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.

Pedro Lasch’s Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction: Part 1

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.

What is Abstract Nationalism? How does it relate to The Phillips Collection?

Abstract Nationalism is a combination of social practice works, traditional art objects (paintings, drawings, sketches) as well as musical compositions. States and nations are very ceremonial; there are all sorts of rituals associated with nationalism. That all becomes the raw material for the artwork. We developed it specifically for the Phillips, though it had been conceived many years before… it’s site specific in a sense. We wanted to do something with both the really beautiful and powerful visual and architectural dimensions of the Phillips—including the Music Room—but also with its proximity to Embassy Row. We wanted to incorporate the music from national anthems, the kinds of fabric flags you see hanging all over Embassy Row, and a contemporary performance dimension for the Phillips.

In my first meeting with Vesela [Sretenović, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art], it became clear that this was an opportunity to do something new, something specific to the Phillips. So this version that is performed, executed, and produced for the Phillips has never been performed or executed anywhere. The inspiration is the Phillips building, its collection, its artwork. It’s also what the Phillips is trying to do with contemporary art on an international level, it’s conversations with Vesela, it’s basically the idea of Washington and what Washington can offer culturally.

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 this performance, we focus on Washington as an internationally recognized site of global power and diplomatic relations. It’s an exchange: sometimes tension, sometimes happy conversation. The idea that one staff member from an embassy in Washington can just walk across the street and work out some agreement with someone from another country’s embassy. That doesn’t happen in New York, except for the United Nations, but culturally it doesn’t happen in New York.

Remember, the title is Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction. Politicians abstract the idea of war, branches of government—these are all abstract constructs. But when you’re in an art context, people think exclusively of abstraction as “Oh, three bands of color” like we see in flags or an Ellsworth Kelly painting. This project aims to make these two types of abstractions inseparable, and to explore the whole range of abstract ideas. And that includes the audience, how we think of audiences and how audiences think of themselves. An extreme abstraction tells you, “I’m an American.” Period. That’s an extreme abstraction, and half of the time, unworkable, too rigid. From that abstraction, you can actually make nicer, more refined abstraction. Say you’re an American who speaks German who studies art history. These are still abstractions, but they create what I think is a nicer abstract painting that makes us all different, yet able to use these abstractions without locking ourselves into rigid forms.

The Space Between Van Gogh’s Repetitions

Gus Heagerty, assistant director at Shakespeare Theatre Company, guest blogs today about the upcoming staged reading of Vincent in Brixton at the Phillips on Jan. 9 at 6 pm.

Berceuse comparison

Left: Vincent van Gogh, Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse), 1889. Oil on canvas, 36 1/2 x 28 5/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of John T. Spaulding; Right: Vincent van Gogh, Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (La Berceuse), 1889. Oil on canvas, 36 1/2 x 29 1/2 in. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago

After visiting the Van Gogh Repetitions exhibition at the Phillips, I am filling in the blanks between each “repetition.” What was happening to Vincent between each pass at a portrait, or landscape? What spurs an artist to return to a figure or subject, over and over? We repeat to practice. We repeat to perfect. Perhaps we repeat because we feel we’ve grasped a greater understanding of the figure or landscape. Our repetitions refine our point of view. What is van Gogh attempting to refine in his repetitions?

Vincent in Brixton

Vincent in Brixton performed at the Old Globe in 2005

The many letters we are left with, and Nicholas Wright’s play Vincent in Brixton, acquaint us with a man straddling hemispheres of choice. At its core, the play imagines Vincent as he defines the difference between living life as an artist, and life as a man lead by his faith.

The play spans three years, each scene taking place around a “big wooden table, functional, and unusual.” Vincent will revisit this table, again and again, throughout the play. There is a force, sometimes known and sometimes unknown to him, drawing him back to the table. What he gathers at the table is the seed of what grows into a magnificent life as an artist.

Gus Heagerty, assistant director at Shakespeare Theatre Company