Acting To Pretend, Preteding To Act: Peter Coffin

by Michele Robecchi


Peter Coffin has emerged as one of the most interesting american artists in recent years, thanks to work in which elegance, irony, depth and versatility join in a fertile dialogue with each other and with their audience. Coffin’s dizzying rise shows no sign of stopping, at least not in 2009, which starts with a solo show at the CCA Wattis in san francisco and another at the barbican art gallery of London. Mousse meets coffin on the eve of these two important events whose prestige and institutional character should offer a preview of what’s in store for and from this artist in the future.


MICHELE ROBECCHI: What are we going to talk about?

PETER COFFIN: I’ll do nearly anything to avoid talking about myself or the work—except talking with you about the many things you and I talk about when there’s no media apparatus plaguing us, talks I think you know I value.

MR: I know what you mean. You’d rather draw it out than be an authority on your own work.

PC: The editor has written that he is in favor of avoiding the “notion that the artist is a kind of ape that has to be explained by the civilized critic.” This should be good news to both artists and apes. With this assurance I hope to justify his confidence.

MR: Do you mistrust the interview format?

PC: Yes, it’s a mistrust towards things that are said over and over again. During interviews you start to repeat yourself, and you think: “That’s not what I really meant to say”. You give explanations that you happened upon at some point, and these explanations are therefore a bit worn out. But once they’re in print, they function as if they were permanently valid. The good discussions are those where I end up discovering something for myself, something illuminating, but one already knows that it will lose this illuminating quality and will always remain dull.

MR: Tell me about discovery and illumination. How has it been a part of your practice and how has it led you to what you do?

PC: The perpetual question, the whispered conundrum that has followed me since childhood: why is there something instead of nothing? If we are beings obsessed with asserting and interpreting, moving and signing, there is something undeniably agonistic about the game.

MR: But you seem to accept the conflict and it is a part your practice. It is even evident in the way you exhibit your work. Does your work ever involve a critique of the institution?

PC: I don’t think I work from a space of critique. My work isn’t, at the end, a critique of anything. It’s more of an exploration. I work against the kind of polarization that’s implied by the word critique. I could critique the institution, and I certainly have feelings of criticism about institutions, but it’s undeniable that my work depends on the institution that is art.

MR: I understand the exhibition you are preparing now is concerned with the philosophy of Japanese garden design. What is it about Japanese gardens that interests you?

PC: They are about walking and looking in time and space. They are not about an object. They are about a field to exist within. Its about time, space and movement being simultaneous. Vision is peripatetic and not reduced to framing an image. The notion of the open field for walking through, into and around, allowed a perception that became paramount for me… That seems to be the function of art: to change meaning through perception.

MR: The ambivalence in perspective of Japanese Gardens offers a potential then.

PC: Ambivalence is a very difficult state to contend with. As a culture we most likely experience ambivalence nowadays more strongly than ever before; it is very powerful. Ambivalence is a conflict that seeks a balance. It’s a conflict between having an aversion to something and, at the same time, being seduced by it. It is also a condition situated at the epicenter of belief. It registers a deep crisis of believing because if you really believe, then you are not ambivalent.

MR: So belief is dependent on ambivalence somehow. Do you think art can provide answers that are ambivalent and do not necessitate a belief in answers?

PC: I always felt that art was more interested in posing the question than it was in getting the answer, but I’ve come to more recently think that art is the answer. In science, you set up this premise, then you test it and see if it stood up. This process brings you to places that were previously mere belief. But belief often leads us, and this is even true with the scientists, to go after certain areas. We now know that belief has an effect on the result. Very interesting. So that sometimes we begin to find what we’re looking for by virtue of searching for it. And this is an odd idea. It’s certainly one that I think the arts have been very much involved with. The arts have this tremendous optimism and belief. I mean, you have to be an optimist to be an artist. Then, of course, artists are some of the most cynical people you can imagine. So there is this great irony in cynical people being involved in areas of great belief. And it’s something I love. I love the irony, and I enjoy it, and as I said, I never thought that artists were so much looking for answers as they were just posing questions. I can’t think of a more hopeful act than to be an artist. To decide to be an artist is a very hopeful act.

MR: Well, art can serve a purpose too. Of course, locking yourself up in a studio making a painting or a sculpture can be viewed as a self-serving activity but…

PC: To be an artist is not a matter of making paintings or objects at all. What we are really dealing with is our state of consciousness and the shape of our perception. The act of art is a tool for extended consciousness.

MR: You mean that art can be a greater form—not limited to the form of material and instead more broadly concerned with the potential form of consciousness? Is art then a kind of shamanic activity?

PC: To an extent. Both a shaman and an artist are invited to be true activators of what can be. I think of the world as a potential sculpture, and humans as the potential living artworks—or, really, as master sculptors. The challenge is to make the planet into a real artwork, so that human beings themselves become as highly developed as possible. All of us have the potential to develop to a state where we’re, well, really cool beings, where we can do things like see through time, and where we’re actually wise. If everyone on earth can manage to get to that point or anywhere near it, the earth will be a radically different place. There won’t be war, or starvation, or overpopulation, or crime, or disease. In a developed world you wouldn’t need any art as we know it, because everything would be art. Art is the higher, inner self that one is trying to become or trying to form. And I have no patience with the desire professed by some people to go in the other direction. There’s one way worth going and that’s “up”.

MR: So how do you convey this message to the viewer?

PC: Contemporary art is often alienating to people who see it and who may assume their own interpretation is not valid.

People now tend to think their experience of art is based in understanding the art, whereas in the past people in general understood the art and were maybe more freely able to absorb it intuitively. They understood it because it hadn’t yet separated itself off from the mainstream of culture the way modern art had. So I guess it is not surprising that since the separation occurred, people have tried to bridge it through an understanding of the oddness of its various new art forms. Cinema seems more or less still in the mainstream, as if it never had a “secession” of modern or modernist artists against that mainstream. So people don’t tend to be so emphatic about understanding films, they tend to enjoy them and evaluate them: great, good, not so good, two thumbs up, etc. Although that can be perfunctory and dull, it may be a better form of response. Experience and evaluation—judgment—are richer responses than gestures of understanding or interpretation.

MR: Do you think art should be more entertaining?

PC: Art is not about trying to find things that will please or find things that will do. It’s about presenting the relationships of human things to objects, but you do try to find objects that step outside of exotica and enter into the normal stream of other people’s lives.

MR: Having seen exhibitions of your work, I have the impression that you like to invest in it an element of change and unpredictability. It’s almost as if you’re trying to avoid creative incarceration and signature style.

PC: I tend to jump from one medium to another, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It’s energizing and refreshing.

Somewhere I got the idea that cross-fertilization is good, that one discipline feeds the other and that each one can be entered into with a sense of play. Not that play isn’t serious. I’m often not aware of the inspiration that gets carried from one area over to another, which is fine.

MR: I feel that your approach is one that was determined early and is something you’ve been building on. How did you find yourself thinking as an artist? Did you have this sense when you where five years old for example?

PC: Five years old. Yeah, I was an artist. I stayed in my room all day. I rearranged my furniture ten times a day. I used to vacuum the carpet like a baseball infield, crisscrossing with diamond shapes. Everyone is an artist when they’re five. Then they take it away from you. They make you tie your shoes. Eat your vegetables. Go to school. Clean up the yard. Get on the bus.

MR: Last summer you built a UFO and let it fly over the Baltic Sea [Untitled (UFO), 2008]. I’m under the impression that your works sometimes function like a puzzle or joke as if you are posing a question that does not necessarily need to be answered.

PC: I may take the opportunity that this affords of getting rid of what is nevertheless a possible misunderstanding. For “innocent” or “abstract” jokes are far from having the same meaning as jokes that are “trivial” or lacking in substance; they merely connote the opposite of the “tendentious” jokes… An innocent—that is, a non-tendentious—joke may also be of great substance, it may assert something of value. But the substance of a joke is independent of the joke and is the substance of the thought, which is here by means of a special arrangement, expressed as a joke. No doubt, just as watchmakers usually provide a particularly good movement with a similarly valuable case, so it may happen with jokes that the best achievements in the way of jokes are used as an envelope for thoughts of the greatest substance. If now we draw a sharp distinction in the case of conceptual jokes between the substance of the thought and the joking envelope, we shall reach a discovery, which may throw light on much of our uncertainty in judging jokes. For it turns out—and this is a surprising thing—that our enjoyment of a joke is based on a combined impression of its substance and of its effectiveness over the amount of the other. Only after the joke has been reduced do we become aware of this false judgment. In order to enable this thought to be turned into a joke, it is clearly necessary to select from among the possible forms of expression the precise one, which brings along with it a yield of verbal pleasure. We know from self observation that this selection is not made by conscious attention; but it will certainly help the selection if the cathexis of the preconscious one, for, as we have learnt from dream work, the connecting paths which start out from words are in the unconscious treated in the same way as the connections between things.


Originally published on Mousse 17 (February-March 2009)


Related Articles
Ghost Heritage: Public Movement
(Read more)
Amar Kanwar “Such a Morning” at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
(Read more)
The Randomness of All These Things Is Actually Really Precise: Sarah Sze
(Read more)
A Fantasy Blossoming Proudly: Robert Henke and Craig Richards
(Read more)
The Social Lives of Everyday Objects: Jessica Vaughn
(Read more)
Anna Franceschini “CARTABURRO” at ALMANAC Projects, London
(Read more)