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Voids Leave Large Impressions. An Interview with Lars Jan

Lars Jan, The Institute of Memory (TIMe). Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, 2015. Photo: Lars Jan.

Lars Jan, The Institute of Memory (TIMe). Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, 2015. Photo: Lars Jan.

Beauty has a last name that appears to be paradoxical. It’s in paradox or the antithesis of beauty that we see her fully as day embraces night. The Pieta, Ground Zero and the Vietnam War Memorial reveal such paradox. Paradoxical beauty becomes our sacred spaces-those that define ourselves and refine our lives. These spaces are the healing balm that allows us to embrace our suffering within such darkness. It is also within these spaces we discover great art-art that shifts us, moves us and changes us. It is in such spaces that we approach the work of Lars Jan.

A director, writer, visual artist and founding artistic director of Early Morning Opera, Jan also founded the multidisciplinary performance and art lab behind HOLOSCENES, whose previous works include ABACUS, A SUICIDE BOMBING BY INVITATION ONLY and, most recently, THE INSTITUTE OF MEMORY (TIMe). His work has been presented by The Whitney Museum, Sundance Film Festival, BAM Next Wave Festival and many other museums and venues in the U.S. The son of émigrés from Afghanistan and Poland, Jan is a past MacDowell and Princeton Atelier Fellow, artist-in-residence at the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, and recipient of the Sherwood Award. He is a TED Senior Fellow.


Daniel Bonnell - You say your position as an artist evolves with every project and that, “Art is research and performance is a lab.” Are you referring to art being born out of simulacra and performance is the act of pulling back those layers of history?

Lars Jan - Art for me is inquiry, collision, curiosity about margins and a belief that the current frontiers are what we’ll eventually just call the backyard. Performance is the location in which my art practice happens. I choose performance for two reasons. One, its elasticity can incorporate all forms-cinema, dance, theatre, sculpture and so on. All strategies are available. And two, live gathering is what turns me on.

The ‘lab’ notion evokes the scientific method, but there’s not a hypothesis-leads-to-evidence model at work here. The inquiry leads to unexpected moments, and the act of development is primarily chasing those moments down-expanding, refracting and sometimes destroying them to know them better. Performance is a collection of these moments that have been upended, beaten back and drugged. At some point, an audience takes part, but actual presentation is such a small fraction of my experience with any given performance that it’s not in my mind for long stretches of the process. Layers of history are being pulled back, but the layers don’t come off in smooth sheets, they tear. Layers peek through from the moments of genesis and mingle with others that have emerged only earlier that afternoon. What is revealed is inherently a variable and unstable state, and it’s from this place that the work emigrates to the audience.

D.B. - I want to investigate your various works that have led up to your Holoscenes, starting with your ‘Image Opera,’ called [Psycho] [Cosmo] [Nautics] (2004), and your investigation of the spaces between the conscious and subconscious, the realities that embrace us as human that involve spiritual contradictions and paradoxes. Can you describe this opera for me and how you see it as a part of the genesis of your work?

L.J. - The pivotal image for me in [P] [C] [N] is of a sleeping dolphin. Cetaceans have bi-hemispheric brains just like us; but they’ve got an enviable evolutionary leg up. They sleep one half of their brain at a time, which allows them to swim on autopilot, rising to the surface occasionally to breathe-the evolutionary outcome of being fully aquatic marine mammals. So I wondered, if they’re awake and asleep in the same moment, how can they tell the difference between their dreams and reality? And so Paul, an aquarium salesman (and the only live character in the piece) has realized that he’s an evolutionary anomaly-the first person to have a brain that operates like a dolphin’s. He tells the audience about a series of visions-most notably involving a chess match between Laika the Soviet space dog and Nikola Tesla the Serbian inventor-to see whether they might have had them too. I ask that question of the audience over and over in my work. Can I put my experience into signals, and can you read them? Is this a shared experience, or are we on our own?

Two years before making [P] [C] [N], I had purchased my first video camera. I taught myself to edit over nine months of unemployment, holed up in a massive, frigid north Philly loft, before I spent a year studying Bunraku puppetry outside Kyoto, and the subsequent four months traveling in Siberia and several Central Asian states. In and around Kyoto, I spent a lot of time on the train, and I filmed these train windows daily. I filmed in triptychs, which are a recurrent theme in my work, and as I traveled in Central Asia I also always filmed three different framings of the same space, each offset in time just a bit. The installation for [P] [C] [N] was three massive TV monitors I bought at Best Buy and returned before the 30 days were up. The video triptychs-neon cityscapes through train windows, jellyfish from the Osaka aquarium and glacial valleys in Tajikistan-dialogued with the solo performer and emerged as cinema once the performer departed the space.

[P] [C] [N] is the first thing I made under the name Early Morning Opera, and from the outset, media operated in my work as text, rather than texture. In retrospect, it’s also telling that the work was presented in a small gallery rather than a theatre. The show was made without a budget, with brilliant collaborators who were paid in slices of very special pizza from DiFara’s in Brooklyn. Thankfully, the brilliant collaborators are still around.

D.B. - Your work entitled ABACUS (2010), developed at EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center), appears to deal with human reactions to data in relation to technological scale or visual volume. It appears you are revealing how individual personal power is so easily given away to a loud, intimidating, larger-than-life technical bully via screen or technology. I think of the influence of materialistic pursuits, even fear-provoked political commercials, and the ‘1984′ Macintosh commercial. Can you give me your narrative directive on ABACUS and how you felt about its outcome?

L.J. - I understand your interpretation of the work, but actually the genesis of ABACUS wasn’t bullies, but rather prophets, albeit false ones.

Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome, had an idea for a three-dimensional, data-visualization device he called the Geoscope. It was to be a sphere 200 meters in diameter, covered in over a million light bulbs, suspended above the East River in New York City, just outside the U.N. building. The light bulbs would display patterns on this sphere that he hoped would help people experience information on a deeper level-he hoped moving data from two to three dimensions would allow people to ‘feel-see.’

Lars Jan, ABACUS. Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Troy, NY, 2010. Photo: Lars Jan.

Lars Jan, ABACUS. Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Troy, NY, 2010. Photo: Lars Jan.

Feel-see is what inspired ABACUS-the idea that dimensionalized data could leap off the flat page (or screen) and move viewers viscerally. I observed, with some suspicion, aspirational versions of this idea fueling TED talks, mega-church services (there’s one in my neighborhood in Echo Park, Los Angeles), and in so many of the presentations I was increasingly exposed to, a world in which the lingua franca of persuasion had become power point. In developing the work, I wanted to know: What if the medium and message did not conspire, but instead unbolted each other?

ABACUS entailed the elaborate invention of Paul Abacus-positioned as a real persona, a cult-figure hailing from Japan. He conducted press interviews, public choreographies with a team of paparazzi, staged press conferences and was afforded alternate histories by several curators. This was my first work that sprawled beyond the fiction of performance and art spaces into so-called reality, as well as other artistic platforms. Seven years in, I think of Paul less as a creation than a collaborator-a 21st century Pinocchio, replete with truthful fictions. My work with Paul is ongoing.

D.B. - Your play The Institute of Memory (TIMe) (2015) reveals eulogy reflections of your father, Henryk Ryniewicz. It appears to be an intimate production of self-exploration, mystery and investigation through the means of moveable, illuminated neon pieces that tower larger than life around two figures dressed in white. Your interior life is partially revealed in this reflective and intimate portrait of your father as well as your mother. Can you capsulize this piece to share how you walked through it and came out on the other side?

L.J. - This performance started as the result of drinking too much and a commission to respond to work of the seminal Polish director and visual artist Tadeusz Kantor, whose work is characterized by a relentless excavation of personal history and memory. While researching in Krakow, where Kantor’s extensive personal archives are located, I drank heavily and told other artists about my Polish father, who was in the resistance, tortured by Nazis and ultimately mixed up in Cold War intelligence. He was a misanthrope, and though I saw him intermittently throughout my childhood, I knew nearly nothing factual-he had different birth dates and places on all of his documents and was generally passionate about obfuscating his past. Several drinking partners suggested I look for information about my father in The Institute of National Remembrance located in Warsaw, an intelligence archive begun by the Nazis in 1939 and shuttered by the departing communist regime when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

My father had passed away recently, and so I decided that I’d use whatever archives I could get my hands on to see what portraits emerged and how they reconciled with my memories of the man I barely knew. Over half of the text of TIMe is taken verbatim from various archives, including wiretapped phone conversations between my father’s family in 1958 Poland, missives from Soviet spies living in the U.S. in the late 1960s, and 20 years of doctor reports chronicling the breakdown of my father’s body and the unraveling of his mind. Early in development I drew the floor plan of his apartment as best as I could remember it, and a kinetic light sculpture based on that drawing became the environment for the performance. The audience views much of the piece through this sculpture-the layout of his apartment becoming a lens. Modifying the intensity of light sculpture, pointed directly at the audience, allows for perceptual play a la James Turrell, particularly in the evocation of a true black void in the rear of the stage space, a rare achievement in an institutional world ever illuminated by exit signs and emergency aisle lighting. I used a laser (lidar) scanner to generate 3D digital models of various spaces where I spent time with him as a child in Cambridge. Some of these are projected within the performance, and I’m currently using these models as the ‘negatives’ from which to print a series of silver gelatin photographs-appropriately, ‘archival’ ones. And I’m compiling a variety of the materials I discovered-from MRI brain scans to marked-up secret police photos-into an artist’s book. This is my most recent work, and though the performance has premiered, I’m still in the middle of it.

That said, the main thing I’ve learned is that I’d long been mistaken about how his absence in my life diminished his influence. I see now how much my identity contorted to surround the void so near me. Voids leave large impressions.

D.B. - The voids in each of your pieces become spaces that present an in-between-ness of time and space, a mindfulness of light, sight and sound. Kantor, as you mentioned, also plays out these elements as memories breaking through confirmative art by embracing The Condition of Death as in his work, The Dead Class. As a performance artist you are not a lone ranger, you manage other artists within your works as Kantor did. How do you succeed at this?

L.J. - I try to turn on everybody involved. I make unique environments for performers to do their work in. The environments exert certain perceptible pressures that emerge from the conceptual threads of the work itself. I’m led by my eye. Language comes a close second, and my roots in activism often show. I favor rectangles, clean lines, high contrast-these obstructions contain and counterpoint the bloody messes within.

Lars Jan, HOLOSCENES, Newspaper, Toronto, 2014. Photo: Lars Jan.

Lars Jan, HOLOSCENES, Newspaper, Toronto, 2014. Photo: Lars Jan.

D.B. - In your piece A Suicide Bombing by Invitation Only performed at the Whitney in NYC in 2010, we witness a satire of fear projected through advertising and celebrity. Your black-and-white video piece that documented the work reflects Yves Klein’s Anthropometries of the Blue Period ‘y’ Fire Paintings (1960).

L.J. - I appreciate the parallel with the Klein pieces. I never consciously considered them directly, but there’s much in common-a sense of absurdity, but also violence. A Suicide Bombing by Invitation Only was made quickly, in about two weeks, and performed-fittingly for a suicide bombing-only once at the Whitney. It’s also the only work I’ve ever performed in myself. The work hinged on the deeply embedded and already iconic fear that the audience held of suicide bombings, which I consider extreme performances.

I played off the exclusivity of suicide bombings, the fact that their location is never advertised in advance. Tickets are impossible to come by. The bomber is an unreachable celebrity, very much in line with the posthumous lionization of bombers in many cultures. Hence, attendees at the Whitney were granted special VIP access and negotiated velvet ropes, red-carpet interviews and paparazzi to enter. They listened to a five-part requiem especially composed for, and about, them. As at the opera, the most exclusive seats were closest to the action, in this case me, the bomber, who was wrapped in a vest packed with C4 (clay) and covered in nails. The nearest viewers were assured annihilation; those at the fringes of the gallery were guaranteed only minor lacerations and smoke inhalation.

Punctuated by interviews-with an explosives expert, future bomber, protestors, PR reps-the performance proceeded with a satirical air, everyone in on the laughs. The last two minutes rapidly turned dark, and the entire audience ended up on the floor, the paparazzi photographer stepping over the piles of bodies, as if documenting a crime scene. The performance worked in New York because the direct experience of 9/11 was still deeply embedded within much of the audience. The joke there could only last so long, and the flip side was terror. Having tried the performance in Los Angeles a year later, I found the biggest difference was that the audience had no comparable experience of mass terror. In L.A., the performance lacked its primary material, fear, and so failed to entirely explode.

Lars Jan, HOLOSCENES installation view. Art Basel Miami, 2015. Photo: Lars Jan.

Lars Jan, HOLOSCENES installation view. Art Basel Miami, 2015. Photo: Lars Jan.

D.B. - Holoscenes are performance installations involving life-size human aquariums that flood and drain themselves with water. A performer within the tank represents just an average human doing everyday tasks. The flooding of the tank mimics a flood such as those that devastated Pakistan in 2010. The photographic imagery of those floods washing away entire homes, and families, impacted you. You state that you are making a performance about climate change. How has that conversation gone for you?

L.J. - Holoscenes is elemental. The water is the primary material, and performers, objects, costumes, light and sound are transformed by it. The sheer volume and velocity of the water is humbling, so our engagement with it must be very respectful. The work is visually striking, but the audience’s experience has more to do with an empathetic connection to the performers who are at the mercy of the water. That connection is what you might call sacred, and furthermore is the beating heart of most performance. Climate change and the story of water in the 21st century has always been a major inspiration for Holoscenes. And I hope we’re only in the early stages of the conversation about how this piece may illuminate those issues. Still, it’s not a ‘climate change’ statement; it’s an art work that resonates with climate change, and many other issues too.

D.B. - Semiotics abound in Holoscenes, life verses death, tragedies, mysteries and regenerative myths.

L.J. - Holoscenes is quite the Rorschach test. The work is literally both transparent and reflective. Sited in public space, the surrounding context influences what the work seems to be about more than anything I’ve ever made. In the condo-forest of downtown Toronto, the aquarium sculpture read as if square windows from the surrounding buildings had been extruded and the lives behind been exposed for all to see. In Sarasota, the piece was on the precipice of the Gulf Coast, 50 yards from the waters that are estimated to flood the site itself in a few dozen years. Naturally, there the impending sense of the flood framed perception. I’ve heard kids fight about their interpretations of the piece-dreams versus mermaids versus death. Obviously, it’s all three. You can’t read too much into it, because you can read it however you want.

Lars Jan, A SUICIDE BOMBING BY INVITATION ONLY, The Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC, 2010. Photo: Hope Hall.

Lars Jan, A SUICIDE BOMBING BY INVITATION ONLY, The Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC, 2010. Photo: Hope Hall.

D.B. - Holoscenes embraces void and water colliding, creating a sacred space­­­-an alchemy of mystery. We are given a tertium Quid, or ‘the reconciling third,’ through synthesis. Kasimir Malevich does the same with his painting White on White (1918). The Franciscan monk, writer and contemplative Richard Rohr, speaking of art, says, ‘We often know things imaginably, aesthetically or harmoniously before we know them rationally.’

L.J. - I translate that thought into, ‘Do you entirely understand the art that you’re making and where it comes from?’ And my answer to that question is no. It is intuitive, and the process of making helps me understand the roots of this intuition better, but not entirely, or even well.

If you’re in the habit of writing your dreams down, you’re prone to remember them a bit better when you wake. Similarly, if you’re in the habit of making work out of your intuitive impulses, you also get to know them better. Once I’ve finished a work, the origin impulses often make a deep kind of sense to me, and that sense is the artwork. When I first saw Holoscenes in performance I was most excited that I had listened to the part of me that had the glimmer of the idea in the first place. And I was also heartsick, as for maybe the first time I realized how few impulses I can chase with the required energy.

D.B. - You were a mime, a Bunraku Japanese puppeteer, a director of integrated media, a videographer in rural Ukraine, a theatre director, installation performing artist and a cross cultural teacher. This reads to me that you are a creative explorer that is not afraid to get lost.

L.J. - Apologies in advance for going down metaphor alley, but ‘explorer’ and ‘lost’ immediately brought up an image. Getting lost in the back country is a bad strategy. In the wilderness, the fundamental condition is that you are a very slim margin from being lost at any moment, and the challenge of course is way-finding. Routing through the real topography-that is so much more textured and reads so differently than contour lines on a map-is purposeful, but the experience itself is a bath in disorientation. Crossing a swift river is more about the invisible riverbed below than the curling water at your waist. I feel that way all the time. I never quite know where I am supposed to be; I generally feel that I am on my way somewhere that is dimly perceptible to me but will take a good deal of way-finding. And the thing that is apparently happening to me, is just that, apparent. I try to focus on the river stones below when I can. But I’m no meditating spiritualist. I prefer motion, and that’s what it all feels like anyway; flying through space.

  • Holoscenes was presented by MDC Live Arts in Miami, December 2015; Holoscenes video worked in the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art in January 2016; and TIMe in the Under the Radar Festival in New York, January 2016.

Daniel Bonnell is an artist, writer, educator and author of the book Shadow Lessons. The text chronicles an artist’s unexpected journey into an inner city, at-risk, high school culture. He is an artist who has exhibited in venues that include St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. His eclectic studio instructors included painter Ed Ross, photographer Ansel Adams and designer Milton Glaser.

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