibly powerful women photographers during wartime during the earlier parts of the 20th century, I was absolutely uplifted and inspired again in a way that I really needed to be at that moment. It was a night of applauding courageous and creative women who broke boundaries, fought for what they believed in and revealed acute insights on dark times with their art and activism.

In the following interview, I sat down with the curators of both the panel discussion and the exhibition, Michel Otayek and Christina De León, to speak about their motivation and inspiration behind shining the spotlight on incredible talents Kati Horna (Hungary), Lee Miller (United States), Grete Stern (Germany), and Margaret Michaelis (Austria-Hungary; Poland), among others. Each have such an incredible story that I have linked to their Wikipedia pages, but in short, from what I’ve gathered, all of these women, in face of the political turmoil of Europe mostly in the 1930s including the rise of Nazi-ism and the Spanish Civil War, fled from and moved between different countries, in regions including Europe, Latin America, Africa, Australia and the U.S., to take action photographing in often treacherous zones. They produced images for everything from mass publications like Vogue, to activist anarchist propaganda in Spain, to art photography which also sometimes included shared common interests in both surrealism and architecture.

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Kati Horna, Helen Escobedo, 1960; gelatin silver print, 8 x 8 in. Private collection, Mexico City.  © 2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What led to your focus on Kati Horna? What most intrigued you about her work at the onset, and what were some of the most interesting things you discovered about her through your research putting this show and panel together?

Michel Otayek: Kati Horna’s work during the Spanish Civil War was the subject of my master’s thesis at Hunter College a few years ago. My doctoral dissertation at New York University, currently in progress, takes a more expansive view at her trajectory by means of a comparative analysis between her work, before and after exile, and that of Grete Stern. Early on in my research about Horna, it became clear to me that the meaning of her images was inextricable from their circulation in print. Throughout her career, she produced work specifically for the press. In a way, the true medium of her practice was the printed page, rather than the photographic print. In the pages of print materials, text and design bring to bear on what we are to make of photographic images. At the same time, one must also consider of the specificity of the audience (for whom is this magazine crafted?) when thinking about the sense-making power of images. Our exhibition at Americas Society stays close to these ideas. By presenting a rather eclectic array of print materials in dialogue with a selection of vintage prints, we argue that Horna was keenly aware of how circulation determines meaning—a circumstance she was sometimes able to exploit to great effect.

Christina De León: I was familiar with photographs by Kati Horna’s that were mostly taken in Mexico, however I was not aware of her earlier career in Spain with anarchist publications and through research for this exhibition I came to discover the story of a deeply complex and fascinating photographer. What most intrigued me about Horna’s work were her portraits, specifically of women, because she never relied on sensationalism or angst.  Her photographs invited viewers to look deeper into their own reality and served as a reflection of human conditions that encompass all of us. She also displayed an extraordinary depth of field for real-life phenomena generally viewed as banal or otherwise routinely overlooked, which she often captured with a clever sense of humor. Our archival research uncovered an incredibly diverse amount of photographic work, much of which will probably never be seen, because it is not associated with her formal production, but it’s an interesting insight into her practice and how she maintained herself financially. For instance she took wedding photographs, society portraits, images for popular photo-novela magazines, and she took innumerable picture of animals—there are many amazing photographs of cats.

Artifactoid: For the panel presentation, you discussed Horna’s work in the context of several other female photographers from the perspective of mobility and exile, including Lee Miller, Grete Stern, Margaret Michaelis, Marianne (Gast) Goeritz. What would you say is the single most outstanding quality about each of these artists, and what would you characterize as some of the most important threads between them that connect and amplify each of their bodies of work?

MO: I try not to reduce a photographer’s practice to a single, characteristic trait. I think there’s more to Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, than the decisive moment, or to Robert Capa than battlefront intrepidness. As a remarkably versatile craft, photography gave women such as Kati Horna and Grete Stern a great deal of mobility—across national borders, most obviously, but also across communities of artists, intellectuals, and political activists. There are significant commonalities in the work of these two Jewish women, including the fact that both learned their craft from photographers specializing in advertising work (József Pécsi and Walter Peterhans), which I think gave them a sense of photography as a tool to construct images rather than just document reality. Having lived in Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic, both were led to exile by the rise of National Socialism. But whereas Stern left Europe for Argentina in 1936 and was celebrated early on as a pioneer of modernist photography in her adopted country, Horna’s involvement with the anarchist fringe of the Spanish Civil War resulted in a much more precarious exile to Mexico, where she arrived in late 1939—and into which culture she struggled to assimilate for a long time. For a variety of reasons, while Stern has long been part of the canon of modern Argentine photography, Horna’s work continues to be, in my opinion, unfairly underappreciated, even in Mexico.

CDL: It’s difficult to point to a single outstanding quality for each of these photographers, because there are so many! But an interesting commonality among all of them was their ability to seize the opportunities offered by the growing field of photography as a means for personal, political, economic, and artistic emancipation.

Artifactoid: Since you focus on foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, I wanted to ask you, what are some of the biggest risks and dangers that these women faced in doing what they were doing, during the time they were doing it? What were some of the biggest challenges they had to overcome that may not be obvious at first glance?

MO: In addition to Horna and Stern, I am also currently researching the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall, both of whom arrived in Venezuela in the late 1950s. Though a generation younger and having arrived in Latin America two decades later than Horna and Stern, Brändli and Segall also had to carve out their own spaces, as émigrés, in an occupational field still largely dominated by men. Something I find in common among all four is somewhat of an inclination towards the countercurrent. What I mean is that in their trajectories one notices either an engagement with themes ignored by the greater culture or, conversely, a disinterest in some of the topics most conspicuous in the work of other photographers in their adoptive countries. For example, between 1958 and 1964, Grete Stern committed herself to the production of an extensive photographic record of the indigenous communities of the Argentine Great Chaco. Driven to photograph the living conditions of these communities by a personal desire to help improve them, Stern was later greatly disappointed by she perceived as a generalized indifference towards the plight of Argentina’s indigenous cultures by the country’s elites. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that in Mexico, a country with a robust tradition of folklorist photography, Horna should have remained largely unconcerned with popular and indigenous traditions—themes that have fascinated generations of photographers there, from Hugo Brehme to Graciela Iturbide.

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Kati Horna, Un mariage chez les œufs [A Marriage of Eggs], 1936; gelatin silver print. Private collection, Mexico City. ©2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most surprising photographs taken by any of these artists?

MO: Much of Kati Horna’s work speaks to her refined sense of humor. The more of it one looks at, the more sensitive ones becomes to her penchant for infusing even the soberest or most mundane series with an understated layer of comicality. Oftentimes, the humorous streak of her work is not immediately apparent. But on occasion, she produced series that were downright hilarious. Such is the case of a delightful photo essay about city fashions such as bulky mini-skirts, published in July 1962 in the Mexican weekly Tiempo, in which every photograph is taken from the ground looking up, monumentalizing the subjects’ rears while keeping most of their upper bodies invisible. We were not able to include this series in our exhibition at Americas Society but it is certainly one of my favorites. While we are in the subject of personal preferences, one of the works by Bárbara Brändli I like the most is her 1981 book Los páramos se van quedando solos, in which photographs and interview transcripts document the vanishing rural communities and linguistic patterns of the Venezuelan Andes. While not a bold statement of design such as the celebrated 1975 photobook Sistema Nervioso (produced collaboratively by Brändli, John Lange and Roman Chalbaud), Los páramos se van quedando solos manages to convey the melancholic allure of agrarian life in the highlands of Western Venezuela. It is a visually austere but surprisingly sublime photographic pastoral.

CDL: I think I would say I was more inspired than surprised by the photographs taken by these artists.  In viewing these images it’s obvious that they did not hold back and you can see the urge to push further and go beyond conventionality. Their work reflects a raw individuality and a complexity that mirrored their lives.

Artifactoid: What were some of the biggest curatorial challenges that you faced when putting this presentation together, and how did you overcome them?

CDL: When organizing an exhibition it’s always a challenge conveying a person’s life’s work through a small and subjective selection of pieces. The goal is always to highlight key moments in a manner that is both engaging and thoughtful, but when you enter an artist’s archive the decision process can be daunting. While our exhibition is focused on Kati Horna’s relationship with the illustrated press, it was important for us to show her professional and personal transitions, as well as her vast networks in Europe and in Mexico, which was something we kept in mind throughout the entire process. Conveying Horna’s images within a framework that spoke to her political ideas, artistic curiosities, and deft eye was crucial to understanding the work we selected. In addition, it was essential to show the circulation of her images and their ever-changing contexts. For us the exhibition design and the display devices played a paramount role in helping to create a dialogue among the images and publications on view. The design was especially important because many of the images were printed in a small format and we wanted visitors to engage with its intimate nature. In many museum and gallery settings there is a tendency to keep a distance from the work, but in this case our intention was for the public to get close and become familiar with Horna’s images and her photographic practice.

Artifactoid: What new meaning, if any, is added to how you view these photographers and their work, in the context of our current, intense global political situation right now? Is there anything about their work that you see in a new light, due to current events? And, which current artists, if any, would you say could be considered modern equivalents of the photographers you focused on in this exhibit/panel?

MO: Perhaps we should put it the other way around. Thinking about what a handful of truly remarkable women were able to do with their cameras as they traversed some of the great upheavals of the 20th century has given me solace as we wake up to a global state of affairs in which, suddenly, it seems acceptable again to disparage minorities, and influential figures feel emboldened to express their contempt for the equal dignity of women. As you know, our panel at the Institute of Fine Arts about women photographers in exile was held the day after the presidential election in the United States. Many of us in attendance were shocked and deeply pained by the election’s results. The timing could not have been more apt for an evening of serene, almost therapeutic conversation about talented, courageous women and the challenges they had to overcome in their own times. Their careers can be looked at from so many different angles that one could establish pertinent comparisons with numerous artists working today. Someone that comes to mind in regards to Kati Horna is Zoe Leonard, whose phantasmagoric photographs were recently on view at an exquisite show at Hauser & Wirth, just a few blocks from Americas Society. Although conceived to operate within very different parameters of public display and circulation, Leonard’s work is concerned with preoccupations that come through in some of Horna’s most personal series: the condition of statelessness and the need to reconstruct personal history.

CDL: In light of the current political unrest, I think its clear that although there has been significant progress, women continue to face many of the same challenges and prejudices they did seventy or eight years ago. Nevertheless, women are still pushing ahead and working to defy stereotypical notions about what kind of work they should or shouldn’t be doing. This defiance has been happening throughout centuries and endures today. The objective for us as a society is to continue to shed light on their work and integrate these women within a greater canonical narrative and not refer to them just as historical anomalies.

View the exhibition of works by Kati Horna, “Told and Untold,” at Americas Society through December 17th, 2016.

About Christina De León and Michel Otayek:

Christina L. De León is a doctoral candidate at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture. From 2010 to 2016 she was the associate curator at Americas Society where she worked on modern and contemporary art exhibitions and publications. She co-curated the shows For Rent: Marc Latamie (2012), Cristóbal Lehyt: Iris Sheets (2013), and Told and Untold: The Photo Stories of Kati Horna in the Illustrated Press (2016). She contributed to the catalogue Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela 1940–1978 and has written articles for Review and Americas Quarterly periodicals. De León held previous positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters Museum and Gardens. She holds an M.A. from New York University and a B.A. from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Michel Otayek is an art historian and doctoral candidate at New York University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He holds a degree in Law from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, and an M.A. in art history from Hunter College in New York. Otayek’s research addresses the role of practices of visual culture, including photography, in the articulation of discourse. His work is particularly concerned with collaboratively produced cultural artifacts such as illustrated periodicals and photobooks. Currently in progress, Mr. Otayek’s dissertation undertakes a comparative analysis of the work in exile of photographers Kati Horna in Mexico and Grete Stern in Argentina. As part of his interest in foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, he is also at work in research projects pertaining the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall in Venezuela.

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The Runway and The Slaughterhouse: In Conversation with Artist Tamara Kostianovsky

Full Original Article in Spanish Available in Vice-Versa Magazine.

Born in Jerusalem and raised in Buenos Aires, Artist Tamara Kostianovsky was affected by the strong culture of animal consumption in Argentina during her upbringing so much so that it became a main focus of her artistic practice. During her youth, Kostianovsky became fixated on the ubiquity of animal carcasses around her city, and came to view them as tragic and sacrificial entities that possessed a certain melancholic beauty.

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What’s more is that Kostianovsky’s experience surrounded by carnage from a young age didn’t stop at animals; her father was a plastic surgeon, and in a recent conversation, Kostainovsky explained to me that not only did she have a stint working at his office, but medical images of surgeries and dissected human body parts were commonplace in her childhood home, laying around casually, even on her kitchen table.

As an artist, Kostianovsky transitioned her career from focusing on painting to sculpture, and felt compelled to creatively work with her memories of the torn body and themes of consumption. Her 2014 collection of sculptures, “Actus Reus,” comprised a series of hanging “meat” and “animal carcasses,” which she would meticulously assemble using only her own discarded clothing (sometimes working around an armature).

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Continuing to experiment with these themes, Kostianovsky began to diversify her subject matter when a friend of hers suggested that she begin to work with birds. Kostianovsky liked this idea, and she started experimenting with feathers, ordering them off of the Internet, studying them and replicating them with fabric using new techniques.

One day, she ordered what she thought were feathers online, but what arrived instead in the package was a full pheasant for taxidermy. She looked down at the deceased bird in the box, and thought that it shared this certain tragic beauty to it that she had always felt inspired to work with. This launched her 2016 collection of hanging dead bird sculptures titled “Relic,” which she recently exhibited as a part of a group show at Y Gallery called “Natural Resistance” that dealt with the tension between violence and nature.

To note, by working with nearly exclusively recycled clothing, towels and blankets to create works that highlight how we consume nature and animals, Kostianovsky continually makes a conscious and dynamic political statement of “anti-consumption.”

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In the following interview, Artifactoid sits down with Kostianovsky to discuss her artwork’s connections to art history, the inspiration that arose from working with clothing and dead animals, and the artist’s current participation in the exhibition, “Weave Wars” at the Indianapolis Arts Center from September 23rd through November 19th, 2016.

Artifactoid: Many people have compared your sculpture work to imagery present in Flemish still life paintings. Was the connection intentional, and what is most important about its influence on your work in your opinion?

TK: The connection between my work and Art Historical Still Life paintings is intentional. For years, I’ve been enamored by the way Flemish artists were able to turn images of dead animals and flesh into complex mirages of luxury and excess. I’m drawn to the expressive and dramatic character of this imagery and seduced by the issue of wealth that these works present. In the 17th Century, owning one of these works was a strong status symbol. They perpetuated a “full plate” on the walls of a house, while reassuring noblemen of their class, as hunting was only reserved for the nobility at the time.

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As for me, I’ve come to the world of flesh from a unique experience. While living in Argentina as a teenager, I worked at a surgeon’s office at the same time that I was going to art school. The transition between work and school became quite seamless and I was able to connect the sightings of blood, ligaments, and fat I saw at work with my early experiences as a young painter. Since then, I’ve been interested in looking at images of torn flesh from that perspective, so when I came across the Dutch Still Lives, I recognized that impulse to make the inside of the body appear luxurious and seductive, and I was transfixed…

Artifactoid: At a recent panel discussion at Y Gallery you mentioned the idea of links between a meat slaughterhouse and a fashion runway. Can you please expand on your ideas about this comparison and how it inspires you artistically to explore?

TK: In recent years, research for my work has made me take a close look at both slaughterhouses and the fashion world. On a first look we tend to see these systems as complete opposites: slaughterhouses hide the abject, the disgusting, and the cruel, while the fashion world is involved with beauty and perfection. In my view, strong resemblances between these two systems exist, particularly in the rhythmic, mechanical way that bodies circulate in choreographed way around a space, a topic that fascinates me because of its connection to sculpture, to architecture, and to our most primal experience of existing as physical beings in the world. Because of efficiency, optimization, and organization, direct connections can be established between the diverse systems that dominate the production of goods across different industries in today’s world. I am interested in making work that inhabits this intersection, artwork that on some level articulates the contemporary experience of consumption, industrialization, and that questions the modern ways in which we’ve become “modern predators.”

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Artifactoid: Who are some of the other talented artists working with fabric who inspire or influence you?

TK: Discussing textile art can be conflictive. From a Latin American perspective, fiber has a rich, ancient tradition that speaks of nobility, community and a spirit of collaboration with the animals of the Andes. From a contemporary Latin American art point of view, fiber is often a material of choice that can successfully articulate with sensibility and humbleness some of the sociopolitical and economic problems of the region. Within a more international contemporary art perspective, textile art is often linked to “craftiness”, “softness”, and the “feminine”. I reject the notion that I make “soft sculpture”– there isn’t anything “soft” in what I intend to say or the way I say it. In using fabric, I see an opportunity to expand the scope of what this material can do, but most mostly an opportunity to redefine the gender notions that still haunt women artists.

I came to fabric through surgery, and because I use mostly my own clothing to make art, I see this material as a second skin, a surrogate of my own body. Janine Antoni has been a big referent for me in the way she used her body to activate sculptural processes. Louise Bourgeois comes to mind as well, but mostly because of a kinship to a dramatic sensibility, not so much because of the material choice.

Artifactoid: What are you most excited about regarding your participation in the “Weave Wars” exhibition?

TK: I’ve recently discovered the artwork of Ben Venom, whose work is featured alongside my own at the new exhibition “Weave Wars” that opened on September 23rd at the Indianapolis Art Center. I’m excited about his very alternative and badass quilts but mostly about having my work featured within an incredible group of artists who are thinking of ways of pushing the limits of fabric as material. Because I am a little fatigued of media-specific exhibitions, I tend to not participate in fiber-art shows, but this one seems to be energized, radical, and original. I’m excited about what curator Kyle Herrington has put together.

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Tamara Kostianovsky was born in Jerusalem, Israel and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn. Her work has been widely exhibited internationally, as well as presented in solo and group shows at venues including: The Jewish Museum (NY, USA), El Museo del Barrio (NY, USA), Nevada Museum of Art (NV, USA), Socrates Sculpture Park (NY, USA), The Volta Show (NY, USA), Maison et Object (Paris, France), and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (MI, USA). Kostianovsky is the recipient of several grants and awards, including: The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, two Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grants, and a grant from The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

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Culture Beach: There’s More to See at Fort Tilden than Katharina Grosse’s Painted House

The Rockaways: Your friends might all be going to The Hamptons or Fire Island – hey, maybe you are too! But you might also be stuck thinking (like I am many times), the only way I’m getting to the beach this weekend is by taking the subway and bus. And you know what? I’ve learned it’s pretty darn awesome. Especially when your day can be filled as filled with arts and culture as it is with seashells and waves. And that’s what brought me to Fort Tilden.

Fort Tilden is an historic district next to Jacob Riis Park. Its initial building was constructed during the War of 1812 as a part of the “2nd system” of defense to protect the area from the possibility of British attacks coming from the ocean. The fort wasn’t expanded and reactivated again until World War II, and remained active during the Cold War, but was officially deactivated in 1974 when it became an official national recreation area.

While Jacob Riis Park is now a lot of fun with eclectic food stands, live music, a bar or two, and a diverse family-oriented crowd, Fort Tilden beach is more like a quiet, hipster, adult beach where (ladies) you can freely go topless without anyone bothering you as if you’re in Europe, and check out a variety of artistic interventions thanks to MoMA PS1’s Rockaway!, the Rockaway Artists Alliance, the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy, the National Park Service, the Central Park Conservancy, NYC Parks & Recreation and Rockaway Beach Surf Club.

MoMA PS1’s Rockaway! has become a known program in New York City over the past couple of years since its inception in 2014, and deservedly so. It came to life as a collaboration between MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Bisenbach and Patti Smith, a Rockaway resident who has been visiting Fort Tilden beach since the 1970s with Robert Mapplethorpe. Rockaway! celebrates bringing the area back to life after it suffered destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, two weeks prior to which Smith had bought a house there (queue Alanis). The debut of Rockaway! included a large-scale, site-specific work by Smith titled, “Resilience of the Dreamer,” along with projects by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas, Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, and a Walt Whitman poetry reading performed by Smith together with James Franco (a friend of Bisenbach).

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This year’s main attraction is the site-specific project created by Katharina Grosse, a mid-career German artist with a hefty CV whose painted post-Hurricane Sandy ruin is generating ubiquitous buzz this 2016 summer season. So much so, that it appears to have sealed the deal making her the latest addition to the Gagosian Gallery‘s roster (which looks like it could be confused with a hall of fame of sorts but could seriously use a few more female artists in the mix). Grosse’s Rockaway! exhibition will be on view through November 30th, 2016, and her first commercial solo show with Gagosian is expected for early 2017.

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If you aren’t yet aware, Grosse painted a similar dilapidated house in New Orleans’ 9th Ward following Hurricane Katrina as a part of their 2008 biennial, so this Fort Tilden installation following Hurricane Sandy can be viewed as the second in a series. According to the New York Times, Grosse’s 2008 project actually humiliated one of the hurricane’s survivors. I have yet to find more details on that story, but learning that that happened piqued my interest. I wonder how that individual felt about the art, and what his or her perspective was.

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To me, something that was important while visiting was to pay attention to the fact that PS1’s Rockaway! is not the only cultural attraction to participate in in the Fort Tilden beach area. There are additional cultural centers and installations to check out that have a beautiful local vibe and help you feel the soul of the community and more intimately connect with it.

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These include The Rockaway Artist Alliance gallery, and The Rockaway Theatre Company, a thriving center for the performing arts which was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts this June.

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Dan Guarino, president of the Rockaway Artists Alliance, was kind enough to give me a great tour of the space and a special peek into a rehearsal for “La Cage aux Folles,” which opened at the theater last weekend to great success.

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John Gilleece, Artistic Director of the Rockaway Theatre Company and Director of “La Cage aux Folles,” notes:

“Rockaway Beach, New York is a beach community with a summertime feel. Sun and surf take precedence over many other pursuits.  But, what makes the Rockaway arts community unique is that the art does not begin on Memorial Day and stop after Labor Day.  The two major arts groups, the Rockaway Theatre Company and the Rockaway Artists Alliance, offer year-round shows, exhibits and events. Nineteen years ago, when the RTC started, Rockaway Beach was very much underserved in the area of local, live theater.  But endurance and hard work bore fruit. Today, our reputation for Broadway-quality musicals has enlarged our audience base so that we have people coming from all over the New York area.”

At the Rockaway Artists Alliance art gallery, you can currently enjoy an indoor/outdoor art show including a display of sizable paintings from the exhibit, “Forbidden Fruit: Street Art in a National Park,” and enter the large abandoned locomotive repair space where Patti Smith’s 2014 project was staged. At the theater, “La Cage aux Folles” has three upcoming performances on August 19th, 20th, and 21st, and you can get tickets here.

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Interview with Eduardo Navarro: Instructions from the Sky at Frieze New York 2016

This year at Frieze New  York, a select handful of renowned artists executed unique live performances as a part of the fair’s special projects series. One of those artists was Eduardo Navarro, a talent I follow from Buenos Aires, Argentina. You may remember him from the article I wrote in January that explored his work with the Guagua Pichincha volcano in Ecuador.

Returning to work with natural forces, Navarro exhibited a piece at Frieze titled, “Instructions from the Sky,” which focused on the unpredictable movement of clouds. The meditative, eye-opening project featured a troop of dancers dressed in sculptural mirrored discs, enacting choreography that reflected the behavior of the sky floating above Randall’s Island during the fair. In this interview, Artifactoid sits down with Navarro to talk inspiration, vulnerability, and what he liked best at Frieze this year.

Artifactoid: What inspired you to create “Instructions from the Sky?” 

EN: Reading a meteorology book my dad has, called, “Learning to Read Clouds.”

Artifactoid: Does “Instructions from the Sky” relate to any of the other great projects you’ve done that involve nature?

EN: Not really; this work is a mixture of different approaches I’ve had in other projects; it’s between sculpture and performance. It’s about connecting with something much larger than us and not having control.

Artifactoid: How did the way that the sky behaved during Frieze New York affect how these iterations of the performance turned out?

EN: Since the sky was telling us what to do, we had to adjust, and in many cases we were not able to go outside and perform. When it rained, we played and experimented with the reflections of the mirrors inside.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most important things that you learned from creating this project?

EN: It was great to delegate control, but it has a price; that price is anxiety. It was great to learn to not pay attention to the anxiety of the audience, and to feel free to improvise. I tricked myself into thinking it was always a rehearsal, and it was somehow.

Artifactoid: What are some of the key differences you’ve noticed between presenting a work at an art fair versus a gallery or museum?

EN: Well, for example, this project was perfect for a fair; if the weather was bad, people still had something to see!

Artifactoid: Aside from your own work of course, what were some highlights of Frieze New York 2016 for you?

EN: I completely fell in love with “Gabriel,” the donkey that performed for Maurizio Cattelan’s work.

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(Above: Eduardo Navarro)

To experience Navarro’s work currently in NYC, head over to P! (334 Broome St.) for their show titled, “For Every Purpose,” which features his project, Títulos (2007-2015), through June 26th, 2016.

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Interview: Founder, Designer, Director and Curator Prem Krishnamurthy

Whenever you go to an art show, it is not only important to consider the art itself, but the space and context within which it is presented. These are all factors that exhibition designers, curators, and artists consider when working to bring an exhibition to life. At a recent, engaging panel at Americas Society, Prem Krishnamurthy and Shannon Harvey of Project Projects shared expert insight on many key elements of putting together an art show from start to finish. In this exclusive interview, Artifactoid sits down with Krishnamurthy, designer and founder of Project Projects, an award-winning graphic design studio, as well as the director and curator of P!, a critically-acclaimed exhibition space in New York’s Chinatown, to chat about curation and exhibition design, his eight-year dedicated study of East German graphic designer Klaus Wittkugel, a new experimental artist residency onboard commercial cargo ships, and more.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most important elements of curation and exhibition design to pay attention to when viewing an art show?

PK: I find that the most important thing to consider when viewing an exhibition is: what is the exhibition’s intention? What is it trying to persuade you of? How is it mobilizing the entire exhibition apparatus (or “exhibition prosthetics,” to use artist Joseph Grigely‘s term) starting from the press release (both text and design), checklist, display mechanisms, placement, lighting, contextual information, etc. in order to make a point or sell something? If you can understand the context and polemics of any given exhibition — especially in so-called “white cube” exhibitions, which make a claim to objectivity — then you have a better sense of where you, as the viewer, are being asked to stand.

Artifactoid: At a gallery show, museum exhibit, or art fair, what are the roles of the curator, the exhibition designer, and the artist? How do their roles differ, and on which aspects do they collaborate or exchange/interchange roles?

PK: Typically, these roles are intertwined — and thankfully so. Even though exhibition credits panels like to simplify and separate these roles, in the best exhibitions, there is a healthy overlap and intersect between content, mediation, and display. Not every exhibition has all three roles explicitly, but they are implicit in the work of making exhibitions.

Artifactoid: What were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a curator, and how did you overcome them?

PK: I don’t come from a curatorial background; rather, I studied art, focusing on photography and graphic design, and was drawn to organizing exhibitions and programs early on. Although I’ve always had ideas for projects, as I began over the past 8 or so years to focus more rigorously on curating, I discovered I had a lot about the professional practice of the field to figure out. However, I’ve had the great advantage of having worked as a designer with many of the most talented and thoughtful curators and artists in the field, from whom I’ve learned a lot.

Artifactoid: Tell us a bit about some of the unique elements and processes that went into putting together the most recent show that is on display at P!, from a curation/design perspective.

PK: The most recent show at P!, OST UND oder WEST: Klaus Wittkugel and Anton Stankowski was an unusual show for us on a number of levels: typically, we focus on mixing together different media, approaches, and historical periods, but this exhibition, in contrast, is truly about graphic design. This stems from the fact that I have been researching the subject of the exhibition, East German graphic designer Klaus Wittkugel (1910–1985) for over eight years. So in this case, it’s an exhibition that I have researched, organized, curated, and designed from start to finish. I’ve even acted as collector, since I’ve had to track down his work over the years! This wholesale collapse of roles almost makes it feel more like an artist project than a curatorial one. Yet in this case it’s also quite appropriate, since Wittkugel himself worked in this holistic manner, and sought, within the East German context, to broaden the role and reach of graphic design.

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Artifactoid: Are there any exciting upcoming projects you’re looking forward to executing this year? 

PK: There are so many projects this year! It’s a really exciting time, actually, where it seems like I’ll be able to integrate the work I’m doing in design and curating to an even greater degree. A partial list of projects includes curating and designing an exhibition called Dis-Play/Re-Play at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York in collaboration with curator Walter Seidl; curating, organizing, and designing a new and experimental artist residency onboard commercial cargo ships called Container Artist Residency 01, with project founder and artist Maayan Strauss; a new website for Ballroom Marfa; curatorial consultation and permanent exhibition design for The Bass in Miami Beach; and identity, print, and web design for Zarigüeya, a new contemporary art project in Quito, Ecuador. Plus, I’ve got a whole slew of writing and publishing projects, in addition a full exhibition program at P! — so it should be a productive “Year of the Monkey”!

For more from P!, don’t miss the upcoming show, “Maryam Jafri: Economy Corner,” artist Maryam Jafri‘s first US solo exhibition, opening this Thusrday, February 25th with a reception from 6-8PM.

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Knockdown Center: Why You Should Go to Queens for Art That’s Not at PS1

Strangely enough, I had no idea that I was going to Knockdown Center until I arrived. A talented friend of mine (artist Serban Ionescu) let me know that he was having an opening on a Saturday afternoon around Halloween. I love to support him and check out his work whenever I can, so I decided to trek to whichever address he’d provided me with. I was up for an adventure!

From Manhattan, I took the L to the Graham stop, where I got on the Q54 bus and headed about 10 stops toward Queens.*

I got off the bus in a deserted suburban area and walked down a few blocks of broken sidewalk until I reached an industrial archway hovering over the entrance to an expansive parking lot. I had arrived! But where was I?

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The art show I’d traveled to see that day was playfully titled Things With Claws, and featured unique works created by Serban and a group of 5 other sought-after contemporary artists including, J McDonald, Carlos LittleOlga Sophie Kauppinen, John Furgason and Jonah Emerson-Bell.

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The gallery space for Things With Claws was a simulated living room inside a one-of-a-kind mobile trailer parked in a corner of the parking lot. The trailer is a work of art in and of itself, created by J McDonald for his project, A Way From Home. McDonald constructed the trailer using “an industrial steel tank from a local defunct furniture finishing factory, and pre-fab cheap housing materials like fake brick and engineered siding.”

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McDonald also added details like a sculptural doorway, flower boxes filled with a curious mixture of live and plastic plants, and a hearth. Not exclusively constructed for Things With Claws, the A Way From Home trailer was intended to house multiple art installations, and even has its own residency at Knockdown Center.**

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While I’d planned to visit for only an hour, I ended up staying for four. Not only was Things With Claws worth the journey to Queens, but I discovered the actual Knockdown Center event space which was the large, anonymous, low-rise brick structure that the parking lot belonged to.***

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Inside Knockdown Center that day, there was another incredible exhibit going on called Sous Observation/Spaces Under Scrutiny, created in partnership with Quebec Digital Arts, NYC, which featured noteworthy pieces by eight Quebec artists: Free-Fall of Possibilities (2009-2010) by Catherine Béchard, & Sabin HudonTourner de l’œil [Spin-Off] (2014) by Martine CrispoObjets de cris et de vents [Objects of Cries and Winds] (2014) by Manon LabrecqueTV Tracker (2015) by Lorraine OadesDérive (2010-2015) by François Quévillon, and Coincidence Engine One: Universal People’s Republic Time (2008) by [THE USER] Thomas McIntosh & Emmanuel Madan. I highly recommend clicking your way through the above links if you’d like a fuller idea of some of the fascinating work coming out of the Quebec Digital Arts, NYC group.

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One memorable highlight of my day included experiencing [THE USER]’s Coincidence Engine One: Universal People’s Republic Time, and later discussing it with J McDonald. According to [THE USER], this project:

consists of a precisely fabricated expanded polystyrene foam construction whose form evokes an amphitheatre. Within this structure, twelve hundred clocks of identical design are arrayed in concentric arcs. These battery-powered timekeeping devices are among the most generic mass-produced analog clocks available, purchased in wholesale quantity from their manufacturer in Fuzhou, China. A single spectator/auditor participates most fully in the work by standing at its centre, entirely surrounded by the clocks and immersed in their sound.

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After viewing the piece, I spoke with J, who noted that with Coincidence Engine One, [THE USER] is “dematerializing time.” I don’t recall the exact words of our conversation, but they were along the lines of: “even if all of the clocks are set to be the correct time, they are all slightly different. Therefore, time disappears; it becomes superfluous.” What an amazing thought!

I didn’t think that my day could get any better, but then, I got to experience art via Oculus Rift for the first time (thanks to François Quévillon’s Dérive). Petite Mort.

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Moral of the story? Don’t only go to Queens for art at PS1. Knockdown Center is currently showing the tail ends of BLOCH and Temporary Allegiance, as well as Suspended Forest by artist Michael Neff (on view through January 31, 2016). I wouldn’t hesitate to return repeatedly to this hidden gem of a culture hub, and after you make your first visit, I don’t doubt you’ll feel the same!Knockdown12

Notes:

*If you’re a Brooklyn neophyte planning to check out Knockdown Center via public transit, be aware that the trip is worth it but it’s not glamorous.

**The “A Way From Home” trailer is on view at Knockdown Center through January 13th, 2016, now featuring Nick Normal’s Temporary Allegiance flag workshop for the Autonomous Nation of THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU.

***As you may be able to tell from the photos in this post, the inside of Knockdown Center is a gorgeous industrial-style loft space.

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Santiago Villanueva, Y Gallery

I first met Artist Santiago Villanueva in 2010 in Buenos Aires. We were inside of the University of Buenos Aires social sciences campus, called “Marcelo T. de Alvear,” spending the day hijacking social and political student protest posters that would later be utilized in another artist’s exhibition in Scotland. That university campus is known as the most activist campus in the city.

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At that time I was very wide-eyed and excited, witnessing first-hand this incredibly palpable activist energy in Buenos Aires. I was noticing the strong sociopolitical commentary both in the city’s daily life, as well as in art and expression in Argentina in general. It was coming from students and citizens of all walks of life, as well as from the top contemporary artists in the country.

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I’m thrilled to share that Villanueva, one of the influential contemporary artists I had the privilege of spending time with there, is currently exhibiting at NYC’s Y Gallery on the lower east side with a show titled “First Impressions.” The exhibition comprises a series of recent works that reflect his continuing revision of Argentinian history and art history.

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“First Impressions” combines a mid-19th century Argentinian visual tradition called the “disorderly table,” or, “mesa revuelta” (imagine it as a messy still life), with the results of Villanueva’s past two years of research about Argentinian art history. For the project, Villanueva worked with a variety of media including papers, threads, letters, documents and images selected from both the mass media and the works of specific artists. The result is a personal map or atlas of Argentinian art history that both changes the usual visual expectations of a still life, and provides a unique, non-linear methodology for the understanding of art history that breaks from traditional pedagogic approaches.

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This exhibition marks another success in Villanueva’s exciting career. In recent years he has received a consistent stream of honors from prestigious organizations, including scholarships at the Center for Artistic Research (Centro de Investigaciones Artísticas – CIA) and the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (Fundación Cisneros Fontanals – CIFO), as well as appearances in museums and institutions including the General Argentine Consulate in New York, the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires (MAMBA), and the Museum of Latin American Contemporary Art (MACLA).

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Stop by Y Gallery (319 Grand St.) to see “First Impressions,” open through November 15th, 2015.