Interview | Aspen Mays

February 9, 2010 · Print This Article

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Aspen Mays has been a busy woman with both a  12×12 show at the MCA (February 6-28) and an installation at the Hyde Park Art Center (January 24-April 25). She was kind  enough to take some time out of her busy schedule  to answer some of my questions about both exhibitions, her process, and her plans for her Fulbright Grant to Chile.

Recently you spoke at threewallsSALON in a discussion called The Doctoral Artist: Research & Practice. What role does research play in your practice? How do you typically begin a series/piece?

Research is often the catalyst for my work. I studied Anthropology as an Undergraduate student- that’s what my degree is in, and I think that sort of academic training has found its way into my practice mostly because I enjoy it so much. I’ve always been a really curious person, and I try to channel that as an artist.  I love spending time in the library chasing down ideas, and I also try to get out and do a lot of hands-on research.  Perhaps its my background in another field, but I read a lot of books about science and astronomy, and as an artist, I love speaking to folks in different research areas. A lot of projects start by tracking down experts in different fields that I’m interested in. I enjoy that interaction and these sort of “field trips” can be a great source of inspiration and potential collaboration. The video piece Larry, for example, was made with the help of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. I contacted them after I’d been looking into weather ballooning, and I just started visiting the planetarium speaking to several of the astronomers that launch research balloons as part of the Astro Science Workshop each summer for high school students. I started attending the Workshop – for pleasure really because I thought it was all so interesting….one thing lead to another and I struck up a friendship with Mark Hammergren (an Astronomer there) and the video piece I ended up making sort of evolved out of all of that. That process is a pretty good example of my practice- I love seeking out that interaction. It makes making art feel a lot less solitary to me.

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For your 12×12 show at the MCA you will be showing a site-specific installation entitled Every Leaf on a Tree. The show will consist of two works, Every Leaf on a Tree and Every Book. Could you describe these two pieces and how they relate to each other.

Every book began almost as a humorous dare to myself.  Spending a lot of time in scientist’s offices, I had this mental image of some imaginary scientist or researcher or concerned citizen that only read books about Einstein. Einstein is such a loaded figure- I think we, as a culture, pin a lot of ideas about genius on him. He’s the solitary genius, the mad scientist, the truly original thinker, someone that had deeper insight into the mysteries of the world than the rest of us.  So I decided to see how many books my library (the John Flaxman library at the School of the Art Institute) had about Einstein…there were quite a few for an art school, but the library also belongs to a consortium of all the libraries of all the colleges and universities in Illinois, so I could access essentially all of the books about Einstein in the whole state. So I just started ordering them, little by little. With the help of the wonderful library staff at the Flaxman and with the help of a friend at Depaul University, I began the process of ordering all 1500+ books about Einstein. I ordered them in all the languages that came up- Russian, Arabic, etc- I wanted to create this fantasy of being so curious and industrious and thorough that someone (me) would stop at no lengths to consume all of this information about Einstein.

I made a bookshelf in the shape of an arc so that I could organize the spines of the books along a color spectrum or a rainbow as they came in. It felt like a fitting tribute to Einstein somehow- to use the shape of the books to evoke gravity and an investigation of light the way an artist is trained through color theory- breaking it down into the visible spectrum (as opposed to how someone like Einstein might think of or describe light’s invisible properties). One of the most iconographic photographic portraits of all time is the one of Einstein with his wild hair and tongue sticking out. I wanted to think of the books as making up a different sort of photographic portrait of the man- without using those incredibly iconic images of him. It also felt apropos of a age when knowledge and access to information feel like they are becoming blurred and confused. I wanted to to question what could be gained from this sort of cataloging and photographic documentation.

That’s where Every leaf comes in. I had a residency at Ox-Bow this past summer (2009), and I brought along Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I had already started Every book, and in just thinking about the title of Leaves of Grass, I loved the linguistic connection between a leaf in a book and a leaf on a tree. What would you know about a tree even if you knew what every leaf looked like? Would you be able to guess or infer that books were made from trees?  So I looked outside of my studio window at this modestly sized (ok, I thought small) sassafras tree and decided to photograph every single leaf on the tree. I thought it would be a simple exercise but it spanned all of the available sunlight of one day- it took nearly 9 hours on a ladder, to photograph the 900 individual leaves on the tree. The two projects just seemed so instantly connected in my mind.

So for the 12×12, I printed all 900 individual images roughly to scale and hung them in 2 matching grids on the North and South walls of the room. They are printed on matte paper and hung simply with two nails on the top corners so that the physical nature of the photograph (paper made from trees) is emphasized like a sculptural element- the paper curls and reacts to the room- appearing to almost flutter. And on the West wall is a grid of the 21 Einstein Rainbows representing the nearly 1500 books that I ordered and photographed over the last several months.

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You also have an installation, From the Office of Scientists, which recently opened at the Hyde Park Art Center. According to their press release this is the first time you have worked with sculpture and photography together. Could you talk about this piece and the transition you made to working with both mediums?
Just to keep tying things together,  I was spending a lot of time in these astronomers’ offices (see the first question & answer), and I loved just seeing what was in there, how these incredibly inquisitive, smart people populated their work spaces. A lot of it was totally normal office stuff, but there were some real gems in there as well.  “Collecting” those surprising moments or objects (and by “collecting” I mean making notes of them whether with a sketch pad or a camera) grew into the show at the Hyde Park Art Center From the Offices of Scientists.  I would document these objects  as I would see them and then re-create and re-make them in my studio. At first, perhaps as a knee-jerk way of working, I would photograph the recreations, but for this show, I decided to work with them as sculptural objects instead. I have always constructed for the camera and feel comfortable and quite enjoy working in three dimensions.  So that is nothing new for me- I suppose this is the first time I decided to show the sculptures rather than photograph them. This work just felt the most satisfying with a physical presence so the show is mostly sculptures.

There is one original photograph in the show but I printed it on poster paper and folded and ripped the paper to hang in the office cubicle, so I think of that photograph really as a sculptural element as well. I wanted the mystery of the objects to speak for themselves and even though I’m displaying these banal objects from basically any office anywhere- I wanted them to point to something more extraordinary. For example, there is a stack of regular white document boxes in the show, but each box is labeled with name of planet (the Sun also gets a box and so does Pluto). The boxes are sealed shut, so you’re left to wonder what’s on file for Jupiter or what’s being stored about Saturn.

The center piece of the show is an gray office desk in a gray cubicle that’s broken in half by a huge rock. The desk is smashed into two pieces and the boulder rests on the floor amidst the destruction. Hanging on the wall beside the desk is a plastic sign inside a cabinet that says “If you think you’ve found a meteorite, you can bring it here and we will check it to be sure.” Is that rock an actual rock from space?

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Later in the month you will be leaving for Santiago Chile to embark on a Fulbright grant. What will you be working on?

That’s a great question, and I’m really not exactly sure. I wrote the grant to work with several astronomers in Chile (to bring it full circle, they are friends and colleagues of my friends at the Adler Planetarium). There are a number of huge telescopes in Chile’s northern deserts because the conditions are so ideal for observation. I’m not sure what sort of artworks or projects will materialize from this time, but I’m really looking forward to observing the observers and seeing what happens.

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