Artists Q&A

Do You Remember?: Chris Larson on ‘Land Speed Record,’ His Moving Tribute to Hüsker Dü and the 1980s Minneapolis Music Scene

Chris Larson, Land Speed Record (still), 2016, installation with color digital video, black-and-white Super 16mm film, sound, and sculpture. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Chris Larson, Land Speed Record (still), 2016, installation with color digital video, black-and-white Super 16mm film, sound, and sculpture.

COURTESY THE ARTIST

In 2011, a fire broke out at the childhood home of Grant Hart, the drummer of Hüsker Dü, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Hart was living there with his mother, and both were unharmed by the fire, but the house and hundreds of Hart’s belongings were damaged. After the fire, he asked the artist Chris Larson, an old friend, if he could store his things at Larson’s sprawling warehouse studio nearby. Larson agreed.

A video panning over those items is now on view in Larson’s current show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which exudes a strange blend of punk sensibilities and sacredness. The gallery housing it is cloaked in darkness, lit only by two projectors, with a video of Hart’s possessions—grade school craft projects, books, records, and quotidian items—filling one whole wall. The exhibition, which runs through January 8, is titled “Land Speed Record,” after Hüsker Dü’s 1981 live album, recorded at the 7th Street Entry, a storied space next to the main stage at the famous First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Larson has transferred drink rails from the Entry to the Walker for the show. As if taking a pew, viewers can rest an elbow on the rail and view the relics of a rocker’s life gracefully flow down the wall, like they are being buried in a reliquary.

Exterior view of Minneapolis's 7th Street Entry, where a recording session took place with Chris Larson, Grant Hart, and drums played by Yousef Davilia, on April 14, 2016. GENE PITTMAN/COURTESY WALKER ART CENTER, MINNEAPOLIS

Exterior view of Minneapolis’s 7th Street Entry, where a recording session took place with Chris Larson, Grant Hart, and drums played by Yousef Davilia, on April 14, 2016.

GENE PITTMAN/COURTESY WALKER ART CENTER, MINNEAPOLIS

The film of Hart’s belongings runs twice—once with just the drums from Land Speed Record playing and once in silence—while a small black-and-white 16mm film runs on the back wall, showing close-up shots of individual items from the massive pile of stuff. The soundtrack is actually new—Larson had Yousef Dell Valle, a young death metal drummer, meticulously recreated the drums from the album, underscoring the primal, relentless pounding of Hart’s work on that album, and the Walker has pressed a copy. Dell Valle also recently performed the piece live at the museum. Something more than mere celebration or nostalgia is at work here.

The early ’80s were a thrilling time for the Minneapolis music scene, with underground bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements and, of course, Prince reaching a global audience. That has not quite happened since. And so, for people who were part of that world, like Larson and me, who spent our youths plugged in and pumped up by endless gigs in basements, rented halls, and of course, the Entry, the piece asks a question that is actually Hüsker Dü’s name in Swedish: Do you remember?

“Land Speed Record” is about the friendship between Hart and Larson, their shared love for art and music, but it is also about a larger sense of connectedness that thrived before cell phones and social media, a scene built through Kinko’s flyers and word of mouth. It explores how memories and objects change over time, and how creativity morphs even as it endures. No radio stations played any of the music we heard at those shows, and photographs of them are very rare. No endless cell phone photos being uploaded to Instagram and Snapchat. Larson’s installation includes no photos of Hüsker Dü. Hart’s objects hold onto the physicality of that time. When you went to see a Hüsker Dü show you shared a cramped physical space, your eardrums ached, and you belonged to that scene at that time in that space. Larson’s piece revisits that moment, when a great creative explosion burst in a flyover Midwest city, while also examining how any subculture or life is remembered—what we keep, what we throw away, what values we hold.

I was there at the beginning. I am here now as I watch it come to a close, and I know that the angst and the fury of that early time cannot be sustained physically now with the same intensity. This is hard to accept. At 16, as an avid groupie more than anything, I witnessed the band’s punk onslaught on First Avenue’s main stage, and now, at the Walker, I have witnessed the dreary accumulation of Hart’s belongings, years of music, art, and relationships seeming to cascade over me.

Below, in an interview with Larson in his studio beside Grant’s things, we haggle over the power of nostalgia and discuss his art practice as well as the strong links between friendship and music.

Installation view of "Chris Larson: Land Speed Record," 2016, at Walker Art Center. GENE PITTMAN/COURTESY WALKER ART CENTER, MINNEAPOLIS

Installation view of “Chris Larson: Land Speed Record,” 2016, at Walker Art Center.

GENE PITTMAN/COURTESY WALKER ART CENTER, MINNEAPOLIS

ARTnews: Some of your previous works have been very physical, like Unnamed Structure, the large raw wood creaky house on stilts you built into the lobby of the Walker in 2011. Besides the drink rails from 7th Street in this piece, “Land Speed Record” is video based. Why the shift away from the building-intensive works of your past?

Chris Larson: I think like a sculptor. I learned something about my practice as I approached music and Land Speed Record, the LP. I was thinking about it as if it was a block of marble, cutting away something and chopping away. I began stripping away things within the album, cutting away any vocals, then Bob Mould’s guitar and Greg Norton’s bass. All that remained was Hart’s drums. I feel like I grew with this one. It is probably the most minimal installation I have done—and I had intended it to be even more so. The drink rails were a last-minute addition.

The objects you filmed have a life of their own. The camera looks at them sculpturally, but the art you make is far removed from your hand. Was it important to remove evidence of your labor from the piece?

The contraption that moves the camera is actually made by me out of wood and skateboard wheels.

I thought it was fancy mechanical Hollywood filming machinery!

The only thing I built was the thing that you don’t even see, which was the motor and camera track that pans over Hart’s belongings. I was trying to remove the hand, to make a machine that would remove any part about me, so that the work is really about these objects I kept walking by, which were sitting in my studio. Their function becomes redundant, the objects turn into something else. Take the drum and the car. There was potential for the objects to function again when I saw them in Grant’s house, but when they entered my studio their functionality seemed stripped away.

Grant Hart, left, and Chris Larson at 7th St. Entry, Minneapolis, on April 14, 2016. JORDAN ROSENOW

Grant Hart, left, and Chris Larson at 7th St. Entry, Minneapolis, on April 14, 2016.

JORDAN ROSENOW

Land Speed Record and Hüsker Dü defined a particular time and place in Minneapolis—it put the underground punk scene on the map—it made what we were doing in basements and all-ages nights at First Avenue seem interesting and important. But I think it’s tricky making an artwork that puts the bulk of its focus on the past. My knee-jerk reaction to the piece was aching nostalgia.

I don’t think I’ve ever used nostalgia as a tool in my practice—even looking at my previous work in which I used wood to build rudimentary older machines that referenced the past, but it wasn’t nostalgia.

Yes, I know, I was surprised to feel that.

Maybe it’s you.

Wait a second, I did feel nostalgia in another piece of yours—while watching the video installation The Raft (2015)—where it follows you and Rico Gatson sailing back and forth on a raft of plywood in your cavernous studio space, while you two listen to records for hours. In fact, The Raft feels like a partner piece to Land Speed Record, because it is video based and is all about music and friendship. As a viewer, it was hard to pull myself away, partly because I wanted to hear what song you or Rico would pick next. More so, it was because I felt a palpable, quite personal nostalgia for the times when I would sit around on a friend’s floor listening to records. That felt like a healthy nostalgia, a motivating nostalgia.

Rico and I talked a lot about this, about memories of those songs. I loved the line in your article about that work, where you relate the imaginary river we flow down in the studio as a metaphor for the streets filled with people in protest. My relationship to music is about those songs from earlier in my life that still have power today. It gives me hope that I can be motivated to make change. Grant still lives with that attitude, the attitude of the punk rocker, anti-establishment, refusing to conform. Nostalgia feels like a loaded word that focuses on what these things were, not what they’ve become. These objects, their function changed, Grant changed. Grant can’t play like that anymore.

Having Yousef, the drummer, return to the music and re-perform Grant’s part, especially live in the gallery, felt to me like renewal, lifting the work out of nostalgia.

The objects don’t have a home, and that might conjure up a sentimental feeling. I have worked with Grant, going through his stuff, and so many things have real stories, of tours in the Balkans and things people gave him in Italy. Today, some of the things do have some notoriety. There is an attraction to that. At that time, a real revolution was happening within music, and Hüsker Dü were at the cusp of that in the early ’80s. Early recording reels were also saved from the fire, and other items that have cultural value.

View a recording session at Minneapolis's 7th Street Entry, with Chris Larson, Grant Hart, and drums played by Yousef Davilia, April 14, 2016. GENE PITTMAN/COURTESY WALKER ART CENTER, MINNEAPOLIS

View of a recording session at Minneapolis’s 7th Street Entry, with Chris Larson, Grant Hart, and drums played by Yousef Davilia, April 14, 2016.

GENE PITTMAN/COURTESY WALKER ART CENTER, MINNEAPOLIS

The spirit of friendship and collaboration weave their way through many of your projects, two elements that need time to grow and develop. It has occurred to me that you might dislike working alone, or perhaps that you work simultaneously on a solo project and a collaborative one?

I have never been really interested in collaboration. I’ve always thought about how I approach working with others as more like being in a band, where you can’t make music alone. It’s only been in the last two years I have worked with others, with friends. I hit a point where I wanted to try working and moving in a different way. For 20 years I worked solo. In “Land Speed Record,” there is no real collaboration, because I made all the art in the show, which consists of the videos and installed architectural elements—the drink rails replicated from the Entry.

True. Hart is present through his dispossessed objects that had been rendered homeless due to the fire, hence he is not artistically making the work with you. How did you came to do a piece about Hart’s burnt belongings?

Smoke-damaged things smell for about a year, and every day his things hovered in my peripheral vision. I got fire in my head. I was then thinking about fire and what happens when the architecture disappears, what happens to the space around the structure once it is burned down. In 2014, I re-sited a Marcel Breuer house from atop the river bluff in East St. Paul to an open lot by the Mississippi. I built a life-size replica out of flammable material, cardboard and wood. By setting this replica ablaze, Celebration/Love/Loss (2013) reconstitutes it and recontextualizes modernism, burns it down and asks, What can we build in its place? I didn’t and still don’t see potential in the Breuer house that sits on the bluff in St. Paul. What happens when all that’s left is its footprint once it’s burned down?

In “Land Speed Record” I also re-site the Entry’s drink rails. I do not find the drink rails to be an interesting sculpture, but placing them in proximity to the stage where the film plays reflects on how Grant’s house was relocated to my studio. I am interested in how this movement of objects begins a process of translation, by altering their context. I like the word translation—moving something from one place to another.

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