Terror and Lungs: a talk between David Breslin, Doctoral candidate in History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, and Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh, artist and member of the band Dragons of Zynth.
Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh: Alas!
David Breslin: Ahoy!
AO: Hope there is AC where you are. I’m downing an iced coffee right now.
DB: I’m not complaining. I’m on vacation with my girlfriend’s family.
AO: Well suited for this interview. So, shall we? Tell me a little about your most recent work.
DB: I just curated an exhibition of Juan Muñoz’s sculptures at the Clark Art Institute with Carmen Gimenez, the curator of modern art at the Guggenheim. It’s up until about the end of October. We also made a nice book to go along with. It’s not a standard exhibition catalogue, in that we used only photographs from the installation there and the ‘essay’ I wrote was more of a creative piece inflected by the writing of Levinas than a straight-up historical account.
AO: Levinas, the philosopher?
DB: Yes, that same old Levinas. I was interested in his writings that had to deal with the priority of the life of the other, of the other that we meet in our everyday lives. How keeping that other alive is the surest mark of our own humanity, how we prove that we are alive.
I wanted to write about these odd sculptures of figures, which are threatening as well as reassuring, in a way that made them anything but ambivalent. They become more about us, the viewers, than them, the objects.
AO: Naturlich. Funny that he emphasized the importance of face-to-face interaction and here we are digitally rendering! I can see how Muñoz’s work and the writing of Levinas might cross hairs. Muñoz’s figure sculptures introduce a more narrative study of human interaction and Levinas is concerned with the necessity of that interaction. In writing your essay do you draw on this?
DB: Exactly. Here’s an example: One of the pieces we installed is of a man hanging from his teeth, suspended from the ceiling. It’s modeled after an acrobat in a Degas painting, but it also looks like a lynching or a hanging, something you’d see from Goya’s Disaster of War or awful, brutal photographs from ‘our’ own south. When I started looking at this sculpture, and started to think about how to write about it, I thought I wouldn’t be true to the piece if I didn’t write about my experience looking at, the complicated emotions and feelings it conjures… the titillation of looking, of seeing something up there doing something it shouldn’t, but also realizing this represents a person, that this could be a life. I needed to talk about this ambivalence. To talk about these feelings conspiring in me. Just to leave it at Degas and Goya would let me off the hook, and the work wants me swinging from it.
AO: You say you felt the need to write about your experience viewing the work. If you imagined seeing the work in a group do you think your reactions would have somehow been more closeted, or would a group viewing open your eyes to a more visceral collective experience?
DB: It’s a good question. Let me try it a couple of ways. You definitely feel some sense of inattention, of disregard, when looking at the piece with others. Kind of like that story of a man being robbed in broad daylight, with 50 people around him, and nobody lifts a finger.
But, I guess, the piece is so startling because it catches you always between things… of pleasure and horror, of being alone in a crowd, to just being one of the crowd. I think the piece works because it catches you between, but makes you work to think about what direction you really want to go in.
AO: Sort of a gross exercise in self-realization? The writer and the artist historically have been noted for the ability to create these “pleasure and horror” center, compulsory moments.
DB: Yes, but the work itself is both pleasure and horror. It’s the work that lets the viewer have the experience of either/or. I think it’s important that the work is more about experience than interpretation. When I think of interpretation, of a novel or a work of art, I think of an audience trying to get at what the creator was thinking. Kinda like trying to figure out what’s happening in a whodunit. Experience lets me think about what the hell’s going on with me. Because, back to the hanging figure again, there is no hiding its operations. It’s all transparent. There is a resin sculptural figure, hanging from its teeth, suspended from the ceiling. It’s all gravity, its body, and the viewer’s own. And then the viewer goes from there.
AO: What’s going on with you next? Will you be releasing any of your own work?
DB: Well, I’m working on some proper art historical projects, but my brother and I (sound familiar?) are working together on some projects. We’re thinking about how to get more spaces for people who want to work but need the room to do it. We’re thinking about how to reconfigure and install things like big rig trailers into studios and give away the space–or rent the space for barely anything. Bad economies are sometimes good for artists because it makes the endeavor less about cashing in. Ideas have time to generate. But that’s also bullshit. People need to make work and eat.
So, we’re thinking about how to use existing forms to give space and opportunity. And it’s also an opportunity for us to meet and see more people, more work, more experiences.
AO: Big picture. Hay que futuro. Yes ‘brother and I’ are quite familiar. We too are tinkering with the very same ideas. Dragons of Zynth is entertaining the idea of performing in the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. The Atrium is what I feel is a transparent space. Guests can choose to engage with the performance or meet and see people in an open area. D.Hume wrote an essay on the interwoven pull between wealth and art. Good news. Programming in the vein of your ‘make work and eat’ is very necessary. Traditional art institutions are rolling the boulder but still showing promise. Animal Collective’s Transverse Temporal Gyrus at the Guggenheim is one example.
DB: Sounds awesome. It’s hard work, interrupting spaces that have certain functions and then altering that function completely. Artists are often brought in to signify a willingness to change things up… but, if you/we are brought in, it’s often because the critique has been brought in and assimilated as well. I don’t know. It’s a hard job to be both outside and inside. But I’m glad you’re working on it. Just gotta keep on grindin!
By the way, I really like that term for working. It shows that the cogs aren’t greased, and you have to make your own juice. I like that you’re doing that, and hopefully I/we are too.
AO: Yo creo que si. Be sure to get that good SPF, not sure what number you’d need. Where are you?
DB: 5 billion. In Martha’s Vineyard. This has been fun. I’m going to try to get down for your show. And if you’re ever up in the Berkshires, give me a holler. See you soon. bres