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'Welsh oak With The Swedish Blues', 2008, oak tree, CD player

Oderberger Strasse, Berlin, and a young man holds a placard that reads, ‘What is Gillian Wearing?’. Dan Rees uses an art interrogation strategy with a typically light touch. ‘Variable Peace’, 2006-ongoing, is a sequence of dialogues between him and other artists while playing table tennis, the ping pong of question and answer with the gap of time used to compose thoughts and consider the next return. Here’s our first serve:

John Quin : There’s much talk of a ‘return to sobriety’ in the art chatter given global economic woes. Do you give this much credence, given the importance of humour in your work? What do you think of Ed Ruscha’s comment about preferring the Huh? Wow! reaction over the Wow! Huh?

Dan Rees : I am not sure that the right response would be to make more serious artwork. If anything, I think that for the humour of an artwork to function successfully it needs a backdrop of seriousness. A slightly more sober art world would possibly make it easier for an audience to understand or stomach humorous work. There is endless potential in Ed Ruscha’s ‘Huh?’; I see that briefest moment of confusion as having huge creative potential. Personally, I would prefer a slightly more modest and generous type of art; perhaps this is not the time for massive installations and budgets that often appear to rely on the ‘Wow!’ factor. I get excited by art that gives the viewer space to finish it off, that has a door in. This, for me, is why the ‘Huh?’ is more productive than the ‘Wow!’.

'What is Gillian Wearing?', 2006, photograph
'What is Gillian Wearing?', 2006, photograph

JQ : ‘A Cup of Tea with Gavin Turk’, 2007, sees you adding a tea stain to one of Turk’s prints. Unlike Rauschenberg who erases a De Kooning you add to an existing artwork. Can you comment on dialogues with other artists as an art form in itself?

DR : I understand viewing art as a form of collaboration. As a viewer you are constantly bringing with you your own associations and emotions. I like the idea of secret or hidden exchanges, or collaborations which only one person knows about. I haven’t met Turk but I imagine the viewer sort of imagining my imagining in a work like ‘A Cup of Tea with Gavin Turk’. I like the idea that an artist is themselves a sort of medium from which you can work, especially in conceptual art. That really makes sense to me. For instance, I may be having my own types of conversations all the time with a book on Sol LeWitt, or I may have a real conversation during a game of table tennis with Jonathan Monk, who had had his own actual conversations with LeWitt. I think these works are really about different types of communication, especially in relation to time. Perhaps if there is one advantage in this type of collaboration over the formal kind is that it is democratic; it perhaps shares something more with the viewer’s experience.

JQ : With the ‘Variable Peace’[s] can you comment on the silences in the game? Michael Fried’s new book on photography makes much of absorption. Does the concentration on the game in some way make the dialogue less contrived, unlike, say, a written dialogue?

DR: I was thinking about sound from the very start. The silence, the idea of gaps, crops up in a lot of my work. Perhaps it’s comparable to how I work as an artist, and the idea of thinking and making, and the space in between, of how those relate to each other; the thinking is responsible for the making and vice versa. What I like about table tennis is the simple idea that you need two elements. It’s almost an analogy for making work. It’s a kind of joke that we are in ‘collaboration’ as we really treat it like a game of sport, but then there is this nice confusion that you are watching it in a gallery and it’s two artists so it must be an artwork. The concentration of the game does certainly change the dialogue and the dialogue becomes less and less as we concentrate more until we are only really making noises like ‘ahh’ when we miss a shot.

'Variable Peace vs Jonathan Monk', 2006, video
'Variable Peace vs Jonathan Monk', 2006, video

JQ : In a ‘Wall Rubbing of This Very Spot’, 2007, you use yellow. Proust’s character Bergotte makes much of a patch of yellow wall in Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’, [1660]. Bergotte considers a celestial pair of scales; on one pan his own life, on the other, the painted patch of wall so beautiful that he feels he has rashly sacrificed his life for the latter. Do some artists invest too much in the work?

DR ; I chose yellow because I wanted to create this kind of celebration of an arbitrary spot, maybe a bit lower or a bit higher than one would normally hang a work. I really like the idea of having it hanging in a place where no art would have been placed before. I wasn’t thinking about the Bergotte story but I think that there is a lack of ‘real’ life in the art world at times and artists would benefit from spending more time with/in non-art related people/places. That may be the antidote to taking art too seriously and sacrificing yourself for it. Perhaps the confusion lies between artists who seem to sacrifice their lives for the art world compared to artists who would sacrifice their life for ‘Art’. The latter seems much more complex and important. I think I am equally repelled and fascinated by this idea.

JQ : Fried makes much of the 1960s/70s’ output of artists Bernd and Hilla Becher. Do they influence your photographic works?

DR : ‘Black and White Things in Black and White’, 2006, came about accidentally after a visit to the zoo taking photos of the animals and we came to the zebras. The work changed in my mind in relation to conceptual art of the 1970s and how the fact that we experience a lot of that work or documentation of that time in black and white affects our perception of that time. The work for me functions as a sort of response to the manner in which black and white film is now used to reference conceptual art, or a simple trick to add sentiment or nostalgia to something.

JQ : Can you comment on the role of music in the work?

DR : Two recent works are ‘Happiness Is A White Wall’ and ‘Welsh Oak With The Swedish Blues’, both 2008. The first consists of a tumbler on a small shelf on a gallery wall. Just above the tumbler on the other side of the wall are some hidden speakers playing a section of ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’. To hear the music you have to go right up close to the wall, pick up the tumbler and use it as a listening device. I was thinking about the minimalism of the white wall, the White Album and the question of why we go to galleries in the first place. With the second work I planted a Welsh oak tree in the Swedish countryside. Next to the tree is a little wooden box containing a portable CD player which plays blues songs on repeat. Very simply, it was about the idea of making work in the middle of nowhere away from other art, the placing of these lonely blues songs in a lonely place.

JQ : Last lob. What is ‘The Home for Lost Ideas’?

DR : This project contains responses from artists to the request to send us their ‘Lost Ideas’. The brief was simply that the artists interpret the title and then we edit their contributions. We knew what we were interested in; things that displayed a personal touch, that perhaps let you see another side to [an artist’s] work, something that you might never normally see, something more anecdotal, that perhaps doesn’t feel like art.

John Quin is a writer based in Berlin and Brighton
Dan Rees, Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna, 17 March-16 May