The Ceiling Should be Green: A Conversation with Kit Yi Wong, Mel Bochner and Friends
Asia Art Archive in America
Dec 19, 2013
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you very much for coming. My name is Jane DeBevoise and I am the chair of Asia Art Archive. Tonight I am delighted to introduce Prem Krishnamurthy, who is a curator, graphic designer, and founder of Project Projects. Prem is going to introduce Kit Yi Wong who is participating in an exhibition called ‘The Ceiling Should be Green’ which is now on view at his exhibition space on Broome Street called P! Kit Yi is from Hong Kong which is where I met her and now works part-time at Asia Art Archive in New York, but I don’t know her personal art practice as well as I should, so I am looking forward to her presentation. After that Prem will talk more generally about ‘The Ceiling Should be Green’ and then broaden the conversation to include all of you, and Mel Bochner, who also participated in this exhibition and who we are honored to have join us here tonight.
Thank you Prem, and over to you.
Prem Krishnamurthy (PM): Thank you everyone for coming tonight, and thank you particularly to Jane and Xiaofei for organizing this event. I am excited to be here to talk about this show which came together in a very particular way, through the intervention and involvement of the feng shui master Mr Ye. This process was a really interesting way of thinking about how the parameters of an exhibition might develop. One of the things that P! offers as a space is the opportunity to explore not only unusual and interesting juxtapositions of artists and ideas and disciplines, but also to think about the format of the exhibition itself as something that can be played with. So for me it’s really a pleasure to invite Mel Bochner and Kit Yi Wong to have a discussion because Mel Bochner’s ideas about systems are seminal and something that influence my thinking as a graphic designer — and at an earlier point of time, my work as an artist. In fact, the very first show that I saw when I began studying in New Haven was Mel Bochner’s retrospective in 1995 at the Yale University Art Gallery. To me, a really important thing to consider is how systems can become self-reflexive, how systems unmask their own construction, and the ways in which ideas can be made visible. On the other hand, I am excited to have the opportunity to talk with Kit Yi Wong, whom I met at an Asia Art Archive event. She is an artist of a different generation (she happens to also have been involved in New Haven), who is also thinking about systems, albeit in a very different way. It’s compelling to consider how unexpected systems can inform the making of artwork and the institution of encounters.
The structure of tonight’s presentation and discussion is that Kit Yi will talk about her past work, which leads up to this show ‘The Ceiling Should be Green,’ an exhibition currently on view at P! on Broome Street. Thereafter, I will speak very briefly about the show itself. Finally we’ll open up a discussion between Mel and Kit Yi and all of you here. So without further ado:
Kit Yi Wong (KYW): Thank you everyone for coming, and thank you Mel for coming too. I want to first of all tell you about my painting because I think it has informed the exact opposite approach in my sculpture. When I first started learning traditional Chinese ink painting, my teacher would tell me that the main purpose is not about simply reproducing how the subject matter looks but to actually capture the spirit. So if you want to paint a mountain, basically you have to understand its temperament first or if you want to paint a flower or bird or whatever, you don’t have to think about matching the petal and the color perfectly, rather but to find the way to convey the smell or how lovely the flower is.
Kit Yi Wong, Below the Lion Rock, Hong Kong Spirit, ink on paper, 2006
Chinese traditional painting is a fairly technically demanding art form, which of course takes years and years of training and great skill. I think Chinese traditional painting is about this ultimate control of your hand. Once the stroke is painted, you can’t really erase it or do anything about it.
Kit Yi Wong, Flowers without bird, ink and colors on silk, 2005
Then slowly I started moving in a less literal and more abstract direction which led to my sculptural work now.
Kit Yi Wong, Wonderland, acrylic on canvas, 2005
In recent years I have been interested in letting someone else’s hands make my own sculpture. I’m less and less interested in using my own hands to make the work. I really love the idea of having someone else make my sculpture. This is a little older work, from the summer of 2009. I did this performance in Hong Kong when the swine flu infection was widespread. I wore a dress made of facial masks while everyone else was wearing masks.
Kit Yi Wong, I wear facemasks, 2009.
I think my performances often give birth to sculpture. My performance is my process; the sculpture is actually the artifice that remains afterward. Sculpture for me is about the space. I’m very interested in how the body occupies the space between cultures. And of course the body also moves like a mobile sculpture. I learned how to make this dress from a tailor; she taught me how to make a pattern and how to sew everything. It’s made of 118 pieces of facial masks.
This next work is about the competition between me and my younger brother. I shot the footage in Brooklyn and asked two performers, Haan and Mason (they’re my friends and also brothers) to play a chess game in which the chess pieces were actually edible. There is a Chinese expression ‘sik kai,’ which is used when a chess player makes a dominant move. It literally translates as ‘eating the chess piece.’ I wanted to play with the idea of mistranslation. I wanted my performers to actually eat their chess pieces in victory.
Kit Yi Wong, Sibling(s) Rivalry, 2011. Left edited by Wing Chun Wong, right shot and edited by Kit Yi Wong
Now I’m going to show a one minute clip. Other than using my own body, I am also interested in orchestrating performance. In this piece the man is actually a professional conductor from Shanghai. I invited him to help me orchestrate people eating snacks in Columbus Park in Manhattan’s Chinatown to make it to sound like an orchestral piece.
Kit Yi Wong, Presbyopis Park, 2011
I did the next piece when I was at a residency at MICA in Baltimore. There’s a saying in Chinese that ‘it takes hundreds of rebirths to bring two people to ride in the same boat, and it takes a thousand eons to bring two people to share the same pillow.’ Basically in this piece I wanted to say that encounters between friends and lovers are really precious. I wanted to explore the possibilities of artificially encountering a stranger, so I made these small boats that fit only two people and then I looked for a stranger, a man to ride in it with me.
Kit Yi Wong, It takes hundreds of rebirths to bring two persons to ride in the same boat, 2013
After I finished the residency the art center arranged a small show for me. When the audience walked into the room they immediately encountered the boat that was actually very flimsy and delicate; it was actually impossible to float on the water. It then became clear that not only the boat was artificial but the encounter was staged. I wanted to emphasize the idea that the encounters are real but at the same time not real, like fiction. I didn’t know what kind of boat I wanted to make, so I went to Google and found this small toy fishing boat from Hong Kong (I am from Hong Kong) and basically scaled that boat up to this size.
Kit Yi Wong, It takes hundreds of rebirths to bring two persons to ride in the same boat, 2013
Now I finally get to introduce my own name. My name is Kit Yi Wong, Wong is my family name and Kit Yi is my given name. Kit Yi was chosen by my parents from a list of potential lucky names that were selected by a feng shui master in Hong Kong after I was born.
Before I move to the next project, I want to introduce my Mom’s sculpture. She’s not an artist.
One of my parents’ businesses is to develop small scale real estate in Hong Kong. Very often when they have new projects they will consult a feng shui master before they put the idea into action, in the hope of avoiding bad things like vacancies, maintenance problems, or accidents on construction sites, etc. By following the feng shui master’s advice they hope that they will have good fortune and that good fortune will come to the tenants too. So for one of the new projects the feng shui master told my mom to have ‘something that would generate movement.’ My mom claimed she got inspiration from the Pavilion of Harmony at Chinese University where I studied as an undergrad and the Women’s Table at Yale where I went for my graduate studies. So she literally copied these two things and combined them together in that sculpture that I just showed you.
Because of my parents’ business interest in feng shui and their unusual habits, I often like to explore using alternative ways to organize space. Once in a while my mom prays for good fortune for the family and for good health. I have memories of this that go back a long time. In the past few years, after my grandpa passed away, my mom often said that there was a certain cockroach in my house, and that was her father, and that a certain fly at my house was her mother. I’m interested in applying this strange logic to my art projects. Even though I look upon my mom’s unusual beliefs with a little bit of skepticism, I am still very intrigued by her superstitions.
In 2011 I did a project on feng shui. When I was in graduate school, I hired feng shui master Mr Ye to come to my studio, no. 403, to rearrange my objects so that I would become a better artist.
Kit Yi Wong, Feng Shui: how to be a better artist, 2011
I have generated other projects based on what he told me or on his recommendations. For example, once he mentioned that the color red is very good for me because I was born lacking the element of fire and suggested that I always wear red lipstick or wear a red sweater. Following his advice, I put a huge neon sign in a window in my studio and I set up this restaurant called ‘Kit Yi’s Authentic Chinese Food,’ so that a stranger might call my number, make a reservation, and come to my studio to have dinner together.
Kit Yi Wong, Kit Yi’s Authentic Chinese Food, 2011
I actually quite like this image. This is the Yale Sculpture building, where I went for my graduate studies. They don’t have any signage on the building so my signage makes it look like my restaurant owned the whole building. In that way my studio space became a project space which was also a social space.
Kit Yi Wong, Kit Yi’s Authentic Chinese Food, 2011
Now I’m going to show the video which is currently on view at the exhibition at P! called ‘The Ceiling Should be Green.’
Kit Yi Wong, Kit Yi vs P! vs Qi, 2013
PK: Thank you Kit Yi!
I’m not going to say too much more about the show. As Kit Yi explained, it is an outgrowth of a project that she created at Yale a number of years ago. For this exhibition, we invited Mr Ye, the same feng shui master, to read our storefront gallery and give us some recommendations including what to do with the space. Some of his suggestions were very specific: He told us to make the ceiling green and so we did that. In the end, we had a new ceiling installed and painted it exactly the color green he had indicated.
Kit Yi and I also provided him with a shortlist of artists that we had chosen intuitively, though without a targeted curatorial concept in mind. For each of these artists, we researched their birthdays. Based on this list of birthdays and birthplaces, Mr Ye chose a number of artists for the show. He chose both artists who were good for the exhibition and a good match for me personally. Those artists included Kit Yi (it turns out her birthday is very well suited to a show in the space), and others. For example, Mr Ye said about artist Ohad Meromi, ’He is very tall, he is a good artist, and he will be difficult’. Ohad is in fact tall and a good artist, I think. And as it turned out, when we invited Ohad to be in the show, he proposed a large plywood sculpture that was way too big for the space. After a lot of back and forth (during which we tried to get him to make a smaller sculpture), we realized that this is exactly like what Mr Ye had said. So we decided to include Ohad’s piece, which becomes a big sculpture that you literally have to step through to get in the space. Difficult indeed!
Mr Ye’s list also included the artist Tony Labat, whom he also said was a very strong artist. Tony made a piece which related both to feng shui and his Mom’s own belief in Santeria.
Mr Ye also told us to include artists like Rico Gatson, who showed an abstract painting with collage. Mr Ye considered it a great piece and said it could hang anywhere in the space. In his reading, he also told us a lot about Rico’s love life — but I don’t know whether that was true or not.
Mr Ye also included Mel in his selections, but I’ll come back to this in a moment — I think that’s how I’ll introduce the piece that Mel has in the show.
Shana Moulton was another artist chosen for the show. She has a video that we first placed on a pedestal on the floor; when Mr Ye came to do the ‘final touch’ and comment on our hanging of the show, he said ‘No no, that video can’t be on the floor; it should be high up.’ So we had a shelf built very quickly, high up from the ground. In fact, the artist was very happy with the placement.
Mr Ye also selected a piece by Jessica Stockholder, whom he had claimed had a strong personality and was good for the space. However, when he came to see the initial installation of it, he told us that her piece made no sense to him. He said, ‘I think it’s a cultural thing. This work doesn’t make any sense to Chinese people. You have to write something about it.’ So we added a wall label, the only wall label in the show. It’s in Chinese only and it gives some brief biographical and contextual background on Jessica’s work for interested parties.
The show also includes Kit Yi’s video. In fact from the very first feng shui reading, we knew that the video of the reading of the space was going to be included in the show. So we asked Mr Ye where it should be place and he indicated the location where it is in the final exhibition.
The last work at the end of the room is by Connie Samaras. The feng shui master had told us that what we most needed in the space was a painting of water and mountains because it would help the energy to circulate. We mentioned this to the artist; as it happened, she was traveling in the Pacific Northwest and saw a very strange rock formation that has a mystical character. The locals call this rock the ‘Grandmother Rock’ and Connie photographed it in a dramatic way. It’s a departure from her other work but it relates to her interest in psycho-geographical forces. Importantly, Mr Ye told us to hang it high; he said it needed to be high up in order to help the circulation of the Qi.
What seems important to me in my curating and also in the very idea of system is that every system has its own flaws — every system breaks. So in this show about faith and systems, there was one decision that we made that Mr Ye did not tell us to do.
In our first meeting with Mr Ye we had the birthdays of all these artists, but there was one artist whose birthday we couldn’t find. We only had that the birthday was some date in August 1940. We had pictures of the artist, we had pictures of some of the sculptures by this artist from a recent show in a gallery in SoHo called ‘A Theory of Sculpture,’ but we didn’t have the exact birth date. So we showed this material to Mr Ye and we asked if this was someone who should be in the show. He looked at the pictures and told us, ‘I can’t tell you anything, you don’t have the birthday. Without the date I can’t tell you if he’s a good artist or not.’
So we broke the rule. To us, having the artist Mel Bochner — whose work we admired greatly — in the show warranted breaking the rule. Most likely we lied to Mel and told him that Mr Ye had chosen him in order to convince him to participate in this weird exhibition. Thank you, Mel.
As it happened, by the time we did the final walk through, we did have Mel Bochner’s birthday. So we went back to Mr Ye and said, ‘This is the artist for whom we didn’t have a birthday. What do you think now? Is he a good artist?’ And Mr Ye said, ‘Yes, he’s a very good artist. He should absolutely be in your show.’ Well, that was good thing because the artist was coming in an hour to install his work! Then we asked Mr Ye where the work should go in the space. His response was, ‘He’s a great artist. You should let him put his work wherever he wants.’
The morning when Mel came to P! for installation, we were in the midst of repainting the space’s red floor. Let’s just say that there was an issue due to our oversight in calculating how long oil-based paints take to dry. We had repainted parts of the floor where he had planned to place his work. So upon Mel’s arrival in the space — and realization that the space he wanted was totally wet — there was a moment of real frustration. To try to deal with this, we said ‘Well, Mel, you can have anywhere you want in the space. That’s what the feng shui master said. How about this space?’ It was the best wall in the space. He said ‘Great!’ and within five minutes Mel Bochner was sitting on the floor with stones and making this sculpture. Now I just wanted to ask you, Mel, why did you choose this particular sculpture for this space?
Mel Bochner (MB): It’s a sculpture that I like. I think it summarizes a lot of things that I’m interested in. I think it has a certain kind of mystery to it. I put it there because it was protected. I mean you couldn’t get to the other side to kick it. I don’t necessarily give these things a lot of thought.
PK: Tell me about that.
MB: Well, the floor was soaking wet and there were only two or three places that were dry.
PK: But did you know which piece you were going to install when you came to the space?
MB: Yes, I knew that. I think that of that whole series this is one that kind of summarizes the mysteries of what they’re about.
PK: Am I right that it’s called Five stones, Four spaces?
Audience Member: I’m sorry to interrupt but I didn’t realize [from the slide] that the red is part of the floor and the white is part of the wall. It looks totally flat. I didn’t realize that is a sculpture.
MB: Yes, it’s hard to see in the photo.
Audience Member: Did you know about the architectural framework when you thought about this piece?
MB: Prem was very vague when he called me. I had met him because he had designed the announcement for a show I had in a gallery in Istanbul and he came over to my studio to show it to me and I was impressed by it. He’s a really good designer, fantastic designer, and has very original ideas, and I started talking to him. About a year later he called me up for this, and you know I don’t get invited to be in many group shows, and certainly not with younger artists, and I thought that would really be a nice thing.
Audience Member: I found Kit Yi’s talk about the illogical sense of feng shui very interesting. I grew up in Taiwan so I know a little bit about these kinds of things although but I’ve never been to a fortune teller. But I think when I saw this work, I immediately felt that there was some sort of connection, an unconscious or conscious connection. I think there is something to the idea of having someone who is more conscious of the space and how energy flows, how you place things and how you look at the space as a holistic thing.
MB: That’s really interesting to me. When I say ‘I don’t give it a lot of thought,’ what I mean is when I place something or come into a space, it’s completely intuitive: something moves you about something, something attracts you, and it’s not a logical thing. The sculpture itself has a certain kind of logic, in the idea of being that most people look at the stones but they don’t look at the spaces in between, but the space in between is what defines them as stones. But in terms of placing it in the space, it’s partially a joke that the floor was wet so I couldn’t come back later. But this just seemed like the right thing. And I knew the floor was red and that really interested me because I had previously shown these pieces in more SoHo type spaces, which most of you are too young to really remember, but had very rough wooden floors that showed their age and the signs of light industry. These things had a certain kind of meaning in that context. When I showed them earlier this year at Peter Freeman gallery, it had the same kind of floor. I was really interested to see what they would look like here because even your response just now, that the image is very pictorialized is, I think, really interesting, because what you’re always trying to find out about your work is what the boundaries of the context are that it can exist in. And it’s always growing.
KYW: I’d like add one point before we move on. We told you we had Mr Ye read your birthday after we found out what it was. And Mr Ye told us that you’re the same as me because you were also born lacking the element of fire, so that is maybe why you were more drawn to the color red.
MB: That’s interesting.
PK: One of the reasons why we were first drawn to this particular series for this show was because there’s something both so ephemeral, so evanescent about the work. Even the fact that somebody might knock that rock over or even steal it, like you said people had done from other installations, was interesting. At the same time, I see an interest in numbers and systems, and in the in-between, between intuition and the rational, and the mathematical. Tell me about the stones themselves.
MB: One of the thoughts that I had, which would be similar to what you’re talking about, is how can you have a sculpture which can be reiterated using different objects, meaning using different stones from different places, and yet always be the same sculpture. When is the point where materiality and identity cross each other or meet. And for me the great irony of these pieces is that without the object there would be no idea, but without the idea there would be no object. So that is the hinge that interests me.
PK: I think that it is this kind of in-between that is so interesting and why we were thrilled to include you in the show.
PK: The question was just about the idea of letting some other system in, and the uncertainty about it. And in the spirit of uncertainty I’d love to open it up to other questions from the audience as well. Thank you to Kit Yi and Mel.
Audience Member: I’d like to talk a bit about the large wooden structures and what the feng shui master said about them.
PK: He said ‘They can go wherever you want,’ because they’re made out of plywood, so they’re temporary structures. We asked him whether the fact that you had to step through an awkward circle to get into the space was in any way disruptive or destroyed the space’s energy; he said it wasn’t bad. He said he liked it and thought it was fun. He also told us that our space was not meant for quick consumption. It was meant to slow you down and make you think about things.
JD: Barbara said [the circular structure at the door] looked like a moon gate which you have to step through to get in. Also when you walk into a Chinese temple, you have to step over a raised threshold which is not unlike the situation here. Kit Yi, did you see these references?
KYW: I actually didn’t think about that, but I really like the big circle because it makes everyone who enters the space have more awareness of the body. You have to go through the sculpture and when you look at Mel Bochner’s work, you have to bend down a little bit. I liked that contrast.
Audience Member: I have a question about Mr Ye and his experience working in an exhibition context. Did he express anything about how he felt working in that mode? Was it different from what he normally did?
PK: This actually came up in the gallery talk he did. Mr Ye had never previously worked on an exhibition, apart from Kit Yi’s work at Yale, though he did say that he had worked before on a private residence on the Upper West Side, somebody who had an art collection that wanted help to put things together. But he did acknowledge that he had actually studied art. He had studied photography, but felt like it was not a viable way to make a living. So he turned to feng shui and he’s practiced feng shui now for 16 years.
JD: Where did he come from, Kit Yi?
KYW: I think Guangzhou.
PK: He speaks Cantonese, Kit Yi translated, and he said that he had an affinity for art. Maybe that’s why he’s a very good feng shui master. He was open to this kind of idea of organizing space, even if in certain cases, as he made very clear, the work was opaque to him.
JD: Ingrid, you have had some experience with feng shui masters. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? .
Ingrid Chu (IC): Hi everyone, I’m Ingrid Chu. I’m a curator and a critic, and I run Forever and Today, non-profit art space. I was just letting Kit Yi and Jane know that my uncle was a feng shui master although I never asked him about my art career. Maybe I should have [laughs]. But the practice is ingrained in everything and perhaps I can speak to that.
JD: As you know, some people can be skeptical about it.
IC: Do people really believe this? In my experience, I could say yes. Kit Yi, did you experience feng shui yourself growing up? It sounds like your mother believed it and my family does as well. Did you find there was a difference growing up within that belief system versus when you asked this master to do it within your own practice and then again in the exhibition?
KYW: Every time I go back to Hong Kong now, my mom would arrange for me to meet the feng shui master that my parents use, and the feng shui master would tell me things like by what age I’ll get married or something like that, but I’m quite passive in these circumstances. I do it because I am ordered to. But for [my art] projects I have a very clear goal. In the first project I wanted to know how I could be a better artist, and in the second project with Prem we wanted to know how to make a good show. It was quite specific. We had certain targets in mind.
PK: One of the reasons why I wanted to do this project in this space was because there are certain kinds of authority that are invisible or taken for granted. When an architect or an exhibition designer or a curator determines a certain order of things for a space, we take that to be authoritative or definitive. But a question that I would like to consider is: Does it matter that this exhibition was curated by feng shui? In fact, if somebody didn’t know that it was curated by feng shui, how would the exhibition read? Would it read differently? To what extent is the knowledge of its own system important to it? I know from architect friends of mine who work a lot in China that the use of feng shui within architectural design is totally implicit in that context. It’s not even a question: there are certain things that you can and cannot do. It’s simply a set of rules, almost like the American Disabilities Act requirements for an architect that you take for granted. My understanding, which is certainly that of an outsider, is that within a Chinese context, feng shui ideas are completely ingrained in how one thinks about the organization of space. So if that were to be the case, if you take that as a baseline, if you were to take for granted that the feng shui way of reading and organizing space is a natural one, then does it make an interesting exhibition or not? And I obviously can’t answer that question.
Audience Member: I’ve been a museum curator for over 25 years and Mr Ye has now made me feel like I’ve been in the wrong profession this whole time [laughs from the audience]. Here I’ve been fighting really hard for all these years in order to figure out how to show things, and then Mr Ye can just sort of walk into the situation, and make it look so natural. It’s the naturalness of this process that is very interesting to me. But I’m also a little curious, given tonight’s theme of systems, if we can agree that systems are natural and of course feng shui, according to its own terms, is natural, is it culturally specific, such that there’s nothing natural about any of these things? If that’s true, and maybe it isn’t but maybe it is, then it flips whatever it is we’re saying about the circumstances of the show and raises the question of whether or not a system can travel from one culture to another and still sustain itself and still maintain its identity as a system. If that’s only partly true, if it becomes compromised, I think it becomes even more interesting. Certainly that’s been what some of Mel’s work has been about in relation to systems, I think — the retrieval in some cases of systems, for example, perspective or pictorial representation at a time when, in the 1960s for example or the 1970s, perspectival representation was understood to be obsolete. So the estrangement of perspective in the context of that period of time makes it extremely interesting and uncanny in the context of Mel’s work and the work of artists in his generation. I wonder if you could say the same thing about feng shui in this context, whether it travels well, and if it not, if that’s something that’s worth exploring?
PK: I think that’s precisely the question that we’re trying to ask, in the sense that any system, particularly those that seem ingrained and which seem unquestioned, are those that are most problematic. As you know, I have a great interest in people like Brian O’Doherty and people who have questioned the assumptions about how exhibition space is organized. So it’s precisely by trying to take a particular system and putting it into another context that I think we can throw into a relief its own contours.
I think every system is an incomplete system, every system is one that is fallible. It’s simply that within its own logic and within its own native context, we tend to believe in it, we turn it into a religion, we turn it into something that actually holds authority. To me the ideal situation would be to look at feng shui as a system that has a level of infallibility and authority, but that at the same time has a fallibility, and to do the same for other systems of the organization of space.
Audience Member: Because what makes systems hearty is what makes systems scary.
PK: Exactly, every system is its own failure.
Audience Member: And in a certain cultural context the engagement of a system is partly an expression of a transgression of that system.
PK: Exactly. Mr Bochner, would you like to say something?
MB: This is all too heavy for me. I don’t really know how to respond, with words like belief and religion being tossed around. I guess the thing that interested me was that it looked like the guy was having a good time and not taking it too seriously. Maybe he was just enjoying his authority and his power, like ‘wow all these people are listening to me. Everything I say, I’m just making it up as I go along,’ which is basically the nature of religion after all, because it was all at one point in time in history just made up as they were going along and then for whatever reason people believed in it because they needed something to believe in. I think that the nature of Western thought, and I don’t pretend to understand Eastern thought, is essentially skeptical and the moving of Western thought is towards disbelief rather than towards belief. Trusting authority and believing in things is something that I find scary, so if I had not seen that video of Mr Ye telling you what to do, and had not felt that he was improvising the whole thing, and, that there weren’t any precepts involved or even ideology, I might have had a different response, but that was my response.
Audience Member: I am not quite sure if you said how big the list of artists was you presented to the feng shui master.
PK: It was fourteen artists of which he chose nine.
JD: To me when I saw the exhibition, the space at some level felt quite designed, quite resolved, even a little pat. For example, the colors seemed to match. Even Rico Gatson’s work had the same sort of orange, the same green, and the same black. Together the pieces looked quite attractive. Yet at the same time there was an energy, a fluidity that took it outside the realm of graphic design that to me can feel quite frozen at times. In other words, this show, despite having a sort of design consistency, had an energy. To this point, how much did you already know what you wanted to do, so that the questions of which artist, which artwork, or the choices the feng shui master could make were already quite limited?
PK: It’s a great question and I think it’s interesting to hear that the show feels resolved, or that it feels designed in a sense. In my own experience, it’s the least designed of the shows that we’ve done. In fact I had no idea until the moment that it came together what it would actually look like. The dialogue between Kit Yi and me was very much about introducing multiple layers of systems that would thwart our own decision making apparatus. For example, we didn’t choose artists for any thematic reason. We chose them only because they were artists we were interested in at that moment. Obviously, we knew we’d invite the feng shui master to read the space, but we simply chose artists, architects, and graphic designers, whom we thought were somehow interesting to us without a specific criteria. In some ways, then, they were chosen for us. We allowed the actual selection to be chosen based on the birthdays; then we entered into a curatorial process of doing studio visits, talking with the artists, and looking and thinking about the works. Obviously there’s no claim to purity, there’s no claim to a totally arbitrary system which is completely divorced from our own decision making. It was totally embedded in our own sensibility through the choice of rules, but at every level we were trying to create something that was not typically how we would typically make a show. To hear that it then comes together in a show, that it feels like it has a set of resonant connections — well, I guess I’m happy about that. I’m surprised because that wasn’t the intention. We actually thought that it would be a very messy show. And maybe, in a certain context, you always want to create a narrative.
JD: The most disruptive piece in the show was the photograph with that strange rock, and Mel’s work, which was also quite disruptive despite its small size.
PK: The rocks have a lot to do with each other, or maybe not, but I think they do.
Audience Member: The elephant is pretty weird. How did you choose Tony Labat?
KYW: I proposed Tony. I was interested in what would happen when we gave up certain power in making curatorial decisions. We didn’t think too much about the work; we just picked the artists. I really wanted to propose Tony because I really liked some of his early work, like a piece he did right after he finished undergrad. As artists we often apply to exhibition or residency opportunities. In Tony’s case he was too lazy to write a proposal so he researched who was going to be on the [judging] panel and then he sent to all the people flowers with a card that said ‘Trust me.’ Also personally I’m really drawn to California artists. I thought he would be great in the show. He is very flexible and very smart so I really wanted to work with him.
PK: This is the coincidence of such things — it’s not made visible in the show, but I think it is important to add that Tony happened to have come into P! last March and we had a great conversation. So when Kit Yi proposed Tony, I responded, ‘Oh, I met him, I had no idea he was an artist, but I had a great conversation with him. Yes, let’s get his birthday.’ And Tony responded in a very direct way. When we told him that the feng shui master had chosen him to be in the show, he said, ‘I grew up in Cuba and my mother believed in Santeria and there are these elephants that she’s always collected that point towards the door, and I’ve been making this sculpture, here’s a picture of it.’ To be honest, we were actually uncomfortable with it at first; we thought it was too close. We didn’t really want a work about spirituality or luck in a show that was organized by such a system. And then we thought about it and at some point it made sense to us and we decided to go with it.
When Mr Ye did his final walk through, he said ‘That’s great, that’s feng shui, but really it should be one elephant. It shouldn’t be a big elephant on top of other elephants because that means that the one elephant needs the other elephants to exist. Instead it should be about individuality and about one elephant.’ He wanted us to take that piece out of the show, but we made an arbitrary curatorial decision which was: That we liked the piece and wanted it to be in the show even though Mr Ye would’ve preferred us to have a single elephant pointing towards the door.
Audience Member: My two questions are, briefly, did you tell him how many artists to pick? Could he have picked one or fourteen if he had wanted to? And the other question is it struck me that all the other instructions you mentioned seemed like aesthetically good ideas. For example, I think the space looks better with the green ceiling; the red floor was a little much by itself. Putting the video up high also made aesthetic sense. Whatever philosophical apparatus justifying the decisions, the decisions seemed to make sense aesthetically, so I was hoping you’d say something about the role that aesthetics played.
KYW: Maybe the whole thing is not too complicated. It was like playing ping-pong between the three of us and developed very organically. When he said one thing, maybe I would respond, then Prem would add something; it’s not like there was an equation, like you put this and it would become that.
Audience Member: it would be more like diagnosing a problem and then talking about various ways to address it.
PK: I think that’s a good way to put it, because some of the things he said just made good common sense. For example, before the show we had a ceiling with water stains that looked like it was about to collapse — so it was probably not a bad thing for him to suggest that we put in a new smooth ceiling. He was also probably right on some level that we should make the space look a bit more professional and not like you’re going to sell drugs out of the back. You have mountains and water over there, and the column was very important. The column needed to be covered because it was blocking the energy. It was all stuff that someone else could’ve said to us, which I thought was interesting, but for whatever reason we hadn’t listened to those things before.
KYW: His idea of putting the video up high on a shelf also made sense because the room was very small and we already had a couple pieces in it. He said that if you hang it up you can make space for the other objects, which was totally practical.
PK: I think he actually was just making good exhibition decisions on some level, maybe atypical ones, but I think he was telling us things that made perfectly reasonable sense. I think it was useful for us to hear that from somebody else.
Audience Member: I have a related thought. I was thinking about the monitor that was set up high, and about the balance between the ceiling and the floor, and it struck me that these things relate maybe more to graphic design than to typical curatorial work. In curatorial work you think about the space as a whole but you focus very much on the walls. But with book design, you think of it as a unified whole. You might have a layout where something is high on the page to offset something low on a page. There is something about this show that has this ‘Prem’ aesthetic even though, as you say, that was not the intention. Nonetheless one feels there is a kind of design sense.
PK: What I hear you saying is we take for granted that the walls are the primary thing. I think that the feng shui master was concerned with space in a holistic sense, about deployment of a set of objects or things within a space which is in fact the total space. But yes, I will also take that as graphic design.
MB: There’s a lot of history behind this that doesn’t have to do with feng shui.
PK: No, it has to do with constructivism, and…
MB: Yes, artists have been thinking about this for a hundred years and feng shui, although much older than that, hasn’t been thinking about exhibitions for years.
Audience Member: But feng shui is concerned with creating spaces. What is the relationship between human beings and space? They harness the energy in the space, because when you’re in the space you have to be conscious of your movements, of how you live, and how you relate with it. Feng shui practioners have been doing that for thousands of years. As artists and curators, we think about space too and need to relate with the space, not just with the walls. We shouldn’t limit the art work just to the wall; like this painting [over here] relates to the ceiling, the floor, the furniture and to the house around. That’s what feng shui is talking about, everything is part of the whole, everything has an energy and has to have a communication between each other.
MB: Yes, but my point is that feng shui has a kind of almost mystical quality to it, whereas there is a materialist history of twentieth century art that deals with these things. There are many artists, from Dada, from Schwitters, from the Russian constructivists who thought about the whole space and how it integrates into our concept of the object and not the object. And I think particularly, for the generation of artists that I’m part of, that was the main subject of their work — how to re-conceive the exhibition and how to think about the exhibition as an entity and what could be done with that, not only in aesthetic terms, but also in philosophical terms, political terms, and economic terms. I thought the exhibition was great, and not just because I was in it. I thought Mr Ye made a lot of aesthetic decisions: the green ceiling was terrific. Red and green is obvious, but it makes a kind of statement as soon as you walk in; it frames things. So, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s so out of the historical development of art as we see it in the West, that it has to be related to what you were talking about which, I believe, is true, although I know nothing about it.
Audience Member: I’d like to further our Western sense of skepticism to borrow Mel’s words as I often do. My question predictably has to do with this ancient practice in a contemporary context, and I’m wondering whether a feng shui master could work from an architectural cad file, could Mr Ye have toured Prem’s gallery via Skype, and what would he have to say about digital space? As someone who mainly thinks about his practice as a consulting practice, I imagine he’s trying to expand into other territories.
PK: That’s a very interesting question. One of the things I found interesting [again I’m only reporting back from my interaction through the medium of Kit Yi as translator] was the importance of the physical rootedness. Mr Ye started by reading the space with a compass in order to determine the kind of cardinal directions and the elements associated with them. So in fact there was something that one could extrapolate into a virtual or digital space, but it really was about a physicality. When we asked him at the reading about the choice of artists, he said ‘these are artists that make sense for this space and for you.’ To me, it was all about a very specific relationship to me as a person and a proprietor of a space which was a certain kind of cardinal direction.
MB: But how well did you know him and he know you that he could make the kinds of decisions for you?
PK: He read my birthday. He had never met me before.
MB: How many people would you estimate have that same birthday? A few million? A few hundred million?
PK: Exactly, so we might all have that same relationship.
Audience Member: Does your place of birth figure in too?
KYW: Yes, that’s very important too.
JD: Mel brought up something and he and I are probably closer in age than many of you in this room: the politics of space. When I was a high school and college student wandering around different kind of art spaces in New York at that time, the concept of space and interventions in space had political implications. My question is do you think in those terms now? I was just wondering whether politics at any level comes into your decisions and your exhibition conception, and if so, how?
PK: I can answer pretty unequivocally about that. There are different levels of politics so I’m not going to make a judgment of what level of politics it is, but I would say there is a political ideology in the way the space is construed, constructs value, frames things, and operates within an economy. I would say that at every level, as much as I can possibly do, P! is construed as a space where those things are questioned. Whether or not that is a kind of politics that is legible or a politics that is active or a politics that creates something, to me it’s very important that the space not take for granted the conditions under which things are produced and that it tries to create some sort of alternative condition that allows different opportunities and different possibilities. That may be in its way a kind of politics.
MB: I think that’s a good answer. I felt that about it and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be part of the exhibition. It was very clear to me at the opening — where of course in that space if there are five people, it’s crowded, and there were a hundred — that there was definitely a sense of community, which is a political concept after all. People sharing an idea, a feeling about the world, that’s not something you get when you go to David Zwirner Gallery. And I think the only way to fight against the over-commercialization and the de-politicization of not only the art world but of artists whose work was very political like Donald Judd but who’s now been absorbed into another system, is to have independent, free thinking, small spaces like this. Like I said, I don’t know anything about feng shui and frankly… I’ll leave off the end of that sentence. But I thought as an alternative way of doing things, why not? Give it a chance, give it a shot. And that’s what freedom of expression is about; [it’s about] being able to try things and to see things in a new way and that is a political dimension of what you’re doing.
Audience Member: I have a question that maybe extends the sense of community a little bit further back. All the discussion about mysticism and belief and authority actually got me thinking about Yale University, which seems to be an interesting shared experience amongst the three protagonists of the evening, and it struck me that Mr Ye entered the story at this art school when Kit Yi asked him to help her become a better artist. That actually strikes me as a kind of critique of the art school mentor/crit relationship. It also struck me that that video Kit Yi made would be quite well received in a kind of [art school] crit environment because what an art school is is a kind of system that trains people and then rewards them to question systems which can be extrapolated further into the art world and into Prem’s gallery as well. So I was wondering how that politics and that sense of community operates when we all kind of reward ourselves for asking these questions.
MB: I don’t know if that’s always been the philosophy of Yale University by the way. In fact it could be seen as one academy replacing another academy. The original academy had a certain way of looking at things where you questioned what was inside the four edges, but you didn’t question what was outside those edges. I think over time that faculty was replaced and new faculty came in that questioned what was outside the four edges as well. I think your points about the notion of mentoring and what these relationships are about are well taken. But I think that the teacher can grow as well as the pupil. It’s reciprocal. The change in the academy would be this reciprocity where the teacher was assumed to be the person who had all the knowledge and was doling it out a little bit at a time as you paid for it, to something that is more reciprocal where you see students doing things and you learn from it. This reciprocity and conversation would be the best concept of an education.
Audience Member: Did Mr Ye also grow from this experience of working with Prem’s gallery? What was the fee?
PK: The fee was $300 and it was actually very generous of him because for that he did the consultation, the ‘final touch’ looking at the exhibition, and the gallery talk. So it was amazing and probably way too low a fee for his time.
KYW: But he wanted to learn what is the different between art and not art. Do you remember when he first came to the space and he was like ‘Why is that art? This is a machine?’ He was curious about what was going on here, and why this guy was going to pay him $300 to do this.
JD: Well, I am afraid we probably have to stop here although I think we could go on much longer. Thank you all for coming tonight and a special thank you Kit Yi, Prem, and Mel for your great presentation and thoughts.
Images courtesy of the artists and P!
Mel Bochner is one of the pioneers of Conceptual Art; his calculated approach to space and systems has shaped several generations of contemporary artists.
Prem Krishnamurthy is a founding principal of the design studio Project Projects and the director/curator of the multidisciplinary exhibition space P!.
Kit Yi Wong is a graduate of Yale University’s MFA program and is based in Hong Kong and New York. Her video and performance pieces investigate the body, power relations, and new ways of encountering strangers to explore chance.