Artist Julie Mehretu was invited by Chief Curator Virginia Shore to be the fifth speaker in the American Artist Lecture Series, a partnership between Art in Embassies (AIE), Tate Modern and the U.S. Embassy London. Mehretu has currently two works on temporary exhibition; Plovers Wing at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence Madrid, and System, at the U.S Ambassador’s Residence London .Her work Treatise Drawing (to Axum, part one, two and three) is part of the permanent collection of the U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa.
On September 22, 2014, the artist spoke about her work in conversation with Director of Artistic Programmes at The Royal Academy Tim Marlow. AIE Director Ellen Susman opened the evening’s program at the Starr Auditorium, followed by an introduction of Mehretu’s work by Tate Modern ‘s Head of Exhibitions Achim Borchardt-Hume. As images of her work where shown, Mehretu spoke about the different aspects of her career. The small reception that followed the conversation, allowed many of the art students to follow up with the artist directly.
Julie Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and lives and works in New York City and Berlin. She received a Master’s of Fine Arts degree with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1997. Mehretu is a recipient of many awards, including the MacArthur Award (2005), the Berlin Prize: Guna S. Mundheim Fellowship at The American Academy in Berlin, Germany (2007), and the Barnett and Annalee Newman Award (2013).
She has shown extensively in international and national exhibitions. Recent solo shows include Julie Mehretu: The Mathematics of Droves, White Cube, Sao Paulo, Brazil; Julie Mehretu: Half a Shadow, carlier|gebauer, Berlin, Germany; Liminal Squared, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York City (2013), White Cube, London (2013); Mind Breath and Beat Drawings, Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris (2013); Mehretu: Grey Area, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City(2009)
Mehretu’s work is in important public collections around the world, including The Brooklyn Museum, New York; The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu; Des Moines Art Center, Iowa; Foundation Sorigué, Lleida, Spain; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Kupserstichkabinett, Berlin; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Hummelbaek, Denmark; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, Spain; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia Art Museum, Pennsylvania; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and New Museum of Contemporary Art, all in New York City, among others.
0:09HUME: Welcome everybody, my name is Achim Borchardt-Hume, I’m head of exhibitions
0:13at Tate Modern. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you here this evening, to the fifth
0:18American Artist Lecture with Julie Mehretu and Tim Marlow. It’s the fifth in the series,
0:29previous artists have included Brice Marden, Maya Lin, Richard Tuttle who is currently
0:35installing his installations at Turbine Hall, and Spencer Finch. At which point I would
0:40like to thank in particular our colleagues at the American Embassy, Ellen Susman and
0:45her team, and especially Virginia Shore and Welmoed Laanstra for helping us to organize
0:51this. I should say afterwards, after the talk, there’s
0:56a reception upstairs in the East Room, if you follow the crowd there will be drinks
1:00for everybody, it will be lovely to see you there.
1:03At which point I move on to introducing our speaker and I do so against the background
1:09of one of Julie’s wonderful works that recently entered Tate’s collection, which we were
1:14very fortunate in. Mogamma, A Painting in Four Parts: Part 3 from 2012, which was purchased
1:22with the help of some important supporters for Tate, Tika Tenseiu(?) and Agie Ascousin(?),
1:28the Tate American Foundation, and there’s a second work which was acquired with the
1:32help of Pamela Joiner and Alfred Tae-Tufia(?). In terms of our speakers, I start with the
1:42interlocutor, with Tim, so just a couple of words about Tim Marlow. He was recently appointed
1:51the Director of Artistic Programs at the Royal Academy, a great wonderful addition to the
1:56landscape of institutions in London. His remit includes the Academy’s exhibition programs
2:02and the collection as well as Learning Architecture and Publishing. Prior to this, Tim was Director
2:09of Exhibitions at White Cube from 2003 to 2014 where he played a major role in evolving
2:16the program of the gallery. He worked with a great many artists at the gallery and beyond
2:23and it is important to say that Tim has a long and distinguished track record as a radio
2:30and television broadcaster and as an author and publisher. He’s lectured and chaired
2:36extensively in many different countries so I’m sure we are in for a treat in terms
2:43of the conversation. Now the real attraction of course, why we’re
2:47all here, is to hear Julie Mehretu speak about her work. It’s interesting in the context
2:54of the present lecture, the American Artist Lecture, and we will come to that of course,
3:00is Julie’s biography. She was born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, and later moved
3:07to New York City and to Berlin. She has received a Master of Fine Arts with honors from the
3:13Rhode Island School of Design and many many prizes and awards, too many to mention, but
3:19always one which I think does it for me which is the MacArthur Award in 2005, which is such
3:24an extraordinary thing to happen to any one artist.
3:28When I was thinking about the idea of an American Artist Lecture, how best to introduce Julie,
3:33I came back to an interview in The Guardian in 2013 in which Julie, when asked about her
3:41background said, “Coming from this African background is the children of people who were
3:47there during de-colonization when the world really fundamentally shifted and another form
3:52of modernism emerged. Now we’re all dislocated and there’s this constant negotiation
3:58of place, spaces, ideas, and ideas.” This other form of modernism is what brings us
4:04here tonight so let’s look forward to the conversation, thanks.
4:11(audience applause) SUSMAN: Thank you all for coming tonight.
4:20My name is Ellen Susman, I’m the director of Art in Embassies for the United States
4:25Department of State. With me in the front row are Welmoed Laanstra and Virginia Shore,
4:30who has been our chief curator for too many years to mention and who is really responsible
4:36for the partnership we enjoy with the Tate to bring all of you this American Artist Lecture
4:42series. Achim gave some broad strokes and I’m going to fill in with some others, because
4:49we never seem to talk before we start about who’s going to say what. I’m going to
4:54try and focus on some different issues, but as you know we’re very thrilled to have
4:59Julie here tonight as our fifth speaker in the series. Particularly looking forward to
5:05what Tim can add to the conversation because of his long background as a broadcaster and
5:11as an art historian which is a very wonderful combination.
5:14So Julie was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to a college professor who is Ethiopian and
5:24an American teacher. They had to flee that country when she was 7 and she grew up in
5:29East Lansing, Michigan, which is in the middle of the United States, which has its own kind
5:35of culture. And after she went to school there and I think her career path was already clear
5:41to her, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design where she received her MFA and majored
5:47in print-making and painting. She is known for her large-scale paintings and drawings,
5:55for layering different media such as pencil and pen and ink and thick streams of paint
6:01in compositions that reference, as Achim said, the contemporary issues of dislocation that
6:08we all face today. The issues of space and time and place.
6:13We at Art in Embassies are very very proud to have some of Julie’s work in our temporary
6:19exhibitions—for example she hangs at Winfield House in Regent Park with Ambassador Barzun
6:25and his wife for the time that they’ll be here—and she’s also in our permanent collection
6:29in the new embassy in Addis Ababa, her old home.
6:34What I find interesting is what Julie has managed to teach and collaborate with others.
6:43Throughout her career she’s never lost that sense probably of being the daughter of people
6:49who teach. So starting in the 90s when she was a CORE Fellow at the Glassell School in
6:55Houston, Texas, she worked with others. She participated with 30 high school girls from
7:00east Africa during a residency in 2003 at the Walker Arts Center. And perhaps you’d
7:08be interested to know that in 2007, she participated in a month-long program in Detroit with 40
7:14art students. And I think this kind of work speaks more to who Julie is as a person and
7:19her idea in the importance art has in creating conversations and looking at different points
7:27of view than anything else about her. She is the recipient of many awards and I’m
7:33going to move on from the MacArthur and say that she can now add another award to her
7:38list. We are extremely pleased to be honoring Julie with a few other artists but—this
7:45January in Washington D.C. where she will receive the United States Department of State
7:50Medal of Art Award for her participation to the Art in Embassies program and to just the
7:57fact that she is a genius artist. She lives and works with her partner, who
8:05is also an artist, Jessica Rankin, and their two sons in New York and Berlin and we are
8:09very honored honored to have you here tonight. Tim Marlow is an institution. He’s an institution
8:15here in London and Britain and I think that Achim touched on the big things, but what
8:22I didn’t know was that he has written about art and culture for so many many different
8:28magazines but that in 1993 he founded Tate, the art magazine. And his his show Culture
8:37Shock was on the air from 2002 to 2008. He has done many studies of living artists and
8:45artists who are deceased as well as institutions like the Tate and Metropolitan for UK television.
8:52So I want to welcome him here as well and say that I’d like us all to entreat them
8:58to have to dialogue begin. Thank you for joining us here tonight.
9:02(audience applause) MARLOW: Good evening (unintelligible) and
9:12Julia, I just wanted to say how much I’m looking forward to this. Julie and I were
9:36talking about what and how we might proceed and we wanted to have an organic conversation
9:41and that’s what we’re going to do. But Julie was telling me that not so long ago
9:45when she was asked to give a talk, take part in a panel discussion, one of her approaches
9:49was to read a series of quotes by various authors from (unintelligible) to Walter Benjamin
9:54to David Harvey to Fred Moten to C. L. R. James as a way of throwing a spanner in the
10:00works but also showing the range of things that she’s interested in. And actually throwing
10:05a number of different ideas and arguments into the melting pot.
10:09She was going to do that tonight and I quite like that idea but in the end because I think
10:13we want as much unmediated Mehretu as possible what we’ve agreed is that Julie’s going
10:18to begin by reading her own notes on painting written in 2013. Which, well I’ll let you
10:24hear them, but I’ve never heard her actually read them but I’ve read them but there’s
10:29something wonderfully poetic about them. But Julie will read those notes and then we’ll
10:32start the conversation but if on occasion some of the montage occurs or rather some
10:39of the ideas in her original montage occurs, then she may break off and start reading.
10:43Okay, Julie. MEHRETU: Okay to is this are we good here?
10:50Is should I just begin? Okay. There we go. Okay. So yes as Tim was saying these are some
11:08notes I wrote after a talk that I did and then needed to put something down onto paper.
11:15And because I didn’t present it as a because I didn’t present my when I needed actually
11:21to put it into written form publication I actually went directly from the notes I had
11:27just jotted down and shifted a little bit so I’ll read these and then we’ll start
11:32the conversation. Push, scratch, mark, cut, stay. A mark, a
11:38scratch, the sound of graphite on paper, ink gliding out of nib pulled by fibers in the
11:44paper on the surface of acrylic, like stone, like parchment. Never tabula rasa, always
11:50palimpsest. When drawing, pull out of myself, lose place, go deep into a pressurized state
11:56of disfiguration, disembodiment, lose all sense of cultural self. Get lost inside a
12:01beat, inside a sonic, pulsing system of half links, half consciousness, half wit, find
12:07the brake. The hand equals an instrument, device. The
12:11hand, the wrist, the gesture. Flow, play, spit, the hand can throw a bomb. Get at the
12:18strangeness of the future image experience rather than habitually view and
12:22decipher. Sensory experience, emergent sensile form, tactile, acoustic, ricular, lingual,
12:29sensatory, auditory haunting knowledge. Premonition, draw faster, last chance. Oral clue.
12:37The studio equals a machine. Super super lot of beats, brakes, compression, digestion.
12:42Serve intuition, impulse, improvisation, symptomatic, the emergence of something new from bits of
12:50now past place data mark detritus architectural parts, diagrammatic language. Maps, lines,
12:58shape, color, hue, synth, tempo, sonic, mutant, pressure, collapse time. Mine for resources,
13:07for parts to a future, refusing past tendencies and past actions that manifest into repeat
13:13patters and repeat social actions, repeat repression, expansion of power. Take the parts
13:18without judgement, break it, fuse it with marks, the creation of something other. A
13:23physical sensoral image that is a time-based, emergent experience.
13:28Find the break, the gap, the fissures, undoing and pulling apart. An open force of unraveling
13:33potentiality. Improvisation can be radical possibility. Painting is performative time.
13:40The marks are percussive, repetitive motions, marks that shift with each motion, faster,
13:45accelerating. To gain that wicked mass of marks being that devour, consume, digest,
13:51decimate their place. Until they morph it, shift it, fuse it, splice through to find
13:57the break in the linear. The mark is insistent. It is. The map equals nonsense, entropy, which
14:04equals entropy which equals the sublime. Prove it futile, as futile as the marks themselves.
14:10The battle of the small mark in this long view of time, layered, suspended into a long
14:14view back into painting. All suspended in transparency, in medium, in paint, desire.
14:21The compression of time, space, future, past, action, inaction, dualities and contradiction
14:27forced into one suspended time moment. Splicing them together as mutant. The painting is performance
14:33in making and seeing and looking. The emergency of monstrosity. To look forward, the bits,
14:39the data, the infrastructure, the symbols of power, solder them onto the new machine,
14:45fuse the parts with marks that come and try to form something else legible but descend
14:50into their own illegibility. The marks are comfortable with that, they create the headache.
14:55Conjure ghosts and parts, detritus, data, the drawing has become tired and loose. Mimics
15:00writing but not words. The new drawing has evolved out of the depths of past paintings
15:04into new surface seeping over a layered stratified past. It has morphed into new disruptions
15:09in the surface image. The marks now drip, smear, print, stain the machine as it is scored
15:16and fused into the surface from above or emerging from within. The marks are convective, they
15:21cluster and clog and strain under and in the machine, affecting its coherence, its machinations.
15:27The marks are a contagion, a contamination, a fallout, stratagem. The language is loosened,
15:33blank notational. Opacity equals radical potential. Everything falls apart.
15:41MARLOW: The idea that everything falls apart or that the center cannot hold is an African
15:48idea and a western idea. Yates, most obviously to my mind. Is that idea something that has
15:58evolved in your work so that by 2013 when you wrote those notes things felt as though
16:05they were falling apart, from a center, the center wasn’t holding. Or does that apply
16:09to your work over the previous decade? MEHRETU: Well I think in the work, the earlier
16:18work, there was this form that coalesced in the center of the paintings and they became
16:25the paintings had this very kind of long view perspective like a birds eye view perspective,
16:30early map paintings. And then as the architectural forms began to shift, at first they
16:37were drawings that you’d really see from afar, almost, like really looking into this
16:40distant landscape and this areal map and the space would then compress in that way. So
16:46the center always created this there was a dynamic in the center which maintained not
16:52just a perspectival sense but a type of social sense in the painting. And as I have continued
16:59to work and worked with erasure, then the center has completely broken down into these
17:04other parts and then something else can take place in that. So I mean for me when you think
17:12of the center the center doesn’t hold or the center falls apart, I think of Achebe
17:17and his book, Things Fall Part, that it came from that from this idea but also this total
17:25dystopic kind of entropic moment that has been so recurrent in a larger kind of global
17:33narrative. MARLOW: So looking at the most recent work,
17:37where there is an almost womb-like void, that’s not a contradiction, at the center of the
17:43most recent paintings I’ve seen, that isn’t a formal re-evolution, it’s socially and
17:50politically engaged, it’s part of an ogoing series that started so with the Arab Spring
17:56back in 2012. Or is that too reductive? MEHRETU: Maybe too maybe a little too reductive
18:02because at the same time in a lot of the new paintings there’s absolutely no center,
18:06in fact there’s almost a denial of a special understanding in the paintings, that the marks
18:10have taken over that the entire surface of very large paintings that are about ten feet
18:16by fourteen feet, almost feel like writing where it becomes the special the space falls
18:23into a type of almost written form through the space. And so I think I don’t that’s
18:28only in specific paintings that you would see the center having that form again.
18:34There’s a form of a use in painting and space and negotiation of like this enveloping
18:41space that happens with the larger paintings where there become there are various centers
18:45and there’s this de-centered type of space that takes place. But I think where you look
18:49at paintings with this expectation of with a certain understanding of the center as having
18:55a different type of power. And so I think there’s certain paintings that play with
19:00this, that formally with the language. MARLOW: You, in some ways, the perception
19:06seems to be that you work in series or in groupings at least, but I wonder whether you
19:15when you start a painting, you’re conscious of the grouping or of the clustering in which
19:22it might later be seen? Or do you start ever painting as literally and metaphorically a
19:28blank canvas? MEHRETU: The new well the there’s the work
19:32has changed so much this last year. The new work that I’ve made. But the previous paintings,
19:37they maybe evolved in a cycle I would think of as so each painting had a certain kind
19:44of architectural conceptual underlying idea and then the painting evolved from that place.
19:51The newer paintings have evolved much more from one painting to the next, in terms of
19:56the surface, the material that goes into them, and being made from within a different place
20:01that emerged in the previous paintings. MARLOW: Do you have a sense of why that has
20:05taken place? MEHRETU: Well in the previous paintings the
20:10architectural information provided this social metaphor, ideas around what the forms of architecture
20:17that were included. If they were a specific place or if they were taken from historic
20:23architectural drawings and plans that all have very specific ideas embedded in
20:31that. The paintings, the more recent paintings, then with the Mogamma paintings which are
20:37the paintings I made and documented in 2012 but showed again here in London last May,
20:45these paintings were really looking at the Revolutionary Square that has been a big part
20:50of the world stage in the last three years. And then also historic historic important
20:56squares that then but they’re so layered that you couldn’t decipher what was what
21:02from you could only tell see these parts. And the drawing completely decimated the architectural
21:08drawing in a way or shifted it into something else where this other form could these other
21:12forms could emerge. The new work I feel and I think of that other
21:16space that other form is that third space. The new is really being made from within that
21:21other form that comes through from those parts. So it’s completely it’s like a it’s
21:26like a it’s like a language coming out from inside this other form that I am interested
21:32in, or the most haunting form that is in the previous works.
21:36MARLOW: So in a sense you can strip the architectural structure, you can strip the skeleton if you
21:41like or the scaffolding and drawing takes over?
21:45MEHRETU: Because I was also frustrated with the desire of trying to decipher these paintings—
21:52MARLOW: You mean the audience, trying to do that?
21:54MEHRETU: Yeah and also that it became such a hindrance to the ability to be just immersed
22:01in the painting and to have physical experience or a really time-based, slow experience I
22:08think painting is very slow and it takes and we consume images so quickly and our ability
22:14to really stay in front of a painting for ten minutes is you rarely see someone look
22:19at a painting that way. And painting has operated for such a long time. So a lot of what I was
22:24interested in in these paintings and the use of the amount of information that goes into
22:28them was to participate in this other kind of experience that could happen. And I wanted
22:34to really move away from that from the desire to try and read them or decipher them.
22:42MARLOW: Of course, I love that, I mean I love the temptation and the gauntlet that you seem
22:48to have thrown down in those works. But in early works certainly when you were perhaps
22:52quoting Leonardo drawings or other but I quite like the idea that in a way you felt like
22:58you hadn’t obliterated them enough and that it got in the way too much. Does that mean
23:03though that you still have the same kind of imagery and ideas in your mind when you’re
23:10working in the new way but that you’re not actually physically using them as a structure
23:15underneath? Or have you actually in a sense approached your process from almost the opposite
23:20pole? From just starting with a canvas and starting with a drawing?
23:24MEHRETU: Even with the paintings with the architectural drawing, I didn’t have a particular
23:29image in mind when starting the painting. And the it was usually information, to have
23:36this archive of information and I would choose from within that information an image to start
23:41the painting with that I would project in the painting then we would trace that drawing,
23:45layer upon layer, image after image. Those various drawings changed I mean we would construct
23:52it, a form of an image. And then a drawing the drawing that I would kind of go in with
23:56the marks of the painting would somehow work against and with that or digest that or participate
24:02within that kind of space to then create a different image. And I was always
24:06searching for this emergent image to come from within the painting, from within the
24:10process of the painting. So in a way, I don’t think the approach
24:17is so so different, just doesn’t have the…and also I didn’t there’s a way to talk about
24:24the paintings with the architectural language that you really have that you can really give
24:28language to, I’m really wanting to move away from being able to have language the
24:33proper language to work with the paintings. What I like what I think I’m interested
24:37in within the paintings that moves out of that, away from that.
24:41MARLOW: So the Mogamma paintings which you showed at Documenta, they look very strong,
24:48but in all those kind of group shows they compete with other works. I mean I think there
24:53are better ways of showing them but they still stood out. In London, at White Cube, you worked
24:59with David Adjaye, into an architectural configuration. I wonder now, a year later, when you’ve
25:07obliterated all reference at least temporarily to architecture, whether that was a moment
25:11of closure of a particular aspect of your career then? I mean did you find that successful,
25:17putting it in that architectural figuration? Did it suggest other ways that you might work
25:23or display your work or, as I’m implying or inferring, close something down?
25:28MEHRETU: I don’t think it closed something down, I think actually I was much happier
25:33with that installation and what I think it encourages because of the diamond and the
25:38space. You felt kind of the sonic reverberations in the dark gray voids in the space surrounding
25:44the paintings and it kind of reinforced a way to look at the paintings. And as a viewer
25:48walking in you didn’t confront the paintings straight on you had to turn your body sideways
25:53and you were very aware of the shift in your physical being and the shift of this access
25:58for viewing for paintings that were the same scale.
26:02What became what I what I was most interested in in those paintings was the way that the
26:09marks and the architecture formed something a different form with their work together.
26:16That’s what I was getting most interested in, lost in. What really seemed to take place
26:22and what continues to hold those paintings in a way, the architectural drawing really
26:29creates a distance from within the viewer and the space. You’re looking even if it’s
26:36this completely immersive experience with their scale, you’re still looking into it
26:42so you’re I really wanted these other paintings I wanted the marks to become almost like enormous
26:50other so there was a different sense of scale so that you were immersed in this language,
26:54you could be completely immersed in this space that felt like it could be an urban space
27:01or some other form that some natural kind of form. So it’s very and that came from
27:08within that drawing. So I don’t think of it as a closure, I’m
27:11still working on some paintings where I’m doing a lot of paintings right now dealing
27:17with complete erasure of Aleppo for example and the buildings that had existed in there
27:23and those paintings operate very differently and they’re one part of the practice, but
27:26the part of the practice that I’m interested in to push this language further or to let
27:34to allow the abstraction to do to have this other role I think is very important.
27:37MARLOW: I’m glad to hear that, and I thought they looked wonderful in the gallery and as
27:42you read to us and you talk about painting as performative of course the experience of
27:48that was more performative, the viewer became much more involved in a kind of drama, a psycho-drama,
27:52a psycho-geographical drama, or maybe that was just my reading of it. But I wondered,
27:57perhaps we could just unpick a little bit, what you mean about the idea of painting as
28:00performance because your process of painting is both a collaborative venture and an intentionally
28:07private one. And I wonder how the two kind of meld together in that performative idea?
28:13MEHRETU: In terms of the performative, I’m thinking about improvisation and intuition
28:19and working with a certain kind of understanding of language and then trying to form something
28:27new. Trying to find an impossible within this language, trying to find this break. And so
28:37with layering the architectural drawings even that process has a performative element to
28:42it because it really one image to another you’re taking places that are so distant
28:46from one another completely don’t have a particular kind of relationship and forcing
28:52them together because of this idea. Or there’s this aspect of performativity in that sense
28:59but also actually in the way that they actually become.
29:03And then in the way that you interact with them as a viewer that the painting actually
29:10evolves in front of you through the viewing of them and the experience of the painting.
29:17That was another reason that I was very interested in making the space for at the gallery in
29:23White Cube here is in Documenta the way the paintings were displayed you really moved
29:28past them and you weren’t encouraged then to spend more time with them. And so that’s
29:34been a big interest of mine, how to encourage this kind of the performative element within
29:42the viewer of the painting, what happens when you really start to look at the painting and
29:46you really start to see ghosts or other forms of visual images that seem to play with a
29:52different idea of who you are and how you interact with the space. Where it’s not
29:56just this kind of quick reading and looking at the painting as an image. And that’s
30:02where I mean and so and so the making … but we don’t have to get into that.
30:10MARLOW: Well you do, and we’re gonna do that now.
30:12(audience laughter) MARLOW: You…you…it’s another very interesting
30:14remark, loss of cultural self. Now, you know, loss of physical self, might be sort of a
30:22description of what Pollock talked about, going into a trance and losing a sense of
30:26where he was or who he was but the rhythm that took over is quite interesting, and your
30:30idea of the beat. But you talk about loss of cultural self—are you talking about a
30:35loss of an analytical, controlling approach to how you use motifs and imagery, is that
30:41what you mean? Or is it about obliteration of every aspect of your being when you’re
30:45painting at a certain point? MEHRETU: Yeah, not every aspect of my being.
30:50But … it’s so hard to talk about making paintings.
30:57MARLOW: Because it’s such a varied process for you, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s detached,
31:02sometimes the studio assistants are working, sometimes then you’re working on different
31:06layers— MEHRETU: I make paintings and I’ve made
31:09paintings from the beginning the earliest marks come from a desire of trying to make
31:13sense of myself and trying to understand myself as an artist and understand my intention of
31:20making. So I was making these very kind of gestural drawings and I started to reduce
31:24them to these very small marks to try and understand how I understood them and what
31:27they meant to me. And in that process there’s the way that
31:31I almost interact with the world when an event happens you try and make sense of this event
31:35within a cultural understanding and a historical perspective, the political, social reality
31:41that you try to decipher the world through, this lens. There’s a sense, there’s an
31:48approach that historically been a very Cartesian, very rational approach towards making sense
31:53of the world but we really it’s very clear that that approach is also one that has a
31:58very strong colonial type of political intention behind it as well. And some of the quotes
32:04that I bring up and use in the montage deal with mapping and that way.
32:10So if the work is this effort and there’s this there’s the effort of really and I’m
32:16trying to make without this without a sense of with a certain type of understanding of
32:24the language in a sense because of this more Cartesian practice in the studio of trying
32:28to make sense of what I have done then the work then I can draw then I can draw into
32:34the work within this within to try and make sense of every situation that I’m encountering
32:39that puzzles me or I’m trying to make sense of in the world around me. And a way to locate
32:44myself within that. So there’s always been this kind of in and out in the process, these
32:49very opposing tendencies in the studio and in the process of a studio, so I use I get
32:55I’m interested in images of a place or interesting in what or why it resonates so deeply with
33:01me, why this particular problem and then try to use these paintings as a way to somehow
33:07decipher that or make sense of that for myself so.
33:11Joan Didion mentions once, she write to make sense of herself in the world around her,
33:16it was this wonderful quote I wish I had it here, but I it really is the same reason I
33:22feel like I make why I continue to make paintings and what in the image in the paintings what
33:28can come about in an image that I didn’t expect that actually is much more profound
33:33than the language that I could have to articulate my thoughts or feelings about that particular
33:37situation. So it’s that it’s I refer to it as a gray
33:42space it’s this other form that emerges so that the paintings that don’t do that
33:49aren’t as interesting to me. If they do something that has been done in the previous
33:54paintings, that kind of emergence hasn’t taken place and you don’t learn something
34:00new then about the context. MARLOW: When did you realize in your life
34:05that you wanted seriously to be an artist? MEHRETU: I always made made made but I think
34:12it was when I was in college that I thought I would like to try, I mean wanted to keep
34:18going with it. And then right after college when I moved to New York I thought I would
34:26really try to find a way to make paintings. It was always working with painting.
34:29MARLOW: It’s interesting because it’s very easy to over-analyze or apply someone’s
34:36background or upbringing and see everything that they do through the refracted lens of
34:41that. But Tacit Adine(?) in a beautiful short essay in your last catalog talked about the
34:47idea that the artist formed in childhood what is interesting then is how childhood helps
34:53form the artist subsequently. And it is always said, and I think with a great deal of intelligence,
34:58that your background—7 years in Ethiopia before your family moved—that upheaval,
35:04the end of colonization, the revolution and so on, and then finding a new home in America
35:11or is it a diaspora, was something that could be read into a lot of your work. A sense for
35:17identify, a sense of flux and so on. Do you think that your paintings are often over-analyzed
35:24in terms of your own personal cultural experience? Or
35:27do you accept that they are inextricably linked and it is often a form of self-analysis?
35:31MEHRETU: I think in certain ways when your work is described through your biography it
35:42can be tiresome because there is much more that you’re trying to investigate in the
35:47work. And my interest in the work what I’ve been trying to investigate is not really linked
35:53to this biography that’s very clear to me, who I am. But the ideas of Fischer and these
36:00bricks, this kind of discontinuing this discontinuity between realities and having to negotiate
36:06these various places, that break has been kind of a constant it keeps coming back into
36:13the work. And it keeps coming back into any social situation in the world that I’m kind
36:21of most interested in understanding. And so I think that I think that there’s
36:28a contradiction in that there’s this kind of constant link between who you are and how
36:34you interact with the world and the agent that you find yourself how you end up participating
36:39in that world. And where who you come from in that sense. But I don’t think that yeah
36:47but I do also find that really problematic to read the work through the biography. I
36:51mean there used to be this conversation around, you travel a lot so you make this work that
36:55has to do with migrating I mean that’s not I don’t find that because my family migrated
37:00that that’s why I’m interested in migration in my work I mean I think that there’s a
37:05contradiction in that. Fundamentally. MARLOW: I included you, two, three years ago
37:10in an anthology of African painting since 1980. You’re here tonight in your own terms
37:16as a representative of America, you’re an American artist for the purposes of this evening,
37:20that’s your passport—does that kind of identity matter to you? I mean, do you an
37:25African artist, an American artist, an African-American artist or just an artist?
37:28MEHRETU: I mean first firstly I’m just an artist but I think that I’m very clearly
37:35and take full responsibility for being an American and I think one has to—
37:40MARLOW: The State Department are quite relieved about that.
37:44(laughter) MEHRETU: I think and it’s been a very difficult
37:47responsibility I think for the last twelve…fourteen…twelve years, fourteen years. And I think that a
37:59big part of the work that of the last seven years the last ten years has really been investigating
38:05working from that place. Especially since 2007. But I also very much very focused on
38:16not focused but you are who you are and I’m of African descent and I was born in Ethiopia
38:22and I live in the United States, but you know. Yeah. So I refer to myself as Ethiopian and
38:30I refer to myself as an American . MARLOW: You have studios and you work in New
38:36York and Berlin. And for a time, not so long ago, in Michigan. Can you work anywhere? Are
38:43you searching for a place that feels like home? Have you found home? Does that idea
38:46not matter to you? MEHRETU: I feel like I mean home is very important
38:52to me and in many ways Michigan is very much a home. It was the place East Lansing was
38:59the city I was raised in, the small college city that I was raised in, but I think that
39:07I like moving the studio, I like working in different places. I find there are certain
39:14cities that I am able to work in and able to find
39:18mental space to work in very differently, and then it’s also interesting that when
39:24I’m living when I live in very different cities I who I am and how I really start to
39:30try to make sense of myself it really shifts by where I am. So when I was living in Berlin
39:35I felt very much an American in Berlin, and going back to New York, after having lived
39:43in Berlin, my focus and what I became most interested in terms of what was taking place
39:48in the world was taking place in the north of the African continent. And in many ways
39:53there were repeat actions in that that would that had taken place when I was a child. So
39:58there was this there’s this constant crisscrossing across the ocean and across which and which
40:03I’m very interested in because of historically also this kind of this diasporate kind of
40:10charting and mapping and what happens kind of with the mind in terms of that shift in
40:18space. MARLOW: Which must have, the way you were
40:20just describing, must have some bearing, conscious and unconscious, on the work you produce.
40:26MEHRETU: More about how I was thinking about what kind of architectural interest I was
40:32what I was looking what I was interested in exploring in the construction of the space
40:35in the paintings. So it informed that and more and more in terms of the research going
40:41into the archive for the images for the painting. Shifted by from where I was. So my interest
40:49in Europe really I mean to go into Europe and really to look at to immerse yourself
40:55in European painting and then the history of like within the center of Berlin to look
41:03at this very to be an American citizen in the midst of in my mind the midst of an illegal
41:10war that was taking place and having to be taking responsibility for this situation in
41:16a country that just had experienced in several ways these types of fissures very intensely
41:22really with major magnitude in terms of the world stage that that really shifted how I
41:32was thinking about erasure took place in the work in a very different way, the position
41:36of the architecture as being a type of space you can negotiate to just be these parts of
41:42architectural elements that float mingle mix with the marks would flow through the painting
41:47all of this shifted because of this kind of reorientation of understanding of self by
41:51being by living in Europen. MARLOW: So when you said the hand can throw
41:55a bomb in relationship to your process, there is sometimes violent undertones in what you’re
42:02doing. MEHRETU: We live in a world of violence, yeah.
42:06(soft laugh) MARLOW: But anyone hearing you talk now will
42:09be struck by your poise and measured thinking. You don’t seem I mean there’s a quiet
42:15anger that may be bubbling under, but it seems you’re very in control of that—
42:20MEHRETU: The mark on, my interest in the mark on a piece of paper, that that by itself is
42:24this mark is this kind of that still could be this place of invention. In a moment where
42:30neocapitalism has taken and neoliberalism is kind of dictating in so many ways and kind
42:37of it kind of infecting our very our own bodies. To be able to sit down on a piece of paper
42:45and still be able to make a mark that has that had something that could do something,
42:50that to me is part of the hand can throw a bomb. Like that these marks could can actually
42:56behave in this context and there’s a possibility of something else through this through this
43:01through the breaks that could take place in that.
43:04MARLOW: Is painting in any way redemptive to you?
43:09MEHRETU: I don’t I think it’s a really it really is a way to figure things out, it’s
43:20a way for me to exist in the world. MARLOW: It’s very funny, I asked Anselm
43:25Kiefer some questions, he’s sitting here, the other day about the purpose of it all.
43:30And he said he thought that for him, not in his life but in painting, he felt that the
43:37role of the artist was to be cynical, to be skeptical, to question sometimes the futility
43:43of it all, the way things are. Does that resonate with you?
43:47MEHRETU: I speak it here of the futility of the marks, the futility of even the effort
43:54to decipher them, the futility of the effort to construct this other kind of possibility.
43:58The contradiction in that and the kind of confrontation in that contradiction, the contradiction,
44:05the kind of idealist desire in painting, the idealist desire in trying to build or reconstruct
44:11something else, and the kind of impossibility of that within itself, is part of the bigger
44:17investigation and why I continue to want to make paintings and make art, even.
44:24MARLOW: Just, let’s go on to drawing, because you’ve mentioned how important it is now
44:30and Tacita—for Tacita Dean, it’s key to everything you do. And I was very struck by
44:39the fact that a series you made, Mind Breath Beat, you this was done in Berlin, it was
44:49soon after Cy Twombly’s death, I hadn’t really thought about Twombly in relation to
44:53you, but then I thought subsequently actually if there’s anything Twombly-esque about
44:56what you’ve done it was there before the moment of his death but was that a significant
45:02moment for you? Did it make you rethink, or was it just coincidental in the way Tacita
45:07tells of the genesis of those paintings? MEHRETU: I think it was very coincidental.
45:13I had been started I had been doing these drawings and then I had started several of
45:19them and then I found out Cy Twombly had died and it was at the time I had been working
45:27on these drawings so it was a complete coincidence. But those coincidences are always super interesting
45:35to me. The interest in the mark-making for me in
45:39being able to continue working with the marks is the effort in trying to again for the language
45:45to try and find something else within the language and within the image that I’m that
45:52I’m chasing this dragon that I’m chasing. Yeah so that really that there isn’t this
46:01kind of there’s no direct relationship or kind of conscious relationship to Twombly.
46:05At all. MARLOW: And color. Things have become more
46:09monochromatic in the last year, but in the past work has been vibrantly colorful and
46:13then restrainedly colorful. And color often is the last element in a painting that you
46:21produce. I don’t mean to imply that it’s an afterthought, but how much is color central
46:26to the way that a painting evolves and how much is it something that has to be considered
46:30towards the end of the process? MEHRETU: Well with Mural, for example, color
46:33was supreme. Color color the color instead of the marks as having this sense of supreme
46:40agency and in possibility. The color elements and all the quotations in that painting were
46:49they came they really determine the painting. Color in the more recent work because of the
46:58my interest in the collision between the architectural drawing and the marks and the other form
47:03that could emerge from within that, these works come from within that space and so the
47:07surface that I’ve started with is completely gray or black.
47:10It’s also there there’s somehow paintings also kind of being made with the in the aftermath
47:21of the of the kind of collapse of the liminal or the threshold that existed during the time
47:29of the if you think of the during 2011 the 18 days in Cairo when Mubarak when after 18
47:38days of protest Mubarak stepped down. This was a African one of the main African dictators
47:49who I was around my entire life basically. Who it was an impossibility to remove someone
47:55like that in the continent or really elsewhere without an armed kind of, without some force,
48:02some other sense of force. So to have a street a major major street protest take down a dictator
48:09of that sort who’d been such a who’d loomed so large in my life, there was this moment
48:13of this ideal pos—idealistic possibility that took place. Even though instantly it
48:19was very clear that this revolution would be coopted by the Muslim Brotherhood.
48:24So you have this kind of intense and the and there’s a cynicism there that you know that
48:32this threshold that this moment is only this is very very but there’s this break that
48:37happens in that moment, that I’ve been going back to and I keep going back to over and
48:44over. And then the complete loss of it, the complete so there’s this kind of there’s
48:49this gray space that exists in that, that’s become one of the dictating kind of places
48:55from which I’m working. So color just doesn’t have I haven’t had the need for it in this
49:01new language. But I mean it has to have a place, I don’t know, it will come.
49:05MARLOW: It’s very interesting that there you talk about that particular moment and
49:10using it over and over again as source of energy and inspiration. The idea of how art
49:19engages with the notion of history obviously is a complex one. And this is something that
49:24in the last few months since I joined the Royal Academy I’ve had to rethink about
49:28because history painting is one of the things that underpins that institution, it’s something
49:31that Joshua Reynolds said was the highest form of art and so history painting in a sense
49:36is an aspiration in an old-fashioned academy. I’m quite curious about artists and their
49:43relationship to history today, again it’s something I’ve asked various artists, and
49:47I don’t ask you whether you think in a sense you’re trying to wrestle with contemporary
49:52history in an academic way that as we would have understood in the 19th century but are
49:56you, in a way, trying to wrestle with the notion of history painting and how we confront
50:02history or are you using contemporary history as a more energizing source for your own self
50:09exploration? MEHRETU: In a way it’s an effort to make
50:14something from this from the crisis and disaster of the moment that you know I talked about
50:22this idealism earlier that keeps kind of coming back into this desire that I have. So how
50:29then within that how can you invent something else? When this kind of entropic kind of really
50:38dystopic entropic collapse is taking place? And insidious kind of other forces kind of
50:46cannibalizing and devouring these kind of ideals in a way. And so how from within there
50:56can something else can this image speak to this? And the image can question this or provide
51:03something else in that. So there’s … I think that for me it’s impossible to make
51:10these with I mean I work constantly with I read the newspaper every day, the images from
51:15the newspaper from other resources are constantly in the studio there part of the process the
51:19studio chamber of digestion and consumption that then get kind of… they get digested
51:28through me and in a way to make sense of these moments I’m trying to make these images
51:35to help me make…find some way to speak of this, of my existence in this moment.
51:42MARLOW: So the montage, which we began by alluding to, a verbal montage, you have quite
51:47literally a montage of images in the studio, some of which resonate and seem relevant,
51:51others of which you will leave alone, but they just stay and they may provoke ideas
51:56later on? They’re visual ideas, primarily? MEHRETU: Yeah. And markers, just markers,
52:03reminders. So during, there’re moments like during the Ukraine uprising, where I have
52:10the news on in the studio constantly and I as I’m working and I’m following very
52:14closely what’s happening. Or there are other moments where the studio it’s a place of
52:19complete stillness or retreat and you know you’re kind of desperately trying to build
52:26something else with this knowledge. In terms of montage, I wanted to just read
52:31this one quote by Bloch about montage that I think applies. “In technical and cultural
52:36montage the coherence of the old surfaces is broken up and a new one is constructed.
52:40A new coherence can emerge then because the old order is more and more unmasked as a hollow
52:45sham, one of surfaces that is in fact fissured. While functionalism distracts one with its
52:50glittery appearance, montage often exposes the chaos under the surfaces as an attractive
52:55or daringly interwoven fabric. In this sense, montage reveals less the façade and more
53:00the background of age than does functionalism.” So, in terms of even thinking of history painting
53:07and its role in how to wrestle with that, I think even, in breaking down even, some
53:13of the desires that were implied within a particular type of narrative that is told
53:19within that is part of the questioning and process of this work here as well. That I’m
53:25interested in. MARLOW: We said we wouldn’t speak in too
53:28much depth about individual philosophers but I was thinking about Deleuze also as you were
53:31reading Bloch and about time image and so on and I wondered whether you ever had felt
53:38the compulsion to make film? Because obviously that is one of the great mediums of montage.
53:47Why the compulsion to paint and draw, rather than make film? Or might there be film films
53:53made in the future? Or is your painting a distillation of a lot of the techniques anyway?
53:58MEHRETU: Yeah, I mean, I get so lost in painting and drawing and it’s a way that I, I mean,
54:03I would never say I won’t make films, I’m actually interested in a in a in a particular
54:08film project having to do with looking at painting but I’m I’m much more interested
54:15in an investigation that happens within painting and yeah and making paintings and drawings,
54:23what I can explore through that. So it’s like painting and yeah, it’s chosen me in
54:30a way, so…it’s what I feel most like where I feel the most sense of urgency or, not urgency
54:41but where I feel like I have where I have the most intention in a way, where I can be
54:49most productive. MARLOW: Once you once you’re fully engaged
54:55in the process, when do you know when to finish? Does the painting tell you it’s finished?
55:02Sometimes your work feels like it’s a part of something much larger, it’s explosive,
55:07other times it’s implosive and it kind of pulls you in. There’s a whole variety of
55:12different effects and impulses that is has. But I’m curious about that sense of finish.
55:16Is there a moment in the process where you think, yeah, I know where I want to get to,
55:20I know when and how I want to finish, and I’m going to work towards that, or is the
55:24process almost always something that is you’re almost lost in it and then there suddenly
55:30becomes a moment where it becomes clear that you’ve resolved the work as far as you can?
55:35MEHRETU: Usually there’s a moment that becomes very clear where the work is finished, where
55:40the work and usually I keep working on the paintings, I mean sometimes there’s a two
55:44month gap between working on the painting and going back to it. When you when the painting
55:50keeps kind of nagging at you and you know there’s a sort of relationship of there’s
55:55something that and sometimes that discomfort you really sit with it for a long time because
56:00that’s what but usually there’s something, it becomes very very clear if I have to go
56:06back into the painting. So I mean it’s very hard to answer because with every painting
56:09it’s very very different. The only paintings where it isn’t different is if there’s
56:14a certain kind of rule for how the painting was made but those aren’t the painting the
56:18way that I’m working now at all. MARLOW: Almost every almost every theorist
56:21on your montage has connections to Marxist thinking, or many of them do, (laughter),
56:27which is great, given that this is sponsored by the State Department, sure they’re pleased
56:30by that— (audience laughter)
56:31MARLOW: And I was thinking less about the political ideology, more about the dialectic.
56:37Is a conversation, a dialectic, central to a lot of what you do? That’s how a lot of
56:42commentators have perceived your work. Abstraction, representation, the mechanical and the gestural.
56:49Even spatially as well. Do you see it as a as a as a dialectic often?
56:56MEHRETU: I see it as yeah there’s been this kind of constant struggle in the work between
57:03these two kind of ways of thinking, trying to make sense, or this idea of kind of emergent
57:11utopia, this idea that keeps digesting itself, that keeps consuming itself wholly—
57:19MARLOW: Construction, deconstruction. Fabrication, erasure.
57:23MEHRETU: Erasure, yeah. This is constantly this and even in my own way of looking at
57:31the painting what I if I’ve made a series of marks, how quickly I work against them,
57:38how quickly they undermine even before I’ve made them the battle with the drawing, the
57:43battle between the drawing and I and what happens in terms of their evolution and letting
57:48the constant battle between my head and my hands. There’s this constant war that’s
57:54being kind of going back and forth, for this other possibility. But it’s the other possibility
57:59that’s the interesting element. MARLOW: That’s the third space?
58:01MEHRETU: Yeah. MARLOW: Okay. So it’s a trialogue. So let’s
58:04get to the third space, which of course you I mean on one level there’s George Braque’s
58:10idea pictorial space which is the space it’s neither illusionistic nor real, it’s the
58:17space that exists in pictures I mean in cubism, it’s the space behind the lettering, if
58:24you like which seems to exist, hover in between reality and illusion. Homi K. Bhabha also
58:31has this idea of a third space in terms of a kind of post-colonial agenda –do those,
58:36is that is that culturally it interests you, the idea of a third space, as well as something
58:40formal? MEHRETU: Well it feels there’s a moment
58:44of there’s necessity of a different form. There has to be this other form. Whether it’s
58:51in painting in my in my work in painting it’s how I feel like I said most capable of trying
58:59to understand this. But in a bigger sense there has to be another form of there has
59:04to be some or there’s just this kind of internal digestion. Maybe that’s what it
59:09is, this constant kind of digestion of we are eating our own tails in that way in I
59:18but for me in the painting it has there has to be this is maybe this kind of idealism
59:23that Tacita brought up in that text but there has and I don’t know if this is the haunting
59:27of coming from a generation that was very very very informed by the possibility of we
59:35were completely invested in the rebuilding of a new possibility it was completely devoured,
59:43as many Africans were in the 60s and 70s; 50s, 60s, and 70s and the 80s went into a
59:50complete time decade and decades of complete dystopic realities. And corruption.
60:03And you see this also in the US right now and government can’t function where there’s
60:08a complete problem with in terms of the way that citizens and government are interacting
60:17and the way that this is getting kind of consumed. So this exists this entropy exists on so many
60:24so many on so many levels and it’s existing globally on so many levels kind of world in
60:29crisis that we’re in so for me, the effort to keep making is within this kind of insistence
60:36that something else has to give in there, somehow.
60:40MARLOW: Which artists feel kindred spirits? Which artists do you feel closest to? I mean
60:47it may be those working today, it may be historical artists…
60:48MEHRETU: Always the question? (laughts) MARLOW: Well, it’s interesting, because
60:54Richard Tuttle I know you’ve certainly in the past we’ve talked about him and he’s
61:00installing here. Malevich is upstairs and I wonder whether the resonance of suprematism
61:06or moving into abstraction and then returning to figuration so just those two for example!
61:12MEHRETU: Polke. MARLOW: Polke.
61:16MEHRETU: Kiefer. Yeah. I’m most interested in artists that I feel are negotiating these
61:27various contradictions of reality and social—politics. With but with a real commitment to making
61:37to making art into doing something else with art, what it can do. So David Hammonds is
61:44another artist that I have a lot of respect for and am amazed by. And you’ve named a
61:51few others. MARLOW: Mark Bradford?
61:56MEHRETU: I feel like I mean I feel like we’re both making paintings but I feel very, we’re
62:01different in our approach and our interests and how we work is very very I don’t feel
62:06the same kind of connection with the work that I think there was maybe an overlap in
62:12terms of mapping at one point but my I don’t I feel yeah I’m much more interested right
62:20now in the Gutai movement in painting and looking at certain aspects of how you know
62:26you go through these kind of cycles of what becomes really interesting or important or
62:31feels like it has the most activist kind of capability within this kind of very limited
62:37form. MARLOW: Both your parents were teachers, as
62:42we heard earlier, and you have a clarity of thought and expression that would serve well
62:49as a teacher. Does that interest you? Is there an element of—I’m not asking if your art’s
62:56didactic but is there a sense of wanting to get certain messages across, the idea of teaching
63:01that you think perhaps underlies a certain amount of the work that you do?
63:05MEHRETU: In terms of the painting? MARLOW: Yeah.
63:07MEHRETU: No, I think that for me, that somehow, that I would hope not, would never be the
63:14case. I think the paintings are more about other types of questions and efforts to create
63:20the different, the something else. But I think that teaching and working with students is
63:26always interesting in that there’s this constant evolution that can happen, this back
63:31and forth, especially with particular types of students of different ages. But there’s
63:39a kind of give and take, I mean I work with various assistants who some of them I’ve
63:46really been kind of close with for a long time, their work and their practice and there’s
63:50this constant dialogue that happens between me and them.
63:54I don’t teach right now, I don’t have that position, but in terms of the painting,
63:58the painting offers something else, it doesn’t come from that position. In my mind, it’s
64:04similar to a lot that’s said about my father’s being an economic geographer and that coming
64:12through in the work, like is there is it because I was exposed to a certain sense of geographer
64:16that I’m interested in maps. And I think that the way that I’ve always worked with
64:20map-making has and my interest in understanding space has maybe been informed by a certain
64:26way of thinking but I don’t think it has a relationship to the painting, in that sense.
64:30In a direct sense, as informing. MARLOW: Finally, just before I throw it out
64:35to the floor, you mentioned your assistants in the studio. And there’s often, there’s
64:38a varied energy in the studio, sometimes there’s music, sometimes there’s quietness. Your
64:43assistants, there’s a great rapport often between them, each other, and you and I wonder
64:49whether that sense of playfulness resonates at all. And I know that again—
64:52MEHRETU: Yes. MARLOW: One of the montage quotes is, you
64:55talk about Virilio’s idea of play, as something in terms of games but also in terms of a sort
65:01of mechanistic idea of play, that something has it in its casing. Are you exploring the
65:06idea of play and playfulness in the process of making art?
65:10MEHRETU: Yes. And the way that the work has been able to evolve it would have been impossible
65:17without the use of and the contribution of the collaborative efforts of these assistants
65:23I work with. Some I’ve been working with for a long period, ten or fifteen years, some
65:28come in for a very short period of time when we need certain types of work done but, in
65:33terms of whether it’s the surfaces or exploration of how put down other architectural rendering
65:40in terms of a large mural painting, these would have been these all come about because
65:44of this kind of playfulness in the studio and even this painting that went in a particular
65:49direction of all these erased flats here in Berlin, went in a direction because of the
65:56hands of two of the assistants who just worked on this painting for a year and a half, just
66:00this painting because of their capability of drawing in
66:03a particular way. And what started to happen between the underpainting and their hand.
66:07I mean this is just like, including the inversion of the space, so you’re constantly have
66:15these spaces where you have the reflection of the space folding in on itself, part of
66:19its own digestion in a way. MARLOW: And what about becoming a parent?
66:25I ask you this, I’ve asked this of both men and women, but also you have a studio
66:30at home and also a studio downtown, has there been any discernable idea of the play of children
66:38or a shifting approach to what you do, subtly, as a consequence of having witnessed two young
66:43children growing up and their own obsession with mark-making and play and so on.
66:48MEHRETU: I mean, children are, I mean the way that they work, it’s incredible. And
66:56so rather than speak directly to that I’ll say, before we had children, somebody said
67:02to us, no women artists, no women artists, no women mothers were good artists. Something
67:08like this. MARLOW: I think I know who that was, actually.
67:11(audience mumbles) MEHRETU: Did she? That same quote? This was
67:15someone who— MARLOW: Tracey Emin said it recently as well.
67:18MEHRETU: Then I just asked…there’s many who have. And many who, I mean, Sylvia Plath
67:28is an example, or just whether she continued to mother is another thing, but there are
67:33so many who have. So it was a really kind of outrageous statement that was said. And
67:38I’ve found, from working, that I’ve made more work and more, the investigations that
67:45I’ve been able to have and kind of the freedom that’s evolved in the studio because of
67:48a certain kind of rigorous schedule or but raising children and the witnessing of having
67:54this child who’s like a little Buddha in the house so you learn from this is one of
67:59the most incredible experiences that I’ve had. And it’s been one of the most informing
68:04in the studio, and I love having them in the studio as well and more than anything they
68:11the formation of a watching not just the formation but the evolution of this life kind of it
68:16forms itself in so many ways, you only can provide some kind of context for that.
68:22MARLOW: That was a wonderfully direct indirect answer.
68:24(laughter) MARLOW: Let’s take questions from the floor,
68:27we’ve got about fifteen minutes. Are there questions you would like to ask Julie from
68:31the floor? There’s a microphone coming round. …might want to ask. This here in the front.
68:44AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: I believe that in the Mogamma series there were some drawings that were
68:52of Zucotti Park and some of the squares in Cairo. And that you were working on that series
68:59shortly after you’d finished the mural for Goldman Sachs. And I’ve always been intrigued
69:03about what it meant for you to think in the same couple of years about for making a mural
69:09for the lobby of a large bank—there we have it, over there—and, you know, the site
69:16of the Occupy Movement. And whether as well as you know that we’ve been seeing lots
69:21of images of places of civil unrest, of great disturbance and destruction, whether global
69:28finance is also been important to the way you compose your paintings or just what that
69:35meant to make that work in that place and to be exposed to that community as well.
69:41MEHRETU: There’s such the possibility that could exist in making Mural. A painting of
69:55that scale that operates in an urban fabric, that has this kind of participation within
70:01that you see it from five, ten blocks down the road, that you can see it as a small painting.
70:07And the site of that painting, being kind of being in this embedded in this financial
70:12institution in the center of finance and what was historically has been part of the fabric
70:21of New York City down in that part of Manhattan, all of these were very kind of really interesting
70:27sites for me. What became and then and then you have then it’s right across from where
70:36the World Trade Center was and what took place on that charged site so you have this constant
70:42relationship to these realities. So for me there’s a situation where painting
70:47rarely has that privilege to be to operate in a public space in that way, as painting.
70:54And then the other interest in that is that there was this effort within that to all the
71:00the entire painting was constructed from the history of the architecture of the internalization
71:07of the marketplace of the architecture of finance and this these forces kind of trying
71:11and then the drawing trying to and the color and the shapes trying to deal with this reality
71:15in a way. At the same time you have a year later, not
71:20even, after it was installed just a few a few years later you have the eruption at Zucotti—2011,
71:26this was installed in 2009. While this painting was being made, we had the collapse that took
71:32place economically in 2008, end of 2007, 2008, that summer, so while this while I mean yeah
71:422008 while this while this was taking place there my interest in those two contradictions
71:49of being able to kind of negotiate these realities at the same time and that they they’re forces
71:55at play with as much like one has actually much more power in a way than another.
72:02The Zucotti and the Occupy movement was completely devoured in the same way that the revolution
72:08that has taken place in Egypt has been completely kind of coopted, so that that moment that
72:16moment disappears. There are these breaks that are provided within both of these fissures
72:21that I’m interested in. So in terms of like, does world does world finance participate
72:27in the violence taking place in the world, I think that’s completely evident and clear
72:32I think that’s part of the interest and the investigation.
72:37But that so it’s those contradictions and the breaks in those that I’m most interested
72:41in because I don’t think that what I say about past actions and repeat actions I think
72:47if I find one other quote that I think treats this whole concept really carefully because
72:53I think what you’re bringing up is the that those types of contradictions but… I don’t
72:58know if I’ll find it. Stuart Hall I think really deals with this, these ideas of inventing
73:06a politic and a way of working from within the experience of these moments, with the
73:12technology and the experience of what’s happening so that what Zucotti kind of could
73:19offer in the end was a repeat pattern and a repeat gesture within a space that was also
73:25the intention of what it was opposing, there’s these … does that make sense?
73:34MARLOW: Was the experience of doing site specific work, was it something that you would like
73:40to do more of? Or did it feel quite restrictive? MEHRETU: No, it didn’t feel restrictive
73:45at all, but I think it would be it has yeah something I would be interested in at this
73:52point. MARLOW: Depending on where it was.
73:53MEHRETU: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this wall nagged me. At first I had said no to this
73:57idea, and then it kept coming back to me, this incredibly long wall that you is almost
74:03the length of a city block, half of a city block. That you could actually pass by this
74:07through your movement in this city daily, and that the people who worked in this institution
74:15who really serviced this institution, it was like a small vertical city of 10,000, 12,000
74:20employees, most of which are service employees, who service this building in the way that
74:24they do a city. And so there’s this kind of daily interaction with that type of a painting,
74:29was really interesting to me in terms of what also was embedded in the painting, all the
74:37kinds of language and information. MARLOW: Is there a spiritual dimension in
74:39any way to what you do? I mean, I ask this in a—
74:43MEHRETU: And I answered somebody, I don’t believe in anything.
74:45MARLOW: Good. (laughter)
74:47MARLOW: But when you produced the Mogamma paintings with David Adjaye in that space,
74:52there was something shrine-like or chapel-like— MEHRETU: Yeah.
74:55MARLOW: Does the language of art’s engagement with spirituality and the past interest you?
75:01Is it something that you— MEHRETU: It’s part of, it’s definitely
75:03part of the history the way painting has been considered and it’s been part of this history
75:13for a long time, so that’s one of the aspects of montage that I work with in terms of what
75:20how painting has existed. How you respond to a portrait form painting and how you respond
75:25to a horizontal, landscape painting. How you respond to a painting that becomes the space,
75:31how do you do you respond to a painting that—these are very these are parts of painting that
75:36have existed and parts of understanding of pictures that have existed for so long that
75:40yes they become part of the language of the what you’re trying to deconstruct and work
75:48with at the same time. MARLOW: We may, therefor, if there are no
75:57more questions—oh, there is a question. Here’s the microphone.
76:02AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Do things recur in the studio? Not in, I mean, things that you don’t
76:10plan, there are always things that you plan and you intend and that you’re working towards
76:14and for, do you find that things recur in spite of you?
76:17MEHRETU: Yes. (laughter)
76:19AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Good! MARLOW: Such such as?
76:24MEHRETU: Well the structure of the structure of the center, as we were talking about this
76:30kind of and this spatial the spatial elements that keep kind of insisting, imposing themselves
76:39on the painting that I work, I feel I work so I work really hard against them but they
76:45but then there are times—there’s also like going back to the insistence of the mark,
76:50this kind of this kind of effort to keep going back to marking in a particular way. When
76:57you want to try and invent a different language within yourself there’s but I’m interested
77:03in that insistence. I’m trying I’m interested in when that happens over and over, may really
77:09trying to understand what is that that is taking place, that happens despite yourself.
77:14MARLOW: What about your subconscious? I mean, are you interested in the way that it manifests
77:21itself at all in your paintings, or you don’t believe much in that?
77:26MEHRETU: (laughs) MARLOW: In your montage, you quote this a
77:29lot about dreaming and reverie and sleep and of course automatic mark-making, has those
77:36kind of overtones of exploring the subconscious, but that was 80s years ago, does that again
77:42resonate with you? MEHRETU: I am very interested in what happens
77:45when with chance, I’m interested in these kind of what happens with in the studio, in
77:51the paintings, that will speak to in a way will speak to will give language to my feelings
78:01around a situation that I haven’t really been able to give proper verbal language to.
78:05And so I’m very interested in this in these in that when that takes place in the studio.
78:15And I and I and I I think and you know the improvisation and intuition being such a force
78:21in the studio and being kind of a servant to impulse in that way. And I think that what
78:26I mean by that, and Matthew Hale said it so beautifully, he is a true servant to impulse
78:31because he sees it as symptomatic to the external world and the interior world and these kind
78:37of the location somehow a way to be able to find some form to link the two. So I’m very
78:46interested in how and with and how the language with me in terms of that. Yeah.
78:53MARLOW: Do you have a sense now where your creative journey will take you in the next
79:01two or three years? Are you looking very much at the next month in the studio? Or do you
79:09never think in those terms until you actually get back into the studio?
79:13MEHRETU: Yeah, I mean, I’m really trying to not think in those terms. I mean, there
79:18are some ideas of projects. There’s a project that I will work with with Peter Sellars for
79:25a stage project, so to do stage design, stage and costume design for this next opera that
79:30he’s doing that are based on two Japanese nodes. And he spoke to me about them because
79:37of the language and the nodes. So I’m very interested to how that will what will happen
79:42in the studio with that process, it’s a very different process but…
79:46And then in the painting with the new work, I just finished a body of work and I’ve
79:51just installed a show of paintings and I’m still in a place of understand them and I
79:56so in terms of next steps in the studio I think there’s I’m trying to like keep
80:01it as open as I possibly can. But I also have many paintings already progressing in the
80:07studio that I’ve been working on for the last year.
80:10MARLOW: So have you ever had significant creative block?
80:14MEHRETU: Yeah… I mean, I feel like I said I work a lot and I work I almost draw almost
80:27every day. I mean it’s like an insistent way of making and yeah I mean so there are
80:36times where I wanted to make a series of drawings this summer that just didn’t work I couldn’t
80:41do them and then in the end I ended up the entire time I was traveling through Australia
80:45I wanted to make these travel drawings, I’ve always wanted to make travel drawings, and
80:48I never can make travel drawings that I’m interested in. And I always collect all the
80:55all the materials and I want to take with me and I want to digest place through and
80:59then I came back to the studio in Berlin and in a matter of weeks I was able to make a
81:03cycle of drawings for that I needed that were really very different than anything I expected
81:09and for me were some of the most exciting drawings that I’ve done for what they’re
81:13teaching me. But I don’t think the earlier part of the summer I was able to do anything
81:19that was of any use. MARLOW: There we will finish. The show has
81:25just opened in Berlin, there’s also a show on in Sao Paulo. So we look forward to the
81:29collaboration with Peter Sellars and maybe a major retrospective or project showing in
81:36an institution on some stage in London. Juile Mehretu, thank you very much for being here.
81:40MEHRETU: Thank you. (audience applause)