Counting on human error
It can be a highlight of any artist’s career to receive a Fulbright award. But California State University Chico professor of 33 years Michael Bishop received two: the first in 1985 and the second in 2010. Both times, he and his wife of 26 years, artist Lynn Criswell— who was commissioned to create a piece for Sacramento International Airport’s new terminal—relocated to Turkey for a year for the program. He describes the country much changed from a quarter century ago, calling it a “very modern city.” And until November 5, Istanbul & California at Pamela Skinner/Gwenna Howard Contemporary Art (723 S Street) will showcase work created there and in California—as the show’s title suggests—including sculpture and large prints on impressive Turkish industrial felt.
You get a lot of Fulbrights.
I’ve gotten two.
That’s a lot! That’s 200 percent more than most people.
(Laughs.) I feel very fortunate. It’s an incredible opportunity.
Why did you choose Turkey the first time, and why did you return?
At the time, Turkey was the most exotic and most challenging [place], completely different from anything we’d experienced before, in terms of culture, language, history. … And in the transition of Turkey from 25 years ago, they’ve completely embraced new technology. I was told, like, 60 percent of the population is under the age of 35. … Also, with going back, Istanbul has become a very important place for contemporary art.
Do you speak Turkish or Farsi, and why is Farsi in some of your prints?
We speak a little bit of modern Turkish, enough to get around, and we’ve been building on that slowly. … When I was a kid growing up in Berkeley, my grandma had a boarding house near UC Berkeley, and she had a lot of Persian students. … They would teach me certain dirty things in Farsi, and I didn’t know what they were. I don’t really know the language, but I have this connection from childhood.
The nature of the felt you printed on has so many flecks in it, which contrasts with the controlled surfaces of your sculptures.
There’s a surface fetish that comes from my sort-of working-class background, but also when I was going to school, surface fetish, surface finishes and photorealism were the hottest topics. So I was trained in that, really.
Several pieces with text seem apologetic and also about codes. Can you explain this theme?
That’s one of the things people respond to. It’s also our predicament that there are these pieces of information that are just floating around. As an example, the “Darrel” piece: [Its text is from] a gift certificate that I found in a restaurant that had been left. It was just so poetic, this apology about “I’m sorry about the mix up with your pie,” and then there was the way it was written. It [was] just very poetic and struck me as very human. … So I’m kind of a collector of those kinds of things. …
With the “Hot Code: Stuxnet” code, I was reading some literature about worms and espionage, and I came across the whole incident with Stuxnet and the CIA and Israeli Secret Police concerning the nuclear program in Iran.
Have you been to Iran before?
No, I haven’t. Actually, we have an invitation to go there, and when we were in Turkey last year … we bailed out of going to Iran because the [U.S. Department of State] was saying for Americans, it just wasn’t a good time to go. …
And a piece in the show that doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but is a real important piece is an abstract sort of piece, a close-up of a 1940s historical racer. It’s called “Timing.” I overlaid on that a series of times, and what those times are is when I was in Turkey, I kept a journal and every time I heard a call to prayer the entire year, I wrote it down in the journal. It’s become a real interesting map of my time there. And the call to the prayer is five times a day, so it can be intrusive. When I was teaching in the classroom I never heard it … but in some places, it’s very intense. Archeologists that I met would use it to wake up to go to work like farmers. … It becomes like a companion. This piece is sort of my way of co-opting the religious function time to pray as an agnostic. I wasn’t protesting, but it is sort of [an] intimate collection of things. It’s a very quiet, very complex piece about world politics today.
So, can you explain why ships, horses and chairs recur in your work?
I don’t know if I can explain it, but I can maybe give some insight to it. I was talking with my sister a while back, and I said [to her] I have this habit of counting things. It’s something that’s uncontrollable. It doesn’t make me dysfunctional or anything, but I find myself looking at something, and if there’s a repeated image in it or a repeated space, I always count it. It’s something I find pleasure in. And she said, “You have that, too?” …
The other thing with using images like the boat or the vessel—particularly the submarine—it’s part of my life. … The [ominousness] of it: You never see it, but it sort of controls the sea. It’s a really secretive thing that [is] supposed to be protective, and then at the same time, it’s dangerous.
In “Slammed English,” sometimes it says “Cause” instead of “Caused.” Is this a typo?
It’s not a typo. It’s an error. I wrote that out by hand first. I’ve done a number of pieces where there’s repetitive text in the background, and I write it out sort of as an exercise. … I was actually trying to learn the true meaning of the sentence. It had a very specific starting point, but then I wanted to try to analyze what it truly means. … It’s sort of like in Bob Dylan’s music, he prefers taping live in the studio because he likes that if there’s a slight error in language or there’s a slight mix up—it’s not absolutely perfect. And in some ways, that’s like going back to things like carpet making, especially in the Middle East: You never make it exact, because there’s always this human error in there.