The story of a gift. 200 1st Avenue (2014-2016): A film by Conrad Ventur — Yvette Greslé

I gave her a pink bandana. She carried it with her and when the seat of her bike started to tear, she used it to cover the seat. I guess it’s safe to say that Pink Seat is also the story of a gift. 

Rafael Sánchez1

Pink Seat

Someone has shaken a snowdome. This ordinary gesture, the unsettling of imaginary snowflakes, animates objects and spaces visible through the glass, which is filmed close-up. I see an empty bed. Its slightly rumpled cover signals a living presence. Cut flowers are suspended upside down hung up to dry. Windows, their shapes distorted by the perspective offered through the dome, are sources of intense light. Traffic is audible and so are voices but these are distant and vague. A car hoots. Someone moves inside the apartment. Images fade into each other as others appear. The borders assumed between inside and outside and public and private are rendered ambiguous. The public life of the city folds into the private and intimate life of the apartment. I am invited to a window and through it I can see darkened buildings and the golden, mythical intensity of the sun, rising or setting. The edges of the clouds that move slowly across a pale blue sky are luminous. This exterior world is reflected into the apartment before it fades away. On the wall by the window shadows are cast. A faded pink square of fabric hangs there. It moves slightly in the breeze from the open window. This suspended cloth is an artwork titled Pink Seat.

The film I am describing is 200 1st Avenue (2014-2016) by the New York based artist Conrad Ventur. It was filmed in an apartment on 1st avenue, New York City and is 41 minutes, 15 seconds in length. Ventur was invited to stay there by the artist Rafael Sánchez who had shared it with his late partner Kathleen White.2 Sánchez was grieving the loss of White, also an artist, who had passed away from cancer, in September 2014. Ventur was mourning the death, in September 2013, of his friend and collaborator, the 1960s underground film star Mario Montez. For over a year Ventur participated in the process of archiving White’s work and made the film which was shown in his solo exhibition Pink Seat at ROKEBY gallery in London (14 April – 23 June 2016). The exhibition title was derived from an artwork that White and Sánchez made in 2012. White had used a bandana given to her by Sánchez to cover a worn bicycle seat and this ordinary and personal thing was later transformed by the artists into the wall-based work Pink Seat.

The pink patterned bandana was pinned at each corner onto a simple wooden frame.  In a conversation with Ventur, Sánchez recalls how he and White “played a lot with the idea of ‘unpainting’ as [they] made works together”.3 He refers to marks that occur “not on purpose but real nonetheless, complex and filled with energy”.4 And then he offers up a glimpse of his relationship with White; its humour and intimacy: “Pink Seat was done with her bottom”.5 Folds and creases suggest the bandana’s life as a bicycle seat cover. The pink is darker at the edges but faded at the centre where, tied onto the bicycle seat, it was exposed to sunlight and the wearing effects of time.

The idea of the gift is implicit in the film and the private significance of the artist’s collaborative work Pink Seat. There are things I cannot know about this gift. This is to do with the intimacy that existed between Rafael and Kathleen. Ventur enters a space of memory and mourning after White’s passing, and I imagine his film as a gift from one artist to another.

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Fragments

goldin_kathleen-at-the-bowery-bar-nyc_1995
Nan Goldin Kathleen at the Bowery Bar, NYC 1995. © Nan Goldin, Courtesy Matthew Marks’

I

A woman sits at a bar. She is alone, illuminated within a dark ground. The woman stares at something I cannot see. She appears lost in thought and perhaps she looks at nothing in particular, caught in her own interior world. She wears a patterned turquoise dress, low cut, glamorous, her hair glistens in the light, her lips are painted red. One arm leans on the surface of the bar and the elbow of the other rests on it as she holds a cigarette between two fingers. Ash accumulates. At the edge of the world of the photograph I see a glass of something and a candle lit up.

II

Conrad Ventur:  Kathleen dealt with loss for decades. She cared for and helped Steven Alvarez die of AIDS in this very room. And her sister Charlene was killed by a drunk driver. And her dad’s passing just after that also to lung cancer. And then her brother Chris.

Rafael Sánchez: Those losses and internal conflicts never completely went away. And loss slows you down in a way that others have a hard time keeping up with. So she lost a lot of friendships in her grief.

Conrad Ventur and Rafael Sánchez, April 2016, 200 1st Avenue, NYC.6

III

Chris’s suicide of 2007 was unreconcilable. Gripped by the shadow of loss, I spent a year studying the colors in my Ludlow Street courtyard —the wild garden was transformed from a derelict garbage heap by Rafael and myself. Knowing also that the garden would soon be lost to the high rents plaguing our city —as “the lost decade”, “the fear decade”, “the greed decade” turned 9— this physical exploration of color through its endless grinding, its proliferating combinations and intense contact onto the page is at once a stance of grace and defiance against all the world’s insults.

Kathleen White7

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“I have it inside of myself”

Gary Indiana, a New York–based artist and writer, remembers White in an article published in ARTNEWS in 2015.8 He notes that much of her work emerged from personal experiences of loss including family members and friends who passed away from causes related to HIV AIDS. He writes about an occasion where White was invited by Ethan Shoshan to participate in an exhibition titled “Strange Birds” at the Centre for Book Arts: artists were to display “objects that [held] significant personal meaning to them”.9 Indiana narrates that “Kathleen offered nothing as her contribution”.10 She explained that: “Attachment will bite you in the ass, every time…. If you are so attached to some thing that it becomes your identity, what happens when that thing doesn’t exist anymore? The best thing I have is what people have given me, and I have it inside of myself”.11 This stance, which is an ethical one on the human relationship to the material world, and to others, was explored in a collaborative project with Sánchez titled “(set up the) Table Project (break it down)”. Initiated in 2004, and lasting almost a decade, the artists set up an outdoor bookstand nearly every day at 579 Hudson Street, NYC.12 Of the project White said: “By exposing other people to our ‘precious goods’… we’re letting go of them, which gives them back to us, because it creates a dialogue that illuminates things that wouldn’t necessarily have been brought to light if they’d been left on the shelves.”13  This ritual of the “letting go” of the treasured possession is an understated but potentially transformative gesture, an ephemeral intervention into everyday life, producing alternative spaces for social interactions and exchanges, not predictable, of course, but in their ideal incarnations, pleasurable and hopeful. In a sense the Table Project was also a gift from the artists to the people, known and unfamiliar, with whom they shared a city. The exchange of a gift is never simply for the pleasure of the recipient. White’s emphasis on dialogue and the conscious practice of relating to others contributes an important dimension to these kinds of exchanges which are not simply material and which function as a form of resistance, no matter how small, to the logic of capitalism in this century and the decade that she referred to as “the lost decade”, “the fear decade”, “the greed decade”.14

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Dust

As I sit and watch Ventur’s film, repeatedly, first at ROKEBY gallery, and then on my laptop, I feel the emotions and bodily sensations I attach to the working through of grief, in the strange temporality that follows the death of someone loved.  The camera holds still on the corner of the room where Pink Seat hangs on the wall. Passing time is registered in shifts from day to night. A candle glows in the falling darkness and in the buildings outside electric lights are switched on. I hear cars hooting in the street outside as the scene dissolves into darkness. I register the visual and sonic affects of traces and residues. Time passes, the light shifts, seasons change, and I feel the disorientating sensations associated with loss as a form of psychic trauma: where am I in time and where am I in space? Griselda Pollock refers to trauma’s “invisible pressure on psychic life”.15 She articulates how “its work produces affects such as melancholia, anxiety and depression, and in some cases flashbacks that crack the continuity and logic of time with moments of literal intensity”.16 Objects move into the foreground and then they recede and disappear. I notice the sweets wrapped up in translucent plastic on top of the fabric surface of a box containing White’s ashes up against a window. And then, I am returned to the emptiness of the bed. I feel an existential sadness as, through Ventur’s film, I reflect on the objects that remain in the world long after our ashes are scattered or our bodies buried in the ground. For the art historian Michael-Ann Holly, writing of art in other times and places, there is something “profoundly melancholy” in “the sight of old objects that continue to exist materially in the present, but whose once noisy and busy existence has long since been silenced”.17 A record player sits silently, covered with dust. The film’s emphasis on objects and material substances such as dust, faded flowers and candles (specifically those extinguished) are reminiscent of art historical traditions of Memento Mori (“remember you must die”) and Vanitas (reminding us not to become too attached to the material world).18 The stiffened melted wax of a green candle hangs heavily over a piano. The camera asks of me that I stay with this image of the silent piano and the wax as, from a distance, a familiar song plays as if from a distance. A woman sings, as other sounds intrude from the city outside. The song is “On Broadway” which White had sung in her performance work The Spark Between L and D (1987) and described by Gary Indiana as:

a performance in which the artist, dressed as a nurse, after socking herself repeatedly in the head, licking blood off her fingers, and wiping them off with paper towels from a medical bag, proceeds to mummify herself in surgical gauze and tape the extracts from the same bag while singing, in distracted fashion, “On Broadway”. The song becomes muffled and incoherent after she gags herself with a bandage… she has a bag full of interesting, useless palliatives that ultimately reduce her to silence.19

At one point, the camera focuses our gaze on a portrait of White painted by John O’Shaughnessy, a fellow student in art school. White appears to focus inwards, thick brushstrokes mark out her skin and black hair. There is an edge to the portrait, the longer I look the more I see things I hadn’t noticed before, her tongue as she licks her lips. One of her eyes could also be open although this is ambiguous. Clippings of White’s hair blow in a breeze from an unseen source, and is overlaid onto the image of the painting in Ventur’s film. I imagine sites of memory, intimate and private, the corporeality of the hair and the subjective and affective figuring of White’s presence through paint, its colours, marks and textures. The hair, which remains, after the death of the loved one, invokes traditions of memento mori and the relationship between hair, commemoration, and rituals of romantic love and desire.20

It is not that, as I watch the film, I engage in what Jill Bennett calls “crude empathy” for the pain of others and a woman I never knew.21 Bennett’s ethics of empathy invites us to imagine how affect and critical awareness might help us to think of “an empathy grounded not in affinity (feeling for another insofar as we can imagine being that other but on a feeling for another that entails an encounter with something irreducible and different, often inaccessible”.22 In viewing this film, I share in the knowledge that the lives of those I love are transient. The film resists the spectacle of death. It is not a sentimental depiction of grief. It does not figure the body of Kathleen White or the people who loved her. There is no attempt to explain Kathleen or the circumstances of her passing. This is neither biography nor documentary. In Ventur’s film, there is no narrative driven by human figures. There are no characters talking to each other or interacting with each other. I hear someone, perhaps the artist, walking in the apartment. It is through sounds (familiar and less so) and through the significations of objects that I experience the film. It is through sensations of light and passing time that I feel the human relationship to loss. The film asks of me that I spend time with it and that I watch it more than once. It requires time, patience and reflection. In some small way I feel transformed by watching this film. It opens up a space not only for the contemplation of the private loss that is its departure point but also for losses that each of us feel in our own way and within the space-time that is our own biography and history.

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I am no detached observer. My own internal life folds into the world of the film, which invites slow looking, contemplation and multiple viewings. We have all experienced loss in some way and this does not mean that any of you reading this will watch the film as I read it. As I look, I am acutely aware of the emotions and thoughts I project onto what it is I see and hear. I feel as I view this work.  In grappling with writing the image I think of Freudian approaches to mourning and melancholy in art history and the work of Holly who brings these formulations to the act of writing the image:

But when all is said and done, when all the loose ends of the story are tied up, something inevitably appears to be left over. Who has not felt it? What might we call it? The compelling visuality of the work of art resists appropriation by either the cleverness of historical explanations or the eloquence of descriptive language. Something remains; something gets left over.23

Holly posits that as a result of this elusive, irreducible quality art history itself is “fated to suffer from a quiet melancholic malaise”.24 There are irresolvable spaces between things: “The distance between present and past, the gap between words and images can never be closed”.25 For Holly this is, in a Freudian sense, “melancholy” or “unresolved mourning that keeps the wound open”.26 I feel no inclination to fix the meaning of Ventur’s film or its significance. I have no wish to label it, categorise it or explain it. I feel no “melancholic malaise” in not being able to do so. I respond to the film as a work of mourning conscious of itself as a process of working through a loss that is consciously acknowledged. It is not a work of melancholia, of grief that presents as a prolonged, buried wounding. Ventur’s film is a work of memory, a filmic incarnation of the historical Vanitas through which to reflect on transience and the fundamental condition of being human.

There is a moment towards the close of the film where I begin to laugh. The camera leads me from a recurring image of the dead flowers (these hang heavy with thick, stiff, white wax) to a scene outside a window of the apartment. Outside, as I hear loud, uneven sirens, and a repetitive tapping sound from a source I cannot see, a Hello Kitty balloon is caught on a wire, its head nodding absurdly from side to side.

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References

Bennett, J. 2005, Empathic vision: affect, trauma and contemporary art. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Conrad Ventur and Rafael Sánchez in private conversation, April 2016, 200 1st Avenue, NYC (transcription courtesy of the artists and ROKEBY gallery).
Holly, M.A., “Mourning and Method”, “The Art Bulletin”, Vol. 84, No.4 (Dec., 2002), pp. 660-669.

Indiana, G., “Authentic success: Kathleen White 1960-2014”, ARTNEWS, 2 May 2015 http://www.artnews.com/2015/02/05/authentic-success-kathleen-white-1960-2014/ (last accessed 8 September 2016).

Kathleen White: (A) Rake’s Progress (exhibition), http://www.momentaart.org/momenta-art-kathleen-white–(a)-rake-s-progress.html (last accessed 22 July 2016).

On-line resources, Tate http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/v/vanitas (last accessed 8 September 2016).

Pollock, G., 2013. After-affects/after-images: trauma and aesthetic transformation in thevirtual feminist museum. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Notes

1. From a transcribed conversation between Conrad Ventur and Rafael Sánchez, April 2016, 200 1st Avenue, NYC (courtesy of the artists and ROKEBY Gallery).
2. White moved to New York in 1987.  She studied painting at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and her work encompassed painting, sculpture, video and sound. She created sets for the Bolshoi Ballet and prepared costumes and participated with New York City performance legends (including The Lady Bunny, Flloyd and David Dalrymple).
3. From a transcribed conversation between Conrad Ventur and Rafael Sánchez, April 2016, 200 1st Avenue, NYC (courtesy of the artists and ROKEBY gallery).
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. From a transcribed conversation between Conrad Ventur and Rafael Sánchez, April 2016, 200 1st Avenue, NYC (courtesy of the artists and ROKEBY gallery).
7. Kathleen White, from a text accompanying an exhibition titled “Kathleen White: (A) Rake’s Progress” (Momenta Art, August 2014) curated by Sánchez. The show consisted of 71 polymorphichrome drawings made in memory of White’s brother Chris who died in 2007. See: http://www.momentaart.org/momenta-art-kathleen-white–(a)-rake-s-progress.html (last accessed 30 August 2016).
8. Gary Indiana, “Authentic success: Kathleen White 1960-2014”, ARTNEWS, 2 May 2015 http://www.artnews.com/2015/02/05/authentic-success-kathleen-white-1960-2014/ (last accessed 24 August 2016).
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Kathleen White, from a text accompanying an exhibition titled “Kathleen White: (A) Rake’s Progress” (Momenta Art, August 2014) curated by Sánchez. See: http://www.momentaart.org/momenta-art-kathleen-white–(a)-rake-s-progress.html (last accessed 30 August 2016).
15.  Griselda Pollock, 2013. After-affects/after-images: trauma and aesthetic transformation in the virtual feminist museum. Manchester: Manchester University Press,p.3.
16. Ibid., p.3.
17. Michael Ann Holly, “Mourning and Method”, “The Art Bulletin”, Vol.84, No.4 (Dec., 2002), pp. 660-669. Holly sets out to “address the character of the field between: the magnetism that perpetually binds subjects and objects, an exchange enacted under the pall of mourning” (p.660).
18. See for example: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/v/vanitas (last accessed 8 September).
19. Gary Indiana, “Authentic success: Kathleen White 1960-2014”, ARTNEWS, 2 May 2015 http://www.artnews.com/2015/02/05/authentic-success-kathleen-white-1960-2014/ (last accessed 8 September 2016).
20.  For example, see Victorian examples: http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/bodyarts/index.php/body-arts-and-lifecycles/death/119-memorial-hair-jewellery.html (last accessed 17 September 2016).
21. Jill Bennett, 2005, Empathic vision: affect, trauma and contemporary art. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p.10.
22. Ibid.,p.10.
23. Michael Ann Holly, “Mourning and Method”, 2002, p. 661.
24. Ibid., p.661
25. Ibid., p.661
26. Ibid., p.661


Yvette Greslé is a London-based art historian, writer and educator. She has specialised knowledge of South African contemporary art, history and culture; moving image practices in art; the inter-disciplinary theoretical work on memory, trauma, and historiographical perspectives on these fields. Yvette has also foregrounded the art historical work on affect and emotion in her approach to the visual. She is editor at large at minor literature[s]. @yvettegresle