Oliver Herring didn’t have a clue what he’d create, or with whom, when the Brooklyn-based artist arrived at the University of Colorado Denver’s Emmanuel Gallery a month ago to build a site-specific installation with complete strangers. But then, the rail-thin, articulate and intensely focused German-born Herring rarely does when he takes on a community-based art project, and he takes on a lot of them: “I have even been called a post-studio artist, but that’s just circumstantial,” he says, pointing to his exhaustive years on the road facilitating gallery collaborations internationally.
Through an unfolding process alive with personalities and chance-taking, Herring's collaborative work in Denver eventually became the exhibition 31 Days, which opens today, September 18.
Herring begins each residency with “no preconceptions or safety net,” he says, in a process loosely based on the TASK curriculum he invented. Now adopted by galleries and art-school classrooms around the world, TASK asks people to share and follow instructions that often seem absurd, sometimes in a performative way. “It’s a credit to galleries willing to engage in such an adventure — it’s a real act of trust,” Herring notes.
At Emmanuel, things were no different. “This is the way I work in this situation,” he explains. “I build an infrastructure so I have the freedom to be flexible and work with people who cross my path and are sucked into the vortex.”
To create an installation out of thin air, he had to “hit the ground running,” Herring explains. In Denver, that meant going through an introductory process of meet-and-greet sessions to build lists of people interested in joining him in the participatory process of art-making. In the end, he says, “it was really down to the ones who actually showed up.”
The open invitation attracted student groups, whole classes and random people simply interested in helping. Herring then took time to work with people individually, getting to know who they were and what kinds of tasks they were capable of handling in mental, physical and creative terms.
“I have conversations with the people who show up, and I ask them what’s on their minds,” Herring says. “Some of it is predictable issues: the generational lack of trust, a lack of connection — before we can reach the feeling of true intimacy. It’s almost therapeutic.”
During the interviews, Herring, whose multimedia practice melds photography, video, textiles and performance, settled on the idea of creating a site-specific, two-sided quilt to pull together the growing feeling of common experience developing in the gallery space. “I’m not a fan of metaphors,” he admits, but he began to imagine a framework of enlarged portraits on cloth, which would be stitched together into a monumental two-sided curtain as an overarching symbol of shared time within a shifting group of people.
This led to performative photo shoots with participating students, who were dressed and made up in various scenarios: perhaps smeared in earth or clay, or with hair dribbled in baby oil and glitter, caught in an embrace or in uncomfortable poses. “Once I get a sense of who a person is, it serves a dual function,” Herring says. “Once I understand someone’s mental, emotional framework, that catapults me out of the fray of deadlines and stress. It becomes so real, so present, and intensity sets the stage.”
The enlarged portraits were printed on large cloth rectangles, and some of them have been further embellished with a scattering of sparkling Swarovski crystals to catch the gallery’s beautiful light. Herring, who’d been avoiding the daily news as a source of unnecessary stress and distraction, ended up incorporating headlines into the quilt’s structure as well.
Herring also latched onto the idea of incorporating dance — something he’s worked with before — into the exhibition equation, challenging non-dancers to take part in what’s basically an act of faith. Herring’s choreography is equally unschooled. “I come at this without any history to aspire to, and people donate their bodies, their time and probably their dignity into this,” he says with a smile. Herring captured the dancers on film, with plans to have the scenes projected across the quilt, which is diagonally hung across the gallery space.
Herring, who was influenced by the art/dance collaborations of Merce Cunningham, says this of his awkward, unschooled dances: “Performance is another way to engage curiosity.” As for the use of dance elements, he adds: “If you come at it from a non-dancer perspective, it’s almost something akin to sculpture — as something made of individual still lifes or tableaus.
“I started using dance ten years ago as means to an end,” he continues. “It pushes people out of their comfort zone. You’re too busy thinking about not tripping over yourself. But when non-dancers do movements akin to ballet, they internalize what dance does structurally — they relate that to their own experience. Really, it’s anti-dance.”
In real time, 31 Days is poignant as a documentation of gestalt, a trust-based creative process played out in a certain place and time. But Herring hopes that the installation’s life as an artifact encapsulating real people will have just as much meaning in a completely different setting.
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“I want this piece to still mean something twenty years from now in China,” he opines. “The quilt will go back to the studio and could have new lives. Imagine if you saw this twenty years from now in a museum: How would you want to be portrayed? It ends up looking backward as well as forward; it captures a moment of youth that you can never get back.
“We created a family,” Herring concludes. “It’s lovely, such an intimate way of getting to know each other.”
Oliver Herring: 31 Days opens at 5 p.m. Wednesday, September 18, and runs through December 14 at the Emmanuel Gallery, 1205 10th Street Plaza on the Auraria campus. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.weekdays.
Learn more about Oliver Herring and his work online.