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Testing Thresholds: An Interview with Jan Tichy, Part 2

Larry Williams, Rural Saturday Night, 1973. Gelatin silver print (Left, 1979:1). Zacharias Abubeker, Obelisk, 2011. Screenprint. (Right, 2012:21). Image courtesy of the artist.

The following is part two of an interview with artist Jan Tichy about his recent exhibition 1979:1 – 2012:21: Jan Tichy Works with the MoCP Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP). You can find part one here.


TH: Speaking of donating to the collection, you donated to the MoCP, right?

JT: Yes. As someone who has been collected for the last ten years, it’s something that I have been asking myself. What does it mean to be in a collection? What does it mean to be collected? Are you now forever and forever? Who decides that? Where does the decision come from? Many times I had to find someone to buy my pieces for a museum. Like the Museum of Modern Art, who told me they wanted my work, but they told me to go find a donor because they wouldn’t pay for the work. So, they have to want it. Now, I wanted to be the donor. And I wanted to see how it works. Can I bring anything I want?

[The work that I donated] was the only work that I’ve ever bought. I got it from Zacharias Abubeker, whom I met at ACRE, an artist and Columbia College graduate. He actually worked at the museum, which I didn’t know at the time. He invited me for a studio visit back in Chicago, which is when I saw this piece and was taken by it. He was selling prints to raise money to fly to Ethiopia. This seemed like the perfect time to buy a piece. Then, a couple of months later, I started to work with the MoCP and this all came up. What does it mean to work with the artist, the curator, the collector, the board? How do these things go through? Obviously I knew it would go through, because I knew the museum would play along, but I asked them to try and be as real as possible.

TH: Were you left with a lot of unanswered questions about collecting and the politics of how a collection takes shape?

JT: Some of these questions I was trying to answer on the second floor. Collections are made by people and people have their own interests. While I was working here, the museum was really accessible to me. There were six women running this entire museum at the time, and I realized that they were the best resource –they knew the collection better than anyone else. I asked each of them to pick ten pieces from the collection that they had personal relationships with and maybe haven’t been shown for a long time. Through this process I realized that there was a huge Czech collection. There are four sub collections: the Czech collection, Changing Chicago, Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Institute of Design. There is also an Asian collection that is starting. Why? Because the director is into Asian photography. Why is there a large Czech collection? Because a MoCP curator studied in Prague;, she has the knowledge of this work and added it to the collection.

So, [when I asked them to choose pieces from the collection], I sat with them and listened to their stories—like, “That was from my first exhibition…” or “That was my first acquisition…” And for the Mezzanine space of the exhibition I chose two of the ten that each of them chose. Each of them chose a piece by Warhol, Boltanski or Barbara Crane—which are all large bodies of work in the collection that don’t often get shown. How do you show these things? So, I played with different digital ways.

Installation view of the Mezzanine, works selected by museum staff. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

TH: After spending a year in this collection, do you think that your knowledge of it meets or possibly surpasses the kind of understanding that the staff has of the collection? During the project’s development it sounds like you spent a lot of time absorbing stories that would give a different kind of history of the museum that not many people are aware of.

JT: I don’t know if I’ve surpassed it. I know I definitely have a different kind of knowledge.

TH: As far as the collection becoming a reflection of the museum and its staff, I can see how that could be a good thing because like your personal connection to the work in this exhibition, the work in the collection becomes a reference to the museum’s history. But the preferences of staff can also be damaging because it could neglect large parts of the history of contemporary photography.

JT: I agree, it can be good and it can be bad, but I think that’s the nature of collections. Collections are made by humans. If you are collecting art, which is subjective from the very beginning, that’s how it has to be. Obviously there are guidelines—for example, the Robert Frank piece that alternates every other day, is part of the Americans series, which was made in 1959, the year that the MoCP starts their collection because it was their definition of contemporary. Another thing, the works in the collection were categorized as fine art, documentary, industrial and design. That’s how the work was defined and collected. These were decisions made by people running the museum at that time, for better or for worse.

TH: What was the starting point for the work in the exhibition? What did you do first?

JT: The first piece that I did was the one in the North Gallery—the video [Collection, 2012]. When you’re watching it on a laptop, or even when I was playing it for myself, there is this impulse to stop it. You see less than you can process, and it is frustrating. Also, there is that desire and curiosity for what you are going to get. There were people who tried to take pictures with their cell phones to see what they got, and it worked. With that piece I had the thought to make it interactive, but I couldn’t give up that control. The cell phone images took it over anyway.

TH: Testing levels of control seems to be something that is woven throughout the concept of this show. What is that for you?

JT: I’m learning. I’m getting better. I’m getting loose. But I’m definitely a control freak. [Laugh]

Installation view of the stairwell, Farm Security Administration works by Dorothea Lang. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

TH: There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of that sometimes.  These repetitive images by Dorothea Lang were a great way to use this stairway.

JT: A few years ago the MoCP got a box from the family of Dorothea Lang of these multiple prints with different crops and exposures. Each image has a different accession number, which makes Lang the most represented artist in the collection with four hundred seventy-nine pieces. So, with these works, I didn’t want to show the old stuff of hers that we all know and I was fascinated by these works and their film quality. And with this being an educational institution, I thought this was great because it shows what she was thinking and her process. For me, these are small bodies of work.

TH: Why do you think you responded so strongly to the photographs that were part of the Changing Chicago project?

JT: As I was [browsing the website and] saving the things I liked to a folder, I had no idea what I was going to do with that. As I progressed, certain things came up. After a while I realized that I was responding a lot to the work that was part of the Changing Chicago Project. Although this sounds like a conceptual project where I’m thinking “let’s take a project from twenty-five years ago, dust it off, mix it and show it differently…”—it didn’t come from there. It came from these quick responses. I responded to good photography and Chicago. I realized right after I installed everything that every one of the pairs on this wall includes a photograph that is Chicago related.

TH: How you exhibited the work from Changing Chicago is almost overwhelming. You’ve integrated the work of the artist together, along with a few of your own pieces, and filled the space from floor to ceiling. What was the logic behind your curatorial decisions for this part of the exhibition?

JT: With much of this work—the Dorothea Lang, Warhol, Boltanski, Changing Chicago, etc.—was me trying to figure out how to display large bodies of work. One of the surprises with Changing Chicago was that I assumed that there was a show and that everything was in the collection. But then I realized that the whole project was never shown together. In 1987, there were five different institutions each showing just a couple of photographers—the Art Institute, Field Museum, Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Chicago Cultural Center and the Chicago History Museum. They each showed by theme—one did architecture, another did minorities, and so on. The only time that all the works came together was in the book, which had five or six images from each [photographer].

Installation view of the Changing Chicago Project in the Print Study Room. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

TH: How you have it hung here is not by photographer?

JT: No. At first I thought that I would hang it by photographer, but I realized that would be disrespectful. Some photographers would [get a better location than others]. And themes? They did it already. One thing I [considered was] how Chicago really is [versus] what we are selling to ourselves—that Chicago is this amazing mix of race and cultures, right? That was my thought, but I didn’t have the balls to do that. Originally I was thinking that I would section it off and have a Black wall, Latino wall, White wall—sectioned by race.

TH: What makes you say you didn’t have the balls to do that?

JT: Not because I was afraid of a backlash. I didn’t know if it would really work and how it would look to come into it. I had one week to hang it and two-hundred thirty [other] works—it was crazy.

So, with these photographs I worked similarly to how I did downstairs with the couples. The picture should be able to go with the picture next to it. I usually picked one that was really strong or that I really liked and went from there. I tried not to create groups of Black people or Polish people, or just color photography. I wanted to create something that was more like a melody. Something that [would allow you to] easily go from one to the other.

TH: How was the response to this kind of hanging of the work, especially since it had never been displayed completely integrated like this before and you were kind of blurring the lines between each photographer’s work?

JT: Well, you know Bob Thall? He was here at the opening. I didn’t know him personally, but I found out that he really didn’t like it. And what happened during the [Changing Chicago] panel is I heard that most of the photographers really liked this. They kept telling me that Jack [Jaffe, who organized this project] would have liked it because this is what he wanted. He wanted this all over image of Chicago. And at the end of the night, Bob came to me and confessed that at first he really didn’t like it. But by the end of the night, he did. And the next morning he became my friend on Facebook [laughs]. But it was amazing. It was the peer pressure and the different thought about it which made it powerful, and a little scary.

TH: We were just talking about control, right? What you’ve done here is take away the photographers’ control of how their work is displayed and viewed.

JT: Yes, and that is also connected to the museum. That is part of what you give up when your work becomes part of a collection. What I did to Siskind could be regarded as violent. But really, this shows what the artists are giving up.

Jan Tichy, Changing Chicago, 2012. Seven channel video installation. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Looking back, I don’t know exactly where the impulse came from. Maybe it was because I started to realize that I didn’t have very much in it.

TH: So, too much curator and not enough artist?

JT: Maybe. As far as this project is concerned, I think I wanted to become one of them. I responded to this project because there was something in the concept of the project [that I connected to]. Like the FSA—somebody believed that things could change. And we don’t really work like that anymore. So, I was going through this project and imagining them going on these missions and each of them creating this world.

Another thing was that I felt that, after five years here, I could finally start taking pictures of the city. [Before this] I didn’t have too many videos or photos of Chicago. When I moved to Israel when I was 19, I was already an active photographer. I’d had a darkroom since I was 13. So, when I moved there after three years, I had only taken 36 pictures—one roll of film. I didn’t analyze it or think why. When I moved to Chicago it happened again. Unlike when I travel somewhere like Stockholm for a week or two and I’m traveling like a tourist, when I came to Israel and Chicago I was in the mindset that I wasn’t coming as a tourist, even though when I came to Chicago I had no idea that I was going to stay. But there was something from the very beginning. I felt a strong connection. I couldn’t look at the city as a tourist. I didn’t want to see it like that. And I think that after five years of very intensive artistic life in the city I understand it. I can feel it. And I have an urge to say something about it. And with these photographers around me I felt that I could finally respond through them.

1979:1–2012:21: Jan Tichy Works with the MoCP Collection closed on December 23, 2012. To see more of the exhibition, visit the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s new website. To find more work from Jan Tichy, visit his website at

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