Whitney Biennial 2014: Ei Arakawa

May 20, 2014

For the run of the exhibition, SVA Close Up is highlighting members of the SVA community selected for the 2014 Whitney Biennial (March 7 – May 25). This is the seventh installment in the series.

Ei Arakawa (BFA 2004 Fine Arts) is no stranger to collaboration. For his 2007 piece BYOF – Bring Your Own Flowers, he and several participants interpreted Amy Sillman’s (BFA 1979 Fine Arts) paintings through movement, and in 2012 he performed All United Brothers, a collaboration with his brother (who owns a tanning salon in Fukushima), which addressed Japan’s nuclear crisis. So it is no surprise that Arakawa paired with artist Carissa Rodriguez for his participation in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. SVA Close Up chatted with him via email about collaboration, performance and the Biennial.

Arakawa1What was it like working with another artist for the Biennial? What draws you to collaborative work?
I had an idea to do something on Hawaii in the early stage of production. Inviting Carissa to this project was great because first, we have multiple perspectives and opinions on the subject, so the work is more like a platform than a singular point. And second, because we can diffuse and redirect the unnecessary attention that comes along with participating in this kind of career-boosting show.

What draws you to performance?
I like performance that deals with presentation and non-presentation of the self. I didn’t know anything about contemporary art when I started to perform as a junior high school student.

How did your time at SVA influence your artistic development?
I was an international student. The undergraduate program at SVA introduced me to everything. Peter Heinemann (Former BFA Fine Arts faculty member) convinced me to pursue Fine Arts instead of Design or Cartooning. Jan Avgikos‘s (BFA Fine Arts and MFA Photography, Video and Related Media faculty member) 19th century history class was so engaging that I asked her if I could audit her senior seminar class on Documenta XI while I was in my third year. I started a performance project in Jutta Koether‘s (former BFA Fine Arts faculty member) painting class, and so on.

Your Biennial installation is prolific in its references: island culture, fashion, Hawaii, Manhattan, tourism, imperialism, World War II and Ellsworth Kelly, to name a few. If there is one word to describe what you hope visitors will walk away with after experiencing your installation, what is it?
I can’t answer in one word. The installation is prolific and complicated, especially because it is made by two individuals. We can only hope the audience will want to know even more about our work. We wanted to have a Pacific Islander presence within an American show.

Arakawa2The description of your work on the Whitney site suggests that you and Rodriguez are “Playing with clichéd tropical island fantasies of the good life, alternative ‘off-the-grid’ lifestyles, notions of paradise as a war zone, and the phenomenon of continental drift,” and that your installation “assembles a loose-knit grouping of objects to create an arena for informal performances.” Does your work comment on a tension between fantasy and reality? If so, how?
We often fantasize about something and then find that our fantasy contradicts it. I invited a New York-based hula dance group for the May 11 performance, and asked them to perform very traditional choreography. I’ve been learning some of those dances over the past few months so I could dance with them. The dance goes beyond the idea of a “welcoming” aloha state. It is more harsh, awkward in a positive sense, and linguistic.

What are three of your favorite works in this year’s Biennial (besides your own)?
Sergei Tcherepnin‘s sound for the lobby is different each time I hear it. It would be nice to stay in the lobby for the entirety of the museum’s open hours. I also like the Tony Greene room, Amy Sillman and Pam Lins’s collaboration, and Ken Lum’s piece, among others.

Images: Installation view of Hawaiian Presence (Kauai), Hawaiian Presence (Hawaii), and Hawaiian Presence (Manhattan) by Ei Arakawa and Limbs of the Pacific (TTC) by Carissa Rodriguez. Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 7- May 25, 2014. Kauai: Collection of the artist; courtesy Overduin & Co., Los Angeles. Hawaii: Collection of the artist; courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo. Manhattan: Collection of the artist; courtesy Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York. Limbs of the Pacific: Collection of the artist; courtesy Karma International, Zurich. Photographs by Bill Orcutt.



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