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Practicing Wellness: An (Art) Therapy Session with Zachary Cahill
by Joel Kuennen


Chicago, Aug. 2014: Zachary Cahill is an interdisciplinary artist working in Chicago. He is a lecturer at the University of Chicago Department of Visual Arts and Coordinator of the Open Practice Committee. His work was recently included in the 8th Berlin Biennale, curated by Juan A. Gaitán; USSA 2012 Wellness Center: Snow, curated by Abigail Winograd at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and the Smart Museum of Art in a project curated by Sarah Mendelsohn. The Wellness Center is the third installment in Chicago of his project, USSA, which has dominated his practice for the past three years. USSA is an imaginary conflation of ideals and states and it functions as a point from which both or neither can be critiqued. Cahill’s work finds itself more often than not in the organizational structures surrounding the physical objects. This latest installation interrogates practices and states of wellness through the exercise of painting.


USSA 2012 Wellness Center: Snow; Photo by Tom Van Eynde


Joel Kuennen: How are you feeling?

Zachary Cahill: I’m well.

JK: What’s wrong?

ZC: [Laughs, pause] Wow, I don’t know, Joel. I don’t know if I can do this.

JK: Just let yourself go.

ZC: “What is wrong?”

JK: What is wrong today?

ZC: Well, there are many things that are “wrong.” And there always are, insomuch as we are driven by certain desires and frustrations. What one person wants takes away from what someone else might want and on a very basic level we get in each other’s ways. That has always been something that is “wrong.” How we deal with those hungers or how we put those things right or make them align is a constant problem. The litany of things that are bothering me today…[laughs]. It’s a bit depressing.

JK: How do you deal with that frustration?

ZC: Multiple ways. Artwork is certainly one of them. That is a mode of making sense of the world and that friction that comes from the way things are and the way we wish they could be. For me art is those two things coming together.

JK: Is it the externalization that gives you solace or is it the act of trying to externalize whatever angst or anxiety or general feeling that you are trying to process?

ZC: It’s both those things—both doing it then seeing it. I think art is a really innocuous way of dealing with that pressure valve. If the world was actually the way I want it to be, I don’t know if that would be such a good thing. But if I make artwork out of that friction, between how the world is and how I want it to be and then there is that painting or sculpture or performance out in the world—that seems like a really healthy outcome. Perhaps what I’m calling a healthy outcome can model other ways of being in the world, or other ways that the world might be.

JK: The act of painting is reparative.

ZC: Definitely.

JK: The act of exhibiting, destructive?

ZC: I wouldn’t go that far. The act of exhibiting is just another step in that process we were talking about a moment ago. How the way you wish something was meets the world that is. A reality factor comes to bear. It’s not destructive at all; it makes for a fuller experience. In that moment of the studio, working on it, there are so many hopes and wishes for the work. Then it is in the world. There’s a great Robert Frost line from the poem “Mowing”: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” That’s a profound statement. Making studio time is a form of dreaming and then exhibiting is like, “Well, there it is, in the world.” And it’s kind of an actual dream out there, connecting with people. For me, that studio moment is what gets me excited but connecting that dream to reality is essential.

JK: Why painting?

ZC: I started this project, The Wellness Center, about two years ago and I hadn’t painted in over a decade and so it was this conceptual thing. Previously, I was building institutions and thinking about them, how they relate to the materials and media that comprise them. For instance, The Gift Shop had little figurines and such. For Wellness Center, I thought, “painting is an activity that people do at wellness centers.” It’s used frequently in art therapy, certainly not the only form of art practiced in art therapy but painting represented that for me. So I thought, if I am going to do a project about a Wellness Center, I should start painting. I started to enjoy painting. It was allowing me to do a lot of things I didn’t realize I could do.

JK: Why not painting?

ZC: Actually, I don’t know if there is a reason not to paint. Everyone should do it. It’s fun.

JK: Painting certainly has a stigma in contemporary art right now and perhaps its connection to art therapy isn’t helping it.

ZC: Yes, true. I’ve been interested in the assertion: “If it’s therapy, it’s not art.” I don’t know if I’m leveling a critique against that idea but Wellness Center is certainly a response to that notion. On some basic level, art making is a human thing and the human condition being what it is—something between what we want and what is—I make work dealing with that tension. That distinction between amateurs and professionals is market driven. I want this project to push back against that assertion of therapy and art.

JK: Do you think painting still has something to say?

ZC: The more I do it, the more I think so. My practice has involved performance, sculpture, etc., but now I think there is nothing I can’t do with painting. I don’t mean that in a virtuosic way. I just mean that painting is able to address a lot of things I am interested in when making installations, videos, or performances. My guess is that has to do with the status of the image now, which is in a moment of upheaval. We encounter images, live with images in a totally different way. With screens being omnipresent, the image is changing.

JK: How have you accepted being a part of the image environment?

ZC: Painting has helped with that. I have control over the image when painting in a visceral way. I can put things—sensibilities and ideas—that I care about into a painting. I’m sure I could do it with Photoshop but I’m connected to painting in a different way, in a physical way. There is something to having the substance on you. We are getting into this stuff about object-oriented ontology now, which relates to this question of alienation from materiality through technological abstraction of life. One way I deal with that is painting. I’m a messy painter.

JK: Where is the best place to find one’s self?

ZC: There are a lot of different ways to do that and there are a lot of different selves. It’s not a stable category—the self—we keep changing constantly. But for me, I experienced some family losses and illnesses and I came to understand myself in another way. And I think everyone goes through those moments.

JK: How did you experience yourself in another way?

ZC: Well at one point it was a total breakdown of any understanding of who I was. When you lose a loved one like a parent, which was my case, that was such a part of my self that when they were gone I had to reset my understanding of who I was and reorient entirely. Who am I without that connection? Or how does that connection change?

JK: In light of these multiple selves, what about Romanticism attracts you?

ZC: The romantic self in terms of this work is in relation to a confrontation with the sublime, which destroys the subject. It’s a heightened sense of self in that moment of destruction. The Romantic movement was actually very political, though it is usually seen as dreamy and disengaged. I think maybe it’s a dreamy engagement.

JK: Right, it was a radical engagement with society, through a radical engagement with the self. This project highlights a certain friction through using pop-linguistic elements within the otherwise largely symbolic, figural paintings, illustrating a way to view the self when searching for the self.

ZC: There were two exhibitions that happened in Chicago in 2011 during the Soviet Arts Experience extravaganza. Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at the Art Institute of Chicago which were posters made during the war by multiple artists at once, cranking them out. The second one was Vision and Communism at the Smart Museum, with paintings by Viktor Koretsky. He was worked in the Late Soviet period. The effect of his propaganda posters and paintings wasn’t so general as other propaganda posters. The emotional quality got heightened. There was a not-so-great Yahoo! campaign at the time I was thinking about these shows: the You campaign. “You are finding you.” I thought that was so nasty and forthright. We are generating you and guess what, we are finding you. So I thought in terms of an individual subject and propaganda, if the USSA was a state, they would address the individual in this highly emotional way. That quality is what I’ve been aiming for with USSA: reach people very simply but sincerely. I think that’s what Yahoo! was trying to do, probably not successfully. Facebook is an example of where it has worked maybe. They advertise to individuals, making the subject of advertising the self and generating that self at the same time. The relation between propaganda, advertising, and art has been a long running interest of mine.

Zachary Cahill, From the series USSA Wellness Center, 2014, WELIVETHEMAGIC, 2014, Acrylic on wall, 354 x 307 cm, Installation view; Courtesy Zachary Cahill, USSA 2012; Photo: Anders Sune Berg

 

JK: Why draw on a tradition of subject formation idealized through isolation when that no longer seems to be the case? How American society treats depression is indicative of a demonization of the isolated self.

ZC: My interest in Mann’s The Magic Mountain is that it is a microcosm of Europe at that time. The protagonist, Hans Castorp, is coming to grips with his time, caught between two teachers. I don’t know if he finds himself but he comes to a profound realization in the chapter “Snow” where my exhibit borrows its title from. The main character’s epiphany is dashed away at the end with the outbreak of the First World War and that’s the difficult thing about that novel. All this work is done on the self and then it ends with the outbreak the war and you don’t know what happens. The protagonist just goes off.

A lot of my other work, like Orphanage, has been more outward-facing, against stuff happening in the external world and embodying a frustration both in my own life and in the political zeitgeist. USSA has been a taking stock of what had happened in the Bush years and processing the trauma from that recent history. In the art world (and elsewhere), there was a lot of anti-Bush sentiment and I was curious as to how we as a community could process that when everything moves so quickly. Would we just “move on”? That’s how this made sense to me as a retreat.

I was very fortunate to participate in The Retreat, a position of dOCUMENTA(13) at the Banff Centre. It was a residency with a whole host of amazing artists and theorists working through notions of retreat, withdrawal, and recovery. Before going to Banff I had just written what I think of as the founding moment of the Wellness Center, very diaristic, very personal—what I would call later Confessional Poetry Night. Later when I returned from Canada I spoke with a friend and colleague here, William Pope.L, and he mentioned it was like the European tradition of the sanatoria and brought up The Magic Mountain. Thomas Mann, and that book in particular, had been important for me for many years. Putting those things together the conceptual framework all kind of snapped into place for me. I started thinking about that time period and I got very interested in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and that German expressionist moment. Kirchner specifically because he went on a retreat himself and started painting these really beautiful landscapes. I felt like I had discovered this entire treasure trove of work that wasn’t being discussed so much and found it very inspiring.

 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Berggipfel (Mountain Top), 1918; Source: wikimedia commons

 

JK: What do you need to escape?

ZC: I guess I’m trying less to escape now and just find ways of coping. There are certain things I do now to figure out ways to have a little bit of let up in intense moments. We can’t be under emotional and professional stresses constantly. Certainly art is one way and there are others. When I was going through a lot of duress and depression, I was very lucky to have a partner who suggested I see a therapist and I was resistant to that at first, as it had that stigma for me, insomuch as it is seemed an admission that there was something wrong. But at some point that admission was just my reality: there was something wrong. It has been very very helpful and I am very thankful to the people that helped me get through the tougher moments. Just learning basic things to manage stress and finding time to enjoy life. The artwork itself isn’t solely addressing that conversation but mental health isn’t something that should just be swept under the rug. We need to take stock of things, to take care of each other, and take care of ourselves.

JK: What is wellness?

ZC: It’s an approach to health that doesn’t focus on illness. It’s focused on well-being. It’s proactive. Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s book The Soul at Work talks about the situation of cognitive labor and how through the invasiveness of technology into nearly every facet of our lives we are in a sense always at work. Our bodies might not be but are minds are. I remember shortly after 9/11—I was listening to a lot of NPR at the time—I was listening to Colin Powell speak at the UN (or at a press conference) and it was this really alienating experience. We were connected but totally disconnected. The media sphere was feeding us all of this intense stuff but there was no way to interact with it beyond being passive receivers of information. We are exposed to all of this and yet we’re not there and it’s not our job, i.e. most of us have no actual knowledge or expertise on how to deal with these critical situations… those things don’t square and often leave people feeling helpless or hopeless to affect change.

JK: “Be well.”

ZC: Be well!

JK: Walgreen’s got me the first time they said it to me. I responded sincerely, “You be well too!” and then I realized he was required to say it.

ZC: Who is asking us to “be well”? What is the motivation behind it? It can be kind of insidious. Corporations are telling their employees to “be well” but it’s not out of some existential concern or care, but rather a concern for maximizing productivity. We were talking about what we want the world to be but it’s also about who is feeding you the desire for what you want the world to be. It’s complicated. I wanted to root this project in my subjectivity as a response to a Bad at Sports conversation with Claudine Ise about my Gift Shop exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center where she asked: “Where is the artist in this? Is there anything at stake? Is it just a game?” For me, the entirety of the USSA project is very personal but I thought that was interesting question… so I thought for my next project, I wanted to place something very personal and very intense at the center of it and that took the shape of this piece of writing called Confessional Poetry Night on the Smart Museum’s website.

JK: What part of that project did you feel most anxious about?

ZC: People’s names in the writing, people I know and am close to that I talked about. I was thinking about everything that was going on my life; it was more than that, but it was this very diaristic moment and I remember thinking when I wrote it that it was a very intense moment and I didn’t know when I would be back there again. So in a way it was this dramatic snapshot of a moment in time—like taking a picture of a dramatic mountain range. So anyone wanting to know what the heart of the project was: it was that poem. I could be found. It wasn’t just purely semiotic play.

USSA 2012 Wellness Center: Snow; Photo by Tom Van Eynde

 

JK: Once you externalize a moment like that, it ceases to be part of you, rather it ceases to be a motivational angst with how we deal with the outside world. And there is a freedom there, that act of unloading. But there is also a false parity there because we read it as indicative of the person’s subject but really it’s not. It’s a snapshot, as you said.

ZC: Yeah, definitely. I was interested in contextualizing that by putting it in the framework of the Wellness Center. The work can then be very personal but have social implications so that others can connect with it. I don’t know if externalizing takes away from what we call the “soul.” I had this really nice moment with my father during the Berlin Biennale this year. I was working on my mural and he came up to me and was like, “Zach, I get it now. USSA is the best of the two ideals and the Wellness Center is not free, it costs your soul.” And he was right.

JK: Is art practice enough of an engagement to make you happy?

ZC: Yes, it must be. I haven’t become an activist, and maybe that’s a shortcoming, but art is the tool I have to engage the world. Lots of other people do it in probably more productive ways.

JK: Are you satisfied with your level of engagement?

ZC: Sometimes. Images are very powerful and they have a distinct control over people. There is a reason many religions and governments use them to convey their messages. Being involved with art is an important and pliable way to be in the world. Unless I’m just defaulting to the least common denominator of what I’m capable of.

JK: [Laughs]

ZC: There is a power and magic in art making. I don’t know why we make artwork. [Sigh]. The art world is full of amazing people too… so that is immensely satisfying. Art is not completely satisfying. Maybe nothing in the realm of human activity is. Maybe that’s why we call it an art practice… maybe wellness too is a practice.

JK: How are you feeling today?

ZC: Much better [laughs].

 

Joel Kuennen

 

ArtSlant would like to thank Zachary Cahill for his assistance in making this interview possible.





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