Considering the Recent Past
Dan Graham in Conversation with Anton Ginzburg
Edited by Katya Tylevich and Lucy Flint
For the catalog Walking the Sea (published by Hatje Cantz, 2014) on the occasion
of the solo exhibition at the Blaffer Museum of Art (Houston)
Dan Graham: Can you tell us what we’re looking at in Walking the Sea?
Anton Ginzburg: There are two parts to the exhibition—a sculptural installation and a film whose subject is the paradoxical condition of the Aral Sea. Today it is a sea without water, a landscape that has been irreversibly altered by human will. It is one of the grand dystopian gestures of the Soviet project.
DG What became of the people who lived there?
AG The disappearance of the sea completely destroyed the local economies of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, so today the area around it, also known as Karakalpakstan (“Black Hats”), is pretty much deserted.
DG Wasn’t this land also used by the Soviet Union for missile launch sites?
AG There were several secret military bases on islands in the Aral Sea, which weren’t marked on any maps. The bases were used for military purposes, including chemical weapons testing. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the army left, coinciding with the water’s disappearance. All the islands became accessible.
DG In other words, it’s like Nevada.
AG There are a lot of similarities.
DG It seems that animals are pretty important to your piece. In a strange way, it’s like a regression to the prehistoric period.
AG Birds and animals have taken over the abandoned structures and ruins. You feel as though you’re watching the unmaking of the twentieth century. This is a site of time-reversal, an abandonment of the Soviet project, as if it had never happened. There is a scene in the film where local villagers are taking down the building panels by hand to repurpose the stone and concrete. There used to be a military base of about ten five-story buildings there, but when I was filming, only one building was left. Even that one is probably gone by now.
DG You seem to be interested in the idea of ruins.
AG I’m interested in the new cycle of archaeology of Soviet territory, and also in looking at the Eurasian landscape, which until recently went largely unnoticed in contemporary art. This is not a nostalgic condition but an exploration, an opportunity to make sense of recent history and reexamine the meanings of certain forms in relation to geography. I’m interested in following the genealogy of forms and how they become containers for new meanings.
DG My own model is Walter Benjamin, who said that people tend to criticize the last decade––they have a fantasy of the one that precedes it. I’m interested in resurrecting the recent past, as, I think, are you.
AG I establish a critical distance in relation to it. I’m interested in art as a form of secularized ritual through which familiar forms and the mythologies associated with them are recontextualized.
DG I think that Walking the Sea also has something to do with colonialism. The camels are part of that.
AG Considering the recent history of post-Soviet territories, the colonial past is there, in its terrain, architecture, and landscape. I address this theme in Walking the Sea, and the film serves as a form of contemporary documentation and meditation on the region. Representation of the landscape is historically a complicated subject. In the American landscape tradition, for example, might they be conquering the landscape rather than representing a transcendental experience?
DG Yes, in the extreme, limited Marxist point of view. A frequent critique of the nineteenth-century American Luminist painters is that they were showing how beautiful the American landscape was as a rationale for taking over the West. My feeling is that Luminism actually comes from English landscape painting. It’s about the celebration of the sky. But it has all those elements.
AG As I was working on Walking the Sea, I thought a lot about the Realist painters. For me, modern art starts with Gustave Courbet, especially in relation to the landscape and the choice of sites––he leaves the studio and walks into nature, actively engaging with the real.
DG It seems to me that your work relates more to Robert Smithson than to anybody else. Interestingly, Smithson was interested in Vorticism, which was a kind of English version of Futurism.
AG Was he closely connected to England?
DG Yes. His favorite poet was T. S. Eliot and his background was English Catholic. An art historian and friend of mine called his work a kind of late English Romanticism. I think Smithson took a lot of his ideas from Richard Long. Spiral Jetty is Richard Long. Richard Long and Hamish Fulton were, in an ironic way, dealing with poetry like that of William Wordsworth, which reflects late nineteenth-century English maritime Romanticism and the tradition of walking in nature and creating poetry out of it.
AG There was a tradition of maritime Romantic painting in Russian art, as well. However, the romanticism of the Soviet period was largely about taking on nature and submitting it to the will of man. The Aral irrigation project would certainly be an example. One could consider the Aral Sea a maritime Romantic artwork with a one-to-one scale. Formally, it looks like a readymade earthwork, but historically and contextually it has a different relationship to the site. It was important for me to have a non-permanent engagement with the landscape.
DG I myself don’t come out of the Land Art tradition that Smithson turned to, but I exhibited his work when I had my gallery. My pavilions have more to do with the city, especially the high-rise buildings that introduced two-way glass in the late seventies. The reason they did was because of the oil crisis, which probably led to the beginning of the ecology movement, with Jimmy Carter. For buildings in hot climates, corporations started using two-way glass, which was, in fact, a one-way mirror. The side that was reflective reflected the sun, which cut down on air-conditioning costs inside. Also, it allowed the corporate building to reflect the sky, and, at the same time, it allowed for surveillance, because you could look outside from the inside without being seen. But the other idea, actually, comes from psychology. When I was fourteen, I read Jean-Paul Sartre on his idea of the ego––that the child’s ego is formed when he sees himself being seen as he sees the other person.
AG Jacques Lacan, of course, also wrote about the “mirror stage.”
DG Lacan took it from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. For me, the spectator became more important than the object; it’s a critique of minimal art, which is just about the object. Here, it’s about intra-subjectivity, and a relation to landscape, because you see reflections of the sky.
AG It’s a layered image, since both surfaces are activated and in constant flux.
DG It’s always changing. And you’re also seeing people seeing you, while you are seeing them. About the landscape . . . In nineteen-eighties France, when the socialist government wanted to regionalize art, art centers were all situated in historical parks. To fit that situation of a historical overlay, I started doing work that was about landscape architecture. It too went against the Minimalist idea that everything was in instantaneous present time. And it went against Daniel Buren’s idea that the museum was fixed. I wrote many articles on the subject, including “Garden as Theater as Museum.”
AG The ideas in that text are very interesting: the garden as a screen for cultural and ideological projection––from the memory palace and encyclopedia to corporate atriums.
DG In the text, I talk about the first museums being Renaissance gardens. I think that every ten years, the museum function changes. In the eighties, in France, the idea was that on weekends the family would take a family car, camp out near the parks, and then on Sunday look at art.
That had a lot to do with the recreation of European historical parks in relationship to art sites.
AG Politically and educationally, that’s a very strong and engaging idea.
DG French Socialism, under François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac, was, in a way, quite revolutionary. I actually see myself as a European socialist from the eighties. Also, my father was known as a “pinko.” His friends were communists, though I never was. My kind of Marxism had much more to do with anarchy and, also, humor. Anarchic humor, undermining corporate culture.
AG I think that the reactionary bureaucracy of the Soviet Union had parallels with the conformism of corporate culture in the US.
DG What about colonialism? What about the relation of Uzbekistan to Russia and to Russian colonialism?
AG Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were Soviet republics until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the nineteen-nineties. Before that, they were within Russian Turkestan, which the Russian empire annexed in the nineteenth century.
DG And is it a Muslim culture?
AG Yes, it was secularized during Soviet times, but there has been a religious resurgence recently. Historically, people practiced a Sufi branch of Islam. And because of the proximity of the Silk Route, there were many additional influences, including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism. There are still some Zoroastrian burial sites in remote towns like Khiva, in Xorazm Province, northwest of Uzbekistan. You can spot various influences in older temples or cemeteries: burnt columns and interiors that were initially Zoroastrian sites, as well as some Buddhist and Christian symbols.
DG I know that fire was very important for Zoroastrians. What about the issue of water? Did you carry water with you?
AG I had to bring drinking water with me for filming, carrying it in a container or a vessel. Though the sea is gone, there are signs of water everywhere, and you recognize that this was once a seabed. There are ships and anchors sitting in the middle of the desert, and seashells within massive fields of salt. You feel the sea, even though it’s not there, and everything that’s usually covered by water is exposed. The empty sea is an immense nude.
DG Did your travel have anything to do with meditation?
AG Yes. Walking is very physical, yet it produces nothing but thoughts. It is a direct way to engage the landscape. For this project, I was looking at Sufi writings on the idea of the path, which describe the Sufi as someone whose thoughts keep pace with his feet.
DG That’s where your character comes from?
AG In constructing the character for the film, I used the dervish’s patched frock as a metaphor for assemblage. He is a golem made up of twentieth-century art tropes, with historical dervish elements, carrying a mirror structure on his back. The mirror structure is like the hump of the camels he encounters in the landscape. It constantly flashes a live-feed of its surroundings as he walks through the desert. A black veil initially covers the mirror to suggest the shutter of a camera, as well as the principle of the 11 Veils of Sufism that “he who doesn’t see is not veiled by his blindness.”
DG And that’s where Sufism comes into it.
AG One book I found inspiring was G. I. Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, which describes his times and travels in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the beginning of the twentieth century. The book is autobiographical, and begins with his childhood memories. The stories are very emotionally charged about his travels and methods of self-knowledge, yet there is a lot of humor in them. He describes how he made a living in Istanbul by catching wild sparrows, painting them yellow, and selling them as canaries.
DG Oh, but Ginzburg is a Jewish name.
AG Yes, both sides of my family have Russian Jewish origins: Landau and Ginzburg.
DG I actually was born a Ginzburg.
AG I had no idea!
DG My father changed his name. I think he came to the US from Belarus, but it could have been Ukraine or Poland, because the borders kept changing.
AG That seemed to be the route for a lot of Eastern European Jews. Imperial Russia took over territories with large Jewish populations and created the Pale of Settlement. Members of my family of my grandparents’ generation moved to Saint Petersburg to get an education.
DG Saint Petersburg was the cultural capital then. Another big Jewish city in the Soviet Union was Odessa, whose history I know because one of my favorite American architects is Morris Lapidus, who designed all those hotels in Miami Beach. Apparently, Odessa was a settlement––Catherine the Great had the idea of resettling Jews there. As a port city, it was business-oriented and eventually corrupt, with Jewish mobsters and so on . . . just like Miami.
AG During my travels in Uzbekistan to the Aral Sea, I stopped in Bukhara, which was an ancient Jewish center. They claim to be one of the lost tribes of the Israelites, linking their heritage to the Babylonian captivity.
DG So, your project also has to do with the wandering Jew, consciously or unconsciously.
AG You’re probably right.
DG The reason I want to go to Russia is to see Konstantin Melnikov’s house and studio. The interesting thing about that period was that architects were also artists––Melnikov painted. I know that Rem Koolhaas prefers Leonidov, but I think that Melnikov is a thousand times more interesting.
AG Ivan Leonidov is a Constructivist Piranesi––his utopian painting series City of the Sun of the nineteen-forties and fifties is amazing. He was also very much liked by Le Corbusier.
DG Yes, Leonidov is about fantasy. Another very interesting thing about Russia is that you still have pantheism. What I liked about Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris is that it’s very different from Stanislaw Lem’s book.
AG Stanislaw Lem was not happy about Tarkovsky’s interpretation of Solaris.
DG I know. He hated it. But it has a lot to do with Russian pantheism.
AG Russia historically saw itself as a “God-intoxicated country.” Even atheism there turned out to be a form of pantheism. Russian cosmist tradition embodied it, influencing the Soviet space program. They wanted to include the citizen’s right to free movement in space into the constitution. Tarkovsky’s Solaris is all about that. I think it’s his best film.
DG Speaking of religion, I’ll give you my theory on Andy Warhol. You know, every Sunday morning throughout his life, he went to church with his mother, who lived with him, downstairs. He came from an area of Slovakia that’s part–Greek Orthodox and part–Russian Orthodox. It’s a strange kind of in between, but he probably saw icons in the churches. I think he made celebrities into religious icons.
AG So, in a way, his celebrity portraits are Western civilization iconostasis?
AG Another interesting figure who had an Orthodox background was Pavel Florensky. He was interested in theology, philosophy, science, and art, and was actively involved in the Symbolist movement. He was not a modernist, but he taught spatial theory at VKhUTEMAS in Moscow. His writings on reverse perspective in ancient Russian art are very interesting. He explains it through the reversal of the viewpoints of the “viewer” and “the viewed,” not unlike the Lacanian notion of the gaze of the Other.
I used this logic in the form of the mirror structure in my film. Because of the angled planes of the mirror, the camera is never seen, even in direct shots of the mirror. The joint between the two vertical planes of the mirror creates a visual shift when the figure moves. I introduced the mirror set in motion in the landscape as a cinematic device, making a film inside a film.
DG That’s pretty interesting.
AG There are many points of similarity between the traditional Russian icon and the Suprematist projects of Kazimir Malevich––the positioning of the image and its active address of the spectator, and the aspiration for the nonobjective.
DG I understand him as a kind of a religious nihilist.
AG Malevich was determined to override any cultural nostalgia or attachment to the past. He welcomed destruction by creating reductive images of it. He didn’t believe in perfection or achieving a perfect form, unlike some of the other Constructivists. He believed in the trans-historical nature of art, which could survive the idealist project.
DG There’s a very interesting book by the art historian T. J. Clark in which he diminishes the importance of El Lissitzky, who was a student of Malevich, because he worships painting. But I think they’re all great because they did so many different things. El Lissitzky’s sculptural work is amazing, and Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs are excellent.
AG They were very active and prolific, and teaching was always an important part of practice.
DG Carl Andre learned a lot from Rodchenko, and Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin learned an awful lot from El Lissitzky. An aspect of their work that points to Russian Constructivism is that it is always quasi-functional. Some of my own, like Waterloo Sunset at the Hayward Gallery, is also quasi-functional, and I got that from LeWitt and Flavin. With the Dia Foundation, for example, I made an old tool shed into a coffee bar, and showed videos that were made of art during the seventies. I wanted to link to the artists who did music videos and performance videos.
AG Constructivism claimed active participation in the social and political life of the USSR, and the transformation of byt, or “everyday life.” I address this in one of the sculptures in the show, Seaharp, an homage to Vladimir Tatlin. His works with corner-reliefs and counter-reliefs are very inspiring. He was a sailor in his youth and was always passionate about the sea. I built a freestanding plaster relief wall in a corner of the exhibition space. It anchors diagonal lines made of piano strings, and reacts to the visitor’s movement by playing the sound of field recordings of the wind from the Aral Sea.
There is a photo of Tatlin from 1914 where he is playing a bandura, a Ukrainian string instrument similar to a zither, which makes him look like an Eastern European Orpheus. Despite Tatlin’s political engagement and social awareness, he also took on the poetic quest of overcoming gravity through art––a truly cosmological undertaking.
Dan Graham was born in Urbana, Illinois in 1942 and currently lives in New York City. Since the late 1970s Dan Graham has created pavilions for gardens or urban contexts. The adoption of architectural vocabulary, a staple element in Graham’s work, is a way of emphasizing how our environment fundamentally structures our gaze. The two-way mirror is an integral part of the pavilions, which allow light to enter the structure while protecting the privacy of those inside. In addition to the multifold play of reflection and reflexivity, this type of glass also makes us aware of the immediate past—a key notion in Graham’s work which he borrowed from Walter Benjamin and began exploring in the early 1970s through a variety of video-performances. In addition to his artistic practice Graham is also an accomplished writer and art critic.
Recently Graham's work has been included in exhibitions at the Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, China (2017); the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio (2016); MAMo, Marseille, France (2015); the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2014); the De Pont Foundation, Tillburg, Netherlands (2014); a traveling retrospective which began at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2009 and traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Graham has participated in the Venice BIennale in 2005, 2003, 1976 and multiple Documentas (1997, 1992, 1982, 1977, 1972). He was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters award, New York in 2010; the French Vermeil Medal by the city of Paris in 2001 and the Skowhegan Medal for Mixed Media, New York, 1992.