by Sarah Vaeth, February 2012
Peter Halley’s Prison wraps around the maw of a barn-like space, commanding but not enclosing it: three walls limned with the barred windows of many prison cells, stacked to the top, varied and repeating. Each cell is a digital print, tightly pasted down, seamless, black lines on a queasy green, something between institutional and spectral. This border carves out a space, encompassing both the concrete floor and the ceiling’s high-arching wood beams.
I gathered my truest impressions of the installation on my second visit, on a quiet day. Opening night, the previous Saturday, threw off my perception of the work (a packed reception in a space which was itself formally implicated). It did, however, present the occasion to begin a conversation with Peter Halley, and this conversation unfolded into the interview that follows.
SV: I was thinking about the space and how it doesn’t feel confining, which was surprising to me and I’m wondering about the significance of that because there are exits, there are ways out. As a viewer I don’t feel imprisoned.
PH: I was fascinated by the fact that it was a big empty space, like a big empty arena. Because there was a very limited budget, I couldn’t do a painting exhibition; the shipping alone would have been too expensive. I decided to work with digital prints, simply using the digital line-drawing studies I make for my paintings. I used units of imagery that are really quite small to make the space seem even bigger and emptier. The idea was very theatrical—but I wanted the viewer to walk in and feel that he or she was in this huge space with these prison images fencing you in on all sides. With that vast, dark space, the idea of building a perimeter wall covered with endless images of prisons struck me as having an existential Samuel Beckett-like gloom to it.
On a personal level, it was really intriguing to use the image of the prison, because for many years my installations have almost exclusively utilized images of explosions. Up until this point, the explosions have been as important to my digital prints and installations as the prisons and cells have been to my painting.
How do the explosions relate to the prisons? Are those in relationship to each other, or are they two separate themes?
My paintings, with their prisons and cells and the conduits connecting them, really represent a solid-state hegemonic system, with the sort of rigid geometric pathways that I believe we all exist within. The explosions, on the other hand, are about the disruption of systems. An explosion is generally the transformation of one thing into another thing. I’ve always valued this dichotomy in my work, which has developed of its own volition.
So it could be the explosion of those same prisons.
Oh yes, they are, or they began that way. In 1983, I made a digital animation of the cell exploding.
It seems like you’re doing more installation in recent years. Is that a trend?
Yes, since the early ’90s—whenever the opportunity arises. It’s been my observation that since the 1960s people have steadily shifted from the individual work to the exhibition as the unit of meaning in contemporary art. Today we almost always say, “I saw a great show,” rather than, “I saw a really good painting in so-and-so’s exhibition.” As a result, the role of the artist as a designer of installations has inevitably become more important. Artists make room installations, whether it’s Sol LeWitt, Ann Hamilton or Matthew Barney. It’s a distinct genre of art. When I began to do these installations at the beginning of the ’90s, I thought, well, I want to address that challenge—but in two dimensions. I wanted to look at what kind of installations I could do using just the walls and two-dimensional works.
Here’s how I understand the conceptual framework of your artistic practice as it emerged in the early ’80s. Your paintings were identified with a critique of modernist geometric abstraction. Those allegedly transcendent forms were reconstituted as socioeconomically-specific geometry, the “hard geometry” of the industrial landscape: the square perimeter of the apartment unit, the office space, the prison cell. By 1982 you had introduced the motif of the conduit, which was associated with the “soft geometry” of technological pathways that connect and service the rigid and confining cells: highways, utility feeds, phone lines. Your practice, as you wrote about it in those years, was decisively grounded in postmodern discourse, particularly as shaped by Foucault and Baudrillard. I’m wondering if there are ways in which you speak about your work differently today, in 2012. What has changed, particularly in the last decade?
I’ve certainly become interested in a lot of other things. When I speak to people today I usually talk about the issue of the spectacle, as defined by Guy DeBord in his book, The Society of the Spectacle. I feel that artists’ response to the spectacle is probably the biggest issue in contemporary art, but that it’s been largely ignored even though many of the most talked-about artists today—Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan, Takashi Murakami—are directly engaging the spectacle.
Is this more a matter of embracing the spectacle or participating in it, as opposed to critiquing it?
I’m not sure there are too many people around these days whose work is a real critique of spectacle. I think all of us artists, in one way or another, have moved in the direction of becoming complicit, in the sense of accepting the spectacle as ubiquitous. But I do think that there are different shadings of complicity and commentary, as well as other kinds of approaches that various artists have advanced.
Where do you yourself fall in relationship to the spectacle?
I want my work to be seductive in terms of color, texture and scale. However, since the beginning of my career I’ve tried to emphasize issues related to how the professional managerial class shapes society. I’m interested in the issue of pathways and the flow of people and information rather than, say, advertising or media. And I’ve really never been interested in popular images, movies or television.
Your work gets tied in with commodity art, which seems like a tenuous connection. What do you think about that?
Yeah, I don’t think I do commodity art. But, some of my friends do, and it all emerged at the same time. I would say that the reason we’re linked together is that in the mid-1980s, in the East Village, a handful of artists emerged who wanted to address the social sphere, rather than their own inner realities, as the Neo-Expressionists were doing.
Now, in 2012, are there things different about our society that you relate to in your work?
Well, in the last thirty years I’ve lived through the rise of a digital society, dominated by the computer and the Internet. I feel that the space of my work has been influenced by the deluge of communication that has come about as a result.
Are there ways you talk about your work differently or additionally to those initial conceptual frameworks? Are there different meanings that have accrued since you started out?
Well, I think meanings have accrued. But I haven’t changed my mind about a lot of things. In the ’90s I read a couple books that had a huge influence on me. The first is The Fall of Public Man by Richard Sennett. It basically talks about the disappearance of public life and the disappearance of public expression. The second book, The Civilizing Process, is by the German sociologist, Norbert Elias. It was written in the 1920s. It’s a history of the development of the self-monitoring and self-inhibition of our own behavior to create social conformity from the Renaissance to the present. Both these books point to the disappearance of the experience of heterogeneous public space, which is the space of the modern city, where people run into others who are different from themselves.
Moving on to formal concerns, how do changes in form correspond to changes in the semantic content of your work?
I’ve written extensively about how what are called formalist ideas are actually syntactical issues. Formalist issues are really about examining the syntax of an image. In simple terms, if there’s a big red shape in an image, how does that signifier affect the image?
Like Danto’s “red square” painting: how, in different hands, it means completely different things?
Yes, but also in the hands of the same artist. If one red square is on a blue background and another red square is on a green background, the syntax changes completely.
You take the same shapes, the same color, and the meaning will be different from one painting to the next.
Yes, I’m really interested in that. A big part of the evolution of abstract art was to replace recognizable images with what we call abstract or non-mimetic stand-ins, to draw attention to the mechanics of the painting.
My understanding is that one of the strands of postmodernism is to take those shapes that are supposed to just be shapes and say, no, they correspond to socially specific forms.
That the shapes are signifiers and that they have signifieds—that every shape or signifier will produce meanings. I’ve written about this a lot, but to try to express it simply, the Minimalist artists, whom I was reacting to, very much emphasized that their works were non-referential.
That the Minimalist box was just a box.
In semiotic terms, it was a signifier without a signified. I think the artists of my generation really reacted to that. The key figure—the person who really influenced me—was Roland Barthes, who said that a signifier doesn’t have just one signified; it has an infinite string of signifieds. In my case, I particularly wanted to connect geometric abstract art in the twentieth century to the increasing presence of actual abstract geometric space in twentieth century life.
Are you comfortable with the idea that your images could connect up with an infinite number of signifiers?
Oh yes, I consider that inevitable.
22 January—25 February 2012