Cary Fagan rebuilds society one chair at a time
Cary Fagan, an artist until then known to many as the photographic eye behind some of the most prominent musical projects of recent years, has now turned to sculpture. More precisely, sculpting with chairs as an open commentary on race, objectification and spatiality. In this interview, writer Mia Imani addresses Fagan and assesses the impact of her evolving project “Chairs Are People”.
My first contact with Cary FaganHis work began with his iconic analog photography. Whether he’s photographing a celebrity, a model or a friend, I’ve always felt his works are memories distilled from intimacy – moments that invite the viewer to question our relationship with vulnerability, gender and the beauty of blacks.
In 2019, I ended up meeting the multidisciplinary artist while he was documenting Solange’s performance “Witness!” at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany. At the time, I was interested in activating architecture as a way to develop Black feminist utopian ideologies, and Fagan perfected his meditative and artistic practice, The chairs are people. The project is an on-site activation that includes Fagan neatly arranging the chairs on top of each other to create temporary sculptures. Working without a sketched plan, he shapes the room by following his intuition. The only external factors are the limits of space and of time itself. Her largest sculpture so far has been shown in a performance at the Asia Society in Houston, which included 40 chairs and lasted four hours.
We quickly found common ground by looking at inanimate objects to imagine a different reality for Blacks, Maroons and all the folx who feel left in the margins. Working with any material invites us to investigate our relationship with said object, but going further as a black artist brings another layer of complexity and responsibility. You have to unpack the relationship between darkness and objectivity – a subject that forces you to accept colonial practices. How can blacks treated and manipulated as objects regain their agency, while giving an object agency at the same time?
“A chair is a place of opportunity,” says Fagan. What potential could chair sculpture offer to individuals and communities who wish to rebuild their future by focusing on collective dreams? How would society relate to darkness if it was not isolated to intangible forms of creativity (dance, music) and broadened the definition of material beyond darkness as an object of productivity?
The chairs provided stability and possibility during a period of transition for Fagan. The stacking of chairs elevated a hobby into a healing ritual that began as a response to something most of us experienced before and during the pandemic: burnout.
Mia Imani: “What inspired the transition from analog photography to chair sculpture?”
Cary Fagan: “The transition actually came from exhaustion. Right away, I was in my old apartment and I asked myself: “Why am I still doing photography? I was talking about the industry, how they really spoil black people. There just isn’t a lot of room for growth, and that really touched me back then. Before I questioned myself, I was already into the anatomy of chairs, but it wasn’t something that was communicated to me as a practice, it was just admiration. Then I thought, ‘What if I start stacking chairs? What if I made it cool? I don’t know if people are doing this today. Then as soon as I said that, I started doing it, and it became a routine and became an act of rehearsal.
Although his work has been acclaimed by artists like A $ AP Rocky, Kanye west, and Solange, he still felt the underlying pressures of navigating the photography industry as a black man. Many factors have contributed to his unease: the uncertainty of sustained success, the under-representation of black talent behind and in front of the camera, and the gatekeepers who claim to diversify the industry to reproduce only systemic oppression against women. other black artists. However, visibility was not the only problem; although her work has been seen and celebrated, her voice has been overlooked in many aspects of her life. His choice to take an unconventional career path met initial resistance from his parents, although his father introduced him to the medium. Sitting with this discomfort, something he later incorporated into his artistic practice, Fagan surrendered to the unknown and adopted methods that gave him tranquility in the chaos. Self-cultivation through Taoist meditation pivoted him into a new medium where he had the power to shape his own existence.
The journey began with Fagan building temporary sculptures in the public spaces he passed through. Forms existed between disruption and self-documentation, where impermanent objects took up space in cafes, public squares and airports. Each location provided a platform to mark its presence – a way to make a statement without using words.
MID: “You have documented many chair sculptures that you have made around Houston and between your trips. Most of these spaces have unspoken regulations on how to occupy and move around the space. How did your pieces challenge these constructions?
CF: “It was considered a nuisance. I got into trouble a few times with security, just leaving carvings at airports. I made a series called “Temporary Sculptures”. I would go to airports on my travels and kind of left it as a signature. The sculptures do not make noise. They just sit in space, loud in their presence.
MID: “How does travel influence your practice?”
CF: “I was lost and I wanted to find myself. The only way I can find myself is to put myself in a place where I don’t know anything, or just not be familiar with my surroundings. I believe that Japan has definitely changed my life – I am able to feel a lot more, to be more transparent and to dig deep within myself to [find] a space of clarity and security. I think anyone can relate to that when they want to grow up, and sometimes that means leaving. I was too familiar with my house, didn’t want to be there and wanted to grow up. I said this when I was in Italy, when I lived there: “To grow up, you have to be uncomfortable.” When I said that, I missed my flight home on purpose and spent a lot of money. I knew that if I [went] at home I wouldn’t have found all these other things.
Fagan returned to Houston with a fresh mind and began to materialize ways to build something to bring these experiences back into their cultural landscape. Upon his return, his collection of personal chairs expanded (including around 30 chairs to this day, which he continues to use to explore the limits of his practice), as did the scope and context of his process. People began to relate his work to a line of conceptual sculptors who worked with chairs and other inanimate objects to expand archives, deal with socio-political injustice, and talk about making the impossible possible. He researched a Colombian artist Doris Salcedo (known to commemorate the absences of the poor in history), Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (who uses his pieces to highlight injustice), and the Austrian artist Erwin Wurm (known for his one-minute subversive sculptures). Each one helped him shape the way he wanted to interact with people by making the practice accessible and by becoming more intentional about the space.
MID: “I would love to know, especially as an emerging person in his practice, what would you like to learn? In what ways do you want to develop your art? “
CF: “I want to know more about my education and my history. I want to learn more on a large scale, at the level of Ai Weiwei and Doris, but the process is already teaching me to talk about my art now. I let it flow, but I listen to a lot more and I read. It helped me understand the work. Research. Studying. How can I draw these links in my work, how can I make my work impactful? How can I take it to the next level? How can I go further? “
He asked himself these questions by refining his goal using what he calls the test space, a response to Doris Salcedo’s idea that meaning found in intentional art might help us ask questions. difficult and try to find answers. If Salcedo saw art only as the questioner, Fagan sees spaces as the mediator. “I test the space for answers. It’s a test to want to be visible without using my voice, therefore to manipulate the space to be seen or heard, ”he says.
MID: “There are folx who have created chair sculptures in different capacities. It happened on different continents with different contexts, different scales. How do you think your particular practice is developing on the chair sculpture tradition as a black artist? What seat do you bring to the table? “
CF: “It’s getting bigger than me. What I’m doing is great, but I have a responsibility. The fact that I take this inanimate object, and I already have this impact. I now have the ability to tell a story. To tell my own story, with my voice. I have the ability to draw historical links, references to give people wisdom and knowledge of the past and the present. It’s an attempt to reach out and get you in. In this white world, they’re going to see it as something that I love to do. As black artists, we have a responsibility to tell a story at some point in our lives. “