Callicoon Fine Arts
49 Delancey, New York, NY
29 May — 25 July 2014
The Mausoleum of Lovers:
Nightboat Books, 2014
Elegant, small format, black and white photographs, grace the walls of Callicoon Fine Art’s new space on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side. These intimate portraits of people, and the spaces where they lived and loved, are only a small portion of the hundreds of photographs that comprise the visual diary of Hervé Guibert (1955-1991, Paris, France). In their attentive focus, they act as confirmation: “I looked. I loved. I lived.” And the photographer/writer also recorded – lusciously – with a sensibility that treated the medium of photography as if it were the grammar of his eloquence: sonnets to the senses and to those lovers, friends, and family that reflected back upon him the memories he wished might last beyond his premature death to AIDS at the age of 36.
Lining a low shelf in the window looking out on Delancey, are copies of The Mausoleum of Lovers, Guibert’s journals from the same period as his photographs, 1976-1991, newly published by Nightboat Books. Reputedly only 3% of all books published in the US are translations, so it’s already exceptional then that seven of Guibert’s thirty-some publications have been translated into English. The journals, however, form what translator Nathanaël refers to as the atelier of his ideas, a compendium more linguistically loose and experimental than his photographs, revealing perhaps the difference between expediency and exigency, fervor and gift. Even within these distinctions, however, both forms prize the immediacy of attentiveness, legitimating a cultural discourse on homosexuality in contradistinction to the homophobia of the age.
This is the second collaboration between Nightboat Books and Callicoon Fine Arts. The first was the publication of writings and the exhibition of paintings by Etel Adnan corresponding with her participation in dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012 and again this year during the Whitney Biennial. I wondered why a literary publication might join forces with a fine art gallery and sat down with publisher Stephen Motika and gallery director Photios Giovanis to discuss the converging initiatives of their collaborative endeavors.
Kathleen MacQueen: Stephen, you are not the first publisher of Nightboat Books. Did the link with the gallery come about when you became publisher?
Stephen Motika: I became publisher before there was a gallery. Nightboat Books was founded in 2003 by Kazim Ali and Jennifer Chapis and I worked closely with them. Kazim was really excited to start a press but his experience was with activism and non-profits rather than publishing; even so, he set up the basic elements to make the press self-sustaining – the board, the 501(c)(3), the prize – and I came in after the first book had been published: Fanny Howe’s The Lives of the Spirits/Glasstown in October 2005. By 2007, Kazim was ready to move on to other things.
When I assumed the role of publisher, we had four books in print; we now have 50+ so the press has grown a lot and we’re up to thirteen or fourteen books this year.
The link with the gallery came out of a need for a new space. Photi and I had been going upstate to Sullivan County and started looking at spaces for the press, which had outgrown its space, but also thought about sharing a space.
Photios Giovanis: Then we saw a space that had been run as a gallery for a couple of years and the owner wanted it to continue as a gallery. It had multiple rooms and could function multi-purpose with Stephen’s editorial space in the back and I could run the front as a gallery.
KMQ: What was your sense of Callicoon as an art’s community? Wasn’t it a risk starting a gallery in a small upstate town?
PG: Well, we both had jobs – I was working for Metro Pictures and Stephen is Program Director at Poets House – so as an extra endeavor it wasn’t really a risk; if it didn’t work out, we still had our jobs.
SM: It was a year lease and the press could underwrite a good portion of the lease so we weren’t reliant on sales initially. So – to make a long story short – there began to be some bleed, not through the artists, but with the two overlapping entities, with people coming into the space either for the books or the gallery and with our energies. It wasn’t until the upstate phase ended that we undertook a project together.
KMQ: So initially, you had parallel activities or initiatives…
PG: Yes, and energy overlap.
KMQ: I guess I was wondering if the link of Nightboat Books and Callicoon Fine Arts is through your relationship or your relationship is through the link of literature and visual arts?
SM: That’s true too…
PG: But the gallery programming was shaped by an entirely different set of concerns that were independent of what the press was doing. One thing was to build an audience and that was done by inviting local artists along with ones from the city, which helped create a certain amount of energy around the gallery. There was also a strong appeal for the artists who would come to this great place, install an exhibition, stay for the weekend…
SM: But once Photi realized the gallery was more than a side project, the upstate venue became limited. You couldn’t get reviews and collectors wouldn’t come that far out of the city.
PG: To stay, I would have had to concentrate on making sales through art fairs but I was more interested in having a wider audience and developing exhibitions. I do the art fairs, which are important, but the identity of the gallery is built around exhibitions. So I got the small space on Forsyth Street in July of 2011. And that set us adrift infrastructurally in terms of working together but then we found our way back to working together in more editorial ways.
SM: I’d say in creative and conceptual ways.
SM: And that’s where Etel Adnan came in. We had been living with a couple of her paintings for years and when her book was published and he learned that she was also going to be exhibited, that’s when Photi sought her out. Nightboat published Sea and Fog in January 2012 and dOCUMENTA opened in June of 2012…
PG: Stephen bought a painting by Etel at a fund-raiser for the Poetry Project and had been visiting her in Sausalito. The book had been published and I was looking on the dOCUMENTA website and saw her name listed as a participant but was confused as to exactly what would be her participation…after all, dOCUMENTA noted 19th century philosophers as participants…so finally I just called her and asked her and she said she’d have a large room of paintings and she would be there as a poet in residence. In the end, she played a very large role in a very large exhibition that Kaelen Wilson-Goldie – who spoke here at Callicoon Fine Arts – wrote about for Frieze magazine.
It was a confluence of many things and I was pleased to be able to be a part of it.
KMQ: What was the timing of your exhibition?
PG: dOCUMENTA took place over the summer and then we opened her show in September of 2012 and organized an event around the exhibition and the publication.
SM: Then came her participation in the Whitney Biennial and Nightboat Books’ two-volume compilation of 50 years of her writing – To look at the sea is to become what one is – and another exhibition at Callicoon Fine Arts, all this year.
KMQ: Etel demonstrates such a harmonious union between writing and painting. What amazes me is that this was your first collaboration together. Or maybe you don’t call it that as first came Sea and Fog and then things fell sequentially in place…
SM: We had talked a lot about doing a show that would incorporate poetry and text-based artists…
SM: We thought about it a long time but couldn’t agree – I remember this – there wasn’t an obvious fit. And then the work with Etel came out of left field. In a way, it was perfect because we each had an independent relationship to her work.
When we saw that was successful, then we went further with the Hervé Guilbert project. I had been working for over a year on the book – it’s a big book, nearly 600 pages so it was a huge undertaking for the translator, Nathanaël – and it was an open conversation whether Photi would be interested in his photographic work.
PG: Actually, it was a strange coincidence as I was telling Jason Simon, one of the gallery’s artists, that I was taking a trip to Paris to look at the work of this photographer and Jason said, “Guibert, really?” It turns out his name had come up in conversation with friends of his and also through his partner, Moyra Davey, as well. So Jason proposed a group exhibition that would be preliminary to the show and we did that exhibition – To the Friends Who Saved My Life – last year.
It had a meta layer to it as it explored the relationship of kinship between artists and other people involved in the arts and how that propels things forward and influences one another.
KMQ: How did you first come to Guibert’s work?
SM: It was through the translator, Nathanaël, whose writing, Sisyphus, Outdone., we published and who had translated Édouard Glissant’s Poetic Intention. She had long been interested in Guibert and came to me four or five years ago with the idea of a translation. One of the commitments of the press is publishing writers who died of AIDS and keeping their work in circulation. In 2011, we published A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, edited by David Trinidad, which was a tremendously moving experience. One reader wrote that he didn’t like poetry but that this was like falling in love with a new boyfriend. It got an incredible response overall and cemented our commitment to publishing these works.
Guibert is a central figure in a group of writers who died too young…at the age of 36. The journals – while not considered in the literary field as “central” work – were, for Guibert, because of how he wrote and because of his short life, his central work. Nathanaël speaks of them as being an atelier, a kind of workshop for ideas. You get a sampling of all his interests: photography, religion, sex, death, family, culture, travel, and writing. Often his novels pull from his journals; they are the backbone of his entire writing.
The pictures are more refined, elegant – a formal complement to the text which in itself is graphic. I don’t think Guibert has had his due, certainly not here in the States.
PG: He’s quite well known and frequently exhibited in Europe but I’ve contacted a number of curators here who don’t know his work. You can walk into any bookstore in Europe and see a display of books by Guibert: both catalogs of photography and his writings.
KMQ: For all the generic talk of “Western culture” there is still a very strong distinction between a US and European basis of knowledge.
PG: I think there is a real difference and I think artwork has to undergo a transformation in how it is received from one place to the next. That’s a slow process and, for me, it’s frustrating but that’s the work we do.
KMQ: It’s both a question of translation and context. That’s an interesting way of thinking about the relation between the press and the gallery because an exhibition is a means of creating context – context that then needs expansion beyond the gallery to other venues. As if it needs multiple contexts to connect with concerns, interests, and dimensions that are vibrating here.
PG: Yes, and this dialogue also plays its part in developing that.
KMQ: It also seems to me that any project you would undertake together would also have to be a project you would do alone.
PG: Up until this point, yes, that’s true. They’re very different fields and we came to these projects in very specific ways but I think we could now open up to other kinds of practices. Someone like Caroline Bergvall, who we’ll exhibit in January, represents that idea, whose own practices cross freely between conceptual, visual, performance, and writing. Drift is a different kind of book and it’s going to represent a different kind of relationship between the gallery and the press because of the way Caroline thinks about language, the form of the book and the form of the exhibition.
SM: It’s safe to say that a new direction for her is the inclusion of the visual into the writing. She thought of this book as an integrated visual/literary piece. The basis of the book is a 125-line poem “The Seafarer” from a tenth-century manuscript known as the Exeter Book. I assumed it would be a small book but it pushes towards an artist book with its dynamism and material explorations.
KMQ: Has the introduction of visual art into the publication pushed what you see as the press’s potential?
SM: I think it comes from Caroline and what she sees as possible. Other authors are different but with Caroline a project becomes a collaborative effort. She also had other collaborators beyond the press since she has created a performance piece around the narrative as well.
I always thought of Caroline as being very cool, very experimental – yes – but highly intellectual – re-writing Dante, for example – but I never expected her work to make me cry. It touches on very emotional and ethical questions and has a strong human component.
KMQ: So how will you integrate all this into the exhibition?
PG: A lot of what we do – both of us – is to facilitate an artist’s vision but we also provide a little bit of friction to rub up against the restraints of the space and its qualities. Caroline is so tuned to the form of things that I think she’ll respond to this space in a very active way.
KMQ: How have these three projects influenced your overall vision for the gallery?
PG: [laughter] That’s a good question. I think it coalesces my own interests in art but also how different practices influence each other. It’s also clarified for me that while various theoretical texts are important it’s not a mode that’s primary to what I do. We act in a way that’s self-reflexive but we’re not working towards being theoretical…
SM: That’s a hard-earned statement for Photi who had this dream…
PG: …that it is important to be theoretical… [laughter]
SM: …and to emulate what others who you admire are doing.
KMQ: I think it takes a while to figure out what we do best. I’m still working on it.
PG: I think we’ll always be just working on it and accomplishing things along the way but it is a process.
SM: …of what’s important to us. There isn’t a public place right now where books that don’t fit categorization actually receive attention. A writer like Wayne Koestenbaum writing in Bookforum is a rule breaker but actual discourse on non-narrative writing doesn’t exist. The L.A. Review of Books is another viable outlet and online forums will open up but in the art world there is more insistence.
PG: I agree. I resist defining the gallery in terms of purpose – it’s motivated by the artists – the gallery’s job is to facilitate. The challenge with engaging with experimental work is that you’re going to proceed – with or without the attention – because that’s the passion.