Questions With Artists

Breath and Body

Questions for performance artist Dave McKenzie

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  • Dave McKenzie
    Dave, 2010
    Image courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

  • Dave McKenzie
    Dave, 2010
    Image courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

  • Thomas Lax, Studio Museum Assistant Curator and organizer of Darker than the Moon, Smaller than the Sun, diagrams highlights of McKenzie's history as a performance artist

  • Dave McKenzie
    We Shall Overcome (video still), 2004
    Courtesy the artist

On February 20 and 21, 2014, Dave McKenzie performs his retrospective Darker than the Moon, Smaller than the Sun. The performance is part of the live programs series organized on the occasion of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, currently on view through March 9, 2014 at the Studio Museum.

The artist has a long history with the Museum including his residency in the 2003–04 cycle of the Museum’s Artist-in-Residence program and the group exhibition 30 Seconds Off an Inch in 2009. He also premiered a lecture-performance last November at Performa 13, All the King’s horses… none of his men. McKenzie will exhibit a new work in the Whitney Museum of American Art's 2014 Biennial, opening March 7.

Curatorial Fellow Monique Long sits down with McKenzie to talk about this juncture in live performance in relationship to the Museum and art making.

You are a fairly young artist yet you have been working for well over ten years. How do you feel about a retrospective at this point in your career?

I don't think I am treating this as a retrospective in any strict sense of the word. So that really frees me up to talk and think about the things that are more basic and fundamental in my work. I think of retrospectives in much the same way that I think about the question, "What kind of work do you make?" It's a simple question but not really an easy one. Plus, the question can be addressed through form, material, intention, history, biography and so on. For some artists the answer will be fairly straightforward (even as the answer doesn't necessarily address the breadth and depth of one's thinking), but I have always found it difficult to describe what I am doing succinctly. I suppose I favor a certain type of complexity which doesn't only privilege 'looking back' but also introspection.

Your formal training is in printmaking. How did you transition into performance art?

The transition started at some point in college. I was lucky enough to be in a department that accepted and encouraged experimentation, but I always think back upon the education that I received by sitting in the school's library and flipping through various monographs and catalogues. It was there that I discovered the work of a number of artists from the 70's, in particular, artists who had actively used the body or engaged the body as a subject or medium—artists like David Hammons, Gina Pane and VALIE EXPORT. At the time, I would have said that the work was more radical and intense than the things I was seeing on a daily basis, and even though I was looking at images from the past my mind was coming to terms with something forward looking. Again, I think the openness of the printmaking department and this sense of an anachronistic-future really led me towards experimenting with performance, language, and structure.

Your retrospective features a parade-sized balloon which was previously used in another performance at the Aspen Art Museum. Could you talk about the object in this iteration? Particularly your ideas around metaphor and repetition?

The balloon was originally created for a July 4th parade in Aspen, Colorado, and was based on a video that I made called Watch the Sky. In Watch the Sky, I used television footage of the Macy's Day Parade and then superimposed a caricature of myself over top of a character named Little Bill (a Bill Cosby character).  What ended up in Aspen was a Frankenstein version of this image from Watch the Sky.  Aspen is not a town known for its racial diversity, so when viewers of the parade saw this black figure—one they could not identify and had no particular reference or even affinity towards—they tended to fill in the gaps by associating this black male with any popular black male they could conjure up. Obama, Lebron [James], etc. In the [retrospective], I think the balloon will have a number of functions and refer to a number of things—it is beautiful and ugly, full and empty, present and absent. It's my body, maybe, but certainly like my body it is already historical and preconceived. Still, if I had to put my figure on one thing it points to and addresses it would be breath.

There is great interest in your participation in the Whitney Biennial opening next month. Could you give an overview of your work for the exhibition?

In the Whitney Biennial I will be showing two recent works in video. I am not sure that I can describe them well, but I think they both have a lot to say about history, memory, preservationand witnessing—they are notably different from other videos that I have made, in that,  my presence behind the camera is more important than my presence in front of it . Beyond all that I am just incredibly happy with them...

What or who would you say has been most influential to your work?

I don't know that I have one answer for this as a lot of things and a lot of people have influenced the way I think and work. I do however think back to school and a lecture that Vito Acconci gave. His lecture is probably the only one from that period in time that I still have an after image of. In talking about his own history he said something along these lines, "I knew I could be an artist because I knew I could think." That for me was confirmation of something that I had started to believe and still to this day believe. It is not that I don't value the hand and eye in making but to think is already a form of participation and creation.