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Portfolio: George Quasha 

click to enlarge George Quasha in the Baumgartner Gallery, Chelsea; photo by Sherry Williams
  • George Quasha in the Baumgartner Gallery, Chelsea; photo by Sherry Williams
George Quasha is something of a latter-day Renaissance man, with a wide-ranging list of accomplishments as a publisher, a poet, an artist, and an all-around inquiring mind. He moved to Barrytown in the early 1970s, when he was teaching at Bard College, ultimately enticing Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles to be there with him. Along with his wife, Susan, he founded Station Hill Press, which has specialized in publishing art, poetry, and philosophy, with titles ranging from presentations of work by performance artist Gary Hill to novels by French thinker Maurice Blanchot.
A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry in 1975, Quasha received a Guggenheim Fellowship just last year for his video project Art Is: Speaking Portraits (in the performative indicative), a series of short statements by almost 500 artists, poets, and composers (in seven countries and 17 languages), portions of which will appear in the Kingston Sculpture Biennial this summer.
Quasha’s recent work is the focus of the newly published book Axial Stones: An Art of Precarious Balance (North Atlantic Books), with a foreword by Carter Ratcliff. A selection of his recent projects will be on view in June at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz.
—Beth E. Wilson

George Quasha on his work:

Art is…
The idea of Art Is, the project I’ve been working on for four years now, is to film artists saying what art is, face-to-face, and to decontextualize them as much as possible, so that you’re looking at the person as the person. Not what are they wearing, what is their environment, or looking at their work. It’s really a series of speaking portraits, both portraits that speak and portraits of speaking. It’s the occasion of saying what art is (which no one can ultimately do). I just start out by saying to the person that this is kind of impossible to do, but it’s also impossible not to do it, because [if you’re an artist] you’re doing it in your mind all the time. It’s more about how the mind negotiates its claim to art than it is about art itself. I’m really interested in that situation where speaking is at the edge of the impossible, but it’s gripped by the passion of doing something from the inside. There’s a kind of panic in that question for [the artists], because if art didn’t exist, then what would they be? And what would be next for them in life? It puts things on a critical edge, and that’s what I find most interesting.

I don’t feel that art should persuade or seduce. I feel that art should be something very clean and clear in terms of what it is, and that it should attract on natural grounds. If people are attracted to the work, it shouldn’t be because you have some fancy argument about why it’s important. It should be because they really are getting it. I’m stuck with that view, I’m afraid. I know that in the postmodern context, it’s fashionable to create a situation that people have to make an effort to understand. I’m not against that; I just don’t do it.
Things are radically particular. Some things are radically new. Our education and our tendency of mind, our fear of instability, all don’t allow us to know how radically open a particular moment is, and how free we are in any given moment to let the world create itself. My one belief is that if we really could all be in that state of openness, where we honor the integrity of things, and the integrity of ourselves to start with, then we would all be where we are and we could allow the world to show us what it wants to be. We could ask, “What does Planet Earth want of us?,” instead of, “What do we want of it?” Greed and extreme wealth—to me it’s just bad thinking, it’s bad relationship, it’s bad poetics.

The poetry of dreams
Chie Hasagawa, an incredible Japanese artist—she was living with us here for 10 years. She’d been here a few years and one day she told me an incredible dream. I told her, “You’re a dreamer. Why haven’t you ever told me your dreams before?” The next day, she came and told me another one. So I said, “I’m going to write that down.” It became the first poem of the book. I said to her, “We’ve got a project here. I used to write my dreams down years ago, but this is much more interesting to me. You come tell me your dreams, and I will write them. You have to decide whether I’ve written your dream or not. Every word, everything in it, has to be your dream—no fancy poetry, no rhetoric, nothing extra. It has to be your dream, but it has to satisfy my sense of what language is.” So we had to work this compromise; it became a dialogue. We would sit for hours, sometimes into the night, and she’d say, “No that’s not it.” Or I’d get down a really great line and she’d say, “Yeah, I like that, but it’s not my dream.” Then I’d have to take it out. These are all poems that passed the test [in the book Ainu Dreams, Station Hill Press, 1999].

Inside the axial
Understanding it from the inside, the axial has to do with a certain kind of freedom of being. And bracket all those words, because it has to be open. It starts with a very physical understanding. I’ve done tai chi for years, I’ve done bodywork, and through that I’ve learned ways to move the body without forcing it, finding out what it can do. The primary understanding I’ve developed is that we are round, we’re not straight lines. We are flexible, fluid beings, and the body is always in motion. When we let that happen, that awareness starts to spread. When working with the stones, the first act was to ground this understanding in the body, getting visual cues from them, and then listening to the stones as I move them together, until a still point shows up. A still point is an alignment where this stone is completely released in alignment downward into the other stone, and it moves as though it’s weightless. That’s the still point where the axis is cleared, the axial moment. That’s very much like the moment in therapeutic bodywork when the person releases, breathing in a bigger way. If I hadn’t done it with human bodies first, I couldn’t have done it with the stones.
It’s easy to balance stones in a kind of clunky way, but if what you’re looking for is the furthest edge that they can go to, where they go beyond themselves, it’s the moment where they become something that is only possible because of this sensitive relationship that we’re all having. A willingness to be there, to let it happen. To me, that tells me a lot about what art is.

On poetics
I like to think of poetics in its original sense, which, in Greek, is simply “making.” [When I started working on my first book, America a Prophecy], a poetry anthology, back in 1973, I was interested in people who thought in language in such a way, that their language changed by the quality of the thought—there was the real poetics issue. That shows you how poetics works. Philosophy became indistinguishable from poetry at that point, and art that grew out of that perception would become a kind of poetics issue, how language and thinking extend into particular kinds of action, and have the same structure. I came into this by doing [William] Blake scholarship, and I came up with most of the methods and principles by trying to understand what Blake was doing.
I like walking into things where I don’t know anything, to just see if I can work by the principles of what my thinking is. It’s not like I know, but I’m aware that this is a possibility, so I go in there with an inquiring mind, not an “I am an authority” mind. If I go in there with an “I am an authority” mind, I would need a PhD in anthropology to teach it. If I go in with an inquiring mind, I’m just willing to ask the questions that need to be asked right now, and then I leave. It’s the Zen idea of “beginner’s mind,” keeping yourself open to the process.



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