Life Without Consanguinity: Zachary Cahill
Abigail Winograd interviews Zachary Cahill about his work, his exhibition USSA Love Chapel at Regina Rex in New York, and the novels of the Soviet author Andrei Platonov.
Abigail Winograd: Let’s start with Andrei Platonov. This is an author you suggested that I should read before our conversation.
Zachary Cahill: First, thank you for indulging my wish to share Andrei Platonov with you. It dawned on me after the fact that it’s a lot to ask of anyone to read a book, let alone two Platonov novels. Happy Moscow and The Foundation Pit are not easy reads—just on the level of imagery and psychic energy required, the books are brutal. I think David Foster Wallace said that he thought fiction was a way of “jumping over the wall of self” and inhabiting someone else’s mind. Sharing books with friends is a bit like this, I think, and certainly in Happy Moscow the theme of swapping identities runs throughout.
Platonov’s approach might be called surrealism or the absurd, but his version is its own varietal. It is not, like Dalí & Co., derived from dreams and the unconscious. I think it was the pressure of reality that produced Platonov’s brand of weirdness, and it’s why his “sur-reality” feels so pedestrian and normal. It doesn’t announce itself. For instance when you encounter a bear working in the blacksmith shop in The Foundation Pit, it doesn’t seem surprising at all. To call these moments subtle doesn’t capture it, either. There is something subtle and profound happening at the same time that enacts a psychological change in the reader, and this operation could only happen because it is based on a kind of psychological pressure coming from reality itself—the one that Platonov was existing in, the early decades of the Soviet Union. In this sense his fictions are not make-believe, but reality manifesting in a different form.
USSA isn’t something that I made up entirely. It was always there in the air for me to work with, like a phantom limb of sorts, after the Cold War. So in that sense it’s not a fictional country, either. Platonov’s writing drew the ire of Stalin himself; fantasy has very real effects. I don’t want to jump down the rabbit hole of the fiction–reality dialectic, but I’ll stake a claim and say we don’t live in anything other than fantasy. We just kind of agree (in a sane society) to not let things get out of control, to let our fantasy step on each other’s reality This point spills into my recent interest in abstraction. I am very unsure of anything not being abstract. Or: I am amazed that people think they know what things are. Things that seem concrete to many are incredibly abstract to me. The moniker of my project, USSA, is a type of abstraction. Letters, what are they really? And if you collage them together, it gets even more abstract.
AW: Platonov’s novels seem to derive their power from their grounding in reality. A lot of dissident literature in the USSR was abstract or surreal or fantastical—Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1966), for example—to both comment upon Communism yet shield itself from being labeled as anticommunist. I see your Assembly project, which I gather is something like the state church of the USSA, as responding to current reality but in a way that people may find abstract. The previous iterations of your USSA project have operated in the orphanage, the gift shop, the wellness center, and the state farm, but recently you are moving with the Assembly project into religion, a terribly fraught topic in both the United States and the former USSR.
ZC: Religion is a force to harness to push back against the wicked forces that are animating US politics. But I am not into known forms of religion; I want new forms of religious life. Or maybe I am interested in perverting old forms toward new ends. Religion is so often the arch-conservative element in culture, and yet religious organizations support progressive political causes. I am thinking of the IRA and the Catholic church in Ireland, or liberation theology in Latin America, or African American churches in the civil rights movement.
AW: Even further back: Chasidism and Christianity itself, in the shape of Jesus, were radical movements, and some might argue progressive movements, in their day.
ZC: That’s so true! I’m also thinking about the afterlife and how it’s one of the last uncharted zones of existence. We don’t see dead people on the news telling us what the other side is like. It’s odd to me, given our seemingly limitless ability to know things. We’ve been to the moon, the bottom of the ocean, but nobody has reported back from heaven yet in a way that feels relatable and pedestrian.
AW: That is a slightly obscure position to take, Zach. The dead do not communicate well. Perhaps this is a good transition to my next question: Would it be fair to characterize the imagery or the ethos underpinning the Assembly as surreal? Or political? Or both?
ZC: Much religious imagery has a touch of surrealism, and the Assembly does as well—abstract and surreal, declarative too. What kind of propaganda isn’t abstract and surreal? What is my Assembly project trying to do? Convert people. Which maybe puts us in the zone of political art. Some would argue that “political art” is an oxymoron, since politics indicates action and art might induce something more like contemplation? The nexus of contraries informs my practice, which in some ways is an ongoing study about propaganda—art that is motivated to do things.
AW: I was asked a similar question after I talk I gave in Minsk about art under dictatorship in Latin America. Someone in the audience chastised me for not discussing artists who were purely interested in aesthetics. In my view there is no such thing as apolitical art. Art is political. Culture is political. What happened to Platonov is a reminder of that. What is happening now in the United States, the proposed elimination of the NEA and the NEH, is a reminder. The church has been using art as a medium for their message for centuries. The Soviets certainly knew how potent a political tool art could be, which is why they were so afraid of it. There is even a political dimension to artists who choose not to engage with politics. W. E. B. Du Bois said, “All art is propaganda, and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.” I agree. Once a work of art or a piece of writing or any form of artistic expression is released into the world, it becomes subject to social and cultural discourse that has a political dimension.
If I may direct us back to Platonov and USSA, let’s talk about the ethos of USSA, which you write is based on “life without consanguinity,” which you have explained to me as the possibility of creating kinship or familial networks beyond blood relations.
ZC: That is the heart of the work. The idea of feeling kinship or love with people beyond blood relations.
AW: In the sixth Epistle, you call for a new religion. Is the Assembly the third way, not quite communism and not capitalism?
ZC: Writing is central to my work. I don’t really think of myself as a writer, but many of my projects start from a piece of writing. The Assembly is different. The paintings came first and the Epistles came later, and then I worked on them together. The Epistles are like the inner life of the paintings and the sculptures. If you wanted to read their mind, I suppose that’s what the Epistles are. The Assembly, and the USSA more generally, is a bit like a third way, as you say, but the Assembly really attempts to dislodge itself from that binary (of communism and capitalism) by being alien, from another world. The Assembly is meant to reset the whole coordinates of the project. To make the four letters strange.
AW: So you settled on religion as the middle ground?
ZC: I see religion as both capitalist and communal, for good and ill. The Assembly is like: fuck those people who have ruined everything cool about religion. We can make our own and make it better and put it to better use. The church instrumentalized art for its own missionary purposes, and I want to instrumentalize the tropes of religion for art. This might seem quixotic and probably is sacrilegious.
AW: Proposing your own religion is certainly considered a sacrilege by most established religions, but the Assembly seems like more of a permutation of several existing theologies. That is apt, though, as metamorphosis seems to be an integral part of the project and an important device for Platonov. USSA changes from incarnation to incarnation. How is it evolving? Toward what?
ZC: It’s true, it keeps evolving! I’m not sure why this is so. It always seemed to make sense that the project would vary from institution to institution, with the atmosphere and vibe all part of the internal logic from a single painting to a text to the installation. The ceiling I did in Brussels for the show you curated had the scale of a church. The scale was crucial for the meaning of the work, in order for it to feel something like a church. Ceiling paintings are supposed to be different from a canvas—grander. The whole USSA project is maybe my simple-minded way of thinking about something like a body politic: birth, middle age, old age, the afterlife, maybe rebirth?
AW: Platonov doesn’t really advocate resistance or show a way forward. He is more interested in what living within a system means and does to the individual and the collective body. In the Epistles you also question the possibility of resistance. If resistance is a pawn of capitalism, what else is there?
ZC: I should clarify. In the text of mine you are referring to, I think I’m trying to say: let’s not weaponize our emotions and thereby get caught in the endless loop of capitalist and anticapitalist battles, but rather try to imagine other worlds altogether. Capitalism has assimilated old forms of resistance and turned them into nostalgia and photo-op fodder. I’m not saying I have better solutions, but I think we as artists and intellectuals need to come up with other effective forms of resistance. But who am I to say? I’m an artist. I read comic books. I think Occupy was effective. I think the Women’s March was effective and even a life-changing event for me, though one I don’t completely understand yet. I think about Bobby Sands. I think about comic books. I think about Twitter and I think: What aren’t we thinking of? I just don’t want resistance to be used against us as a sedative for the masses, like, “oh there you go again.” Religion and religious fervor seems an energy to draw on for resistance. There should be other models of resistance and other kinds of religion.
AW: Can you talk a little bit about your upcoming solo show in New York at Regina Rex?
ZC: It’s called USSA Love Chapel. I like to think of the show as a kind of outpost of the Assembly, a little sanctuary of sorts. And love? Love is a funny thing, no? It also is abstract, at times surreal, even. Political. Committed. Maybe it’s the flip side of the afterlife we spoke about earlier. Love is something we experience but is so hard to describe.
AW: Do you have faith? Faith in art, perhaps?
ZC: Yes, faith in art, and in one another, even as cruelly as that faith is often tested.
Zachary Cahill is a Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist. Since 2009, he has been working on the long-term exhibition-based project USSA, which explores concepts of nation building. His artwork has been featured in solo shows at numerous institutions, including KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and the MCA Chicago. A widely published author, he has been featured in Afterall, Artforum, the Exhibitionist, Frieze, and Mousse.
Abigail Winograd is a curatorial fellow at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands, an independent curator, and a writer. She holds a PhD in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a former research associate at the MCA Chicago, where she was also the Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow. She has additional degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Northwestern University. She has contributed to BOMB, Frieze, Artforum, and other publications.