Beyond the Void: Nate Young on Recreating History and Making Art Anew

Pia Singh , Newcity Art, May 23, 2022

On the occasion of “(un)time,” Nate Young’s fifth solo exhibition with Monique Meloche Gallery, Newcity’s Pia Singh sat down with the artist to discuss the work. On view is a new series of drawings in which Young recreates from memory a photograph of his great grandfather standing with a horse. The drawings are a continuation of a larger project, in which Young will attempt to recreate his great grandfather’s migration from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, by horse.


Considering the title of the exhibition, “(un)time,” I was excited about our conversation because a lot of the work I’ve invested in has centered on the idea of the durational encounter—be it lens-based work, drawing, installation, sound, performance… even painting to some degree is imbued with time.


Yeah, I think at some point, I started to think about the relationship to time, specifically because I was thinking about a story that happened in what we consider to be “the past,” a historical moment. So pretty early on in the work, I was thinking about time and realized that there is always a question of accuracy whil telling a story. In my work the story is my great-grandfather’s migration.


I want to start with the fact that you were recently awarded a grant which allowed you to expand this work.


Yes, I won a grant through the Shifting Foundation about a year-and-a-half ago. I decided that the project could be a way for me to access, for myself, the accuracy of a story I was once told by my grandmother. A story I am now retelling myself. My great-grandfather escaped from North Carolina in the early 1900sa, at the beginning of the Great Migration, to travel north to Philadelphia on horseback. So, in order to think about the accuracy of this story, I figured the best way would be to reproduce the action central to the story, to embody the story.


In terms of the transference of narratives, it shifts with each generation that tells it. There’s also the fact that he made this journey during the Great Migration, due to the rise of racist ideologies. Do you feel like there’s a parallel between your journey and his happening against a backdrop of present-day racism?


I don’t even think of them as different moments. This is where Black atemporality comes in. I was reading “Fartheralong” by John Edgar Wideman where he writes about going back to the South with his father to  find the town his father came from, before he moved north of Pittsburgh. He writes about visiting and realizing that the South was already a part of his consciousness, even though he had never been there. So that kind of like anti-Black or racist ideology is so ingrained in our consciousness, that I don’t even know if time truly separates it. I guess you can think of them as parallel and also convergent.


It makes me think of the notion of circular time in Buddhism, which differs from the linear Western conception of time. The belief that everyone you are in a relationship with in this lifetime, are relationships you’ve had in previous lifetimes that keep reconfiguring and playing out differently, again and again. But returning to Black atemporality, I was reading one of your interviews where you mention the absence of time and the proximity to death in relation to Blackness. This comes from an Afro-Pessimist framework?


I think this comes specifically from John Murillo III, he’s an Afro-Pessimist thinker and writer. The premise of Afro-Pessimism, from what I understand it to be, is that the ontological understanding of being is based on anti-Blackness, the human understands their existence through the exclusion of Blackness from the very category of human. Murillo takes this further and proposes that the very way in which we understand the cosmos and the nature of time itself is based on anti-Blackness, as indicated in the looping of Black death. You know, Black death keeps re-emerging and reoccurring, it’s a loop. He talks about the fact that Newtonian time that we function on can and has been thrown into question by physics. But there are other ways of thinking about time, the cosmic time in Buddhism as you say. I think it’s important for us to think about it and not take Newtonian time as a given. For me this opens up a space of possibility that the past is not only something we can visit in our memory but it is actually something we construct in the present time, and maybe could in turn visit.