The following interview, between Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, and me, took place on February 2, 2012, in connection with the exhibit Stories the City Tells Itself. To see statements from other exhibitions, click here.
How do you find your subjects?
I’m attracted to moments that are in some sense blank, neutral, empty, and therefore available for projection — the viewer’s and my own. Usually something I’ve half noticed countless times will for some reason start to distinguish itself. Only later do I realize that there might be some connection between the specific moment I’ve selected and what’s going on in my life. For instance, I became interested in people orienting themselves as they emerge from the subway about a year after my father died. As I worked with the footage, I realized that what I was seeing on their faces somehow connected with the grief and disorientation I was experiencing just then. They have a look of vulnerability, tenuousness, searching. This wasn’t something I was conscious of when I started the project, but it’s there. This is not to say the project is about grief. The footage will hopefully mean different things to different people.
Once you’ve chosen the focus of a piece, what goes into making the actual work of art?
Because so much of what I’m interested in is fleeting or overlooked — for instance, people scanning the food at salad bars or old people walking up the stairs of a bus — I find that if the material is not structured with rigor, then the essence of what I’m trying to capture gets lost. Framing becomes especially important; so does rhythm. When I first laid out the cuts of Surfacing next to each other, I felt sure there was just nothing there. The piece had no momentum; the clips felt completely disconnected from each other. But gradually, through hours and hours of editing, a rhythm emerged — a beat, really. I edited to that beat and slowly the clips started to cohere. Often it was a question of shaving just a fraction of a second. I can still hear that beat when I look at the piece.
Some of the work in this exhibition is video, some of it is photography. How do you decide which medium is most appropriate to the work?
On a practical level, some of the moments I want to capture don’t read when the element of time is missing, as it is in a photograph. (Here, I’m oversimplifying the question of time in photography.) Returning to the video of people orienting themselves as they emerge from the subway: the moment I’m documenting becomes completely ambiguous as a still image. I suppose that ambiguity could be interesting, but it was not what I was looking for. Conversely, other material seems to get lost when shown unfolding in time. There’s just too much going on. That was the case with the Missing the Train series, which started out as a video. Video can also sometimes be too familiar, too “real” — there’s not enough remove. This is one of the reasons why I use slow motion in certain projects — to create a break from what we think of as real. For years, I wouldn’t let myself alter the speed of footage, almost for ideological reasons, but now I realize it can create a useful type of abstraction, to give viewers some room to see the material differently.
The New York City subway system is a recurring setting for your work. What is it about the subway that keeps drawing you back?
I love being in the subway. Not always, of course, but a lot of the time. I find it very comforting down there — I feel very tucked in. I like that your choices are limited. Above ground, you’re constantly making lots of decisions, but in the subway, it’s either uptown or downtown, express or local. You don’t get to choose the stops. And I like that the doors open for you, unlike in some European countries where you have to open them yourself. Also, it’s a public space in which people are usually very inwardly focused. They’re having these highly internal experiences in the presence of others, which I find fascinating and rich. Also, I think it’s interesting that your time in the subway is somehow not supposed to count. You’re en route from some place that counts to another place that counts. And I like seeing what people do with that type of time.
The exhibition design is integral to the visitor’s experience of your work. Although it appears minimal, there were a number of careful considerations made in terms of presentation. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Working with Bernhard Blythe, the exhibition designer, I wanted to create an environment that mirrored the city itself. In exhibition contexts, it’s pretty common to see video works isolated from each other, so that there’s no bleed of sound or light between them. That makes sense, but in this show we wanted to open that all up. When you walk into the main gallery, you’re presented with a tumult of sounds and moving images, as you would be on the streets of the city. Starting from there, you can make some choices — you can approach one piece or another, focus on it, spend time with it. There are different “zones” within the space, some more turbulent, some more contemplative. But even in the most contemplative space, there’s always other work within earshot and in your peripheral vision. Just like how even deep in Central Park or Prospect Park you can still hear traffic and see buildings.
Why the dedication?
The show is dedicated to my father partly because I think my interest in art developed out of the time I spent in the workshop he had in our house on Long Island. When I was young, I really thought my dad could build anything, so much so that when I was five or so, I was furious that he kept refusing to build me a time machine to go visit the dinosaurs. He made things from everyday materials — cardboard boxes, a broken mop handle, leftover bits of sponge — and had his own one-of-a-kind, clunky aesthetic, which I think helped shape my own. As for Rosie Kutzer, she was my second cousin and a very loving and influential presence in my life. She had tremendous curiosity, especially about the kind of everyday moments that show up in my work. Her parents and her five siblings died in the Holocaust, and that tragedy was never far from the surface, but she also managed to have a real access to joy. It’s an attitude that’s embodied in the title of one of the early pieces in this show, which I borrowed from a Kenneth Patchen book of poetry: Hallelujah Anyway.
The following text was written for the exhibition The Way Things Go at Lothringer13/Spiegel Kunsthalle in Munich. To see statements from other exhibitions, click here.
The six video, photographic, and sound works in The Way Things Go plumb the dynamics and artifacts of dissolution and loss. Named for a film by artists Fischli & Weiss in which an elaborate "Rube Goldberg" device ingeniously self-destructs, this show emerges from the loss of my father, a creator of his own such devices and a frequent participant in my projects. For more than two years after his death, in May 2007, I found myself unable to make new work. The pieces on view date mostly from the past year, an intensely productive period immediately following that hiatus.
My Father's Camry Filled with Leaves (2009), the first of two photographic projects lining the corridors leading to the main exhibition space, presents a monumental image of my father's workaday, middle-class car extravagantly transfigured by hyper-vivid autumn leaves overflowing from within. Nearby, the stark photo series East Seventh Street Moraine (2009) memorializes the marks left on the wall of the East Village apartment I vacated after nearly 20 years living there. The disparities in form and tone between the two bodies of work — one exuberant and colorful, the other restrained and monochromatic — belie their shared interest in what's left behind after loss, familiar relics transformed and reclaimed.
The Way Things Go (2010), a piece sharing its name with the overall exhibition, takes as its subject the belly button, a vestige from before birth which serves no subsequent function — indeed is technically a scar. A small monitor displays what appears to be a static image of a young man's navel. Over the course of five protracted minutes it transforms into one belonging to a very old man. Perceptible only to those who spend time with the work or happen to revisit it, the metamorphosis is meant to sneak up on visitors, catching them unaware, in much the same way aging itself does.
Surfacing (2010), a video that fills the entire wall of the main Kino space, stitches together images of people emerging from the New York City subway and reconnecting with the urban street. We see hundreds of faces squinting in the light, each unique yet linked to the others by the disorientation and perplexity they register. Ultimately, however, this piece speaks as much to recuperation as it does to bewilderment, as one subject after another finds his or her bearings and walks out of the frame.
Haunting the entire exhibition space is The Oys of My Father (2010), a sound work in which I attempted to recreate the different ways my father uttered that monosyllabic and quintessentially Jewish expression. Conveying a wide range of feeling — surprise, disappointment, pleasure, despair, fatigue, exasperation — the oys come at irregular intervals, often with long expanses of silence between them. The unpredictable timing lends an unsettling and unexpectedly humorous quality to the piece, evoking both my father's presence and his absence.
The show closes with My Father Breathing into a Mirror (2005), the only project produced before his death (but made with his mortality in mind). This one-minute video, whose title describes its content, offers proof of life — breath on the mirror — of someone no longer alive. All representation performs this deception in one way or another. This video makes that illusion central.
All the work in The Way Things Go was, in a sense, crafted from loss. Yet each piece offers something irrefutably present and palpable to those there to attend it. Born from the murky and halting process of grief, this exhibition does not deny lament, but neither does it forswear solace, delight, and transformation.
For another take on the The Way Things Go, here are some extemporaneous words from critic Robert Reid-Pharr:
Neil Goldberg's work alerts us to the perplexity of being alive in a body in a particular place and time. The world is stunningly specific; our vehicle for moving through it is corporeal. Why are we here in this form? We will never be able to answer that, but the artist can catch us enacting the question. Goldberg makes us see how strange it is that we do what we do: eat, breathe, move, wait, feel pleasure, experience surprise, endure disappointment. In each piece, he concentrates his attention — and ours — on the act of attention itself. In the process, the unnoticed surges into focus, registering like the sounds always present in even the most apparently silent spaces — what audio technicians call "room tone." Charmed into noticing the distinctiveness of the most mundane details, we become aware of what Pier Paolo Pasolini called "the stupendous monotony of the mystery."
The main space presents three single-channel video projections. Salad Bar enlarges and slows down footage of people deciding what to eat for lunch. Ten Minutes with X02180-A maintains a steady focus on a lilac bush in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, noting the actions of passersby. My Father Breathing into a Mirror is a roughly life-sized one-minute video whose title defines its content. Each of a different duration, the videos loop unsynchronized so that we never see exactly the same thing twice. That combination of repetitiveness and uniqueness echoes the videos themselves, in which people perform banal actions in idiosyncratic ways. Attention is the subject of all three videos, but it flows differently in each. In Salad Bar, subjects unaware of being observed raptly scan food items that remain out of the frame, giving us the opportunity to watch people think. My Father shows us an elderly man whose execution of the artist's instructions allows us to attend to what is usually the least visible and least observed of life-sustaining acts. Ten Minutes foregrounds flowers as they grab the fleeting, slightly abashed attention of passersby. The emotional palette of the room — poignant, abject, festive, ridiculous, sad — is as complex as getting through the day.
The entrance contains Truck Drivers' Elbows, the exhibit's only conventional photographs, taken by the artist on his bicycle while stopped at red lights. Isolating what normally exists under the radar, these photographs transform a body part into a self-sufficient whole, available for the viewer's projections.
The sounds of a flamenco ensemble pull visitors up the stairs to the landing where Pilar Rioja Dancing in My Studio plays on a 15-inch monitor divided into quadrants. One is empty; each of the other three presents unedited footage shot simultaneously by Goldberg and filmmakers Eva Vives and Peter Sollett. Where Goldberg's other works magnify the unremarkable, this work takes the opposite approach. The larger-than-life performance, ironically offered as the show's smallest piece, transports the renowned flamenco artist to a 300-square foot room on the Lower East Side. Her extraordinary presence there mirrors Goldberg's ongoing use of that ordinary space to create his work, much of it visible on the walls as she performs.
In the penthouse gallery, five video stills comprise part of a series entitled Missing the Train. These lush, monumental prints, evocative in expression and style of Old Master depictions of anguish and religious ecstasy, return us to the exhibit's overarching theme of exalting the mundane. A person races for the train; it pulls away without her: we've all experienced this moment. Culling frames from video footage, Goldberg has found these instants and transformed them into searing, incandescent portraits.
The pieces in Room Tone create a formally pleasurable interplay between sound and silence, motion and stillness, reduction and magnification. An overarching aesthetic of restraint and plenitude, directed at acts that typically go unnoticed, charges us to concentrate on what usually we experience only fleetingly: life's richness, complexity, and persistent underlying strangeness.