Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Joel Simpson is a multi- disciplinary artist. He is a photo artist, jazz pianist and had taught English, French and Italian in colleges. in October he will have two shows in France. One in Tours in October 12 at the Chapelle Sainte-Anne. And the second will be in Paris at the Musée de l’érotisme.
E.G. As you recently have developed an interest in Iran’s history, culture and civilization, how do you see Iranians (abroad or at home) at this time in history? The possibility of a perilous war between the two countries?
J.S: I have always had a great respect for Persian culture, just as the Romans had, and being Jewish, I’m very aware of the benevolence and toleration of Cyrus for the Jews in ancient times. I am outraged by the fact that our CIA operatives actually subverted a democratically elected government in Iran in 1953, a fact, among others, that gives the lie to our government’s claim that it wishes to spread democracy and freedom. It’s difficult to imagine something like that happening to us, yet if we are to understand America’s real role in the world, we must try to grasp the enormity of this and other of our national crimes. If more Americans actually knew about it they might take a more sober view of our role in the world and the rather toxic exceptionalism that is so commonplace here.
The revolution of 1979 was a direct consequence of our 1953 subversion, and it ended up causing even more pain for the non-fundamentalist citizens of Iran. Few Americans realize that Iran was one of the three most modern oriented nations in the Middle East, along with Lebanon and Israel. Yet due to the Islamic revolution, many of those Western-oriented citizens have emigrated, forming a very successful and educated diaspora in this and other Western countries, and who have made significant contributions to the culture and well-being of those countries. It’s another historical irony.
Of course, Khomeni’s revolution did accomplish one major thing: it secured Iran’s considerable oil wealth for itself. This was the US motivation for installing the Shah; it was the motivation for making war on Iraq, and it would be the government’s true motivation for attacking Iran, which I have been active in New York to try to prevent. Two major factors militate against this dreadful possibility: the opinions of most defense experts and the exhaustion of our military and economic power in Iraq and with the latest ongoing crisis—which is going to cost the US government a lot of money. So making another war at the behest of Bush and Cheney’s friends in the oil companies may just not be affordable, if Cheney can’t be restrained by logic, or better, impeached.
E.G: Tell us something about the two venues, in Paris and in Tours, where you’re having shows in October 2008…
J.S: The one in Tours is part of a much larger festival taking place in the cities and towns across the entire Touraine region. Its director, an American woman, happened to visit the large photography show I curated in Brooklyn last year and was impressed. We got to talking, and by February of this year, she had invited me to show 11 of my works in a gallery in Tours, the center of the festival. I may get to stage a performance where I project patterns from nature on dancers suspending a white cloth between them. I did it last October, and the audience was spellbound. The show will open October 12 at the Chapelle Sainte-Anne.
The one in Paris is at the Musée de l’érotisme, a wonderful museum that is as strong in the diverse worldwide ethnography of erotic art as it is in examples of that art from Western Europe and the US. I created my own catalogue of the museum when I visited it in 2006 and gave it to the curator, with the suggestion that he include prehistoric art in his presentation. He agreed, but then apparently also liked my creative work, which I had submitted to him, since he sent me an email last April inviting me to have a show there. It will be 50 works, opening October 23, and lasting four to six months.
E.G:. Is there anything you like to add?
J.S: Thank you so very much, for asking me such provocative questions. Thanks to all your readers who’ve read any of it, and especially to those who made it to the end.
E.G: Thank you for you time
E.G: How do you see a woman’s body?
J.S: Through my 10x40 binoculars if my neighbor across the street leaves her bedroom light on…just kidding.
I love women’s bodies. I think breasts are among the great wonders of the world. I sometimes try to image what it’s like to walk around with them, knowing they proclaim out in public your womanhood, your capacity for nurturing and love. Sometimes it almost seems like revealing too much. How do we men contain ourselves? We must be at a very advanced stage of civilization to merely look and not ogle or want to touch.
So I’ve never gotten over my adolescent fascination with women’s bodies. My inner adolescent self thinks it’s pretty neat that I’ve contrived a way to photograph women naked whom I hardly know. But my models are my serious collaborators, highly motivated artists, whose medium happens to be themselves (like a singer, whose instrument is her body). They work very hard, and I demand a lot from them, and we produce wonderful things together. I most love to work with models who are as fascinated with the end products as I am, and this includes most of them.
It’s also important to recognize both the diversity of women’s bodies and to honor the stages they go through as they age. It’s unfortunate that the commercial world has so promoted young, nubile bodies at the expense of older, more mature ones. I think breasts that droop are icons of generosity, of warmth, of nurturance, of home, of safety. They can be organs of these same things. I remember a scene in a Bergman movie where the amply endowed house servant offers her breasts to the tormented, anguished mistress. It illustrated the consoling power of this woman’s breasts.
E.G: Did women - directly or indirectly – influence your artistic style?
J.S: I suppose I’ve developed an artistic style out of my fascination for form and my attraction to women’s bodies, and my attempt to combine the two. I’ve literally projected my artistic ideas onto the bodies of my models, and in so doing have discovered something about my own passions and drives.
The female photographers who have influenced me mostly belong to the current artistic community, since it is only recently that barriers have come down against women in the visual arts. Georgia O’Keefe is a notable exception. Donna Ferrato is a distinguished woman photographer of erotic subjects, but her approach is more photojournalistic. Diane Neumaier, who teaches at
E.G. What are you trying to show by transforming living human bodies into prehistoric art?
J.S: I came to what I call “virtual sculpture with prehistoric references” after experimenting with a number of projection subjects—buildings, vegetables, etc. When I focused on placing rock and wood surfaces on living bodies, though, I created a mysterious illusion that the viewer was seeing actual sculpture that looked very ancient. This was a wonderful discovery. Then I had to figure out the significance of this sort of thing for my artist statements, and I came up with the fact that this work illustrates our deep connections to our mostly forgotten prehistoric ancestors. Recently, though, I’ve come to realize that the rich forms and patterns I’ve projected actually serve as visual analogies of otherwise invisible energy.E.G: What is the role of politics in your photography?
J.S: I’m very involved in politics, very disturbed at the direction our country has been going in for some time. I consider my photography a means of witness to any political event I manage to attend. This includes most importantly large anti-war protests in
E.G. Do you like cinema as well?
J.S: Of course! I love movies the way I love novels. Certain films (by Fellini, Bergman, Robbe-Grillet, Truffaut, Altman) have profoundly influenced me, going right to my concept of reality, of memory, of human relations and the human mind. Films can address extremely important issues with an immediacy and power unmatched by any other art— that is its strong point, in contrast to the drama, which is better adapted to address the complexities and ironies of human relations, and of course there’s a considerable overlap.
And a very particular relationship between still photography and cinema has grown up as a sub-genre. If the cinema presents a concentrated version of life, then a photograph that purports to be a still from a movie—as Cindy Sherman demonstrated early in her career—offers a distillation of that concentration, redolent with implications.
E.G. Tell us something about your days as a composer and jazz pianist.
J.S: I seem to always like spending most of my time on that which gives me the most pleasure, then worry about making a living afterwards. Listing to good, juicy, rich, heartfelt, complex jazz put me into such a state of pleasure I had to learn how to do it myself. So after having been a mediocre pianist since childhood, I began to apply myself seriously to it when I was 31. I spent 22 years at it and actually became fairly good, though I was no prodigy. I could play in a way that moved others and satisfied myself, though I always wanted to be better and was in awe of many great artists in the field. I realized that improvising is like the experience of an orgasm that lasts as long as you want it to. You’re in an altered state, in touch with eternity or whatever you want to call that reality that’s different from your daily, ordinary one where you pay the bills and take out the garbage. Listening is almost as good as playing, but not quite. The difference is 10 to 20 years of study, and this is what I did. At the end I realized I would never be able to make a living at it, and playing publicly became very repetitious, especially in
E.G. Nature, eroticism, politics, and pop culture are the main subjects of your interest. Do you see any relation between them?
J.S: I would say that these fall into two separate domains for me.
On one hand, nature and eroticism meet in my art in the domain of shared forms. I project natural forms onto the female body, and these forms seem to suggest unseen vectors of energy and passion when projected, even more explicitly than they do in the straight images, say of ice, lava or any other rock or wood formation.
On the other hand, politics and folk culture (as distinguished from commercial pop culture, which interests me very little) both demand a sensitive photojournalistic approach to capture their most significant and revealing moments.
E.G. Define eroticism and your erotic art…
J.S: Eroticism is the celebration of the most joyous force of existence. Clearly the most successful species are those for whom eroticism is the most pervasive in their lives, and as Freud pointed out, it’s everywhere, in various displaced or sublimated forms. It certainly is very powerful in art, and I’m not just referring to work that is explicitly about sexual desire.
The case of architecture is instructive. The most efficient use of gravity in construction uses the most rectilinear forms. Yet curvilinear forms are recognized as erotic in architectural theory today, probably because they contravene the norm. If you apply this notion to artistic form in general, then eroticism is everywhere outside of Mondrian, although people don’t necessarily recognize it as such.
As for my erotic art, I think my work with couples is the most frankly erotic of all my work. I—and most men, and many women—find the contemplation of a woman’s body by itself to be erotic, and if not explicitly so, then beautiful. And by the way, prehistoric art teaches us to regard very ample female bodies as fascinating and beautiful. These large body types predominate in Paleolithic art, especially in the little statuettes, of which the Venus of Willendorf is only the most famous. I have thought that the rock or wood overlay, the projection, serves as a screen to make the eroticism of the naked bodies I photograph less explicit, and therefore more powerful. They remove these bodies from the domain of possible pornography—they’re not particularly turn-ons, but they’re (I hope) no less fascinating for that. I hope they express a more universal version of the subject—idealized perhaps—and one that requires the viewer to leap over millennia (even if virtual ones) to make that identification. If this expands one’s historical imagination, then I’ve succeeded at another of my goals.
E.G: How would you like to introduce yourself to those who do not know you?
J.S: Professionally, I’m a photo artist perhaps a bit obsessed with geological formations, an amateur prehistorian, someone who has studied form in a number of media—visual, literary, musical. If they’re interested in my background, as I would be interested in theirs, I’d tell them with a wink that I am a recovering academic—I loved teaching college, but the university today is not the intellectual community (in pursuit of truth) it once was. So I left and turned to the great love of my life, photography, which has been immensely rewarding. Most of my published writings are in music and art criticism.
E.G. You started in photography as an artistic expression in your teen years. You then became a multi-disciplinary artist. You’ve taught English, French, Italian, and jazz history and performance, and you were a professional jazz pianist for two decades. What brought you back to photography after all these years?
J.S: I realized when I returned to teaching that I was really working mainly to support my photography and travel habits. This was even true when I played music for a living. So when I became fed up with academia I said, why not professionally what I really love best, and here do I am.
E.G: What is photography for you? What do you seek to express in this form of art?
J.S: Photography is my way of taking in, loving and expressing my joy in the visual world. Although there is much to this world that is hidden from sight, pursuing photography seriously has revealed much that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Really seeing, which is what photography teaches it devotees, brings forth a huge wealth of form and relationships which in fact reveal much more about the depths of reality than most people suspect. Practicing photography becomes a form of discovery, as we contemplate what other photographers have done and constantly try to exceed our limits, and to extend our vision.
Four areas of photography are particularly meaningful to me: natural forms, portraiture, human events and interactions, and the digital process of combining images.
My favorite subjects in nature are geological and botanical, with a slight edge to the former. The geological includes ice, by the way, which is “instant” geology. I find my favorite nature photographs are those that use a rather flat canvas, rather that the virtual perspective of a landscape or scene. So I prefer a sense of form to a sense of place. Pure form, as found in rocks, ice, water, etc. offers images of energy, power and spirituality.
The best photojournalism—where photography records human activity—is about capturing an epiphany: a moment in which many elements in space all combine to offer a rich reading of the scene. It’s not easy to escape from the norm of banality and capture something truly revealing, but the moments are always unfolding; they’re always there. The trick, the talent, is to notice them and snap, which has to be intuitive, because it’s all happening too fast to think about. When this is done successfully, a photograph can reveal certain kinds of truth as no other art can, not discourse, not moving pictures, not fiction. The capacity to freeze and preserve a moment enables the viewer to calmly explore relationships among elements that would disappear or change the next moment.
Finally, photography with its presumption of authenticity has the capacity to make believable fictions, or call them “confections,” to distinguish them from the quasi-fictional versions of literal reality. This capacity has now been greatly enhanced by digital techniques. As a particularly powerful tool of the imagination, photography can propose the plausible impossible with a straight-faced seriousness that painting can only dream of. In my virtual sculpture- body projection work I have learned from many painters, especially the surrealists, who have also inspired a whole new generation of digital photo artists. Our photography by no means diminishes the value of the great visual poets of the imagination, such as Magritte, Dalí, Miró, Max Ernst, André Masson, and others, all of whom had their own unique vision.
One more word on the relationship of photography to sculpture. It’s not an obvious one, rather kind of a subterranean one, but actually very special. Since much of my art photography consists of creating pictures of imaginary sculpture I must think about this. Both art forms address the plasticity of objects in space, sculpture by recreating it, substituting the color and tone of the sculptural material for that of the actual subject, while preserving its spatial dimension; photography by representing the subject in space in all its three-dimensionality, and what this does with the light falling on it.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
“My Name is Inanna” is my new one woman play which I performed at Women and Theatre Program (WTP) Conference, Confronting the Silence: Building Bridges of Engagement, in July 30, 2008 at El Centro Su Teatro in Denver-Colorado
The main character Inanna, retrieved from the historical texts, the Sumerian goddess of love, justice and civilization, is a modern Middle Eastern woman who is in search of identity, justice and freedom, leaves her mother country, where she had been imprisoned there under the dictatorial regime for several years until she flees the country in search of freedom. After receiving a political asylum in the
Handcuffed alone in a holding area, she speaks for 55 minutes, reliving her experiences of politics and incarceration in her native country, as well as those of her newly adopted country.
Photos by: Joel Simpson