At the heart of Julie Mehretu’s paintings is a question about the ways in which we construct and live in the world. Perhaps that is what makes the work so radical: its willingness to unravel the conventionally given answers about the violent environment we inhabit today. Mehretu’s paintings are composed of layers, fragments and movements. One can often detect the detritus of characters, architectural drawings, graffiti, comic books, air-brushing, and ink wash circulating in the space of her paintings. These fragments are not the broken parts of total languages, they are part of a process of describing the world: they come together as they fall apart. Typically, Mehretu begins these paintings by imposing a plan that will dictate the composition, then responds to these outlines with architectural drawings. Gestural marks inhabit those spaces: they act on and are acted upon by the built space of the painting. Some of Mehretu’s recent paintings quote from stadium plans and the architecture of mass sport. We share this interest in the conjoined genealogies of modernity and the sports stadium and the ways in which contemporary experience is mediated by a scopic regime that was historically shaped in such arenas. To look at what is happening in the paintings is to be aware of the feeling of being inside and outside of a thing.
Julie’s and my background growing up inside and outside of things, living between continents, nations, cities, houses, languages and customs, is hardly remarkable, but perhaps it has made us more ambivalent about identity, the tidiness of its spaces and the promises of Empire. This interview took place soon after I returned from winter break in Thailand. I had left my family’s house on the coast for Bangkok the night before the December 26 tsunami swept the region. In the brief moment between the trauma and its symbolic impact, I tried to square the images I saw with what I could remember of the places I knew: a fishing boat lying in the middle of the main road outside my uncle’s house; bodies being pulled from quiet lagoons; upturned buildings in sedate coves; a typically placid seascape gone haywire, beaches piled with corpses and dry ice that only recently were piled with sun-damaged tourists. Watching all this from Bangkok, I had the uncanny feeling that we were all going to go about our lives as usual right after the next commercial, that this bit of violence too would soon be submerged into the normative pace of a larger spectacle. Julie and I had a chance to sit down one weekend recently at Denniston Hill, the upstate New York farm that’s been the site of many passionate conversations between us. In the dining room, the wood-burning stove was stoked and fragrant. Outside, the snow was stacked into an abstraction of the northeastern landscape. I think of Mehretu’s paintings as going a long way toward articulating the disjunction of life as it’s lived today: as we circulate across reality and its mediations, constantly trying to reconcile daily experience with the peculiar light emanating from the end of the world as we know it.
Lawrence Chua On Friday night in your studio you were talking about being in an unusual place and fumbling around with a new language. That’s exactly how I feel coming back to the US after being in Bangkok. There are little gaps in my language. I see something and I want to describe it but I momentarily lack the words.
Julie Mehretu Why do you think that is? You mean you lack the words because it’s something you still don’t know how to articulate?
LC Maybe it comes from having to communicate in a completely different idiom and realizing that certain things are beyond translation.
JM Right. It’s interesting that you bring up coming back here and trying to articulate certain conditions and losing words. That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling, so now I’m back to just drawing. In the past, all my work has evolved from one painting to the next. Little by little I’d bring more and more elements into the painting. I worked with this whole idea that the drawn marks behave as characters, individuals. The characters keep evolving and changing through the painting. But I think with the last group of paintings, I have been able to take this language that I’ve been developing, in all its many parts, and really bring it to a head, almost like a crescendo. I was really trying to make some sense out of this situation we’re in and I felt I had the means, that language to do so, but then afterward when I went back into the studio to make new work, as clearly as everything had crystallized and come together previously, it all disintegrated and fell out from under me. I think those cycles of clarity and confusion are just part of the creative process. The map and the layering and the reason I was actually physically making the paintings all had had a clear and specific meaning in the work. The questions that have come up for me now are, Can I still make the paintings in this way, can they continue to evolve and be meaningful given my changing perspective and response to the world? What is still interesting to me about the layering or even the actual physical process, the visual language of the marks themselves? How can I continue to make paintings? Basically I feel like I don’t know how to translate what’s going on in my head. When I look at the work and the way I was thinking about it before, it feels like we were dealing with such a different social condition.
LC In the new work you’ve continued layering different architectural experiences. There’s some detail of the built environment in Lagos on the same plane as a detail of somewhere on the Upper West Side. I’m curious how you see those terms shifting in your work right now.
JM Of course it sounds naive, but before the Bush Administration and September 11, there was this underlying feeling that the world was progressing in a particular way and different cities were developing and morphing into this kind of unified pseudo-capitalist dream, or something. It was easy to go back to certain utopian ideas about the way that things could develop, even though it was obvious that there were so many obstacles, intense violence, and injustices, that this was not a true reality: the American economy being so huge and doing so well, the development of the EU, the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, the quickly changing economy and development of India, the democratization of Nigeria, air flights going back and forth everywhere. That false perspective and weird hope just was crushed in the last few years. The way the US has responded, especially with the war in Iraq, has put the world into a different place. I’m not so interested right now in tying Lagos and New York into a morphed experience without bringing this new and different context into the mix. Right now it just feels like this big knot of all these different tendencies. It’s coming out in my drawings a lot; they look like these nests or gnarled webs. Space is deflated and conflated. I’m still trying to understand it myself.
LC A distinct conception of space has emerged since that collapse you were talking about. If you read some of the reports about what Baghdad looks like today, there’s this sense that there’s one enclave that’s very protected, almost a miniature American shopping mall, and that enclave is set within the context of a very turbulent city.
JM What’s it called, the Green Zone? The Free Zone?
LC The Liberty Zone. Something like that. (laughter) Whatever. So you have these two very distinct parts of the same urban environment, but in a way they’re worlds apart, even though they’re on the same plane. I was thinking how the colonial city has developed in a similar way. In cities like Delhi or Algiers, there was the European city and then there was the old city. The European city is this very clean city that’s completely purged of disease, and everything is very neatly planned, and then you have the native city, which is very picturesque but with an incomprehensible plan, dirty streets, very lively interactions. In the 20th-century history of architecture, what you see happening is those colonial cities becoming blueprints for the metropoles. Daniel Burnham was mapping out new urban centers like Baguio in the Philippines before he went on to devise the plan for Chicago. In places like Baghdad, or Bangkok for that matter, there are two separate cities evolving in the same place. The experience of living in that city, in these two separate cities on the same plane, is really difficult to describe in language but your paintings fill that void for me. What is it like to go from these completely crazy streets that are barely large enough for you to walk down, let alone for a car, with hundreds of people navigating these tiny human spaces, into a mega-shopping mall, these huge arcades? I’m wondering where utopia fits into that? Is that the utopia that America is trying to create?
JM I think they want more shoppers. (laughter) I don’t know. What I am interested in are these plural events that seem worlds apart happening and being experienced at the same time, and the relationship between those places, or existing in between that. It’s hard because I don’t like to only talk about the US exporting those types of ideas, but also how those ambitions are imported to places. Iraq as a situation is such a quagmire. I was talking to a friend who works at the State Department who was saying that this is basically going to be the largest embassy for the US, the largest foreign embassy that they plan on building. That to me is the same situation you’re talking about, the extreme capitalist colonial palace in the middle of the worst dysfunctional condition. So you have to think that there’s a colonial mission, or something similar to one. That is something we were talking about in the studio also.
LC Right. You’ve been looking at some of the Viennese architect Otto Wagner’s drawings from the turn of the 19th to 20th century. It’s a period that is of interest to me right now in my studies, that moment when modernity was produced. One of the other fellows in my program said that it was only by looking at that period that you could really make sense of what is happening in the world today.
JM Why do you think that? Working in the studio, that’s something that I just intuitively go to. I’m attracted to those drawings because I think they work to embody a certain kind of ideology or a dream. They seem like a calling to some higher way of living or being. They seem visionary in that way. The spaces and built legacy of the drawings become these very directed places that nurture and take care of large groups of people in a grander ideal way. Not only can they take care of society, be the containers for us to operate and conduct business in, but they are almost acting out those events for us as well.
LC The turn of the century is also a moment where the production of leisure spaces becomes instrumental for various political projects. What you’re saying reminds me of the way that the stadium produces its own sort of reality but one that has gone on to mediate the way we look at the world as spectators. Your newer paintings incorporate elements of various stadia in the world. Is this the first time you’re really interested in a particular typology?
JM Yes and no. I am intrigued by the stadium for all the reasons you just talked about: it’s become the arena for everything that happens and that we consume. Having spent time in Istanbul, Germany, Australia and then back in the States, I was really interested in how our whole experience of viewing the world and the war was mediated through the television and newspapers. It felt almost like following a match or a sporting event. That’s reductive, I know, but it was interesting because you could feel a nationalist sensibility in the responses to the war, even in the dissenting perspective. In Australia, there was this intense, almost proud critique of the US and the Americans in general, while officially John Howard and the Aussies were hand in hand with the US. Here was this horrible situation happening and the reactive way each country was relating to it was as if it was a rugby match, as if we weren’t all in it together. Then right after that was the build-up to the Olympics—it was super strange and ironic. I was interested in the kind of discussions everyone was having; we were talking about it as if it was happening in this massive arena. It felt like the whole world had been reduced to that kind of space. I just kept wondering, how could that happen, how could that look, how could I build that feeling? I started collecting stadium plans, as many as I could, built or unbuilt. I brought them all together in the studio and tried to build one mega-stadium out of all the drawings, tying and weaving them together. I also collected different kinds of signage from everywhere I went, street rags, billboards. I wanted to bring nationalist signage, sports signage, street signage and conflate them into one abstract language, and then have these characters, these kind of riotous drawings exist within that. In the stadia paintings there seems like there’s this big event occurring that’s very orderly and makes a lot of sense, that there will be an outcome that we can either cheer or oppose, but that doesn’t really happen in the painting.
LC You enter the painting with this intention of imposing an order and the forms themselves—
JM —break it down.
JM In the center panel of Stadia you can really see the building of the stadium. This would be the container for all the seats and it could hold even more people by superimposing another building on top of that. But then as the two panels on the edge go out, the stadium kind of falls apart and you’re looking at it from the exterior and the interior view simultaneously. That’s the point of departure. The character drawing is battling the architecture in the painting—and that’s the very intuitive part of the work. It’s as if the drawing is digesting the stadium. It’s almost trying to hold up parts of the structure in order to break it down. The desire to focus in on stadia was also about trying to accept what’s happening for me subconsciously in the studio. I was trying to make sense of how this visual language keeps growing and also make a formal link with what I’m actually experiencing. It became clear to me in making Congress, the painting I showed you that I made in Australia, that it took on the look of a large arena subconsciously. That painting directed me to examine stadiums in general more closely. It’s not like, Oh, this is what I want to do first. I start building them and after I’ve made the painting, I can talk about them with that kind of distance. The most interesting things that can happen in painting are not what you can plan in advance but what happens when you’re making them. It breaks down all the preconceptions of what you think you have.
LC So you’re creating a space for chance to happen.
JM Yes. And to teach me otherwise about what’s going on. Even in our conversation we can have these ideas about what we each bring to it, but through the conversation something else can happen. It’s the same kind of thing that happens in working on the painting. It’s almost my way of making sense of what’s happening—besides reading. That’s the best way that I can kind of figure out what’s going on, or how I feel about it.
LC I want to talk about your working methodologies. You’ve always approached painting in an architectonic way, but it seems like the new work is even more concerned with structure and the production of space. Have things changed noticeably for you with the newer work?
JM Yeah, I have a better understanding of architectural language and its history. I’ve also grown with my language and am able to put a lot more thought into how to approach a particular idea or perspective or experience and translate that into a painting. There’s this big part of the language that’s so intuitive or self-conscious; I’m struggling with the idea of how to make work about a particular time when it’s really also a very internal work.
LC By “internal” do you mean how that time affects your daily life?
JM Yeah. Or while I think about images and I look at images and have them all over the studio, I’m using abstraction to make the work. The development of that abstract language is a very subconscious, intuitive thing. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever try to take apart the pieces of that language and look at them, but I’m struggling with how you find the in-between. How can abstraction really articulate something that’s happening? When you make a picture of a condition, how can it make sense of that condition?
LC Has the importance of your characters, and all the different elements you use, changed in the work?
JM Earlier on I would think of each mark as having a characteristic or an identity. Each mark would have its own society and would socialize and was, let’s say, a social agent. Then the architectural language came in to give me a place for these characters. It made a link into the world that we inhabit so that it wasn’t just this no-place in which these characters socialized. It also created a sense of time, created a certain kind of social history for the characters. The characters, now, instead of being all these different kinds of little individual agents, have become more like swarms. Before I was interested in how these individual agents would come together and create a whole and affect some kind of change. Now it’s also, how did these bigger events happen by the gathering of all these marks? What is the phenomena being created by these massive changes in the painting? How is it impacting them?
LC Henri Lefèbvre wrote about the ways that we produce space and space produces us, our daily patterns of life, our unthinking rituals. That seemed so clear at the Athens Olympics this past summer, how walking into the stadium made you part of a larger organism with its own habits.
JM Instead of just the architectural language delineating the space, the characters and swarms actually develop and create the space. The architectural language serves as a marker to the type and the history of the space, but the characters make the space and break it down. They actually complicate the space in the painting. For example, a bunch of dashes or marks will enter the painting a certain way and then another group of marks enters it another way to completely contradict that. It’s becoming more interesting to me how they’re getting spatially complicated and formally complicated in terms of different vanishing points, but also how those become different perspectives within the space and impact exactly how the painting can be read. My black-and-white painting The Seven Acts of Mercy is based on Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy. I was looking at his painting a lot when I made mine. He actually has seven different vanishing points for the different acts so that each act happens in its own place while existing in the picture simultaneously with the others. The composition is so complex because of the conflation of these different spaces. The center of my painting feels almost religious. The characters look like they’re sitting in pews in the stadium. But then this other kind of activity undermines that reading and explodes out from various perspectives. All these marks look like larger gestures weaving in and out of each other and the architectural drawing, but they’re actually composed of many different individual marks that gather together and behave. They create and affect one kind of change but then they also challenge each other in trying to pursue one narrative. It becomes much more dramatic in influencing how the space works on the inside and then what happens as the spectacle grows.
LC What do you mean by spectacle?
JM I guess the way I’m thinking about it is the treatment of the social event. It’s what I’m thinking about when I go to a Knicks game and they’re telling us to shout for so-and-so, it’s a very directed experience. It’s not just your emotional response or your intellectual response to an event, it’s a directed way to experience something.
LC To what extent are the paintings a critique? We’ve been talking a lot about current political events . . . .
JM I don’t look at the paintings necessarily as critique. In fact, I’m not so interested in being critical. What I’m interested in, in painting at least, is our current situation, whether it be political, historical or social, and how it informs me and my context and my past. I am trying to locate myself and my perspective within and between all of it. I know I keep on going back to that, but it’s like, here’s a war and here’s the way that we’re treating the war, and how we’re experiencing the war. I was looking at some great Martha Rosler pieces recently, the Bringing the War Home photocollages which she began in the ’70s. They are her images of advertisements invading the interiors of new homes, new homes designed for living in new worlds, but through the windows you can see soldiers fighting the Vietnam War. There are these interesting juxtapositions of what’s happening and what we experience. Of course there’s much more inherent critique in those pieces.
LC That sounds metaphoric in a way that your paintings are not, which is what gives your work its power. We live in a moment that is obsessed with the Real. There’s this disjunction between physical daily life and the kind of extremely mediated reality we glimpse on reality TV or Fox News. Maybe it’s that disjunction that is being lived out in your paintings.
JM When you’re writing, is it important to you to make that bridge between a situation that is happening right now and the eternal process of working and creativity?
LC I begin with a structure and I try to have as clear an idea as possible about the structure and the way characters are going to move through that structure and the events that are going to propel them. The structure becomes set in a context, whether it’s the 19th century of Vanity Fair or the 20th-century Gulf War. That context will influence language, rituals, actions, but I try to maintain the structure I set out to build. Colm Tóibín taught these writing workshops where he had the students begin by reading three Greek tragedies. His basic premise was that you could trace all Western narratives to these three tragedies, Electra, Antigone, and Medea. The truth of those relationships, those responses, are a part of our consciousness. So maybe a good writer is writing the same stories over and again. The context may make it a bit more relevant to the moment, but it’s not as if a mother killing her child isn’t incredibly relevant to current political events.
JM The structure, the architecture, the information and the visual signage that goes into my work changes in the context of what’s going on in the world and impacting me. Then there’s this other subconscious kind of drawing, this other activity that takes place, that is interacting with everything that is changing, and it’s the relationship between the two that really pushes me. And why abstraction? There are so many other ways to make paintings about these conditions that I’m drawn to. But there’s something that’s hard to speak about that abstraction gives me access to.
LC More and more I shy away from actually describing the physical characteristics of the characters. They almost become abstract figures that operate in a narrative. With the last extended piece of writing that I did, for instance, I was interested in how to completely absent race. I was interested in what kind of person the police were actually looking for on the occasions that they’ve stopped me. You know, what did that guy who robbed the grocery store that you mistook me for look like, exactly? Did we share some common historical reality? How do you begin to talk about the characters without using police language, or this mediated language that is ultimately unreliable, to identify them? For me abstraction is liberating. I read Chester Himes’s prison novel, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, and it is never really clear whether the characters are white or black even though he claimed they were white. He plays this funny game with them, their racial markers, their identities. That was one of the challenges for me in writing the last manuscript. How do you create these characters whose gestures are real and similar to the gestures that you live with in daily life without the burden of this mediated racial identity, while at the same time acknowledging the importance of race in shaping your reality? And now, I don’t want to do traditional area studies for my PhD because what I’m interested in doesn’t just happen in Southeast Asia, it happens in Europe and it happens in the United States.
JM Yeah. Even though I collect and work with images in the studio they don’t enter the work directly. Instead I’m trying to create my own language. It’s the reason I use the language of European abstraction in my work. I am interested in those ideas because I grew up looking at that type of work, but also not taking any of it at face value. It is as big a part of me as Chinese calligraphy or Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts. The more I understand any kind of work the more I see myself conceptually borrowing from it. Going to the Met and seeing particular paintings over and over inevitably becomes a part of my language. Abstraction in that way allows for all those various places to find expression.
LC I wonder if that’s because language doesn’t come to us naturally because of each of our specific historical contexts. English or European abstraction is just not second nature to either of us. We meditate intuitively or self-consciously on whether this is the right word or the right gesture to use in this situation.
JM I want to shy away from talking about your situation, my situation, as being more privy to a certain kind of understanding—
LC I totally agree with you, but why are we more conscious of these uses of language? You were talking before about collecting images . . .
JM Newspaper images.
LC Right, and saying that to use them wouldn’t be as liberating as abstraction. Yet someone like Matthew Barney refers to some of the things we have been talking about. He also has a historical trajectory that he draws on where he’s not comfortable accepting a word or gesture at face value, and the discourse produced around his work isn’t reducing it to being about a potato famine.
JM It’s the same reason that being from Addis Ababa and having lived in say Harare, Dakar, Providence, Kalamazoo, Houston, is not the point of departure for my work. There’s that desire to exoticize, but I don’t know if exoticize is the right word.
LC That response is a kind of exoticization, but it’s a very sophisticated one. It’s certainly not as crass as it was in the 1980s, but it’s still a mediated version of our experiences: a kind of police report, or APB on our lives.
JM I think the work is about trying to make sense of what is happening outside of that mediated reality. There are more and more of these complicated situations and I think we all exist in them, or at least I know I do, where I come from two different realities and I’m trying to locate myself. That was the point of departure in all the work, trying to make sense of the version of history and reality that my whole family in Ethiopia is living in, and another one that exists here with my parents and my grandmother and yet another one that I experience.
LC Yes, but it’s that third part of the equation that is so crucial because it throws everything off kilter.
JM Totally . . . (laughter)
LC Like, there’s Ethiopia and there’s Michigan, but what about the Australian outback in your trajectory? Or, we understand why you were in southern Thailand when the tsunami hit or in New York City on 9/11, but tell us again why you were in Beirut?
JM Right. (laughter) I think it’s that I’m seeking how to nurture that process of working in the studio while allowing other things to happen. Because the most interesting realizations happen there and that’s why I just want to work on only drawings right now: to allow for that kind of freedom and let those new kinds of languages and new marks arise to articulate a different picture of what’s happening in the world that, even though we’ve talked about it so much, I still feel really confused by.