This is part two of my conversation with Joshua Hagler. If you haven’t read part one, click here.
Your paintings are extremely visceral and psychologically charged—which I love! They are an excavation of time. Everything is distorted. Your semi-realistic figures are rendered abstract. “I want the paintings to have the feeling of vague recollection, a memory that starts to form but disappears,” you say. I have been thinking a lot about “memory”—the whole phenomenon of it—how it is formed and preserved, what does it consist of, what effects does it have, and also how it could be overcome. And I’ve been reading different perspectives. Tell us more about what you think of time and memory.
I love talking about time and memory. Going back to Lethe in mythology, it’s interesting to me that the word is the opposite of “Aletheia.” Aletheia is an archaic Greek word for a particular kind of truth. The idea was that truth/aletheia was something which only poets had access to, and it was through sung speech that they had the power to stir the memory and that through this restored memory, one could retrieve the truth. This is because, “lethe” the spirit of forgetfulnesss flows through that particular river in the Underworld, and when you drink from it, you forget your past life before being reborn. Aletheia is like a gate opening to return one’s memory. Or more to the point, it’s to restore one to one’s true identity, and in that identity we’re realigned with our purpose. This is what gives us the potential to live authentically in the world. I find it beautiful that it’s through poetry that we find ourselves…back to the word and image question…
You’ve been working on a piece on Michael Jackson that lies between a recognition of the colossal talent that he was and an awareness of the accusations of paedophilia brought against him. In general, you want to operate within a space that can generate nuanced conversations. The polarity of political rhetoric is something that really bothers you. It annoys me a lot, as well.
I can literally feel the dance of the dichotomies whenever I pick up any major newspaper from the Anglosphere: order/flux, autonomy of enterprise/encouragement of social justice, a very rigid heteronormativity/a mad sort of gender fluidity, emphasis on human ingenuity/concerns over climate change, an (impractical) focus on the local/an (uncritical) openness to immigration, a denial of the atrocities of colonialism/a denial of all that’s valuable about Western Civ. Anyway, what made you pick MJ?
I had the idea after watching the documentary “Leaving Neverland” in which two men Wade Robson and James Safechuck came out about how Michael Jackson sexually abused them as kids. I encourage anyone to watch it, but I do feel settled on the matter, that Jackson abused kids throughout his life and career. So in that regard, there’s no ambiguity for me. Watching the documentary, I related strongly to Robson and Safechuck, in Robson’s case because he grew up idol-ising him and imitating his dances. There’s also the fact that we’re all around the same age now. And finally, parallel to the way in which that part of Jackson’s and their lives were occurring in secret—that a secret like that can destroy a family—is something that runs parallel to my own family life at that time. So my response was quite emotional and deeply sympathetic with the two men and with the families that had sued Michael Jackson while he was still alive.
In spite of the awful things Michael Jackson did, his music, legacy, and talent is a cultural gain, and since I never knew him in life, it’s a waste of my time to hate him or to try to prove my superiority by never listening to his music. To do so would probably be a projection of my own pain in an unconscious and misguided attempt to find a community to share it with. Joining, say, an online community to shout insults at Michael Jackson supporters is not some kind of enlightened position or helpful in serving justice or proving moral superiority, and it especially wouldn’t bring about any authentic connection or intimacy with others who were doing the same. In the end, the shouting match is completely outside the interests of the victims.
Going back to the painting, “My God,” I wanted to make something that lives in the ambiguity and paradox. I mean, to some degree, I want all my work to exist in paradox. The image that the painting responds to is a still frame from a performance in which he stood over a wind machine with his arms outstretched while it blew his shirt and hair in dramatic fashion. He did that often. Removing details from the stage and background and so on brought out the crucifixion-like pose. In life, he had always presented himself as a scapegoat, like Christ, and I think in many ways saw himself that way. He embodied the same kind of contradiction as, say, the Catholic Church, and certainly one can’t help but think of the many scandals involving priests.
Going back to the polarity of rhetoric—I think the fact that public discourse has broken down drastically and that people have been rendered incapable of identifying/making subtle distinctions in arguments have everything to do with the very structure of the modern political spectrum itself (a legacy of the French Revolution). It’s like the skeletal framework of Right and Left itself is flawed (I read somewhere that it is the epitome of the ‘Cartesian’ character of the French intellectual tradition, wherein everything—not only politics—is pulled to the extremes, is cast in binary terms, for the sheer thrill of theatre) and the stuff that is built upon it is bound to create friction.
The world now is too inextricably caught within the Left/Right typology and people don’t even know how and where did it originate. So yeah, how do you think artists could and should respond to the problem? You’re already taking a step in that direction. What more could be done?
Indeed, I find the dynamic of polarity everywhere now. It’s why I left Facebook, for example. People I used to admire and respect become totally insane, whether on the so-called Left or Right, and pretty regularly they seemed to me to become the very thing they were busy shaming others about.
So with regard to your question about what I think artists should do about the problem of polarisation, I would say simply to think deeply about what one is doing in one’s work and the root reasons for it. I don’t think there are any topics that shouldn’t be raised, but I don’t think art which is merely topical is very good. If anything, make what you think consensus would hate. We actually avoid being part of the problem that way.
The work we make will shift in meaning as culture changes, and in ways we absolutely cannot predict now. It doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be a political activist in one’s life when called to be, it just means that doing politics through a painting, for example, is not the best way to do it. It’s valuable any time someone slows down to look at art and for their assumptions to be destabilised. It will, in some small way, do their consciousness good. Good work will elicit a soulful response and one can place trust in a person who engages with the world that way, whether or not we all agree.
I read that your 2011 video piece The Evangelists contains a 3D representation of a neighbour with a mental illness who tragically burned down your apartment and studio. He wasn’t in a position to assess or recognise the gravity of his act, which you knew very well. You decided to invite him to collaborate for something constructive, three years later. You didn’t want it all to be for nothing. What really jumped out to me was that your decision was “a prevention of entropy”. “Entropy” is a concept that I think about now and then and would use the word a lot with a professor of mine while discussing worldviews. I’d like to know more about what exactly you understand by entropy—personal, social, cultural, cosmic? How may it be circumvented or resisted?
I don’t think I meant anything very unique or special by it. I probably just used the word because, in our case, there was an actual fire, so a lot of heat/energy being released. We lost our home and it took some time for life to get back to normal. The idea itself felt like some sort of conversion of energy, rather than waste.
I was really proud of what we accomplished with “The Evangelists,” and I say “we” because it was such an undertaking I couldn’t have possibly done it on my own. I put everything I had into it. I was struggling with depression especially in those years and that everything went mostly ignored made it difficult to feel good about life in general. I got divorced at the end of that year and lost my galleries. I think one could call that entropy.
Because you asked me the question, I went back and watched parts of it. My dad is in the animation as well, and is presently going through chemo for pancreatic cancer, which, ultimately, isn’t curable. So I’m looking at the animation as sort of a time capsule. That really haunts me I have to say. Wow…I’m realising this as I type.
You fail and you fail and you fail and it’s not because the work was bad; it’s because it isn’t essential to the narrative that a culture is contriving about itself at the time that it comes into existence. What happens to that work? To the artist? Does there ever come a time when it’s seen again? Seen differently?
I don’t know if entropy is a good word for that sense of waste and disappointment but it poisons you over time if you aren’t careful with what you decide to value. Perhaps in trying to prevent entropy, one only spreads it.
New Mexico, where I live, is one of the poorest states in the country. Rural poverty is quite a different thing from urban poverty. I’m not saying it’s good for anyone, but there is a certain presence to it. If that’s entropy, I have to say that the way in which it makes time present in such a quiet and powerful way is feeding what I do.
Your fiancée Maja Ruznic is a painter as well, and she is from Bosnia. When and how did the two of you meet? How has the event of having a partner who is a fellow artist impacted your creativity?
Maja and I met briefly for the first time at some point while I was still married. I’m thinking it must have been the summer of 2012, at a show where she had some work. I had been aware of her work for a couple years before that. I saw some paintings of hers at the CCA grad show in San Francisco in 2009 but didn’t have any idea who she was. Much later, after the divorce, I invited her for an interview as part of a project I was working on. Yes, it was like you’re thinking; I was a sly little bastard! The interview, by the way, was in a jail cell, in the basement of a gallery where I was doing a residency, which used to be an S&M dungeon. I still can’t believe I had the nerve to invite her there. I don’t remember when we started dating exactly but not long after that.
I don’t know if I’ve ever described the creative power of the relationship very well, I think because the whole relationship is about creativity really. There’s really no separation between our creative lives and life itself. So we’re constantly affecting each other. One doesn’t even need to be in the room; we know how the other thinks! I should say that before we got together, I was a huge fan of her work. That was a major part of the attraction for me. So, to this day, I really admire how she thinks and works and there’s frankly just no living painter I like better. Not too many dead ones either! We can’t finish a painting without getting the other’s input. We share each other’s values art-wise, what it is we think art should do, what’s important in painting, why we read what we read, etc. I think it’s having each other that makes us feel less crazy or alone, like, I’m not the only one who would have these values and feelings about what art is and what it should do. I trust her eye and her spirit absolutely. I’ve grown so much as a result.
A short one: what ideas/concepts/subjects would you like to explore in future exhibitions?
It’s a secret.