Black and White Program

Interview with Douglas Fogle, Curator of “Life on Mars,” the 55th Carnegie International

May 16th, 2008 by John Eastman

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Can you elaborate on the Life on Mars theme? It’s a reference to a song on the David Bowie album “Hunky Dorey.” Can you explain the metaphor aspect of that?

There’s a sense of the relevancy of [the David Bowie song “Life on Mars"] for today, given the unmoored nature of the global sort of world that we live in, political events, cultural events…

FOGLE: The title of the exhibition came much later than the actual show started developing. In 112 years, the show has never had a title other than The Carnegie International. And I really wanted to start the exhibition before you walked in the door, so I wanted something that was evocative without closing down, meaning that it opened up questions before you walked in the door. I have always been a big David Bowie fan, and the song “Life on Mars,” which is on the “Hunky Dorey” album that he did I think in ’71 or ’72, it’s a song that really talks about kind of a world spinning out of control and about — he longingly asked the question, “is there life on Mars?” For me, thinking about other worlds, thinking about what contemporary art does, it takes you to other worlds. There’s a sense of the relevancy of [the David Bowie song “Life on Mars"] for today, given the unmoored nature of the global sort of world that we live in, political events, cultural events, and whatnot. So it seemed like and apt title to give, and an evocative title to give to an exhibition that was about 40 contemporary artists from all over the world.

The lyrics express a desire for humans to connect with each other, with another world?
FOGLE: Yes. I wouldn’t put too much stock in it — I don’t want the title to lock down and clamp down on the artists in a way. It is a metaphor. It’s just kind of what I just said, which I think, for me, it’s a metaphor of thinking about other worlds, thinking about utopian places, thinking about a human longing for connection or for escape, either way. So for me it really is a way, just a very loose framework on which to hang — to get someone in the door thinking about the exhibition before they see the show.

In the exhibit are works that are made by hand that last only a short period of time– the duration of the exhibit. There’s an ephemeral aspect to it. Is that related to the nature of personal communication? Is it one shot reaching out?
FOGLE: I don’t think it’s the nature of communication. I think that, and it’s only a few artists, the hand is very present. But the ephemeral kinds of work that we’re talking about — Richard Wright would be a really great example — there is something about that and the transitory nature of his work. He paints directly onto the wall with wash. In nine months, when the show is over, it gets painted over white.

Ariel, Friedrich KunathAnd it becomes a ghost in the gallery. It’s not a stencil; it’s not a silk screen. It is done by hand. I think that the most basic form of expression that one can conjure as a human being is picking up something in your hand and making a mark, making a mark in the sand, making a mark on a piece of paper, making a mark on a painting, a piece of clay. Forming something, that is human, really human, all too human kind of a quality. There are not a ton of works in the show that have that exact kind of transitory, ephemeral feel to it. But then there is a lot of work in the exhibition which is using low-fi materials, more democratic materials than we think of as for fine arts, as opposed to marble. We have Thomas Hirschhorn using cardboard, packaging tape, and tinfoil as opposed to oil paint. You have someone like Barry McGee, painting on wood, cutting it up, and making this incredible installation that you walk through like a street. Looking back historically, you have someone like Paul Thek, who purposefully chose to paint on newsprint, which is — as our conservators will tell you — not a very sound medium for the ages. And he made that choice for two reasons. One, it was very much about a democracy of the, “I’m gonna paint on whatever is available. I’m not going to worry about the preservation of the work in a way.”

But it’s also — he was painting on newsprint. It was also painting on the events of the world, on the things that wash over us every day that constitute our relationship to the greater world. So the support structure itself that he’s painting on — he’s painting a new world on top of our world, in a way. Then with the untitled earth painting, which became one of the icons of the show, he’s literally painting the earth — or the world on top of the world.

What surprised you the most about your experiences curating the show? Something that stood out?
FOGLE: It’s hard to say. Phil Collins’ new film, I knew what it was going to be about, but I had no idea how beautiful and sophisticated it was going to be. I really think he outdid himself. It’s a piece that I think is his most mature work to date.

It’s very powerful, very emotional.
FOGLE: It’s an incredibly emotional, but yet analytical film. With all of Phil’s work, there’s an emotional aspect, and there’s a very removed aspect, where he’s analyzing as well. And the camera movement in that film is very much on the outside. You identify with the people in front of the camera, but the camera has another sort of agenda. It’s a very interesting kind of photographic — his director of photography and film chose some very interesting sort of ways of doing a so-called documentary. It’s not a documentary at all, actually.

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