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A Walk Through "Third Mind" at the Guggenheim With Sanford Biggers and Noah Fischer
interviews

Catherine Spaeth: I am interested in both of your practices in the context of Third Mind. There is Ann Hamilton’s commissioned piece, but the show really stops at 1989. So I’m interested in how the practices and ideas that are coursing through this exhibition relate to your work, as Buddhist artists who are practicing now.  What I notice right away in both of your practices is an interest in meaning that I don't think the artists in Third Mind engage with in quite the same way.
 
Sanford Biggers:  I think our interest in meaning may be a natural progression from some of the early aesthetic nods and philosophical interpretations of Eastern art by the generations included in the Third Mind.

CS:  And you have had access to those traditions in quite a different way than past generations were able.

SB:  Yes, as you know I lived in Japan for a few years in the early 90's and went back for a residency in 2004 where I did a project with a Soto Zen temple using singing bowls, entitled Hip-Hop Ni Sasagu (In Fond Memory of Hip-Hop), 2004. A part of the project was to make Shinto singing bowls from melted down Hip-Hop jewelry that I found either here or in Tokyo, where there are several of Hip-Hop jewelry stores.  I worked with several traditional artisans to melt all of the jewelry down into an alloy to make the bowls.  The final part of the project was to actually perform the bells in the temple.  We used some of the temple's singing bowls along with mine in the final bell chorus. I drew up a diagram for the 16 participants to follow, however, it was largely improvisational.  The head monk rang the final bell.

 

Sanford Biggers, Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva, 2000

One of the things I was interested in and why I did the piece with the breakdancers Mandala of The B-Bodhisattva, 2000, is that sometimes mandalas aren’t formally laid down, they are actually remembered as a dance. 
 
I also have a suite of videos that I call "koan" because they are non-sequitur videos, if you were to try to read them in a narrative they wouldn’t match but somehow there’s an anecdote in each and putting them together creates yet another anecdote. 
 
CS: Yes, at D’Amelio Terras I saw your video Cheshire which is the koan  “Man Up a Tree.” 
 
Xiangyan said: `It’s like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth over a  
precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and at the  
bottom of the tree someone stands and asks him: `What is the meaning of  
Bodhidharma’s coming from the West ?' 
`If the man in the tree does not  
answer, he fails in his responsibility to the person below; and if he does  
answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?'
 
 
When you think of Cheshire that way it has a darker inflection on it than the way I saw it described in reviews which was that these professionals  take ownership of the tree by climbing it but, if you think of the koan tradition it’s a little closer to being lynched in that suit, man up a tree. 
 
SB:  Well, do you remember the sculptural component to Cheshire, the smile in the tree?  This completes the double entendre.

 

Sanford Biggers, Cheshire, 2008. Aluminum, plexi-glass, LED's, timer, 33x8x67". Courtesy of the artist.

CS:  But your work as compared to Noah’s is more interested in symbols and their interpretation, and I’m thinking of the recent Neo-Hoodoo show at PS1. Unlike in Third Mind there’s a very sort of ‘90s flavor and history in Neo-Hoodoo that’s involved with syncretism and approaching work in an almost shamanistic way. Which I see a little differently in your work, Noah, it's working differently with interpretive symbols.
 
Noah Fischer: It’s true that in the sense that my work is “Buddhist”, or at least highly influenced by my Zen Buddhist background, that I haven’t used the symbols associated with Buddhism. I do think that the spirit behind Zen practice is perceived by some viewers.  That spirit was present in my recent show “Monitor,”which contemplated the sublime illusion of the computer screen, and the form/emptiness of the hardware.  

 

Noah Fischer, Monitor Family Portrait, mixed media, courtesy of the artist.

But back to your question, I have definitely worked symbols in my work. Particularly in the political work like Rhetoric Machine, an installation which basically remixed known political icons such as the American eagle, and the US president, but the game was to create a lot of space around them, and also make them personal. Because symbols become really heavy, and they they forge (political) identities and condition us. Maybe that is also a Buddhist idea. Sanford, maybe this is something that could be happening with your trees, the idea of a lynching tree can be so heavy for real, historical reason!! Maybe the problem is that there is not enough  space around the symbol to really contemplate it personally. So how do you find the space for a greater complexity?

 

  

Noah Fischer, Rhetoric Machine, detail, photo by Beckett Logan, courtesy of the artist.

SB:  I also am interested in the dual image of the Buddha finding enlightenment under the tree, and the Cheshire cat appearing and disappearing while uttering non sequitors and koans.  I think symbols can visually create koans too. How do you unload or unpack a symbol from all the baggage it already has, and of course, that baggage is usually experientially relative to each viewer.  When these symbols combine, their meanings become further complicated. 
 
NF: It’s interesting to think about the western symbols that we are talking about like the American Eagle and the lynching tree in the context of Eastern thought tools: Zen koans and capping phrases.  Because many of our Western language-based symbols- like “patriotism” or “racism” are based on logic, on not being the same as their opposites.  But with the Eastern language tools such as koans you can possibly find a new way to move around these symbols and again loosen them up.  I’m interested in that and began to do it with language in my recent installation Pop Ark which dealt with the linguistic randomness of the web.  I agree with you that using a visual language art in the West is already concerned with conglomerating and confusing a clear reading of symbols. There seems to be truth in these contradictions.

 

James Mcneill Whistler, Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, 1864, Oil on canvas, 93.3 × 61.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, Photo: Graydon Wood

CS:  These two paintings side by side are nice to see.  Here you have Whistler depicting a contemplative mode, and then slipping into something else entirely. 
 
NF:  Well I have a comment about that piece. 

You see this aristocratic woman enjoying the aesthetic space of the East in her parlor, it’s basically orientalist: a fantasy land. This reminds me of a big potential problem with work that has a "Zen” influence because zen is like a brand, it means relaxing time: you’re not at the office working, you’re having your green tea and your spa or whatever.  Number one it’s definitely a type of orientalism: the east in the mind of the west - with an added class thing going on.  This is not a place to deal  with the pain or reality or worldness or trash of the world. But I think that Buddhism, well, at least meditation, really helps with dealing with these things in life and in the work, so the tag Zen can be misleading... 
 
CS:  Orientalism in late nineteenth century painting was tied to the decorative arts and to the feminized domestic interior as a place of restive contemplation far removed from the labor unrest and "urban masses" that surrounded its patrons.  It was a way of domesticating the foreign. 
 
So it is interesting to consider the role of the contemplative mode in these works.  So much is laboring towards that.  One of the things that is depicted in these 19th century pieces is sound, the importance of sound, even Paul Kos’s piece out there is about the importance of sound, so sound has become in a way what emphasizes the contemplative mode that you see here.  Dewing is about sound, that woman is listening , he will also title his paintings Song of a Lark. There’s another painting over here that’s quite beautiful, Arthur Dove’s Foghorns, but also this by Augustus Vincent Tack,  the Voice of Many Waters, it’s an abstraction. So the desire to appeal to sound as a vehicle of contemplation moves from someone like Dewing in the decorative tradition to early American Modernism.

 

 

Arthur Dove, Foghorns, oil on canvas, 54.6x72.4 cm., Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, anonymous gift, c. The estate of Arthur G. Dove.
 

NF:  The work in this show is very soft, it seems to be a theme, this softness.  I see  many washes, not so many hard edges or aggressive moves. Mark Tobey’s work for example was called “miniscule” by Greenberg and you can see how it was so. The problem I find with this softness is that it becomes precious.  So I am happy that there was a Van Gogh and Pollock to bring some fieryness to the canvas.  To help us get over the “pictureness” of pictures. 

 CS: There was a very broad characterization of Abstract Expressionism with Asian calligraphy, even though artists wanted to distance themselves from such ideas, but I think that there are many artists today who medititate and wouldn’t want to put their work out in front as in any way inspired by zen practice, that’s kind of a sticky place, still. 
 
SB: Why do you think that is? 
 
CS:  Well, I think a lot of it is secular modernism, there is a lot of suspicion of so-called spirituality in art, and you can talk about that from the beginning of time, but what does interest me about Zen specifically is that out of all the spiritual practices I know of,  many people who are strong practitioners will back away from defending it as a religion. There’s a kind of objectivity about it, and whether that is something that has been earned or whether that is an illusion is a question - if you’re going to be a secular purist you don’t want to go near that question.

 

Franz Kline, Mahoning, 1956, oil and paper collage on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, Gift of Friends of the Whitney Museum, c. 2009 The Estate of Franz Kline/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

 

SB: I've always found it amazing and very self-conscious that so many artists want to deny some kind of link towards things beyond the heady western academic sense of mark/art-making. 
 
NF:  Also, if Kline is denying a connection to calligraphy maybe he’s saying “I invented it myself”, which nowadays we don’t really believe anyone ever did. So then I would pose the question: where does he think these black brushstrokes come from?  Well, probably it came right from  Japanese brushwork whether or not he admits it, but maybe there’s a little Russian Constructivism in there and German Expressionism and some other things (which were probably also influenced by Japan and China). But what he says about the work is maybe just  the game he’s playing.  
 
SB:  The other side of it is to say that it is an investigation of mark-making, which does encompass calligraphy, Constructivism - it covers a single lightening bolt in the horizon, it’s all mark-making, it can be all-encompassing or denial. 
 
NF: That’s fair.  Once it’s in the public realm if too many of those cards are given away people will over-identify with some of those things, so maybe in a way it’s better to leave that to people’s own interpretation.  
 
SB: Fair as well. 
 
CS: This is rare to see.  Pollock has a thing about #One over and over and over again, as though summing up the whole history of painting as #One.  To see an actual series, a row of such calligraphy, by Pollock is very nice.  it also looks as though, unlike the consistently additive throwing of paint so associated with action there’s been some kind of lifting away.   And here’s an instance where you have Philip Guston who abandoned abstraction completely for his Nixon series, all the shoes, and the lightbulbs, and the kkk hood in a very personal symbolism. You know in choosing these early abstractions by Guston, instead of his figurative painting, which completely eclipsed his earlier abstraction, the curators are really saying that abstraction is where the Zen is. 

 

 

Philip Guston, Poor Richard, 1971, courtesy of ubu.

NF: Yeah, I don’t know about that...that’s problematic.  It’s that brand of Zen as a gestural brushstroke. I think Zen can be anywhere- anything, right here! You just have to find the  emptiness in the form. 
 
CS: All of this abstraction is at the center.  But you know, this is an historical show and this is what happened. 
 
 NF:  Do you paint? 
 
SB:  I have a painting background, I used to paint but I just got to a wall where I wasn’t really doing anything interesting, at least in my mind. As I became more interested in the issues behind painting and representation and wanted to go into something that I thought was more experiential. And sculpture, performance, installation etc; all that did a little bit more for me, the physiciality of it and the way it operates in space had more to do with the body for me, I felt more connected to it.  I've always, however, maintained a 2-dimensional practice, but right now I’m more interested in drawing than painting, I’m interested in the mark again, but I think it has something to with the mark being less inhibited by history, painting’s got a lot of social, political and historical baggage, I don’t feel that so much with drawing. Sure, you can find baggage if you want, but that dialog is not so interesting to me these days. 
 
I do not want to indict all painting, but it is the poster child for the western bourgeois approach to luxury arts.  It is very much steeped in a dialogue of privilege and class, a dialog that has distanced the artworld from larger society.  Some may argue that’s how it should be, but for me there’s a disconnect, an elitism that is inherent in the way it is traded, not just financially but culturally.  Who has it, where is it, how do you see it, how much was it, how do you understand it?  It privileges certain hierarchies that other artforms may not. 
 
NF: Do you think that installation gets around that problem, the exclusivity problem?  I’m thinking that non-painting forms of art can be seen as even more rarified because most people don’t even know what installations are. 
 
SB:  It's true that exclusivity is unavoidable in our field to a degree, but I think some of the non-painting forms, because they are less familiar, can be more inviting to new interpretations and readings.  
 
NF: I always get back to drawing. I believe that’s the root of this work, I almost find it hard to relate to artists who can’t or don’t  draw…I don’t want to make a judgment about them , but my feeling is that art kind of starts there.  Here’s a story… my first solo show was actually, at the San Francisco Zen Center which used to have a little gallery room, and they gave me a show before I left and came to the East Coast, and I was like 18 at the time, you know people in high school are always drawing random stuff in drawing class: rendering whatever.  For the show which was called “Objects”, I drew all sorts of things in pen and ink on paper just things around the house, like a Buddha statue but also a trash bin and a stapler, and by drawing these things I began to feel fondly towards them, I realized drawing is just a type of consciousness-practice. When you look at something well enough to render it you are attending to that thing and essentially you’re opening your heart to that thing, your consciousness is channeled at that thing, there is no heirarchy at that point, you could be drawing Bill Gates or a banana or a can of soda or a wooden mouse trap.  Anything.  And it’s the same, it’s all just consciousness.

 

Noah Fischer, Laptop Drawing, Ink on Dura-Lar, 18x24", courtesy of the artist.

SB:  I feel that way about process. Labor intensive work takes me away from expectation. I have an idea what direction I may be going, but that is just the set up before I go into autopilot, all actions becoming somehow equal or non hierarchical.    I’m thinking of the large sand pieces, or the glass etching I just did, with the slave vessels. That’s where the good stuff is! - when you’re working in an almost pre-conscious state.

 

Sanford Biggers, Lotus, 2007, hand-eched glass, steel, LED's, 7' diameter, courtesy of the artist.

NF: So for you it’s the labor and the repetition?

SB:  At a certain point it’s not even about the object, it’s just about going in there, the feel and sound of the charcoal and the brush against the surface.  For me its like the difference between religions and faith.  Faith is the thing that all religions have, regardless of what form or name it goes under. I think that art praxis may be the same thing, ultimately, regardless of what you ascribe to it it’s more about the act of making it.

Sanford Biggers, Lotus, detail.
 

NF:  Sometimes people use the word commitment with art and I know this has a philosophical history from Adorno which I may be passing over but for now I just mean commitment of the artist's time, and a lifelong commitment to developing the work.  Like Hsieh in the room with the time clock, what an amazing  commitment! Commitment is a special thing because it requires a focus, as opposed to multi-tasking, or distraction.

 

  

Tehching Hsieh, One-Year Performance, 1980-1981, April 11, 1980-April 11, 1981, installation of documentary photographs and original performance relics, including poster, documents, 366 time cards, 366 24 hour images, 16mm. film, time clock. 16mm. movie camera, uniform, shoes and footprints.  Collection of the artist, c, 1980-81 Tehching Hsieh, Photo, Michael Shen, c. 1981 TehChing Hsieh, New York.

SB:  In that respect, the artwork is just the byproduct of commitment.  Whether it be embodied in a painting, an object, or a repetitive action. Hsieh's photo documentation is the byproduct of a commitment or praxis, much like a Pollock painting.

CS:  Ann Hamilton is a good model for that here, she also wrote an essay for Buddha Mind and she was very clear that she’s not a practicing Buddhist, but she was included in this exhibition precisely because of this sense of commitment that interests her, that her studio practice is one of attending and being committed to that attending.  So it’s interesting that what counts for you is something you’re calling commitment and that underneath that you can include artists such as Ann Hamilton - or let's say anyone at all who expresses their work process as an intuitive not-knowing - in an exhibition like this.

 

 

 

Noah Fischer, Pop Ark, nd., detail, mixed media installation, courtesy of the artist.

NF:  Well, what else is there beside commitment, I mean, genius?  I just did this big crazy installation called Pop Ark , and something I keep thinking about…that the main point of it may have been just the doing of it- how crazy and improbable that was, but somebody did it, realized it, spent the time doing this thing.. .

Nobody else could really do it , someone felt the need to put it together.  Most artists aren’t getting rich off of this, but the commitment gives something back to us in its own way I think, and this is similar to a Buddhist practice. But unlike Buddhist practice, the commitment that artists make is quite outward and public ultimately. 

SB:  I was speaking to a group of people the other day about the prayer rug I made at Triple Candie years ago . It took close to two hundred hours to put it down, and from the moment of completion it was in a constant state of devolution. Its visual, physical presence only highlighted its temporal vulnerability. That work was very much about commitment and relinquishment.

 CS: One of the things that I’m hearing here is contentment with a thing done.

SB: Well, a thing gets done but then you’re on to the next thing, so it really doesn’t have an end. Each project is just the artifact of that commitment at that moment, but that same commitment will go into the next project. 

NF: It’s not just about the painting it’s about your life and maybe in the end, the art “career” (for lack of a better word) is about making this commitment in your time, your era.  The commitment is an exchange with people and places around you, as part of the cultural process or self-understanding of your era, therefore each artist is unique. So your work has to be different than Jackson Pollock's, as he wasn’t around to make that commitment in the ‘90s.

SB:  Practice.  That’s the word.

NF: As an artist you are creating a life of commitment or maybe more accurately as Sanford says- practice, but there is an object-thing attached to it; actually a series of things.  As  a Zen practitioner you are also involved in a life about practice but it’s discouraged to make anything of it.  Things tend to unleash desire.

 

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Me: I have absolutely no idea what part of the world this view of the ocean came from, but it was the Google image link to the following:SuperHappyPuppy

NF: And here’s a beautiful object, they just have to get a bigger wall for that.

CS:  Did you see the show at Gagosian, Seven Days and Seven Nights?  The installation was stunning, you walked to the other side of a long wall and into seven nights and it was so dark that without the help of a guard you had no idea where your feet ended and the floor began, it was disconcerting to be thrown into the ocean in that way.

NF:  He also did the movie screens, so it’s not like he’s walking away from the human world into the natural sublime- he finds it everywhere.   

SB:  These are all taken from different places in the world, they’re different oceans.

CS: And it is as though your feet don’t know where they’re standing.

SB:  It seems to me that to think of this work in terms of East and West kind of takes away from what the work can do on its own. 

NF:  I think that as much as Globalism makes the world more connected, people will always use the mental shorthand of “East and West” because we love to separate things out…but , there is no such thing as East and West really. Depends on perspective.

 

 

Laurie Anderson, In the House, In the fire, courtesy of Obieg.

NF: I remember Laurie Anderson came out to the monastery when I was a kid in the early 1980’s , she came out to have a conversation with the abbott of the monastery Reb Anderson.  It was funny, though.  Because it was definitely like an encounter with a star. In the context of the monastery she just looked like she had been partying too hard!

SB:  I went to a retreat at Green Gulch.

NF:  That’s where I grew up.  You studied with Yvonne Rand, right?

SB:  Yes, and that’s where I met Laurie Anderson, we were all speaking at Green Gulch. That’s where I got the idea for the bell choir, Hip-Hop Ni Sasagu. I learned that different metal alloys made distinct sounds, and that came out of the conversation with Laurie...The other participants who were there at some point realized that their shared interest in Buddhism was not really addressed nor accepted by the art industry, so they made their own community to address that.  A book (Buddha Mind In Contemporary Art) came out of it but not an exhibition.

CS:  At the Bronx Museum of Art you had a piece on Buddhism and commodification, what was that like?

SB:  Well exactly, Noah, you were speaking earlier about Buddhism being a brand and that’s exactly where the idea for that show came from, the commodification of spirituality.  The first piece I did was call The Mandala of Cooption where I cast clear resin Hotei forms with floating fat shoelaces, microphones and gold chains inside the Buddhas.  There were four of them on the outside and one in the center that was robed with multicolored fat shoelaces. Basically, all of the floating objects were intended to represent Hip-Hop or urban culture but are fabricated in TaiWan, Hong Kong and Korea, so there’s no real sense of the authenticity between where these things were fabricated and what they reperesent. Even my original Hotei figure came from Mexico, was white and on the bottom and had horseshoes, pieces of rice and a four leaf clover, among other other symbols of good luck that have nothing to do with Buddhism.  So I was really interested in how commerce ignores origins for the sake of uniformity and consumption. And the mash up of symbols, once again.

 

 

Sanford Biggers, Mandala of Co-Option, 2001, Acrykic resin, fat gold chains, fat shoe laces,microphones, African mask, leather medallions, rotating mirrored turntables. Figures: 8 1/2x6x5.

The project with the singing bowls, which were all made from melted down hip-hop jewelry, was more about distilling the commercial back down and into the singular form of the singing bowl.  The bowls were used in a ceremony where each strike was like a prayer to a dead ancestor, but in this case it was Hip Hop.  An homage to the past.

NF:  Those two projects are so different. With the bell it’s an active thing if you are making a critique in the piece, it doesn’t happen in the mind so much as the body- hearing the sound of the bell and seeing what that does. In the other mode with the Hotei - you are using irony, symbolically highlighting contradictions.

SB:  For me, the Hotei's are at once both references and things.  But the bells in performance or as sound generators are autonomous and not dependent on a referent. There were three or four years between those pieces and I had become less interested in illustrating a concept than making a sensorial experience from one.

CS:  Picking up on the physicality of it I have this nagging little voice in my head that wants to say, well, there’s something trite about having a nostalgia for something more pure in the context of globalized capitalism.  But when you are working with materials and symbols as physical things that involve people, whatever is trite about that vanishes, there is an alchemy there.

NF:  Definitely.  But people have to be willing to actually participate and do it.  Experience is never trite if people are willing to do it.

 

Linda Mary Montano, Mitchell's Death, 1979, black and white video with sound,  23 minutes, collection of the artist, c. 1979, Estate of Linda Montano.

CS:  Do you think of what you do as salvific? Linda Montano approaches her work after years of practice as being therapeutic.  Is that a way to talk about your work?
 
NF:  Salvific, you mean like salvation?
 
CS: Salvation, other words people may use are redeeming, freedom is a big word...
 
NF:  There’s a Zen tradition I like which focuses on everydayness- “nothing special” so I wouldn’t say salvific, I would just say practice, which encompasses the work of every artist.  It’s just a matter of deepening the practice, becoming more aware.  For me meditating and then going to my studio, gets me over the general fear of making decisions which can be very real and into the “why not” which is a good place to draw, sculpt, or exist from.  So  ultimately it's about practice and commitment.  It’s basically about doing but doing it fully aware.
 
SB:  I think that awareness is key, that is something that meditation helps you do is to become more aware and to be able to tap into that awareness.  And if you take that to the studio it’s a dance between making decisions and letting things come through you in a way where it doesn’t get caught up.

 NF:  Meditation is  a way to work through all of these influences that are the landscape of our postpostpostmodern world and avoiding something trite and false , so it's a careful and joyful tightrope walk.

 

 

Noah Fischer, Laptop Drawing, detail, ink on Duralar, 18x14", courtesy of the artist.

04/09/2009