Jennifer Otis: Beyond 9-11
On the dark side of September 11th there is a plum. A stoneware plum (or group of plum-shaded stoneware ovals, to be more exact) which was created by Jennifer Otis for an exhibition called Beyond 9-11.
12 September 2003
Beyond 9-11 looked at how artists were responding to the destruction of the World Trade Centre. Not an easy thing to do. Jennifer's stoneware plum-arrangement is just one of many responses, but the only one to take a specifically plum-form:
Go here to see Jennifer's contribution to the exhibition in full. Jennifer kindly agreed to tell us about the exhibition, about how September 11th affected her, and about what makes her angry about living in America...
> Do you feel a responsibility, as an artist, to respond to the events of September 11?
Personally, no. Too often, making work about a specific event or problem often perpetuates the problem. However, my next project may respond to recent political events in our own country. I have been obsessed with the idea that Bush and the Republicans are taking our country in the wrong direction. This obsession needs to be processed through art making, I'm afraid. Not because I feel responsible. Because I feel inspired.
> How do you feel the United States, as a nation, has responded to the attack?
Our nation has responded in a very immature and damaging way, both domestically and internationally. It is a crying shame. I listened to Senator Joe Biden give a speech yesterday on the radio... he summed it up when he said the Bush administration failed our nation when it acted irresponsibly following the events of 9-11. Instead of taking that moment and assessing our nation and making steps that might be good for our country and the world (such as weaning ourselves from dependency on oil, for one....) Bush and his administration stuck with their ideological agenda to the detriment of our country and the world. In my opinion, the Bush administration has used 9-11 to further their agenda at every turn possible. It is so blatant. I hope the ratings of Bush continue to fall and he loses in the next election. This is my hope - that people will wake up and start to pay attention and vote him out of office. I'm not optimistic about this, but it could happen.
> Where were you when the towers went down?
Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City, Iowa. Here's what I recall: I was taking a computer course (8 am-noon) at our local community college. There were only a handful of people enrolled in the course and the instructor was a rather slow, middle aged man who would only break out of his monotone voice when he found himself on a tangent that had something to do with his personal interest in computer games. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, the class took our usual mid-morning break. It must have been around 9:30 or so. In the lobby outside the class room, an unusually large crowd of people were gathered around a television set. "Have you heard what happened?" The seriousness of the events started to create different responses in people - one woman had a daughter in New York and she began to panic as her cell phone couldn't get through. Another older man was in the national guard and he began to speak up after the Pentagon was struck by the third plane. (I don't remember what he said, but he was the only one who felt like talking...)
This was where I found myself the morning of September 11th - among mostly strangers in the context of a community college in my home town in south-eastern Iowa. The strangest moment for me personally was when the instructor of my computer class rounded up his five students and suggested that it was now time for us to return to class. Our morning break had gone on longer than usual - it was now time for us to continue with our lesson in web design. I followed him to our classroom, sat down at my computer, and ignored the idiotic lesson he was trying to conduct. Instead, I logged onto the internet and started to search the news web sites. I remember going to CNN, then the BBC and finally to the Salon site. The Salon opening page showed an image of a young boy in the middle east (I forgot which country) celebrating / cheering upon hearing the news that the twin towers were struck and had fallen. This specific image and short news story was unexpected and somewhat shocking.
> Do you think they should release the recordings of the calls made by people trapped in the towers?
The public demand for shocking material and the media's willingness to comply are out of control. I try to ignore the whole thing.
> How much, if at all, have you been affected by Sept 11th?
This is difficult (if not impossible) to measure. Sept 11 begat a slew of domestic and international policies that are affecting the US, the world, and my life within this context. I'm planning a fall visit to see a friend at the "talking drum school" in the woods of northern Wisconsin. I will learn about the benefits of bear fat and see what the community is like.... I'm curious to see what people talk about, what they think about, what they do. If I like it, maybe I'll eventually move there and join them. I doubt it, but I'm keeping my options open.
> How did you get involved in the 'Beyond 9-11' exhibition?
I learned about the project at the same time I became aware of the organizer, Jane Robinette, and another web site she had developed featuring Iowa Women Artists. The call for entries for 'Beyond 9-11' was posted at various art venues throughout Iowa. The concept was appealing and had a lot of potential -- artists talking about their work and their responses to 9-11... The country was flooded with so many different manifestations of patriotism, I guess I hoped this would be different in some way. Offer an alternative perspective and voice.
> Was it a success?
I don't know. You might need to ask Jane Robinette. It was her concept.
As a participant, I didn't think in terms of success or failure. I just participated and then let it go.
> When did you first think of yourself as "an artist?"
Age five, or about the time when adults start asking: "what do you want to be when you grow up." My standard response was always: "an artist."
> Is becoming an artist a life choice you have regretted at any point?
No. Regretting is not quite accurate.
Stressed out, yes. With regret? No.
> What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Finding inspiration in the unexpected. Having new ideas for projects and having the time and space to develop these ideas. And, of course, creating the work.
> Name a favourite piece of art.
My latest favourite is the living water garden in Chengdu, China - a collaborative project I heard about through Betsy Damon. I've never seen the real thing. And in my own neighbourhood, I love the tile mural on the outside of the resource centre for the Americas on Minnehaha Ave. south of lake street. At first I wasn't so impressed. But having lived around it for a year it has become one of my favourite works of art.
> What - in 60 words or less - is the role of art in the world?
> Have you made any "shocking" art?
Sure. When I was younger I was somewhat attracted to work where the intent (at least in part) was to shock. I made any number or pieces that centered on some sort of cultural taboo in an effort to provoke the viewer. I thought Kiki Smith was right on.... In the end, real life is infinitely more shocking than art can ever be. My opinion: most "shocking" art work is an exercise in futility - and artists who do so without shame are often shallow and an embarrassment to a culture.
> Do you think the concept of "craft" has fallen away from art for good?
Yesterday, I heard Senator Joe Biden (Delaware) say (I'm paraphrasing): "You cannot allow strict adherence to ideology trump reality." He was speaking about the Bush administration, of course - but the statement also applies to ideologies that have been constructed around the concepts of "art" and "craft". The REALITY (in my opinion) is that there is no fundamental division between art and craft and daily life. I could go on... but the whole debate can be complicated and tedious and I'm not in the mood to elaborate right now.
> What piece by a pupil have you been most impressed by?
What impressed me most was a series of pieces created by a Hmong woman in one of my classes. First, she created a "self portrait" in which she depicted herself as a large cartoon frog. Then she created a brilliant small plate with exquisite painting that referenced something she saw in a book... The plate was simple and timeless. The frog was just the opposite. What impressed me was their juxtaposition...
> When is the last time you were furious?
Furious? Who is keeping track? Recent memories of being furious include but are not limited to the following: when I listen to the news on the radio and I hear George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld, I am often enraged; when I first heard about the "50 Most Wanted" deck of cards I was furious. I became less furious when I learned about this alternative deck of cards on the market:
When I learned about the GW Bush action figure, I was annoyed but not furious. When Senator Coleman won the election in Minnesota replacing the late Paul Wellstone, I was at times depressed, at times furious. When I read about the Hmong immigration to the US and our government's "secret war" I was disgusted and furious.
> Do you do portraits?
Usually, no. Strange that you should ask, though. My latest idea is based on portraits. Here is the idea: put out a call (fliers, advertisement, word of mouth) asking for volunteers - people who are interested in having me create a portrait of them. The goal: to do a portrait of 50 people - one person from each state. 50 people, 50 states, all currently living in the twin cities metro area. They will sit for me for three hours so I can sculpt their face (perhaps entire body, the idea is rather vague). While I sculpt and replicate their basic physical features, I will also be having a conversation with them. They will be telling me why and how they identify with what they consider to be their "home state."
I will include details from our conversation in the portrait. Everything will be rather informal and organic.I can imagine the final result...50 idiosyncratic portraits assembled together in no particular order. Like a crowd of people gathered around waiting for something that hasn't started yet. My working title for this project is: "Are We Represented?"
> Where were you born?
University of Iowa hospitals. Iowa City, Iowa. USA. I was conceived in Kansas City, Missouri, right around the MLK Jr's assassination and subsequent riots, 1968.
> Who was your first 'best friend'? - and are you still in touch?
My first best friend was Sheri Batterman. We met when my family moved from Andrew's Airforce Base to Iowa City. Sheri ran across the street to meet our family the day we moved into our new house. I remember we stood in our front yard on a summer evening as the adults were talking -- Sheri and I watched as a locust slowly climbed up the trunk of an old elm tree. Later that evening, the locust started to emerge from its shell, to our amazement.
> What is your favourite memory of snow?
All of them include cross country skiing along wooded trails and coming to an open area that is a frozen lake.
> How far is too far?
Depends on your stamina, your goal, and the available supply of potable water.
> What is the most beautiful building you live near?
There is a building on the Minnesota University campus that has native prairie plants on its roof. It is strikingly beautiful in all seasons. I have never been inside.
> What is your ambition for the next year?
I have several.
> What is your favourite comfort-food, and how exactly do you prepare it?
Decent cheese, good olives, crackers, along with tomatoes and cucumbers and grapes from the garden. Prepare thus: pick vegetables and fruit from the garden. Wash. Walk to the seward coop and purchase items. Walk home. Slice cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers. Salt veggies. Set all the items on plates. Open a bottle of wine. Turn on the radio. Consume with a good friend on the front porch with the windows open.
> Should they have executed Paul Hill, the abortionist killer?
No. I am an opponent of the death penalty. I think it is barbaric. The whole series of events in the Paul Hill case is a perfect example of everything that is absurd about our country. We are a very intolerant and self righteous nation. It is all so disgusting.
> Tell us something about your feet.
What can be said about my feet? I'm pleased to say that my feet are perfectly fine.
> Have you ever been to Peru?
No, I have never been to Peru. An aside: I recently read that only 14 percent of people in the US have ever applied for a passport. I think I saw that in Harper's magazine.
> What makes you cry?
I could say Amalia Rodriques -- "Primavera" ...that woman gets me every time. Or when my beloved and aging grandmother gave me a she box of family photos and said, "I want you to have these, I have enjoyed them over the years, but I won't be needing them any more." That was a real killer. Wouldn't you have cried?
Jennifer Otis is a lecturer at the College of St Catherine.