Joshua Vettivelu examines class, branding, desire and art objects
Joshua Vettivelu is an artist, administrator, teacher and my friend. In the time since we first met each other in June, I’ve seen them make a float for the Art Gallery of York University‘s Pride Parade, an awning atop the truck that read “HOW FOOLISH IT FEELS, TO TAKE THESE STEPS, THINKING YOU’D PROTECT US. – A MESSAGE TO THOSE AT THE TOPS OF TOWERS.” As Whippersnapper Gallery’s director of programming, they facilitate PEERS, the gallery’s peer-to-peer mentorship residency program. (I participated in its first iteration in summer 2015). Earlier this summer, they facilitated “Damned if you do: A conversation on the politics of refusal” with Deanna Bowen and Abbas Akhavan. This past week, they were a speaker on “Decentre Redux: concerning artist-run culture now,” hosted by Onsite at OCADU, where Josh discussed how “administrative language isn’t neutral, and can be flipped to change power dynamics. For example, mandates that cite a maximum capacity for overrepresented artists versus a minimum diversity quota.” For them, working on Whippersnapper involves “finding ways to support artists whose interests don’t align with my own, stretching out [my] capacity of actually engaging with their work,” which is their antidote to “[the] sense of self-interest [that] takes over when you’re in the arts, where we consume each other to get ahead. We’ve all seen the OkCupid profile of the straight alt-bro who identifies as sapiosexual and wears a t-shirt that says, ‘I’m an author, so if you’re not careful you’ll end up in my book.’ It’s kinda like that.”
We discussed Josh’s objectives for their “How to Read Artist’s Books” workshop taking place at the /edition Art Book Fair, where they will consider how artists’ intentional ambiguity in coding their artworks becomes a vital strategy in relation to the significance of watching their mother’s intentional placement of domestic objects. They told me about how intuition is the central common denominator between this workshop and the last time they participated in Art Toronto in 2012 with their performance Glory Hole, where they slowly and gradually bound together 600 Easter lilies and protruded the resulting, seemingly infinite strand through a hole in a mirrored partition wall that they stood behind.
“I’m gonna go full earnest. It’s gonna be awful,” they told me.
But, far from it: Josh will prompt the audience to go through Art Metropole’s books to pick out one thing they feel drawn to and another that does nothing for them. They are cautious with their language for descriptors of taste: “the terms ‘like’ or ‘love’ have associations with branding, i.e., ‘The things I like constitute who I am as a person in a capitalist society.’”
They tell me that this research project about locating words for intuitive decisions aligns with a broader concern in their practice: that “art objects just become a stand-in for all the ways in which desire and repulsion can act in a larger sense of money and class and branding and all these things, which exist in many other spheres. Art is just a case study.”
Joshua Vettivelu (JV): I remember me as a young child trying to figure out why my mother placed objects in our home — like flowers, candles, gift baskets or pictures of Jesus — this way as opposed to that way. I felt like I was learning something, but we weren’t talking about it. I was just watching her and imagining her saying, internally, ‘this position looks better than that position.’ Those were decisions that were being made, but they’re so intuitive that you don’t bring them into language out loud. You just kind of go with your gut.
I guess retroactively you could call watching my mother place objects “aesthetic decisions,” but within that framework those decisions were intuitive [to designate] placements of objects together, like when I brought all these random materials with a vague idea of what I was going to do in Glory Hole, I just kind of understood that these were things that I knew could fit, and they will fit together, but even as I was performing, I wasn’t sure if it was coming together. Now, four years later, I have a clearer idea of why I knew that they would fit, but it took that amount of time to develop the language to describe it.
I think there was something about performing that in the space of the art fair — it was really about the art fair, it wasn’t really about identity or my mother even though that’s in there. It was about the ways in which artists are asked to mine their personal experiences for the production of art so that institutions can posture themselves as self-reflexive.
Merray Gerges (MG): That requests an immense amount of vulnerability.
JV: It does, but it’s not seen in that way. It’s seen as if there’s a kind of absolving, like: “I don’t really have to engage with it because it’s a translation of another culture.” I was really anticipating that, that I would be under a banner called “Focus Asia.” I’d been to the art fair before as a high school student, so I had a sense for what the maze of cubicles would look like, that a mirror could very easily disappear in that maze of cubicles because it would just repeat the shapes of those temporary institutions, and then coming out of nowhere would be this excreted, perfectly produced art object that was really just a bunch of random materials bound together physically and symbolically. Part of my sculpture practice is trying to identify the relevant matrix of meanings that materials can connote. Making a decision about synthetic Easter lilies versus real Easter lilies was a decision that wasn’t based on cost, but on the fact that this was a produced, permanent, synthetic item. I made the back exposed wood but I could’ve made it neat and slick, or a four-walled mirror cube. If it’s going to be a glory hole, why does it have to be a mirror? What does that do to an audience that is either experiencing art for the first time or are soooo over art? Those were all the intuitive decisions.
MG: So, there’s a connection between you facilitating a workshop where you’re drawing people to the way that their intuition informs their choices and how arbitrary — or not — that could be, and the way that it sounds like you’ve processed Glory Hole four years later, remembering that there was a negotiation of, “Should I choose this or should I choose that?”, which I guess is inherent to making any art work, really. It’s a series of choices.
JV: For sure, I think it’s also teasing out this idea that language isn’t just words. Materials and symbols can all house different associations and artists string them together to create sentences of utterances that then require the viewer to read and complete. Depending on who you are politically/socially/economically, your literacy level with regards to certain symbols drastically changes your ability to read them in context. I mean, when I did Glory Hole, a woman asked me if I did weddings, because floral wreaths were so great for weddings. It was an unanticipated association, but harmless. Sometimes artists can pull the wrong symbols together and it’s catastrophic. Have you seen Vanessa Beecroft’s work? Yikes.
As part of Art Metropole’s programming for the /edition Art Book Fair, Joshua Vettivelu will be presenting a workshop titled “I Don’t Know How to Read” on Monday, Oct. 31 at 4:00 p.m.
Merray Gerges is a critic based in Toronto and Canadian Art‘s 2016 Editorial Resident. She is co-founder and co-editor of CRITpaper, which will be exhibiting at the /edition Art Book Fair in Toronto from October 28 to 31 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. She will also be speaking as part of a panel on art book publishing, moderated by Art Metropole’s Curator/Shop Manager Nasrin Himada, at the fair on Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2:00 p.m.