Opinion

Letters on Frieze London: Paul Chan and Zachary Small Respond

Paul Chan and Zachary Small grapple with criticism and what makes work political (but agree that art fairs are awful).

Original source image of Frieze London by Mark Blower (image courtesy Mark Blower/Frieze)

A Letter to the Editors from Paul Chan

I’m writing to respond to your recent post, “At Frieze London, Feminism Sells, Paul Chan Slumps, and Nothing Ever Changes.”

In the post the author, Zachary Small, calls my work “Pillowsophie.” The correct title is “Pillowsophia (after Trinity).” “Pillowsophia” is a wordplay on the ancient Greek word philosophia. So the title is a kind of mashup: call it immigrant Greek. Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek, so the correct title expresses something like “the wisdom of the pillow” or “the wisdom of sleep.” If Mr. Small’s piece is left to stand, your readers may wonder who “Sophie” is and why her pillow or sleep matters so much to me. I don’t know anyone named Sophie.

Correcting the title (Ed.: This correction has since been made) will help your readers who agree with Mr. Small’s characterization of my work, since they would be more emboldened to share his critique with the correct title in mind without the fear of being undercut by inaccuracies in the basic facts about the piece. Good facts make for better criticism, it seems to me.

Something else. Mr. Small writes, “Ironically, the fan powering Chan’s work did not have the correct voltage. Instead of flapping around wildly, ‘[the work] drooped limply…” He goes on to use this as a metaphor for the “thoughtless inclusion of the piece and the broader apathy of the art world for others’ suffering.” Although it is true that there were issues with the electrical load (according to the gallery), it is incorrect to state that it “drooped limply.” In fact, the picture of the work that accompanies the post, taken by the author himself, shows plainly that this is not true.

The work does droop at times. But this is the nature of what it is: a physical animation that changes over time. The fabric body is constructed so that it influences how the air moves inside that body, essentially harnessing air pressure to “animate” the work in certain, specific ways. If Mr. Small had the correct title in mind when considering the piece, perhaps he would have understood the “drooping” differently: as a choreographic expression of the kind of “sleep” that the title announces.

But this seems unlikely. What Mr. Small is practicing in his post is what I would call idealist criticism. He has a certain idea, or set of ideas, already in mind — about the 2017 Frieze Art Fair, for instance. And he goes to the fair to find the “material” that justifies the worthiness of his idea or set of ideas.

I believe Mr. Small’s ideas are generally on the mark. Art fairs are horrible. The commercialism that art fairs make manifest confirms our worst instincts about contemporary art being merely an asset for a certain class rather than the property of a wider culture. And given the enormity of the structural defects that have arisen as a result of the empowerment of fear, resentment, and ignorance at all levels of civil society, the art at fairs can feel like the orchestra performing as the Titanic was sinking.

But what happens when our ideas are so true — to us — that we see nothing else, despite what is right in front of us? One consequence tends to be that we become blind to what is evident. Another consequence may be that we become willing to ignore or distort what is evident in order to justify those ideas.

It seems to me that this is the case with Mr. Small’s post. This is why I think it’s unlikely he will see my work any differently even with the inaccuracies about “Pillowsophia…” corrected: the material is only worth being right about if it justifies what he already believes is true.

This is not the only evidence. Mr. Small says the fair is “strikingly apolitical.” I can’t say for myself because I wasn’t there. But Mr. Small then goes on to describe a striking number of works that in fact were — in his estimation — political, whether in intent, form, or content. He may have thought them “cringeworthy” (like mine), or “vapid” (like Andrea Bower’s work).  But he also noted many works in the fair that lived up to his expectations of what art practicing politics rightly ought to look and feel like. Billie Zangewa. Regina José Galindo. Maryam Jafri. And so on.

I don’t know if my work is political. It’s not for me to say. But Mr. Small seems to have no problem calling it so, and finding it wanting. I can’t say I blame him: I’m a questionable artist, at best. But he then  goes on to write about a great number of works that form relationships with the world that can be construed as political, and finds them agreeable, even though the title and general outlook of the post reflects his insistence that the fair was “conspicuously absent” of political art and “strikingly apolitical.”

What to make of this? What do you call an online post where the headlines intentionally mislead readers from what is actually in the content?  What do you call content that uses a loose affiliation with facts to be salient? I call it clickbait.

Art is what I make on nights and weekends. My day job is a publisher at the press Badlands Unlimited. I believe strongly in independent publishing. Platforms like Hyperallergic are important alternatives to corporate and commercial sectors of contemporary art. I value what you do and the writers you publish, including Mr. Small. But an alternative is only truly that if the standards by which it operates are higher than what is expected and produced in conventional quarters of art publishing and writing. If that alternative does not meet or exceed what is conventionally accepted or tolerated, is it an alternative at all?

Paul Chan, New York, October 7, 2017

 

A Letter to Paul Chan From Zachary Small

Hello Paul,

Thank you for the letter concerning my review of Frieze London. Since receiving it on Friday, I’ve spent the weekend meditating on your concerns large and small.

Typically, corrections are made expeditiously fast once we’ve verified that a problem actually exists, so that’s what we did for the title of your work, changing the misspelled “Pillowsophie” to the correct “Pillowsophia (after Trinity).” We even included a note at the bottom of the review noting this change, and your comment about the how the work intentionally droops, as you say, “at times.”

But let’s not overdramatize things. The difference between sophie and sophia is negligible; both come from the same Greek word meaning “wisdom,” sophie just happens to get there through the French. And as for your second request, I can assure you — as someone that actually attended Frieze London on preview day — that your piece was drooping more than “at times.” Promptly see our accompanying photo of the titular “slump,” and another image below, which, as you pointed out, would have made clearer to our readers that something was amiss.

Paul Chan’s “Pillowsophia (after Trinity)” at Frieze London (photo by Maria Victoria Recinto)

Your letter also implies a host of contradictions that might obfuscate the written reality of my Frieze London review. The article claims that virtually no artist addressed contemporary political issues. (Regina José Galindo examines Germany’s historic weapons connection with Guatamela while Maryam Jafri exposes the strange yoga techniques of the US military. The article doesn’t even remotely describe Billie Zangewa’s art in a political context, by the way.)

The rest of your letter orbits around some rather nebulous lines of specious thinking that have serious implications about the ethics of art making and art critiquing. Let’s account for those pieces of your argument. You allege that I practice an “idealist criticism” that will justify my supposed belief that art must be political. From there, you subtly accuse me of having a will “to ignore or distort what is evident in order to justify those ideas.” Seeing as you did not attend Frieze London, I can only assume we are still talking about “Pillowsophia (after Trinity).” Your letter spends the next 100 words equivocating about the political content of your art while lambasting my review for what is essentially a spelling mistake.

While we’re on the topic, what’s your position on political art? Certainly, you have no problem using politically-charged iconography. “Pillowsophia (after Trinity)” features a black hoodie waving in the air like a balloon man you might see outside a carwash. As you should well know, the black hoodie is a potent symbol of Trayvon Martin’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. At Frieze London, no less, your work stands in front of a gravestone-shaped wall. Do you think it’s ethically sound for an artist to appropriate such a potent symbol of black suffering, sensationalize its morbidity, and later shrug off its political context? (But we’ve all had this conversation before, ask Dana Schutz.)

Where does politics stop for you, Paul? Where is it allowed to stop?

But perhaps you’re right: maybe there’s one last remaining shred of hope in my soul that believes that even the art world one day might grasp basic concepts of respect, privilege, and power. Perhaps I believe that art — all art — has the ability to emanate a political influence upon the world. Perhaps I even believe that Frieze London is the perfect place to start demanding more from our cultural and financial leaders. I must be crazy.

We agree on one thing, Paul. Standards are important.

Respectfully,
Zachary Small

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