Interview with Titus Kaphar by Stella Maria Baer
July 3rd, 2012
Stella Maria Baer: While your practice has always included some sculptural elements, in the past few years your work has grown increasingly three dimensional, including the film of your cutting the painting in Bermuda, and now this installation of a house in a gallery. What’s driving this move into more dimensions and mediums?
Titus Kaphar: You know, I feel like it’s about the work. Some things are just said best in different languages. I only speak one language, but I always find it interesting when people try to explain something to me and say, “this would be so much easier to explain if I could speak in my mother tongue“ or not even necessarily that – they say, “in Farsi this is just so much more clear.” Sometimes the idea dictates the language. And that’s been the situation with these sculptural pieces. It’s not so much that I wanted to start making sculpture as there were certain things I wanted to say, and they were more articulate in three dimensions than in two.
SMB: A lot of your work suggests a presence in absence, speaking to what is revealed when a figure is removed, covered, erased, or hidden. Do you paint knowing from the beginning that a particular element will be removed or destroyed? Or is that something you decide only after you’ve completed the original piece?
TK: After. I don’t think of it as destruction, I think of it as deconstruction. And you can’t deconstruct something until you first put it together. Only then can you understand it. So for me, this deconstruction is about a kind of sacrifice. I am not a monk, and I am not close to a saint, but the Buddhist monks who make those mandalas, the beautiful sand drawings, they spend hours, days making these things, and at the end they just blow it away. For me there’s something about that sort of sacrifice, that giving up of my best. There is a Christian metaphor – the Jesus story – underneath a lot of this work. That is to say, you give up your only begotten son, and it has to be this perfect sacrifice in order for it to be effective. And I feel like that’s really true in my work – if I were to put forward something that I didn’t spend any time on, or something that I didn’t really love making, I don’t think it would speak the way my work speaks when it’s…. “on.” Yeah, when it’s on.
SMB: So in keeping with this idea of sacrifice, and then absence – do you sense there is a real presence to the absences in your paintings?
TK: Absolutely. I mean, I’m always surprised by how loudly the figures I remove – how loudly they continue to speak. Sometimes what they say is the opposite of what was said before, and sometimes it changes in more unexpected ways. If you look at one of my early pieces, Unsure Footing: Unfolding the Myth of Power, there’s this political leader on horseback, from a genre meant to show how separate this person is from everyone else, how exalted and triumphant. But in my desconstruction, the horseman has been cut out, and is slipping from the frame. The piece then says the opposite of what it originally did. Other times, when a figure is completely removed, you long for what is gone, and your mind begins to insert the person back into the absence. Taking something away allows for new meaning. There’s also this sense of removing the dominant narrative and allowing space for the viewer to hear a different narrative. And sometimes that means removing a character entirely from a composition, so the viewer can investigate what’s happening on the periphery.
SMB: At times there seems to be almost a restorative quality to your work – as if you are going back in time and rewriting history, revealing what was originally hidden or silenced or left out of the history books. Do you view history as something malleable and permeable that we can continue to shape?
TK: Well there’s history with a capital H – what actually, really happened, and then there’s history, the history books we have, with a small h. And that history is not all that happened – that’s what people choose to tell, what story is passed down from generation to generation. So we can look back and say, actually, you know what, Jefferson was an amazing man, but let’s give you the full picture of his history – these were his strengths, these were his weaknesses. I think it’s malleable in that sense. We have great historians like Howard Zinn whose careers are based on this kind of revisionist history – and in a way I don’t even like calling it “revisionist” because that doesn’t speak to all that it actually does. It’s trying to get at these bigger truths, hearing the voices of those who were originally silenced or ignored.
SMB: So you mentioned earlier your current project on the Vesper family – how did that begin?
TK: Four years ago I received a letter from a guy named Ben Vesper asking me to do a commission based on his family story. I don’t really do commissions, because inevitably the person commissioning the project wants it to go one direction, and you want it to go another, so in general, I ignore them – I’ve had some bad experiences. So when I got his letter I just ignored it. Then a few weeks later I received another letter, and it sounded even more odd. But this time, in the folds of the letter, there was an old photograph – it looked like it was from the 1800s – and the face of the woman in the photograph was scratched out, as if somebody was trying to remove her, or hide her. That gesture reminded me of my own work, the kind of thing I’ve done to faces in paintings, and so I thought, well, let me look into this, and see what I can see. And the more I looked, the more I saw. Regardless of the mental condition of the person who contacted me, his family history compelled me. So I went down that road.
SMB: And what is your relationship with Ben now?
TK: Well, first of all, his name is not really Ben. We’ve gone back and forth on this a lot. He has a conservator who takes care of his estate, and who makes sure he does things for his benefit, and not to his detriment, and in order for me to be given permission to do this project, I had to agree to change all their family names, to protect the innocent – that sort of a thing. So we call him Ben, but that’s not really his name. Honestly, I don’t have much of a relationship with him. We communicate through letters, emails, and his advocate, but most of my conversations are with the advocate. Which is sort of problematic too, because, well, I don’t think that Ben’s advocate realized I was going to put together a massive exhibition in response to his client’s request. I think he just thought it was… I don’t know, I guess good therapy for Ben. But as the date gets closer he gets more reluctant to give me information and the things I’m asking for. We had a conversation last week, and it turns out that if it gets out that this advocate was the one responsible for releasing some of the documents that were given to me, he could be in a lot of trouble. He might actually lose his job. So we’ve changed all the names in the story, to protect everyone.
SMB: How has working with this family story developed your own work?
TK: I have a really strange family history myself. I was adopted when I was fourteen years old. I went back to visit not too long ago, and I started asking questions about our family history and stuff. And one person would tell me one story, and another person would tell me the same story, but with a different ending. And I realized that there are a lot of lies my family tells. I’m not going to sugar coat it. They just lie about the past. It’s very much to protect the “honor” of the older generations. These stories have been told for so long that they don’t even know what the truth is anymore. They’ve incorporated their fictions into their every day lives, such that they’re like, “real” now, they’re “facts.” And so when I started reading what Ben was writing, it brought me back to my own family, and felt like it was a way I could deal with these issues of memory, fiction, and the way that after a certain amount of time, we take pains we have suffered, and turn them into memories, even if it wasn’t a real situation. Does that answer your question?
SMB: Yeah, I think it does. Given that your client – given that Ben is in a psychiatric ward, have you had any trouble trusting him?
TK: (Laughs) I mean, I’d be crazy if I didn’t. Yeah, yeah. There are certain things that can be, like, objectively certified as “true.” And then there are things that are a part of any family’s lore. A lot of these things – even if they are true, there wouldn’t be any way to, like, “certify” that and say “yes, for a fact, this is true.” So what I trust is that this is true of his experience. These are the walls of the house he has constructed, and I’m just walking through it with him. I don’t know if there’s something on the other side of that wall. He tells me that there is, and so I believe him, but there’s really no way for me to know. But that’s the same with everybody , right? People tell us stories all the time, and whether we believe them or not, they are there. All of that is to say, I guess I trust him enough.
SMB: Why did you feel the need to create an entire house? Why was that part of the equation?
TK: Well, this is a story that his advocate told me – again, not something I’m sure he was supposed to tell me, but Ben was found squatting in this old abandoned house from 1870. Somehow he escaped from the hospital and this was where the police found him. He was convinced that house belonged to his family – the house his great, great grandfather had grown up in. Now the reality is that the house he was referring to burned down a long time ago. But he needed this place to still exist. He needed a place to go back to, in order to deal with the memories he was suppressing, and because it seemed like such a critical thing for him, there was no way I could exclude it from my project. Frankly, it would have been a lot easier to exclude it. The house he was squatting in was actually scheduled to be demolished, so what I’ve been doing is taking out as much of the architectural elements from it as I can, even whole walls in some cases. It’s been a nightmare dealing with it all. But that is how the idea of reconstructing the house came about.
SMB: Do you think that the older generations of the Vesper family would recognize what you’re doing as part of their history? How do you think they would perceive it?
TK: I think some of them would. One of the things I’ve tried to do in this project is honor the documents I’ve received – the poetry that Ben’s Aunt, who we call Maria, wrote – that has been preserved, and it’s these first hand documents that I’ve used to construct my exhibition. That and his narrative. So insomuch as they would recognize Ben, they would recognize this story. In the areas where Ben slips off, or doesn’t stick to the facts, then maybe they wouldn’t recognize that. Where these pieces reveal things they didn’t want to see, they might recognize them, but deny what was revealed. But maybe they wouldn’t. Perhaps they became so accustomed to making up fictions that his stories would make sense to them. I think they would recognize something – but maybe not know how to name it.
SMB: There are a lot of pieces in this project that involve furniture – not just your paintings, but furniture dissembled and distorted and reconstructed. What moved you to work with furniture as a medium?
TK: Well I was working with furniture even before this project, but it seemed to make sense to continue it within this context. For example, there’s this piece that I made with these chairs, these dining room chairs, that are stacked up on top of each other, as if they’re clamoring to get to the top of this tower, and at the top of the tower, there’s actually nothing there. The thing I like about furniture – especially antique furniture and historical furniture – is well, going back to the chairs from the dining room table – every chair, every place setting, was for an individual. Father had a place. Mother had a place. Oldest brother had a place. Oldest sister had a place. There was a sense of ceremony to these objects. It seemed like these pieces of furniture would better tell the story in some cases than the people. Because they’re inanimate, they can’t consciously lie.
SMB: Do you have plans to meet Ben?
TK: Official plans? No. Last I’d heard he’d done something in the psychiatric unit and gotten himself in trouble, so he’s not able to receive guests right now. I think they are concerned he might hurt himself. But when all of this is said and done, yeah, I’d love to meet him. I’ve spent the past four and a half years of my life putting his story into the world. Yeah, I’d love to meet him. I imagine at some point we will.