An Interview with Bean Gilsdorf
Bean Gilsdorf's exhibition in the Feldman Gallery explores the role of imagination and immateriality.
The conceptual point of departure for Bean Gilsdorf’s recent exhibition at PNCA’s Philip Feldman Gallery is her experience as an art critic. Each day of the exhibition, Gilsdorf placed a three-page review for an imagined exhibition — a different imagined exhibition each day — in a vitrine on the front of a two-sided reading desk. The previous day’s review were moved to the back of the table. The spent reviews accumulated over the course of the exhibition, and on the final day of the show, the main review assessed the exhibition of the title — which is to say, it reviewed itself. By presenting these speculative productions as a fait accompli, Gilsdorf examined the potency and vulnerability of assessing objects that exist in the ideational stage, as well as the role of the viewer as a co-author of the work. She addressed subjects such as subjectivity, viewership, criticism as historiography, and the threshold at which text becomes object.
An Interview with Bean Gilsdorf
Jodie Cavalier Could you speak first about your background? What brought you to art? Where was your primary area of focus, and does it connect to how you are working now?
Bean Gilsdorf I have a Bachelors degree in Literature from Simon’s Rock College and a Masters degree in Linguistics and a Graduate Certificate in Cognitive Science from the University of Colorado at Boulder, because I thought initially that I wanted to be a scientist. The thing about science — it continues to boggle my mind — is that there is no “try before you buy.” You just have to go and get your degree and while you are getting your degree, you’re figuring out whether you actually like it or not. I loved linguistics and I loved the work, but it only ever leads to being an academic researcher in another university or institution and I really didn’t like that environment. I didn’t like the grant-driven competition for funding and things like that. It’s a very interesting social environment, but one I didn’t really want to participate in. I left Colorado and moved to Portland and was trying to decide if I should get a PhD, since I had already invested a lot of time and energy and money into my studies. And I was making a lot of art while I was trying to figure that out. And finally I had this breakthrough moment where I realized “I’m doing what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t want a PhD. I don’t want to pursue this. I want to pursue art.” That was a real shift moment for me.
During the ten years I lived in Portland, I mostly made quilts, or artworks that took the quilt form: a backing, a batting, [and] some kind of surface decoration on the front stitched through all three layers. They were not meant for the bed, they were meant for the wall. I used a lot of printmaking techniques, and also painted on fabrics.
JC Did you feel like Portland influenced the kind of work you were making?
BG I think to a certain extent that it did. I come from a sewing family. My mother and my grandmother made a lot of my clothes when I was a kid. My great grandmother was a professional seamstress. So it made sense that when I started making art, while I was trying to deal with this transitional period, that I would return to a medium that I was already skilled at and had a knowledge base. The whole DIY thing exploded while I was here, but that was actually difficult for me because I was trying to use craft media but have a contemporary art conversation and I felt like the whole social interest in DIY shunted me off into having a conversation about DIY, when, actually, I didn’t care at all. I was not interested in buying thrift store clothes and remaking them or having craft parties or learning to knit or any of those thing that swept through Portland in the early 2000s. That was just not a conversation I wanted to have, so in some ways it was really frustrating.
Linden How I see this connection in your work to linguistics, text, and words. The poet Susan Howe speaks about a stitch being the same thing as a word. You’re piecing something together word by word to form this whole. With that in mind, how did you make the transition from this fabric or textile-based work to what we are seeing in the gallery right now?
BG I think that’s a really good question, but I also don’t think that there’s a transition. I did an undergraduate degree in Literature and I went to a school that required a written thesis and I wrote a collection of short stories — terrible short stories, by the way, that no one should read ever. In a lot of ways, I agree with the idea that a word is very similar to the idea of a stitch and that you are making these piece-by-piece narratives. The interesting thing, too, is how textiles are used as metaphors for things: you weave a tale, you spin a yarn, the idea that narrative is really connected with a woven structure with cloth. I think that in some ways they are so closely culturally related that there’s not much of a transition to be made. The transition is already there, it’s in place, it’s in the background.
I feel like I work in a way that I think a lot of artists work, where you start at a point and then you digress from that point and you seem to be getting farther away from it but really what you’re doing is circling back to it, and you never hit the original point, but you come close to it. And then you do it again. It’s really iterative. You go away from it and then you move back to it, and it’s almost like trying to touch the wound that can never be closed. You try and get back to this central point of the way that you think and the things that you’re interested in, but because you can never reach it, it forces you — I’m sure Freud says something about this somewhere — because you can never reach that locus, that central point, you have to return to it over and over again.
LH To talk more directly about your exhibit in the Feldman Gallery, how did it come about? How did you conceive of it? What was the process?
BG I actually had the idea originally as a book of stories to return to writing in a fictional way. I do a lot of exhibition reviews and essays about art in my job as an arts writer, but I don’t write fiction anymore. Although, writing about art, of course, is a fiction, because what I see, and what I’m describing and responding to in an exhibition review is very subjective. What I see is not what you see. Physiologically, we know that that’s true. Before I had the opportunity to mount this work as an exhibition, it was going to be a book of short stories that were exhibition reviews for exhibitions that didn’t exist. Then, Mack [McFarland] contacted me about doing a show and he said, “You have carte blanche, you can do whatever you want in this space.” I thought, you know, why would this exist as a group of short stories? If we are describing exhibitions that don’t exist, but in reading them you create them in your brain, why not make that an actual exhibition? And then I started playing with permutations of that. And that was sort of how I came up with the idea to switch the reviews out, re-light the gallery as though the works that I am describing are actually in the room. That was where the seed of it started, this idea of outright fiction.
JC Can you talk a little bit about when an art experience is happening? It’s a broad question, but I think about the reviews also pointing back to these works that don’t exist, and the viewer then can still go back into the world and think about these things, in a similar way that they would by looking at physical artworks in a gallery, but it travels with them.
BG I think that’s something that happens anyway. Instead of having a tacit agreement with some hypothetical viewer, where they might walk into an exhibition, and see a painting, and they read whatever they want to read into it, whatever their entire background up until that moment, essentially, makes them see, I’m just asking the viewer to create a very similar experience in their mind. Some days, I wake up and I think, “That’s not very different, those two things,” and then some days I wake up and I think, “Wow, they are very far apart, experientially.” My feelings about this shift, not just because I’m the author but also because I’m the recipient in a way. It’s purposefully something that’s really hard to put your finger on. Where does the work exist? Is the work only on the page, in the form of words? Does the work exist in this imaginary space that you projected onto the walls? Does that mean that it exists in your brain? Does it exist in the eighteen to twenty-eight inches between where the page rests on the desk and your eyes? Is it somewhere physicalized in that space? And it shifts, I think. It shifts depending on the quality of the prose, the feelings of the viewer, and things like that. I think it’s probably a different experience for everybody.
JC It seems also related to a kind of co-authorship with the viewer, in that they are working with you or with the text to create this link.
BG Yes, I think co-authorship is a great way to put it. The interesting thing for me is that this is a really explicit co-authorship. I am asking you very explicitly, “Please imagine this thing, right now, while you are reading this.” If you walk into a gallery and look at “regular artwork,” art that is physicalized in the space, on the walls, you’re still performing that, but it’s so tacit. Your reaction to it, your reading of it is still very much a part of your imagination, because everybody brings their own experience of the world to the act of viewership. That makes it really individual, and in being very individual, it means that you and I might disagree about what something is, and if we disagree, then there isn’t just one thing. There isn’t a right answer, which means that basically we are living in some kind of imaginary space between that object and our own opinions and reactions to it.
JC Could you talk a little bit about the role of imagination or immateriality? It seems that these things are not just in this work, but are a part of your general practice.
BG One of the things that I circle back to all the time is different ideas about history, about constructions of history, who gets to decide what a historical event is, how is that event depicted… all the problems that we think about when we think about the creation of history. And that’s an imaginative process. Again, it’s a very tacit imaginative process. We don’t really talk about the role imagination plays in something like “capital H” History. Everybody’s going to agree, supposedly, that these events happened in this particular way, but when you think about a historical narrative, it’s basically a confluence of events. Some of them are very large, like someone being assassinated, but some of them are very small, like the tire wobbles on the vehicle, or it’s 78 degrees, or there was a man on the corner selling water ice. Those things get edited out, and that editing is part of that imaginative process, that things have to be envisioned in a particular way in order to be encapsulated and put forth in an understandable way. I feel like the role of imagination works a lot through my practice in very different ways, but in ways that I think maybe nobody talks about explicitly because we’re not using imagination explicitly when we do these things. We don’t think of writing a biography as an act of imagination, we think of it as an act of putting together facts. I think a lot of people wouldn’t even call it imagination, but certainly, I think it’s an apt way to characterize it.
LH What you’re saying about history leads into the next question, which is about why and how you decided to change the exhibit daily. How does the fact that it changes operate as part of the exhibit? Do you think of this exhibit and other work as operating within the realm of time-based art?
BG I have done some other projects that were explicitly time-based. I run a museum out of my apartment that is designed to talk about temporal space within history. With this particular exhibition, one of the things that I wanted to do was to push some tacit things forward: the fact that we don’t really get a lot of opportunities to talk about where artwork exists and how much the viewer brings to the role of spectatorship, things like that. One of the ways to do that was to change the exhibition every day, so that you were seeing something different all the time, and that would make it very self-aware in a way. To kind of tease that out in a way that changing it once a week wouldn’t be able to do. But also, this is a school; people aren’t here necessarily every day, people wander in and out, and I wanted there to be plenty of opportunities for people to experience something different when they went in the gallery, whether that was every day, or even just one day a week. I wanted them to be able to walk in and for there to be some kind of surprising element.
LH You have a background as a critic, a writer, an artist, and in some ways, you’re also taking on the role of curator in this project. How do you think about, and operate within, those different roles?
BG I think even just a couple of years ago I would have said that these roles were pretty separate. The older I get, and the more that I do them, I find that they are very slippery categories and that there is a lot of fluidity between them. It’s funny in particular that you should bring up curating because it is something that I have done very little of, but have found it extremely easy to do. Somebody had asked me, “Do you find that transition difficult to make between being an artist and being a curator?” And I said, “No.” Because when I started being an artist, I did everything myself. I made the work. I packaged the work. I shipped the work and when I didn’t ship it I would go in and install it all myself. Which meant I would determine where it was going because I was working with alternative art spaces and non commercial galleries. I was doing it all myself. If there was a press release, I had to write it and make sure it got into the right hands. Many of the things that go into being a curator, up to and including selecting the work, I had already been doing. When I decided to curate other peoples’ work, I had this knowledge base for it, and it was kind of a relief because I didn’t have to also make the work. It actually took some of the pressure off.
I feel like the categories weave in and out. And I’m sure my feelings about them will shift. The fact that they have already shifted indicates that they will probably shift again in the future.
JC I’m curious about, speaking of making work and then deciding what goes in to shows or does not, about the reviews that you put into the exhibition and if those were things that you had already written or were working on. Were those things in response to seeing real exhibitions? There’s also this kind of humor that comes into the work, and I wonder if you can talk about how humor operates.
BG I did a lot of pre-writing. I had a residency up in Washington that I used for writing before this show began, but actually I found that I wouldn’t finish any of those reviews. I would flesh out the bones of an exhibition and then I would think, well, on to the next idea, let’s get the ideas out and then you can go back and craft the prose and make it hit all those notes that an exhibition review is supposed to make. What I found, though, is that when I went back into them, that I was really not invested in a lot of those ideas anymore. So I actually ended up doing most of the writing during the run of the show, which I hadn’t expected to do.
The humor in the work, I hope that people are getting it. In each exhibition review I refer to “the artist,” and don’t say who this person is, because then it becomes a question of whether it’s me or someone else. There’s a quote in today’s review that says “Art is simply a matter of the text.” And it’s kind of a joke for myself in a way. The thing about writing all of these is that, at some point, I had to make the commitment to amuse myself. A lot of the humor, I think, is directed internally, just to keep me interested in my own prose. Because, if you really want to find yourself detestable, write an exhibition review and publish it every day. It will make you hate your own way of expressing ideas. The work that has been in these reviews, the bulk of it came from old sketchbooks. They were ideas for work that at some point I had considered and then for one reason or another abandoned. I didn’t have enough money, or the technical knowledge, or I would write some ideas down and make some sketches but then decide, “Oh, that’s a crappy idea.” It’s interesting to put time and energy into those ideas again. And while this project is so dematerialized, almost all of my ideas were for physical objects. Having to analyze those ideas and reinvest all this energy has actually made me want to make them. Reinvestigating them has also helped show me where the flaws were in the original thinking, and how it might be circumvented if I were actually to make those objects now. So, it’s actually made my hands kind of itch to make something.
JC Speaking of objects, how did you decide what to put in the space? Why the double-sided reading desk, why show all the other reviews on the back end?
BG I had to give the viewer a cue, so that they would walk into the space which doesn’t have anything on the walls. I had to give them a way into the exhibition, and to me, one of the strongest cues that I could give them would be to design an object to display these reviews that was very clearly not a piece of standard gallery furniture, like a white-painted vitrine, or your typical sculptural plinth. It was clear to me that I had to have one piece of furniture that was very clearly designed for this purpose. Since I was asking people to be readers as well as viewers, it made sense to make a platform that was very explicitly about reading. That’s why the pages aren’t on a flat surface, like a table, but rather are tilted for you to read at a forty five degree angle. It’s meant to meet your eyes. Particularly, I wanted it shaped and stained and varnished as though it maybe could exist in a really beautiful old public library, or private club. I wanted it to be a weighty piece of furniture that had a certain gravitas to it. The decision to put what I’ve been calling the “spent reviews” — like they’ve been used up by people reading them — on the back side was a way of giving someone who was walking into the exhibition only once, and during the middle of its run, a sense of what might have come before, and what might come after. That’s why all the exhibition reviews have the day’s date on them, so that if someone walks in today, and they walk around the back of the vitrine and see the pile of the previous days’ reviews, they can look at those dates and understand that it’s been up for a while, that it changes all the time, these are all different shows. There is a sense of accumulation, a sense of a temporal performance, and a way for people to understand that this is something that, in some ways, could stretch even further backward and further forward into the future.
JC Do you think about this work having an endpoint, or does it continue?
BG There’s an artist named Nina Beier who did a project at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. As part of her exhibition, she made an artistic and intellectual claim for the paint that was at the museum. She painted a swatch on the wall, and once a week a preparator would come and paint another swatch on the wall. The interesting thing was that she made a claim for all the paint that’s in the museum, so that whenever someone paints a wall, they are essentially reinstalling her work.
If my works are about imagination, even though the artworks that they describe do not exist in reality, then what’s the difference when I write the next exhibition review for real work in a gallery that I go and see and then publish as a writer, not as an artist? Can I make a similar claim for that work now being part of my artistic practice as well as my writing practice? That’s what I mean about this slipperiness of categories and boundaries. Going into the future, when I write the next exhibition review for work that I have actually seen and experienced… when you read that, what kind of experience are you having? Is it the same kind of experience that you had coming to the Feldman Gallery and reading those exhibition reviews?
LH I think also what you’re saying about exhibitions that you do really see versus exhibitions that you only access through reading reviews, there’s also this examination of how we relate to the experience of seeing art. It’s kind of this play with space and non-space as well.
BG Right, and the perceptual difference that you might have, reading an exhibition review from a trusted source, say, Art in America, where you can read an exhibition review and you can be fairly confident that an exhibition really existed. So what does it do to have that kind of truth value added to that versus what I have done here, where I am explicitly saying this is a fiction. The act of reading, and the act of constructing what that exhibition was in your head is really no different, but they are labelled very different things.
An Exhibition That Might Exist, by Bean Gilsdorf, is on view at the Philip Feldman Gallery in Portland, OR, through February 28, 2014.
BEAN GILSDORF makes works including sculpture, performance, and writing. Her recent art projects compare systems of history that appear as both individual accounts and as unified public narratives. Her performances explore history through appropriation and improvisation, while more material works—objects, videos, and installations—investigate archived historical records by manipulating images from mass-market history books. Gilsdorf’s projects have been supported by grants from the Puffin Foundation and the NW Film Center of the Portland Art Museum, and included in exhibitions at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, the American Textile History Museum, and the Holter Museum of Art, as well as exhibition spaces in Poland, England, Italy, China, and South Africa. Gilsdorf is the Managing Editor of Daily Serving, an international publication for the contemporary fine arts. Her critical writing and interviews have also been published in online and print magazines such as Textile: the Journal of Cloth and Culture, Fiberarts Magazine (2007-2011), and Art Practical. Gilsdorf received her MFA from the California College of the Arts in 2011 and was a 2011-2012 Fellowship Resident at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she operates the Bean Gilsdorf Living History Museum.