New York based artist Nari Ward took time out from the hectic pace of assembling his piece for “Meditations In An Emergency” to talk with thedetroiter.com about his work, Detroit, and the importance of contemporary art. (For an interview with Jon Pylypchuk and Klaus Kertess please click here.)
Though he’s since been to Detroit several times now, his first trip here, was at curator Klaus Kertess’ request to be a part of this exhibition. On that inaugural trip, he was taken on the now fabled Scott Hocking Tour.
“Scott brought me around. There were so many materials that were accessible and available, and I’m always so engaged in the history of materials. But interestingly enough I got so overwhelmed with so much stuff, I just came into this space [the MOCAD building] and said, ok, let me just find something that relates to the space, something that I can be challenged to develop from here, something that might even be absolutely mundane and didn’t have any history in it. In a way, his tour made me want to go into something more sterile, and use a material like acoustical ceiling tiles, which are more kind of empty, as a challenge to see how can I load this thing up and make it meaningful somehow.”
The sculpture Ward is creating is an upright multi-faceted figure eight of sorts about 10 feet tall, with a surface made from these acoustic ceiling tiles. Projecting from it on flexible steel rods, are chunks of the tiles cascading away from the main object. Around the piece will be a number of low tables and ground level seats with ceiling tile surfaces.
The form is based on a sculpture by Detroit artist Jack Ward in a park on Rosa Parks and Clairmont.
“I was really interested in the dissonance between the piece and the small park that it was in. The park was in disarray, it was kind of untidy. The park was built to commemorate the 1967 riots. There’s something about power relationships that I thought was interesting in the park. There was this sculpture that was almost pristine and impressive, and then the space around it was in shambles, in ruins. I was thinking what a metaphor that became for Detroit at some level. This sculpture for me became a symbol of hope, in some ways, determined to stay put and not break down. I wanted to quote that sculpture, especially because in the sense that it is commemorating this event that’s in the conscious of the city.”
“I wanted to make a space that people would spend time in, and I’m not a video artist so I wanted to figure out how to do that. So I thought it best to make some activity happen.”
Inspiration as to how to accomplish this came from a recent trip to Japan for a project, where he witnessed the importance of the tea ceremony as a social activity. “That’s what I would do, create a tea bar. People could spend time in the space, reflect on material or what the artist might intend or what surrounds it.”
“I was using this material that was kind of mundane. Acoustical ceiling tile is about homogenizing something and making it atonal. I was thinking about this idea of what happened to the city in terms of people moving away out of fear of the crime scene and this social situation, violence, poverty, and this whole flight to the suburbs. I was thinking of this whole idea of homogenizing. I thought about materials in reference to this homogenization, and the title came to me and just stuck in my head, “White Flight Tea Bar.” That became the undercurrent for the piece, this element of homogenizing and maybe even repressing the sound, sort of the functioning element. I’m interested in one, it being, kind of mundane, and on the other hand, overlooked also, as material, and trying to give that material a whole loaded sense of meaning.”
“The fountain reference came to me because I want this thing to reference power, and I think fountains are metaphors power, in the way that the city or the people in power express their affluence, so I wanted to create my own version of power. But of course it’s more about this kind of flying, animation of these things that are quite mundane.”
Green tea will be served in Styrofoam cups at the small tables. While “White Flight Tea Bar” is site specific, Ward’s other installation piece “Airplane Tears,” a wall full of the backs of TV sets with tissue paper laid over them has been shown previously.
“For me it’s a metaphor of the power of the media, and the ability of the media to overwhelm you, or affect you on a psychological or emotional level.” The title stems from a story Ward had heard on NPR dealing with people’s susceptibility to emotional proddings due to extreme altitudes on transcontinental flights. “You find yourself looking at silly movies or reading a book and start crying and you’ve never done that before. It’s this idea of being really vulnerable to the media. I wanted to find a way to do that – TV was perfect. I was interested in the TV, especially the backs, because it’s something people see but never see. I wanted to take that space that’s invisible and load it up psychologically, emotionally. I just collect more and more, and make it an epic gesture to talk about our sense of vulnerability.”
As mentioned earlier, Ward, like many of the artists in this exhibition, had never been here before being invited to show. He commented on his evolving perspective over the time spent in the city.
“I’d heard a lot about Detroit, primarily the racial and class issues more than anything else. That was my prior experience, primarily the level of poverty and things like that. I come here now and I say, damn, there’re a lot of possibilities here, especially coming from New York. You see these huge spaces that are just empty that would be great studio space for artists. I just see it as possibilities. A lot can happen.”
This idea of possibilities extends to the museum itself.
“In general, I was wondering about this idea of a museum and what that means. I think that the nimbleness of an institution like this, where it isn’t bogged down by a collection and the normal infrastructure that more established institutions would have, can truly be a contemporary venue. It can really be a place of dialogue, it can be much more dynamic and not be so engrossed in its own history. It can be a meeting place for things to happen. For me it becomes a more activist space in that respect, where it’s not about enshrining what we know and legitimatizing what’s out there. It’s more about dialogue and creating and asking questions. I think there’s a need for that.”
Detroit has perennially put a lot of stock in building projects to change the city – things like the Ren Cen, the stadiums, and the casinos. From your perspective, what can this museum do?
“I think that this is sort of like a grassroots approach, where there’s an ability to really be in the community and develop something from the ground up. Whereas a lot of those other places you mention are corporate investments. That’s a different position, it’s like coming into a space and landing a satellite. I think that the tendrils and the roots that they’re laying down here are what’re going to affect change.”
“Artists have always been the germinators of change (and then get kicked out.) I think that that’s what art does and artists are capable of doing, and I feel like there’s an opportunity for that to happen here. And there’s a niche for it. It really is appropriate. Whatever the questions about the validity of this space, or the necessity of it, will be answered when they see that it can really function in a way that is necessary and urgent.” – Interview by Nick Sousanis
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