Debora + Jason Bernagozzi
Ghislaine Leung, GLX, 2024, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 2024, Photo: Bob. A school photo of the artist in its original cardboard frame with a handwritten note on the back. The Chinese characters copied out by the artist as a child, unreadable to her then and now, translate as “To grandpapa from Ghislaine, 87.” Never sent.
Ghislaine Leung takes on the Readymade
A conversation with Michaël Amy
Ghislaine Leung, “Holdings,” 2024. Score: An object that is no longer an artwork Photo: Frank Geiser Installation the Renaissance Society, Chicago, Illinois, Courtesy of the artist
Ghislaine Leung was born in Stockholm and lives and works in London, UK. Her work has been exhibited in sixteen one-person exhibitions since 2016. The international appeal of Leung’s work is confirmed by well over 100 group exhibitions since 2011, and a vast bibliography, complemented by many of the artist’s own publications. In April 2023, Leung was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize, which led to an exhibition of her work that year at Towner Eastbourne.Ghislaine Leung solo exhibition at the Renaissance Society, Chicago opened in January 2024, and her exhibition for Kunsthalle Basel will open later this year
Ghislaine Leung takes on the readymade, among many other things, and manages to extract new meanings out of it, more than a century after this act of appropriation was initiated. I am often astounded when thinking of the brushstroke—applied, say, with oil on canvas—how after centuries of practice there are still artists who manage to develop their own idiosyncratic touch. A readymade, assisted or not, doesn’t have the same flexibility or malleability as a stroke of oil, but still, it is surprising what vast range of expression and meanings artists are able to squeeze out of this method of artistic production, so many years later. A brush stroke, which amounts to making a mark, is a signature of sorts, while the readymade moves away from the hand, and thus muddies the issue of creativity, and authorship, as it emphasizes intention, and thus the mind of the artist who appropriates and recontextualizes the inventions, and designs, of others.
The ready-made object can appear in isolation within a new art context. A gallery, museum, or private collection, neighboring works of art, and—obviously—the artist’s initiating decision, provide the aura which modifies the status of the object. I should underscore that the readymade’s new context frequently involves an interior architectural setting, as the lay-out of Leung’s re-contextualized things is determined by the physical boundaries of the exhibition space, the way in which that space is accessed, and how the individuals who oversee the installation of the object(s) interpret this artist’s written directives. Alternatively, a readymade can be juxtaposed with similar, or different, ready-made objects—witness Leung’s Public Sculpture, 2018, an alignment of toys placed on the gallery floor, drawn from the toy library of the public library at Reading. What’s in a name?
Rochester, New York, February 2024
Ghislaine Leung, “Holdings,” 2024. Score: An object that is no longer an artwork
Photo: Frank Geiser, the Renaissance Society, Chicago, Illinois, Courtesy of the artist
Michaël Amy: Your work has its origin in an idea, an intention. This is true of all works of art, isn’t it?
Ghislaine Leung: I stopped making art for a long time, for about eight to ten years, and one of the reasons why I stopped making work had to do with ideas. I cannot make work with ideas. It’s weird, considering that I am, probably, a conceptual artist—and there are so many definitions of that. I work at a kind of strange, perverse engineering of Conceptual Art. I do not start with a concept. I find that almost antithetic to production. When I have an idea, I get all caught up in this kind of perfect idea, what the idea should be, what it could be, how to execute that idea without there being any hitch in the translation from the idea to the extant situation, the work, and I found that that was nearly impossible. That shift from the perfect idea to the perfect material was a real block for me as an artist, and it wasn’t until I dialectically inverted that trajectory and started with the material that I started to be able to make work again, and by material, I mean more than the physical object, I mean the material conditions of working, instead of the materials for working. I flipped the situation and let the material generate the concept, rather than start off with a concept and try to translate that into a material. The only problem with that kind of inversion was that I did not have control over what type of concept the material generated. I decided that this was in fact interesting, and rather than police that, or capture that generated concept, I could let it proliferate, see what happens to it in a number of different ways. What I like most in art and literature is the pleasure of the text, the way in which multiple readings can occur, rather than a singular concept. If I wanted to try to communicate a more singular concept, I would write an essay.It’s about that surprise in the work, or the not knowing, or something that goes outside my remit of control. That’s what I am most interested in. If I started along a classic trajectory of conceptualism, I would not be able to do that.
Ghislaine Leung, Turner Prize 2023 Shortlist Exhibition, Towner Eastbourne, Eastbourne, UK, 2023–2024 Installation view, Courtesy of the artist and Maxwell Graham
MA: What you state amounts to an old dilemma. Michelangelo used the Latin imperfect faciebat instead of the habitual fecit when signing the Roman Pietà, which is the only sculpture he ever signed, to signify, in emulation of Apelles, that however great the work of art is, it is imperfect, as it does not match the divinely inspired original idea in the mind of the artist, as Michelangelo’s hand is no more than human.
GL: There is the relationship between the greatness of the idea and the impoverishment of the hand. I am more interested in that as a kind of fallibility, as a kind of imperfection, as a kind of beauty, actually. There is something very humane about that, that is—I feel—generous; it makes the work accessible, maybe. There is something in that lack of mastery that relates to other notions of what a lack of mastery could be understood as—the politics of a lack of mastery. Audre Lorde said that you can never dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, and I think that is very true. The impossibility to translate becomes something that is living, has fallibility, is humane, can rupture, can go wrong. I think I try to embrace all those things in my work. That is a more forgiving place for me to make art from. I can accept that, instead of perfectionism which would drive me to have a very different kind of practice. If I wanted to perfect things all the time, I would have to police the work, I would have to go everywhere and tell everyone what to do, all the time. It would be totally authoritarian.
MA: Which is the Jeff Koons approach, an approach you clearly do not espouse. You are a great delegator—which Michelangelo was not.
GL: For me, it’s about a reciprocity, and a trust. I can do that, because I trust that situation, and I am happy for it to involve more than my imaginings. I find that a relief, and kind of beautiful, because it is something that is made by more than me. Having worked in numerous roles within the art industry before becoming an artist, I know how much those roles make the work. I know how much art history makes art, I know how much curation makes art, I know how much technicians make art; the work of art has custodianship of a huge number of people for its value to be able to be maintained. That could never be the work of one person. I am interested in trying to de-alienate some of those notions, as to what constitutes the work of art, and who constitutes it, and how. Those things are interesting to me, somewhat because it undoes some of its security, and somewhat because it lets us reappreciate some of the magic of it. When a magician reveals the trick—this is how the trick is done—there is something that remains amazing even though you know how it was done. It still feels like magic. That to me is amazing. Like when you read a book and you can appreciate the technique of the writer, the structure—philosophy has incredible structure—and you can see how it all works, yet it still comes through, perhaps even more so. That is a lot of the work for me: To maintain that something is demystified, humane, perhaps not considered to have value, can still hold something important, and beautiful, because it is that physically and emotionally and conceptually destabilizing. It moves us.
Ghislaine Leung, Fountains, 2022, Score: A fountain installed in the exhibition space to cancel sound. Edition of 3 + 2 AP
Turner Prize 2023 Shortlist Exhibition, Towner Eastbourne, Eastbourne, UK, 2023–2024, Installation view, Courtesy of the artist and Maxwell Graham
MA: You don’t control the situation at all as tightly as Sol LeWitt did during his lifetime, and still does following his passing in 2007.
GL: No (laughs). That is almost industrial, in some ways, because it’s just like replicating yourself lots and lots of times, by sending those people to all kinds of places to produce the work. As an artist, I resist the scaling of practice, like: Now she has a studio, now she has a whole field of assistants, because once you do that, you are basically running a business with a lot of staff, and I want to be accountable, I want to be a good ethical manager of that staff. It’s a precarious enterprise to get yourself into. There is something great about questioning that notion of mastery, and scale, and control, and the notion of this kind of autonomous master of the vessel—the classic genius, I suppose. If I were to work with that kind of notion of what the artist is, I think that I would be unable to make work, because I would be so pressured (laughs). I am not so interested in it. I feel this great liberation when I abandon those things; when this amazing possibility comes along and one realizes that one can do it a different way. I love that about how I work, though not always. A lot of the time, it teaches me something. It makes me braver; I think.
MA: Your idea is shared, initially with a small number of individuals, whereas most artists do not state their governing ideas. Does the viewer have access to your statement of intention, which you name the "score," at the exhibition site?
GL: When I started producing the scores, I did not always publish these. Because of the nature of viewing, there is a way in which one moves through spaces, and looks at art. People will look at an object in a gallery and assume that the unique object is the work of art, and for me, it really isn’t. That object is one iteration of one performance of that score, but the object is not the work. The score is also not entirely the work. There is a sort of interdependence there that is vital to the work. I realized that I needed to start publishing the scores for that part of the work to be better understood. I think I was a bit cryptic about it at first because I could not see anyone making work in this way, really. I realized that I had forged several things, from working in performance art, and video, for a long time, from working with these kinds of media that trouble objecthood. I was kind of thinking of how I could bring that into sculpture, how I could bring that into exhibition-making in a way that was not performance. Could objects circulate in similar ways, and what are the politics of circulating an object? The migrating form of the moving image—particularly in digital video—is central to circulation. What constitutes the work, then? All of these things question the structural categories and classification procedures of art history. These things were very important to me. As it became apparent that I needed to articulate that, I started publishing and making the scores readily available. If others want to carry out these scores, they can. They would not own the work by doing them. People ask me: “What would you do if people started putting up mushroom lights or baby-gates all over their houses?” Well, I would kind of love that. And well, a lot of the time they already are doing that.
Another thing that differentiates me from certain other conceptual artists is that I would never show the scores by themselves. The purpose is to do the work; the work must be done. It cannot be like a paper architecture. It cannot be like Fluxus scores, which are in a way images, or "imagings." In a way, my work is quite pragmatic; it's the limitations and parameters of its circumstance that constitute it. It relates to this notion about imperfection. It is not this perfect thing to imagine. It is this thing that is done, performed, installed—and perhaps it is wrong. I enjoy that too. What constitutes the line where I would determine that it is wrong? That is also interesting to me. People have said: “A baby-gate at every threshold? Well, what constitutes a threshold?” Well (laughs), let’s see. The works rest upon other factors. When you begin to think about what constitutes the work, you think about what constitutes these other structures in our experience of spaces, and institutions—our own judgments, hopefully.
Ghislaine Leung, Violets 2, 2018, Score: All parts of a ventilation system removed from Netwerk Aalst Bar during its 2017 refurbishment are reinstalled within the space of the exhibition and fixed from the floor, using as much of the material as possible while keeping it all interconnecting. Spare pieces that do not fit in this configuration are bracketed together in smaller formations. A welcome sign is installed. Fountains, Simian, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2023, Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Maxwell Graham
MA: Much of the meaning of the work depends upon the score. The score gives the object a particular charge which it would lack without that short statement.
GL: It’s key in my work. It’s another way of thinking against the notion of the artist as genius, that master figure. I am questioning the capacity of the artist and the autonomy of art as something that is a given rather than an autonomy from something else. Autonomy has a dependency. It's freedom from something. Rather than securing the autonomy of the work, I am interested in all of its dependencies, in all the ways that it has to depend on a number of different people, a number of different structures, a number of different legibilities, a number of different histories, for it to have its life. Life is dependent on a huge amount of people and things being in operation, but that are usually denied, as the artwork is supposed to have this sole propriety. Exactly, as you say, it is dependent. There are many dependencies that the work is keying into. In trying to get all those dependencies, I am almost trying to articulate what is not dependency—could that be this other quality of an artwork? Perhaps—I don’t know. There is a structural negative determination going on somehow, maybe, in saying that: “It is all of these things”; and yet, it is surplus to that. What is that surplus? Being a viewer of art is that ineffable, outside of all those qualities. I am questioning that, through all these structural dependencies which could seem to make art more prosaic. When all is said and done, there is still something that happens there. What does that do? What is in that experience? There is always a dependency on viewing—this sort of surplus that art somehow brings about. Is it a quality of it, or is it a quality of us? You never know, right? That’s the beautiful thing about it.
MA: You provide a set of rules, parameters, within whose boundaries you allow others—gallerists, curators, installers—to act freely in your absence. We are talking about interpretations and variations that are carried out by individuals with expertise in the visual arts, but who are other than the originating artist/author. You leave it to others to select one among several potential solutions to a problem. One imagines quite some hand-wringing on the executive side. Aesthetic, and/or financial, and/or hazard-free considerations must come to the fore, in the wake of an original act of seeming aesthetic indifference. Matters of taste grind themselves against matters of practicality. Egos are stirred.
GL: (Laughter). Yes, stirring the egos is something that is important to me. It is not like: “You do whatever.” It’s a discussion. I do that, so that I can make some structure for what is almost improvisation. There is a structural limit, and improvisation takes place within that. The score is almost like a holding structure that allows both parties to act without the feeling that it is any one person’s responsibility, which—for me—alleviates problems having to do with ego. This allows people to propose alternatives; after all, those individuals often have a better understanding of their space. I like it when they get back to me and say: “We are going to do it like this,” and I answer: “No, according to the score, you cannot do that,” and then I check the score and see that indeed they can.
The scores used to be a lot longer. I used to write all kinds of stipulations, legislation of sorts, and then it got shorter and shorter. The shorter they are, the less wrong they can go. With fewer stipulations, fewer things can go wrong. (Laughs). There are many contradictions in it, I think.
Ghislaine Leung, VIOLETS 2, 2018, Aluminum ventilation system, brackets, screws, bolts, dirt, welcome sign, Dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist and Maxwell Graham
MA: Art is, after all, about parameters, whether one is conscious of these or not. This is the reason why a work by Bach, say, or Ingres, Wharton, or Bourgeois is recognizably by these artists. Is your work about highlighting, or exposing, the parameters—the rules of the game, to quote Jean Renoir?
GL: I think that when I started making work, it was very much about highlighting. These are the rules. This is the structure. Understand, and see the structure. It was kind of an exposé. I think more and more, as the scores have become more personal, they have become more about understanding not only the structures of art, or the institution of art, but my institution, and how I institute as an artist. Not that I am the artist who is here to critique the institution, but what am I instituting, what do I think about that, where is my role in this, what have I not given myself permission to do, how have I internalized these structures, rather than who is this person who has put this upon me? How have I internalized those rules of the game, and how can I understand that I have, and understand my complicity within that situation, and then perhaps in doing so be able to change those structures. What happens if I change all the variables, what if I start modeling those structures differently—what does that bring about? If I can only make work two days a week, what work will I make? Will that work be lesser than that of someone who can dedicate five days a week to work, or will it simply be different, and is that difference interesting? Does that difference speak to people who make from a different vantage point or situation, and is that any less committed for it? Why do we think it is? What is that about? How can we think differently about these kinds of frames of labor? How do such conditions affect the work? I spent a long time following a model of art-making that ultimately excluded me. I did not have the resources, or means, or background that would give me that space, or even the idea of entitlement to take that position. I began to think not if that which constitutes the artwork were different, but if that which constitutes the art practice were different. What kind of art would come out of that? There may lie the answer to what a critical practice might look like today. Living, and speaking about the conditions we are in is critical of the structures we inhabit. It’s unspoken in so many ways. More and more, I felt that those things must find their way into the work.
MA: Is your work about power? The composer exerts a certain power over musicians. However good, bad, or free the interpretation, we still recognize the work as being by Mozart, or Mingus.
GL: That is true. We try to establish a hierarchy, the one over the other, but really what it is, is both. It would have to be, and always is, both. A lot of the time, it kind of evades all those categories in some ways. I can listen to music and not know who the composer is, or who the musician is. But I know the music. Power is an interesting one. There is an attempt on my part to disengage, or to remove some of my abilities to control things. There is the performance of how the score is done by somebody else. There is also my anti-performance, in how I reject doing something. That is empowering to me, because it enables me to continue making art, which, if I didn’t work like that, I would be unable to do, because I have a job teaching, multiple jobs in fact, I have a kid, I have not perfect health, I have various conditions I am living with. That’s life—everyone has this. When I started making work again, I saw a great many peers who were really burned out by working in the industry, and it was impossible for them to continue, or maintain that pace, making work. It was only a possibility for some with the resources available to them to do so. I needed to find a way to be able to continue doing what I do, not just in the short term—I want to be doing this for sixty years (laughs). I’m not going to be able to if my working conditions are bad. I cannot always travel and install, because I have a kid, I have responsibilities, so I wanted to find a way to make art that is life-inclusive, and the acknowledgement of that life would be the acknowledgement of the porosity and dependency of art on life, that it’s not this other thing. If you cannot take care of your own working conditions your art is not going to flourish, because it depends on you, so you have to be all right. So, there is a kind of physical and ethical choice about how can I do it, as it’s economically and emotionally so precarious to make art, it involves such risk, a risk very often people without a huge amount of resource don’t feel able to take on, which is why the art industry has its problems, representationally, in terms of class, race, and gender, and so I have to make art in a different way (laughs). This is the way I found to make art, and yes, it may change indeed. The methodology of artistic production only runs along certain lines. If you can run an art practice in a different type of way, then that would make room for people who did have a job, who did have to do care work, who couldn’t put a large amount of capital up front into something, and that would change who is represented within our industry. That is important to me. So power, I guess, yes, but the framework for that isn’t about making a hierarchy where you are at the top. If anything, it is about acknowledging dependency, acknowledging limitations, about acknowledging another means of enfranchisement that isn’t modeled on a supremacist logic.
MA: I find humor in your work. Am I alone in doing so? There is also a certain bleakness there.
GL: (Laughter). Before I started making art again, I was writing. When I tried to make something sad, people would think that it was funny, and the opposite occurred when I tried to write something funny. There is an interesting correlation. Crying and laughing are this kind of exclamation the body makes when it doesn’t know how to comprehend something—when something is questioned. I love when I go into a show and I see something that surpasses my expectation of what I thought was permissible within the work—even though I think anything is permissible, and I try to push that—and then I would laugh out loud and say to myself, “Ha! I didn’t know you were allowed to do that.” And then: “Oh! I must have thought: You aren’t allowed to do that! That’s interesting!” and then you begin to see those parameters, boundaries, or borders that you set yourself, and that you did not even know were there (laughs). Some of the most cerebral, ground-moving changes in how we think are feelings. They are not ideas. You feel something different; you intuit something else, and that emotionality is something that is incredibly important in my work, and that emotion can be fun, humor, a joke, sometimes it can be rage, sadness. In all my work and how I think about the work, that notion of circulation is one of movement, that notion of emotion is about being moved, that notion of that kind of cerebral dialectical terms or plasticity of our cognition of artwork is again movement. What I am always seeking in the work is this movement, whether it is of head or heart, or ideally both. It’s that being moved, or wanting to move to something, being moved by and moving to, that’s crucial, and it comes out of how the work circulates, how we apprehend the work, and it comes out of my own life experience, being a person coming from a background that is entirely diasporic and migrating. Everything that constitutes my life comes from movement, movement of people, movement of places, movement of cultures together, none of which can be classified in a clear and recognizable way by how we apprehend or understand identity. Yet I exist (laughs). That’s what I try to do in how I constitute my work. This is a different form of life, but it’s still living. That in itself is moving and would question a lot of things that are going on right now in how we polarize, and classify, and binarize who, and what, should be and is of value in this world. That’s all part of it. You can respond with humor—it’s an emotional understanding of these things that we first and foremost try to have cognition about, but ultimately in our hearts feel as a shift in how we perceive ourselves in each other.
Ghislaine Leung, Violets 2, 2018, Score: All parts of a ventilation system removed from Netwerk Aalst Bar during its 2017 refurbishment are reinstalled within the space of the exhibition and fixed from the floor, using as much of the material as possible while keeping it all interconnecting. Spare pieces that do not fit in this configuration are bracketed together in smaller formations. A welcome sign is installed. Turner Prize 2023 Shortlist Exhibition, Towner Eastbourne, Eastbourne, UK, 2023–2024. Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Maxwell Graham
MA: Much of your creative work can, theoretically, take place at the kitchen table. Can you tell us something about your writing process.
GL: I don’t even know if I can say that my recent book, Bosses, was written. Some of it was written; a lot of it was spoken. My publishers Divided asked me to write that book in 2017. I had just finished this other book Partners, which was this collection of eight years’ worth of texts, and I said that I did not have any writing left, I had just published all my writing, and they said: “OK, we’ll do a new book,” and I thought: I don’t know how to write a book. But I had this idea that I wanted to make it the same way that I made my art, so I wondered: Can we generate the book somehow? (Laughs) How would we do that? We set a kind of structure, and then we go ahead, I suppose. So, I asked my publishers to go to Marseille on this residency with me, and I thought we’ll just write down everything we say, and that will be the book, but of course that totally did not work, and we did not do that at all. And then, I had some shows, and then, I got pregnant, and I said: “I’ll tell you what. I will write the book during my maternity leave, as I will not have anything to do.” And then came COVID, and it turns out that maternity during COVID is a terrible time to write a book. I could not write anything. My mental health was hanging by a thread. So, I told them I could not write this book, and they said OK. Then, I made an interview with Susanne Titz for my Abteiberg Museum show PORTRAITS, and the publishers heard the interview and said they think that there is something here, what if we use this as the core of the book? So I said that sounded good, and then I offered to send them everything I had written in the period since, whatever, the last five years, so I sent them everything, including my shopping lists, my Wi-Fi passwords, all the notes on my phone—because I make notes all the time—and some longer bits that I had been working on, obsessive listings of things, and I said: “Here is the material, let’s—you, editors—see what you can do with it, and they made it into the book it is. They set a basic structure. I clarified some passages when they reached out to me. They said: “Ghislaine, we know the book is in you. We just have to get it out of you” (laughs). Had I written it in a conventional way, I would never have dared to write what I did. And the book is so much the braver for it. I trusted them, and our relationship, and let it be that.
My return to making art came out of writing. I was commissioned to do a text on vulnerability, and I wrote what I thought was a great text on vulnerability, it was very well argued, had great citations. I put it in, nice piece of work that, and then I realized, to my horror, that I had written this text on the politics of vulnerability and the text was not vulnerable, it was like the most uptight, defensive thing, and I was horrified that I could write something that was so antithetic to my own position. My work was not doing what I said work should be doing. That’s one of the reasons why I started making art again. I had to find another way to be able to make something that was vulnerable, and to enable the vulnerability to be the driving part of the work. In a way —far more than any question of power, or not-power, or control, or not-control—the real premise of all my work is vulnerability. That’s the thing that is driving it. What can open that space of vulnerability up, what trust can happen, what relation can happen, what other thing can happen in that space, that is a non-defended space? The way we are taught to present ourselves is competitive, and defensive, within the general framework of industry, right? So, I had to find another way to do my work. So, making a book in that way, or making art the way I do allows that vulnerability to occur, and it allows me—through that—to be much braver than if I was working by myself. If I was trying to plan it all out on my own, I would curtail that, I would try to block that space, because it is too dangerous, or something. I don’t want to do that because that is where all the emotion is.
MA: You made an interesting transition, from the title of your first book, Partners (2018), referring to equals, to your second book titled Bosses (2023), reminding us that a select few rise to the top and control the others.
GL: Absolutely. Partners was about relationships, such as between two people, I suppose. Bosses was more about workplace relationships, instead of personal romantic relationships. It was about how you internalize these hierarchies in yourself, how you kind of boss yourself, I suppose. The general trope of bosses is so widely used: Girl boss, bossing it, these notions of being in command, and I was wondering about what self-employment is, you are your own boss, there is this irony that in being your own boss somehow you cannot be a good boss. Even if you were in charge of yourself, you would try and exploit yourself, as you could, and that is a very sad indictment of how you internalize various kinds of strategies of profitability, or power, to yourself, and I want to understand how I internalize those things, to try to find a different way of working for myself.
MA: You take on neo-liberalism.
GL: I guess. It’s supposedly not an ideology, right, because it’s supposed to be just the free market, because it is supposed to be the natural order of, but of course it's rampantly ideological. There is this idea that capitalism and communism are the ideologies of the 20th century, and that neo-liberalism is a very 21st century kind of ideology. It’s a very insidious ideology, and it is one that also functions through self-policing, self-surveillance, how you work for yourself, entrepreneurship, all these kinds of frameworks, self-governance, self-informing, self-punitive behavior. And, of course, that effects different people in different ways. I am interested in how those forms of governance are internalized, and instituted, by us, in small ways, things that you would not necessarily notice in your own behavior but are there. That’s the kind of thing I am interested in thinking through. I remember years ago, I put on an exhibition as a curator, and had to invigilate the exhibition on weekends, and I was very annoyed because I was not being paid for doing that, and told my friend that it was so unethical that I was not being paid to do this work, how dare they, unpaid labor in the industry, and he was, like: “Well, did you agree to do it?”. And I answered: “Yes, but…”, and then realized what I had done. Acknowledging that you do take part in it, and that you are complicit in that structure, is a way in which you can create change. You can begin to understand that if you have a hand in something, you have a hand in changing it. I think a lot about that in terms of different structures, how they impact our behaviors, and our behaviors to each other. A lot of social spaces become competitive spaces, rather than community, or spaces of solidarity, because everyone is competing against everyone else. This comes from our individuated notion of being, I suppose.
Ghislaine Leung, Public Sculpture, 2018,Score: A group of toys in the collection of a public library are given a catalog or call number inclusive of the group. The group is loaned and displayed in an exhibition space. Originally commissioned for Reading Library for Reading International 2018 Edition of 3 + 2. Turner Prize 2023 Shortlist Exhibition, Towner Eastbourne, UK, 2023–2024.
Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Maxwell Graham
MA: Your study of philosophy has contributed to the development of your oeuvre. Which thinkers and writers have marked you?
GL: I studied art, fine art in context, which was a course around site specific, environmental, contextual art. When I stopped making art, and started writing, I had a lot of questions about the politics of art, the efficacy of art. One of my big problems when making art is that I could not work out its efficacy.
MA: By this, you mean art’s function within our society.
GL: Yes. Like, I cannot metric its efficacy, and if I cannot metric its efficacy, how can I do it? That is one of the questions I had. I studied aesthetics and art theory at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University, and I think I would not be making art if it had not been for that course. Much of the weight of the possibility of critique, and the politics out of that, is premised on the fact that art cannot have this efficacy, is its indeterminacy, in fact—here is its ability to question. So, that was an entirely different way of thinking than I was considering in art up to that point. All the things I considered as being problematic about art became the most important things, and all the things I considered problematic about who I am——what background I came
from——became politically important. I studied Kant, Hegel, Adorno, Rancière. I studied film theory as well, Jean Rouch, and I love Rivette’s writing. It is all important to me, but at a certain point, I began reading artists' writings a lot more than I was reading theory. Philosophy often uses art as an exemplar, and art often does the same thing—you’ll get a press release, and there will be a whole chunk of philosophy there to validate the art, and I found this problematic about both (laughs). I became far more interested in artists' writing in whatever form, Mary Kelly, Lee Lozano, Yvonne Rainer, Mike Kelley, Hollis Frampton, Per Kirkeby, David Hammons, Jef Geys, as well as so many of my contemporaries. This is writing that isn’t one or the other, it comes out of trying to practice or live out something in the best understanding of theory, which is theoretical, something that cannot be proven, something that isn’t valid yet, and that is what a lot of art practice is, I think. It’s getting into that dirty big unknown which is what making art is. A lot of philosophy lacks social and historical context even if it is historical dialectical materialism. It isn’t historically situated, and it becomes rapidly abstract. Who has access to that history, and how many histories are there, and how is that history constituted, and by whom? There is an incredible text by the British artist Lis Rhodes called "Whose History?" that deals with this. Writers like Audre Lorde, Claudia Rankine, Mary Robison, I hold close to my heart. They remind me of what I need to remember.
MA: I would like to conclude by focusing upon one work. I think your Violets 2 (2018) is terrific. It has its origin in the pipes of a salvaged air-filtering system, carefully removed from a bar adjoining the exhibition space Network Aalst in the Flemish town of Aalst. Bars are places where people gather to drink and engage in conversation—the kind of place where so many artistic ideas were, and are still, hatched. This de-contextualized, once functioning object sheds those social associations in its changing settings. Drinking and smoking are now verboten. Would this work mean the same if we were told that these pipes were removed from a department store, or a shoe factory?
GL: No, I think they would not. Those pipes were removed from that bar because the smoking ban came into play, so no one could smoke in bars anymore. In a way, much in my work is about how to somehow accentuate all these little stipulations that shape how things are. When something is installed in a gallery, say Violets 2, you could say: “Oh, well it could be installed any way. It could be anything,” but it cannot be anything, because of the parameters, of the score, and of the space that it falls into, and those parameters are often shaped by things like fire-exits, walkways—the object is shaped by all sorts of parameters that are institutional parameters. All work is shaped by those parameters; it’s not just my work (laughs). In a way, I am not out to show the object. I am out to let the object show the institution. I am far more interested in how the thing shows those codes, those structures, than I am in showing the thing itself. It’s more that it bends to these other things that it would otherwise be, and are still probably invisible, although they are there. Those are the structures I am trying to move. It’s about highlighting, altering, restructuring those parameters—the parameters it came out of, and the parameters it goes into. There is one rule for one thing, and another rule for another. There is a rule for the ventilation pipes when they were ventilation pipes in a bar, and now there is a different set of rules. What I am interested in is how the movement of one object, or the life of an object, changes through these different sets of rules, and whether it is or isn’t considered of value within different sets of parameters or rules.
When I was thinking about the work, I was also thinking a lot about waste, institutional waste. Institutions burn through a huge amount of stuff when making shows. These are incredibly wasteful projects, which is not seen, but you have these huge budgets, and these massive things that are built, and then dismantled. I had been reading A Living Currency by Pierre Klossowski (La Monnaie Vivante, 1970), which I read five times, and I think I still cannot understand. There was a bit in it that I liked about waste in industry, and how if waste is the thing that is made the most—instead of the product—then perhaps the product is waste. And I thought: “Well, then what can you tell about the waste of something? What does it say about the industry? It’s not about a post-modern juxtaposition of one thing from one place moved into another place. It’s more about what happens when something keeps moving. It isn’t just a site-specific alteration, or a re-contextualization—it’s this thing that keeps moving. It’s the life of an object.
MA: And your dream is to keep it moving from space to space?
GL: Yes, and that’s a very particular thing. I had been thinking of Michael Asher, and Asher’s works always revert. They get done, and then they revert, then you cannot see them. Then, there is the artist John Knight who also works with site-specific installations, but expressed an interest in permanence, the resilience of a work. For me that resilience isn’t in the permanence but the work’s vulnerability, because it is circulating, being carried, dependent, live.
MA: Is all of this documented through photographic means?
GL: Yes. Violet 2 is photographed each time it is installed, and each time it will look different. Life is something that is in motion. It’s not an abstract fixed form. It’s a moving, living, changing thing.
MA: Does the photographic record become part of the work of art?
GL: No. But I am going to be doing a book with the Renaissance Society in Chicago, and I am really thinking about how to deal with that. For many years, I wanted to do something with photographic documentation. There is a text by Mary Kelly called “Re-Viewing Modernist Criticism,” from 1981, and she talks of how the exhibition is understood as a primary form of art, but that art is understood primarily through books and photographic representations. This is even truer today than when she was writing. So, it’s an interesting one: Which is the primary form of experience? How can you think about that? What does that mean? I am really interested in that. Having many different image instantiations, for me, that is about not having an originary form. There is not one right way for something to be, as it keeps changing. It’s also about thinking about how to question the way in which documentation has, or provides, legitimacy, I suppose. That’s something I have been thinking about.
Ghislaine Leung, Holdings, 2024, The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 2024, Photo: Bob.
Score: An object that is no longer an artwork. Courtesy of the Renaissance Society and the artist
MA: Your recontextualization of the pipes of a used but still potentially functioning air-filtering system can be read as an homage to Marcel Duchamp (including his Air de Paris, and EAU & GAZ A TOUS LES ÉTAGES), while your Fountain (2023) takes on a much greater body of art history, at least time-wise, going from antiquity to the present, and including Duchamp’s infamous Fountain readymade of 1917, consisting of a urinal with its bottom section turned up. Violet 2 brings the work of Charlotte Posenenske to mind, as well. How important are these artists to your thinking?
GL: Very important (laughs). I remember being so furious when I first encountered Duchamp as a teenage art student. I remember thinking: Well, that’s it! He has ruined art. Now anything can be art. I now think more and more that ability to question the status and classification of works is crucial. There is a brilliant book by Elena Filipovic called The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp that examines what constitutes the practice. Duchamp did so many things, as well as make some art: The kinds of exhibitions he made, the kind of dealing he did, the notion of the photograph, or the document. Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of Duchamp’s Fountain is arguably more important to the trajectory of that work than the object itself. As I was saying: How dependent is the artwork upon all these other structures, right? What are all the other things that are involved in art production, that are not art production (laughs). I am very interested in that: How they situate the work, and what that context is, and primarily as an artist, yes you can make an art object, but you are also involved in making a discourse, and making a history, and critiquing what history might have been written as. History is live—it is always of the now. It is one of the most contemporary forms in a way, it’s always written now, even if it’s then. There are many things I have taken from these practices.
Posenenske is a tremendously interesting artist. In the way she denied, in the modularity of the work, in how she stopped making work—there are lots and lots of things there. Also, are Duchamp’s readymades, readymades? Most of them are assisted, if anything. Replicas were generated and signed in the Sixties. The things that are no longer things fascinate me. With Posenenske also, it looks like an industrial thing, but those works are completely fabricated. They are not readymades, but they approximate them. These were things that were made, and that she planned to produce on a mass scale. It’s a very different operating system, but certainly, I take a lot from it. There is a Sturtevantinism in me. I am very interested in something that passes for validity, or recognition, within an art historical structure, but then you understand that it isn’t that. There is something (laughs) that I like about that rupture. I very much enjoy that element of surprise, which Sturtevant excels at. I cannot enter the mind of Sturtevant. The same is true with Stanley Brouwn. These are artists I truly love. They are wild. Anything that challenges me like that makes me so joyous. The mind’s incapacity to be able to deal with this is also the feeling of plasticity, and also the feeling that maybe I can think in a different way. That’s a beautiful skill to be able to learn. Those people are huge in my world.
Ghisaline Leung: Holdings
January 20–April 14, 2024
The Renaissance Society
Ghislaine Leung, 0465773005, Cabinet, London, UK, 2021, Installation view, Courtesy of the artist and Maxwell Graham
Ghislaine Leung – ‘We are always holding and being held’ | Tate
Ghislaine Leung was born in 1980 in Stockholm, Sweden. Leung received a BA Fine Art in Context at the University of the West of England in 2002 and a Masters in Aesthetics and Art Theory at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University in 2009. She is represented by Maxwell Graham in NYC.
Michaël Amy is a critic and art historian with a Ph.D. from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. He is a Distinguished Professor of the History of Art in the College of Art and Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, working in Renaissance, Baroque, modern and contemporary art.