Mark Kremer is an independent curator and critic based in Amsterdam.
Mathilde: You recently developed an exhibition for De Appel Arts Centre in Amsterdam that explored the legacy of the 1960s, its presence in and impact on contemporary art. I found your curator’s statement from that exhibition and thought I would reprint a section of it here, since it contains some thoughts and ideas that I thought we might elaborate on. You wrote:
This exhibition proposes that, contrary to what the current art canon claims, psychedelia and Conceptualism were two art complexes that were very close and sometimes enmeshed with one another. Important works of art emerged from the interaction between these complexes. Recurring elements of this included an emancipatory impulse or a drive to liberate art and bodies from restrictive institutions; the intensification of time-and-space experiences; and a re-evaluation of the elementary building blocks of art. Psychedelia made lines, color and forms fluid (quite literally in the case of liquid projections!), while Conceptualism tore down and purified the image, replacing it with language, measurements, numbers and indications of duration. In the 1960s, there was a growing realization that every individual had enormous potential waiting to be released, and art unlocked this possibility. It opened the door to thinking and feeling. Because of this, we often find surprising similarities between artworks that reinforce consciousness through sensory intoxication (ecstasy), and works that purify the mind through sensory abstention (ascesis). I believe that there is much to recommend in Lucy Lippard’s famous essay on Conceptualism, and propose widening its emphasis on the dematerialization of the art object to include psychedelia. Psychedelia is also all about a spiritual goal; it is about the possibility of change and transformation embodied in an artwork that guides us, as it were, and points the way ahead (Kremer)
My first question to you is this: Do you see Piet Mondriaan, a very spiritual painter, as an early forerunner of school of artistic thought?
Mark: Mondriaan had rhythm! That would be my first answer to your question, a short one! That said, I wanted to emphasize what I see as Mondriaan’s contribution to the art of his times, to geometric abstraction, which was part of what we call the historical avant-garde. Mondriaan’s art sprang from a personal but deeply spiritual and philosophical understanding of life, and the realization that art can touch and fundamentally change people. And he had the audacity to suggest that the art of the near future would act as a transformative force in society as a whole. It has been noted that, symbolically, Mondriaan’s paintings prefigure this kind of change—a real change, a change of the real—through their own, intricate dynamics.
Let’s consider for a moment Mondriaan’s notion of imbalance or disproportion—something we might call “visual counterpoint” today—and how he presented this imbalance in his paintings. If we extrapolate this idea, we find a much larger notion behind it: the idea of a society where people and things that are weak can become strong, and vice versa, so that social change can happen. Looking at these paintings today, with the composition and the fragile, loose way in which they are painted, these kinds of ideas immediately spring to mind. Of course, we also get a little help from their artistic friends: there is a whole conceptual heritage to Mondriaan’s thoughts (central to which is the notion of Nieuwe Beelding, which roughly translates to “the new imagination”), and this legacy is part of the works we experience now.
Mathilde: A lot of conceptual art in the 1960s and 70s also addressed feminism (and feminist art) as an important emancipatory movement. Historically—in the 19th century, for example—the women’s movement was also a main, driving force behind the abolition of slavery in the United States. How would you describe the influence of feminist thought and strategies in the development of conceptual and psychedelic art?Mark: The impact of those 1960s developments can definitely be felt today, where we see many female artists who speak very freely in their work, both in terms of subject matter and the forms/materials they use. To me, they often seem freer than their male colleagues in terms of their approach and type of inquiry. Siobhan Hapaska, Suchan Kinoshita and Kinke Kooij come to mind, and this is only a selection from a generation of very well-established artists…
Mathilde: Psychedelic drugs are often associated with individual experience and altered perception, but they are also used in various religions to create a kind of community and build on the idea of unity, with nature and with other human beings. Do you think there is something to this invisible connection? Do you see a historical connection between the interest in social art projects or community art and increased interest in psychedelic substances? Do you think that an experience of this kind—a temporary community of people on psychedelic drugs, so to speak—could also be considered a kind of collaborative artwork?
Mark: Your questions raise a number of complex issues. I tend to give a kind of “primitive” answer to questions that delve into the psychedelic world, intoxicating substances and the wonders they bring as they relate to artistic work, mainly because I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about the relationship between art and the psychedelic experience. I myself am quite taken with Henry Michaud’s literary writing on his experiences with mescaline and cannabis, because he relates these amazing, sensual experiences in a very precise, almost crystalline form. With him, it is as if a reader enters a lucid dream. I believe this happens as an effect of something he does in his writing—artistic transformation, you could call it. Michaud gives you something that is very different from the drug experience, and it is an artistic experience. So, when faced with a question about art and the drug experience, I would have to say, “Art is the drug!” Let me give you an example: One of the things I wanted to address with the De Appel show is that today’s art also has a very precise psychedelic trajectory that goes back to Bryon Gysin’s Dreamachine and Tony Conrad’s Flicker film, two works from the 1960s that very methodologically explore our response to sensory overload, or an abundance of stimuli. You could see these works as investigations of what it means to surrender to an overwhelming outside source, a physiological process for sure but not without its existential connotations. And with this—and I find that inspiring—these two works become 20th century equivalents of Romantic art.
The other issue I would like to touch on has to do with the actual use of psychedelic substances—use of these understood as a ritual practice, aimed at the exploration of inner life, and embarked upon either individually or in the form of collective work. You may already know that, in the 1960s, there was a huge divide between Timothy Leary and his American followers on the East Coast. These East Coast practitioners proposed individual exploration of psychedelia under the guidance of an initiate, or a shaman as we might call them today. This idea stands in contrast to the one advocated by West Coast practitioners like Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who embraced the Dionysian group experience with rock music and drugs and a light show flooding all of the senses. After reading Tom Wolfe’s hilarious novel on the Pranksters, I get the idea that they saw themselves as a living artwork! That said, there’s nothing that would preclude us from considering a temporary community based on the use of psychedelic drugs a collaborative artwork. Just do it, I would say.
Mathilde: Large, open-air concerts and meetings involving (psychedelic) drugs create temporary communities for the duration of the ceremony or festival, but also afterwards, because the participants have something in common. There is a bond. What exactly do these groups share to your opinion? What needs would you say these communities satisfied? Do you see a (historical) difference between a temporary community bound together by psychedelic substances or drugs and a religious or spiritual sect? Do you see a connection in subcultures or even club culture, for example?
Mark: What I see in the art and music around me are practitioners who are constantly negotiating between the states of seclusion and sociability. And this despite the commonly-held idea that musicians are by nature seekers of companionship! To create work, creative people need time to be on their own. Some of the phenomena that you mention in your question have much to do with “free time” and the positive experience of being part of a group. But today we can see a new interest in group-building, where young people have access to new tools. Think of all the virtual communities! People “meet” other people every day online—people who otherwise would never set eyes on one another in real life…
Mathilde: Do you think there is a difference between the images produced by users of synthetic psychotropic substances and those created under the influence of natural psychoactive plants?
Mark: I don’t know. But ask Ken Johnson, the New York art critic. His 2011 book Are You Experienced?: How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art is an interesting read—cheesy but intelligent! It is a little too New York-centric for my taste but it is noteworthy because he proposes what most critics wouldn’t dare. He also has his own ideas about, for example, the difference between art produced under the influence of alcohol, and work produced under the influence of marijuana… By the way, he also talks about artists whose work seems to pursue the psychedelic experience, but within the context of art—like the amazing Charles Ray, for example!
Mathilde: Psychedelic images in this context appear to “represent” the insights in all their complexity. Is there such a thing as psychedelic conceptual art? Where the artist tries to trace the experience of connectedness for the audience, for example, rather than directly illustrate it?
Mark: One of the ideas behind the show at De Appel is that, in terms of the effects and affect that an artwork produces (specifically in the case of certain 1960s artworks geared towards mind expansion), you could say there are more similarities than differences between so-called conceptual art and so-called psychedelic art. These kinds of categorizations don’t usually matter to artists; they try to look around corners. They are probably more attuned to ideas about the enchantment of thought and the education of the senses than alternative ways of addressing Conceptualism or psychedelia. But to answer the other part your question about “connectedness” and how an artwork can embody this, I would say that each artwork tries to produce its own singular experience of “connectedness.” He or she tries to put it in an image, grounding the viewer, (re-)connecting that viewer to the earth, or doing something very different to give the viewer wings that might carry him or her away…
Mathilde: Psychedelic substances like ayahuasca tend to produce feelings of tremendous kinship with everything, and the insight that everything is bound together by love. But transposing these emotions into images often results only in cheesy clichés. Is it possible in art to create images about positive feelings without lapsing into kitsch?
Mark: Yes. It is a question of energy. A good art piece is an inexhaustible source, a reservoir that invites, challenges or even defies the viewer to enter so that, rather than decode some kind of hidden message, he or she just spends time with it.
Mathilde: Shamans in Peru who work with ayahuasca understand the produced patterns as a map of the human psyche / psychedelic condition, and can reproduce the flat, knotted patterns at will. Do we underestimate the power of decorative patterns that seem cliché? Or does the significance of the decorative element lie precisely in what it symbolizes?
Mark: In our society—at least here in Holland and I assume in Germany as well—handicraft, arts and crafts and manufacturing have disappeared or are on the verge of fading away. Because of this, knowledge, traditions for how to make things, and the meaning that certain forms and figures brought with them are disappearing, too. At home I have several carpets from Turkey and Central Asia, and I only have to glance at these patterns to feel that they embody a complete spiritual world, without me being able to exactly explain what the patterns mean. But the Turkish dealer I bought the rugs from—also a very well-trained carpetmaker in his home country, where these carpets originated in the first place—would not necessarily be able to explain their meaning either… fortunately, sometimes it is enough to only look!
Mathilde: Would you say that traditional folklore can only be read as a cliché in a technologically-oriented society, since our natural reality has been replaced by stimulating impulses?
Mark: There is a lack of nature here in the Netherlands, and it is a disadvantage in many ways. For example (going back to my carpets) it is clear that some of them have certain colors like a deep purple, because that was the pigment that they had in that area, whatever could be derived from the local earth, or the mountains. For us to understand the story of a single carpet, we have to study. It isn’t a matter of course; we have to invest ourselves, and choose to have some degree of dedication.
Mathilde: How would you define a cliché? Is it possible to subvert a cliché by taking the cliché and its meaning seriously, understanding it and examining its effect rather than immediately dismissing it as a cliché?
Mark: The word “cliché” has an interesting etymology! It comes from the old style of typesetting where the words were cast in lead. When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase that would be used repeatedly as a single slug of metal. That was called the “cliché”—that’s where the word came from. Walter Benjamin wrote his disseration on the use of allegory, which at the time seemed an outdated artistic trope in the German tragedy plays of the Baroque. He was doing with “allegory” what you propose to do with the cliché. You have to be very careful, I believe, with the categorical use of terms. I wanted to make my exhibition—with its focus on the 1960s and especially the interplay of psychedelia and Conceptualism—in collaboration with artists so that I could include as many viewpoints as possible. What I’m suggesting is that we take a different look at psychedelia and Conceptualism as 1960s phenomena, and by doing so, we can also see today’s art and its connection to a recent past in a more dynamic and lively way. Interestingly, it only takes a little shift in common, automatic assumptions to create a totally different perspective on familiar landscape.
The “When Elephants Come Marching In: Psychedelia and Conceptualism are Reconciled” was held at De Appel Arts Centre in Amsterdam from 26 September – 11 January, 2015.
Printed in: Performing Change, Mathilde ter Heijne, Published by Sternberg Press in association with Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg