In ELLE

My last two bits of writing for ELLE came out last month and this month. The October issue had my travel piece on Shanghai and this month, the magazine has a power list that includes artists Alexandre Singh and Yamini Nayar. I mention those two because I wrote their profiles.

Since both Alexandre and Yamini took the time to give very thoughtful answers, I’m putting up the transcripts of the two interviews. Enjoy.

Alexandre Singh

A slide from Alexandre Singh’s Assembly Instructions.

What does art mean to you?

Everything and yet nothing. It’s part of the wonderful horror of being alive. It helps, but does it help enough? And there you have the question for another work of art.
How did your interest in art begin? Were there artists whose work inspire you to become an artist?
My maternal grandmother was an artist. She painted, she read very widely. It was through her that I first came across art house cinema. I remember quite clearly being at her house when I was only ten or eleven and popping in a videocassette of Interiors . It was a little over my head. But I really loved it. My grandmother was the only person in my family with a truly creative bent, and I’d have to say that it was through her that that whole side of life was opened up to me. I have very fond memories of the time I spent with her.
Why did you choose the idea of a discourse or lecture as your chosen medium? What, for you, is the role and purpose of a storyteller? 
A lecture is a nice medium to work within. It has its own rules and conventions. The audience has certain expectations going in. Expectations that you can either fulfill or confound. In the same way that a poet might like to work in a preconceived format like the sonnet; one doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time one does a lecture. Importantly it’s also intimate and economic. One isn’t expected to reveal spectacular stage mechanics or pyrotechnics. So you can have a lot of fun using just simple words and images. ‘What is the purpose of a storyteller?’ To entertain. Perhaps to prod a little as well. To encourage people to think a little differently about the world, but never without being entertaining. That’s very important.

Is Alexandre the storyteller a persona that you’ve crafted using everything from the way you speak to the props you use?
As a persona, Alexandre the storyteller is just a more lively and engaging version of myself. Also he scrubs up pretty well. Perhaps the most important part of the process is donning the suit and tie just before I perform. It has a jolting psychological effect. I imagine it’s the same for an athlete when they put on their kit. It’s quite special. Unfortunately you can’t abuse it. If you wear the suit too often, the associated energy dissipates. That probably explains the perennial malaise one always encounters in corporate offices.

There’s the saying, “Trust the tale, not the teller.” Do you agree with that?
It’s a snappy little aphorism isn’t it? I wonder if its persuasiveness lies in its use of alliteration? Like that maxim Borges complained about: ‘traduttoretraditore.’ Translator, traitor. “Trust the tale, not the teller.” It convinces in its economy of expression. It implies some kind of binary opposition: We must either slavishly kowtow to the author’s intentions or conversely disregard everything he or she says. In reality—I hope—we can be a little more nuanced. I’m personally always curious to read about any artist’s feelings or insights into their own work. Just as I like to pour over the introduction to a book; the footnotes; the blurb on the back of the dvd. Context makes the whole thing more enjoyable. In preparation for a discussion in Paris I’m doing this October, I’ve spent the last couple of months reading a great many interviews with Woody Allen. It’s been highly enjoyable and given me many insights into aspects of his work I hadn’t fully understood or had previously thought about differently. And it’s not that he always says the same thing. Like all of us (and especially Republican politicians these days)—he’s apt to contradict himself from time to time. But we’re all free to draw whatever thoughts we like from any of his films. As they love to say in America: it’s a free country. Why should a novel or a painting be any different?

What I do find perhaps a little disingenuous about that phrase though is the word ‘trust’. It’s begging the question, don’t you think? Why should we trust either of them? When we say ‘trust’ I don’t think we mean: would you rather lend money to Marcel Proust or to your paperback copy of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu.’ The latter being a notorious philanderer and embezzler. I think we’re rather saying does a book, or sculpture, or film, have one definitive meaning set in stone? Perhaps in a high school English exam. Thankfully the rest of the time, it’s what you will.

Is a picture really worth a thousand words?
I believe it’s more like five and a half thousand no-space characters.

Do the places you’re living and/or working in impact your work?
Not as much as you might think. I’ve been working for the last six months in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. A lovely city, but not quite the same as Paris or New York, where I was last year. My routine is very similar though. I write in the day; work in the studio in the evening. In that sense I could be anywhere really. My work is a very interior experience. Both in a literal and figurative sense. I enjoy winter; short days; overcast skies. It’s quite conducive to the imagination. When I’m working, I like to shut myself in the house, draw the curtains close. Which is why I don’t think I’d like to live somewhere with a consistently balmy sunny climate. But I could be wrong! I’ll have to try it someday.

How important is an audience for a work of art? What is the role the audience? Do you feel an artist should woo an audience or is the onus upon the audience to establish a connection with a work of art?
Well I would say it’s always pleasant to be seduced. I’d rather read a book whose prose is lively and articulate than something that’s dry and obscure. But there are so many different audiences with different levels of engagement, different cultural reference points. Aristophanes in 405 BC was a hoot. Today it takes a little more work for the reader to really enjoy it. Which I think they would if they give it a go. I don’t think that it’s really this dynamic of work of art vs viewer that’s truly important. That all depends on what you want to achieve and in what context. I would say that it’s a real shame that less and less of the audience (in the largest sense of the word: all of us really) is an active participant in culture. Less people who listen to classical music play an instrument than used to be the case. The same is true of theatre, drawing, writing. It’s more a culture of consumption than participation. Of professionals rather than amateurs. Believe me, one looks at paintings very differently when you’ve actually tried doing it yourself. I think the experience of art of all kind is much richer, and more nuanced when it escapes the frame of: ‘I like this’; ‘I don’t like that’; but actually relates to one’s own experience of making. Of course one of the reasons that there’s been this transformation is that culture has become less elitist, less rarefied. Which is naturally a good thing. So there’s no easy answers. But I would like to see more people making things themselves.

Is there a process by which you piece together your narratives?
Scissors and glue. A lot of cutting and pasting. I take a lot of ideas from other works by other people. Not wholesale, often just a single element will spark a creative interpretation, or misinterpretation. I work quite slowly, it takes a long time for something to finally accrete into the right elements that will make it work. I’ll be pondering over an idea all the time; for days, weeks; years sometimes. Which is why deadlines are good! If it wasn’t for those, I’d probably never finish anything at all.

Are there any future projects/ ideas you’re working on now?
Indeed. I’m working at the moment on a theatre play that I’m writing and directing entitled, The Humans. It’s a re-imagining of the creation of the universe: an alternative mythological story, a little inspired by the plays of Aristophanes. It’ll debut at the Schouwburg Rotterdam in September 2013. It’ll also play at BAM in New York in November 2013 as part of the Performa Biennial. It’s very much a work in progress, so I can’t say too much about it at the moment. But I hope it will amuse, entertain and prod.

Yamini Nayar

How important was art for you as a child?
I was always tinkering and making things as a child. My mother very much encouraged a sense of creativity, she herself was a painter, as was my aunt, through in their daily lives, each was a psychologist and psychiatrist respectively. I grew up very aware of the power and impact of art. The maternal side of my family are all very expressive beings, passionate and idealistic. My grandmother was a jatra actor, a Bengali form of folk-theatre, and I remember her bringing this into even the everyday aspects of my life. Mundane activities like washing dishes and doing laundry became perfect backdrops for impromptu magical breaks.

One of my early experiences though, and still favorite places to be, is Diego Rivera’s mural Detroit Industry at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I remember seeing it for the first time with my mother when I was about 5 and being completely mesmerized.

What does art mean to you?
Wow, this is a huge question. Let’s see.. To me, art is something, anything, that grows my thinking about life. It infuses life with meaning in ways I couldn’t previously foreseen. It reveals the glimmers of light and depths of despair hidden beneath the folds of daily life. Art communicates and moves us to think anew and experience deeper understandings of the world around us and ourselves. It shows us where we’ve been, it carves where we are going.

How has your process changed over the years?
My process of working blends two genres, sculpture and photography, and intersects with architecture. I first began working in this way thirteen years ago while completing my BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and it stemmed from a desire to explore the ways in which photography mediates memory within our personal environments. This culminated in a series ‘Detroit 1974’, which depicted the fictional interiors of immigrant homes in the U.S.. Over the years, my work has shifted from literal spaces to environments that hover somewhere between the representational and the abstract, and how narrative integrates with form. Within architectural space, this could mean the surfaces and architectonics of a space. I am interested in the ways architecture is experienced and remembered, and when it bridges into metaphor or becomes psychologically charged. Our surroundings shape us and simultaneously, we shape them. I’m interested in the ways in which photography can imagine our spaces.

Underfoot and Overhead, 2008.

Your practice of collecting bits and pieces and then ultimately destroying the creations you photograph adds a certain poignancy to your photographs. Why do you destroy them?
I destroy them because it would be like walking through a film set after having fallen in love with the cinematic moment. My sculptures are never meant to be seen as works in themselves. Frankly, my creative life culminates in large sheets of color photographic paper. I am much more interested in bringing images into the world than actual objects. They are doorways into alternate worlds that flirt with actuality, and I find this idea extremely seductive.

What has been your greatest influence as an artist?
I’ve been deeply influenced by theorists who explore space and anything to do with migration, displacement and alternate histories. Homi Bhabha, Walter Benjamin’s Dialectic Image, Edward Soja’s Third Space, Marc Auge´’s non-places, Kobena Mercer, Svelana Boym’s Architecture of the Off Modern – have all impacted my thoughts and work in one way or another.

From a personal point, connecting psychological space with architecture emerged from an early experience of watching my childhood home being built when we first moved to Detroit. My father and I used to visit every couple days to watch the house be constructed, growing from the ground up, piece by piece. I remember feeling very aware of the moment’s significance – as if the construction of this house had a deeper and symbolic resonance for our family and future, an act of becoming. I didn’t quite necessarily understand, but did recognize this.

If you had to pinpoint the moment when you felt you’d “arrived” as an artist, what would it be?
Some years ago, my work received a tiny mention in a big newspaper and the critic had used the word ‘penumbral’ when describing my work. It was one of my first reviews, and I had to actually look up the meaning of ‘penumbral’, but I was thrilled.

How important is the camera that you use to the works you create?
Hugely important. The camera is integral to my work, the sculptures are built to be experienced through a certain point of view, a single perspective. The physical constructions are fragile, held together in odd ways, and never meant to be transported or thought of as objects in themselves. Each photograph is the punctuation of a longer process, and emerges after the sculpture is discarded. You could say the lens plays the role of a translator as well as documentarian, acting as a bridge between the three dimensional object and flattened image. In other words, what was once physical is reconciled within the photograph.

Is the idea of a narrative within a work important to you?
Narrative is something that drives me in my work, but not in the traditional sense. I’m interested in the ways that different narratives come together in one site, and the role the photograph plays in that situation. The photograph does many things – it documents, manipulates, translates, destroys, seals a moment. My work is quite labor intensive, and has much to do with the hand and the act itself of constructing a space. My works are often based on found images from historical archives. The act of ‘rebuilding’ the space via the architectonics of subjectivity plays with a kind of narrative that focuses on the process of starting a space, bringing it to its own fruition, and sealing this moment with a photograph.

That said, there is a photographic moment in this self-imposed narrative that I am reaching for. Like the point in Freytag’s pyramid of dramatic storytelling in which the arc reaches its climax and the narrative is both heightened and suspended, if even for a moment, but not independent from its near past or future.

Have your inspirations changed over the years?
Yes and no. An old professor once told me we have a few obsessions that will stay with us, which I find to be true. My work stems from a deep interest in architecture, memory and narrative. The motivation behind my spaces has developed from immigrant homes to ruins to American mid-century structures and public spaces. Much of the impetus in my recent work is in finding a way into this history. Lately, I’ve been spending time with the images of Julius Schulman, photographer of mid-century modernist architecture.

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