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An Interview with Ken Fandell

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 24, 2009 6:40PM

FandellSquares.jpg In addition to teaching, art-making and having his work shown in galleries and museums on several continents, School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor and artist Ken Fandell is a long-distance runner who probably covers more miles in a week than most do in a year. All of that time spent engaged in the struggle of mind over body seems to surface in his work, which usually employs a conflict of some sort — for example, the epic vs. the banal — to explore heavy subjects such as infinity, control, and our physical limitations as humans. But it's not all about the meta: Fandell's work is as much about humor as it is about the big questions of human existence. Recently we visited his home studio to talk about marathons, titles, and the artistic merits of the Budget Smart Brain.

Chicagoist: What are you working on these days?

Ken Fandell: I've got a lecture at the Hamiltonian Gallery in Washington, D.C. in the beginning of September -- it's called "Infinity, Time, Space, Technology, Significance, Subjectivity, Interpersonal Relations, Bodily Functions, and My Work." I have a site-specific piece at the Asheville (N.C.) Art Museum in October -- it's a cloud piece similar to a piece of mine on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art -- and another in Galway, Ireland in November. And I'm thinking about my body, how I relate to other people and how we understand and define meanings.

C: Can you elaborate on that last one?

KF: One piece I'm working on right now shows my finger looping around and around — it's called "Finger," and it is a collage made from 111 pictures of my finger at different angles and bends. It does not follow a system and it's all subjective -- I don't know where it's going to go next. Collage is like this, often -- it's more related to painting than photography, in that it involves intuitiveness, working with the material. Right now the piece is 6'x8' — I think it's too small. I think physically you need to be overwhelmed by it — to make it not understandable. So it will grow, but it will still always stay that one thing. You will see the starting point of the loop, but the second end will get lost in the mess.

C: For me, the title encapsulates a lot about your work — it's about all of these big, complex ideas, but there's also this sense of humor that comes out somewhat effortlessly.

KF: I like doing funny things. And I thought really hard about that title!

C: The title is a lot shorter than many of your others: "Days and Nights, Dawns and Dusks, North and South, East and West, Mine and Yours" comes to mind.

KF: One of the things I'm doing now is one-word titles -- trying to distill it down to one word but still following the rules of my other titles in that it should simultaneously describe what you're looking at but also involve many implications. I know a piece is done when it has a title.

C: Where did it come from?

KF: The title "Finger" came from a bunch of places: For one thing, I'm trying to get back to projects that are more about the body -- I think partially, perhaps more than a lot of other artists, I'm more in tune with my body from being an athlete. In thinking about it, I run two marathons a year, and am always really aware of my weight. And I'm also getting older, thinking about my age.

Another thing is that in looking back at my work over the last 7-8 years, one thing that stands out but which I have not explicitly addressed is the element of drama. There's humor in these pieces, but it's very dramatic.

C: Where's the drama in the "Finger" piece?

KF: Well, the idea of a finger often symbolizes something accusatory or blaming in relationship to others. I started thinking of fingers pointing in every direction, but taking a twisted route -- a reference to how convoluted your logic can get.

C: Tell us about your Budget Smart Brain, and the piece in which it appears as a major character.

KF: I wanted to do a piece with this model of the brain that I bought a couple of years ago -- it's for cheap medical students, I guess. I was interested in doing another body part thing. I guess I use a lot of cliched images — the clouds (to symbolize the heavens), flowers, seagulls, played-out signs — and the brain is one of those, as well as a funny statement for meaning and thought in general. I didn't know what to do with the model brain, so I made an animation of it using a grid for a background. (I made the grid using a photo of the tile on my bathroom floor.) I'm interested in grids — they're about control and having things be understandable, but they are also incomprehensible because they can be infinite; that dichotomy really interests me. The piece shows this brain in a hyperactive state, which leads to scribbles — a reference to the process of figuring things out. And then the scribbles go supernova and it all becomes an image of the CERN Particle Accelerator, which was just in the news again. The Accelerator broke right away, but its objective was to recreate particles that were only existent at the time of the Big Bang -- to get to the essence of what everything is. And that relates back to the idea of infinity.

C: Some of your pieces remind me of the myth of Sisyphus — for example, "It's Hard, and I Could Use a Little Help" (a five-minute video in which the artist tries to assemble tiny human figurines, but ends up with a sticky mess of glue and plastic limbs). Instead of pushing a boulder that keeps rolling back down, you're trying to make these people and it doesn't work.

KF: When I had to write art statements, Sisyphus would come up. But a key difference is that Sisyphus would get the boulder to the top, and then the rock would roll back down — and I'm interested in never getting to the top. My work is about the process of going there — in that video, for instance, it's important that the people are never made; the video mostly shows me trying to assemble them. (That piece took a long time to make.)

C: You seem to do a lot of site-specific pieces in other places. How did the Galway gig come about?
The SAIC has a relationship with an art school there called the Burren College of Art. It's located by these vast expanses of bare rock — an empty, mysterious place, with the art school right outside the small town. Galway is right across the bay from this town. I would go there three times a year to teach, and this guy who runs a space asked me to show there. I want it to be site-specific, so I'm looking at site-specific pieces I've done before, to do something along those lines but not exactly that.

C: Do you have an idea for it yet?

KF: No — I'm not exactly sure what's going to happen. There's that bar in Lakeview, the Galway Arms -- I'm thinking about doing something with that, with some drink coasters I got from there. Kind of like Robert Smithson's piece with mirrors, in a way.

I like this idea of contemplating two places at once. There's a project I did a long time ago in Missoula, MT called "From Me to You and Most of the Space in Between" — I knew I wasn't going to be able to go to the show, so I did a piece using Google satellite imagery. The images started from my studio and followed a line all the way to the gallery in Missoula; it consisted of this four-inch, 100-foot long print. I had to cut out a lot of the spaces, because the line would have been way too long. The piece was shown on a bunch of sawhorses, and it was even too long for that set-up. I also once did a site-specific piece in Vienna — I took a star map of what the stars directly above Vienna would look like on the night of the opening, and what the stars above Chicago would look like, and laid them on top of each other, using black paper through which I poked holes.

C: Artists can take themselves pretty seriously, as you surely know. But your work seems to challenge that tendency. How does that play out for you in the academic environment in which you work? Do people appreciate your sense of humor?

KF: I've gotten into trouble for it. One time I referred to myself as going around taking stupid pictures, then spinning them into a context where people are supposed to think they're profound; that wasn't so popular.

I say to my students that one of the phrases that I hate the most, one that makes me cringe, is the phrase "my original idea." It's problematic on so many levels. For one, the place from which you start pursuing an artistic idea is not some holy ground, it's simply a starting point. So don't cling to it — it's not the gospel. From the world of running I've come to regard my peer group as runners, mostly — I spend more time with them, and they come from all different sides of life. I want to see how different people think in the world, and when you do that you realize things like, "well, investment bankers don't think of every trade they do as profound." So artists shouldn't, either.

C: So how do you see yourself fitting in with the institution, the art world, art movements or even your peer group?

KF: All these things are like cliques. I like cliques but I don't want to be a part of any one. If cliques were movies, I would rather be a small character in a lot of movies. It's just something I just started realizing.

C: How do you see your various projects fitting in with each other? And how important is it do you that they do?

KF: For my first-ever show in 1996, I told someone I wanted it to look like a group show. Each piece should look different from the last — they should be conceptually united but use different strategies to get their points across. People who know my work think it all looks the same, but people who don't think it's all over the place. I'm always drawing from the same conceptual toolbox -- large and small, high and low ... the contemplation of something transcendent, or something sublime, and that being paired with something pathetic and small, so that these two things fight against each other. I throw a lot of that into my work — the grandiose and the inane.

I think when my work is most effective is when it's not tasteful, it's a little bit weird. I want things to look a bit wrong, a bit clunky. Maybe that's what unites it all.

One Millimeter Squares from One Meter Away (2008), Ken Fandell