As an exhibition with a self-assigned mission to survey “the possibilities and pitfalls of interdisciplinary artmaking,” the newest show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles set its sights wide. The premise for “Lifes” (a curious title explained by the curator below) came to fruition in the wake of four texts commissioned with the hopes of providing prompts of un-preconceived kinds. The resulting works and performances came from an eclectic cast of creators, including Kevin Beasley, Nina Beier, Dora Budor, Charles Gaines, Wayne Koestenbaum, Okwui Okpokwasili, Aubrey Plaza, Greg Tate, and others in varied disciplines.
With a focus ranging from feats of performance and research to philosophical writings and the legacy of “total works of art,” the show “will be a living, breathing entity that changes over the span of the exhibition,” according to the Hammer, and “the individual contributions to ‘Lifes’ are not necessarily conceived as discrete units but rather parts of a larger whole.”
To learn more about the origin and evolution of the exhibition—which opens February 16 and runs through May 8—ARTnews conducted an interview with Hammer curator Aram Moshayedi over email.
ARTnews: How did the idea for “Lifes” come into the world, in its earliest form?
Aram Moshayedi: The first working title for the exhibition was “Salade Russe” because I liked the irreverent nod to the Ballets Russes. But as my conversations progressed I realized that the reference was somehow oversaturated. I didn’t want the exhibition to be consumed by the ghost of Sergei Diaghilev, who is already a touchstone for many curators today. As I tried to get away from the impresario figure, I found myself instead gravitating toward Vaslav Nijinsky, the dancer and choreographer whose credits for the Ballets Russes include The Afternoon of the Faun (1912) and The Rite of Spring (1913). I began reading Nijinsky’s diaries with a dear friend and confidant, and I found myself thinking more about how perilous it is to commit one’s self to the conditions of live performance. The body is fragile, it has its limits, and yet there is the expectation that the body of any performer is there for the taking. Audiences are eager to consume, particularly after a period when they’ve been deprived of liveness. And being a curator at a contemporary art museum, I’ve been conflicted by my desire to see live performance in a context otherwise reserved for static objects. Museums are tasked with the preservation and conservation of objects for posterity, but how do they maintain the lives of performers? And, more importantly, why do museums want this to become part of their purview?
I say this all not to give the impression that “Lifes” is an exhibition solely concerned with the conditions of live performance in the museum. It was equally motivated by literary and musical interests, as well as a reappraisal of assemblage as a curatorial strategy. I also just wanted to think about a different approach to curating—one that could sustain my interests and harness the power of disciplines and practices that swim alongside contemporary art. The exhibition started off as an exploration of the so-called total work of art, but only because I think this offered a way to express disciplinary promiscuity.
ARTnews: How did the idea develop or evolve once work on it commenced? Did it change in any way, or take on new directions?
Moshayedi: The process for “Lifes” began by approaching writers, with the idea that their written texts would serve as the basis of subsequent conversations with other invited contributors. I wanted the commissioned texts by Fahim Amir, Asher Hartman, Rindon Johnson, and Adania Shibli to guide the exhibition, and I initially established a structure where any invitations to contribute would be done in consultation with the writer, responding to how they might have imagined their words finding their way into the folds of the exhibition. I didn’t want to force collaboration, but instead to allow conversations to take place naturally without the institutional pressures that so often try to co-opt interdisciplinarity for marketing purposes. At a certain point, in consultation with curatorial assistant Nicholas Barlow and [choreographer] Adam Linder, who took on the role of a dramaturg, I began to make invitations to artists and other contributors who would somehow address the infrastructure of the exhibition. There are works in “Lifes” that emerged in direct relation to the written texts, but others that address the overall structure of the exhibition and that interface with the various practices of mediation that are specific to contemporary art museums and their negotiation of the experience economy.
ARTnews: An exhibition description aligns it with “the legacy of the so-called total work of art.” What are a few such historical works you had in mind?
Moshayedi: I hope that “Lifes” makes no pretense of aligning itself with the legacy of the total artwork. I think recouping the phrase had more to do with undermining its aura than with forming an allegiance. Conversations about Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk seemed unfulfilling, but in the planning of “Lifes” we welcomed a context where Wagner and Diaghilev could converse with George Clinton, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Butch Morris, Daisy Hildyard, Alexander Kluge, and others. The sharing of sources among and between contributors became far more potent than the pursuit of synthesizing poetic, visual, musical, and dramatic art-forms. The late Greg Tate authored an essay for the catalogue on the idea of Black music production as a historical form of curation. To my mind, this contribution unsettles the comfortable status that any claims for the total work of art may have had in the past.
ARTnews: Materials also mention “more than 50 individuals from various creative fields.” Which other creative fields did you delve into, beyond what might most typically be put on view at the Hammer Museum?
Moshayedi: It’s important that the exhibition take part in the forms of knowledge-production that other fields can offer. I also think there is a productive incongruity that occurs when names like Aubrey Plaza are spoken in the same breath as Pauline Oliveros and Senyawa. Where else but an exhibition can one find sensibilities of the entertainment industry and experimental music sharing the same space? If I were to list out creative fields, I think I would undermine the project as a whole. Sure, names like Ralph Lemon carry the baggage of dance, and Rosemarie Trockel the baggage of art, but we also aspire to a way of thinking about “Lifes” that doesn’t instrumentalize the contributors on the basis of their past works. There were also many people we consulted whose names are not afforded a similar billing but whose contributions are indispensable. I am skeptical of my own use of the number 50 to describe the contents of the exhibition. On the one hand it’s a misrepresentation, on the other it’s a deception. Numbers are often used under false pretense to signify how ambitious something might be. “Lifes” makes no claims about its scale. It’s actually rather humble, modest. But it was important to represent the role that individual performers have within the exhibition, so that is why the number stands out. I would like to think the contributors’ list will continue to grow after the exhibition opens—each time a name is added, the makeup of “Lifes” bends in interesting ways and the museum has to respond accordingly.
ARTnews: It also mentions “the possibilities and pitfalls of interdisciplinary artmaking.” What are examples in your mind of such “possibilities and pitfalls”?
Moshayedi: The possibilities are few and the pitfalls are many. Interdisciplinarity is something of a dirty word that should be used with caution. Institutions and fashion brands equally tout an embrace of interdisciplinary collaboration, but the result is most often a bit cringe. Admittedly, though, I find myself struggling to find an adequate vocabulary to describe the alternative. Which is why “Lifes” became the title. It’s not a word, it’s an error—it’s either missing an apostrophe or it’s spelling mistake. But it also implies pluralities of self, it implies the many ways we inhabit the world—not just professionally as artists, dancers, musicians, composers, curators, or whatever we call ourselves. “Lifes” implies grammatical impossibility. There is a quote by Charles Gaines from 1981 that appears as the publication’s epigraph: “The art work, the total art work, involves many aspects of myself, not just one, and they all want to participate in the work. But when the work is done they all disappear, claiming ignorance of the whole affair, and documenting alibis.” Your question reminded me of this passage because any suspicion I have toward so-called interdisciplinary art-making stems from the apparent self-possession that so many of its proponents claim to possess.
ARTnews: What are three or so emblematic works that represent the range of the kind of creations included?
Moshayedi: The only emblematic works I can single out are those that were commissioned for the publication with the intent that they would fuel the contents of the exhibition. I am grateful for the words that Fahim Amir, Asher Hartman, Rindon Johnson, and Adania Shibli leant because “Lifes” would not have been able to mold itself into the shape it has without them as our guides. They are four writers whose individual output has helped shape my thinking as a curator, and I hope the exhibition plays some small part in acknowledging this.