On the occasion of “(un)time,” Nate Young’s fifth solo exhibition with Monique Meloche Gallery, Newcity’s Pia Singh sat down with the artist to discuss the work. On view is a new series of drawings in which Young recreates from memory a photograph of his great grandfather standing with a horse. The drawings are a continuation of a larger project, in which Young will attempt to recreate his great grandfather’s migration from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, by horse.
“Stories are graves. Empty. Nothing there. All living and dying in them fake. Pretend. No story unless someone reads, tells it. Empty. No one’s time inside a story. Time needed to live and die, to tell stories. But stories not time. Stories graves. No entering or leaving them without time. Nothing breathing inside them. Lost nor found. No time. Only stories. Only words. Pretend words. Pretend time.”
Considering the title of the exhibition, “(un)time,” I was excited about our conversation because a lot of the work I’ve invested in has centered on the idea of the durational encounter—be it lens-based work, drawing, installation, sound, performance… even painting to some degree is imbued with time.
Yeah, I think at some point, I started to think about the relationship to time, specifically because I was thinking about a story that happened in what we consider to be “the past,” a historical moment. So pretty early on in the work, I was thinking about time and realized that there is always a question of accuracy whil telling a story. In my work the story is my great-grandfather’s migration.
I want to start with the fact that you were recently awarded a grant which allowed you to expand this work.
Yes, I won a grant through the Shifting Foundation about a year-and-a-half ago. I decided that the project could be a way for me to access, for myself, the accuracy of a story I was once told by my grandmother. A story I am now retelling myself. My great-grandfather escaped from North Carolina in the early 1900sa, at the beginning of the Great Migration, to travel north to Philadelphia on horseback. So, in order to think about the accuracy of this story, I figured the best way would be to reproduce the action central to the story, to embody the story.
In terms of the transference of narratives, it shifts with each generation that tells it. There’s also the fact that he made this journey during the Great Migration, due to the rise of racist ideologies. Do you feel like there’s a parallel between your journey and his happening against a backdrop of present-day racism?
I don’t even think of them as different moments. This is where Black atemporality comes in. I was reading “Fartheralong” by John Edgar Wideman where he writes about going back to the South with his father to find the town his father came from, before he moved north of Pittsburgh. He writes about visiting and realizing that the South was already a part of his consciousness, even though he had never been there. So that kind of like anti-Black or racist ideology is so ingrained in our consciousness, that I don’t even know if time truly separates it. I guess you can think of them as parallel and also convergent.
It makes me think of the notion of circular time in Buddhism, which differs from the linear Western conception of time. The belief that everyone you are in a relationship with in this lifetime, are relationships you’ve had in previous lifetimes that keep reconfiguring and playing out differently, again and again. But returning to Black atemporality, I was reading one of your interviews where you mention the absence of time and the proximity to death in relation to Blackness. This comes from an Afro-Pessimist framework?
I think this comes specifically from John Murillo III, he’s an Afro-Pessimist thinker and writer. The premise of Afro-Pessimism, from what I understand it to be, is that the ontological understanding of being is based on anti-Blackness, the human understands their existence through the exclusion of Blackness from the very category of human. Murillo takes this further and proposes that the very way in which we understand the cosmos and the nature of time itself is based on anti-Blackness, as indicated in the looping of Black death. You know, Black death keeps re-emerging and reoccurring, it’s a loop. He talks about the fact that Newtonian time that we function on can and has been thrown into question by physics. But there are other ways of thinking about time, the cosmic time in Buddhism as you say. I think it’s important for us to think about it and not take Newtonian time as a given. For me this opens up a space of possibility that the past is not only something we can visit in our memory but it is actually something we construct in the present time, and maybe could in turn visit.
A lot of your earlier works also seek to rupture or suspend time, like in your recent exhibition at the Driehaus Museum.
Time maybe has more to do with relationships, to do with emotion or feeling, you know? It happens in music, right? There’s a time that happens in music that has to do with transcendence, or going to another place that maybe isn’t situated in linear time. But in this show, and in the vision of this project, I’m trying to think about time. The grant helped me buy a horse that I’m learning to ride, with the goal of recreating my great-grandfather’s journey, so the journey is temporal, but it’s unclear in which time frame the real journey is produced as a historical sequence.
Right, and you’re building this relationship with a horse. That’s lifelong work, not just a performative gesture.
I’d never really ridden a horse before. I started learning about a year-and-a-half ago and this summer I’m coming up on two years of riding pretty regularly, at least once and up to four or five times a week. I’m getting to a point where that relationship is becoming more dynamic and fluid. Like on Wednesday, we were riding inside the arena and somebody came through the door and my horse didn’t see this person. He spooked and like, spun out. And, you know, when a horse does that it can be scary. But I’m at a point where I know I’m gonna fall off one or two times and that I’m not gonna be uncomfortable about it. I feel comfortable with him. I feel comfortable on him. He feels comfortable with me.
Finding a middle ground where you keep each other safe… Does he have a name?
Yes, his name is Jackson. He’s nine, so he’s pretty young and energetic.
And he had some training before you met?
Yes, he had some training but needed more. And he’s a little bit temperamental, but I mean, all horses are to some extent. He’s not the type of horse that anyone can just get on. Like, I wouldn’t let you get on… Not even an experienced rider. I wouldn’t take that risk.
I wouldn’t get on him, don’t worry. [Both laugh]
I mean, he can be dangerous! Horses can be dangerous. They are strong and powerful. And that’s why the relationship is really important. The more we’ve gotten to know each other, the more comfortable I am with him, and he with me. There’s trust that’s evolved. You get to the point where you don’t have to say anything anymore. I shift my body or breathe in a certain way, and he breathes in a certain way, or I look one way, and he turns in that direction. It’s amazing when you get to that point. And this is the part of the process that I couldn’t have foreseen. When I started thinking about this project, it was more to do with occupying another space and time, of my great-grandfather.
Looking at the images in this body of work, is there a kind of reclamation of the image or the shadow of the “American” cowboy? It’s also a faceless figure which reminded me of Du Bois and the Black man’s need to reclaim a self-conscious manhood.
Oh, that’s interesting. Initially when I started thinking about this project, I was looking at the history of Black horse riders, and at first I was really interested in the history of Black jockeys because when we think about equestrian sports, or cowboys, it’s always the image of like John Wayne or some white male archetype. So the image of Black equestrians would have been a little surprising… At least a couple of years ago… It’s become trendy. But if you go back far enough, it comes down to the relationship between the stable hand or trainer to the horse.
Who was often the Black man, or a person of color.
Right! Those stablehands were slaves in this country, so it makes sense that you would have a Black horseman, right? Field work, ranch work, hired work, slave work… and the Black cowboy was brought on to help develop the westward expansion of horse riding, and then erased from its history. Same with the Black jockey. They were necessary for the sport in the initial stages of it. When horse racing became a lucrative betting business, a capitalist endeavor, Black jockeys were forced out of the sport.
The constant erasure of the colored body.
For sure. It’s interesting because I’ve been thinking about the history of Black folks in equine activities over the past five years. Initially, I thought of horse bones as an object that carries supernatural power, or transcendental messages. But then I remembered that a long time ago, there was a history, a relationship between Black folks and horses. So, to me, the work is not about the erasure of the Black body, but also somewhere it is.
I mean, how can it not be? There are narrative voids, the erasure of the colored body.
I think there’s work out there that does that, where the figure is present. But in my work the figure is not present.
Do you see it as partially accessed?
It’s suggested that it’s there, but mostly through its absence. For me, the impetus to erase the figure in this series of drawings was about opening up a space for the potential of the void. The image is not an image of me, but could potentially be an image of my great grandfather.
It’s also the fact that you’re working in layers which, to me, perform as a conflation of historic timelines—moving between realms, literally and figuratively.
Yeah, in present time, the way you look at the image shifts depending on your proximity, or angle, based on the way your body moves around the object. I like to think I’m pointing to the present in the layering of material.
There are also parts that are staggered or misaligned that speak to the rupture of time. Even the way the edges of paper are not completely parallel to the frame, those are all signs.
The layer of vellum hangs out of the frame. The substrate of the drawing ignores the constraints of the frame.
By thinking of the vellum as a veil, Du Bois once considered the Black man as someone “born with a veil, given second sight into the American world.” To be born with a veil and yet for an understanding of a nation to persist through that.
I like that. I’m also curious to take it one step further, like, what is the perception of the man behind the veil? If the Black man’s perception of the world is through this veil, then what does it look like on the other side? Because maybe these drawings are on the other side of that veil, and the figure is on the other. Right?
Yeah, like you’re only supposed to perform your role behind the veil and rescind into the void.
So what does it mean to exist beyond the veil in a space that is not visible? In a void that is atemporal… because behind the veil you’re not existing in a space that behaves in accordance with the conventions of space or time. Another thing, and this may be a bit literal… or personal, but the veil and erasure—is it an additive erasure? The image of the figure is an image that you cannot see in detail, not because it’s erased, but because it’s built on top of. For me, this is how I perceive the image of my great-grandfather. I build an image in my mind every time I recall him.
A memory as a partially accessed image. Every time you access a memory, its edges shift a bit.
So it’s like the nature of history itself, right? Maybe there isn’t that kind of historical accuracy, maybe it’s not that we fill in the erased history of the Black cowboy. Maybe we are actually producing that history—of the Black jockey, of the Great Migration—a thing that is produced in the present.
Speaking of producing, a lot of your work seems laborious and highly crafted. Is the idea of Black craftsmanship important to you?
I’m also a draftsman, so drawing is something that’s always been important. I was having a conversation with a friend recently about drawing and process. He was talking about making drawings quickly as a way to move through ideas and build from one idea to the next. I make work like… really, really slow. When you look at these drawings you can tell they are laborious. There’s something about what happens in the process of laboring over an image in order to understand it. To be making little tiny marks and then leaving it, then revisiting it again.
I can’t help but see the series as filmic in the sense that they seem like a frame-by-frame sequence. You’re splicing histories together.
For sure. The format was thinking about landscape, but also film. To think about them as filmic stills is also to see them in time.
This may or may not have been intentional, but I’m curious how you selected certain elements to foreground and what gets concealed in the void.
That’s one of the things about labor-intensive image-making, is that I may know what the image looks like, but I don’t know how I’m going to treat it. I might be in the process of making one and realize I could actually take this section of the horse’s head out or maybe, I start to layer multiple layers of the horse and multiple layers of the figure, and push and pull between layers to see how they intertwine. So on one layer you may have a fragment of the horse, but on another a blackedout figure of the horse in its entirety, and they play on each other.
The frames perform very differently from your other bodies of work. They’re beautifully crafted but they seem to be more of a boundary or a punctuation between images. How do they serve the drawings, or why are the works not directly on the wall?
That’s a good question. There was a moment I was thinking about not framing any of the drawings in this show. Not having a studio currently, I was pinning these on the wall of my living room and looking at them. They began to overlap and partially obscure parts of each other. Using tape to hold them together, I liked the way they were hanging with no particular sequence, no boundary. But I do think of the frame as a boundary. I also see it as a pedestal. I think the frame defines where the artwork is and where the artwork is not.
Is it to draw attention to the format, the cinematic frame or landscape orientation?
The way I try to do that is by retaining the tape on the top, and have the vellum hang outside the frame. The frame is more so a convention, a boundary that is not able to contain the thing it proposes to. So in a sense the frame exists to point to a boundary that is broken. It’s a rule that is present in order to expose where rules can or cannot be broken.
I’m trying to figure how your identity relates to your great-grandfather’s in the process of making this work.
Well, I’m thinking about an image of my grandfather standing near a horse, an image I saw only once. I’ve never been able to retrieve that photograph, so in order to try to re-access it, I’m drawing based off an image of myself. But I don’t see it as myself, I see it as a figure with no identity. One of the early impetuses of making a body of work about familial history and my great grandfather’s migration was that, between his departure and his arrival, he changed his name, he changed his identity. So I was thinking about what happened in between these two identities, thinking of him as a non-subject between two places.
The horse, on the other hand, becomes a subject at times, but an animal has a different relationship to its own subjectivity. It’s very instinctual, horses don’t think in linear time sequences. From what I was told by Paul, my first trainer, is that horses think in snapshots [gestures the flash of a camera with his hand, makes clicking sounds]. They don’t think about time as a fluid sequence, just flashes. That relates maybe to how the work is sequenced.
But also the fact that you saw the image only once. So what is and is not accessible is part of the image.
And that for me is where the repetition of making the image comes in. When I sit down and I do it once, and then I do it again, then I do it again… It’s figuratively a sequence of failures of accessing an image I can’t access. Selfishly, it’s a body of work about me trying to access something beyond me.
How much of this comes down to relationality?
This is something that Frank Wilderson writes about, that the Black being is not a relational subject because they are relationally removed and reduced to an object. It’s contentious. I’m interested in Afro-Pessimism for the potential it opens up in the loss of subjectivity, in the void, which I suppose is a little too optimistic for me really to call myself an Afro-Pessimist.
In an essay by Fred Moten, he says he is interested in Afro-Pessimism in so far that he is committed to Black Optimism. It’s an older essay and I don’t know if he would still say the same. I’m more like him than Wilderson. I see potential within the void of subjectivity, which one could think about as Black, not only racial Blackness but also as a void of light. I think of these two voids in simultaneity.
Is this like one can’t perceive light without darkness, or darkness without light?
You can’t have humanity without anti-Blackness, yeah, that is Afro-Pessimism. I think of the void as a space of potential more in the Afrofuturist tradition. We can envision other time sequencing, other worlds through the void.
Knowing this is a long-form inquiry, and that this project is based on a relationship you’re building, where do you see this project going in the future?
The future is unknowable, and the goal that I started with is a goal that has not yet been achieved—to do this long journey from Robeson County, North Carolina to Ardmore, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. In the meantime, I don’t know exact details because I’m not ready yet in terms of horsemanship, but I do feel like I’m getting there.
How long is your journey?
It’s about 250 to 300 miles.
Do you have a vague estimate of how long that may take? Will you be making stops along the way, or trying to rechart stops he may have taken?
I’m planning to do twenty to thirty miles a day, which is like two weeks long, to be safe.
I’m gonna chart stops but I don’t know how I’ll be able to make them. At this point, who knows if any of the things he passed are still there? We’re in a whole different world. But the plan is to try to make some experimental film and video over the summer, but I’ve also been thinking about figuring out a way to work with the smell of the sweat of the horse. It’s a really particular scent. I want to move toward more ephemeral things with some of the project and its materials.
When you were asking about the horse and how it’s been working on this—it feels weird, because I know that I’m making “Art,” but it doesn’t feel the same as being in the studio making sculpture, for example. But now when I’m riding my horse, I’m like, this is part of making Art. I don’t know how to best capture it and present it as yet.
When do you think you’ll make this journey?
I hope to do it next year. It’ll be three years into the project and I feel like maybe this summer, I can try and do some shorter thirty-mile trails with him and we can take it from there. It’s like training for a marathon, you have to work your way up to it.
“(Un)Time” is on view at Monique Meloche, 451 North Paulina, through June 4