San Francisco - It begins with a fake baby harem dance party and ends with a disembodied head. Given those two rather strange polarities, this interview with San Francisco-based artist Desirée Holman seems surprisingly linear. Make-believe as a phrase has a childlike innocence, but in the hands of Holman it takes on qualities of obsession, longing, and the grotesque. Her work takes the form of both videos where absurd situations are realized in effigies and pantomimes, but they also take form in beautifully rendered drawings of the same subjects. This dual approach gives one two points of entry into her work, and once in, makes one question the qualities that make either possible. This conversation took place just before the opening of Reborn, which was on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from November 10, 2009 - January 31, 2010).
Desirée Holman, Reborn, 2009, Three-channel video, color, sound. 11 min.; Courtesy of the artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco
Andrew Berardini: Your website is amazing, especially the video clips. I must have watched the Reborn, 2009, video's excerpt about ten times, and I'm still at a loss to describe it. Dancing ladies in the their underwear sporting hijabs and baby carriers doing a music video for a fashion model turned semi-traditional Arab. And the fake babies in the rest of the project are heartbreakingly creepy. This is the project that will be at the Hammer, I was wondering if you could fill in the blanks for the psychedelic underwear model fake baby music video amazingness?
Courtesy of the artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.
Desirée Holman: I want to preface all that I write regarding the process, content, aesthetics, materiality, intention and theory of my work (and anyone else's for that matter) is, in my view, far less important than a viewer's, ANY viewer's, interpretations. One of the main reasons that I love visual art is that it is highly subjective, personal, and experiential. No two people have the exact same understanding of the work.
The Reborn project, a 3 channel video installation and 11 drawings, will be shown at the Hammer. Created primarily by myself but certainly also shaped by the performers, the work is a fantasy vision of mothers and newborns. The newborns are life-like proxies while the mothers are flesh and blood.
The fantasy tableaux created in the work oft resemble everyday real life scenarios of mothers and children. Those visions are accompanied by imagery that is less grounded in the ordinary. Those scenes of dancing women in undies, capes and ninja/niquab masks is an articulation of a fantasy of an all-lady harem (simultaneously sacred and forbidden) dance party.
AB: With Reborn, but also Magic Window, it seems to me that you're looking into different kinds of domesticity, but domesticity sent through a very wry pantomime. I was wondering how you thought about domesticity in your work? Are issues of motherhood separate from domesticity?
DH: I think all of my work is pantomime, especially as it is a psychodynamic play and theatrical enactment. While I have no objection to the work being interpreted as critical or mocking, I don't tend to have a wry perspective on the narrative or scenes. That said, the masks or other figurative sculptures certainly are artificial stand-ins so there is often a sense of lack or a physical evocation of desire.
Motherhood, in my experience of it, is inextricably linked to the domestic. Generally, I am interested in human emotional attachment. Attachment is central to family and other human relationships. Since those concepts are frequently framed in the domestic setting, my work is similarly framed within domesticity but it is not necessarily always the case.
AB: There is a mixture of humor and seriousness in your work, this mixture creates something strange and compelling. For you, what is the role of humor?
DH: Humor is a very welcome by-product that I'm not consciously creating as I've never tried to make the work funny. Playfulness, intuition and invention are integral to my process. I think these gesture are connected to the joy of humor somehow.
Desirée Holman, Milkies, 2009, Colored pencil on archival paper. 27 x 36 in. (65.6 x 914 cm), Collection of Anthony and Celeste Meier; Courtesy of the artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.
AB: The performances/videos on the surface seem to make up the backbone of your practice, but the drawings are so carefully wrought, I can't help but think that they are equally important to each other. What do you think the difference and importance of the two different threads are for you? They both have the element of the handmade in them, but in the drawings, it becomes something delicate and lyrical, while the videos feel more consciously rough, more garish.
DH: All of my projects begin with figurative sculptures that get animated. The process of making the sculptures is usually the most laborious and time-consuming part of my entire process. The figures serve as props for the work and are rarely shown as art objects themselves.
In the last few years, my projects have taken the form of multi-channel video installations and color pencil drawings. Both the video and the drawing are valued equally in my estimation. Drawing, however, is the newer of the two. I came to draw as a way to create a more tender, less digital, less garish, (seemingly) unmediated entry way into the subject matter for the viewer. Additionally, the touch, physicality, and attention to minute detail in the drawings brings me back to the intimacy of the sculpture making and, in turn, brings that to the viewer as well. The video, which has its' own righteous merits, tends to distance the viewer from the handmade aspect of the sculptures. I value the handmade as I am a bricoleur, meaning that I work and think with my hands through a physical process.
AB: I may have covered this in the last question, but I couldn't help but think that no matter how handmade the masks look on the actors in The Magic Window, 2007, or how real the babies may look in Reborn, there's this act of simulation. In Reborn that act seems to be taken to its exponential conclusion. And no matter how strange it might seem, there's something sad and human in it. I was curious if you could talk about this element of sincerity.
Desirée Holman, Haram; Masks (Conduits of Fantasy)1; Courtesy of the artist
DH: Your question gets to my interest in attachment, desire and behavior and how those concepts are enacted & revealed through fantasy. At some point in our lives, most of us has played with some kind of figurative proxy and reigned reciprocity. That might have been with a GI Joe figurine, doll, photograph or other object. (This impulse is not restricted to humans. Other mammals, or emotional attachment-based animals, exhibit similar impulses.) My point is that it is ubiquitous and human.
Most times this type of play with figurative objects is considered normal, like when a child plays to enact a potential future scenario or when make-believe is used in educational environments or artistic ventures to create understanding and to educate. However, there is also a side of it that is generally considered abnormal. For example, a grown man pretending reciprocity with a sex doll is not considered conventional. I think it's human.
Sometimes this type of play is used, in the psychoanalytic sense, to "work through" problems, other times it is used to re-enact problems. In my view this type of play can be sad, reflect lack and loss or hopeful, healthy and healing.
AB: But the two kinds of simulation in Magic Window and Reborn are different. Magic Window is consciously homemade and handcrafted, but Reborn is made to feel very real. How are these two different for you? What are their different ends?
DH: The work strives to engage its viewers in the narratives it creates while it also seeks to push the viewer out of the narrative (or game of make-believe) in order to ask questions about the nature of what is being acted out. One aim is to get the viewer to experience and move back and forth between both points of view: suspension of disbelief and critical distance. There are two different strategies the work has employed to this end.
The first strategy involves creating figurative sculptures that read as “live.” The Reborn project is an example of this. With this strategy, hopefully, the viewer is, unknowingly, participating in a game of make-believe, only to slowly have the believability of the sculptures rupture to reveal the game. So the viewer, again hopefully, starts by believing or participating in the fantasy and, then, moves outwards into a questioning stance through the revelation of the inanimate objects.
The second strategy, seen in The Magic Window project, involves employing unrealistic figurative props that are clearly hand-made. The viewer enters the work knowing they are witness to a game of make-believe. The hope is that, through engagement with the work, they will be seduced into the narrative and begin to overlook or believe in the figurative proxies not as stand-ins but as something very close to the real-thing. This strategy posits the viewer outside and slowly seeks to bring them inside the narrative.
AB: I just listened to the Bad at Sports interview and the interview lingers on pop culture and pop culture references in ways that I hadn't really thought about it. I mean I understood that Rosanne and the Cosbys were pop, but I thought about more as art and its art relationships (McCarthy, maybe Ryan Trecartin or Kaari Upson as contemporaries) and it's form perhaps as a reaction to the slickness of pop production. Perhaps that's my failing as someone hyperfocused on art, but it seemed more about the ambiguities of family as mode more than a commentary on pop.
DH: Both reads are correct.
AB: Do you feel like you're telling stories with your project, creating situations, or simply making objects?
DH: The work does all three of those things.
AB: Inevitably, in an interview one has to ask what's next? What are you working on for the future?
DH: Currently, I am deeply involved with creating a new body of work that will eventually result in a multi-channel video piece and a series of drawings. This time around, the figurative sculptures are hyperrealistic 3D virtual characters. They work revolves around 9 performers, both in the flesh and as digital graphics, as they enact shared fantasyscapes.
Here is an early, in-progress modeling image of one of the performers' head.
ArtSlant would like to thank Desirée Holman for her assistance in making this interview possible.