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Interview with Richard Höglund
by Trong Gia Nguyen

Richard Höglund is one those young artists you meet, have a beer with, chat about all things impertinent and precious, and leave saying to yourself, "You know what? The art world will be okay." The Paris-based American works diligently on his trade, is charismatic and articulate, yet doesn't always take things too seriously, and definitely will not hesitate to throw a punch if you are behaving like a complete a-hole. If Die Antwoord was leading a 21st century reformation, I would want him on my team.

Richard Höglund grew up in New York and was educated at Northeastern University, Univerzita Karlova in Prague, The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Strasbourg. Awarded the Prix Jeune Création Paris 2006 and several grants from the French government, Richard has been invited as Artist-in-Residence at diverse institutions in France, Iceland, Switzerland, Germany, Bulgaria and the United States.  Recently his work has been exhibited at the Mamco in Geneva and La Spirale in Lyon.

I met Richard in January at LegalArt Miami, where we were both visiting residents. Upon my return to New York, we Skyped about his current solo exhibition Hysterical. Sublime. at Gallery Diet, and all things crooked and level.

TRONG GIA NGUYEN: How did you make your way to Paris, and where are you officially based now?

RICHARD HÖGLUND: Paris was the result of Prague. After studying in Prague, I stopped over in Paris. I hated it, but like all the best things it grew on me over time, and I never stopped going back there. I loved coming home to it, and I loved leaving it. Over the last ten years I have lived in Prague, London, Strasbourg, Sofia, Sion, Geneva, Brittany, Reykjavík… Paris was always the place where I somehow landed in between. And eventually it became home. I earned both of my degrees in France and built my life there. In July of 2011, I was politely refused the right to remain in the country after a long battle over immigration status, specifically concerning their policy regarding artists and employment statutes. I went to Spain for awhile, and Lisbon. I am in Miami now, and have been for almost six months already. I will leave at the end of the month. Now, I suppose as much as ever, I am based in my gray pair of ever-faithful suitcases. It is going to be another interesting year. 

TGN: How do the hysterical and sublime go together?

RH: Both terms describe emotional excess. 

While at times they may be epiphenomena, the Hysterical and the Sublime are different forces with opposed sources: Hysteria exploding out from within, as the Sublime compacts and crushes from without.

"Hysterical Sublime" is a compound that was dished up early on in Frederic Jameson's gargantuan Postmodernism. He uses the term to englobe the idea that Nature is no longer the dominant opposing pole to urban life. The ruined decadence of the modern, both in the city itself and in the mind of those living there has become powerful enough to create the sublime experience. The beauty and the death, the euphoria and the terror, these sentiments are somehow produced within ourselves, within our urban spaces, within our constructed lives.  

The correct punctuation for the show title was Hysterical! Sublime.. , however this punctuation took on every possible permutation at the time of its diffusion. When reading Jameson's text, the juxtaposed terms made me think of an absurd book or film review, and I thought that I would like to see this film. I had been working on different notions of the sublime for awhile, and Jameson's term seems to accurately describe the mutation of this phenomenon in our time-- no longer exclusive to the natural experience more commonly or romantically associated with the sublime.

Both "hysterical" and "sublime" are terms with interesting evolutions in terms of their respective etymologies and use. The polysemy encountered both in their individual & combined use is extraordinarily pertinent to the schizophrenic manifestations of constellative research patterns, and thus, to my work.

TGN: Those outer-pounding, inward-beating forces seem to manifest visually in your video There is a danger of an outcome that neither of us desires, where you are standing between these hulking Serra columns in the distance. There is this conflagration of languages – spoken and unspoken – as you read aloud Brant’s "Ship of Fools." A reckless translation is subtitled… Is there a “danger” you see in language that you also confront in your works?

RH: Brant's ship of fools, in the quixotic English employed in Alexander Barclay's translation/rendition of Pynson's 1509 edition (spelling errors included), is transcribed in the subtitles. The performed text reading is executed in Icelandic. The poem read is Jón Helgason's "Áfangar," the poem from which the Serra piece draws its title. The second overdubbed audio track is in French and concretely asks what the spectator is doing at the moment of lecture, as well as analyzing my act and presence in the video.

The danger that exists in language is that it tends to imply an inherent value or meaning. We attribute so much meaning to things that are communicated within these complex systems that accord comprehensibility to what Mel Bochner calls "the accumulated rubble of thought."

In all of my video performances, I confront different languages carrying different content that collides & confounds. Meaning is created at the intersections of the languages and depends upon the knowledge & background of the spectator as to the amount of initial content being successfully conveyed. Holes, interstitial spaces in the blending landscape of languages are provided to allow for this cultivation of meaning. 

One of the major themes in my work involves research towards a pure exteriorization of the patterns and anti-patterns of internal ruminations. This is why drawing lies at the center of my practice. Drawing has indexical qualities that belie phenomena of the mind more directly than the symbolic, the notational or the iconic qualities that tend to dominate other media. 

Our minds are natural constructions, and function the way nature functions—in chaotic systems with elusive evidence of internal order. We necessarily (necessarily for the sake of being understood) condemn ourselves to communicate thought through language the way in which we communicate an event through photography: choosing, framing, editing, archiving, diffusing. 

TGN: If the chaos and "holes" of language find order in your extruded patterns and drawn lines, then is the desire to always locate order as opposed to replicating or communicating "rubble"? Do you find it difficult or nearly impossible to properly communicate the notion of rubble and chaos?

RH: We have an innate desire to find order, and this is the active catalyst for an interaction with one of my drawings. Two conversations are propagated as I realize a drawing. The first is between myself and the support for the drawing. I do find it difficult to communicate the notion of this rubble. Schematics, intuitive formal play, and rules of scale & perspective impose themselves throughout the production of signs emanating from this rubble. The rubble, however, does not take on meaning at this stage. The signs are empty, or rather emptied. The signs always have a source, and the source is always in another's mediation of the world, be it a text, image, film, etc. The "rubble" is perhaps the ruin following the decadence of interiorizing the labor of another author. The second conversation, thus, between the work itself and the spectator, is tinged with evidence of this initial order, and though the content has been obscured by the processes of being absorbed and understood, the labor and linguistic structures necessary to the existence of the source content are somehow preserved or alluded to; enough of a lead for the spectator to engage with the piece by beginning to localize order and, eventually, to create some kind of meaning.  

Despite whatever difficulties may be encountered by myself or by the spectator, it is within these difficulties and within the research to overcome them that beauty can accidentally bubble up. In the end it is perhaps in this byproduct, in this accident, that meaning may reside. 

TGN: How do you decide on the texts that you perform?

RH: The texts that I choose for any of my projects come from diverse places, but there is no governing principle outside of curiosity. I wanted to be an artist because it would allow me to be curious, and to wonder like a child in a field. I didn't want to be limited to a single line of research, and this practice allows me to grapple outward into the darkness, and to do so in every direction.

TGN: In your current show at Gallery Diet, several graphite drawings mimic in some way their paired landscape photographs. You also chose to use an older film camera for these photographs. Why have you decided to employ "old school" media for this particular body of work as opposed to digital tools and cameras?

RH: I was in Iceland when I threw my last digital camera into the trash. 

I was tired of archiving my life instead of living it. I had seen a photograph in a guide book. On a large mossy rock, four people were interacting with the peculiar moss: two adult men, an adult woman, and a small girl. The men had giant cameras and were framing up the moss with a macro. The woman indicated the moss, pointing her finger. The child had both hands thrust into the moss. If I do not thrust my hands into the moss, what can I know about it ? And then, what kind of art can one make from things that one does not know about? 

Using my older film cameras is a way for me to use photography as a specific tool for a specific project, and to appreciate the alchemy of its function as a substrate upon which to re-present the world. In this project, I needed the patina of the "old school" black-&-white images to trigger a visual reminder of the kinds of images that one might associate with a more nostalgic or romantic notion of the sublime landscape. I wanted to work in and out of the many conceptions of the Sublime, and it is in these photographs that I return to nature. I go there to dig up older (yet ever-pertinent) problems of representing the Sublime, this phenomenon that is by nature unrepresentable.  

As far as drawing techniques are concerned, using mark-making tools held in the hand and used on material surfaces rather than mediated by a machine is extremely important. Drawing is about making marks, and those marks, in order to function as an index for the internal rumination I spoke of earlier, need to be sensitive and responsive. The marks need to be unmediated as much as possible, to be made with the least amount of obstructions between mind, hand, tool, surface.

TGN: For your Endgame performance at Dimensions Variable… You were reading a text from Schopenhauer and it became a match of theory/philosophy against literal, physical endurance – for you and your audience.  Smoke was fuming from a trashcan in the back of the room and we were all gradually getting asphyxiated. I left early. How did you do? Do you ever picture in your mind an ideal audience for one of these durational performances? I, for instance, would pay to see you battle Marina Abramovic and a bunch of hardcore Tibetan monks.

RH: This performance was the first in the Endgame series, in which a physical and imminent situation imposes itself on the spectators (and on myself) during the reading of a theoretical or philosophical text. The question I pose in these performances is "When does art end?", "When does philosophy end?" and I propose that these interactions end when physical urgency usurps the need for intellectual or spiritual fulfillment (I'm going to die, I have to piss, I am frightened or startled, etc.). 

I have always employed techniques to cultivate this situation at the end of my longer, more complex performances. For example, at the performance I did with the Mamco and the Villa Bernasconi in Geneva in 2010, my final discourse was interrupted by the sudden explosion of about 14,000 fireworks of different sizes. 

In the Endgame series, I want to simplify the performances and focus solely on this "match" as you say, developing different strategies to explore this confrontation between the needs of the mind and the needs of the body.

This first effort was much more intense than I had imagined it would have been. It lasted over an hour and a half, and towards the end it became evident that not only had the room filled with dangerous amounts of smoke, but that it was affecting my ability to speak clearly. The text was by Schopenhauer, an excerpt about plants from a book about Will in Nature. The correlations between the adaptations of flora caused by certain adverse conditions and the situation being produced in the room were rather pointed to say the least. 

I felt good about the different reactions occurring among the spectators, and feel that the diversity of responses is very important to preserving the improvisational nature of the performances. For this reason I don't believe that there is an ideal audience. It did become clear that a few of the spectators, being artists themselves, were perhaps predisposed to enter into a competition of endurance—remaining in the space long after it began to become dangerous. One person struggled to remain in the space in order to hear out the text because she didn't know who had written it, and was afraid she would otherwise be unable to hear it in its entirety. I don't know what it would take to get art to end, if but temporarily, for Marina. I'd probably have to knock her out with a shovel. 

TGN: Or maybe have two burning trashcans placed directly under each of her nostrils, as a handicap... Last question: You use a level in all your performances. I relate that object to maintaining some measure, symbolic and literally, of zen equilibrium amidst whatever rocky intellectual or physical terrain you are about to tread. It's simple, utilitarian, and oddly beautiful in the way that you employ it. What is its relevance to your work?

RH: The spirit level acts as a symbol of objective truth. If the table is level on the floor, but the floor is not level, the spirit level will ruthlessly indicate the flaw. It acts as an absolute value. Still, the reading is relative, albeit relative only to gravity. The work that I am making is very much involved with losing & finding meaning, with destroying & creating value. The spirit level represents the spirit itself. It represents the hope of an intrinsic or absolute value that makes living, or perhaps the search for meaning, worthwhile. In this way it also represents death, the ultimate "gravity." The fact that you will die, that I will die, is the only objective truth that I am aware of, and the only absolute value. Everything that we do in our lives must be measured against this absolute. The value of our acts, of the things that we build, is underwritten by this counterweight: by certain death.

TGN: Thanks so much RIchard!

RH: Thank you Trong. This has been invigorating. 

Images: Richard Höglund, still from Endgame No. 1 - Performance No. 7, 2012, courtesy the artist and Dimensions Variable. Richard HöglundVioey, 2011 Silver gelatin print and graphite drawing on arches satine, 62 x 44-1/2 inches, courtesy the artist and Gallery Diet;  Richard Höglund, still from There is a danger of an outcome that neither of us desires, 2011, digital video, soound, 5:49, courtesy the artist and Gallery Diet.

Posted by Trong Gia Nguyen on 2/9/12 | tags: conceptual video-art installation

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