Dan Graham: In defiance of convention

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New York-based Dan Graham is a pioneer of conceptual art who has defied convention throughout most of his 40-year career. Born in Illinois and raised primarily in New Jersey, he started out by creating text-based concept pieces intended for distribution in magazines. Then he moved on to performances — using video recorders, live-feed monitors and mirrors to complicate the relationships between performer and spectator. He has since become known for making pavilions, large-scale works fabricated from two-way mirror glass and metal that balance between artwork and architecture.

For his current exhibition at the Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo’s Koto Ward — his first at a commercial gallery in Japan since 1996 — Graham has made a new pavilion, titled “Wood Grid Crossing Two-way Mirror,” that’s comprised of a rectangular grid of wooden bars intersected by a curving form made out of two-way mirror glass and aluminum. Other works on display include original photographs from Graham’s iconic “Homes for America” series (begun 1966), which turn the uniformity of the suburban landscape into a meditation on minimalism.

The Japan Times met with Graham prior to the opening of his exhibition to discuss his work and the myriad ideas and artists that inspire it.

You’ve said that your works contain a strong element of comedy or parody. In that sense is their referentiality to other architectural forms or artworks key to understanding their humor?

I think it’s very much about the situation. The diagram piece “Side Effects/Common Drugs” (1966) was influenced by The Rolling Stones’ song “Mother’s Little Helper,” and also I wanted to do a Roy Lichtenstein painting with the Ben-Day dots and a Larry Poons Op Art piece in the simplest of ways. The comedy is the fact that you take one drug, have the symptoms and then have to take another drug to counteract the symptoms. Also I thought it could be in Ladies Home Journal.

The “Star of David Pavilion” (1989-96) also had a situational aspect. I was asked to do something in Austria at a castle, but I realized that the then-president, Kurt Waldheim, had been a Nazi, so, being Jewish, I said I would never do anything there. Then I saw works by the Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer, which involve blood-and-cross symbolism, and so I selected the castle’s moat area to do a work involving water and the Jewish star.

You can see from the drawbridge that it is a Jewish star. When you’re near the piece there are little triangles of water and also the grid over the rest of the water basin is like walking on water, which I think Jesus Christ was able to do in Hollywood films. So in a way I was trying to use Jewish humor.

How did you make the jump from your performance pieces to pavilions?

I was making performance-oriented films on Super 8 and wanted to do something that was like softcore porn and incorporated the idea of the nude body, so I did “Body Press” (1970-72) [with one nude man and one nude woman inside a narrow, mirrored cylinder rotating cameras around their bodies].

That was the start of using anamorphic distortion with reflective surfaces, and a lot of the pavilions later involved anamorphic distortions with curved two-way mirror glass. But a lot of my work, including “Body Press” and the early films, has to do with the relationship of the performer to the spectator, because the spectator is inside the performer as well as outside the performer.

With their metal and glass structures, the pavilions mock corporate aesthetics, but is it possible to misidentify them with those same aesthetics?

People might find them alienating, but I think that’s a very naive way of looking at things. There’s a strange alienation because you lose yourself but then you regain it again.

In fact they’re like psychological games, and when I did my first pieces like “Two Adjacent Pavilions” (1978-81), I connected them to Jean-Paul Sartre’s writing about how the child’s ego is formed by being seen by somebody else as they see the other person. I thought the two pavilions were like two egos. They were philosophical psychological models.

Are the pavilions formalist works?

They’re made up of so many contextual references that they can’t be formalist. My work has an aesthetic aspect. It’s beautiful, but I don’t think it’s formalistic.

I was thinking of comedy and pornography as two interesting alternative approaches to formalism in the abstract sense that they’re both predicated on repeating forms.

If my work repeats itself, it doesn’t work. In fact I’m doing too much of that. I’m doing variations of pre-existing works and even I get bored of that.

My best pieces have nothing to do with other pieces. For example. the pavilion “Double Exposure” (1995-2003) is fairly unique. It’s a way to make a time delay without machines. It’s a triangular structure you can enter, with two sides made of two-way mirror and the other side of glass containing a cibachrome transparency that is the image of the landscape 15 meters away. So you look through the image and you can see the clouds changing, the time of day changing, the seasons changing. I’ve only done one version of it. To me, it’s a really good piece because it doesn’t relate to others.

Why are the names of your works so clinical?

Well, an old girlfriend once said my titles are terrible, so I did a piece for Giuseppe Terragni’s centenary in Como, Italy, and it’s called “Half Square/Half Crazy” (2004), because two sides are curved and the other two sides are rectangles. I think “Double Exposure” for that outdoor piece is not a bad title, but generally I can’t come up with good titles.

I thought it might be part of the humor.

No, it’s not part of the humor. It’s a deficiency I have. Of course I never think of the title, I think of the form first.

How site-specific are your works?

The idea for “Swimming Pool/Fish Pond” [a maquette of which is on display here] could only be realized in a resort hotel, and it came when I was in Australia where it seemed like every middle-class house had a fish pond and a swimming pool in the backyard, so I put the two together.

When I did “Heart Pavilion” in 1991 for the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), a collector saw it and wanted the same thing so I did a variation. She had seen the work with her husband who had then died, so I put the new version where she could see it from her bedroom window when she wakes up. It’s also on a diagonal with trees that half shadow it, and every detail of the siting was important even though it was a piece I was revisiting.

So do the works have an empathy that might not be apparent from the coolness of the materials?

I don’t know about empathy, but I think I deal with cliches. When I did the Carnegie piece, I realized Pittsburgh is a tough steel town. Andy Warhol didn’t like it because guys there didn’t like effeminate queers, but on the other hand it’s a very sentimental place and I think Hallmark Cards are very important there.

Dan Graham’s exhibition runs till March 27 at the Taka Ishii Gallery (1-3-2-5F Kiyosumi, Koto-ku, Tokyo), which is close to Exit A3 of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station on the Oedo and Hanzomon subway lines. Free admission, Tue.-Sat. 12-7 p.m. For more details, call (03) 5646-6050 or visit www.takaishiigallery.com