“Tag, you’re it.” One staffer asks another AAM staff, artist, or guest a handful of questions. The interviewed subject then comes up with his / her own set of questions, and chooses whom next to interview. Just like a hearty game of tag.
To inaugurate this new series, we have Nicole Harvey – Museum Store Associate at the Asian Art Museum.
What book would you recommend to somebody?
This reminds me of a librarian in a novel who refuses to read anything in his library because he doesn’t want to become unduly attached to a single book, as attachment clouds judgment. I have no such problems and will play favorites whenever possible—but I have a lot of favorites.
Offhandedly, I love The History of Writing because it’s one of those fantastic over-arching tomes, beginning with cuneiform and oracle bones and ending with the internet. It’s an omnibus, excellent for those with a short attention span: just open anywhere and you’ll learn something.
But it would be lousy bus-reading, so I’d suggest something like Christopher Robbins’ Apples Are from Kazakhstan, because I’ll read anything on Central Asia, or one of the small, well-designed titles from Chin Music Press. Sorry, that’s not one book, is it? I could go on, but apparently you have other questions.
If you could have any artwork in the world, what would it be?
I have very strong feelings about ownership and art—art should belong to as many people as possible. But if I stayed true to that sentiment and could still do so, I’d be living at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, sleeping next to Duchamp’s Large Glass. If you limit me to the work in our museum, it still wouldn’t be any easier. On the early side, Japanese Pure Land Buddhist sculpture; from the recent past, Masami Teraoka’s bi-fold screen of the California coastline knocks my socks off because it’s a perfect synthesis of time and place. And speaking of perfect, I wouldn’t turn down any of the Song Dynasty monochrome ceramics.
But ultimately it’d have to be Duchamp, because for me he is the cornerstone upon which the 20th Century is built. And it’s just gravy that everyone thought that he had given up art to play chess, so he’s an underachiever hero. Meanwhile, he never stopped working and thinking—he was just very sly about it and not outwardly productive. I’d like to think that I can relate, since I never have enough time to make art and spend rather too much time in the “research” phase. Wishful thinking on my part.
Besides working for a museum, do you dream of doing something else that you know you could be good at?
In a way, I’m doing it. Despite claiming that I never have enough time, one of my outside projects is something called the Tenderloin Geographic Society, an entity I came up with a few years ago when I was asked to create a map of the Tenderloin for a magazine. That led to another map of the Tenderloin, then a few more maps of the city—given that I spend a lot of time wandering around the city shooting what I see, it started taking on a life of its own.
I used to joke that after ten years in San Francisco, one could apply for a green card to assuage feelings of illegitimacy, so I actually made one, and from time to time I get asked to swear people in and make them promise to be better citizens. Essentially, in some way or another I have to involve myself in urban studies projects because it’s an essential part of my personality to be passionate about where I live.
Meanwhile, I can say that it’s not just a novelty or another way of instigating San Francisco narcissism—if anything, it’s a reaction against that kind of provincialism. When the museum first opened in 2003, I spoke with a librarian from next door; she seemed so optimistic, she knew that our presence was going to change Civic Center. I would like to think that we’ve been responsible for some positive changes and that we’re a part of this neighborhood. If you think of yourself as a small part of the city, you can change the way the city works. It’s hard to remember how great the city is when you almost get run over by MUNI on your way to work—so by any means necessary, I’m hoping to keep the love alive.
Any ideas about how to save the planet?
Live small, be empathetic. Really, I do believe it’s the little things, like saying please and thank you, remembering the Golden Rule. Educate yourself about the repercussions of your lifestyle—why do we pay so little for some things, and why are other things getting more expensive? What is the cost of how we live?
I almost want to go back to the urban studies point with regard to this, because right now I’m reading Imperial San Francisco, a book I should have read years ago. I knew about the superficial details about water rights and mining, but it’s truly horrific when you consider how San Franciscans consider themselves to be generally aware of what this city’s built upon—we haven’t come all that far. We can’t continue to have an imperialist mindset, but the obvious consequence is that we’ll be giving up our status. I’d be okay with that if it meant healthcare and education for everyone, because in terms of basic human needs we’re not really a first-world nation. Recycling alone is not going to cut it—fundamental changes need to be made.
What are one or two things you can’t live without?
Caffeinated beverages like coffee or tea are fairly necessary for me to retain my focus. And my friends. Not in that order, of course. It’s a given that in the city, your friends are your family. I’m lucky enough to have some pretty amazing family in that respect.
Thanks to SFMOMA for their Five Questions concept.
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