Josiah McElheny creates astonishing installations out of many materials, frequently collaborating with any number of experts. His projects have often begun with handmade pieces of glass, crafted in his own studio. In addition, he creates films and performances that are important features of his exhibitions. Catalogue design, new translations of historical texts, and book publishing are also crucial parts of his work. It is difficult to sum up the artist’s practice in a sentence or two, but one can fairly say that altogether his art is motivated by an intense curiosity about the unrealized potential of utopian projects captured in the forms of objects. Described this way there is something potentially morbid about McElheny’s projects. He collaborates with the dead. With each new effort, he summons long-gone artists and the fallen artistic movements they founded. Through allusion, appropriation, and reconstruction, McElheny stages séances where deceased designers, artists, architects, crafts people, and writers hold court with living contemporary counterparts. Mixing together in the gallery, the dead and the living constitute an intentional community of participants spanning generations, standing outside of time.
As a way of starting our conversation, the day that we were scheduled to meet, I emailed Josiah a quotation from Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power.
The essence of this fight between the living and the dead is that it is intermittent. One can never know when something is going to happen. Nothing may happen for a long time, but one cannot count on this; each new blow comes suddenly out of the dark. There is no declaration of war; after a single death everything may be over, or it may go on for a long time as in plagues and epidemics. The living are always on the retreat. Nothing is ever really over.
I have been thinking about the role of the dead in current artistic production for some time. I was eager to discuss this with Josiah because he is intensely preoccupied with the fate of modernism’s failed attempts and dead ends. Here, I understand modernism as the period of history—roughly from the mid-19th century to the present—in which artists made and make conscious attempts to directly encounter and alter aspects of technology and industrialization. McElheny continues the modernist project by catalyzing persistent (nagging) questions about art’s potential to counteract unjust social hierarchies. He seems to still believe that by changing the actual shapes of material forms—objects we can touch, hold, weigh, see, and see through—people can make a more tolerant society in which the bargain between laborer and industry is fair and honest. His method is retrospective. He tries to discover a novel way forward by casting backward to reconsider unfulfilled expectations of the past. This approach is very hopeful. In fact, I never experience his installations as macabre encounters with the dead. McElheny’s exhibitions are delightful and rich. But there’s something threatening below the shiny surfaces. One gets lost in a detail only to take a step back and become overwhelmed by an excess of possibilities.
— Gregg Bordowitz
Josiah McElheny The first moment I experienced an extremely deep connection to art was in Rome, where one cannot help observe the layering of history that you find there on any one street. Somehow that layering also makes historical artworks feel as if they are more connected to the present. Specifically I am remembering the intensity of seeing the Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velázquez for the first time. I was amazed by the way the cloth of his gown was painted! As artists, we feel inherently connected to history because we all begin our understanding of art through the notion of its being a long trajectory. At some level, we’re all part of this, connected to it, even to things that might seem completely culturally divorced from our present day experiences.
I’m learning about history in my own blind way. There’s a certain modernist aesthetic that I find viscerally, bodily attractive. I understand that these kinds of aesthetics that physically attract me come from a certain place and from a limited set of ideas. And that’s what makes them powerful. A lot of those ideas, in terms of modernist aesthetics, come from an ideal of universalism. History has shown that universalism is a step away from totalitarianism—a deadly kind of erasure that I find horrifying. The fear of fascism undermines my sensuous relationship to those things. I often wonder, are there any other alternative aesthetics?
Gregg Bordowitz Your investigation into alternatives often leads you to reinvent old objects, or reenact past events. Thinking about your work, and especially the new work that you’re doing on Paul Scheerbart and The Light Club of Batavia, I thought about the ghostly nature of the characters, specifically in the screenplay for a new film you are working on.
JM Yeah, Paul Scheerbart was a high school dropout who moved back and forth between Dresden and Berlin. He became part of café culture, a feuilleton writer. He wrote reviews on architecture and fine art, as well as some very strange short fiction in a format called the German Novelle. It is a short, schematic story that ends in an ironic twist. I’d seen Scheerbart’s aphoristic book Glass Architecture, but I hadn’t had such a strong connection to it until I read the first English translation of a novel of his, The Gray Cloth, published in 2001. And in it, there’s a footnote to another very obscure story of his—one that’s not usually included in his bibliography—titled The Light Club of Batavia. It describes the interactions of a group of socialites who meet at a hotel in Jakarta to build a spa at the bottom of a mine shaft and bathe in electric light. This story has led me to a whole series of explorations: performances, books, collaborations, and now this new film, called The Light Club of Vizcaya.
Discovering Scheerbart has been very important for my work. His thinking about the future wasn’t totalitarian. He placed an emphasis on reimagination and failure. Scheerbart’s description of a future world was always a strange combination of, let’s say, Babylonian times and a science fiction future. He died in 1915, so all of his works are from the late 19th century and before World War I. You talk about ghosts—the more I learn about World War I, the more it seems to be the moment where history made this huge shift. What was possible to imagine before the Great War was no longer possible to imagine for a hundred years. It is my hope that, maybe in a small way, through art, we could return to this era, not nostalgically, but to actually find this broken path and pick it up again, keep going and keep asking questions about it. Ultimately, what’s most amazing to me about Scheerbart is not that he had any answers, but that he was willing to propose things that had inherent conflicts. And he didn’t seem to be afraid of creating an almost absurd set of conflicting aims. I connect that to my own life experiences and the interior conflicts in my psyche.
GB It seems to me that you work from a place of enthusiasm. I find your ability to be enthusiastic about the recovery of utopian projects remarkable and sometimes vexing, given all we know about the trajectory of utopian projects in the 20th century. I don’t even know how to formulate this question except as a kind of psychological question. Where do you get your enthusiasm? Or do you think your optimism is just a disposition that you possess?
JM It’s definitely a disposition, but my enthusiasm also comes through frustration. I would call myself talented only at one thing and that’s perseverance. I mean, I’m really stubborn. I’m willing to do something over and over and over again and discard all of it until it has some sense of being right to me. A lot of times when I’m trying to imitate the ineffable quality of some, let’s say, specific object from 1956, I fail at actually achieving a true facsimile or replica of it. Still, I try to capture some quality of the original object, some aspect of the atmosphere it came from—but for reasons of time, or money, or inability, I never fully succeed. I just have to be satisfied with something “good enough,” something that has at least some aura of the history the design came from. Ultimately, the ability to at least approximate something from the past is where my enthusiasm comes from.
But our relationship to objects can constantly change. Something that looks wonderful can become awful and something that’s awful can become good. I try to make images of modernism that are attractive but that suddenly switch on you to become something else—perhaps the opposite of what you first perceived. However, even then they might still evoke hope at some level. There’s a reason why people had utopian impulses. It’s not that utopia went wrong. Utopia encountered reality. Utopia encountered its own internal contradictions. It’s not that the will to improve life or to expand life is an inherently bad thing. And yet I’m really aware that so much terror and totalitarianism came directly from utopian thinking. I’m trying to understand it myself, but I don’t know what the alternative is. What do you think?
GB I’ve traveled a long distance from my Frankfurt School roots, and I have very different ideas about the origins of totalitarianism in Enlightenment thinking. I spent a fair amount of time when I was younger believing that romantic enthusiasm would only lead down the road toward uglier passions. Within the last few years, I have come to question the assumption that strong emotions like enthusiasm or passion must be carefully controlled, or they will lead us inexorably toward our own sadistic impulses. That’s a hard thing for me to accept but I’m letting go of those past assumptions in my recent work. I feel that I’ve exhausted the method of critique that places limitations on certain emotional states.
So, I respond positively to your enthusiasm but there’s a difference between you and me in the way that we think about history or histories. I don’t think there was only one modernism. I think that there were many modernisms and they were constantly competing with each other. It’s not possible to go back into the past and redraw the line of a trajectory so that it arrives at a different outcome. The linear trajectories that we’ve traced for ourselves as a way of explaining the horrors of the 20th century don’t exist as clear pathways.
I do agree that the past is always available to us to rearticulate. We can take ownership of the past for ourselves in the ways that you were describing. The dead are always around to remind us of their yearnings and we can respond by reevaluating and redoing, reperforming what we imagine as the actions and behaviors of people in the past. This won’t necessarily lead to our worst nightmares. I somehow feel irresponsible saying that because it challenges us to change the terms of well-worn debates concerning expressionism versus the antiaesthetic. But that’s where I am right now.
JM Right before 2000, I was working on this fashion project that focused on how ideas would move through and across class boundaries in very surprising ways. And that’s now come full circle to where I’m thinking about fashion again as a way of ideas moving through culture. But between those two periods, from 2000 to 2007, I worked on a series of projects where one of my main goals was the attempt to make an image of how the thing we are deeply attracted to can turn on us. For example, I reconstructed the space of the American Bar, which was built in 1908, the same year that the architect Adolf Loos gave a lecture that became his famous essay “Ornament and Crime.” The essay talks about the progressive development of society through the increasingly pure reduction of ornamentation. I thought, Well, what’s the end game with that?
I made an all-white version of this bar. White is the color of evil, in the sense of white as erasure. It allows for no color, no gradation, no dirt, nothing. And I made an all-white version of his essay, white letters on white vellum. Through great effort, I made this intensely bright, light space in which you would experience the bar, the barware, the bar sign and the essay. My assumption was that the viewer would go through a very simple process. (I always thought of display as a process, a performative thing.) First you would come into an all-white space that’s incredibly pristine. In theory, to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of upbringing, with a background like mine, it could be viscerally attractive, almost erotically attractive. And then I assumed another set of thoughts or feelings would follow. One would ask: “Where’s the color?” or “Where’s the dirt?” or “Who cleans it?”
To my disappointment, 90 percent of the people who experienced this work never got to that second, perhaps more critical, stage. They just thought, Wow, this is so exciting, and sensually beautiful. And I was really shocked by that. So, I spent the next few years trying to push this problem as far as I could in my work. I made Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism, a cube of “infinitely” repeating modernist shapes. I assumed that anything that’s infinitely repeated is bad, right? Infinite repetition means that there’s no room for anything, there’s no room for me, you know? There’s no room for you. It’s just the thing endlessly repeated. Again, to my great disappointment, this kind of reflection was not the most common reaction. My idea is that art is a place where we can play and ask questions. And I still want to believe that. Unfortunately, when I think I’ve made a very clear demonstration of corrupt and dangerous ideas, I’m often unable to get people to stand in that critical spot with me.
GB What’s changed the direction of my thinking in the past seven years or so, is an ongoing engagement with the philosophy of David Hume. (I was looking for an alternative to my own education, which focused on continental theory and French Hegelianism, either for or against Hegel.) Hume thought that it’s impossible for Reason to establish the necessity of causal relations. That’s an enormously humbling idea. We can’t be certain that simple causal relations will always result in the same effects. And so I think that it’s completely possible to pick up an object from the past and use it in ways with unpredictable results. I have hope in the possibility of different outcomes.
In the past few years I also became very much interested in object relations theory and psychoanalytic theory. I’m very moved by the work of the analyst D.W. Winnicott. He described our developmental learning process as a process of finding the object through losing the object. Objects don’t exist for us until we’ve actually had them once, then lose them, and finally recover them. It’s only through the recovery of lost objects that objects become alive for the infant. This is a very hopeful theory and I think it is related to the methods you have for discovering objects, unearthing forgotten forms in the hope of discovering them anew. Novelty is a feeling. When you come across something exciting that appears novel, the object is not actually new—
JM You are new!
GB The sensation, the excitement is what makes you feel new.
JM From our position in the postmodern world, we could imagine a future but we know our imagination of the future won’t be the future. Maybe in the modernist era you could imagine the future as the future. Still, even though we find ourselves in a very different position, people who have the privilege to present ideas in the public sphere have a responsibility to propose alternatives. And that doesn’t mean that they will be the alternatives that will become true. The proposal itself is something worthy and important; I mean a humble proposal with the awareness of its own limits. Just because the modernists made proposals for universal solutions that don’t allow for variation doesn’t mean that the very idea of offering proposals is wrong. Does it? Proposals are necessary, even if it’s just a moment that creates a sense of novelty about how we perceive the world.
GB As I said before, I think that there are different modernisms and that the various modernisms have vastly different relations to historical materialism. And there are many different versions of historical materialism throughout the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries. So it’s hard to come up with one statement about the use or abuse of modernism in general. That’s why it’s productive to talk about the specificity of your working process. The critical strength of your work is comprehended through the particular methods you employ to display the unique objects that you produce.
JM This could be a digression but I think it may be useful or interesting. I was working on a show in Stockholm, which was about the retelling of modernist history. And also about Scheerbart and the architect Bruno Taut, who was Scheerbart’s collaborator and protégé, in a way. The curator, Iris Müller Westermann, proposed that we retell the story of modernism, in part by correcting it—which I’m all for—by expanding it, by saying the truth: the first person to paint a purely abstract picture in the Western canon was not Kandinsky, but a woman, the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint. The curator invited me to cocurate a show of this artist’s paintings. It was a fantastic opportunity—we showed some of Klint’s works for the first time since the ’20s. We cut a hole in the floor of the family foundation that cares for her work, in order to get out this incredible pyramidal, multi-colored painting, for example. Somehow they had gotten it in but the door was no longer big enough to take it out!
However, returning to your point about specificity, what’s been surprising and very encouraging is that the more specific I make something, the more it becomes something else. All these works that I have done that are essentially about the idea of postmodernity began with a piece called An End to Modernity. Maybe it’s a pompous title, but the idea is that both science and culture arrived, at almost exactly the same moment, at the realization that there are an infinite number of histories of the world. And that if we could actually observe from each of their specific viewpoints, we could see that they are all equally correct.
Anyway, I had the idea to make a sculpture, which eventually became An End to Modernity, in which every single aesthetic decision had a one-to-one relationship to the scientific information around the theory of the Big Bang, which postulates this infinite number of possible histories. I wanted to generate a sense of aesthetics that does not look random, nor systematized, and yet also doesn’t appear to be the product of a single mind. Even though the sculpture looks industrial, it’s not composed of repeated parts, which would seem to be the very definition of the industrial. It’s composed of individual arrangements of things, which defies the notion of efficiency, that is, modernity. I don’t expect that viewers get the very specific references that interest me, the specific scientific concepts. Rather, my goal was to infuse the sculpture with the scientific information in an absolutely accurate manner in order to create something whose biggest effect is uncanniness, or some kind of emotional response to its underlying, ineffable qualities. People I respect say they don’t necessarily see what I claim about my work in it, but they find something else useful for themselves. Maybe these works come from my own private dialogue, and their ultimate effect is something that I don’t understand.
GB We’re getting to a point where I would expect you to address the topic of subjectivity and the role of subjectivity in art making. Actually, I can’t suspend that concern. For me, theories of subjectivity are central to the study of modernisms. I am inspired by the way Yvonne Rainer explores subjectivity in her films and choreography—through autobiography, through telling other people’s stories. Rainer uses quotations from personal accounts of the world and presents them through a variety of formal approaches. Her methods are primary models for me. I’m wondering where the role of subjectivity arises for you in what you refer to as modernism. In your discussions of modernism you emphasize its industrial character, its universalizing tendency, its multiplying potential. And you just talked about the way that you try to counter these aspects of modernism in your own work. You brought up the idea of infinite possibilities, which reminds me of another central tendency within modernism, the singularity of point of view. Where is the place for identity politics that consider points of view along lines of gender, sexuality, race, or class?
JM I began exploring the history of modernism through ideas around exhibition, display, and education. Those things are interrelated to me. My first works were quasi-educational museum structures. The first artwork I ever made—and I didn’t consider it a work at the time—was a museum that you would find in the forest by accident. It had both originals and fakes in it that I made myself.
Now with my current work, I’m trying to explore exactly what you’re asking about. Contemporary art history provides me with a new model for how to investigate subjectivity in some sense. I did a work in “collaboration” with the artist Allan Kaprow, after he was dead; I was commissioned to do this by his estate and the curator Helen Molesworth. But importantly, it was Kaprow’s idea that his work could be reinterpreted subjectively by others. My response to the request to make a new iteration of Kaprow’s Yard, a work created from used tires, was to take a panoramic picture of a neighborhood full of used tires. It will be the last industrial urban redevelopment neighborhood in New York—where they tear down an old neighborhood and start from scratch. And then last year I was collaborating with another dead artist, Blinky Palermo. I was trying to imagine what it would be like if he came to a certain place today with the same attitudes and emotions and feelings as he had, let’s say, in 1970. I worked with two of the most important Palermo scholars, Christine Mehring and Susanne Küper to get as much information as possible about his working methods, in order to test this theory of mine. Palermo proposed a kind of unexplored trajectory within “minimalist abstract conceptual art,” in which the point is not to create a situation where a conceptualization is presented to the audience, but where the conceptualization is actually there to create the possibility of the audience experiencing something themselves. So instead of the artist saying “I was here,” a structure is set up to create the possibility for the viewer to say, “I am here.”
So in Palermo’s idea of responding to space as a conceptual structure, he starts by measuring, using a dimension of the body—basically a hand’s breadth. For Palermo, each gesture was a subtle response to the space he occupied. He created straight lines, using a spirit level and 90-degree right angles, that always ended up diverging from the building itself. So basically the work is constantly showing the shift from the theoretical space of the architecture—its theoretical perfection—to the actual misaligned, imperfect angles that all buildings evidence. He was saying that ideas have to respond to the space the body is actually in. I think he wanted the viewer to think, Oh, I am in this specific space; and this specific space, if you take measure of it, has a peculiar set of qualities. It’s different than Sol LeWitt, who worked during exactly the same historical period as Palermo. LeWitt said “Take a wall, any wall, divide it in half.” And, to me, that’s a way of obviating subjectivity. It could be any wall. It doesn’t matter where the wall is. The cultural situation of the wall doesn’t matter.
That relates to what my last show at Andrea Rosen Gallery was about, using abstraction as a way of imagining a new body. How did you see that show?
GB I saw it as a very hopeful gesture. When I was walking through the exhibition I wondered if you imagined that it was possible through plays of abstraction to call to mind new configurations of gender. So yeah, I agree with you that the show held out the possibility of reimagining bodies, other people’s bodies, and body shapes, by reflecting upon one’s own image of the self. We could continue this line of thought, but I’m mindful of the time and I want to ask one more question. You’ve talked about Scheerbart, Palermo, Kaprow, and others. How would you characterize your relationship to the dead? You seem to have a number of lively conversations going on with deceased artists.
JM This goes back to your saying that, in a way, the dead aren’t dead, they live on through us. I think the idea of being haunted is something that runs through all of my work. Remembering itself is a kind of haunting. I often find it funny when people say that a sculpture is mute. Its very presence indicates how the thoughts of others persist. I don’t understand people who want to make “new” things, because it seems that if you intend to make something new you’re just going to reinvent something somebody else made before without knowing. It’s like saying that you make something only for yourself, without regard to what others have done. But when you create something that can outlast oneself, you’re creating a kind of, I don’t know, good ghost. It’s possible that an artist might add one more idea, one more permissive idea that could haunt the world in a positive way. That’s not my goal necessarily, but it could be a pretty good outcome.
GB You don’t believe that you can make something new. Do you believe that you can produce novel emotions?
JM I would propose that one of the main purposes of life is to learn how to give and receive love. To do that, the past must be re-inhabited and reenacted. Just because something has been done once can’t mean that it doesn’t need to be done again. Perhaps, repetition can’t be avoided. I believe that doing is worthwhile, in the way the pragmatists understood learning through doing. I don’t mean doing without criticality or self-awareness. One can certainly evaluate the usefulness of the activity. I guess we’ve returned to the subject of enthusiasm.
GB It’s interesting to start with modernism and end with love, because love is the one project that every individual must repeat and repeat in spite of previous failure or disappointment. It’s a matter of psychological survival.
JM To close, I want to return to the topics of subjectivity and gender. Considering the current historical moment we’re living in, there’s one thing that gives me some hope—the beginnings of a deep change in our society’s ability to recognize an individual’s potentiality and right to determine their very own bodily psychic identity. I think that’s why I’m excited about the idea of combining abstraction with subjectivity. I hope it’s worthwhile to try to create new examples or manifestations of permissive, subjective thinking. My recent exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery was trying to do that. But I had a fear about the “Walking Mirror” pieces I constructed for this show. I was concerned that they would feel like a total erasure of the performer who was wearing them. So I asked the performers to improvise with them. But to my complete surprise, they became instead these absorptive bodies because while they were moving through space, the viewers saw themselves completely reflected in them. It’s as if they had absorbed you (the viewer). It seems I have moved from questions of display and education to the questions we’ve just discussed—How does subjectivity change historically and how are we changed by newly developing subjectivities?