Are You One of Us or One of Them? Artist Jonathan Paul’s New Project Will Divide Fair Goers at the Spring/Break Art Show

A mock-up of Jonathan Paul's Us/Them at the SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Courtesy of the artist.

Jonathan Paul’s work has long dissected human habit, instinct, and ritual—often to satirical ends. In his last New York gallery show—“To the Victor Belongs the Spoils” at Unix Gallery—the LA-based artist created an absurdist sporting event that pitted two goats against each other and encouraged gallery goers to pick one to root for.

Now, for the upcoming edition of the SPRING/BREAK Art Show in New York, Paul is prepping another conceptually rich project that takes aim at the arbitrariness of identity and affiliation. But this one’s a bit more personal.

The work, titled Us/Them, is a fair-specific installation that invites interaction with guests. Unlike many of the artist’s previous projects, which rely on production value as a means of, say, probing the vacuity of luxury or exploring consumerist desire, this project is stripped down, simple, and raw.

In the performance, Paul himself sits at an unassuming booth greeting passersby. After talking with them, he consults a pendulum-like sculpture which he refers to as the “Decider”—a reference to a device of the same name in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 fantasy epic film, Brazil—and determines which of two designations the participant is deemed to be: “One of Us” or “One of Them.”

Installation view of Jonathan Paul’s “To The Victor Belongs The Spoils,” 2018. Courtesy of UNIX Gallery.

“I discuss with them their identity, what they believe about themselves, where they were born, what their religious background is, what their sexual preferences are, etc.” Paul tells artnet News. “I explain that this identity is given to them just as randomly as I decided whether they’re ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them.’ I tell them that I would be willing to fight for my random identity the same way they would be willing to fight for theirs. The idea of us wearing two different badges, one that says ‘Us,’ one that says ‘Them,’ is kind of ridiculous at the end of the day, isn’t it?”

After the Decider, a photo is taken of the participant, which is used to create an ID tag with their “us/them” designation and a special note on the back. This note, Paul explains, is the “key component to the performance,” though he prefers not to talk about it—or any of the other details of his exchange with fairgoers—letting participants discover it for themselves.

“It’s very different for me, a project like this,” Paul says. “It came out of “feeling as polarized as the rest of the world has been feeling for the last couple of years. I couldn’t make a sculpture about it, I couldn’t make a painting about how I was feeling. I didn’t really know how to process it. I felt this was a genuine way, an honest way to process what was happening to me and to sit and have a conversation about it with someone else.”

Paul originally debuted Us/Them at Art Miami in 2018, where it was a big hit. For the artist, it was unexpectedly emotional. “It was a lot more personal than I anticipated it to be,” he says. “And it was very personal for a lot of people who participated, which I also wasn’t expecting. Twenty to 30 people cried at the last performance. I got a lot of hugs, a lot of ‘thank yous,’ a lot of ‘you really made me feel good about myself’-type comments.”

The newest iteration of Us/Them, produced with Unix Gallery, will have a slightly different look and feel than the last one. It will be installed in the lobby of SPRING/BREAK, which is being held at the former home of the Finnish embassy at the UN plaza. This time Paul has redesigned the booth to better accommodate the hordes of people that an art fair brings. However, he’s hoping to tap into the same sense of intimacy as the last iteration of the project.

“I’m not the kind of artist that’s going to be political and give you my opinion,” he says. “I like to be a sponge and feel what’s going on then give it back to you and let you figure out the morality behind it.”

The SPRING/BREAK Art Show will take place March 5-11, 2019. at 866 UN Plaza in New York. You can also see Jonathan’s work at UNIX Gallery’s booth (E04) during Art Central Hong Kong, which will run from March 27-31, 2019.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.