Bryan¡¯s interview
Bryan¡¯s interview
Location: New York  Bryan¡¯s Workshop
Interviewer: Shen Ruijun
Recording: Zhang Jieqian,FanQin
Chinese Proofreading£ºZhang Jieqian,FanQin
English proofreading£ºZhang Jieqian,FanQin
Shen Ruijun£ºTell us something about your work.
Bryan£ºMy work is predominantly performance, video and photography. I work in these varied mediums because I am interested in the ways in which they contextualize each other. The most productive way to begin speaking about my work is to discuss one particular piece and how it relates to other photographs, performances and videos in my broader body of work.
The Bough That Falls with All its Trophies Hung is a 35¡± x 83¡± photograph from 2009. For the photograph I collected hundreds of personal and found objects such as trophies, diplomas, birthday hats and tchotchkes. I then built a room inside my studio with fake floors, a cardboard ceiling, painted red walls and dozens of shelves. When the room was finished I placed these objects inside the room and on the shelves. I then invited my parents to my studio, and placed them inside the room. I placed my father¡¯s head on a shelf and hid his body behind a false wall, and did the same for my mother, hiding her body behind a blue curtain.
The idea for making this room came from several different sources. I spent the summer before at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in northern Maine. There I was exposed to these amazing Americana museums, where they displayed objects from floor to ceiling in very idiosyncratic ways. I thought about these modes of display while creating the room of objects in my studio. As much as my photograph references this type of Americana museum, it also references a cluttered domestic basement, full of hundreds of relics from a family¡¯s past. Initially the photograph shifts back and forth between appearing as one of these two locales, but on further inspection the photograph reveals what it truly is ¨C a set constructed inside a studio. Unlike a real museum or basement, my installation has cardboard ceilings, duct tape seams, and shelves held together by makeshift screws and glue. For me, a work such as this is interesting because it encompasses multiple locales and multiple readings depending on how you engage the piece.
Shen rui jun£ºCan you talk about your interest in the relationship between public space and private space?
Bryan£ºWhen I think of a museum I think of it as a predominately public space, and likewise, when I think of a home, I think of it as mostly a private space. My interest lies in the area that exists between the public and the private, a space that shifts back and forth and is often ambiguous by definition. Narrative is a huge part of my work, but I am interested in making my narratives very enigmatic. By creating spaces that shift between the public and private, the narratives become very open-ended and nonlinear. There is never a one-to-one relationship with the content, and the shifting narrative allows the space to feel ambiguous and absurd. The ambiguity also provides the viewer with a lot of room to place their own meaning into the work.
For example, take my parents¡¯ heads in the previously discussed photograph. I am working with my family, which is a private subject matter. Yet, I am displaying their heads in a very institutional, matter of fact way. One could read the display of these decapitated heads as psychological and autobiographical, or they could simply be read as impersonal and institutional objects, like a deer head on the wall. In this photograph, I think their heads function in both ways.
Shen Ruijun:  You collect a lot of objects that are symbols of American culture. Broadly speaking, what is American culture to you?
Bryan£ºFor me American culture is an over-abundance of materials, and a system of extremes. When I think of American food, I think of super-sized fast food, such as hamburgers that are three times the size they were five years ago, and probably will be larger and more processed in the future. There is also an over-saturation of images, products and advertisements. Each of these mass produced products seem strangely significant and inconsequential at the same time. When I made the photograph with my parents¡¯ heads, I thought of this relationship between significance and insignificance. When a viewer looks at that photograph they see objects like birthday hats and a table leg screwed into a pedestal. At first the objects seem specific and meaningful, but upon closer inspection, they feel inconsequential. I think of all of these objects in that way, namely that each is full of absolute meaning and empty of all meaning at the same time.
This relationship between significance and insignificance is especially relevant to the act of collecting or hoarding. Growing up in my parents¡¯ house, their basement and garage was full of thousands of objects collected over the years. I also regularly collected baseball cards and comic books with my father. Thinking back on these objects, they all seem full of memories, history and significance, yet at the same time, strangely empty of content or purpose. I think about the objects I collect for my current artworks in this same, dialectic way.
Shen Ruijun£ºTell us about the installation you are currently working on.
Bryan£ºI am working on a room installation that will be photographed in the summer of 2010. After the photograph is taken, the installation will be destroyed. The room consists of thousands of baseball cards from my childhood. From the age of six till around twelve, I collected tens of thousands of baseball cards with my father. I recently went back to my parents¡¯ house and found all these cards stored in their garage. I began thinking of a way that I could use them in my work, simply so I could move them out of my parents¡¯ home. I decided that the first step would be to bring the cards back to my studio in Brooklyn.
At my studio I installed a green carpet and a cardboard ceiling, and then I glued thousands of baseball cards into a grid on two adjoining walls. In the middle of the room I added weeds from a swamp, a door, rope, baseballs from my childhood and dozens of pieces of wood arranged in a maze-like format. I think of this room as the physical mapping of a childhood memory. Placing the cards throughout the room, I would look at each one and immediately remember what year the card was from. I had not accessed this mental information for over twenty years, but I could still look at a particular baseball card and immediately state 1982 or 1987 as its year of origin. The whole installation is essentially about this experience of recollecting and remembering.
The room is also about baseball as an American pastime. Growing up I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I played little league, I watched baseball on television, and I collected cards. Arranging the thousands of cards in grids throughout the room emphasizes this sense of desire while presenting the American baseball player as an iconic, and almost religious figure.
Shen Ruijun£ºHow do you start the installation? Is it all planned out in advance?
Bryan£ºThe installation¡¯s process is very intuitive. I begin by choosing a location in my studio, or responding to a particular aspect of the studio¡¯s architecture. For the room of baseball cards, I knew I wanted it to be in the corner of my studio, and for it to take up around two hundred square feet. I began with this basic framework in mind, and from there installed the cardboard ceiling and the green carpet. I never think two steps ahead. The whole installation is intuitive, step-by-step and very process oriented.
Shen Ruijun£ºHow long does it takes for you to complete a major installation?
Bryan£ºIt usually takes me a couple of months to complete a major installation. The photograph with my parents¡¯ heads took roughly two months to construct, and I have been working on this current installation of baseball cards for nearly three months. However, this timeframe is not completely accurate, because I often work on other projects during those months. To keep my interest, and avoid frustration, I often move back and forth between shooting video, preparing for a performance and working on an installation. While I am building this installation of baseball cards, I am also working on a video in New Jersey and preparing for a performance on the Lower East Side of New York.
Shen Ruijun£ºYou discuss working on a video, performance and photograph all in one given month. Are these disparate projects related?
Bryan£ºYes, my videos, photographs and performances often contextualize each other. For my last solo show in New York City, at Horton Gallery (Sunday L.E.S.), I showed five photographs and a two-channel video. The video was partly shot at a taxidermy museum in Maine and partly shot at my father¡¯s home in New Jersey. In Maine, my father walks through the museum and speaks about the taxidermy birds and mammals. In New Jersey, my father walks through his home and speaks about his possessions, such as his bed, refrigerator and coffee table. One moment he is speaking about a taxidermy rabbit in the museum, and then suddenly the video cuts and he is speaking about tennis rackets in his garage. As we discussed with previous works, the video is about equating personal, domestic space with institutional, public space. Accompanying the video were photographs of small sets constructed in my studio. Whereas the video presented the museum and home as opposing spaces, the photographs existed within the middle ground of these two spaces. Each individual photograph appeared as a small-town Americana museum and as a domestic interior in one singular gesture. Finally, I presented a live performance on a Saturday midway through my show. The performance included my parents and also addressed issues of time, aging, domesticity and memory.
Shen Ruijun£ºIn making a new work, how do you decide if it will be a video, photograph or performance?
Bryan£ºMy current work is primarily concept driven, and therefore the idea dictates the medium. For example, in the installation of baseball cards, I thought of those cards as representative of a singular, archetypal, American sports hero. With this singularity in mind, I decided the installation would be best represented in a still photograph. On the other hand, walking through the taxidermy museum in northern Maine, there were too many fascinating objects and locales to capture in a single, still image. With the totality of the space in mind, and wanting to equate the space to my father¡¯s home in New Jersey, I decided that video would be the best medium for that project.
Shen Ruijun£ºTell us about your recent performances.
Bryan£ºMy performances over the past few years have primarily been in collaboration with my mother and father. One reason I am interested in working with them is because they have no previous relationship to art outside of my practice. My mother is a school teacher and my father is a corporate businessman. Working with them began around 2006, when I made a very simple video with my father in a swamp in New Jersey. I was in graduate school at the time, so I showed the video to one of my professors. He suggested that I look at the language of home movies as a way to inform and contextualize my work. I then remembered that, as a thirteen-year-old, I used to make very violent home movies with my grandmother. So I went back to my parent¡¯s home, searched through their basement, and found eight hours worth of these videos. In some videos my grandmother portrayed a soldier in World War II or the Vietnam War, and in others she portrayed a violent immigrant who hated all Americans. There was a lot of footage, but it had never been edited, so I decided my project would be to finish and edit the videos as I had originally intended. Working with this archive of footage from my childhood, it addressed issues of adolescence, the development of my aesthetic process, and my relationship to my grandmother, but it also was very relevant to political issues in America today, such as war and immigration.
I showed these videos in New York in 2007, and at first my parents were hesitant for the videos to be screened. They thought of the videos as something private, to be watched in our living room when I was a child, and not to be presented in a public gallery. But when they saw how well the work was received, they became more open to the videos being shown, and ultimately this expanded their interest in appearing in future works.
My first live performance with my parents was in Brooklyn, New York in 2008. Since then, over the past two years, I have done nine live performances with them. Perhaps my most ambitious performance to date was the piece I did for my MFA thesis show at Hunter College in 2009. First I acquired an eleven hundred pound bale of crushed aluminum and wrapped it in a large red gift bow. I then lay over the crushed aluminum clutching the wheel of a car while wearing a burnt outfit and bruise makeup. Opposite me stood my father wearing a very heavy, insulated fireman¡¯s uniform, and next to him stood my mother wearing a Christmas sweater and a smaller, child¡¯s fireman hat. For the three-hour duration of the performance, they stood absolutely still staring at my burnt and bruised body as I lay across the aluminum bale. For three hours nothing happens or changes, and thus the performance has a very sculptural quality to it. The piece also references a tableau vivant, which is a living tableau of actors performing a singular, still scene from history or art history.
Shen Ruijun£ºCan you talk more about the relationship between still performance and sculpture?
Bryan£ºI began creating still, two-hour performances as a response to the typical two-hour opening in New York. I realized that if I did a fifteen-minute, narrative performance during one of these openings, the majority of visitors would enter the piece late or miss it all together. Creating a still performance that existed for the entire duration of the opening allowed every viewer to enter upon it equally. The stillness of the performance also made it more akin to sculpture than to traditional performance. If one viewer approached the piece at 6pm, and another at 8pm, they would see the exact same thing. Like a sculpture, the viewer could engage the totality of the piece in one given moment, and not have to wait for a narrative to unfold. I also think of my parents in very sculptural terms. The performances are personal and psychological, but not often autobiographical or diaristic. In a way, my parents become another raw material to work with, like the crushed aluminum in the previously mentioned performance, or the shelves in the studio photograph. I think of my parents¡¯ bodies as filters for my ideas. The work is not necessarily about them, but rather travels through them.
Shen Ruijun£ºYou have dressed your parents as firemen, chefs and fishermen to name a few. Can you talk about this costuming?
Bryan£ºI have a video in which my father is dressed as a chef cooking hamburgers on a backyard barbeque grill. In a recent performative work, my father is dressed as a fisherman fishing my body out of a swamp. I think of his role and costume in each of these works as being very iconic and particularly American. This costuming is also rooted in ideas of aging and regression. In one recent performance, I am dressed in a matching pajama top and bottom, suggesting that I have regressed into my childhood. Dressing one¡¯s parents up is also a child-like game, and a form of regression. In exploring this return to childhood, the work also addresses its opposite, aging and time passing. Costuming oneself and one¡¯s parents may allude to childhood, but one cannot ignore that I am a man in my thirties and they are an aging, elderly couple. This tension between regression and aging brings about a very psychological quality to the work, which really interests me. There is also a pathetic and abject subtext that accompanies these works. For example, asking one¡¯s elderly parents to stand still for two-hours, or sit in children¡¯s chairs for two hours can be a very humiliating act. At the same time, there is an incredible generosity and poeticism in their willingness to perform. Like the tension between regression and aging, the abject yet generous dynamic in my parents¡¯ performances creates an in-between, absurd state of being.
Shen Ruijun£ºWhy does the relationship between a father and son interest you?
Bryan£ºI am interested in working with my father because it allows me to explore Freudian psychology and concepts of masculinity. I do not think the work with my father is meant to be negative or positively skewed, but rather it is meant to open a dialogue and engage criticality. It seemed natural to work with my father because I was also interested in exploring ideas of patriarchy, and in particular, how masculinity is tied to the suburbs. The backyard chef, the fireman and the fishermen are all, to some degree, archetypal, suburban, masculine heroes. I placed my father in these roles to see what type of psychology developed from his portrayals. Growing up in the suburbs, I used to watch wrestling matches, action movies, and play sports. It seemed logical to tie these childhood, masculine activities to my adult art making practice, and to my father as an extension of this practice.
Shen Ruijun£ºIn 2009 you had a solo show in Amsterdam. What do you think of European contemporary art in relation to American contemporary art?
Bryan£ºWith exceptions, there is not that much of a difference between works made in the United States and works made in Western Europe today. One area where the two continents differ is in the schooling. In U.S. graduate programs, there is more of an emphasis to speak about one¡¯s work than there is in European graduate programs. I think this emphasis on the spoken language is the result of the institutionalization of art and the marketplace in the U.S. There is such a large art market in New York that every work, to some degree, is affected by it. As a result of this market, articulating a work¡¯s meaning becomes an easy way to commodify a work. This commodification is not always a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of.
As far as differences between the actual works themselves, this does not exist as much anymore because the art world is so global today. Artists live back and forth between Berlin and New York, European galleries attend fairs in New York, and New York galleries open spaces in Europe. Some areas of Eastern Europe still have a very particular aesthetic, Romanian and Czech painting comes to mind, but these are exceptions, not rules. That being said, American artists such as Charles Ray and Paul McCarthy make artwork that is particular American in its sensibility and aesthetic. I do not believe artists such as these could make their work living outside of the United States for an extended period of time.
Shen Ruijun£ºWhere do your initial ideas come from?
Bryan£ºMy ideas come from varied places. Often I see objects on the street that interest me, and take snapshots to record them. Months or even years later, these snapshots provide ideas or directions for new projects. Most often I come across new ideas when I am not looking for them. For example, my interest in Americana museums developed during my time at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, but I did not intend for that to happen. Recently, I was walking to my apartment in Brooklyn and I came across a discarded and deflated air mattress on the street. I was really interested in the object, and while I have no intention to use such an object in my work now, it could be relevant to my practice later on. Essentially the development of my ideas is a very slow and organic process.
Shen Ruijun£ºWhat do you do for fun?
Bryan£ºWhen I need to get out of New York, I go to New Jersey and go hiking. I also like to travel a lot. While I mostly travel for exhibitions these days, I try to spend some non-art related time in each city I visit. I also enjoy bowling, and sitting in cafes drinking coffee.
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