IN THE NEWS
In the Studio: Nari Ward, Part I
Harlem is a peculiar place. The ghosts of literati past that linger through its present cultural gatekeepers, the gentrification that went from 0 to 60 in under six seconds. It’s riddled with good food, good music, and good people and rife with boarded brownstones at a million a pop. The air hugs you a little bit tighter uptown. The smell is sweeter, the cops bolder. The sound of Harlem, its heartbeat, hits you fast and strong.
Quieted on this given Sunday, an unusually temperate February evening, as the artist Nari Ward shuts the door behind me and leads me into his ground-level, Sugar Hill-adjacent studio. The space sits long and almost narrow. On the concrete floor rests residential-sized sculptures and installations, no less dramatic than the monumental objects for which he’s become known. Some of the work is still evolving, their resolution incomplete. Others are immediately recognizable.
A stacked Liquorsoul sculpture, the last in its series rests at the south end of the studio. Towards the north end stands a worktable. On it are tools, hardware, and papers, ideas in progress. Nari unfolds two chairs in the middle of the room and we get started. For the next hour or so, the 50-something year old artist waxes poetically on materiality and body, on resilience and the South, on disconnection and re-education, but I’ll let him tell it.
Here’s part one of a three-part series. Just note the following interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Tell me about the current show at SCAD [Savannah College for Art and Design], So-Called and how it all came together.
Actually she [Laurie Ann Farrell, curator of the exhibition] saw another body of work at LSU College of Art & Design, and originally the idea was for SCAD to take that show. And then before we decided to do that, she said maybe it’d be better to think about other works that could have another kind of presence in reference to the place. So I was really happy with the new reiteration. It really worked well, and it was good for me, too. A lot of the works were many years apart, so they weren’t together a lot. Just to see them in conversation was really cool for me.
I know that We the People is in the show, which is sort of an iconic work for you, right? I see that title and I can immediately picture the work. There’s also the new film that you made.
It’s an object that is inlaid with a time-based medium, which is a flat-screen TV. It’s all one element. It’s funny because I did this piece where I was working with the back end of TV sets for a couple of reasons. One, no one really looks at the back end of TVs. I thought as someone who is interested in things that people don’t look at, there’s an empty space to develop some content and meaning. So I thought I just need to collect more of it. Also, the fact that the TV set now is starting to flatten out. People are getting rid of their old TV sets. A lot of the sets I’m taking the backs off from— it’s just the plastic; I wasn’t taking the infrastructure— are really good. I think it’s just that people wanted to have the new, sexy flat-screen TV for their walls.
I also saw it as an important moment of transition in terms of this kind of technology, so I said, “I need to do something with that.” Weirdly enough, I decided in this piece to include the piano, which is kind of the precursor to the TV. If you were anybody economically, you had to have a piano in your house and later it was if you were anybody, you have a TV set. I decided I wanted the piano— it’s an upright— to become sort of a default back-end of the TV. It was also about repurposing the piano to become something else. It became a key-hanging apparatus. These keys weren’t just regular keys. They were keys that I wanted to have symbolically reference places that we no longer have access to but were still somehow indexed through these elements. It’s really about multiple places. Each key represented some space, whether it was a box or a house, that it had disengaged from.
Are these specific places for you that these keys represent or is it more general?
Yes, general, experiential. There are a couple of things. They reference this idea of place that one is no longer in connection with because it’s lost keys or used keys or keys that no longer work. Some of these came from the local Bradley Lock & Key Shop that inspired the video, and also eBay. I was lucky because there are some really good keys of character. I got several pounds of keys, and it was good to have my choice to sort of formalize it. Some keys had more character; some were more run-of-the-mill. I wanted to have a range. I don’t want them all to be old and rusty. I wanted you to be able to recognize it, you know? Say, “Hey, that looks like a key that I have in my pocket,” so you have that immediate kind of correlation to your own direct experience.
Are they all working keys or are some of them broken?
No, they are all working. That was important, that they had served a purpose and for some reason they were now in the position that they were in. Some of them are really… I was like, “I know I’m going to lose this one,” because there’s no security there. “Ah, it’s a beautiful key,” but I needed to put it in there. It’s just magical.
And they’re connected to the piano with…?
Just little nails, a couple hundred nails around the piano and they just hang on the piano. It was actually an upright I had in my house. This building used to be a firehouse and then it was a piano moving company and then it was a limousine service. When I got here, there were all elements of the histories here. I actually did a work on that called Hunger Cradle, where I just lifted everything in the air with yarn and rope. The piano was from that era. It was the first thing we had here. My daughter would always play with it; my son would always play with it. We thought we’d leave it here if they get interested, but they never got interested. My wife was like, “When are we going to get rid of this piano?” So I had an idea for this piano, and we were able to kill two birds with one stone and use the piano for another purpose.
For me it was a really poetic alliance with the notion of keys, and taking that little, maybe even simple gesture and just remaking it into something else. That was really important. It was all about these big spaces that are no longer accessible. How can we then use these histories within the video that would allude to these histories that are sort of unspoken, the kind of peripheral, marginalized histories.
That space that is referenced, the old candy shop, that’s in Savannah?
Yes, that was in Savannah. It was kind of a really great, serendipitous experience. They brought me to look at some salvaged yards. That particular week, this salvage company, Southern Pine, had rescued this little candy shop that was going to be demolished for some construction to be done. They kind of just took it from there and brought it to their site. I saw it there and said, “This is really simple and beautiful.” At first, I wanted to buy it and they said no because it’s an important part of the history of the neighborhood. So I asked if I could borrow it. They were like, “Yeah, if you can use it, it would just help with the provenance of what the thing is.”
I decided being that the video had to live on its own, outside of the context of the space, that it was important to bring to the video the structure of the candy shop. Literally the formatting of the video follows the four walls of the candy shop. The first view is of the front door inside the house looking out into what would be the front of the house with the windows and doors and nature. That sort of introduces it. It goes from there to the Bradley Key Shop. Say you walk into the candy shop. You’d be in the doorway. On the right would be this notion of the Bradley Key Shop. The back wall is the first African church, which is the one that references the Underground Railroad. Then on the left-hand side is James the Palm Maker, so that James and Bradley, two creators— this African-American guy that makes palms in the park and squares and Mr. Bradley who’s the owner of the key shop making keys— these two makers became this interesting conversation within the piece. The church is this organized structure or system and the other side is nature. That’s how I played it out. The areas of transition are Spanish moss, which grows on the trees. I use the Spanish moss as a way to pull from one space to the next.
So, it’s very much a rooted in the way Savannah is as a place.
Yes, the south more because it references Native American culture and the grave of Tomo-Chi-Chi, which is a rock that James the palm maker is sitting in front of. Mr. Bradley, his transition to the church is really about referencing the Underground Railroad, which the church used to be a station for. There are several holes in the floor, this kind of patterning of the holes, which are breathing holes for the people who used to be underneath the floor. For me, it was really about taking these charged moments and images and then finding a way to merge them into one experience. You might not know anything of what you’re looking at but you can get something evocative out of the experience of looking at what you might think it might mean.
What else is in the show?
So, Laurie and Tim Peterson, who was the curator prior… He left but he was also instrumental in choosing some of the works. There was really an interesting dealing with political content, but in a very subtle way. There’s a reference to citizen’s rights. There’s the American flag but in a different kind of forum. There is this commonality that the work offers. It’s about finding this ground within a political fracturing. [It’s] definitely not preaching but more thinking about your own relationship with material or to the content or to the form that it might be echoing.
What’s the earliest piece in the work?
That’s a good question. Oh, the tire seats.
That might have been the first time I encountered your work, the tire seats.
I’m so happy with those pieces. Actually, I revisited the tire seats because these are different. The ones that are there have a fullback, so they’re not regular tires seats. They’re kind of classed-up. I think these are the greatest things, because of their resilience. These things will last forever. You could literally, and I’ve done it— I was in a four-story studio on 125th Street. I remember throwing one out the window thinking this is going to be alright. And it fell and it was perfect. It’s the most resilient seat ever made. I’m going to have them in my Pérez [Art Museum Miami] show. You want people to spend time in the space, you have to make it hospitable for them, and I didn’t want to do a conventional kind of seat.
Read about Nari’s thoughts on disembodiment, the problem with new media, and the strangeness of the idea that employing violence can foster peace in In the Studio: Nari Ward, Part II, which will publish on Wednesday, March 25, 2015.
Nari Ward: So Called is on view at SCAD through June 27, 2015. The exhibition is curated by Laurie Ann Farrell, SCAD executive director of exhibitions and was presented as part of the deFINE ART 2015 program, Feb. 17-19.