Ralph Lemon

“Parallels” goes out with an all-day marathon

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You’ve always talked about how you’re inspired by James Baldwin. Is there a link to that in this program?
I haven’t thought of James so much in this work, other than his outsider quality and the contradiction: His work was so much about race, but also not. I felt like he was hanging onto race, because it was an energy he was sort of stuck with. And he died in the south of France; that’s where he found his peace. At the end, his creative and artistic being seemed to rely so much on his blackness. I feel like he had to keep going back to race to make himself feel relevant when, in reality, I think he was beyond it. Of course, he would bury me with a lecture telling me how that was not the case. [Laughs] It’s impossible, but of course I’m saying this from this kind of 21st-century perspective, too, right? I do think in his writings and his history that he was displaced a lot. That was also his rage: That he was beyond it, and he couldn’t be beyond it. He wasn’t allowed. He was also dealing with the issue of sexuality, which was creating a whole different kind of outsider discourse. To me, the outsider discourse is more interesting. But, yeah, this particular platform is dealing with that idea. Yet I don’t think any of these performers are really outsiders now. They’re part of a community. [Pauses] They’re absolutely part of a community, but they’re still outsiders. That’s our struggle. And then I think, Are we even outsiders? Are we just part of this larger ecology, and this is just the way it is and then we find ways to make work within the truth of the ecology?

How exactly?
There’s a truth here I think. It was the same for Merce [Cunningham]. It was the same for Martha [Graham]. I doubt things will be different 50 years from now. Unless there is some remarkable shift in how our work and way of working is valued. I mean if the visual art world finds a way to commodify performance, then maybe—but then it will just be for a handful of people. I do think the nature of work and how we make work is shifting and has to keep shifting. Is there some possibility that this shifting can find a different kind of value, a different kind of economy? That interests me.

Can you elaborate?
I go back to this whole discussion of dance in museums, and the whole Tino Sehgal sort of study and the selling of performances. [Laughs] Especially from someone who came from a dance background, but consciously moved into a visual art economy. I’m not sure that’s relevant to this discussion, but there is the possibility that something temporal, like a dance, can be acquired. There are enough people with crazy, disposable incomes. The whole nature of buying and selling art, as we know it, is a game. Yes, there’s certainly an appreciation of these objects, but at the same time, it’s the play of how something is evaluated. This dead shark is worth this much. Or could be worth that much. There’s something ridiculous about it, but then money on that level is very abstract. Its game potential keeps it activated, meaningful.

Do you mean the gamble of art collecting?
The play of it. I don’t know if it’s even a gamble. After a while, it’s nothing. It’s so much money, it’s meaningless. Maybe dance is next. [Laughs] Right? Other than the curiosity of its fashion. I don’t think you go into [the visual art] world without ever having some question of, “What’s the value? What is the economy of this?” And that is really the new sacred, for better or for worse. I can look at Sarah [Michelson]’s new work [Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer] and go, “Sacred. I was moved.” I leave really happy. Kind of like going to some art church or something. I don’t need to think about, Is she going to sell that floor? What’s going to happen to the neon? Will that go to a museum? I don’t ask those questions, but I’m sure the art world was looking at it with a very different point of view. And that’s not bad. And it’s interesting when you think about this historically. The great works of Steve Paxton or Lucinda Childs or Trisha Brown or Merce Cunningham: On their purest level, the work and the artist disappear. There’s a video, maybe there’s a reconstruction or something, but it might be nice if it doesn’t really disappear. What does that mean? Beyond a retrospective of bringing an old dance back. Is there a way of holding onto the temporality of this work beyond that? And I feel like new work, at least in my optimism, is now generating that question. And I don’t know—maybe Balanchine did it already. There’s this kind of energy about the work that’s beyond the work. But is there a model for that?

How did you meet Nari?
He was in the Whitney Biennial many years ago. He had a hearse in one of the galleries that was completely covered in tar. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. And I found ways to meet this guy. [Laughs] I figured out how to get in touch with him. He was doing a show in an abandoned building up in Harlem, which is now his house. He ended up buying it. When I met Nari, he was making all this work by himself. It was really labor-intensive, handmade stuff that was very rigorous and elaborate and dense and very, very beautiful. And I asked if he’d like to collaborate on this work I was making called Geography. In his studio, he had this doorway full of bottles he had strung together. So it was the first iteration of the bottle piece [in Geography, the first piece in Lemon’s three-part Geography Trilogy project]. It was so perfect; it was like the perfect piece of art because it dealt with light and holding light and the translucency of seeing. You can see through something, but what are you really seeing, and how much are you seeing and what are you really seeing?

And the weight of it, too.
And the weight. There are all of these very interesting contradictions. So, yeah, we collaborated on Geography. He built the whole bottle curtain, and the bedspring curtains, and I think we really enjoyed each other’s company. We’ve learned a lot from each other about how to work in our own separate ways. Every once in a while we get together and collaborate on something. He’s been really busy and at first he didn’t think he had time for this [“Parallels” event], but then he called and went, “I’ve got to do this because we haven’t worked together in a while.”

He has a show coming up too, right?
Yeah. His show is opening the day before we load in. Then we have the marathon performance.

And when does your art show, “1856 Cessna Road,” open at the Studio Museum in Harlem?
On March 29th. It’s totally crazy. If I would think about it, I would freak out.

How do you remain so calm?
My new motto is: “Focus is food.” I feel like I do the thing that I need to do on that day or in that hour, and then I feel really good, and there’s a lot of substantial thinking and work that needs to be done. If I thought about the overall picture, yeah, I’d freak out. And the Studio Museum is great because it’s older material of my work with Walter [Carter]; it’s not like I’m putting together stuff that’s brand new. It’s what I’ve been building on for a while. It’s ready to go, and it’s just a matter of getting it into the space. I’m working with a really great curator.

Who?
Thomas Lax. I just feel like he represents that next generation of curatorial practices where they don’t have a hierarchy. He loves performance; he loves dance; he’s got a clear, really smart relationship to 21st-century visual art. It’s not like, Oh that’s that, and this is this. I feel like there are a number of young, good curators now who think that way. That was a big draw for this [exhibition], because I knew that it was going to be a lot of work. But getting the Walter work up there for that audience—it just feels really important.

How are you putting your experiences with Walter into context for a public who may not know much about your work?
Thomas has been working really hard writing an essay; I don’t want him to say anything. [Laughs] But he’s figured out a way to say what he has to say about it for that audience in a really concise and intelligent way that doesn’t dumb it down and doesn’t give it all away. I like, even for myself, that there has to be some context. I think that’s an important negotiation for me. You know how much I love playing that game of, “I don’t want you to know what I’m doing, but I do.” But having that [Harlem] audience, there’s a different kind of demand that I wouldn’t have if I were downtown or in Chelsea, and that feels really exciting. It’s karmic or something. So in some respects, there’s a real interesting, connected conversation between the show and the marathon. I feel that even though the marathon is going to be a lot broader and a lot messier and a lot more unknown and more out of my control, it will still deal with a kind of black body politic.

That’s what the exhibit and marathon have in common. But also the fact that there was so much unknown regarding the time you spent with Walter is another interesting connection.

Exactly. At the same time, Walter was so advanced as a human being. And it’s also ultimately not about race. I mean we’re looking at this black Mississippi man. I honor it. That mythology is certainly in the work. But for Walter, it’s just like, I’m an old man.

I’ve seen a lot.
[Laughs] I’ve seen a lot. I’m an old man. And there are lots of us in the world.

An All Day Event. The End. is at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery on Mar 31.

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