Whether he is recreating a famous Bauhaus performance or producing elaborate glass installations (he is an expert glassblower) that reference Modernist design, Josiah McElheny investigates the past in order to understand the present, grappling with the problems inherent in Modernism’s utopian ambitions. That impulse is what drew him to Vizcaya, a pseudo-Venetian palace built in Miami’s mangrove swamps in 1916 by the Chicago-based agricultural industrialist James Deering. For his film The Light Club of Vizcaya: a Women’s Picture, McElheny conflated Vizcaya’s story with “The Light Club of Batavia”, a 1912 novella by the German writer Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915), which describes a secret spa in which people bathe in light.
The Art Newspaper: What got you interested in “The Light Club of Batavia”?
Josiah McElheny: I had committed to doing a project about the Scheerbart story in 2007, before I’d ever read it, based solely on a description. Once I heard a translation of it, I was shocked by its complexities. I spent a long time trying to unravel that. And I’ve become obsessed with it. It’s about a utopia, and the question is: who is it for? That’s a question that isn’t answered by much Modernist thinking.
And why this particular utopia of bathing in light in a hidden world—why would it be hidden?
The setting, I imagine, is important. It takes place at a faux-European hotel in Jakarta in 1909. So it’s very hot, and there’s this faux-European palace with a park and fountain. I always pictured it being like the [1961 Alain Resnais] film “Last Year at Marienbad”.
How was that vision transplanted to Vizcaya?
Vizcaya invited me to do a project. I had done a number of museum interventions and they probably invited me thinking, “Well, he’ll probably continue in that same vein.” When they sent me pictures of Vizcaya, I thought, “This looks just like my picture of the Scheerbart story.” A faux-Venetian palace in a mangrove swamp. I thought, “Here’s the set for the movie of ‘Light Club of Batavia’.”
What did you think when you got there?
It’s more earthy, more deteriorated than pictures suggest. Delving into Vizcaya’s archive, I realised there were all these fascinating parallels to Scheerbart’s story of building a utopia and hiding that private utopia. I learned that Vizcaya was built by probably the only gay robber baron and that it was designed by gay people, photographed by gay people and inhabited by gay people. Then there is its collage of clashing aesthetics, which is also a stereotype—perhaps a negative one, but a stereotype nonetheless—of a gay aesthetic. So I tried to respond to all of those issues, to discover why one would build a hidden utopia about enlightenment—in the metaphorical sense, but also the literal—the place is filled with lamps. Hundreds and hundreds of crazy lamps. Thomas Edison came there, and there was this massive amount of electrical power distributed throughout the garden and the house. Building began on Vizcaya in 1914—the early days of electricity, when there was a lot of excitement about it. And the Scheerbart story, written in 1912, is also reflective of that. Electricity, at that time, represented “enlightenment” ideas, in a certain sense.
Why is your film subtitled “A Women’s Picture”?
A lot of films were made at Vizcaya, including one called “Lessons of Love”, and another called “The Woman Game”. The narrator of my film is a young woman who became a photographer because of her great-great-aunt, a real person named Mattie Edwards Hewitt. Mattie Edwards Hewitt and her girlfriend, Frances Benjamin Johnston, were two of the most important photographers of wealthy people’s homes at that time. And they photographed Vizcaya. The whole film is told, in a certain sense, from their viewpoint. It’s called “A Women’s Picture” because it’s about these groups of women. It’s an anachronistic use of language, intended to call attention to itself in that sense. It’s not a picture of women, it’s not a picture by a woman, it’s not a picture by women—it’s all of those things.
You actually collaborated with a number of women.
Yes. The poet Rachel Zolf wrote the script for it. We went down there and did research together Her methodology is a kind of collage methodology, where she borrows from many sources and weaves them together, so the script is a deep interlacing of original language with quotations from Scheerbart, the feminist writer Luce Irigaray, letters by the designer and the robber baron who paid for the place, and writing from Frances Benjamin Johnston. The film’s editor, Jennifer Montgomery, is a well-known filmmaker who kindly agreed to collaborate with me. There’s a lot of her cinematic viewpoint within how the film is constructed as a kind of collage of images. And [the artist and photographer] Zoe Leonard agreed to be the voice of the narrator. For me, as a man, to take on the history of these two very interesting women photographers, it was important to me that it be a project in which these women would have a huge voice.
What do you think of Miami?
I had never been there before. I spent almost all my time at Vizcaya. As part of the project we went on some boat trips to look at both Miami and the exterior of Vizcaya. My main impression—and this is influenced by what I was looking at—Miami seems like a movie set to me.
Your most recent show in New York, at Andrea Rosen Gallery last spring, dealt with the idea of what you call “abstraction seen through the body”. What interests you in this place where abstract art and the body meet?
It has to do with the way in which the history of Modernism and art has unfolded, especially in the past hundred years. One thing is the sexism in how it has unfolded, the prejudices and, let’s say, fallacies and mistakes that run through the history of Modern art. An example of that would be the idea of universalism. The idea that a world designed in accordance with Modernist principles—an overarching vision depicted according to a Modernist sensibility—would be sufficient for everyone—to me it seems crystal clear that that is hugely problematic. I admire the hope for this idea of something that could be so utopian or perfect that it could apply to, or speak to, everyone. But in some sense what one learns from being alive is that people see things differently. The diversity viewpoint—subjectivity—is really what makes life worth living.
You are doing this unusual exhibition at two museums, the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and the Wexner Center in Ohio, displaying two aspects of your work. It’s very different from, and seems almost like an alternative to, the usual travelling mid-career retrospective.
It took three years of conversation and negotiation to make that happen. I was trying to respond to this problem that many artists face, while still relatively young, of the survey show. In my case I feel lucky that I was able to collaborate with these three curators and that they were willing to accommodate my desire and invent with me a way of approaching this problem. We identified two different sides to my work that are about two different questions. I feel lucky to have been able to work with this custom of the mid-career survey.
• The Light Club of Vizcaya: a Women’s Picture is being shown at the Vizcaya Museum & Gardens (until 18 March 2013)
Born: Boston, Massachusetts, 1966; lives and works in New York City
Education: 1988 Bachelor of fine arts, Rhode Island School of Design 1989–91 Apprenticed to master glassblowers Jan-Erik Ritzman and Sven-Åke Carlsson, Sweden 1992–97 Apprenticed to master glassblower Lino Tagliapietra, US/Switzerland
Represented by: Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
Selected exhibitions: 2007 The Alpine Cathedral and the City-Crown, installation, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden; “Projects 84”, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2009 ”A Space for an Island Universe”, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 2012 “Some Pictures of the Infinite”, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Current and future shows: The Light Club of Vizcaya: a Women’s Picture, Vizcaya Museum & Gardens (until 18 March 2013; vizcayamuseum.org); “Towards a Light Club”, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (27 January-7 April 2013; wexarts.org)
• For The Metal Party, a project put on by New York’s Public Art Fund in 2001, McElheny recreated a party organised in 1929 by students of the Bauhaus in Germany. Mimicking the original event’s reflecting costumes, McElheny provided visitors to his installation with reflective Mylar outfits he designed.
• To make the group of five large, starburst-like glass pieces illustrating the Big Bang theory that were on display at his 2012 exhibition at ICA Boston (his first US museum survey, it focused on the cosmological themes in his art), McElheny collaborated with David Weinberg, an astronomy professor at Ohio State University.
• Though his ICA show is over, McElheny’s work still has a prominent placement in the city, in the contemporary art wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism, 2007, is a display case filled with glass vessels, which, thanks to mirrored panelling, seem to go on forever.