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February 03, 2021

Examining Narrative from the Inside Out, Censorship in the Art World, and Re-looking at Formulated Imagery: Sara Cwynar in conversation with Katelynn Dunn

by Katelynn Dunn

A woman sits behind a collage made of old photographs, pantyhose, perfume bottles, and other feminine items. Her legs, showing from behind the collage, are shiny and her feet are fitted with red boots. Her right arm, both hands, one with a ring on it, and half of her face including one eye, are visible.
This is an interview by writer Katelynn Dunn with 2021 artist-in-residence Sara Cwynar.


Katelynn Dunn (KD): The piece, Modern Art in Your Life, 2019, was a work commissioned by MoMA, so how did you navigate the institution while also developing a critique of the art historical canon within their collection? 

Sara Cwynar (SC): It was the title of a show in the fifties in this period of more optimistic or public good oriented shows at MoMA. They also had shows like The Family of Man, 1955. They had more of an ethos about the greatness of humanity in progress from the perspective of Western culture, in which there was a lot of othering of other cultures. The whole spirit was to show how great America was, and MoMA was an extension of America. I was trying to play off this early institutional history of MoMA as something that had a very clear political bend to it while very much thinking it was being objective. I didn’t have too much difficulty navigating the institution. They seemed ok with me being a little bit critical of them and pointing to all the biases in their institutional history. They’re trying to parse that themselves in the current climate where finally people realize that the history of modern art is just one specific history that could have been another way, and that it might not necessarily mean all that much.

You realize, and this is something I realized working at The New York Times, that these behemoth institutions of our culture that we think are handing down things that must have been thought through and decided on by people who knew, or the whole notion of expertise, is kind of falling apart in our time for better or for worse. All of our older institutions no longer have authority. Working at the NYT, I realized this too. People are figuring out things as best they can and making a lot of mistakes. MoMA is obviously exactly the same. That was cool to work through, although I don’t think I had as much access to the failures as someone who is actually in an institution.

KD: Did you have any particular inspirations?

SC: I was also thinking about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, 1972, which is one of my favorite projects ever. I refer a lot to these really early first encounters with these sorts of visual culture theories that a lot of people get in art school, and I found them on my own. I did graphic design school, which is not art school. I obviously didn’t make Ways of Seeing, but I wanted to make this [commissioned work] as ambitious as I could. It seemed more exciting than making something for a gallery or even making something for a physical space within a museum. 

KD:  On your website, it says that your book, The Kitsch Encyclopedia, looks at the way that an idealized image world has been constructed on top of the real world and has in many ways subsumed it. Do you view the act of making this book, and the usage of the kitsch aesthetic in your works, as a confirmation of the “idealized image”?

SC: I think the use of those types of images is trying to walk a double line or something. It is sort of a confirmation of those types of images. I am thinking about kitsch in a specific sense of it, as the sort of images and objects that we, and social movements, and religions, and all sorts of things, attach ourselves to for seeing the world as more aesthetically pleasing, more palatable, and easier to navigate on an existential level than it actually is. I realize that images in this sense are sort of cynical in that they are perhaps blocking the more difficult parts of reality from our view.

KD: How did you come up with, or determine, the “idealized image” in your artworks?

SC: That book [The Kitsch Encyclopedia, 2014] and a lot of my early encounters with theory came with what Kundera was describing as kitsch, which is this sort of image world that you quoted that has subsumed the real world or has in some way become more real to us. I think this is increasingly truer now, especially as we can’t even enter the real world that much. I was looking a lot at other theorists, like the simulations by Jean Beaudrillard and mythology by Roland Barthes, and really kind of seminal almost undergrad early theory text that also pull apart the way that images work and the way that they present the world as more cleaned up and paired down and simplified than it actually is. I started building an idea of the idealized image through those early theories, and then it’s just been something that’s grown and changed in my work. It has kind of morphed to absorb a lot of what Instagram has to offer and a lot of the ways that we experience images now as opposed to the more closed off ways that Roland Barthes saw advertising work. By closed off I mean that there wasn’t as much material to sift through. So, it’s kind of a changing definition.

KD: What pieces of the aesthetic would be ironic or a critique of the idealized image in this sense, and would you consider any part of this aesthetic to be “true”?

SC: That’s one of the core questions I’m always trying to sort through. There is so much truth in those images. The quote from Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved together, with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” That is a quote I say every time I do a talk pretty much, because I feel like it sums up this sort of truth, and then the reversal of the truth, in having a sentimental aesthetic experience. You are sort of first there in some aspect of it that has to be moving. Then you get caught up in seeing all the images that you have already seen and seeing with a collective eye or a shared idea of how you are supposed to see.

Now I’m thinking a lot about how we’re supposed to be able to parse whether anything is true or real in our crazy internet world of news, and that question is very generative in my work and very impossible to answer. I can’t tell if I’m acting in a real way or if I’m reacting in a way that all the images and news and things I read, and people’s opinions I absorb, are telling me to react. It becomes very difficult to figure it out.

KD: Considering your research that deals directly with the notion of restrictive beauty standards as well as the critical eye towards images and image making, how do you define limitation in your creative process?

SC: I think my personal neurosis I find limiting includes that my work might be too aesthetically pleasing for some people to take seriously, and that it might be too gendered. Then, there are the classic limitations of trying to figure out how to be and what to say. Everyone is being more careful, maybe too careful, with everything that they say and do publicly right now. I think most of that is a force for good, and I also try to be extremely careful and sensitive in my work anyway. Everyone is being so conservative. Like the Guston show being canceled. We are in a moment of a lot of limitations that amount to censorship that are maybe coming from not a bad place. It’s just too stressful to be doing anything in the public eye right now.

KD: Are there practical methods that you employ to break through these, or are there visual elements that you encode?

SC: On a purely practical level, I always ask a lot of people’s opinions about everything that I put into the world. That usually helps me to know that I’ve done everything that I could. I usually trust myself if I feel like something is good or at least worth putting out there. And I also make sure to ask a bunch of people so I’m not only speaking from my own experience. That’s kind of the best thing you can do. I also try to make a lot of stuff, so I keep practicing the feeling of exposing myself.

Image caption: Sara Cwynar, Tracy (Pantyhose), 2017, dye sublimation print, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Foxy Production, New York.

Image alt text:A woman sits behind a collage made of old photographs, pantyhose, perfume bottles, and other feminine items. Her legs, showing from behind the collage, are shiny and her feet are fitted with red boots. Her right arm, both hands, one with a ring on it, and half of her face including one eye, are visible. 

May 25, 2023

Finding Pleasure, Joy, and Comfort within the Playroom: Kathy Cho in conversation with Clae Lu

by Kathy Cho

This is an interview by curator Kathy Cho with artist Clae Lu, recipient of the New York Community Trust’s Edward and Sally Van Lier Fund residency at ISCP. Considering the artist’s practice holistically, the conversation brings insight to Lu’s research and community engagement, both of which deeply inform the work that was developed during their time as artist-in-residence. This exchange is published as an accompaniment to the solo exhibition Clae Lu: Playroom, on view at ISCP from February 28 to June 9, 2023.

Kathy Cho (KC): How did you approach your residency and decide what to focus on?

Clae Lu (CL): I was accepted into this residency program as I was exploring how to take a sabbatical from my corporate job in order to take care of my mental health. I decided I would make this residency my only focus for six-plus months, to invite play, curiosity, and rest as the center of my life. So the first few months were a mental challenge of unlearning productivity and relearning what creating from a place of curiosity would look like. 

I applied with a focus around uncovering what queer stories and narratives exist in Chinese traditional folklore. I was largely inspired by 梁山伯与祝英台 (Liángshān bó yǔ zhù yīng tái, or Butterfly Lovers), which is a queer love story from the Jin dynasty that has been a foundation for many different historical social and political movements, as well as  queer theory in China. It became a jumping-off point to explore what queering my relationship to the 古筝 (gǔzhēng) would look like, and what making my own music would sound like. 

While creating space in my studio for play, curiosity, and rest, I also reflected on the communal spaces I’ve built and been part of over the years. The majority of my work is rooted in community building, especially around celebrating the gray zone between platonic, romantic, and familial relationships. In creating this mental space in my studio, I picked up drawing and painting again as a way to celebrate chosen family and food!

KC: What are some ongoing threads of research and practice that inform the works you produced during your residency?

CL: I haven’t always had the words for this, and I’m still finding the words. But getting in touch with and trusting in our innate sense of purpose as queer, trans people of color is one of the biggest things I’ve been tapping into. I’ve been following this thread of storytelling and placemaking as a native Queens, New Yorker, looking at the ways sound connects us to place. 

When Alison Kuo, the program director at ISCP, sent me this article on the politics of sound, I finally had words for a lot of feelings about why I gravitate towards Chinese folk music and non-Western sounds. I found it particularly interesting to think about the kinds of sounds we hear in our everyday surroundings: languages, songs, nature sounds, everything that makes up the “white noise” of our lived experience. And these can change, too, like how our neighborhoods change, how gentrification will change the sounds of a place. Which also begs the question, what sounds have been erased or excluded?

A lot of my background and interests come from a place of queering my life, queering social constructs, and realizing that everything around us was made up by someone, by people who deemed certain things more important than others. So when I realized I could do the same, I decided to prioritize things that bring me joy and pique my curiosity, things that often weren’t taught in school or accessible through mass media. 

The more I questioned and queered things around me, the more I realized there is space for expansive exploration and creation. I’m currently in a hole of finding all kinds of zithers related to the 古筝, even really obscure ones within rural China. I am also finding other musicians and artists and exploring in the realms of folk/experimental music, meditative sound, ambient music—connecting the varied parts of ourselves as artists, musicians, queer and trans Asians of the diaspora.

KC: Did the residency provide a different way of approaching your 古筝 practice, compared to your previous performances?

CL: This residency was a great opportunity to fully focus on exploring my relationship to the 古筝 more thoroughly and thoughtfully. Because this residency is fully funded, I decided to quit my full-time job. It was really helpful to have the time and support to freely play with both my instrument and all these concepts that had been brewing in my head. To finally have dedicated time, support, and space to actually implement them was really special. 

Since 2018, I have been relearning songs I used to know really well, and oftentimes it was hard to balance that with my full-time job, part-time job, and other hobbies or freelance work. A lot of my performances during that time were taking folk songs I used to know and manipulating them as an excuse to relearn songs.

But with the residency, I got over the hump of trying to pick up old songs, and felt confident enough to deeply consider what kind of music I wanted to make. I found myself gravitating towards meditation and healing music. Especially when I sat with the concepts of Chinese folk music, such as the importance of letting sounds breathe, it began to align with music from sound baths and ambient sound I was researching. This research led to the beginnings of sound sketches that eventually became a soundtrack of experimental improvised songs that is part of the exhibition. It’s really special to have created an entire soundtrack of meditative, ambient songs with chosen family while we were also practicing rest, joy, and peace in our lives. This work also feels relevant as we’re still in the COVID pandemic, learning and unlearning structures that no longer serve us and how we can be more gentle with each other. 

There are definitely more avenues I want to keep exploring with 古筝 folk music, folk music of other Asian cultures, experimental ambient music, and pop mash-ups! I’m glad I was able to put energy towards those dreams through this residency.

KC: How did your previous experience working administratively and within your communities/chosen family inform how you individually created work? How did it inform your decisions to collaborate on certain works?

CL: I spent over four years working as the residency manager at the W.O.W. Project, overseeing the storefront residency. It was a really special time and place for me, as I got to better understand a lot about the facets of my intersectional identities as a native New Yorker, a person of Chinese diaspora relating to the different Chinatowns in New York, as a queer and trans person, and a person who cares about intentional community building and the arts. Working with various artists throughout my time and also learning how the W.O.W. Project, amongst other community-based organizations, was thoughtful about their programming, really opened my eyes to how we can build with and within our communities, and the beauty and power of collective will. My time in that space reaffirmed my belief in collaboration and its importance in how we depend on and trust in one another. 

Now my work, in whatever form it shows up as, is deeply rooted in collaboration and co-creation. During my residency, I picked up drawing and painting again and really enjoyed making drawings commemorating joy and gathering. A lot of that manifested as paintings and drawings of food, specifically gatherings of friends and chosen family over shared meals and occasions. 

In the pandemic I was finding a lot of different artists online working on meditative healing music like Laraaji, Londrelle, and Bravespace (a project by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center highlighting music created by Asian American women and nonbinary artists and musicians). I could tell there was a collective move towards slowing down, making space for kindness and grief to process our collective experience. It inspired me to create a playlist of improvised songs with my chosen sibling Ben Florencio. We had been supporting each other through a lot of emotional shifts through the pandemic, and spending time together in their home upstate inspired us to make space for experimental soundscapes that mimic breathing and dreaming. 

KC: What threads are you excited to continue pursuing post residency?

CL: I’m excited to keep exploring creating ambient music with folk instruments and collaborating with other musicians and artists working in similar interests. I am really excited to have worked with Daria Garina on our public event as part of my show, which consists of Qigong breathing exercises paired with improvised 古筝 sounds. We invited a public audience to experience this and also have a recorded version as a long-term, accessible resource. We also had a recent opportunity to present a shorter version of this event at the Queens Botanical Garden on May 13th as part of a lineup of queer and trans folks of the Asian diaspora celebrating our connection to heritage and culture through music, sound, and performance. That event was funded in part by the A4 What Can We Do? grant.

It’s especially heartwarming to me to be able to find spaces and opportunities where there is mutual interest in these sort of niche but spiritually important practices. So even if I go back to a day job or shift focus for a while, I’m really proud of having spent this time focusing on something so personally important, and being recognized for it too!

Image caption: Clae Lu, installation view of Playroom in ISCP project space, 2023. Photo by Shark Senesac

Image alt text: Person playing the Chinese zither


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