Tal R in Detroit: A Danish Perspective on a Resurgent City

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Tal R with his work at Detroit’s MoCAD.

His works have been described as “dreamlike” and “rich and moody” and yet Copenhagen-based painter Tal R. has also been fêted as “one of the most striking artists of his generation.” Following a series of critical successes at Denmark’s famed Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and New York gallery Cheim & Read, the Israel-born Danish artist has now descended upon Detroit’s MoCAD with his latest show :this is not Detroit — a meditative, fantastical, and sprawling exhibition featuring seven large paintings depicting Tal R.’s imaginative conjuring of Detroit neighbourhoods.

A city rising from its ruinous financial crisis with a uniquely emancipatory and creative fervour, Detroit plays a central role in Tal R.’s latest work. At once subject and motivator, the city is both tangible object and object of fantasy as Tal R. explores seven specific neigbourhoods without once setting foot in them.

As part of its Denmark In Arts campaign in Detroit, #DenmarkInNY caught up with Tal R. ahead of the Friday opening of his show to ask him about what inspired his latest oeuvre and how Denmark and Detroit share cultural common ground despite being so far apart.

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DNY: How did the show come about?

TR: Elysia Borowy-Reeder, the Director of MOCAD, and her Board, came to Copenhagen and they came to visit my studio. And I think it actually started there. Of course they knew my work so they requested to come and visit the studio. After this, they first wanted to take over my Survey show that was at the Louisiana. But it was not really possible. And then, you know, learning a little about Detroit’s history I thought, instead of making everything so complicated — you have to pack stuff, you have to insure, it has to be in a special climate. I said I’m just going to come to Detroit and do everything on the spot. It’s a little bit like if you’re a musician and you all the time sit and play in your studio. And then you actually want to take the challenge of taking your songs on the road. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve done everything here in seven days.

What is the inspiration behind your work and what motivated you to come to Detroit?

When I came to visit Detroit in December I had a quite different idea. I had an idea about making a show that was called Slow which was much more abstract. But when I came and me and my friend were driving around, I saw the city. I saw, you know, different neighborhoods. I started playing with the idea of making a show that is about the neighborhoods but not about knowing about the neighborhoods of Detroit. More about the imagination. One of the best books ever written about America is really by Kafka and he never came to America. And I think that’s a privilege of being an artist. It’s enough to imagine — you don’t really have to know. In my job, I can actually just imagine. People can tell me there’s a neighbourhood called Delray and I don’t even Google it. I just imagine what kind of neighbourhood, what kind of images would be great to play in these neighborhoods. So, this show in Detroit is really about the neighborhoods here but not about knowing them. You could say, more about the fantasy and projection about these neighborhoods. There are seven big works here and they all have the title of one of the neighborhoods in Detroit.

What is the common ground between Denmark and Detroit? How do the two places speak to each other and feed off of each other culturally?

It’s not something that I’ve ever thought about. Actually, I take it for granted that there’s common ground. One of the images I use is of a train. And if you put a big, huge train on a wall in would mean something different if you do it in Sweden or if you do it in Detroit. Because people have different projections of train. As an artists I play with suspense — I throw something out to the viewer so they walk into the images. It’s very important that every great painting has an arm that pulls the viewer in. It’s not like you have a fixed plan for them but you have to get them on the dance floor which is inside the painting. I just take it for granted that there is common ground and that there is “lost in translation.” And I think “lost in translation” is much more productive than common ground. “Lost in translation” means you’re lost. Something falls apart and when things fall apart, that is in a way a catastrophe but it also means that things are going to be put back together. And I think the role of the artist is more about asking questions, and complicated questions — questions that don’t have cliché answers; questions that make people confused and worried — I think that has always been the role of the artist. That’s why “lost in translation” — the confusion that you don’t understand when you’re in a certain context — is much more productive than common ground.

How did the Detroit environment influence your artwork and impact the way you produced your work?

I absolutely adore this place. You drive down a street and everything looks like common ground. And then you’re on another street and all the houses look like they’re from Fear the Walking Dead. Everything is abandoned — you just see what happens when humans leave a neighbourhood. That means that everything is possible. It’s like the city has a second chance. I think that’s very appealing and very attractive. I think that’s a chance that almost every city in history has had. Berlin, at a certain point, had the same kind of feeling. Every city that collapses, and historically most cities have collapsed, has a chance to rebuild. Maybe then for at least a second you can imagine making a difference. The atmosphere here in Detroit is really full of possibilities.

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Tal R, Rainbow, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

How have you developed personally and artistically in producing this show?

What I have done here is quite mad. I’ve been working day and night. I’ve painted six really huge paintings. When I arrived, I thought “This is not possible.” I was actually quite nervous. But then, you know, it’s possible. And these paintings can’t really leave. They are too big to get out of the door. So, I don’t know what is going to happen to them. Maybe we’re just going to dump them afterwards. I think for me this has been a really important experience — the experience of saying “Get out of your studio” and actually just considering my work as an intellectual activity which I can travel with. It’s not something that is bound to the studio. Basically, the experience you get as an artist is, you could say, intellectual, creative. It’s not bound to materials.

If someone pointed a gun at you and forced you to distil your exhibition into one main theme, what would you say that is?

If you’re going to ask me like that, I will quote Leonard Cohen saying “Don’t go home with a hard-on, it’ll just drive you mad.” That’s the theme of the show. You asked me in a Freudian way, I responded in a Freudian way.

Andrew Z. Giacalone, Press and Communications Advisor at Denmark In NY.

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The Official Medium Blog for the Consulate General of Denmark in New York. For all things Danish, #DenmarkInNY.

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