Pedro Lasch’s Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction: Part 3

On October 27, artist Pedro Lasch will premiere his work Abstract Nationalism/National Abstraction: Anthems for Four Voices at The Phillips Collection as part of the International Forum Weekend in Washington. In this audio-visual performance, national anthems of specific countries are sung in the language of the country listed alphabetically after it in the World Almanac.

In a six part blog series, Curatorial Intern Lauren Reuter asks the artist about this work and how it fits into the Phillips, art, and politics. Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

Pedro Lasch rehearsing Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction

Pedro Lasch rehearsing Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction in the Phillips galleries

What has been your experience in creating this project? What has been the response to the project from institutions you’ve connected with?

To me, it’s a bit like Federico Fellini, the Italian filmmaker, once said: “I don’t make a movie so that I can go watch it in the theater. I make it because I love every stage of making the movie.” It’s the process. Of course you still care about the final thing and that’s what people get to see, but for the artist and those involved in the process of making—the staff at the Phillips, people at the embassies—that’s what we enjoy. At least that’s what I think we should enjoy. It’s through our engagement with embassies, cultural institutes, potential partners in DC that we’ve been testing a lot of ideas: Does the work resonate? Do people want to connect with it? The answer to that has been a pretty overwhelming yes. People are into it, they’re ready to engage. That’s great, but then it gets more complicated. Each embassy has different protocols, and some forms of this project literally break those protocols. Some countries have laws that forbid them from doing certain things with their flags and their anthem. So we have been very open about what we’re trying to do and making sure that people don’t misunderstand; there’s humor in the project, but not parody. If an embassy staff person sees it as a parody of their country, it would be a disaster for me. That’s not what it is about. It’s very sensitive stuff, though many people in the art world don’t think it is.

The first thing you have to acknowledge when talking with embassies is that people there are hired to represent their country. And so what we’ve learned from these conversations is that people are ready and interested to engage with this notion of multinationalism and multlingualism. Many representatives of these embassies themselves speak three or four languages. But when it comes to actually presenting the work in the actual embassy itself as a building, things can get complicated. You may have all the cultural [representatives] interested in doing the work, but it can’t happen because they realize that legally you can’t do it, or people worry that someone in the audience will not understand what the work is trying to do. It’s not a big surprise but it is very labor intensive. To me that’s what makes the key difference between a social practice artist or institutional critique artist and a painter who spends most of his production time in the studio and then puts his art on the wall. All these conversations, all these negotiations, all this back and forth—each element is a production of different people. If they weren’t all happening, I would feel like half of the project would be missing.

Contemporary Art Tribute Gallery to Anita Reiner

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Installation view of A Tribute to Anita Reiner

This fall, the Phillips is host to a tribute exhibition in memory of Anita Reiner, one of DC’s most active art collectors. The installation includes works by renowned contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Wangechi Mutu, Robert Mapplethorpe, El Anatsui, Shilpa Gupta, and Shirin Neshat, among others.

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Installation view of Gabriel Orozco’s Common Dream (Sheep) (1996) and Zhang Huan’s Ash Head No. 24 (2007).

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Installation view of Mimmo Paladino’s Vento del mattino (1981) and Wangechi Mutu’s Blackthrone XII (2012).

Pedro Lasch’s Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction: Part 2

On October 27, artist Pedro Lasch will premiere his work Abstract Nationalism/National Abstraction: Anthems for Four Voices at The Phillips Collection as part of the International Forum Weekend in Washington. In this audio-visual performance, national anthems of specific countries are sung in the language of the country listed alphabetically after it in the World Almanac.

In a six part blog series, Curatorial Intern Lauren Reuter asks the artist about this work and how it fits into the Phillips, art, and politics. Read Part 1 here.

How do national symbols play into artistic representation?

I’m interested in promoting multilingualism and a multinational identity and fighting against monolingual and monocultural constructs. I think many of our countries and many of our policymakers, internationally speaking, are still too caught up with the past version of culture where you only speak one language, you only belong to one nation, etc. This work is an attempt to represent the complexity of who we are nowadays.

Pedro Lasch, Schematic Scores, Flag Fusions and Visual Props from Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction (2001/2014)

Pedro Lasch, Schematic Scores, Flag Fusions and Visual Props from Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction (2001/2014)

In the 1990s, I observed a really paradoxical and kind of troubling phenomenon: artists are assumed to be very critical of nationalism. Very few artists would stand and sing the anthem in front of a crowd. In sports, it’s normal. If you represent your national team, you just sing the anthem! Imagine you ask all artists who represent their country to sing the anthem before their show opens. It would be hilarious, right? Half of them would refuse to do it because we don’t like to be pigeon-holed into ethnic or national identities. The nation-state has been the topic of a lot of the most critical artworks in art history.

And so I thought it was really fascinating that while artists still maintain these critical perspectives, they all agree to represent their countries at events like the Venice Biennale. Some countries do have people who are not their national subjects represent their country at a biennial, but that is a small and newly emerging trend. Up until about 10 years ago, when I was coming up with this project, if you wanted to be in any of the international biennials you had to agree to be there because your country chose you. So it was a very bizarre thing to me as an artist. It seemed so out of place, like we’re working with cultural constructs that don’t really match how we operate. And of course as artists, we want to say, well no that’s not how it really is, you were chosen because you were a good artist.

I wanted to do work that was able to confront these contradictions, and so as I was thinking of the cultural complexity of nationalism, I realized that the anthem is actually the deepest-entrenched national symbol or cultural construct. The moment you hear your anthem, something happens in your head. I think it’s even more powerful than seeing a flag. We may be critical of it, but it’s still there. And I think it has to do with childhood; we were taught these things, we were asked to sing them. I am fascinated by the historical use of flags and anthems and the kind of deep sentimental attachment they can create toward the nation-state. That’s another reason for me to propose this multilingual, multinational performance: it becomes harder to create totalitarian structures when you have people actually considering themselves a mixture of specific things.