Reactionary Transactions

Rei Naito, Marie-Ange Guilleminot, Matthew Ngui, and Christine Hill discuss the summer’s art events and the artists’ attempts to bridge the gap between object and viewer.

Technology was rife in this summer’s big three European exhibitions-the Venice Biennale, documenta X, and Sculpture Projects Münster-but several young artists seemed intent upon interpersonal transactions with their audience, transactions that were almost reactionary in their low-tech, you-gotta-really-want-it approaches. Their efforts also seemed aimed at finding fundamental, real-life, and real-time ways to traverse today’s art world.

Rei Naito, in the Japanese pavilion at Venice, insisted on showing her ethereal installation to viewers one at a time, and rearranging it after each visit (to the consternation of those waiting for more than an hour in line during press days.)

The French artist Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s installation in the “Future, Present, Past” exhibition in the Corderie at Venice was a personal demonstration to groups of six on turning a pair of pantyhose into a backpack. It and other of her transformed objects are available to collectors only via snail mail, in exchange for French francs-without the instant gratification of credit cards or exchange over the Internet. Her installation at Münster was even more intimate-viewers received free foot rubs from anonymous reflexologists inside a closed kiosk.

The participatory part of Singapore artist Matthew Ngui’s two documenta works involved cooking up special Singaporean dishes for viewers, who had to first order it through a speaking tube. The cooking display and Ngui’s separate, slowly emerging, image and sound installation, were intended as light-hearted discourses on cultural traditions, realities, and preconceptions.

Christine Hill, an American living in Berlin, opened the first franchise of her Berlin thrift shop, Volksboutique, in Kassel, for documenta. Hill’s role as sole proprietor stems from her fascination “with concepts of self and action in everyday life,” and her shop brochure pointedly states that “Volks-boutique has no Internet address, no e-mail access and no in-house computer. It can only be accessed live.” The following conversations took place on site at their various installations.

Christine Hill

Christine Hill in Volksboutique, 1997, a special “franchise” of her Berlin thrift shop, installed in Kassel’s pedestrian tunnel.

Ann Wilson Lloyd: Tell me about Volksboutique.

Christine Hill: This is the first time Volksboutique has been exhibited. It has been kind of an alternative to exhibiting. Documenta was a good opportunity for me to see how it travels and if it works in another space, because Volksboutique is a very Berlin-oriented work. Two weeks after I got out of school I moved to Berlin. It was an attempt to bring my work from a student time to real life, and I wanted to pick a city that could accommodate it.

Lloyd: What was your student work like?

Hill: I was pretty interested in participatory work. My thesis was the exhibition of my automobile, which had been spray-painted many times in little actions by people, such as graffiti artists from New York and from Baltimore. The car was always parked on the street and people could write on it. So I definitely always had a kind of interactive way of working.

Lloyd: Do you stay in your shop in Berlin every day that it’s open?

Hill: Both shops are now open two days a week. I don’t have any employees. The point of it is the artist as entrepreneur, that it’s me that’s doing the selling, primarily because the spaces are designed to accommodate conversation, and that it’s me that’s controlling-it’s not manipulative, I’m not trying to force something down people’s throats-but I am trying to subtly guide things in a certain way. I’m the only person who can really do it.

Lloyd: What do you mean by “guide things in a certain way?”

Hill: Ummm, just a kind of consciousness in the way people perceive the situation they’re in. For example, if I say something to them like: “Do you have everything you need?” do they really think about that or not. I’m not going to force it on them, and say, “Did you understand what I meant by that?” I mean, the shop here has no prices on the labels and that’s to make people ask. That’s to draw them out, to make them question the thing they’re in. Of course, people come in and say “Is the clothing really for sale?” or ask things, that, I think, how could they not know? But on the other hand these are the questions that come up and these are the ones I’d like to answer.

Lloyd: So is the clothing for sale?

Hill: Yep! It is for sale.

Lloyd: When people ask you what the prices are, do you come up with something on the spot?

Hill: Yeah, I’m very fair, most of the clothing is donated. That’s the generation of the project, to get it donated, and that enables me to sell it at a much cheaper price. That’s the kind of economic thing that’s going on. The project is for everybody.

Lloyd: Does the price ever enter into the participatory theater? Do you ever tell anyone the price is, say, $5,000? Or do you always play it straight?

Hill: No-no-no-no. I’m really interested in playing it straight. It’s not, like “Oh, are you a collector? $5,000.” Not at all. People know I’ve gotten stuff donated, so I say to them, “It’s a nice piece, 12 marks.”

Lloyd: What do you do on days when the shop is not open? Do you have other projects?

Hill: I’ve pretty much been working on the shop exclusively since it opened. People ask all the time: “Oh, you have a workshop in the back. Can I see?” They think I’m secretly painting, or something, in the back. The workshop’s not for that-this job, the interaction with people, is pretty much a full-time occupation.

Lloyd: That’s the whole point, the interaction with people?

Hill: Yes.

Lloyd: Do you get into philosophical discussions with them?

Hill: Sure. We get into discussions about philosophy, theory, art, and the weather. All kinds of things, and I really appreciate the mix.

Lloyd: Are most of your customers knowing customers, or just people off the street?

Hill: Here at documenta, it’s a whole different scene. In Berlin I usually say, “How did you find out about the shop?” If they say they saw a flyer, or a friend of theirs told them about it, then I’m assuming they just came by. If they say, “I was at your gallery,” which they usually do, then I think, okay, they know. I mean, there’re a lot of art people who come in and go, “Oooh, it looks just like a secondhand clothing store!” and they’re really disappointed. Like they thought it was going to be a 24-hour rave or something. Or there are people who think, “Oh, it’s art too! Well that’s really interesting!” To me it’s just talking to them about a different way of seeing something.

Lloyd: What is it about Berlin that caused you to think of this way of working with people, is there something in particular?

Hill: Yeah, definitely. Being an outsider, trying to get in-that type of cliché situation. Most of my work has been heavily influenced by the service industry, which is completely remarkable. When you’re from America you are used to a certain way of being treated and served. Also, in Berlin there is a lot of discourse, about the role of the artist in society, about how integrated the artist is in society. The name Volksboutique is kind of an imitation of an organization in the GDR, a production company that was only for the people. So definitely, my aesthetic has been influenced by that. Obviously you don’t live somewhere and not become influenced by it. That’s why moving it to Kassel is a little different.

Rei Naito

Rei Neito, One Place on the Earth, 1991. Mixed-media installation.

Ann Wilson Lloyd: Are you a practicing Buddhist, or Shintoist?

Rei Naito: I’m not a practicing Buddhist or Shintoist, but it is very common with ordinary Japanese to incorporate some religious aspects into their everyday life.

Lloyd: Could you comment on the overall sensibility of your piece-the tiny, eggshell-like objects, the delicacy of how they are balanced on their supports?

Naito: I often think about the strength of material existence, about objects that are very fragile, transitory, or ephemeral. It is very important that those very fragile and ephemeral objects are not attached to anything. I don’t use any bond or anything to attach them. Although they are very fragile, they are standing on their own.

Lloyd: So the fragility is purposeful?

Naito: I am not purposely making it that way, but it becomes what it is. It has its own balance on this earth.

Lloyd: Are your drawings schematic, or diagrams for the space?

Naito: I made these drawings before I made this piece. They are not specific plans, but they are directly connected with the piece. Drawing is something I have to experience before creating the three-dimensional piece. It informs me physically.

Lloyd: The way you insist upon showing the piece, to one person at a time, is obviously making a lot of people here upset at the long wait. Have you rethought that at all?

Naito: It is very important for me to have people face this work alone. This waiting is the result of that necessity. Also, although they are upset while they’re waiting, when they come out they have a very different expression. I am sure that people will understand after going in to the work, why this waiting was necessary.

Lloyd: We were not allowed to go inside the tent, and I really wanted to look at the small things up close.

Naito: Viewers can go inside when I’m here. Each time people go in, they cause an effect in the work; the details move, so I have to be here to rearrange every time.

Rei Neito arranges the elements in her installation at the Venice Biennale.

Lloyd: Tell me about the piece you’re making in Frankfurt for the Museum of Modern Art.

Naito: It is a new piece inside an old abbey. There is a sort of tent, inside the abbey, and people may sit there for 15 minutes.

Lloyd: Will it be as fragile as this piece?

Naito: It is very fragile.

Lloyd: How similar to this piece will it be?

Naito: This piece was created in 1991. The piece in Frankfurt is new, created for that space. I have been working on it for three years, and living in Frankfurt since March. Also, there’s a mural that will be part of the piece that was already at the site. The shape will be different.

Lloyd: Are organic or so-called feminine forms a constant in your work?

Naito: Feminine-inspired shapes are a constant. The Frankfurt piece is related to this piece in a fundamental way.

Lloyd: Were you inspired by the mural at the abbey?

Naito: Not necessarily, but I have used the space and taken the mural into the work.

Lloyd: Could it be shown elsewhere, or travel as this piece has?

Naito: Because of the relationship between the piece and the mural, it will be shown only in that space.

Marie-Ange Guilleminot

Marie-Ange Guilleminot, Transformation Parlor, 1995. Here the artist models “Le Cauris”, part of a performance/installation at the Venice Biennale.

Here the artist models “Le Cauris”, part of a performance/installation at the Venice Biennale.

Ann Wilson Lloyd: What’s going on in this circle with the chairs and the colored balls?

Marie Ange Guilleminot: This is a transformation parlor. In the context of the Biennale, where people have to see many things so fast, I try to give them an opportunity to practice a geste, to create a kind of relationship they have never had before. I explain how to transform a pair of pantyhose, or women’s tights, into a backpack. The piece also becomes other things, something you can put on your head, or a brassiere. It’s very simple, but at the same time, if you try to explain it with language, it’s quite impossible. I like the idea that people are looking at something, touching it, and listening at the same time to the explication. They are just making some knots on this side, and then they do another knot and they fasten the knot on the belt, and another knot on the end of the feet, and it becomes a backpack.

Lloyd: What else can you make from tights?

Guilleminot: Everybody can imagine for themselves other uses or needs. I cannot decide for them, I cannot know what their life is. For me the work is also about formlessness, because the form or the object is not fixed. It just supports a way to communicate and transform. It’s not about the object. This is also very important to me-to find a way to create my own economy in the art world. I want to make a culture of offering things. It is difficult, but I protect my bag with a small mark on it, on the back of the label, I make a drawing of how to realize the object, so it’s about giving you the directions. I must be protected from those who want to realize and produce the idea without asking me, but of course, it’s a very difficult thing to protect. It’s an idea, and it’s from something that exists. And I have decided that you can only buy it by correspondence, by mail. It’s not by computer, not by Internet, it’s a very slow process. At the same time that I teach the public, they realize the project. It’s an economy of everything.

Lloyd: It’s a distribution system and a way of being interactive with the public.

Guilleminot: Absolutely.

Lloyd: You like the idea that you give the instructions to a few people and then after you leave they began to pass the instructions along?

Guilleminot: Yes. It’s just something which I began and which continues to have its own life. I’m very interested in creating new relationships between people to try to see what the possibilities are. It’s about desire, it’s about love, it’s about having relationships.

Lloyd: Is it also important to work with something feminine, to use this particularly sensuous item?

Guilleminot: Yes, of course. I mean, it’s tights, so it’s something very familiar to me and it’s something I’m used to using that’s very fragile, and so when you realize your back-pack, its also something you have to care for and not be too aggressive with. So it’s a very non-aggressive object. It’s supple, very elastic, very comfortable. It’s also another of the objects now beginning to constitute a [transformational] lexicon for me,lik e my life-hat [which unrolls into a whole body garment].

Marie-Ange Guilleminot, Le Paravent, 1997. Stainless steel, teak, fabrics, 3.7 x 2.1 m. Installation incorporating foot massage in the interior courtyard of Stadttheater in Münster.

Lloyd: Your previous work has been similar to this idea?

Guilleminot: It’s been something of an evolution. In the beginning I was doing things alone, not as an interaction. And each time I do something I try to do it for the first time. But the process is a repetition of something-always the idea of the geste. The form it takes is either limited or given permission by the object used.

Lloyd: In your backpack right now, a hairbrush is sticking out of the crotch.

Guilleminot: It takes the form of the objects inside. When you use this bag you have to consider what you put inside-each time it is a different shape. You can also know what’s in the bag by touching. Just putting it on the floor also looks very nice. And when you change your outfit, you can change colors. It also interests me that the company makes one pattern for one season, let’s say with flowers, and the next season they do another pattern, so later, when there are no more flowered tights, this piece becomes more and more precious and rare. I am also interested in not maintaining the logic of a typical art object edition, that you have limited to say, 10.

Lloyd: So this is a kind of arbitrary edition. How does the project continue without your presence? Does the video take your place?

Guilleminot: Yes, but I am still learning here at the Biennale. Before I came I didn’t know what would happen. Now I have to think about it and decide. Maybe I should let the people continue by themselves, but at the same time I think we really need the presence. It’s too early to leave it at a completely independent realization. Or maybe I should make some more information available. I have written on the wall how to create the backpack and there is the video that I will leave to show myself doing it. The round space I have created with this wall is part of the information. It’s about three meters and 70 centimeters in diameter. It can hold six people. I experiment with the space. It’s open but at the same it looks very intimate from the outside. The space is very important in the relation with time and action. I have other pieces I am now working on for Münster, one that is the same exact size of this circle but a completely different project. For 10 days I have to stay there to practice a new geste, and then I go to Lyon, where I have yet another piece with a video and this same circle. I try to limit the size of the space so that I will be able to create and to invite people. I call this one the transformation parlor, because it’s intimate, but at the same time it’s for the public. But the circle can be anywhere. I just have to draw a line, a circle on the floor, and it can be my space.

Matthew Ngui

Matthew Ngui, You can order and eat delicious poh-piah, amongst other things, 1997.Mixed-media installation at documenta in Kassel.

Ann Wilson Lloyd: What was your intent here?

Matthew Ngui: I wanted this space to be a little more contemplative, separate from the rather chaotic area downstairs, where the cooking performance will be happening. This is more about the qualities that are found in relation to particular cultures. I come from Singapore and I live part-time in Australia. I’m also Chinese in both these places, so what that means in relation to a lot of other cultures is quite important to my work. I try to deal with the means of communicating ideas and questioning representations. When one is representing culture, how does one do it? What are some of the typical symbols used? What languages are used to communicate ideas? Here I’m using slides, film, video, TV monitors, everyday things.

Lloyd: You want this space to be contemplative, is that why people have to wait for the images to appear?

Ngui: That’s right, it’s slow. It’s a piece that gradually evolves. But I never dreamed there would be this many people here! It’s actually not very contemplative right now!

Lloyd: How are the images on the various screens and monitors communicating information about cultures?

Ngui: There are two major aspects, one of which is on the slides now in which the images are about drawing a simple diagram of a cube. Depending on the emphasis on the lines,where the shadings are, you see the cube from the top, or you see it from the bottom. The lines don’t shift in perspective, or move, they just change in terms of how dark or how light they are. So we can think of it in a certain way, but in the end it’s clear that it’s only a sheet of paper and it’s only marks from a pencil. The other piece, the images of puppets and landscapes, relates to the colors I find in Singapore. In a sense you could even call it a landscape piece-it is very formal-but at the same time, conceptual, because I am dealing with things which are culturally specific.

Matthew Ngui, You can order and eat delicious poh-piah, amongst other things, 1997. Mixed-media installation at documenta in Kassel.

Lloyd: And the mirror at the end of the room, it’s reflecting the real sky?

Ngui: Yes. Kassel’s got a nice sky. It’s nice to have a bit of Germany in the piece.

Lloyd: What about the light that goes on and off under the eaves?

Ngui: It’s just the idea of picking up (random) images, like when you go on holiday, and look though the camera lens and take these pictures. I’m trying to create some sort of dialogue between the outside and the inside, the interior and exterior. Within the interior there are various things happening, like this pile of wind-up toys that makes sounds. When it’s on, you can actually hear the cricket sounds. So that provides a sort of soundtrack. You could see it as a landscape, because you could look out anywhere and your eyes are drawn to specific points. I found this attic, or loft, really intriguing to work with.

Lloyd: So there are actually wind-up toys back under the eaves?

Ngui: Yes. They are actually light-activated toys, so when the light shines on them, they come alive and produce this representation of insects. So I’m dealing with that issue of representation again. You think of them as crickets, simply because you hear them and see them, but they are just toys, they’re not real. The piece is about illusions, things that are not real, but that we read as a certain reality.

Lloyd: And the name of the piece is?

Ngui: You can order and eat delicious poh-piah, amongst other things. It’s a ridiculous title.

Lloyd: And the cooking part downstairs? How will that be carried out?

Ngui: I’m going to try to sit in the space and cook something at midday-poh-piah, a Singaporean dish.

Ann Wilson Lloyd lives in Massachusetts and is a regular contributor to Sculpture.