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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
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WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Christian Haye, 2003

WITH YVONNE FORCE VILLAREAL
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARK BORTHWICK


On a nondescript block in Harlem, on certain Sunday afternoons, you will find a stylish international crowd congregating outside a former bar. This unlikely scene could only be an opening at The Project, the art gallery founded by Christian Haye in 1998.
A poet and critic, Haye approached his gallery with a fresh eye. Believing Chelsea to be a "miserable neighborhood," he opened his space in Harlem, on West 126th Street, nurturing a geographically diverse group of then unknown artists. Now many of these artists are internationally renowned. Paul Pfeiffer - the first artist Haye showed - won the Whitney Museum's first Bucksbaum Award in 2000. Julie Mehretu, another artist represented by Haye, will have a solo show at the Walker Art Center this spring. The thirty-two-year-old Haye appears to be taking in all the attention with the same aplomb that helped him to open his unlikely gallery five years ago.




YVONNE: You worked at a couple of interesting places in the early '90s, starting with The New York Review of Books.

CHRISTIAN: That place is a living history in an office environment. You walk into the office and you don't see the three people working there because books are piled as high as cubicle walls. Cofounder Jason Epstein's ex-wife lost an arm, and the thing around the office is that if you ask why she only has one arm, that's it, you lose your job. When I worked in the mailroom, the first thing they told me was, "Don't say anything, don't ask anything." A couple of years later I had a front desk job at the Jack Tilton Gallery in Soho.

YVONNE: That was your first art world job.
CHRISTIAN: Until that point, I had been writing, editing Steve Cannon's magazine, A Gathering of the Tribes, hanging out at the Nuyorican Poets Caf?, and organizing events. I met lots of artists, like David Hammons, who were part of the East Village scene. I got the job at Tilton because I wanted to see how the art world really worked. I was there for eight months. But I wasn't really working. I would sit at the desk and just read the art magazines.

YVONNE: Some of the art criticism that you read disappointed you, and your response was to write your own.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah. I wrote for Freize, I loved the fact that an art magazine could be a place for ideas. The first thing I wrote for them was about Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat. It was about what death means in a video game.

YVONNE: Do you remember any of your early experiences looking at art?
CHRISTIAN: I started going to galleries in the East Village when I was fourteen or fifteen.

YVONNE: Where would you go?
CHRISTIAN: International with Monument was a fantastic scene. I would also see things in Soho and hang out a lot there. By the time I decided to do The Project, Soho was over, and the East Village was long gone. Chelsea had just started happening, and it was terrible. It's still terrible. Chelsea has to be one of the most miserable neighborhoods in Manhattan. The Village, Tribeca, even Battery Park City, as young as it is everything is interesting in Manhattan except for Chelsea. The Chelsea Hotel is the only place with any sort of history or flavor. The shift to Chelsea reinforces the idea that the art world is full of lemmings. It's a total herd mentality.

YVONNE: Your perspective is very individual, from your artists to the location of your gallery. Did it come from all the traveling that you've done? I read that someone in your family provided you with discount airline tickets in the mid-nineties and you started going to all the big international exhibitions and the art fairs.
CHRISTIAN: There was a point in my life when I just got on a plane. I don't feel like I've ever really stopped.

YVONNE: Running a gallery is a big shift from being a critic.
CHRISTIAN: As a critic, I would never go to openings. I seldom met artists. I was interested in the experience of just seeing an exhibition as a visitor, the same as someone who walks in off the street. Working with artists is completely different. What's great is investing yourself, being there from the beginning to the end. I work with twenty-three artists. They are all fantastic. I speak to some once a year, and some I speak to every day, several times a day.

YVONNE: It's a very international group. You represent artists from the U.S., Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Australia. Do the artists share some common element?
CHRISTIAN: No. I show artists who I think are amazing. That's really all it's about. I see something that turns me on...

YVONNE: Matthias Vriens, who's best known for his erotic Gucci ad campaigns, recently exhibited huge photos of nude men gripping their own large erect penises.
CHRISTIAN: It was hot. I used to think that there were certain artists who should really be fashion photographers, but Matthias Vriens is an example of a fashion photographer who is an artist. Since the mid-nineties, there's been a lot of mixing things up between media. Several photographers started saying that it didn't make any difference whether an image is blown up on a gallery wall or appears in a magazine. Whether it be Wolfgang Tillmans or even Catherine Opie.

YVONNE: In 1998 I produced Vanessa Beecroft's show at the Guggenheim, and it was very much about that blend of things. What do you think about being considered a leader of the so-called new Harlem renaissance?
CHRISTIAN: It's like an ice cream sundae, it's really fun bullshit. It's fine, it's great. Whatever.

YVONNE: Thelma Golden, who curated the exhibition Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem, coined the term post-black to define a new generation of African-American artists who weren't bound by the historic status of black artists. Do you relate to this sensibility?
CHRISTIAN: I relate to how she came up with it. Thelma has proven to be a continuously dynamic curator.

YVONNE: She still young, but she's done so many important exhibitions.
CHRISTIAN: Curating is actually about collecting, collecting ideas, collecting all of an artist's work together. Collectors are really interested in individual pieces, while curators are about the meaning of an entire collection, whether of artists or of ideas. It's this concept from Diderot, encyclopedia. As a provocative idea, I think the term post-black is brilliant. But I was at an event recently and somebody was describing individuals as post-black. I'm like, "What?"

YVONNE: "You are so post-black."
CHRISTIAN: I said, "I'm post-post." As an idea post-black is great, as a label it's terrible. It just doesn't mean anything.

YVONNE: My first memory of meeting you was at your opening for Paul Pfeiffer's Pure Products Go Crazy show in 1998. The two of you have evolved in tandem and gained the respect of a significant audience.
CHRISTIAN: More than half the artists that I show were just people I was dying to write about. I decided I couldn't wait forever for them to get to the point where they would get coverage in a magazine. They didn't have galleries, most of them had just been in a few group shows in Europe, or I just knew them. The first show of Paul's that I saw was in a restaurant.

YVONNE: Why did you respond to his work?
CHRISTIAN: Actually, it was the conversations we had about his work and the way he looked at it. I just thought he was extremely smart. At that time he was doing a body of work called The Tribune Figures. They were basically architectural plans of cathedrals created out of porn magazines using Photoshop. He was dealing with religious themes, combining the sacred and the profane. It was very interesting to see someone talking unsardonically about religion in a downtown New York context. My first show at The Project was Paul's work. My second show was one of William PopeL.'s performances.

YVONNE: It was a performance called "My Niagara."
CHRISTIAN: William covered the basement with flour and attached himself to the wire frame of a bed wearing just a ski mask. He had his dick clamped to a pitcher. He would let people in two at a time. There was this really eerie light. It was fantastic. Literally, nobody who saw it forgot it.

YVONNE: Kim Sooja has also been an important artist for you.
CHRISTIAN: In a way, she's the reason I opened the gallery. I first saw her work in '93, and I would still say I'm her biggest fan.

YVONNE: What is it about her work?
CHRISTIAN: As a poet, I'm jealous of what art can do. You can try to say one hundred different things in one line, but in reality you can say maybe four things. Visual art can scream thousands of things at the same time. So when I'm looking at something that won't shut up, I'm all over it. To me, that is what Sooja's work does.

YVONNE: How does that happen exactly?
CHRISTIAN: She did a video installation called A Needle Woman at P.S. 1. It's based on a performance that she did in eight different cities. There's a camera about fifty feet away from her, focused on her back, and she's standing still, meditating, in the middle of a crowded street. People just flow around her. The video becomes a biography of cities, of people. It talks about endless subjects like the body, endurance, the mystical, the global, the personal. Those are the types of things that I'm interested in.

YVONNE: In May 2001 you opened another gallery, also called The Project, in downtown Los Angeles.
CHRISTIAN: I had wanted to do that from the very beginning. The second I could afford to, I did it. It's the same thing that artists do ? they get on a plane to go show somewhere else. The Joseph Cornell model of living with your mother and not talking to anybody is not relevant to most people. I like the fact that art is not a passive experience. If you go to a movie, you sit down, the movie happens, you get up, and you go home. With art, you get off your ass and go to the place where it is that's where you have your experience. I like looking at things in different places. I like seeing things re-installed somewhere else, for example.

YVONNE: The L.A. Project is a beautiful gallery.
CHRISTIAN: Thanks. That's more of me turning myself on. But when you start living in two cities everyone is like, "Which one do you like better?" I'd love to spend more time in just one place. The grass always seems greener.

YVONNE: In New York you have a loft in Harlem. Where do you live in L.A.?
CHRISTIAN: At the gallery.

YVONNE: Do you have a car?
CHRISTIAN: Yep. That's your home in L.A. I'm leasing a Rav 4. I wanted something really nondescript. I don't want to drive my personality around. I'm from New York, I blend.

YVONNE: With two galleries, a large part of your job has to be building up a collector base.
CHRISTIAN: Because of my years as a critic, I knew everybody but collectors. I think that collectors follow the artists, and that's really what's happened. But there are many days when I wish I knew more collectors. Everybody who deals in contemporary art is either rich or broke, and I'm still broke.  

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Christian Haye by Mark Borthwick, 2003
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