Project Space: Bryan Zanisnik
Artist Bryan Zanisnik lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. His solo exhibition Brass Arms Upper Eyelid will open at Horton Gallery in New York on January 13. His one-person show Open Brain Case and Forceps is currently on view at Marginal Utility in Philadelphia through January 23.
For this project, Zanisnik partnered with two collaborators to examine his artistic origins. Below, he talks with curator Jess Wilcox about his “genealogy”—familial and artistic. He also teamed up with comic artist Eric Winkler to construct a comic strip timeline of his life. Click here to view it!
They say the best place to start is the beginning, so this interview will be framed as a search for origins. Since your work speaks to the construction of identity through family, another way to think of the interview may be as a genealogical survey.
Jess Wilcox [JW]: In the performances He is Not a Man (2007) and the recent Zawodniczek Summer Home (2010), you’ve taken up narratives dealing with your Ukrainian and Polish heritage. How do you see these in relation to the average coming-to-America narrative? Are there novels, television, comics and other popular media that influence you? How do you see your narrative of the American family in relation to the 21st-century version of the Great American novel and writers like Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon?
Bryan Zanisnik [BZ]: My interest in the American family narrative has been influenced by a vast number of literary and film sources: road films such as Godard’s Weekend, National Lampoon’s Vacation and Spielberg’s Duel; and coming-of-age novels such as Catcher in the Rye, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Broadly speaking, road films and coming-of-age novels fall within the genre of the Bildungsroman—a novel or film that focuses on the psychological or moral growth of its protagonist. In contrast to the Bildungsroman, my narratives often focus on failure, humiliation and regression into one’s childhood.
Take, for example, my trip to the Ukraine in 2007. I went there to trace an ancestral story about my great-grandfather, who wrestled and killed a wolf that was attacking a group of children near his farm. It was later revealed that the children belonged to Czar Nicholas II, and because of this, my great grandfather became a great Ukrainian hero. After my trip, I came back to the United States and presented a performance where I boxed a bully from my youth dressed as a wolf. The performance merged two temporally distinct events, the heroism of my great-grandfather with the humiliation of being bullied. Unlike a typical Bildungsroman novel, I lost the boxing match badly and no moral was learned as my childhood bully brutally beat me up in front of my friends and family.
JW: Many of your performances enact psychologically nightmarish situations. The tableaux vivant freeze these moments of shame, humiliation and sacrifice, forcing viewers endure the pain with you. Here I’m thinking of When I Was a Child I Caught a Fleeting Glimpse (2009), the three-hour performance in which you lay in tattered clothes atop an enormous chunk of aluminum, with your parents watching over dressed in a combination of fire fighting gear and Christmas apparel. The title almost hints at the infamous Freudian primal scene of the child encountering his parents in flagrante delicto. How much is your work informed by Freudian psychology?
BZ: Much of my work is both a “working through” of childhood memory and identity and, simultaneously, a parody of this trope. This doubling and duality is very Freudian in itself. Freud tied the concept of the double to that of the uncanny—that which arises due to the return of repressed infantile memories. When I was nine years old, my father’s car was Molotov-cocktailed in the middle of the night, while my family and I slept safely inside our suburban home. We awoke to the explosion, and my father had us immediately evacuate the house in case it caught fire. When I Was a Child I Caught a Fleeting Glimpse is not necessarily about this childhood memory, but it is nonetheless informed by the trauma. This performance, like other works in my oeuvre, takes a specific childhood memory and expands it to an archetype by filtering it through tropes of absurd humor, existential literature and popular culture. While the title sounds very Freudian, it is actually a quote from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, a song I listened to endlessly as a child.
Another significant manifestation of the uncanny is in the form of involuntary repetition. In my five-minute video Repetition Compulsion (2010), my father endlessly yells “Gone!” as he and I engage in power struggles throughout my childhood home. Loosely based upon a 1914 Freudian study, my video explores a child’s attempt to gain mastery over a loss. In the video, I portray myself in a submissive role subjugated to my domineering father. In actuality, my father’s performance is dictated by my direction, and thus he is actually the one in the submissive role: again, a form of Freudian doubling.
JW: Your photographs typically occupy a non-hierarchical space. Off Season (2010), a triptych for your upcoming solo show at Horton Gallery, is collapsed almost to the point of claustrophobia and disorientation. This domestic storage space seems to come alive, fighting against its neglect. Similarly, the frenzied pace of edits in your videos, Repetition Compulsion for example, induces anxiety. In this latest series, how do form and content play off one another?
BZ: In the new body of photographs, the form is directly tied to the content of each image. Each of the photographs was shot in sections, using a panoramic head and a 100mm telephoto lens. While nothing in the photographs is added digitally, the images are stitched and reassembled in post-production, using Photoshop and a program called PTGui. There are two advantages to shooting photographs in this way. First, it slows down the process of making an image. Shooting a stitched photograph can take up to eight hours to complete, and thus the photographic process becomes very sculptural, meticulous and cerebral. Second, since telephoto lenses naturally compress space, the images appear dense, chaotic and both artificial and authentic at the same time. In Off Season, there are pieces of bread attached to twine that hang two feet in front of file cabinets. The bread, however, appears pressed up against the cabinets. This compressed juxtaposition creates a hazy yet aggressive spatial relationship, which reinforces the image’s contextual exploration of free associative memory and excessive American culture.
JW: In other works, such as Forgot What I Came Back Here For (2010) and Club House (2010), the private arena looks like the scene of a crime. What is it that is so anxiety-producing about domestic space?
BZ: When I was younger I read the autobiography of basketball legend Larry Bird. In the book, he discusses lying down as an adult and visualizing his childhood street, house and bedroom in meticulous detail. He performed this mental exercise as a means to strengthening his recollection and concentration. I think of my photographs as similar to Bird’s mental exercise, except that my images reconstruct memories that are hazy, dreamlike and alchemic, namely in their mutated and transformative nature. In reconstructing a childhood space in such a free associative manner, there is an inherent indeterminacy, anxiety and entropic subtext. This anxiety is also connected to the traumatic childhood experience of developing an identity and sexuality within the parents’ home. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wryly states, “The act of birth is the first experience of anxiety.” In both Forgot What I Came Back Here For and Club House there are mundane domestic objects emerging from a collapsing hole within each room. The collapsing spaces can be read as a psychological rupture, a catharsis or even as a reference to the birthing process itself.
JW: Masculine tokens—medals of honor, rifles, baseball cards, sports trophies, poker cards and golf clubs—appear throughout your images, typically en masse. I’m reminded of the obsession compulsion of hoarders and fetishists. Does this relate to the changing status of men in society or the failure of traditional standards of masculinity?
BZ: I remember trying out for the varsity basketball team in high school and not making the cut. I was skinny and only of average height, but I loved basketball and wanted to play. Like in most high schools, there was also a sense of status and pride attached to the varsity basketball team. This status manifested itself in many ways throughout the high school, but none were more apparent than the prominently displayed trophy case outside the principal’s office. Today I look at these objects from a wry and ambivalent point of view. On the one hand I see their significance as markers of childhood success, but on the other hand, they are mass-produced and impersonal objects that often find themselves stored away in the basement or sold for pennies at a garage sale. In my photographs I use objects like trophies en masse as a comment on this ambivalence, but also as a criticism of an excessive American culture. Finally, hoarding and fetishization can be read as a form of symbolic and subconscious representation, and here objects such as trophies may speak to latent concerns over childhood loss, the phallus and the ego’s repression of fantasies.