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We meet with Brooklyn-based artist Diana Shpungin. Diana's work and her assignment for you are both based on empathy -- it's a feeling we usually have for other people, but Diana wants you to direct your empathy towards objects instead.

INSTRUCTIONS - Object Empathy
1. Find and object you feel bad for.
2. Fix it in your own style.
3. Show us what you've done. Upload using #theartassignment.
4. Fame and glory (Your work might be in a future episode).

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
This episode of "The Art Assignment" is brought you by Squarespace.   [intro plays]   We're in Grand Rapids, Michigan, today for ArtPrize, an annual art competition decided by public vote and a jury of experts that takes over the city for 19 days. I'm standing outside of an artwork that's part of this year's ArtPrize, by Brooklyn-based artist Diana Shpungin, who was born in Latvia and moved to the US as a small child. She makes work involves drawing, sculpture, and video, often combining each of these approaches. Graphite pencil is an important tool for Diana, and she uses it to meticulously and thoroughly cover the surfaces of objects with graphite marks. This action is at once an act of preservation and obliteration-- memorializing the object, meditating on its use in history, while also reclaiming it. For this project, Diana worked with curator Paul Amenta and SiTE:LAB-- a Grand Rapids-based organization that creates temporary, site-specific art projects-- to take over this vacant house that was once a rectory. With the help of community volunteers, she covered the house entirely in graphite pencil marks, and has also projected hand-drawn animations through selected windows of the house. Her largest work to date, this monumental installation considers the historical memory of a building that is no longer in use, and proposes for it an ambiguous future. When we think about empathy, we're usually talking about being more attuned to other people. But with Diana and her assignment today, we're going to ask you to direct that feeling towards objects.

Diana: I'm Diana Shpungin, and this is your art assignment. Just when you see a boarded-up house, you automatically have empathy. At least I do. Like, it's just a really sad thing that a house has-- it's iconic. It has meaning. To people, it's home. It's personal. When you see boards on it, it just automatically negates that. And all those kind of memories are shut in. And so I wanted to reveal some of them in a very ambiguous way. Obviously, I can't live through someone else's memories. My work often could be personal, dealing with my own memories, but I feel like the idea of the house in general is such a universal symbol that anyone could adapt to it. My father was a surgeon. He would spend money on very particular things, but then everything else was reused, repaired. He might buy a nice lamp for the house, but if it broke, he would just wrap it in medical tape. Things, also-- things at his disposal. He would not repair things properly. He would just-- whatever he had, or the means of his profession. And even in his office, you have a doctor's waiting room, and there's plants. The plants that would fall over, he would create splints and wrap them with bandages. And this was just in the office for all the patients to see. And he was making sculpture. He was kind of making amazing sculpture. So I feel like I kind of stole his aesthetic a little bit. Your assignment is to feel bad for an object. It could be something that you find, something that you've neglected in your home. And feel bad for it, but fix it. And make the act of fixing it your aesthetic. So don't repair it so it's usable. Repair it so the repair is obvious. And use something that you just happen to have around. That could be bandages, scotch tape, staples, anything that's readily available in your home.

John: So Sarah, when I was a kid, I had all these toys and I had to play with them for an equal amount of time-- all of them. I sort of over-read "The Velveteen Rabbit," and I felt like any of my toys that didn't receive equal treatment would suffer, that they would be miserable, that they would miss me.

Sarah: --[CHUCKLES] There is something really beautiful and childlike about this assignment. But for me, it makes me think about how all art making, in a way, is feeling empathy for objects, whether--

John: Yeah.

Sarah: --it's like paper or clay, or-- these materials that are very humble. You're taking them, you're feeling empathy for them, and you're turning them into something else.

John: Yeah. I mean, it points to one of the movements in recent art history toward an interest in materiality, an interest in what the material is, what it does, what it wants, if it wants anything.

Sarah: And like Diana, I too feel a lot of empathy for buildings. I drive around town, I see all of these buildings in various states of disrepair and abandonment, and I think about how hopeful that act of constructing a new building is. And then when nobody needs it anymore, it's just-- it's sad.

John: It is. Yeah, but I think we have a weird habit, as humans, of placing human emotions into non-human things, which I used to see as a weakness of ours, but now I'm starting to see it as a strength, I have to say. I think there's something beautiful about our ability to empathize with that which isn't human.

Sarah: And today, for our art historical precedent, we're going to talk about one artist who felt a lot of empathy for a specific building in London.   In 1993, Rachel Whiteread was granted a temporary lease on 193 Grove Road, the last remaining property slated to be demolished of what had been an entire terrace of Victorian houses in East London. Whiteread and her crew embarked on a laborious process of casting in concrete the interior of the home, coating each surface and capturing not only its geometry, but also the details of its moldings, doors, windows, and fireplaces. When the process was complete, the exterior walls were removed, revealing a ghost-like, impenetrable sculpture of a house. It was a striking monument to the particular structure, but also to the history of the block, the bombings that occurred there during the Second World War, and to shifting ideals of domestic life and city planning.

Whiteread's act of empathy for this object was to make visible its absence, to render its negative spaces positive, and to create a kind of sculptural photograph of a place that no longer exists. "House" was visited by crowds of onlookers, and was steeped in controversy until it was demolished in January of 1994. Nothing of the sculpture remains-- except, of course, copious documentation and its indelible imprint on collective memory.

Diana: The series, the "Ghost Limb" pieces I made, I started making-- I was at a residency in MacDowell in New Hampshire. I spent a lot of time in the woods, and I just started picking up beautiful birch tree limbs and coating them in graphite. And then I would make drawings of where I would imagine the break of the limb would be. So almost like the drawing became the of what was cut off. And then I would also bandage the breaking point. So just kind of like seeing a branch on the ground, what everybody sees, but giving it a life it wouldn't have had otherwise, or at least giving it a little momentary moment of glory or acknowledgment.

You should have empathy for everything and everyone. So I feel like if you could start with an object, then that might spill over to people, animals, the environment, anything. So it could just start with a simple object. It definitely doesn't have to be nostalgic or sentimental. It could just be you walking down the sidewalk, and you see some pathetic thing, and you pick it up and repair it. And the important thing is the repair shouldn't be like you fix it to make it perfect or beautiful. Like, the repair should be visible. The repair is your art intervention. The repair should be obvious, your aesthetic, your type of repair. I mean, if I asked 20 people to bandage something, they would all be different. He said, what would you do a house? And I said, I'd cover it in graphite, of course.

Sarah: This episode of "The Art Assignment" is brought to you by Squarespace.

John: Squarespace is an easy way to create a website, blog, or online store for you and your ideas.

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John: Squarespace: build it beautiful.