In wacky mode: curator Chris Sharp

photo: Ana Hop.

Art News New Zealand, 2018

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Chris Sharp is an American curator, who first studied French Literature and wanted to be a novelist. “What novel would you like to have written?” I asked when Sharp visited Wellington on Creative New Zealand’s Te Manu Ka Tau/Flying Friends programme. “Spanking the Maid by Robert Coover,” he replied. “It’s not as erotic as it sounds.” Along with the artist Martin Soto Climent, he runs Lulu, a hybrid project space in Mexico City that is named after a local juice bar. A contributing editor of Art Review and Art-Agenda, he’s also the co-curator of Dane Mitchell’s Venice Biennale project for New Zealand. So how did an American end up co-curating the New Zealand National pavillion?

Mitchell says, “My Venice project has a large text component, and I’ve always really enjoyed the literary interconnections and associations Chris brings to his writing and curating, and I felt that his voice and insight would be a great addition to the project.”

Megan Dunn talks to Chris Sharp about Venice, the infra-mince, and Donald Barthelmes wacky mode.

MD:    When did you first meet Dane?

CS:      In 2010 when he was the DAAD artist-in-residence at the Berliner Künstlerprogramm. We got on on really well and he invited me to contribute to the monograph for Radiant Matter.

MD:    In your essay for Radiant Matter, Trajectories of Immateriality, you describe Dane Mitchell as a “polyvalent crafter of the infra-mince” Does that description still apply and what is the infra-mince?

CS:  The infrathin or infra-mince is essential to what Dane does. It’s a French word that translates roughly as ultra-thin. I think the concept is one of Duchamp’s greatest contributions to the history of art. [He coined the term in the 1930s saying the infrathin could not be defined, “one can only give examples of it.” e.g. When cigarette smoke smells also of the/mouth which exhales it, the two odors/marry by infrathin.’] What I take from Duchamp’s idea is this kind of threshold between materiality and immateriality. Dane’s carrying on that tradition and thinking about it in different ways. The infra-mince is going to be a key component of our project in Venice.

MD:  In Radiant Matter you also call Dane an ethical artist, “someone directly engaged in the ethics of perceiving; of paying attention.” The word ‘ethical’ tweaked me. How so?

CS:     I think of Dane as an ethical artist in the same way I think of the writer David Foster Wallace as an ethical essayist or thinker, insofar as both are willing to think an object or an idea all the way through from both sides. Ethics becomes a question of paying and sustaining attention. With David Foster Wallace, you enter a space of minutia, of infinitesimal matter. He’s able to think things down to an almost atomic level. With Dane there’s a similar zeroing in or telescoping towards the atomic. Dane’s work grants materiality to the immaterial.

MD:   The choice of artist for the Venice Biennale has sometimes been controversial for the New Zealand public. And Dane’s work Collateral, which won the Waikato National Contemporary Art Award in 2009, deliberately played with that kind of contentiousness. His submission was the wrapping from the other contestants’ entries dumped on the floor. It was an act that seemed to fulfill the public’s worst fears – that contemporary art is rubbish.

CS:   I think people underestimate the importance of controversy and controversial artists with regard to the general public. The writer, Bettina Funcke, wrote Pop or Populus: Between High and Low which explores the relationship between the general public, art and resentment. There’s often a kind of secret or unacknowledged idea that art is just a bunch of bullshit. I think the English have been very smart. Even though the relationship with the public is typically not benign or productive The Turner Prize prize has at least found a way putting art in the general consciousness…

MD:     Through antagonism?

CS:     Yes. It tends to be antagonistic, but The Turner Prize has made art discussed, debated and even present in the minds of the public. To me, it’s interesting that Dane has been involved in that kind of tension and that he’s willing to court controversy or really interrogate the limits of art; this in turn is liable to be a source of antagonism for some.

MD:   Tell me about your favourite author, the American post-modern writer Donald Barthelme and his notion of the ‘wacky mode.’

CS:    For me, Barthelme’s a fundamental reference. The great thing about him as a short story writer is his elision of narrative information, of reducing a story to its bare essence while nevertheless experimenting with form, which he never takes for granted, yet there’s still a real emotive content to his work. Other American post-modernist writers feel kind of dry and over-theoretical and boring whereas with Barthelme there’s always emotion alongside his great will to experiment. The ‘wacky mode’ is a heavily cited Barthelme reference. Padget Powell, one of Bartheleme’s students remembers him saying to his writing class, “We have wacky mode.” And when the student asked, ‘what does wacky mode do?’ Bartheleme replied, ‘break their hearts.’ I love that.

MD:    Is ‘wacky mode’ important to the way you run Lulu?

CS:      Yes. I like the idea of art having the capacity to break hearts, to tap into a fundamental humanity – although this is kind of treading into modernism or modernist universality. A lot of art, especially in Mexico, is presented as though the curator (or the artist) is trying to inflict an almost Catholic sense of guilt or social responsibility through the work on to the viewer; anything but a joyful celebratory, heart-breaking human experience.

MD:    Can you describe what led you to write Theory of the Minor? In this essay, first published in Mousse 57 in 2017 you sketch out the difference between the major and the minor saying at one point, ‘The major’s greatest antagonist is idiosyncrasy, which is a fundamental component, nay the very bedrock, of minor art.’ I like that you champion idiosyncrasy.

CS:   That essay has become one of my most cited pieces; it’s basically a kind of protest against the idea of instrumentalising art. Living in Latin America, it feels like one of the primary questions which accompanies a presentation or mediation or art is, ‘What can art do?’ as opposed to ‘what can art be’? The logic of capitalism seeks to continually colonise and instrumentalise all forms of labour (what can art do/how can we use it), but you can’t really quantify the kind of labour that goes into making art, which renders it difficult to instrumentalise. People have tried but it doesn’t make any sense. Nobody can even agree anymore on what art is; hence the public resentment. I realise I’m coming from a very privileged place but for me the ontology of an artwork can’t be taken for granted. At Lulu it’s at the core of what we do.

MD:    In Theory of the Minor you describe the Biennale as “the exhibition format par excellence of the major…” saying , “to be ‘contemporary,’ the biennial generally structures itself around a few key concepts or ‘urgent political issues’ which the art is meant to embody or illustrate, as if it were so much three-dimensional visual aid (of the news or concepts related thereto).”

How will Mitchell’s presentation evade the pratfalls of the ‘major’?

CS: In numerous ways. First of all, by the sheer surfeit of language at its center, which pushes it toward a patent incommensurability, the almost tragicomic scope of its foredoomed ambition, and its will to interrogate and put pressure on the limits of sculpture.  

MD:   Is there anything else you can share about Venice at this stage?

CS:    I think there will be some real ‘wacky mode’ in the presentation.