Phone Tag: Interview with Marian Tubbs

Marian Tubbs, i am series of chemical changes, 2017, Pigment print on silk

Earlier this spring, I Skyped with Marian Tubbs, an Australian artist based in Sydney. Previous Phone Tag participant Kate Newby connected us, and in this interview we discuss how the two met in New York, some of the ramifications of operating as an artist with a more international purview and how that can relate to social connections. Marian investigates images and materials that are so poor or ubiquitous as to be unnoticed, often sourced from the digital, through sculptural objects and installations that are undergirded by a philosophical framework.

 

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

*****

Marian Tubbs, Quiet revolutions and enfant terribles, 2017, Installation view

LW: “Kate mentioned she knew you through a show at SculptureCenter.”

MT: “Yeah. We come from proximate worlds—she’s originally from New Zealand and I’m from Australia—but exhibit and work a fair amount overseas. I became familiar with her work through shows that were on in Sydney at galleries that I also work with, but strangely we did not meet until installing in the cold underground caverns of SculptureCenter. I took a break from my mess, walked around the corner and said “Hey I’m Marian” and she was like, “No way, I’m Kate.” When we finally met, it was lovely, there was a genuine appreciation of each other’s work. This year she is in the Sydney Biennale and I’ll work on some stuff in NYC so we will get to hang again. We’ve talked of doing a dreamy show together…”

LW: “So you were in New York recently, and you’ve been here before as well, right?”

MT: “Yes, I’ve been visiting New York since 2012 for things; first I came to present at a philosophy conference. And the next year, when I was running away from my PhD, I lived there for six months. I was pretty young and into seeing what the place was about. It’s a great city to drop out in, because there’s so much going on you don’t feel like you’re dropping out. I think those months were the most that I ever enjoyed the place— I had no agenda, so I could just go walking, do yoga, and see music. It was low pressure, though I ended up being in a couple of exhibitions before I left. Since then, I’ve come back to be in or curate shows.”

LW: “Tell me about your philosophy degree.”

MT: “It’s a Doctor of Philosophy, practice-led—…could be singular to Australian universities?”

LW: “So related to your art practice?”

MT: “Yes, very much. My PhD was on aesthetics and philosophy. Specifically how poor materiality, like found objects, images, or words play roles, as minor voices in artworks and mess with value. I wrote about practices that I learn from, philosophy, and my own work.”

LW: “So was it separate from your practice of making, or a chance to think through issues related to making?”

MT: “Yeah, I used direct examples from making to direct the questioning. Finding a voice for this can be tough but ultimately rewarding. It’s something that I hope continues to have a future in Australia, but I think we’ll be fighting for as long as cuts keep happening and the conservative government keeps being in place.”

Marian Tubbs, Abstract Sex, 2016, Installation view at the Bard Hessel Museum

LW: “If you had to say in a nutshell what you make, what do you make?”

MT: “I guess I look for objects and materials on- and offline that are not valued highly or thought through very much and by playing with them, I change this for myself, that’s the personal aspect, deepening my being in the world by relating to stuff. I think this is the nice affinity with Kate’s work. That we both go on walks and look at things and kind of see outside what objects are and can be.

I pull and push the ‘real’ into the virtual, or the ‘virtual’ into the real. For instance, I take a bad photograph of something, flatten it so it becomes a video assemblage, or the reverse: find something online and animate to give it a new narrative property, print it out and make a photo-sculpture. Right now I am heading toward some augmented reality stuff.”

LW: “Looking online at your work, it seemed like there is a dialogue with abstraction.”

MT: “Definitely, yeah. It’s funny, you know, it depends who you talk to whether your work is didactic or obscure—”

LW: “Or whether either of those qualities is desirable—”

MT: “Whether you need to have less narrative or, ‘Be less of a difficult artist, Marian.’ The linear and the non-linear I find interesting, because I think that’s where the poetry is. When the work is saying something overt, something that’s kind of really obvious, there’s another abstraction to it because it’s not necessarily me. Rather, I take floating statements, or memes that float around that I find I have some attraction to, but they’re abstract because simply appropriating does not literally communicate my opinion. This could be versus when you get the material or color just right, and it needs no explanation and you hope that someone gets that.”

Marian Tubbs, Contemporary Monsters, 2016, Installation view at Minerva, Sydney

LW: “What are you working on right now?”

MT: “Academic things. I’m writing a lecture that I’m giving loads of attention to because it’s a complicated subject, on queer digital art, or ‘queering the digital.’ This is a guest lecture for a theory course to a large cohort of students across fine arts, theory, design, and media. I’m doing very detailed research because I think it’s a) necessary, and b) I question if I’m even the one that should be giving such a lecture. But I do work with the digital and the feminine, and I’m also a massive fan of so, so many queer artists. I want to avoid presenting information that presents ‘queering’ as a co-optable methodology, so I’m excited for the complexity.

In terms of my own practice, I’m working on new sculptures, which are following on from some of the SculputreCenter’s works, creating these gestural objects and mosses with very fast curing glasses and resins. I’m creating these fairly weird pieces that are a cross in between the organic and plastics manufacturing. I’m also working on getting a studio.

I have a few shows coming up around Sydney, all quite different, curated and collaborative. A show in a curator couple’s house, a group exhibition with the gallery I work with here, Minerva, also another at a relatively young gallery called COMA, and a collaborative sculpture show—for which I am making work with a best friend. I have also just won an award, that I am going to use to assist in changing up my work. Instead of being immediately responsive, I’m going gestate on developing skills (digital and analog) and make a couple of exhibitions over the next while with longer investment.”

LW: “Are you making new work for these smaller shows?”

MT: “Yes. It’s exciting. It’s all in the starting processes right now, calling in favors, moving stuff around.”

LW: “Right. Have you had a studio before in Sydney? Why are you looking for a new one?”

MT: “Right now I live in a place for artists that has been subsidized by the city, and we all have to move in a month, so I have to find something. Even a desk space can be extraordinarily expensive in Sydney.”

LW: “What’s an ideal day like in the studio?”

MT: “I remember saying this when I used to have a studio: that it was simply half day in the studio, half day at the beach. The beach and water in general is productive for me, staring at the water all my thoughts can be emptied out. So ideally a sunrise beach swim, then get to the studio: think, stare at walls, play some music, read, figure stuff out, maybe organize some stuff. Return to the beach, run or yoga. Then do that again the next day—that would be the perfect life.”

Marian Tubbs, Contemporary Monsters, 2016, Installation view at Minerva, Sydney

LW: “It sounds good. I don’t know Sydney, but it sounds like you have the New York issues that we have with rent. One of my questions is: do you think it is more important for an artist to be in a big city like Sydney or New York where there’s a strong cultural scene with museums and galleries and opportunities but it’s expensive, or to be somewhere totally quiet—like the beach—where maybe the focus could just be on making?”

MT: “If I retreated, maybe that would be a sort of curiosity and people would continue to contact me, but there’s that drop out factor. I live in Sydney, rather than up north near water and family, because I earn a living here, so it feels kind of square at the moment. I don’t make work that sells immediately so I need to be employed—and I also find it very wonderful to work with young minds whose politics are fantastic, these conversations give me a lot of energy. I can’t speak for every artist—as the questions beckons—but there are indeed pros and cons to removing yourself from the circuit for sure. That said you can drop out in the city as well and stop being social.”

LW: “You said in passing that you don’t make work that sells, but you have been supported by different grants.”

MT: “Yes, over the last couple of years I received a couple of grants. Also sometimes pieces sell, mostly overseas and to institutions. Actually I’ve had unexpected and great support from commercial galleries. I just try to cover my ears sometimes—not hear too much—when they look at works and go ‘Oh, these will sell.’ I don’t want that to filter through as an impression impacting what I make next. That’s why I shaped my life so that teaching would be integral, so I could figure out a way to pay rent first and not get to a certain age feeling hungry that I needed to accelerate a career. If that makes sense.”

LW: “I know what you mean. It is just an interesting thing to function within that system and resist that system as well.”

MT: “Sure, and it’s not ever a refusal toward someone wanting to be with a work, take it home, or buy it—that’s such a pleasure for me. It’s about not overtly selling into a market but maybe creating new affections, we come back to challenging ascriptions of value here. And taking the risk to do this, means often as an artist, embarrassing myself or making things that don’t look like something that I recognize or have words for.”

Marian Tubbs, Untitled, 2016, Digital print on vinyl, acrylic, 50 × 60 cm

LW: “Who, or what, has influenced your practice?”

MT: “Well maybe this is two-fold. I find an ongoing silly dialogue with friends inspiring, being in touch with other peoples’ lives and chatting about trivial things while I’m doing things. There are possibilities now to be virtual with each other no matter what you’re doing or where. During day-to-day work, and when travelling, we keep joking and pushing each other, sharing generative conversations that could be read as Dada-ist, nonsensical, or neoliberal strategy. A massive sense of humor is super inspiring, because you can say, ‘Yes, you’re doing all of these things, but none of it really matters: its art and its funny and serious.’

In addition I read when I can and spend time thinking about stuff I don’t understand.

In terms of artists that inspire, I think of those who show moments of throwing absolutely everything at it. Those that have gone for the immortality of their work tend to capture me…”

LW: “I liked how you talked about how conversations with friends kept you going. Do you have a strong community in Sydney?”

MT: “Yes, the Sydney scene is very supportive and defiantly growing, no matter the lack of structural support. My convos are also international. As my work spread via the internet, I’ve found cute friends I have never physically met. Being fortunate to have had a few shows overseas and interstate, you meet the people you love and continue to talk to.”

Marian Tubbs, Contemporary Monsters, 2016, Digital video built with gaming technology (still), 6 min 10 sec

LW: “I wonder, do you think your work works well in an international circuit or is there a local element? I’m thinking about how you’re working so much with the internet and that’s the conceit of the internet: it’s this free, open international space. “

MT: “It should be, but it isn’t completely. In terms of the market, it favors material objects. There are obviously some name artists that have gotten through but deterritorialisation is a post-modern idea/fallacy; everything is still centralized and commerce happens in major cities. So conversations about your work can go to different places and that’s incredible, but also it is not a complete game changer. I am very much involved in my local community, but I wouldn’t say my work looks ‘Sydney’ or ‘Australian’ other than the fact that a lot of beach vibes seep into my works.”

LW: “Final question: when did you first think of yourself as an artist?”

MT: “I think I was in year three—that’s like when I was eight or nine years old. I did a drawing in class and I think it was good. I went home and I kept it and I realized drawing was knowledge, it was thinking. There was also some minor support, you know how family or faculty can see you are interested in something and praise you. It was that mix of doing something that I really loved with an inch of encouragement, and I was like, ‘That’s it then.’ ”

LW: “Great. Well, thank you for participating.”

MT: “A pleasure.”

Marian Tubbs, Vulgar Latin, 2014, Digital video (still), 5 min 39 sec

Repetitive Affect: Ragnar Kjartansson at the Reykjavik Art Museum

Ragnar Kjartansson, God I feel so bad, 2008

In addition to the many treats of my recent trip to Iceland, the Reykjavik Art Museum had the exhibition Ragnar Kjartansson: God, I Feel So Bad on view, the first museum exhibition of the performance artist in his home country. The extensive exhibition ranges over time and medium, from early drawings to elaborate recent performances. Its title, selected by the artist, comes from a 2008 drawing that is on display and suggests the mood of playful pathos that finds more performative expression in other works on display. Kjartansson says: “I like that title a lot. It’s both true and ironic, precisely the way I feel everything is. Duplicity is everywhere. The works all revolve around how bad I feel and how everybody feels bad, and how you try to giggle when you face the abyss.”

Woman in E, 2016-7 

Woman in E, 2016-7 

Cue the music. The tenor of the show is struck–literally–in the live performance Woman in E. I could hear the E-minor chord, resonating through the space, when I first entered the museum. As I made my way toward it, in one of the first rooms of the exhibition, I was confronted by fluttering gold steamers. They obscured my view of the plaintive noise source. Parting the gold curtain and entering, I discovered a woman in a gold-sequined gown standing on a rotating plinth of more gold streamers. At regular but not rhythmic intervals, she struck the E-minor chord of her gold Fender electric guitar. The jolt from each note is strong and individual rather than forming a melody. E-minor has thoughtful, melancholic connotations. The statuesque presence of a women on a pedestal and the title suggest a synesthesia between music and visual art, between the works of classical composers and classical sculpture. A rotating cast of local performers enact this spectacle until September 3, when it will be replaced by another performance.

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Kjartansson is an increasingly well-known artist internationally, with solo exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Palais de Tokyo in Paris, New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and the Guggenheim Museum Balboa. In 2009, he became the youngest artist to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale, and his S.S. Hangover project sailed across the Harlem Meer as part of Creative Time’s 2015 “Drifting in Daylight: Art in Central Park” exhibition. Kjartansson’s work has been said to combine theater with experiments in repetition and endurance, as a piece like Woman in E suggests. Affect can mean an instinctual reaction to stimulation rather than the result of a complex intellectual process, and it suggests the sensory and emotional realms. The works on view in the exhibition are often repetitive but always affective. The combination productively undermines, intensifies, and calls into question the relation of the one quality to the other. Does the repetition nullify the affective qualities? Or does it mount to an ever more intense catharsis? Is the work of art a saving grace or a hollow gesture?

Installation shot, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Four-channel video

Installation shot, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Four-channel video

Kjartansson himself has said: “All the longing to make something great — but it’s never great; it’s always mediocre. And I just love that. I just love it when human beings are trying to achieve something and it sort of doesn’t happen. I think it’s the ultimate human moment.” That ethos is on view upstairs, in the most complex work in the show, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist. Filmed in Vienna in 2015 with a crew of friends and family, the four-channel video installation documents some twenty hours of an attempt to perform Halldór Laxness’s novel World Light. Against handmade backdrops, we see actors waiting, idle chatter, the rap of the clapperboard starting a scene, the performance of the scene until finished–or until a line is flubbed, a laugh erupts, and the scene begins again. Kjartansson is there too, seen in shots directing or interrupting the scene, in a trademark white tux, with hair slicked back, like a 1950s crooner. Happening concurrently on four large facing screens in a darkened room, its impossible to watch them all, much less discover the plot. The action is that of the group filming rather than the novel itself, but even that lacks a narrative arc. Rather, it shows the seemingly endless process of filming. It’s point is perhaps that flawed striving for an elusive transcendent, in this case the transformative art experience. The human realm reaches up for the exalted work of art, but it lies just beyond the grasp, like the plot of the novel for the viewer.

In the final room of the show, whose noise echoes out into the hallway where it competes with the softly throbbing E from the other part of the building, is an ongoing screening of A Lot of Sorrow (2013-14). It is a recorded performance of the band The National playing their 3-minutes song “Sorrow” for six hours in front of a live audience at MoMA PS1, and it solidifies the idea that endurance is required. The experience of watching it is like having an earworm (a song that gets stuck in your head). You kind of like it, then you tire of it, but it keeps popping back up. It begins to sound different and you start to hear all the possible nuance and inflection. Sorrow is a conceit that Kjartansson has tackled before. Is it cathartic to repeat the exploration of such full-fledged emotion? The emotive lyrics of the song become emptier, as with repetition one is reminded that they are sung by rote rather than by real feeling. It reminds how lyrics are indexical, a pointing back at some original feeling, even if they feel real when performed. And yet, to keep going, to keep singing, suggests a kind of faith in absolution, a belief in the act of singing and the artifice of catharsis as truly valuable.

On view at the Reykjavik Art Museum through September 24, 2017.

A Humble Humor: Maria Nepomuceno and Lucas Blalock at Sikkema Jenkins

Installation view, More Simply Put, Sikkema Jenkins & Co Gallery

More Simply Put, a group exhibition up at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in Chelsea through June 30, brings together the work of artists working in different mediums and traditions but with a common aesthetic of rich color, nuance, and a love of embellishment and humor. Work by Lucas Blalock, Arturo Herrera, Sheila Hicks, and Maria Nepomuceno toy with the viewer and each other across the gallery space.

Installation view, More Simply Put, Sikkema Jenkins & Co Gallery

Together they emphasize the humor and joy of using humble materials, often from or recalling the everyday. The clearly manipulated photographic images of Lucas Blalock (above left) help the viewer see how Arturo Herrera’s multilayered paintings (above center), rather than being straightforward abstractions, assert the process of their making and recall the layers of manipulation as in Photoshop. A jumbled aesthetic of piling on more and more is paramount in three-dimensional space in Maria Nepomuceno’s sculptural assemblages (above right) but exists equally in the two-dimensional works hanging around it. Given the different generations and geographies that the artists are coming from, the coherence of the show is all the more a pleasant surprise.

Installation view, More Simply Put, Sikkema Jenkins & Co Gallery

Beaded and bulging, the sculptures of Maria Nepomuceno delighted me, recalling toys and the surreal, penetration and sexual organs; they are objects of excess and subversion rather than utility. The artist relies on Brazilian craft traditions and unexpected materials to create these organic forms, which seem to multiply out like mushrooms or spores. Made by a woman artist and incorporating craft, textile, and humble materials in her work, these funny nightmares also prod one to consider the valences of “women’s work” in today’s society.

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Photographs by Lucas Blalock contradict the evidentiary nature of photography with their patent manipulation. Reliance on recognizable Photoshop textures, flat layering, unnaturally sharp edges create impossible pictures. This tension with the real is amplified by, for example, a shadow cast at an impossible angle. These still lifes become poignant through signs like the tragi-comic message “sigh” imprinted on a balloon or a colorful jumble of erasers and pom-poms that claims another kind of art making. The images are heaped with quotidian objects and textures, highlighting the constructive nature of the image and reveling in its potential.

Non verbis, sed rebus, 2014

Arts and Crafts, 2015

The lively play with common objects in both the works of Nepomuceno and Blalock, as well as the more serious intellectual investigation that the artists participate in, is all the richer for appearing alongside one another and others in the gallery. More Simply Put is on view at Sikkema Jenkins through June 30, 2017.