This interview took place at California College of the Arts in San Francisco on March 12, 2010. The podcast of the conversation can be heard on Bad At Sports: Episode 239.
Patricia Maloney: Mads and I ran into each other in New York at the opening at the New Museum for “Skin Fruit,” which is Jeff Koon’s curatorial foray into the contemporary art collection of Dakis Joannou, who is a trustee of the museum. So there was a bit of controversy over an artist curating a collection of which he is a part for a trustee of the museum where it is shown. But for me the most interesting part of the exhibition was your wife Cally’s observation during our conversation that we were standing next to Michael Stipe and the Edge.
Mads Lynnerup: And Cyndi Lauper.
PM: And Cyndi Lauper! Yes, that overrode other aspects of the exhibition for me.
ML: Yeah, definitely, that was a good highlight. They all seemed to be friends, which is really funny, I never would have guessed. I don’t know if you noticed, but at one point, they all seemed to have a powwow.
PM: Yes, and so casually. It was just an extrapolation of any conversation you see people having in a gallery—standing in the middle of the room, sort of ignoring the art, but it just happened to be three major music icons.
ML: And from a really specific time period, too. A friend of mine told me that while they were waiting in the lobby Cyndi Lauper came out of the door and said, “That was awesome!” I thought it was a really funny situation. It felt like an exhibition that should be at the MoMA, as it’s all this artwork that I have already seen in art books and magazines. It was fascinating to see it all in person, but felt like just another art exhibition to me. But she obviously had a good time watching it, so I enjoyed that a rock star would be interested seeing an art exhibition.
PM: I think you’ve raised a good point. I sometimes forget about my familiarity with works of art, in comparison to what someone who hasn’t encountered these works before might think about them and how they might respond to them. Especially in that exhibition, it did feel very much like what we were looking at wasn’t any real sort of investigation into a collector’s taste or the particular intentions of the work, but just a group of iconic works by artists of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century.
ML: It definitely had that. It was also evident in the laying out of the show that some of the artists had big egos and wanted to have the entire floor to themselves, because that is what the piece they were including really needed. Ironically enough, the New Museum is not big enough for that kind of approach.
I know you are the interviewer, but I have a question for you.
PM: Yes, of course.
ML: I have been making art for a while now, and I feel that when I saw art exhibitions in the past I would be reminded about why I have to make art. I wonder if you ever lose some of that excitement about art, or if you think it’s amazing every time?
PM: No, certainly not every time. I think there is always enough that I find that keeps me invested in what I am doing and keeps me thinking about what I am doing. The conversations that I have with artists and writers are really where I get my energy from. There are moments—especially this past week going through the Armory Show—where you become really immune to what you are seeing. How do you cleanse your visual palate so that you can see things fresh again? I think that can be difficult to do, but there were a couple of moments in my trip last week that had that sense of, “This is why I do what I do. This is why I love art.”
One was actually at the Armory in Yvon Lambert Gallery’s booth. It was this easily overlooked installation by Zilvinas Kempinas entitled Serpentine, which was just these strips of magnetic tape held aloft by a fan blowing on them. They did this little dance in the corner and I was fascinated by it. Even though your were in this white-walled space, you look up and there were all of these wires dangling on the ceiling, so suddenly it became this spatial experience as well. It was something that I allowed myself to be mesmerized by for a moment.
ML: I noticed that piece too, and it was such a casual thing, but I thought it stuck out, because it wasn’t a painting on the wall or a sculpture on a pedestal, but casually placed on the floor with a notion of the space in general. It is interesting that you mentioned that piece, because it got to me.
PM: Have you been to the Guggenheim to see the Tino Sehgal?
ML: I was there when they had just put up the show and was part of the practice runs. I think everyone’s experience is different—I was greeted by this really cute, nerdy schoolboy with glasses, and I think he was even in a little suit. He asked me, “How do you define progress?” I was just floored by the fact that this young kid was asking me a question like that. He led me to this corner of the spiral and wanted me to give an example. I found it really funny because I don’t necessarily speak to kids of that age, so I didn’t really know how difficult my example should be, and at the same time it’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about in general. That part was awesome.
Seeing the museum without any art in it was so great. I feel like that museum—the building itself—is enough, in a really formal way. It’s a cool building; it has a lot of weird details you get to see when there aren’t any benches or text in the space.
But I feel I finally got a sense of the power of his work. And the idea of not leaving anything behind; there’s something great about that.
PM: Have you thought at all about what impact this installation might have on perceptions of art and art practices?
ML: I find myself getting quite critical, and I don’t want to get cynical, but art is so professionalized now. I was invited out to do a class with the curatorial program at CCA and I wanted to hear curators’ perspectives on the tendency to circulate a few artists through different museums and institutions. A lot of artists become very familiar to us, with their work in so many different places. For example, Tino Sehgal is very present in San Francisco, with several works at the Wattis. I find the repetition can be really annoying. Every curator feels like they must have his work in their show; based on what he does, they get recognition.
But if you can stop thinking about that for a moment, and just look at what the guy produces, I think there are definitely things in his work that I am realizing about my own practice, especially the idea of leaving things behind. In art, we produce all these things and they get shipped around. Maybe I’ll change my mind about this—although I hope I don’t—but I am starting to feel it is unnecessary. You don’t really need that much to make something happen. I’m conscious of the idea of finding ways to make a work in whatever circumstance I’m in, and continue my studio practice wherever I am. I’m hoping this kind of work will inspire people to do that more. I don’t think it’s a new idea; plenty of artists do what I am talking about.
PM: It brings to mind the evolution in your work from things that were social commentary, but very much object-based, to more recently a piece like Routines (2008), which included a video and posters. You observed the routines of people in a particular neighborhood in Copenhagen day after day, and then documented them just by providing a script that went alongside our witnessing their actions. That’s a very interesting progression for me.
ML: Operating outside an exhibition context has its place, but I also find that the art market is still very conservative. There is still an expectation for art to be something we see in galleries and museums. People are still fascinated with things that took a lot of money to produce or were difficult to make. I tend to be more interested in the idea of something. You definitely see the two worlds meet, but there is a tendency toward things that are a product. Something that can be sold definitely gets the upper hand. That is the challenge as an artist. I am not interested in being commercial and being able to live large with my work, but it is still hard to be discovered if you are just in the street making a project about a routine in some neighborhood. There is a bigger chance for attention if I made some traditional, object-based artwork and had success with that in a gallery. This is maybe my reflection on the craziness of New York, and living there, because San Francisco is a whole different ball game. For someone living in San Francisco, what I'm saying now is probably making them think, “What? There are tons of people doing it.” I’m aware of that.
Listen to Patricia's conversation with Mads Lynnerup on Bad At Sports: Episode 239.
PM: It is true, it’s two very different sensibilities and you now have had two extended time periods in both environments. You received you BFA from SFAI in 2001 and lived here [in the Bay Area] through 2005, and then went to New York to receive your MFA at Columbia University. You’ve been in New York since, splitting your time between there and Copenhagen. How do you find the reception has been to your work in New York, coming out of the sensibility in San Francisco, which is much more open to socially engaged and ephemeral forms of practices?
ML: I am starting to find my people in New York, people that are doing things on the same line as what I base my practice on. It has been good in certain ways. I have been learning a lot about my artwork and practice. I guess that there is a tendency to want a little more mystery, and when I look at my work, it winds up biting its own tail sometimes in terms of how a concept is displayed; it has a full-circle sensibility. I’m hoping to get to a place where my work makes sense, but ends up—with the help of other elements—maybe obscured a little more.
PM: In the past few years, have you seen any shifts in your work that you look at and think, “This is because I’m here, I’m in New York?”
ML: When I first moved there, I was overwhelmed by the amount of info you find when you walk on the street or take the subway. I did a poster that said, “If you see anything interesting, please let someone know immediately,” based on the anti-terrorism slogans you see in the subway.
PM: The subway cars are full of them. Riding the subway is a very dangerous operation in New York. (laughs)
ML: You are constantly supposed to mind the gap; at the same time be careful you don’t fall and hit yourself when it’s wet; and if you need a divorce you can make a call. It is information overload; you are not in that kind of public space so much in San Francisco driving or riding your bike somewhere. That situation made me think about switching words and messages.
The Routines project that you mentioned before came from noticing out my window the highly repetitive daily operations of the dry cleaners across the street, where I lived at the time in New York. It made me think about the routines that happen around us in public space. I was really interested in the fact that we know routines are happening around us, but we don’t really notice the patterns in our life until we stop and look.
When I did the project in Denmark, I found it fascinating that, after observing these people, I didn’t want to be really part of their activities. Normally, I assert myself or have done things where I intervene with whatever’s going on, but here, it was fascinating just to watch the performance. It was almost more like theater—as in “I know what is going to happen here”—in starting to understand the pattern of this one particular neighborhood.
I find it interesting to let things happen as they do. I think it’s hard to re-create these moments in life. They’re almost better on their own and they become absurd as you start assuming them. That is what I feel like that piece is all about, letting it all happen but also revealing how funny it is that we have these patterns and we repeat them over and over. At the same time, we might not think so much about them. Everybody has to have some form of routine; it’s unavoidable. Otherwise, you’d have to be really conscious and that would be absurd.
PM: Included in Routines are these posters, which were installed around the neighborhood in Copenhagen where you were making these observations, and they listed the details of these different routines. Then those posters were subsequently shown as part of an exhibition. How do you think that shifted the piece, having it out in the neighborhood versus in an exhibition setting?
ML: The posters in public represented the piece and identified the routines. Displaying the posters where the activities took place acted like a guide in a way for the neighborhood. You could observe these characters in the neighborhood. I brought the posters into the exhibition space because they connected the exhibition space with the public space.
PM: For something displayed in an exhibition venue, what sort of life does the object offer to something that is time-based or performative based? What it would be like to leave the exhibition space out of the equation altogether and just show your work in the public sphere?
ML: I guess there are a lot of artists who approach what they do as art, but don’t necessarily want to be a part of an art context. I think an art context is a good place for me to get my thoughts and observations out. I like to make art in connection to an art institution. I feel my work needs some form of audience. I enjoy that it can exist out in the real world and the art world at the same time. Maybe that is selfish, but you make art to be seen—at least I do, that is part of my practice—and I don’t know if I would make art without showing it to people.
But I like art that has the ability to push the boundary line. As I was saying earlier, I think that art is professionalized now. You have to show it in the right exhibitions with the right curators and you have to be in the right circle to get your stuff out there to financially exist as an artist. That is unfortunate, but at the same time, there are so many different ways to be an artist. I’m hoping I will find my own way of doing it, and continue finding my way, without getting too caught up in that side business. Because that kills the intuitive part of it.
PM: You work across so many different media, including video, sculpture, drawing, and ephemera, but it all speaks to these observations of the everyday. There is a distillation process that happens in your work when concentrating on one subject or another, in which humor comes to the fore. Is that just a natural part of that process or are you consciously trying to imbue the work with humor?
ML: I enjoy the power of humor; I think that humor has a good way of disarming people in an audience. It’s ironic that sometimes my work gets seen as funny or humorous, because I don’t set out to make something humorous. When I look at it, it’s very honest. When I did the Routines project, I seriously wanted to highlight this invisible part of our life and I thought I was doing it in a very sober way. So I was a little surprised when people responded by laughing. Maybe people find it funny because it is so absurd that we can predict what is about to happen. I’m not really setting out to make something funny, but people think it’s funny.
PM: I often see humor and laughter as a rupture. It disrupts the path of our logic. You are often described as a prankster, but that would imply an intentional tripping- up of someone to watch them fall. How do you feel about being described as a prankster?
ML: I am honored to be called a prankster because I admire a lot of pranksters out there. Again, I am not totally aware that I am going to make something that it could be seen as a prank. I think the funniest thing is a prank call or something that happened when you are pulling someone’s leg. Half of my artwork winds up falling in one of those categories, but I wish I was better at it.
I think my most recent work is not so prankster-ish, but I am also having a whole new perspective about what I do, where I feel like I need to go back and head in a different direction with it. We’ll see. I am going to have a show at Baer Ridgway in October, so we’ll see if I’ll be a prankster in that show too. I’m not sure quite what I am going to do there.
PM: Does it make you nervous to upend people’s expectations?
ML: That was one of the things I wanted to talk to this curatorial program about. Sometimes as an artist there is a little bit of pressure to come up with something quite fast. I’m not really nervous about living up to someone’s expectations; it’s more about whether I will get another idea that I can put to use. I definitely get self-conscious about that sometimes.
Once in awhile it seems like some curators just think that art comes out of nowhere, as if they are not completely aware of the fact that there is someone really trying hard to do something, or don’t understand what it takes to get an idea—that it might not come as easy as it seems. Also, with the amount of artwork that is out there, it’s overwhelming as an artist because you can feel very disposable. If you can’t come up with something, there are 400 other artists over there that can. It does feel like there is a little bit of pressure.
Mad Lynnerup was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and lives and works in Copenhagen and New York. He completed his MFA from Columbia University in 2007 and received a BFA from San Francisco Art Institute in 2001. He has shown his work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; P.S. 1 and Socrates Sculpture Park, both New York; and Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw. Lynnerup works across such diverse media as video, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking, but remains consistent and recognizable in his approach. Many of the themes in Lynnerup’s work have roots in his constant interest in the everyday and his surroundings, or his curiosity and obsession with the daily routines taking place in public space.