Advisor: Deborah Davidson
May 19, 2015
When the semester began, I was aware that the success of my work depended on the synthesis of conceptual and formal aspects. I could not fall heavily one way or the other given the potentially heavily didactic themes with which I was working. These themes refer to the petroleum industry and environmental pollution, with a specific focus on plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
My mentor was Erika Blumenfeld, a Washington-based artist who works in a variety of mediums, and whose work often sources the same environmental themes as my own. Blumenfeld has done photographic work in Antarctica, documentary work in Texas on the BP oil spill, and installation work about the sweeping forest fires of New Mexico and Colorado. Her close proximity to activism in her work, and her use of a non-didactic dialog in which to communicate these difficult themes, made her a perfect mentor for me.
My work with Blumenfeld initially focused more on ideas than on studio practice. It was my goal to unpack the meaning of didacticism, and to understand why a didactic approach to artwork (motivated by strong social themes) was an undesirable and one-dimensional approach. We discussed how we both shared a love and reverence for the natural world, and how this love was the motivation behind feelings of environmental activism. We agreed that it was not enough to stand on a soapbox and point out the wrongdoings and misgivings of polluters, or to show images of loss, or to trumpet how things should be better. To do so is exhausting and ineffectual.
Furthermore, what my professors had been advising me in my MFA program was to find layers to the work; that is, to lead the viewer into the work and not give away all of the information.
With all of this in mind, Blumenfeld encouraged me to look at my work through a different lens. For example, she asked me to look again at the images I had taken of a dead bird while at a residency in Canada last semester (figure 1). I had written about that particular image on my blog, saying that I was interested in the moment death occurred in this still warm, beautiful creature. I had written that its life had mattered.
These photos had not meant that much to me, but with Blumenfeld’s encouragement I began to see that it was a non-didactic representation of that melancholic mood associated with loss of life. I was encouraged to keep searching for ways to point at a melancholic feeling with different symbolism, such as this photograph.
My research into the melancholic/manic cycle, and its ties to consumerism, continued. Fortuitously, my mentor pointed me towards a book being written by a psychologist, Renee Lertzman. I emailed Lertzman, and was gifted excerpts from her book, due out in June of 2015, as well as published essays. Essentially, we were writing about the same topic, though she had given it a name: environmental melancholia.
My next two papers unpacked the following: 1) understanding how the human psyche deals with grief and how this understanding could serve as a useful tool for helping humans potentially deal with environmental melancholia, which is caused by ambivalent feelings; 2) that psychologists had trumpeted the healing, transformative power of creating symbols and metaphors as a way of processing difficult emotions and ambivalence; 3) that artists bravely analyzed and processed their internal world by creating a symbol in the outside world; and 4) that because artworks prompt emotional responses from their viewer, the role of an artist (as a producer of symbolism) could be to aid in helping others process their own grief and ambivalence related to environmental melancholia.
My research was clearly showing me that it was symbolism, as opposed to didacticism, that was the best way to address grief and resonate on a deeper level with my audience. In a critique last semester, LUCAD professor Cesare Pietriusti and discussed how when someone loses something, they often create a symbol for what is lost. With this in mind, I was beginning to understand the difference between symbols and signs. Signs were easy; they were quickly translated and digested. Symbols, however, were more slowly assimilated, especially because anything could become a symbol for loss.
It wasn’t just research that was helping me sift through notions of symbolism and loss; it was also real life experiences. Out of the blue, in March, my father passed away unexpectedly. I arrived in Arizona an hour after he drifted into a coma, and was fortunate to spend a day by his bedside before he finally expired.
During the two weeks after his death, different objects became symbols of my father, from the blackbirds that were calling overhead when I learned of heart stopping, to the pocketknife I remembered him having when I grew up. At his apartment, as my fingers went through drawers, file folders, shoe boxes, and coat pockets that he had left behind, certain items held a resonance. They created a story of my father in my mind, weaving pieces together in a non-linear path.
I learned many things during that time, one of which was what it really meant to grieve the death of someone who was extremely important to my life and my history. Another was what it meant to have some ambivalence towards that person I had lost. Slowly, I began to see that as an artist, I was blessed with the ability to question, analyze, unpack, and process my pain through my work using metaphors. Furthermore, it did not necessarily matter to me anymore if my symbols were easily translated for the audience. I was beginning to see that a non-linear, layered methodology behind making a symbolic artwork had the potential to contain more meaning than would a simple, didactic image or artwork.
Soon after, while visiting my mentor in Washington, she and I went to see a show by Ann Hamilton at the Henry Museum (Wolf). All of Hamilton’s works in her massive exhibition invited the viewer to touch, as well as to observe. Yet I was most impressed by the scale in which Hamilton works. By using scale and large quantities of similar (and sometimes repeated) images, Hamilton addresses issues of conservation without being obvious. It was not until I had walked through a few rooms of the installation, and physically interacted with the pieces, that her partially activist-driven intention occurred to me. It crept up, and was powerful. It was this aspect of involvement that intrigued me the most.
I also looked at the work of both Petah Coyne (Coyne) and Damien Hirst (Fuchs, Hirst). Hirst’s work presents opposing ideas and opposing formal aspects, and I was intrigued by his choices in materials. As a millionaire, he has never been limited in his choice of materials. This allows him to present terrifying spectacles, like massive sharks and rotting cow carcasses, for the audience to confront. I noted that the works range from grotesque to exquisite, from precise to deteriorating. Hirst is a self-proclaimed atheist, and so I found his lack of spirituality to add a sterile, benign, and almost aloof quality to his work. Though I could appreciate Hirst’s honesty in his choices of materials, I could not help but feel that sometimes the work read as emotionally vapid and detached.
I related more closely to the work of Petah Coyne, who shares a similar Victorian sensibility as my own. What was more, after reading the interviews and writings on Coyne (Coyne), I could identify with her. Environmental stories and events informed her work, but the work was not didactic. Her work is layered with meaning. Her choices of materials are sumptuous, and are both captivating and repulsive. Furthermore, her spirituality and reverence for all walks of life, though not mentioned directly, are evident in her work via stylistic choices and treatment of materials.
In April, and back into the studio, I returned to begin a new large Mylar piece with painted birds and abstracted blackberry vines. The vines symbolized the ecological problem of invasive species. They also symbolized ambivalence, because a blackberry plant produces delicious fruits, but in order to reach them, one might bleed. Desire is balanced with consequence.
I painted birds half disappearing in and out of this abstraction. In front of the birds, a hundred laser cut Mylar vines began to build in front of the painting, getting more and more twisted and relentless in the space, until the mess took over the entire right side of the piece. I intended for the piece to finish with the melee of vines to take over a large space, in a manic frenzy. This will convey the ideas of mourning, melancholia, and mania. However, I feel like it needs to be completely overwhelming in scale in order to have the desired effect.
Finally, I have been reading the writings of famed artistic superhero, Ai WeiWei (Ai). I have found Ai’s treatment of his difficult, politically charged subject matter to be thoughtful, smart, and poignant. Ai’s materials point to his subject and inflect a tone of disease, but the viewer must dig at the meaning. It is not given away. Once the information is given about the piece, however, the meaning seeds itself inside the psyche. At least, this has been my experience with his work. I intend to follow his example, researching the matters that inform my work so that they are propped up by them, but not enveloped by them.
The translation of the symbolism of my personal grief, learned this semester, will aide in the refinement of ideas in my thesis work. I am finally clear on the importance of producing a non-didactic work when the subject matter informing the work can be potentially politically charged. I intend to use my own understanding of grief as a communicative, and hopefully transformative, device with which to help others unlock and address their own ambivalence and grief surrounding environmental collapse.
Ai, Weiwei, and Lee Ambrozy. Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.
Coyne, Petah, Denise Markonish, Rebecca Solnit, and A. M. Homes. Petah Coyne: Everything That Rises Must Converge. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2010. Print.
Fuchs, Rudi. “Victory Over Decay.” Damien Hirst. Damien Hirst, 2007. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Hirst, Damien. “A Thousand Years: Context.” Damien Hirst. Damien Hirst, 1990. Web.
28 Apr. 2015.
Hirst, Damien. Relics. Ed. Elena Guena. London: Other Criteria, 2014. Print.