The Immigrant Artist Biennial – In Dialogue

Images and Art: In and Out of Politics with Carlos Franco and Keren Anavy

Keren Anavy. Archipelago, 2023. Ink and colored pencils on mylar, plexiglass, shells, concrete bricks, and plywood. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

As part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023, artists Carlos Franco (b. Puerto Rico) and Keren Anavy (b. Israel) both showed their work in the group exhibition Enmeshed: Dreams of Water at NARS Foundation. Franco’s work often deploys appropriated images and linguistic symbols. He seems to be exploring the contextual complexities behind how signification takes shape and how signification continues to evolve as a context-dependent subject. Anavy’s site-specific work has been connected to the multifaceted paradigm of “ecological order,” according to the book Transnational Belonging and Female Agency in the Arts. Her fabricated environments consider the “liminal geographic spaces between political art and escapism.”

At a time when Art with a capital “A” is convoluted with mediatic iconoclasm, political tension, and divergent meanings, these two artists speak with Xuezhu Jenny Wang, TIAB’s writer-in-residence, about how art mediates, embodies, and at times rejects geopolitics.

Is the image, or the distribution thereof, political? How do you grapple with the politics of images in your work?

CF: Distribution implies the existence of a network, a mycelium, or a “polis”; the word entails a flux of negotiations taking place as data and resources are transferred between nodes. “Art” is a niche network of meanings: calling an image “Art” is an attempt to insert it into a specific Eurocentric worldview.

That said, the separation of art and politics is a recent framing mechanism; even in the Renaissance, it was wielded as a weapon of state-forging that probably comes out of a hangover from the 20th-century avant-gardes mingling with the market’s invisible hand. The fact that this is positioned as a question points at a culture ever more willing to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” Would you call Shakespeare a political writer? Yet he writes, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!”

I don’t grapple with the politics of images because I am not interested in dictating propaganda or meanings. Where one may see beauty in a flower, another might look at the same hues and fragrances only to see the organism’s bio-historically hard-coded will to survive—a collective survival instinct so extreme that it led the flower to develop favorable traits to make other creatures hallucinate or desire it.

Returning to the question’s first part—the supposed dichotomy between “Art” and politics is null. I enjoy thinking about Walter Benjamin’s take on Mickey Mouse: “In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization.”

What’s the relationship between geographic specificity and art that is socially aware? Does showing work at different locations to different audiences affect your practice?

KA: The landscape we see and live inside is never empty. Beneath the apparent façade of cityscapes or peaceful nature are layers of historical and personal narratives. I also see the landscape as reflecting how “the personal is the political.” In this sense, no man is an island unto himself. Whether we like it or not, we are all part of a larger fabric consisting of both the environment/landscape we occupy and the people connected to the locale’s history—just like how the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky put it: “A person is but his childhood landscape.” As an artist, I always observe reality, apply the technique of defamiliarization to a place, and examine it through a metaphorical lens. A rose is never a rose.

Certainly, as a research-based artist making site-specific art, my work is always grounded in relation to where I come from and where I work/exhibit. For example, in the context of the current TIAB exhibition, I am an artist from an area with an ongoing conflict where water is scarce. But for the past several years, I have been creating works on the East Coast of the United States, where water is abundant everywhere. The presence and abundance of water significantly affect the region’s economy, society, and culture. Keeping this in mind, I am motivated to create works not only based on my history but also in response to my new location. In Archipelago, I used natural, found objects from the coast of Long Island, where I have done several artist residencies over the past two years. This installation uses materials deeply implicated in ecology, but for me, it is like a travel diary that tells my transnational journey.

Local and global audiences are on my mind while I create my landscape installations and site-specific works. As an installation artist, I need to create a new environment and offer an experience for the audience. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily change my artworks with different audiences in mind, but I think about them and the paths I would like them to walk, literally and conceptually.

CF: It would be weird to be painting flowers in a conflict zone, but then again, flowers are all about geo-specificity, which even taps into gender politics once we consider anthropology, sociology, etc.; a bouquet is a mock-up of cosmopolitanism—all of these soils pooled together to win over hearts and minds.

It wouldn’t be the same to show a Flor de Maga (Thespesia grandiflora, the national flower of Puerto Rico) in the USA as it is in the Caribbean. A lot of paperwork and (un)natural conditions have to be fulfilled for this flower to thrive and not wither away before it reaches the limelight. Also, saying “Flor de Maga” out loud feels different here.

Carlos Franco. Encancaranublado, 2022. Photography, inkjet print. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

Keren, your work explores nature and social narratives through metaphoric artistic language. How did you land on these natural motifs and dissect their meanings? Is there tension between the element of visual poetry and the socio-political realities behind them?

KA: All the motifs and images I choose to work with, whether in a painting or an installation, have meanings. They were chosen after an in-depth study of the place and the subject. I like to work with images that have a double meaning, such as flowers that not only symbolize blossoming and growth but also serve us in moments of grief. The ocean that echoes in archipelagoes also symbolizes freedom, movement, and boundlessness, alongside wildness, lack of control, and danger. I think about the concept of beauty in art a lot, and it also entails much pain; good art can contain opposites.

Therefore, the political is very present in my work given my choices of images and their corresponding associations. Sometimes, the socio-political meanings of my work are swallowed up in the “beauty” or “visual poetry,” as you described it, and this is a bet I take as a contemporary artist: that my works will not always be understood at first glance.

Are there rules, best practices, or limitations to making art implicated in politics?

CF: I will give a broad answer because “art implicated in politics” sounds too propaganda-adjacent. A good idea is dangerous: it cuts through the status quo and spreads like a virus. I guess it is not a rule, but it should be a law of nature—a premise of any creative endeavor. In the end, we’re all social creatures (even when in denial) and, as a consequence, “political.” I am thinking of this quote I saw recently from Ai Wei Wei: “The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.” To speak no evil is a privilege we can’t all endure.

What does the idea of a border mean to you?

KA: The concept of a border means many things to me, but I will point out three key aspects. At the most basic level, it is a line demarcating territories to provide security. Or, in my case, as someone born in Israel, for as long as I can remember, this line is blurred by a sense of insecurity and a constant need for vigilance. The absurdity is that the safest border in my homeland is the wild sea instead of the land-bound borders that were supposed to bring more stability.

The border is also a concept that I think about in tandem with the concept of the garden (which I am researching alongside water channels). The garden is a place of nature but will always be closed off as a cultivated ecosystem.

Finally, the border is a metaphorical concept for my practice, as I tread on the borderline between political art and escapism, endeavoring to offer the intermediate space in between. This is the space where the viewer can confront topical political issues alongside art-historical or aesthetic questions.

About the Writer: Xuezhu Jenny Wang is a Chinese writer and translator specializing in postwar and contemporary visual culture and design. Currently, she is working on a research project that focuses on mid-century interior design and mechanization. Wang has previously served as copy editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator, editor of the Columbia Undergraduate Journal of Art History, and producer of The Conversation Art Podcast. Her art criticism has been published in ArteFuse, Art Spiel, and Cultbytes. She has held project-based positions at Barro, Aicon Gallery, and Cai Studio and is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in History and Theory of Architecture at Columbia University.

Carlos Franco and Keren Anavy are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone, held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Find the full program here [https://www.theimmigrantartistbiennial/programming2023].

For more information about the 2023 edition of the Immigrant Artist Biennial: Contact Zone, please find the program here. Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this review series is published as part of TIAB’s writer’s residency generously supported by Lesley Bodzy Studio and Fraser Birrell Grier, Esq.