An Interview with Derek Brunen
Derek Brunen’s fascinating multi-disciplinary practice explores ontological questions with wit and humour. Creating installations, sculpture, drawings, paintings and performative video, his work slyly questions consciousness and awareness, our relationship to fate, and searches for meaning – but ultimately offers an affirmation of our existence. Pushing physical, temporal and societal boundaries with his performances, Derek causes us to query the limits imposed upon us (both internal and external) that we may not even be aware of. Having received his MFA from the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam in 2010, Derek is currently based in Vancouver where he teaches at Emily Carr University. His work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver and Or Gallery, Vancouver and will be included in an upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in 2013. Derek very generously shared some insight into the questions his work investigates:
Here and Elsewhere: Your work plays with sight and vision. For example in Blind, 2007, you covered the windows of the Contemporary Art Gallery with curtains obscuring the view, in Home From Work, 2011, you walked home many blocks with your eyes closed, and Problems 1 and 2 is an image of the back of your retina. Can you discuss the way you use sight and vision in your work?
Derek Brunen: I’ve been using vision as a metaphor for consciousness, not so much to talk about what we are able to see or comprehend, but more for what we are unable to perceive. I’m more interested in the opposite of sight (i.e. blindness), as a means to explore the complex relationship between knowledge and belief, and to begin a discussion about unconsciousness and other, less empirical forms of awareness. I’m most interested in what we can’t know or control, how we relate to it, and how that relationship conditions our experience as subjects. I think that the Western model of consciousness (and its imperative to “grasp” everything) is deeply problematic in terms of how it constitutes us as subjects, which of course, also has the most fundamental effects on how we relate to the world.
I believe that each thing in its present being, including ourselves, is quite literally connected to a past and a future; that the present is actually a contraction in time. Key questions for me are therefore: what is possible to know about an object, image or individual? How do we access the wealth of memories and possibilities that compose a given subject or object? With Problems 1 and 2, I wanted to raise these questions by playing on the cliché of eyes being “windows to the soul.” In my mind, eyes are the most opaque objects because they absorb so much of our experience, which is incredibly complex, yet they reveal so little. They’re thresholds into another universe. I decided to accelerate this to its most logical end, in order to engage the vast difference between what we imagine we know about someone or their experience, and what is actually shown.
I’m curious about appearance in general, how something becomes visible, how or when it’s recognized as coming into existence. With Blind, I was interested in what might be revealed or produced through a gesture of concealment. While nothing is in fact disclosed about the gallery (or the exhibition inside) in these two installations, the gesture of concealment challenges assumptions about what the space actually is, while introducing a curiosity in the mind of the passerby about what is behind the curtains. Covering or occluding a space or an object produces the sense that something lies behind the surface: a history, a constitution, a meaning.
HE: The idea of concealment as revelatory is an interesting one – it opens up possibilities for meaning as you say. So, could sight and looking be considered ways to confirm consciousness or existence itself in your work?
DB: The work, The Other Side of Nothing, is a good example of revealing something while at the same time concealing it. I wanted this work to be an act of affirmation, to function as a representation of its own process. I was hoping this painting might operate as a “painting of an image of its own making”, a bit like Morris’ famous sculpture. I feel the work effectively does this by proclaiming the “givenness” of the very ground on which it’s created.
It could be argued that chance is the ground of Being, yet I feel we spend much of our lives trying to avoid it. I see this relationship severely limiting our experience of the world. So, for some time, I’ve been occupied with the problem of how to affirm events that take place in our lives over which we have no control. I’ve been using the idea of sight as an allegory or metaphor to approach this problem, however my investment has been more in its potential to speak about our lack of foresight in relation to fate or chance. In Home From Work for example, I wanted an absence of sight (walking home with my eyes closed) to stand-in for our relationship to chance, which could be described as one of metaphysical blindness.
Using myself as the primary case study in most of my work, I would say that the theme of looking has come to represent my search for a sense to the world; a search for meaning. My hope is that this more recent body of work suggests a belief in the world. Granted, this is a difficult position to occupy given our current state of affairs, but this is precisely why I think it’s necessary.
HE: There’s a strong sense of irony in works like Dead Drive, 2006-2011 in which you have created a memorial to your defunct hard drive, and The Right Hand, 2010-ongoing, which consists of a collection of found left-handed gloves and one right-handed glove which seems unable to find its match. How do you use humour or irony in your practice?
DB: I think I prefer to view these works more as humorous, rather than ironic. I believe there’s a critical distinction to be made between irony and humour. My understanding of irony is that it says one thing while meaning another, most often the opposite. Humour, on the other hand, actually says what it means, and in this sense is more honest or sincere. In my understanding of it, humour operates by juxtaposing the logical consequences of a given situation with its present conditions; it accelerates or doubles the situation, giving us more than we expect. Dead Drive is maybe a good example of this because it memorializes a dead hard drive, which is already in effect a memorial for the lost data: it’s actually a tomb for a tomb. Again, this work also speaks to the opacity of an object (the lost data sealed forever behind the surface of the drive), but I also wanted to affirm this loss in some way, and I believe that humour and affirmation share a similar structure of doubling.
I also believe that humour has the potential to incarnate something of the infinite within the finite. With The Right Hand I am interested in how, when you ask the world for something, it inevitably returns an answer – but this answer can sometimes be truly excessive. Having lost the left hand from my favorite pair of gloves, I was left with the single right hand. Soon after discovering this loss, I began to find left-handed gloves everywhere, none of them matching. Maybe there’s a logical explanation behind the fact that the left hand always seems to be the glove that goes missing (or the one that is always found), however I prefer to believe that the world has a very well-developed sense of humour.
HE: In works such as Plot, 2007 in which you dig your own grave for more than six hours and Home from Work, 2011, in which you navigate the urban landscape with your eyes shut, you push your physical and psychological limits – is endurance or testing your boundaries an important aspect of your performative work?
DB: This may be a subtle distinction, but I think I’m most interested in exploring the temporal limits of a given individual, object or action, rather than their physical limits within space. I believe there are definitive points or moments when something can be said to come into existence, but also when it ceases to exist (at least we need to think and speak this way to be capable of action). Is it possible, for example, to imagine (or capture an image of) the life or duration of something in its entirety? At what point or moment can it be said that a subject is no longer itself? Also, is it possible for a subject to transform itself? These are age-old questions of course, but I think that in order to gain any kind of understanding of a given subject, or subjectivity in general, a comprehension of duration is integral.
HE: With Community Service, you documented yourself collecting trash in Rotterdam and sent this video to the Winnipeg Police Department along with a letter explaining you had performed this task hoping to be discharged from a previous offense. With your work are you testing societal limits and cultural values?
DB: Yes, or at least this is something I would like the work to do more of in the future. An exciting question for me is what will the world allow me to do? By this, I mean what are the public spaces (or even disciplines) in which we might perform? And, what are the actions we can perform, that in principle anyone could perform, and which are technically not illegal, but that call into question systems of value, specific laws, or rules of accepted behaviour? For example: are there laws or common perceptions against digging one’s own grave? Can I legally document my own court-imposed community service? These are extra-legal spaces and they exist in every situation we encounter, anywhere there is a dominant system of values in place. I believe this is an interesting space to work in because it’s here that critical questions regarding our behaviour as a society can come to light.
HE: Would you be able to tell us a bit about your influences – artistic or otherwise? What work are you looking at now that you find interesting?
DB: It’s difficult for me to speak about specific artists that have influenced me, as there have been so many and their effect on my practice has been so varied. I also think that in order to be inspired by a particular way of thinking or working, you already need to be receptive to it, so pinpointing where the influence actually occurred becomes a rather fuzzy question. I do recognize specific works however, that at one time changed or affirmed the way I was thinking about art. Halcion Sleep by Rodney Graham, for example, raised productive questions for me regarding the possible function of the document in art. Re-enactments, by Francis Alÿs, alerted me to the potentialities within public space, while also making me aware of the importance of taking risks. Sawing, Bas Jan Ader’s photographic triptych, also illustrated to me how a diagrammatic approach could problematize representation.
Nancy Holt’s video, Revolve, an interview with Vancouver artist and filmmaker, Dennis Wheeler, after he had been diagnosed with leukemia, deeply affected me as I found myself identifying, to an uncanny degree, with Wheeler’s ruminations on life, art and death. Holt’s sensitive treatment of the material was also very instructive for me. Shot from several angles, Holt cuts between these perspectives in the editing process, often backing up in time between shots. This technique effectively produces a sort of fragmented, stuttering sense of time and space, which directly reflects Wheeler’s perception as he describes it in the interview. Striking a precise balance between form and content, Revolve was another valuable example for me of how a document can successfully operate within an art context.
Cinema in general has always interested me, but right now I’m specifically looking at documentaries that are pushing the format in some way, like Eric Baudelaire’s The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, or Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, as well as more mainstream films, like Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador. I’m interested in films that play this line between fiction and documentary, but what seems most important to me right now is that there’s an element of risk involved in the work, that there’s something clearly at stake for the artist or filmmaker.
Honestly, I feel that I’ve had a pretty diverse range of influences throughout my life, and art has been but one of these. I spent a lot of time growing up on my grandparent’s farm with my extended family, which included three uncles. These uncles would often play with language as a way to amuse themselves, intentionally mispronouncing words, shifting the stress to an incorrect syllable, or sometimes inserting large words inappropriately into a sentence. It was like a competition to see who could make themselves sound the dumbest, but what they were actually playing with was their own stereotype as rural, uneducated farmers, supposedly unaware of the proper conventions of common speech. In this game, my uncles taught me about the plasticity of language, but also the subversive power of humour.
HE: Thanks so much Derek for sharing those thoughts with us!