Josiah McElheny listens while Camille Henrot presents her work. (click to enlarge) (photo courtesy Kari Conte)

Despite the drizzle on a chilly evening, there was a packed (if small) house last night at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP). The reason for the gathering was a conversation between Brooklyn artist Josiah McElheny and Parisian artist Camille Henrot.

It was the third time this fall that ISCP brought together an artist from Brooklyn with an international artist-in-residency. Brooklyn Commons is the title for this series of discussions, jokingly referred to as blind dates. The artists have never met before the evening, which makes it special, since you watch two creative spirits encounter and engage with each other and each other’s work for the first time.

McElheny and Henrot took turns giving presentations about recent projects, then asked each other a series of questions before opening up to a question-and-answer session with the audience.

Both artists cast doubt on what we find beautiful or admirable. In many of their works, there was a conceptual gesture to problematize the piece’s own aesthetic and the dark history behind its sensibility.

In one project, for instance, McElheny dug into the dirty paradoxes of the Bauhaus. There were actually some pretty wild parties that went down at this fabled school. After combing through archival materials, McElheny went on to re-create a 1929 party that caught his eye. His 2001 installation The Metal Party included recreations of the original event’s signature glass globes and activated them with revelers in reflective clothing and experimental music.

Josiah McElheny, “The Metal Party: Reconstructing a Party held in Dessau on February 9, 1929,” (2001) (photo by Dennis Cowley and Eric Weiss, courtesy of the Public Art Fund)

The twist was that McElheny learned through a conversation with the last living man who attended these parties that it was an open secret that their main goal was to prevent rebellion, mutiny, and revolution. The school’s leadership could be controlling, to say the least. So the silvery glow of the party’s spectacle was tarnished by its ideological function, although it still looked very cool from a design perspective.

Henrot took on the impulse toward exoticism in her Ikebana series of 2012. Using the Japanese tradition of Ikebana flower arranging, she created living sculptures to illustrate, in three dimensions, books from her library. For example, one text looked at how destructive exoticizing outsiders can be, so she picked a pineapple to represent tropical allure and connected it to a very poisonous flower. It was a ravishing arrangement, despite the toxicity.

Installation view, Camille Henrot, “Ikebana” (2012) (photo courtesy the artist’s website)

It was fascinating to watch Henrot flip through the images and discuss the stories behind the flowers or how their special botanical properties could be used to reflect intellectual nuances. A poisonous flower is definitely a novel way to express a critique. As she explained, “I find exoticism is loaded with guiltiness. Obviously, the relationship between exoticism and the West hasn’t always been sweet and soft … ” But maybe there is more to learn by experiencing and owning up to this guilty pleasure in art than pretending it’s not there and allowing it go on powerfully unchecked?

At one point, McElheny remarked, “The things I choose to be interested in and admire … as I’ve grown older … I’ve discovered that it’s because of something I abhor.” Both artists posed difficult questions about their work and asked for honest acknowledgments that sometimes we get dazzled for the wrong reasons.

Brooklyn Commons: Josiah McElheny and Camille Henrot took place on the evening of November 27 at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (1040 Metropolitan Avenue, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn).

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