Ciara Ennis & Richard Kraft

Interview between Richard Kraft and Ciara Ennis (Commissioned by the Laguna Art Museum for the exhibition, Which is to Say.)


Ciara Ennis:  Richard, Your practice takes a variety of forms—video, performance, collage, and photography—which to some degree makes your work hard to classify. Is this an intentional strategy to ward off an immediate reading or comprehension of the work?

Richard Kraft:  That’s a great question Ciara, and a complicated one. John Cage said, “Don’t just do your own thing. Do so many things they won’t know what you are going to do next.” I work in multiple forms because I want to be surprised by each new piece of work, if possible, to the point that I don’t know where it came from or how it happened. When I work on several projects simultaneously, slipping back and forth between them, each piece informs the others, inspiring leaps of the imagination that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible.

One of my favorite books is Italo Calvino’s Six Memos For the Next Millenium. In the essay Lightness, Calvino argues in favor of a “lightness of thoughtfulness” which he illustrates with an allegory from Boccaccio’s Decameron: The poet Guido Cavalcanti, surrounded in a cemetery by a hostile group of men, extricates himself by vaulting over a tombstone with “the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times­—noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring—belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty cars.” I love this image. There’s the pure athletic beauty of Cavalcanti’s leap, and it defies the notion that to be valuable something must have weight. Also, “lightness” allows for shape-shifting, for reinvention. One of the reasons I’m drawn to video projections is the quality of dematerialization. All they are is light.

So in answer to your question, I want to make work that’s open to anyone who wants to engage with it, something closer to our everyday experience—work that is visceral but also rich with paradox, work that asks many questions yet refuses any single answer or conclusion. The expectation that art is something that should always have a single, immediately understandable point to make, drains it of its vitality, which I believe is rooted in its dialogue with the complexities of the world.

When viewing an artwork there’s a certain assumption that you should understand what you are looking at or at least grasp something of the language, syntax or form—especially when framed within the institutional context of the white cube. When confronted with artwork that doesn’t conform to a set of standards—however radical or conventional it appears to be—one is understandably bewildered. However, it is that state of confusion and uncertainty that is exciting—this is true for both the artist and curator, and I agree that condition should be endlessly pursued.

Yes, and as you say, this is where structure and form become key. I remember when I first encountered the work of Joseph Beuys, and also Cage for that matter. In both cases the unfamiliarity of the work, the sheer complexity of it, is held together by a rigorous attention to structure. In this way I was invited, seduced even, into surrendering to my bewilderment, which allowed the doors to open. Cage’s and Beuys’ works seem inexhaustible to me. I can always return to them and make new discoveries.

In your new body of work, Which Is To Say, ten large-scale projections occupy one space. While functioning autonomously, some of these could be said to operate as loose diptychs or three-panel works—can you discuss your rationale for configuring the projections in this manner?

I knew I wanted to create an immersive experience and that this would require multiple projections on each wall of the gallery. As I began working, I noticed fortuitous (chance) relationships between projections (for example, birds from one appearing to fly into another, or a person in one seemingly talking to a crowd of people in the other) and decided to space the projections so as to encourage these kinds of unexpected connections. It’s a careful balancing act: to see each projection as an individual piece but also in relation to those near it.

Although the duration of each video varies between one and two hours in length there are distinct variations of pace and rhythm in each work, which has the effect of collapsing and extending spatial and temporal experiences—what is the thinking behind these decisions and how did you arrive at them?

I really like the way you describe the morphing of time, Ciara. I want my work to invoke the sense of wonder I feel at being in the world. While shooting for long stretches, I became very aware that my sense of time was altered. Initially just a single minute could feel interminable, but then I’d realize that ten, fifteen, twenty minutes had passed very quickly, during which my mind was both completely calm and very active. My hope is that the experience in the exhibition space, where there are few distractions and little sound, will be dream-like and meditative so that when the viewer steps back into the actual world, her experience of it will be altered. I hope it’s not pretentious to quote Thoreau here, “To affect the quality of the day. That is the highest of all the arts.”

In many ways these projections are very painterly and due to their subject matter—landscapes, cityscapes, humans and animals—and the duration of each frame function as moving tableaus. What is your relationship to painting in these works and how do these disparate disciplines inform the formal and conceptual aspects of the work?

I’ve always thought of these pieces as paintings of a sort, and also as photographs which explore the nature of time. In the very early stages of shooting I considered sub-titling this show Ten New Paintings initially because of the physical quality of the projections, their lushness and color, for example, then because several call to mind the work of specific painters. The view of Santa Monica Beach for example, could be a Brueghel, and the views of Shivala Ghat in Varanasi and the Pushkar rooftops function similarly to Indian miniature paintings. Some of the water pieces relate to Monet, Rothko and Richter. There’s a nice irony here: Richter used to insist that his paintings were, in fact, photographs, while I’m suggesting that these videos are actually paintings.

On another level, while I was working in Wyoming earlier this summer I was very moved by the fact that I was treading in the footsteps of the painters and photographers from the US geological surveys, in particular, the photographer W.H. Jackson, and the painters, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. More recently it’s occurred to me that many of these projections are literally plein air paintings, which creates an interesting relationship with the Laguna Art Museum and its history.

So would you say that you are injecting a sense of slowness in the viewing process—more akin to looking at painting than video or film and if so, why is that important to you?

Without wanting to sound like a Luddite it does seem to me that we are increasingly obsessed with speed. This has its advantages, but also its drawbacks. (I’m reminded of John Ruskin’s provocative observation in response to the building of the railways; “No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.”)

We live in an age in which the time between an event and the reportage of it has evaporated completely. Ironically, photography is at the very heart of this transformation. There’s a kind of perverse pleasure I take in using photography to create a space in which to slow down, to contemplate something as simple as the rolling of sunlight over a field of grass.

The majority of the footage for these videos was filmed in the US and India setting up an immediate oppositional binary between East and West. Although perhaps unintended, how do you prevent viewers from making comparisons between the two countries in terms of their economic, class, and cultural systems?

Ultimately of course, the artist cedes control of the meaning of his/her work as soon as it’s put into the world. And it’s inevitable that some people will make the comparisons you suggest. While there are clearly differences between East and West I’m not sure I would describe them as an oppositional binary; quite to the contrary, I see what is continuous and contiguous: what is mirrored. Put the words of Meister Eckhart next to those of Ramakrishna and they are remarkably similar.

Also, the “information” these videos provide about East and West is meager—the kinds of comparisons you name would be difficult to ascertain from watching a sky full of kites in Jaipur or a field of grass in Wyoming. Even the scene on the banks of the Ganges is fraught with ambiguity and contradiction. Thomas Mann wrote something about India that rings very true for me. He says that there one encounters “the labyrinthine flux of animal, human and divine.” This is emblematic of what I want the entire piece to do, to brush things against each other, irrespective of national borders, creating numerous relationships and juxtapositions and thus multiple interpretations and readings.

It’s important I think, to add that the choice of these two specific places isn’t random. They are both, in different ways, deeply rooted in my sense of place in the world or rather my sense of dislocation. My mother’s family are Jews from India, but despite being immersed in this way of life as a child, I don't really feel Indian. My father’s family are Jews from Eastern Europe, but though I grew up in a Jewish home, I’m not a practicing Jew. I was born and raised in England but have never particularly identified as being English. I’ve lived in the US for over twenty years and still feel like a foreigner. So, while I’m not any one of these things, I am an amalgam of all of them. Which brings me back to multiplicity and the tensions, questions, and new ways of seeing that emerge when disparate things are brought together.

In addition to Which Is To Say you are currently working on Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera, which also tends towards open-ended and fluid narratives. In this instance, you have dissected Kapitan Kloss, a 1970s children’s comic from Poland—removing the original drawings and speech bubbles and replacing them with images and text from multiple sources. The result is a visual polyphony, multiple threads running in all directions. Can you discuss your process here and comment specifically on the multitudinous narrative aspect?

For me the comic is a microcosmic construction of the world itself—it’s pared down, distilled and it has a dot pattern. My interest is in breaking down it’s coherent, linear narrative and reconstituting it with an alternative reality which is cacophonous and filled with paradox and unexpected relationships. The pleasure of nonsense is that it makes multiple senses, and as I said earlier, this seems to be a more accurate (and wondrous) way of experiencing things.

Kloss tells a story about World War II. Therefore my canvas, so to speak, arrives already charged with all kinds of associations and meanings. I’m very drawn to deconstructing such a world and using images and texts from varied sources to complicate it; to make a space in which the historical collides with the absurd.  

The English are much more distrustful of authority then their American counterparts, and these sentiments are expressed quite openly. Although subtle, there seems to be a resistance to power structures—be they aesthetic or societal—in much of your work, particularly in your performances, would you agree with that analysis?

Absolutely. For the most part those in power are invested in maintaining the status quo. And in enforcing it. The job of the artist is to disrupt it. There’s also the unavoidable fact that those who hold power are often corrupt, hypocritical, pathological and dangerous. (What makes you think I’m distrustful of authority?) The performance I’m currently working on (to be performed in West Hollywood in 2015) involves one hundred walkers each wearing sandwich boards with unique images and texts which introduce incongruities into everyday life. I’m subverting a form used for advertising to sell absolutely nothing

A Monty Pythonesque humor figures in much of your work, is this comedic aspect intentional or has it just seeped into your consciousness from being exposed to Monty Python as a child?

Both. I certainly think that humor is an essential ingredient in both art and life. And English humor often leans towards the irreverent, of allowing oneself to do in art what one would never dream of doing in real life. The thing that makes Python so successful is that they locate the absurdity of what we all tend to accept, then they pull back the curtain. And it’s so true! For example, there’s a scene in Life of Brian, after Brian’s been arrested by the Romans. Instead of taking any real action to help his comrade, Reg (played by John Cleese), wants to form a committee to discuss what to do. Ciara, both you and I work in academia. Does any of that sound familiar to you?

Yes, it definitely does, Richard! Committees convened to decide on other committees that need to be formed, with the issues at hand endlessly deferred! Reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about the gas cooker installation, forever postponed to make way for unlimited tea breaks that prevent any work from ever being done.

Exactly! And now that you mention it, I think its time for a cuppa.