Interview with ‘MEDIA LUX’ Artist Clay DunklinPosted: May 9, 2018 This is the fourth installment of the MEDIA LUX artist interview series. MEDIA LUX features work by Clay Dunklin, Mason Hurley, Irene Pantelis, Monroe Isenberg, and Gina Takaoka.
Clay Dunklin | Second-Year Master of Fine Arts Candidate | Exhibiting in MEDIA LUX from April 2nd through May 19th, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Grace DeWitt
To start with some background, where are you from, and what brought you to the MFA program at the University of Maryland?
Really, I came here for location. I grew up in the middle-of-nowhere in East Texas where there is virtually no arts culture or art opportunities and then spent the last several years in Orlando, FL. Orlando is great but the contemporary art world there is still in a stage of infancy and opportunities are few. Here we sit in this nice place between Baltimore and Washington–even New York and Philadelphia are in close proximity. So there’s a lot to engage with and see. I really wanted to be someplace where I had all of that at my fingertips.
Can you briefly summarize the focus of your artistic practice?
My practice is very much project-based and contextual–I create a lot of parts but they really need to be installed and viewed together to make relationships and begin to make sense. I’m also not really media specific. I mean, my background is in drawing and I still think of all the work in terms of drawing, but my practice is not really just drawing, or sculpture, or video. It’s all of that. I guess I use whatever media feels right for the work.
Are there any artists you are following right now, or any specific artists who have inspired your work so far?
I’m really into Mark Leckey right now. He won the Turner Prize a few years ago and does video, image-based, and object-based works. He creates these great installations with found objects usually in front of a green screen. This really influenced the current piece, Catatonic Tomography Cycle, with the painting of that flat color on the wall and the flatness of the prints. His work made me think about achieving a kind of compression of the objects or alternatively a slight dimensionality as if just beginning to poke out into space. This is aided by the one-sided viewing of the work–even though there are objects it’s not really in the round like in Leckey’s work.
I’m really drawn to Jannis Kounellis’ work as well. For me, his installations sat in this really beautiful place between complexity and simplicity. Objects would be hung with rope from the ceiling or piled on the floor or he’d just fill a gallery with live horses–it was very straightforward like that. But the scale and the way he could fill a space was pretty awe-inspiring.
I also have a bit of a crush on Anicka Yi. Her exhibition at the Guggenheim for the Hugo Boss Prize was pretty fantastic. The piece Maybe She’s Born With It is like this huge inflatable plastic dome with tempura fried flowers in it. I kind of want to live in there.
I understand that you underwent a pretty extreme medical illness about this time last year, which plays a role in your work now. Did your practice focus on the body before this illness? How would you say your direction changed because of this experience?
Yeah, it was pretty scary actually. I had several extended stays in the hospital with this weird and kind of rare neurological disease. Most of my time in the hospital was spent just trying to figure out what this was. Then I got put on these wacky medicines that took my mind to weird places and really affected my body and how my body reacted to external stimuli. It was a wild ride for sure. I took a bit of time trying to figure out what to do with that whole experience in terms of my work and I honestly tried to avoid it. It couldn’t be helped though, it just began to creep into the studio, so I gave in and decided to just see where it takes the work. And I think a year was enough time to sort of process and be ready to talk about it. However, I don’t think it totally uprooted the direction of my practice. I’ve always been working with body as subject in some capacity–I come from a very heavy figure drawing background so I guess that is just kind of ingrained in me somewhere. I’m interested in the body as this sort of mediator between us and the world. It’s how we contextualize and make sense of everything. But I think technology is really redefining that role as we’re becoming more and more cyborgian with our phones and such. But your body still has to interface with technology so that specifically is where I want my work to be situated–that little meeting point between body and technology.
Can you share some information about the title of your MEDIA LUX installation, Catatonic Tomography Cycle?
This piece deals with my experience of being sick in a pretty overt way. Here I’m using some of the more conceptual elements of the work to steer the formal qualities and I think this becomes really evident through the title. A catatonic state is an altered mental status that can be brought on by neurological disorders. This is what I experienced several times throughout my illness. It was like being a zombie or something. I have little to no memory of those times but apparently I wouldn’t speak or even move really, like being frozen. This is referenced in the stillness of the image-based components and in the slow looping videos that maybe start to reference time as something structured in layers and less linearly. This directly relates to tomography, which is a kind of imaging used most commonly in the medical field where the whole is broken up and viewed as layers (think MRI images). Again, this is referenced in some of the actual physical medical imagery used, but, it is also labeling all of these individual components as layers or slices of the whole that still contain information about the whole, and then compressing all of that into a kind of flatness (back to the Mark Lackey reference). And cycle goes back conceptually to the cyclical nature of the disease but also formally to the looping of the videos and as an indicator of the singular installation being composed of many parts: like an opera or song cycle in music composition.
We’ve talked a little bit about how the footage in your installation touches on ideas of creation. Can you go into further detail about how the footage builds into the more complex idea of the MEDIA LUX installation as a whole?
This work has really taken on a kind of language all its own, as I think most works tend to do, and if you understand the artist as mythmaker, this language becomes inherently mythological. So I am constantly reflecting on the relationship between what is a deeply personal mythological language and a more universal one. I was reflecting on this relationship between creation and destruction and how water or fluid can act between those two modes. I think about the Grand Canyon where water has destroyed the landscape yet simultaneously created a new one or how this fluid around my brain acts as protection yet is the main antagonist in the story of my illness. Newborns emerge from a fluid incubator in what is a very traumatic process. None of this is new. But how do we reference these ideas that are inherent to our body in a relevant and deeply personal way? What kind of contemporary Athene can emerge from the fluid site of the head? The Native Americans around what is California today had a creation myth of humans being made from clay of the earth, as most cultures did, but with the added idea that the creator-god mixed spit with the earth to give humans life. So again, what does that mean for a contemporary body as a fluid site?
I’m interested in hearing more about your photographic/record-keeping processes and preferences. Could you highlight some other works of yours that applied captured imagery to installation? What are your intentions when it comes to image resolution and image manipulation in your work?
Like I said earlier, I’m interested in this intersection of body and technology and specifically how we negotiate those two as mediators between the self and the world. We’ve really embarked on a time where we’re beginning to experience everything through tech, even things we’re physically present for. Think about a concert where people snap every single song. Yes, now all of your friends can experience that too through an app on their phone but also you as the physically present viewer are experiencing a live event through compressed, digital, pixelated images and videos via your handheld device. That’s fascinating to me. It’s becoming second nature to understand our world through compressed images. So in terms of the work, I’m not intentionally after low quality images verging on pixilated abstraction just like I’m not intentionally after the most high quality images aimed at some kind of illusion. I don’t care about the illusion. If the image even slightly or in a subversive way recalls a quality of imagery experienced in the everyday then it brings it into that space of body/technology interface. It also begins to recall or make visible the process of the image-making, similar to how the process of tomographic imaging is inherently stamped on the images it produces simply because of the kind of images it produces. It’s a performative process where the thing is the action of its own doing and in this way, the images now become objects.
Thinking back to the installation at The Stamp Gallery, what drew you to the use of those dark water images, applied directly on the left portion of the installation wall?
Those images come from documentation of a previous project where I was changing or obscuring the surface of my body by applying charcoal powder. I would then wash that off and be left with this deep dark charcoal water. From that, I began to pull paper thinking that these new surfaces and objects could be made from my body sluff. So the water became a transformative site where something new could emerge–this goes back to your previous question about creation and the metamyth. I had prints of these images and it just kind of hit me that they needed to be included with this project. The water references fluid around the brain but also starts to resemble images of space. That push and pull between something recognizable and something alien interests me and speaks to cosmic or magical thinking and some of the mental imagery conjured while on medication that was making me totally loopy. The application and composition of the prints is pointing to digital glitch in a way. The long linear format of each print is kind of filmic but really isn’t about time as we perceive it. As said earlier, it’s about something layered or sliced and reassembled.
MEDIA LUX is an exhibition that presents five artists’ interpretation of, or association with, light. How does light relate to your concept in Catatonic Tomography Cycle?
Light is really a formal element here. When the decision was made to have the gallery dimly lit I thought that was great because video work is self-illuminating. For the rest of the installation I had to be more strategic about lighting. I knew the sculpture emerging from the wall was the one thing I wanted to be lit pretty intensely. Then the blue glow of the black light was again a formal and strategic color choice as it stands in relationship to the warm yellow of that spotlight. So that really was a further iteration of the colors found in the video works.
Is there any advice you have for undergraduate artists or others at the beginning of their art careers?
I think one of the biggest things that I needed to hear as an undergrad was to really invest in the learning processes. It’s easy for people who have some talent to take the time in studio for granted or to not really put themselves out there because they’re afraid of failure. Make a ton, experiment a ton, be confident even in ‘failure,’ and pull everything you can out of your instructors and fellow students. Otherwise, you’ll likely only be performing at a slightly higher level than when you started college. How much good will that have really done you?
I know you have an installation up right now at VisArts, yolk | shell | source | system, a collaborative with another UMD MFA student, Bekí Basch. Anything else you have going on or coming up that you’d like to promote here?
Yeah! This was actually my first collaborative project and it was really the best experience. It’s a huge 70 foot long window display a couple of blocks from VisArts. So it definitely presented its own set of challenges but made for some great experimentation. We had a reception and artist talk for that on May 4th, and the installation will be up through June.
Clay Dunklin’s work is included in MEDIA LUX at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from April 2nd through May 19th, 2018.
For more information on Clay Dunklin, visit https://claydunklin.com/.
For more information on MEDIA LUX and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.