Artslant's New York editor caught up with the ever multifariously active Pablo Helguera, whose exhibition The Seven Bridges of Königsberg at the newly minted Forever & Today is up through November 8th, 2008.
Trong Gia Nguyen: The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, your current exhibition at Forever & Today, refers to an 18th century mathematical problem that has no solution. You manifest this via a fortune-telling card game in which you interact one on one with the viewer-participant. Is what you tell them based on this notion that there is neither negation nor an "answer" but rather only subjective interpretation, and the substantive experience of the paths we choose ourselves?
Collector Tip #4 from Pablo Helguera's Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2005); Courtesy of the artist
Pablo Helguera: Most divination systems in their traditional interpretation don't claim to provide answers but to help articulate questions, and this card system I have devised is no exception to that rule.
The Seven Bridges of Königsberg is a card system with a similar structure to the typical Tarot reading, although it has entirely different imagery and rules, starting with the “theme” of the deck. When devising the system, I was looking for a foundational myth or story, although one that instead of being a new-agey one (e.g. “the secrets of Horus”, etc) I wanted it to be a secular, scientific one. The story of The Seven Bridges of Königsberg seemed fitting. It circles around a famous theorem created by Euler to prove that it was impossible to cross the seven bridges of the city in an uninterrupted path. Euler's theorem founded graph theory, which is the foundation of computer networks. So you can say that this is a system inspired not so much on esoteric ideas than on modern topology. The fact that Kant (our collective aesthetic father, if you may) was born in Königsberg and in fact never left the city in his lifetime and was famously a stroller, helped complete the story for me.
So we are there at the gallery every day reading the cards (we charge $1 per reading). Lots of people from all walks of life enter the space, and we are extremely busy most of the day. We've had a retired Pentagon officer, a numerologist, a tourist from Virginia, a German copy writer, a Russian spiritist, an old Chinese woman fruitseller, and even the horoscope writer from the New York Post coming to get readings. For the most part they are enormously grateful at the end about what they discover.
TGN: Your performances and projects have taken you far and wide, including the School for Panamerican Unrest, a 25000 mile road trip from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego. Do you consider yourself a type of Richard Branson for the art world? Did that project qualify you for the Explorer's Club?
PH: The only difference between Richard Branson and me is a few hundred billion dollars and an ability of obsessive self-promotion that somehow I completely lack. Guiness showed some interest in my trip, but it was too complicated to fly one of their writers to Anchorage and then to Tierra del Fuego to corroborate the facts of my trip. So, I don't think I qualify for an Explorer's Club or to be a National Geographic writer, but maybe I would qualify for The Artists Who Do Incredibly Cumbersome and Unwieldy Things for Dubious Reasons Club.
TGN: In cautionary political times such as these, what is the most radical thing one can do as a socio-politically-conscious artist?
PH: We need to operate in a way where we are actively engaging in the public and helping influence public opinion, but we should be careful not to fall into dogmatism and being overly preachy, didactic or self-righteous about what we do. Some political art today seems to me overly opportunistic, and more concerned with how it will look on the pages of Artforum than how it will truly affect the average audience member. We also tend to suffer from a kind of intolerant liberalism that, while tempting, results in alienating a lot of people, aside to the fact that this attitude tends to produce pretty lousy art, by the way.
TGN: By day you work as the academic programs director at MoMA. How has this figured into your performance works dealing with education and pedagogy?
PH: I started working in museums when I was an art student, first in order to make a living, since my work has never precisely been the commercial type. But then something interesting happened: working in a museum started helping me to work better with others, with the public, to understand the mechanics of communication and perception. Everything I do as an artist tries to explore those mechanisms in different ways. I find art education rather liberating: it helps me to focus on others and not obsess too much about myself. An artist's ego is something rather dangerous.
TGN: Have you updated the Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style to apply to the current recession?
PH: I think I will hold off on an update for now. See, the book is an etiquette manual for those who want to socially escalate successfully into the high spheres of privilege in the art world. But since the whole economy is collapsing, there may soon be nowhere to escalate to. Looks like we will have no choice but to return to a more primitive stage of art making, without too many art consultants and art primadonnas. Nonetheless, I am launching a new book in December entitled Artoons - it is a collection of cartoons about the artworld in the style of the New Yorker that I have been doing this year. They are not appropriate for the general public.
TGN: What's on your agenda for the post-Bush era? How will you celebrate?
PH: I am starting to develop the feeling that this presidential campaign has been going longer than the Bush presidency, which is not a good sign. I am very hopeful, and I think the coming months of an Obama presidency and a New Depression will bring us a renewed sense of purpose, as well an art world more focused on the art and less on the vernissages. But for the time being, on November 5th I will take an intellectual vacation- no more politics for a while. I think I will go back to rehearse opera.
Your Shows Suck from Artoons (2008); Courtesy of the artist
ArtSlant would like to thank Pablo Helguera for his assistance in making this interview possible.
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