I discovered Ajit Chauhan’s work while I was reading about an upcoming exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum titled The Possible. I came across a work that still lingers in my memory, titled RERECORD. The artwork included 162 record album covers, altered through erasure, abstracting the images. I was haunted by how images were obscured, and started to fade away. I was intrigued, which led me deeper into the artist’s work. I was excited by his interest in language, pattern, poetics and forms of abstraction, and I knew that working with Ajit would yield an interesting and thoughtful project. I have been so impressed with his care for materials, language and audience that at moments it has forced me to rethink a certain perspective I might carry. I wanted to learn more about his work, process and upcoming Artists Drawing Club project, Palimpsest.
Marc Mayer (MM): If someone were to see your work for the first time, what work(s) would you want them to see? Can you tell us a little about those artworks or projects?
Ajit Chauhan (AC): Well the title of this project is Palimpsest. Latin palimpsestus, from Greek palimpsēstos—scraped again; from palin + psēn—to rub, scrape; akin to Sanskrit psāti, babhasti—he chews, literally meaning “scraped clean and used again.” I was thinking of the echoes of this building’s former life as the Main Public Library. I don’t know if it was Robert Duncan or H.D. who said, “Palimpsest is not only that of image over image or person over person, but of time over time.” To answer your question I’ve often wished I could forget my past work, or at least relive the memories without cavities. I suppose that’s more tabula rasa than palimpsest. If I were forced to choose, it would most likely be something from the show From the Pencil Area at the Jack Hanley Gallery in New York. I felt like that was a very conscious decision to try to make something more restrained, more poetic; that was the intent. Maybe an erased piece titled Last Address. It was a grid so the emphasis was on where the lines cross, their relationship to one another, basically a drawing of a weaving. I remember my friend Kevin Killian telling me, “You’ve pulled all the sense out of me,” after he saw the show, and that made me laugh. It made me think about the word bewilder, be + wilder. I would like people to see the show Larry Rinder curated with Colter Jacobsen and myself at SVIT Gallery in Prague, Inner Sleeves. Jiri Kovanda made the poster (which was also in the show) for the band that played at the opening.
MM: Your work and practice seem to have an important and dynamic relationship to language. What role do words, text, and writing play in your work?
AC: I’ve always had an interest in misreadings. At times I’ll read an entire passage in a text that isn’t there, shifting the words that are there into a new order and context, that carries over to a kind of visual dyslexia as well. English is my father’s fourth language, so he would always combine clichés, which I appreciated. It made me spend time with them. Words are really loaded, and I don’t mean that just with negative connotations. Norma Cole has poems or meditations on single words, tracing them back with all their entanglements and shifts in meaning over time (Yellow and…: A Response to the Poetry of Marjorie Welish). I’ve just been reading the George Lakoff book Metaphors We Live By, which talks about the pervasiveness of metaphor in our lives and how we perceive and process the world through them, so really how they govern our lives. When I’m at the library sometimes I’ll need a break so I’ll spend time with the Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color book that is part of their reference collection. It’s really a series of individual folders but it emphasizes the point of the transitory nature of color, how it’s largely based on context, and if color itself is that way you can imagine how slippery language can be.
Writing has come up in my own work most directly through concrete poetry, with typewriter patterns or typesetting, playing with palindromes and anagrams. When one titles work and it doesn’t serve as an interpretation or explanation but as a part of the piece, I think that’s an important part of language in an (art) practice. Mostly I think just reading or listening to poetry helps but I couldn’t tell you specifically how or why, but it probably has something to do with what Marianne Moore said: “So that in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events.”
MM: You were recently part of the exhibition The Possible at the Berkeley Art Museum. Can you tell us about the exhibition and your experience there?
AC: When I talk about the exhibition I refer to it as the “dreamtime.” It was nice to regularly spend time in the Berkeley Art Museum, which is a distinctive modernist building. There’s a great tumblr, http://fuckyeahbrutalism.tumblr.com, if you like brutalist architecture. I remember during a few of the thunderstorms the acoustics of the space were incredible. Everyone was extremely generous. I would surmise that was what the exhibition was largely about, that exchange. I was a complete novice but spent the majority of the time in the weaving section, and we’ve become pretty knit. I selfishly appropriated a loom and spent the majority of the time weaving. There was a lot of crosspollination though and I learned how to bind books with the Publication Studio equipment. I spent time in The Reading Room with Barbara Guest books and in the library that Anzfer Farms furnished. The mail-art correspondences for The Possible were on display next to vitrines of fluxes art boxes, the S. M. S. publications by William N. Copley, General Idea’s FILE magazine and others. Ultimately I think it was that dream we’ve all had, that ideal we all thought school was going to be, a place full of encouragement and direction, with hands-on learning. I think it was an opportunity for all the participants, and we controlled the parameters of our involvement but everything was available.
MM: You mentioned a new interest in weaving that came about while using the studios that were part of The Possible. What is it about the medium and the process that resonates for you? Do you think there is a relationship between weaving and writing? If there is, how would you describe it, in the context of your work?
AC: It’s a slippery slope! There is a kind of alchemical instant gratification in seeing two materials interlace and be “woven” together. I was grateful to be introduced to weaving during The Possible exhibition. As I mentioned earlier with certain grid pieces I was essentially making drawings of weavings so it was a very natural extension or step to come to weaving. I had a conversation with the artist Hadi Tabatabai, who deals a lot with pattern and grid. We talked about our affinity for repetition. It does require a certain sensibility to repeat something again and again. But tedium has always been part of my practice. I have heard it characterized as “painstaking” but there is rarely if ever any pain involved. It is simple, easy, repetitive, time-consuming work, which, if you have the sensibility for it, is extremely rewarding.
This project with the Asian Art Museum, I chose to address the remnants of the building’s former life, in particular the inscriptions that are still housed in this building. One of the inscriptions I chose was “To ‘dis-cover’ was to pull away the covering cloth,” so to learn to make cloth seems appropriate. I do see a correlation between weaving and writing, although again I am cautious about making analogies. But the next time you print something from your computer, that is essentially what weaving on a loom is, building something horizontally (the weft) sequentially line by line.
MM: What is your project for the Artists Drawing Club? How did the idea come about?
AC: The title of the project is Palimpsest, something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface. The Asian Art Museum’s building, formerly the Main Public Library, contains traces of this building’s former life. The twenty-four quotations chosen by former mayor Edward Robeson Taylor, inscribed in the toast-tinted travertine above the grand staircase, are the set of echoes that I chose to focus on. I was immediately drawn to them. They are very strange. Like something you would find at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, “…guided along as it were a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.” Andrea Grimes, a former librarian in the old main library and now in the 6th-floor San Francisco History Center of the new main, was very generous, suggesting archival material, printed matter and ephemera. She gifted me an inscriptions book that she wrote the preface for, VITA SINE LITERIS, which was Taylor’s personal motto (borrowed from Seneca), translated as: “Life without letters is death.” It was introduced in the bookplate design that was adopted by the San Francisco Public Library.
Andrea also did further research on the inscriptions, giving a broader context to the source material. Taylor did not include sources for any of the quotations and freely adapted the wording to fit the inscriptional spaces. The Charles Caleb Colton inscription “Handle A Book As A Bee Does A Flower Extract Its Sweets But Do Not Injure It” is actually “I have somewhere seen it observed, that we should make the same use of a book, as a bee does of a flower, she steals sweets from it, but does not injure it.”
For this project I chose to make boxes that will be gifted to visitors. The boxes have inscriptions imprinted on the inside with text that deals with the ephemeral, with thresholds, with transitions. I hope the boxes echo the concept of container, housing and shell, and lead visitors to reflect on the Asian Art Museum and its former life as the Main Public Library. It was interesting having the boxes die-cut and printed. I felt adamantly against doing an insert with premade boxes. I thought the housing of the inscriptions in the museum and in the boxes were a set of formal echoes and correspondences through which they answer each other. I also reproduced a booklet on the actual inscriptions for visitors to take and reflect on.
MM: Risk is part of the Artists Drawing Club series. I am asking you to try something new with a public audience. What do you want to achieve through Palimpsest? What do you want to take away from this experience? What do you want audience members to experience during this event?
AC: I don’t really believe in reinventing the wheel or that space of what’s “new.” That always seemed a little reactionary to me. I’m more interested in following the tiny inspirations that may or may not appear. I’m more interested in what has value and meaning to me that may be the only part that speaks to other people. “Achieve” is another interesting word because I think process is important. It’s a sort of problem-solving process, and you deal with frustrations and compromises but ultimately it’s a learning experience. I’m grateful and feel fortunate to have spent time in this building and with all the ephemera surrounding this building, telling the histories of the lives that passed through it. Ultimately I hope visitors reflect on some of these histories. I hope they will reflect back on themselves at a very basic level.
The Friends of San Francisco Public Library