Albert Samreth On ‘Spirit’, His Work Ethic & Christopher Columbus’ Head

Yohann Koshy
Albert Samreth outside his show 'Spirit'. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Albert Samreth and I have been miscommunicating for months. I contacted him last year after watching e-Nough2(x)ist (DRAFT) on Vimeo. It’s a lurid and inquisitive short film – a riff on a conceptual link between immortal jellyfish and the R&B singer Aaliyah. It stayed with me. 

We tried to do an interview but he was busy working in the hinterland between North and South Korea. We tried again when he was on a train but the Wi-Fi signal was too weak. 6 months later, he contacted me from LA where he’s planning a show at a friend’s “apartment cum gallery”, ‘Spirit’.

The press release for ‘Spirit’ begins with a comment on a comment made by Seamus Heaney:

“When an interviewer asked how he knows a poem is finished, the poet Seamus Heaney responded with a precision I’ve never gotten over.
“What it leaves you and you leave it alone.”
I’ve learned, this is a good rule for everything, too.
Time wounds all heels. The heart is a muscle. The spirit is a bone”.

It goes onto detail what ‘Spirit’ consists of, and seemed like a good place to start our e-mail back-and-forth. 

Flyer for 'Spirit'

Canvas: You suggested that artists’ accompanying statements can be problematic – either too vague or too hagiographic. How has this affected your own statement for ‘Spirit’?
Albert Samreth:
I tend to treat press releases as another artwork in the show or at least another opportunity to make a work. When you found my film online a year ago, I was thinking about image production on a forensic level that may provide a deeper insight, revealing truth or the phenomenological 'spirit.' The text for Spirit participates in both these trajectories: it starts off with a poem and then goes on to describe the work.

What’s the relevancy of the Seamus Heaney exchange?
In some ways this exhibition turned into a break-up record. He's this poet I am not that into but what a great answer to a boringly impossible question. Learning to know when something is done, whether an artwork or a relationship, seemed appropriate or maybe coincidental to what was going on inside of my studio. I've been trying to get rid of some habits.

Break-up record?
The show is at my friends' Adi Rajkovic and Kaya Yusi's apartment – a sometimes gallery called Sunday. They have a lot of music shows, dinners, and art exhibitions. Adi and I decided to work on the show cos we thought they were going to get evicted. We wanted to address the ordinary difficulty of everyday living  that's how we ended up with that large painting with the words "THANK YOU FOR YOUR UNDERSTANDING" written on it. 

Image Courtesy of the Artist.

What else are you trying to accomplish with ‘Spirit’?
The universe works in mysterious, predictable ways. With this work I'm playing the material archive and drawing out the force that produces behavioural tendency in matter. People always talk about Marx's material dialectic and focus on the commodity or fetish factor. But bodies are things too. So, I'm just trying to get a more emotional and personal read on materiality. 

I'm producing these objects that directly address the life of pictures: their origins, trajectories, and their inability to persist except to change and procreate. In a way, an image deteriorating by getting collaged, appropriated, sampled or whatever into something else is the only way for it to survive. Hito Steyerl brings this up with her terms 'poor images' or people becoming 'things,' in order to circulate better.

Your name is sometime associated with ‘conceptualism’ – a term than in the popular discourse seems to have lost all meaning.
'Conceptualism' is important to me but I think because it’s a homonym for the generic term 'conceptual,' it gets tossed around inappropriately. We find similar phenomena in the way people use the words 'modern' or 'contemporary.' It's like saying your band is 'punk.'

An agave plant in which visitors carve the date of their first kiss at 'Spirit'. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

You’re a prolific artist. Is this relentless methodology important to you?
I am relentless because I am bad at working. I never finish anything and so I'm always working. It's a curse and maybe sort of a gift. But since I've been back in L.A., my friend and mentor, Brian Lee Hughes, has been very important in helping me understand how to wrap it up—he's a commercial film director. But he also runs a record label called Castleface with John Dwyer of The Oh Sees. He's always cutting new records. Every time I'm at his house, he's like, “Check it out, we just got this new record in!” 

I got really jealous of the way songs circulate because art doesn't. Most of my friends haven't seen or experienced the work I've made these past several years. Just the other night, my friend the photographer Nate Walton got me super hyped on bookmaking. He is obsessed with books and used to work at the bookstore I grew up going to in Long Beach, Acres of Books. RIP. Anyway, Nate has promised to himself to make five to ten books a year. So with the inspiration from these two friends, I'm addressing making things that have a life of their own. This is new for me and maybe it’s very naive, but for the first time ever, I am interested in producing material, letting it out into the world, and seeing what comes back. 

What’s next after ‘Spirit’?
I was walking along the Moscov River this summer when my friend Masha Kechaeva told me what turned out to be an urban myth. The story goes that the giant statue of Peter the Great we were starring at across the Vodootvodny Canal was actually Christopher Columbus. Apparently the sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, swapped heads after he tried to gift the original statue to the United States who then refused to accept the gift. Under those premises I'd began a hunt for that head. 

I was hoping to bring Columbus' decapitated head to the United States. After the curator Aram Moshayedi asked me to do research, I discovered the story I'd heard and most Moscovites believe wasn't entirely true. I ended up finding the original statue in Puerto Rico. It’s been there in a shipyard for the last quarter century, disassembled and rusting. I am still determined to bring the head over. We'll see what happens.

'Spirit' opens Saturday 21 March at Sunday, Los Angeles. Find out more here.

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