Interview: Albert Abdul-Barr Wang
"ALB 2017-2020" by Albert Abdul-Barr Wang, 2020.
1) Could you introduce yourself? What sparked your interest in art, and in particular conceptual art and photography?
Greetings, my name is Albert Abdul-Barr Wang. I am a conceptual artist who is a second year undergraduate BFA candidate in photography here at the University of Utah. I am also a co-curator at the Office Space, which is a cutting-edge conceptual gallery located in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah.
My interest in art was sparked by three books which were on my childhood shelf: sixth edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages from 1975 as well as two small monographs about Dali and Picasso. I do remember vividly visiting the National Gallery of Art and the Art
Institute of Chicago as a young child as well. The De Kooning retrospective sparked a huge interest in art. Even though when I grew older and attended Vanderbilt back in 1994, my interest in English literature crossed over into modernist art styles. However, I did not
learn anything about conceptual art until much later.
Photography was an amateur hobby when I was living back in Philadelphia right after I got my master’s in public health from Yale in 2001. I picked up a Nikon 8008s and just enjoyed taking photos for keeping a diary which is now lost for the most part. Later on, I wanted to become a photojournalist but could not make the connections to any newspapers in Philadelphia or afford the schooling to study the field. Eventually I moved to Salt Lake City in 2004 to work for the state government as an epidemiologist and it paid well enough that I
could afford to travel back to my hometown New York City and as I attended other museums such as the Guggenheim and Whitney, I began to discover the strangeness of conceptual art.
Since I was an English major for my first undergraduate degree, I wanted to become an art critic around 2006-2007. I did not understand how the contemporary art world function so I created an alter ego named “qi peng” (all lower case) and decided to create an experimental
non-fictional novel similar to Truman Capote by making a cubist literary collage comprised of interview portraits of a cross section of art professionals across various fields and in different regions. Eventually I began to dabble in a very crude but exploratory art practice. At the time, I wanted to exhibit legal documents as works of art which did not go very well in Salt Lake City, Utah during the late naughts. I managed to work in industrial landscape photography and then doing manipulations of them in Photoshop which got my first solo show at modern8 gallery under my fake artist ego.
The rest happened and I ended up taking almost a decade off from doing art when I found that there was another artist in China named Qi Peng who is an abstract painter so the situation was not very ideal for doing art pranks or conceptual art tricks. Nowadays even though my alter ego is dead, his legacy lives onward as part of a loose group called the Office Space Collective.
"yellow barricade, gentrification" by Albert Abdul-Barr Wang, 2021
2) What is the meaning of the work titled, "yellow barricade, gentrification?" Does it reference a construction site, perhaps suggesting the renovations to accommodate luxurious businesses and residences to a neighborhood that has been gentrified? Does it also suggest a boundary based on class and race, which are never set in a concrete or visible way?
yellow barricade, gentrification is actually the first conceptual sculpture of a new art “movement” called lowbrow minimalism. It has multiple references partially towards construction sites but also the gentrification within the contemporary art world itself which has
undergone quite a bit of gentrification in the abstract. Thus one can say safely that this piece is very much set into institutional critique as well.
Living here in Salt Lake City has been very terrifying. We have been one of the few cities which has not been impacted negatively that much by COVID-19 or even any of the stock market bubbles. Because of Utah’s growing position as a leading technological state in our nation and the relatively affordable prices, the amount of real estate development and urban gentrification has been quite crazy. My question is: at what ethical cost to us? A lot of folks who moved here from California or the Pacific Northwest don’t realize the grave amount of
colonization that was required to make these cheaply build yet eye candy infused condos and apartments that land developers took forcibly from the neighborhoods of Brown and Black folks as well as lower income populaces, all of whom are displaced due to the terrible effects of neo-liberal capitalism within the real estate world here in Utah. One example is the Kozo Apartment complex where developers Dallin Jolley and David Clayton are destroying seven family homes of minorities to make way for fancy upscale apartment complexes being marketed mostly for upper-class white folks who usually work for the financial services industry or computer software areas; I am unsure whether those guys even got the land rights in the most apropos fashion here.
The usage of caution tape becomes tied firmly to vernacular material too. Even though I am Taiwanese-American, my cultural roots and ties are set into the underground hip-hop culture. In many old school 1990’s videos one can see the motif of yellow tape as a geographic signifier of police demarcation areas as well as crime scenes. One prime example is the music video for “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers” at 2 minutes, 21 seconds. The symbol of the yellow tape is that of homicide. There is another double meaning too which is not just hip-hop culture but also racial studies. Yellow also represents the skin color of most Asians so there is that underlying overtone. One needs to remember that “yellow privilege” is an awful thing and my minimalist piece is a reminder to self about avoiding yellow privilege and that bridging Asian and Black cultures is pretty key instead of being selfish in being embedded in economic exploitation of non-Asian minorities which many Asian-Americans are ever so willing to do.
As a neo-Marxist, I do agree that there are also overtones regarding class and economics as part of the institutional critique. Based on my art history studies, during the 1960’s there was a firm separation between minimalism and Pop Art in the United States. One movement depended heavily on building the spiritual qualities via lack of any cultural or overt capitalist references whereas the latter creates the spiritual aura, in the manner of Walter Benjamin, through a complete capitulation to every possible capitalist reference to goods or brands
possible. After looking at David Hammons’ masterwork Bag Lady in Flight and the installations of Josephine Meckseper, I began to realize that I could combine artifacts from both American
white-privileged, industrial minimalism with the populist, capitalist-embracing Pop Art into a new type of art movement which I dubbed “lowbrow minimalism.” Here I take recyclable commonplace industrially created objects from corporate entities such as IKEA, Fed-Ex, or Home Depot then create deceptively minimalist sculptures and installations with them. I would like to elucidate this new discovery through essays in critical art theory as well as a series of
actual pieces as a result of this praxis.
"Qibla, Self Portrait After Geoffrey Hill" by Albert Abdul-Barr Wang, 2020
3) What is the meaning of the work titled, "Qibla, Self-Portrait After Geoffrey Hill?" Knowing that you are a Muslim, I feel that the photograph captures the powerful role that your religious beliefs play in the way they color and influence your perception and vision of the world. I also feel that the work conveys the religious belief that Allah is always with you when you call Him, regardless of the place or the situation. What brought you to become a believer of Islam?
Oof! That’s a complex installation work which relates strongly to my radically left, democratic socialist Islamic beliefs. Geoffrey Hill was one of the finest yet most complicated British poets during the 20th century who examined closely a lot of primitive rituals, usually imbued in violence or situations of strong emotional tension. Critics often accused him of a working-class conservatism which Hill found to be radical himself. Qibla, Self-Portrait After Geoffrey Hill was
designed to reflect the inner turmoil between my unstable identities as an Asian-American and Muslim convert. The soundtrack of the installation includes rectifications of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air but represented in four types of natural disasters such as floods or hurricanes.
Last summer I made a new close friendship with a brilliant Calarts MFA candidate named Patrick Winfield Vogel. He really helped me to tap into the environmentalist causes within my art practice and living here in Utah has forced that aspect to become much more prominent
within some of my themes. Qibla is not only about my Muslim identity but also about my firm interest in being a climate change activist and helping others to realize that unchecked neo-liberal capitalist development of land and natural resources will end up with the eventual demise of humanity. The increasing frequency of disasters such as last year’s earthquake in Magna, Utah or the prolific wildfires in California demonstrate that our general lack of respect
towards the Earth is not just within the domain of theology but also science and philosophy.
Regarding the personal and political expression of my relationship with Allah has been pretty difficult to render. I am a relatively new convert to Islam so I have learned to temper a healthy balance between social justice and religious belief. He has blessed me quite a bit and honestly last year, I felt protected when on two separate occasions, two random people tried to run over and kill me with a vehicle because of my Asian looks when COVID-19 came out early during the spring of 2020. One can say that my interest in Islam was pretty accidental. A lot of it came from my heavy interest in political and philosophical hip-hop from the 1990’s and early 2000’s with bands such as Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, X-Clan, and even Busta Rhymes, all of which had a strong relationship with concepts of the Five Percenters and the Nation of Islam. The other catalyst came from a forum given by a local Muslim organization called The Emerald Project, which combats Islamophobia within the community. I managed to complete a reading of the whole Qur’an in English last year during the summer which was an incredible feat. In the future, I hope to be able to study more contemporary art from the Middle East such as the archives of the Arab Image Foundation, Walid Raad, Emily Jacir, or Palestinian art.
"Last Will and Testament" by Albert Abdul-Barr Wang, 2020.
4) What is the meaning of the work titled, "Last Will and Testament?" What is the significance of the physics equations, and how do they relate to the concept of a last will and a testament?
Last Will and Testament is definitely one of my darkest pieces I ever composed in the vein of Don Delillo and Cady Noland. The physics equations that I drew out in a classroom board were basically the scribbled calculations that Stephen Paddock performed on hotel stationery before he broke the hotel windows of Room 32-135 of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and killed 60 people and wounded hundreds during the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. The police who had broken into the room found this set of equations where Paddock wanted to maximize the number of casualties so this connection amongst physics, mathematics, and the American penchant for mass violence becomes tinged with more overtones of darkness. Just look at the recent Capitol riots and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s visible desire to assassinate her political
enemies. This sculpture becomes much more tinged with depression and hopelessness for a nation which is tinged with fictional conspiracies (not actual complicities) and white supremacy and police brutality.
The idea of a last will and testament is that of a shared historical legacy and apparently this sculpture of doom was Paddock’s foreshadowing of the swift rise of QAnon, the Proud Boys, the Utah Citizens Alarm, crazy ass white supremacist senators and politicians, and Trumpism to the maximum. The violent protection of white-privileged self-control and the selfish unleashing of mass violence from the weapons of an angry white, usually older, guy demonstrate that the legacy of hatred and racism continues like a genetic cultural and sociopolitical malaise generation to generation. Then there is the literal last will and testament aspect of Paddock too. He did not write anything else after that death note of physics.
The scene of the classroom was not accidental. There were overtones of the multiple school shootings over many decades of United States history as well our educational system which is helping to teach alt-right values of hatred, oppression, and banal evil in both the private and public sectors. One leading example is the explosive growth of Turning Point USA which is our prime organization of a reinvented Hilter Youth organization geared towards a younger generation of white folks.
"A Fmal Modl" by Albert Abdul-Barr Wang, 2021.
5) What is the concept behind the series titled, "La Disparition?" Do the white figures signify a spiritual significance or the fact that Allah may speak to you through the words of the people around you?
La Disparition as a series was based on a brilliant Oulipo novel by Georges Perec. Ironically it is not overtly spiritual in visual language or theme. The novel is just way too good. There are 300 pages of a narrative where the letter “e” is completely missing from the whole script. Critics have tried to interpret this as the spiritual and racial identity void experienced by Perec who was Jewish and suffered the outcomes of the Holocaust in French life and culture at the time. My photographic series tries to parallel the Perec and his Jewish identity with my difficult relationship between my Asian self and the inherent subtle racism within the Muslim community which I face, particularly in socialization.
Overtly, this becomes a commentary on mass media as well. I wanted to explore what newspaper or magazine press photographs would be like if the celebrities or figure of interest got erased like the letter ‘e.’ This is very critical theory heavy and much embedded in the framework of mass media theory. I would like to get into more details but then the talk would become quite boring to a general populace.
"Trump's Utopia" by Albert Abdul-Barr Wang, 2020.
6) What is the meaning of the work titled, "Trump's Utopia?" Does the work express a distasteful opinion or condemnation of Trump? Or does it contrast and highlight the superficiality of his businesses and visions in the face of more authentic, traditional visions of the American founders, who sought to tax the rich ruthlessly and deny the oligarchy that exists in today's society?
Oooooo, Trump’s Utopia. Definitely a condemnation of not just Trump himself, but also golf and Trumpism. At the time of creation, I just finished Sir Thomas More’s Utopia essay and looking at the layout of the golf course on a Trump property with its strong connection to neo-liberal capitalism which allowed this strange brew. The concept of colonization by the American founders is subtle here and reflecting upon how these golf courses were developed on top of land stolen from Indigenous tribes. Also add in that I have a firm distaste for golf as a sport and cultural signifier of wealth and closed privilege.
"Color Chart III" by Albert Abdul-Barr Wang, 2020.
7) How should the viewer or the layman discern the meaning of your artist statement? How does art destroy all forms of power? Can art also create and contribute to the power structures that maintain themselves and feed into power? How does contemporary fine art photography contrast with the photography of journalism, street photography, landscape photography, fashion photography, etc.? What is left for the conceptual artist who denies herself or himself convenient access to power in order to deny legitimizing the existing power structures, which she or he deems evil?
I like to keep my artist statement because my art practice encompasses such a variety of themes with a gamut of attitudes ranging from irony to very sober. Art, in my opinion, has an ethical obligation to unmask the problems of all power structures then deconstruct it similar to how Michel Foucault puts up a magnifying glass against the map of social and political oppression then uses the sunlight to burn holes through that structure he focused upon.
A lot of contemporary art tends to feed into the market system of reification, creation, manufacturing, and distribution of said products. My work has to walk the thin line between the existence of the work as a commodity fetish, or rather playing around the materiality as such, and the internal resistance to commodification. Contemporary fine art photography I do not think differs much from commercial photography except in terms of cultural context and audience. Often some of the best artists blurs the line between both worlds. One great example is Sara Cwynar, whose experience in graphic designs informs the structure of her constructed cultural fantasies. I think that this contradiction of the art object as both capitalist
object and strategic act of rebellion against the system becomes a huge component of institutional critique, which may or may not have a warm reception; just look at the general scholarly neglect of Mark Lombardi or Hans Haacke in art journals. It is not a simple battle between good and evil like the combat between capitalism and Marxism. Often there are syncretic relationships which art can portray those all-not-too obvious connections, especially if the artist delves into the visual semiotics of the components within the artwork in question. Perhaps emotionally I can point to things such as QAnon being evil but intellectually I try to maintain a broader perspective on this potential tension between polar ethical positions.
"Happening, After Allen Kaprow" by Albert Abdul-Barr Wang, 2021.
8) What is the nature of equality in our human world? In what ways are humans equal, and in what ways are humans "unequal" or different? How does equality equate to justice or freedom? How is it an antidote to the poison of evil and oppression? What important role does an artist play with regard to the propagation of equality?
Equality is a tough value to codify and even though right-wing politicians tend to confuse deliberately equal opportunity with force economic and cultural conformism, I envision equality as the ability of any human or animal being to gain access into the social system without hindrance. Differences amongst humans tend to be a complex mixture of biological and sociological factors.
Equality is not the same as justice or freedom however. From a legal and economic perspective, the concept of equality for me represents how one is able to obtain natural or human-made resources. Oppression is when another person attempts to interfere with the natural obtaining of said goods because of greed and hoarding. I feel strongly that artists ought to expose these trenchant and often toxic connections because the cultural hegemony of the “greed is good” mentality ends up ruining the whole tree derived from its roots of poison.
"1, 2 Many" by Albert Abdul-Barr Wang, 2021.
9) What is the most important trait for an artist? Does she or he need an endless drive to create and to experiment, led by powerful inspirations and visions? Does she or he need to maintain integrity in some form and not sell out? What is the main purpose of an artist? How
have you stayed true to your vision of an artist, and in what ways have you gone astray?
The most important value for an artist, in my estimation, ought to be intelligent compassion combined with an endless desire to be innovative within an ethical framework. I feel that some type of integrity without losing a naughty sense of playfulness is a necessity which is why I find the works of Jordan Wolfson and Jeff Koons completely vapid to my artistic inclinations whereas the works of Cady Noland become very prophetic as a cultural barometer.
Perhaps I am a tad old school but I feel that the best artists represent the conscience and soothsayers of a generally corrupt society. I cannot say that my own art practice fulfills that actual vision of being an artist as I feel that I am still emerging as a conceptual artist so right now my art has a fairly limited audience. So I cannot gauge my actual impact of my works on the general society at the moment. I have stayed pretty close to my goals as a conceptual artist in maintaining a drive for experimentation and an unwillingness to self-censor. I guess the only time I went astray was when I had to complete my art homework for my university assignments (laughs) but the public is not going to see my homework exercises. Or will they?
"The Greatest Dictator Ever Sold (Maquette)" by Albert Abdul-Barr Wang, 2020.
10) What are your dreams and aspirations for the future? As an artist, a person, and a believer?
My dreams for the future in my art practice are relatively simple at the moment. I want to continue my postmodern Islamic explorations and expand my themes and visual languages into a variety of media. Right now my work in the style of lowbrow minimalism will be a forked
experimentation into another unknown world. I know that later on in two and a half years I will be going into a MFA program in some type of artistic field. Also as a human being, I hope that I can maintain my compassion for others and continue to grow creatively and provocatively. As a Muslim, this would to continue my simple and chill life while running an art studio and curating for this experimental art space in Salt Lake City.
(We conclude the interview with a quote:)
“A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason.
Or it can be thrown through the window.”
― Gilles Deleuze, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia