Highlight text to annotate itX
Sarah Peters: Hi, I'm very honored to introduce our guest. Lorna Simpson has made a career
out of images that seduce the viewer with elegance while they proposition us with essential
questions about identity, the body, the gaze, history and memory. Her talk this evening
coincides with her exhibition titled "Recollection - Lorna Simpson" which features the Walker's
holdings of the artist's work, currently on view in the Medtronic Gallery. While consisting
of only about seven pieces, the show demonstrates the considerable breadth of Simpson's photographic
and cinematic practice. Beginning as a documentary photographer in the early 1980s, Simpson quickly
moved into a practice that involves staging portraits, scenes, and objects in a studio
rather than finding them out on the street. Interested in exploring ways that a photograph
can be read, she began to create conceptual compositions pairing minimalist black and
white images with short texts. As seen in works such as "Counting" and "Queen's Eyes"
from 1991, and "The Bathroom" from 1998, all of which are on view upstairs, Simpson broadens
our conception of contemporary photography by mixing text with images, printing on unorthodox
materials, and arranging portraits, objects and words in ways that evoke the formal qualities
of installation while still working in a two-dimensional form.
These images are strikingly clear and composed, yet upon extended contemplation, we realize
that they omit much of the information that we could use to make sense of the story. The
figures, primarily female and dark-skinned, have their backs turned to the camera or are
missing from the picture altogether, as in the case of the piece titled "Wigs Portfolio"
from 1994, where felt panels carrying images of 21 different hair pieces stand in for women
of varying race and age. As viewers, we are called to employ our own experiences and assumptions
to make sense of the work and to read it.
A similar experience is found in Simpson's moving images. We are fortunate to have on
view a work that she completed during a residency here at the Walker in 1998, and the title
of which is borrowed for the whole exhibition. "Recollection" was shot here in the Twin Cities
using local actors, who play out an episodic and disjointed narrative. The construction
of these enigmatic vignettes and characters mirror Simpson's strategy of working with
fragments of text and image.
Her most recent work, which I believe she'll speak about a bit this evening, involves the
collection and display of vintage photographs found in flea markets and online auctions.
In two series that are installed together on a wall upstairs, the artist inserts herself
into the work for the first time. Among the snapshots of anonymous women from decades
past, Simpson adds her own body, staged to mimic the poses and interiors of the found
pictures. These self-portraits aren't immediately identifiable, but upon closer inspection they
stand out from the others. This game of detection becomes a viewing experience that beautifully
confuses time, history and personal identity.
All of Simpson's images, in their various forms, moving and still, created over the
past two decades, maintain a provocative and mysterious narrative of some of the most important
issues of contemporary life: race, class, *** identity, and their revolving relationships
to power. She has been honored by numerous solo and group exhibitions, including a 20-year
retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2007 that New York Times
critic Holland Cotter called a vision of a career in progress, or, in other words, fresh
and always changing.
Lorna Simpson has given us much to think about in these 20 years so far, and I'm very pleased
to welcome her to the stage to speak with us about it, but before I do that, I want
to remind you that the talk tonight is being webcast live on the Walker channel, and it
will be archived there. It's the section of our website where we archive talks and panels.
And so when we get to the Q and A section at the end, I ask that you find one of the
ushers in the aisles to get a microphone to ask your question, and please stand up so
that we can know whose speaking. And with that, please welcome Lorna Simpson.
Lorna Simpson: Hi, good evening. I thought I'd speak this evening about my most recent
work, but the work goes from photography to film to found objects to drawings, and starting
from now and working my way back to talk about the work. One of the pieces that is here started
with this photograph, which is a photograph that I found on eBay in collecting different
images for different projects. I saw it and purchased it and after I received it, the
seller contacted me and said, "Oh, I have about 250 photographs of this sort. Are you
interested in purchasing them?" I agreed, and received these amazing albums of what
was a project of an anonymous woman in Los Angeles who made it a project to photograph
herself and having a photographer photograph her in all these Hollywood quasi-actress poses.
In doing so, I took them all out of the album. The album did not contain family photographs
or trips or chronicling day-to-day life; the way that they were organized was solely pictures
of her in this project, which took place in between June and August of 1957. And so I
pinned them all up on the wall of my studio while working on another show, and different
friends would come by and they'd go, "Wow, that's really amazing, but what are you going
to do with that?" which is always the case with things that are interesting.
After having them up for about eight or nine months, I realized what was fascinating about
it was that she was posing for the camera in a particular way of learning how to pose
for the camera, but also this kind of learning how to interact with it. So I got this idea
to insert myself into her scene, into her three-month project, and mimic her poses,
which, given that she, I think, is much taller than I and much longer-limbed and double-jointed,
was really difficult.
Some of her poses, I was like, "Ow, ow!" Maybe that's because I'm old. It was painful to
try to mimic her physically; it felt like yoga positions. In doing so, I wanted to insert
myself invisibly, so that the project for me is to mount her project, meaning to display
this work of a three-month project where a woman becomes all these different characters,
and that I expand that project by inserting myself in it. That's one on the left, and
my version at home on the right. For me, in the work that I have done in the past, I have
never included myself in the work, but still I find myself with my relationship to the
work of always doing what I say I'll never do at some point in time. Had you asked me
four years ago, "Would you ever do any pictures where you include yourself mimicking someone
else?" I would have said, "No, are you kidding? No way."
That was interesting, to push myself to try to include myself in a project. Every morning
I cursed myself for coming up with the project, cause I really hated the physicality of going
through the motions to make it, and it took about a month for me to become relaxed with
doing so. This is a segment of different images where I mimic her pose and it gets repeated
in similar but different environments. I know nothing about her. This is a self-portrait
that she takes the image on the left and kind of enflowers and the flash then obliterates
the central part of the image, and I kind of make a version of that myself in my own
self-portrait, in upstate New York [laughter] in the cornfields.
So my interest in photography as a genre has always been from the beginning from the kind
of moment of as a child having a really bad cold. And in the wintertime and realize my
parents had cameras. But at that time you didn't really give a kid a camera to shoot
with. You said, "OK, you can hold it and you can take a picture and then give it back".
And so I remember cutting out, which I guess the '60s are famous for that, of like cutting
out coupons on the back of Kleenex boxes to get a Polaroid camera. Since I had a cold
I had enough boxes [laughs] to get a camera which I later got that spring and I had that
It stands out in my mind only because I was happy to take it everywhere, on school trips,
to county fairs, photographing my dog in the backyard. But it became this kind of practice
where the camera was always with me and as my earliest moment of having my own camera.
So this is a photograph of, it's called "Bow of the Ball" 1926 James Van Der Zee and I
had decided there were different points in my career in my relationship to my work that
I decided to try something completely new. I threw myself into a situation as completely
foreign to me to come up with something new and different.
At that particular point I was invited to Pilchuck which is a glass blowing camp school
north of Seattle. In doing so I thought I could have had ideas well I'll do some tests
with some glass objects that kind of vibrate on the wall with some kind of armature.
But when I got there it I was not really knowing that much about the culture of glass. I was
kind of amazed at it's theatricality of like the pyromaniacs that have found their cause
and all this watching of the glory hole and everybody sweaty and hot and it's dangerous.
So I was completely shocked and captivated by that but at the same time not knowing what
the hell to do with that kind of environment. I went back down to Seattle and went to a
bookstore and found a book that I had at home which is Deborah Willis' book that chronicles
photographs by James Van Der Zee who is an African American photographer in Harlem that
took pictures of politicians, events and just every day people that would just come into
So I found, I decided to the chagrin of many of the gaffers who are kind of amazing. They
could make anything you want out of glass, but I had them then blow replicas of props
out of James Van Der Zee photographs. So as you see to her left hand there is a vase,
containing some kind of orchid. They blew that.
This is a photograph of Benny Andrews from 1976 who was a painter and this kind of teardrop
vase to his left with the Chrysanthemums. I had them blow that. They were disappointed.
I would just show them the book drawn on the ground and they were like, that's all you
want? [laughs] You're here for three weeks. That's all you want.
And so I was pretty persistent and this is called "Dinner Party with Boxer Harry Willis"
In going to Pilchuck what's funny about it is that you do get caught up in the kind of
mesmerizing thing of blowing glass. So they're blowing all this stuff. And then you come
to the end and you go: oh, s*** [expletive] I have to pack all this stuff up and send
it somewhere. So you spend all this money for these kind of hand carved foam boxes to
ship all this stuff but finally got it all back to my studio and then re-photographed
these as a homage to James Van Der Zee.
The text beneath it then has a description of the photograph from my point of view in
terms of all the details and the way that it operates and the way that Van Der Zee composes
these images to kind of say something about aspirations or wealth or meaningful objects
that should constitute a narrative about the person's life.
So this is about "Bow of the Ball". And this is Benny Andrews and this one is short so
I will read this; "Artist born in 1930 wearing a trench coat. He's seated with his right
leg crossed and holds it with his right hand. To his left is a small table with a circular
top and a vase with Chrysanthemums, a wooden folding screen stands behind him." So they
were very simple detailed descriptions of each photograph.
And that is the Boxer photograph with every one is holding the champagne glasses. So it
becomes this piece called "Nine Props" and it was interesting because in process I love
vases and objects from my own collection that have nothing to do with my art. But getting
them in the studios, like OK, what am I going to do with all this beautiful black glass
and it was a piece that evolved in terms of my interaction with it from my original idea
and kind of just went into these heat transferred images onto felt.
So about a couple a years ago I started doing drawings. And more it came out of a project
where I did a compilation project of found footage from a speech pathology institution
in Wichita, Kansas of some material that I found. And it just came out of working on
that project; wow, there's something interesting that subjects were photographed in Technicolor
against a gray background. So they were really almost kind of caricatures the way actresses
and different patients within this documentary or promotional material was put together.
And so, I started drawing from that and continued on and these are just heads that are just
water colors with very simple in there, very small, eight by ten. But what was more interesting
to me than kind of picking up or thinking to do drawing was more just about the process
because so much of what I had been involved in photography to a certain extent there's
a bit of play in terms of the idea, but once it goes into production it becomes very rote.
And certainly in working with film there's a lot of collaboration that takes place with
regard to how the project gets done and how it comes to fruition and how that idea might
be slightly different than its end product. But it was quite different to sit in my studio
and make these drawings and throw some away and just the fluidity of that as a break or
a change in terms of process.
This is similar to a piece that is also upstairs our photo booths and actually from the first
piece that I showed of the woman from 1958. This was the original project finding these
small photo booths. And what fascinates me about photo booth images are that they are
all self portraits. So it's this mechanism of photography that every one sits in the
booth and they prepare in front of a mirrored surface with a light that comes on that flashes.
They prepare themselves to be photographed, as opposed to having someone take their picture
and in that for the time frame which is maybe, I guess these pictures ranged from the '20s
through the '70s. They are pictures that are sent either for identification or like sent
home or sent somewhere else to show us proof that you are doing well or that you look good
and that things are fine even though they might not be.
So they are kind of these mini little messages and so not so much for the nostalgia that
they are old photographs and of course, everybody in the past looks fabulous. You know, put
a hat on them and really fabulous, but [laughs] more that the kind of all the rest with the
same relationship to the camera that they are all self portraits.
So just to give you a sense of scale in terms of the older work, which the image on the
left which is "Water Bearer". I did start in terms of my relationship to photography
in doing "street" photography or documentary when I was in college. And I guess by the,
which was the late '70s or early '80s. By the time I had gotten out of college I decided
to jump ship of New York and go to southern California.
And I decided to go to the University of California, San Diego because I'd met Carrie Mae Williams
who is also an artist. She asked me what I was doing and I was doing graphic design for
a travel agency or big posters for lawyers in terms of criminal court cases if they needed
a graphic design. I have no idea what the subject was but I just had to make some kind
of graphic or something as a visual aid in the courtroom.
So I was doing a lot of graphic design work and she just said, "Wow you should come to
San Diego. It's a half an hour from Mexico. Le Hoya is a beautiful beach" and I was like,
"Sure." [laughs] I had no interest in it's hot there. I didn't know anything about it.
[laughs] but the campus photographs were really, really beautiful.
I went and at the time going to graduate school in California in the early '80s it was all
about performance art. Although I did not have an interest in terms of performance in
terms of myself it certainly almost everybody that was there was interested in performance.
And certainly San Diego there was this place called "Sushi" everybody from all over the
country came there and did performance.
So it was an interesting way for me as a photographer in New York which is School of Visual Arts,
old school view of photography to relationship to photography to go to a more conceptual
art school in California. And really gave myself once I got used to not looking at my
watch at 5:00 and going OK, you got wine? Let's have dinner on the beach. Once I got
kind of past that ritual which took about a year, I started concentrating on my work.
And so, that led to doing these works that were more spared down in the studio, slightly
larger than life figures that have their backs turned to the frame with text that either
were kind of mimic concrete poetry or lists that creative narrative. And in some ways
it was an interesting time because I was in conflict with the way that photography at
that time was read, in terms of showing work that was documentary or street photography
and the repetition in the way that it's read; that you kind of use the same tools to interpret
every photograph by each photographer.
So I wanted to play with that assumption of how we read photographs and their meanings
and what you "get" from the "message" from the photographer so this one is "Discounting
of Memory" and experience as its subject.
This is similar to a piece which is also here which is called "Wigs". There's also a felt
piece that is kind of either lithographed, I think lithographed onto felt, but from all
these different wigs that I have found on Fulton Mall which is a mall in Brooklyn. That
at the time every other store was a wig store, which I don't know how they do it in terms
of competition or supply and demand but I went into every shop and found these amazing
variety of different kinds of artificial and real hair.
The piece for me in that it kind of talks about artifice and the way that we construct
ourselves as individuals and it is a construction. So the text then relates to constructions
of identity in and around gender and that gender isn't this black and white completely
stratisfied way of looking at gender, that there's all these grays in different areas
and so "Wigs" is to talk about that.
This is called "Seven Mouths" which is basically just seven mouths just printed on photo linen
and maybe about five feet in height or maybe six feet in height. But it's a piece that
much later which was done in 1993. I returned to as a video work, which is called "Easy
to Remember" in 2001.
I will show you like three video different works that I think are similar in their relationship
to music. And it didn't occur to me as I started, which I think I actually started to make this
piece. I started to think of music. But it is funny for me in working in this way that
my interpretation of my work and the way every one else sees it is completely different.
So in making this piece, I thought it was kind of romantic. I liked the music. A particular
song by John Coltrane which is a Rogers and Hart tune from his album of ballads called
"Easy to Remember".
And I always thought it was really melodic. I really, really loved that. I did a casting
call and had about 12 different people come and audition. Basically they had to sit in
front of the camera and learn very quickly with headphones the way that John Coltrane
[indecipherable 0:23:17.6] jazz. He has a slightly different take on the melody. The
melody kind of takes different directions so as someone who is humming this tune which
I had them do: they have to choose their octave and kind of how they would follow along with
the melody in the way that John Coltrane re-composes this music.
And what was quite beautiful was that I by great chance got a huge range of different
people in terms of their octaves, in terms of from baritones to soprano to alto. So in
putting it together either in Photo Shop but also as a musical piece, to edit all these
voices together, was quite amazing.
One of the women who was performing while we were filming and we were doing it in a
closed studio actually at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio. The sound guy kept, if
you hear a garbage truck that's going down the street you have to stop because you can
kind of hear the beeping of the truck in the background or a plane is going overhead. Although
it's a sound studio, those sounds still kind of enter the background sound of the room
within the white noise you can hear it.
For the fourth time he called me over. He was like no, you have to come here. We have
to stop for a minute. I came over and he goes: one of the people, who was humming, one of
the women, her heartbeat was louder than her humming. [laughs] so we had to, because we
were freaking her out with this camera and a crew and everything like right on top of
her, photographing her humming.
So let's if you would please go to the video "Easy to Remember".
Lorna: So if we can go back to the PowerPoint for a moment. And so in doing that piece was
interesting for me because I thought it was going to be a very romantic kind of piece
and all my friends were like, OK, it's really depressing in some ways. But it did not so
help that actually the piece which was shown four days after September 11. So, it kind
of on it's own, even before they, people were saying but certainly after that they really,
it's a piece within New York life, showing in New York, is associated with that moment
although it was done before that. So in doing that piece and as a musical piece it involves
the body, I thought, "What other piece I could do that involves the body?" And I came up
with this work called Cloudscape, which this is a felt work of it, photograph on felt and
it's called "Cloud". It comes from a video where I had a friend of mine named Terry Atkins
who is also an artist and a musician perform for me. And we went through different manuscripts;
American music from the turn of the century that are hymns.
But we wanted to choose something that was a little unfamiliar and not in terms of its
melody would associate it immediately with that. But something in its phrasing that was
short and interesting. And so Terry whistles, another using your body to make music whistles
this piece. And so if we could go to Cloudscape please.
Lorna: And so it goes in a loop, and then you go back to the PowerPoint but in doing
so you go, "Oh wow, that's really kind of conceptually very neat. You just go in, it
takes about five hours a shoot in a space and shot it and film and done although the
nightmare then began with transferring that kind of information digitally. So I ended
up having to re-shoot it completely in HD and, which was, kind of killed part of its
magic to me because it was just kind of nice to go in and shoot it and then reverse it
and be done, but no, I had to go in and shoot it twice. But again, kind of just very simply
in using the body and kind of reversing the melody or reversing the time sequence allows
for the melody to churn into something else, into a different melody.
And so there's another project called "Corridor" which also uses music and then I was invited
by the Mass Moca in North Adams and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities
and it was collaboration between them and Mass Moca to invite artists and commission
a work using artifacts from this collection. And in doing so I was a little bit horrified
because they take you to, in Massachusetts, all these different warehouses that SBNEA
And it's you know it's basically dishware, furniture, a little bit of clothing, but very
kind of domestic sphere collection of things. And when I had gotten back from California
from graduate school I had worked up in Yonkers in warehouses for the New York Historical
Society with about three other people in the winter time which, you know it's not heated
so it's not fun, but it was really interesting in terms of the objects because the objects
kind of spanned American history, there were cannons, cannon balls, artifacts, it was a
wide range of really interesting things that were kind of above and beyond just the thing
of plates and dishware and domestic life as evidence of the past. And so in walking through
their spaces I was like, "You guys don't compare. All the good stuff is in New York."
But I kind of also felt because Mass Moca is like you know this space, this industrial
space that's converted into an exhibition space it had, you know each artist had like
2000 or 2500 square feet and so I was like, "I am not making a collection of artifacts
from New England for a show with that amount of space." So as I was looking through their
book and kind of racking my brain and you know planning to say no I realized that they
also had a collection of homes. And, in that you know people would kind of give them their
homes and then they would turn them into historical sites and you can then see them by appointments.
And I realized that I could fulfill an idea that I had a few years prior to that which
was to have you know two characters 100 apart. And so they had this huge collection of homes
from the like late 1600's, early 1700's and kind of all throughout Massachusetts but they
also had a Walter Gropius home in Walden Pond. And the house on the left is a coffin house
which is really, I think it's like 1670's but you know American vernacular architecture
is all about adding on, shifting, changing and so it looks like an 1860's home at this
point in the way that it's been restored and the way that it, and its wallpaper and the
way that it's been added on, and the Walter Gropius home which is done in the late 40's,
a home for him and his family actually, very much has a feel of 1960's. So I got this 1860's
and 1960's parallel that I wanted.
And it took a lot of begging, especially for both homes, in terms like carrying is, a wood
structure carrying a character with a film equipment carrying a candle down the staircase
took a lot of begging and pleading that we wouldn't burn the place down and as well as
having protecting the environment of the Gropius home, from walking in there with the camera
The protagonist or the person that appears as Wangeshi Mutu who was also an artist was
actually at that time working for me as a studio assistant and was trying to figure
out what she was doing next in terms of showing her work and where she was going to live.
And I didn't have anyone else in mind and since she was available I said, "Do you feel
like doing this?" and she said, "OK. Sure."
And it worked out really nice because she, as we did it which I didn't, I find actors
to be really interesting because you can never tell who can act just by looking at them.
It's one to give them the role that they blossom, where they become someone else. And Wangeshi
does have definitely an acting side to her also, or performer side. She also sings. Not
in this piece, but as a child was also trained in singing.
So, in being able to create this kind of parallel world, the 1860s, conquer 1860's House of
the Coffin house and the Walter Gropius house on Walden Pond. I have this kind of protagonist
that just goes out and nothing really happens and you follow from day to night, the kind
of meandering through these domestic spaces. So they got their domestic sphere from me
but at least I didn't have to do objects in it.
The soundtrack though, from this piece covers that span as well. So there's a soundtrack
from Blind Tom who was an enslaved African who made one of the amazing compositions based
on French Nocturnes and Americano like Dixie but his take a kind of very dark turn in the
way that he played. But he was paraded as an idiot savant of music. That he could play
anything, anywhere and in fact it was just because he was African and had an amazing
talent and ear for music. Then, it was turned into a kind of circus act because of course
"How could Africans actually play any music on the piano?" That would be rare and unusual.
And he died in poverty.
But his compositions are quite amazing, given the tragedy of his life. On the other side
I saw for me in relationship to American music, I'm blanking on the other composers, Albert
Ayler's love child becomes the other score and they are kind of mixed together. And Albert
Ayler was a jazz composer of concrete jazz in the 60's. And there's something in the
cadence of his music that does remind me of early Americana music as well.
So by [indecipherable 0:39:52.2] of just taking those two and smashing them together, those
two soundtracks together, creates interesting dialogue between two different centuries.
So, if you'd play "Corridor" please.
Lorna: We'll just show a clip from that [inaudible 0:45:46.6] ; and so working on "Corridor"
and then this relationship to architecture; which I have a personal interest in architecture
but also in terms of this work. The Coffin House shows up as being very much like a Vermeer
painting, in terms of its lighting but given the conditions of that architecture, and having
to light it from outside to bring in light, that's kind of unavoidable, quotation that
the photograph reveals. But also then in the Gropius House, when we're shooting in the
bedroom, when the bedroom has this very strange kind of voyeuristic quality, because it's
like this giant piece of glass that divides the dressing room from the bedroom, that is
paneled by a portion of glass mirror. So the bedroom has this very voyeuristic feel to
it, that you can watch something from afar and be cut off from it, but as a ***, look
into it. So, as a project, and also in terms of the Gropius Home, as I think of Modernist
architecture from that time, it's scale is very, very small, though in photographs it
looks very expansive.
Its scale is very intimate at the same time. So it's really interesting in terms of those
projects, with an interest in architecture, of how one actually moves in that space, or
the language of the domestic space, within the Gropius Home, which there's a maid quarter
behind the kitchen, so all this thing about class and servitude, that's also present in
the architecture of that space.
And so, in doing that project, and putting the music with it, it was a very interesting
project to work on, but I guess these are the best examples of work that just focuses
then on music as part of the narrative, and this time lapse. In many of the other projects,
there are these broken narratives, with different characters that are non-linear, and don't
make sense, and don't quite fit together, and it's through the agency of not communicating,
is the message, or the narrative that plays through a lot of the other works.
What else was I going to say? And so even now, although I don't think I have any ideas
for any video work, so in the conversation today about dance I was reminded of a performance
that I did as a child, as a dancer, and I was like, Oh, that might make a good film
performance. But in terms of ideas, and choosing different mediums, it really is generated
by the idea that I have, and when I am pushed, either technically or by genre, into something
that I had never done before; it is because of an idea, and not really just a pursuit
of a technical aspect of things.
So it's been an interesting career, in the sense that I feel that anything is possible
within the work. In doing all these different things, in doing film which I should say,
in graduate school, I studied film and video, and it was analogue, in the 80s. After about
two months of editing and video, I was like, OK, I can't do this, this is ridiculous. You
make one mistake, and having to start from the beginning, in an analogue way, was something
which really turned me off in the medium.
Although, I really loved studying film theory, so when an opportunity came to actually work
in film, maybe ten years later, having a background in photography really gelled that all together,
It was like a high, almost, to have a crew of people. And it works in different forms,
for different projects but to be working towards making a visual idea come to fruition was
one that was really exciting for me. So, I am told we can open this up to questions.
Does anyone have any?
OK, that's good then I can go to dinner? [laughs] This one down here.
Man 1: Hi. I just wanted to ask. I remembered as I was watching this that I saw a really
interesting piece of yours in Archive Fever by Okwui Enwezor. It was an archive film playing
on a loop encased in the wall with a drawing beside it and I was wondering if you could
talk about that piece.
Lorna: Sure. The piece that he is speaking of, which I can't remember the name of ,no
it's called "Jackie", is actually is a segment of footage from this speech pathology and
learning disability institution from Wichita, Kansas in the 50s. There are two projects
that came out of this. One is of all these women that are presented in this footage that
is disassembled promotional material. And there's one sequence of these boys, so part
of this piece has drawings then on the other side is a clip of this sequence of 8- year-old
little boys drawing. And there's one child in the foreground who's being asked to draw.
His name is Jackie and he is resistant. He does not communicate but he looks at the camera
while an instructor, teacher, but also doctor in some ways is sitting beside him, telling
him to draw and he refuses and looks into the camera with this kind of stare that is
unnerving, but refuses to draw.
But behind him, the other seven little boys are drawing like their lives depend on it.
So there you have this soundtrack in the background of the sound of their crayons or whatever
kind of tool that they're using in creating drawings in the back, and it kind of just
loops. And I thought his refusal was quite a beautiful and kind of intense thing of drawing.
On the other side are some drawings that I collected that are found drawing, that are
cartoonish of a male character, a female character, a house, a home , a kind of assembly of what
"family", might be in terms of a cartoon.
And then I drew on top of that images of Jackie not drawing, just sitting with his head down
on the table. So, in the creation of these images, his refusal to participate in being
a subject within that footage was quite a powerful one. You could say as promotional
material for an institution they would say, "OK, this is what we don't want, and this
is how we're going to reform him" but his resistance to reform was really interesting
to me. So yeah, that was the piece that was there; resistance to being rehabilitated.
Man 2: I don't know how to ask the question exactly but the pieces that you have upstairs,
where you have the found photographs and the serendipity of finding those, I guess the
question I have is; the way those images were made, with straight photography and analog
photography and then how everything has changed to digital, do you think that's going to affect
your work going forward?
Lorna: Does the digital affect my work going forward, you mean?
Man 2: Well, that and the fact that the way people are taking photographs now, digitally,
it seems like there's not going to be the serendipity of finding these old photographs
that people have kept forever and because it seems like the nature of analog photographs
is so much more archival than digital that it's something that I think about all the
time, because I'm a photographer and was inspired by those kind of found photographs and I'm
thinking to myself, what's going to happen to somebody in twenty years where maybe these
photographs that you find aren't going to be there?
Lorna: I think you'll find external drives. [laughter]
Man 2: Do you think about that and do you think it will affect your work moving forward?
Lorna: The technology thing is two things; in all of the film projects that I've done
and having to remaster them digitally, and so for the preservation of even my own work
or to show it at certain points as needed to be upgraded from one platform to another.
In terms of photography, I think there are certain photo linen pieces that I did, they
don't make that any more. They didn't make Polaroid anymore. Now Polaroid is coming back.
I think there will be a return to the object in terms of photography that it is not going
to only exist within a digital realm, but certainly I think the way that digital photography
creates a kind of democratic agency in terms of who the photographer is and what they take
pictures of is important so that you don't really need to have a big camera, all you
need is your phone, your mode of communication that also takes films, that also can record
In some ways the immediacy that everyone can film things is an interesting one to me. And
so therefore in terms of authorship, I think people are less attached. You can put it online.
My daughter makes films. They put things on Facebook. There are all these different ways
that those images operate or films operate now that I think is interesting. What it all
means? I don't know. But I think probably in the future in terms of looking back even
at those images and the way that authorship operates is different than those of the photographs
of the past. It's still interesting even though it's digital.
Woman 1: Can you talk a little bit how your work has changed since you added yourself
into the images?
Lorna: That was just this year. [laughter]
Woman 1: If it has changed.
Lorna: It's a new change. If it has changed? I would say it's a different process for me
in terms of doing that. So in that way that does change me. It makes me really uncomfortable.
I have a show next year in New York and I don't know what that's going to be, so I'm
kind of playing with ideas of, how much further do I take that project or does that become
a film project in a different way? I think as an artist you're always remaking yourself
to a certain extent.
I am not so attached to my work that I make it and it feels like something that it belongs
to me. Once it's done it's kind of in my mind somewhat gone. And so I'm always kind of reinventing
myself every time which used to drive me crazy maybe 15-20 years ago, but now it's OK, it's
time to pull back and do something else or go down the same road again and figure out
what else you want to do with a particular idea.
So for me I'm more interested in either dialogue with myself or the process of making things
than the end product. The end product can be interesting, sometimes successful, sometimes
not but so long as it pushes me as an artist in terms of my own process.
Woman 2: In the wig piece there are some wigs in nets photographed hanging. I thought that
was very interesting because the wigs themselves almost look like an anthropological exhibition.
But the ones that are in nets look like brains to me.
Lorna: Look like brains?
Woman 2: Look like brains. And it made me feel like the piece was, and I don't if this
is true, a comment on the way people are objectified by science, I guess you could say. And particularly
the studies that used to be done to show that women's brains where such and such, and black
people's brains where such and such. And that way of taking the human subject and objectifying.
It just struck me that the mass of them hanging in those nets was so brain-like; I just wondered
if that was in your head at all.
Lorna: Not really. [laughter]
Woman 2: Yeah.
Lorna: But I think in terms of modes of presentation and the way we think of them. In terms of
gender, if anyone has lived their life and the society or people around them question
their gender, there is all this rush to medical science, to determine what someone's true
identity is which is much different than the way that I see things or in the way that person
lives their lives. So a lot of the content that, that particular piece is about an imposition
of the binary idea of gender in the society that we live in. But people don't live by
that rule. Therefore the conflict upon someone's post mortem, I guess this, is what you're
saying reminds me of really what I was after in the piece in that there is a rush in terms
a rush of post-mortem examination to determine what someone's true gender is, as opposed
to acknowledging their life as a description of what that is.
Woman 3: First of all, thank you for sharing all of this work. I have a question about
what happens behind the scenes, with regards to a couple of the pieces upstairs. For the
video installation "Recollection", which you shot in the twin cities and the found photos,
which you later become the subject of that are inserted into it. How much is the result
of collaboration with the crew and the actors you're working with? How much is scripted,
for example? In "Recollection", how much is the result of the site specific vibrations
in the auditorium and what happens with the actors and the crew? And with the found photos,
do you have like an art director or costume person, who's helping you bring these objects
together? Really, what is the production process that leads to those products?
Lorna: Well, what you have to remember is that their done really really fast. In some
ways I would fly in, scout locations, scout availability of locations, select them and
then cross your fingers that they actually will be available the day that you ask for
them to be available, casting different people from the area. In terms of acting, it's scripted
but it's more like I tell actors. I give them stories and then I ask them to retell the
story. So there's never a script. The script contains a story that they either have to
react to or reinterpret. And those are early works. So in terms of the way that I handled
that, was improvisation. And early on doing those kinds of projects with actors, you turn
on the camera and because of time and because of budget, you turn the camera on immediately.
You don't do a rehearsal, you don't prep anyone. You kind of quietly, as they're getting ready,
I would talk to them about what it is. But then we would immediately start shooting.
Because for some reason the first take was always the best take, I don't know why, although
we took many.
So the projects are kind of really concisely organized in terms of time. I had a friend
of mine who works in film who does costume. I begged her to come out there, to help me
organize it, because it is in terms of time. I can't manage everything at the same time,
because we're doing everything at once.
But in terms of crew I worked. Tom Hayes is a film maker who lives in Columbus, Ohio that
came here to work and got a crew here as well. And I worked with [indecipherable 1:03:17.9]
who was a curatorial. I've forgotten what you guys, what do you got, curatorial?
Woman 4: Fellow.
Lorna: Fellow. Thank you. Here and also with Kelly Jones who was also a curatorial, an
old friend and curatorial intern here. And actually it was her inspiration to have me
come. I enjoy those because they're really tight and short and frenetically made, in
a way and although it's big in terms that there are a lot of people but it's done in
a very short period of time. There is a lot of collaboration and leeway, in terms of,
if something doesn't work, you've got to make it work, and do something else or something
might come to me that morning for a character to say, and I just have them say it.
Woman 5: And with the photos, how much were you consciously improvising for [inaudible
1:04:12.9] or fight against that, [inaudible 1:04:15.4]
Lorna: Of course Cindy Sherman's work, in terms of the 1958 photographs comes to mind,
but I guess what was fascinating to me about those images of that woman, was that she was
doing that in 1958. So, in some ways, the way that she was adopting all these different
kind of Hollywood posing and characters, and actresses and artifice of modeling, and femininity,
and setting a stage, was really an interesting one to me. So while, yes, it is definitely,
and I have to acknowledge Cindy Sherman, but at the same time, it's about a specific person,
who is adopting a particular stance at a particular period of time. So for 1958, for a Black woman
in Los Angeles to be making this project, is a really interesting one to me, and the
focus of the characters she was playing was interesting. Yes.
Man 3: And briefly, viewing your photography and in questioning the motive for your use
of words alongside your photography, I thought of Jean Michel Basquiat, and his use of words
alongside his paintings, except he was more so influenced by graffiti, and he actually
sought the viewer to recognize the connection between the words and his pieces, whereas
you seek the viewer to recognize that photography has a narrative beyond what it documents.
But in that, are you not guiding the viewer to, in a sense, recognize?
Lorna: A specific reading?
Man 3: Exactly.
Lorna: Yeah. [laughter]
Lorna: Absolutely. So in a very simple way, you would say it's an argument against being
objective, or objective observer. And so then, as a viewer, you are given something very
specific to think about. That's part of the intention. Yes.
Woman 6: Hi, I was wondering if you speak a little bit about the role of memory in your
work, especially with the pieces of the found items that you're using, because all of them,
the photographs especially, have their own story, have their own memory that it's projecting.
How do you negotiate your ultimate vision for the piece, and what's out there, what
your out there, presented was.
Lorna: I think in some ways, those pieces dangerously go close to nostalgia, which is
my one fear of them. But on the other hand, I don't think I really look at them as a collective
memory, but it's more how anonymous they are, so that the impossibility of actually knowing
anything about the people in the photographs but a moment of them, having taken their own
picture, kind of making an own self portrait. And I find that captivating. I don't believe
I am revealing anything about them really, and even I find that fascinating. I mean,
that's part of the thing with the woman from 1958, that I can step in, and I become a chameleon
within her projects. I still, after even mimicking her, and standing in her place, I know nothing
about her. And I don't really, even in the images, reveal anything about her, other than
showing a particular moment about artifice, and a woman's project that took three months,
and kind of what that says. But in terms of its emotional connection or exact memory,
identification as to saying more about that individual they all remain anonymous.
Woman 7: In seeing the photographs on felt at the Wexner Center they have a very tactile
feel and beauty to them that actually is very different than experiencing a photograph.
Could you talk about the process behind the decision to use felt?
Lorna: It was very simple; I got tired of going to the framer. [laughter]
Lorna: No, I had a project at the fabric workshop in Philadelphia and was invited, which was
run by Kippy Stroud, and was invited commissioned to do a piece. And when I walked in they have
this amazing table, that's like, this is probably exaggerated, maybe it could be fifty feet,
of fabric. And I was just like, I am not doing a piece with fabric. I refuse to do a piece
with fabric. But at the same time I mean that's a simplification because they do many different
things with armature and sculpture. And that fabric workshop has more to do with the original
space that they offer in terms of factory that they occupy. And, in doing that, I think
before I went to the fabric workshop I'd been living in Paris and went to see a Joseph Boy
show that was kind of amazing.
With these different piles of felt and felt on the walls with a piano. I think it was
the first time I'd seen, I'd studied his work, but the first time I kind of really saw a
lot of it in a beautiful installation. So, I think that was in the back of my mind.
Because when I decided to work with felt I said, "Aww, s*** [expletive] , you know its
Boys, is it time, is it time that someone else can, you know, work with felt". And so
I really just experimented. Like, oh, I wonder what that would look like if you printed an
image on it, and it's tactile kind of drawing sense. But what's beautiful about those pieces
in a way is that as you get close to them the more they break up and the image falls
apart but kind of from a distance they're read as these photographic images.
But I think part of you know, this all sounds very ordinary now. But I think that in the
time that I started doing photography, think of like the late 70's or early 80's even doing
large scale photography with the work that I was doing.
For different institutions, either, in museums, my work was not collected under photography.
My work was collected under painting and sculpture. And so, you know, it's become much more broad
now in terms of thinking of what photography is and what it can be printed on.
I mean I think at that time it was very stratisfied. It was like, OK, that's not really photography.
Photography is really under works on paper so to speak, within an institutional framework.
And so now, all of that has changed. My play in wanting to play with materials and stuff
is always been there.
Man 4: Hi. Thank you so much. You've given us so much to think about. I wanted to ask
about the Mass Moca project and piece. Two questions; one is, did you think about these
two houses as racialized spaces and the way the black women move through those houses
seems quite as if it is their space. And yet, certainly the Gropius house and probably the
other house never had African Americans living in them, claiming them as space. So I wondered
about that. And I also wonder about the relationship in time. I think you used the verb "smash",
"smashing the two periods together" and I wondered if you could say a little bit about
how you think different historical periods connect to each other or coexist, overlap,
or simultaneous or do exist in some linear way. And that might also be connected to the
question about memory.
Lorna: For the Coffin house and Walter Gropius house, you know the Coffin house in Massachusetts
known for its part of the underground railroad so runaway slaves would occupy, and be living
in different structures and hiding, either in basements or out of sight, in order for
them to make their way, and also as servants. Basically there were all these little different
variations of slavery, of servitude. So yes, there is a little sequence which I did not
show for the Coffin House, where she's writing, so really her most dangerous activity is sitting
by a candle writing, and then hears a noise and she gets up and puts it away and leaves
the room. With the Gropius House, I would say 1960's and certainly within the Midwest,
Washington D.C., parts of the South and certainly the Northeast, there is a kind of Black middle
class, it's the rise of the Black middle class and upper class Black strata. And so, yes,
there were Black people and what comes to mind for me is Chicago, and my family was
from different parts of Chicago, and the kind of Johnson & Johnson empire, there were Black
folks living in modernist homes. But part of the piece is really in two political moments,
to contemplate what's going on in these people's mind, given the time period.
So one is pre-emancipation, and the other one in the middle of civil rights arrests,
so if you think of Chicago in 1960, and what that means, and what is going on in people's
minds, or in 1860s, what that means in terms of pre-emancipation. But also then to think
of our own lives, in terms of politics and one's interior life, what do you think about
what's going on in the world around you. So that's some of the way that works. So with
the regard to memory, there are two periods that are important periods in American history,
and of course we continue to live through them now.
Woman 8: Thank you for being here, and for sharing your insights with us, it's a real
pleasure to hear you speak about your work. And I have two questions that relate to the
photo booth piece. Is it just one piece that consists of the photo booth images?
Woman 8: OK, because I haven't been up to your gallery yet, but I did see your work
in the "Dress Codes" exhibition, in the Fall.
Lorna: Oh, there are several different photo booth pieces.
Woman 8: OK, there are. OK, so my questions are what motivated you to integrate the watercolor
drawings into that piece and then also the arrangement on the wall.
Lorna: Well I had been doing drawings, there's something about when you find these photographs,
they come ripped off what was maybe a black binder, and so there's stains, there's chemical
deterioration, and patterns on the backs of these images. So the watercolors seemed to
kind of mimic that for me, and because I was drawing, I was like, Ah, throw in a watercolor,
why not. It doesn't always have to just be all photography. Another piece I did later
where the sizes of the frames, like the bronze frames then become little blocks as well,
that mimic the solid elements of these frames, but also solid elements that mimic the size
and the shape of the photographs so the piece kind of changes from time to time. I've forgotten
part of your question!
Woman 8: [inaudible 1:16:41.7]
Lorna: It's like a cloud, so I mean to me they're just supposed to be dispersed. But
of course, when you show it in either in institutions, everybody wants a template, so we install
it kind of just arbitrarily, and then we have to sometimes make a template of the arbitrary
installation! They're supposed to be hung; you just put them on the wall, there aren't
supposed to be instructions to them.
Woman 9: I have a question about you're, as an artist, public persona and the public consumption
of you. There's a New York Times article that was kind of cool, about the architecture in
your home, or being in a Gap ad. And I'm curious how you..
Lorna: My daughter made me do that. [laughter]
Lorna: She was not going to let me live without being in that.
Woman 9: I was kind of curious how; two things, one, how you kind of view that gaze, or that
consumption or photography with this other purpose of you. And then, also, if there seems
to be more of a demand for that in more recent years? As opposed to how much somebody bugged
you ten years ago for that sort of thing?
Lorna: It's funny. The Gap ad, I was asked, actually, in the 80's to do that, and I turned
it down. And then I would tell my friends, and they were like, "Are you crazy? You could
have donated the money. Are you crazy?" I got a lot of flack for turning that down,
for the kind of monetary exchange, and what I could do with that so, then, when that came
back again, and having, I think maybe Zora, my daughter, was ten or nine? And they also
asked for her. It was kind of interesting, because she was like, "Oh, we're doing this."
Lorna: She could not, "What do you mean you turned it down?" She couldn't believe that.
But what's interesting, in terms of her and that ad, is in raising a child who is in a
biracial, but kind of black identified in terms of the way that she thinks about herself.
And if you see this ad, her hair is like... you think my hair is out there? Her hair is
really out there. It really confirmed for her, and I got tons of emails, and I see things
in blogs, just in terms of the way that we looked. And within society, how that is not
prevalent, or how that how that is not an ideal in terms of beauty.
So even her ideas about herself, that her hair isn't straight enough, or it's not this,
or it's not that. Or her friend's hair is straight. Or can she get her hair straight;
her own sense of her own beauty. To be photographed like that confirmed other things for her,
about her own beauty which was kind of interesting.
And I got a lot of comments from other people about their children, and the way that they
see themselves in terms of what is the "ideal" in terms of looks for Americans.
So, but the other article was really about David Adjay, who was the architect that my
husband and I commissioned to build studios for us. And so the Times article was really
about him and his project as an architect. And kind of what is what like, somewhat, to
work with him. But what his program is, as an architect.
So, I'm not that consumable, I think, on a public level.
Woman 10: You'd spoken some about your relationship to reinventing yourself and your practice,
over the years. And I wonder how it feels different to do that now, as opposed to, say,
15 years ago, when you said it drove you crazy. This discussion is for the artists out there,
maybe younger artists who are, or, you know, people who have a studio practice as well,
and just kind of wondering what your relationship to that desire to always bring new content,
or new ideas into your studios. And how you manage it mentally, or channel into a final
Lorna: You know if it's really difficult, not that when things are hard, and work is
difficult, that it means it's going to be good. Although, you know, Carol Walker will
tell you that in a minute. Like, "Oh, that was hard, that's going to be good." [laughter]
Lorna: But I do think there is something to be said about challenging yourself, and not
being afraid to do so and certainly more now than I said in the past the kind of demand
of a market; less so for maybe older artists, but certainly for younger artists trying to
fill a certain niche. Or you have work that is successful, that sells, so do you still
make it? I think those are things that I really didn't have to struggle with. But certainly
whatever the demands are or the conversation that you have with yourself about your work
is the germane thing to protect and whatever comes out of that, comes out of that so, I
kind of am not a believer in failure or bad work. Not to say that I don't make bad work,
but that it's more about the process, and pushing myself. And you always learn something
more about who you are as an artist, and what your interests are, and how things come out.
To experiment is important.
Well, thank you. Thank you so much.