Visual Arts

Interview: Artist Ulysses Atwhen on the Nature of Stuff

by / Jan. 3, 2019 9am EST

Ulysses Atwhen: Of course, now we’re setting up the show and I’m thinking, “What am I doing?…this is all stupid…why am I even making this art?” You know—that feeling.

At the heart of Ulysses Atwhen’s new show, Hoarder, is a sense of profound ambivalence: ambivalence with respect to the value of the pieces (“Price on Request” is the exhibit’s subtitle but itself seems to be less of an announcement than a provocation); ambivalence with respect to the privileging of visual art; and ambivalence with respect to the position of the artist in society.

UA: Artists are kind of in a shitty place. You’re either going to be really poor or stupidly rich. The artist is forced to be very fluid within class structure. The only person who’s going to buy your art to sustain you is probably really fucking rich. But most of the people who you’re socially connected to are also poor. So you’re moving between the poor and the wealthy and you’re also going to be blamed for gentrification.

You take the risk of total criticism. You’re probably never going to make any money, so your parents are never going to be happy.

You’re going to be criticized, you might be validated—and that might be only a  short time. Maybe you’ll make some money, and then everyone thinks it’s great—your brother who goes to museums but art is not a deep part of his life. But you sell a painting and suddenly, “Oh, that’s good.” Is that the goal? Is the goal to sell your artwork for money?

Shane Meyer: The show is called Hoarder. When you see something, do you already have the showpiece in your head or do you just kind of collect the stuff?

UA: First of all, the nature of stuff is that it accumulates.

SM: Mmhmm.

UA: One of the things that’s exciting about this show is I can finally do the idea that I had when I found the object. Make the work, document it, and then get rid of the object. “Hoarder”…it’s a kind of a joke, but like a lot of jokes it’s kind of serious. Hoarding is even recognized as a disease. It might be connected to obsessive compulsive disorder, it might not be, but it’s got its own designation now. There’s Grey Gardens-level, where it really becomes a problem, and there’re people who live cluttered lives, and it’s not like 50 cats or something. On another level, I don’t think that we as a culture go, “Oh, rich people are hoarders.” We don’t because they have nice things, but really the super wealthy are hoarders.

The exhibit, opening on Saturday at Big Orbit Project Space, runs through February 23; the configuration, however, is destined to mutate by the time of the closing.

UA: One thing I’m excited about is the fact that this show will change. That’s another thing about shows—they’re so static.

SM: And the opening tends to be a big event, whereas the closing is the same thing on a smaller, less exciting scale with a boring artist talk tacked on. Are you going to do a talk?

UA: Yes, I would like to do a talk. I want to get at the ideas behind the work. That’s what’s more important than the work itself: What are we talking about? That’s probably why I haven’t had many shows.

One piece, which Atwhen calls the Speculation Series, is a “time-based piece.”

UA: It’s a series of paintings that are alive. As long as the markets go on, they’ll go on.

The pieces, which feature banknotes of various currencies stapled to mattresses, challenge the value-making process. In this case, the value equals the total amount of the bills on the piece coupled with a built-in multiplier determined by the median compensation amount between average CEO and average worker (~$400). On top of that, the value is in constant flux given the fluidity of exchange markets. But why mattresses?

UA: I’d say it’s impossible to forge my paintings. I’m not saying anyone would want to, but there’s a built-in protection. I have a list of the serial numbers unique to each bill. It’s part of the piece.

SM: Is there a morality to this demonstration of the in-flux nature of value—like, are you saying that art has been completely captured by the financialization of the art market?

UA: Looking at the art world, and seeing the auction houses, and seeing the speculation and the massive amount of money…First of all I’m not surprised, and I’ve heard people get upset about it. I just think, “Hey, art friends hang on—1,000 years ago you either made work for the church or the king. Then awhile back the merchant class shows up, so you might be making it for them. The art that we see in books is funded by power and money. So why be surprised?”

SM: Does the focus on value, the focus on not giving things price, or creating artworks where the value will always fluctuate—is that you saying, “This is what happened to me in my experience as an artist?” So you, as an artist, destined to be poor—let’s be honest, you’re probably never going to sell anything—are forced into this position from which you create works where value’s indeterminancy is the central feature.

UA: You know what MFA stands for?

SM: What?

UA: Motherfucking artist.

SM: Good, I like that.

UA: What was the point? There was a point. It’s gone.

Ulysses Atwhen’s Hoarder opens Saturday, January 5 at Big Orbit Project Space (30D Essex Street, Buffalo)The exhibit is open through February 23.

Shane Meyer is the programming director at Big Orbit Project Space.