Gladly Will I Sell
Dear Merchants of the Town,
Laden With Snow
Aeron Bergman and Alejandra Salinas have developed an an art practice that is highly intelligent and steeped in conceptual art tradition while being formally beautiful. Their work is of the highest order of seriousness - in subject matter, execution and comportment - while exuding a wickedly humorous sense of sarcasm. On the occasion of the last week of their exhibition at Dumbo Arts Center, I had the chance to interview them about their work, politics and art, humor, mortality and a displeasure with Kant. Their installation can be seen online here.
KE: The series of fine china plates engraved with Chinese Tang dynasty poems, Lords of the Capital, are all quite striking, especially since the poems have an incredible resonance with today's struggles of economic disparity. The poem on one plate reads:
"Ashamed though I am
Of my high position,
While people lead unhappy lives,
Let us reasonably banish care
We bow, we take our cups of wine,
We give our attention to beautiful poems"
This goes to the heart of a problem many artists have at all times, let alone time of extreme political strife: what roles do they and their art play in culture? This is a long set-up for the question: Since your work quite often has a political edge, what function do you hope for your art to have in that discussion? Related, what part do aesthetics, "the beautiful" play in this discussion? In your statement for the show, you write of contemporary art being "irrelevant activity." If this is so, why reference, or speak of, politics in your work?
Aeron Bergman & Alejandra Salinas: Questions about the political relevance of art are related to the “my kid could do that” comments heard in provincial art museums. Alternative culture feeds dominant culture (see Raymond Williams theories of Cultural Studies). Sometimes memes are co-opted as a style, but sometimes the real essence of the stuff alters the mainstream. Think of woman's right to vote and gay rights: once unthinkable, the tireless expression by an alternative cultural force changed and will continue to change mainstream policy and opinion.
Today’s public sphere determines that any labor without an immediate (economic) use value is irrelevant and therefore abhorrent (Hannah Arendt). So-called "irrelevant" labor such as art and tending to a house-cat is therefore a protest action and confronts our alienation.
We also think of the work as logging a kind of “evidence” for the future.
KE: While installing the show, we talked a bit about the aesthetics of conceptual art, stereotypically low-res, black and white, text heavy. You had mentioned wanting to make your work, in essence, more beautiful than is traditionally associated with "idea-based" art. The show
is gorgeous, and on first blush, appears somber. Closer inspection though, reveals some wicked humor and heavy ideas. What do these tensions between the "conceptual" and the "aesthetic," between the "serious" and the "humorous" do for you?
AB & AS: Tension is good. Yin / yang man. Fuck Kant.
KE: You reference Hannah Arendt and ideas of domesticity and "the art of being happy among 'small things'" in your statement, too. Could you speak to this notion in relation to your work, especially considering that the work in the show, though modest in scale, has as it subject matter big themes: Death, Memory, Permanence and Value.
AB & AS: We should probably blow up all our work to outrageous proportions, it would help our career. Or perhaps we should just hand out magnifying glasses at the door.
Most of us, especially us non-billionaire city dwellers, live in small spaces that we care for with irrelevant tenderness. This is the meaning of life.
KE: In whole, the show feels very quiet and static, even the video is of still shots of marble and granite surfaces! From the wave etched on a granite grave marker to the Tang Dynasty poems to the currency pieces (which are linked to a specific date), to the "freezing" of the Wikipedia and
data error images, the show seems to slow and elongate time. In a sense, to preserve a moment. yet, it also calls attention to the seeming impossibility to preserve anything, if you take a long enough view. So, is the show optimistic or pessimistic about our future?
AB & AS: Freezing time and energy is what reification is all about: documentation of expenditure, dead on arrival. We wanted to preserve moments that are otherwise in flux such as currency exchange and Wikipedia entries. The work is neutral, a series of statements. However, we ourselves feel very bleak about our own futures and the futures of our working class families.
KE: The show was arranged in consultation with a Feng Shui master, Pun Yin, and featured a performance by an Ikebana artist, Lily Pu. These are systems that were allowed to "succeed" in the context of the show. But in other ways, the show is about system failures: Wikipedia entries have to be policed or else the idea behind them of crowd sourcing knowledge can be hijacked. The data error pieces are literarly frozen moments of breakdown. The funerary elements of the patents of grave markers and the Future Monument (death being the greatest system failure). The cash pieces highlight a failing global economy. As mentioned, the show postulates that preservation is not an option, that all of our systems for doing so are doomed to fail. Do the two different systems that were allowed to succeed, Ikebana and Feng Shui, represent a way out of a failing system?
AB & AS: Individuals are mortal, but the immortality of mankind happens via our res publica. Memes and meme systems are archived through us: ideas and traditions are passed down through generations, altered to suit each new condition. Traditions such as Ikebana and Feng Shui come from ancient, murky origins and are passed down, altered, through the generations. Capitalist attempts to freeze traditional knowledge such as the California “master” who tried to copyright yoga poses, or tombstone design, are doomed to fail. The biological archive will outlast the age of kleptomania.