I have been watching Peter Goin‘s work evolve for nearly 30 years. His work teaches me about the landscape of my own perceptions and always challenges what I think I know. A teaching artist, he granted me this generous interview in the midst of finals and the frenzy of holiday deadlines and end-of-semester madness.
Jeanmarie Simpson: You seem to be a storyteller and documentarian at the same time. What brings you to a specific body of work?
Peter Goin: Perhaps, then, I should start with a story. While I firmly believe that each and every project demands its own solution, from the technical foundation to the conceptual design, some elements are constants. But, I digress… This past spring, 2008, I taught digital photography and the History of Photography at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Puebla, Mexico. My students were both from the United States and from Mexico, a bilingual class presumably, and mostly taught in English. This is a brief adaptation of a longer story about Valentine’s Day. Here is the entry:
February 15, 2008
“Today is the day after Valentine’s Day in Puebla, Mexico. To those who live through the day, this just might say enough. What an amazing day! While I always thought people from the US had a fixation on Valentine’s Day, nothing in my experience compares to how the Mexicans have appropriated the spirit of red hearts, candy, and obligation.
Only the Navidad ornaments exceed the decorative zeal; shops, restaurants, stores, streets, doors, windows, clothing…the reminders are omnipresent. No self-respecting male with a novia could ignore the cultural expectations, unless he was blind, deaf, and catatonic. In a city where boyfriends/girlfriends exchange gifts monthly, this is the pinnacle of romantic demand. Women obligated to a man, girls to boys, prior to marriage, expect – nay, demand attentive behavior. The ceremony of duty gives the females all the trump cards; the male’s efforts are held up to a measure of expectation that is absolute. To fail, to disappoint, is to invite an argument, a rejection, a denial of affection. Walking home, I observed women sitting on Zocalo benches, arms crossed, judgment robes worn, waiting for the appropriate demonstration of obedience to the reglas of St. Valentine. “Si tu creas…” If you think…this balloon and box of chocolate is sufficient…my oh my. No amount of pleading changes the decision. The only choice is to seek refuge in excess.
In every restaurant, coffeehouse and bar, on every park bench and in every taco joint lay couples in emotional embrace. The youth from Mars/Venus had invaded and the energy was beyond hormonal. I have never, ever been in a place where the juices of expected sexual coupling flew so openly or with such…odor. It was palpable! Every bar switched to romantic ballads, sickly renditions of Sting, The Beatles…serenading the potentials to a fever pitch of engagement. It was, simply, amazing.
The street cleaners were out early. If I have to explain what this means, then…”
Every now and then, I would visit the nearby town of Cholula, about ten kilometers west of Puebla. As the bus approaches the city center, any visitor immediately notices the Pirámide Tepanapa, still overgrown but arguably the widest pyramid every built. It measures 450 meters along each side of the base and 65 meters high, larger than Egypt’s Pyramid of Cheops. While in Mesoamerican times, the city center of Teotihuacán flourished 100 kilometers to the northwest, and Cholula became an important religious center (approximately 100-600 AD). The pyramid was built over again multiple times, and about 600 AD, Cholula fell to the Olmeca-Xicallanca, followed by the Toltecs and the Chichimecs, and finally to the Aztecs. By 1519, Cholula’s population was approximately 100,000, and the pyramid was already overgrown. This set the stage whereupon Cortés battled the Cholulans, killing 6,000 before the city center was looted by Tlaxcalans. Cortés vowed to build a church for each day of the year, or one on top of every Mesoamerican temple, according to different versions. In any event, Cholula has 39 churches — quite a few for a small urban center.
Cholula’s Pirámide Tepanapa contains the metaphor of classic conquest — that is a startling, beguiled, bright yellow church — the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios — tops the enormous overgrown pyramid. Many festivals are held at this site. The Festival de la Virgen de los Remedios is celebrated in early September. Regional ferias (fairs) occur in the weeks that follow. Quetzalcóatl rituals, with sacrificial dances, fireworks, and pre-Hispanic music performances, are held on the spring and fall equinoxes. I have visited the pyramid and Santuario many times, and noticed how young lovers, those seeking remedial intervention or Milagros, and those wishing for romantic confirmation, carve their devotional hopes into the tile and brick embedded on top of the wall encircling the Santuario (church). I started recording these mostly square tablets, and continued my work for three or more months. After a prolonged period of image repair and preparation, I assembled 73 of these “visual” tiles into a larger canvas titled Corazones Cholula. These tiles are placed six across and twelve high, with one column containing smaller bricks, effectively adding one more to the mathematical quota. Assembled such that the tiles are conjoined by photographs of mortar and trimmed to fit onto a heavy watercolor Fine Art paper, the final work measures 44” (112 cm) x 90” (229 cm).
I did not intend to produce any work about Cholula, yet I am bearing witness in this way, as much as with any other more obviously documentary project. Today, the tiles and bricks have been tagged by local gangs, and it is much more difficult to view them. Apparently, every once in a while the community whitewashes all the tiles. But now, they are recorded and assembled.
So many of my projects begin with a simple inquiry — an observation or a comment. I was once told that no artist would ever be allowed on the grounds of the Nevada Test Site. It is a much longer story, but…the result is my book, now very difficult to find, Nuclear Landscapes (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). While it might not appear obvious, almost all of my projects are connected to research into the visual history of the subject and/or area, and each project has roots into those projects that preceded it. You might not have realized how long this answer could be!
JS: I found your Narrative Photograms series very interesting — in fact, my initial reaction was, “Hey, this is theatre!” I was flabbergasted, in reading your description of the work, to find that you identify it as “a photographer’s theatre.” You mention that they’re inspired by Indonesian puppet theatre. Why is this interesting to you?
PG: As a young child, I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia, as my father worked for the U.S. Department of State. Indonesian Shadow Theater is woven into my psyche, as is the social construct of having morality plays perform in the background of social events. I have some of the puppets in my home, as do all the members of my family. My brother lives in Jakarta, mostly, as he has for nearly 30 years. I have worked with this style of photogram for quite a few years: Combining the shadow that the human figure creates with pictographic elements, such as pins, hair, string, and paper-constructed stage settings, these narrative photograms suggest a few stories that deserve to be retold. The murals are pictographic and narrative-based; the premise is that storytelling is a critical element in how we determine and define cultural behavior. The stories reflect the idea of a journey, focusing on passages, memories, and passages that define human existence.
As I mentioned, the photogram is a photographer’s theater. The process involves laying objects on light-sensitive paper, exposing the paper to light, and developing the paper through normal chemical processes. The objects project shadows of white light, creating the photogram. In the history of photography, the photogram has been used experimentally to design and articulate abstract forms. Many theorists, such as Moholy Nagy, Man Ray, and even Lotte Jacobi, have used the photogram as a means of personal expression.
Rarely, however, has the photogram been used to tell a story. These photograms are based upon the narrative format. Earlier versions used figurative elements in a form roughly similar to Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion. Each image is an implied if not sequential narrative. The “puppets” are paper cutouts, and the “sets” are made of paperboard.
The Narrative Photographs have been exhibited in Delaware, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Monterey, California, in Jacksonville, Florida and Reno, Nevada, among other locations. They have been exhibited in numerous public art forums, including CEPA’s Transit Art series, a billboard for the Atlanta Arts Festival, and the lightbox series, Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York and the LA METRO in Los Angeles. My most recent work, In Pursuit of Happiness, is a wall-sized mural with 120 panels connected into one large panel that is 16 feet x 24 feet. I am currently seeking its exhibition after a successful six-month run at the Nevada Museum of Art.
JS: I love the dryness of your Water in the Desert series.
PG: Thanks, but many find this work challenging and difficult, perhaps reflecting our society’s general abhorrence to arid environments. Perhaps, too, this reflects why so many believe that Nevada is a wasteland, and, in part, there is historical information to suggest that this is why the military chose Nevada for its nuclear proving grounds. We are challenged to recognize that water is more than a simple commodity; it is, after all, the very vein of life. For without water, none of us could exist.
JS: How important is light when you’re taking photographs outdoors, as in your National Park Residency series?
In my work and in my teaching, I emphasize that light is a “verb.” Each of my projects employs light differently, depending on the undercurrent of conceptual interpretation. I have this theory, in visual terms, that arid water, itself a contradiction, evolves into light. It is, of course, a metaphor — a way of viewing the landscape. But in the Black Rock, the thesis takes hold in very special ways. In the National Park Residencies, I am always impressed at how our experience of wilderness is influenced by the light through the trees, reflected off the granite faces, or generated by waves in lake water. It is mesmerizing and fleeting. I believe in “light memory” too.
JS: Does teaching ever deplete you as an artist? Does it feed your own work in any way?
PG: While teaching is a very demanding and often unappreciated pursuit, I believe that teaching is a noble calling, and I would like to believe that I am very dedicated to my students. After all, artistic practice is a form of education — of teaching, instructing and listening. In my teaching practice, I encourage students to become self-actualized, so I purposely encourage students to discover their own visual language and voice. If I were a student, I would want my professors to be actively engaged, producing, exhibiting, and staying on top of the current literature. In that way, teaching demands that all of us as educators remain focused on new technologies, ideas, and practices.
JS: What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
PG: I have a lot going on right now: principally preparing the photographs for two books on California agriculture with the University of California Press. I have another limited edition artist book in the works (due out in 2009), and I am trying to find the time to work on the third and final program in my PBS trilogy, In Search of Ritual. The first program was EMMY nominated, the second received the Best Experimental Documentary Award at the NY International Film and Video Festival (2003)… The pressure is on. I also have two solo exhibits in Mexico during 2009, and the preparation has been accelerated. I also am beginning the design phase for the second and possibly final Narrative Photogram wall panel, also sized 16 feet x 24 feet. There are a few more projects, such as focusing on the future of the Santa Clara River in California…