Can art or culture be separated from the place in which it was created or conceived? Personally, I have yet to experience art, music, writing, or anything related, that can be. Having worked for art museums my whole adult career, I’ve come to learn and think critically about the way artists operate from a secondhand perspective. When I look at works, I put myself in the artist’s seat, wherever that may be.
Place can be “personal or abstract,” according to Matthew Barney, or it can “exist in the imagination,” says Tao Lin. Whether you are conscious of it or not, place is a necessary part of any practice. Stop and think about where you are right now. How are you conforming to a specific set of social rules in this room, city, country? For inspiration, start there.
The starting point for me has always been place. There have been, at this point, many places that I have used as primary sites for the work, many of them outside of this country. Although, I would say that the pieces that I feel closest to take place in the United States, simply to do with my familiarity with the place, and being able to engage with it both personally and abstractly. That said, I think sometimes it’s a relief to deal more objectively with a place, and engage with it just as deeply, but not necessarily on a personal level.
I grew up in Los Angeles and Venice around the old Semina Culture movement artists and Beat poets and Jack Hirschman and Michael McClure and Amiri Baraka and Diane di Prima and Wanda Coleman, who’s an incredible poet from Los Angeles who passed away last year. That was an endemic experience for me. With or without people’s critique, or with or without people’s opinion, that was a part of my life.
In the past few years I’ve become increasingly interested in the idea that “the imagination” is a place that is realer and larger than the universe.
I get tremendous energy from just being here and speaking in my own language and seeing the culture develop here. I love the history here and the all of the great thinkers who have come from Russia and the art and the amazing churches. It all gives me power and gives me strength. This is my home. If I want to change things here then I should be here.
I find a home in feeling. I feel at home in feeling. When I collaborate or talk with my friends, the place doesn’t matter. We could be on Mars and it would feel like home, because I feel free. I can be myself. I can be uber-queer, uber-strange, and we can be uber-curious with one another. That’s comforting. Perhaps it’s even harder to protect a home that doesn’t exist in a physical space, because we have to continually tend to this abstract feeling: “How do I create the parameters in which I am safe enough to be free amongst my peers?”
My whole artistic life has been in New York City—the past 11 years—and I learned that one has to work. Competition is a patriarchal structure that privileges conquest. The most pivotal thing for me as an artist was to be able to say “no” to those structures in order to say “yes” to the structures I want to create. That’s why it’s so scary.
I lived in Japan for five years, and living in Japan you see people around you trying to master something. There it’s more common to see people devote their life to a particular trade or craft. Living in Japan I remember thinking to myself, “What is one thing that I could master? That will become mine and will become something that I could own and something that is recognizably me?” And I thought, “Well, the most simple place that I could start would be a line. So if I can practice and master a line and make this line look like me, then that is me kind of achieving something in this life.”
And, you know, fast forward eight years, 10 years, and you can look at some of my lines and be like “Oh, that’s Shantell Martin.” It could be words or it could be lines, but it’s highly recognizable in that sense.
Samantha Ayson is currently the Marketing + Communications Manager for The Main Museum, a new institution focused on supporting the art and artists of Los Angeles. She was formerly the Marketing Manager for The Broad, where her main project was being part of the team that helped found and open the new contemporary art museum in 2015. She’s Filipino-American and in her free time, reps asian mamas working in the arts, a coalition of women who organize for the representation of Asians through programming and political actions. Find her @ayayaysam on Instagram.