The Past is Prologue
“It is very important to me to document my memories. The past is prologue: it tells us where we were and can give us clues where we are going. I like to believe our emotional lives, our memories, extend beyond this world somehow. I have to believe that this spirit in us doesn’t just disappear, but I don’t believe art creates immortality; all art will one day be gone.”
Introduction by Adria Leeper-Sullivan
Interview by Theo Constantinou & Images provided by Jordan Sullivan
Jordan Sullivan is an optimist. His images may display the raw and taboo aspects of the American backyard, but he, above all, captures the limitless. Couples mid kiss, or nude bodies obscured by an opal light-flare mix the edgy uncertainty of a moment with the absolute necessity of that moment. Life is filled with decisions we didn’t mean to make, but that we had to make in order to understand the difference between our primordial instincts and our adaptable responses to modern stimuli. That is not to say that his subjects are escalating their risk behavior to be spectacles, but that Jordan supports through body language, objects, or landscapes, the various emotional and physical responses that a plethora of individuals may experience. Jordan is a being that must inherently create; who must continually feed his most basic needs with the complex, articulate and deliberate methods of photography, writing and film. There is no word for it in the English language, but there exists in many cultures the concept of a universal “I,” or a common wholeness. Jordan Sullivan’s presence as an artist contributes to a universal and timeless experience; the human experience, that can dissolve sex, race, language, age and other often insignificant barriers embraced by our species.
I came across this book by Miguel Serrano, A Tale of Two Friendships: Herman Hesse & Carl Jung. He says, ” As with men it has always seemed to me that books have their own peculiar destinies. They go towards the people who are waiting for them and reach them at the right moment. They are made of living material and continue to cast light through the darkness long after the death of their authors.” Is there one book specifically that this quote resonates with for you and, do you agree with this quote?
I love that quote; I like looking at a relationship with a book, or an object, in the same light as a friendship between two people. I believe art is very much alive and, after it is made, the person who made it has no control over it. I think the book that will always stick with me is, The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic. I discovered it when I was a teenager. It seemed to tie the entire world together in this way I understood: it haunted the fuck out of me.
When I met you in Manhattan last week, I had asked you to write something in my journal and this is what you wrote, “We were never free on the road, we never found California or your mothers ghost, just mirages and stolen landscapes. And all I was left with was the memory of you telling me we could live forever.” Do you think we can live forever, metaphorically? And I don’t personally belief we can live forever, maybe immortalize ourselves through photographs, art, journals, or passing on our own personal stories to those around us. How important is it for you personally, and artistically, to document your memories through images and words?
It is very important to me to document my memories. The past is prologue: it tells us where we were and can give us clues where we are going. I like to believe our emotional lives, our memories, extend beyond this world somehow. I have to believe that this spirit in us doesn’t just disappear, but I don’t believe art creates immortality; all art will one day be gone. The things we did will be forgotten by the next species or dug up and reinterpreted. An idea or a story passed on over and over may be the only shot we have of keeping ourselves around. It’s bleak but also sort of beautiful that we live this intense existence and then one day everything we are and, everything we made, will just be ruins, and then even those ruins will one day be gone. Who knows if our species will ever be totally forgotten, but the best dream I could have would be the one where I live forever.
Two weeks ago, I visited Dog Earned Books in San Francisco and picked up a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the inside cover, there’s a small introduction written about Conrad which reads:
“Although his work won the admiration of critics, sales were small, and debts and poor health plagued Conrad for many years. He was a nervous, introverted, gloomy man, for whom writing was an agony, but he was rich in friends who appreciated his genius. Although the ocean and the mysterious lands that border it are the settings for his books, the truth of human experience is his theme, depicted with vigor, rhythm and passionate contemplation of reality.”
Is the truth in human experience a ‘theme’ you strive for in your life and work and, when you contemplate reality, what are some of the things that you find in your thoughts?
The truth of the human experience is a broad concept to me. I think my intention in art is more personal. I am trying to capture an experience, an aspect of the American experience maybe, but that too is very broad. I want to create things that are spiritual and universal, even timeless…but is that possible? Even love, beauty, friendship and peace have different definitions and connotations depending on where you are in the world. Often those definitions are created by religion or government, so are they the right definitions? It’s so complicated. The human experience encapsulates so much; it’s an ambitious thing to strive for I suppose, but it’s different in every corner of the world.
In Adre Gide’s The Immoralist, he says:
“Do you know the reason why poetry and philosophy are nothing but dead-letter nowadays? It is because they have severed themselves from life. In Greece, ideas went hand in hand with life; so that the artist’s life itself was already a poetic realization, the philosopher’s life a putting into action of his philosophy; in this way, as both philosophy and poetry took part in life, instead of remaining unacquainted with each other, philosophy provided food for poetry, and poetry gave expression to philosophy-and the result was admirably persuasive. Nowadays, beauty no longer acts; action no longer desires to be beautiful; and wisdom works in a sphere apart. ‘But you live your wisdom,’ said I; ‘why do you not write your memoirs? Or simply,’ I added, seeing him smile, ‘recollections of your travels?’”
Two things … Can you answer the first question posed by Gide, ‘Do you know the reason why poetry and philosophy are nothing but dead-letter nowadays?’ And are your photographs and words your own way of recording or capturing the recollections of your travels that is already a poetic realization?
I’m not sure poetry and philosophy are dead; they are just manifesting themselves in different ways, being combined with different media. I think philosophy can be very apparent in film nowadays, especially anything by Terrence Malick, and all the best poets or just songwriters now, but that’s ok because, it seems to me, poetry was always meant to be sung. So, these things are not gone, they’re just different; maybe they are a little more disguised. I think a lot of people who would have been great philosophers nowadays are maybe anthropologists or scientists or filmmakers. Art seems more alive than it’s ever been. It’s definitely more accessible and there is more art in the world than there was 1,000 years ago. My work is definitely a way of recording an experience though, I’m not sure if the way I live is poetic realization. It may lead me to tell a certain story later on, but it’s not till you tell that story that you find the poetry or the meaning or weirdness of the experience. The moment being recollected needs to be dissected and maybe even manipulated in order to find the truth of that moment.
I find myself quoting Joseph Campbell over and over but his ideas are something I wish people to speak on more. A quote of his I wrote down, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” How hard is it for you if you believe this quote that, sometimes we must make so many sacrifices for our craft in giving up our lives / marriages / friendships / etc. to live a life for others and do something bigger than ourselves?
That’s such a dangerous idea. Sometimes art comes before friendships and marriages and all that, but is that right? Maybe once and a while, but I’ve seen it cause so much hurt. Some artists justify their actions by saying that their work is ‘bigger’ than themselves, and I think that can be noble when people sacrifice themselves for their work, but it sucks when they hurt people along the way. I wrestle with this in my own life, and I don’t necessarily believe art should be on the pedestal it is; I actually think that that is killing art. Art shouldn’t be a religion or a secret club. It’s the most natural thing to create stuff; it’s not weird at all. What’s weird is giving up your life to do something you hate, but of course circumstances can cause people to make that sacrifice as well. Regardless, I love making things, writing stories and taking pictures. I can’t stop, but I don’t know if it’s bigger than me or anyone else. Creating a family seems to me the ultimate creation. A man or a woman sacrificing him or herself for their family is more noble and is ‘bigger’ than any art.
In a recent interview I did with Tristan Patterson, director of Dragonslayer, he says, “Everybody in life needs to find something they sincerely care about otherwise, what reason is there to live?” What is your answer to his question, and moreso, what in your life do you sincerely care about that gives meaning for your personal existence?
Family, friends, Marlboro Reds, cold beer, desert highways and the beach.
I was reading the statement about your new show Natural History and, I’m not sure who wrote the statement, but I would like to hear your thoughts on what they were asking us, the reader, to interpret from your work: “The question of what it means to memorialize. Is remembering a passive process in which memories themselves lie dormant, waiting to be revealed, unveiled, or summoned? Or is it a creative act, in which the experiences represented by memories come into being through their very recollection?” So, are the memories themselves lying dormant, waiting to be revealed or, is it a creative act that comes through being by your own recollection?
An amazing anthropologist named Jill Cole wrote my press release. I specifically wanted an anthropologist to write it and, I specifically love that she found that question in my work; I’m not sure I know how to answer the questions my work poses though. Another artist friend once told me, art should always be a question. I agree with that. So if my work poses a question then I’ve done my job.
To keep in line with the theme of war, and since we live in a country that has been fighting wars since its inception, I am curious to hear your thoughts on this quote I came across in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia … “One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.” Why do you think it is so easy for those who are sitting comfortably forty stories above the pavement or locked in their boardrooms and Bentley’s to push bullshit war-propaganda and not fight themselves in the wars they create, distributing death and hatred around the world?
Because they are the assholes getting rich off of war.