Alan Nakagawa is a conceptual artist and self-described “proud Angeleno raised in K-Town.” He’s currently working with the Getty Museum Education Department on a project at the Getty Villa called Myth Not Myth that deconstructs myth and misperceptions about classical art. Alan’s project plays with the idea of myth and how often people come to believe that stories that aren’t true are true. Specifically, he questions how we come to privilege certain stories about art, especially within the context of working in and visiting museums.
The project consists of a series of oral history conversations with Getty staff and a series of interactive sculptures inspired by these dialogues, which will be presented free to the public in the Villa’s Outer Peristyle on June 11, 18, and 25, 2016. For this work, Alan is asking you to get involved—answer these five questions (entirely anonymously), and your point of view will help inform the project!
Alan’s conceptual art practice is driven by a curiosity about how we perceive the world around us. In his 2013 project Conical Sound, he made field recordings at Watts Towers in South Los Angeles and at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. He also recently completed a five-year run as the curator and producer of Ear Meal Webcast, a weekly online show documenting Los Angeles’s experimental music and sound art community. This month at Groundspace Project in Downtown LA, he’s debuting a new immersive sound installation, Mudsling, inspired by a thunderstorm he experienced during an artist residency at the MacDowell Art Colony.
I sat down with Alan for a conversation about his working process, memory, and time.
Audrey Chan: How do you describe what you do as an artist?
Alan Nakagawa: I would say I’m emotionally attached to sound and how it relates to space and memory and people. I use sound to create invisible poetry. I also make zines and perform periodically. I’m very blessed because I’ve had really great mentors and access—access to information, and access to people who have talents you don’t have so that you can collaborate with them.
I have also had this other life as a public arts administrator. [Public space] is an amazingly hazardous environment for artwork, so I’ve always been interested in how professional conservators deal with that.
There’s so much research, labor, and physical care that goes into the behind-the-scenes life of an artwork.
I wanted to show that there’s a whole team of people that get the Getty going everyday. For instance, how did these great [art objects] get here? A piece goes through so many hands, not just in terms of conserving it and getting it ready for presentation, but also documentation and categorizing it, and publishing it so that the rest of the world knows that it’s here.
A key component of Myth Not Myth is oral history. This makes a lot of sense given that myths, stories, and lore have been passed down orally for generations in all world cultures. What is the process of making (and recording) an oral history today?
I was trained in oral history by Teresa Barnett, director of The Center for Oral History Research at UCLA. Oral history is a process that realizes that stories are based on memory, and memory is not a black-and-white mechanism. You have to open doors. When you remember something, it’s never what actually happened because time molds it into a romance or dream or fantasy or hope or catharsis or maybe even devastation—all of these things emotionally and psychologically mold what you think you remember. There’s a process you have to go through to get as much full body recall as possible.
You’ll always uncover something new. It’s stream of consciousness, letting someone flow through what they want to flow through because when they’re recalling the past, [the process] unlocks all these memories, things that they probably never thought were important or things that they hadn’t remembered. It’s like being an athlete or riding a bike.
Oral histories are investigative and there’s an investment both on the part of the interviewer and the person being interviewed. The recordings are archival timepieces and legacies of a person.
What drew you to the subject of myth?
The Getty Villa has always been about Greek myth to me. There is this ocean of information that by definition is myth or mythological. But what does “myth” mean? Not true? Fabricated truth? There’s ambiguity in everything. When you start talking about myth, you realize everything is fabricated and things that are “authentic” are not always what they seem.
The site of the Getty Villa itself plays into this narrative about authenticity since it’s a contemporary architectural interpretation inspired by the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. The archaeological site is still being excavated and there have also been efforts to visualize the site through virtual reality. Personally, I love the idea of Villa Not Villa.
Exactly, it’s Villa Not Villa. But does it matter? It’s an extremely beautiful place. It’s picturesque, it’s built well, it’s not like a Hollywood set. This is real marble and real stone and we all know that we’re not at Herculaneum. The Villa is unique because it’s a copy.
At the Villa, there’s a contrast between the recreated architecture and decoration of the site and the antiquities on display in the galleries. Many of the antiquities in the collection were found in fragments, their color has worn off, or their surface has been corroded—they’ve become defined by the aesthetics of their aged condition. While your sculptures will be in conversation with antiquities, they haven’t been put through the test of time.
I’m making sculptures to hopefully add to this conversation. I wish I could tell you I know what I’m going to make, but I don’t know yet! I wonder if any of the pieces will survive a thousand years from now. Today, artists are trained to think that it’s okay for an artwork to deteriorate, that temporality is okay. There’s a value in that. It’s either wisdom or reality that nothing lasts forever.
Text of this post © J. Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved.
Help shape the outcome of Myth Not Myth by sharing with Alan your ideas about myths, ancient and modern. Answer five questions (anonymously!) via this brief online form.
Learn more about Alan Nakagawa’s Myth Not Myth project at the Getty Villa: getty.edu/mythnotmyth. The next post in this series will feature Alan’s oral history recordings with educator Erin Branham, curator Ken Lapatin, and conservator Marie Svoboda.