Julie Mehretu: American Artist Lecture Series

The Art in Embassies American Artist Lecture Series at the Tate Modern-London is a unique collaboration with Embassy London. In celebration of AIE’s 50th anniversary, the three-year-long program will feature six noted American artists. Julie Mehretu is the 4th artist in the series.

Full Transcript

0:09 HUME: Welcome everybody, my name is Achim Borchardt-Hume, I’m head of exhibitions
0:13 at Tate Modern. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you here this evening, to the fifth
0:18 American Artist Lecture with Julie Mehretu and Tim Marlow. It’s the fifth in the series,
0:29 previous artists have included Brice Marden, Maya Lin, Richard Tuttle who is currently
0:35 installing his installations at Turbine Hall, and Spencer Finch. At which point I would
0:40 like to thank in particular our colleagues at the American Embassy, Ellen Susman and
0:45 her team, and especially Virginia Shore and Welmoed Laanstra for helping us to organize
0:51 this. I should say afterwards, after the talk, there’s
0:56 a reception upstairs in the East Room, if you follow the crowd there will be drinks
1:00 for everybody, it will be lovely to see you there.
1:03 At which point I move on to introducing our speaker and I do so against the background
1:09 of one of Julie’s wonderful works that recently entered Tate’s collection, which we were
1:14 very fortunate in. Mogamma, A Painting in Four Parts: Part 3 from 2012, which was purchased
1:22 with the help of some important supporters for Tate, Tika Tenseiu(?) and Agie Ascousin(?),
1:28 the Tate American Foundation, and there’s a second work which was acquired with the
1:32 help of Pamela Joiner and Alfred Tae-Tufia(?). In terms of our speakers, I start with the
1:42 interlocutor, with Tim, so just a couple of words about Tim Marlow. He was recently appointed
1:51 the Director of Artistic Programs at the Royal Academy, a great wonderful addition to the
1:56 landscape of institutions in London. His remit includes the Academy’s exhibition programs
2:02 and the collection as well as Learning Architecture and Publishing. Prior to this, Tim was Director
2:09 of Exhibitions at White Cube from 2003 to 2014 where he played a major role in evolving
2:16 the program of the gallery. He worked with a great many artists at the gallery and beyond
2:23 and it is important to say that Tim has a long and distinguished track record as a radio
2:30 and television broadcaster and as an author and publisher. He’s lectured and chaired
2:36 extensively in many different countries so I’m sure we are in for a treat in terms
2:43 of the conversation. Now the real attraction of course, why we’re
2:47 all here, is to hear Julie Mehretu speak about her work. It’s interesting in the context
2:54 of the present lecture, the American Artist Lecture, and we will come to that of course,
3:00 is Julie’s biography. She was born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, and later moved
3:07 to New York City and to Berlin. She has received a Master of Fine Arts with honors from the
3:13 Rhode Island School of Design and many many prizes and awards, too many to mention, but
3:19 always one which I think does it for me which is the MacArthur Award in 2005, which is such
3:24 an extraordinary thing to happen to any one artist.
3:28 When I was thinking about the idea of an American Artist Lecture, how best to introduce Julie,
3:33 I came back to an interview in The Guardian in 2013 in which Julie, when asked about her
3:41 background said, “Coming from this African background is the children of people who were
3:47 there during de-colonization when the world really fundamentally shifted and another form
3:52 of modernism emerged. Now we’re all dislocated and there’s this constant negotiation
3:58 of place, spaces, ideas, and ideas.” This other form of modernism is what brings us
4:04 here tonight so let’s look forward to the conversation, thanks.
4:11 (audience applause) SUSMAN: Thank you all for coming tonight.
4:20 My name is Ellen Susman, I’m the director of Art in Embassies for the United States
4:25 Department of State. With me in the front row are Welmoed Laanstra and Virginia Shore,
4:30 who has been our chief curator for too many years to mention and who is really responsible
4:36 for the partnership we enjoy with the Tate to bring all of you this American Artist Lecture
4:42 series. Achim gave some broad strokes and I’m going to fill in with some others, because
4:49 we never seem to talk before we start about who’s going to say what. I’m going to
4:54 try and focus on some different issues, but as you know we’re very thrilled to have
4:59 Julie here tonight as our fifth speaker in the series. Particularly looking forward to
5:05 what Tim can add to the conversation because of his long background as a broadcaster and
5:11 as an art historian which is a very wonderful combination.
5:14 So Julie was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to a college professor who is Ethiopian and
5:24 an American teacher. They had to flee that country when she was 7 and she grew up in
5:29 East Lansing, Michigan, which is in the middle of the United States, which has its own kind
5:35 of culture. And after she went to school there and I think her career path was already clear
5:41 to her, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design where she received her MFA and majored
5:47 in print-making and painting. She is known for her large-scale paintings and drawings,
5:55 for layering different media such as pencil and pen and ink and thick streams of paint
6:01 in compositions that reference, as Achim said, the contemporary issues of dislocation that
6:08 we all face today. The issues of space and time and place.
6:13 We at Art in Embassies are very very proud to have some of Julie’s work in our temporary
6:19 exhibitions—for example she hangs at Winfield House in Regent Park with Ambassador Barzun
6:25 and his wife for the time that they’ll be here—and she’s also in our permanent collection
6:29 in the new embassy in Addis Ababa, her old home.
6:34 What I find interesting is what Julie has managed to teach and collaborate with others.
6:43 Throughout her career she’s never lost that sense probably of being the daughter of people
6:49 who teach. So starting in the 90s when she was a CORE Fellow at the Glassell School in
6:55 Houston, Texas, she worked with others. She participated with 30 high school girls from
7:00 east Africa during a residency in 2003 at the Walker Arts Center. And perhaps you’d
7:08 be interested to know that in 2007, she participated in a month-long program in Detroit with 40
7:14 art students. And I think this kind of work speaks more to who Julie is as a person and
7:19 her idea in the importance art has in creating conversations and looking at different points
7:27 of view than anything else about her. She is the recipient of many awards and I’m
7:33 going to move on from the MacArthur and say that she can now add another award to her
7:38 list. We are extremely pleased to be honoring Julie with a few other artists but—this
7:45 January in Washington D.C. where she will receive the United States Department of State
7:50 Medal of Art Award for her participation to the Art in Embassies program and to just the
7:57 fact that she is a genius artist. She lives and works with her partner, who
8:05 is also an artist, Jessica Rankin, and their two sons in New York and Berlin and we are
8:09 very honored honored to have you here tonight. Tim Marlow is an institution. He’s an institution
8:15 here in London and Britain and I think that Achim touched on the big things, but what
8:22 I didn’t know was that he has written about art and culture for so many many different
8:28 magazines but that in 1993 he founded Tate, the art magazine. And his his show Culture
8:37 Shock was on the air from 2002 to 2008. He has done many studies of living artists and
8:45 artists who are deceased as well as institutions like the Tate and Metropolitan for UK television.
8:52 So I want to welcome him here as well and say that I’d like us all to entreat them
8:58 to have to dialogue begin. Thank you for joining us here tonight.
9:02 (audience applause) MARLOW: Good evening (unintelligible) and
9:12 Julia, I just wanted to say how much I’m looking forward to this. Julie and I were
9:36 talking about what and how we might proceed and we wanted to have an organic conversation
9:41 and that’s what we’re going to do. But Julie was telling me that not so long ago
9:45 when she was asked to give a talk, take part in a panel discussion, one of her approaches
9:49 was to read a series of quotes by various authors from (unintelligible) to Walter Benjamin
9:54 to David Harvey to Fred Moten to C. L. R. James as a way of throwing a spanner in the
10:00 works but also showing the range of things that she’s interested in. And actually throwing
10:05 a number of different ideas and arguments into the melting pot.
10:09 She was going to do that tonight and I quite like that idea but in the end because I think
10:13 we want as much unmediated Mehretu as possible what we’ve agreed is that Julie’s going
10:18 to begin by reading her own notes on painting written in 2013. Which, well I’ll let you
10:24 hear them, but I’ve never heard her actually read them but I’ve read them but there’s
10:29 something wonderfully poetic about them. But Julie will read those notes and then we’ll
10:32 start the conversation but if on occasion some of the montage occurs or rather some
10:39 of the ideas in her original montage occurs, then she may break off and start reading.
10:43 Okay, Julie. MEHRETU: Okay to is this are we good here?
10:50 Is should I just begin? Okay. There we go. Okay. So yes as Tim was saying these are some
11:08 notes I wrote after a talk that I did and then needed to put something down onto paper.
11:15 And because I didn’t present it as a because I didn’t present my when I needed actually
11:21 to put it into written form publication I actually went directly from the notes I had
11:27 just jotted down and shifted a little bit so I’ll read these and then we’ll start
11:32 the conversation. Push, scratch, mark, cut, stay. A mark, a
11:38 scratch, the sound of graphite on paper, ink gliding out of nib pulled by fibers in the
11:44 paper on the surface of acrylic, like stone, like parchment. Never tabula rasa, always
11:50 palimpsest. When drawing, pull out of myself, lose place, go deep into a pressurized state
11:56 of disfiguration, disembodiment, lose all sense of cultural self. Get lost inside a
12:01 beat, inside a sonic, pulsing system of half links, half consciousness, half wit, find
12:07 the brake. The hand equals an instrument, device. The
12:11 hand, the wrist, the gesture. Flow, play, spit, the hand can throw a bomb. Get at the
12:18 strangeness of the future image experience rather than habitually view and
12:22 decipher. Sensory experience, emergent sensile form, tactile, acoustic, ricular, lingual,
12:29 sensatory, auditory haunting knowledge. Premonition, draw faster, last chance. Oral clue.
12:37 The studio equals a machine. Super super lot of beats, brakes, compression, digestion.
12:42 Serve intuition, impulse, improvisation, symptomatic, the emergence of something new from bits of
12:50 now past place data mark detritus architectural parts, diagrammatic language. Maps, lines,
12:58 shape, color, hue, synth, tempo, sonic, mutant, pressure, collapse time. Mine for resources,
13:07 for parts to a future, refusing past tendencies and past actions that manifest into repeat
13:13 patters and repeat social actions, repeat repression, expansion of power. Take the parts
13:18 without judgement, break it, fuse it with marks, the creation of something other. A
13:23 physical sensoral image that is a time-based, emergent experience.
13:28 Find the break, the gap, the fissures, undoing and pulling apart. An open force of unraveling
13:33 potentiality. Improvisation can be radical possibility. Painting is performative time.
13:40 The marks are percussive, repetitive motions, marks that shift with each motion, faster,
13:45 accelerating. To gain that wicked mass of marks being that devour, consume, digest,
13:51 decimate their place. Until they morph it, shift it, fuse it, splice through to find
13:57 the break in the linear. The mark is insistent. It is. The map equals nonsense, entropy, which
14:04 equals entropy which equals the sublime. Prove it futile, as futile as the marks themselves.
14:10 The battle of the small mark in this long view of time, layered, suspended into a long
14:14 view back into painting. All suspended in transparency, in medium, in paint, desire.
14:21 The compression of time, space, future, past, action, inaction, dualities and contradiction
14:27 forced into one suspended time moment. Splicing them together as mutant. The painting is performance
14:33 in making and seeing and looking. The emergency of monstrosity. To look forward, the bits,
14:39 the data, the infrastructure, the symbols of power, solder them onto the new machine,
14:45 fuse the parts with marks that come and try to form something else legible but descend
14:50 into their own illegibility. The marks are comfortable with that, they create the headache.
14:55 Conjure ghosts and parts, detritus, data, the drawing has become tired and loose. Mimics
15:00 writing but not words. The new drawing has evolved out of the depths of past paintings
15:04 into new surface seeping over a layered stratified past. It has morphed into new disruptions
15:09 in the surface image. The marks now drip, smear, print, stain the machine as it is scored
15:16 and fused into the surface from above or emerging from within. The marks are convective, they
15:21 cluster and clog and strain under and in the machine, affecting its coherence, its machinations.
15:27 The marks are a contagion, a contamination, a fallout, stratagem. The language is loosened,
15:33 blank notational. Opacity equals radical potential. Everything falls apart.
15:41 MARLOW: The idea that everything falls apart or that the center cannot hold is an African
15:48 idea and a western idea. Yates, most obviously to my mind. Is that idea something that has
15:58 evolved in your work so that by 2013 when you wrote those notes things felt as though
16:05 they were falling apart, from a center, the center wasn’t holding. Or does that apply
16:09 to your work over the previous decade? MEHRETU: Well I think in the work, the earlier
16:18 work, there was this form that coalesced in the center of the paintings and they became
16:25 the paintings had this very kind of long view perspective like a birds eye view perspective,
16:30 early map paintings. And then as the architectural forms began to shift, at first they
16:37 were drawings that you’d really see from afar, almost, like really looking into this
16:40 distant landscape and this areal map and the space would then compress in that way. So
16:46 the center always created this there was a dynamic in the center which maintained not
16:52 just a perspectival sense but a type of social sense in the painting. And as I have continued
16:59 to work and worked with erasure, then the center has completely broken down into these
17:04 other parts and then something else can take place in that. So I mean for me when you think
17:12 of the center the center doesn’t hold or the center falls apart, I think of Achebe
17:17 and his book, Things Fall Part, that it came from that from this idea but also this total
17:25 dystopic kind of entropic moment that has been so recurrent in a larger kind of global
17:33 narrative. MARLOW: So looking at the most recent work,
17:37 where there is an almost womb-like void, that’s not a contradiction, at the center of the
17:43 most recent paintings I’ve seen, that isn’t a formal re-evolution, it’s socially and
17:50 politically engaged, it’s part of an ogoing series that started so with the Arab Spring
17:56 back in 2012. Or is that too reductive? MEHRETU: Maybe too maybe a little too reductive
18:02 because at the same time in a lot of the new paintings there’s absolutely no center,
18:06 in fact there’s almost a denial of a special understanding in the paintings, that the marks
18:10 have taken over that the entire surface of very large paintings that are about ten feet
18:16 by fourteen feet, almost feel like writing where it becomes the special the space falls
18:23 into a type of almost written form through the space. And so I think I don’t that’s
18:28 only in specific paintings that you would see the center having that form again.
18:34 There’s a form of a use in painting and space and negotiation of like this enveloping
18:41 space that happens with the larger paintings where there become there are various centers
18:45 and there’s this de-centered type of space that takes place. But I think where you look
18:49 at paintings with this expectation of with a certain understanding of the center as having
18:55 a different type of power. And so I think there’s certain paintings that play with
19:00 this, that formally with the language. MARLOW: You, in some ways, the perception
19:06 seems to be that you work in series or in groupings at least, but I wonder whether you
19:15 when you start a painting, you’re conscious of the grouping or of the clustering in which
19:22 it might later be seen? Or do you start ever painting as literally and metaphorically a
19:28 blank canvas? MEHRETU: The new well the there’s the work
19:32 has changed so much this last year. The new work that I’ve made. But the previous paintings,
19:37 they maybe evolved in a cycle I would think of as so each painting had a certain kind
19:44 of architectural conceptual underlying idea and then the painting evolved from that place.
19:51 The newer paintings have evolved much more from one painting to the next, in terms of
19:56 the surface, the material that goes into them, and being made from within a different place
20:01 that emerged in the previous paintings. MARLOW: Do you have a sense of why that has
20:05 taken place? MEHRETU: Well in the previous paintings the
20:10 architectural information provided this social metaphor, ideas around what the forms of architecture
20:17 that were included. If they were a specific place or if they were taken from historic
20:23 architectural drawings and plans that all have very specific ideas embedded in
20:31 that. The paintings, the more recent paintings, then with the Mogamma paintings which are
20:37 the paintings I made and documented in 2012 but showed again here in London last May,
20:45 these paintings were really looking at the Revolutionary Square that has been a big part
20:50 of the world stage in the last three years. And then also historic historic important
20:56 squares that then but they’re so layered that you couldn’t decipher what was what
21:02 from you could only tell see these parts. And the drawing completely decimated the architectural
21:08 drawing in a way or shifted it into something else where this other form could these other
21:12 forms could emerge. The new work I feel and I think of that other
21:16 space that other form is that third space. The new is really being made from within that
21:21 other form that comes through from those parts. So it’s completely it’s like a it’s
21:26 like a it’s like a language coming out from inside this other form that I am interested
21:32 in, or the most haunting form that is in the previous works.
21:36 MARLOW: So in a sense you can strip the architectural structure, you can strip the skeleton if you
21:41 like or the scaffolding and drawing takes over?
21:45 MEHRETU: Because I was also frustrated with the desire of trying to decipher these paintings—
21:52 MARLOW: You mean the audience, trying to do that?
21:54 MEHRETU: Yeah and also that it became such a hindrance to the ability to be just immersed
22:01 in the painting and to have physical experience or a really time-based, slow experience I
22:08 think painting is very slow and it takes and we consume images so quickly and our ability
22:14 to really stay in front of a painting for ten minutes is you rarely see someone look
22:19 at a painting that way. And painting has operated for such a long time. So a lot of what I was
22:24 interested in in these paintings and the use of the amount of information that goes into
22:28 them was to participate in this other kind of experience that could happen. And I wanted
22:34 to really move away from that from the desire to try and read them or decipher them.
22:42 MARLOW: Of course, I love that, I mean I love the temptation and the gauntlet that you seem
22:48 to have thrown down in those works. But in early works certainly when you were perhaps
22:52 quoting Leonardo drawings or other but I quite like the idea that in a way you felt like
22:58 you hadn’t obliterated them enough and that it got in the way too much. Does that mean
23:03 though that you still have the same kind of imagery and ideas in your mind when you’re
23:10 working in the new way but that you’re not actually physically using them as a structure
23:15 underneath? Or have you actually in a sense approached your process from almost the opposite
23:20 pole? From just starting with a canvas and starting with a drawing?
23:24 MEHRETU: Even with the paintings with the architectural drawing, I didn’t have a particular
23:29 image in mind when starting the painting. And the it was usually information, to have
23:36 this archive of information and I would choose from within that information an image to start
23:41 the painting with that I would project in the painting then we would trace that drawing,
23:45 layer upon layer, image after image. Those various drawings changed I mean we would construct
23:52 it, a form of an image. And then a drawing the drawing that I would kind of go in with
23:56 the marks of the painting would somehow work against and with that or digest that or participate
24:02 within that kind of space to then create a different image. And I was always
24:06 searching for this emergent image to come from within the painting, from within the
24:10 process of the painting. So in a way, I don’t think the approach
24:17 is so so different, just doesn’t have the…and also I didn’t there’s a way to talk about
24:24 the paintings with the architectural language that you really have that you can really give
24:28 language to, I’m really wanting to move away from being able to have language the
24:33 proper language to work with the paintings. What I like what I think I’m interested
24:37 in within the paintings that moves out of that, away from that.
24:41 MARLOW: So the Mogamma paintings which you showed at Documenta, they look very strong,
24:48 but in all those kind of group shows they compete with other works. I mean I think there
24:53 are better ways of showing them but they still stood out. In London, at White Cube, you worked
24:59 with David Adjaye, into an architectural configuration. I wonder now, a year later, when you’ve
25:07 obliterated all reference at least temporarily to architecture, whether that was a moment
25:11 of closure of a particular aspect of your career then? I mean did you find that successful,
25:17 putting it in that architectural figuration? Did it suggest other ways that you might work
25:23 or display your work or, as I’m implying or inferring, close something down?
25:28 MEHRETU: I don’t think it closed something down, I think actually I was much happier
25:33 with that installation and what I think it encourages because of the diamond and the
25:38 space. You felt kind of the sonic reverberations in the dark gray voids in the space surrounding
25:44 the paintings and it kind of reinforced a way to look at the paintings. And as a viewer
25:48 walking in you didn’t confront the paintings straight on you had to turn your body sideways
25:53 and you were very aware of the shift in your physical being and the shift of this access
25:58 for viewing for paintings that were the same scale.
26:02 What became what I what I was most interested in in those paintings was the way that the
26:09 marks and the architecture formed something a different form with their work together.
26:16 That’s what I was getting most interested in, lost in. What really seemed to take place
26:22 and what continues to hold those paintings in a way, the architectural drawing really
26:29 creates a distance from within the viewer and the space. You’re looking even if it’s
26:36 this completely immersive experience with their scale, you’re still looking into it
26:42 so you’re I really wanted these other paintings I wanted the marks to become almost like enormous
26:50 other so there was a different sense of scale so that you were immersed in this language,
26:54 you could be completely immersed in this space that felt like it could be an urban space
27:01 or some other form that some natural kind of form. So it’s very and that came from
27:08 within that drawing. So I don’t think of it as a closure, I’m
27:11 still working on some paintings where I’m doing a lot of paintings right now dealing
27:17 with complete erasure of Aleppo for example and the buildings that had existed in there
27:23 and those paintings operate very differently and they’re one part of the practice, but
27:26 the part of the practice that I’m interested in to push this language further or to let
27:34 to allow the abstraction to do to have this other role I think is very important.
27:37 MARLOW: I’m glad to hear that, and I thought they looked wonderful in the gallery and as
27:42 you read to us and you talk about painting as performative of course the experience of
27:48 that was more performative, the viewer became much more involved in a kind of drama, a psycho-drama,
27:52 a psycho-geographical drama, or maybe that was just my reading of it. But I wondered,
27:57 perhaps we could just unpick a little bit, what you mean about the idea of painting as
28:00 performance because your process of painting is both a collaborative venture and an intentionally
28:07 private one. And I wonder how the two kind of meld together in that performative idea?
28:13 MEHRETU: In terms of the performative, I’m thinking about improvisation and intuition
28:19 and working with a certain kind of understanding of language and then trying to form something
28:27 new. Trying to find an impossible within this language, trying to find this break. And so
28:37 with layering the architectural drawings even that process has a performative element to
28:42 it because it really one image to another you’re taking places that are so distant
28:46 from one another completely don’t have a particular kind of relationship and forcing
28:52 them together because of this idea. Or there’s this aspect of performativity in that sense
28:59 but also actually in the way that they actually become.
29:03 And then in the way that you interact with them as a viewer that the painting actually
29:10 evolves in front of you through the viewing of them and the experience of the painting.
29:17 That was another reason that I was very interested in making the space for at the gallery in
29:23 White Cube here is in Documenta the way the paintings were displayed you really moved
29:28 past them and you weren’t encouraged then to spend more time with them. And so that’s
29:34 been a big interest of mine, how to encourage this kind of the performative element within
29:42 the viewer of the painting, what happens when you really start to look at the painting and
29:46 you really start to see ghosts or other forms of visual images that seem to play with a
29:52 different idea of who you are and how you interact with the space. Where it’s not
29:56 just this kind of quick reading and looking at the painting as an image. And that’s
30:02 where I mean and so and so the making … but we don’t have to get into that.
30:10 MARLOW: Well you do, and we’re gonna do that now.
30:12 (audience laughter) MARLOW: You…you…it’s another very interesting
30:14 remark, loss of cultural self. Now, you know, loss of physical self, might be sort of a
30:22 description of what Pollock talked about, going into a trance and losing a sense of
30:26 where he was or who he was but the rhythm that took over is quite interesting, and your
30:30 idea of the beat. But you talk about loss of cultural self—are you talking about a
30:35 loss of an analytical, controlling approach to how you use motifs and imagery, is that
30:41 what you mean? Or is it about obliteration of every aspect of your being when you’re
30:45 painting at a certain point? MEHRETU: Yeah, not every aspect of my being.
30:50 But … it’s so hard to talk about making paintings.
30:57 MARLOW: Because it’s such a varied process for you, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s detached,
31:02 sometimes the studio assistants are working, sometimes then you’re working on different
31:06 layers— MEHRETU: I make paintings and I’ve made
31:09 paintings from the beginning the earliest marks come from a desire of trying to make
31:13 sense of myself and trying to understand myself as an artist and understand my intention of
31:20 making. So I was making these very kind of gestural drawings and I started to reduce
31:24 them to these very small marks to try and understand how I understood them and what
31:27 they meant to me. And in that process there’s the way that
31:31 I almost interact with the world when an event happens you try and make sense of this event
31:35 within a cultural understanding and a historical perspective, the political, social reality
31:41 that you try to decipher the world through, this lens. There’s a sense, there’s an
31:48 approach that historically been a very Cartesian, very rational approach towards making sense
31:53 of the world but we really it’s very clear that that approach is also one that has a
31:58 very strong colonial type of political intention behind it as well. And some of the quotes
32:04 that I bring up and use in the montage deal with mapping and that way.
32:10 So if the work is this effort and there’s this there’s the effort of really and I’m
32:16 trying to make without this without a sense of with a certain type of understanding of
32:24 the language in a sense because of this more Cartesian practice in the studio of trying
32:28 to make sense of what I have done then the work then I can draw then I can draw into
32:34 the work within this within to try and make sense of every situation that I’m encountering
32:39 that puzzles me or I’m trying to make sense of in the world around me. And a way to locate
32:44 myself within that. So there’s always been this kind of in and out in the process, these
32:49 very opposing tendencies in the studio and in the process of a studio, so I use I get
32:55 I’m interested in images of a place or interesting in what or why it resonates so deeply with
33:01 me, why this particular problem and then try to use these paintings as a way to somehow
33:07 decipher that or make sense of that for myself so.
33:11 Joan Didion mentions once, she write to make sense of herself in the world around her,
33:16 it was this wonderful quote I wish I had it here, but I it really is the same reason I
33:22 feel like I make why I continue to make paintings and what in the image in the paintings what
33:28 can come about in an image that I didn’t expect that actually is much more profound
33:33 than the language that I could have to articulate my thoughts or feelings about that particular
33:37 situation. So it’s that it’s I refer to it as a gray
33:42 space it’s this other form that emerges so that the paintings that don’t do that
33:49 aren’t as interesting to me. If they do something that has been done in the previous
33:54 paintings, that kind of emergence hasn’t taken place and you don’t learn something
34:00 new then about the context. MARLOW: When did you realize in your life
34:05 that you wanted seriously to be an artist? MEHRETU: I always made made made but I think
34:12 it was when I was in college that I thought I would like to try, I mean wanted to keep
34:18 going with it. And then right after college when I moved to New York I thought I would
34:26 really try to find a way to make paintings. It was always working with painting.
34:29 MARLOW: It’s interesting because it’s very easy to over-analyze or apply someone’s
34:36 background or upbringing and see everything that they do through the refracted lens of
34:41 that. But Tacit Adine(?) in a beautiful short essay in your last catalog talked about the
34:47 idea that the artist formed in childhood what is interesting then is how childhood helps
34:53 form the artist subsequently. And it is always said, and I think with a great deal of intelligence,
34:58 that your background—7 years in Ethiopia before your family moved—that upheaval,
35:04 the end of colonization, the revolution and so on, and then finding a new home in America
35:11 or is it a diaspora, was something that could be read into a lot of your work. A sense for
35:17 identify, a sense of flux and so on. Do you think that your paintings are often over-analyzed
35:24 in terms of your own personal cultural experience? Or
35:27 do you accept that they are inextricably linked and it is often a form of self-analysis?
35:31 MEHRETU: I think in certain ways when your work is described through your biography it
35:42 can be tiresome because there is much more that you’re trying to investigate in the
35:47 work. And my interest in the work what I’ve been trying to investigate is not really linked
35:53 to this biography that’s very clear to me, who I am. But the ideas of Fischer and these
36:00 bricks, this kind of discontinuing this discontinuity between realities and having to negotiate
36:06 these various places, that break has been kind of a constant it keeps coming back into
36:13 the work. And it keeps coming back into any social situation in the world that I’m kind
36:21 of most interested in understanding. And so I think that I think that there’s
36:28 a contradiction in that there’s this kind of constant link between who you are and how
36:34 you interact with the world and the agent that you find yourself how you end up participating
36:39 in that world. And where who you come from in that sense. But I don’t think that yeah
36:47 but I do also find that really problematic to read the work through the biography. I
36:51 mean there used to be this conversation around, you travel a lot so you make this work that
36:55 has to do with migrating I mean that’s not I don’t find that because my family migrated
37:00 that that’s why I’m interested in migration in my work I mean I think that there’s a
37:05 contradiction in that. Fundamentally. MARLOW: I included you, two, three years ago
37:10 in an anthology of African painting since 1980. You’re here tonight in your own terms
37:16 as a representative of America, you’re an American artist for the purposes of this evening,
37:20 that’s your passport—does that kind of identity matter to you? I mean, do you an
37:25 African artist, an American artist, an African-American artist or just an artist?
37:28 MEHRETU: I mean first firstly I’m just an artist but I think that I’m very clearly
37:35 and take full responsibility for being an American and I think one has to—
37:40 MARLOW: The State Department are quite relieved about that.
37:44 (laughter) MEHRETU: I think and it’s been a very difficult
37:47 responsibility I think for the last twelve…fourteen…twelve years, fourteen years. And I think that a
37:59 big part of the work that of the last seven years the last ten years has really been investigating
38:05 working from that place. Especially since 2007. But I also very much very focused on
38:16 not focused but you are who you are and I’m of African descent and I was born in Ethiopia
38:22 and I live in the United States, but you know. Yeah. So I refer to myself as Ethiopian and
38:30 I refer to myself as an American . MARLOW: You have studios and you work in New
38:36 York and Berlin. And for a time, not so long ago, in Michigan. Can you work anywhere? Are
38:43 you searching for a place that feels like home? Have you found home? Does that idea
38:46 not matter to you? MEHRETU: I feel like I mean home is very important
38:52 to me and in many ways Michigan is very much a home. It was the place East Lansing was
38:59 the city I was raised in, the small college city that I was raised in, but I think that
39:07 I like moving the studio, I like working in different places. I find there are certain
39:14 cities that I am able to work in and able to find
39:18 mental space to work in very differently, and then it’s also interesting that when
39:24 I’m living when I live in very different cities I who I am and how I really start to
39:30 try to make sense of myself it really shifts by where I am. So when I was living in Berlin
39:35 I felt very much an American in Berlin, and going back to New York, after having lived
39:43 in Berlin, my focus and what I became most interested in terms of what was taking place
39:48 in the world was taking place in the north of the African continent. And in many ways
39:53 there were repeat actions in that that would that had taken place when I was a child. So
39:58 there was this there’s this constant crisscrossing across the ocean and across which and which
40:03 I’m very interested in because of historically also this kind of this diasporate kind of
40:10 charting and mapping and what happens kind of with the mind in terms of that shift in
40:18 space. MARLOW: Which must have, the way you were
40:20 just describing, must have some bearing, conscious and unconscious, on the work you produce.
40:26 MEHRETU: More about how I was thinking about what kind of architectural interest I was
40:32 what I was looking what I was interested in exploring in the construction of the space
40:35 in the paintings. So it informed that and more and more in terms of the research going
40:41 into the archive for the images for the painting. Shifted by from where I was. So my interest
40:49 in Europe really I mean to go into Europe and really to look at to immerse yourself
40:55 in European painting and then the history of like within the center of Berlin to look
41:03 at this very to be an American citizen in the midst of in my mind the midst of an illegal
41:10 war that was taking place and having to be taking responsibility for this situation in
41:16 a country that just had experienced in several ways these types of fissures very intensely
41:22 really with major magnitude in terms of the world stage that that really shifted how I
41:32 was thinking about erasure took place in the work in a very different way, the position
41:36 of the architecture as being a type of space you can negotiate to just be these parts of
41:42 architectural elements that float mingle mix with the marks would flow through the painting
41:47 all of this shifted because of this kind of reorientation of understanding of self by
41:51 being by living in Europen. MARLOW: So when you said the hand can throw
41:55 a bomb in relationship to your process, there is sometimes violent undertones in what you’re
42:02 doing. MEHRETU: We live in a world of violence, yeah.
42:06 (soft laugh) MARLOW: But anyone hearing you talk now will
42:09 be struck by your poise and measured thinking. You don’t seem I mean there’s a quiet
42:15 anger that may be bubbling under, but it seems you’re very in control of that—
42:20 MEHRETU: The mark on, my interest in the mark on a piece of paper, that that by itself is
42:24 this mark is this kind of that still could be this place of invention. In a moment where
42:30 neocapitalism has taken and neoliberalism is kind of dictating in so many ways and kind
42:37 of it kind of infecting our very our own bodies. To be able to sit down on a piece of paper
42:45 and still be able to make a mark that has that had something that could do something,
42:50 that to me is part of the hand can throw a bomb. Like that these marks could can actually
42:56 behave in this context and there’s a possibility of something else through this through this
43:01 through the breaks that could take place in that.
43:04 MARLOW: Is painting in any way redemptive to you?
43:09 MEHRETU: I don’t I think it’s a really it really is a way to figure things out, it’s
43:20 a way for me to exist in the world. MARLOW: It’s very funny, I asked Anselm
43:25 Kiefer some questions, he’s sitting here, the other day about the purpose of it all.
43:30 And he said he thought that for him, not in his life but in painting, he felt that the
43:37 role of the artist was to be cynical, to be skeptical, to question sometimes the futility
43:43 of it all, the way things are. Does that resonate with you?
43:47 MEHRETU: I speak it here of the futility of the marks, the futility of even the effort
43:54 to decipher them, the futility of the effort to construct this other kind of possibility.
43:58 The contradiction in that and the kind of confrontation in that contradiction, the contradiction,
44:05 the kind of idealist desire in painting, the idealist desire in trying to build or reconstruct
44:11 something else, and the kind of impossibility of that within itself, is part of the bigger
44:17 investigation and why I continue to want to make paintings and make art, even.
44:24 MARLOW: Just, let’s go on to drawing, because you’ve mentioned how important it is now
44:30 and Tacita—for Tacita Dean, it’s key to everything you do. And I was very struck by
44:39 the fact that a series you made, Mind Breath Beat, you this was done in Berlin, it was
44:49 soon after Cy Twombly’s death, I hadn’t really thought about Twombly in relation to
44:53 you, but then I thought subsequently actually if there’s anything Twombly-esque about
44:56 what you’ve done it was there before the moment of his death but was that a significant
45:02 moment for you? Did it make you rethink, or was it just coincidental in the way Tacita
45:07 tells of the genesis of those paintings? MEHRETU: I think it was very coincidental.
45:13 I had been started I had been doing these drawings and then I had started several of
45:19 them and then I found out Cy Twombly had died and it was at the time I had been working
45:27 on these drawings so it was a complete coincidence. But those coincidences are always super interesting
45:35 to me. The interest in the mark-making for me in
45:39 being able to continue working with the marks is the effort in trying to again for the language
45:45 to try and find something else within the language and within the image that I’m that
45:52 I’m chasing this dragon that I’m chasing. Yeah so that really that there isn’t this
46:01 kind of there’s no direct relationship or kind of conscious relationship to Twombly.
46:05 At all. MARLOW: And color. Things have become more
46:09 monochromatic in the last year, but in the past work has been vibrantly colorful and
46:13 then restrainedly colorful. And color often is the last element in a painting that you
46:21 produce. I don’t mean to imply that it’s an afterthought, but how much is color central
46:26 to the way that a painting evolves and how much is it something that has to be considered
46:30 towards the end of the process? MEHRETU: Well with Mural, for example, color
46:33 was supreme. Color color the color instead of the marks as having this sense of supreme
46:40 agency and in possibility. The color elements and all the quotations in that painting were
46:49 they came they really determine the painting. Color in the more recent work because of the
46:58 my interest in the collision between the architectural drawing and the marks and the other form
47:03 that could emerge from within that, these works come from within that space and so the
47:07 surface that I’ve started with is completely gray or black.
47:10 It’s also there there’s somehow paintings also kind of being made with the in the aftermath
47:21 of the of the kind of collapse of the liminal or the threshold that existed during the time
47:29 of the if you think of the during 2011 the 18 days in Cairo when Mubarak when after 18
47:38 days of protest Mubarak stepped down. This was a African one of the main African dictators
47:49 who I was around my entire life basically. Who it was an impossibility to remove someone
47:55 like that in the continent or really elsewhere without an armed kind of, without some force,
48:02 some other sense of force. So to have a street a major major street protest take down a dictator
48:09 of that sort who’d been such a who’d loomed so large in my life, there was this moment
48:13 of this ideal pos—idealistic possibility that took place. Even though instantly it
48:19 was very clear that this revolution would be coopted by the Muslim Brotherhood.
48:24 So you have this kind of intense and the and there’s a cynicism there that you know that
48:32 this threshold that this moment is only this is very very but there’s this break that
48:37 happens in that moment, that I’ve been going back to and I keep going back to over and
48:44 over. And then the complete loss of it, the complete so there’s this kind of there’s
48:49 this gray space that exists in that, that’s become one of the dictating kind of places
48:55 from which I’m working. So color just doesn’t have I haven’t had the need for it in this
49:01 new language. But I mean it has to have a place, I don’t know, it will come.
49:05 MARLOW: It’s very interesting that there you talk about that particular moment and
49:10 using it over and over again as source of energy and inspiration. The idea of how art
49:19 engages with the notion of history obviously is a complex one. And this is something that
49:24 in the last few months since I joined the Royal Academy I’ve had to rethink about
49:28 because history painting is one of the things that underpins that institution, it’s something
49:31 that Joshua Reynolds said was the highest form of art and so history painting in a sense
49:36 is an aspiration in an old-fashioned academy. I’m quite curious about artists and their
49:43 relationship to history today, again it’s something I’ve asked various artists, and
49:47 I don’t ask you whether you think in a sense you’re trying to wrestle with contemporary
49:52 history in an academic way that as we would have understood in the 19th century but are
49:56 you, in a way, trying to wrestle with the notion of history painting and how we confront
50:02 history or are you using contemporary history as a more energizing source for your own self
50:09 exploration? MEHRETU: In a way it’s an effort to make
50:14 something from this from the crisis and disaster of the moment that you know I talked about
50:22 this idealism earlier that keeps kind of coming back into this desire that I have. So how
50:29 then within that how can you invent something else? When this kind of entropic kind of really
50:38 dystopic entropic collapse is taking place? And insidious kind of other forces kind of
50:46 cannibalizing and devouring these kind of ideals in a way. And so how from within there
50:56 can something else can this image speak to this? And the image can question this or provide
51:03 something else in that. So there’s … I think that for me it’s impossible to make
51:10 these with I mean I work constantly with I read the newspaper every day, the images from
51:15 the newspaper from other resources are constantly in the studio there part of the process the
51:19 studio chamber of digestion and consumption that then get kind of… they get digested
51:28 through me and in a way to make sense of these moments I’m trying to make these images
51:35 to help me make…find some way to speak of this, of my existence in this moment.
51:42 MARLOW: So the montage, which we began by alluding to, a verbal montage, you have quite
51:47 literally a montage of images in the studio, some of which resonate and seem relevant,
51:51 others of which you will leave alone, but they just stay and they may provoke ideas
51:56 later on? They’re visual ideas, primarily? MEHRETU: Yeah. And markers, just markers,
52:03 reminders. So during, there’re moments like during the Ukraine uprising, where I have
52:10 the news on in the studio constantly and I as I’m working and I’m following very
52:14 closely what’s happening. Or there are other moments where the studio it’s a place of
52:19 complete stillness or retreat and you know you’re kind of desperately trying to build
52:26 something else with this knowledge. In terms of montage, I wanted to just read
52:31 this one quote by Bloch about montage that I think applies. “In technical and cultural
52:36 montage the coherence of the old surfaces is broken up and a new one is constructed.
52:40 A new coherence can emerge then because the old order is more and more unmasked as a hollow
52:45 sham, one of surfaces that is in fact fissured. While functionalism distracts one with its
52:50 glittery appearance, montage often exposes the chaos under the surfaces as an attractive
52:55 or daringly interwoven fabric. In this sense, montage reveals less the façade and more
53:00 the background of age than does functionalism.” So, in terms of even thinking of history painting
53:07 and its role in how to wrestle with that, I think even, in breaking down even, some
53:13 of the desires that were implied within a particular type of narrative that is told
53:19 within that is part of the questioning and process of this work here as well. That I’m
53:25 interested in. MARLOW: We said we wouldn’t speak in too
53:28 much depth about individual philosophers but I was thinking about Deleuze also as you were
53:31 reading Bloch and about time image and so on and I wondered whether you ever had felt
53:38 the compulsion to make film? Because obviously that is one of the great mediums of montage.
53:47 Why the compulsion to paint and draw, rather than make film? Or might there be film films
53:53 made in the future? Or is your painting a distillation of a lot of the techniques anyway?
53:58 MEHRETU: Yeah, I mean, I get so lost in painting and drawing and it’s a way that I, I mean,
54:03 I would never say I won’t make films, I’m actually interested in a in a in a particular
54:08 film project having to do with looking at painting but I’m I’m much more interested
54:15 in an investigation that happens within painting and yeah and making paintings and drawings,
54:23 what I can explore through that. So it’s like painting and yeah, it’s chosen me in
54:30 a way, so…it’s what I feel most like where I feel the most sense of urgency or, not urgency
54:41 but where I feel like I have where I have the most intention in a way, where I can be
54:49 most productive. MARLOW: Once you once you’re fully engaged
54:55 in the process, when do you know when to finish? Does the painting tell you it’s finished?
55:02 Sometimes your work feels like it’s a part of something much larger, it’s explosive,
55:07 other times it’s implosive and it kind of pulls you in. There’s a whole variety of
55:12 different effects and impulses that is has. But I’m curious about that sense of finish.
55:16 Is there a moment in the process where you think, yeah, I know where I want to get to,
55:20 I know when and how I want to finish, and I’m going to work towards that, or is the
55:24 process almost always something that is you’re almost lost in it and then there suddenly
55:30 becomes a moment where it becomes clear that you’ve resolved the work as far as you can?
55:35 MEHRETU: Usually there’s a moment that becomes very clear where the work is finished, where
55:40 the work and usually I keep working on the paintings, I mean sometimes there’s a two
55:44 month gap between working on the painting and going back to it. When you when the painting
55:50 keeps kind of nagging at you and you know there’s a sort of relationship of there’s
55:55 something that and sometimes that discomfort you really sit with it for a long time because
56:00 that’s what but usually there’s something, it becomes very very clear if I have to go
56:06 back into the painting. So I mean it’s very hard to answer because with every painting
56:09 it’s very very different. The only paintings where it isn’t different is if there’s
56:14 a certain kind of rule for how the painting was made but those aren’t the painting the
56:18 way that I’m working now at all. MARLOW: Almost every almost every theorist
56:21 on your montage has connections to Marxist thinking, or many of them do, (laughter),
56:27 which is great, given that this is sponsored by the State Department, sure they’re pleased
56:30 by that— (audience laughter)
56:31 MARLOW: And I was thinking less about the political ideology, more about the dialectic.
56:37 Is a conversation, a dialectic, central to a lot of what you do? That’s how a lot of
56:42 commentators have perceived your work. Abstraction, representation, the mechanical and the gestural.
56:49 Even spatially as well. Do you see it as a as a as a dialectic often?
56:56 MEHRETU: I see it as yeah there’s been this kind of constant struggle in the work between
57:03 these two kind of ways of thinking, trying to make sense, or this idea of kind of emergent
57:11 utopia, this idea that keeps digesting itself, that keeps consuming itself wholly—
57:19 MARLOW: Construction, deconstruction. Fabrication, erasure.
57:23 MEHRETU: Erasure, yeah. This is constantly this and even in my own way of looking at
57:31 the painting what I if I’ve made a series of marks, how quickly I work against them,
57:38 how quickly they undermine even before I’ve made them the battle with the drawing, the
57:43 battle between the drawing and I and what happens in terms of their evolution and letting
57:48 the constant battle between my head and my hands. There’s this constant war that’s
57:54 being kind of going back and forth, for this other possibility. But it’s the other possibility
57:59 that’s the interesting element. MARLOW: That’s the third space?
58:01 MEHRETU: Yeah. MARLOW: Okay. So it’s a trialogue. So let’s
58:04 get to the third space, which of course you I mean on one level there’s George Braque’s
58:10 idea pictorial space which is the space it’s neither illusionistic nor real, it’s the
58:17 space that exists in pictures I mean in cubism, it’s the space behind the lettering, if
58:24 you like which seems to exist, hover in between reality and illusion. Homi K. Bhabha also
58:31 has this idea of a third space in terms of a kind of post-colonial agenda –do those,
58:36 is that is that culturally it interests you, the idea of a third space, as well as something
58:40 formal? MEHRETU: Well it feels there’s a moment
58:44 of there’s necessity of a different form. There has to be this other form. Whether it’s
58:51 in painting in my in my work in painting it’s how I feel like I said most capable of trying
58:59 to understand this. But in a bigger sense there has to be another form of there has
59:04 to be some or there’s just this kind of internal digestion. Maybe that’s what it
59:09 is, this constant kind of digestion of we are eating our own tails in that way in I
59:18 but for me in the painting it has there has to be this is maybe this kind of idealism
59:23 that Tacita brought up in that text but there has and I don’t know if this is the haunting
59:27 of coming from a generation that was very very very informed by the possibility of we
59:35 were completely invested in the rebuilding of a new possibility it was completely devoured,
59:43 as many Africans were in the 60s and 70s; 50s, 60s, and 70s and the 80s went into a
59:50 complete time decade and decades of complete dystopic realities. And corruption.
60:03 And you see this also in the US right now and government can’t function where there’s
60:08 a complete problem with in terms of the way that citizens and government are interacting
60:17 and the way that this is getting kind of consumed. So this exists this entropy exists on so many
60:24 so many on so many levels and it’s existing globally on so many levels kind of world in
60:29 crisis that we’re in so for me, the effort to keep making is within this kind of insistence
60:36 that something else has to give in there, somehow.
60:40 MARLOW: Which artists feel kindred spirits? Which artists do you feel closest to? I mean
60:47 it may be those working today, it may be historical artists…
60:48 MEHRETU: Always the question? (laughts) MARLOW: Well, it’s interesting, because
60:54 Richard Tuttle I know you’ve certainly in the past we’ve talked about him and he’s
61:00 installing here. Malevich is upstairs and I wonder whether the resonance of suprematism
61:06 or moving into abstraction and then returning to figuration so just those two for example!
61:12 MEHRETU: Polke. MARLOW: Polke.
61:16 MEHRETU: Kiefer. Yeah. I’m most interested in artists that I feel are negotiating these
61:27 various contradictions of reality and social—politics. With but with a real commitment to making
61:37 to making art into doing something else with art, what it can do. So David Hammonds is
61:44 another artist that I have a lot of respect for and am amazed by. And you’ve named a
61:51 few others. MARLOW: Mark Bradford?
61:56 MEHRETU: I feel like I mean I feel like we’re both making paintings but I feel very, we’re
62:01 different in our approach and our interests and how we work is very very I don’t feel
62:06 the same kind of connection with the work that I think there was maybe an overlap in
62:12 terms of mapping at one point but my I don’t I feel yeah I’m much more interested right
62:20 now in the Gutai movement in painting and looking at certain aspects of how you know
62:26 you go through these kind of cycles of what becomes really interesting or important or
62:31 feels like it has the most activist kind of capability within this kind of very limited
62:37 form. MARLOW: Both your parents were teachers, as
62:42 we heard earlier, and you have a clarity of thought and expression that would serve well
62:49 as a teacher. Does that interest you? Is there an element of—I’m not asking if your art’s
62:56 didactic but is there a sense of wanting to get certain messages across, the idea of teaching
63:01 that you think perhaps underlies a certain amount of the work that you do?
63:05 MEHRETU: In terms of the painting? MARLOW: Yeah.
63:07 MEHRETU: No, I think that for me, that somehow, that I would hope not, would never be the
63:14 case. I think the paintings are more about other types of questions and efforts to create
63:20 the different, the something else. But I think that teaching and working with students is
63:26 always interesting in that there’s this constant evolution that can happen, this back
63:31 and forth, especially with particular types of students of different ages. But there’s
63:39 a kind of give and take, I mean I work with various assistants who some of them I’ve
63:46 really been kind of close with for a long time, their work and their practice and there’s
63:50 this constant dialogue that happens between me and them.
63:54 I don’t teach right now, I don’t have that position, but in terms of the painting,
63:58 the painting offers something else, it doesn’t come from that position. In my mind, it’s
64:04 similar to a lot that’s said about my father’s being an economic geographer and that coming
64:12 through in the work, like is there is it because I was exposed to a certain sense of geographer
64:16 that I’m interested in maps. And I think that the way that I’ve always worked with
64:20 map-making has and my interest in understanding space has maybe been informed by a certain
64:26 way of thinking but I don’t think it has a relationship to the painting, in that sense.
64:30 In a direct sense, as informing. MARLOW: Finally, just before I throw it out
64:35 to the floor, you mentioned your assistants in the studio. And there’s often, there’s
64:38 a varied energy in the studio, sometimes there’s music, sometimes there’s quietness. Your
64:43 assistants, there’s a great rapport often between them, each other, and you and I wonder
64:49 whether that sense of playfulness resonates at all. And I know that again—
64:52 MEHRETU: Yes. MARLOW: One of the montage quotes is, you
64:55 talk about Virilio’s idea of play, as something in terms of games but also in terms of a sort
65:01 of mechanistic idea of play, that something has it in its casing. Are you exploring the
65:06 idea of play and playfulness in the process of making art?
65:10 MEHRETU: Yes. And the way that the work has been able to evolve it would have been impossible
65:17 without the use of and the contribution of the collaborative efforts of these assistants
65:23 I work with. Some I’ve been working with for a long period, ten or fifteen years, some
65:28 come in for a very short period of time when we need certain types of work done but, in
65:33 terms of whether it’s the surfaces or exploration of how put down other architectural rendering
65:40 in terms of a large mural painting, these would have been these all come about because
65:44 of this kind of playfulness in the studio and even this painting that went in a particular
65:49 direction of all these erased flats here in Berlin, went in a direction because of the
65:56 hands of two of the assistants who just worked on this painting for a year and a half, just
66:00 this painting because of their capability of drawing in
66:03 a particular way. And what started to happen between the underpainting and their hand.
66:07 I mean this is just like, including the inversion of the space, so you’re constantly have
66:15 these spaces where you have the reflection of the space folding in on itself, part of
66:19 its own digestion in a way. MARLOW: And what about becoming a parent?
66:25 I ask you this, I’ve asked this of both men and women, but also you have a studio
66:30 at home and also a studio downtown, has there been any discernable idea of the play of children
66:38 or a shifting approach to what you do, subtly, as a consequence of having witnessed two young
66:43 children growing up and their own obsession with mark-making and play and so on.
66:48 MEHRETU: I mean, children are, I mean the way that they work, it’s incredible. And
66:56 so rather than speak directly to that I’ll say, before we had children, somebody said
67:02 to us, no women artists, no women artists, no women mothers were good artists. Something
67:08 like this. MARLOW: I think I know who that was, actually.
67:11 (audience mumbles) MEHRETU: Did she? That same quote? This was
67:15 someone who— MARLOW: Tracey Emin said it recently as well.
67:18 MEHRETU: Then I just asked…there’s many who have. And many who, I mean, Sylvia Plath
67:28 is an example, or just whether she continued to mother is another thing, but there are
67:33 so many who have. So it was a really kind of outrageous statement that was said. And
67:38 I’ve found, from working, that I’ve made more work and more, the investigations that
67:45 I’ve been able to have and kind of the freedom that’s evolved in the studio because of
67:48 a certain kind of rigorous schedule or but raising children and the witnessing of having
67:54 this child who’s like a little Buddha in the house so you learn from this is one of
67:59 the most incredible experiences that I’ve had. And it’s been one of the most informing
68:04 in the studio, and I love having them in the studio as well and more than anything they
68:11 the formation of a watching not just the formation but the evolution of this life kind of it
68:16 forms itself in so many ways, you only can provide some kind of context for that.
68:22 MARLOW: That was a wonderfully direct indirect answer.
68:24 (laughter) MARLOW: Let’s take questions from the floor,
68:27 we’ve got about fifteen minutes. Are there questions you would like to ask Julie from
68:31 the floor? There’s a microphone coming round. …might want to ask. This here in the front.
68:44 AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: I believe that in the Mogamma series there were some drawings that were
68:52 of Zucotti Park and some of the squares in Cairo. And that you were working on that series
68:59 shortly after you’d finished the mural for Goldman Sachs. And I’ve always been intrigued
69:03 about what it meant for you to think in the same couple of years about for making a mural
69:09 for the lobby of a large bank—there we have it, over there—and, you know, the site
69:16 of the Occupy Movement. And whether as well as you know that we’ve been seeing lots
69:21 of images of places of civil unrest, of great disturbance and destruction, whether global
69:28 finance is also been important to the way you compose your paintings or just what that
69:35 meant to make that work in that place and to be exposed to that community as well.
69:41 MEHRETU: There’s such the possibility that could exist in making Mural. A painting of
69:55 that scale that operates in an urban fabric, that has this kind of participation within
70:01 that you see it from five, ten blocks down the road, that you can see it as a small painting.
70:07 And the site of that painting, being kind of being in this embedded in this financial
70:12 institution in the center of finance and what was historically has been part of the fabric
70:21 of New York City down in that part of Manhattan, all of these were very kind of really interesting
70:27 sites for me. What became and then and then you have then it’s right across from where
70:36 the World Trade Center was and what took place on that charged site so you have this constant
70:42 relationship to these realities. So for me there’s a situation where painting
70:47 rarely has that privilege to be to operate in a public space in that way, as painting.
70:54 And then the other interest in that is that there was this effort within that to all the
71:00 the entire painting was constructed from the history of the architecture of the internalization
71:07 of the marketplace of the architecture of finance and this these forces kind of trying
71:11 and then the drawing trying to and the color and the shapes trying to deal with this reality
71:15 in a way. At the same time you have a year later, not
71:20 even, after it was installed just a few a few years later you have the eruption at Zucotti—2011,
71:26 this was installed in 2009. While this painting was being made, we had the collapse that took
71:32 place economically in 2008, end of 2007, 2008, that summer, so while this while I mean yeah
71:42 2008 while this while this was taking place there my interest in those two contradictions
71:49 of being able to kind of negotiate these realities at the same time and that they they’re forces
71:55 at play with as much like one has actually much more power in a way than another.
72:02 The Zucotti and the Occupy movement was completely devoured in the same way that the revolution
72:08 that has taken place in Egypt has been completely kind of coopted, so that that moment that
72:16 moment disappears. There are these breaks that are provided within both of these fissures
72:21 that I’m interested in. So in terms of like, does world does world finance participate
72:27 in the violence taking place in the world, I think that’s completely evident and clear
72:32 I think that’s part of the interest and the investigation.
72:37 But that so it’s those contradictions and the breaks in those that I’m most interested
72:41 in because I don’t think that what I say about past actions and repeat actions I think
72:47 if I find one other quote that I think treats this whole concept really carefully because
72:53 I think what you’re bringing up is the that those types of contradictions but… I don’t
72:58 know if I’ll find it. Stuart Hall I think really deals with this, these ideas of inventing
73:06 a politic and a way of working from within the experience of these moments, with the
73:12 technology and the experience of what’s happening so that what Zucotti kind of could
73:19 offer in the end was a repeat pattern and a repeat gesture within a space that was also
73:25 the intention of what it was opposing, there’s these … does that make sense?
73:34 MARLOW: Was the experience of doing site specific work, was it something that you would like
73:40 to do more of? Or did it feel quite restrictive? MEHRETU: No, it didn’t feel restrictive
73:45 at all, but I think it would be it has yeah something I would be interested in at this
73:52 point. MARLOW: Depending on where it was.
73:53 MEHRETU: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this wall nagged me. At first I had said no to this
73:57 idea, and then it kept coming back to me, this incredibly long wall that you is almost
74:03 the length of a city block, half of a city block. That you could actually pass by this
74:07 through your movement in this city daily, and that the people who worked in this institution
74:15 who really serviced this institution, it was like a small vertical city of 10,000, 12,000
74:20 employees, most of which are service employees, who service this building in the way that
74:24 they do a city. And so there’s this kind of daily interaction with that type of a painting,
74:29 was really interesting to me in terms of what also was embedded in the painting, all the
74:37 kinds of language and information. MARLOW: Is there a spiritual dimension in
74:39 any way to what you do? I mean, I ask this in a—
74:43 MEHRETU: And I answered somebody, I don’t believe in anything.
74:45 MARLOW: Good. (laughter)
74:47 MARLOW: But when you produced the Mogamma paintings with David Adjaye in that space,
74:52 there was something shrine-like or chapel-like— MEHRETU: Yeah.
74:55 MARLOW: Does the language of art’s engagement with spirituality and the past interest you?
75:01 Is it something that you— MEHRETU: It’s part of, it’s definitely
75:03 part of the history the way painting has been considered and it’s been part of this history
75:13 for a long time, so that’s one of the aspects of montage that I work with in terms of what
75:20 how painting has existed. How you respond to a portrait form painting and how you respond
75:25 to a horizontal, landscape painting. How you respond to a painting that becomes the space,
75:31 how do you do you respond to a painting that—these are very these are parts of painting that
75:36 have existed and parts of understanding of pictures that have existed for so long that
75:40 yes they become part of the language of the what you’re trying to deconstruct and work
75:48 with at the same time. MARLOW: We may, therefor, if there are no
75:57 more questions—oh, there is a question. Here’s the microphone.
76:02 AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Do things recur in the studio? Not in, I mean, things that you don’t
76:10 plan, there are always things that you plan and you intend and that you’re working towards
76:14 and for, do you find that things recur in spite of you?
76:17 MEHRETU: Yes. (laughter)
76:19 AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Good! MARLOW: Such such as?
76:24 MEHRETU: Well the structure of the structure of the center, as we were talking about this
76:30 kind of and this spatial the spatial elements that keep kind of insisting, imposing themselves
76:39 on the painting that I work, I feel I work so I work really hard against them but they
76:45 but then there are times—there’s also like going back to the insistence of the mark,
76:50 this kind of this kind of effort to keep going back to marking in a particular way. When
76:57 you want to try and invent a different language within yourself there’s but I’m interested
77:03 in that insistence. I’m trying I’m interested in when that happens over and over, may really
77:09 trying to understand what is that that is taking place, that happens despite yourself.
77:14 MARLOW: What about your subconscious? I mean, are you interested in the way that it manifests
77:21 itself at all in your paintings, or you don’t believe much in that?
77:26 MEHRETU: (laughs) MARLOW: In your montage, you quote this a
77:29 lot about dreaming and reverie and sleep and of course automatic mark-making, has those
77:36 kind of overtones of exploring the subconscious, but that was 80s years ago, does that again
77:42 resonate with you? MEHRETU: I am very interested in what happens
77:45 when with chance, I’m interested in these kind of what happens with in the studio, in
77:51 the paintings, that will speak to in a way will speak to will give language to my feelings
78:01 around a situation that I haven’t really been able to give proper verbal language to.
78:05 And so I’m very interested in this in these in that when that takes place in the studio.
78:15 And I and I and I I think and you know the improvisation and intuition being such a force
78:21 in the studio and being kind of a servant to impulse in that way. And I think that what
78:26 I mean by that, and Matthew Hale said it so beautifully, he is a true servant to impulse
78:31 because he sees it as symptomatic to the external world and the interior world and these kind
78:37 of the location somehow a way to be able to find some form to link the two. So I’m very
78:46 interested in how and with and how the language with me in terms of that. Yeah.
78:53 MARLOW: Do you have a sense now where your creative journey will take you in the next
79:01 two or three years? Are you looking very much at the next month in the studio? Or do you
79:09 never think in those terms until you actually get back into the studio?
79:13 MEHRETU: Yeah, I mean, I’m really trying to not think in those terms. I mean, there
79:18 are some ideas of projects. There’s a project that I will work with with Peter Sellars for
79:25 a stage project, so to do stage design, stage and costume design for this next opera that
79:30 he’s doing that are based on two Japanese nodes. And he spoke to me about them because
79:37 of the language and the nodes. So I’m very interested to how that will what will happen
79:42 in the studio with that process, it’s a very different process but…
79:46 And then in the painting with the new work, I just finished a body of work and I’ve
79:51 just installed a show of paintings and I’m still in a place of understand them and I
79:56 so in terms of next steps in the studio I think there’s I’m trying to like keep
80:01 it as open as I possibly can. But I also have many paintings already progressing in the
80:07 studio that I’ve been working on for the last year.
80:10 MARLOW: So have you ever had significant creative block?
80:14 MEHRETU: Yeah… I mean, I feel like I said I work a lot and I work I almost draw almost
80:27 every day. I mean it’s like an insistent way of making and yeah I mean so there are
80:36 times where I wanted to make a series of drawings this summer that just didn’t work I couldn’t
80:41 do them and then in the end I ended up the entire time I was traveling through Australia
80:45 I wanted to make these travel drawings, I’ve always wanted to make travel drawings, and
80:48 I never can make travel drawings that I’m interested in. And I always collect all the
80:55 all the materials and I want to take with me and I want to digest place through and
80:59 then I came back to the studio in Berlin and in a matter of weeks I was able to make a
81:03 cycle of drawings for that I needed that were really very different than anything I expected
81:09 and for me were some of the most exciting drawings that I’ve done for what they’re
81:13 teaching me. But I don’t think the earlier part of the summer I was able to do anything
81:19 that was of any use. MARLOW: There we will finish. The show has
81:25 just opened in Berlin, there’s also a show on in Sao Paulo. So we look forward to the
81:29 collaboration with Peter Sellars and maybe a major retrospective or project showing in
81:36 an institution on some stage in London. Juile Mehretu, thank you very much for being here.
81:40 MEHRETU: Thank you. (audience applause)