Silver. A Conversation with Jon Field
Artist Jon Field pushes hundreds of thousands of dress pins into yards of black velvet to translate imagery from popular culture into surprising pictures. These reincarnated images of prejudiced materials detach into space, they shimmer, almost radiant, as light plays off pins, as the viewer moves and as the perception shifts from the particular of a trivial pin to the complexity of the universe of the picture. This critically germane work was the center of a discussion that I had with the artist, a discussion that wove together relevancies from Walter Benjamin, Haruki Murakami, Slavoj Žižek, Fredric Jameson, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard.
By Stephen Knudsen
Stephen Knudsen - How did you first start working with steel dressmaker pins on velvet?
Jonathan Field - The first pictures I made with pins and velvet were portraits. I was teaching black-and-white studio photography at the time and was interested in reversing the premise of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” I wanted to make handmade photographs, each individually positioned pinhead standing for the individual pixel or the silver-nitrate crystal. These first pictures reworked my own photographs. They were about memory.
The next series, “Maxwell’s Demon,” shifted focus from the private to the public domain. On the first day of each month during 2003-the year of the Iraq invasion-images taken from The New York Times and British Independent newspapers were enlarged and reproduced in pinheads on sheets of black rubber (a byproduct of the petro-chemical industry. At the time I was interested in the idea that “Narratives not facts and objective data, have taken center stage in the aspiring journalist’s mind.”1 These were my first ‘history paintings.’
Over time, the work has grown more ambitious in scale, mainly because I increasingly want to make slow pictures-pictures that clearly take a long time to make. The “End Time” series also reworks found images, this time in tens of thousands of dressmakers pins pushed into large sheets of black velvet. Each work is, on average, nine feet across. I want there to be something excessive about these pictures: the grand scale, the dramatic scenes, the innumerable pins.
S.K. - Would you explain the ‘History Paintings’ in your subtitle?
J.F. - The term ‘history painting’ refers to any picture with a high-minded or heroic narrative. It is derived from the Italian word ‘istoria‘ and essentially means ‘story painting.’ Originally dominated by religious paintings, the category expanded during the Italian Renaissance to include works depicting themes from mythology, literature or history, typically executed in a large-scale format. History paintings are often allegorical, or satirical.
I’m interested in how we might create images that convey something of our own historical peculiarities.
Speaking of which, Donald Trump is currently the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States. Trump was, of course, best known before this run as a businessman-turned-reality-TV star (in fact, The Huffington Post refused to cover Trump’s early run in it’s ‘Politics’ section, preferring instead to discuss his surprising popularity in it’s ‘Entertainment’ section). Here we see the collapse-of the real into its own image-that has generated a lot of theory and a lot of art.
At first glance these pictures echo a worldview outlined in Jean Baudrillard’s in Simulacra and Simulations. They are real in terms of their physical embodiment, the image physically present in the form of thousands of silver pinheads. Yet they are also unreal (in that the stories and characters they present appear mythic, larger than life, simulated.) Clearly there is something of Baudrillard here. But I think novelist Haruki Murakami added something interesting to the conversation when he suggested: “We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real.”2
S.K. - The worst kind of simulacra, the hyperreal?
J.F. - Obviously Murakami’s worldview has something in common with Jean Baudrillard’s. In fact, the “Maxwell’s Demon” series mentioned earlier directly references The Gulf War Did Not Take Place ). But I’m not sure these recent pictures operate as ‘simulacra’ exactly (to use Baudrillard’s term). Rather, I think they have more to do with ideas explored by Slavoj Žižek in The Perverts Guide to Ideology (2013).
Discussing the Wachowski Brothers’ 1999 movie The Matrix, Žižek makes the following distinction: “The Matrix is a machine for fictions. Fictions which already structure our reality. If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself.” Consequently, when faced with the choice of the red or the blue pill (illusion or reality) he fiercely declares, “I want a third pill…which would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion, but reality in illusion itself. Our fundamental delusion today is not believing in what is only a fiction, to take fictions too seriously-on the contrary, it is not taking fictions seriously enough.”3
I make pictures of such fictions.
S.K. - What does ‘not taking fictions seriously enough’ mean to you, practically and literally?
J.F. - I think Žižek is warning of the consequences of a failure to understand our historical predicament. We need to understand the nature of the ‘reality’ that surrounds us. Baudrillardian thought influenced a generation of picture makers demonstrating that reality is forever beyond our reach: ‘Every decoding is simply another encoding!’ What Žižek is arguing here, in opposition to this, is that reality is not somewhere beyond, but immanent. It is to be found within ‘illusion’ itself. This connects, for me, with certain aspects of Buddhist thought.
Rather than thinking of these pictures as depicting some form of “map which precedes the territory” to quote Baudrillard, or depicting some ‘hyperreality’ (which would hint at the possibility of a ‘reality’ beyond or behind it), I want to make pictures that are as real as I can. To borrow from Murakami again, “We are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real.” It is this relationship that I am interested in representing.
So, how to ‘take fictions seriously?’ Or to put it another way, how to picture as realistically as possible the stuff of fiction? The manual positioning of tens of thousands of pins seemed a good place to start.
S.K. - Many of the images that you reincarnate have bizarre associated stories. Your series starts with the painting of a man on horseback bolting through the landscape, a painting by W.H.D. Koerner. There are some strange politics that are attached to that painting. Would you explain?
J.F. - Former President George W. Bush’s favorite painting is W. H. D. Koerner’s A Charge to Keep, and he identifies with the lead horseman (whom he says he resembles). But the former President has mistaken the meaning of this painting. Koerner executed it to illustrate a Western short story entitled “The Slipper Tongue,” in which a smooth-talking horse thief is caught and then escapes a lynch mob in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.
Of course there is humor here, as well as pathos. Both these qualities run throughout the images I am drawn to.
The Dance, for example, immediately reminded me of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1568 satire The Blind Leading the Blind when I first saw it. The Dance depicts a scene from a Depression-era dance marathon. Several broken couples stumble past, dancing to the point of exhaustion in the hope of winning the (illusory) prize. The picture is, however, based on a 2009 fashion shoot of A-list actors reenacting a scene from Sydney Pollack’s 1969 movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The photograph, by fashion photographer Mark Seliger, was published in Vanity Fair, one year after the New York Stock Market crashed, accompanied by the following text: “As depressing Depression films go, Sydney Pollack’s 1969 opus takes the stale biscuit. Heart attacks, broken dreams, and breakdowns on the dance floor as 1930s dance-marathon participants down on their luck compete for prize money. Here, our cast gives their thespian all, in everything from D&G to Brioni.”4
The Oath, made in 2012, depicts four proud members of the U.S. Olympic squad. They stand at attention, dressed smartly in uniform, with the first Olympiad (swimmer Ryan Lochte) holding the national flag. All four are gazing off camera, facing Westward.
But to whom are these athletes pledging allegiance? Their uniforms were designed especially for the games, but the blazers display Polo brand logos, one of the “premium lifestyle products” designed and manufactured by Ralph Lauren Corp. These blazers were, in turn, manufactured in China, which prompted Steve Denning to write in Forbes magazine, “If, as William James wrote in 1906, the Olympics are ‘the moral equivalent of war,’ then was the decision to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic uniforms in China the moral equivalent of treason?”
Even a seemingly straightforward image of a cycle race grows more complicated as we dig deeper. The Race depicts cyclists Lance Armstrong and Jan Ulrich competing in the 2004 Tour de France. Both Armstrong and Ulrich were later convicted of doping and had their medals withdrawn.
With this particular picture, I was interested in the idea of scapegoating. In anthropological theory, the scapegoat mechanism is triggered when one person is singled out as the cause of a particular problem and is expelled or killed by the group. Social order is thus restored, and the cycle begins again. Is Armstrong, therefore, a villain, shamelessly cheating his way to seven Tour de France wins? Or rather a victim of historical circumstances, the sacrificial scapegoat that allows the doping cycle-pardon the pun-to begin again. (Armstrong admitted his guilt live on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show in December 2013.)
Every story told, and every hero depicted here is in some way compromised. But the meaning of these pictures changes through this means of production. They are détourned (to borrow Guy Debord’s phrase) through the process of their remanufacturing and re-presentation.
S.K. - A common thread in your selected images is often some kind of human momentum. What are you questioning in working over such images?
J.F. - “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country!” demanded Horace Greeley in 1865.
I have always been interested in the mythology of America: the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, the frontiersman. In these pictures we see various mythic narratives and characters in one form or another: the hardships of the Great Depression, the spirited horseman, the noble Olympiads, the heroic soldier. The pictures I rework range in type from movie stills to fashion shoots to sports photography. Rather than seeking out specific themes or subjects when sourcing images, my interest is in those images that represent both historical fact and mythic fantasy.
Sometimes this confluence arrived accidentally: It was only after making a few of these pictures that I realized that every character is facing Westward.
S.K. - Your most recent work Victory! reinterprets a still from the 2014 film The Interview distributed by Sony. Would you get those who missed out on the story behind this film up to speed and then tell us what made you want to clock into this particular still?
J.F. - The Interview is a 2014 American political satire directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The film stars Rogen and James Franco as journalists who set up an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate him.
In June 2014, the North Korean government threatened action against the United States if Columbia Pictures released the film. Columbia delayed the release from October to December and reportedly re-edited the film to make it more acceptable to North Korea. In November, however, the computer systems of parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment were hacked by the “Guardians of Peace,” a group the FBI claims has ties to North Korea. The group also threatened terrorist attacks against cinemas that showed the film. Major cinema chains opted not to release the film, yet Sony decided to allow the film to play in selected theaters on Christmas Day and via online rental. At this point, Franco tweeted: “VICTORY!!!!!!! The PEOPLE and THE PRESIDENT have spoken!!! SONY to release THE INTERVIEW in theaters on XMAS DAY!”5
If The Dance references Bruegel, this picture, when I first saw it, reminded me of Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 (1814). With this painting, Goya sought to commemorate Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s invading armies (In fact, the painting itself was for Goya a form of resistance). But where in that painting the victims of history are clear, in this picture things are more complicated. Here we see Franco, in a scene from the movie, holding both hands up in a “V” sign. The “V” sign appeared first during the WWII, and again during the 1960s, when it was associated with peace and counterculture groups. During both periods, the symbol means “the end of war.” Yet here we see the actor, mounted astride a Soviet-era tank, celebrating “victory!”
Who, exactly, is victorious here?
Again there is humor. I wanted the series to have a happy ending, after all.
S.K. - In your work there are great extravagances with such humble and prejudiced materials-the hundreds of thousands of dressmaker pushpins, the unparalleled thousands of hours poking black velvet , the persevering meditation over the resurrected secular image. It is like Karsten Harries’ ‘Kitsch economy‘ meets the illuminated manuscript Medieval Monk economy. Would you speak to the operation of these conceptual and formal paradoxes in your work?
J.F. - Haha, I like the image of a monkish element to this project. I sometimes think of these pictures as a form of atonement. For what, exactly, I’m not sure. There is certainly something humbling about the scales involved. Each of these large pictures is made of roughly 50,000 pins each. They take between six to 10 months to complete. (The final picture in the series, Victory! is made of over 100,000 pins and took about 10 months to make).
I practice transcendental meditation. The making of these pictures is similar to that practice.
Concerning Karsten Harries’ ‘Kitsch economy,’ thanks Steve for introducing me to this. I find the following passage particularly interesting: “Man strives to regain paradise, not by returning to what has been lost, but by building a substitute and by forgetting that it is his own invention…That this project is built on illusion does not matter…”6
It happens that the epilogue to the series, made early in the project, is entitled Paradise. This work is designed to provide a kind of key to the series. It is a two-paneled work: on the left we see a book; on the right, a map of the United States. Both book and map are, importantly, constructed of precisely 3,857 pins. The piece takes its name and subject from ‘Strong’s Concordance,’ which is a tool for studying the Scriptures. This system takes every single word of the King James Version and lists where each word can be found in the Scriptures. In other words, every number has a corresponding Biblical meaning. Enter the number 3,857 into Strong’s Concordance, the result: Paradise.7
S.K. - What is your process and is there a lot of trial and error to get the right level of pin density as you fashion all of the right light/dark particulars in obtaining that final gestalt?
J.F. - I position an enlarged Xerox of the source image on a specially made velvet covered foam-core frame and then ‘draw’ by puncturing through the paper with pins. The paper is removed at the end of the process. This is roughly the same technique that was used for replicating images during the Renaissance. It is important to stress that there is, for me, a visual quality embodied in the final product of this process that cannot be replicated either in reproduction or words. The visual effect is one of oscillation, the eye shifting focus from the individual pinhead to the vastness of the image it is part of. The density of pins is obviously key in determining when the picture is finished. When I get it right, the image appears to hover in space, coming in and out of focus as the viewer moves past, the pinheads glittering as light strikes them.
S.K. - There are multiple reasons for your choice of the title of your most recent series “End Time,” yes?
J.F. - I chose the title for a number of reasons. First, there seems to be an interest today in ‘end time’ scenarios. We see this not just in the popular news and entertainment media (‘The end of the world is upon us!‘), but within academia also. Jean Baudrillard’s ideas have already been referenced, Donald Kuspit declared The End of Art In 2004, and, of course, there is Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ (both discussed excellently in Timotheus Vermeulen’s and Robin van den Akker’s Art Criticism and Metamodernism, 2010.) As a History Painter, I wanted to reference this sensibility.
Second, although “End Time” re-presents specific historic events (the 2013 Olympic Games, for example), the pictures themselves seem to belong to no time in particular. In the 1980s, Fredric Jameson contended that we are suffering from a crisis in historicity: “There no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of our own everyday life,”7 he claimed. This fracturing of time has been explored more recently by Douglas Rushkoff in Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (2013). I find this particularly interesting, especially his ideas on Chronos and Kairos.
There is also a sense that when I’m making these pictures (which take months on end) I’m ‘out of time.’ This phrase deliberately echoes the title (Out of Now) of the collected works of Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hsieh made an exceptional series of artworks: five separate one-year-long performances marked by their extreme durations and their absolute conception of art and life as simultaneous processes. As Jean-Francois Lyotard has noted: “Money is nothing other than time placed in reserve, available.”8 This capital time was very evident to artists like Hsieh, which he attempted to critique through his art practice.
These works had an especially profound effect on me when I first encountered them.
S.K. - A superficial reading of your work might put them into a lineage of simple Postmodern appropriation and gamesmanship. That seems wrong to me. There is something more expansive than that going on here, something with evident conceptual tension between sincerity and irony that I think makes the work more part of a current in Metamodernism. Do you agree?
J.F. - Yes. I mentioned earlier a kind of visual ‘oscillation’ that occurs when viewing the works. The same holds for the meaning of these pictures. This oscillation, or ‘a constant repositioning between polar opposites,’ has been identified recently as a ‘metamodernist’ tendency by Vermeulen and van den Akker in ARTPULSE (2014): “If the modern artists have come to be historicized as an earnest bunch and the postmodern go into the books as jokers,’ they claim, ‘the current generation of artists attracts descriptions that speak of earnestness and irony in equal measure.”9
This ‘equal measure’ is what I seek in these works. On the one hand, ‘earnestness’ (to borrow Vermeulen and van den Akker’s term). The evident slowness of execution and labor involved in their production alone demonstrate a certain sincerity. On the other hand, the ‘ironic’ slippery nature of the stories they tell. Horse thieves are mistaken for pioneers, Olympiads pledge allegiance to Ralph Lauren, and highly paid actors play-act desperation in Dolce and Gabbana. Each of these pictures presents lies, deception, double-dealing and double-meaning with as much integrity and devotion as possible.
There is, I think, some humor here. I’m a big fan of Andy Kaufman’s Dadaistic experiments in comedy.
S.K. - To my way of thinking, your work, even while regarding the Debord spectacle, also paradoxically evokes some regard of the Kantian sublime, of Romantic notions that still endure. In other words, considering human modernity and its associated entropy as a speck in the geological time and space that extends beyond trillions of light years, is there always some shimmer, some glimpse of hope in tomorrow? In other words, your work seems to connect to ideas of resistance in general and resistance to loss of aura and resistance even to entropy. Yes?
J.F. - Yes, I like that you recognized a kind of resistance running throughout this series. It’s especially interesting that you mention this in relation to ‘entropy,’ because this tendency (and how to fight it) has fascinated me for years. As far back as the 1950s, mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener warned that, “As entropy increases, the universe, and all closed systems in the universe, tend naturally to deteriorate and lose their distinctiveness, to move from the least to the most probable state, from a state of organization and differentiation in which distinctions and forms exist, to a state of chaos and sameness.”10
Earlier in our conversation I mentioned an earlier body of work, Maxwell’s Demon. In Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49, a Maxwell’s demon is a counter-entropy machine, a box containing molecules that magically organize themselves to communicate indefinable messages. This was an image that prompted the first experiments with pins and velvet: The twinkling pinheads brought to mind Pynchon’s molecular randomness, as well as pixilation, radioactivity, even constellations of stars.
I studied American literature as an undergraduate student in England, and it is interesting that a fear of entropy-specifically in regard to language-dominates recent American writing. In particular, the decay and decline in significant information, which is a necessary consequence of the increasing predictability of the mass media, has affected the American writer’s feelings about the ability of any language to transmit significant information.
A similar anxiety haunts my practice.11
1. Mohammadi, Saman. Infowars.com, November 9, 2012.
2. Murakami, Haruki. “The Art of Fiction No. 182,” Interview with John Wray, Paris Review, 2004.
3. Žižek, Slavoj. The Perverts Guide to Ideology, 2013.
4. Ain’t We Got Style, Vanity Fair, July 2009.
5. This work was informed by the following text:
“Since the time of the very first European settlers in the New World, America has been represented as a promised land-a land not only of openness and opportunity, but a new Eden where man might rediscover the paradise he once lost or else claim the biblical land he had once been promised. Back in paradise, he would once again speak a natural language, the language first given him by God.”
Pascal-Anne Brault, “Translating the Impossible Debt: Paul Auster’s City of Glass.“ Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 39, Issue 3, 1998.
5. Seth Rogen, Tweet, December 23rd 2014.
6. Harries, Karsten. The Meaning of Modern Art: A Philosophical Interpretation. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968.
7. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.
8. Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.
9. Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker: “Art Criticism and Metamodernism.” ARTPULSE, No. 19, 2014.
10. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Garden City: New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1954. First published in 1950 by Houghton Mifflin.
11. Visit the following site for other examples of Jon Field’s work: http://www.jonfield.org.
Stephen Knudsen is the senior editor of ARTPULSE. He is an artist and professor of painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design and a contributing writer to The Huffington Post, Hyperallergic and other publications. He is an active visiting lecturer at universities and museums, and his forthcoming anthology is titled The ART of Critique/Re-imagining Professional Art Criticism and the Art School Critique.