Genesis Project Artist Interview #2: Saul Melman

The following interview took place on August 21st, 2009, between Saul Melman (2009 Genesis Project Artist-in-Residence) and Arturo Vidich and Aki Sasamoto (Culture Push co-directors). We conducted the interview via Skype chat, which we found to be an interesting medium, somewhere between a recording and email correspondence. We sat at the same table.

saulsq4Aki Sasamoto: Saul, what are you working on right now in the residency?

Saul Melman: At the moment, I’m working on three projects, two of the projects are with Fergus [Byrne] and the third is an independent project. A fourth project with Carlos [Monroy] is in its infancy. We’ll see what happens with that work. A common idea that I’m investigating in these projects is memory.

Arturo Vidich: Like the tree rings, and the story you told about your grandfather. Could you talk more about how memory plays in?

SM: In the last several years, I have become progressively interested in making work, primarily sculptures and installations, that function as mnesic events– works that feel like an event has occurred.

AS: What constitutes (or differentiates) ‘a project’?  And besides the topic of ‘memory’, does anything bleed into multiple projects?  Yourself, obviously… but what of yourself? Do all projects end up with mnesic events?

SM: In the case of the tree rings that you mentioned Arturo, Fergus had drawn a spiraling single line with pencil approximately 2 feet in diameter that appeared like the rings on a tree trunk that had been cut down. I counted the number of “rings on the tree,” 62, which was the age my grandfather was when he taught me how to shoot and develop film approx 20 years ago.  I subsequently wrote a short story about my experience with my grandfather and how that indirectly related to the process of art making and life.

dicecuAS: When talking about memory from personal life, the linkages are unpredictable and unexpected.  Do you find joy in being mysterious in such unexpected linkages? I assume that 62 will remind only you of the story you told. I’m wondering why an artist would want to bring his/her personal memory into the work. It’s a way into the art making, but also a way to block out others (=mystifying.)?

SM: Regarding the question “what constitutes a project?” I think that’s interesting. At the moment, there is actually only one project– this project is more of an idea or theme that physically manifests in several different ways. The idea of using time as a material in the work. The other “several different ways” I was initially referring to was another way to label “things” that I am actually doing/making for the matter of reference in discussion. These things I am making are being produced in the studio concomitantly and are cross-pollinating one another. They are also being influenced by watching the others work separately from me.

AV: Time as a material makes me think of performance. We spoke about your practice as a physician manifesting in your art work, which often has some reference to the body, either in materials or in action. How is this residency informing new ways for using the body in your work, either through making ‘things’ or in having the ‘doing’ of something be the thing that’s made? I’m thinking of making sense of ephemeral memory by merging the documentation of an event with the performance. Or thinking about how documentation of an event can be integrated into the performance. We talked about gaining something and losing something in that process.

SM: Using my memory of an event is a frequent starting point for making work. it makes the work personal and work that is personal interests me. Through the process of excavating the memory, playing with it and then projecting it outwards for the viewer to experience, the concreteness/self-referential-ness of the initial memory gets transformed into something else, perhaps something that only has traces of the intial memory, but more importantly, the transformation allows a space for the viewer to project their own imagination onto/into the work. This is what is means to me for a work to be “open” to the viewer, rather than a work that is “closed.” Having a loose or playful process is important in regards to allowing this transformation to occur.

AS: So perhaps, having multiple manifestations helps, especially in dealing with your theme, memory. Certainly memory does manifest in multitudes. Memory is making things special, by remembering and re-membering. Telling others is one way to have memories be remembered. By doing so, you are involving others to use personal memories to create a collective one. Of course in the course of re-re-membering, a piece of a memory goes through series of metamorphoses. I like the idea that you are involving other artists here to deal with these changes. I guess you and your collaborators are currently witnessing these stages.  What do you think about a collective memory in this setting of the residency? Or it can be asked like this: how do you situate your collaborators, between your ‘personal’ and ‘the viewer’?

SM: An example of a current project that I am working on here that is based on an experience (a memory of that experience) is the embroidery project that I am doing with Fergus. This past Easter, I had the experience of giving a confession to a priest. I’ve never done that before and the experience was fantastic for many reasons. One idea that was most interesting to me was how the confessional object itself, the objects within it, how my body and the priest’s body were situated, etc. facilitated the confession. This interest has manifest in several different ways here over the past 3 weeks. The embroidery project which I won’t describe in detail here is a reflection of that and amazingly has incorporated skills/interests that Fergus has projected into the project. This piece has transformed many times, our ideas mixing. We work. It’s quite exciting!

Embroidery project.AV: I’ve seen the mixture occurring, and between you and Carlos, using the previous person’s residue (Carlos’s word) of what they left in the studio and evolving it. As a way into process. Sometimes I find it easier to take what someone else has done and evolve it than evolve my own stuff. Some artists make bank on that.

AS: It’s interesting to look at the reactionary method, when thinking about Saul’s interest in memory. When I visited the studio yesterday, I saw the embroidery project happening.  Different colored threads interacting on a single plane.  And I immediately read the objects lying around as a dialogue.  As an outsider who knows now that you’re dealing with memory, I was looking at the project ‘memory’ as something that happens between two people.  Then the project becomes about how it’s communicated and it’s not about what is told.

AV: How it’s communicated between the artists, rather than told to an outsider?

AS: Yes. A confession booth is a perfect example of a shared idea of an event with a certain part (your confession) reserved for the privacy.  It doesn’t matter what you said, but the fact you confessed. Looking at the embroidery, I felt like looking at the confession booth, but not hearing the actual confession.

ConfessionAV: Communication through thread, a pattern. Maybe only understandable between the two embroiderers.

SM: Yes, there has been mixing going on between us. This has been helpful to promote conversation and as a stepping-off point for when I am in the studio alone. It is one of the unique and exciting aspects of this  residency, that we are all living very closely together and working in the same place which facilitates this rich garden for beginning ideas. With regards to the confession idea, it has gone through many different incarnations during the 3 weeks, it is less than what is being said and more about how we are saying it. It is also interesting to see that the three others have picked up on this as an idea in some of there work.

AS: Do you think it’s important to be alone in the studio?  While you are doing other projects with others? Arturo, your idea for Genesis involves this private time in the studio, right? Arturo, Why is that important for you as a director to provide private time as well as a communal living environment?

AV: The private time in the studio is important. I think most artists understand this. The thing that I wanted to happen concurrently is for the artists to expose their processes to each other and find a place to overlap, or fill in the gaps of knowledge or skill in each other’s areas of interest. For example, Fergus led some interesting drawing exercises, and each artist has been practicing different ways of documenting these ephemeral exchanges. The communal living situation was necessary in this occurrence of Genesis Project because we had the option here at Basekamp, and artists were not all originating in Philadelphia. We built walls, but the privacy factor is still rather low. As for collaboration, or cross-pollination, I couldn’t be happier. My role as director of the residency has never been to prescribe what the artists should do or how they should interact. In a way, my role was only to decide, based on the applicants, who would mesh well and who has something unique to offer. Everyone has something to gain. The fact that we all live here had an interesting effect on the daily structure of the residency. For example, we don’t really have a schedule for the use of the private studio space, which had been important in other versions of Genesis because. Here at Basekamp, it’s sort of agreed on day by day, and sometimes shared. That would not be the case if we all commuted from different places to a central space. There’s many more opportunities for impromptu conversations, planning, strategy, random martial arts sparring, and running ideas by each other.

AS: Saul, did you want others to work on the same theme?  Whether memory is something you brought in or came up during the residency.

SM: I think alone time in the studio here is important, at least for me, partly because a large part of my usual practice is studio-based, where I work alone. So there is a certain efficiency that I have developed by working alone in the studio. Also, in regards to how we are actually living here on a day to day basis, in very close physical proximity, having alone time allows me to unpack myself physically and mentally. This alone time/space is essential for playing/making/thinking.  I appreciate the time alone in the studio for this reason, but I also appreciate that the studio is not “my studio,” that although I may have alone time in it, another artist is going to come in and use the space and disrupt what I have been making/doing. This allows for the cross-fertilization between artists that we discussed before but more importantly it helps to prevent becoming to attached to the product.

AV: This is common in the dance world with rented space parceled out, but not as common in visual or studio arts, your background– this “hi” and “bye” at the beginning and end of each session. And the residue of the previous person’s practice we were talking about.

SM: Yes. This difference is new to me and I appreciate what I am learning from it.

AV: Sweat on the floor.

AS: As an artist, I often have love/hate for the idea of sharing, precisely for what you said; attachment.  I love it, but then, I’m scared. Is there any fear of losing yourself in a group, Saul?  (I mean, I am a co-director, who believes in sharing the ideas in the end… but playing the devil’s avocado here…). You come in with your interests, which get multiplied in their manifestations. And you help others’ interests, and possibly they become your interests as well?  Are we ending up with the same four people? Just kidding…. And Arturo, for someone who’s interested in ‘open-source,’ what do you think about that?

SM: I don’t think that it’s important that we are all working on the same thing. I think it’s important that we work. Interestingly, as time has progressed in the residency there seems to have been an organic confluence of themes between the artists. I have been thinking about what makes something precious.

AS: Importance of ‘work’. That’s a note to keep.

AV: I’m finding more and more that people are no longer specialists in just one thing, a re-renaissance. And when knowledge is shared with no copyright, no ownership over an idea, people tend to learn more. Learning is viral, like clicking on links in a Google search, or YouTube. Open-source sharing undermines a capitalist agenda. And for this I am thankful. The economy will not collapse because people aren’t buying and selling knowledge, even in this information age. Anyone who wants to benefit by learning something new, will be able to, and the old agendas will adapt to new ways of intellectual/digital property, or they’ll die away. Preciousness definitely need not have a price-tag. If you want someone else to find it precious you have to convince them it is so. I like that way of thinking

AS: Saul, At the beginning you introduced your work with importance placed on materiality.  In this residency with temporary space, objects and input from other minds, do you find yourself thinking about this issue differently?

SM: Yesterday I bought two unrelated items in a Chinese gift shop. The salesman unexpectedly put them into a small, clear, shiny, delicate looking plastic bag and sealed it tightly shut with a flap that has a very strong adhesive. In order to have access to the items you must destroy the bag. In the bag, because of their context, the items have a very tender relationship. In me, there is very much the voyeur gazing at the items, thinking about the story that relates them. They are delicious. I want to eat them. They are made of plastic.

AV: Like the artist who gave away sausages at the opening. Do you save it, or savor it?

AS: Does a protective framework makes things precious? Can work (activity) or work (object) can be precious in the right frame? Is it about the frame(work)?

AV: It seems that’s what’s happening between the artists here. Whether or not someone else finds it precious from the outside is kind of unnecessary… except for funding, or press, or those other validating forces. For this particular kind of residency of cross-pollination with no end production.

AS: ‘Work’ is such a word, like ‘thing,’ that is so slippery.  And it’s beautiful in its hard-to-pin-it-down way.  “I think it’s important that we work.” (Saul wrote on 8/21/09 1:09 PM)

AV: “One manner I seek to create tension is to create/make work that simultaneously has presence and absence.” (Saul wrote on 8/10/09 sometime PM)

SM: The bags are barriers– they separate. This division often invites desire. In this case the barrier encloses/enshrines the objects, as it also importantly protects them. The shiny plastic bag brings in your attention (which I imagine it is designed to do) and it points to, or suggests that the objects have an inflated importance. It’s what I think is part of preciousness.

AV: What if the bag wasn’t shiny, or simply said I (heart) NY? I never let them give me a bag. I find the environment more important than ease of transporting my purchase

SM: I asked the man for 5 extra bags. I am currently collecting items to put in these bags.

AS: Rituals of enshrining. But it (hurts) our earth…? Like the Buddhist monk I saw when I was a  child. He was riding in a Mercedes.

AV: Buddha shined on him.

AS: Saul, how do rituals play in your work, and are they present in this residency?  (answer me in a week).

Saul Melman is a sculptor living in Brooklyn, NY. He is a recent graduate of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, Bard Summer program.

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