Interviews

Christopher K. Ho on Confucianism, White Privilege, and Art Dads

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Christopher K. Ho, “Institution” (2016) (detail), one of the drawings by fourth and fifth graders from PS 147 given the prompt “How do we transform a cube into a snail?” (image courtesy the artist)

In 2012, New York-based artist and curator Christopher K. Ho wrote the essay “The Clinton Crew: Privileged White Art,” describing the aesthetic sensibility and political shortcomings of Brooklyn-based artists who grew up in the United States during the 1990s. “The Clinton Crew,” Ho claims, replaced “politics” — the guidepost of much art of the ‘60s and ‘70s — with the subtler “ethics.” Four year later, Grown Up Art, Ho’s solo show at Present Co., begins with these follow-up questions: Can the Clinton Crew, and artists today, re-envision political art for the contemporary moment, beyond what Ho calls “the long shadow of 1968”? What happens when members of the Clinton Crew grow up, and have children?

Grown Up Art looks to pragmatism as an alternative term to consider. For example, the pragmatism of parenthood becomes a context for being an artist as well as a responsible subject.

Upon entering the exhibition, one encounters the work “I Endorse Patriarchy,” in which a female voice recites:

… Because taking a single position can be as important as being open to other positions. Because leaving a legacy is more generous and generative than maintaining community. Because the opposite of the school of resentment is not the school of respect, but rather the building of new schools.

Projected on the gallery walls, “St. Joseph as Model,” a six-channel video broken down into sections, including “Institution, Asians and Americans, Baby / Art Dads, Three Critiques, Legacy” and “Parenthood,” flashes charts and diagrams evocative of new-age office posters, pictures of artist friends who are dads, and movie clips from Ender’s Game and 2012. The show’s centerpiece, titled “Institution,” consists of a series of seven stunning stained-glass sculptures that sit atop a dry-erase table covered in 4th and 5thgrader drawings. The sculpture and drawings were made in response to two questions: “How can we transform a cube into a snail?” and “What institution do you envision leading when grown up?”

The exhibition embraces didactics, featuring forms evocative of a classroom or lecture hall. In a rejection of art-world cynicism, Grown Up Art implies that being a leader, a teacher, parent, and mentor is perhaps a way forward for the Clinton Crew.

I sat down with Ho to discuss his work in relation to his decades-long sociological investigation of the art world, from art dads and Confucianism to paternal capitalism and white privilege.

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Christopher K. Ho, “Institution” (installation view) (2016), table with dry-erase drawings, colored glass, copper foil, palladium leaf, 24” x 30” x 34” (image courtesy the artist)

Danni Shen: Grown Up Art poses questions of “how having children can affect, and underpin, a political art practice. Can being a positive role model — a parent, a mentor, a teacher — be as effective as negative critique or punkish rebellion?” Does the exhibition provide answers to such questions?

Christopher K. Ho: Those questions and their affirmative answers guided my process. Forty years after institutional critique’s high noon, 60 years after American neo-avant-gardes such as [John] Cage, [Jasper] Johns, and [Robert] Rauschenberg, and a century after 20thcentury European avant-gardes, it behooves artists to work with and through institutions, and even to build them, to think of themselves not on society’s margins or at history’s end, but rather as leaders and legacy leavers. To have a child, real or metaphoric, is to enter adulthood. Identifying as a parent signals a shift, from self to other-oriented, and often from retrospective to prospective too. As institutional critique’s and more broadly, critical art’s oppositional efficacy wanes, a prospective view based on care for others seems ever more relevant.

DS: Are you yourself an art dad?  

CKH: I now want to be one. While I was researching and thinking about Grown Up Art, Joseph, Jesus’s foster father, emerged as a muse for a 21st-century ethico-socio-political artist. Once I saw being a parent and being the kind of artist I want to be as compatible, and even synonymous, I could imagine myself with kids. Life may indeed follow art, as Roman Jakobson long ago asserted.

DS: So does art also follow life for you? The show revisits “values from your Chinese upbringing such as hard work, discipline, and pragmatism.” I’m curious to learn more about your upbringing and if personal anecdotes inform your work.

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Christopher K. Ho, “Institution” (installation view) (2016), table with dry-erase drawings, colored glass, copper foil, palladium leaf, 24” x 30” x 34” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

CKH: I struggled with my Chinese-ness, which my adult education at Cornell and Columbia entirely neglected, while putting together this exhibition. My maternal grandmother was Buddhist, my parents and paternal grandparents are and were Christian, and my maternal grandfather was atheist with a Confucian bias. Buddhism, or the version of it in American yoga studios and popular among spiritualists like Eckhart Tolle promulgate, begets a passivity that runs counter to the active, practical engagement that I am encouraging on the part of contemporary artists, myself included. Christianity is our cultural dominant. Confucianism, with its focus on social harmony, benevolence, discipline, and filial duty, serves as a more appropriate rubric for contemporary art’s shift from politics to ethics. My 2013 solo show Privileged White People at Forever & Today, Inc., explored this shift, which began in the mid-2000s. That younger abstract painters like Joshua Abelow and Stephen Truax shrugged off of political art, in particular institutional critique, distressed me. Later, I concluded this was a generational shift toward ethics and civics. Grown Up Art picks up where Privileged White People left off, and asks: What happens when members of the Clinton Crew, or artists who came of age in the affluent ’90s, between AIDS and 9/11, have kids and/or enter adulthood? How can an advanced political art practice be available to those groomed to inherit, not disrupt, and who may be invested in existing aesthetic, economic, educational, social, and legal systems? I’m currently in the preliminary stages of a show that proposes Confucianism as a departure point for such a practice and as a timely corrective to what I consider popular culture’s overemphasis on personal growth and well-being, values often attributed, correctly or not, to Eastern philosophy.

DS: Where do the words in “I Endorse Patriarchy” come from? And why does its voice serve as the entrance to the exhibition? 

CKH: I wrote a polemic about what is needed to counter art’s current state of pluralism, and “I Endorse Patriarchy” is a recitation of portions of that polemic. To open a show with “I endorse patriarchy” proposes that I, and other artists, possess power. That the voice is female and Chinese-British accented hopefully questions how artists use that power. I say how, not whether. Post-structuralism thoroughly and rightfully critiqued the unified subject and the authoritative “I” behind, say, patriarchy. Think [Roland] Barthes’s The Death of the Author or [Michel] Foucault’s What Is an Author? [link]. But what began as a critique of fixed meaning inadvertently dissuaded artists to cohere as subjects at all, and to strive to make meaningful, rather than indeterminate, work. To return to your very first question, I believe it is time for artists to revisit the value of a unified subject in order to take on leadership roles.

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Christopher K. Ho, “I Endorse Patriarchy” (2016), sound and inlaid carpet, 3’50” loop (sound), 126 ¼” x 74 ¾” (carpet) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

DS: And who is Saint Joseph?

CKH: The show initially was slated to open on Saint Joseph the Worker’s Day, May 1, and close on Father’s Day, June 19. Direct lineage from God through Adam to reigning heads of state and family underpins traditional patriarchy’s authority. In contrast, I had in mind more contemporary, and common, artist friends who are fathers, art dads. Art dads take cue from Joseph rather than Adam. Joseph was a modest and hardworking carpenter whom the Bible barely mentions save for sundry verses in Matthew and whom most depictions of the Annunciations sideline. He committed to being Jesus’s foster father despite not being connected by blood. He represents legions of artists who play supporting roles. The challenge for me was to present this option as viable, rather than a default, and to define it positively. Gregory Sholette’s landmark book Dark Matter was an important, if politically pitched, guidepost. One means to embrace being Joseph rather than Jesus or Mary is becoming a teaching artist. But there are formal, material, and symbolic manifestations of Joseph-as-model, too, that I pursued in this exhibition’s works.

Christopher K. Ho, "Joseph As Model (Art Dads)" (2016)(still), six-channel video
Christopher K. Ho, “Joseph As Model (Art Dads)” (2016)(still), six-channel video

DS: How did you come to these forms, and the snail, which features prominently in the exhibition?

CKH: For me, the snail emblematizes Joseph. Slow, modest, and earthy, snails nonetheless leave golden spirals produced over a lifetime upon death. These spirals, incrementally produced, differ from, say, a Platonic cube’s transcendent idealism. Grown-up art is similarly slow-paced. The exhibition took three years. Its successes are aggregate and riddled with stammers. It doesn’t aestheticize failure the way [Martin] Kippenberger’s acolytes do, nor does it approach art as Sisyphean, the way Kate Gilmore might. And it doesn’t equate hard work with craft. It is the art of the B+ student who falls between the genius’s A and the gentleman’s C. It is effortful and determined. Or, more poignantly, it is the art of an immigrant like me, for whom B+ is the highest grade achievable, having never been bestowed the code to success nor felt privileged enough not to care.

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Christopher K. Ho, “Order of the Snail” (2016), etched glass cubes, 5 1/8” x 5 1/8”x 14”, edition of 5 + AP (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

DS: Can we go back to white privilege in regards to your practice?

CKH: If the exhibition Privileged White People enumerated some positive attributes of white privilege that I encountered in classmates at boarding school such as civic duty, a sense of social and environmental responsibility, then Grown Up Art intimates a different approach. It contextualizes white privilege in a world where Western, and US, dominance is precarious. One of the most interesting texts I’ve encountered recently is Wang Hui’s China from Empire to Nation-State. Wang distinguishes Chinese state capitalism or, since we’re discussing parenthood, paternal capitalism, from its Euro-American version. His book intrigues because neoliberal capitalism is the context and critical object of Western leftist political art. But what if that’s no longer the world’s only, or dominant, form of capitalism? My 2013 show Demoiselles d’Avignon at Y Gallery envisioned Chinese princelings in 2063 fetishizing Western abstraction the way Picasso fetishized African masks [link]. I will again locate art in a future Chinese-dominated context, and historicize neoliberal capitalism, in a performance-toast at a Thanksgiving dinner in Hong Kong. Here, the guide is Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, which is both a speculative and plausible account of France becoming a Muslim state.

DS: In wittily translating often complex and fraught topics, are you optimistic about the art world and its trajectory?  

CKH: I’m hugely optimistic! Theoretical texts that guided my generation, many stemming from 1968, no longer predominate. The waning of canonical critical theory opens up myriad possibilities for contemporary artists, of which parenthood as a model for a practical, political art is but one.

Christopher K. Ho: Grown Up Art continues at Present Co. (USA, 254 Johnson Ave, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through June 26. 

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