News Column

Fresh from New York, curator Fionn Meade talks about life, art and the Walker's new show of black performance art

July 24, 2014

By Mary Abbe, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)



July 24--Writer and curator Fionn Meade, 40, moved to Minnesota from New York City two months ago to take a new curatorial post at Walker Art Center. Intense, black-clad and arty, he grew up on Vashon Island near Seattle, lived in Europe and Mexico, and has split his career largely between the East and West Coasts. For the past four years he taught at Bard College and Columbia University in New York. Before that he was a curator at the Sculpture Center in Manhattan and before that at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle.

His first task in Minneapolis was to oversee the installation of "Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art," a show organized by Houston'sContemporary Arts Museum that opened at the Walker this week. Recently he took a break to chat about his life and the show. Excerpts from that conversation, and a preview of the show, follow.

Q: What has surprised you about the Twin Cities?

A: The weather has been incredible. I chose an ideal time to move, right as it started to improve, so I've really enjoyed running, riding my bike and meeting people.

Q: Do you have family here, too?

A: My wife, Mary Simpson, is an artist who is in residency in Glasgow. She teaches at Cooper Union in New York and is committed to finishing the fall semester before moving here.

Q: Your title, Senior Curator of Cross-Disciplinary Platforms, is a new one at the Walker. What does it mean?

A: In a nutshell, it's something the Walker has always done because it has such strong film, video and performing-arts programs with visual art at the core. My job is to work with my colleagues and with artists who want to show their work in different formats. For example, Ralph Lemon is coming here this fall. He's going to do something that is a sculpture, an installation, a timed-and-ticketed performance, and also a rehearsal that's all taking place in an exhibition. I'm here to encourage those opportunities.

Q: "Radical Presence" spans half a century, from 1962 to now, with more than 100 photos, videos, sculptures, performance documentation and other material by 36 artists. What are some highlights?

A: The subtitle is an important entry point because it looks at black performance in the context of contemporary art. Many of the artists have film, video or visual art practices, but all do performance knowing that it's going to happen in an exhibition.

People will encounter a lot of live performances, especially over the opening weekend. William Pope.L's "Costume Made of Nothing" is a 90-minute performance that will be done 13 times during the show, so you'll catch it if you're in the gallery at that time. He's working with a local performer, Brian J. Evans, whose long poses and choreographed gestures become something beyond a sculpture. And Satch Hoyt's piece, "Say It Loud," is a staircase that viewers can climb. It's surrounded by books dealing with cultural studies, black consciousness, the civil rights movement, the history of slavery and its economic impact. At the top of the staircase is a microphone into which viewers are encouraged to complete the phrase from James Brown's song, "Say it Loud -- I'm ( -----) and I'm Proud." That's a very participatory piece.

Q: From its start in the "happenings" of the 1960s, performance art seems to have been mostly a white behavior. Were black artists there all along, or is this something new?

A: Benjamin Patterson was a central figure in Fluxus, and his 1962 work "Pond" goes back the furthest. He's a very important and somewhat under-recognized artist who will give a lecture here on Oct. 9.

Lorraine O'Grady created a beauty-queen character, Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire, and from 1980 to '83 she attended gallery and museum openings in that persona. When a friend told her that performance art doesn't have anything to do with black people, she created big gold frames and took them to an African American Day parade in Harlem and had photos taken of people -- policemen, kids, families -- in the frames. Called "Art Is ... ," the photo project breaks down the idea that avant-garde art can't relate to ordinary people.

Q: The show is called "radical presence," but what makes it radical?

A: Black performance has to do with the presentation of the black body, being both the performer and to some degree the observed. There is a lot of use of the personal in the show. It's very intergenerational, with younger artists relating to older ones. It's influenced by the civil rights movement, entertainment and minstrel shows, hip-hop and jazz, dada and the Fluxus movement. It brings the work of these artists squarely into a central conversation of contemporary art today; it's meant to open up conversations and be responded to.

Mary Abbe -- 612-673-4431

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(c)2014 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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