Starting from scratch: Aaron Moulton talks to Carson Chan
Aaron Moulton has been curator of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art since 2012, where he recently initiated the Utah Biennial. He meets with Carson Chan Executive Curator of the Biennial of the Americas in Denver, to discuss the challenges of a regional context, the legacy of land-art, and collaborating with Mormons in the Mountain West.
CARSON CHAN: You worked in Berlin for five years. In an art center like that with a large art-interested population, the boon, and bane, for exhibition makers is that one doesn't necessarily need to think about context or audience. What was the biggest challenge in moving to Salt Lake City to work as a curator at UMoCA, and finding a completely new context where you don't have the built-in audience?
AARON MOULTON: In Berlin everything’s already in place in terms of people’s vocabularies and awareness of practices, whereas in Utah, the general conception or expectation of contemporary art can tend to be very medium- and genre-specific. Trying to impose quality or criteria for relevance is challenging if not altogether seen as elitist. On top of that, there’s not much precedence for contemporary art here in terms of an art history. There are these hiccups like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), or other glints of avant-garde activities in the 70s and 80s. In this respect anything you bring has likely never been brought here before. The challenge is how do you get people interested if it subverts their expectations or upsets their comfort zone? I try to work with ideas, artists and art that has a binaried sensibility in how we can enter it, i.e. do a show about looking between gender duality, but do it through an exhibition about figuration. One of the biggest pitfalls of the regional curator is to overlook the local or to merely import trends that are echoes of L.A. and New York. One has to start from scratch and respect the idea that any place is an art world with its own parameters and conditions and then figure out how these places interlace according to the most advanced practices you discover.
CHAN: Smithson’s Jetty created a uniquely global moment for this community. How does the massive attention brought on by one work figure into a relatively small scene?
MOULTON: While the Spiral Jetty is an icon and a blessing for any cultural community, it is an issue; Smithson was a transient, he passed through, made a mark and left. Now, whenever anyone thinks about contemporary art and Utah in the same sentence, they think about the Spiral Jetty. If an international art audience comes here it’s to see this piece, and it hinders them from seeing what’s beyond that locally. At the same time, the international perception of Utah has changed dramatically in the last two years because of Mitt Romney and the recent presidential elections creating this »Mormon moment«. People are fascinated with the religion but with superficial awareness, for the purely exotic nature of it. There are very specific cultural conditions here: Mormonism, the polarities that creates, the landscape, the city’s geographic isolation. Things are in a vacuum, they develop their own language, so I think a lot of artists gravitate towards gestures about understanding themselves in relationship to the land by conceptualizing the landscape – something of a third or fourth generation land art. And then there are others that are instrumentalizing their LDS (Latter Day Saints) or the post-LDS experience as a material.
CHAN: The other day, you pointed out to me the well-dressed, well-groomed Mormons, and then the people with face tattoos and neck piercings – the people that very visibly want to be disassociated with the Mormon status quo. As a curator, what are the challenges and limitations of working within a somewhat polarized social and ideological context?
MOULTON: There are many unsaid rules that aren’t even interesting to break, because they’re not a part of what’s interesting about contemporary art today. Sacrilege and penetration are off the table, but why would anyone bother with that anyways? It’s too obvious. And yet it’s important to figure out a way to not let this compromise anything you do. I think there’s typically a fear when contemporary art and religion are in the same sentence, that it’s going to court controversy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is an important demographic that we need to get in the door, and who we need to get genuinely interested in contemporary art. Their members make up half the population. We showed Christian Jankowski’s Casting Jesus (2011), which instilled that apprehension as one might expect ridicule or parody. It’s based on a reality contest staged by the artist and shot at the Vatican with Vatican specialists who select a Jesus from thirteen contestants. Jankowski made a smart film that questions the criteria used to define the face of divinity, set in the holiest of official stages. It caught a lot of people off-guard; it made them question this often hermetic and now seemingly transparent situation. The film didn’t end with the church looking foolish, but rather gave what you expected: a winner, a Jesus.
CHAN: Many current strategies in art rely on doubt, cynicism and incomplete truths, and that seems almost the opposite of faith. You mentioned the Jankowski film, but is there a more general way of thinking about this overlap where contemporary art and a Mormon context could really co-exist? How can you espouse the cynicism of contemporary art embracing the sincerity of Mormonism?
MOULTON: I think it’s funny you say that today’s art is built on doubt. I think it’s typical that people see art as a sham or a scam, or a lie; the Duchamp urinal specifically or contemporary art generally, when it doesn’t form fit to their visual literacy. Contemporary art strategies happening today are very research- and faith-oriented. We showed Guido van der Werve’s video Number 9 (2007), where he turns on Earth’s axis at the North Pole. A local critic commented »Who does this guy think he’s fooling?« He wasn’t willing to give the integrity of the project any weight because it fell outside his perception or frame of reference. Contemporary art is as much about faith as it is about doubt. It’s about how we create these faith systems where issues of value are difficult to justify or maintain until they reach a rare cult status within visual culture. From its most basic origins art has been a vehicle for spirituality and this is part of how we determine its value for culture. In a religious context much of the value and faith is automatically assumed by the worshippers in a way that makes its questioning within or without difficult. In art we are constantly questioning the validity of gestures, the truth behind research, the market’s ebb and flow and so it is this continual questioning happening throughout ….
CHAN: You made an exhibition in a ghost town not far from Salt Lake City. The whole point of the exhibition is that no one sees it, that it exists only in documentation. You’ve enlisted artists like Cyprien Gaillard, Constant Dullaart, Nedko Solakov, Lawrence Weiner and Mike Bouchet – could you tell me about the genesis of this project?
MOULTON: The exhibition is Each Memory Recalled Must Do Some Violence to Its Origins, and it’s based on a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road (2006). The main character tries to convey to his son the beauty of civilization, now lost through his memory’s fleeting grip. The process of remembering destroys the memory by boiling it down to core symbols and sentimental residues. I wanted to make an exhibition that dealt with the parameters of how value systems are created. I’m interested in how the Jetty is this totally known object that is present in our collective mind, and yet for 99 percent it exists as a jpeg and will never be experienced in the flesh. Does that matter? Maybe not. The exhibition embraces a certain condition, maybe a futility of existence, a gesture that no one will physically see. Each civilization appreciates its art and creates these climate-controlled chapels for protecting it in timeless aspic. I’m fascinated by what would happen if that all just broke down and fell apart and how quickly priceless turns to worthless. When Iraq was invaded the museums were the first to get looted. The thieves took items that were priceless icons representing the history of mankind, items that became immediately worthless. They can’t be hocked on any market but they still stole them. What does that quick ideological shift mean? A show in a ghost town, in an unstable environment where it would last forever, where no one but an accidental public would find it was really about the potential futility of that situation as a gift.
CHAN: How did you come across this ghost town?
MOULTON: I went ghost town hunting for the months of June and July in 2012. There are websites dedicated to them but many of the archived images are not accurate anymore. Locations get razed for strip mining or just sucked into the earth. I went to many weird places, and then I found this one. It was perfect.
CHAN: What was the process of inviting the artists?
MOULTON: I invited all the artists to either $50 of production costs where they would provide instructions to make the piece on site, or I would pay for a FedEx, and they’d send me a non-returnable object. Everything has been installed there forever. It was important that these projects embraced the overall condition as a medium and context. The result resembles someone’s personal universe, like the Unabomber or Bigfoot or some hobo shaman. The projects connected various ideas of art history stretching from entropic formalism to trajectories of the mark from Lascaux to William Anastasi and Piotr Uklański.
CHAN: I know you don’t want to disclose the town’s precise location, but could you describe the house and its surroundings?
MOULTON: It’s in a pretty remote location in central Utah, about two hours from Salt Lake City. There were some 17,000 Danes that migrated to Utah in the late 1800s. From what I’m told, it was believed that the end of the world was coming and this was the place to be when it happened. So this house, this home, was likely constructed by Danish settlers and abandoned sometime before the 1950s. It’s a five-room house falling apart on different sides of it. The architecture is not a consistent square, but more of a jigsaw form grown like a strange favela. Inside is very simple, great wallpaper with weird stains.
CHAN: You mentioned that you wanted to respond to the history of land art. This project exists now in this ghost town where no one can find it, except for you. It exists also as a video documentation on YouTube, that anyone can access. I like the parallel to this Smithson idea of the site/non-site. The fact that there’s a real location involved, but the way that we experience and register a real location is in a non-site situation. For Miwon Kwon, land art, historically, doesn’t exist without its documentation. There is a thin divide between it being there and not. One of your recent shows at UMoCA deals with this kind of analog digital divide. Can you tell me a bit about this exhibition?
MOULTON: Analogital was the name of the exhibition. I have to give a lot of credit to the relationship you and I developed in Berlin and to the generation that we were working with. There are dozens of shows dealing with memes, simulacra, recursion and whatnot. I wanted to have something that was more of a macro view of the entirety and felt that it made sense to look at this transitional space between analog and digital and the generation that it speaks to. We’ve been talking about this 89plus generation that Hans Ulrich Obrist and curator Simon Castets recently called out, but the generation before that, which includes us, maybe stretching back to the late 60s, are people who have had to embrace everything from the devolution or evolution of what image-making has become as we move from icons to archetypal templates and lose nostalgia for the icon itself. Technological interfaces have shifted us from a first-hand experience of reality to a second-hand one through social networking media. How has this evolution of perception affected the human experience? From an industry level this topic is weirdly rooted in Utah, this is the Silicon Valley of the Mountain West. Adobe was founded here, Pixar evolved out of the experiments at the University of Utah School for Computing, specifically with the »Utah Teapot« – an early 3D teapot meme that we presented in the exhibition.
CHAN: For better or worse, the Venice Biennale has created a sense of internationalism in contemporary art. What would the Utah Biennial produce in terms of a cultural framework that the rest of the world can identify with or learn from?
MOULTON: I’m very nostalgic at the end of the day. I pine for a pre-Schengen Europe. I really enjoy when art, based on borders and parameters, demands a level of literacy akin to learning a new language. The beauty of art is its ability to be a babelfish for deciphering various cultures. The biennial is about the world of Utah, profiling lost icons, cultural ghosts, and parallel art worlds by using folklore to describe contemporary art and vice versa. Whether those subjects have any immediate value to the globalized art world is a tricky question.
CHAN: It’s conceived like the anti-biennial. Many cities around the world, from large metropolitan places to very small places, produce biennial exhibitions to give themselves an international face, and it sounds like you’re perhaps interested in doing that to a degree, but also very much interested in producing the opposite – to advance a local discourse, regardless of what the international audience might think.
MOULTON: I never studied anthropology in school, but I’ve always been interested in an enthnographic approach. Art can prove itself most useful if it can be applied or have a use-value for culture outside of the art world context.
CHAN: Can you tell me about this religious organization that you’re including in the biennial?
MOULTON: Summum are an informal gathering akin to a religious organization, started by Corky Ra in the 70s. He was former LDS. In addition to blessing all of its members with the potential to become an earpiece of God, the symbolic language of the LDS church is loaded with the language of freemasonry with roots stretching back to Egypt. Contacted by a higher being in 1975, Corky was told to create Summum, the sum total of religions. They have a pyramid over by the highway, 8th West and 8th South, and they celebrate all religions. They’re quite well known for practicing a contemporary form of mummification. They look at the mummiform, or burial casket, as the Egyptians did, i.e. a vehicle of transference to get to the next level of existence. For the biennial, we’re presenting something like a Summum pavilion based on their booth from the American Funeral Director Fairs in the 80s. The group was a star attraction. Two of the organization’s heads are acting funeral directors so they are qualified to do what they do. Their mummification practice can connect visually with contemporary sculpture and yet they weren’t originally intended to be sculpture at all. It comes back to this enduring function of art as a vehicle for spirituality.
CHAN: At the Mormon information center painting and installation play a huge part in conveying religious doctrine. One is led through a series of chronological paintings told in the Mormon narrative, then ends up in a large dome painted to mimic outer space with a large statue of Jesus towering overhead, and the voice of God playing through the PA system. I wonder if art could evoke the same kind of faith, vision and worldview as these organizations.
MOULTON: I don’t know, I’m not a subscriber to any religion and all of my faith goes into believing in art, but they all, art included, depend on varying forms of theatrics, spectacle, storytelling, leaps of faith and entertainment. At the end of the day, I think that in each case what they’re successful at doing is opening your mind to see where things could go in terms of cerebral possibilities that reference the sublime or just visual splendor situations. Enter Olafur Eliasson.
CHAN: I was just going to say James Turrell.
MOULTON: The back of the Mormon Tabernacle next to the information center is washed with slowly shifting multi-colored lights just like Eliasson. It’s pure scenography; it works.
CHAN: The same strategy, basically.
MOULTON: I get the most energy and excitement from ideas born out of cynicism. I made this spoof newspaper a couple years back and our tagline was »Embracing the Futility of the Medium«. We live in an age of many truths. Perception is reality. The center of the art world is always credited as being London, Berlin, Paris, New York. But if administered well enough in this day and age, anywhere can become a center of the art world. Infoganda in the art world has been en vogue ever since visibility became big. E-flux is its own art world based on that. This strategy has created considerable white noise. We no longer know where to look for the »good thing«, because everyone is promoting the good thing, and I like the idea that obscurity is one of the last viable currencies in our business.
CHAN: Is it really obscurity we’re talking about? Not plurality?
MOULTON: There’s something very attractive about not attempting to be pervasive. Outside of Utah, it will be hard to know about the biennial unless you look for it. The abandoned house is an exhibition that no one will find, even with a Google drop pin. However for the one who does, it will be like finding something special that’s buried. —
Aaron Moulton (*1978) is an art historian and curator at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City, where he has been based since 2012. His engagements have included working at Wrong Gallery, New York, on the magazine project Charley, as editor for Flash Art and AGMA, and running Feinkost gallery in Berlin from 2007–2010.
Carson Chan (*1980) is an architecture writer and curator, based in Berlin. In 2012, he curated the 4th Marrakech Biennale, currently he is Executive Curator of the Biennial of the Americas, opening in July in Denver, Colorado.