Dinner Without An Agenda with Prem Krishnamurthy
Exploring Change at a Dinner without an Agenda

What do branding, depression, tricksters, the I-Ching, physics, courage, and time have in common? On a cold February evening, they were some of the many nodes in a freewheeling conversation about change. Through the Queens Museum’s “Dinner without an Agenda” project, Prem Krishnamurthy, who described himself as a designer/writer/editor/teacher/curator/gallerist, selected ten guests based on our one-line answer to his question: “What is your relationship to change? On a personal, professional, and political level?” Our group included artists, educators, designers, two twins (not of each other), a kayaker, students, community activists, parents, and a psychologist. All of us spanned at least two of these identities, and probably many others.

Appetizer

Having chosen this topic because of his interest in change on “both micro and macro levels,” Prem explained why he selected the Turkish Grill in Sunnyside as a place to gather. Several years ago, he developed a project for a group of cultural organizations in Istanbul that came together and, with his firm’s help, began revamping their “identity system” so that it constantly evolves and changes.  Since developing that project, Prem has associated Istanbul with change, inspiring him to choose this venue for our agenda-less dinner.

Transitioning to a local focus, Prem told us that he is about to change the name of the NYC gallery he directs (formerly P!) to K.

Then Prem pointed out the contrast between two retrospectives he’d seen recently by artists he described as fascinated by change: Pierre Huyghe (at LACMA) and On Kawara (at the Guggenheim). Characterizing Hughye’s work as “refusing to be static”, Prem described the retrospective as mostly unlit and “oscillating” with pieces illuminated only intermittently by light from the artist’s videos.  Huyghe’s exhibition was designed to provoke experiences for visitors, rather than the task-oriented focus of most retrospectives: to provide documentation of the work.

A few days after the dinner, I went to see On Kawara – Silence at the Guggenheim. In each series, Kawara set rules for himself,  like making a list of everyone he met each day for 11 years,  photocopying a map of every place he visited, sending a telegraph with the words “I’m still alive.”  Physically, his work consists of collections of the artifacts from documenting his actions, including paintings, boxes, notebooks, and postcards. For 46 years (1966 – 2013) Kawara made the Today series (in which he painted that day’s date and destroyed the painting if he did not finish it that day.) But Kawara’s persistent documentation extended beyond details of his life. He also documented time, or our concept of it, by making a set of works related to calendars. In One Million Years, Kawara typed the numbers from one to one million. Since time itself is a documentation, Kawara’s attention to it as the subject of his own archiving process creates a kind of feedback loop, conveying a sense that these systems are simultaneously meaningful and meaningless.

Main Course
Back at the Turkish Grill, our conversation rambled through some of these points and a lot of others. Here’s a taste of some of the evening’s dialogue, with quote marks not to be taken as verbatim [and the comments in brackets are mine]:

“So, we’re actually talking about time.”

“On Kawara’s work is completely personal. It shows dialogue between internal and external. The discipline and structure related to his process is more interesting than the product.”

“Your work [which has engaged the same process for 25 years] reminds me of Turrell’s because it is engaging change at a much slower rate.”

“Are you watching the world turn? Or the wind blow?”

“Why do we keep talking about time?”

“Branding! How do you *do* that if you’re changing the name of the gallery or museum?”

“It’s not that unusual…think about Prince’s name change to – then ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,’ then ‘The Artist.’ ”

“MTV in the 80’s invited different artists to make unique animations with their logo [intentionally breaking or at least varying standard “brand” consistency.]”

“Kids do it all the time, changing up their hair, outfits, expressions, ways of speaking.”

“What if someone decided to work with a process for 45 years and then decided they’d been wrong?”

“If it’s not giving you something back, you won’t keep being driven by it, and you’ll stop.”

“What about artists who aren’t recognized for their work?”  [Mentions of Henry Darger, Vivian Mayer]

“Is anyone at the precipice of change?”

“I’m about to get married.”

“The city changes. All the time. How do you deal with it as an educator?”

“It never stays still. I grew up in East Harlem. People come from outside. It pulsates, it vibrates.”

“Xu Bing’s installation of two phoenixes at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is about drastic change in China and the toll that is being taken on workers.”

“To what extent is change necessarily caused by outside factors? In physics, without friction an object’s trajectory will not change. Hughye’s work changed by responding to critique – as opposed to Darger who just kept doing his own thing and stayed constant.”

“It’s hard for us to tolerate change.”

“The world of industry/business is about managing risk. The business world tries to control for different situations. Bloomberg was seen as supporting artists.”

“We’re taking on risk by living; people live with precariousness.”

“There are two sides to risk [for corporations]:  pressure to innovate, but also to “return the bottom line”. I am being supported as an artist to do a large project for a corporation.”

“Lewis Hyde’s “Trickster Makes this World” traces cultural trickster myths – Coyote, Loki, Hermes, [Eleggua] – and shows that change comes down to the trickster, who stands between two worlds, material and spirit, bringing ideas that are at first strange and unwanted but then become necessary. Duchamp said ideas need to be trespassing. He was an art world trickster.”

“Maybe as an artist being supported by this corporation you are a trickster.”

“Actually, what is “unnatural” or startling about change is when there *is* none – when we think there is stasis.”

“I ask whether my project will change people’s perceptions.”

“The less we judge, the more we can feel the excitement. It’s the opposite of depression, which is an intense sense of limitation. In terms of art process, Van Gogh.”

“Alexander McQueen.”

“We need a better way of living with ourselves.”

“At which point do you actually reach satisfaction? Some artists are hungrier [for success] than others. Some need to make change faster.”

“The I-Ching [Book of Change] actually helped me figure out a pattern for today. To live outside and beyond the ego.”

Dessert

Sharing this meal – and the dialogue –  reminded me how fundamental a role change plays in my work. For example, I’m developing a series of installations called Fragile City, using cheesecloth – a seemingly ephemeral material – to reference both physical and emotional architecture. Through this series, I can explore vulnerability and change in personal, community, and global realms.  And for many years, I have used a classic Chinese text called the I-Ching, translated as “The Book of Change,”  not only for personal guidance but also as a resource and inspiration for creative work.

One of the most persistent forms of change we experience was raised at dinner but not discussed in any depth: change in our neighborhoods. The economic toll taken on most New Yorkers for the relentless development of our city is a form of change that needs and deserves its own conversations and actions. I really wish we could have explored it more deeply.

Being at On Kawara – Silence made me realize that time, one of Kawara’s fascinations, and one which we could not avoid discussing repeatedly in our conversation, is a human strategy devised for trying to comprehend – and perhaps control – change.

The Check

Speaking of time, the hour of our agenda-less dinner was coming to an end. Future possibilities of more gatherings and conversations were enthusiastically mentioned. We’ll see. But before he left, Prem planted the seed of another thought. Maybe not so focused on change, except perhaps as it relates to courage. He said, “Suicide plays an essential role in Kawara’s I Got Up* series. Maybe the hardest decision he made was to keep doing that work day after day after day. So maybe the best question to ask yourself is, what’s the thing you’re really scared of, and how can you face it down?”

*Every day from 1968 – 79, Kawara sent a postcard to someone stamped with “I got up at [the time he got up.]”

— Priscilla P. Stadler

Image: Photo by Tim McFarlene

This post is part of our series on Dinners Without an Agenda where guests authors react to the events they attend. Read on at this link for the rest.