Artist Sebastiaan Bremer and architect Jing Liu dish on how to exhibit high quality work on a shoestring and why art still matters in hard times
It’s 1999 and you’re an emerging artist in New York and there’s a ruckus going on at the auction houses but none of that’s “trickling down” to you yet and how’s a dude supposed to make art when he’s got no bread, and paint and stuff’s expensive? Well, one option is to apply your artistic ingenuity to constraints imposed by limited resources in order to create an exhibit that both showcases new talent and with tongue firmly planted in cheek criticizes the system that imposes economic limits on creativity unevenly (genius, no?) Which is precisely what illimitably optimistic Dutch artist Sebastiaan Bremer did when he got a gaggle of friends (Donald Baechler, Guy Richards Smit, and Pamela Fraser among them) to make blueprints for original artworks-to-be and exhibited the blueprints in a DIY gallery above a Burger King in Chelsea.
In response to the current global economic climate, which has generally been less than kind to artists (and yes, art still matters when the economy goes south), Bremer collaborated with architects Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu (founding designers of SO-IL and of New Museum fame) to recreate the blueprint show in Feb/March of this year at Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort, Netherlands including some of the artists in the original 1999 show in addition to new artists and architects. This round, participating artists and architects were asked to submit the blueprint of a work that was an early definitive piece. Additionally, in 2014, blueprints are obsolete adding to the current show a stroke of commentary about the radical changes technology has introduced to art-making.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
How did both iterations of the blueprint show come about?
SB: I didn’t go to art school and after I went to an art residency in Skowhegan, Maine, I realized that all these other people who did go to art school had a very tight community. So after Skowhegan, I wanted to keep that going. Also, if you’re an artist, you always try to get people to come to your studio, which is a weird feeling especially in the beginning. So if you curate the show, you’re the one going to other people’s studios, and you see how that dynamic changes and how other people are nervous and uncomfortable and you realize there’s no need for that. For me it was just nice to change that relationship and build a sense of community. It was fun to start curating, and the show in 1999 was a bit of a response to very heavily curated shows. These heavily curated shows were based on a complicated conceptual structure where the curator put themselves almost in front of the artists and the blueprint show was a bit of a play on that where there was no relationship with the artworks except that they were all made by friends of mine and the only way to give the show any cohesion was to make all the works look alike by making them blueprints.
A few years ago, I met the director of the museum in Amersfoort and he was lamenting the fact that he wanted to do more artist curated shows but he didn’t have the money to make it an international affair. Then I said, “Well, I have this cheap show for you if you want. I did one years ago.” But years ago, I also wanted to include architects because of the blueprints. Since I’ve become friendly with Jing and Florian, I asked them to become a part of it and Jing came up with a formal twist so that it wasn’t so arbitrary. So we asked all the participants to come up with their original, signature work and turn those into blueprints.
And the curators also have their own work in the 2014 show. What were your submissions?
JL: Florian and I specifically chose something that was unrealized. It was a project from 2008 when something like 2/3rd’s of architects left the profession, but when we actually joined the profession. It was a time when everybody didn’t have business, all architects tried to do something else, like went into the film industry or they went into development. It was kind of an identity crisis for the profession. We actually stayed firmly within the profession and believed firmly in what we were doing. We believed in realizing works, not just paper architectural renderings. We believed in making a physical outcome. In trying to do that in 2008, we had a lot of failed projects. We had hundreds of pages of drawing sets that didn’t end up physically built. We wanted to not forget that time even though now the economy is better. It takes a real commitment to try to realize something so that’s why I think we chose the work we did. It’s the floor plan of a house that was never built. It was a holiday house that we designed for Ivan Chermayeff. He was in his early 80s so it was like the last project in his life. It was really kind of an intense collaboration. We had a full drawing set and we had a contractor on board. And then he lost his money to Bernie Madoff. Basically, the budget was gone in one day.
And what piece did you submit, Sebastiaan?
JL: There’s no tears in your story?
SB: No, there are. For a long time I painted and used photography as source material. Then when I was in this art residency in Skowhegan, I really started to branch out in three different ways. One was making large collages and then I did these large murals where I would paint very different shades of white. The third one was drawing straight on photographs, but I was very tentative and it cost money to make prints. Then I had a photograph I really wanted to use as a source for a painting, but the photograph itself was so strong that I couldn’t put my finger on why I liked it so much and I knew I couldn’t make it any better than the photograph. That was the conundrum. It was a picture that my mom had taken of my cousin swimming underneath the water in a swimming pool. It was a very still, beautiful, haunting kind of image, but it wasn’t my photograph and it felt like my connection to the work was very thin. Then one day my wife (she wasn’t my wife yet) was in Brazil and was getting on a plane and she called me up at 6 o’clock or 7 at night and was like, “The plane is going to crash and I’m going to die and it’s going to be horrible and we’ll never see each other again and I’m just calling to tell you that I love you very much.” So I was like, “It’s going to be fine, don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine and dandy. We’ll see each other tomorrow. Don’t worry.” So I calmed her nerves I thought and I hung up the phone, but then I couldn’t sleep and I thought, “What if . . .” Finally, I was like, if I’m awake anyway, I’d rather start working and use my time well instead of watching TV or something. So I got that photograph out, the one with the swimming pool and started making these little lines with little dots and slowly by doing this exercise I started to calm myself down. It also started to seem as if the little figure in the water was anybody and it could be an allegory almost of keeping her aloft. So I tried to continue making the drawing as long as I possibly could so then it became this test of endurance and this magical thinking of holding her aloft that finally resulted in this work. I held my breath for 13 hours afraid she wouldn’t come home. That was also the first time I realized that my relationship to the image made sense somehow.
How has your view of the art world changed since the 1999 exhibit?
SB: When I came to New York in ’92 for the first time, I was 22 and I came from Holland and it was a very limited arena for me. In New York, there were still artists in SoHo and some left in the East Village. Everybody that I met was saying, “It’s over. What we had was so great and now it’s gone.” And I was just eager and young and I was so excited and everyone was like, “Why are you so happy and positive?” And I was like, “It’s good. Stuff is happening.” And it was a nice period for me because people get together and get this spirit of camaraderie together.
JL: The reason obviously architects and artists too get asked a lot to give renderings for free, and I think the only reason we were able to ask architects on our side to do this, is because there is this underlying camaraderie. We feel we have this connection under the business of it all.
Last year there was a controversy when the bankrupted City of Detroit considered selling works worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the Institute of the Arts. What obligations if any does a city have to its art communities?
SB: I think art is crucial because in the end, after awhile, what’s left of culture after people die are the buildings and art. There is a responsibility I think of every generation to preserve certain bits. Of course you have to also leave breathing space for people to build new things or improve upon or change or sometimes destroy what’s there. But the selling and holding of art is difficult. You can never really put art before people. If there is hunger, I would say you should sell your gold and diamonds and art. But I think maybe in Detroit, for example, there are other choices to consider before selling out the art.
JL: Detroit has been selling its architecture for a very long time already. All these amazing buildings Detroit had in modern times . . . they’re all gone. I think architects are more used to their creations being destroyed. The more important structures are the symbols of their times and in political or economic turmoil, the first thing to go are the symbols.
SB: Well there was the World Trade Center that was destroyed as a symbol.
How does architecture fit into the context of an art show?
JL: Architecture, before it became a profession, was one of the oldest forms of sculpture. I think definitely it’s an art form, but it has to engage with life and human scale with a different set of parameters than art has to.
SB: My favorite art in history, you go all the way back, are the cave paintings in France. They’re 30,000 years old and they were also, we can only guess, very important as cultural things, but they were also on the human scale. At that time, art served a purpose that was more religious and more magical maybe. I think there is this spiritual component or a religious component to art that artists don’t like to talk about very much. There is this thing about enhancing an object or imbuing it with more power than it has on its on surface . . . it’s all about re-contextualizing things and re-imbuing them with a certain force.
JL: I think the blueprint, in this context of oppression, is actually a very interesting medium. Arguably architecture only started as a profession like three or 400 years ago because before that people just made things and you had master builders who knew how to use the material, knew some sort of abstract common forms. It was really the invention of pen and paper that was used in many disciplines as well as architecture that alienated the process of the hands using the material and the craftsmanship of the master builder to people who don’t have the knowledge in their hands to handle the material but they have the abstract knowledge of how to put things together and they codified this knowledge in symbols and they were able to reproduce it. So when you become an architect now, you don’t have to become a carpenter to relay this information in lines and hatches and digits.
In a widely read blog post about a year ago, Paddy Johnson of Art F City criticized NYC as no longer a viable place for emerging artists to work.
SB: That might be true, but if you can make something happen here, just because of the density and how many people come through here, you do get relatively more attention. But I think if you want to live in a thriving artist community for very little money, you’re probably better off in Winnipeg or in other places where it’s more affordable. For awhile, it was Berlin that seemed like a logical place. But these predictions about where things are going to go or the demise of New York happen very often. These grand statements. I think it’s true that it’s very expensive to live here and to be lower middle class is expensive and to live the rich life here you have to be insanely wealthy.
JL: It’s very competitive for sure. Any job you go after, you find yourself with 5,000 other fish in the pond. But I think it’s fine. I think it’s also good to find yourself as a creative person on the tip always.
What advice would both of you have for emerging artists in a recession economy?
SB: Be born in a nice family and work hard. The connections are very important, but you have to forge those connections and maintain them. It’s very important I think to create some kind of a network. Some people do it through education. Some people do it through organizing their own initiatives. Some people do it because they’re born into a connected family. More often than not, that last thing is true. It’s a very sad reality.
JL: I don’t think that’s true. At least, I hope that is not true. I think it has been like that and it still stays in our society, but I think as a woman and as an Asian, I’m on the panel talks a lot about what you can do as a woman still in a male-dominated society and profession. I do think that, yes, there is a lot going on between families that know each other and fraternity, and I’m thinking it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Obviously too, if you relate to someone more because of your upbringing or background or personality, you’re going to find it easier to work with them. I think it’s natural.
SB: No, I don’t think there’s a conspiracy.
JL: Exactly. It’s there, but I think it will slowly change. It will happen eventually.
SB: Not regarding art specifically, but the most exciting change at this moment in the world right now is not technology or computers, it’s women. It’s totally true. If you look at how much has changed in the last 100 years and when you think about how 51% of the world’s population has become a part of the work force and not a domestic work force, that’s the biggest change happening to the world. And it’s exciting as the father of a daughter, to see how she looks at the world.