Interview: Nicholas Muellner on the newest book from SPBH Editions
To coincide with the release of In Most Tides An Island,we talk with the author about the complex relationship of text and image, the sneaky nature of autobiography and the lives of gay men in provincial Russia.
SPBH Editions has just released a new book by the acclaimed American artist and writer Nicholas Muellner. The book, In Most Tides An Island, is now available in our online shop and in bookshops worldwide.
When and how did you begin experimenting with text and photography in your work?
I pursued many, many forms of photography and text work in the 1990s, beginning with a sequence of one-of-a-kind color photocopy books, and ranging from the fabricated archive of a doomed Dadaist movement to various audio-visual slide-strip projections. A complete rundown of these adventures is too various, in quality and format, to recount in full.
Then, around 1999, out of a desire for silence, or to give space to a purely visual vocabulary, I stopped using language in my artwork for nearly ten years, though I continued to write about art and photography made by others.
Do you remember the first book using both writing and photography that opened up that strategy in art making for you?
I always find the discussion of influences slightly embarrassing. Perhaps I’m one of those artists who wish to believe that we became ourselves through a hermetically sealed and wholly original larval process. But I also find that the things one loves at 19 can lose their luster over time. In that vein, one first love was the little books of Duane Michaels, which seduced me not only with their mystical-whimsical narratives of word-image interplay, but with their spiritually gauzed-over homoeroticism. Now I find them cloying and trite, but just because I turned on them doesn’t mean they didn’t leave their mark first.
More indirectly, but perhaps more consequently in the long run, I remember leafing endlessly through Ralph Gibson’s The Somnambulist, and paging through countless Ralph Eugene Meatyard images, transfixed by the linguistically loaded image-language of these symbolist photographers. They implied literature and narrative without illustration or words – a profound lesson for me.
Finally, a little bit later, though I already knew the images by themselves, I recall the moment of first encountering Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and the stunningly brave structure of the book, in which all the images appear up front, before the first word of text – before, even, the title page. Here, image and language are trusted to autonomously co-exist, with an unarticulated electrical charge between them. I think of that encounter still with a sharp intake of breath.
How did the In Most Tides An Island project start? How did it develop into a book?
In Most Tides An Island did not start as a project. It more accurately could be said to have materialized over several years, as one pursuit slid across another idea like two different hues and types of cloud, merging to produce a patch of Rococo sky.
A book was the last form this project arrived at, though I had long intended that end. The tropical island part of the work first cohered as The Nautiloid Heart, exhibited originally at Noshowspace in London in 2013. By 2015 that gallery-based project (large format photographs and a reflective text installation) had absorbed other material to become a scripted hour-long slideshow. This second format was the scaffold of words and images on which the book was built. I still perform the slideshow, which has morphed over time but remains quite different from the final book. They’re like related creatures that diverged at some point along the evolutionary timeline.
How did you structure the book, and how did you edit / sequence the photos in relation to the text?
For me, reading aloud over images is a great way to work out the general structure, sound and feel of things. But starting from the slideshow, the work underwent radical remaking in becoming a book. My first strategy – no, not strategy, rather impulse, desire – was to overwhelm, and my first book drafts had about twice the images of the final book! Around 300 photos. That’s when the cruel-to-be-kind hand of Bruno’s editing slapped me awake to a different kind of book – one not reliant on the model of the slideshow. From there, a new set of editorial questions arose. In further revising, I worked to open up more autonomy between the images in the language and those in the photographs, so that moments of illustration became moments of relation or evocation or complication. The book format also forced me to focus on the power of single images and isolated texts to arrest and hold the viewer.
How did the design of the book effect the content?
Andrew Sloat, the designer, began work only when the content of the book was finished and sequenced. What his remarkable and subtle design did change fundamentally was the legibility and affect of the experience. The isolated presence that he gave each episode of text produced a kind of poetic encounter that encouraged reading slowly amidst all the images. I really wanted the book to feel both like a book of pictures and like a novel (though I would never call it that). Andrew achieved that miraculous double-being, I think.
How do you think the people you featured in the work will feel about the book?
None of the men I photographed and wrote about have yet seen the book, as it doesn’t feel safe to send it to them through the mail, for their own privacy, and I haven’t returned to the region since the book was published. I have shared images with each of them, and they seem to like them just fine, while also understanding what the book is about. But friendship and connection are more important to them than an artist’s book … and none of them speak English to read the text.
Not surprisingly, though they all wanted me to know more about their lives, and were aware of why I was meeting them and what I was working on, none of them seemed interested in being generalized – or in generalizing their own experiences for me. When you lack any direct community of fellowship or identification, perhaps it seems beside the point to think beyond the specifics of one’s own situation, hopes and happiness.
How do you see the book in relation to the current situation of queer people in Russia?
I wanted to make a book that talked about a kind of queer experience in Russia that does not get much attention. For understandable reasons, almost all the journalistic and documentary accounts of gay life in Russia focus on activists, or on individuals who are part of self-identified gay communities, mostly in large cities. But that’s not how most queer people live in a country like Russia. That life requires the confidence, bravery and access to a level of social solidarity that many people, particularly in rural and provincial Russia, can’t find. Their lives are radically but silently fractured between their lived experience and apparent identity and who they know themselves to be and desire. Their lives are often characterized by loneliness, secrecy, the inertia of repression and the acceptance of radical limits on their gay experience. That is what I wanted to report and reflect on. And it is a condition of queer life that exists everywhere, quietly, even in the land of federally protected gay marriage.
I also wanted the accounts of these men to reflect back on a more general condition of cross-wired intimacy and solitude in the allegedly “networked” world most of my audience inhabits. Our webs of connection also serve to carve out a deep space of solitude in new and troubling ways.
How much is this book about you?
[Sigh.] All of it and none of it.
Sometimes I’m the unspoken subject; other times, I’m the illustration for an experience that I hope reflects elsewhere. Beyond a few moments in the book where I speak directly from my own experience, I see myself most clearly in both the subject (Isabel) and narrator of the tropical island narrative. Her inscrutable desire (or compulsion) to shut the world out, and the narrator’s desire to find a way in … I identify with both sides of that relationship. As to the Russian men, the narrator, who is a subject, is also me. And one question that hovers over those narratives, and haunts me still, is: what draws me to seek out these lonely men? That question remains unanswered.
I came of age in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, in the late 1980s, and though I lived in a relatively ‘progressive’ world, and knew many others, braver than me, who overcame fear of deadly disease and social stigma to live openly, I was not immediately so brave. And the lives of these particular Russian men evoke the experience of half-conscious resignation and dissociation that I experienced in my early adulthood. I find it impossible to recall the consciousness of my closeted self, but I can recognize it, painfully and sympathetically, in the lives of others.
Also, at least in American culture, we are all encouraged to feel that our lives, fully realized, lie elsewhere, unfulfilled but waiting for us when we can achieve them. The end of communism released that idealist capitalist poison into the Russian bloodstream, but for many people – queer ones among them – that promise was not fulfilled. To varying degrees, that disappointment is perpetually true for all of us.