Atlanta artist Nathan Sharratt’s MFA thesis exhibition at Georgia State University’s Welch Galleries during the week of March 28 set off a frenzy of social media activity and polarizing opinions due to an intervention — or violation, depending on one’s point of view — by the artist and Low Museum cofounder Pastiche Lumumba, a paid assistant to Sharratt. Three BURNAWAY contributors weigh in on Sharratt’s exhibition and the controversy, which involved the theft and return of one of the objects in Sharratt’s show, an act variously seen as a planned performance or a conceptual hijacking.
BY ED HALL
No significant competitors come to mind as I ponder whether the artist talk (under the guise of a “tour”) delivered during the opening for “Buy Nathan Sharratt: A Requirement of the Masters of Fine Art Degree of Georgia State University” qualifies as the funniest artist talk I have ever heard. Fitful laughter greeted the words of “internationally super-famous artist Nathan Sharratt” as he led visitors through what I found to be a likewise hilarious thesis exhibition/poke in the eye for conventions grown all too familiar to denizens of numerous art worlds.
Throughout, Sharratt maintained a deadpan delivery worthy of his fellow Atlanta arts satirists Antonio Darden and Matt Sigmon (the Art Officials). His borderline-grumpy, not-too-inviting opening announcement was, “Giving a tour now. If you’d like to join us. And not just eat our food.” Seldom have I encountered such precise deployment of language from someone working in the plastic arts; make no mistake: he uttered each sentence fragment, complete with a full and audible stop, as I’ve indicated.
My own long-standing impatience with/hostility toward the ungrammatical and empty bloviloquence of the average artist statement makes me a sucker for this kind of thing. And the extent to which almost every element of “Buy Nathan Sharratt” treats its viewers as too smart to fall for its transparent hucksterism is what saves it from mean-spiritedness. Consider the so-called retrospective gallery of earlier Sharratt works … which is entirely absent of works by Sharratt, except for descriptive texts he inscribed upon what look like bathroom tiles. One such text reads, in part, that the work it addresses represents “exploration into creativity and exploration.” Consider further the advantage such an absence of art confers, as Sharratt himself observed: “It’s much better than seeing the work, which is now infinite and cannot be belittled.”
Sharratt saves his longest daggers for acts of arts commodification and appropriation. “Obiekt,” a word he claimed he “think[s] is Polish for ‘object,’” labels the physically largest part of the exhibition, a shysterly exercise in entering through the gift shop, the (appropriately) sole route to the heart of “Buy Nathan Sharratt.” My favorite items were the paired wooden coasters whose surfaces, like those of perhaps everything on offer, bore the artist’s logo; what distinguished them was their pricing: $35 or $45 [emphasis mine]. His explanation was that one coaster was “complicit,” the other “complacent”; whichever one the buyer considered worse was the more expensive. The artist generously “left the original price tag on” bookshelf-size reproductions of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog with Sharratt’s logo laser-etched onto their shiny hides “so [purchasers] can feel better.” He even impressed the same blocked, radiating N onto a repro bust of Queen Nefertiti (titled It’s Important to Own History) and onto the lenses of sunglasses (titled I Can See Clearly Now).
Were I not somewhat familiar with Sharratt’s deliberate brand of wordplay — which stretches back at least to 2012’s suggestively dubbed “Come Inside. Me.” — I might think he was under the disenchanting spell of the United States’ current presidential contest. After all, near the end of his tour, the artist went out of his way to identify one of the candidates (I’ll let you guess which one) as “a dick.” The shameless dickishness and unapologetic shilling of the character he plays in the context of “Buy Nathan Sharratt” thus seems sadly familiar and ineluctably American. Now it’s up to his fellow artists to recognize aspects of their problematic selves in this disco-ball of a show’s razor-edged facets.
BY ANDREW ALEXANDER
Barring some awful physical calamity, what’s one of the worst things that could happen to an artist at the opening of his exhibition?
If this question had come up a month ago, I might have agreed that “Having his work stolen” was a pretty good answer. But I now know there’s something much worse: An artist can have his work stolen and then have his community applaud the theft.
It was with more than a little concern that I saw those events unfold recently in Atlanta.
Pastiche Lumumba’s reported actions were a violation of a crucial trust regarding the nature of artistic exhibition. In my opinion, moving or removing an artist’s work is not an acceptable means of criticism simply because one disagrees with the artist’s aesthetic stance or feels there’s a valuable lesson to impart. I’m relieved the work was returned, but it does not undo the underlying violation.
While hearing about the work’s removal was moderately troubling, seeing so many community members condone and even applaud the act in the subsequent days was truly alarming.
I don’t believe that Nathan Sharratt supports Trump or the unjust hoarding of cultural artifacts as some imply, but even if he did, the removal of his work from a gallery is not a legitimate response. Even if one agrees with Lumumba’s political stance, it’s important to consider very carefully whether or not we agree if taking an artist’s work out of an exhibition is ever an acceptable form of discourse.
I suspect many supporters of Lumumba’s actions might answer, “It’s acceptable if it starts dialogue,” a common refrain, but it’s worth remembering that not all ways of initiating dialogue (or all subsequent dialogues) are positive. One might be pleased by the productive discussions about respect and tolerance that follow the appearance of offensive graffiti. That does not mean we’re pleased by the graffiti, or are grateful to the scrawler.
Many of those who approve of Lumumba’s action do so because they believe it prompts reflection about historical privilege, but I imagine they might disapprove of, say, religious fundamentalists surreptitiously removing a gay-themed work from a gallery to prompt a discussion about sin or of aesthetes removing an ugly piece from a museum to prompt conversations about beauty. It’s not dialogue if we consider the means of initiating the discourse only rightfully available to those adhering to a viewpoint we already share. Speech, writing and artistic production remain the best bases for true dialogue.
Typically, those who have seen it as their prerogative to remove errant work from exhibitions have claimed their actions are justified by some long-standing historical wrong or broad societal problem. Taking an artist’s work from a gallery is still a terrible means of engaging with the art even if the historical wrong used to justify it is genuine. Moreover, real oppression and historical suffering can easily be belittled if they’re used to justify petty or self-aggrandizing acts.
In assessing the Atlanta art community’s actions and reactions over the past days, it was often difficult to distinguish those which were motivated by real concerns from those which might have been tinged with jealousy over Sharratt’s success, which has been considerable for an Atlanta artist at such an early stage of his career.
Regardless, Sharratt has been treated unfairly. He should not be put on public trial to determine whether his intent passes muster or whether the object’s removal was justified: his work, like the exhibited work of all artists, does not deserve to be stolen, censored, or removed against his will. An artist’s work should remain in the gallery, even if we disapprove of it, even if we feel we have a powerful lesson to teach by taking it out. I hope we can all agree that Atlanta should not be a place where removing work from galleries is seen as a legitimate and positive means of initiating discourse.
BY MATTHEW TERRELL
Pastiche Lumumba vs. Nathan Sharratt: When art, reality, and critique blend together.
The show “BuyNathanSharratt: A Requirement of the Masters of Fine Arts Degree of Georgia State University,” at GSU’s Welch Gallery was an opulently ironic thesis exhibition for which the titular artist absorbed all the political nonsense of both the art world and academia and regurgitated it in a performative display in which every single detail pokes fun at institutional bullshit. Imagine Jeff Koons and Richard Prince “Two Girls, One Cup”ping themselves, and you get an idea of this show. The artist played a character of himself as a World-Renowned artist, and his “docents” were told, “It is recommended that you treat anything the Artist says while performing as Very Important and Truthful and respond in a serious manner as is befitting the Artist’s performed status as World-Renowned.” These performative docents even gave tours of art that was simply text describing the art—no actual object. The artist 3D-printed and branded with his name other objects, including a bust of Nefertiti. Hyperallergic recently reported the alleged covert scanning of the Nefertiti bust at the Neues Museum in Berlin by artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, who then made the scan available for free online as a way to repatriate the stolen artifact (this is how Sharratt was able to 3-D print the bust). The New York Times and Hyperallergic then reported that the Nelles scanning may have been a hoax— so the Nefertiti bust is caught in a place where art and reality are indistinguishable.
During Sharratt’s opening, his paid studio assistant, Pastiche Lumumba (also executive director of the Low Museum), stole a rebranded Disney figurine (not the Nefertiti bust, which would have been awesome) as a way to bring attention to the thoughtless neo-Colonialism of rebranded artifacts in this show. Perhaps you saw Lumumba’s Google Doc manifesto passed around on Facebook that detailed the incident. In the same vein as Tony Shafrazi spray-painting Picasso’s Guernica and Brian Eno pissing in Duchamp’s Fountain — Lumumba pulled off a bit of artistic rebellion as political act. Lumumba, for his part, delivered his disobedience-as-art in a much more nuanced, thoughtful way than Shafrazi and Eno’s incendiary acts.
What started out as a bit of private protest on the part of Lumumba to get Sharratt’s attention ended up making a splash in the Atlanta arts scene as a razor sharp piece of criticism about power and privilege, as well as the institutions that let unchecked privilege prevail. He argued that Sharratt blindly recreated harmful, Colonialist power structures while simultaneously disrespecting the Nefertiti vase’s cultural significance, as well as the intended artistic message of the Nelles rescanning the piece. Lumumba also took umbrage over a second artwork, a reappropriated Donald Trump hat rebranded to read “Make America Nate Again.” Lumumba’s critique of this piece boiled down to: Donald Trump is a hateful, harmful person and any artist giving him recognition should be verboten in our liberal arts-world ecosytem. While this is true, it also felt like plug-and-play Millennial outrage tantamount to the recent Emory student Trump-chalking debacle. It was not as substantive a critique compared to the issues the Nefertiti vase brought up. In following this controversy, I wanted to hear Lumumba’s perspective on everything. Here’s what he had to say.
So, we’re here to talk about Nathan Sharratt’s show. So, I’m just going to let you start telling the story. Start at the beginning, just to give us some context of the relationship with Nathan Sharratt, and then bring us up to the opening of the show.
I started working with Nathan Sharratt as his studio assistant at the end of February 2016, this year.
I was attracted to working for him because a lot of the materials and tools and processes that he uses are things that I gravitate toward in my own work, like 3D printing, scanning, laser cutting, just various technology-based processes for creating artwork. When I began, I was organizing his studio just to make his life a lot easier, and then we’re just conceptualizing his show, his thesis show, I read his thesis. We would go back and forth about what his work is about, what the implications are, that kind of thing. Around the beginning of March, he started creating works more consistently for his solo show at the Ernest G. Welch galleries as part of his MFA. The show was set up to be a multidisciplinary institutional retrospective for him as an artist, and it would include a performance space, an art space, and a shop, and all of this would be live-streamed on the Internet.
In mid-March, I walked into his studio and there was a 3D-printed Nefertiti bust with his name over her head, and his seal. Personally, I found that problematic. A little bit of background on that piece and where it came from … two artists in Germany — Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles — clandestinely, illegally scanned the Nefertiti bust, which was in the German Neues Museum, as a kind of new millennium gesture to repatriate the artifact to its home in Egypt.
So, part of their whole concept and purpose for doing that was to directly have a conversation with the colonialist practice and history of taking artifacts from the global south and putting them into Western institutions.
I walk into his studio and saw him, a white male artist from the United States, reproduce this object and then go further to stamp his name and seal onto it, which, in my opinion, functioned in direct opposition to the intention of the original artist who posted their open source file for it online. It was a gesture of recolonizing that artifact, and putting it into his show where it would be sold for his benefit, monetarily, culturally, whatever, as his own.
What do you think his intention was with this piece?
I had multiple conversations with him about many things, many pieces that he had made and I never really got the sense that there was any intention behind it other than, “Here’s a thing that I have a 3-D file for, let me print it out and put my name on it.” It wasn’t as well articulated as the intentions of the artists who scanned it, or as strong as my opposition to it. That, here were things, like the other things that were in his show, like Mickey Mouse heads, Star Wars memorabilia, and the Jeff Koons sculptures that he laser-etched his seal onto. To me it seemed like [the Nefertiti bust] was just another object, and it’s not just another object, right? The artists who scanned it in Germany said the Nefertiti is kind of a synecdoche. It represents all of the other artifacts that have been stolen and looted from Africa and the rest of the global south, and put into Western institutions.
Prior to seeing that, had you had any tensions with him in the studio?
Not on a level that was anything more than aesthetic. As another artist, it’s not my job to tell another artist how to aesthetically make their work.
So let’s go into the opening of the show. What happened and what did you do?
I helped him set up the show in the weeks prior, and you know, he’d been in the day prior to the show installing lights, and putting all the stuff together. By that time, we had already had at least two conversations about the problematic, in my opinion, nature of the Nefertiti bust, and another piece where he appropriated Donald Trump’s hat and slogan that was “Make America Great Again” to “Make America Nate Again.” So we’d already had discussions about those things. And so by the time his show came around, I was like, “Well, how do I kind of subvert what he’s doing?” in a way that doesn’t steal his shine during his show. I could have walked in and just been like, “Let me spray paint all of this shit.”
Like a Tony Shafrazi sort of thing.
Right, or break things, or whatever. One, it wasn’t my intention to cause a scene at his show. I didn’t want to give him any more attention. Two, not that I care about the sanctity of other people’s shows, but it just — it would be tacky. It’s not necessarily the best thing to do to go into somebody’s opening and basically shit on their work.
So, I was thinking about him specifically setting up a microcosm of capitalism, commodities exchange, and what I could do that was symmetrical to that element of his show. So I considered stealing something. I considered stealing the Nefertiti bust as an act of direct conversation with that piece. I considered taking other things. I’m basically just looking for what object will be large enough that he will notice its absence but small enough that nobody else will notice me stealing it, because once again, that will cause a scene, and not be necessarily a quiet thing.
I arrived at this Vinylmation doll that’s nothing special in terms of its subject matter, other than it’s another piece in his shop. So I took that piece, all the while knowing that I was on camera. I knew that I would be on camera, and I knew that he would know that it was me. It was my intention to quietly steal this object and return it the next day, and be like, “haha, we’re going to have this conversation,” in the same vein that we’d had those conversations about the Nefertiti bust and the Donald Trump hat in his studio. I was more than prepared to have a conversation with him about my act and how it directly subverted his show.
So I took that piece and walked out of the gallery into the lobby, and just continued to talk with a couple of other people. Maybe two minutes later he comes out of the gallery and was angry. Which was funny to me, because he never really got that heated in our conversations. But he was like, “somebody stole something. This is your chance to return it. I don’t know if you forgot to pay for it,” whatever. And you know, nobody said anything because I was the person that took it and nobody else had anything to say.
So he did not know that it was you?
At that point, he did not know that it was me, no. After making that announcement, he walks back into the gallery, and I hang around for another couple of minutes, with the knowledge that he definitely has recorded video of the incident and hopefully it was also my understanding, or, not understanding, but like my perception that once he saw the video, knew it was me, we could, you know, proceed to having that conversation.
So, about midnight, I get on Facebook and I see this long post from him saying that somebody stole something, that it was a member of the community, that he filed a police report, and this person has 24 hours to return the object. And at that point, the narrative was public. It was on a public forum, and the way it was framed by his status was that there was not any real reason for someone to steal this object other than someone just wanted a piece of mine and didn’t feel like paying for it.
The next day, I returned the piece to one of the two places that he had designated for people to return the piece to. I spent the rest of the day writing a response that contextualized our relationship and my intentions for committing that act and why they were symmetrical to the show that he set up, and then posted that on the Internet. And that’s why we’re here.
So, what are the specific institutions, specific points that you were critiquing?
I was critiquing the institution that he set up as a commodities exchange. One of the ways in which capitalism is subverted is through theft. One way to subvert the system of power based on capital is to take capital without going through the traditional channels.
What were your goals in this act? What did you hope to cause? Or spur?
I hoped to have a conversation with him about why what I did — in private, also — it’s important to note that. I hoped to have a conversation with him about what it means to subvert power. That’s basically it.
And, so just to clarify. Did you expect this to go public?
No. Not at all. I expected to return the piece as a way of directly engaging him in the conversation.
Since this has all happened, what have you seen in response?
I have seen a lot of people congratulate me. I’ve gotten messages from people being like, “this is great,” and “we’re happy someone is having a critical dialogue about things.” The other thing that has happened is — that’s much more interesting than any of that, to me — is that people who have critiqued me personally, which I welcome, have rarely spoken about his work. Most of the people who have either messaged me or talked to me on comments or on Facebook are mostly appalled by the fact that I stole something and cannot get past that fact to engage what the implications of his work are.
Do you have any final thoughts?
My final thoughts are that if you create work that is problematic, you need to have a really good reason for it. And that reason needs to be clear. In my opinion, his work was problematic because he reproduced elements and symbols of colonialist violence for seemingly no reason.
On April Fool’s Day, Sharratt posted a long-winded response to the controversy surrounding his show. Tl;dr – Everything was a performance. Sharratt wanted the Nefertiti bust to start a conversation about power, privilege, and colonialism. The artist also swears Lumumba’s act was not a planned part of the exhibition or Sharratt’s artistic practice. Sharratt then goes on to dare Lumumba to get arrested for the act, saying:
If the theft was so important that it warranted violating artistic ethics and defamation per se, wouldn’t the logical conclusion be to allow yourself to be arrested as a political statement? Who would choose the act of silently stealing as a form of subversion? An act that no one was supposed to notice and that was supposed to be addressed in private, when there was an offered opportunity to engage in real conversation with real people in real time?
Zooming out—knowing that the story of the Nelles scanning the Nefertiti vase may have been a hoax, knowing that everything about the Sharratt show was a self-aware performance, and knowing that Sharratt’s statement was released on April Fool’s Day—I find it hard to take anything in this situation at face value. To me, this does seem a bit like artistic theater, and I have doubts about what is real and who is telling the truth here. Even Lumumba. Critics should stand up strongly against the art they pick apart, and I’m afraid Lumumba is caught up in Sharratt’s postmodern web of simulacrums. So, we’re back in the same space as the Nefertiti bust, where art and reality are indistinguishable from each other.
I do have to agree with Sharratt on one point: Lumumba being arrested would be quite the political statement. More importantly, it would break Lumumba free from the art vs. reality conundrum. Being arrested would be very, very real. I don’t think Sharratt should press charges to have Lumumba arrested (that would be a total dick move); however, if GSU arrests Lumumba as policy, that would be brilliant. This would take Lumumba’s critique to the next level—and call out the university, our system of law, and institutional politics for being inherently harmful to anyone who isn’t already in a place of power. Part of me wants Sharratt and Lumumba to be in cahoots, and for this to be staged. It would fit in perfectly with Sharratt’s manufactured artistic ecosystem, and would certainly get everyone in the community talking about this issue.
I’ll be interested to see how this plays out.