Ryan Wilson Kelly & Dave Kyu
– two performance artists talking about how & why they make those things they make
Ryan Kelly: So we’re talking about each others’ performative practice?
Dave Kyu: I’ve been a fan of your work for a while, and working with you for PRACTICE [Gallery], I realize there are personality traits that are similar… correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we share a penchant for self-deprecating humor and a deep love of absurd things. But I’ve always had the sense that the output of our work is completely opposite, so I’m interested in comparing notes on how we make our performances.
I. ORIGIN STORIES
DK: So should we start with origin stories? How did you become a performance artist?
RK: Well, my training and my schooling is in ceramics. Object-making… more so sculpture than functional ceramics.
DK: Did you have to define that in your program?
RK: Well, in undergrad there was a choice between focusing on functional ceramics or sculptural ceramics. So, even in undergrad, I was making objects, but dissatisfied with them when they were done, and trying to find ways to continue that energy – like making a bunch of objects and then making an environment for them to go into… or making an object that was kinetic in some way… so it becomes interactive. And then, it just kept kind of going in that direction, until I just started making things out of other materials that could be used more easily, like paper-mache.
DK: So you mean non-ceramics?
RK: Yeah. I mean, making a ceramic head would be really difficult to support on your shoulders.
Ryan Wilson Kelly, Speak Softly and Carry A Big Stick, Performance, 2011
DK: So what was your particular dissatisfaction with the objects you were making? Like, what weren’t they doing that you wanted them to do?
RK: They were DYING! They were, like, DEAD things! [laughs] I suppose a lot of my friends came into making with a sense of the commodity, or something that becomes precious through labor, or craft, or whatever. I just enjoyed the process of making… I mean, I love objects, but I didn’t really love objects just sitting there. I wanted to play with them, or continue that process part. So, my dissatisfaction with objects led to trying to activate them in some way. So tell me your origins? Back in the misty past?
DK: Back from the planet Krypton? Well, I was making objects as well, as I only discovered art in college. Like, I was in high school, and I was looking at liberal arts schools until a friend of mine said, “you know, liberal arts school isn’t the same thing as art school…” – and that’s when I learned that art school exists. My parents sheltered me from that idea.
DK: Well, I don’t know. I just didn’t know it existed as an option. After I found out, it was the only option. For a long time I tried to be that first idea of an artist that you have – I tried to paint, tried to make objects. It took me a loooong time to break away from that traditional idea of an artist, because what else does an artist do? But eventually, I did realize I was more interested in the social aspect of the thing that I was making, and I no longer cared to manipulate this sculptural form in order to manipulate the social form that I was way more interested in. It took a semester in Rome, where I was the only sculpture student of that year – a terrible isolation, and a whole semester of not being fulfilled by anything I was making – that I finally decided I had to act on my crazy performance ideas. I created this athlete character to respond to the Roman machismo, and I went around town completing these physical tasks. That was, kind of, the first time that I realized I was wasting my time trying to manipulate paint on a canvas, or trying to manipulate a 2×4 to try to do something that I could do directly.
Dave Kyu, I Fell Down the Spanish Steps, Performance, 2006
DK: One of the main differences I see right away is that you like making things, which is clear in the final product. There’s craftsmanship in your work and there is an environment, and I’m wondering why you spend the time to be doing that when the work lives elsewhere?
RK: Because I’m sick in the head [laughs]. In the way that you like to, the way you put, socially engineer an experience, or the relationship between you and the viewers, I’m pulling on older traditions of theatrical and interior design, creating an environment that affects people. And a lot of what I do has echoes of theatrical backdrops and that kind of stuff.
Ryan Wilson Kelly, Crusoe’s Cave, Performance, 2010
RK: But to create an environment that physically manipulates the space, and manipulates the emotional state when you inhabit that space. So that the objects within that space become more significant, and the actions with those objects becomes poignant, or funny, or just has the context that I want them to have. But I think there’s still a manipulative link… we’re both trying to manipulate people.
DK: Yeah, we’re trying to move people in certain ways, or trying to control the audience, I guess. So I’m curious… , do you think of power a lot in your performance?
RK: Like the power of controlling the situation?
DK: Controlling the situation, controlling the audience… How do you invite the audience, what is the power relationship when you’re performing and an audience is trying to interact with the work?
RK: Well, it’s odd, I mean, I’m used to being in front of groups. I’m a teacher, and I’m used to the customer service end of things being a barista as well. But, I am kind of terrified when it comes to performing in front of a group of people. I’m just too much of a control freak to hand off that performative duty to someone else. So, I don’t know that I am getting off on the… I’m enjoying creating an experience for them, but my goal is not to have power over these people, because I’m actually terrified of them.
DK: There’s this one Chris Burden performance, where he’s above the gallery space, and as people come in, he would yell, “GET THE FUCK OUT, GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.” And essentially that creates a performance where nobody goes into the gallery, and as the performer he has power over the audience. But while the audience gets to experience it, they don’t get to live in it and interact with it. So, for me, the way I handle performance is that I am typically a pathetic figure… . I’m interested in inviting the audience to come in and explore the world I’ve created. For you that happens literally: you’ve literally created objects, and created an environment. For me, I’m working with that idea socially. For me, being vulnerable allows people to interact with the performance in a way that I want them to. Would you say that’s why you pick your characters?
RK: I think so. There’s something accessible about that. Clearly, it’s about striving to… be human in the same way that the audience members are human, by putting yourself out there in your human-ness.
DK: Right. And I think for me, failure is so much more relatable than succeeding. I think everyone fails, but not everyone succeeds [laughs]. Eventually, sure, but it’s rare. For me, failing has always been more interesting and accessible than someone who is infallible, and perfect.
IV. AUDIENCE INTERACTION
DK: So, when you’re performing, do you interact with an audience? Do you feed off of an audience’s energy or anything like that?
RK: It depends on the piece. I did a superhero piece, too.It was called the Fortress of Solitude, so I felt it was my duty to ignore people, and act like I was totally alone.
DK: Clearly the title has primed the audience for what they’re gonna get.
Ryan Wilson Kelly, Fortress of Solitude, Performance, 2010
RK: But, I got a lot of, like, little fat girls that would run up and ask, “What are you doing? Can I help?”
DK: And then what do you? How do you handle that?
RK: I mean, in that piece, I was kind of a pathetic version of Superman. So I tried to maintain that mindset, and not really give any further context other than, “I clearly am building a fortress, I just really want to be alone.”
DK: So it’s also an emotional fortress of solitude, and not just a physical manifestation. Okay. Because when I perform, I… we’re both performers that occupy the visual art world, we’re not theater performers. When I talk to theatrical performers, they talk about feeding off of an audience’s energy, or playing a room. And I don’t have the ability to do that. Whenever I perform, I think, I would do it the exact same way if nobody were watching. So I just block off the audience and go about my business as my character.
RK: I’ve looked at your website, and I haven’t… are there pieces that are interactive really? Or is it more like a spectacle?
DK: There’s one piece that I made that’s a map of the United States, and the audience is welcome to cut out state shapes, and if you think something is wrong, to take it down. But I’m not performing in that one. I’m there to encourage people to interact with the piece, but it’s not me acting… I haven’t inhabited a character necessarily. I don’t think I could handle that variable of the audience having so much say in something I’m doing, so I design my performances where I can walk in and do something, and walk out.
Dave Kyu, The United States of Whatever We Think It Is, Participatory Artwork, 2009
RK: One thing that is becoming kind of an issue for me… is it better to do a performance, and video tape it and present that as a video piece? I know it’s not quite the same thing to be creating work for a video audience, but do you think that there’s something important or valid in the audience having the live version versus the documented version?
DK: Right. Well, the live version is so much more threatening, that I think it’s a completely different piece. After I do a performance, I wait a month or two before I go back to the documentation and try to figure out how I’m going to present it. For me, one of the things that led me to performance was falling in love with those photographs – those gritty, grimy, poorly documented performance photographs from the 70s. There’s always one really crappy photo that just allows my imagination to run wild and create the universe that the performance was in. But then I would see a video, and that performance would be ruined for me, because it’s different from what I thought it would be.
RK: Do you have an example?
DK: I keep referencing Chris Burden, but his Shoot piece.
RK: There’s a video of that?
DK: There’s a video of that!
RK: No way! You could destroy it for me now!
Chris Burden, Shoot, Performance, 1971
DK: In the picture, you see pain in his face, and the audience doesn’t know what to do. But in the video, you see the person set up with the gun, you hear the bullet, and he just walks off the screen, clutching his arm. On video, it was just so matter-of-fact where the performance seemed so threatening in photographs, as I imagine it would be in person. So I think that difference of having to choose to face something is much more threatening as an experience than as video documentation of something, that I think – I consider them separate pieces. So after I have the documentation, I come back and figure out how I want this piece to be as documentation. I don’t think you can achieve the same effect so you have to handle it differently.
RK: I think that’s good. I mean, threatening is a… obviously there’s potency there for you. From my end, it’s threatening for me as a performer as well. If it’s a video just playing you can walk in and walk out, and a majority of art viewing people don’t spend a lot of time watching video if its in a gallery. But if there is something live, its captivating in a different way.
DK: Yeah, the energy is completely different. And with video, as with painting, you have to create the world from scratch and then manipulate it. In video, there are so many opportunities to manipulate THAT reality, so many edits to consider, that the reality is drained out of that act – whatever you’ve chosen to do. So there’s a lot of times I’ll have video documentation and I’ll throw it out in favor of an image. Just have one image as the lasting thing.
RK: Well, do you fetishize that grainy, gritty quality? Do you try to emulate that in any way? I mean, it would seem disingenuous to do that, but the happenstance nature of that would be difficult to replicate.
DK: I think there’s a time and a place for black & white photography. For one performance I dragged a concrete block of my weight for 8 hours, and for the documentation, I used black and white photos, just because there is a sort of emotional lean you can put on that documentation by putting it through that filter.
RK: And that was also in the snow, wasn’t it?
RK: Seemed appropriate.
DK: [laughs] It was.
Dave Kyu, A Hard Day’s Night, Performance, 2005
VII. ON KITSCH & MYTH
DK: So how do you find these stories that you ultimately work with? It seems like you’re just pulling mythologies, and then having to explain that mythology in order to explain your piece.
RK: I KNOW! It’s my greatest joy and my biggest downfall, because I get really excited about these things.I borrow a bunch of subject matter, but it comes out my love… I think just a kitch aspect. Kitsch is sincere. If it becomes insincere or ironic it ceases to be kitsch. A friend of mine has been arguing that kitsch is dead, there will not be any more kitsch because irony has taken over. But I think that there’s going to be a meta-ironic kitsch. My sincere love of this kitschiness, of Americana, of mythmaking… I’m from the Midwest where nothing is old. We celebrate how old the mall is.
DK: It’s a newly settled land?
RK: Nothing is over 100 years. They put up a historic marker in front of a farmhouse. The row house I lived in in Philly is probably 100 years older than my parent’s farmhouse, right now. And it’s a piece of shit, it’s not a good house. But I just love that this city and what this city represents, especially in the bicentennial era, is just a mythmaking, story building, and like, layers and layers of crap built on top of each other.
DK: So you’re interested in that mythology, you’re borrowing storylines. Would you say you’re borrowing, or creating off of them? Because there are some pieces that you talk about… there’s one in which you’re doing a residency at a university, and you’re allowing the students to throw objects at you as a cathartic experience for something that happened at that university.
Ryan Wilson Kelly, Scapegoat, Performance, 2012
RK: Well , I mean, I think it’s an overreach to say that it’s cathartic for any particular reason.
DK: That performance, A Herculean Effort, the video documents your completion of that effort, so there’s some thread of narrative?
RK: Yeah, some of the pieces like that are linear and have a narrative, and some are a cyclical set of performances or actions. And some of them, like that Scapegoat one, I mean, it was the duration I was willing to stand in that room and be pelted with bean bags.
DK: Well, modern-day performances can be repetitive. Boring action that can be boring to watch as well. But your work chooses not to go there. Like, I wouldn’t call it spare in any way.
RK: No, I’m not afflicted with that [laughs].
DK: Maybe you’re interested in the mythology because you come from a place that has no mythology, that is trying to create its own mythology.
RK: I feel like I came from a place that has no mythology – my mythology was that America – it was settled in the East Coast, and then a bunch of other stuff happened. But everything that was ever cool happened over here. And then I came here… and it smells like urine, with rats everywhere, and things that are old are not necessarily better.
DK: So, experiencing the East Coast was disarming for you?
RK: Disarming… and kind of enthralling? It made it more accessible. Rather than being this shiny city on a hill, it seems like there is still possibility. When something is too perfect it seems like there is nothing to do there.
DK: In a lot of ways I strive to make work more like yours, because I hate the defeatism of existentialism, and the sparseness of conceptual art. But at the base of my creative production, I don’t like to make things, so I’m always trying to figure out what else I can offer as a visual experience. In talking with you, I think we come from a lot of the same places in making work, but maybe the main difference is that you like to make things and I hate to make things. It’s a very stark visual difference, but maybe not much else?
RK: Yeah, I would agree with that.
DK: [author’s note – After reflecting on this interview, I decided that there had to be another point of divergence – the final works were too radically different for there only to be a variance on our affinity for craft. After some reflection, I realized that our work traverses in opposite directions along the relationship between myth and the mundane. My work starts with the mundane (using Facebook, watching screensavers, etc.), and uses a series of actions and various levels of hiding and revealing to mythologize the mundane. Ryan, on the other hand, typically begins with a myth (Hercules, Teddy Roosevelt), and in front of the visual and social backdrop of this narrative, will perform mundane tasks to humanize said myths. When I asked Ryan to respond to this conclusion, he agreed that we missed this aspect of our respective works.]
V. UP NEXT
RK: Well, what’s coming up next for you?
DK: I have a residency with Asian Arts Initiative, their Social Practice Lab. It’s going to be September 2012 through September 2013 – a yearlong residency. I’m a little nervous, because it’s the longest time commitment I’ve made to an organization. But also because they’re interested in projects that do social good. I did say I’m interested because it’s a really big opportunity – but I don’t know if I do social good. I hold on to the frivolity, and the absurdity of art – I have this whole theory about how absurdity really DOES contribute to society indirectly, and that it’s necessary in the world that we live in. But in terms of directly helping somebody else with my artwork, I’m not sure what that looks like.
RK: I’m curious… is artwork… how do I say this… I don’t think art is the most direct or effective tool for that, it just sounds good to say that.
DK: They’re looking into the realm of Social Practice. The people on the advisory panel are people like Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses, and Edgar Arcenuax of Watts House Projects, and Rise Wilson of The Laundromat Project. There’s this growing consortium of artists who are blurring the line between social service and artwork. And it’s not that I don’t like those works, it’s just that I’ve never felt capable of that impact.
DK: So what are you working on? Tell me about your upcoming show at Fleisher. [author’s note – now a previous show]
RK: I’m trying to take the theme of the Byronic hero to its logical extension, and literally recreate a poem by Lord Byron. I’m trying to figure out a way to incorporate the word Byronic somewhere – an artist statement or something. There’s so much potential for humor there. Oh, the Byrony!
DK: Isn’t it Byronic? Don’t you think?
RK: A little too Byronic? So the thought process, the idea for an object that might work for the space, and the object, have taken a backseat since a lot has been going on in my life the past couple of months.
RK: What I’m currently working on is a giant rocking horse and backdrops. Essentially I’m recreating or referencing this Lord Byron poem named Mazeppa, in which a Polish noble is caught up in some court intrigue, and they stripped him naked, tied him to a horse, and set the horse off into the woods. But then he arrives in the Ukraine and becomes this great political figure. And it’s based on an actual person. The reason that I’m interested in it is that Byron poem inspired operas by Franz List and Tchaikovsky, and also these really cheesy popular theater in the 19th century, where they would literally bring on a live horse, and in a lot of cases, it would be a woman in a nude suit strapped to the horse, and whatever the rest of the play was, everyone was there for that big money shot.
DK: [laughs] For the woman strapped to the horse in the nude suit?
RK: Yeah. So this idea of me being this super pathetic Byronic hero, I’m just going to be lying down, rocking… I have to talk to them about setting up performance times, but the idea is that there will be at least one live performance, where I’m kind of this really pathetic superhero.
DK: Wearing a nude suit?
RK: I think I gotta have a loincloth or something. It’s embarrassing enough to be in front of people.
Ryan Wilson Kelly, Mazeppa, Performance, 2012
Dave Kyu received his BFA in sculpture from the Tyler School of Art. He is a Taurus, a performance artist and arts administrator working in Philadelphia, and one of the founding members of PRACTICE gallery. He has contributed articles to Funnelpages.com and ArtJaw; davekyu.com; practiceg