08. Sandra Orellana Sears Interviews Peter Dobey

WHEN DID YOU FIRST BECOME INTERESTED IN ART?
I was always interested in art as a child — or interested in being an artist, at least. I remember my first trip to the (NYC) MoMA vividly. But I didn’t go to school; I was raised in the mountains. So I made stuff and just daydreamed all day and did absolutely nothing my whole young life. And it was then that I became an artist. Around the time of high school, I started to become obsessed with darker photography, especially Ken Miller, a great and rarely shown artist who documented the Tenderloin in San Francisco. (He’s friends with the writer William T. Vollmann who also wrote about the Tenderloin.) Miller is why I first moved to San Francisco. SF is a filthy city, both in its actual filth and its artificial sweetness. I wanted to be close to that. I was very depressed when I was younger, even more so than now, and so I looked at him, and Joel Peter Witkin, and some pictures of crimes and murders and such. I also loved more classically beautiful stuff as a youngster… Renoir and such.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST CONSIDER YOURSELF AN ARTIST?
I really believe one simply IS an artist, and most people are not. You can call me a naive romantic, but I’m a modernist at heart. There IS such a thing AS an artist, as genius, at least in the Kantian sense. I know because I’ve seen it. People who don’t believe in this have obviously never been in the presence of real great thinkers. I was always an artist.

MANY OF YOUR PIECES INCLUDE ELEMENTS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, PERFORMANCE, AND INSTALLATION ART. HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CONSTRUCTING AN ARTWORK THAT INCLUDES A VARIETY OF MEDIUMS?
I am still a process-oriented artist, and I think the best things happen during the process of working on your art. But this does not need to be in the physical construction of the work. For example, my practice as an artist is in my head. That’s where I do my painting. Ideas come when you least expect them and cannot be forced. The medium is secondary. This is why it’s so horrible to see art become so professionalized, because the job of a thinker is to take his time. But the medium is, of course, so important. I’m fascinated by the multiple meanings of the word ‘medium,’ my favorite referring to spiritual ceremony. The artist IS a medium in a sense, if the job of the medium is to communicate the essence of something immaterial, such as the dead, to the layman. Similarly, the function of the medium in art practice should be to communicate the abstract conceptual idea into something tangible on a non-conceptual and visceral level. Yes, the medium is very important, but it should never be more than a by-product of the idea itself or an expression of it. What I hate in conceptual art is that it is so overtly theoretical and transparent that you wonder why that artist did not just write a book. I hate art that is so insular it only talks about things that other artists know about.

DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF PRIMARILY A PHOTOGRAPHER?
Yes. What’s interesting to me is the photographer’s eye, and why one person is able to see a form in a manner that is indescribable to others. For example, people often look at me as if I’m completely mad, because I will be sitting with my camera staring at some corner of a wall, or some piece of garbage. And I think this process of bringing forth the parts of life that are invisible to us, is incredibly important. In our technology-obsessed world, and in all worlds, we never take the time to appreciate the small things. Benjamin puts this eloquently when he talks about how the camera exposes things in everyday life that we would never notice; things we don’t usually see when we walk by them, things that escape everyday vision. The camera reveals the unconsciously visible, the hidden things we pass by, just as psychoanalysis sheds light on unconscious compulsions. When we arrive in a city that is new to us, we scrutinize our new environment closely, we look up at buildings… But where we live, we walk with our heads looking down, oblivious to our aesthetic surroundings. I hope my work gets people to keep their heads up. I have an exhibition that I’m working on now. There is no photography in it, but it’s entitled “photography,” because I’m still interested in provoking this method of looking.

MANY OF YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS DEMONSTRATE AN INTEREST IN DANCE AND THE HUMAN FORM. WHAT INSPIRES YOU TO PHOTOGRAPH THE HUMAN BODY?
I’m interested in human experience. I still think art has only a handful of topics to talk about, and they are the things we all know as humans — love, war, sex (though I sometimes think many Americans only know the second). The body is primal, and so it seemed like the most immediate way to express these universal concerns. When Pina Bausch, one of my favorite artists, makes a dance, I don’t think she cares about dance, per se. She cares about what it is to be a man, a woman, a human. What I like about dance is that you can’t turn away from it, you can’t turn it off. Dancers seem to know their bodies the best, so it seemed like a good choice of medium. But now I’m working with non-dancers, because it’s also interesting to look at movements that are less planned and controlled. As a photographer, I learned how to stare. I wish everyone were allowed to stare. Especially in America, you are not even allowed to look at people in the street without being accused of being a pervert. This disgusts me.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AT THE ÉCOLE DES BEAUX-ARTS IN PARIS?
French society is much more agreeable to me, with their appreciation of the avant-garde in the modernist tradition, but I was also miserably depressed in Paris and hardly showed up to the Beaux-Arts. And there was a beauty to that and I hope to move back soon. But the most important part of being there was my time with Christian Boltanski. He is the best example, to me, of what an artist and person should be. He is quite possibly the most brilliant man I have ever met, and also the kindest and most authentic. In many ways he taught me how to truly be honest as an artist, which is ironic because I think people, especially Americans, are critical of his fictions. But his fictions are all true, and much more importantly, I think he would agree with me that we all lie constantly all day; it is part of the syntax of our language. In our overtly conformist society, people are always jumping at the chance to know “the truth,” but what is a truth? It is just a lie that we believe in. Art, especially, is a kind of lie. It’s supposed to be mysterious, for in this mysteriousness lies its function; to make us ask unanswerable questions. On the grounds that art has a social function — which I absolutely believe it does — it is precisely in its lack of function that it can help us cope with our own existence. Picasso was right on when he said: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

YOU CONSTANTLY TRAVEL OVERSEAS, YET YOU ALWAYS RETURN TO THE AMERICAN LANDSCAPE IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS. WHAT COMPELS YOU TO DOCUMENT YOUR OWN TURF?
Because America is full of madmen. It is a country of unparalleled violence and boring oddities, its biggest oddity being its obsession with conformism, its insidious totalitarianism. The entire world is able to comprehend America (although that is often an imposed comprehension), and yet America can comprehend no one or nothing but itself, and it does a very poor job at that as well. I forget who said it, but someone wise once said that “if you want to see your country disappear, go to America and open up a newspaper.” I want to unveil the overlooked parts of America. Just as many Americans have never traveled abroad, most liberal American city-dwellers have never been to the “other” parts of the country. The majority of their countrymen live in a vapid wasteland. But Americans choose to pretend it’s not there. Everyone in this country engages in violent and ignorant rites all day long, myself included, and yet they are completely oblivious. I hope I can disclose this. I was driving through some nameless suburb the other day. The streets were named after the corporations that owned the businesses on them: I was at the cross streets of Target Ave and Circuit City Way. This is a corporation directly and shamelessly interposing itself into government planning and societal acclimatization. If that is not the death of everything I love about western culture, I don’t know what is. But people move through these corridors without noticing any of this. They pass through this architecture and don’t notice it, because they are distracted, and all this becomes normalized. I want to break through and disrupt this distraction. Distraction is the substance and the medium, if you will, that shock can take place within. I hope to provoke this shock. That all being said, I’m absolutely obsessed with Americana. I spend a lot of time in the places that people would consider the most boring and the worst. It’s like being a war photographer, except in the suburbs of California or Texas. Then again, I adore Texas and the south and only listen to country music or classical. I love America because of how endlessly interesting all this nothingness is, all this filth, and other beautiful things. It is a vacuous landscape of sublime proportions.

HOW DO PSYCHOANALYSIS AND PHILOSOPHY OPERATE IN YOUR WORK?
As I mentioned before, photography and all art, like psychoanalysis, can reveal previously hidden drives and insights. They are both methods to know ourselves. Not to find an answer, but to find the root of our troubles, the root of our questions. I am very interested in the work of Jacques Lacan and his “return to Freud.” Psychoanalysis and the study of the unconscious can lead us down paths that other fields simply can’t because it’s not concerned with “truth.” It’s not that the unconscious tells the truth or that we can arrive at a definitive truth through psychoanalysis; dreams are, of course, crazy and fucked up. It’s not that reality is being shown by looking at the unconscious, it is that a knowledge of the unconscious is a challenge to consciousness. It is this dialectic that awakens you from your complacency and makes you question your assumption that your perspective is the truth. It reveals a hitherto unknown perspective. You start asking yourself the big questions. What is real? What isn’t? Who am I? Maybe you start to cry. This is what art should do. This is what good art does do. I also someday would love to be a psychoanalyst, but until then I am content in pretending to be one.

WHO ARE YOUR GREATEST CREATIVE INFLUENCES IN CLASSICAL ART?
Well, he’s certainly not classical, but Manet was a huge influence on me and still is. He is the best photographer there is. Look at “Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère” and you will see the last 20 years or so of photography. The early low country and Flemish painters amaze me, especially Geertgen tot Sint Jans and Hans Memling. These artists were simply mad. I love that. And then I also really love the Rococo’s heavenly delightful soft-lit porn, which was a replacement of baroque’s classical values with something that was supposed to be nice and happy but was full of lust and desire; all these angels and nymphettes in the midst of rapture. Also, it’s a bit silly, but I like to look at the Salon style, or “academic” art, the rigidness of the neoclassical style… Boucher’s putti in the midst of orgasm, this stuff is totally perverted. Have you ever seen Bouguereau’s “The Nymphaeum?”? It’s the most erotic orgy porn I have ever seen. …And then, the carnage of Goya, and the blinding light and darkness of Caravaggio, or the intense violence by the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, which was especially shocking at the time to see a woman paint that violence. Once again, I think art only has a couple of subjects, violence and sex being the ones that really have always gotten people off. But I work so much more delicately now and have thought of Turner and Monet lately, and I’m looking at more recent folks again.

Most of my inspiration from classical art comes from Catholic churches. I get half of my ideas from these places — especially Mexican and southern Italian churches. In some of these churches, ordinary people are allowed to put up little mementos that commemorate lost loved ones, so you will see some little simple piece of twine or a coke bottle hung up on the walls of the church, maybe with a little photo. I love the delicate nature of these objects. And something that is so stupid and worthless, becomes so special and full of meaning when placed within the context of the church. This is very similar to how art functions in the gallery context. An object becomes something it’s not, and attention is brought to that object that was hitherto latent. What I want to make is a relic, rather than a sculpture.

TELL ME ABOUT THE WORK YOU WILL BE SHOWING IN YOUR NEXT GALLERY EXHIBITION.
Well, as a matter of fact, I was attracted to this space because it seemed more like a church than a gallery. It is hard to find, and you have to walk through a patch of dirt to get to it. I think seeing art should be more like a pilgrimage, as it was when you saw art in churches. Maybe it’s the Catholic in me or the anti-capitalist in me, but I don’t want my works shown in the shiny storefront that are so many a gallery. As for the piece itself, the gallery will be empty. And there will be three rooms; one filled with light, another pitch black, and in between the two, in the middle room where the gallerist usually sits, she will be replaced by a hysteric. He will be crying and laughing. At first, visitors won’t be able to tell what the art is, I hope. I think art should be transient and indiscernible and a bit invisible. That goes back to idea of the photographer, or more importantly, the flâneur, the idea that you have to find the art. In the other two rooms, it will be normal individuals performing mundane little gestures. They will be lost in their work, like the artist is lost in his head. Through the repetitions arise an image; this is why I see them in relation to photography. Every day we make images and we don’t notice it. They will do this for the entire duration of the gallery opening. One thing I don’t like about dance is that it’s durational — it has a beginning and an end. A photograph does not have a beginning or an end, and yet it has a tremendous story behind it, usually invented by the viewer. The show will only last a day or two and then disappear for good. Maybe someone will remember it, maybe not. That’s not important to me.


/// “photography” will be take place at KROWSWORK (480 23rd Street, Oakland, CA) on July 23rd at 7pm, and on July 24, 2pm.