Audemars Piguet Art Commission 2017: An Interview with Lars Jan

by Carla Ingrasciotta
November 1, 2017
Carla Ingrasciotta

LA-based, American artist Lars Jan has been selected for the 3rd Audemars Piguet Art Commission to present a major new artwork curated by Kathleen Forde during Art Basel in Miami Beach in December 2017: Slow-Moving Luminaries”.
Jan is a designer, activist, photographer, director, writer and visual artist. He is the founder of Early Morning Opera, a genre-bending performance and art lab whose works explore emerging technologies, live audiences, and unclassifiable experience, reflecting his background in progressive activism.

Carla Ingrasciotta: You are the founder of “Early Morning Opera (EMO)”, a performance and art lab where you explore emerging technologies, live audiences and different languages and media. How and where did everything begin?

Lars Jan: I started performance in college. I had a tremendous teacher who introduced me to visual artists, cinema auteurs and a whole lineage of experimental performance practice that I hadn’t known existed. I started taking pictures five or six years before that, mostly of landscapes and things around my hometown in coastal Massachusetts, and crucially during a vacation to Yosemite National Park which blew my young mind, and developed them myself in a darkroom obsessively. I didn’t consider myself an artist till late into college, although photography was really my first form.

CI: One of the main subjects of your research is the analysis of the human behaviour within environmental aspects such as climate change and issues related to water (rising seas, in-tensifying floods, and extended droughts). The performance installation “HOLOSCENES” is probably one of the best examples of your interest. Could you tell us about the creative pro-cess of this work? Where did you take inspiration from?

LJ: The inspiration behind HOLOSCENES was a slow gestation, and came from a growing awareness of flooding in the 21st century. It originated from my sense of internal crisis around images of disaster that I felt I had been seeing everywhere. It started with Hurricane Katrina, and then continued through images of flooding that I saw from the disasters in Northern Pakistan in 2010. I was particularly affected by a photo that was captured by an incredible photojournalist called Daniel Berehulak. It is a gorgeous image that looks like a Renaissance painting, depicting a group of men in rushing water, the image is taken from above and captured my attention, making me want to read more about the horrifying situation it depicts. From my research, I discovered that a military helicopter was dropping aid including drinking water and crates, and as they hit the water, they broke and began to sink so people rushed to get to the aid before it was spoiled. Seeing people up to their waist, ankles, and necks, at different stages of alarm; and yet in this gorgeous composition, brought up a question relating to the relationship devastation and beauty – aesthetic composition as a transmissive mechanism for our darkest hours.
This theme underpins the idea for HOLOSCENES but the main inspiration came from a brief vision I had of a man sitting in a room looking at a newspaper turning the pages. Slowly the room started to fill with water, but rather than reacting as if there was a cri-sis, he just kept on turning the pages and ultimately holding his breath as the water passed over his mouth and nose, and continued to turn the pages as they dissolved in his hands. HOLOSCENES began as a project about flooding, and investigation into this topic led me to broader research on climate science. This in turn led me to behavioural sci-ence, the consideration of long-term thinking and the human capacity for empathy. So, in a way climate change has become a mirror for exposing certain human capacities, how they evolved, why they evolved, and their limitations. My new work entitled Slow-Moving Luminaries for the 3rd Audemars Piguet Art Commission will further expand on some of these themes.

CI: Talking about yourself, you state that you’re an activist before an artist. How do you translate the interests you care about as an activist in your artwork? Which are the recur-ring themes you like to explore?

LJ: I would not say I am an activist in a traditional sense. When I was younger my mother was very proactive in helping people who were challenged in different ways by struc-tural systems stacked against them. She would show up and help. In high school I volun-teered in the Boston City Hospital in the AIDS clinic, which served mostly homeless and immigrant populations and I was never quite the same after that experience. When I be-came an artist in my early twenties, my volunteering dropped off. I experimented with — indulged in, maybe — different art forms. It was only when I began to have a sense of fluency across some forms that I started reintegrating some of the themes of social jus-tice, and my interests working in activism back into my work. Most recently I’ve become inspired by making work in public space, a progressive political act in itself. The works are never agitprop, but often suggestive — either by way of an aestheticized hypnosis or satire, or both — of a pretty simple question: that we could be a lot better to each other, ourselves, and our planet, so what is it in us that’s in the way?

CI: In your projects you always involve collaborators such as artists, scientists and institu-tions. How do you find your collaborators? Do you always work in group or you have also a private studio?

LJ: In 2004 I founded an art lab and performance lab called “Early Morning Opera” which is a loose network of frequent collaborators. A lot of these folks I met in various art scenes, in Philly, New York, grad school at CalArts, LA. I also fold in new collaborators for each project, and often these creative teams will include twenty to forty people working over the course of multiple years on the various stages of a particular work. Above all, I wanted to create a flexible process could adapt to the project at hand in a malleable way. I have always made visual work, media pieces, sculptural pieces, and taken photographs, but it was only during the last four or five years that I began considering these pieces beyond the context of performances they may have played a part in. During this period, I began working in my own studio establishing a separate solo practice. I think working mostly alone in a studio has helped counterpoint my sprawling collaborative projects and allowed me to explore other facets of an idea at a different rhythm from the works that demand extensive social interaction. Working in the studio has become a much larger proportion of my practice over the last few years.
At the moment, I am working in a studio in Los Angeles on the 3rd Audemars Piguet Art Commission which will go on show during Art Basel in Miami Beach in December 2017. It is an annual commissioning program by the Swiss watchmaker which supports artists that explore ideas related to complexity, precision, technology and science, so actually their interests very much overlapped with my own. I was also very lucky to be able to visit the home of Audemars Piguet in Le Brassus to learn more about the skill and craftsmanship inherent in their process.
There were a couple of things jumped at me right away and resonated with me as an artist. First, the artisans work on long timelines of development and concentration, making complex objects that take nearly a year to fabricate (especially Grande Complications). This kind of all-consuming, even eccentric, focus is consistent with my process. I take 2 to 4 years to develop a work, which resonates strongly with the rhythm of the watchmakers of the Vallée de Joux. I increasingly feel like there are two rhythms in the world right now: the millisecond rhythm that speaks to immediate gratification vs. an-other, slower rhythm that I am trying to connect to in my own life and with my work. My work is increasingly exploring and expanding into this other rhythm, and I find this pursuit ties in closely with the watchmakers of Audemars Piguet.
Also, when I looked at the way in which Audemars Piguet designs the interior of their timepieces, I was stunned by the aesthetic consideration that goes into the interior of watches that will never be seen by the wearer. I realized the pride of the watchmaker is as much focused on the interior of the watch as it is on its exterior, especially as the watchmakers of the Vallée de Joux were originally motivated by the mechanism of the piece. I work on complex systems for my installations and performances. There is a massive amount of aesthetic exploration and even embellishment that goes into a pro-cess that is itself the crucible for the final work. However, though much of this work is never seen, it lies at the heart of the finished piece.

CI: Son of émigrés from Afghanistan and Poland and growing up just outside Boston, you travelled around the world and are currently based in LA. How has this affected you as a person and as an artist?

LJ: Being the child of people who are from other countries gave me an intrinsic sense that there was a complex, beautiful world beyond American borders, and, generally speak-ing, I think that’s a perspective that’s profoundly lacking in the United States today. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, but because of my family – in particular my mom whose friends were also immigrants from different places such as India, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece – I was exposed to different languages, traditions and holidays. It is a version of America that I appreciate and love most. I love the purple mountain majesties too, but what I love above all are the multiple identities that go into making American communities. The value of transcultural, super lingual communication is something I aspire to in my work.

CI: What about your involvement with Audemars Piguet Art Commission? Do you already have in mind the project you will work on?

LJ: The project is called Slow-Moving Luminaries and it will take the form of an immersive, kinetic pavilion — on two levels with a footprint of about 100 by 50 feet — presented on the Miami Beach oceanfront. The whole piece for me is about oscillation, and is in response to conflicting feelings I’ve been having of late — on one hand the desire to slow down and contemplate reality to more effectively channel my energies, and, on the other, to scream for help.
The work will invite viewers to traverse a labyrinth on the lower level, which is populated by a series of minimalist, building-like sculptures rising and falling through the space, and disappearing into apertures in the ceiling by way of mechanical lifts. The upper deck will be covered by a pool of water, through which the sculptures will emerge and recede at varying speeds throughout the day. The sculptures and pool visually allude to the Mi-ami Beach skyline and open ocean visible from the viewing deck.
I came into this commission thinking about time the cycles of the planet versus the cycle of human behavior and our built environment — and in particular, the fragility and impermanence of the places where our land-based lives meet the sea.

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