Ding Ren on “Observations with a Typewriter”

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Artists may carry the reputation of being scatterbrained and inconsistent, but the current exhibition at the Archives of American Art suggests that in fact artists may be about as organized as the rest of us. Entitled "Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Archives of American Art," the exhibition features scribbles and sketches by artists from the 19th century to the present, from Franz Kline’s grocery list to anonymous memos on artists’ rights.

In conjunction with the exhibition, local conceptual artist Ding Ren has created a work of performance art entitled Observations with a Typewriter, in which Ren sat at a typewriter listing only the time of day and what color shirts were worn by visitors to the exhibit. The performance debuted on July 2 in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery and will repeat again on August 20.

Why use a typewriter instead of a laptop or pen and paper?

I got this typewriter at a thrift store for $3 maybe seven years ago. I just thought it was cool and wanted a typewriter, and I had no idea that I was going to use it for art. I enjoy the sound of the keys typing, but also I like that it makes you slow down and really think about what you’re going to type up. Overall, that goes with my aesthetic, or what I aim for in my overall art practice, which is that search for simplicity, asking people to slow down, take a step back and maybe appreciate the smaller details of life.

In Observations with a Typewriter you type a list of the color of people’s shirts. How did you decide to focus on that detail?

Originally, I was thinking about keeping it open-ended in terms of what I would observe and record, but then the more I thought about it I decided to really just narrow down to record one thing. I landed on what color shirt they were wearing because I thought that was really accessible and easy to observe, but it was also a little play on me creating my own color field piece, and I thought that was appropriate since the museum is filled with so many color field works, and that’s an important tradition in Washington art history.

By nature, performance art takes form in the moment. Why is the improvisational or experiential aspect important for this specific work?

Well, I thought it was interesting that it not only recorded this detail that may not have been recorded in the first place, but also it was essentially a recording of who came into the gallery that day. So then that’s really of the moment. It was also important in showing that although the lists (in the exhibition) were all from the archives, and were recordings of past events, at the time those lists on display were recorded, they were also of the moment.

What do you hope people will take from your performance?

I think a common reaction was, “You’re just sitting here with a typewriter. Why is that significant?” This exhibition is great because it shows that lists can be significant, but then me performing takes that to another level and helps viewers see a more everyday thing they can relate to. Hopefully, they can see that’s all it takes to create a list, and then they never know if their list could end up in the archives. You just never know what gets saved and what gets thrown out.

My hope is that even if I get them to pause and just think, even for a second, something about lists, or everyday action, or even just contemplate what art is in general, I think that’s all I’m asking for. If I can then push them to notice something they hadn’t noticed before, that’s even better.

Two hours is a long time. Did your hands get tired?

No, actually it passed really quickly. People came and talked to me. I think kids were really interested in coming and seeing what I was doing because they had never seen a typewriter before. They were fascinated that when I pressed a key it would make a letter on a piece of paper, because you don’t think about that when you’re typing on the computer screen because it’s all digital. That helped the time pass by.

What other projects are you working on right now?

I have two exhibitions coming up in September. One is at Hillyer Art Space, and it’s a group exhibition with three other artists, and we’ve all been asked to make site-specific work for the space. I’m making a series of videos right now that are going to be projected on these in-between spaces in the gallery. I’ve been recording shadows or reflected light off of buildings, specifically white buildings. And then I’m going to project them onto the white walls of the gallery.

My other exhibition is going to be for the Trawick Prize, the Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards, for which I was named a finalist. The jurors have selected two pieces, and they have selected this one piece that’s a double-sided chalkboard that I draw a line with chalk on one side, and then I draw a water line through chalk on the other side. Right now I need to figure out how to transport a 6 foot by 6 foot chalkboard across the city.

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