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Behind the Hairy Blob: A Conversation with Adelheid Mers

Faheem Majeed. Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden, 2012. Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, IL (Photo Credit: Image Courtesy of Danielle Jackson)

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across the Hyde Park Art Center’s exhibition page. There, I was introduced to the Hairy Blob for the first time. Intrigued with how artists’ visualize time, space, and environment, I reached out to the curator Adelheid Mers. We discussed the evolution of the Hairy Blob, the visualization of time as it pertains to the past, present, and future as well as our interpretations of the stuff we encounter. The Hairy Blob features work from Becky Alprin, Nadav Assor, Deborah Boardman, Lauren Carter, Ashley Hunt in collaboration with Taisha Paggett, Sarah Fitzsimmons, Judith Leemann, Kirsten Leenaars, Faheem Majeed, and Emily Newman. Below is a record of our conversation edited for clarity and length.

Danielle Jackson [DJ]: The “Hairy Blob” is a really interesting title. I automatically think of The Hairy Who and The Chicago Imagists and their relationship to the Hyde Park Art Center. How did you arrive at that title?

Adelheid Mers [AM]:  There is absolutely not the slightest connection. The title came out of me being in a library and envisioning that all the information in the library is really just material. It’s just ink on paper it’s just stuff. And so there isn’t really history, it’s just stuff and that stuff needs to be interpreted by people who are reading it today. I was thinking of the blob as the mass of material and just the earth with everything material on it. With the hair, I was thinking about people’s life lines. I’ve used that term maybe for five or six years as this idea that I don’t have to think about time as linear. I don’t have to think about history as something that’s in the past.

During my residency at the Banff Centre, in Canada, I was creating a series of drawings about different concepts of time. The “Hairy Blob” was the last drawing and I thought to myself, “This is interesting, but it’s too big for me” so I wanted to curate a show. The only reason I wanted to have it at the Hyde Park Art Center was because they had a show in 2005 called “Takeover” and I was one of the artists. They said “Take over the Art Center!” so I’m still in that mode, “I want to take over the Art Center!” I went to Allison Peters Quinn (HPAC Director of Exhibitions) and said, “I want the whole Art Center and I want to do a show!” So it took two years for us to negotiate that I’m getting the first floor and I’m doing the show. Of course, I knew about the “Hairy Who” so I thought it would be really funny that the “Hairy Blob” is at the same institution, but that’s really so tangential it has nothing to do with the context.

DJ: It’s funny that there’s no connection because you definitely think about that.

AM: And I like that! So I think it’s a good joke [Laughter.]

DJ: How did you select the artists?

AM: Really intuitively it’s changed a little bit throughout, so when I envisioned the show I was in Canada in Banff. The conversations I had with artists at that residency led to some of the ideas in the show. At first, I thought maybe I could invite three of those artists, but then that didn’t happen–there was no budget. Then I looked around. With most of them it was a very short conversation, it was almost like an intuition it would work. Then we started to talk about what work they would do. One example that’s really straightforward is when I was in Canada, there was an artist named Andrew Hunter. He uses archives and makes fictitious stories based off the actual archives he looks at. That was an idea that was very important. I was thinking about having him come to Chicago, but that didn’t work out.

In conversation with Tim Samuelson (Chicago’s Cultural Historian)  and Allison Peters Quinn  someone mentioned the South Side Community Art Center and their archive, which I knew nothing about. They said “maybe you should talk to Faheem Majeed, he’s running it and he’s an artist.” So we met and he got it right away. He had similar ideas. That’s the most straight-forward example.

View of the Asteroid Belt.Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, IL (Photo Credit: Image Courtesy of Danielle Jackson)

DJ: In terms of approaches, there seems to be a lot of contrast. Would you say that was important to show?

AM: To me what they have in common and it may seem a little slick because I’ve been trying to write these days. I think they are all really concerned with the present so it’s a show about time, in which I think one of the messages is that throughout history people have been conceptualizing time in a way that they always look for leverage either in the future or in the past. So in the past “So and so has set” or “This is written in the book.” In the future “This is how money multiplies” or “This is how you get to paradise.”  It’s always that wherever people are interested in power, manipulation, and influence and it doesn’t have to always be a bad thing, but when people want to do something they tend to look for leverage in these constructions. If you are really in the current time, that’s a whole different competition, right? Who gets access to what? Who gets to speak? So that’s where these questions of social justice are happening, but also what does it feel like to be in the now? It can get very intimate. It can get very scary. So I’m looking for people who have that tendency to want to be very consciously in the now, but also have a poetic and political interest intermingled with each other.

DJ: What is your curatorial approach?

AM: I think they’re many different ways curators can work. I’m an artist and so I’m using the other artists as my material so they help me get my point across, but then of course many of the things they do I couldn’t have come up with. So it’s not that they’re just a functionality executing what I would do, but their functionality is that they will broaden my mind, but I get to be in charge and I like that! [Laughter]

So depending on how they work, I push them in a certain direction and with some of the artists I like one type of thing they do better than another thing that they do, so I have to keep reining them in, saying “No I don’t want that” or “Try something else.”

DJ: Sounds collaborative.

AM: Well in some cases I’m just being mean [Laughter.] If they go along with me then it feels collaborative, but I definitely want to be in charge and I want to capitalize on their added thinking so I get really excited about things that they do! It’s not the more classical “I want to give them a voice; I want to take care of them.” So I’m not the curator as a caretaker. I’m more like a curator as a manipulator. I think that’s clear from the beginning they know what I’m doing — it’s an extended artwork.

DJ: Tell me about the Asteroid Belt.

AM: That’s really important. That goes back to Banff also. One was this artist who works with archives who had an impact and another one was a collaborative pair, a writer and a choreographer. They were talking about exhibitions they were doing as having a lot of collateral material. It’s like an ethnographic concept that it’s not just an object or an event, but it’s all the stuff that’s generated around it so it could be writing or what we are doing right now — ­­it could be all kinds of things. All of these distributed objects are really making up the event.

Another thing is we’re always working without money in the non-profit small scale art world so documentation and distribution doesn’t always happen. There is all this really cool stuff happening in Chicago and no one ever knows about it, which stinks! So I thought maybe I’m getting a little wiser and I’m going to use the internet to make a little more of a presence. I asked two colleagues to organize that for me. One of them called it the Asteroid Belt so the blob is the Earth, the hair is of the people, and the Asteroid Belt is round so we have this little universe [Laughter.]

In the Asteroid Belt, I have been asking people to write about the show or related themes. Most of the artists are having related pieces in the Asteroid Belt. We have something that is out there and that’s going to last. It’s more than a catalogue because it’s also a site at which stuff happens.

DJ: What do you want the viewer to get out of the exhibition?

AM: That’s always the hardest question! I believe that people are smarter than given credit for. Even though the ideas I’m dealing with are fairly complicated, people tend to be interested in that. Usually they have enough of a background to have an entryway into it. I find that a lot of high art or market art is playing to very simple understandings. Intricate concepts don’t have to be above anybody’s head you can just have a normal conversation.  So I just want people to have fun exploring ideas and not be intimidated by them.

DJ: What can we expect to see from you in the future?

AM: In terms of curatorial stuff, I curate something every three or four years and it’s not pre-mediated. I’m interested in studio critique. I’m interested in how artists know things differently than more scientific types.  I think there is a bit of a clash between art historians and artists. Art historians appreciate objects and start to talk from that. I think artists know things in a way that is very honed and that’s different from those who know things verbally. Since artists often don’t talk it’s something that doesn’t get the kind of respect I want it to have.  On the spectrum of being an artist and being a literal person, I’m in the middle and that’s where the diagrams come in. I keep going back and forth. I feel like I can explore things and explain them. I can be a little bit of a voice for that.  Judith Leemann and I have proposed a panel at CAA, where we’ve asked artists to talk about critique as a form of how artists are developing their knowledge.

Hairy Blob

On view through July 29, 2012

Hyde Park Art Center

5020 S. Cornell Ave, Chicago, IL

Check out the Asteroid Belt 

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