The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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FEB 2022 Issue
Art In Conversation

Ashley Bickerton with Dan Cameron

“There is an unwavering need to soar in beauty and to ignite some intangible in the hearts of unknown others.”

Portrait of Ashley Bickerton, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Ashley Bickerton, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
On View
Lehmann Maupin
Ashley Bickerton: Seascapes At The End Of History
January 27 – March 5, 2022
Ashley Bickerton: A Remote Summer of Their Own
January 27 – March 5, 2022
New York

Ever since bursting onto the scene during the East Village’s so-called Neo-Geo wave during the last half of the 1980s, Ashley Bickerton has tended to be the odd man out relative to the generation with which he is invariably compared. Although his early works were eye-popping and futuristically slick, Bickerton wasn’t especially interested in theories of appropriation or simulation, nor was he seduced by the doctrine of banality. His outsider status was further cemented with the decision in the late 1990s to pull up stakes in NYC and move to the Indonesian island of Bali, where he has been able to pursue a more labor-intensive mode of working, with few of the career-related pressures that characterized his pre-Bali life. Meanwhile, his work has grown increasingly fraught with globalist tensions, intimations of ecological disaster, and an ethnographic pluralism that hearkens back to his childhood as the son of a peripatetic linguistic anthropologist, and his formative years in Hawaii. Although I’ve always been an enthusiast for his work and we’ve had a good rapport as friendly colleagues, we were never personally close, so actively keeping up with him was only possible through social media ties, which have strengthened in recent years. We connected just before the holidays, a few months after his disclosure to the world that he’d recently been diagnosed with ALS, a debilitating and potentially fatal motor neuron condition that has sharply limited his physical activities.

Ashley Bickerton,<em> River Vector: Big White</em>, 2022. Oceanic flotsam and beach detritus, stainless steel, etched glass, rubber, brushed aluminum and plywood. 90.94 x 90.94 x 5.9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
Ashley Bickerton, River Vector: Big White, 2022. Oceanic flotsam and beach detritus, stainless steel, etched glass, rubber, brushed aluminum and plywood. 90.94 x 90.94 x 5.9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Dan Cameron (Rail): Do you still feel like a New York artist who just happens to live in Bali?

Ashley Bickerton: Well, my identity was forged there, and my language was forged there. Even my sense of being an artist in the larger world was forged there. In that sense, I'm a New York artist, always will be.

Rail: I agree with you, and I think that the terms by which you began your practice in public are still very much the terms that you're operating with now.

Bickerton: We could also parse what being a New York artist means—in my case, a New York artist who went to CalArts and studied with John Baldessari, who then went on to work with Jack Goldstein. These are all very LA kinds of connections.

Rail: Also, you were dealing with conceptual art in a way that other CalArts students ended up doing. You were deeply interested in the object. In your own words, you were after Judd, you were on his trail.

Bickerton: Yes, it’s so funny now to think that at one time I saw god in those boxes, and now I just see an expensive box. He made the empty container so you could pour in whatever you wanted, and people poured god in, they poured in the world, the universe. They became these sort of ornate Mandarin ritual artifacts.

Rail: Every biography that mentions you starts with “Ashley Bickerton came up in the East Village with Peter Halley, Meyer Vaisman and Jeff Koons,” and in retrospect it seems completely inaccurate, like pretending that the horse race itself is art history. Is that one reason you left?

Bickerton: At the risk of fingering slipshod academics and lazy journalism, that is the case. You just get processed like a taxonomical artifact, like some butterfly with a pin through it. You get labeled, indexed, and committed to some construction of “historic record,” and then it all moves on again. It’s stifling in every sense. In many ways it's a lot like an actor being typecast. The other thing that maybe caused my need to move, to break out, was what I'd actually done to myself. I had set up an artistic dynamic based in many ways on reacting against the work of Donald Judd and turning his boxes against themselves. The box became my tool, and then in the end my prison. So there I was, handily and superficially labeled by a lazy art history on the outside, and structurally limited by the parameters of the box on the inside. I desperately needed to break free, so when New York City went south for me, with my career circling the drain, a marriage in tatters, and facing yet another bleak winter, I just said, “Enough. Let’s just roll the dice, get the hell out of here and see what happens.”

But I want to parse that New York identity thing a bit more. One of the best essays that I feel has ever been written on my work was by Abigail Solomon-Godeau. Reading it the first time was such an odd and surreal experience. It felt as if she was just seeing right through me, like I was some sort of Alex Gray painting. I actually got goosebumps. She reached in deep and strung things together that painted a very different picture than the usual boilerplate descriptions of my work and history. Instead she laid out seemingly unexpected links to artists like Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley. Besides being a longtime California-based intellect of the highest order, Abigail is also a preeminent Gauguin scholar, so she was able to draw in all of this stuff and pull very different lines of thought together—things that I hadn’t even thought of myself. She very clearly laid out the California route and its relationship to both the Pacific and New York. You have to remember, in cultural terms, while Hawaii in many ways is very different from the American mainland, it shares its closest cultural kinship with California. Growing up in Hawaii, my idea of America was California, and I found it very interesting that she was able to see that there was so much California in the work.

I also have to say that when I bought a house in Los Angeles and moved back there, I was quite happily surprised by how welcoming many of the artists were. My impression was that it was a general thing amongst California artists that they were so welcoming, but I was told by other artists that it’s not the case. I’m not sure why I was afforded that sort of welcome.

Rail: Well, I think that for an LA artist, if Ashley Bickerton comes back to California, then he’s not just a Californian by default, he’s gonna be welcomed as the prodigal son.

Bickerton: Thanks Dan, one would certainly like to think that. It is true though that when you leave a place, no matter what the reason, there is often a residual feeling of abandonment on the part of the people who you’ve left behind, no matter what your reason for leaving was. I feel I have always had that following me since my departure from New York. The city can wear on you, so when many artists get to a certain age they just want to get out of the grating metropolitan heat trap and move to places like upstate New York, somewhere quieter and more pastoral, more bucolic. Many of my contemporaries did just that, but upstate New York with its frigid northeastern winters was not an option for me, so my upstate New York was located halfway around the world in the tropical belt. That was the only difference. Of course it brought with it lots of other issues, a lot of them technical, some logistical, and more than a few emotional.

Rail: Regarding the artistic transition between New York and Bali, it looked like you were making one body of work after another, pulling people more deeply into what you were after, just as we were all shedding a lot of what the late ’80s were supposed to have been about. I mean, speaking for myself, I found myself in the 1990s attached to more of a post-colonial framework of thinking about art, and dealing more openly with the political realities embedded in artistic discourse. Who of this generation that we’re talking about really expressed any particular commitment to that, other than you?

Ashley Bickerton,<em> Mangrove Footprints 1</em>, 2021. Resin and corten steel. 68.5 x 40.94 x 7.87 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
Ashley Bickerton, Mangrove Footprints 1, 2021. Resin and corten steel. 68.5 x 40.94 x 7.87 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Bickerton: Yes, it’s a huge problem when you see decades of artworks go through the same repeated formal gyrations, always solipsistic, always hopelessly self referential, mute in the face of the world’s boundless variety and dynamism. When you first encounter these explosions of newly developed artistic languages—Conceptual Art, Pop Art, Minimalist Art—the excitement of their arrival and potential application are dizzying. Slowly it dawns on you that those art forms are only capable of using their considerable machinery to describe themselves. They were hopelessly unable to apply themselves as discursive tools of the larger world in any meaningful sense. Donald Judd’s work is incapable of discussing his feelings when holding his first grandchild, just as Clyfford Still’s work could not possibly be put to the task of describing the anatomy of a toxic relationship, or a gorgeous foreign vista shared with a young lover—they can only add association and background music. And so what the hell was I doing locking myself into an insular feedback loop that lived only to mutely reflect a societal moment? Why wasn’t I able to just use all these new tools as the vehicles they were ideally meant to be, to address the vital world that I saw swirling around me every day?

Rail: What I think is different in your case, Ashley, is that I never knew you to not question the limits of mere style. You were always breaking down that language, and always pushing back against the typecasting. Did the change of physical or geographical context also change the meaning of the work?

Bickerton: That is ironic in a way, because after moving to Bali, I came back and did a show in 1996 at Sonnabend Gallery, and the common reaction was, “Oh, my God, look at what this crazy place he’s moved to has done to his work. It’s like he’s living on the Island of Dr. Moreau.” But the truth was that I planned the entire show out before I left New York. What I wanted to do was get out of the city so that I could have enough time to do that labor intensive work that I could not have done in the city. Over the course of my years in New York, my time had become so intricately tangled in a raft of adjunct distractions. I mean, once you’ve been around for a certain length of time, you feel an obligation to attend the opening of your ex-assistant’s boyfriend, and every other marginal contact you don’t wish to offend. These begin piling up until you come to a point where you start trying to plan out your work week and realize that the entire thing is already booked up. And worse, when you mostly work at night, a six to eight o’clock opening is right smack in the middle of your work day.

Rail: And getting back to work after that…

Bickerton: It’s a 50/50 proposition. So I knew that I couldn’t do the kind of labor-intensive, hyper-realist works that I wanted to do staying in New York. That was what really changed, not so much the content.

Rail: Where, in your estimation, is the critical discourse on your work right now? What has it achieved?

Bickerton: It seems all my support is amongst artists, and particularly younger artists. It’s almost completely non-existent in the marketplace in the west at this point, and also completely non-existent in an institutional context, as you and I have discussed. It’s sort of a mystery. Somebody commented to me recently that I get quite a bit of attention, and I do generate attention or the work itself generates it, but I don’t get institutional support. I’ve never had one regional kunsthalle or one university museum, let alone a one-person museum show of any sort—nothing. The impression this person had was that my seemingly high profile was indicative of both healthy institutional and market support. I do however feel extraordinarily fortunate that I have somehow been able to tread a precarious line through it all that has allowed me to keep making art uninterrupted these past 40 years.

Rail: The corrupting effect of the hyper-monetization of contemporary art over the course of the last three decades has produced this really topsy turvy world where the work that gets the most acclaim and that seems to have the biggest support is often the work that ends up petering out the fastest. We’re in one of these periods of art history where, as contradictory as it sounds, only underdogs seem to have any staying power.

Ashley Bickerton,<em> Floating Ocean Chunk (South Pacific for North Atlantic) 1</em>, 2021. Resin, stainless steel, rope and carabiners, 50 x 50 x 13.18 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
Ashley Bickerton, Floating Ocean Chunk (South Pacific for North Atlantic) 1, 2021. Resin, stainless steel, rope and carabiners, 50 x 50 x 13.18 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Bickerton: In my observation, it seems to go both ways. There’s some who blew up big and deserved it and stayed. And then there are others who didn’t. And then there are those who got discovered later. It seems to be all over the place. But I’ll tell you what we can absolutely agree on, and that is that this is probably the most ridiculous market we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

Rail: It is, and it also distorts how things are valued. I mean, you get support from younger artists, and I think we both know that that is the gold standard. There is nothing that actually matters more in the longer run than how you’re perceived by an emerging generation, because they’re the ones who will be writing the art history of next year and the years afterwards. That’s just how the story gets told.

Bickerton: Fingers crossed. [Laughter]

Rail: I wanted to talk to you about my recent introduction to Hawaii, because it allowed me to appreciate you from a whole different angle that I hadn't experienced before, in the sense that I got to picture you there as a teenager. In preparing to speak with you I was thinking about Hawaii—and Polynesian culture in general—and how you became this person searching, or moving through the world with a very particular perspective, in Hawaii, and how you seem to be that person in a sense that I never understood when I first met you in New York 35 years ago.

Bickerton: Is it politically safe in our current climate to say that my work has always been about identity in some form, but given my unfashionable age, race, gender and orientation, it’s not really been encouraged to be seen or discussed that way? In truth it always has been about that, because being born in the Caribbean and growing up on four continents as the child of academics and almost always the racial other, my situation is particular in that I never understood race in America in the way that Americans understand it. I grew up in situations where my brother and I were often the only white kids in our school, in Africa, in the Caribbean, and in Guyana in South America. We moved around a lot because of my dad’s work as a specialist in Creole and Pidgin languages, living in place after place where they spoke English “funny.” Over the course of my childhood I ended up speaking five dialects of English, none of which was comprehensible to the next, and living always as a peripatetic outsider, never staying anywhere longer than a couple of years. It all conspired to forge a very particular and relativist sense of identity.

When we finally moved to the US, we didn’t move to America per se, we moved to Hawaii, which in ways that matter is a completely different thing. And so the work has always been a search for identity, an understanding of a dynamic self in the context of an ever shape-shifting larger world where all meaning is fluid and relative. A chunk of that identity is global, with a large chunk of that certainly being oceanic, so I’m glad you brought it up. When I knew you were in Honolulu, I was very excited for your impressions and that you might see some of the things that my work actually addresses that the larger audiences miss. In the world that I come from, the surf world, the island world, the tropical world, there are so many references that people who live in those places recognize immediately, whereas other people, if they recognize them at all, see them as needlessly exotic, or overwhelmingly florid. It’s an odd kind of mix—the cool, conceptually driven New York take, and the warm sensual tropical take—but coming squarely out of both these roots, the two inevitably merge.

Ashley Bickerton ,<em>8°36’59.2"S, 179°05’27.9"E 1</em>, 2022. Resin, fiberglass, stainless steel, wood. 72 x 24 x 16.13 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
Ashley Bickerton ,8°36’59.2"S, 179°05’27.9"E 1, 2022. Resin, fiberglass, stainless steel, wood. 72 x 24 x 16.13 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Rail: I think it’s interesting that you started that remark invalidating the notion of your search for identity—half in jest—because of your upbringing, the color of your skin, your socioeconomic background, etc., but I don't buy that, and I don’t think you do either. Meanings invariably shift across boundaries, but they also become very malleable depending on who does the sending and receiving. And I feel like the way codes and signifiers exist in your art has a lot to do with this idea of moving things across trade routes and into new linguistic structures, where all the meanings get turned around, as if the one starting premise of your work is how the Earth is polyglot by nature.

Bickerton: In describing the thinking process in my work I often use terms like “code switching” or “cultural drag,” so you’re probably dead on. As I follow you on social media, I ended up luxuriating in every reported detail and revelation of your Hawaii trip, whether it was just a sunset, or some deeply insightful cultural observation. I was even happier I was able to point you toward that book, Honor Killing by David Standard. While I grew up steeped in the history of the islands, it was that book, more than anything else that unflinchingly laid out exactly what Honolulu was. The 1932 Massie trial represents the great inflection point that laid bare all the racial and cultural fault lines. It was these dynamics, the most significant to convulse the islands since the overthrow of the monarchy, which reshuffled our ideas of race and class into the particular positions that they still hold today. We understand why, for instance, Hawaiians of Portuguese ancestry are not considered Caucasian, or Ha’ole, meaning “not native,” but instead part of the larger brown melting pot that is Hawaii, even though Portugal is clearly part of Europe. Conversely, with a local population originally hailing from as diverse a set of locals as the Philippines, Korea, Japan, China, and the Pacific Islands, it is only people of European ancestry that are considered ha’ole. It’s an odd phenomenon, and while race is a very real issue in the islands with its history theft and dispossession, in today’s daily life it comes with a very different dynamic and communal understanding to its counterpart on the mainland, and is as likely a source of humor and friendly banter as it is a potential source of animus. On a group of islands where the blood of a plurality of residents is a mixture of several ethnicities, racial interaction can often take a playful form, but there always is a in the background of any interaction the underlying understanding from where the blood flows, of who is Kanaka Maoli or indigenous-pre contact, who is “local,” and who is Malahini, or newcomer-interloper.

Rail: These are very much present day concerns, since the Hawaiian Renaissance happened during many of these folk’s lifetimes. And the fact that the Hawaiian language has come back, the hula has come back—and there’s so much about traditional culture that’s returned to mainstream Hawaiian culture—is all part and parcel with the realization that, well, we used to be a sovereign nation, what happened? This constant probing of their historical fate, of being American but a part of America that had been forcibly annexed, really was not what I was expecting.

Bickerton: I’ll admit I’m very much pro Hawaiian sovereignty. But, again, like so much of my artwork, I’m of two minds, you know, I can go both ways. I mean, yes, okay, maybe Hawaii gets to remain the fiftieth state, but I will never understand it as American in the way someone from the midwest or Boston might.

Rail: It feels like you grew up as this kid surfing in Hawaii and in your work that accumulated experience radiates like a pure moment, an exaltation of being alive. At the same time, you were this smart, inquisitive teenager seeing that while the world has endless opportunities, it also has endless constraints, and the way your art often posits meanings seems to have a lot to do with keeping this critical spirit alive.

Bickerton: I’ve often said that I was beholden not to a style, but to the internal motor that propels the work. Whether it’s peacock feathers one day or lizard skin the next, the motor always remains the same, and always goes in the same direction. I’ve been constantly flummoxed by the fact that people pay so much attention to the outer surface stylistics and not the internal motor of an artist’s enterprise. In a sense, if you have been publicly marked as making hard edged introspective abstraction or cold conceptual work, you’re somehow disbarred from being allowed to do insouciant and expressive work.

Rail: Those limitations have always seemed pretty meaningless where your work is concerned.

Bickerton: But sadly they’re not meaningless as far as either the market or the official academic narratives are concerned. Stylistic promiscuity is seen as a sign of weak artistic character.

Rail: I would agree that there are limits of style that are placed as constraints around artists’ work all the time, and that it’s nearly always damaging to an artist. But whenever I’ve thought about your work, I felt that you deconstruct the idea of style in a way that's completely hybrid. I feel like I could always recognize an Ashley Bickerton if I saw it, but if you were to ask me what the connections were between two very different Ashley Bickertons, I wouldn’t be able to explain it in simple terms.

Bickerton: The constant in my work is that they are never what they are. Things are parodies of paintings, or they’re things pretending to be paintings, or they’re painting-like things and art-like things. Nothing ever actually settles, and standard identity markers are always rejected.

Rail: What’s the body of work that you’re doing right now?

Ashley Bickerton, Installation view, Newport Street Gallery. April 21 - August 20, 2017. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates. Courtesy the artist; FLAG Art Foundation, New York; and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
Ashley Bickerton, Installation view, Newport Street Gallery. April 21 - August 20, 2017. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates. Courtesy the artist; FLAG Art Foundation, New York; and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Bickerton: The big shift to where I am right now began about six years ago while I was putting a large career spanning show together for the Newport Street Gallery in London. The Newport Street Gallery as you know is this private museum setup owned by Damien Hirst, who besides being a good friend has long had quite strong feelings for my work of the late ’80s. One thing that was driving my desire for this shift in the work was the realization that there had been a severe bifurcation in my audience over time. On the one side were people who apparently thought that the work I did in New York before I left for Bali was the schnitz, and then I ran off to some island and lost the plot. And then on the other hand, and equally odd, were another group of people that knew only the later, more flamboyant Bali-based work, and so when they discovered the older work with all its conceptual witticisms and dry manners, they were nonplussed and unmoved by it. I didn’t like having a bifurcated audience, particularly as I saw all the work as one continuum. It was clear that I needed to draw my entire oeuvre full circle.

By the time the Newport Street show began to loom on my horizon in about 2015, I had finally reached a point where I was ready to re-embrace my older work from the New York period. It was in my Bali studio fixing some broken older works from the ’80s, as well as finishing some works that had never been fully assembled from the same period, when it became really apparent that you can’t do that kind of work in Bali, just as you can’t make the kind of work I made in Bali in New York City. You simply can’t plant a coconut tree in Central Park, it just won’t grow. And same with a Douglas fir on coastal Bali—it too won’t grow. That earlier work came out of Canal Street, and out of the industrial precincts of Red Hook and Greenpoint. So when I wanted to re-embrace it, it was a huge technical hurdle to do so on an island with completely different tools, different materials, and wildly different sensibilities. Here, people can build incredibly complex things without a ruler, all eyeball, and true straight lines or right angles don’t exist. But how does one build a shining seamless Judd in an environment like this? It took almost two years of failures before I began to feel I could once again confidently speak in my old language in these new circumstances.

I got the idea for the flotsam works a couple of years back when my wife and I went down to the beach at the base of the cliffs just near my house in Southern Bali. When we arrived in the middle of the day it was high tide and the waves were smashing up against the base of the cliffs in many places. Throughout the afternoon the tide receded and as I sat there in the late afternoon lost in the reverie of the moment, I suddenly saw it all around me. It was certainly a Eureka moment. All up and down the beach as the tide had ebbed, each receding wave had left long undulating lines of both organic and human made detritus. These were the vestigial residues of waves spelled out in the broken human narrative of ocean borne flotsam. It said everything I wanted to say and I knew I could run with it. The question then became, run where? I floated the idea by Hirst as a possible series of works I wanted to make for the culminating room in the retrospective, but I knew he would be unlikely to respond to a written description. I really liked the idea, but I knew I had to convince him if these works were going to be included in the show. After several unsuccessful efforts to secure his support, each more visually elaborate than the last, I finally said, okay, I'll just dress it up in ’80s drag. I gave them the full compliment of covers, buckles, cables and all of that optical hyperbole, sent the plan off to Damien, and one nanosecond later his text came back, “Fucking love it.” I should have done the drag in the first place and just minimized the whole flotsam idea, but in a way I sort of smuggled it in and everyone was happy.

That particular show was the one that brought the formidable extent of the challenge into focus. If I were to finally engage the full range of my language from over the past four decades, I was going to face a very uphill battle figuring out how to properly build the earlier New York style work on this tropical island on the other side of the planet. One has to picture that in a burgeoning powerhouse nation of 280 million people spread across 17,000+ islands, there is not one fabricator of aluminum to be found in the entire archipelago, so ingenuity, improvisation, and a bit of luck were the only recourse. I had to first resolve this fabrication issue in order to resolve uniting the language, to bring the work full circle, synthesize it across that bifurcated chasm, and come out the other end with a hopefully overarching pan-Bickerton language.

When Gabriel Orozco lived in Bali for a while a few years back we became friends and I brought this bifurcation issue up with him. I described the audience split and how I needed to bring it all together for it to make sense. He just said, “Why?” I was a little stunned, and that has sloshed around and echoed in my brain ever since. Because he’s right. Let the audience do the work. You just go on your path to wherever you’re heading and let everybody else pick up the pieces and make sense of them as they choose. One is not obligated to shed light on meaning or intention.

Rail: I agree with Gabriel. I don’t think it’s the job of the artist to explain the work, or even meet the viewer halfway. I think the job of the artist is to put their statement out there and let the audience find them.

Bickerton: Well the irony is that even though I was already committed to bringing my work full circle and embracing that pan-Bickerton language, Gabriel’s words interceded, letting me realize that I should let it go where it goes, letting it all breathe free, and not trying to tether it to any principle. I have always believed that an artwork is always at its greatest level of beauty, when it exists as an idea in the artist’s mind. In that unrealized state it is so full of potential, so luminescent with possibility.

Rail: Because it doesn’t exist?

Bickerton: It doesn’t exist, but it does. In an artist’s mind it can be very, very clear and very tangible. Sometimes when you finish a work and you finally see it realized in it’s full physical glory, there is a sudden let down, that beautiful evanescent vision is now just more stuff in the world.

Rail: Yeah, but there’s a difference when you have work, as in your case, that functions as almost a cornucopia of meanings, where all these signifiers are just spilling out, their meanings colliding or merging. That’s not just stuff. You’re not just putting magnets onto your refrigerator door and making poetry out of them. There’s a bit more heft going into the choices you make.

Ashley Bickerton,  <em>°36’06.2"N, 131°09’41.8"E 1</em>, 2022. Resin, fiberglass, stainless steel, wood. 72 x 24 x 16.13 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
Ashley Bickerton, °36’06.2"N, 131°09’41.8"E 1, 2022. Resin, fiberglass, stainless steel, wood. 72 x 24 x 16.13 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Bickerton: Yes, sometimes upon completion art does that perfect three point landing as delicately as a prima ballerina. And sometimes it lands with a thud. Sometimes it needs to be reworked, but invariably, you get it to a point where you're satisfied, and you let go. You know you have a good one where upon completion it just seems to float. But even with one's most successful finished artworks it’s never at the level, that ethereal and heartbreakingly beautiful level that exists purely as an idea or a longing.

I always thought the great contribution of my generation was to nail down the perverse kernel of American spirituality. This was most purely exemplified in the work of Haim Steinbach and early Jeff Koons. They saw that when one opens a box containing a newly bought object, and there it is, unused and pristine as a thing, it has this fetish quality, this, I would say, spiritual quality, isolated for that moment before it becomes just a shoe that will shuffle through dog excrement and kick things off a pavement. They have frozen that moment, that faultless embryonic state brimming with yearning and potential. Both Jeff and Haim managed to perfectly embody that idea through their objects—an essential and almost mystical idea of American Post-Capitalist spirituality that I thought had never been so accurately articulated.

Rail: I would not disagree, but I’d add your name to that. Maybe you’re not a sculptor in the same sense that Jeff and Haim are, but much of your work possesses an inherently sculptural integrity. And you went in a very different direction. What I'm calling “critical inquiry,” this push towards new complexities in your work has also appeared to me as a spiritual quality. I can’t articulate it other than to say it’s a questing energy, someone's search to articulate things that exist just beyond the limits of articulation, almost in the realm of the ineffable or the inexplicable.

Bickerton: It was very important not only for the artwork to be able to speak to a number of subjects, but also that it can hold its own contradictions. An artwork is an artwork, not science or law, and it can completely contradict itself. It can offer up several antithetical positions and yet still remain inherently honest to its own principles.

Rail: How do you feel that that plays out in your work in the longer view? I mean, we started off talking about this absence of a desire on the part of critics and academics to really grapple with the deeper critical meanings of your work, but I think you and I can both agree that those meanings are there. How do we start to change that conversation? I feel like the reception of the work is not the problem—it’s the level of critical discourse surrounding it.

Bickerton: I tend to blame myself a lot. But I will acquiesce to your view, if only because it offers comfort, and I don’t have to beat myself up so much. Anyway, Should we address that great elephant in the room?

Rail: I mean is there anything you want to share? I want to give you the opportunity to talk about what's meaningful to you.

Ashley Bickerton, Installation view, The FLAG Foundation, New York. September 23 - December 16, 2017. Photography by Steven Probert. Courtesy the artist; FLAG Art Foundation, New York; and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.
Ashley Bickerton, Installation view, The FLAG Foundation, New York. September 23 - December 16, 2017. Photography by Steven Probert. Courtesy the artist; FLAG Art Foundation, New York; and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Bickerton: Let me let me put it this way, I felt that in the last four years, since my shows at the FLAG Art Foundation and the Newport Street Gallery, that I was really coming around, and that I was finally truly in control of my language as an artist, although career-wise I was at a nadir. It felt like I was almost not on the map, but I also felt that it really didn’t bother me. I have managed to survive, even thrive, and I live a fine life that makes me happy, always finding ways to make the work I want to make.

My parents both lived to be 92. My dad died at 92 a couple of years back, and my mom is 92 now and still kicking. So I thought, I'm 62, I’ve got 30 more years to put this all together, to lay it all out. The language that I’ve spent a lifetime developing was coming into clear focus and taking a very particular shape and fluency that fills me with hope. I firmly believe that if you truly speak with your own voice, your own mind, and do it your way, sooner or later things are gonna give, and hopefully the lolly-gagging institutional support is not just posthumous. What I want more than anything isn’t financial reward or even recognition. I want to do well enough simply to keep going, to keep working, to be able to realize possibly ambitious projects, and for the work to have a platform and audibility.

Rail: Audibility?

Bickerton: As artists we want to be heard. Those who say they don't are liars, because why in hell would you do it? Otherwise, it's just masturbation. And of course sufficient liquidity to continue to do what you do is important, you know, just to keep it all up. There are a few very big artists who pour enormous amounts of their own money back into projects that are clearly not designed with the bottom line in mind. Look at Anish Kapoor: he couldn’t possibly find buyers for all those massive things he makes, but he can’t help himself, and I really respect that. I love the obsession. And I think it doesn't really matter if the work gets stuck in storage, whatever, the point is they did it, they exist. As artists, all we really want is to be out there reshuffling the world, adding things, and posing unresolvable questions. This is just how we're wired.

So I saw things lining up very nicely, I was full of optimism and plans, and then this bloody disease took me by surprise. I didn’t know what it was for a long time, it takes quite a while to actually get a proper diagnosis because we’ve got to go through a rather long and elaborate process of elimination. We went through a raft of misdiagnoses, from spinal stenosis to chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP, before finally being able to conclude it was most probably ALS or Motor Neuron Disease, (both essentially being the same thing). It is still not 100% certain at this point, I’ve been diagnosed differently in Surabaya, Indonesia and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and now I’m going to go to America to go through another and hopefully final battery of tests that I hope will prove conclusive. Sadly there's not much else it could be at this point, and some of the alternatives are possibly even worse. So, it being a motor neuron disease, it has no known cure, and offering a projected lifespan of only two to four years, it is a rather bleak prognosis. But Stephen Hawking kicked around for a while, albeit in a rather unenviable condition. And others have been known to stick around for quite a while too. And then there's always the hope of some, you know, new clinical—

Rail: A breakthrough.

Bickerton: Yes. But then you think of every stage-four cancer patient who has hinged their hopes on some new clinical trial breakthrough that’s going to save them. I want to temper my expectations and go with what I got. Right now, I no longer have the physical stamina to exist in a frenzy, but I’m as frenzied as I can be in trying to get as much work done as possible. I am hard-wired in that need to speak, to make, but at the same time dosed with enough healthy relativism to continually ask myself, in the end, what’s the point? I’m just another lump of human biomass. What does one more voice matter amid the collective scream of our species?

You know, I love to communicate, and more than anything I love the idea of transporting people, to move them from point A to point B with knowledge, emotion, and feeling. I don't know why. I don't know if it's even meaningful to do so. Maybe I should just step back and not disturb the universe, but all I ever wanted to do was simply to do what the likes of Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen have done for me. There is an unwavering need to soar in beauty and to ignite some intangible in the hearts of unknown others. The reasons for this are not clear, but to not do so would be the same as death.

In Indonesia we have a great word, “taksu”—there is no similar word in English. Taksu is the state of rapture when the hair on the back of your neck stands up as you are transported in an ecstasy of cultural uplift. To be able to provide that as an artist is, I think, the greatest accomplishment of all. You want to nail those beautiful things, those ineffable things, and touch that transcendental place, yet still personify those pure disembodied ideas that floated incandescent and untethered in your mind. And then when they land as objects in the world, if they land with grace and seem to float, never quite touching the ground, that’s when you know you’ve done it.


Dan Cameron

Dan Cameron is a New York based curator, writer, and educator. He is an editor-at-large for the Brooklyn Rail.


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