The Sensual and The Political: Conversations with Joachim Pissarro Feature Image

Thesis Feature

The Sensual and The Political: Conversations with Joachim Pissarro

In March of 2018 the graduating MFA Thesis students conducted a series of conversations with Joachim Pissarro exploring the discourse around their work. Below are some excerpts from those conversations. The transcript will continue to be expanded over the coming weeks.

Joachim Pissarro: Why don't I begin with a list of the issues that seem to resonate with most of you. Your work has a lot of teeth. We might be talking about the politics, gender politics, queer identity, social justice, race, class, and gender, to name one big family. We probably will be talking about the notion of loss, of search following loss of an ever-evasive identity. We probably will be talking about history. We will be talking about slavery, alienation, repetition, the problems of the circulation of commodities on our global stage. We will be talking about violence, conflicts, displacement...

Let’s start with a set of notions and articulate each one of your practices around those notions. How does that sound? Russell, let's start with you.

Russell Perkins: Sure. Over the last six or eight months I've been trying to learn everything that I can about casinos and gambling as a way to think about risk as an embodied activity. I'm particularly interested in the space between speculation, which is maybe risk that we take on by choice, and precarity, which might be understood as unwilled exposure to risks and financial hazards. My project focuses on the space between those two ideas.

Joachim Pissarro: I'm curious about what kind of form it's going to take. Are there any objects? How are you materializing this notions?

Russell Perkins: The primary piece is a two-channel video documenting a poker game, made in collaboration with a group of professional poker players. But my practice really isn't tied to a particular material or medium. For example this week, I'm speaking with a scientist who developed one of the first scents specifically calibrated for a casino and proved that it actually increased people's spending at slot machines. It was the first use of odor as an affective tool to orient behavior in a certain way. If I can get my hands on that smell it might make it into the show as well!

Joachim Pissarro: Amazing. Over to you Zac and a very different practice with perhaps some some points of correlation. Would you like to take us through also your bigger agenda, perhaps, if we could call it that and how it will be taking shape.

Zac Hacmon: My work refers to architecture mostly. In my show, I will have two sections, two installations, and each one of them refer to different place. One of them is taken from border architecture in Israel and Palestine. The other installation refers to in my close surroundings in New York and the security measures that manifest in the everyday architecture. So in my practice as an artist, I try to link together Israel, Palestine and New York. Something I can achieve through my work is to create this kind of a bridge. It’s some kind of a link that I want to create. Both of the installations are interactive. The viewer completes the work by walking through and around it.

Joachim Pissarro: During our studio visit, you showed me this security device that separates the border, the two sides, from Palestine and Israel. It's a slightly scary object. You can feel yourself really trapped, and you're in this kind of no man's land, literally an in-between section. Is this going to be in the show?

Zac Hacmon: Yeah. That will be one of the installations in which I relocate a section of an Israeli checkpoint in the gallery space. It will be made of steel tubes welded together, two turnstiles, and two fences. The viewer can cross, come inside the checkpoint, but unlike the original border, there's no border to cross. The installation takes all this architecture, the whole apparatus, out of context. It’s a kind of experiment and I'm curious to see how it will function. In my process, I first make small maquettes. This will be the first time that I make it in a real size and people can walk through it.

Joachim Pissarro: Really fascinating to hear Russell and Zac whose work comes from different worlds but are both articulating the absurdities of our today's world. Madhini. you come from yet another different world. I must tell you, the first time I saw your work, I burst out laughing. There is this goat, right? It's a goat pulling out political posters somewhere in India.

Madhini Nirmal: Yes.

Joachim Pissarro: Your work speaks of this absurdity but through a different tone, through humor and fun even.

Madhini Nirmal: Sure. I have two interests. One, I'm really interested in the natural. I used to live in the woods as a kid, a scrubs forest in southern India, until I was about 12. Even after I moved, I continued to be very involved with animals. I'm also really interested in power structures and the caste system that's still in play in India. So in my thesis work, I decided to come up with this funny, absurd way of talking about these things, but not in a direct way — mainly because I don't know how!

I come Chennai in Tamil Nadu State. It’s a very dense city and there's not really space or grass for these animals to go and eat. Instead they just walk around the city and just eat things that they see. There's mass use of political posters everywhere across the city. So you see these little goats just tearing posters from the walls and eating them. I’m interested in how politicians use images of lions and tigers to show themselves as more powerful, like a man walking a tiger on a leash or his head is of that a jaguar or other things like that.  

Goats are herbivores and they eating pictures of lions and tigers and their political leaders. I don't know if I'm talking about all the things that interest me, like caste, and I don't know if I will ever be able to talk it. But this the work I’m doing now.

Joachim Pissarro: Fascinating. So I'm now feeling almost guilty about seeing the images as funny because you are describing the other facets which are very painful. Those goats having nothing to eat, eating these posters filled with glue and stuff like that. Again, rhyming with the absurdity of the world that both Zac and Russell describe but in a completely different way.

Joachim Pissarro: I find it interesting, even though Madhini is not really touching on the caste, we're talking about the ancestral world where the rules, the weight of tradition, is very heavy and very slow to evolve, if at all. It seems to me that this is something you were touching on as well, to a degree. So suddenly, you are activating this through what we're seeing currently today, which is deeply painful.

T. Elliott Mansa: I would agree. What we see in the news and in the political environment is a wake-up call for any of us that thought we were in a post-racial society. I'm responding to this weariness, responding to this weight of history. As we have this forward notion of progress, it doesn't put history in context because there's new markets, there's new kind of technological advances where other societies have more of a idea about balance. So, when I came into the program, we were still in this period of time where there were these killings of African Americans in the news. A lot of them were just a kind of state violence, vigilante violence, and it hasn't stopped. It's one of those things that's been like that way for who knows how long.

Joachim Pissarro: Forever.

T. Elliott Mansa: It's a weariness. It's a heaviness. So I think of a conceit, that what does it look like to have work that actually does create change, that can have an effect on society. I look at a lot of West African power objects and fetish objects as example of the kind of community-minded protection-type art. I'm also thinking about memorializing both those who have been lost and nameless and those who have been named. So a lot of my work refers visually to vanitas, still lives, art memorials using the aesthetic of some of the Bocchio sculptures from Benin.

Joachim Pissarro: The notion you mentioned that to me when we spoke — the efficacy of the artist as an agent of change — is something that's very rooted to your practice. But if I may ask you a tough question. Do you believe that efficacy is possible, and if so, in what terms?

T. Elliott Mansa: I have to imagine it. You know what I mean? Just having work reference political things and wonder if this is just my vain experience. I don't know if I have an answer, but I create the work as if it can affect change. That's the space that I can work in. Because I'm not a politician, I'm not an activist, and there are people that do work in both of those fields. There's social practice. There are artists who aren't just making work that highlights these things, but they're out actually making a change. Well, I say make it as if it can.

Joachim Pissarro: I look at all four of you and think your group as a whole probably represents one of the most diverse in the MFA. Would you mind saying a few words about where you grew up, where you came from?

T. Elliott Mansa: I grew up in Miami, Florida. My parents are from Georgia and moved down into Miami.

Joachim Pissarro: Rachelle, maybe we start with where T. Elliott Mansa just started. Where did you grow up, and how your geographical and ethnic cultural background affected the production of your work?

Rachelle Dang: I'm from Hawaii, and my family has been there for six generations. Coming to Hunter from the West Coast, having lived in California for a while, I had to start orienting my stories about colonialism, my interests in that history, to make it resonate in an Atlantic context. So part of what I began looking at is my family history related to field labor, to plantation work in Hawaii, sugar and pineapple work, and the movement of people across the Pacific. My family's ancestry is primarily Chinese and a small amount native Hawaiian Polynesian. So I began to look at how to make these stories resonate here in New York within a context of a trans-oceanic movement of people and also objects. Some of those objects include living things, like plants.

When I am here on the East Coast, I'm closer to Europe. So I began looking at the earliest Western or European contact in Polynesia. So I began looking at Tahiti, and for me, that was going back further in time to richer more nuanced stories than I had thought about before as I grew up in Hawaii. It was a very American-centric education, an American-centric outlook on the world. There was very little relationship to the other nations and islands in the Pacific or Asia or Europe. So being here, I began to look at early modern science, like botany, anthropology, cartography, developments of astronomy in the 18th century.

I also began researching plants and how plants connect to different colonies, Polynesia, Tahiti, to the Caribbean, mainly Jamaica, and what this meant for the movements of labor and connecting my family story to histories in the Caribbean, which I hadn’t really thought about before. My work involves using tactics of appropriation and material manipulation. I found an object from the 18th century — a very large botanical shipping cage to transport bread, fruit, saplings from Tahiti to Jamaica in the later part of the 18th century. I remade it life size, like four feet high, and sheathed it in copper and made it like a prison. It has wires, kind of a grilled wire screens.

I’m interested in taking something from the past, bringing it to the present to orient us to a global present where we are now. Ideas around the issues of power, the continued exploitation of labor, against the oversimplification of history. I think simplification of history, like binaries, is about erasure.

Joachim Pissarro: Absolutely. It's multi-layered and very complex and arresting. I have to say that as a whole each body of work that you guys are producing is extraordinarily powerful. Justin, shall we go on with you? Would you like to take us through your background, how you grew up, and how your vision has affected what they're seeing today?

Justin Cloud: Sure. My family moved around the US quite a bit when I was younger but more or less settled in the West, in Wyoming. So I grew up in this post-industrial landscape. There are whole towns and oil towns out West where industry came, created a boom, used up the resources and then left. They left all their equipment and everything behind. I grew up playing with friends in these huge, rusted and abandoned iron beasts. So this greatly impacted my imagination and my vision. I was a Ford mechanic before pursuing art. So I come up in this background of ultra-masculine space that tends to use up everything and then leave, as if that's the way.

A goal of my work is to address implications of market-driven lifestyles that are gendered. This happens with the male fetishization of vehicles, sneaker culture and what we generally think of as male objects. During my research I found out that males who consider their vehicle an extension of themselves are more likely to have road rage and drive aggressively because they consider the road their territory. What I've found is that when you code gender into marketplace objects, the customers who buy into that end up enacting or changing their behavior to fit that fictional lifestyle. It creates a feedback loop of this destructive pattern and further enforces these binaries.

Joachim Pissarro: Hector, it's interesting that both you and Justin actually come from other professions. You have a profession and it would be interesting for us to hear about. And can you also expound on where you grew up, if you don't mind?

Hector René: I was born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. I came to the United States in 1992, and this was mostly because my mother was trying to escape what was left over from the Contra Civil War in Central America. So like Justin, I found myself in a post-industrial town, Allentown, Pennsylvania. There were a lot of similar ideas about masculinity and patriotism. Coincidentally, my mother married into one of these quintessential American-Italian family from New Jersey.

My step-grandfather, but grandfather to me, retired from Mack Trucks after almost 40 years. My father retired from the Marine Corps. All of these things informed my growing up. So when I graduated high school, it wasn’t a question when you’d go to college, but if you’d go to college. So I joined the Army because it seemed like the option that most neatly buttoned up what my desires and goals— to move out of my mother's house, to earn my own living, and to get out of Pennsylvania. I’ve worked in and around the military since. It's been about 10 years. I'm trained as a military photographer.

At a certain point, I had the opportunity to use my Post-9/11 GI Bill to study art. I studied fine art photography. At that moment really difficult questions started to arise about the photography I was consuming, the photography I was making, and all of the things that now inform my interests, such as what does truth look like and how is power represented. I'm interested in journalism as a material source, but I'm also interested in creating an alternative image to the images that we're consuming so regularly. I just hope that my work can dovetail my interests in journalism, history, and art history broadly.

I've been looking at monuments, American monuments, in public spaces. Often, these monuments are related to the Confederacy, which was, in and of itself, an American military. The Confederacy with it's a dubious history when we really unpack it is only represented one way. But the truth, as Rachelle has said, is erased through in binary. The winners, the losers, the right, the wrong. In my research, I’ve noticed, or realized rather, that there's a long history of monuments being torn down, whether it was in a post-Soviet era or whether it was Ozymandias from Egypt.

Now I'm looking for these sites, photographing them, and printing them large in an attempt to take them out of the economy of journalism, which is how we see them small on a screen. So by presenting them large, I hope that they can be in conversation with painting.

Joachim Pissarro: So you’re looking at these effigies of the Civil War. It’s interesting that they were not created right after the Civil War but in the1920s and '30s during the loaded era of reconstructing the past. Already, that's one layer of history. And then recently, some of the monuments, not all of them, have been removed. That's what you are looking at, right? This removal. But they don't disappear.

Hector René: No. The Southern Poverty Law Center did a 40-page report where they discussed what you're talking about. Immediately following the Civil War, the South could not afford to build monuments to a lost war. So many of these monuments were built in Jim Crow era and in the Civil Rights era. As communities of color were gaining more rights, it was a way for the state to tell them not get too comfortable. So these flags, these monuments, these plaques, these schools, these public spaces were all named after the Confederacy and the Confederate leaders. I'm interested in how the state represents itself to itself.

Joachim Pissarro: Looking at everyone's practice here, I think what you share is a refusal of binaries, of simplifications, of false truth, lies and the super oversimplified. I want to expand, to go back, to our circle. Obviously, what you're talking about through your work resonates deeply. I wondered whether you’ve spoken to each other about each other's practice?

Hector René: Not at length. Just in classes briefly.

T. Elliott Mansa: Yeah. And I think when I came in, you were working with military vanitas. And I was working on collage vanitas.

Hector René: Yeah.

Joachim Pissarro: Really? So you guys do have quite a bit in common. Wouldn't you agree?

T. Elliott Mansa: Yep.

Hector René: Yeah.

Joachim Pissarro: I love the fact that you come from Central America. And T. Elliott comes from Florida, with the Southern origins. You’re both looking at the history, the present of these histories that are compounded and tend to repeat themselves. But you are taking either a detour, not unlike Rachelle, through West Africa and looking at what the early African histories through tribal practices, the spiritual sculptures, may have had to do with living the day-to-day circumstances. How do they get enacted in your practice?

T. Elliott Mansa: Well, in a way, they work as metaphor because I'm very aware that I don't want to necessarily appropriate or be disrespectful to what these objects are made for, their sacredness. Let me rewind a little bit. I'm not using natural things in my work. I'm using things from industrial culture, from mass-produced objects. So the power that I'm deconstructing is, to a degree, class-based and tied to the ruling class. But I had this change when I traveled to Benin. I traveled to Benin to attend the Ouidah Voodoo Festival. So I'm very aware that we are very limited as far as to how we appreciate this work. It's very much taken completely out of context when we see them in a museum. You know?

Also, there's the kind of vernacular. There's Southern Africanism, if you may, where there's a lot of yard sculpture and a kind of making that comes from outside of the White Cube. It’s remaking itself or reestablishing itself in a new context. For example, a friend of mine went to a breakdancing competition, b-boying. There was a very one-to-one relationship between ceremony of dancing and these guys breakdancing. You know what I mean? There are certain things that are passed along almost subconsciously or through collective memory, I guess.

Joachim Pissarro: I'm really struck. I mean, look at the six of you. I don't think I've found myself in a group of artists that represent every corner of the world. You are representing so many different diverse cultures, civilizations, and issues. What’s even more surprising, that in a bizarre way, whether we talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or about the caste system in India or about the lack of comprehension of complexities of the Hawaiian Chinese Polynesian world and so and so forth, that you all are articulating the complexities and the contradictions, the inner conflicts, of the worlds you came from in ways that are really resonating with each other. I find this really fascinating.

So I'd like to turn back to Zac again. If I may push, put a little tougher questions to each of you, if that's okay. You are referring to another conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that is also current and ongoing and it seems unsupressable, unsortable. All of you have said that in different ways, that you're not politicians, you're not doing social justice. You are artists, and you're articulating issues that are on the margins of all these spheres, but you're doing it through your own art. I'm not asking you whether your work solves the problem or the conflict, but how do you see the relationship of your work on the margins of this endemic conflict, if that makes any sense?

Zac Hacmon: The first time I see that there's some kind of common ground that everyone talks about: identity and how it's been generated in different states by different circumstances of architecture or posters or objects or statues, for example.

Zac Hacmon: Symbols.

Hector René: Geography.

Zac Hacmon: I do find it interesting to talk about identity. Regarding my question and my project, it's funny because this sculpture I'm making, the checkpoint, I made it three years ago when I had just moved to New York, after the war between Israel and Gaza in 2013. So I made this maquette as a response to the war. It's funny that now after three years, I decided to take it out of the drawer to make it and find it's still relevant, even though my work has shifted since then. The maquette has more colors. I was exploring more forms. Yet I decided to go back to this project and make it real.

It's hard to explain whether I'm politician or not, activist or not, because reality's more complex than those questions. It's beyond us. So I feel like time can be seen differently by artists. It's important for me to make this project regardless of when the time is. I think of it as some kind of evidence of something that is far from us, at the border. Something that only a few people have access to. So it's important for me to bring it to the center. It’s ironic to bring it to New York, to the gallery, to the White Cube.

Hector René: Zac, you made me think about something. You said after three years, it's curious that the piece still relevant… but I’m not so sure. I think it's now more relevant now than at the time that you made it.

When you made it, you were almost a predictor of things that were to happen globally. But, now, there's more a sense of urgency. As artists we're all just mirrors of the time in which we exist, and now, there's this flash point. We're not fortune tellers. But maybe people around the world are becoming more conscious and aware, more critical as viewers and lookers. And maybe that has something to do with why your piece is more relevant three years later. When you first made it, maybe it wasn't the appropriate place or time or space for it.

Zac Hacmon: Thanks for adding that. I would never have imagined that the idea to build a wall between the US and Mexico would be on the table. I’ve only thought about how to remove the wall between Palestine and Israel, and now, it's becoming a model to replicate. Where's next after the US and Mexico? Is that the future, conquered walls? So maybe this realization also affects the decision-making in this work.

Joachim Pissarro: It's interesting. You each have a practice immersed in a vision of history that is very present, very actual, very real, and yes, simply painful. Yet you are artists as well, and there's a certain amount of fun and humor. In Madhini’s work, the goat is a rather gentle, innocent, dumb animal that the city thinks it's fine. Look at this giant, red fruit, it’s something we want to taste. There's something very sensual about it, but both of you and Rachelle are talking about very, very tough realities. So I'm wondering about the disjunction or that almost contradiction or that contrast between fun, happy, sensual things, and the realities that you're describing are no fun at all?

Madhini Nirmal: In India — I'm sure that this practice is not just specific to India — it's common that when somebody dies, you play loud music and you dance. You don't dance that way when somebody's born. You don't dance that way at a wedding. However you do drink, and you play music, and you dance on the world when somebody dies. So, as my mom always says, you just have to look at the positive side and just try to be happy. That's what I'm trying to do in my work. Mikhail Bakhtin uses this idea of the carnival, and he associates it with the lower class, trying to reverse this sense of power by acting out, laughing and eating at the carnival feast. Eating way too much and just making merry. For me humor and trying to produce happiness is a way of living through and fighting against oppression.

Joachim Pissarro: It's amazing that you mentioned Bakhtin. An author I really, really love his work. How about you, Rachelle? How do you respond? Do you see what I see as contrast within your work? How do you respond to it? Red fruits and the shapes that you have on the floor, they're very appealing in some ways, no?

Rachelle Dang: Oh, I agree. This discussion of the sensual and the political resonates with me because I keep trying to use materials to create a sensory environment. Take the sensual handling of materials and go different places with it. When you came to my studio, seeing the red fruits taken out of the mold and made to appear rotting, I was very glad you said that they looked like skulls. Part of me wants to go to a very dark place, and then part of me retracts a bit.

I'm very glad that tension is there, that the work can go to that very dark history of the Pacific. But there’s also are some very luscious things there. There's a kind of luscious sensuality of the copper or the texture of the fruit or their mineral color or the gesture of the hand. So I agree that tension is a rich place. I want to be able to talk about both things because they are both evident in the Pacific. There's that luscious sensory environment to live in, but a very, very complex difficult history.

Joachim Pissarro: In all four of your practices, I see what I would call the factor of absurdity. And absurdity maybe is not humorous, but it provokes a reaction that makes you want to run away from it, but also to laugh it off, to react. What's absurd is crazy, and what's crazy is laughable in some degree.

So it's not a light touch of humor. T. Elliott, you’re looking at the craziness of our deeply divided racial society through the agency of  ... Benin, one of my favorite, … I know you can't use the word “art” for these very beautiful objects. But I'm completely aware of what you were describing.

T. Elliott Mansa: I think they're very much art because I think that's a kind of colonial thing, the primitive and the unsophisticated.

That's one of those things that's very aesthetic. If you're dancing and you're practicing dancing, it's not like you're unaware. Or if you're making something and you want it to be of great value. These people are makers. These people are artists, but their technology is spiritual. Our technology is material, and it's very much a part of all of our lives. The spiritual reality is very much a part of their lives. So it's definitely art because we're giving ourselves agency and stripping exterior culture of its role as “definer,” if that makes sense.

So it’s like stripping the power from who decides whether something going to be classified as anthropological or ethnographic. This idea of putting European art history here and everything else there is something I completely 100% reject. It’s part of my agency to reject it.

Joachim Pissarro: The “Primitivism” show at MoMA in 1984[1]. Yeah, I completely get it.

T. Elliott Mansa: I also want to inform modernism. You know what I mean? It's just so much more than our kind of limited, purely visual sensory experiences. I want to tap into something more expansive, and spread this belief that the universe is much more rich and expansive and spiritual.

Joachim Pissarro: I'd like to hear from the rest of you as well. My take on each of your practices, all different, is that you show a certain residual of sensuality. It’s the epitome of absurdity in Zac’s work. Where's the exit and where's the entrance point, and where's the dominance and the dominated. Whatever the binaries are disappear in your work because there is no exit or entry point. It's this circularity that I find beautiful in some ways.

Zac Hacmon: When I start a project, I deal with the idea, with the concept, and then it generates aesthetics. Beauty is something you generate, you can recreate. So in contemporary society, beauty is a checkpoint because you are so used to seeing it. It's not flowers. It's the metal industrial language, the beauty of industry. Maybe that's what comes out from my work. I'm interested in the malfunctioning of the functioning system. That also may generate humor, but it's not intentional.

Justin Cloud: If we're all engaging in absurdity in a way, I think back to something Hector said about us being mirrors. We're only reacting to our absurd situation. Sometimes it takes creating another absurd situation for us to recognize just how absurd our situation actually is. This happens all the time in fiction and movies, especially speculative fiction or science fiction: We watch something, and even though it's completely made up and it's all fantasy, it is damning to show how actually messed up the times are. So I think absurdity is something to be tapped right now.

Hector René: Unlike fiction or movies in theater, in reality, our disbelief is not suspended. So the absurdity comes in where we're almost appalled by it. I'm not sure that I would use that word to describe my intention. When I think about the absurdity in this project that I'm working on, I think about the absurdity of the public sculpture or the monument and the great task that it has with representing some absolute truth. It's made of concrete or steel or bronze, this thing that's supposed to outlast lifetimes, like the human span of life, and I think that's absurd.

In the research that I've done for the thesis, there's a scholar who's an expert on the monument. His name is Kirk Savage, and he teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. He discusses how the world changes around the monument. It's not the monument that changes but the ideas it represents fall out of favor, as we become more informed viewers or a public. For me, I think that's the entry point of the absurdity in the work that I'm making. We can look at this sculpture and ask just does figure now represent this community at large? It can't. It doesn't. And that's absurd, but I'm not sure that there's much space for humor.

I love stand-up comedy because great comedians have a way of discussing really painful and difficult things so that I can consume them. So I can listen to a good stand-up comic, a jester, a joker, and think, "Wow, I'm now able to empathize with that experience, even though I have not experienced it myself, because you made me laugh, and you humanized it and made it consumable."

Joachim Pissarro: I can't wait to see your shows. Can't wait to see each one of your works and how they resonate with each other, because I'm sure they're going to. It's going to be a very powerful ... Thank you.


1. "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. September 27, 1984–January 15, 1985