C. Spencer Yeh performing at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2014. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski.

C. Spencer Yeh is a New York–based artist and musician who is well known for his voice-based performances. For the past twenty years he has recorded as Burning Star Core and under his given name. His new ten-track record, Solo Voice I – X, was released this month by Primary Information as an LP in an edition of 500. He will perform the record in entirety at Artists Space on June 23, 2015, as part of a 2015 residency at ISSUE Project Room.

I’VE USED MY VOICE in a lot of other recordings, and for years I had been saying—or threatening—that I would do an all-voice record. A one-instrument album is a tradition in free jazz—the solo saxophone record being a common example. In musical genres like that, whatever instrument you get associated with immediately becomes your spirit animal in a way. Originally, I was more associated with the violin, which is the instrument I could never get away from. As a teenager I ignored it until it crawled to the corner and disappeared. The violin returned to me when I felt my training had sufficiently collapsed so I could build something new. I was never trained in voice but felt fascinated by it drawn toward using it. Pinballing between speaking English and Chinese as a child was my training, perhaps.

When I started using my voice, it was a lot more outward, animated, and physical than playing violin. I was pushing air out, and it was more about projecting. A few years ago, though, I started becoming interested in inward vocal sounds made by inhaling, or the sounds that are closer to yourself—incidental sounds. I was using a bunch of pedals and effects on the violin in my work, but then I thought, I feel like all I’m hearing are the effects. So I decided I wasn’t going to use any effects, and it became about volume, about using amplification as a magnifying glass and using the microphone as an instrument as well. It made for a very dry sound and pushed me to figure out how to work within that limitation. Sometimes a track sounds like a swarm of bees or a ghost ship pushing through ice, but it’s just my voice, unaltered.

C. Spencer Yeh, “Excerpts from VII and III,” 2015. From his album Solo Voice I – X.

I first got hooked on the use of voice when I was younger and into Japanese noise and noise rock ŕ la Boredoms. Yamatsuka Eye was one of the first voices that hooked me, and I think part of it was that his approach felt particularly free. From there I moved into modern practitioners like Henri Chopin and Jaap Blonk, noted performers of text-based sound poetry and composition. Joan La Barbara, a vocalist and composer around New York––her record Voice Is the Original Instrument moves beyond typical speaking in tongues. To me, it seemed like she was trying to turn voice into just another sound, texture, or instrument.

I was thinking about how to abstract the voice without running it through some effects box, because, again, when you do that, it sounds like the box. I wanted to get rid of those brackets of breath between sounds that define a phrase, that define a unit of speech. Those pauses give the listener assurance that the sound is legible as language. I was interested in how you might dismantle language: How do you destroy it or disempower it? Vocals are usually number one in a mix, and they are supposed to be commanding, but why does this one thing always have to be the most powerful?

— As told to Paige K. Bradley

My Barbarian


My Barbarian Double Agency production still. Photo: Robbie Acklen.

Making fun may be our best strategy for survival. Or at least the best way to stay cool in the heat of the in-between, the space of interruption where My Barbarian does their most incisive work. Here the notorious collective—founded in 2000 by Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade—talks about “Double Agency,” a multipart, multimedia project built on and around the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the institution’s fiftieth anniversary this month. A Double Agency performance featuring My Barbarian with Robbie Acklen, Nao Bustamante, Jibz Cameron, and Adam Dugas takes place at LACMA on Tuesday, April 28 at 7:30 PM.

BACK IN 2013, Rita Gonzales and Christine Y. Kim invited us to make a performance celebrating LACMA’s fiftieth anniversary. We knew that our project, “Double Agency,” would have to be more than a one-time performance and so we also made a four-part web series and twelve masks, a bait-and-switch that sort of defines the work’s logic as a whole.

The three of us grew up going to LACMA. The museum has plans to replace much of its campus with a new, singular building, and one thing that interested us, aside from the fact that the buildings we grew up with are coming down, was the ersatz nature of the place. You can read the architecture archaeologically: The buildings’ shapes and materials tell you the history, and this suggested to us a kind of time travel, like watching a bunch of episodes of Doctor Who back to back. It also looks like a movie set, something like the old MGM lot where you had ancient Rome next to a town in the Wild West.

Given the resource of this “studio lot” and the way we ourselves inhabit an in-between space in the museum as artists who make experiences as well as objects, we decided to explore the spy-movie genre—a form where things aren’t as they seem and people have multiple, competing allegiances. We began a web series to be shot at LACMA that we would release prior to the performance. After working together for fifteen years, we know that you make a performance and then it’s done and all you have is documentation that may not even be watchable. But TV is always supposed to be watchable.

Working with the curators, we researched LACMA’s collection of masks and selected examples from the Mesoamerican, Asian, African, and Ancient Western collection, uncrating and photographing them so that we could make our own LACMA show. Using prop-making techniques from theater and Hollywood, we created exact forgeries of twelve of them. These will be shown at the final performance, which is a song-cycle masquerading as an art opening, a video shoot pretending to be a performance, an exhibition called “Masks of the World”—at which they will be stolen.

My Barbarian, Double Agency: Episode One: The Viewer and the Viewed, 2015.

We watch a lot of TV, and while there are echoes of experimental films, performances, and videos in this project, the first three seasons of Mission: Impossible (1966–69) were very much on our mind. The Cold War milieu, the duplicitous LA backdrop, the obsession with technology that looks like one thing but does something else, and the political dress-up of the characters who work for a non-governmental spy organization all connected with us because in many ways, as intermedia artists in the twenty-first century, we have that job too.

In a way the “Double Agency” project, from webisodes to masks to live performance, is all television. The title becomes both a pseudonym for My Barbarian and a description of how we work among fields of cultural production. As black-box theatricalists who snuck into the white cube, we are double agents, serving our own idiosyncratic interests even as we collaborate with institutions to serve the “public,” a designation rife with contradictions in the museum context, one which we have designs on exceeding.

The characters were modeled on those played by Gregg Morris, Barbara Bain, and Peter Graves in the original Mission: Impossible, but since we never “act” in our work, we used these models to adapt our own personae. Malik Gaines becomes Agent Mike Games, who sets out on a mission to infiltrate the elite Non-White Commission on European Beauty and Excellence. Jade Gordon is Agent Jazz Jordan, who accesses the museum offices by pretending to be Franka Petersen, a non-contemporary art curator whose hypnotic exhibition “Masks of the World” is designed to spread a favorable ideology. And Alexandro Segade is Agent Alonzo Degrassi, who assumes the identity of a security guard to expose another impostor in a dangerous mission that will bring him into conflict with the very question of life itself.

The three of us joke a lot together; double-entendres and bad puns are often the seeds for works to come. Many of the artists who inspire us—Eleanor Antin, Asco, Jack Smith, Lorraine O’Grady, Ann Magnuson, Vaginal Davis, Andrea Fraser, Coco Fusco—are funny, even as their satires scathe. But we are also interested in making work that has a kind of beauty that comes from loving the flawed constructions people make to represent themselves. We revel in the baroque trappings of genre. We wear wigs for a lot of reasons. So the joke’s on us too.

— As told to David Velasco

Joan Jonas


Joan Jonas, Reanimation, 2014. Performance view, HangarBicocca, Milan.

Born in New York in 1936, Joan Jonas is a pioneer of video and performance art, known for her continuous and seamless merging of cutting-edge technology with historic, ancient, and often ineffable source material. Her latest work, They Come to Us without a Word, 2015, will debut at the US pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. The piece, which Jonas discusses here, incorporates videos, drawings, objects, and sound and extends her investigation into the writings of Halldór Laxness. For more, check out artforum.com’s video of excerpts from this interview. The fifty-sixth edition of the Venice Biennale runs from May 9 to November 22, 2015.

I MOVED BACK TO NEW YORK in the mid-1960s to pursue an MFA in sculpture from Columbia University. I was married at the time, and we had an apartment on the Upper East Side. My ex-husband was a friend of Henry Geldzahler’s, so we were connected in an indirect way to all the downtown events. For instance, I first heard La Monte Young in those years, which had a deep impression on me. Not long after, I decided to switch from sculpture to performance, having been inspired by works I’d seen by Living Theater, Lucinda Childs, and Claes Oldenburg, among others. I also began taking workshops from dancers—Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Steve Paxton—because I wanted to learn how to become a performer and to move in front of an audience. The switch didn’t seem like a big change because, like other artists in that era, I became interested in combining different aspects of the time-based arts—for me, dance and film—to create my own language. It was also important to me to reference literature and poetry. It still is.

I wanted to have my performances last, and that’s why I started making videos. From the beginning I worked with video and I thought of the medium in terms of what is peculiar to it, as compared with film. My early work had an immediate and positive response. Although the audiences were small, word spread very quickly.

Frankly, I never liked the term performance art, as it limits people. It’s like a lot of women don’t want to say their work is “feminist” even though it might be—my first few works were certainly affected by the women’s movement. I think that one’s work continues to be affected and one continues to be concerned with such issues. You don’t forget them and you don’t leave them out; it’s just that they are no longer focused on in a particular way.

At certain times I recycle some of my early videos. For instance, in Reanimation, 2014, I use Disturbances, 1974, which was shot in a swimming pool, though in Reanimation it is more about representing a watery world. While working on my new piece for Venice, which deals with ghost stories that come out of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—an area I’ve visited and lived in since the ’70s—I suddenly saw that I’ve made visual references to ghostlike images for years without thinking of them as ghosts.

From the beginning I was interested in the people and landscape of Nova Scotia. I’ve always been attracted to mythology and folktales, and when we first went there I loved that the older people still believed in ghosts and told stories about magical things that happened in nature. I was very drawn to that culture. Also the fiddle music from there is beautiful. For the Venice piece, nearly all the background footage is from Cape Breton, which I shot over various years. It interests me to mix different video technologies, to compare the way things looked then with how they might look now.

I made a video last summer with my dog wearing a GoPro in Cape Breton and mixed it with footage from two other video cameras that I had. It interested me to see that footage against the other format. In the ’90s I shot videos that I never used, of young women performing in the landscape of Nova Scotia. I do a lot of that kind of work when I’m there, and I don’t necessarily use it. But in a strange way it fit perfectly into this current project, and so I like very much seeing this square format all of a sudden appear in the present rectangular format. I find it very interesting to see those technologies intercut with one another. I think it’s part of the process.

I’ll go to Canada again in August. It will be the first summer in which I won’t have an immediate deadline of new work. I’ve gone through many stages of processing for this Venice project—doubting, being excited when it was accepted, and then being scared that I couldn’t more or less come up to the task of being in that spotlight, which is what it is. It is quite complex to be representing a nation. It’s the most focused upon show in my experience. But now that my work is almost ready in the pavilion, I am simply happy to be here, without thinking on what it means to represent the United States. Of course I am excited to be selected; it is a great privilege, and I made the piece with this place in the back of my mind. It is wonderful to be in the context of the Biennale with so many good artists past and present. I most enjoy seeing new work by others, being able to do a new piece myself, and to have people see it all.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler

René Frölke, Le beau danger , 2014, DCP, black-and-white and color, sound, 100 minutes.

Two films from German director René Frölke will screen on April 22, 2015 in New York as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center series Art of the Real 2015. The feature-length Le beau danger (2014), which Frölke primarily discusses here, gives a present-day portrait of Romanian author Norman Manea, who has lived in exile for many years in the US; the medium-length Guided Tour (2011) presents a 2008 trip taken by German president Horst Köhler to the HfG Karlsruhe, a fine arts university, where he observes similarities between art and politics.

IN BOTH OF THESE FILMS, I’m interested in exploring how something is said, how communication between people is structured in public, and how that communication fails or succeeds. I think that they both try to trace the frame within which our common cultural narratives appear. The feature film’s title comes from a book-length interview with Michel Foucault, conducted by Claude Bonnefoy. Foucault addresses the problem of an author and his work being often confused for each other and calls this confusion “le beau danger.”

I had been asked to do the camerawork for a film about Norman Manea, which I eventually also directed. During the course of preparing myself, I read two of his novels and several of his short stories (all in translation). I was intrigued by his oeuvre’s autobiographical base and by his elliptical form of writing. I wondered how a way could be found to represent both the man and his art. I also felt that this very autobiographical aspect of his work would make it possible to do the film.

My idea was to use individual texts as scaffolding for the film’s dramatic structure. After I observed that interviews conducted with Norman would always focus on his childhood, I thought that I had to look especially for the literary counterparts to his answers. During the first half of the film, title cards sometimes appear presenting the short story “We Might Have Been Four” (originally published in 1981), in which four people are placed in a forest weighted with ambiguity. Strangely, these characters are bound to each other exactly because they are steering apart from each other by following their own individual paths and longings. The story is told from the perspective of a young man, but somewhere behind his words the author also becomes visible. In the second half of Le beau danger, I chose a different approach. The excerpts that appear there from Norman’s novel The Black Envelope (originally published in 1986) are much more broken up and fragmentary, and they register less as telling a tale than as creating an atmosphere.

Trailer for René Frölke’s Le Beau Danger, 2014

In general, my intention was to build an associative movement between intercalated elements—these cards containing Norman’s writings and my firsthand footage of the man. I decided to use both a video camera with synced sound and a 16-mm wind-up camera that produces a maximum of twenty-four seconds per take. I found black-and-white celluloid to be most adequate to creating a portrait of Norman, with the video camera’s color images working in counterpoint to the analog approach. The mix of means with which I observed him derived from his writing style, for which I wanted to find a filmic analogy.

I believe that in film one stylistic component should always question another, with each holding its own intelligibility. Sometimes a scene in Le beau danger simply didn’t need sound, and cutting out the audio would create intriguing irritations that could intensify the process of reading the information on-screen. The written text in particular had to be visible as tissue. This is so much the case that we have created different versions of Le beau danger, with words appearing printed in English, French, German, or Spanish, depending upon where it is being screened.

All these choices allow me to rethink the forms that I’m using in cinema, a game in which I hope spectators can also take part. Making a film is a way of thinking about and reflecting on something, a process that is worth at least as much as the final result.

— As told to Aaron Cutler

Left: Marilyn Minter, PLUSH #18, 2014, archival inkjet print, 19 x 13“. Right: Marilyn Minter, Green Light, 2015, enamel on metal, 90 x 60”.

Marilyn Minter is well known for her works that explore the intersections of desire, feminism, and representation. Her upcoming retrospective,Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty,” which is cocurated by Bill Arning and Elissa Auther, includes paintings, photography, and videos from the past forty years and will be on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston from April 18 to August 2, 2015, before travelling to the MCA Denver, the Orange County Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.

I WANT TO SEDUCE MY VIEWER WITH PLEASURE. Art is most interesting when it’s conceptually and visually provocative—disturbing, even! I experience a strong feeling of both pleasure and shame when I look at glamorous images in fashion magazines, and it’s this contradictory moment that I find interesting. My work is invested in making an image of what all those different layers of reaction feel like. I’m interested in making the kinds of images that are sidelined or erased in our culture, and I like to push them a little further. When I’m shooting I look for that one errant hair, or the spit strands that form when you open your mouth, or hair on the top of your lip. I like freckles, sweat, pubic hair, pimples, and wrinkles, but these attributes are erased in magazines. We pay a lot of attention to the way we look and the way we present ourselves to others, and that’s not a shallow endeavor. It’s how we recognize each other. (Even not paying attention to these things is a way to show tribal belonging.) Fashion and beauty is a powerful, billion-dollar industry and we can’t pretend it doesn’t mean anything. Cocteau once said, “One must forgive fashion everything because it dies so young.”

When I made my “Porn Grid” series in 1989—for which I got half of my images from Bill Arning’s porn collection—we had been through the first and second waves of feminism, and I took for granted that women could embrace our own images for our own pleasure. I was shocked by the negative reaction to those works at the time. I was accused of being complicit in sexism and was stunned by the idea that a woman owning sexual imagery could be taken so negatively. For me it was a way of empowering myself. Nobody has politically correct fantasies. I was a pro-sex feminist, and I assumed everybody thought just like I did. I understand where the fearful reaction to the work came from, though, because I was trying to reclaim and repurpose these images from an abusive and exploitative history. There is a history of this: If you’re a young woman artist and you’re working with sexual imagery, it makes people crazy. But they’ll love it if you’re old. When Tracey Emin showed her early sexually provocative pieces, academics were repelled by the work. Now that she’s older, those same pieces are seen as powerful and she’s been embraced by the art world. Another example is the Mapplethorpe photograph of Louise Bourgeois holding the giant phallus. If she had been young, I bet the reaction wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic. Look at what happens when Miley Cyrus does that kind of stuff —she’s slut-shamed. The double standard makes me sick.

I’m supportive of young women working with any kind of sexual imagery. Women deserve images for their own pleasure, and they should manufacture them themselves. I think the work of Sandy Kim and Petra Collins, as well as anyone else whose work is involved in the feminine grotesque, is a backlash to the cultural ideal that is foisted on women, especially young women. The culture industry creates these impossible robotic ideals through Photoshop and editing the human body. Kim’s and Collins’s work is an important counterweight to the images we're inundated with every day. It is a punk rebellion, and it's about time.

— As told to Alex Fialho

Guan Xiao


Guan Xiao, The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture, 2012, mixed media, 110 1/4 x 90 1/2 x 82 5/8". New Museum, New York.

Guan Xiao (关小), a Beijing-based artist, is known for her mixed-media works that incorporate images and videos sourced online. Her installation The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture, 2012, which juxtaposes camera and surveillance equipment with fake artifacts, is currently on view in third New Museum Triennial, “Surround Audience,” which is on view in New York through May 24, 2015. Here she discusses the evolution of this work.

SINCE MY FIRST SOLO SHOW at Magician Space in Beijing, my work has attempted to use various means of weaving to convey my comprehension of my surroundings—which could be economic, climatic, cinematic, or musical. The key point I am interested in is what kind of methods will convey my understanding of those surroundings. There is an understanding that my work is “post-Internet,” but I don’t love this term. When people are on the Internet, their sensations are compressed into only two dimensions: sight and hearing, that is, picture and voice. Many of my video works make use of the relation and combination of these two dimensions and pass along richer meaning.

In addition, I have developed a stubborn perspective on the “new” and the “old”: What we consider today as new or advanced things are actually things that are ancient or unknown. The incomprehension of the past and unknowns gives rise to intriguing discussion in the present. That’s why I have been prone to putting these extreme things together—the old and new—and making them work together.

I admit that my approach for making videos is quite different from how I make sculpture. For my videos, I have to have a clear idea before I start working; when I work on my sculptures, however, a random feeling always comes prior to the plan—a starting point could just be a subtle sense from an object. My working processes for these two media stride from two ends toward a balanced state in the middle. The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture was a remarkable turning point for me. I realized that, for example, I’d like to place something very new and something very old together. I chose to work with camera tripods. In the beginning I didn’t think about their meaning as objects. I began to think about their physical structures—apparently they are functional, industrial-designed structures, but for me they are a more traditional, classic form. Then I attempted to deal with these objects as if people touched them. This approach imbues the objects with a strong sense of individual existence. Finally, I placed a backdrop behind all these objects, which offers a correlation of seeing and being seen, like in a photo studio. This is also an important element of my sculptural practice: It should always have multiple layers.

I think I belong to the old school, even though I can easily take interest in new things. But only if these things offer me something “constant” that can stir up a kind of true feeling for me. I could not gain any understanding from new things if they lacked this constancy. From this point of view, I guess I am more like an observer: ready to betray this world, while always being loyal to it in my own way.

Translated from Chinese by Qianxi Liu (刘倩兮).

— As told to Yang Beichen (杨北辰)

Left: Simon Dybbroe Mřller, The Embrace, 2015, color photograph, dimensions variable. Right (foreground to background): Shame Shield (young Cultural producer smoking a cigarette & modern ceramics), 2015; Shame Shield (young Cultural producer smoking a cigarette & young Cultural producer smoking a cigarette), 2015; Shame Shield (young Cultural producer smoking a cigarette), 2015; all ceramic glaze on Phillip Starck–designed Duravit urinal divider, each 28 x 16 x 3 1/2".

Simon Dybbroe Mřller is an artist currently based in New York whose work often takes up what he calls “the weighty architecture of the predigital” and, as he also notes below, “what we used to call nature.” His solo show at New York’s 83 Pitt Street will be on view on April 12, from 5 to 9 PM, and will feature ceramic “shame shields” found in men’s bathrooms, among other works. His upcoming exhibition “Buongiorno Signor Courbet” will run at Francesca Minini Gallery in Milan from May 3 to July 31, 2015.

ON A CROSS-ATLANTIC FLIGHT, I read Asta Olivia Nordenhof describing a woman taking off her top to press her breasts against the tiles of an Italian piazza on a hot, hot summer day, to milk the heat from the granite or marble, and then push her burning hot nipples against the closed eyelids of her lover. It made me want to be that woman, or be that lover. But it doesn’t end there. I want to be the sun and the tiles, the skin and the weather, architecture, seeing, and cultural history. In short, I want to inhabit that image, not obsess about terms like fluidity, liquidity, or the virtual. After all, our cities are still built on dirt and piping. Elaborate systems of drains and valves and pipes run through every bit of land we live on, transporting water to and bodily matter fro. When we look at these tubular arrangements today, they seem archaic. Are we really still relying on such dumb mechanisms? Don’t they seem weirdly outdated—the weighty architecture of the pre-digital? Or is it just symptomatic of our leap toward dematerialization that we instinctively think of these physical connections between our bodies and what we used to call nature as relics of an earlier type of civilization, the progress narrative of technology obscuring their undisputable and very contemporary significance?

I like to think that some things invent themselves. Or come into being for reasons so complex or suppressed or unarticulated that it seems better to see these objects as almost entirely independent from us. They have slipped into the world or been hushed into existence. These objects, then, are nonverbal articulations of our collective subconscious. One such cloudy object can be found in men’s public restrooms. It is called a partition, a divider, a splash screen, and—with more drama—a shame shield. In the US they are often made of steel—how fitting. In Europe they tend to be ceramic, and therefore when isolated seem like more delicate, worthy objects. Ceramics, as our Sunday museum visits tell us, is what survives from a civilization.

The industrially formed and fired ceramic is cold, seamless, and easy to clean, but its surface is also almost milky in its opacity. It has depth. Working these modern-day fig leaves with a brush has put me in mind of ancient Greek vases, Picasso’s summers spent painting ceramics, hygiene, white boards, toilet scribbles, pages of a book. Just saying.

I had a novel experience last week. A John Chamberlain metal cluster sculpture installed on a flexible wooden floor changed my understanding of the character of these classic pieces. I think forever, but what do I know, maybe it is just a passing feeling. The rather unspectacular congenial clatter they produced as I moved around them still resonates in my ears—like when you perform a physical activity you have never performed before and become aware of muscles you didn’t even know you had. It feels different to be in your body afterward.

Experiencing the weight of another person’s body is one of the most essential, emotional things I can think of. On airplanes it is the overall load that is important, not the heaviness of each individual. Still, even before we board we engage in that activity so specific to flying: the constant shifting around of mass. If our suitcase is too heavy when we weigh in, we move a book to our carry-on. Then we board, and drinks are served and everybody eats, and then lines start forming in front of the toilets, and out-of-sight bodily matter starts sliding through the high-tech tubing of this incredible machine. It all doesn’t change anything, though. This is where weight is constant, where dieting won't save us. What a great experimental model it is.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Left: Natalie Frank, All Fur III, 2011–14, gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, 22 x 30“. Right: Natalie Frank, Cinderella II, 2011–14, gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, 22 x 30”.

Natalie Frank, an artist whose latest drawings investigate the Grimms’ fairy tales, will have an exhibition of these works at the Drawing Center in New York from April 10 through June 28, 2015, which will then travel to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. The work will also be the subject of a reading and panel discussion on April 30, 2015, at the Brooklyn Museum, and in May it will be published as a book by Damiani.

I BEGAN THESE WORKS, which are based on the unsanitized version of the Grimms’ fairy tales, about four years ago. I picked up a copy of Jack Zipes’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm after the artist Paula Rego suggested I look at it—she’s done a lot of work illustrating fairy tales and mentioned that no one had illustrated the Grimms’ stories en masse. Arthur Rackham did them, Gustave Doré did some, and Walter Crane, David Hockney, and Maurice Sendak have all done illustrations, but no fine artist has ever tackled a large group of them. When I started to read these fairy tales, I was so taken by them. I’d never read anything like it—they’re so dark, sexual, and violent, and yet I sensed that there were such incredible roles for women in these stories, which I’ve never noticed in most fairy tales.

Originally the Grimm brothers fibbed about why they were doing this project and made it seem like it was a tool of nationalism—that the tales were collected from German peasants—but actually they were taken from the bourgeoisie. I learned that many of these were actually told and collected by women. Through the mutation of oral tales, women were creating these roles for themselves that were unprecedented in literature. Here, women play the evil, the divine; every single role is accessible to them, whereas at the time, because of the church and state, they wouldn’t have been allowed to inhabit those positions. All the Grimms’ stories borrowed from Shakespeare, Indian mythology, Ovid, Giovanni Francesco Straparola, and so many other sources from preceding centuries. In these tales you can find everything: sex, violence, magic, animals, transformations. Also, because they were oral tales, many of them contain elements of each other. For instance, Cinderella appears within many other tales as a subset of that story, as in “All Fur”—one of two stories about incest. I wanted to show some of the well-known tales, such as “Snow White,” and “Briar Rose,” which is “Sleeping Beauty,” but I also wanted to include some of the more obscure ones like “The Ungrateful Son.” In it, a man who doesn’t care for his father well is cursed to live with a toad on his head, and if he doesn’t feed the toad, like he didn’t feed his father, it eats his face. When I read stories like that, visual images came to mind so clearly that I just sat down and in a very short period of time made the drawing. I used gouache and pastel for all the drawings; twenty-nine will be in the Drawing Center show, and a few more will be in the show at the Blanton Museum when it travels there.

I never thought of these as illustrations—I think of them as drawings. I read through and picked key scenes that I felt were important to represent. To highlight their dark nature, I used bright, obnoxious colors, but mixed with some earth tones to create an unnatural look. For references, I used a combination of photographs of people I lit and dressed for elements of the pictures, and then pulled ideas from some interior architecture magazines and historical photos as well. I think the subject matter of the Grimms’ tales, especially with women trying out these roles with all of this carnivalesque slippage, really appealed to me, so I started to make drawings with an eye toward gathering a group that would read well together. Doing a book of them seemed like a natural extension. Marian Bantjes designed it, and it was so incredible working with her. For a contemporary and feminist take on the Grimms, having Linda Nochlin and Julie Taymor write essays for the book was also important to me. I thought a lot not only about making these stories contemporary from a feminist and personal perspective, but also about some of my favorite artists like Mike Kelley and Robert Gober, who engage with ideas of corporeal transformation, magic, and the everyday, while also bringing in the grittiness and violence of the banal.

— As told to Paige K. Bradley

Anish Kapoor


Vantablack pigment. Photo: Surrey Nanosystems.

Anish Kapoor’s sculptures and installations use pioneering technology to address absence and void as sites of potential. Here Kapoor discusses his use of Vantablack, the blackest pigment known to date, which is being developed by the British engineering firm Surrey Nanosystems. A new series of paintings is on view at Gladstone Gallery in Brussels through April 17, 2015, and he will also have an installation of work at the Palace of Versailles that opens June 9 and runs through November 1, 2015.

VANTABLACK IS A PIGMENT currently under development. I described my idea for a project incorporating the substance to Ben Jensen, who runs Surrey Nanosystems in East Sussex. The paint made from it is so black that when you hold a bit of it in your hand, if it has a fold in it, you literally cannot perceive the crease. It absorbs 98 percent of all light, so it effectively becomes two-dimensional. It’s the blackest material in the universe after black holes. I’ve worked with an idea of non-material objects since my void works from the mid-’80s, and Vantablack seems to me to be a proper non-material. The nanostructure of Vantablack is so small that it virtually has no materiality. It’s thinner than a coat of paint and rests on the liminal edge between an imagined thing and an actual one. It’s a physical thing that you cannot see, giving it a transcendent or even transcendental dimension, which I think is very compelling.

To me, the possibilities of pigment are fascinating: how it exists between materiality and illusion. Outside of my project, Vantablack is being developed for military stealth and technologies where one needs to restrict the use of light, such as inside a telescope where you want the light to focus just on the mirror without having wandering light particles around, in order to see distant stars.

I’m absolutely sure that to make new art, you have to make new space. Malevich’s black square doesn’t just make a proposition about non-images or black as an image; it suggests that space works in a different way than previously conceived. Whether it is literal space or poetic space, I’m sure that this equation is correct. Imagine walking into a room where you literally have no sense of the walls—where the walls are or that there are any walls at all. It’s not an empty dark room, but a space full of darkness. When we imagine our own interiors, we have a sense that each of us carries a dark, inner, and quiet, or not so quiet, place within ourselves. To have that out there phenomenologically in the world is quite unnerving. This has haunted us through literature, science, and art—the invisible, the non-space, or the non-object. This is very dangerous territory, but I find the aspiration toward the Freudian womb to reach a lost self—which I think is implied in any spiritualism—interesting in terms of its relation to the sublime. Loss of self and fear go hand in hand. Inevitably, we bump into fear, death, and all the human realities of an emotional world—as an artist especially, but always as a human being.

— As told to Julian Elias Bronner