On Shifting, Empathy, + Metaphorical Traveling

Justine Kurland in Conversation.

On Shifting, Empathy, + Metaphorical Traveling

In Justine Kurland’s photograph, 76 Station, her young son Casper sits in a car seat in a truck, his face awash with a distance that might equate to either deep boredom or daydreaming (or perhaps he’s sleepy). Skinny knees to his chest, he stares out the front window—the car seat is on the passenger side. It’s a moment not only unprompted but profoundly personal; if it were set up (it wasn’t), it wouldn’t make a difference. Kurland’s photographed landscapes and characters always read this way: she has captured them organically, even if she assisted in creating the narrative. Photography that toes a line between documentary work and fine art may intrinsically contain half-truths, but that does not strip it of its sincerity, nor of its power. Kurland has carved out much of her career by finding the places and people she wanted to know; constantly traveling, her photographs of train-hoppers, the American west, and men or young women in the wilderness, are all of spaces and places she might not have belonged to initially, but came to know through a wonder that feels pure.

76 Station is part of Sincere Auto Care, a book and an exhibition showcased at Mitchell-Inness & Nash in late 2014. Back then, Kurland lived mostly on the road, Casper in tow, documenting her adventures. The poet and art critic John Yau, with whom she’d already established a correspondence, interviewed Kurland about the book—and the nature of photography as a whole—for Hyperallergic. In the time since then, Yau, whose poignantly spare work stirs the same sort of quiet reflection and strange mystery as Kurland’s (just read Borrowed Love Poems) became housebound, recovering from several surgeries. Kurland, in turn, was also home, far from her comfort zone of the open road, teaching photography and raising Casper. This unusual period of quietude and stillness for them both inspired the work in their new book, Black Threads from Meng Chiao, a call-and-response dialogue of the artists’ work, each piece directly inspired by another.

Titled for the Tang dynasty poet, Kurland’s images in Black Threads were shot inside, in small spaces—a far cry from the oeuvre for which she’s known, but just as intimate. There is no question we are peering into a private world, whether it is Kurland’s home, her consciousness, or both; they make tender companions to Yau’s poetry. Black Threads is a dense, emotive work. We were happy to speak with Kurland about it, and the internal changes that prompted its inspiration. See below for our conversation.

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Did you meet John Yau through his review of your work? How did your relationship continue to develop these past few years?

After my father died I wanted to get him some posthumous recognition. He was a painter that had lived and worked in obscurity and poverty, embittered by the art world. I felt if people knew who he was, he wouldn’t be quite as dead. I wrote to every critic I knew. He had just self-published a book of his work so I thought maybe somebody would review it. The only person to respond was John. He has made a point to credit the under -recognized, overlooked, invisible artists in his reviews. And he knew and liked my father’s work. So when we first talked it wasn’t about my work but my father’s. And my father had a relationship with a poet John knew, so we started talking about poetry.

In Black Threads from Meng Chiao, there’s an obvious movement away from your previous work, in terms of equipment and subject. In a conversation with John for Hyperallergic, you both mentioned that photographs consistently display the middle of a story—the narrative is always arrested, left for the viewer to complete or not. I’m interested in how the work in this book feels so self-narrated. There’s both nothing and everything to wonder about regarding what came before and after the shots were taken. This time, it feels like I’m looking into your brain, or into particular concepts: Claustrophobia, breath, shape.

The work in Black Threads significantly breaks from an out-in-the-world documentary style of photography I had been making for over 15 years. What you are picking up on—what I have intentionally heightened in these new pictures—is the use of a subjective perspective, something that had only been latent in my earlier work.

When I was talking about the frozen quality of an image, I was talking about how impoverished photography is as a narrative tool. And yet I make narrative pictures. As I stripped away narrative in my work, the thing most important to hold onto was voice, the point of view from which a world is pictured. I wanted my work to acknowledge the inherent bias of any photograph. Maybe my earlier staged narrative photographs of teenage girls are third person narratives—a story is pictured—but these new pictures tell it through first person, where here the viewer is completely trapped in my head.

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You were no longer on the road when you took these photographs. You described the experience, and John’s own experience of recuperating from his surgeries, as being under “house arrest, or being shipwrecked.” Can you say more about this? I’m wondering if you were teaching, and what it was like to experience motherhood no longer on the road, but confined to one place. In what ways did you feel bound? Was there any freedom to be found in this situation, too?

When I was talking before about the break from my older work, I was also talking about an ideological break. I had started my road trips to get as far away from far away, as a way to escape. I had some Thoreau-ian notion of self-reliance and self-determination. But at a certain point it stopped making sense. Not so much I became a mother, because it was easy enough to bring my kid into the woods, but I changed once I started teaching, both because I felt responsible for my students, who I couldn’t bring into the woods, and because I began to question the foundation of my own work the same as I asked my students to. Who does it help if you withdraw from society? Once you leave, whatever dominant power will just take more control and your cabin is only good so long as nobody shows up with a bigger stick and takes it away.

In other words, maybe Thoreau is just a left wing libertarian. At the same time, I think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own—that traditionally for women, if they didn’t make space outside of the obligations of daily life, they wouldn’t be able to make their own work. There’s a great quote from Hannah Arendt that says something like, “The first condition for freedom is the space in which to move.” In a lot of ways the van I traveled in on my road trips was a cross between Thoreau’s cabin and Virginia Woolf’s room.

Do you remember in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law, when the convicts escape prison and camp out in the forest, they set up their hammocks in the same configuration as when they were in jail? These Black Thread pictures are a way of leaving the cabin and room of my van and remaking the same space in my house. But if Down By Law is an inside-to-outside shift, my shift is outside-to-inside.

Also, it seemed important here to make art out of what was normally my downtime from art-making.

You’ve said of motherhood, “You’re getting your heart broken every second…and the range of experience becomes so much greater.” This is an addendum to the last question, about living experientially as a mother but traveling less: what was the range of experience like in this setting?

In that quote, I was specifically talking about how motherhood is a taboo subject or methodology for artists. If you are a junkie, then you have had mind-altering experiences and suffer in ways that make your work more credible. But mothers are discredited. Their experiences are invalidated, or reduced to biology. Rebecca Solnit wrote in The Faraway Nearby that empathy is a storyteller’s first gift. Nothing teaches you empathy more than watching your kid get bullied, seeing them cry, being unable to fix what hurts. I think being a mother is expansive on almost every level. And it also sucks. I’m raising a pre-pubescent now who is so uncomfortable in his skin; he squirms with embarrassment in almost every situation. He puts me in touch with emotions I haven’t felt for a long time.

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Can you describe the experience, both emotional and physical, of creating these interior self-reflections, versus what you’d made before? There is maybe so much to be said about working with a digital versus a 4 x 5 camera as well as working with a smaller landscape.

I can describe certain pictures. The photograph of the photograph on my refrigerator is a hunting picture of my father. He’s almost a ghost in silhouette with footsteps in the snow. The arm is Amelia Earhart’s. And the picture showing three iterations of Casper is my version of [Joseph] Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” via Photoshop. A lot of the pictures bounce around my apartment showing the wear of an East Village tenement I’ve lived in for twenty years. One looks out a window to show the concrete wall across an airshaft. The ones of my body are slightly masturbatory and bored. There are two photographs of ships, one that my son drew and one he made out of Legos, and a detail on my dresser of a Chinese boatman. None of the photographs have any space, so there is really nowhere to sail.

Tell me about sitting with John’s poems. Did they speak to your own experience? Call-and-response can be invigorating.

John’s poems influenced my work in their attention to details that could be allegorical, the abject romance of having any fantasy. He inspired me to imagine I could travel around my apartment. Ultimately I think his poems are about death and a final measure of days, so I think that’s in the photographs too.

He is a brilliant poet. His poems have a simplicity and directness that gave me permission to do the same. I would have never made these pictures without him.

Has creating this book provided a kind of resolve to that experience of feeling shipwrecked? That is to say, was it healing?

You have great questions. This project led me to another housebound project to photograph the guitars and mess of a man I have been dating over the last two years. He recently broke up with me and I have been slowly destroying and photographing a guitar he left here. It feels good to do, but I’m not sure I am either wounded or healing.

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