Cary Fagan, an artist heretofore known to many as the photographic eye behind some of the most high-profile musical projects in recent years, has now turned his attention towards sculpture. Specifically, sculpting with chairs as an overt commentary on race, objectification, and spatiality. In this interview, writer Mia Imani speaks to Fagan and assesses the impact of his evolving project “Chairs Are People.”
My first contact with Cary Fagan’s work began with his signature analog photography. Whether he was shooting a celebrity, model, or a friend, I always felt like his works were distilled memories of intimacy — moments inviting the viewer to challenge how we relate to Black vulnerability, gender, and beauty.
In 2019, I ended up meeting the multidisciplinary artist while he documented Solange’s performance “Witness!” at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany. At the time, I was interested in the activation of architecture as a way to expand Black feminist utopian ideologies, and Fagan was honing his meditative and artistic practice, Chairs Are People. The project is an on-site activation that includes Fagan carefully arranging chairs on top of each other to create temporary sculptures. Working without an outlined blueprint, he molds the piece by following his intuition. The only outside factors are the limits of the space and time itself. So far, his largest sculpture was featured during a performance at Houston’s Asia Society, which included 40 chairs and took four hours to complete.
We quickly found common ground in looking at inanimate objects to imagine a different reality for Black, brown, and all folx who feel left in the margins. Working with any material invites us to investigate our relationship to said object, but taking it one step further as a Black artist brings another layer of complexity and responsibility. One must unpack the relationship between Blackness and objecthood — a topic that requires you to come to terms with colonial practices. How can Black people who were treated and handled as objects regain their agency, while giving an object agency at the same time?
“A chair is a place for opportunity,” states Fagan. What potential could chair sculpting offer to individuals and communities who want to rebuild their futures by focusing on collective dreams? How would society relate to Blackness if it wasn’t isolated to immaterial forms of creativity (dance, music) and expanded the definition of the material beyond Blackness as an object of productivity?
Chairs provided stability and possibility during a period of transition for Fagan. Chair stacking elevated a hobby into a healing ritual that started as a response to something most of us have experienced before and during the pandemic: burnout.
Mia Imani: “What inspired the transition from analog photography into chair sculpting?”
Cary Fagan: “The transition actually came from burning out. Straight out, like, I was at my old apartment and I questioned myself, ‘Why am I even doing photography anymore?’ I was going off on a rant talking about the industry, about how they really mess with Black people. There's just not a lot of room for growth, and it really got to me at the time. Before I questioned myself, I was already into the anatomy of chairs, but it wasn't something that was communicated to me as a practice, it was just admiration. Then I thought, ‘Well, what if I started stacking chairs? What if I made that cool? I'm not sure if people are doing that today.’ Then as soon as I said that, I just started doing it, and it became a routine and became an act of repetition.”
Although his work has been acclaimed by artists like A$AP Rocky, Kanye West, and Solange, he still felt the underlying pressures of navigating the photography industry as a Black man. There were many contributors to his unease: the uncertainty of sustained success, the underrepresentation of Black talent behind and in front of the camera, and the gatekeepers who claim to be diversifying the industry to only reproduce systemic oppression towards other Black artists. Yet visibility was not the only issue; although his work was seen and celebrated, his voice was overlooked in many aspects of his life. His choice to take an unconventional career path was met with initial resistance from his parents, although his father introduced him to the medium. Sitting with this discomfort, something he would later integrate into his artistic practice, Fagan surrendered to the unknown and took up methods that gifted him stillness amongst the chaos. Self-cultivation through Taoist meditation pivoted him into a new medium where he had the agency to shape his own existence.
The journey began with Fagan constructing temporary sculptures in public spaces he passed through. The forms existed in between disruption and self-documentation, where the impermanent objects took up space in cafés, public squares, and airports. Each venue provided a platform to mark his presence — a way to make a statement without using words.
MI: “You have documented many chair sculptures you have done around Houston and in between travels. Most of these spaces have unspoken regulations about how to occupy and move through space. How did your pieces challenge these constructions?”
CF: “It was looked at as a nuisance. I got in trouble a couple times by security, just leaving sculptures at airports. I did a series called ‘Temporary Sculptures.’ I would go to airports on my travels and kind of leave it as a signature. The sculptures don’t make noise. They just sit in the space, loud in their presence.”
MI: "How does traveling inform your practice?"
CF: “I was lost, and I wanted to find myself again. The only way I can find myself is by putting myself in a place where I don't know anything, or just being unfamiliar with my surroundings. I believe Japan has permanently changed my life — I'm able to feel a lot more, be more transparent, and dig deep within myself to [find] a space of clarity and safety. I think anyone can relate to this when they want to grow, and it sometimes means leaving. I was too familiar with my home, and I didn't want to be there, and I wanted to grow. I said this when I was in Italy, when I was living there: ‘To grow, you need to be uncomfortable.’ When I said that, I missed my flight coming home on purpose, and I spent a lot of money. I knew if I [went] home, I wouldn't have found all these other things.”
Fagan returned to Houston with a fresh spirit and began to materialize ways to build something to bring those experiences back to their cultural landscape. Upon return, his personal chair collection expanded (including around 30 chairs to date, which he continues to use to explore the boundaries of his practice), as did the scope and context of his process. People began to connect his work to a lineage of conceptual sculpturists who have worked with chairs and other inanimate objects to extend the archive, confront socio-political injustice, and speak to making the impossible possible. He researched Columbian artist Doris Salcedo (known for commemorating the absences of the disempowered in history), Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (who uses his pieces to highlight injustice), and Austrian artist Erwin Wurm (known for his subversive, one-minute sculptures). Each helped him shape how he wanted to interact with people by making the practice accessible and becoming more intentional about space.
MI: “I would love to know, especially as someone who is emerging in their practice — what would you like to learn? What are some of the ways you want to expand your artistry?”
CF: “I want to learn about my upbringing and my history. I want to get more on a large scale, on Ai Weiwei and Doris' level, but the process is already teaching me how to speak about my art now. I'm letting things flow, but I'm listening a lot more, and reading. That helped me understand the work. Research. Studying. How can I draw those connections into my work, how can I make my work impactful? How can I take it to the next level? How can I take it a step further?”
He asked himself these questions as he refined his purpose using what he calls testing space, a response to Doris Salcedo’s idea that the meaning found in purposeful art might help us ask difficult questions and attempt to find answers to them. Although Salcedo only saw art as the poser of questions, Fagan sees spaces as the mediator. “I am testing space looking for answers. It is a test of wanting to be visible without using my voice, so manipulating space to be seen or heard,” he says.
MI: “There's folx that have created chair sculptures in different capacities. It's happened on different continents with different contexts, different scales. How do you feel your particular practice is expanding upon the tradition of chair sculptures as a Black artist? What seat are you bringing to the table?”
CF: “It's becoming bigger than I am. What I'm doing is great, but I have a responsibility. The fact that I am taking this inanimate object, and I am already having this impact. I have the ability now to tell a narrative. To tell my own narrative, with my voice. I have the ability to draw historical connections, references to give people wisdom and knowledge of the past and the present. It is an attempt to reach out and bring you in. In this white world they're going to look at it as something I just like doing. We have a responsibility as Black artists to tell a narrative at some point in our lives.”