Interview with Alejandro Yoshii

Interview with Alejandro Yoshii

Alejandro Yoshii is an interdisciplinary artist whose defining act is the touch. We caught up with Alejandro a few weeks after he presented in A Mexican Tertulia at Baxter Street in collaboration with Celebrate Mexico Now.

Groana Melendez
Can you tell us about your artistic background? Do you have formal training in art?

Alejandro Yoshii
I came to the U.S. to study art, I did an MFA in Fine Arts at Parsons the New School. Before that, I studied Communications in Mexico and worked in advertising and graphic design. Painting was always part of my life, I was making paintings all the time but I didn’t have any academic training until I came here.

Once I started the MFA, I stopped painting and began doing other things. I think that happens a lot when you go to grad school. They challenge you to do something different than what you were doing before. I started doing more installations and sculptures and even performance. I’m exploring many different media now. I don’t feel myself fixed into a label of a painter or a sculptor. I like to work around the ideas and concepts and then later decide the medium.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
What I like about your work is how it is so much about touch and it is also about you in particular, being there, touching something.

Alejandro
Like imprints of my body.

Martha
Yeah, you are like, “I was here, and this is my index of me being here.”

Groana
You even have a work titled “I am here.”

Alejandro
I know it sounds like a strong statement like I want to be in my work. When I went back to Mexico one time, I was talking with friends, and they reminded me of a prank I pulled in middle school. My class went on a field trip to a nature reserve and research center in Mazatlán, where I’m from, and I made an imprint by the lake there. I just drew this thing, like a footprint of an animal with six fingers. Later on, the teacher came to the classroom and said, “I need to know who did this because the researchers thought it was an actual footprint. They took a sample and sent it to Mexico City to investigate it.” Then they realized it was just a joke. The teacher was so embarrassed and wanted to know who did it. I had to confess that it was me. Maybe what I’m doing now, putting my body in my work came from this experience. I don’t know, but it was a funny and bad thing to do at that time.

Also, I kind of like to work around the body, and question the notions of the body and how we see ourselves and others. I think it’s related to my background of being Asian in Mexico. I’m Japanese-Mexican. People don’t see me as Mexican at first, and I have to explain that I was born in Mexico, but my family is Japanese.

Then, when I’m in Japan people see me as Japanese, but I don’t speak very fluently. There is always this sense of not belonging to a place, and the only place I think we truly belong is in our body. It’s like the only physical place we live and exist.

 

(In)tangible bodies (2014). clay, photographs, video, objects.

(In)tangible bodies (2014). clay, photographs, video, objects.

Groana
That’s so beautiful. I never thought of that. I’ve also made work about belonging and not belonging, and I never thought, “The place you do belong is in your body.” Can you tell us about your family background?

Alejandro
My maternal grandparents immigrated to Mexico before the Second World War. My grandfather came first, followed by my grandmother. My mom was born in Mexico, and she went to Japan to study marine biology. There she met my dad and brought him back to Mexico.

Groana
Oh, wow—I didn’t realize both of your parents are Japanese.

Alejandro
My mom is Mexican-born Japanese. Basically, I’m Japanese, but I was born and grew up in Mexico.

Groana
Do you ever go back to Japan, or did your parents ever take you?

Alejandro
I studied there for a year in high school.

Martha
How’s your Japanese? How do you relate to the language itself?

Alejandro
My Japanese got better when I was there. I speak some Japanese at home, like the term pocho but in this case mixing Japanese and Spanish.

There are many stories about the Japanese immigration to Mexico. In Chiapas, there is the little town of Acacoyagua that is the first place where Japanese immigrants settled in Latin America, as an organized immigration. It was called the Enomoto Colony. In the main plaza of this town, there is a memorial for the immigrants, on the back of it there is a haiku that says something like “summer grass, battles of the heroes, traces of a dream.”

I’m very interested in that. I’m going to Mexico in December, and I want to go to Acacoyagua Chiapas. I’m curious to learn more about it. There are some descendants of these immigrants and many people who have Japanese last names.

When my grandfather went to Mexico, he was single at that time. There was this thing like matchmaking for Japanese who immigrated to other countries. Most of the immigrants were single men, and they wanted to find somebody to marry, and I guess it was very difficult to marry a local person if you didn’t speak the language. The matchmaking process was done through photographs. My grandmother was told about this person in Mexico and was asked if she wanted to marry him, and she said yes. It was kind of like an old archaic version of Tinder.

Martha
With more severe consequences. You couldn’t just go out on a date. It was straight to marriage.

Alejandro
Actually, when my grandmother got to Mexico, she was already married. Her name was changed to Mitsuko Kasuga.

Martha
They married even before they met?

Alejandro
Yes. They even did a ceremony without the groom. There is a photograph where she is wearing a kimono and everything, but he’s not there.

Martha
A proper marriage?

Alejandro
Yeah, a long-distance marriage. When my grandfather came to Mexico, it was about ten years after the Mexican Revolution ended, and it was harsh times. They lived in San Luis Potosi.

Martha
Right now it’s a little better, but I can’t even imagine what it was like then. It’s not even like that big of a city now.

Alejandro
Water was scarce. My grandmother was shocked at breakfast when somebody brought her water and asked, “Do you want to use this water to wash your face, or for coffee?” She couldn’t have both.

After WWII began and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japan became an enemy of Mexico as Mexico was an ally of the US. The Mexican government gave the order to relocate all the Japanese people from the coastal and rural areas to the central part of Mexico, like Mexico City or Guadalajara, to have them close and monitor them.

It wasn’t as harsh as in the U.S. because they didn’t have concentration camps. (Actually, there was a small concentration camp in Queretaro.) My grandparents had already built a life in San Luis Potosi, and they had to start again in Mexico City, but it was good for them in a way. That’s why there is a big Japanese community in Mexico City. There is a Mexican-Japanese school and other things.

Martha
I was thinking about how circumstances forced your grandmother to move, but then you left Mexico by choice. You were like, “This is what I want to do.” I thought that was an interesting contrast.

Alejandro
Yes, my grandparents had a very difficult time, and now I’m in a more privileged situation. Their experiences are inspiring and a motivation for me. I always have it in my head and my heart.

I want to explore that part more. My grandmother used to write tanka poetry. They are short poems where she expressed most of her experiences, from the time she left Japan to her everyday life in Mexico.

Martha

It’s interesting that your grandmother was somewhat of an art-maker, even though it’s not visual art, she used art to help her process what she was going through.

Alejandro
I’m very interested in my grandmother’s poems about her life and what was happening around her. And the process of abstracting experiences and reducing them to verse within a rigid system of five, seven, five, seven, seven syllables. I like that idea of taking things from the world and reducing them into a short point.

Groana
How much of your practice is about performance?

Alejandro
I sometimes do performances. If I have a show with an opportunity to do a performance, I will. In performance, the body is the medium, the actions, the body and the remains are the work, but it’s very challenging to put yourself in front of a lot of people.

Some of the work I do with the traces of the body and the imprints has a residue of an action or a performative action—like painting the whole space with the body, or a wall. Performance is quite challenging, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, how you’re going to react, you’re vulnerable, etc. I’m very nervous before a performance, but when I’m doing it I kind of get lost and forget about it.

molido2

Molido (2015) Performance.

Martha
You’ve been talking a lot about Mexican-Japanese people, but the work you did on Ayotzinapa is more about a Mexican issue. It’s interesting how you embrace both.

Alejandro
I don’t mention it directly. I guess some of my work is a form of a silent protest. I made that piece after the missing 43 students, and when all the protests were going on in Mexico because of that. When you’re far from Mexico and you’re observing things from a distance, it’s difficult to address those issues, because you’re not there. You’re not experiencing it, but you want to talk about it. You want to make it visible for other people who don’t know about that situation.

I tried not to make political work that is in your face with blood and bodies. It was a performance piece where I ground cacao seeds and used the paste to make drawings that were instructions for actions and movements.

I was thinking of the number 43 in relation to the body and in this case bodies, and movement, in relation to the social mobilizations to protest against this criminal incident. So I had these three elements: body, movement, and symbols. The drawings on the wall became an accumulation of these repetitive actions.

And when I was grinding the cacao, the smell of cacao permeated the whole room in the exhibition space.

Molido (2015) Performance.

Molido (2015) Performance.

Even if you don’t want to talk about political issues, you inevitably end up addressing them—it’s something that we experience every day.

I have another work that is a big piece of paper with 47,515 of my fingerprints. I read an article in the New York Times stating that at the end of the Felipe Calderón presidency, the official number of murders from the drug war was 47,515. There were obviously more than that, but I wanted to recount all these numbers and make them visible. I counted each of the 47,515 fingerprints. I like to make work that can be grounded in political issues, but in a more poetic way, visually.

47,515+ (2012) squid ink on paper. 60" x 204"

47,515+ (2012) squid ink on paper. 60″ x 204″

Martha
Which is very nice. I think about someone like Teresa Margolles and What else could we talk about? She talks about it in a way that you as a viewer are somewhat forced into violence. I like the way you approach it because it’s still very visible, but it’s not so violent.

Alejandro
Yeah, I don’t think I would like to attack violence with violence. My work is not so graphic. I think I try to find ways to say things that are around my life, in a non-aggressive way I guess. I just take things I see. If that is what I see and experience, I need to put it out there.

Martha
I can understand, because when that happened, I was here in New York. All of my friends, all the people I knew, were protesting back in Mexico. Protesters were even getting arrested, and I was here looking at it on my phone. I went to Union Square, and there were like three Mexicans there. I felt so weird not being back home.

Alejandro
I know what you mean. I make art, but if I also want to do some activism, then I do it. Artwork may come from political issues or family stories or other experiences, whatever is informing my work at that time.

Groana
What does your practice look like? Your daily practice?

Alejandro
I sometimes start by making sketches and drawings. I like to make quick drawings with watercolor, and sometimes more detailed sketches. I like to put them around on the walls and have them visually in front of me, and see them every day.

What I like about this process is that when I start making and object or something, I later find similarities to the things I did a long time ago. It’s a way to create your own visual language.

Then I also have to do my freelancing jobs in graphic design. I have to pay my bills you know, but I have flexibility with time, and I’m able to work and make my own artwork, but my schedules are a mess sometimes. I guess that’s my system of working or process, having all these visual elements and then trying to make connections around them.

Sketches

Sketches

Groana
Can you tell us about your most recent shows, especially the one opening tomorrow (December 9, 2016)?

Alejandro
The one that is tomorrow is a post-election show and related to the winning of Trump, part of the proceeds will be donated to the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center. It’s for a good cause. I made the smallest sculpture I’ve ever done. I’m responding to Trump and the wall, and also referencing the body.

The show that opened a few weeks ago was more of an installation. I wanted to do something intersecting sculpture, drawing, and installation. I had these prints of my body, my arm, leg and foot, and printed them life-size on metal. I use them as rulers, with them I measured and cut the pieces of wood to make the structure, kind of like tables. The objects I had on top were also imprints of my body, mostly of my hand, and then I drew the surface of the table. I had all these mix of things, everything around the body, like deconstructing my body and constructing something else and occupying the space.

thepalaceat420am

The Palace at 4:20 am (2016) Plaster, graphite, pencil, raw hide, black gesso, bone black pigment, whitewash, magic sculpt, wire, wood, digital screen print on dibond.

Martha
It reminds me of the measuring system they use in the U.S., which was basically the king’s measurements. Like a foot was the length of the king’s foot.

Alejandro
Yeah, I decided to make my own system of measurement based on the body.

Groana
What are you working on now? I know you mentioned going to Mexico, to Chiapas.

Alejandro
Yeah, that is totally different from what I’ve been doing, more personal. At this point, I’m researching and studying more the history of the Japanese immigration to Mexico.

Immigration is something that happens all the time, and shifts certain structures in the world, socially, culturally, politically. I think it’s important to talk about all these in order to bring more diversity, I guess.

It’s funny, because now that I’m in the U.S., I’m interested in things from back home. Every time I go there, I gather more material. My parents are marine biologists, and they have all these old biology books. I remember looking at them when I was a child, but now as they don’t use them anymore, they told me I can do whatever I want with them, so I’ve been tearing them up and making collages, I love these images of shells, fishes, plants, etc.

sketches2

Sketches

 

Martha
That makes sense. I was never interested in the pictures that my parents took of me. But when I came here I was like, “I want to scan all of them, and do work around them.”

Alejandro
Yeah, there is some kind of nostalgia, no?

Groana
You have to step away, in order to see your life. That’s the whole reason we want residencies, right? We need to step away—not only to have the time to focus, but also to reflect on our lives.

Alejandro
To reflect and see the things from outside. I think that to get deeper into your thoughts, you have to step back a little bit and see yourself from the outside.

Martha
I think it’s very hard to focus on things when you have them so close to you. It’s easier to see them clearer when you step back.

Alejandro
You don’t see them. You take them for granted because you have them and you’re just like, “What else can I do?” You try to make things outside your bubble. Now, when you’re outside the bubble you’re like, “Oh, wait, I can see what is in the bubble.”

Martha
You don’t even think it’s interesting because that’s just normal life to you. When you’re outside, you realize normal life is not even a thing. And besides, that’s actually what you can talk about more, because that’s what you know about it, whatever else you are a little bit clueless, but your experience is your best topic. All of our experiences are so different that it’s important to say, “This is what it looks like to have my life.”

Alejandro
And in New York, there are people from all over the world, and everybody has different experiences in life. It’s interesting, what happens here, the conversations that happen here. Everything is around our roots, and that’s important. It makes you see that the world is more diverse. And on the other side, you don’t want to assimilate into another culture and lose your roots, because you want to keep your voice and keep your background.

Martha
There’s one part of you that really wants to fit in. Back in Mexico, I was rebellious, so I never had a quinceañera. Now that I’m here I’m like, “I wish I had had a quinceañera. I wish I had more of an accent, and I wish that I wish I was more Mexican,” whatever that means. When I was in Mexico cumbias were cool, and I will dance them at parties but never listen to them in my own time, but now I’m like, “Oh, I will listen to them in my house,” but that never happened before. It’s not like I really think there is such thing as more Mexican, I guess what I mean is that I wish I was part of a community of Mexicans here, I miss that familiarity.

Alejandro
Actually, that happens to me too. In Mexico, I feel like I need to assimilate more to the culture, and have a strong accent, in a way to prove that I’m Mexican. It’s like an identity play. Belonging and not belonging is confusing. It’s just a back-and-forth situation, of trying to find your place in the world.

Groana
What’s your relationship to photography?

Alejandro
In my practice I use photography to gather images, to get a collection of things that I see and captured my attention. Even if I take a photo of a chewing gum on the floor or something, it’s because it was interesting to me at that moment.

Recently I started printing my photos. I printed about 200, and I like to have them next to my sketches on the wall. Photography is my source material. Sometimes it helps me remember what I saw and what captured my attention.

Even if I don’t use them as artwork, they inform my work in a way. I like to take many photos of random things. I did a series of photos of only circular shapes, like a circular entrance or a circular object. I have many photos of that, and of sleeping dogs. They are part of my personal archive of visual images. I think it’s important for every artist to have visual archives.

Groana
Yeah, it becomes your library.

Alejandro
And accessible. That’s why I like to print them. Sometimes I make small sketches and forget about them. Now I’m forcing myself and put all of these images in front of me. I love that later I see them manifested in a similar form, but in another material. Like abstracting something from reality into a sketch and then transforming that into something else in another work or material. It’s like a filtering process.

 

Interview with Daniel Terna

Interview with Daniel Terna

Daniel Terna is a lens-based artist whose work is marked by absence. His images balance the emotional with the conceptual. We sat down with him to share food, drinks, and conversation shortly after the election.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Daniel Terna
I’m the child of immigrants. My folks were not born in this country. Still, it sounds so strange to say that because I’m just a New Yorker.

Groana Melendez
Where are your parents from?

Daniel
Dad was born in Vienna in 1923 and grew up in Prague, which was at that time in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Mom is also Jewish, Eastern European, but comes from Colombia. She was born in Paris after the War, but grew up in Bogotá. In 1959, when she was 12, her family moved to Brooklyn.

Martha
How did they meet?

Daniel
They met in a therapy group for children of Holocaust survivors. My dad is a survivor, and my mom is the daughter of survivors. At that time there was a movement around supporting first-generation children of survivors, exploring how they dealt with growing up in an environment where their parents were psychologically fucked up because of their experiences in the war. My dad was a speaker, and he saw my mom afterward on the train and asked her to get a cup of coffee. They got married three months later. She was 35, and he was in his late 50s.

homepictures_danielterna

Carpet Portrait (Mom), 2013

Groana
How do you identify, especially since you’re adopted?

Daniel
I identify as an ethnically Colombian, culturally New York Jew. I have no cultural connection to Colombia. I identify a lot with being your typical over-analytical pseudo-intellectual New York Jew. The Colombian thing rarely comes up because nobody really knows or asks. Somebody today thought I was from Lebanon. My birth mother was from Bogotá, but I was born in Manhattan.

Martha
Have you been to Colombia?

Daniel
No. I started asking my mom for some information about my birth mom. Every time I think about it, I’m like, “I need to make this into an art project.” Then I get stuck, because I’m like, “I need to call the lawyer that was involved with the adoption.” Then I’m like, “Do I need to record the conversation? How do I record it? What kind of camera does it need to be? Can it be the computer camera, or can it be my iPhone? Do I need a setup? Do I have a camera on the lawyer’s end, so do I call beforehand to tell them that I’m going to call them?” Then I don’t do anything.

Martha
You just get caught up in technicalities?

Daniel
Which might just be an excuse not to want to open a can of worms. But I did start looking into it, and the crazy thing is the lawyer just died. So that’s another one of those things where I wonder, What if my birth mom died right now? Maybe she’s in Queens; maybe she’s in Bogotá. What if I just missed that by a day? How awful would that be? Because I spent the last two years thinking about doing it, and then I didn’t do it, and then I did it, and now she’s dead.

Groana
Stop!

Daniel
It’s so Jewish. It’s very Jewish, that sort of anxiety, like worrying so much you don’t get anywhere. You’re standing in one place. You’re just standing in one place worrying.

Martha
Like a Woody Allen character.

Daniel
Like a Woody Allen character. Yeah. But I’ll do it. Don’t worry. I’ll do it somehow, but what if I have siblings? It’s weird. I probably do have siblings.

Martha
You don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side.

Daniel
No, I don’t. Every Colombian I meet is like, “You have to go to Colombia, it’s awesome, I’ll tell you where to stay.” I have a standing invitation at an artist-residency in Medellín.

Martha
I get the hesitation, though, because you don’t know what’s waiting for you and it’s easy just to guess instead of confronting it.

Daniel
My dad says that I should use his story and experience in my art. He’s like, “It’s a very special situation that you still have access to a Holocaust survivor, and you should use me as much as you can.” With these newer pictures of his skin, I’m doing exactly that: looking closely at his body.


Groana
It sounds like a collaboration because he’s urging you to tell his story.

Daniel
I don’t know if I would call it collaboration. I’ve collaborated with another artist, and it’s a very different experience. With this, he’s more game to do stuff, but I don’t know if he would call it collaborating because he’s more like, “Do your thing. I’m here for you, and if you want to do this idea with me, great.” I use his body and the objects in his studio and his paintings as props, but there isn’t an active conversation going on.

Martha
In our classes at ICP there were a lot of people working with family. It’s interesting.

Daniel
For me, it comes from a fear of his death and wanting to go to places emotionally that we just wouldn’t under any normal circumstances. My father’s long life and his eventual death is the elephant in the room. He says that with his first wife, who was also a survivor, the Holocaust was the elephant at the dinner table. Through my pictures and my work, I have a portrait of my dad, and if I have kids I can say, “This was your grandpa. This guy.”

I’ve always had a fear of his death and anxiety about losing him. I grew up knowing that he was old and that he would die when I was young, so I’ve always been preparing for it. But he’s 93 now and very active and healthy. I think many of us photographers want to make work about our families. I think we’re all trying to understand ourselves better.

Daniel Terna, 2015. Dikes of Different Ages.

Dikes of Different Ages, 2015

Martha
For me it’s not about death, but rather memory as it relates to personal history. Both my parents are orphans, but they are very young, so I never associated them with mortality. It makes sense that you have a closer relationship with death.

Daniel
My dad is an artist, and he paints because the paintings are going to outlast him. His art is a record of his survival. He paints with acrylic because it lasts longer than oil or he covers it with a veneer after he’s done painting so it’s damage-resistant. When people come to look at his paintings, he starts scratching them. He’s like, “See? Nothing is happening. They’re good. They’re going to outlast you; they’re going to outlast your grandkids. If you’re going to spend money on this, it’s going to be made well.” I think a lot of that is his personality, but I also think it’s interesting to think about it as his desire to make a little mark on history. His paintings are essentially documents of him, portraits of his psychological state.

I started taking pictures of his skin and his wrinkles because I was interested in texture. His paintings are very textured as well; he uses sand and pebbles. He wants blind people to be able to see them. When you look at them you can see light and shadow; I wanted to do that with his skin. I wanted his skin to be my canvas. I wanted to make pictures that could relate to that physical sensation. I don’t know if I succeeded, but they’re not bad pictures.

Technically, I had been shooting with a flash, and that work was beginning to blend with some of my commercial work. It started to go in a direction that a lot of other people were headed, so I started thinking of the assignment Nayland Blake gave of breaking your own rules or setting boundaries. I decided not to use a flash. I put all these magnifying lenses on the camera so I could get really close. I also wanted to make something that was about going back to the beauty of optics, which to me meant using natural light, really soft focus, and doing something that wasn’t so trendy.

Daniel Terna, 2016. From the series A Crazy Bass.

From the series A Crazy Bass, 2016

Martha
When I saw them, it was not what I remembered from your show or from what I know about you. It was very interesting.

Daniel
Yeah, it looks different from what I had been doing.

Martha
Also, you don’t want to get into the trap of yourself.

Daniel
Exactly. I wanted to break it up, to try not to have a visual style—or even a style of personality. Sometimes I can be really depressing and sometimes I can be, in my opinion, hilarious. I have a huge variety of interests and approaches, which is sometimes to my detriment. While there are recurring themes of isolation, absence, labor, my relationships to others and specific sites, I don’t think my work is identifiable by a specific visual style. Sure there are strategies I use myself because they’ve worked for me in the past and I have a lot of trust and confidence in the instincts I’ve sharpened over the years, but I can’t entirely say that everything I do looks like it was done by me, Daniel Terna. I could see myself having a solo show and someone thinking it’s a group show.

Martha
Sometimes the story wants to be told a certain way.

Groana
When did your dad become a painter, and did you get into the arts because of his work?

Daniel
My dad started drawing in the concentration camps. One of the first camps he was in was Terezin, in Czechoslovakia. Terezin was a gated fortress concentration camp, but by most standards of the time, it was not so bad. There was a degree of freedom of movement so that Jews could congregate. Terezin was a hub of intellectuals, so there were a lot of famous painters, musicians, composers, singers—all kinds of artists. They got together and had these sessions and even informally taught those who would listen, like my dad, who had been taken out of school.

He became interested in the arts. He was like, “Okay. I want to be an intellectual. I want to be involved with this kind of community and live my life (if I survive) like this.” That’s where he got exposed to some artists that were drawing on paper, what little they could find. When he was in some of the worst camps later on (Auschwitz and later Dachau), he drew with a twig in the dirt. If a Nazi walked by, my dad could easily erase what he had made. He was teaching himself. After being liberated in 1945, he went back to Prague and discovered that his father, brother, and everyone he knew had been murdered in the camps. He married his first wife Stella, whom I made a film about (My First Wife Stella), and in 1946, he went to Paris and started taking a few art classes there, sketching and painting. He’s been doing it for his whole life.

But I didn’t get into the arts because he’s a painter. I was into photojournalism, especially war photojournalism. I always looked at the names of photojournalists in the New York Times, and I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to photograph in Afghanistan or Iraq when the wars broke out. In high school, I started taking pictures. The first things I shot were the Jews in Borough Park. I just wandered into buildings and businesses and openly photographed them.

Martha and Groana
Then what happened?

Daniel
I went to Bard, and I started seeing fine art photography, and that started shifting my perspective. I started reading Susan Sontag and learning about the problems with photojournalism, and I realized that what I really wanted was danger. I wanted the adrenaline rush, but I didn’t care enough about making pictures of people in trouble and telling the world about them. I didn’t care about doing that myself. Pornography is a really strong word, but I see some photojournalism as this twisted form of media entertainment.

I realized I couldn’t do it. An adrenaline rush was the wrong reason to be a photojournalist in a war zone. I took a class with photographer Gilles Peress at Bard, a human rights class, and I told him I was interested in being a war correspondent. He sat me down and said, very seriously, “I’ve lost a lot of students to war, who wanted to go to war, who got killed, and you will get killed if you go to war.” I laughed, and as a result, he body-checked me. He lifted me up and threw me to the ground. This was in front of some people, but it was really intense, and I was like, “He’s not kidding.” It was a supremely bold statement on his part, and it really cemented what he meant. He’s an incredible person, a true intellectual and deeply affected by the wars he’s photographed and the Rwandan genocide. I still see him around Fort Greene.

Groana
Why didn’t you end up in a journalism school instead of Bard?

Daniel
I did journalism in high school, and I loved journalism, and I still love journalism. One of the reasons I love photography is because you go into these unknown places. I think that’s why a lot of us are photographers. You have your camera, and you just go. Especially if you’re younger, you’re like, “Okay. I’m just going to go explore with this camera.” You discover people’s stories and talk to people, and sometimes even pretend to be someone you’re not, which is what I did a lot of times. I looked at colleges for journalism. I was looking at Boston University because I thought maybe I would be a reporter. But then I went to Bard, and I studied art history and photography, and the photo program was so intense that I ended up really dedicating myself to it. I also worked on the school paper, the Bard Free Press, eventually becoming the Editor-in-Chief, which is something I’m really proud of.

One of my photography teachers was An-My Lê. She photographs with a view camera, but she works within fast-paced worlds, such as army bases, the military in training, even shoots on aircraft carriers. She works with subject matter that a photojournalist might be interested in, but she doesn’t approach it in the way that a photojournalist would—with an SLR, shooting a lot of frames. She takes many steps back and is like, “I’m making landscapes and pictures of huge systems.” I loved how she perceived the world, instead of documenting up-close the pain of others, which is this endless conversation we can have over and over. Every time you see a picture of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach, and say, “This is a powerful picture. This picture will get the world to change, to get off their asses and fix the refugee crisis.”

Daniel Terna, 2009. From the series I'll See You On The Beach.

From the series I’ll See You On The Beach, 2009

That conversation is always happening, and it doesn’t seem to stop, but it doesn’t seem to help enough. I have faith in the new power of virtual reality, like Clouds Over Sidra, where they made a documentary in a refugee camp. They set up a VR camera inside a tent. You see groups of kids walking right past you, and it’s like you can touch them. You’re there, and it’s so effective. It’s a really intimate picture of a situation in the world that is hard for us to imagine ourselves. It’s been really amazing as a technology.

I would love to use that kind of technology with my dad. For my thesis, I put a GoPro on him. The idea was to get the viewer to be in this old body that was moving on the stairs, and I was trying to think of a way I could relate his trauma and his survival to people, and I don’t know if I accomplished that. I don’t think I dug into it deep enough. After I did that, you started seeing this VR stuff coming out. I would like to do things with my dad with that kind of technology. What is it like to be a 93-year-old taking a shower, cutting your toenails, eating, just being in your body.

Groana
You still wouldn’t get to the experience of being. You would be watching him. So it would be more visual porn.

Daniel
Yeah, but you could also do this GoPro kind of thing with VR, in a way. You could. I don’t think you could feel exactly what old age is like, but that shouldn’t limit one from trying it. I thought, “How can you make somebody feel a physical sensation by looking at a photograph?” I tried to do that with some of my photography early on in grad school, and I don’t know if I failed or succeeded, but I was thinking about when I used to go fishing. I remembered the feeling of the fishing line on my finger. Or if you ever played the piano, the memory is so intense that you can almost feel it on your skin. You could feel the weight of the keys or the feeling of the fishing line, so I had my dad put on his socks, or tie his shoe, or comb his hair and brush his teeth.

Martha
How did you start 321 Gallery?

Daniel
The gallery started with my buddy Mekko Harjo. We wanted to show our work, but we knew it was impossible to be noticed by any galleries. It was 2012, which is actually not that long ago, but it feels like an eternity. We put up a show. Then I did a second show a year later. Two of the artists who were in that show, Tin Nguyen and Tom Forkin, asked if I wanted to team up and convert the space into a functioning gallery that mounted shows more frequently. I said yes.

Now Tom and I are working constantly at the gallery, helping people realize their projects. We’ve done 22 shows, including three art fairs. Well, we’re about to go to our third art fair, NADA Miami. Which is a ludicrous thing to think about in comparison to the election.

Shifting away from the gallery, I’ve been thinking that all these Trump supporters have identities, and I wonder who they are. It’s the first time that I felt the liberals were almost mean and overlooking a huge amount of people, especially when Hillary said, “A basket of deplorables.”

That kind of rhetoric is so offensive, and people knew that it was offensive then, but now we’re sitting here thinking, “Oh, my God, we’re fucked.” Who are we to sit on our overeducated chairs and judge a lot of white people in America who are not as educated and have been barely scraping by? When I go to D.C. in January, I want to see who these people are. Even saying, “these people” sounds so fucked up.

Martha
Of course they’re not all in the same.

Daniel
No, of course not. Also, can you blame them for being pissed off? It’s a weird position to be in. When Eric Garner was killed, I saw this moment that photography was about to have. Charlotte Cotton had just made Photography Is Magic, and she closed the book on that way of making work. And in a way, I’m thankful that conversation has died down. I need a long break from it. For what seemed a long time we were seeing the kind of work that Charlotte Cotton was really putting on this pedestal. I don’t give a fuck about that shit at all right now. It makes me angry to think of making work about the medium, photography about photography. It’s like when Daft Punk comes out with a new summer hit that gets overplayed everywhere. It’s exciting for a week, and then you just want to turn it off or leave the room.

When Garner was killed, I thought we were going to see a lot of work about people, and humanity, and emotional subject matter. I thought my interest in photojournalism and the problems I had with it would coalesce into something. We’re seeing work being celebrated now by artists who have been making socially-concerned work but were overlooked for a while.

I think this election has woken up all of us, and that includes artists. I haven’t seen energy like this since 2003 when the war in Iraq started.

Daniel Terna, 2015. Untitled (Green).

From the series We Buy Gold!, 2015

Groana
What are you working on now?

I’m still working on the skin and canvas idea, and playing around with masks and theatrical setups with my dad and sometimes my mom. Meanwhile, I’m working with an amazing designer, Rory King, finishing the publication of my From Several Angles Over Several Days project, which I first showed as a photo installation at Baxter St. at CCNY in the 2015 juried show. I’m also helping my dad curate a large show of his paintings at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, opening in January. And most recently I began giving him these assignments to make political paintings, and photography will be incorporated into it. Definitely a new, unusual direction for both of us, but something to do in reaction to the current climate.

The Great Escape, 2016

The Great Escape, 2016

 

Daniel Terna (b. Brooklyn, NY) has participated in select group exhibitions at MoMA PS1 (NYC); the International Center of Photography (NYC); Foley Gallery (NYC); Baxter St. Camera Club of NY (NYC); New Wight Biennial (UCLA, Los Angeles); BRIC Arts Media Biennial (Brooklyn, NY); New York Film Festival (NYC); Eyebeam (NYC); Museum of the City of New York (NYC); The Wild Project (NYC); the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts (Cambridge, MA); Armory Center for the Arts (Pasadena, CA); Contemporary Arts Center (New Orleans, LA); and Gallery Tayuta (Tokyo, JP). Terna was a resident in the Collaborative Fellowship Program at UnionDocs, Brooklyn, and was awarded the Cuts and Burns Residency at Outpost Artist Resources in Ridgewood, NY. Terna graduated with a BA in photography from Bard College and received his MFA from the International Center of Photography-Bard. He runs and co-curates 321 Gallery, Brooklyn.