Art

The Bruce High Quality Foundation Thinks About Death at the Armory Show

Simone Sutnick

The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Ways to Die (#metoo), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.
The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Ways to Die (#metoo), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.

The Bruce High Quality Foundation is known for poignant and satirical reactions to public art, celebrity culture, art institutions and education. They made headlines last fall with the announcement that the free art school they had started in 2009 would close. This year, BHQF is presenting a project titled Ways to Die at the Armory Show’s Platform section, curated by Jen Mergel. Cultured spoke with the collective to learn more about a common thread that connects the years of the group’s work: death.

Can you elaborate on BHQF’s project for the Armory Show?

For a long time now we’ve been keeping a list, now about a thousand entries deep, of ways to die. We’ve never known exactly what to do with it, just that if Socrates was right and how to die is all there is to philosophize about, someone ought to write the index. Alongside the list we’ve been collecting newspaper clippings, magazine ads, forgotten photos, and all manner of detritus that might be categorized as “things that quicken the heart.” From this cold mountain of material, we make collages, attempting to scalpel out the corpse from the stone. It is an endless iceberg of morbidity, and so for the Armory, it’s just the tip.

The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Ways to Die (A Walk in the Park), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.

How did the idea develop?

This past September in a letter published in the Brooklyn Rail under the title “Broken Toilet: BHQFU is Dead,” we announced the closing of the free art school we’d been running for the better part of the last decade. In short: a fit of pique, prompted by a plumbing problem, proved an unpalatable parallel to the peril of the political. Even shorter: all things must pass. Since then friends, Romans, commentators have lent us their condolences, assuming outright that, or wondering aloud if, Bruce himself (itself?) is dead?

It’s an odd question for us to parse, considering Bruce High Quality, so the story goes, began dead—skipping the market lunch line of Emerging, Mid-Career, Late-Career, and heading straight for the sundae station of post-death mythology: Foundation. The question brought to our hive mind the final stanza of Eliot’s Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Which we realized is just a grandiloquent flatulence joke. Likewise, mortality, in a laughing-in-the-face-of-it sort of way, has been cooked into Bruce’s existence since our founding on September 11th, 2001. Life is sacred. Nothing is sacred. Life is nothing. Art is everything. So we started making a list of every way we could think of to die. We read the news—new news and old news—and keep adding to our list: Cancer…Catastrophe…Collusion…Calamity… And started collaging our way through it collectively.

 

The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Ways to Die (An American Sunset), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.

How does BHQF reconcile its anti-institutional feelings with its participation in such institutions?

We do not expect our frustration with certain institutions of the art world to be alleviated through our participation within them. All we expect—all we demand of ourselves—is the artful articulation of those feelings. Here’s another famous poem fragment that sums up our approach, this time from William Carlos Williams:

— through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!

While perhaps the school was a utopian project, Bruce is not. Our job is metaphor.

There are frequently many art historical references in BHQF’s work. What are some of the biggest influences presently?

The past is present. The Raft of the Medusa.