A few months ago, a Qi Peng from Salt Lake City approached me about doing an interview via the 'Interweb' and being a democratic sort I consented. It was around this time in late February that my own art dealers actually asked me if I was Buck Naked, the artist behind How's My Dealing and the much loathed/loved Deathwatch. I mention that Buck Naked is artist in so far as s/he has said the blog will be auctioned off at some point. Good luck with that.
When Qi sent along his humorous and engaging interview questions, I ended up putting them off for a few weeks. They were going to be published in The Salt Lake City Examiner, which is actually just the local content for a website called examiner.com. I was concentrating on my solo show and promptly forgot about the questions. When I heard Qi was also interviewing Edward Winkleman, James Kalm, and Buck Naked I remembered the unanswered questions. At that point I became a little suspicious that whole thing might be a ruse to connect people commonly linked in some way by How's My Dealing and the minor controversy it caused last fall. I had a few beers and answered the questions aggressively and without a great deal of care. At the time I felt like I was about to step into a pile of shit.
After Qi published my interview along with the others, he also announced belatedly that they were part of an art project. This prompted even more questions about Qi Peng's motivations, considering that Buck Naked also declared that their blog was also an art project. I'm all for participatory art, but knowing whether you are answering questions for public knowledge or making someone else's art seems to be two very different things. Qi calls his interviews 'portraits', using language to render the subject. Qi also announced that the 'interview portraits' would be included in a self-published book detailing his exploits to become a 'conceptual artist'. Apparently, Qi arrived at this decision sometime in 2007.
The most brilliant thing Qi has done so far in his efforts to become a 'conceptual artist' has been to play on artists, dealers, and critics' desire for press and on some level their own vanity to see their name in print. While not everyone who participates in the interviews shares the latter motivation, it is important that many of the participants were unaware they were involved with anything other than journalism. By appealing to our ego and desire for recognition first as a journalist, Qi has been able to gain a wide audience within the portion of the art world with a significant web presence. It seems as if Qi's entire project grew out of intersections on How's My Dealing and spread viraly out through the blogosphere.
In the spring, I received a Facebook invitation for a show, We are Duchampions, at Envoy Enterprises. The invitation for the show included my photograph; one pulled from a Memorial Day Camping weekend in 2007 that a friend had tagged. I've still got the side burns from my fictional music career. People began to inquire if I was involved, which I wasn't. The image like everything Qi appropriates was pulled from the Internet. Qi, which is a pseudonym (his real name is Albert) has purposefully set about researching and documenting his progress from being an absolutely unknown artist in Salt Lake City to exhibiting in New York's Envoy gallery. This effort has included more than the interview process. He has also submitted his work to many well-known New York galleries and non-profits, as well as regional shows around the country. The resulting documentation is also included in the book and can be found on his flickr photo stream. He also began methodically documenting all of his financial transactions leading up to and during his trip to New York for the show. The constant stream of information prompted many people to 'silence' or defriend Qi on Facebook. They found it annoying without any context for the stream of data.
As the show approached I discovered not only was I on the invitation, Qi has also begun using my image from his series of art world baseball cards as his Twitter icon. Hrag Vartanian sent me a message wondering what exactly was going on. Knowing that Qi would be in the city for the show, I invited him over for a studio visit. I wanted to understand what the work was about and try to understand his intentions. He arrived early on the Saturday before his show, hanging out in the laundromat downstairs. When I showed up I met an eager young man in his early thirties. We talked for a hour or so in my dirty, cluttered studio while we exchanged ideas about participatory and critical art. I tried explaining that my work relied less on exhaustive research than my own subjective perception of the art world and that it's also a fictional narrative. I understand that a lot of people don't get that and (A) think I am the character, (B) think I might be the character, (C) worry for my safety/sanity, or (D) think I will eventually become the character. I'm okay with that kind uncertainty in my own art.
After talking with Qi for over an hour, I didn't feel that Qi had any sense of self-awareness of how he might be perceived by others and I wasn't getting a clear picture of what he was trying to do with the work. Qi seemed to be operating on two things, a passion for the recognition his interviews and art had brought him and a profound desire to meet all the people he had interviewed. He was bright and articulate with an analytical sense of humor, but he wasn't particularly critical of the art world itself. He seemed to be saying the right things, but I sensed he lacked any experience with the things he was talking about; a kind of knowledge without previous application.
I moved the conversation outside and went for a long walk to get my bicycle, which had a flat and needed to be repaired. Qi's intensity in the studio was a little unnerving, but I was also thoroughly hung over and unprepared for his utter sincerity amid the constant references to the ironies of contemporary art. I really don't consider myself a conceptual artist, but I really like ideas however bizarre. Anyway, after nearly 3 hours, Qi headed off to another visit leaving me with his 400+ page book and the vague sense that he was sort of like an alien who had learned everything about the language and culture of the people he was visiting by watching their television signals from space. Again, knowledge doesn't necessarily translate into comprehension without interaction and experience. Clearly, Qi had learned a great deal about his subject, the art world and it's players, but he had no experience of its inner workings or the people themselves. It made the social interaction a little awkward.
What I learned about Qi during the visit is that he moved to Salt Lake City from Queens a decade or so ago, and joined the Mormon Church to get into an art show. Apparently they are the only organized religion with their own juried art exhibit. He also mentioned he has worked as a computer programmer and has a background in chemistry. He indicated that he went to Yale for undergraduate work, though I don't think he studied art, maybe science. Qi also stated that he intended to make art about his conversion to Mormonism if he ever got into that exhibition or was picked up by a New York gallery. Otherwise, he seemed to have a lot of ideas and very little interest in the practice of making art. Qi's story is frankly so bizarre, I'm not sure if the person talking to me was revising his history in light of his decision to become Qi Peng, conceptual artist, or if it's just the kind of shit you can't make up.
The following week on a Tuesday, Qi presented all the documentation including his rejection letters (and his acceptance letter from Envoy) along with a series of prognostications, a fake obituary, and a wall drawing linking together his interview portraits. His book sat in a circle of yellow chairs, which Qi explained was a contemporary take on Stonehendge. As soon as I arrived, Qi began explaining everything in sight. While his enthusiasm was endearing, it quickly began to ruin any possibility of letting the art work have its own voice. It was simply drowned out by Qi's relentless explaining. This is a novice's mistake; the lack of confidence in the art to explain itself or retain its ambiguities for the audience to figure out.
At the show I also met artist Matt Jones, who has a similar, if not stranger account of a studio visit and art trade with Qi. Jones used to show with Jessica Buia Gallery before she fled town and declared bankruptcy. We have since spent some time discussing the oddness of our interactions with Qi and just how crazy his back story is. Critic James Kalm, bloggers Barry Hoggard and James Wagner (another interview subject unaware that it was anything more than journalism!), and artists John Coffelt, Jen Dalton, and Tom Sanford (both recently interviewed by Qi) all dropped to see the curious show.
The exhibition itself was part of Envoy's one day art exhibitions and Qi treated it very much like a temporary installation. He tapped/tacked his photocopied documents to the wall and connected them with sharpie wall drawings and works on paper. The few original works on paper included a flow chart/Monopoly game on how to assassinate Qi Peng and the complete exhibition history of Mixed Greens Gallery. I was surprised by the latter choice since Mixed Greens is a great gallery with little to complain about beyond maybe the J. Crew-like marketing of their editions (sorry Paige!), which they do to market art to younger, aspiring collectors. I love Mixed Greens, but perhaps Qi was focusing in on their marketing tactics, I don't know, but the choice to detail their inoffensive history mystified me. Anyway, the drawings themselves seemed inspired by Qi's stated influences; Mark Lombardi as well as Jen Dalton's flow-charts and graphs. I think my influence on his work included the fictional NY Times Obituary and some of the works anticipating future events. As a certain art writer likes to say "It looked like art."
His large scale installation of interviews, as Qi happily explained to everyone, was modeled on Mark Lombardi's obsessive and exhaustively researched global webs of high finance. Except here, the information that Qi labeled on the wall was obvious and failed to provide insight into the relationships between the subjects. The connections pointed out mundane things like "both make collage" and "both exhibited with so and so gallery." Having just made a large scale painting mapping out the art world myself, I could relate to the idea but not the execution or the content. In my opinion, the interviews are well worth reading if you want to know more about any of the subjects. He asks good questions, but I certainly thought that the connections in his wall drawing would have been more interesting just based on what he learned conducting the interviews. Qi's map could have been fascinating if he had just shown us all the Internet connections he found between the subjects; who is whose Facebook friend or which blogs connect them.
In the end, I felt felt that there seemed to be no real point-of-view behind the whole thing. Just a huge quantity of data about different subjects organized in a few disparate ways. Despite the artist's physical and very vocal presence in the gallery space, Qi Peng seemed absent or removed from the work itself. Even the obituary seemed contrived, outlining the passing of a character, not a person, because that would require some empathy for the character on the viewer's part. Qi Peng as a character is a sort of cipher or void that we aren't given any opportunity to develop a connection with. Without some unifying thesis or inquiry linking all the information, the show suffered from an ambiguity that goes far beyond who Qi Peng is, why I'm present in the work, or any of the artists he references. It doesn't make a case for its own existence or relevance as simply being so much information loosely contained in a montage format. Unlike the similarly disembodied Buck Naked, nothing Qi presented prompted visceral reactions from people like the Deathwatch evoked from Ed Winkleman. Instead Qi's work feels more like that of an obsessed fan, not a passionate critic.
Having been so closely associated with the show and having found so many potentially critical points of entry, I was a little disappointed with the exhibition. After all, I'm on his business cards, promotional materials, and twitter account in ways that ambiguously associate me with Qi Peng. I'm implicated in a project that shares similar themes as my work, but Qi's remains underdeveloped and lacking definiton, even as it continues to grow in quantity. Qi seems to have rules for everything he does, but he doesn't approach the level of commitment all of the artists he admires/competes with in producing the form for the art. There is no shortage of labor or effort, it just seems that it all went into the research and interviews as well as organizing all of it on flickr and in his book.
At this point, the concept is also unclear; which seems to be about representing the totality of the art world and reveal its social structure, but I'm not sure why. As with most conceptual art, this should be the strong point of Qi's work and not the form, but the main concept seems to be 'I want to become in important in the art world by meeting everyone in it.' By all accounts it seems to be going quite well for Qi, having created a growing network of artists, dealers, and critics who don't quite know what to make of the project(s) and are happy to be interviewed or see their face on a baseball card.
Having met Qi, I doubt he will stop and will continue to develop his body of work through the Internet and social networking sites until he has mapped every part of the art world he can gain access to. But by being implicated in the project, and having it suggested that it is my work, precludes me from writing an objective critique or simply saying nothing at all. I feel compelled to respond to work since someone might confuse it with my own. While I'm interested in uncertainty and complexity in work, as well as challenging authorship, this seems more about promoting art than creating it. Maybe it's incredibly selfish, but really, I'd like Qi's work to be about something more than trying to represent the entire 'Internet Artworld' if I'm implicated in its production.
I hope Qi finds the right form for his practice and figures out where he is in the work so that it feels like art (in addition to looking like art) and not be just so much information. I find it pretty comical that Qi sees himself as the 'art assassin', which is almost completely at odds with what he's doing. He's running the risk of becoming the 'art mascot' by lacking a critical edge to cut into the body of the art world he's exposing.
Finally Qi asked me to write a short introduction for his next book. I think he can pull something out of here for that, because I don't think it matters if I say yes or no. He can always attribute one to me as long as it's clear that there is an element of satire or parody in the work. While I encourage Qi's exploration and mapping of the art world visible from cyberspace, I also encourage him to discover his own voice within it and create a character that the audience can identify with. I think this will help Qi, or the artist behind the character, figure out how to filter all that information into something compelling, maybe even a Qi Peng that we really want to know. Then that obituary will resonate, even if it is fictional. We've certainly learned how much art world cares about it's most magnetic characters.