The following is excerpted from Unpacking My Library: Artists and Their Books, a collection of interviews with contemporary artists about their personal libraries, to be published by Yale University Press in November.
Your photographic work incorporates family stories, autobiography, documentary, and other narrative forms. What do you consider to be your role as a storyteller?
CARRIE MAE WEEMS
In the past I’ve employed elements of text in and around my work, but I’m certainly not a storyteller. Storytelling requires skills that I don’t possess. Rather, in my work, text functions as a conceptual frame for creating play, counterpoint, tension and/or positioning meaning. The word is a form and the shape of things.
Is there one book that stands out as having had a big impact on you when you first read it?
Books are my playmates, my best friends, my running buddies, my partners in crime, my solace, and my occasional lover. For many years I carried a Felix Gonzalez-Torres catalog [text by Nancy Spector, for the Guggenheim Museum] everywhere. I’d find myself hugging it, holding it tightly to my chest. I fell in love with it—I took simple pleasure in opening it, letting the pages fall where they may, and reading it randomly. I really do love that book—the way it feels and the way it carries, the ease at which you can move through it, thumb through it, look at it. One day I opened it up and I thought, This is really interesting. Who designed this? His name is Takaaki Matsumoto. I was lucky enough to have him design the catalogue from my exhibition at the Guggenheim, and we have become wonderful friends. His designs are elegant, smart, and very simple, with beautiful paper.
Do you believe that books can have a special kind of power over us, and if so, what is it about books that have this effect?
Music and books have saved my life. They anchor my being, ground my existence, widen the path, feed and nourish, and the best reveal both the limits and the expanse of our humanity—they are powerful objects. Most books are, however, one-night stands. One rarely goes back for seconds. Of course, then there are those that are returned to again and again, because you can’t get enough.
On the subject of rereading, Vladimir Nabokov commented, “We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.” Which books do you reread most often, or keep going back to? Which writers do you return to?
I’ve gone back to Ira Glass to reread certain stories. I’ve gone back to Malcolm Gladwell many times to read the way he enters a story. I am fascinated by the way he leads a reader into the story, the structure of his writing. At first glance you might think they are telling offbeat stories, but they’re really not. I think it’s really about how the story is constructed, and how they engage with us, they are built in exceptional ways, that’s how they set themselves apart. I reread the opening five or six paragraphs of Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg probably ten times. I thought it was magnificent—what an opening, what a grand way of getting me into this headspace of yours. I’ve gone back to Coetzee many times because in particular I think Disgrace is amazing. I have read Toni Morrison on my knees, just floored by her amazing ability to tap into that thing that is so difficult for most of us. And then Maria Semple—I keep going back to Where’d You Go, Bernadette—it’s so fantastic, so beautifully constructed out of emails. And there are the artists that I return to repeatedly—there’s a whole list of them, from the great classical painters to the great modernist painters. Duchamp is one of the great puzzles of my life. I’ve gone to see Duchamp’s work in the Philadelphia Museum more times than I can count. I look into that world he has created for us that is so frightening and exceptionally extraordinary. The wonderful thing about reading is discovering, and going back to, and reinvestigating the people you admire, or have questions about, or that interest or engage you in some way. Or people who have managed to articulate reality for you in a way that you completely get, that you have never been able to say yourself. Tobias Woolf I think is also kind of amazing, and Cormac McCarthy is really something, his world. There are these passages of language that I find so amazing. And Baldwin, Paul Auster, these authors are really quite special. They have a facility with the language that I so envy and like having close to me.
Are there publishers whose books you covet, or authors or artists you collect? Do you collect certain books because of their beautiful design?
Even though I mark in my books, I prefer beautifully printed books with cotton paper, with strong spines, good color, nice patterns—books that were made with thoughtful consideration, that aren’t too big, and can be held easily in the hand. On the other hand I love newsprint, so there is something about rough-and-tumble paper, a kind of throwaway paper that I also really love. I’ve done projects with newsprint over the years—I love working with it, I love the color of it, that kind of yellow, so I have worked in that way, too, but I really do like certain kinds of materials, and those materials I come back to again and again. And I suppose in some small way this idea of the surface and texture, what a page feels like when you engage with it, is also meaningful because I am a photographer, somebody who is used to working with certain kinds of textures that resonate with the quality of words and pictures in a certain kind of way. So this material, and the material world, is one I think we all are deeply engaged in. And how we are engaged in that, how I am engaged in that, really matters to me. What’s around me, what do I build, what do I look at, what do I touch, what do I enjoy touching—that tactile nature of reading and looking at books is as important as reading them. Most of us have books that we will never read. It’s all sort of wishful thinking—I keep looking at my books and think, when am I going to read that, when is it possible?
If you could design or customize your library, and there were no restrictions, is there anything you would change?
If I could, I’d have a very large room filled with books on the floors, wall to wall and floor to ceiling. In the center would be a chair just for me, along with a small table for pads, pencils, and ashtrays. This would be my playroom, and every day from four to seven, I’d have tea or martinis with my closest friends.
Regarding your recent performance-based work, you have stated, “There are only a few great stories in the world and they are repeated again and again.” How did you come to create this work?
For many years, even though I have not done any theater, I was always interested in theater to one degree or another. So I decided about a year ago that I would spend some time reading about Brecht again. I go back to Beckett, to Waiting for Godot, over and over and over—it’s the thing I constantly reread, I read it several times a year. So I was looking at Bertolt Brecht because I wanted to understand it, and I was thinking about theater while mounting Grace Notes [Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, a performance of music, song, text, spoken word, and video projection, premiered at the Spoleto Festival in June 2016]. It was really through reading some early work about Brecht that I realized that I myself was actually building the story of Antigone; that I was creating a modern-day Antigone as Brecht did in his day. I didn’t realize I was working on Antigone until I was reading about Brecht’s work. It was through this that I discovered my own self, and I think that’s what reading is. I was just so stunned when I realized I had created a contemporary Antigone. This idea that there are only a couple of stories and they get retold again and again and again, I think is true. There are these themes, and Antigone has a great theme; a sister wants to bury her brother with honor, that’s all she wants to do. But in a larger community that denies her that right, and in a state that denies her that right. So if we look at that contemporarily, we can extrapolate pretty easily, it’s not difficult. There’s that wonderful song by Billie Holiday, “The Same Old Story,” [sings], “It’s all fun and laughter, They lived ever after in ecstasy, The same old story but it’s new to me.” I was deeply affected when I learned that indeed I had actually tapped into an old story, an ancient story.
Do you read for pleasure, out of curiosity, or professionally? Are there certain books that have helped you in your own work?
Reading is a way of searching for meaning, a way to self-discovery, a point of departure for figuring things out, or for mapping a process. I think I do it because I am searching. It is not just for pleasure, but it is the searching out and the seeking of greater understanding of myself through what others have made. For me, reading is always related to work, to effort, to discovery. It has something to do with understanding that somebody else has been there, somebody else has charted a path. It’s not the path that you’re going to take—you have to take your own—but your path can certainly be informed by what has been made, what has come before you, and who has struggled through it. While I take great pleasure in reading, I don’t read for pleasure. I’m too hungry, too desperate. Like everybody else I’m stumbling through the darkness, looking for the light—and for a flash, a hot minute, certain writers/books illuminate the darkness, for which I am eternally grateful.
Carrie Mae Weems’s Top Ten Books
(for which she has listed eleven)
Jo Steffens is an independent writer and curator; she is the former director of the Municipal Art Society of New York’s Urban Center Books and Banff-Calgary International Writers Festival.
From Unpacking My Library: Artists and Their Books edited by Jo Steffens and Matthias Neumann, published by Yale University Press in November 2017. Reproduced by permission.