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Art In Conversation

Daniel Joseph Martinez with Phong Bui

Daniel Joseph Martinez, Divine Violence, 2007 (installation view, The Project, New York). Automotive paint on 125 wood panels, 24 x 36 in. each, overall dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and The Project, New York
Daniel Joseph Martinez, Divine Violence, 2007 (installation view, The Project, New York). Automotive paint on 125 wood panels, 24 x 36 in. each, overall dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and The Project, New York

On the occasion of the artist’s inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, which will be on view from March 6 to June 1, 2008, Daniel Joseph Martinez spoke with Rail publisher Phong Bui about his life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): I came to know your work through the controversial admission pin that you created as an interactive piece for 1993 Whitney Biennial that read “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.” (The phrase appeared in fragments on the pins, but I remember a few got the whole sentence, as I did.) And later, through David Levi Strauss’s compelling essay on your work “Between Dog and Wolf,” which was included in his first book, of the same title, in 1996. But let’s start from the beginning. I know you grew up in Lennox and that, similar to most of my Chicano and Asian friends who were born in the U.S., you didn’t learn to speak your mother’s language. However, given the long journey of reclaiming your heritage and ethnic self-awareness, it seems that your having witnessed the 1965 Watts riot, at age ten, made a very profound impression, could you explain the experience and describe how it has colored your worldview, which eventually became an integral part of your subject matter?

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui

Daniel Joseph Martinez: L.A. in the 1960s was both a politically radical and a politically conservative environment, so in a most bizarre and peculiar way, it embodied a paradox about its own identity. It was constantly in flux, and provided strange phenomena that manifested itself in direct social relations. Growing up in L.A. in a working-class neighborhood and speaking Spanish wasn’t at all uncommon, but the immediate context of life was within a matter of four blocks. On one side were poor Mexicans in Lennox, and on the other side Watts with poor blacks, and the last was Inglewood with poor whites. Needless to say, my initial experience, in terms of understanding a multicultural relationship, was one of segregated environments. Yet they were able to interact as best they could. The subject of race in L.A. has always been one of extreme tensions that occasionally explode right through the surface, below which all sorts of untold, unknown interactions were contained. As a kid, I found it difficult to comprehend seeing people herded under martial law. One horrific and unforgettable incident that occurred during the height of the riot involved a small boy my age who had taken a small radio from the store and was shot by the National Guard. I thought, “What was the condition in which it was necessary for someone to use such extreme action in that context?” That single event became crystal clear to me. From that point on, it changed the way I saw how my life unfolded in relationship to everything else.

Rail: When did you realize that you wanted to become an artist?

Martinez: I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything else, ever since I was three or four years old. I got my first camera when I was six. When I was ten, I had my first exhibition in the alley behind the projects where I lived. I put up a bunch of paintings, invited all the neighborhood kids, and gave my first artist talk. As a result, I got beaten up and had all my artworks destroyed. And I thought to myself, “Is this an indication of how this is going to be?” [laughs]

Rail: You later went to CalArts as an art major. What was your college experience like?

Martinez: At that time, I was bit of an anomaly, in that making art in the mid-seventies wasn’t exactly a circumstance of diversity. But what was amazing was that the forefathers of conceptual art were there, including Michael Asher, Douglas Huebler, John Baldessari, Robert Cummings, and John Mandel, to mention a few of the artists who were all there at the same time. To be exposed to those particular artists at that particular juncture was invaluable, because it allowed me to understand that art had potential beyond my own imagination.

Rail: How about the emergence of the performance works by Chris Burden, Barbara Smith, Paul McCarthy, Kim Jones, and others?

Martinez: From the late seventies to the early eighties, Los Angeles was one of the great places for performance art. One couldn’t keep up with what was happening, what people were looking at, what everyone was inspired by, what was considered underground, noninstitutional work that embodied the radical spirit. It acted differently, it engaged people intellectually and viscerally. It was an amazing time.

Rail: So all of that opened up new possibilities for you, as a young artist at the time, to combine photography with sculpture, installation, and other media.

Martinez: Yes, it did, and I decided then to choose a different strategy, to not focus on one medium for very long. I knew that it would be possible to bring the level of competence in each of the media as far as I could push it, and that process would allow me to make works that, tactically speaking, could prioritize the thinking and intelligence. In other words, instead of forming the ideas in relation to a particular genre, I was taught inside a post-studio framework that allowed for ideas to generate themselves, and then the artist could create the most effective vehicle by which to communicate those ideas.

Rail: Was there a specific moment in your work that you feel signaled your maturity as an artist?

Martinez: I would say that the year 1993 was a pronounced moment of clarity, when I produced the Museum Tags for the Whitney Biennial, an installation at the Aperto, in the Venice Biennale exhibiting photorealist paintings of the Red Brigades, and then opened the two projects at Cornell University, an installation that was inspired by May ’68 in Paris. And another major project with Mary Jane Jacobs in Chicago, called Culture in Action. That year became a type of a model for working, inside and outside of traditional spaces, with and against the canonical vocabulary, while allowing for the simultaneity of radical politics, in terms of content, and radical aesthetics, as forms, to coexist.

Rail: When I came to New York in the mid 1980s, it was the height of the Reaganite era, when the inflated economies inspired Reagan/Thatcher’s admiration for Friedrich A. Hayek’s advocacy of free market capitalism, which profoundly upset me, because what everyone came to know as “multiculturalism” was a way to fit the curriculum to the emerging need for cultural identity on the part of the so-called marginalized racial, ethnic, and gender groups. Of course it didn’t help I discovered a while ago that there had been this tremendous transformation that culminated in the late sixties in the decisive shift from liberalism to a support for the newly created ideology of neo-conservatism, which I think was brilliantly and collectively engineered by a few. Suddenly you had this phenomenon in the art world, where artists became overnight celebrities…

Martinez: Yeah. But at the same time, coming into the seventies and into the eighties, there was really a sense of euphoria, honestly, that genuine political agency was possible, both on the individual and on the larger social level, that there could be institutional changes and shifts made because of the mounting pressure of the Vietnam era, post freedom of expression, post civil rights, and so on. There was a culmination of the efforts that had been going on in this country for quite a long time, by all the intellectuals and activists and people who believed in a genuine progressive ideology. Herbert Marcuse was teaching at UCSD, Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, James Clifford, Donna Haraway, Mark Poster, were individuals whose politics were overtly being infused into situations here that allowed for hope that people genuinely felt. At that time, people still saw that through direct action, through collective organizing, and through supporting politically active individuals at other levels, you could slowly turn the tide of the conservatism that was strangling this country.

Rail: That’s also true. Could you talk about the time you spent in Ireland in the summer of 1994?

Martinez: I’ve always had a place in my heart for Ireland. It was the first time I had ever seen something that paralleled the kind of colonial circumstances of not only Mexican Americans but also blacks and Asians here in Los Angeles and in this country. And it wasn’t so much that my relationship was either with Catholics or Protestants, but simply that it seemed that the Irish in Northern Ireland were one of the last groups that categorically resisted colonization. They were bound and determined not to give up their identity, and unwilling to give up their homeland, regardless of the pressure put on them by the British military. There are not many other circumstances in which a war was carried out at such length and with such a furor that economic and social development stopped for twenty-five or thirty years, because the North was consumed with this war in the streets and countryside. As far as the perpetual problem of the immigrant is concerned, you know that they used to have curfews for Mexicans in East L.A. The overt racism and social prejudice that occurred then is still going on, but most people will not discuss it, in spite of the extraordinary history of resistance in California, such as the Black Panthers and the Brown Berets, who were constantly at the forefront of radical politics. Los Angeles and California were on the cutting edge of the war of political ideology. People fought and died here in order to expand the field of civil rights as an active reformation asserting a new model of identity. In other words, if you stepped outside of your door, you had to take a political position. You could not be neutral.

Rail: Let’s shift the subject a bit to your interest in photography, which seems to have come full circle recently, particularly in the context of using your own body as a singular means to reenact images that derive from, in one instance, Caravaggio’s David with the head of Goliath, and, in another instance, Eddie Adams’ iconic photograph of the police chief, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing a Vietcong prisoner in the streets of Saigon. My question to you is how those images were chosen and why?

Martinez: First of all, L.A. and the West Coast are the last stop for manifest destiny. It’s the gateway to Latin America, and it is on the Pacific Rim. It is geographically and politically susceptible to complex issues that are so much different than those of the rest of the country. Yet at the same time, it compresses the movie entertainment industry, Silicon Valley, and the most important military experimentation all in one place.

Rail: Don’t forget Caryl Chessman!

Martinez: Right. These different worlds colliding and coexisting provided an unusual opportunity that can be used in art. For instance, if the textual and visual languages are changed from the twentieth-century modes to the twenty-first-century speculations, you have virtual language that imagines new and untold possibilities for a new form of the future. In other words, I feel that there is a possibility of the coexistence of all these things that can be used and understood. So the attempt was to take the familiar and make it improbable or impossible. Those photographs that you mentioned were, in fact, completely produced by hand. Even though they appear to be digitally produced, they are performance works done for the camera. It was my own attempt to reenact history, to infect it with a form of visual virus. The most important single moment in changing the consciousness of the United States is a series of images that we all know. One was of a little naked girl running away from the Napalm bombing down the road by Nick Út. The second was Eddie Adams’ photograph of the execution. Third was the monk that set himself on fire by Malcolm Browne. Those three images changed the way this country perceived itself, its identity, and its involvement in a war that it absolutely had not understood before.

Rail: How about the way you took and translated Eddie Adams’ picture, into your own pictorial space?

Martinez: Well, it is based on two things. One is on Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, where he suggests that in order for the human species to move forward, one has to kill all the gods that it worships, including the self, including the ego first and foremost. So what I tried to do is essentially dismantle and destroy my own physical body step by step, one at a time. The second structural thread is based on Freud’s relationship to the development of Eros and the idea of the death instinct. Freud ultimately suggests that the death instinct might overpower the instinctual drive of Eros. We as a species are ultimately driven to, and built for, violence and destruction. It is inescapable, regardless of the notion of love and the possibility of Eros through passionate engagement; it is possible that the death instinct can overpower it at all moments. Barthes’s writing also suggests that love is a vehicle of political action in the most extreme times, which I would never deny.

Rail: Last year in The 10th International Cairo Biennale for the U.S. Pavilion, you presented an animatronic double of yourself that burst into sudden apoplectic attacks and malfunctioning. What was the impulse behind them?

Martinez: The title of that work was Call Me Ishmael, The Fully Enlightened Earth Radiates Disaster Triumphant. This was the second animatronic work in a trilogy. I am experimenting with the continued use of my doppelgänger, combined with testing the limits of the sentience of human and machine mutations, to prepare for new forms of consciousness. This work is based on Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick, and the presence of Ishmael as a religious figure in all three major Western institutional religions. Can a machine become more human than a human, and can a machine be the last hope for our humanity? Ishmael is an experiment in biomechanical transformations.

Rail: How about your white paintings that you made while you were at Artspace Residency in San Antonio and that later were shown at The Project in New York last year? Were they meant to be an ironic commentary on Robert Ryman’s painting?

Martinez: Not at all. Those are paintings with text panels, the surface is about one-half inch thick, titanium white paint, I was trying through a manipulation of the surface to produce a sublimity of perfection. The paint was squeegeed into a pure monochrome surface. When the paintings were on the wall, they almost became invisible. The installation was a close approximation of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings from his exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City, which are in turn juxtaposed against various texts out of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The idea was to create paintings that function as a space for interdimensional mental projection that could take place while you engaged with the paintings themselves.
As for the animatronic works, the first one in the trilogy is called To Make a Blind Man Murder for the Things He’s Seen, or Happiness Is Overrated. It was a single figure, a doppelgänger, a clone of myself, kneeling in the corner of an all-white room. This is the first-stage experiment between the biological machine and the mechanical machine to create a cyborg. The writings of Manuel De Landa, Donna Haraway, Sandy Stone, Critical Art Ensemble, and Philip K. Dick are important influences, along with the nature of the representation of the cyborg as it’s developed through science fiction. Blind Man is based on Yukio Mishima’s complex poetic and political life and the ritual suicide he committed. My machine struggles with a similar existential crisis—it is unable to fulfill its programming; the machine is locked in a perpetual cycle of dysfunction.

Rail: So that’s where your attraction to Philip K. Dick’s science fiction began?

Martinez: It was Jules Verne who predicted through science fiction many of the technological ambitions and revolutions that happened in the twentieth century: submarines, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days, underwater travel, space travel. But Dick’s importance as well as that of H.G. Wells cannot be underestimated. I have been reading his writings for twenty years now. He wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was very important to the development of Call Me Ishmael.

Rail: Dick’s The Man in the High Castle obviously wasn’t the first alternative history fiction. However, it certainly helped to define the sort of literary genre to be taken seriously in the early sixties, as I remember.

Martinez: Yes, and where does Philip K. Dick live? Los Angeles. This whole conversation cycles around the political, the social, and the aesthetic proximities and the potential of art as a means of transformation. What we find here is a single individual with the maximum degree of political and aesthetic agency writing science fiction in L.A.! Fabulous, just fabulous!

Rail: He was a total anarchist. Is there a continuity of your interest in both Dick and Manuel De Landa?

Martinez: Absolutely, because if Dick is the imaginary outlaw of social disruption, then De Landa is the reality check—the cold hard analysis of the future and the current manifestations of the state and the military apparatus as it takes technology to the darker side. In De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, he explains how essentially helpless we are against the machines that we have created.

Rail: Especially now in the last few years, with the fear of bioterrorism and germ warfare.

Martinez: Also Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, a brilliant book about the new revolution of the twenty-first century. He calls it GNR—G standing for genetic revolution, N for nanotechnology revolution, and R for robotics revolution. He argued that those three areas of research and study are the three that will change the face of humanity. Whereas in De Landa’s work, he tends toward the dark side, because he is always trying to warn us about the militarization of our lives in a global economy. I think it’s important to take Kurzweil, De Landa, and Dick and to synthesize them into this latent potential understanding of who and what we are in a world at war.

Rail: As we all know, images do correspond to our concept of memory, which is always associated with words. I’m sad to say that since the early eighties till the present, it’s been in the Republican domain. They certainly know how to use it to their advantage, especially since 9/11. So does corporate America, for that matter. This is an issue that Levi (Strauss) has been working on for quite a while. Take, for example, the reason why the Abu Ghraib image of the hooded man on the box became so powerful: not because he is covered from his face down but because his extended arms evoke the entombment of Christ, a gesture of powerlessness. I remember clearly how iPod began to manipulate the image, with some slight alterations, for their billboards right after May 10, 2004. Again, to my own reading of your work, you have been very deliberate and conscious in the way you reference past art. But I am interested in the way you have taken phrases from philosophical or poetic texts to evoke a greater ambiguity between textual and visual logic. How and when did this relationship occur?

Martinez: Even though I am a voracious reader, I’m trying to put myself in a position of not knowing in order to know, and vice versa. So for me it approximates a type of Zen Buddhist approach to the application of knowledge, that knowledge requires action; it cannot stand in stasis. It cannot languish on the sidelines. It cannot be theoretical for the sake of being theoretical, or academic. I would evoke Socrates’s ideas, which became so threatening, so visual, in a sense, that they required his execution, not to mention Giordano Bruno and others throughout history who were burned at the stake or executed for their ideas. The layers of latent images in our memory have been so powerful that they linger on. So my attempt has always been, in a sense, to function as a type of criminal, or dissident, in wanting to reorganize the textual logic to become a visual logic almost unrecognizable from its origins. To work in consideration of the universe from the viewpoint of an anonymous and plural author working in an unmediated intertextual manner. Is it possible to visualize an ethics to propose a way of being, to some extent a visualization of tangible ethics that has been reworked, manipulated, destroyed, and then rebuilt?

Rail: I remember your saying that your attraction to books didn’t come that easily from the beginning, but the physical action came first, which reminded me of something that Rousseau said: “Without action, all pleasure, all feeling, all knowledge, is nothing but a postponed death. We must not cease from toil until we have created a free space.” And perhaps this free space, however narrow it might be, is the only refuge where the complexity of art and life can coexist. You always say that if art isn’t from life, you’re not interested. So in a way you’re more romantic than most people think.

Martinez: Oh, I’m an unapologetic romantic. But I also am a Utopianist, full of apocalyptic despair but able to embody Utopic hope. Rousseau, in a sense, knew about that urgency. It’s true that books were not the first thing that came to me—I have studied and worked to make language and books become my structural foundation and inspiration. What came to me, as we discussed earlier, was that there was an urgency to be politically engaged with the crisis that was happening in Los Angeles, in the United States, and in the world, which heightened my sense of social and political awareness. I am highly invested in various aesthetic political paradigms and try to rethink these things in order to apply new tactics and strategies to them. There has to be a new way to understand the political dimensions that confront us, and not end up with binary, polarized discussions that are of no use. A catastrophe of an epic scale will be required for people to think about ethical, moral considerations or responsibilities that we have to one another as human beings. The twentieth century was the most violent century. How can we say that we are sophisticated, intelligent, and compassionate when we deny the truth of our own nature? The reason is simple: You and I benefit, like everyone else, from living in the Empire, and we are complicit in our own way, even though we fight against the institutionalization, capitalization, and free market globalization that is sending this world to its own destruction. I wonder if it would not be better to let us destroy ourselves. The result might give the human species a second chance.

Rail: Could you talk about your commitment as a teacher? I know you take it very seriously.

Martinez: I believe in what Beuys did. He acted as an artist, as an educator, as a political activist, as a witness to the age he lived in, while at the same time, at every moment, he ceaselessly risked his career, his reputation, and his own being in order to continue to advocate piercing and genuinely radical ideological shifts and transformations.

Rail: When did you discover Beuys?

Martinez: I met and worked as a studio assistant to his protégé, an artist named Klaus Rinke, who was doing assisting work for a couple of years in L.A. in the early eighties. Through him I was exposed to Beuys’s whole enterprise. Ever since then, I, like Levi (Strauss), have been studying and examining and trying to extend the possibilities of Beuys’s ideas into a contemporary operation. One of my reasons for teaching was that it seemed at the end of the eighties as though it was no longer possible to be genuinely involved in politics that made any difference. The political discourse in this country seemed to collapse because the neocons on the right and the neoliberals on the left were all espousing the same dogmatic rhetoric. So it seemed to me that the only place of genuine political agency, where you could take knowledge and pass it on to other individuals with complete freedom and autonomy, was the classroom. After all, politics is about the possibility of transferring the full spectrum of information to the youngest minds possible. That’s how you transform a nation.

Rail: How about the work you have in this Biennial?

Martinez: It’s a group of my paintings called Divine Violence, which is a typology of every organization in the world that uses violence or aggression to fulfill its political ideology. It’s really based on Benjamin’s notion of divine violence, which questions when violence is acceptable. Is it under God’s law, or is it under Man’s law? I’d include everyone from the left, right, and center, including all state-run organizations, such as the CIA, Mossad, the KGB, and level the political ideologies in relation to whom and what they say they stand for, and each of these is hand painted on top of these beautiful two-by-three-foot gold paintings done with an automotive method and type of paint that is subverted—from the clean kind of finish fetish into something that is still refined yet simultaneously hand done, but nevertheless completely monolithic in its representation. It references everything from the Renaissance and religion to precious mineral and economic considerations. Every symbolic and social function of gold gets wrapped into the history of these paintings, on top of the literary and historic references of the names of these organizations, which are absolutely fantastic. I’m only to the letter M, and I’ve already collected almost twenty-two hundred names of organizations. Which means that if it continues, there could be upward of five thousand groups in the world who currently claim that they are at war with someone else. Everyone claims the same thing: to be right, to be moral, to be ethical, and they all claim to be fighting in the name of God. If everybody is fighting in the name of the same God, does it not make perfect sense that the world is at war? The work creates a highly problematic condition because it exposes the essentialism of each viewer’s own political agenda. Say you happen to be Jewish and you’re looking at a painting of the Jewish Defense League, and it is positioned next to a painting of the Gestapo. In New York, when the show was up at The Project last year, a number of people were offended because of the flattening out of political ideologies between the Gestapo and the Jewish Defense League. So what happens is, as everybody argues for their own position, it actually exposes both the essentialism and the bankrupt position of that ideology and the current means by which politics have become prescriptive and ineffective. It is still a perpetuation of violence over one’s neighbor, regardless of whether it’s sectarian; it doesn’t matter what the terms of the conflict are. In other words, I’m claiming the end of useful politics, as we know it, in the exhibition.

Rail: It’s been fifteen years since you last participated in the Whitney Biennial. How do you feel about your inclusion in this one?

Martinez: I like to think of it as a bit of a homecoming. I’m very happy to have the opportunity to complicate people’s reading of my work once again. I’m proud of the work of ‘93, but it cast me in a very particular light that has never been very popular—nor were the complexities of the work examined in a rigorous and complex manner. I’ve always embraced a means to open debates, as part of a method to allow art to become an active agent of the possibility that ideas can infect our daily lives, and this usually leads to some form of controversy in the work. I think it will be very interesting to see how the analysis takes place in the 2008 biennial. I imagine there will be comparative analysis of the works seen in 1993 and 2008, which spans fifteen years of intense production, investigation, and experimentation. I hope that people will see that I’m purposefully creating a discourse that is multifaceted, producing a type of work that is similar to a paradox wrapped in an enigma. One of my interests lies in the politics and possibilities of the reorganization of aesthetics to create the means by which we can move beyond our current stagnation and our own histories. Can we embrace an intertextual and intercultural society to produce a means that moves us forward toward an unimagined future?

Rail: Well, in order to clarify your position, you are inhabiting the so-called “hour of metamorphosis, when people half hope, half fear that the dog will become a wolf.” It’s a negative space that you are operating in.

Martinez: Yes, but it’s a negative space that is very hopeful and full of optimism. It is about existing in the void, seeking the abyss, looking for a means to build a machine to time travel and live an interdimensional existence. I’m more interested in the spaces between the things and in asking questions that compel us.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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