Ben Sang

Artist Interview

May 26, 2021
Ben Sang is an artist, curator, and archaeologist living and working in Salt Lake City, Utah. His practice consists of splicing concepts and practices from multiple fields and disciplines. His work is heavily inspired by spirituality and the intimate energy exchanged between humankind and the earth and how that energy is shared. Sang is the director of Final Hot Desert, a multifaceted gallery and institution that specializes in supporting and carrying out off-site exhibitions, scientific research, and other media.

Hello Ben, how would you describe your practice to someone new?

I’m an artist, curator, and an amateur archaeologist. I believe in belief and consider it to be the substrate I work across and I tend to look at the universe and oblivion from a pretty Dionysian point of view. I’m really interested in splicing together contexts until the tension between them is active and maintains itself. I’ve been experimenting with curating sculptural installations in remote (mainly desert) locations for almost three years.

You mentioned that the ethos of Final Hot Desert and your own artistic practice are similar from the beginning and seem to be orbiting closer together as time passes. What are the main differences in your approach to personal and curatorial work?

To give a little bit of context first, in my practice in general I try to create entities and machines of belief. I try to create projects that act as hyperreal operations in that the spaces they map precede the spaces themselves, making weightless the system of signifiers. The way I see it I’m still a baby on this path. I’m just barely learning how to move the way I’ve dreamt up. I don’t know what the end goal looks like at all - it’s really blurry and I hope it stays that way forever as I approach it. But this path is fire and I can feel its truth. When I say that my practices are orbiting closer together, I mean that they feel like they’re becoming more of a spiraling mixed solution as they continue to approach the fuzzy place on the same wavelength.

But the main difference between my personal and curatorial practice takes place in the parameters of my projects that kind of identify them as entities with definable traits. My personal practice is me, a character I’ve more or less created or grown up stuck inside, acting as an artist and splicing together works from symbols that stimulate me. When I get to be the end-result artist I get to make symbols that I believe in and that carry the energy that fuels me.

Curation allows me to step back and practice augmenting other creators’ energy in conjunction with the earth and place. Sometimes when I’m curating I end up getting to assist an artist in pulling something off that I’ve always wanted too, and sometimes it’s something I never dreamed of doing that I actually really end up feeling connected to. I’ve been making attempts to actively collect with intent now too and I’ve noticed the works I tend to collect are different both from the pieces I make as well as the exhibitions I curate even though they feel augmentory. I’m a supporter of a coalescing practice in which curation, collecting, and art making are almost interchangeable. However, it seems really important right now to keep Ben Sang and Final Hot Desert as separate entities and for that reason I will never curate my own work into an FHD exhibition - my hand is already too heavy. A lot of people thought Falconer was a Final Hot Desert exhibition but because my work was featured in it, it couldn’t be. However, it’s absolutely aligned with FHD and part of that universe.

Can you tell us a bit about your recent group exhibition, Falconer?

FITNESSS and o6o8 of i8i had traveled up to stay with me here in Utah and shoot some FHD footage for some current and future i8i projects. We were all on the same wavelength and really pushed each other to go further and further. On the second day we drove out to the salt flats in the middle of a blizzard and just started installing. We’d endured a pretty crazy installation experience the night before that was very laborious. This time we were riding a wave of energy that really allowed us to relax and feel our surroundings. Falconer functions both as a multifaceted exhibition as well as a singular artwork. The sculpture held in the air is one of my all-time favorites by Riccardo D’Avola-Corte. The installation is forged out of interactions and sculptures and artifacts made and collected between the four of us. The piece is very much about its situation and place as much as it is about the components it's made up of. The tableau vivant aspect of the situation is really interesting to me because a lot of people can’t tell if it’s a figure or a sculpture of a figure. I wanna play with that more in the future. The text takes in and scrambles local Mormon theosophy, post-CCRU scrying philos, and a strong ethos of the purely generative energy of intensive and sacrificial collaborations across time.

Falconer was the first real attempt at harnessing the interchangeable, collective, active mode of creation that I mentioned above. It’s hard to talk about because it’s not a sign that refers to a depth of a meaning. It operates in Baudrillard’s weightless system of the simulacrum in that it is never exchanged with the real, only itself. It’s a simulation that doesn’t attempt to make ends meet with reality. What does it mean for an image like that to be shared across the internet? I don’t know for sure but I am still excited by that piece, which is rare for me.

What are your thoughts on the ephemerality of your practice? How do you interpret the relationships between art objects, nature, and documentation?

Most of what I create is very material. It doesn’t dissipate after documentation so much as it kind of waits for its next form and moment. I really believe strongly in activity. Objects, feelings, and tools all shift in their application when the splice lines are seen from the right paradigm. My studio is a space for me to create personal works, store Final Hot Desert pieces, display my collection, and host other artists. Everything is set up to be transportable and immediately applied when the right moment appears with the right amount of sensitivity.

The art objects have gravity in the field that they’re placed in. This gravity has to be adjusted in conjunction with other natural objects and their gravity in the plane. And the natural plane itself will dictate how the objects are allowed to interact with each other along the channels that the method of documentation allows.

I see art objects as compressed energy that reveals itself very differently based on its surroundings. What kind of energy seeps from the pixels of a screen that is displaying an FHD exhibition? It’s a different energy than the one created by the same sculptures in situ in the remote wilderness, with dry air blowing between them as Hudson and I quietly document and rearrange. It has a different flavor that still brings an aspect of this to the viewer. I want to be able to share the very intimate experience we get to have during remote installs. But its intimacy is also partially dependent on its unattainability.

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What makes you decide to pursue the study of Archaeology? What impact does it have on your practice?

Almost all of my studies for my art practice became completely anthropological a couple years ago. Seeing Ging’s character in Hunter X Hunter was also really inspiring to me lol. His character path is very much one of eternal progression so I really relate. My curatorial focus is very much land-based. Archaeology, in my perspective, is the study of the changing face of humanity being pressed into sediment in its stratigraphic sliver of geological time. It’s also a very hybridized discipline that had to stake out and fight for its territory in the scientific community with the introduction of the Processual Approach in the mid-1900s. By altering their aesthetics en masse, archeologists turned their practice into a universally accepted science. It’s this kind of struggle and engagement with hybridization that really interests me.

Archaeology has impacted my practice a lot. It obviously entails a lot of additive skills and an attention to detail that I really like. Working with the land in archaeology is a similar process to a Final Hot Desert exhibition - sometimes just oriented inversely. The biggest impact studying archaeology has had for me has definitely been a cognitive one in the way I process information now. To be so engrossed in art, to be working with the really intricate scientific mind of Hudson Kendall, and to be studying this discipline that really toes the line on what it is to be scientific and how to scientifically structure creative objects has really leveled things out and allowed me to span all of my thoughts on one plane rather than switching gears all the time.

Can you tell us about the nomadic nature of your work?

Final Hot Desert was designed to be taken with me wherever I go. Humans move, matter moves, the universe is a 4d shape constantly convulsing in on and out from itself. I wish it were completely normal for human-made art to be exhibited as far we can reach. Like if there were an exhibition on a satellite today it would probably be seen as a big press and shock opportunity. But imagine if it were realistic on a DIY scale… some work might be more suited to be installed outside of this sphere, other works would be better off in a terrestrial setting. The bounds of what would be considered in the creation of an artwork would be radically expanded. A lot of similar situations are already completely available but are either unutilized or currently only being utilized in the opportunistic press and shock arenas or just without real intentional rigor. Imagine being visually guided in deep meditation to a pre-curated exhibition developed in the deep consciousness of the curator by a group of meditational artists. It sounds like a dumb, flashy opportunity at first but what if it were a standard practice? I honestly think we’re going through several phases of introduction and normalization right now (offsites and NFTs, for example) and I hope and expect for them to increase in frequency and normalcy. No level of art school will be able to keep up. The gatekept structures of academia and wokeness that has pigeonholed the potential of the diversity of works and artists throughout the postmodern era will dissolve and life might have a chance at truly being art on a more universal level. I’m here for it.

Nicholas Bourriaud’s The Radicant produces a structure of the contemporary era in art that really emphasizes the role of nomadism as completely essential in which the semionaut acts as an inventor of pathways within cultural landscape, acting as a nomadic sign gatherer. The iconic tarot-like figures of this day and age are the immigrant, the exile, the tourist, and the urban wanderer. The actions of the semionaut are decentering, setting in motion, unsticking, and de-incrustation.

You are an exceptional writer and communicator. What is your relationship with writing?

I think that writing as a formulator is one of the best mediums to actively think about your own thoughts in the span of time it takes for them to grow into your head and be translated physically onto a page. I’m not the most practiced or consistent writer but I think everyone should try to write more no matter what their life is like. Most of the time I spend writing is spent making lots of to-do lists and organizing my ideas. Every once in a while an essay starts to emerge but nothing has felt finished or ready to share yet. Maybe someday...

I think art writing has really high potential that is rarely utilized. On one end it takes shape as a very academic thing that kind of has to fit into the scene that you see on e-flux and stuff like that. On the other end you see shows where a disparate poem was written because they probably thought they needed a text but it’s abstract application felt too difficult to articulate. Personally, text as a referencer and machine of metaphysical orientation is important, especially in an era where the spatial tensions of an exhibition are not experienced by the majority of its viewers who only see the work online. Ultimately, a lot of people won’t read text. Just like this interview, only people who are really interested or really care are actually going to read the whole thing. Sometimes a bad text can sort of ruin a good exhibition. I hardly read anything cover to cover or start to finish. But reading and reorienting the things I’ve read is crucial to who I am.

Your practice encompasses  art, science, spirituality, anthropology, and more. Why is this important to you? What is your hope for the future of knowledge and creativity?

Spirituality is the dedication to unending progression. No final destination, no podium... just infinity forever. To get somewhere and be stuck forever, or to reach the end of the road is a disappointment if joy is found in the progression itself. I personally find the most joy in progression and learning and recontextualizing to make a process more exciting in the methods through which it reveals and conceals.

I think it’s the spirituality of a mindset that opens up doors to cross-disciplinary thought and action. Spiritual promptings are much easier to follow without external evidence. Spirituality is the energy of pioneering. Making a goal to change the world from the outset is naive and you’ll be let down by others when you expect them to have the same ideals, but making a goal to carry and be the essence of the most empowered and impassioned true self is the best way to absolutely make a world-changing impact on those that you meet on your path in this stream of conscious awareness.

You mentioned that Final Hot Desert is entering an evolutionary phase from a pure offsite art gallery into an entity with multiple output streams in the art, music, and research worlds. What can we expect from the FHD in the future?

I set big goals and do my best. I have obvious restraints, but the longer FHD continues, the more these restraints begin to disappear. I’ve personally found that I get to live out my own dream opportunities by giving them to other people. As things get better and opportunities get bigger I really try to move to spaces of action and intention that are uncomfortable to me. I don’t want to be afraid of growing but I also want to continue to create situations that might not necessarily be viral or resonate with most people that see them. The recent affiliation with i8i has completely boosted everything on a conceptual and practical level. Everyone involved works so hard to create opportunities for each artist and project to succeed. i8i is a part of FHD and FHD is a part of i8i. Working with Hudson Kendall, our in-house scientific researcher, has also opened a realm of possibilities that I really have no idea how to accurately project or quantify regarding the future. We currently have an entire embryology lab that Hudson manages and conducts experiments in every day. I’m currently trying to push myself by testing my hand at curating in a tight space with set parameters at Elysian Hydraulics. I want to get better at everything that I do. Everyone involved with FHD has a desire to go as far as they can. I have no idea exactly what the future will look like but it will be absolutely full lol.

Legendary Pokémon Lugia can be seen throughout your Instagram page. What is the story behind that?

Lugia is a symbol that I’ve been fascinated and confused by since my early childhood. An all-powerful and purely benevolent entity that stays beneath the surface of the ocean unless its presence is absolutely required to maintain reality’s balance? Each wingbeat causes destructive hurricanes? The idea of such power and such restraint is really fascinating to me. I post images of the legendary Pokemon on Instagram because I don’t know how to appropriately include such a sacred image into my work without diluting it. Lugia’s home world is definitely the Final Hot Desert though. I feel like fan art is the best form I’ve encountered so far. Setting my IG up like an intermittent Lugia shrine is the only thing that feels right for now.

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Which books or writers do you find yourself going back to the most?

I was first introduced to philosophy through an old friend that started me out with Sigmund Freud’s essays. I especially remember Civilization and its Discontents and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The first art book that had a profound impact on me was Erling Kagge’s A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art. Kagge’s book oriented me to the art world I wanted to step into and Freud began to calibrate my mind to take in the kind of material my brain fiends for.

When I talk to theory heads I can usually only keep up for so long. Like I said earlier, it’s really rare for me to read something cover to cover. I hate the feeling of having someone else’s thoughts in my head and that tends to happen when I read one book in continuation for a long time. Reza Negarestani’s books have absolutely shredded me a couple of times. Just for fun I posted my handwritten notes to his Intelligence and Spirit on /lit on 4chan and got absolutely roasted. Nobody agreed with me. I had like five people tell me to kill myself. But that’s kinda cool I guess. Some other current favorites of mine are Spinoza’s Ethics, Bourriaud’s The Radicant, and Baudrillard’s Simulacra & Simulation. D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View was the book that oriented me with my cultural heritage on a universal level. That book inspired me to own the self that I was born into and allow myself to lean back on the roots of my identity for the first time. One of my other favorite books is a collection of screenshots of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts taken from ISIS videos of artifact destruction. The screenshots document only the last moment before each piece makes contact with the ground and crumbles into unrecognizable, dusty chunks of stone.

Is there anything else we should know about you and your work? Any fun facts we can learn about you?

I’m a concussion magnet. I grew up playing competitive soccer and between the ages of 17 and 22 had roughly two to three concussions per year while playing soccer or doing stupid stuff with friends. I can map out different periods of my personality and life by looking at when I had certain groups of concussions. Maybe I’ll hit my head really hard again and want to do things in a completely different way... I’m really interested in the ideas of collision and the dexterity of the self and I think it has a lot to do with my experiences with head trauma.

More of Ben:  |  @_bensang

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