It is not always clear that one is looking at a Darren Bader work. The venturesome New York–based artist has quietly, almost covertly, presented two burritos on a windowsill at MoMA PS1, his aunt’s SUV in a sculpture park during Miami Basel, and a ponytail floating in a canal in Venice (that one was called canal and/with ponytail). Once you are alerted to the presence of one of his works, though, it can conjure strange associations, and every object you come across begins to look just a little bit uncanny. That burrito piece, I will say, still haunts me—two hearty meals (one chicken, one beef) sitting together like two lovers or friends, wasting away in the sun, their treasure hidden inside, just out of reach. After the initial shock of the work passed, it looked sweet, melancholy, and very funny.
All of which is to say, if you see a group of people standing on concrete tiles under the High Line in Manhattan next month, playing a game that in some way resembles chess, that is a Darren Bader you are looking at. The work, titled chess: relatives, calls for people to take the place of chess pieces—so each team will require 16 people, plus one more to direct them around the board.
There are a few rules involved, as there sometimes are with Bader’s sculptures. One is that only certain types of people are supposed to play as certain pieces. Per the written instructions, “Queens must identify as either step-fathers, mothers, or nieces,” “Rooks must identify as either aunts, brothers, or niblings,” and so forth. (“A nibling is a gender-neutral term for the child of one’s sibling,” the rules explain.)
Bader, one might assume, is a big chess aficionado. But, “no, no, it bores me,” he told me when reached by phone yesterday afternoon. “I don’t have the patience for it.” Nevertheless, his show last year at Sadie Coles HQ in London included various versions of chess that he invented. “I try to find things that a lot of people recognize instantly,” he said, “and a chess board is one of those things.”
One version he made up involves people bringing in objects to use as chess pieces—”If a player takes another player’s piece, they take that person’s belonging home with them,” Bader explained—and another entails 16 speakers operating as pieces, each playing a song depending on its identity. (This, he noted, was a somewhat complicated game to play.)
The people version, which goes on view under a stretch of the High Line by The Standard hotel on May 6, has its own difficulties, notably the fact that once people take their positions, the players moving them are not supposed to ask them what piece they are. So, once you assemble 16 people for a team, I suggest carefully discussing positions in advance. Perhaps consider costumes or color-coding. (An important note: don’t worry too much about finding the exact right people for each role. Short of niblings? The instructions counsel that “players are welcome to improvise if the suggestions prove restrictive.”)
There is, of course, a long and rich history of artists being involved with chess and chess sets. Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades prefigure Bader’s practice, famously quit art to focus on chess, and numerous artists designed sets, including Man Ray (“gorgeous,” Bader termed it), Yayoi Kusama, Alexander Calder, and many more. For chess: relatives, though, Bader has not made a set—only the tiles. The pieces will be made anew each game, as new configurations of people stand next to one another, waiting to be moved.
“When I first conceived of this chess work, I thought, Well, what’s it like to have to stand so close to somebody you don’t know for an indeterminate period of time?” Bader said. The tiles are not large—only about two feet square. “You’re really up in somebody’s space,” he continued. “It’s not confrontational, but it’s certainly intimate.”