Curatorial Assistant Kathryn Zimmerhanzel sits down with French & Michigan artist Jaelah Kuehmichel to talk about her recent exhibition Land Line at Test Tube in Austin, Texas.
KZ: What was the initial inspiration for your exhibition Land Line? How did it take shape?
JK: It was November or December when I committed to doing the show at Test Tube Gallery, so it was in development for about five months. I was asked to do the show and was given the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I was really excited about what might come from working in this very particular space. So the prospect of it was in my mind. I went to bed one night and instead of falling asleep the concept just came to me. I got up and spent hours writing and sketching. The final product actually looks very similar to my original vision. It has aspects that come from past works, past drawings, specifically line drawings I had been working with for a while. I had referred to them as “land lines”, and so I began to think of them in the context of modern communication technology and phones. It all just clicked and seemed as though it was meant to be.
The initial impetus was a vision very specific to this small, intimate space. I also knew from the beginning that I wanted to weave together different disciplines. In the last year, I’ve delved into video, sound, and performance. This gave me the chance to bring those together with my visual art practice. The goal was to construct an experience through these different stimuli and have that experience be an interactive and immersive one. I also wanted to create an experience for myself, so I installed myself in the piece for four hours during the opening reception and will do the same for the closing. Beginning with that vision it became a matter of building upon it to make it material. I began collecting phones, reaching out to people, finding the bathtub.
KZ: Is that how you generally work, coming into something with a fully formed idea?
JK: Recently, that has been the case. Another example is the Kinect sculpture that I did. I had just committed to doing this barrel art competition when I went to this meditation retreat. With all of the mindspace provided by the retreat, the vision of the piece came to me, and then it was just a matter of materializing it. So, I don’t know. In a way it feels not so much like my vision, but as though these ideas are given to me and it is my job to make them a reality. Which is great, because then I don’t have to question it, it is very decisive.
In the past though, mostly with two-dimensional works, I haven’t had such a specific vision. It remains rather open-ended, a starting point of interest that I build upon. There is certainly an element of that in Land Line though. The lines that appear on the panels are a result of hundreds of drawings through which I tested out different variables. It was very mechanical—I looked at the way that I drew the lines, the number of them, their height on the paper. In the end, I found that thirteen lines is what was needed. I drew those in just one go across the panels, without going back or touching them up. The process was very much one of meditation and surrender, accepting whatever came out. In this way, they are a record of my hand and of the moment in which they were made.
KZ: Those lines were so effective, and though on separate panels, were so continuous and unified. That unity was meditative, but also, they felt really tense, or maybe agitated.
JK: I think that I was probably a little tense with these final pieces. Although I had done many iterations on paper, these were on panels with a satin paint finish. The sharpie reacted differently to the surface, which was a challenge. And every mark I made on these panels was final, there was no whiting out and re-doing them. Also, due to the size of my workspace, I could only manage four panels at a time. The final four panels didn’t come in until about two weeks before the show; and each one required six layers of paint and gesso before drawing. So, all of that feeds into the record of my hand, my energy in those lines. But beyond that personal expression, the lines bring to mind many things—landscapes, EKGs, polygraphs, timelines, or trajectories. That is the beauty of them for me; also, their minimalism. That was important to me because we are so bombarded by imagery and technology and communication, I wanted this to be different, refreshing. The starkness of the space allows your energy to settle.
KZ: You mentioned the different media used in this exhibition. Could you break down these different elements and how they came to be?
JK: There were the wall hanging pieces that I was just describing, a video, the performative installation, and a sound component. Those wall hanging works are actually combines—painted panels with line drawings across and red-painted rotary phones hanging from them.
The video footage is of Wisconsin. It came from a trip I took this December to see my grandmother, who is my last remaining grandparent. As a kid, I was able to stare out the window for hours watching the landscape. And so, riding in the back of my parents car on the way to my grandma’s house, I rolled down my window and captured that experience. I held the camera completely still, letting the landscape go by. This connection to family and childhood is important because the concept of Land Line is about grounding into self—exploring ancestry and homeland. It is about finding these things within this frenetic era of technology and connections. Originally, I thought that I might edit it into a more complex video piece. However, it ended up being stark and wonderful just as it was.
For the performance, I was inside a bathtub, covered in orange faux flowers, with red lines going underneath the elevated bathtub and connecting to the ceiling. They tied together the space, which was completely whited out. And then there was the sound element. It had some voicemail recordings. I decided it would be a good idea to call my friends, who like many, often don’t answer. I recorded these voicemail greetings as evidence of the missed connection. Along with these missed calls, I added whale sounds. Whales have been in my work before as a symbol of going metaphysically deep—into deep waters, into self. Also, whale sounds have a haunting, almost painful quality to them. It was interesting in the sound mix to have someone’s voicemail and for the message to be these whale sounds—horrible, painful, sorrowful sounds. And it was funny to me to leave that as a voicemail. Additionally, though people might not have picked up on this, there are sounds of whales breathing, contrasted with the sound I recorded of my grandmother’s respirator machine and the clock in her house ticking. This clock is very nostalgic. And these sounds connect to the video.
I viewed that video for four hours, throughout the performance. It was hypnotizing and mesmerizing, going by too fast to really focus on anything. It is a continuation of the land lines that you see in the drawing that are going across and throughout the room. Those lines turn into the landscape going across the screen. That continuous line going throughout the room also creates the sense of water level. It sort of mimics the bathtub. Though the bathtub had no water in it, just the flowers. In all, I created this bizarre experience for myself.
KZ: Did you go into this performance with any expectations of what you might get from it, and what you hoped the audience might get from it?
JK: My goal was to provide a platform for my audience and myself to have the opportunity to have a meaningful experience. You can’t force someone to have a meaningful experience, they only can if they are open to it. I didn’t feel as though I was performing. I certainly wasn’t putting on a role. My intention in the bathtub was just to be in my body, which is another way that I ground down and connect to myself. I believe that if you consciously stay relaxed in your body on a day to day basis, you are probably going to live more joyfully and authentically. So my personal goal was just to sit in that bathtub and relax. I intentionally put myself into a pretty uncomfortable situation though. Physically, I was nude and although it was not visible to the audience, the vulnerability was there. Then mentally, it was a small space, and I had all of these strangers coming in to look at me and talk about me as if I was not there. I wanted to challenge myself in that way—to be vulnerable or uncomfortable or objectified—and then try to relax in my body.
From there, I didn’t really know what was going to happen. The only real boundary I set was that I would not vocalize at all. However, I was open to making eye contact with people. Some people did try to engage and ask me specific questions. I just looked them in the eye and sent them love and understanding, never responding vocally. There were definitely some very powerful moments of eye contact with people. I valued those who went beyond their own experience and sought to consider mine. I think that they got it on a deeper level. They had a sense of empathy and compassion and curiosity, and to share that was such a large part of why I did the piece.
KZ: Did you feel alone in the space?
JK: I felt alone in my experience. I didn’t feel alone in the space. Not that it was intrusive, I was actually quite comfortable. I guess because I have performed a few times before, it didn’t feel awkward to have people looking at me, or even to be nude. But I think the makeup helped me with that as well, it made me more of an object. Though, I also felt like an observer.
KZ: As an audience member, I was so wrapped up in my own experience. Although it was an intimate space and I was sharing it with other people, the starkness made me feel very alone. It seems like a reflection of technology, an over saturation and overconnection, yet we go through life on our own.
You are talking about heightening people’s sense of awareness through this exhibition and this performance. I see a lot of that in your work in different forms—with the Queer Fruit series and identity, and with the Puddle Paintings and perception. Is this idea of awareness something that drives you creatively?
JK: Absolutely. To me, that is what we, as artists, do. We are observers. We take in the world. My role is to take the time to step out of doing and realize the space of being, the space of perception, the space of observation; to really absorb the world around me, and encourage others to do the same. Awareness is really important to me as a spiritual being. I explore that through meditation and yoga, through presence in my own mind and body. All of those are things I practice regularly. They help me to understand the awareness of others. To find people on the same wavelength, because when that exists, it exists as a manifestation in the aware body.
KZ: You seem very present in the making of your work, your experience plays a big part. Do you also have the viewer or audience in mind when you are making work?
JK: I am definitely curious about the audience, and consider them in that respect. However, I don’t allow that curiosity to control my work, and don’t seek a specific reaction. As I mentioned before, there is no way to control or predict people’s reaction. Everyone comes to the work from a different place. To me, it is beautiful that everyone will have a different experience. My creative process is very intuitive. I trust that if it is powerful for me, there is the potential that it will be powerful for someone else. Obviously I can’t expect everyone to have a profound experience with my work, or even to like it, but that’s okay. So people who are in-tune with me will appreciate it. I try not to placate to the world because the result can end up watering down art, it can make it weak.
Ultimately, I like to leave room in the work for individual reaction or reflection. Like in Land Line, there was the question of what to tell people if they asked if they could touch the phones. I didn’t want to tell them either way. Leaving it open, I really just wanted to see what people would do. It was interesting to see that some were very hesitant to touch anything in the show, or to get in front of the video; while others were making shadow puppets, or picking up the phone and ordering pizza. I like to set a scene, or a platform for people to have an experience, and then just observe what they do.
KZ: You had a a performer outside the door who played a sort of preparatory presence at the opening. There was something very inviting about beginning with that interaction before stepping into the space. It seemed to put people at ease, opened them up to the experience a bit.
JK: Yes. I wanted to put someone at the door who was integrated into the show. I put her in a white jumpsuit and gave her this white phone that people could use for fake phone calls. I did it to add an element of play. Because it was kind of an intense little space, and people told me that it felt very personal in there. A lot of people were more comfortable to look through the windows at first, to have that barrier. I didn’t foresee that, and thought it was another interesting aspect of the piece. The creation of that exterior and interior space, and the way that played with people’s comfort level was surprising to me. The performer was there to break that barrier, to be an invitation into the space. It was sort of this transition from the everyday reality to coming into contact with her, to the completely surreal environment of the work. In that respect, she kind of got people warmed up, to begin the process of opening themselves to this novel experience. And I do think it ended up being very effective in breaking the barrier, to allow people to relax.
KZ: It did. This sort of work can be difficult for some viewers; they might not know how to react or engage.
JK: It is a different piece and the exchange of mediums is challenging. I loved the fact that it was going to freak some people out, and it did. I liked that element of surprise, seeing me in there. But also, I didn’t want people to be so nervous or skittish that they are unwilling to engage or even enter into the work. It is a fine balance.
KZ: You mentioned that interior/exterior space. I’m curious about that. From the outside, it was very much like a scene, cinematic almost. In fact, I was reminded of David Lynch. And then going inside, it becomes a very sense-based experience. One that could be entered into as if into another world. While not intentional, it was interesting that a viewer could experience the work in two different ways.
JK: It is interesting to hear from people that the windows functioned as these frames through which to view the work from. I definitely was focused on the interior space, that you are stepping into this other world. I wanted it to be a stark difference from reality.
KZ: I had a question about another sort of dichotomy in your practice—that between abstraction and figuration. You do a very good job of combining the two. Is that something you are conscious of?
JK: No, not conscious at all. I think my work varies a great deal. I have, in the past, jumped from one to the other. The Queer Fruit series is figurative, and the Puddle Series is completely abstract and minimal. For me, those aren’t incongruous. So, I guess this show is melding the work a bit. As an artist, I think that one of the biggest perks is the freedom to do whatever you want. Although sometimes in the art scene, there is this impetus to pigeon-hole artists, to define them by a certain stye. I rebel against that completely. I am always just going with my gut. Whatever I am drawn to is what I explore. Now that I have explored both the realistic and the abstract, I have found that they speak to each other. In the same way that I meld different mediums in Land Line, it is of equal interest to me to meld abstraction and realism. Because actually, they are so similar. Abstraction is really just zooming in or out.
KZ: You do a lot of design work as well. How does design factor into your practice as an artist? I see it, maybe, in this exchange between the planned space and the sense of release.
JK: The design mind contributes a certain meticulousness to dimensions and scale, to measurement. I find myself making very conscious decisions concerning these aspects, paying attention to those really fine details. Being a designer, it is all about keeping things simple, saying as much as possible with as little as possible. I think that this has effected the way that I utilize negative space. So, it is found in that sense of restraint, in utilizing the power of negative space to highlight what is present. My background is really apparent in that.
And it is not just thinking about the content, but also the context. How it will be viewed and understood is very important. Being excited about an idea, I automatically want to share all of it and fill the canvas or the space. I have definitely learned through trial and error that less is more.
KZ: There is a subtly to so much of your work, but then an instantaneous visual impact. How do you manage both at once?
JK: I think that training my eye over the years has given me an awareness of fine details and composition. Moving something an inch makes a huge difference. By playing with the variables that make up an artwork, I am able to identify what makes one powerful and the other weak.
Though often, I don’t know until I see it. Like with the line drawings, there were so many things to consider. I did hundreds of them so that I could come to an understanding of what does and does not work visually. I played with how high they should be, how thick they should be, and how many, how far apart. I test those variations until I reach a visual knowledge. And again, being tuned into my body is so important. Looking and feeling right, or feeling discord, is something I can play with and use as I wish. So it is very subtle. But the viewer only feels the effect.
Also, that visual knowledge becomes an identity, it is so particular. Another artist could have done the same basic project—lines in white room with a bathtub—but it would be completely different.
KZ: Was there any moment in particular throughout the night in which you felt or heard someone really get it?
JK: For Land Line, I had a small artist statement projected on the outer wall of the gallery space. I heard people talking outside, curious to know more. They wanted more from the statement, but then someone else commented that that could be the point, to be this stimulus for conversation. It was so exciting because that was it, they got it. I want to provoke thought. I want to provoke discussion. I don’t want to encourage a passive experience of viewing art.
One guy at the very end tried to engage me directly. He knew I wasn’t speaking, I guess he thought I would break down. He asked questions like: “Are you from the other side? Are you the one at the other end of the line?” It was so interesting, these questions were simple yet profound. But, I didn’t answer. Afterwards, when I got out, one woman was recapping with me a little bit. She mentioned flowers as symbolic of beauty. While that might be obvious, it was great to hear. In my sketchbook somewhere it probably says flowers equal beauty. So it was nice to find that was conveyed.
I am intrigued to talk to people, because that is so much of the reason that I make work. Putting together an exhibition like this is a lot of work and commitment, and it always comes down to: Why am I doing this? What is it worth? Having powerful moments with people, or knowing that people had powerful moments with the work, all of that makes it worth something.
KZ: From the opening performance to the closing, do you think these reflections will change the show throughout its course?
JK: Possibly. If anything, it will inform my understanding of the work, the depth of it, and inform future work. At the closing, I am really looking forward to tweaking it a bit. I do think it was beautiful and I have had great feedback. But, I am a perfectionist. I know it will never be perfect, but I think it could be better. I expect to have more time, the makeup will be a little different, and I am going to re-mix the audio. It will be the same show, just slightly more polished. However, I will have the same performative boundaries.
KZ: I know you had been going back and forth on whether or not to do makeup, why did you decide to do that?
JK: One reason that I went with the white was simply dramatic visual effect. Dramatic visuals are powerful and beautiful. The other thing was, I was considering the barriers and boundaries. Those concepts existed not only with exterior/interior space, but also putting on a layer of makeup puts a boundary between me and the viewer. I think that reinforced my not speaking and enhanced that state of removal. I was having a personal experience, which was different from that experience of the viewer. I think if I had been more natural, without the makeup, more people would have tried to casually engage with me. One thing that I was going for but was not able to materialize visually (due to time constraints) was the fade of my white face into the the orange flowers, a visual unification.
I didn’t even see myself in the mirror [prior to the performance]. I got in the tub and finally relaxed, there was a lot of surrender that had to happen there. I knew my makeup wasn’t exactly what I wanted, and that I had gotten into the tub late and there were people outside waiting. The flowers weren’t placed perfectly. It was a lot of letting go of these little things. So I leaned back and looked over into the window and saw my reflection. It was a little unnerving. I didn’t intend for it to be scary. But it was interesting because it was a reflection of my state of being, of my frenzied state. So that unintended visual became part of the piece, a demonstration of that overwhelming presence of technology and commitments. The second time around, I expect to be in a different state.
KZ: What are you working on next?
JK: Lately I have been producing quite heavily. While I don’t have anything specific lined up I’d like to take some time to transition where I’m less driven by production and more able to take a step back, play, and explore without any constraints. It has been really amazing to do larger projects with new mediums, like the Kinect sculpture and Land Line. But it is a lot of working with other people, asking for help, and project management. A large part of me just wants to be in my studio on my own.
I really want to revisit visual interests and explore the control and chaos in a two-dimensional medium—do some larger mixed-media works. In the past I have done collage works, but I’d like to try taking these small cut-outs and blowing them up, or do large-scale transfers. There are also a lot of interests I am looking forward to exploring more deeply, like flying machines and these Fu-Go, Japanese balloon bombs. Overall I’ll be letting the dust settle. I’m sure another vision will come and I’ll go crazy. Right now though, I need less doing and more being.
Land Line closes Saturday, May 2, 7:00-10:00 pm at Test Tube Gallery in Austin, Texas. Click here for more information on the work of Jaelah Kuehmichel.