Garett Yahn

The following is our third interview pulled from the archives and early days of Temporary Land Bridge.
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Garett Yahn, My Mother at Work, installation and performance, 2011.

In mid-March [of 2011], I sat down with artists Daniel Cevallos, John C. Gonzalez, Garett Yahn, and Kirk Amaral Snow during their group graduate thesis show at Lufthansa Studios, an artist-run exhibition and studio space in Dorchester, MA.  As of the publishing of this interview, the four have now graduated from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston & Tufts University.  We discussed the collaborative process of putting together their exhibition at Lufthansa and each of their individual art practices and thesis projects. This is the third installment of our interviews.

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Garett Yahn (b. 1981, La Crosse, WI) earned his MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Tufts University (May 2011), where he was a recipient of the Springborn Fellowship.  He received his BFA in Printmaking and BA in Art Education from Viterbo University in La Crosse, WI (2005).  Selected exhibitions and performances include “8-Hour Projects” at Allegheny College (Meadville, PA), “Salon” at Bentley University (Waltham, MA), “Old Work/New Work” at Happy Collaborationists (Chicago, IL), “Slowness” at Howard Art Project (Boston, MA), and “Infr’action 2010” (Sète, France).  Yahn has attended the artist residencies ACRE in Stuben, WI and the Homestead AK situated in Sunshine, Alaska. 

Garett Yahn and Salon, 2011.

Andrea Evans:  So Garett, I think maybe it would be best if you could talk about the performance you did for the opening, and then describe what is here in the space still.

Garett Yahn:  The performance is a continuation of a series of works I have been doing for the last year, in which I have been collaborating with my parents on work about the intersections of my art practice and their work practices.  And so the piece that’s here in the show: I built a representation of my mom’s hair salon in the gallery.  She is a barber and hairstylist, and owns a salon in La Crosse, Wisconsin.   The piece is an installation, and is sort of sculptural in the way that it definitely differentiates itself from the architecture of the building, but it’s still very much on the wall.  There are a couple of mirrors, a barber chair, fluorescent lights, so that’s here…and that was here for the performance on the opening night.   My mom, dad, brother, and some of my other family were here, and my mom gave me a haircut during the opening, in front of a very large group of people.

There was a lot of energy and buildup.  My mom and family were around the piece as people were coming in, my mom in particular was standing next to the piece before the performance, and was nervous.  You could tell she was clearly preoccupied and distracted, worried about what was going to happen.  She was almost part of the installation at that point.  That charged the situation with a lot of energy.  Then the place got really full with a lot of people, and my mom and I said we were going to perform at 7:30, and at 7:30, I sat down, she put the cape around me, she put her smock on, and got to work.

As she got to work, everyone settled around us.  The crowd got quieter to the point where no one was talking, and I started asking my mom questions, first about her choices to become a cosmetologist and a barber, and then about how she went through schooling, apprenticeships, the jobs she took, and then about opening her own business, and eventually opening her own salon.  We spoke about that for 10-15 minutes while she cut my hair and people listened, and it was quiet.

We finished talking and she still had quite a bit of hair cutting left to do.  It was an interesting shift where we stopped talking and everyone else had already stopped talking.  She started cutting the back of my hair with the clippers, and there’s this really low hum.  She was tipping my head forward and cutting the back of my hair with the clippers, and it was a combination of the way the crowd had been hushed and the way we had been talking to each other, coupled with the hum of the motor and the way she was touching my head, and it ended up being this sort of warm, quiet, and really tender moment.  And that lasted for probably 5 or 10 minutes.  Then she started to finish and people started to talk a little bit.  The level of the crowd started to come back up as our actions started to finish up, and we all sort of finished at the same time.

Garett Yahn, My Mother at Work, installation and performance, 2011.

AE:  There’s something about the work you have been doing lately with your family that is really generous in a way.  We all have different relationships with our families, and a lot of times that is not put on display anywhere else than in private situations, at home, or when you are with your family.  I think especially for those of us who have moved away from home, and have started these other families or communities of friends, a lot of times those two things don’t necessarily overlap or collide.  I felt really privileged to witness this moment, and have this window into your relationship with your mother.  I thought that was really nice.

Another thing I was thinking about: I love the parallel between the fact that you are here at the end of your art studies, almost ready to get your MFA and finish your thesis exhibition, and looking ahead, and I can see as you are asking your mom all these questions about her work career, her chosen job, and how she came about doing it…I can see you thinking about these things, in the same way, making a sort of parallel.  Art is just like any other job, or any other choice you could make.  It just happens to be this.

GY:  Yeah.  I did a piece, another performance [Work History], like this with my dad about a year ago, where over a phone we talked about his work history as well.  So I’ve done projects like this.  I have been working with this for a while, but it definitely seemed really poignant and pertinent to the events scheduled.  It’s a thesis show; it’s a transitional moment.  It’s a rite of passage.  My family was going to be here to share in it, regardless, and it seemed…I guess what I’m trying to say is that I was aware of those things.  I was making work in an effort to capitalize on that situation.

Garett Yahn, Work History, performance at Mobius, Boston, 2010.

AE:  I think the haircut itself is interesting, thinking about it as a rite of passage; you get a haircut when you are ready to do something new, or freshen yourself up in preparation for something ahead, so it’s sort of a nice fact that your mom is a master barber and that this is something that you can tap into, the way these things all line up.

GY:  Absolutely, that was definitely part of it for me.  I wanted there to be a physical transformation coupled with the metaphorical transformation.  Another thing that I don’t think a lot of people picked up on was that my mom has been giving me that same haircut since day one.  This haircut I have now is the one Mom always gives me, and I can’t get it anywhere else.  I can get my hair cut other places, but no one cuts it like that.  So in a certain way, when we talk about “refreshing”, I feel like I got to be returned to this sort of Platonic version of myself.  You know, like this singular, absolute Garett.  There was a point when the haircut was ending, my mom was doing this thing where she’s cutting little bits, and brushing her hands through my hair, and she’s looking in the mirror, and I’m looking in the mirror, and we have this moment of recognition like, “That’s it, you got it.”  And I wondered if my peers, the people I share my life with here, picked up on that, because it’s not something you guys see.  When I get my hair cut, it’s in Wisconsin, and by the time I come back, it just looks regular again. Nobody else gets to see that sort of moment of perfection.  That’s what it ended up being, this moment of perfection.  That’s what was going through my head at the time of the performance.

Kirk Amaral Snow:  It was sort of hard.  It was very easy to miss a lot of the subtleties of the piece in the way the situation was.

GY:  But I don’t think there could have been a more ideal situation.  Yes, there were a lot of people, yes, it was noisy and sort of busy, but the actual intersections of all these different things were happening at that moment, and if they weren’t all happening at that moment, then the piece wouldn’t have been as productive.  It had to be picking up on this event; it had to be picking up on this crescendo period, this moment of coronation.

AE:  I think also just having other members of your family there was especially important.  I was standing where I could see you and your mom, and then your dad watching.  He was really present with what was going on, and that was really interesting.

GY:  That was something I imagined.  That was part of the conception of the piece from the very beginning.  That’s where the mirrors come in.  I wanted people to be able to watch through the mirror, I wanted my engagement with the audience to be through the mirror, and I wanted you to watch each other, and watch yourselves watching the piece, all as it went on.

Garett Yahn, Salon, installation, 2011.

But, I definitely thought about my dad and my brother in particular, but my dad more so because he’s emotional, and I knew that this piece was going to hit him pretty hard.  I knew that he would end up being a very big part of it.  It was really great to be able to give that to him.  You know, for him, and to my mom and my brother too, to put our family in this really privileged, honored spot.  My dad told me, seeing me in the chair like that, that it was like I was five years old again.  He was like, “It was crazy!  You were like this tiny little boy again.”  Isn’t that nuts?

AE:  I could definitely see aspects of this; I could imagine you, all throughout your life, in that same sort of position,

GY:  Yeah, every six months.

John C. Gonzalez:  You also had that photograph of you up there.  It sort of brought the project full circle for me.

GY:  The picture was of me, my brother, and my dad, building my mom’s first salon.  I was like 8.  Was I wearing Nintendo power sweatpants?

JG:  That was just a nice little image that transported us, that referred to the creation of this whole thing.

GY:  I have been tuned into that sort of, I’ll call it “transfiguration”: where you become something else, where you are hovering between two existences while you are performing.

KAS:  They call it the “liminal” space.

GY:  That happened when I was doing the performance at Mobius, where I was talking to my dad about his work history while I was shaving.  There was a group of people watching me perform who had never met my dad, but could hear my dad’s voice, and of course, when you are being told a story, your mind’s eye starts to create the story.  I was told this by more than one person, which was that when you are in the audience and you are hearing that story, and you are imagining someone doing all of these jobs that my dad did, you aren’t imagining my dad doing them, you are imagining me doing them, because you are looking at me.  It becomes my voice; I become him.  That happened again here, not in the way that I took my mom’s place, but in my age and my status, adult/child; I’m 30, but it became this big grey area in terms of what my status was.  That is something I will really be paying attention to as I go forward in performance work.

Garett Yahn, Work History, performance at Mobius, Boston, 2010.

AE:  That was another thing that I thought was really nice about the piece.  There is a way that your mom, her job, and your job, became sort of absorbed: there was this back and forth relationship.  I was thinking about the word that you used, Daniel, “absorbed”, in regards to the clothing being absorbed in your piece, and I was thinking about how in your piece [Garett], your mom’s profession is being absorbed into your profession, into your art making.  It is folded into what you are doing.  Then at the same time, your art making is being folded into her profession.   You are at the mercy of her action.  There was this really nice exchange of the two different modes.

Daniel Cevallos:  It’s not a regular haircut:  it’s an action charged with a lot of meaning.

KAS:  It’s weird, this thing keeps coming up is that there isn’t a lot of vocabulary to describe what you’ve done.  You try to make lots of comparisons with other things, but it’s actually pretty difficult to put words to what the piece is doing.

DC:  What do you think about the idea of “sentimental” being used in your work?  I think it’s brave of you, and sincere.  What do you think?

GY:  I think sentimentality tends to get a bad rap, right?  Not just because it is saccharine, or maybe too sweet or cute, but I think also people think it’s dangerous, politically.  You know, sentimentality is making grandeur of the past or something like that; things were already better before; it’s regressive or something.

AE:  Or that something that is sentimental can’t be critical at the same time.

DC:  Yeah, criticality feels a little weak when it comes to feelings.

KAS:  Well, criticality, in a sense, should always lose to it.

GY:  And I personally think in this particular piece, it clearly does.  And I think it’s because it’s hard to be cynical in a situation like that.

JG:  Well, I think cynical is easy.  Also, I think sentimental is putting the value of the work based on the inner circle of the members involved.  So I think that’s why it’s difficult.  It’s difficult to fit it into the larger framework of aesthetics.  How do we know what the value of these objects is? How do we know what the value of this performance is?  You can only judge it by their internal conversation.  So I think that’s why it’s difficult.  How do we know what these things mean?

GY:  How can you evaluate it?

JG:  That’s why “sentimental” is difficult I think.

AE:  So is it a problem to use words like “sentimental” around your work?

GY:  Well, I feel like that it might be a turnoff to someone who isn’t familiar with my work, who might read it, and think, “Oh, I’m not really into sentimental work.”

JG:  It’s like nostalgia.

KAS:  But I think I have to disagree with how you are using “sentimental”, John, because I think it actually works because more people can see themselves in that situation. It pulls upon something that gets maybe somewhat close to universal.  And people that are cynical maybe feel manipulated by that.

JG:  I guess when I think about “sentimental”, I think about how certain objects are sentimental, they have sentimental value, and that value is only reflected by the culture in which it is produced.  Without you and without your parents…it is a reflection of the culture where it is now.

KAS:  But I think that trait is inherent to a whole range of things that are also not sentimental.

GY:  John, I think your definition of sentimental is accurate but Kirk’s definition about the way the piece communicates is also accurate.  So maybe the word sentimental just isn’t the right word.

I have to say, that it is one of the overarching aims of my work, and not just my artwork, but in the work that surrounds my practice, in terms of teaching, Lufthansa, and all that stuff:  that I think our work is far more effective when it is embedded in a community, than when it tries to be everything to everyone.  I just think that is the high point to this piece; it’s for this, right here, and it worked.  That’s why maybe it can pull off the sentimental, because it works with this particular situation.  It uses the situation.  It’s hard for me to understand how this work could travel.  In a certain way, the whole hyper-contextual specificity sort of paints you into a corner.

AE:  Well, I imagine you would just do something different for different environments and places.  I think you have kind of done that already to some degree.  You are working within the same kind of trajectory, but looking at these little different ways of dealing with some of the same issues.  You know, the mediation of having a recording or your dad on the phone, that sort of thing speaks a lot about distance too. I think that’s something a lot of us could relate to as well: how we stay connected, even when we’re not in the same place.

Garett Yahn, Hairdresser, 2010, (Performance and remote collaboration between Yahn and his mother. Over the phone, Yahn’s mother coached him through giving himself a haircut).

DC:  This idea of being an artist: do you consider art to be like any other type of job?

GY:  I don’t consider it to be like any other job; it’s obviously different.  I think my project, not just this, but the overarching theme of the last couple years of work I have been doing, is more just exploring what those boundaries are, where the overlap is, and which places can we poke and prod to get some more answers?  To just make things a little better…

AE:  For artists?

GY:  For all of the above.  I mean, if you think about this piece in particular, and I write about this in my artist statement:  what does it do for my mom, to my mom, and her practice, when her work is considered in this kind of conversation?  And conversely, what does it do, what does it say, what does it ask, about our art practice, mine specifically, by relationship of proximity, when it’s considered in her terms, or in terms of work or in terms of the everyday?  And I think it says a lot.  I’m interested in the first one a lot, and I think that’s easier to talk about.  It’s really interesting, but it doesn’t need me to explain it.  I think that in a lot of ways that what is coming through in the performance is the artistry and care that my mom puts forth in her practice.   And I think when you see her work in that proximity, and you are observing it with the care that you are observing artwork in a gallery, it is clear to see that she is phenomenally skilled and her craft is polished; it’s impeccable.  I guess just to finish that thought, I think it’s interesting to note that it’s not just the sculptural, and it’s not just the craft or the aesthetic qualities that come through, but also the dialogical and the relational.  I think that’s also really potent in her work and work such as that.

AE:  Where there is an exchange between individuals and so on.

GY:  Absolutely.  She’s creating a very particular atmosphere; her work is very performative.  She has a dialogue that she has been building with certain clients for 30 years.  When I was talking to her about touch, and the way she was touching my head, how that had a big effect on people, she said, “You know, some people don’t like it when I touch them; with other people, touch is a big part of how I work with them.”  All that stuff is really potent when you consider it in terms of the art world.

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Garett Yahn, My Mother at Work, installation and performance, 2011.

But where the rubber really starts to hit the road is when you start to talk about our practice in relationship to hers.  And you start to realize that it’s really hard for an artist to fit as seamlessly and symbiotically within their local network as a place like hers does.  And I feel like that’s a goal of mine.  That’s a goal of mine not just because I’d like to be middle class, and I’d like to not have to be a fringe, romantic, crazy genius, mad scientist, or whatever people like to make their artists up to be…I’d like to just be a regular-ass dude who can make a powerful contribution to his community, but also because I think that, not just for me–those are my personal reasons for wanting to own a house, have a family, not have to be crazy–but also I feel like it’s going to be better for all of us.  It’s going to make our community stronger, it’s going to make us better, it’s going to make education systems better.  I feel like the gift of artists is to be able to give that critical eye, or that critical read to it’s public.  And if artists could be in store fronts, in the same kind of places that my mom is in, and we could be having that kind of exchange with people, just like we are doing now, in somebody’s neighborhood, I think that’s really positive.  I think in terms of work, and in terms of my work in relationship to my mom’s work, I hold that out as a goal.  That’s the idealist strain in my work.  I’d like to see that actually happen.  I don’t necessarily know that making this work is going to make that happen, but I think that investigation is what it’s about for me.  What do you guys think about that?

KAS:  I have this feeling that art, like any other field, has its own specificity.  But I think that sometimes artists need to treat it more like it’s a job and a normal vocation.  To get through stuff, to spend time with it, and really put in time, it is like a job.  You do punch a clock.  But there’s also this part of me that’s like, “Artists don’t retire.”  When you are an artist, you are usually an artist until you die.

GY:  It’s interesting though, who does retire?

KAS:  Yeah, less and less people retire these days.

JG:  Well, I think the other thing is being an artist is a career, but it is also a lifestyle.  But I think maybe more specifically, there is no such thing as the artist being removed from society.  We are part of everything else.  So why not highlight that, why not make that part of the piece?  The way that our things become meaningful, whether it’s sentimental, we are all producers.  The artist isn’t the only producer.  We are producing it together, and therefore we are just like everyone else.  There is no hierarchy or “This job is different than this job, or art is not a job, or art is a job.”

KAS:  In 300 years, this [pointing to a water bottle] is as much part of the visual culture as what we make.  And I think that’s something we sometimes lose perspective on.

The piece potentially becomes a representation of a value system, through what you did.  But I mean a value system more on the personal level.  I guess I had never really thought about it as having a representational quality.  What you did is forever present to me, and I‘ve never really stepped back and thought that something within that has a representational value, something beyond immediate presence.

GY:  Do you mean being referential to my mom’s salon?

KAS:  No, I mean, the fact that you did an action that was anything but that encounter with the action.  I think I’ve focused a lot on what happened and what I see, and not necessarily that what I saw was representational of something else.  I don’t know, I focus more on the live, and I think it’s interesting, because I think a lot about the representational with my stuff, but I never really thought about it with what you do.

GY:  That’s really interesting to me.  So if it’s representational, what does it represent?

KAS:  I’m thinking maybe it’s representational of a certain value system, the value system that you are putting out into the world, through the action.  There are these things, we’ll call it a politic, that you learned either positively or negatively from your folks, and you are putting it out into the world in these pieces.  And it is a representation of that politic.

GY:  That’s totally absolutely right on.

KAS:  It’s interesting, because, when I think about you a lot, though I don’t think of you as someone who prescribes to a political party or ideology, you’ve very much politicized yourself in a very active way.  You make very personal choices that I think you would hope other people would model.  And I think you are actually pretty interested in what you do and how you live your life as a very natural model for other people.  I think we’ve talked about this with other people’s work in the past:  if you don’t just live it, and live it in a natural way, and embody it in a natural way, if it becomes didactic, or big and overblown, it doesn’t work.  It becomes something people want to react against.

GY:  That’s really great that you think the work can do that.  That the work can pick that up and fan that out.  Maybe that’s the thing Diane [O’Donoghue] was trying to get me to figure out between the book and the performance: what the connection was.

AE:  Do you want to say something about the book?

GY:  The book is sort of hard for me to talk about, now I’m going to be trying to talk about it in terms of this new information I’ve just gotten.

Garett Yahn, Real Estate Opportunities, Fields Corner, self-published book, 7 1/16″ x 5 5/8″ x 3/16″, 2011.

Well, I’m a big Ed Ruscha fan, and in his books, he does this thing that is just so excellent.  It’s one of my favorite art tricks.  He’s tuned in to some frequency that allows him to see these pivotal moments.  He’s famous for doing it with words.  He can just take a word and flip it over, and as soon as you flip this certain thing over, it’s like a hidden wall in a room.  Like you walk through and “Boom!”–this entire new world opens up.  I really love how he is able to do that.  So I’m really stoked about his work, and I’m also really interested in him, because he’s from Oklahoma, which is considered part of the Midwest, and he moved to the West Coast, something I also did.  And a lot of his work, and a lot of his books, Twentysix Gasoline Stations [1962], Colored People [1972], are about his trips back and forth between Oklahoma and LA, and also his impressions of what it is like to be in this new place.  It’s a very classic American, manifest destiny, “Go west young man!” kind of thing.  I relate to that having been from the Midwest, having left, going to California, and coming back out here [to Boston].  Even though it’s east, it’s still like moving to the city.  Then, even more specifically, moving to Dorchester…it certainly has a manifest destiny kind of flavor to it.  We’re all packing up, going to this undiscovered art frontier of Boston.

KAS:  The thing that was undiscovered all along.

GY:  Exactly.  So it made sense to make a book called Real Estate Opportunities; he made a book called Real Estate Opportunities [1970], that classic Ruscha thing where “real estate opportunities” was like this humorous and sad, really loaded phrase.  When you start looking at the images, and you’ve got that phrase in your mind, all this shit just unfolds in front of you.  So I was trying to capitalize on that, and also capitalize on his relationship to minimalism, the way he sort of unpacked and repacked minimalism in his books.   Also, the way he was sort of a precursor, but also a parallel story, to the New York conceptualists at the time, who I feel like all had a political agenda.  His was more of this West Coast rye thing, and theirs was of course a lot more dogmatic and manifesto kind of style, but I feel like that’s what they represent to me.  And that’s what the object, especially the white book with black and white photos, that’s the kind of art object it is.  It has that kind of politic wrapped in it, even though my politics are quite a bit different than his, and even than the conceptualists, who I feel like were in a lot of ways almost apolitical, where they wanted to not be implicated.  Theirs’ was more like a radical art gesture.  I feel like this is super implicating of me as an artist: to make a book like that.

Garett Yahn, Real Estate Opportunties, Fields Corner (inside detail), self-published book, 7 1/16″ x 5 5/8″ x 3/16″, 2011.

AE:  Well, it’s also like super pertinent to what’s happening today with the economy.

GY:  Precisely, so it’s more of a deliberate thing; it’s not quite as clean as they were.   But I definitely wanted to make the book.  I wanted to use the same format and be able to piggyback off of that work, to immediately put this work in that category.

KAS:  Think about what you just said about the economy and what its forcing people to do.  It’s sort of forcing people to rediscover America.  The fact that we are even here [in Dorchester].   We might not have even had to think about being here 3 years ago.

GY:  Absolutely.  But it’s kind of exciting in a lot of ways, like Detroit obviously, maybe to a lesser extent, Columbus, Ohio, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh…it’s kind of exciting.  It’s kind of like what I was talking about with my mom’s salon, and the possibilities for art to actually be embedded in a community.  It actually feels like, “Thank God we don’t have to move to fucking New York!  Thank God we don’t have to move to LA!”  Thank God we actually might be able to get a house that has a yard.  Maybe.  We don’t have to eat Chinese takeout.

So anyways, the book is a pretty clear call for collaborators.

Yahn’s book “Real Estate Opportunities, Fields Corner” is available for purchase;  contact garettyahn [at] gmail [dot] com

For more information: 

This interview transcript has been edited for length and content.

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