Pedro Lasch’s Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction: Part 5

Today artist Pedro Lasch premiered 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 herePart 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

How do you envision the project’s relationship with this audience? What do you want your audience to come away with?

I try to make work that is for a wide range of ages and backgrounds. The range is really important to me and the work is designed to do that. And that full range for me also includes the unsuspecting audience member who came either to the International Forum event or came to the Phillips that day and encounters the work; they stumble upon the work and don’t know what the background is. It may be someone who works at the embassies and came to the Phillips, or someone who may have absolutely no interest in national culture or nationalism.

Performance of Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction

Performance of Pedro Lasch’s Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction Composition No. 20 and 46 in The Phillips Collection Music Room

But with this project, the raw materials of national symbols and songs are materials that most of the people of the world, on this planet, have to care about. We don’t have a choice. Whether you like it or not, you had to at one point come to terms with being associated with your flag and anthem. When you encounter something that uses a flag, whether it’s a Jasper Johns artwork or an ad on TV, you have a connection with it. Hopefully that connection will let us bring in all kinds of audiences that don’t usually engage with social practice work or with the Phillips, necessarily. But it should also open up people who may be used to visiting the Phillips only to see modern art, or in the case of the International Forum, a conference. This may become the first social practice artwork they are a part of. That’s really the beauty of it, and that’s why I make the art. It’s not that I just enjoy the process, but that I don’t know the answers. To me, the response of a kid who speaks Spanish at home and can sing the US national anthem for the first time in this language is as important as a scholar of contemporary art practice who may hate anthems and flags and be very uncomfortable by the whole situation.

Pedro Lasch’s Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction: Part 4

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, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

How do you draw the line between different styles of art? Where do you think your work “belongs,” in the traditional sense? How does it fit into the Phillips’s mission of the “experiment station,” which you discussed with Vesela [Sretenović, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art]?

I’ve never believed in the separations that, to me, seem like artificial constructs of artistic labels like “contemporary.” Half the time, these labels aren’t helpful. I love the idea of the “experiment station,” and I’m completely in agreement with it. That’s what we’re trying to do: we’re experimenting at the Phillips together, collectively, and with the audience, with different fields of the arts. The separations I am referring to between modern, contemporary, historical, European, non-European—these have been produced for practical purposes, but then people forget to see their limitations.

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)

While I know the Phillips focuses on collecting and showing “modern art,” as a contemporary artist I don’t separate myself from modernism and modernity. In general, I try very hard to make work that doesn’t allow people to maintain these divides, just like the Phillips project doesn’t allow people to maintain rigid separations between nations and languages.

Working in the Phillips is a fantastic opportunity to highlight the complexity of history and of how artists work with history. I think the reason Vesela pointed out the “experiment station” is that she also doesn’t see this neat separation between modern, post-modern, and contemporary. And that’s part of what she and others are doing at the Phillips: stressing the contemporary and how alive many of these things are. Art is made alive by keeping a certain engagement with it. In the case of programs like the Intersections contemporary art series, it’s by setting up dialogues with artists who are alive. But in other cases it’s by simply pressing the idea of the ongoing experiment, returning to the moment when a space was conceived and thinking about how that moment and meaning has changed over time.

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.