NEVER LEAD WITH NO:
a conversation with Lanka Tattersall
by Tyler Matthew Oyer
Tyler: Tell us a bit about your biography and how you came to be a curator.
Lanka: It’s kind of a saccharine, cheesy story, actually. I grew up in Los Angeles, close to LACMA. There was a Nam June Paik sculpture on display there, called Video Flag Z: it’s a bank of T.V. monitors that, together, compose a flickering image of the American flag. I thought it was an amazing sculpture. I must have been around twelve or thirteen at the time and was beginning to understand my identity as a brown person and the complexity of ideas of citizenship. This was the first time seeing art in a museum that I felt somewhat recognized by.
I remember Cathy Opie’s 1993 Self Portrait which shows a childlike drawing of a queer family and a house cut into her back, the lines made by her blood. It was recently on display at MOCA, and when I saw it I thought: There you are! My gateway drug! As a queer teenager, museums became spaces where I could see myself represented. I felt those were the places I wanted to be.
I started to study art history in high school. I was always a big history nerd. There was a teacher who introduced me to the Soviet avant garde. I was pretty into punk and any kind of image culture that was deconstructing broader image culture. I was fascinated and obsessed by the idea that these radical, avant garde artists were inserting Communist, utopian politics into the image stream with commercial advertisements.
Tyler: Were you making any art?
Lanka: No. I was more obsessed with looking at, thinking, and writing about the work. I’ve never been a visual artist.
In college I majored in art history. I went to Russia to study the impact of the Soviet avant garde on contemporary Russian artists. It was before Putin came to power. It was a weird, crisis-time to be in Russia. That period of time was influential for me; being in a former Communist country; having gone to this place with romantic notions of what it would be like, and where that did and didn’t connect.
Sometime during college I went to the New Museum and saw a Nicole Eisenman drawing called Alice in Wonderland. I can still picture it: a drawing of a small Alice in Wonderland eating out a gigantic Wonder Woman. It felt fearless and funny and Feminist and perverse in the best possible ways. I remember feeling like I wanted to be involved in a world in which I can help bring something like that into visibility, it actually cemented my ideas about what it means to be a curator.
I’ve always loved exhibitions as a narrative form. Whether it’s a solo or group exhibition, there are ways in which objects can speak to each other. I was reading something my friend the writer Jess Arndt was saying about her sensitivity toward objects that I identified with. It’s a bit esoteric but I have an empathy with objects. It can be mesmerizing to bring objects into a space and give them room to be around each other.
I never thought about being anything but a curator. There was a minute when I wanted to be a curator and anthropologist. I think they are related in how they probe cultural structures.
I’ve had extraordinary amounts of privilege and access to things like museum internships, incredible mentors, and a liberal arts education. I never take those things for granted.
Tyler: Who are some of your mentors?
Lanka: There are a few. Art mothers. My high school art teacher was an incredible person who spoke to me and treated me as a full human being. I worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for four years and my boss there was Kathy Halbreich, who was the Director at the Walker Art Center before she became the Associate Director at MoMA. There’s a joke about her: she puts the “mom” in MoMA. She’s one of the most formidable people I’ve met and a total model for how to be generous and curious in the art world.
I met Helen Molesworth in graduate school at Harvard. I had read her Work Ethic exhibition catalogue. The idea there could be an exhibition about artists’ approaches to labor was brilliant. So when she got to Harvard, I didn’t stalk her, but I did seek her out for conversation. That’s when our dialogue began and has continued until now.
Tyler: Were you doing PhD at Harvard?
Lanka: I was there for my PhD. I graduated from Wesleyan, moved to New York City and worked in an art gallery called Galerie Lelong. They represent Ana Mendieta. Then I went to Columbia University for my master’s studies.
Tyler: During that time were you curating or organizing shows?
Lanka: I was curating exhibitions. I became involved with LTTR, the genderqueer feminist publication and platform. LTTR was already founded but were looking to add two people to the editorial board. I did that for a year and then we organized an exhibition around LTTR.
After that I co-curated a show with Matthew Lyons - who is now at The Kitchen - called Dance Dance Revolution, after the video game. We had very little funding so our challenge was to see what we could do for as little as possible. The show started with Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons and tried to trace a genealogy for artists who were working with dance.
Tyler: Who were some of the artists in that show?
Lanka: Adrian Piper, Black Leotard Front by Christian Holstad, Anna Craycroft…
Tyler: What kinds of works were presented?
Lanka: Videos, drawings, light box photographs… we didn’t incorporate performance. It was 2004. Now we would have put performances in the gallery but at the time it wasn’t such an obvious idea to do something like that.
Tyler: What happened next?
Lanka: Then I had a graduate student bug and started to study with Benjamin Buchloh, who is another mentor and important person to me in terms of his approach to what it means theoretically to be an art historian. He takes a view, in a drilled down way, that art both reflects and is capable of reshaping the conditions of social and cultural experience. It’s less art as change, rather art as diagnosis. It’s something I try to believe in.
Tyler: Are there any central questions that you find yourself coming back to, or you would say are at the core of your thought processes lately?
Lanka: In my day-to-day work at the museum we think about the exhibition and acquisition programs with an awareness of questions of who is underrepresented and what it means to really change that in the broadest possible sense. We also try to be tuned in to the work that Los Angeles based artists are making.
I do hold onto a utopian idea of what the exhibition or museum or art object can be. There are certain ideas that came out of Modernism that, to quote Helen, are gifts that keep giving. For example: the ready-made, the combine, collage, the cut-up. There are certain techniques that continue to be crucial to what artists are making today. I’m interested in those long stories.
Of course, there are those hard days when commerce side of the art world is loud and I really want to be focusing on prison abolition! These are two things that can sometimes feel very incommensurate with each other. Of course there is no pure economic diamond but I think it’s important say things like: prison abolition may not happen in our lifetime but we have to continue to press for that. It’s one of the paradoxes of working in the art world.
Tyler: It’s the importance of sustaining the utopian conversation while navigating the demands of our material realities. Which brings my next question: Because you are working at a major institution in this specific moment, what do you feel is the role the museum?
Lanka: I think do what we can while we can. If we are truly under the threat of fascism then we should make and do and see as much as we can. If you look at Weimar Germany before Hitler, the documents serve as testaments to that incredibly fertile and complicated time.
I feel a sense of urgency with artists making their work while museum time takes a much slower pace, which can be frustrating. I love the slowness on one hand because it allows for depth. I’m working on a show with a Korean artist named Haegue Yang that will have been cooking on the stove for four years when it opens. I’ve just completed a project with Lauren Halsey and am working on another with Cameron Rowland, two extremely different artists who are great at responding to the limits of the sites and institutions they are working with.
Overall I say keep making art and stay woke to the contradictions and paradoxes around you.
Tyler: I think about holding space as queers, feminists, and people with allergies to cis-white-heteropatriarchy. Those allergic to the hyperspeed and reductivism of capitalism. Holding space is valuable and utopian.
Are there curatorial practices you try to avoid? What are the red flags or bad experiences you’ve had or seen?
Lanka: I’ll answer with something I think is really great. It’s something I’ve learned from Helen about installing the permanent collection at MOCA. When she installed a gallery she made sure there was always a female artist and a person of color included, and if there wasn’t she’d ask why not. If you can’t make an inclusive room for the narrative that belongs in the room, then you probably need to rewrite the narrative!
Tyler: I remember a few years ago there was a show announced called something like New Painting and the entire show were men. I was just out of graduate school and it was a huge wake up call for me in terms of always asking how my work will be contextualized in terms of representation when I’m invited to show. Most emerging artists are simply excited and honored to show and not necessarily comfortable asking these questions in response to the invitation.
Lanka: I would imagine if a curator is interested in you and your work they would be open to those questions and feedback. I think that’s a good conversation to have.
One of the greatest privileges I have is the ability to work with living artists. I try to listen to the artists. I see a large part of my job is making things possible for artists. When commissioning a new work I encourage the artists to let their minds wander and to never lead with “no”. There is risk, so there must be trust between the curator and the artist.
Tyler: If you had to pick one non-living artist to interview or commission a new work from, who would it be?
Lanka: Just one?! Who comes to my mind are Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova – they were partners and Constructivist artists in Soviet Russian in early 20th century. I would want to hang out with them and hear their take on the world today. I’d like to ask questions about what it was like to be an artist living in a moment when Communism seemed like a real possibility for its positive aspects but watching it turn into its most negative aspects.
Lygia Clark. I’m thinking of artists who lived under dictatorships. We can have a dinner party!
Tyler: Who are your current art crushes?
Lanka: I just got Juliana Huxtable’s new book a little while ago, Mucus in My Pineal Gland. I appreciate her position as a writer and an artist and fiercely alive person in the world. I see her objects as extensions of her theoretical practice. I think I have more pictures on my Instagram of things by Juliana than anyone else.
I’m lucky to be able to say many of my friends are artists. Spending time with artists in formal and informal ways is what I want to do with my time. It nourishes me as a curator and human, and reminds me of how important it is to imagine the world you want to live in, every day.