BY David Everitt Howe in Features | 29 APR 14
Featured in
Issue 163

Everywhere at Once

Ken Okiishi: painting in the age of Instagram

BY David Everitt Howe in Features | 29 APR 14

Visiting New York’s Museum of Modern Art is rather like going to that creepy Madame Tussauds wax museum on 42nd street, or seeing Times Square’s naked strumming cowboy, or visiting anywhere tragically touristy, really. It’s to go where the iPhone – formerly that thing called a point-and-shoot camera – is interlocutor for everything around it, and obsessive picture-taking is the name of the game. People pose beside Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889) or, if they’re art-historically nerdy, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). If you’re Ken Okiishi, you stand before a far quieter painting while you’re waiting to see a film, one like Wood, Wind, No Tuba (1980) by Joan Mitchell, and take a picture like anyone else: a keepsake for your photo archive. Mitchell’s paintings, like Jackson Pollock’s, are very all-over-y, with a bunch of gooey marks going everywhere with little apparent purpose. Okiishi noticed how, as a picture on a tiny, finger-greased screen, it became small and flat; how its ‘screen presence’ contrasted with its ‘live (or material) presence’.1 It was an image that could end up anywhere, really, such that its site specificity had little bearing. It could be Tumblred, Instagrammed, posted on Facebook, liked by a hundred strangers, blogged and re-blogged. It is the be-all and end-all of what David Joselit describes as ‘saturation through mass-circulation – the status of being everywhere at once rather than belonging to a single place – that now produces value for and through images’.2 This kind of auratic breakdown at the hands of smartphone technology prompted Okiishi to inspect what disservice all this digital dissemination does to painting, increasingly subject, as it is, to forms that flatten it more than Clement Greenberg could ever have dreamed.

Until recently, Okiishi was primarily known for his videos re-performing tropes of Hollywood cinema. In (Goodbye to) Manhattan (2010), he asked a range of other artists to restage scenes from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), using the imperfect Google translation of the film’s German script; while for parapluies/paraplyer/‘nobody can tell the why of it’/1857/oslo/2011 (2011) Okiishi asked several local bands and musicians to perform the main theme from Jacques Demy’s musical Les Parapluies des Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) in front of two green screens, in any way they wanted. The artist then edited the video to compress the images and performances.

parapluies/paraplyer/‘nobody can tell the why of it’/1857/oslo/2011, 2011, digital video stills. Courtesy: the artist, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, Pilar Corrias, London, and Mathew, Berlin

Literally conflating painting with screen, Okiishi recently began making Mitchell-like (or Albert Oehlen-like or Robert Motherwell-like – take your pick) brush strokes directly onto flat-screen televisions. This pitched battle between high and low culture is perhaps too literally juxtaposed, though the deadpan humour keeps things in check. What this body of work, gesture/data (2013–14), implies is that painting is clearly losing out to other forms of image-making. Yet, the effect is pretty comedic, as if Okiishi were kicking painting while it were down; and although the brushstrokes are visible on top of the screens – turned vertical to make them less conventionally TV-like – they only partly obscure the images beneath, such that what’s playing on the monitors disturbs the painterly plane constantly. At Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, in March this year, and currently at the Whitney Biennial, where other works from gesture/data are showing, Okiishi’s clusters of monitors compete with each other both visually and sonically, so that they become more a babble of incoherent noise and image than anything else. The clips were taken from home VHS recordings of 1990s and early 2000s TV broadcasts, which were partially taped over by new, digital versions and then transferred to mp4. Mashed together, old and new technologies hardly dovetail. Rather, Okiishi foregrounds the degradation of old vhs footage, such that tones are rendered strangely pink and playback is marked by skittish flickers.

While a few monitors at Reena Spaulings simply played footage of a blue screen, most cycled through Okiishi’s clips, which were seemingly plucked from the very deepest depths of terrible TV, where entertainment goes to die: a debate with John Kerry that no one is likely to have watched; old Chase Bank and Quaker Oats commercials; cable-access footage of a Chinese New Year parade. By painting on the flat screens while the clips played, Okiishi allowed interesting relations to pop up between paint and image. The dialectical setup is, therefore, fleetingly not so bipolar: pinkish brush strokes atop the shirtless, young Chinese men; two capricious blobs of red and blue oil paint hovering above the bed in a vacuum-cleaner commercial; a frenzy of blue marks pooling over a static blue screen – an image of nothing going nowhere fast. These moments are rare, though, and only briefly interrupt how decisively painting has to compete with what’s happening beneath it – or, in a larger sense, with what’s around it; it’s increasingly subservient to greater forces of distribution and dissemination. Painting may be popular, and perhaps always will be, but it’s not atypical for it to be theoretically framed by its obsolescence.

Visitors looking at Ken Okiishi’s commission for Frieze Projects London, 2013. Courtesy: Frieze Projects London; photograph: Polly Braden

 A case in point was Okiishi’s 2013 commission for Frieze Projects London. This took the form of a translucent Perspex room with small canvases hung on the interior walls, in which sat two vaguely anthropomorphic paint guns that could be controlled remotely by viewers. The project was inspired largely by the work of Niki de Saint Phalle, whose Shooting Pictures of the 1960s made a very sexy circus of enacting violence against painting, where ‘painting was the victim’, as she noted at the time. What were the paintings symbolic stand-ins for? ‘Daddy,’ she continued, ‘all men, small men, tall men, big men, fat men, my mother, patriarchy, society.’ As a ‘terrorist of painting’ she struck a sultry figure, posing outdoors in front of rows of spectators, provocatively tousling her blonde hair with her rifle like a charmingly ‘radical’ daughter-next-door. In a way, she was a willing symbol for all the hegemonies she was railing against, her glamorous femme fatale offering both a product and a service to a beguiled, art-hungry public.

Substituting mechanized paint guns for Saint Phalle’s female protagonist, Okiishi wanted to update Shooting Pictures for the 21st century, in which the terms of labour and production have, if not changed entirely, evolved to such an extreme degree that technology plays an ever-greater part in the way capital, and art, are distributed. Looking in from the outside, art fair visitors could, with the push of a button, summon the two guns to life. Dictated by a randomized algorithm, the drones would rise up, pivot, then loudly shoot a burst of paint onto different parts of the wall. It was a violent act, eliciting surprised jumps from viewers at each ear-piercing ‘pop’ of the paint ball. Over time, the interior of the structure came to resemble an abstract expressionist massacre, in which primary colours bled into muddy, ugly brown.

(Goodbye to) Manhattan, 2010, digital video still. Courtesy: the artist, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, Pilar Corrias, London, and Mathew, Berlin

Fielding questions about whether the work was a critique of gun violence and gaming culture, Okiishi instead insisted that he meant to make a spectacle par excellence of painting, one created expressly for iPhone capture. Indeed, clips of visitors going to town on Okiishi’s paint booth proliferated on YouTube. In an interview published in the Frieze London catalogue, Okiishi claimed that, in contrast to Saint Phalle’s model, in which the artist performs for a receptive public, he was ‘thinking through other diagrams of cultural production, [in which] products and services become visible and circulate, and also how desire is calculated in complex, decentralized, real-time ways […] On a technical as well as on a formal level, it’s a piece that is designed to be photographed, posted and reposted rapidly and with great enthusiasm […] These explosions and smears and drips that happen will become very desirable to be photographed, to be videoed, to be sent on Instagram or Vine or whatever.’

This describes a kind of contemporary economy outlined by many, from Gilles Deleuze to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in which Karl Marx’s notion of concrete labour is increasingly abstracted. It has less and less to do with objects, though of course they’re still there, and more to do with immaterial networks of profit, such as social media; the posting of images, the friending of friends; the way the things I regularly shop online for increasingly show up in banner ads on other websites. This private information is seemingly proprietary and autonomous but, really, it’s not. Rather, it structures capital today, wed to our day-to-day living.

Painting, and art in general, is increasingly ‘networked’, as Joselit would term it, though not just institutionally or performatively within the world of art, as he partly theorized it, but in the way it interacts online, far from the museum. Plucked from that rarefied space, it has to compete with other images as one of many, which Okiishi’s gesture/data illustrates handily; compressing the gesture of painting with the data of television – and, by extension, the internet – into one, painting loses its privileged position. It becomes just another byte in the digital ether, one that can be shared and liked at will.

1 Email to the author, March 2014
2 David Joselit, After Art, 2013, Princeton University Press, p. 16

Ken Okiishi is based in New York, USA. Recent solo shows include: Reena Spauling Fine Art, New York (2014); 'List Projects: Ken Okiishi' at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, USA (2013); 'The Very Quick of the Word' at Bard CCS, Annandale on Hudson, USA (2013); and 'Gesture/Data' (2013) at Pilar Corrias, London, UK. His work was also included in the Whitney Biennial (2014).

David Everitt Howe is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn. He is currently Curator/Editor at Pioneer Works and is a contributing editor at BOMB magazine.