Tuesday, 20 July 2010 22:22

Finding my own way into how I act

By Karen Martin
Los Angeles based artist Martin Gantman talks to Karen Martin about directing his gaze both inward and outward to understand who he is in the globalising world.

"I find that I must always remember to explore my biases when I approach a project and to allow them to evolve as the project does."

Karen Martin: You made the Odalisque Suite between 1994 and 1997. What made you choose to publish it in ITCH in 2010? How does it speak to the theme "i"?

Martin Gantman: It is interesting how certain issues re-circulate. These particular issues, I and self, were addressed quite feverishly in the seventies and eighties, but were left without a particularly cogent understanding about how to approach them. The questions Who am I? and What am I? are always with us. It is just a matter of if and when we want to address them.

Sexuality and sensuality are particularly important in this regard. What is a man or woman? How does one act as either of those? Or is it somewhere in between or something entirely different? The answers to these questions shape how we expect ourselves to act in the real world.

KM: On your website, you describe in detail how the Odalisque Suite evolved for you, and in particular how it prompted you to examine your own relationship to sex and sexual imagery. Can you describe how this engagement did (or didn't?) disrupt the flaming heterosexual you have been described as?

MG: I live in the city of West Hollywood, California, USA. My wife, Abbe Land, is a politician. West Hollywood has a large gay population and we have many friends and acquaintances who are gay or lesbian. At a benefit dinner in the city of Santa Monica, where Abbe was going to address the audience, many of whom I had known when I had lived there, a well-known lesbian state legislator introduced Abbe as follows: "And speaking of flaming heterosexuals ... ".

I suspect that my move into West Hollywood in 1993 may have prompted my look into the issues of sexuality and gender, but all I remember is that I decided, in 1994, that I wanted to do an odalisque project. Approaching art work the way that I do, by trying to understand the issues that lie beneath the obvious, my first thought was to explore the question: Why are male artists so enticed by the female body? This may seem to be perfectly naive, but the answers feed into all of our male/male and male/female relationship issues. That would be how the Odalisque Suite process affected me personally - finding my own way into how I act without the label of "male" being a determining factor.

KM: Is this a characteristic of your practice in general: that you use your artist's gaze as a telescope into your own psyche? How has this played out in the work you have done subsequent to the Odalisque Suite? Or if not, why not?

MG: Early on that point of view was more influential. And, even now, it is inherent in my work even though my last couple of projects, one about media and social response (Atmospheric Resources Tracking Incorporated) and the other about globalisation (Empire), were taken on at least partly as an effort to redirect that "gaze" outward. I find that I must always remember to explore my biases when I approach a project and to allow them to evolve as the project does. For example, in Empire I knew that I carried political and anti-business ideas at the inception. As the project proceeded I had to constantly go inside in order to determine whether I was interpreting data and events evenly. When that thought occurs to me as I work, it is generally a productive caution that I am acting automatically and that I have to go back in and sort things out.

One of the parts that came out of The Tracking Project is what I call the Tracking Statement. It became a kind of manifesto for how I try to approach art and life.

KM: Tell us some more about Empire, which you also published in ITCH. What was the frame? And the process? How does it link with your previous work? Do you know what your next project will be?

MG: I have always had an interest in issues around political boundaries and have wanted to think of myself as a global person. Boundaries have always seemed artificial and limiting. In Empire I wanted to understand the forces that manifest the expansion of some powers and the retraction of others. I also wanted to get a clearer sense of how this process was affecting real people and situations around the world - in other words, what is really happening as differentiated from what the media and political and financial centres are putting out. I began with the idea of Davos as the capital of a global economic empire. That is where many of the highest profile business people and politicians meet once a year. It conveyed a beautifully visual idea about a conglomerate of these entities working together to encapsulate the output of, as Mehita says, 6.6 billion people. Truth is, things are not that concentric - there are diverse views about the benefits and liabilities of globalisation from all walks of life.

The other issue that I am perversely enjoying in Empire is that of documentary as art: How does one relay basic data and information in what would still be considered an "artistic" way? I say perverse because that is how difficult the challenge seems. I would like art to convey an attitude that is larger and/or different from its parts.

Empire has become a fairly complex project, and though I have toyed with another project (about the perception of color) Empire is heading toward its fourth year, is in its third phase, and I see little way out.

KM: ITCH describes itself as "South African rooted and internationally relevant". What does this mean to you in the context of the internet and other globalising forces? Do you have a particular relationship with or interest in South Africa?

MG: I have no direct relationship with South Africa except for the one I have had with ITCH. But given the information I have connected with through my recent work in Empire (and before that See You When We Get Home) and of course current events, I find it to be a particularly intriguing country not only in relation to its history, but also with respect to other countries in Africa. I have always been interested in the choices that societies who have broken a stranglehold of oppression make, how they navigate and create a future. In many countries it seems that the society returns to oppression in one form or another. South Africa seems to be still working it through - and that is very interesting.

It is especially important that a publication such as ITCH emanates from South Africa. One of the most significant issues that I have noted from my Empire work is the difference between the northern and southern global hemispheres. To have a publication come out of this area that discusses issues of universal import and has international participation gives much needed visibility to the African continent.

I am very pleased that ITCH has found my work interesting enough to publish, and from a part of the world where I have little historical connection. It is of course a result of the globalising influence that we are (all) able to speak to each other from our different historical constructs. That to me is one of the beneficial parts of globalisation. As it would appear that international travel ironically is becoming more difficult due to economic and "protective" measures, the use of the internet by venues such ITCH to interrelate, especially coming out of a non-northern center, becomes even more valuable.