here and there pink melon joy @ Cultural Center until January 4, 2015
here and there pink melon joy~~an exhibition in three acts
by Lise McKean
Cast: Artist, Audience Members, Composer, Gallery Director, Invited Expert, Set and Costume Designer, Writer
The exhibition, here and there pink melon joy provides the place and impetus for two separate conversations: a public one with Artist, Composer, Gallery Director, Invited Expert, and Audience; and a private one between Set Designer and Writer. The exhibition is inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and fills the three interconnected galleries of the Cultural Center’s Chicago Rooms. Gallery 1 is inferno, Gallery 2 is purgatorio, and Gallery 3 is paradiso.
The installation is composed of clocks, hanging lamps, paintings on mirrors, video, and a large-scale fountain made of carved and painted styrofoam. It explores classic themes of self-exploration and transformation and motifs from the Divine Comedy, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Gertrude Stein’s book for children, The World Is Round. Each gallery has a sound element, song of melon joy, I, II, III, but on some days the sound isn’t working. The exhibition’s viewers enter and depart through the Inferno.
once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’
Act I Inferno
Artist: Many of the pieces were made over years, and one work might use several pieces. The work enfolds the sound. The elements are staged for a conversation with viewers and the objects are embodied with life force. You’ll see a lot of circles, and they have a lot of references—the circles of hell, eternity, the cycle of rebirth that Hindus call samsara.
Composer: When I went to meet the Artist I saw a drum set at her house and wanted to use them. The drums fit in with overall form of the work.
Artist: A few years ago I wanted to learn to play drums and form a band.
Composer: I work with drones. Here the military drum has a fascist sound. Ideally the sound in the Inferno would be loud and booming.
Invited Expert: There’s a tension between the objects and the military sound.
Artist: Working with sound can be tricky. I did an installation in Auckland where the sound turned out to be oppressive and overpowered the work.
Gallery Director: I found the eyes kind of unsettling when I first entered Gallery 1. There are so many clichés around eyes—surveillance, self-knowledge.
Artist: With their mirrors, the objects look back at us. How do we liberate the eye from all the clichés?
Set Designer: This black and white piece caught me when I first entered. It makes me a little dizzy. It has the appearance of a black and white photo, but obviously it’s three dimensional. There’s something tricky about its flatness. The dimensionality is smeared.
Writer: There’s the suggestion of regularity in the lattice but at the same time it’s collapsing. The collapsing structure is a good image for the Inferno.
Writer: A couple nights ago I had dinner with a friend who’s a volcano expert, so I’ve got lava on my mind. Some of this looks like lava rock and the florescent orange parts could be molten lava flows.
Set Designer: Yes, it’s like glowing hot lava. That’s another connection to the Divine Comedy and the Inferno with the descent into the fiery depths of the earth.
Set Designer: I’m trying to recall other images of the Divine Comedy. I’m thinking of the famous ones by the French artist Doré. I see parallels between the first piece and his black and white engravings.
Artist: Getting ready to write about this show got me reading Dante. My copy has the Doré illustrations—I hadn’t seen them in years. The book was my parents and I remember looking at it as a kid and feeling that the pictures were weird and intriguing. This piece’s illusion of flatness is the inverse of how Dore’s engravings create the illusion of depth.
Set Designer: I like the clock ticking. I saw another one in here. Where is it?
Writer: There’s one there [pointing to a clock]. And there’s another one over here. And this thing over here on the floor [pointing to a work by the entrance], it reminds me of a fun house mirror. Look, it’s the kind that stretches you out into a giant.
Artist: In conducting research for this show, I had to ask what is hellish and see how love is involved too. Each room has an accidental Duchamp reference. His The Large Glass ruined artists’ lives.
I want people to use common sense when interacting with the work. They can walk on the mirror but of course I don’t want them to stomp on it. I’m a toucher and want people to touch the work. The pieces explore how the grotesque can be seductive. That means you can want to touch them but also find them repulsive.
Invited Expert: Is your work really all that grotesque? They’re very pleasurable and beautiful, like geodes. The referents can be seen as grotesque.
Artist: We can consider the grotesqueness as the fact that we’re attracted to objects made of spray foam—the grotesque as toxic. We have to coat it because it degrades when it’s not covered. So the grotesqueness is underneath. As an artist, I feel vulnerable making work that is grotesque and embarrassingly seductive.
Set Designer: I like the transparent surfaces. There are a million ways to use them—glass, acrylic, scrim, or tulle—with things painted on them. It can be really interesting, and you can draw a lot of formal sense from it.
Writer: And there’s even more glass and reflections with these spectacular windows.
Set Designer: What could unite this better is if one of these pieces hanging from the chain were much larger than the others. If one were twice as big, it might hold the whole composition together better. I saw on the website the projection on the wall. Now that’s really interesting, it grabbed the whole space. In this space I see just separate pieces.
Writer: What about the experience of walking through the separate pieces? Is that a way they become less separate? Could the way the viewer looks at it while moving through the space be what might give it unity? It’s a different kind of animation of the space than that of a stage set with actors.
Set Designer: I think some special lighting would help.
Writer: The lighting in this space is a problem.
Set Designer: Are the lights are on all the time?
Writer: Yes, it’s one of the challenges for artists showing here. Look at these yellow lights. I’ve never seen a yellow compact fluorescent bulb before.
Set Designer: I like real things put in unusual contexts.
Writer: And then there are the fire extinguishers and exit signs. When I take the photos of shows in these galleries, I take some that include them.
Set Designer: Like I was telling you, when I walk around and see ordinary things in this context, all of the sudden they have another sense.
Act II Purgatorio
[The drip-drip sound in Gallery 2 evokes the experience of time passing slowly. The inferno has only two clocks but there’s a whole tower of them in purgatorio where time is of the essence]
Artist: The doorways between galleries are tall but they’re narrow, only 40 inches wide. I had to cut and manipulate pieces to get them in. The fountain was designed so that a tube could carry water up and then it would trickle down. But it turned out we can’t use water here.
Composer: I’m a composer in real life. I became friends with the Artist when trying to put a fountain at the Merchandise Mart for an installation. Water was a problem there too because of the lobby’s marble floor. Since we can’t have water here, I modified the sound element. To get the water sounds for this piece I held a microphone above the toilet and made a recording. I wanted that steady repetitive sound. Modulation in the sounds is a way to think about time. Even though I don’t feel sound is integral to this work, a small time-based element can increase the animation of a strong figural presence. And look [pointing to the Michigan Avenue windows] this work mirrors the real fountain and grass across the street in Millennium Park.
Invited Expert: Purgatory is like a zombie world between life and death. I can’t tell if the plants are fake or alive.
Audience Member: What did this body of work bring to you?
Artist: I’m not sure yet. I did some floor pieces at Oxbow. What’s here is two years’ worth of work, though I’ve really been four years working on it. For a recent installation at the Franklin I made a fake stone façade.
Set Designer: I’m thinking about my friend’s show in Moscow that I sent you photos of. He teaches set design and directing. He works with students to build things are going to involve real actors. A strength of that his installation is that it didn’t use symbolism. The pieces referred to specific shows. For example, there was an explosion in one of his shows and the works in the installation are broken teacups.
What’s here is more of a technique of absolute freedom. At first I thought it was an expression of happiness and of a carefree person. Of how she would like to express herself and technique.
Writer: The title here and there pink melon joy suggests that. Especially the work in this gallery.
Set Designer: I like this room more than the first one.
Writer: The other room is the inferno, what’s there to like about hell?
[At this point the Set Designer and Writer have been in the exhibition about one hour.]
Invited Expert: This is a serious investment in styrofoam. Can you talk about materiality and pleasure?
Artist: Pleasure is political. Pleasure is complex. It’s tied up with suffering and pain. It’s tied to class issues. My mother was a poor kid from the Bronx and she collected antique clocks. We had a small apartment full of old clocks. You could say my background is white-collar working class. You know, the people with fake stone facades on their houses.
I’m not interested in the unmonumental but in deconstructing and reconstruction. I’m reinstalling re-enchantment. I’m not a post-modern. I designed a playground with an architect but nothing has come of it yet. The fountain also relates to my interests in Hindu ideas and motifs: the linga and yoni; how to live a spiritual life as a householder who’s still entangled in kama, the excesses of pleasure and materiality, and the struggle with stuff and attachment to it.
Audience Member: What’s the role of humor in your work?
Artist: Humor comes effortlessly. Like Nabokov, I make things for myself. I need to laugh when I look at my own things. A couple came in to the show and looked and laughed. They saw things they thought were funny.
Set Designer: I work a lot with styrofoam. It can be very fruitful. What’s really good about this work is that it’s interesting to look at it for a long time. There are different rhythms, textures, different details. This side is very different from that. I can tell she enjoyed doing it.
[The members of a lively threesome look, talk, laugh, and take photos while leisurely making their way through the exhibition. The Writer introduces herself as writing about the show and they start talking together. They’re all artists—a brother, sister, and friend— visiting from Los Angeles. They love Chicago and could imagine living here. Except for winter. The Writer tells them that the Artist is from LA and lives here.]
Writer: This is the anthropologist side of me, talking like this with people.
[Set Designer points to the windows facing the interior courtyard.]
Set Designer: They’re like a big black mirror.
Writer: She wanted this to be a fountain but they wouldn’t let her use water.
Set Designer: Yes, water is always a problem.
Writer: And there’s supposed to be sound here but it’s not on today.
Set Designer: It would be great to have splashes on the wall.
Writer: Gertrude Stein wrote a children’s book called the World Is Round. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland in that everything is plausible and implausible at the same time. Its main character is Rose. Her favorite color is blue. She decides to take a blue chair to the top of a mountain. You see it here. [Pointing to the top of the fountain.] See, the Artist got her Rose up to the top too. You don’t need to know all that, but since I read the book, I can see the Artist is doing those things. For herself really.
Artist: One collector said that the colors I use are frivolous and don’t challenge conventions of serious art, its use of dark colors. How does a woman function in that realm? How do you do double looking? I rejected Louise Bourgeois while she was alive and now I embrace her. Along with Eva Hess. Doing this type of work is a kind of purgatory. It’s not taken as seriously as what’s deemed serious art.
Writer: In my mind I’ve been comparing Dante’s voyage with Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round. Dante’s got Virgil but Alice and Rose don’t have anyone. Alice finds herself among animals that talk and the sharp-tongued Queen. At every point she’s criticized for being who she is, a girl. The strangers she meets find fault with her. People talk about the archetype of the hero and the journey. In the Divine Comedy, a touchstone of the genre, Beatrice sends Virgil to Dante to guide him through hell and purgatory and all the way to heaven’s gate. Alice and Rose have to figure things out pretty much on their own during their journeys. This strikes me as resonant with what the Artist described as her experience making and exhibiting art.
Writer: Are you familiar with Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose?” Repetition is very important in her writings. She repeats herself but also plays with different sorts of variations.
Set Designer: I like variation. I do it myself sometimes. I like when I have to do the same show twice or three times because I can try out different things. When you do it once, there’s always something you didn’t do. Then you find something else. And by the way, my last show, the first time we did it in Moscow, the second time, I knew exactly what I had to do. And now in my drawing and painting, I’m drawing some crazy birds, always the same one though with variations. Maybe it’s a kind of therapy.
Writer: Are you exploring a theme by developing it, like in music?
Set Designer: In music it’s more structured.
Writer: But there’s also jazz, that can give room to improvise and break out of the structure.
Set Designer: There’s some rhythmic feel, the bubbles, the mirror, the round clock.
Writer: Another thing that the Artist said about the aesthetic she’s exploring here is that she grew up in Beverly Hills, but her family was not wealthy at all. They lived in a small apartment. Her mother loved ornate things. Their place was packed with rococo, gilt things, symbols of opulence and luxury. So she plays around with that. This is all styrofoam, but she dresses it up with metallic paint and shiny enamel.
Set Designer: Telling me about her environment got me started thinking about where I live now. It’s my wife’s parents’ house. There’s a flamingo mixed with furniture from the twenties. My wife wanted to get rid of it all, but I said no. I feel really good in there. These people just put things together. It wasn’t irritating. Sometimes I go to a place that’s really decorated and I hate it. Somehow this just came together and it doesn’t bother me.
Writer: Maybe your wife doesn’t like it because she grew up with it and wants to get rid of it because she wants her own things.
Set Designer: Yes, and my daughter, she used to hate it too. Really hate it. At first she wanted modern contemporary furniture. But now after seeing what’s at her friends’ houses, she says what we have is more interesting.
Writer: After looking at the pink of the flowers on top of the fountains so close to bright light of the gallery, when I look at the windows with the dark building beyond, it seems like I’m getting a retinal effect of the pink against the dark glass. Do you see the rainbow streaking at the top of the window? Oh, maybe it’s an effect of the UV glass. And see, the colors of the paint on the fountain are similar to the colors on the window!
Set Designer: Is the glass is tinted? You can get that effect from the tinting. The old windows at our house were wavy and you got colors too. The new windows are really flat but if you pay attention there’s a single curve and you can see colors. I like when there are those unexpected things. This happens in set design too, the unexpected.
Writer: I’ve experienced that with artists too. They like to hear what I see when I look closely and when I find things that they didn’t plan for or see themselves.
Writer: [Looking at a piece with a mirror behind it on the wall.] Oh that’s interesting, it’s reflecting the tree. I was thinking the tree is over there.
Set Designer: This is excellent, the use of mirrors throughout the installation.
Writer: I can imagine when the sun comes in, though this time of year it’s far south. In the morning, the light will be doing a lot of things, especially with the mirrors. I saw dust and hair accumulating on the mirror on the floor in the other gallery.
Set Designer: It’s my favorite thing to work with glass and mirrors. I do it different in ways. I always appreciate when I see it done. And everyone works with them in different ways, like with canvas. People have been using canvas for centuries and the things you can do are endless. There’s endless possibilities with glass and mirrors too.
Set Designer: Once I was working on a Hamlet production here in Chicago. A big part of the set was mirrors, old mirrors, and other things transparent or black. It was an old kitschy theater. The set was made of those mirrors. It was the imperial period, late nineteenth-early twentieth century. The stage was small. Usually lighting designers add some smoke for Hamlet. It’s almost traditional because the way the light works with it. In this case, because we had a huge reflecting surface of mirrors, all of the sudden the people in the audience could see themselves. And they could see what was happening behind them—the ghost appeared behind them, Hamlet’s father, the shade. Then the smoke was hanging over the audience and reflecting off the mirrors. It connected the audience and the stage directly. The smoke was like fog for the exterior scenes at Elsinore. But for the interior scenes it looked like cigarette smoke, they were smoking a lot on stage. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t expect it. It just happened. Everything made sense.
Artist: Everything that was difficult or a mistake ends up being the best part.
Set Designer: I like the way the design works, the mixture of textures and some goofy stuff. When I moved here 22 years ago, I saw students carrying their work around. Once I saw a student carrying what looked like prison bars that were wrapped in synthetic pink fur.
Writer: Some of the works here feel Kabbalistic and echo the collapsing lattice. They could be a lot of different things. And look out the window, forms on this piece resonate with the Pritzker Pavilion.
Set Designer: What’s important to me in addition to how it looks is how it’s made and what it makes me think about. The first thing that interested me when I was a child was what it was about. And then the most important thing was how it is done. You can repeat things others have done if you do it in your own way and it’s better and more interesting. Now I’m thinking the most important thing when I look at a piece of art or read a book is what it makes me think about.
Writer: I would say perception, thinking, and experience. Feeling and thinking together. Isn’t that what aesthetics is about? One thing that distinguishes a work as art is that it gives you a distinct experience. Through the physical and mental act of seeing, hearing or whatever sense, we get feelings and ideas that are different from our experiences of the stuff around us in everyday life. Some people are affected spiritually too.
Set Designer: These days I read really weird books sometimes or look at things that I wouldn’t have paid attention to before. All of the sudden somehow it catches and holds me. And I find that it makes me think about something else. Even if it’s badly written.
Writer: That’s the conversation. There’s some way into it for you. One of the unfortunate things about a lot of contemporary art is that for people who are not inside a particular academic, contemporary art way of looking, thinking, and talking about things—and that’s most of the world—they have no way in. It’s very hard to get in.
Set Designer: Do you think it’s because they don’t have experience or they’re not educated about art?
Writer: A lot of artwork, of work that’s out there as contemporary art, you could say fails because it fails to deliver an experience to people who are not somehow already inside that conversation. It’s not opening a door to a conversation.
Set Designer: That’s maybe why they have to write so much to explain it.
Writer: Yes, I also think when audiences don’t have that much experience with art, they start with the meaning. What does it mean instead of what am I seeing, and how does it make me feel? So if the meaning of something isn’t obvious to them, they’d like to be told. They’re coming to it in a more passive way. Or instead of looking directly or even reading about it, they interact with the art by taking photos and selfies with it. If you go to the Art Institute or MCA, you see people walking through the galleries looking at the art through their phone cameras.
Set Designer: Or listening to the audio. I had two friends who came over from Russia and they were with me for a week. When we were driving around to see things, they would check on their cell phones for information. They were more interested in reading information about the places than in looking at them.
Writer: Looking and seeing. That’s what I do with art writing, I explore looking and seeing. I think people want to enjoy art and come into the conversation but habits of daily life make it hard to slow down and look or listen to what’s in front of you.
Set Designer: It definitely helps me when I read about a picture, but first I have to look. I got a book on Andrew Wyeth. At first I didn’t pay attention to what was written but after I looked at the pictures, then I read a few lines about every picture. But first it has to catch my eye.
Writer: You already have an eye. A lot of people haven’t had an opportunity to cultivate theirs. In this digital age, images are so constantly in front of our eyes that it’s not easy to develop the skills and habits of looking and thinking about what you’re seeing.
Set Designer: When my daughter was in school and I would visit, it was horrible—all the posters on the walls. Bad paper, horrible colors. They spend six or seven hours in that environment looking at them and they think it’s okay. I can’t stand it for half an hour. They grow in it. She was there for 10 years. A lot of those posters are sold to schools. They’re not done by students and teachers. Students’ drawings are fine, I love my daughter’s old pictures.
Set Designer: I have never seen uglier things. I had a feeling when I was at the school that it’s not just because they don’t care what it looks like. It’s more like some evil rules them, and leads them to the specifically irritating and horrible—like those posters in the school. Whole walls are covered with that stuff. Posters, posters, pictures. Kids don’t pay attention but it still affects their brain.
Writer: The tall narrow passageways make the galleries very dramatic.
Set Designer: I never noticed it before.
Writer: Okay, so are we ready for paradise? Here we go through another narrow passage.
Act III Paradiso
[A four-channel video animation, to perceive the invisible in you, is projected on the gallery’s three walls and run through a program that coordinates the distortion of the image and sound (prismatic synthesis). Round mirrors on the wall ricochet reflections around the room. A drum set rises like a linga in the middle of the yoni-like circular bench.]
Artist: When first entering this gallery, viewers might be disturbed by the black or darkness. After the bright light in the other two galleries, the viewer needs to be patient to experience the effects in here. For me the flow of the text has a relation to mark-making and spray-painting. The video projection of text across walls uses a program that links sound and text into a pattern. The composition runs through a sub-woofer, drums, and cymbals. It has a single sonic character with a mirroring effect. The software alters the original video.
Invited Expert: The text reflects back out to the body. The text controls you and the mirrors reflect the text rather than you.
Artist: The text is from ecstatic love poetry and Gertrude Stein’s love letters to Alice Toklas, which are very funny. This is also a spiritual environment.
Writer: So this is paradise. We’ve got mirrors on the wall here too. She’s repeating the mirrors.
Set Designer: It’s good thinking, three rooms, three fragments. When there’s not the projection, the mirrors look like windows.
Writer: Like portholes on a ship.
[Set Designer and Writer move to the darkest corner in Paradiso.]
Writer: Here it’s darker. I’d like to see it even darker. They could put a curtain over the passageway.
Set Designer: It’s interesting that paradise is the darkest room.
Together Set Designer and Writer read aloud the projected text: “When the sweet glance of my true love caught my eye like alchemy it transformed my copper like soul…I searched for him with a thousand hands.”
Writer: If you move through the gallery, you have the words going over you, you could be inside them. Look, are they all backwards or just some? It’s like how writing is backwards in a mirror. And then the writing gets so that it’s almost like your mind when you’re thinking. You start with a train of thought….
Set Designer: It’s like one of Nabokov’s novels. He wrote that he would like to write a whole book about the layers in your mind. You know, how many things you think about at the same time. You sing some song while you’re thinking about your family, about your work, about art. All of it at the same time.
Writer: In fact, time is another thing the Artist said she’s exploring. She’s playing with clocks as a straightforward reference to time. Oh look, the text is making hearts and other shapes. She said there’s some kind of program that does that. It’s hard to read after a certain point just like it can be hard to follow a strand of thought or conversation. You start with a strand, and like you said, it layers or branches.
Speaking of time, I meant to ask earlier, how long you can stay? I don’t know how much time you have today. I’m happy to talk as long as you can be here.
There are no clocks in paradiso and the Set Designer and Writer are in no rush to leave. They sit contentedly on the round bench talking about Russian literature and émigré experiences.