Opacity = Radical Potential: An Interview with Julie Mehretu

Macarena Gómez-Barris | University of Southern California

Julie Mehretu: We got this space after coming back to New York from Berlin. A lot of my time in Berlin was spent trying to make sense of myself as an American and really thinking of that in the context of European History, especially in the history of my own understanding, projective imagining of understanding what Germany was and has always been since I was a child. So actually, living there and experiencing something that had gone through the Cold War in a very different way, not similar but having certain connections to Ethiopia though in a very, very different way. But then also, having had this other history, which I’d always imagined very differently from the perspective of Ethiopia, I never thought Germany would be a place that I would have any interest of spending time in. So, in a sense, that was the first time, having left here and actually living in Europe, that I actually was thinking and looking at Europe and then trying to make a lot more sense of myself as an American. It was interesting to do that from there. Having made a choice to come back to New York and then thinking, with this vista of New York here that we happen to have, and trying to make a lot of sense about that shift. It’s interesting that coming back to New York, I started to think about the continent again and thinking about actions that have taken place there. For me, those psychological spaces, those kind of psycho-geographic connections that keep overlapping in terms of actual space and how you start thinking creatively about it, those are interesting to me. But that’s always kind of been part of the way that this studio has, in a sense, been located elsewhere, while it’s really trying to make sense of being here.

Macarena Gómez-Barris: That’s so layered. When you’re talking about these multiple spaces, it makes me think about your work and the visual way in which you’re capturing a lot of these tracings back and forth. They’re temporal, they’re spatial but when you mention continent, you’re talking about Africa and the African continent.

J: Yeah

M: And I think that’s so interesting that it travels through Germany and Berlin. When you were there, did that open up anything visually for you in terms of thinking about all kinds of xenophobia there and the relationship to a black African presence that has never been that, obviously, positive in Europe and thinking about the decolonial in Europe.

J: It almost doesn’t even exist

M: It doesn’t exist, it’s that invisibility.

J: Especially in Berlin, more than other cities in Germany or other cities that I’ve experienced in Europe. You have an African presence in most of them and you have a small African presence in Berlin but it’s so minute in terms of a much bigger Eastern European influence and you have the Turkish community. It was a very different type of experience to live in a city that doesn’t have that deep a connection with the African continent but also doesn’t have such a huge colonial role in the continent either—whereas in France or in England, Portugal you have very different kinds of realities, connections. For me, I don’t know, as a child of an African, of Africanists, having come from Ethiopia there was always—even in my context, as I was being raised in the United States—there was this very clear context of these two psychological spaces that took place. Two histories that were constantly intermixing and being meshed into the development of who I am here, which is very different because I was raised here. Germany was always not a part of that history, there was never a desire of a return to there, whereas my partner who comes from a family that her stepmother is a child of holocaust survivors and has this very different history—studied German as a child, was interested in the return. Her grandfather speaks German as well as Polish. So there’s always been a particular desire of return to this space. For me, it was almost like a place that there wasn’t really a huge attraction to, other than there was a contemporary artistic [scene]...in certain types of moments, before the 20s maybe. Something that became very apparent to me there was that it was one of the first cities I’d been to that actually reminded me of Addis Ababa, certain parts of its architecture, which is super interesting. Then, there was a palpable kind of social way of spending time that also reminded me of growing up in Addis Ababa, like in terms of how people spent their weekends, in terms of family structure. That was a very different type of dynamic but then there are the constant fissures and broken parts of culture and this layering of places, and it’s evident everywhere in Berlin. You feel that this history hasn’t been covered up; it’s there still. I mean, it is getting covered up but at least it was very visible when we were there. You could feel these parts of the German history were just completely evident everywhere. That really is when I started to use erasure in the work as an active marker, as an active agent in the making of the paintings. The Grey Area paintings that I made for the Guggenheim, that cycle of paintings, really focused on not just the marks as participating with the architecture but the erasure. That’s where I think it started, the architectural falling apart and things in their bits and being able to move into a different direction with that, with the work, with erasure as part of it.

M: That’s so interesting in terms of a lot of the visual components of your work and the elements that show up all over the place. I wanted to us to talk about that, but I don’t want to lose this thread that you picked up around the kind of American identification that happened by going to Europe.

J: Right

M: The kind of absences that made presences really palpable to you. It sounds to me that one of those presences is afro-diasporic spaces and the way that they maybe began to show up through the shards and through other traces in a new way. It sounds like the architectural stuff really had its imprint on you but there’s also a psycho-identificatory piece that’s really interesting.

J: But it’s almost connected to an early, a different moment in time. You can almost feel this shift in time in Berlin. Part of it is because it submerges into a larger neo-whatever you want to think of it as, it’s participation. In ways, parts of it have slowed down because of where and how it has been able to participate in this larger conversation. That was true recently in Moscow too, that clarity is there. These kind of bricks...in a very different way because Moscow is so much bigger.

But architecturally, you had so much that was, in certain ways, exported to certain other places. I’m thinking about this really in the international style and form of architecture and then Soviet forms of influence within that. Ethiopia really was this mesh of its own modernism that was emerging from within itself that, I think, took place at the same time and wasn’t about an importation of a certain thinking but rather, this personal, this very considered, emergence within its own culture. Then at the same time, you had this influence from the Soviet desires as well as these other desires. You have that mixture and that’s what I picked up on. There’s a bank in Addis Ababa that looks very much like this building on Alexanderplatz and that connection is what is so strange, it was so uncanny to experience.

So to actually go there and really look at how deeply American you are. How do you take ownership of this illegal war in 2003? I was there in 2007. Being in a place where those types of crimes and that type of history had a very different background. I think those fissures and breaks are what are interesting about my own trying to make sense of being a responsible citizen in that context. It was interesting to do that there as opposed to here.

M: The word that comes up for me as you’re talking about these things is “occupation”, in part because of thinking about the spatial occupation of your work. It does occupy significant gallery space, museum space but it does so, again, through these absent presences or through things that fall apart. I’m curious if that’s part of your practice, thinking about how you occupy differently..

J: That’s an interesting question. In terms of scale, with the work, the scale comes because of a particular type of physical experience that I’m interested in. That happens on many levels, trying to deal with painting, how a work can operate on various levels. One being this very physical kind of experiential level where your body has a certain interaction with something and you can never understand its totality from up close, you can only understand that from a particular distance. Even then, you can’t really see the entire image so it becomes a very different image and as you get closer to it, that image shifts and there are many other images. The emergent images and the emergent experiences that can happen take a certain amount of time and that’s part of what I’m interested in, in the evolution of painting but also, in terms of the experience of the object of painting, what it can actually offer in that way. In terms of that, and those objects actually occupying space, in that sense, is interesting. I hadn’t thought of that but I’m interested in that way of thinking about them. For me, it really has been about creating these kinds of vistas, these kinds of places that seem to have some type of cohesion but actually completely are made up of these parts—at least in the most recent work. Those parts are made up of all these other types of historic parts and elements and how then, where’s the potential within those? Where’s the place where the impossible, the impossibility can actually take place?

M: Or an impossibility can take place.

J: Like Sun Ra says, to try to make the impossible, possible. And everything possible has been tried, he said something like that. Everything possible has been tried and it hasn’t worked. But in some way there’s a different type of potentiality in the fusion of the mark with these parts of the architecture. We can go into that but that’s part of I think the way that I’m interested in these other experiences that emerge from within what I think of as this third space between these two, where these things collide into something else.

M: It’s interesting that early on you talk about these kind of psycho subjective spaces, that’s how I heard what you were saying earlier about the traffic and travel between Berlin, New York, Ethiopia, Egypt—lots of resonances. Also, the imperial aspect of Americanness and what it means. That’s very interesting in those spaces but I think architecturally, I also sense the kind of breaking open of spaces is also about the interior, in some ways. I think I alluded to you earlier that there’s a way in which you are creating spaces for interiority. A turning away or something new, or something that one kind of descends into and then one doesn’t quite find but then finds again in another piece of the large scale of the work. That’s certainly been my experience of the viewing and engagement.

J: For me there’s this process that can only occur with your own individual experience and history. When you or at least when I’m engaged with looking at the drawing and the architecture and when I’m immersed in the painting there’s this other presence that kind of starts to emerge from the painting. It’s that other presence; it’s when that other presence makes itself kind of visible that I get most excited. That’s where the potential is. There’s almost the emergence of something else, of this other. I don’t like to give it a name or a body or a sense of, in a particular way. It’s in the emergence of those actions, whatever those are, that I find...Or maybe that’s what I keep chasing after, in terms of making new paintings—for that experience to re-occur. That experience is what allows for this other undefinable...I like the idea that it’s almost improvisational, it doesn’t happen each time. It’s a kind of performative aspect of the painting, of the experience of looking and participating. To me, that has all these other kinds of relationships to what you’re bringing up about psycho geographic space and other aspects of interiority and what your personal kind of knowledge and personal history bring to this experience of this image. I think that also came up when you were talking about that book, In the Break? That kind of has a relationship to what comes up in that book about what can happen in the performative or in that kind of improvised aspect of participation and making at the same time. So the making is made at the moment of that encounter. Does that make sense?

M: Absolutely. That’s precisely what I was going to go to, that Fred Moten does talk about jazz and other Black aesthetics as having these improvisational possibilities. The poetic and the sonic allows for language and sound to travel in all kinds of different spaces. When I first saw your art, I also thought that these were kinds of propositions, in a way. It’s interesting because some of the spaces that you’re talking about actually have quite violent histories—very, very disruptive spaces. What I got from the aesthetic possibility is not just a mapping of all those violences and the layers of those violences, though there’s certainly something to be said for the layering that could be read that way, but instead proposing something. That’s the improvisation, I think. I want to ask you a little bit about that. There are all kinds of improvisational lines and breaks and disruptions, yet there are some moments of linearity. Color can be surprising but it also has, sometimes, a modernist sensibility in the work that, again, undoes itself. I guess I’m interested in the question of linearity. Does that take you anywhere? Or is it always about the undoing?

J: I think it’s about this undoing but it’s about the kind of fragments and these bits. You could think of it almost like data and parts. These parts that then become fused with these marks where they become something else. There’s a transformation, they mutate into something. That personal experience within the erased space turns into the parts of constructed space that seem familiar but completely unfamiliar when it’s a bit of a fuselage of some part of a building with some kind of angry mark wrapped around it. Or something else happens. Then this other image starts to emerge and then in that emergence only, it exists differently. That’s the performative, it exists differently for each person’s experience within the work and some don’t have that, can’t have that. They quick read and others really try to decipher the paintings rather than this experiential that I’m much more interested in. How does that become an experience? A different type of physical and social experience and that’s that performative side, I think.

M: It’s fascinating that you’re saying that something performative is such an embodied way of thinking and that kind of embodiment that you keep referring to of, you know, moving between different spaces and bringing a subjective experience to the viewing. But on the surface you’re creating three and four dimensional spaces and interior spaces but it is ultimately a canvas.

J: Exactly, it is. Within that there’s this pressurized, this very, very thin space. When you look at the materiality, it’s this very, very thin space but it’s this pressurized, deep space, at the same time, that can allow for that to all exist where this other type of experience can physically happen. This is what I wanted to talk about with the sonic, this aspect of pressure and this aspect of being able to generate something else within that kind of highly pressurized, super loud, super sonic state that can also exist. I feel like, at least for me, in the experience of the paintings there’s this very sonic aspect to them. Part of that encourages the temperament of how you can physically experience them. So for me, that’s where I was trying to go. There’s this place where that performative element or that improvisational element in the work happens really through your experience of engagement with that.

I’d first shown those paintings at Kassel for Documenta and they were shown on one wall facing a window that faced this park, which has this whole kind of interesting history with the city. I was interested in this square facing this park and these trees being able to witness these paintings and this kind of relationship that can happen but it didn’t work. I don’t think it worked as well because the paintings became this passageway and you would pass by them and it became almost like a vista rather than the way that they were installed now, where they almost mimic the square. They were actually installed in a square, but the square was shifted. You walked into the space and you had to change your orientation. It was a diamond as opposed to just a square. That shifts your orientation in terms of looking. Then, behind the square or the diamond, there are these voids. The corners of each void, there’s a very sonic kind of experience walking into that space. If you went into the dark space behind the walls and into the corner space—you could go back there—it was illuminated but it was illuminated with very little light. For me you could actually feel the reverberations of the corners of the room kind of going through into the centers of the painting, into the center of the square. So there was this reaffirming or an insistence on pushing you back into the square and into this room to participate with these four paintings. And then, so you had the physical experience in the space, you had the sonic experience in the gallery space transforming your orientation of how to approach these. It wasn’t this confrontational approach when you walked in, you would walk just through a passage to something else but you’d have to turn to actually confront a painting. Then you had this other space where the spaces actually made up of the architecture in the actual paintings. It was about thirty-something squares layered into one, taken from the ideas of what was happening in Egypt and then also, where else in the Arab Spring you had this kind of action at the time. But also historic squares that are part of our cultural memory of major actions in particular kinds of squares, that have a different kind of cultural importance in terms of how we think and how we understand these public spaces to be.

Basically, that’s one of the reasons I was interested in this, because for me, having left Ethiopia, my interest in Tahrir was: What really happened in Moscow Square? What was Moscow Square? Was it really something that was a place where this kind of action could take place or was it a place just for propaganda. Or if you look at Cuba, speaking with Coco Fusco, how there was no action in the square and how, at least now, you have this kind of action happening internationally. But you did have this idea of only the square being used under a certain function and part of that being the function of the state in a way. What’s the difference between these two forms of the space? How charged is this space and why? And what’s the kind of ceremonial and romantic, not even romantic, but these kind of projections on the space, the kind of psychological projections that we put on these types of spaces. So I wanted to undo all of that and find that kind of place in between because, as everything was taking place in the Arab Spring, as incredible as it was that Mubarak fell after 18 days, there was this, at least I felt and I think a lot of people felt, this kind of constant fear of what would be next. What really does it mean? I think because of what happened in the Green Revolution in Iran and what happened in Addis Ababa, what happened when these types of revolution, these shifts have happened in the past and you have that reality. What’s happening now in Syria seems to be—and in Egypt and everywhere else—seems to be very much what was in some ways expected from this kind of action. There’s both this incredible enthusiasm but then also this skepticism and fear. So those things were part of what I was thinking about and the contradictions in those. I was really excited about those contradictions and trying to somehow bring those into the painting. I think that’s part of those breaks; it informs the way I was thinking about those.

M: Well I think what you are describing is a kind of incredible affective density, an intentionality that you are putting in the work, you know. I mean I think it is layered but in terms of recent history, one thing that makes me think is that these squares are not peopled. They are not peopled in the visuality of your work. That is, it is architecturally there, and it resonates as if it was densely peopled but it’s not peopled. And so when you are actually viewing and looking at the breaks there is that fear of the square that is closed down, shut down, the military on the edges or whatever is on the edge of possibility.

J: Or neoliberal economy, or whatever it is that is just absorbing and consuming and at very different rate even its desire, even the packaging of this desire. So it is all those complexities, I think those are the questions that I start with and then the paintings really become that other element that can emerge within the painting from this collision of these two types of making; being the architectural on the layering and then the mark marking and then the evolution of this other third space, being or experience (whatever that is) is the emergence in the fusion of these two, in the kind of mutation that occurs between these two and that is where there is a possibility. Does that make sense? And so I was very pleased that in London there was this kind of insistence on that which meant it wasn't about passing these paintings by or trying to decipher them. Actually, they are so big and there is a certain amount that you can try and decipher and read but then they become this experiential kind of meditative, you have to kind of go into this other space to digest them.

M: Well I really like that you are not going to the kind of spiritual or other, I mean I think it’s evocative without being foreclosing the possibility of what that application is. So it is evocative potentially of the mosque space but it is not necessarily or only that, it is also the public square, so it’s an interior/exterior, and there’s so many things that it is evoking in that sense.

J: Yeah. And it’s interesting that you brought up the mosque space because for me that type of reverential space, if you want to think about it that way, I wasn't really thinking about that. I wanted there to be this more meditative space to really spend time looking. It is much more about time-based experience that I wanted for the paintings. It was the opposite of what I felt occurred in Kassel, where it was this passage type of experience, this kind of experience with the work that you try to decipher or make sense of it and then understand them as pictures. I wanted there to be this other form of experience with them in terms of thinking about the spaces that they are suggesting or coming from but at the same time these other types of forms could emerge from within them.

M: For me that really raises the issue of format, and the fact that the practices that you are engaged in and thinking through and also painting and graphing and marking are very excessive to the format—in breaking the frame, delineations that don't quite fit in a book, even in a book you have to look at three pages to see the entirety; there is no entirety to be seen, it always depends on the viewpoint, on where you are standing. That resonates for me both with the kind of Fred Moten Black aesthetic discussion but also maybe a kind of queer, queer of color intervention about interrupting, and ways of viewing that aren't about completeness, or totality.

J: And about opacity

M: Yes, opacity. Oh, I love that!

J: Yeah, I think that with the amount of information, the amount of layering, in a sense, provides the opposite of the ability to decipher and has to push to a different type of reading or experience. And in that layering, and density, and invisibility there’s this opacity rather than with the transparent layering you’d expect from the word transparency, it is the opposite of that, it pushes to something much more opaque—but it’s not an opacity that excludes a possibility of improvisation, or a possibility of a performative experience; it really allows for something else, but it’s not something that is descriptive in any way or that kind of tries to take a particular position. For me what you are bringing up is exactly the reason that there is so much, I think, in terms of mark making, of labor, of time that goes into the making of these images because there’s all of these various aspects or questions that keep coming up and that these paintings are not trying to take a position in terms of that but to provide a different type of experience, and also a different type of insistence on possibility of what painting can be.

M: It’s interesting because when you say opacity—that’s not invisibility, it’s not visibility, it is not on any kind of spectrum; but it’s not blockage either, you are not blocking the viewer.,The way that people have thought about opacity, theoretically or in other contexts, I think, sometimes it can be seen as difficult, right? As blocking consumers, blocking the easy neoliberal, blocking the art market; blockages too because certain bodies, certain spaces, don't allow for that kind of easy transparency, translation, or passage. Perhaps that’s why the passage didn’t work as well for you either. But I wouldn't say that, in my experience of your work (and I imagine, in the experience of many others), it’s difficult viewing but it’s not like it is immediately clear...

J: Yeah, I think that that’s important. I’m thinking about opacity more in terms of what possibility it provides to people in terms of who they can be, and what they can be, rather than this desire of translation in a National Geographic kind of way. In that sense, I have this thing that I wrote which says opacity equals radical potential, rather than something that is difficult but it allows for this complete other possibility.

M: So what I was thinking, kind of continuing the conversation about opacity and I did mention earlier that the work is architectural to me more than figurative, but then there is earlier work that has moments that could gesture to the figurative. I don’t know if there is anything to say about that.

J: About the figurative? I think that part of this other experience, the emergent experience that I talk about, it’s not really a presence, I don't like to give it a form or a shape but it has, in certain ways there is this mirroring of our physical being somehow. And while the paintings feel populated, and feel consumed by the mark making, and the marks have this kind of ability to somehow, they have a certain type of social agency in themselves, and they mimic our behavior in a particular way; there’s this other form in their collection that almost becomes, that mimics our physical being in a way. Maybe that’s where you are thinking of that kind of suggestion. But as quickly as they come together it almost falls apart, and I am interested in that speed, that feeling like you can grasp the image and it comes together and that’s part of that, until these beings kind of flicker in and out of existence in the paintings. That’s that experiential time-based desire that I have; if somebody gives the paintings enough time, that kind of stuff starts happening. And I spend a lot of time making them and they are not finished until that happens, and that can happen in several cycles, in looking at the painting. But that’s not something that I can predetermine, it’s something that emerges from the making of the painting, and something that I chase after, if that makes sense.

M: So that works against the logic of rushing, and all kinds of things. But, do you ever see people viewing? Do you ever watch viewers? Do you notice what it forces? I mean, I've seen a lot of forcing them to slowing down.

J: Oh yeah? Good. That’s good. I feel like especially right now, I was noticing a different type of consuming of images, and especially paintings. I was getting frustrated with how fast people were consuming them, of how little time they were actually giving to actually viewing painting, whereas you spend a lot more time viewing other time-based media, because it requires that, or else you haven't seen it, you haven't experienced it. If you don't watch a film from the beginning to the end, in its parts you don't really have the entire experience. And I feel like painting has that embedded in the experience of painting, so it requires that time to allow that experience to take place. I think, especially right now, with the kind of speed at which we consume images, whether it is Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook as well as the world around us and the speed at which images are coming at us, there’s a certain desire to take a two-dimensional image and kind of absorb it very quickly and it becomes part of your consciousness and then it dissipates or not. In a way, to be in front of a painting and experience it is a very different thing than the reproduction, or the image of it and I am very interested in that place, that performative space of what happens when you are in front of the object, and that object occupying that space and you participating in that occupation and in that experience, and what happens in that context. So I’m happy you said that you saw people slowing down, that is important, that is important for me.

M: In gallery spaces and in museum spaces it’s always a good thing

J: And that they are not just these dead things on a wall but that they are these very active, engaged spaces, as well as psychological spaces, that require the action and agency of the viewer.

M: I think that what you're saying is very interesting because when I was asking you about occupation—is there a way to take back that word into all the kind of occupy movements and all the different ways of thinking about indigeneity and all that is multilayered in this decolonial context that we are thinking about. I do think that a different way of inhabiting the spatial is part of your proposition, it sounds like that is part of what you are kind of describing, and that is exciting.