Art Papers  

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May/June 2016 issue:

Atlantis, GA:
The Home Depot,
the Georgia Aquarium,
and the Corporate Sublime

– Carson Chan

Two Sides of the Same Sea
– Stephanie Bailey

The School of Athens
– Despina Zefkili

– Ala Younis

Interview: Chrysanthi Koumianaki
– Iliana Fokianaki

Glossary: Lemonade
– Jasmine Amussen

Eight Questions
for Bethany Collins
– Buzz Spector

Extended Edit/
William Cordova:
Change is Everything
– Emily Wilkerson

May/June 2016
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Extended Edit /
Change is Everything

Interview / Emily Wilkerson

In October 2014, Prospect.3: Notes for Now, the third iteration of New Orleans' international contemporary art biennial, opened in the Crescent CIty. Among the exhibition's 19 sites was Dillard University, where two artists' works were sited at the historically black school, located in the Gentilly neighborhood of the city. Across the campus from Terry Adkins' Ezekiel Double Drums and Ezekiel Wheel, commissioned by the university in 2009, William Cordova's installation extended improvisations in time (spike lee, arthur lee, edwin lee y lee quiñones) (2014) was exhibited in the university gallery. Consisting of found materials, photographs, embossed works on paper, a record player, and video projections, the work was dedicated to the late Adkins, who had passed away in February 2014. Adkins and Cordova developed a friendship not only through a teacher-student mentorship, but also shared interests in living and creating. In Cordova's looping films, and in the celestial and cyclical nature of time to which Adkins' work on campus refers, both artists emphasized the constant flux—the rhythm—of our world. Through ephemera and found materials, film, music, and sound, both Adkins' and Cordova's installations beg the viewer to slow down, even participate in the construction of spaces that question perceived notions of history, while contributing to a collective one.

This year, Cordova has returned to the site of this initial historical and artistic dialogue—New Orleans—as a Joan Mitchell Center artist in residence for the month of June 2016. There and elsewhere, debate about historical monuments and the ethics of their preservation rages on: in April 2016, a bill to block local governments in Louisiana from removing Confederate monuments and other commemorative statues without State permission was rejected by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee—a response to a conversation about confederate residue ignited by the Charleston church shootings of 2015. Here, Cordova reflects upon his mentor Adkins, and New Orleans' still-standing Robert E. Lee monument, in a conversation about intervention, space, time, and continuous motion.

William Cordova, Silent Parade... or The Soul Rebels Band Vs. Robert E. Lee, 2014, still from single channel video [produced by Monique Moss and Monique Walton; courtesy of Michiko Kurisu]

EW: History and place play an important role in your work—this is something you emphasize in your artist statements, and is very clear in your installations. When did you leave your home country of Peru, and where did you move?

WC: My family moved from Lima, Peru, to Miami, Florida in 1977, due to the many shared reasons that Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans immigrated to the United States and Canada between 1947 and 1991: the effects of the Cold War. But I don't believe immigrants ever really leave their home country. We may physically leave for various reasons, but it's often those places we come from that shape and inform those places we live afterwards—which is evident across the country, in Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Haiti, Dominican Ville, Ukrainian Village, Spanish Harlem, Little San Juan, and various other immigrant communities that have created cultural hubs and economic support systems. This is a necessary strategy, I believe, that is essential for anyone immigrating to any place where they may not be socially accepted or embraced.

EW: You operate between New York, Miami, and Lima these are quite different cities. Do you feel that this choice continues to influence your relationship to place and to history? Terry Adkins posed a question to [artist] Sanford Biggers in an interview for BOMB magazine a few years ago: "[...] true symbolism depends on the fact that things that may differ from one another in time, space, material nature, or many other limitative characteristics, can possess and exhibit the same essential quality. Do you think that your firsthand experience of other cultures allows you to speak with the authority of a universal symbolism?"

WC: I would consider myself to be more than bilingual, meaning not only do I speak, but I also think in a foreign language. Thinking in a foreign language also changes one's perception of one's surroundings. It's like watching a film with subtitles—films never really translate every word being said because it's impossible to truly convey everything in writing. Simply watching the film's characters, and also translating—two different things—create a constant mediation between two worlds at once. One of the last times Terry and I spoke about language was in Berlin in 2013. He agreed with me in theory as far as having a double consciousness but could not relate to my perspective—his point of reference was specific to W.E.B. DuBois' double consciousness. I suggested he watch Chan is Missing (1982) by Wayne Wang, a great film about a missing individual who cannot be located because those seeking him are thinking in English and not Mandarin. Terry and I agreed we related more in our ideas of alternate universes, space, and time, than we did in language, because we could construct those without language or national barriers.

EW: Can you speak a bit further about Terry Adkins' impact on you and your work?

WC: I met Terry in the fall of 2000 through a good friend and artist, the late Michael Richards. Terry performed at the Miami Beach Lincoln Theater as part of the Passages group exhibition at the Miami Art Museum, which is now the Perez Art Museum. So my introduction to Terry as an artist was through his music ensemble at the time, and I slowly realized that he was a practitioner in constant flux. His concepts and output were never driven by formulas or crystalized ideas. Terry was constantly immersed, to use Amiri Baraka's definition of Jazz music, in "an extended improvisation in time." In the spring of 2004, I met Terry again, while he was a visiting lecturer at Yale University and I was an MFA student there. As a cultural practitioner he had high expectations, and I always felt obligated to meet those standards and to constantly raise my own. He wasn't always an easy person to get along with and often would clash with us students in debates on topics close to our hearts. But it was because he understood our generation, and he made sure we didn't stray from our responsibilities as cultural practitioners, or water down our values, or become buffoons to the art market. He wanted to make sure that we stayed true and that we picked up what his generation and those before had built and been building.

EW: Is there a particular moment you shared with him that has resurfaced in your practice?

WC: One night, Terry and I had coffee together. He was ragging on me for being lactose intolerant, when he paused and asked what kind of artist I wanted to be. Before I could respond he added, "you know there are two kind of artists in this world, and they are like track runners. Some artists are sprinters, they run fast but achieve shorter distances, get a quick audience applause, but it fades out fast. Then there are the long distance runners. They put in more time, often don't get noticed, they just keep on going with or without the audience or fanfare." Then he asked me again, "now which type of artist do you want to be?" I often think about that, and sometimes ask students the same question during studio visits.

EW: Don't you think the long-distance runners can also develop a fan base, but that it just might take more time?

WC: True, we can be literal about the long distance runner having fanfare eventually but by then those things are irrelevant, and not a means to an end. I decided to develop my practice in the way that Terry had established himself: by working through non-profit spaces, universities, museums, and so on. "We had very few options then, unlike you young folks now," he told me and my friend Leslie Hewitt in 2004. We were a month away from graduating. His suggestion was for us to develop as much as possible without being affected by a market— to build, rather than becoming the next "flyboy in the buttermilk," as Greg Tate might say.

EW: I can see where Tate's comments on the New York art world's failure to acknowledge a person of color in exhibitions or art criticism might be seen as a reference to the long-distance runner.

WC: Terry was speaking about racial preference in the art world, but also about misconceptions younger artists have about fame. His concerns included gender, ethnicity, race and class. When I saw Terry that first time in Miami, he was improvising different jazz compositions, and then read a poem while other musicians played on stage. The poem was inaudible, but that was the point. It wasn't for us to consume directly, it was a gesture that veiled, protected him from our perception of his action. It was in many ways what we would later speak about in regards to foreign languages, consciousness, and the economy of sound. I was actually invited to perform with him, by Michael Richards, but I opted out in order to watch them.
       One later work of Terry's that resonates with me is Ames (2013), a small sculpture made of two separate slabs of limestone, one standing atop the other with a thin piece of silk fabric half hazardously draped over it. A ghost image imprinted onto one of the limestone slabs suggests preservation, and transformation. Cinnabar (2010) is also a very rich, yet minimal, work that Terry credited as a collaboration with the late Blanche Bruce, the first Black senator to serve a full term. The piece is made up of various Cinnabar stones laying on the surface of what appears to be a Mayan tunic—representations of royalty and alchemy. Terry was definitely an alchemist in every sense of the word.
       Dark Water Record (2003)—a stack of audio cassette players playing a recording of W.E.B. DuBois' speech on socialism in America, and topped with the bust of Mao Tse Tung—also brings back memories for me. Terry and I talked about that work when it was included in the Black Is, Black Ain't exhibition at the Renaissance Society in 2008. He wanted to do something that didn't scream, but that resonated with people long after they left. It reminded me of La casa de cartón ("The Cardboard House"), a short story written by Martín Adín, a Peruvian poet, when he was 16 years old. The story narrates diversity in class, race, ethnicities, religion, age and gender by describing the sounds, mannerisms, and ingredients in a market place.

EW: I'd like to return to this idea of continuing to build on the work of previous generations. Somewhat like Terry's, your installations are composed of ephemera. Can you speak further about these materials?

WC: The economy of the ephemeral is a strategic part of my practice because I am interested in slowing down, and neutralizing the older, familiar models of consuming culture. I therefore also find it necessary to invest in the production, preservation, and manifestation of cultural materials—otherwise the velocity with which we consume and dispose of things will erode the fundamental values of our overall human experience.

EW: Your installations do encourage—or even require—people to physically slow down, to dissect each element, each sliver of information, and to draw connections to the current moment. So to use the example of the work you did in New Orleans in 2014, can you guide us through how the Polaroid photographs taken in Haiti communicate with a soundscape of St. Malo, Louisiana, or remnants of a destroyed Manhattan mural by aerosol artist Lee Quinones?

WC: The Polaroids, the aerosol mural debris from 1982, the LP soundscape recording of St. Malo, which I made in collaboration with Jerome Reyes—these are all concrete and abstract forms of remembering moments we may not have experienced. In their current presentation, we become witnesses to those fragments, and the evidence allows us to form narratives that interweave different components—monuments, geography, vessels, ritual. At Dillard, 16mm film contextualized these sculptural works, because it directly traced them to actual locations, and presented them as they are today. There was also a free tabloid newspaper in the installation revealing the background history of these places and people. One need not follow these steps or even desire to know all of these things. It's simply an index for the viewer to use, as a reference. This method of constructing what appears to be a static space but that is actually in constant motion was informed by works such as Untitled (Alice B. Tocklas and Gertrude Stein's Grave) (1992) by Felix Gonzales-Torres, Lorna Simpson's works on felt, and all of Nicolás Guillén Landrién's work. It's a way for the viewer to own these experiences rather than be presented with a didactic treatise.

EW: I'm curious about how the use of such a variety of materials may connect to a point Terry Adkins brought up in an interview with Jessica Slaven for Paper Monument only a couple years ago. Describing the inclusion of ephemeral objects in his work, he says: "it all goes back to this idea of anonymity. And invisibility of authorship. Or anything. If they can't appear natural, then, I don't like them to appear belabored. I like them to appear as if just, WHOOSH! That they happened." He goes on to say, "They weren't made, they happened."

WC: I think that comes from Terry the jazz musician, not to be too quick to categorize his many sides. He was very diligent in researching and preparing certain works in order for others to evolve organically. That's certainly part of my practice, though sometimes if people assume we are working intuitively it can take away the artist's awareness or the practitioner's focus and decision-making. Terry did compose his works in a way that implied they had multiple functions or even various lives and were just waiting to be tuned into or activated—much like musical instruments. If you look closely at any of his installations, even those that do not include musical instruments, you will find that sensibility in the air. It needn't include authorship because Terry manipulated spaces with his work by placing things at certain heights and using intrusive mannerisms so as to provoke rhythms. It was like Miles Davis turning away from the audience so that people wouldn't see how he fingered the trumpet, or a DJ blanking out the LP center so we won't know what he's sampling and scratching. Anonymity, abound!

EW: Adkins' approach to erasure in his art-making, and the importance of these opportunities to re-evaluate and re-construct a history, was, to use one of his terms, to focus on "potential disclosure." Your installation work aims to achieve this as well—at Dillard for instance, extended improvisations in time (2014) seems to refer to the state you also describe as Terry's default: immersed in improvisation.

WC: The title of that work is a quote from Amiri Baraka's Blues People (1963). It's a reference to black vernacular music, but it also pertains to ways of breaking beyond the known parameters of established systems or socially accepted codes. My influences and inspirations are both personal and public. For Prospect.3, I collaborated with Monique Moss, Jerome Reyes, Monique Walton, and the Soul Rebels Brass Band to present a project we had been working on for 5 years. Silent Parade... or The Soul Rebels Band Vs. Robert E. Lee (2014) was as an intervention, an ephemeral architecture of necessity. Oddly enough, demonstrations against the police violence that's occurring in the nation are now taking place in front of the Robert E. Lee circle in New Orleans. The media's images of these protestors can be interpreted as "ephemeral monuments"—static visual representations on newsprint or the Internet stating positions that spark volumes of feelings and thoughts about the time and space we live in today. Silent Parade was taken from a title of one of Terry's works, and I felt appropriately captured his presence in New Orleans.

EW: I've definitely found myself looking at and experiencing Jackson Square very differently since watching Silent Parade, paying more attention to who is walking sitting, or sleeping around this monument. In the Slavin interview, Terry said that "rendering the material immaterial" is the "primary impulse" of everything he did, and that the "luminosity of an idea" should come first, before anything material. Does this relationship to materials also connect to this notion of disclosure, or to a use of language?

WC: Absolutely: the material comes with its own history, values, and economy. In my work, I am simply editing and repositioning much of this material. I may write the words "Los Tres Golpes" ("The Three Hits") on a piece of paper with coffee. That material is just as important as the words I wrote on it; often times, it will inform the text or the image it supports. I work with reclaimed materials because I am interested in the vernacular as a narrative vessel, like cinema—something grounded, rich, and dense, but equally accessible and shared.

EW: I'd love to conclude with the idea that Terry once proposed, in a video made at Skidmore, that "art can be a force for change."

WC: Change is everything!

Terry Adkins, Ames, 2013, limestone, silk, 44 x 41 x 29 inches [courtesy of Salon 94]

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