Anticultural Positions: the Flea Market of History
Paul Sietsema, Massimo Osanna, Eva Fabbris with a group of students from the University of Naples Federico II
Royal Mineralogical Museum in Naples, May 17, 2019
Excerpts of the transcription
Massimo Osanna: Good morning and welcome to Naples. I am delighted to be here today for this special event. This is the first seminar to be held at the Royal Mineralogical Museum in Naples—the ideal venue for performances and events straddling the ancient and the contemporary. Hence, we wanted this event featuring Los Angeles-based artist Paul Sietsema to be held here. This seminar is part of a cycle on cross-fertilization between the ancient and the contemporary world organized in collaboration with Andrea Viliani, the director of Madre Museum in Naples. The exhibition, which many of you may have seen, “Pompei@Madre” in 2017, was the starting point of this dialogue, which, I think, demonstrated that such a dialogue is possible. I am very happy to be here in this first stage, which Andrea Villiani and I consider “special commissions” for artists to create works or performances that would dialogue with antiquity.
I recall a text by Bice Curiger—who has often experimented with this contact between contemporary and, in her case, Baroque art—that points out how this contact is only possible if it is not trivialized. What does ‘trivialized’ mean in her discourse, and in my perspective too? For example, in an exhibition we could find a series of antique objects next to a work of contemporary art, and although potentially aesthetically fascinating, this comparison could be trivial in terms of content if not contextualized. The same can happen with an exhibition of contemporary works together with an ancient object, used only as a background or scenery. The right approach is to look at the two periods and cross-fertilize them because, as archeologists, we reflect on the meaning of time. And since time is transformation, to be faithful to this continuous dimension of change, our cultural tool is cross-fertilization between past and present.
As physicists have taught us, time is not a linear element that scans the present, the past, and the future. These categories do not exist beyond our conception of them. Time is movement, transformation, and hence cross-fertilization. It is of vital importance, and this is also one of the reasons we study antiquity. In addition to our duties of protection and conservation, we reflect on the meaning of antiquity in our contemporary civilization and, above all, on what antiquity tells us, what it arouses in us, what emotions and reflections it brings in our daily lives.
During Modernity, we have clearly understood that each generation reworks its vision of the past. Earlier today, for example, I was at a conference where I was talking about the fortunes of Neapolitan competitive sports in the 1920s. In that period, the debate on antiquity was completely different from today’s approach, as it was undermined by national spirit. It is clear that our approach cannot be the same today. This very simple example makes us realize how fundamental it is to lucidly reflect on the relationship between past and present, with the awareness that our reflections are also subject to movement and transformation. In this process of understanding, the dialogue with artists helps us immensely because they have a view from “the other side of the fence”, which is, first and foremost, necessarily different from ours. As you will see, this seminar will touch a series of points on which we have always reflected in our research with students, among them, for example, the “materiality” of objects. Paul Sietsema has reflected a great deal on this aspect, also through the medium of photography and film. He offers us visions that can subsequently be observed, acknowledged, and perceived by us based on our own experience. The comparison between his approach as an artist and our methodology as archeologists, in this encounter today, is a subject to be pondered over, worked on, and discussed.
I am pleased to see that there are students, undergraduates, and doctoral students from Federico II University, not only from the archaeology degree courses but also architects and art historians, who will undoubtedly be inspired by this discussion.
I hope you will enjoy the seminar.
I shall now give the floor to its curator.
Eva Fabbris: Good morning, everyone, and thank you, Prof. Osanna, for being here today. I shall start by thanking Andrea Viliani, director of Madre Museum, the enthusiastic creator of this project, Madrescenza Seasonal School, which involves the idea of establishing—not only through exhibitions and events within the museum—a multidisciplinary comparison between what is produced and what is thought in the context of visual arts in the strictest contemporary sense but also investigating the contexts in which knowledge is created, such as post-graduate schools, universities, academies, and conservatories.
Paul Sietsema is a fantastic figure for such a comparison with the archeological context. As we will see and discuss in his work, common issues can be found with the methodology pertaining to the archeological discipline of excavation. Furthermore, an analysis of what it means to present an object to the public is at the center of his practice: the implications of anthropological musealization, the inclusion of an artifact in the cognitive data receiving flow, moving it from its historicized dimension… these themes are at the center of Sietsema’s production.
We shall start by looking at the work that is perhaps the closest to the issues that are being discussed today, entitled Figure 3 (2008). This is Paul’s third celluloid film, made for his solo exhibition at SFMoMa in San Francisco in 2008. As you will see, it enacts the representation of the “artifact”, which, in Western culture, is defined as any work that derives from an intentional transformative process by a human being. In this film, and generally in his practice, Sietsema observes the phases in which an object transits from its original use to an unexpected, mainly modern, dynamic by means of which—through the eyes of the archeologist, the researcher, the anthropologist — it is directed towards collections, the market, and musealization. It’s this transition that makes it part of the collective imagination, nourishing our ability to imagine and describe the essence of the otherness, of a geographical, historical, sociological elsewhere.
We shall then speak in detail of what models and activities have led to these images that we are about to see. First, you must know that these are not original artifacts. The artifacts depicted in the film were made by Paul, who imagined and studied materials that could allude visually and tactilely to a kind of materiality that can coincide with the dynamic of ‘musealization’ I was mentioning. Anthropological photography, museum display methodology, and documentary film provide the aesthetic models for these objects presented in Figure 3. Initially, only fragments are visible, and then a straight, dry sequence switches between abstract close-ups and far figurative shots. In this way, the sculptural space of the re-made artifacts blends with cinematic space, which is no longer representative.
Paul Sietsema: I worked to this film from 2003 to 2008. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles, where the Hollywood entertainment industry is everywhere, and so is capitalism. It is very interesting for me to be here because you don’t have the same kind of feeling of being crushed by capitalism as you do in Los Angeles. I mean, it is my first impression. So when I was working with film, particularly in 1996-2010, I was interested in building a space that somehow eluded advertising or commerce. I think it was less about consumption and more about the expression of the need for a kind of contemplation, or a more relaxed mode and reaction to things. Something I’ve noticed now, ten years later, is that the speed of media is so intense. In fact, what I notice now, more than ten years after I made this film, is how intense the speed of the mass media is.
Watching this film can be an interesting experience because it is very slow. But the film itself came about when I was having my first shows in the US. I had been invited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Reina Sofia in Madrid, and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco – museums with important Modern collections – to do solo exhibitions. While organizing them it occurred to me that whenever I wanted to show an artwork of mine, conservators would come in and check light levels. I would not be allowed to touch some of the pieces that I had just made because they were now part of museum collections and thus became rarefied objects. For me it was very disturbing because I felt like they were contemporary productions, that is, they were what I was making at the time and were relevant to me. But they were being considered and taken up in a sort of timeless realm and becoming artifacts. I felt a distance from myself, and from the people looking at them in the museum, because they were given a very special environment to exist which was very specific to museology and that surprised me. This particular feeling became part of the film.I put myself in the position of a sort of a-chronic maker outside time and a maker who is not coming from a single culture. I started collecting images of objects that I found interesting, began taking lots of books to my studio and doing online research and that sort of thing. I started putting things together, making a hybrid with different objects that I found: some of them were very specific some of them were very general.
So, everything you see in the film is something that I made from raw materials and then shot on film, collected in the film, and then presented this way. The idea is that it is entirely my art direction, choices, and formalism, but I also like to think they are authorless and timeless.
You also need to consider that I really enjoyed seeing it here, in this space. It’s extremely gratifying for me, amazing, though it is originally meant to be shown in white cubes, modern museums. There is therefore a contrast between the ideal and modernist exhibition space and the content of the film, which here at the Royal Mineralogical Museum in Naples takes a new and further significant turn. Before the screening I would like to add a final observation on the choice of using film as a medium, and on the relationship that this choice has with the discipline of anthropology. I am sure you have very specific knowledge about anthropology. My goal was to make all the objects from materials that are currently used in the field of study and laboratory related to anthropology. I was very interested in materiality, and the fact that the film material is a chemical emulsion on plastic. So these objects have a material nature linked to the materiality of the film and also, I believe, to the materiality of recording and reproduction, anthropology and photography in general.
[Screening of Figure 3, 2008]
Student 1: Paul Sietsma said he was particularly interested in making and filming objects of any kind, from any culture. As we have seen, they are very generic in terms of formal and material reference: either from more specific cultures or, sometimes, just vessels without wanting to look for a particular form. But in the film, we have also seen fragments, ceramic fragments for example. So I’m wondering if and how much his interest lies in the fragmented nature of these items, other than their appearance as whole entities.
MO: I would say his insistence is not so much on the fragment but instead on the obsolescence because, as Eva said, they are all fragmented or recomposed for the camera. This is very interesting.
Student 2: Yes, fragmented or recomposed by the artist himself. He has placed a great deal of emphasis on the concept of materiality and the materials he used to make the vessels, using a variety of them. At the same time, he also wanted to take an anthropological approach. For example, he told us he used special powders to darken specific details, which is a way to emphasize the representation of obsolescence.
One thing he added that has echoed to this made-up darkness is that this venue where we’ve just watched Figure 3 is an ideal place to show it, especially due to its darkness, in contrast with today’s contemporary museums, which, as we know, tend to be white boxes. To put it very briefly, he wanted to emphasize materiality and attempt to blend photography, anthropology, and the concept of the film, and screening it here seems like a further step in his reflections on contexts for showing artifacts.
Student 3: My question is an impression about some of the frames since it was as if the object was inside the environment, but in some remarkable close-ups, the object was the environment. In films, you usually re-surround the objects, but, in this case, it was precisely the opposite. Especially the vessels, inspected so much in detail, look like geographic maps. But also with other objects… I think it was a basket with ropes or something similar that, in some shots, looks like crop fields in a painting. It reminds me of Van Gogh. The impression was like we were no longer looking at a movie or a photo but at an environment, an open environment, or a painting.
MO: I want to hear your ideas about it, Paul. I was also very interested in the slowness of the images. The analysis is very detailed, the attention to the fragment, the breaks, and then to the cup, the vessel… This detailed description is only in black and white for a long time, but suddenly there are these warm colors.
This was very interesting. My impression, what I was perceiving, is that this attention to the object, to the materiality, the obsolescence of a timeless object finishes in a crack, in an eruption. This is really like an eruption in Pompeii. Then all this materiality disappears and is recreated in a new way because of the second life of Pompeii. I think there is also a reflection about the second life of an object. You also spoke about the social life of something that is a very interesting topic for us. A second life could be in the museums, in a private collection, or even in your mind.
I saw money, coins with the spoon. It was like a flea market—this presentation of the objects in different contexts was very different from the original context. I remember, for example, a wonderful book by a great German writer, W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, in which he described in a town, Theriesenstadt, the showcases of an antique shop with old objects that had remained after the Holocaust. They were shown with different associations, very different from their original life. He’s thinking about the strange life of the object. Very strange if you compare it with the life of human beings. Humans disappear, and the objects continue to survive with other lives. I perceived all this in your movie, from my point of view of course, and suddenly this intervention of the natural catastrophe: the eruption is red, and then the new life of the object. This is my perception. But I would like to know about yours.
PS: Yeah, this is interesting. I read Sebald while I was making this. It is one of the books, along with many others, that I was looking at.
It is interesting and strange for me to be in an academic setting again, because I have spent a lot of time trying not to think too specifically about what I was doing, since I work using my intuition. It is interesting when it gets dissected; it is a different space. I avoid thinking a lot about this. In fact, I spend a lot of time trying not to think about it.
Let’s start from the attention you bring out towards the part of the films that I call “the burns”: bright yellows and reds that you visually and philosophically associate with the eruption in Pompeii.
The film was made using black and white and color film. When using this technique, it is possible to mount pieces of different films shot at different times and on different supports (for example also on color film) in a single reel, a single unitary product. Assembling in this way is like collecting images for a book and then inserting them into the different pages to create a whole made of different visual elements. There are black and white images that are shot in color as well, which is why you see the colored burns superimposed on the black and white images. My aim was to highlight the existence of another harvesting technique. It was a way to emphasize things in the context in which they are presented. The orange and red burns are caused by daylight eating film. When you take the film out of the camera, the daylight hits the film and basically eliminates the chemistry, and so goes to clear film. I like this because it isn’t just the images or something; it is a physical reaction: it is chemical, a real material thing.
My intention with this piece, with the film, was not to make objects. That is, I didn’t want to put more objects in the world. It is a position I think I have had for a long time. I wanted to be an architect for a while, so I studied architecture, but I decided I didn’t want to put new buildings in the world. It just didn’t seem like such a great thing to do. Now I realize I would have been extremely lucky to add a new building in the world if I were an architect because it does not usually happen for architects. Anyway, the objects were made, and many of the methods of making them involved destructive tendencies, so in making the vessels, I made a form out of concrete and then put vaseline on the concrete—grease basically— and then poured concrete once more and broke it off, so they were these sort of impossible things. They were these giant chunks of concrete that I had to break to get off and then glue together to make.
That was a very physical activity involving destruction in the making.
And once these objects are shot for the films, they are not kept around anymore, so the objects disappear, and it is a sort of… well, I don’t know if you could call it memory, but it is the image of these things and the particular way which I made them that carries forward. And so I like to think that you have all these things in your memory – all these objects made for the film, and your understanding of them coincides with their back-story.
I studied cultural anthropology for a short while at the University of California in Berkeley, and there was an interesting professor who was a cultural anthropologist from Harvard. He studied contemporary cultures carefully, how an anthropologist would study a culture from the past.
EF: The second film we’re screening today answers to the observations of the last student who intervened commenting about the relationship between an object and its context, comparing it to a sort of ‘visualization’ of its visual and cultural background in Figure 3. You are going to watch a film produced in 2009, titled Anticultural Positions. It was presented as a lecture at the New School in NY. The artist decided not to be present, not to give a speech on his work in such an important venue, but to have this film presented.
As you will see, it alternates images and text. The text is a re-elaboration of a conference that Jean Dubuffet gave in 1951 at The Arts Club in Chicago.
The images that you see have a lot of similarities with these ambiguous appearances that we’ve also mentioned concerning the images from Figure 3. What is particularly interesting within the framework of our dialogue today is how this film is questioning the fluxes of cultural re-contextualization. With the archeological findings, the artifacts remade by Paul, the objects displayed in the showcase of the antique dealer in Theresienstadt, we are describing and discussing the second, the third, maybe the fourth life of objects, items, concepts. This same discourse is applied in the case of the film to the subject of authoriality itself. “Who is speaking”, “Who is painting” are not the real question raised by this work, but rather the real question concerns the contents—maybe the humanistic contents—that can be re-embraced, re-embodied, can be again the subject of our cultural responsibility from a different point of view.
[Screening of Anticultural Positions, 2009]
PS: The two films that we just saw were made close together in time. So to me, they’re almost the same piece; they’re so similar. The second film was made as a lecture to go along with Figure 3, so it relates specifically to it.
At that time I had gone to Madrid where I had visited the Reina Sofia museum in view of an exhibition of mine to do in its exhibition spaces. The museum has a collection with works by Mirò, many works by Lucio Fontana and other Abstraction components over many years with a strong material component, and the encounter with these works was a starting point for this film. In the images I created to do so, however, I was not interested in observing and commenting on the different eras to which important abstract paintings date back. Rather, I linked the experience of seeing these works with other ‘abstract’ traces that I happened to produce. When I make my films, I create sculptures made of very different materials and sometimes I paint them; the paint drips, material accretions, cut, scrapes and the other traces remain on my work tables and I leave them there.
Around the same time, I was asked to give a very extensive lecture with 500-600 people, and people had to pay 10 dollars to get in. It was something I’d never done before, and I wasn’t comfortable with it because it seemed less of an open structure. However, I was flattered that people wanted to hear about my work. Still, the most direct access I can give to my work, withouth showing it directly, would be the action of showing the remains of my works, of the making of my works, the leftover materials and the marks on the table from carving or chopping. It’s a very direct kind of structural truth that specifically doesn’t relate to spoken language. And in doing that, I was also interested in creating an archive of a particular era of painting by choosing composition and sections in my work table. In this project, I think these correlations are more intentional than in my previous projects.
MO: I have a question. You started with the title Anticultural. I understand why, but is this approach not cultural? What is culture? Culture is not a monolithic thing. It is something fluid, in continuous transformation and negotiation. It is deeply embedded in our society and, of course, in our biographies. So why anticulture?
PS: I agree that nothing that we perceive can escape culture. I think that recently, philosophical ideas such as “Speculative Realism” have provided space for the possibility of no culture. It foregrounds the object, and while humankind rises and falls and disappears, the object continues. It’s a philosophical position that tries to put human perception on the outside, which of course, is crazy if you think that philosophy is born within human perception. It’s an impossible conundrum.
The title comes from Jean Dubuffet. There is a sort of contradiction that I’m interested in, in relation to what culture is, and what is perceived as culture because I think that usually the most interesting aspects of culture are the ones that are just beneath conscious perception, the ones that come up later and you look back upon and understand. Modernist French artist Dubuffet wanted to escape or at least test the limits of cultural language. He experimented with intentionality, trying to erase from his production all aspects with linguistic value or language or form. I think what he called “anticultural” was a test to find at that time what the limits of language were. For me, and in thinking about anthropology, it is interesting. For example, when I am walking and pick up a rock that looks like an arrowhead, I wonder if it is an arrowhead or is it just a piece of rock that looks like an arrowhead. I wonder whether these are man-made objects, or just natural objects.
There was specific intentionality and production in modern times: if you make automobiles, everything is meant to be new. In modern art, in culture, the idea was turned to “newness” and looking into the future—everything was supposed to be new. At a certain point, I feel like this idea of production got wrapped up in the consumption of images and information, and hence you have a lot of formulating of new things coming from this re-appropriation, re-configuration, or collecting; and indeed, redistribution of older aesthetic images and bits of information. So the cultural moment for me is the dissonance, the difference between the language, the very pronounced, existential, and out-of-time language. There are many phrases that I wouldn’t use. It’s Dubuffet speaking, but it’s the appropriation of his voice as my own that I think is the anticultural moment. So, it seems to me the anticultural moment means not becoming an echo but appropriating and processing a system.
MO: I think it is impossible to escape from culture. You can understand culture in different ways but every approach we take is “culture”. You like ambiguity. In ambiguity, you can find reality. In the name of this ambiguity, you apply opposition to the form that we could define here abstraction, adhering to a cultural approach. So you select some parts of the table that you shoot to create a formless representation, but anyway, you give the possibility to the viewer to see forms. I saw skulls, I saw flowers, I saw different things…
EF: There are also actual objects appearing, like keys. When we watch the painted surfaces, we perform both interpretations and recognitions. We are in front of ambiguous facts and situations emerging from this surface.
MO: Anyway, in my opinion this is a very cultural approach. But of course, an intellectual approach that stems from your biography, from studying, from desire. You say, you write: “I like the desert, the white African desert, and from the desert, I take inspiration for this landscape.” This depends on your biography but also your culture.
PS: Yeah, but Dubuffet said that. It is not me claiming that, because I have never been there. I can say the same thing about something else because I share the beliefs. I agree with you. I guess I was trying to make a formulation like the make-up of the piece displaying the aspects of culture that have changed drastically. And to me, they were caused by the super loop of media. I used to be… when I was a child that space travel was the final frontier. It’s this idea of exploration and modern acceleration, you know. The astronauts used to discover new worlds, which have disappeared, and now we explore them in films. So instead of being in person, experiencing the environment, we are led into a sort of virtual, highly capitalist visual environment.
MO: This second film opens a much broader reflection on various aspects of our profession. For example, “what is culture”, starting from the title Anticultural. This question, and the different possible approaches to culture, is a recurring theme in the discussions with the students. We have formulated an answer that, after all, any approach is cultural, depending on what you mean by culture. Take the notion of beauty: beauty doesn’t exist. What exists is our perception, and we are the ones who give beauty to objects. So beauty can be in everything. The subject in the film says: there are no ugly objects, and there are no beautiful objects.
EF: Beauty does not lie in proportions.
Student 4 (and others): Beauty is not in the object, but in how we look at it, and not in its proportions.
MO: It also destroys a whole theory of harmony and beauty, classical, Greek. Think of the harmony of the Doryphoros, with its mathematical proportions in the distances between eyes, nose, mouth. All these body elements are proportioned and, therefore, they create beauty. Paul/Dubuffet eradicates this idea. It is a radical approach to the world we know and the beauty of what we know. I’d like to discuss this and understand your viewpoints on these aspects.
Student 4: You said at the very beginning that you choose materials that change over time, that change with light. I think it is a way of avoiding choosing. If everything is subject to change, looking like art is an ultimate option, including all possibilities. This is what you were trying to say regarding avoiding material culture, right?
PS: It’s my way of working specifically. The choices are very specific. That is very important to me: the idea of ephemerality, thinking about information, or just how culture changes. You know, it’s also ephemeral in my work. I have always wanted to catch the things that were outside the current focus of attention. So they are not correct for the current moment and are more easily lost in the stream with all the stuff out there. It’s the opposite of making: it’s more of an assertion, I’m not hiding, but it is something I believe in.
Student 5: The reflection on how beauty raises sounds very similar to the reflection we do as architects dealing with the conservation of cultural heritage. And I’m thinking of the theoretical positions of Alois Riegl in Modern Cult of Monuments, which first, together with the previous reflection of John Ruskin and William Morris on heritage, broke into the culture of restoration of the early twentieth century and began to relativize the value of the individual work of art. This came very much from their reflection around their contemporary artistic culture. The reflection on the object as a work of art, therefore, is always relative: it depends on our way of interiorizing the work of art, on the cultural approach of any given historical moment. It is not an objective, general vision. And the same is true for beauty.
Student 6: Are you are saying that restoration theory got to these themes first? Or did the discussion first originate in contemporary art and was then acquired by restoration?
Student 5: The idea of recognizing a dimension of beauty and artistic value in an object which was originally functional originated in contemporary art, in architecture, and also in the theory of conservation at the same time: these disciplines have acknowledged the imagery of this concept, I would say, in the mid-nineteenth century.
Student 7: I have a question for Paul about his choice of using film. I see it as contradictory. We talk about contemporary art, but we use a pretty traditional medium, which in some ways rejects purely digital media.
PS: Many digital storage mediums deteriorate faster than film. So many films are being stored—you guys maybe know, I’m sure—but if it is something meant to be stored for a very long time, it’s supposed to be on film or, I think, celluloid, which is a type of plastic that can be stored and last 50-40 years. Most virtual mediums, especially the early storage ones, deteriorate within 10-15 years. They basically lose the data. It’s a very material thing, but I’m also interested in it in terms of collecting and maintaining information.
Student 3: I’ve got a couple of thoughts. I had a similar impression while watching the previous film, maybe in this second one, that the reflection about the concept of “environment” is even more intriguing.
Also, regarding Dubuffet’s words, it’s funny because they were originally formulated in the 1950s, but you could have said them yesterday, and they would be valid. Especially that sentence about how we must always question conventions made sense to me. Lastly, I’d like to share an impression: some of the almost white images with some black spots reminded me of satellite photographs, but above all, I thought of Jackson Pollock’s paintings.
EF: And this brings us back to the dimension of ambiguity also highlighted by Massimo. We can conclude with a sentence from Dubuffet / Paul that perfectly ends today’s discussion. “Ambiguous facts have always a great fascination for me, for they seem to me to be located at just those intersections where the real nature of things may be revealed.”