Rumors, Ghosts, and Art: Talking with Jared Pappas-Kelley


Balancing cleverly between states, Jared Pappas-Kelley’s new book Solvent Form considers the destruction of art and our understanding of it, as it slips between various forms both in loss, physically and metaphorically within its own creation. Looking at objects that have been lost through fire or theft, the Momart warehouse fire of 2004 and the wonderful tale of Stéphane Breitwieser’s desire for beautiful artworks, Pappas-Kelley puts forth the concept of solvent with its dual meaning where art has the possibility to undo itself and question how we consider a work that is no longer here.

I spoke with Jared about his new book, the authenticity of the recent Banksy shredding at Sotheby’s, the Museum of Lost Art, as well as his interest in artists who have destroyed all of their early works (with a bit of riot grrrl thrown in).


The Rumpus: Your new book Solvent Form looks at art and destruction, both as a process and an act that has happened to it. What is it about destruction within the art world intrigues you?

Jared Pappas-Kelley: I actually grew up in places where a lot of these notions of the art world were viewed from afar. I grew up in the States around places like Olympia, Seattle, and Portland, so there was always a sense of making amazing things from nothing or without outside support or from the bones of existing artifacts, creating projects in abandoned buildings, and this has probably always informed my approach to art and making. A lot of this was influenced by music and band culture that was around and riot grrrl and DIY and I remember a bit of the culture shock when I was a kid and things like Heavens to Betsy started showing up in magazines like Artforum or people I had gone to school with were suddenly on TV. There was a sort of conceptual collapse for me that simultaneously popped the bubble but also made something new. There was always this sort of pulling one thing apart to create another, and this tension and displacement produced some of the best work, and this sort of vibrant process.

I remember hearing about one of Robert Irwin’s sculptures getting smashed by accident at an exhibition. Somebody walked out of the toilet or entered the gallery and just knocked it over and there’s something about those moments when things come apart. It is intriguing when theory lends itself to looking at these things and I am also attracted by how those forms of writing almost impersonate the structures or inhabits these ideas, the writing itself is the thing. That’s how a lot of this started.

Rumpus: Rumors, ghosts of lost objects, and ephemeral works and acts haunt your text, but if no one sees a work does it still exist? And what is it about this loss or lack that draws you to these works described in the book?

Pappas-Kelley: In a way art is all a big rumor or ghost story anyway I suppose, even if you just want to think of it in the function of portrait painting. It’s this hope that this object before us will continue even as the person it represents ages or has long since died. That is kind of its fascination, this disappearance that it allows us to see, and that is also what draws me to these more ephemeral projects or works that only remain as rumor. You could almost draw a thread to the de-materialization of the object in the 60s, but there is actually this sort of sidestep that takes place with all this work and that is the bit that kept catching my attention. With writing this book, it’s almost like you put all these missing pieces into a room or sitting around some sad little table, with the hope that something other will come to life in the process and show you something more about art.

Rumpus: Yes, I love those works that only exist as stories, those kinds of artworks that have an aura, but aren’t necessarily fixed to an object. Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” kept popping up in my head as I was reading your book. In our current age where everything is instagrammable and documented, Rachel Whiteread’s House is an odd example of a work that still has this presence/aura, but I’ve only ever experienced in reproduction from photographs or video documentation. You talk beautifully about this collapse and do it so the magic of artworks isn’t lost; how do you think her work managed to do this?

Pappas-Kelley: Whiteread’s pieces do a nice job of making something tactile but in almost the blankest manner possible and it allows it to hold all these other things that may or may not be directly related to it. But at the same time it’s almost like this doorstop. Actually, in talking about their exact remake of Emin’s tent after the Momart fire, the Chapman Brothers proposed:

It’s not really about Tracey, it is about making something which is so thoroughly recognisable and so fixed and so absent.

In a way, that quote could have just as easily been made about House. There’s also the richness of the story itself with the council wanting to pull it down and then you have all the counterbalance of the previous resident of the house Sid Gale, an elderly dock worker who had spent his life there and his reaction and outrage.

Rumpus: Jonathan Jones’s Museum of Lost Art also haunts the book. Freeport storage units where the uber rich house their collections with showrooms are on the rise, where works exist in these spaces that no one else gets to see, like private museums. It also reminded me of the film Children of Men where there is a Ministry of Art, hoarding all these classic works that survived the war, no one else bar the elite getting to see these works. What are your thoughts on these lost collections?

Pappas-Kelley: Something has changed about art and we are only now beginning to put our finger on it. Jones and his Museum of Lost Art is a great metaphor for a lot of this and with the rise of these almost off-shore storage compounds—these concentrated absence-zones more like the crypto currency mining farms you always hear about or like the servers for what we think of as cloud computing. They are incredibly resource intensive and influential but designed to be out of sight and disappeared or discreetly tucked away to prevent access behind a magic curtain. Most museums can no longer house their own collections on site and a large percentage of their operating costs must go just to paying those storage bills. But with these sites there is almost something Robbe-Grillet with the obsessive accumulation and sprawl that they hoard like a private culture bunker seen through a keyhole. That’s also why things like the Momart fire were so spectacular. One of the funny things about writing about the Momart fire, it’s this crystalline moment with really iconic images in the media of the fire brigades attempting to put out the flames as the Saatchi collection and YBAs went up in blazes and the images are everywhere… but there isn’t a single image of it in my book as the rights were too high. Like the storage spaces, it’s about access; I could write about it, but couldn’t afford to show it with all the other images. Instead I’m working with this textual proxy or stand-in. Actually if it hadn’t been for the Chapman Brothers and their generosity, there wouldn’t have been any images relating to the incident, which seems like this really big hole but also fits with the material itself.

Rumpus: That’s crazy about the images of the fire costing too much to use, but yes, their absence really fits in nicely. Museum collections hold these odd hidden histories of works that we never see, all the ins and outs as they move around or things that have happened to them add to their stories, Gardar Eide Einarsson recently put out a publication called Conservator’s Notes documenting a history of notes about damages to a selection of his works. A functioning document that then falls into being art in a way. At some point museums are going to end up looking like the last scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark: an endless storage space with copious notes. This is probably why there’s been a massive push to digitize collections so at least a version of a work is viewable, but then we’re back to the problem of how do fully experience a work? Or does that even matter now?

Pappas-Kelley: The Einarsson makes me think of a story my partner has about working in a museum years ago. They had some big Pollock on display and every so often a piece of the paint would just fall off because it was probably all done in house paint and never really designed to hold up. But it was somebody’s job to come in and collect the little bit of splatter that had fallen off and stick it back on exactly how it had appeared in photographs. In terms of how we experience work, you mentioned Instagram before and now people are conditioned to stage their images or even fake it, like pictures of drinking mai-tais on a beach somewhere but they are actually sitting in some lonely basement working overtime at a temp job, but in a way that is part of the experience at this point and it’s complicated.

Rumpus: Okay, we have to talk about Banksy and his Love Is in the Bin shedding stunt; I know you have written about this, but it’s maybe worth exploring a little more. I’m of two minds about the whole thing, as I find there’s a bit of the story that’s off. What’s your take on the whole thing?

Pappas-Kelley: Yes, I was recently asked by my publisher to write a bit about the incident. As far as art destruction I definitely would say it is a rather demure one and it’s pretty impressive and orchestrated how the proceedings went, but since the event more came out about how it actually kind of short-circuited and was meant to completely shred the work. It appeals to me more to know that it didn’t go completely to plan and I was trying to think about it in terms of pieces like Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, which also went a bit sideways in its undoing. That’s the bit that makes it feel a bit more vital, otherwise it all feels a bit staid like a nativity pageant. Also there are odd things like how the X-Acto blades were attached; they look cool like that but there were much better ways to do that.

Rumpus: I feel Tinguely was more honest in his approach. It was more dealing with speeding up the entropic nature of things rather than an amazing PR stunt. In one way it’s amazing; it’s the Banksy can get to returning to how he started out critiquing society, pulling one over on the rich collectors, but he’s also implicit in it. All it’s done is boost the price of his works and the people he was trying to critique haven’t really got it. Also the video of the shredder being installed back in 2006 looks like it was shot pretty recently… But then we’re back to stories and rumors, and, well, printing the myth is always better than the truth.

Pappas-Kelley: Are artists honest? Tinguely is more about life and the absurdity of how if you try to freeze it in time you kill it, which is also one of those tensions in art in general. The Banksy is more about staging and role rehearsals about art and demonstrating system complacency. It has a playfulness, but in a very rehearsed sense. Someone in my Instagram feed just posted a decorated pie they had made depicting the Banksy shredding—that probably means something? But with all the pre-planning and documentation and supposed backstory of the Banksy piece, it is digestible as an event but also not particularly spontaneous, but it creates an intriguing spectacle. Remember when Michael Jackson awkwardly kissed Lisa Marie Presley at some award show and says something like, “and they said our love would never last?”

Rumpus: Fischli and Weiss have said that “one of the most beautiful things is that last moment of balance where something is on the verge of collapse.” We seem obsessed as a culture with collapse, that car crash moment, from Kurt Cobain to Lindsay Lohan. Were there any works or areas of culture you wanted to explore that didn’t make it into the book?

Pappas-Kelley: That’s a good quote and I’d actually say that this moment of balance on the verge is the line where art actually resides and that in most instances we are almost always engaging with that line in some capacity. We tend to zoom in or out in the way we think about it in order to not see it, getting caught up in a sense of determinacy, like a coping mechanism. Played in reverse, Lohan firms and becomes a Disney Parent Trap and Cobain is just a nice kid from Aberdeen, their negative miracle. As you can tell, I’m a bit of a tangential writer, but there was a lot of other stuff that almost made it into the book and could become something else in future. One thread was about artists that destroyed all of their earlier work in order to make room for the artist they wanted to become, like Agnes Martin apparently destroyed all of her early stuff as did Louise Bourgeois, and Jenny Holzer’s early work was supposed to be rather painterly.

In Baudrillard there’s also an idea about the revenge of the crystal that was taken from Fatal Strategies where I was thinking of art as its pure object that exerts a sort of violence. There’s a line in The Magic Mountain: “What we call mourning for our dead is perhaps not so much grief at not being able to call them back as it is grief at not being able to want to do so.” Thomas Hirschhorn included a copy of the George Sand novel Laura: A Journey into the Crystal in his work, The Crystal of Resistance, and these ideas around the crystal in this sense influenced a lot of the later writing, but never actually made it into the book.

Rumpus: We need to start a rumor, so what’s next?

Pappas-Kelley: Sounds good, what do you have in mind? Any suggestions? I’ve been working on a collection of new manifestos by people like Santiago Sierra, Thomas Hirschhorn, Rebecca Brown, Jean-Luc Nancy, Simon Critchley, Geert Lovink, Lev Manovich, and a bunch of others but has been on the back-burner for a long time while I finished this book. I also have a project where I have been writing short insight readings of specific contemporary works of art that will form a collection almost like an oracle of these tight little vignettes. I also have a series of video/audio pieces I’ve worked on from cut-up bonsai tree tutorials from YouTube with the working title of Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu: the bonsai modes. I have a fantasy of releasing the audio on vinyl as a record.

Rumpus: Oh and a quick question to end, how would you sum up your book in one sentence?

Pappas-Kelley: Er, Solvent Form is a book for understanding art differently through art’s destruction as well as stories like Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights or the Sarah Winchester story. There’s a line in the book: “Beginning here it is hoped that through a similar strategy an understanding of the destruction of art might emerge, and that these investigations might likewise appear, little by little, as a series of bombs in the shape of a book for understanding something of destruction in art.” How’s that?

Rumpus: Perfect!


Photograph of Jared Pappas-Kelley © Ikuko Tsuchiya.

Jonathan Mayhew is an artist and occasional writer, he has recently shown at IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, The Butler Gallery, Ireland and Kristiansand Kunsthall in Norway, he is currently based between Ireland and Sweden. More from this author →