Interview with Tom Johnson | And where are all the people | Raum, Bologna

"I am interested in analyzing some social taboos, not because I am so brave and strong but because I feel oppressed by them and can imagine that there is a better way to feel. My strategy is very simple. I analyze certain phenomena (racism, the male “gaze”, the psychology of wealth) because I find them in myself."
14 Dicembre 2017
Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

And where are all the people è il titolo della performance realizzata appositamente per Raum dell’artista statunitense Tom Johnson. L’appuntamento si svolge nello spazio bolognese sabato 16 dicembre alle 22 (Via Ca’ Selvatica 4/d). Prodotta da xing, la performance tocca molti dei temi che da sempre guidano la ricerca di Johnson. Presentata come un’azione a cavallo tra scultura, installazione e performance, And where are all the people? mette in scena “una struttura realizzata quasi esclusivamente dalla mia posizione e dalla statura di quell’uomo là”.

Nell’intervista che segue abbiamo chiesto all’artista come è nato quest’ultimo progetto, come ha conciliato i diversi mezzi espressivi, quali nessi ci sono tra il suo percorso individuale e l’elaborazione della performance e, infine, se ci sono delle relazione tra la sua produzione strettamente legate al mondo visivo – penso alle opere su carta esposte alla fine del gennaio scorso da Guido Costa Project a Torino – e quella invece più vicina al mondo performativo e teatrale.
CS – TOM JOHNSON – And where are all the people? – Raum 2017

Saturday 16 December at 10pm Xing presents at Raum And where are all the people?, performance by the American artist Tom Johnson.
And the people? With this question, Tom Johnson, an enigmatic artist, introduces us into his new performance by interrogating the difficulty of locating the subject. In the presence of a strange object, evoking metaphysical memories, in between sculpture, installation and performance, And Where are all the People? presents “a structure built almost entirely of my position and the stature of that man over there”. Who is he? Who are those other people?, Who are we? What unites and separates us in the figurative and peopled terrain of language?

“He was generous. He wanted me to be really just as I was. He didn’t try to change things. Yes, he was very powerful and rich, but so humble. He accepted things as they were: his position, his limits, mine. To accept can be a sign of enormous generosity, of a going beyond the usual confines to see things as they really are in themselves, not conditioned by some idea or structure.
They, in theory, asked me to participate in the idea. But then I couldn’t find them (the place was impossible to see from where I was standing). Later, for other reasons, I did get together with them, but it wasn’t the same thing. With them, my favorite truth was that I HAD to be able to know everyone. However, I must say that I ate better there, with them, than anywhere else.
This Structure will be physically present during the performance.

Interview with Tom Johnson —

ATP: The performance “And where are all the people?” that you will present at Raum, seems to be born from the tension in between the individual and the collectivity. Many are the questions that this could rise: who are we? Who are the others ? What unites us and what divides us. Can you tell us how this performance was born? 

Tom Johnson: The ideas for this work came up from a number of sources. I have never collaborated. I don’t know if I can. I have worked for others and I have worked for myself, but neither of these really involved collaboration. When I am in the middle of a performance (always a monologue) the question comes up, in my head “hey, Tom, where are all the people? You know they exist too. So why aren’t they here too, with you?”
I am middle-aged and I now have many friends who are old and will not live much longer. I think a lot about losing them. I also think a lot about the lives they have lead and about what their “success” has been, what their “happiness” has been: two words which almost necessarily imply relations with others.
I also think about what I have been given by these friends. Through caring for me have they given also their defects? What right do I have to be angry at them, for their mistakes, for their effect on me, for the fact that they are going to die and leave me without them?
My natural tendency is to go very slowly, to ask a lot questions, to listen a lot. However this can be frustrating. It can make you want something else. On the other hand, when I meet someone who just takes what she or he ”deserves”, I feel fear and anger, even hatred.

ATP: “And where are all the people?” has been described as a project in between sculpture, installation and performance. How did you choose the different expressive medias in relation to a certain content to be developed? 

TJ: I chose this combination both for reasons inside the subject and for reasons connected to a general way of working. One subject of the performance is the idea of vision. A difference is proposed between “having a vision” and “being able to see”. A vision is usually static, ideal, whereas being able to see involves comparison, change and motion. Therefore, in the performance, it is good to have both “a big vision” to look at, but it is also good to have parts that move and can be compared.
As a way of working in general, I try to get a form that answers what I believe in. I believe passionately in the good of powerful and correct visual presence. I believe passionately in the good of powerful and correct physical, bodily presence. And I believe passionately in the good of powerful and correct verbal presence. So then I like to have the visual, corporeal and verbal presence all together.

ATP: One of the themes that you tackle in this performance is vision (and it’s opposite, blindness) and the power linked to it. Also, In your previous performance you focused on richness. It should be more appropriate to say that you challenge the social taboos? In which way do you investigate them?

TJ: I am interested in analyzing some social taboos, not because I am so brave and strong but because I feel oppressed by them and can imagine that there is a better way to feel. My strategy is very simple. I analyze certain phenomena (racism, the male “gaze”, the psychology of wealth) because I find them in myself. Since I am very similar to many people, at a certain point my “problems” are communal problems. Working in this way, I try to avoid a certain authoritative voice. I do, however, have to wrestle with solipsism and its ilk. Thus, I am back to the question “where are all the people?”

ATP: I’m really curious about the link in between your performative research and your artworks on paper. I think about, for instance, your artworks exhibited in your show at Guido Costa in Turin.

Answer: My recent drawings are very very close cousins of my performances. Their subjects are the same, though they are treated more abstractly. These drawings depict difficulties that are both emotional and psychological. Often, it is very easy to see what you are looking at in the drawings because it is very highly rendered. But, that fact does not aid you in understanding what you are seeing. Even though you DO feel something distinctly, its name is difficult to “put into words”. Their subject is sadness, tension, loss, inability. These “EASY DRAWINGS” are abstract in the sense that I don’t depicted a clear member of a society, for example, a rich man or a blind man. In the past I have done this, and I liked that work too. Those pieces were not just close cousins but really were the same thing as my perfomances.

ATP: “And where are all the people?”, like other performances, is developed from your experience as an individual. How do you elaborate your experience in the performances that you present?

TJ: The answer to this is almost identical to the answer to the question concerning social taboos. I use myself as a field of research, my responses to phenomena in my life, but also in society, can be analyzed and examined and can lead to conclusions that can be generalized or left. I present myself as an example.
You, yourself, give yourself clues in continuation about what a fruitful direction to follow could be. This process is not very special. It is probably very similar to what some authors do. Of course, this looking-at-oneself must be balanced by a lot of not-looking-at-yourself.

ATP: Are there some authors or artists from which you took inspiration for your performances? Especially for “And where are all the people?” who were they?

TJ: The most important book for “And where are all the people” is Figures in a Spare Landscape, Serving in the twilight of empire, Bornu Province, Nigeria, 1959-60 by Peter Haring Judd. This is the memoir and assessment of my friend Peter Judd’s time working in Nigeria shortly before Nigerian independence. He was working for the British colonial administration, in particular with organizing voting procedures and education.
I have also been recently reading, with an extremely disciplined and intelligent private student, Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil. It is super pleasurable, a marvel of auto-gratification and insight (also for the reader) . However, it also has an elitism so complete that not even it’s mind-boggling generosity can fully redeem it.
Robert Massie’s Peter the Great is a very well-known biography of the emperor. This book was in the bookshelf at the head of the bed that I always slept in when I visited Peter Judd. So, as I would fall asleep at Peter’s house I would read about Peter the Great.
Albrecht Durer’s Melencolia is an artwork that continues to influence all my work.

Tom Johnson - And where are all the people

Tom Johnson – And where are all the people

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