CONCEPTUAL ARTIST EXPLORES CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CULTURE WITH A LITTLE IRONY: AN INTERVIEW WITH JOE NANASHE
1. Tell us about your upcoming solo exhibition “American Vanitas” at VICTORI + MO. Are we in for any surprises ?
It’s a surprise, the whole show! Photographs, sculptures, videos… You haven’t seen any of the work yet. Maybe something up my sleeve.
2. Can you describe yourself as an artist? What themes do you explore and what is it that you aim to convey with your work in this upcoming exhibition ?
My work addresses the perception and recording of time, the body, cultural appropriation, information, language, sex, death, and food. And America! Lots of America! It looks at the current mental instability of our Empire.
" We’re entering some state of cultural dementia. I genuinely believe we’re waiting for a bus that will never come, or screaming at empty chairs. "
3. What is it about Dada, Minimalism and Vaudeville that fascinates you so much ?
The mechanization of man begins at that same time, the assembly line, and mass communication technologies. We see that reflected in the art. Of course when Marinetti writes about hurdling through space at breakneck speeds and the thrill of it, he was going like what, 25-30 miles an hour? But it’s that initial shock to form, to perception, to the idea of humanity and its place in the world. How we can manipulate our bodies. That period I think, redefined our existence in ways that we are still coming to terms with it, or recognizing the implications.
Dada was the first international art movement. It went beyond region and into the world of ideas. It critiqued its period and the notion of absolute knowledge with absurdity. The absolute unwavering certainty of one’s convictions can be a destructive force. We see it with the rise of Fascism, of Nationalism, of Trump’s “Americanism”.
" Ignorance and arrogance usually go hand in hand. The stupid are often the most vocal. Dada was an attempt to slap the stupid out. It’s funny. It’s nihilistic. It’s blows up everything. "
I think for me with vaudeville; it’s the performance aspect of it. Houdini, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers came out of vaudeville. Beckett often utilizes a clown-like or absurd character that seems right off the vaudeville stage. Waiting for Godot is a great comedy bit. The early performance video works that influenced me owes some debt to vaudeville. There’s a terrifying inescapability to the stage, and the frame of the camera that is so fascinating to me - the construction, execution of a joke or a gag. The repetition and variation on a theme, like some sort of physical jazz to create humor, or elicit a laugh.
4. Is there a particular piece during this exhibition that you want to draw special attention to ? Why ?
No. It’s all there for a reason! My opinion changes daily on what is successful and what is not. I’m always happy when I get ten different answers to the question of which work is someone’s favorite. It means there’s nothing easy.
" But I’ll discuss the piece “Untitled Self-Portrait with Banana Cream Pie 1 & 2”. It’s an image that has been in my head for sometime now. Wasn’t sure why though. I just love the absurdity of it. It’s emasculating, especially with the very boyish “school picture day” white shirt and black tie combo. "
It’s very "old-timey", "vaudeville pie fight" style. It was difficult to shoot because I used a real pie, unlike in movies where it’s just whipped cream. It was heavy and cold and fell off my face. But we kept snapping the photos and that led to the second photo, which was this sort of miraculous revelation.
5. What made you decide to become an artist in the first place ?
I couldn’t do anything else. I mean that! Nothing else really made any sense. It’s an impossible question for me to even comprehend. What else would I do?
6. Has your upbringing in Ohio influenced your work in anyway ?
Absolutely! Akron and the surrounding area was the rubber capital of the world. The headquarters of the 4th largest tire manufacturer was based there. Cleveland is just down the road with its steel. It was an area of immense industry. The neighborhoods were built up and named after companies. It was an epicenter for this idyllic American working class dream, a postwar Eden as portrayed by the newsreels of the 40s. Of course these were things I never saw. They were stories, contemporary myths about the glorious and not so distant past.
" The landscape I knew was of economic devastation, the post-industrial sprawl of abandoned factories. Not where I grew up, but those surrounding areas, where I went to school. I became enamored with those empty edifices of industry. That ghost scent of steel and oil. "
You could taste the rust in the air. You could see the traffic patterns worn in the floor where this workforce streamed in and out everyday. These spaces were haunted with the energy of the labor and lives that inhabited these buildings. I became fascinated by time, and the timeless existence of the assembly line. It was a kind of industrial, mechanized Zen. A life could be defined by a single repeated action. Accomplishments could be tallied by the building of inventory, quotas, piles of time and effort that are then wiped clean and repeated the next day and the day after and the day after. The assembly line deconstructed human body into commodifiable actions to be endlessly repeated.
" That physical manifestation of physical labor, that recording of history in those spaces influenced my work, the representation of time, the body, or history, especially early on."
In college we did exhibitions in those factories, installations in the landscape, ton old train tracks, under freeway overpasses. I think that delicate attention to space, material, and execution certainly stems from that time. It’s what leads me to work in an interdisciplinary manner; I don’t try to force things into a narrative or a material. I just allow the world to happen.
There is also a very fascinating list of artists, particularly musicians, which have come from the Akron area. Devo I think were clearly influenced by a great deal of what I mentioned above, though they would’ve been of the age to witness first-hand that industrial decline. They’re name was short for “De-evolution” after all. There’s something terrifying and apocalyptic and banal about it all.
7. What role does an artist have in today’s society and do you think artists are given enough of a voice ?
No one is given a voice, you have to take it! Well, maybe the rich. The rich inherit their voice.
" Art should be dangerous. Art should challenge preconceived notions. It should be the petulant child. It should critique the established order. This is how we balance out fascism. To challenge people and ideas are a direct assault on authority."
The biggest problem is it’s next to impossible to be heard. There are so many voices, so many mediums, so much data, and so very little thought. It’s easy to drown in the noise. I don’t really know how to solve it, or how escape it and be seen or heard. I think that’s the struggle. And it can be a blessing and a curse, right? We can get our information out there, our ideas and images. But this spread of information has only allowed those larger cultural entities to devour and steal our ideas. Kanye rips off a French photographer. Drake “fucks with” James Turrell. Apple eats everything like Pac-Man. Maybe that’s the problem. That every marketing firm has a division producing “viral videos.” The role of the artist is a language and style that is being sold back to us. And artists have moved closer to fashion, so it’s impossible to tell what content is art and what is advertising.