Chicago, Jan. 2010 - From Abraham Ritchie, ArtSlant's Chicago Editor: I first encountered the work of Aspen Mays in 2009 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Spring MFA show where she was a clear standout in an otherwise fairly predictable exhibition. That summer, Mays received a solo exhibition at Chicago's GOLDEN gallery, which I reviewed for ArtSlant: Chicago at the time. Focused and coherent, it turned out to be one of the best shows of that summer. Early into 2010, Mays has pulled off something of a coup with two concurrent exhibitions at equally prestigious venues, "From the Offices of Scientists" at the Hyde Park Art Center and "Every leaf on a tree" at the Museum of Contemporary Art (both in Chicago). Did I mention yet that she also was awarded a Fulbright Grant and will work with astronomers in Chile later in 2010? Wanting to chat with Mays before she left, we talked over coffee about her upcoming exhibitions, Einstein, the Large Hadron Collider and, of course, her artwork.
Abraham Ritchie: Let’s start with talking about the two exhibitions you have coming up, one at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) and one at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA). I’m curious to hear about what you have planned for those exhibitions, could you talk about what you’ll be showing?
Aspen Mays: I just finished installing the HPAC show, so I’ll talk about that one first. The show is open now, and is all sculptural work. In a lot of ways, or at least in terms of presentation, it feels like a departure for me, but not in terms of working practice. A lot of my photographs come from, or are, constructions. They start as constructions and then may end up as a photograph, but in these new works I started thinking about them as sculptural objects.
At the HPAC is an installation-sculptural piece called “From the Offices of Scientists.” It started, and was influenced by, teaching a class here at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) called “Weird Science,” that I developed with AnnieLaurie Erickson, another graduate student here at SAIC. We took our students to a lot of scientists’ offices and scientific institutions.
Aspen Mays, Stills from Larry, 2008, Archival inkjet print, 10" x 8"; Courtesy of the artist.
I made that video piece Larry [stills from Larry seen above] with the Adler Planetarium here in Chicago, and I become really friendly with the astronomers there and through the years they have put me in touch with their colleagues at the Field Museum, at Fermilab, all over the place. So I started spending a lot of time in their workspaces and at first I would bring a camera along and a notebook and poke around their workspaces, maybe take a few pictures of something that caught my eye. I was interested in the trappings of a scientist’s office, what does it look like?
For the most part it looks like any other office, it’s gray, it’s a cubicle, nothing really stands out. But I started collecting some strange moments, or things that would happen, and [I wanted to] recreate those moments. When you walk into the exhibition there’s the gray cubicle with a gray desk but a giant rock has crushed the desk into pieces. There’s a sign near the desk that says “If you think you have found a meteorite you can bring it here and we’ll check it to be sure,” which is actually a sign that I saw on a poster somewhere in the Field Museum.
Aspen Mays, If you think you've found a meteorite. . , 2009, Engraved plastic sign, 10" x 8"; Courtesy of the artist.
That really cracked me up when I first saw it, I thought it was hysterical, and I met one of the curators of the meteorite collection and asked him, Does anyone actually call you about this? Do people think that they’ve found one? And he said that people call in once a week, at least. People convinced that they’ve found one in their backyard or they want to make money and will call in- they get some crazy stories. Very rarely do people actually find meteorites, but every once in awhile they do. It’s sort of the true believers of the world thinking that the rock in their backyard is a meteorite that call.
It was moments like that conversation and seeing that sign which made their way into the installation. . . The humor and the forms of the rocks, how unexpected and extraordinary they are, yet they really just look like average rocks. I started thinking about what if someone really brought in an enormous rock to an office to see if it was a meteorite? That’s the desk that’s in pieces with this boulder on top of it. . . There’s the generic stuff of an office but it points to something that’s extraordinary, organizing important scientific knowledge in a really bland environment.
AR: So does this exhibition we’re talking about have any similarity or correlation to the exhibition at the MCA?
AM: Formally not as much, but in terms of my own investigation of how knowledge and information is organized, or what it looks like, or how it relates to and gets back into the world, in that sense there’s a lot of cross-over. But there’s not much formal similarity, which is kind of exciting since through these two projects I got to explore two ends of my practice-- the MCA show is all photographs.
One connection between the two shows is when I was first thinking about creating an imaginary scientist’s office, I had this question about what would a scientist have in their office? This thought came to me: What if a scientist only read books about Einstein? What if there was a bookshelf with only books about Einstein, or what if they had all the books you could possibly get on Einstein? So I started ordering all the books you can get in Illinois about Einstein via the Inter-library Loan System, and I’ve been doing this for months now, the poor librarians.
Aspen Mays, Einstein Rainbow 1, 2009, Archival inkjet print, 24" x 26"; Courtesy of the artist.
AR: And that’s where Einstein Rainbow [seen above] comes from?
AM: Yes, in the MCA show there’s twenty-one individual prints representing all the books I ordered, about 2,000 books total. Each rainbow is different depending on what books came in, and I would arrange them along the color spectrum and take a picture then return them. It was a long process.
AR: Since you brought up the diversity of your artistic practice, how do you see technology playing a role in your practice? It seems to me that there’s a lot of writing now about art and science and artists trying really hard to show science at work, like mad scientist experiments going wrong, but in your practice it seems so organic and not forced. How do you use technology and see technology extending your artistic practice?
AM: Right, yes, I think a lot about that, maybe in terms of how slick the art could be. I think the flip side of what you are saying is that the art could be so data-driven and you could have a really clean look but I feel mine is so clunky sometimes. Like ordering the books for example, is such a cumbersome thing to do, to physically get the books, when you could use the internet or something.
I think a lot of times using the analog processes, like I do in a lot of my work, is a way to create a really human presence in the work that may be counter to rationalist thinking, or objectivity, or a machine. I want to insert the human back into everything; I’m trying to figure out these systems with whatever is at hand.
AR: And in that sense, the ‘art’ never escapes your objects as a lot of your creations are quite beautiful too. That is interesting to me since beauty is qualitative but science is interested in the quantitative. Your work seems much more personal in the way it invokes science; technological apparatus is not overwhelming it. Where does the aesthetic and this sense of beauty enter into your work?
AM: Yes, beauty does feel really important. I don’t set up experiments and whatever the results are, are the work. I am exerting control and making aesthetic choices.
AR: So this would be unlike the way the idea drives the art in Conceptualism? You're avoiding a situation where the process becomes the artwork rather than the end product?
Aspen Mays, Dissection of a Magic-8 Ball, 2008, Archival inkjet print, 32" x 32"; Courtesy of the artist
AM: Yes, I think about the formal concerns a lot. Color is such a huge part of my work, like in the Fireflies piece or the 8 Ball piece [8 Ball seen at right, image credit at bottom], where it’s pure color almost and I just let that color be the piece in a lot of ways. That color is mysterious and hopefully opens the door to further investigations. I think that you’re right that beauty does drive the work in a lot of ways.
AR: We’re always hearing about scientists looking for a unifying theory, I mean there’s the Fermilab here in Chicago and the giant accelerator [the Large Hadron Collider] in Switzerland to try to establish the existence of the Higgs boson particle and then if this particle was found we would supposedly have this all-encompassing idea of the universe and that would, in a sense, be beautiful in that it would explain everything. It’s like the scientists are working towards something that is beautiful, as you are too.
AM: That’s a really seductive notion, that there’s a unifying universal theory. That’s something that I’m interested in and that these scientists are actively looking for, and we do assume that it would be beautiful. There are even quotes from Einstein about how the simplest idea is the most elegant and the most beautiful.
Aspen Mays, Every leaf 0339, 2009; Courtesy of the artist.
AR: I think that these ways of organizing knowledge have their own aesthetic too; even these offices may have their own messy aesthetic.
AM: Right and I think that as an artist I want to figure out where I fit in, too. I’m not a scientist but what can my contribution do? Can my contribution be concerned with formalism, can it be beautiful? There’s no experiment that I need to prove, but I can try to make a space within this scientific arena.
AR: When we’re talking about art and science, throughout human history those two have been linked, with one informing the other. To my mind, it’s only relatively recently that the two have diverged and now we see art as limited to a creative function of the brain and science as a rational brain function, someone is “left-brained” or “right-brained.” How do you see the two disciplines informing each other or are they two separate domains now?
AM: Questions like that were a big part of the class I referred to earlier. I wanted to look at art and science and find where they overlap and the ways they are connected. I too personally think that art and science are on divergent paths right now and maybe that is a disservice to everyone. Maybe there is really valuable insight from each side and is this kind of segregation between the fields even possible or desirable?
There’s a personal desire in my work to understand this science too. The technology is just incomprehensible, now. It’s totally incomprehensible to everyone except for the five people, or whatever, that run the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. You can’t even wrap your brain around that kind of technology, no one can. It’s become so specialized that even physicists within that experiment don’t know what the others are doing. There’s not a lot of overlap within their respective studies, and what’s that about and is it desirable? Is there something that other people could contribute?
Aspen Mays, Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Universe?, 2009, 1.5" plastic button, unlimited edition; Courtesy of the artist.
AR: In some of your work I detect a kind of dissatisfaction with this situation, like your work Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Universe? [seen above]. To me, this piece points beyond our earth-bound problems and looks into what else could be possible. Other than the obvious question that piece asks, are there any other issues you were alluding to?
AM: I think that this dissatisfaction, along with a sense of how do we locate ourselves within this technology surrounding us, are all part of that artwork. But it also has an implication that, 'yes,' we have all this technological stuff but are they “holding out” on us? Does some technology exist and we’re not allowed to see it? The work has a vaguely paranoid feeling too. You can be reading headlines and something will go wrong and “scientists are working on it,” - well where is ‘it’?
I took that button campaign from Stuart Brand’s button campaign of the sixties about trying to get a photograph of the whole earth. There’s that utopian idea about what if we did have that photograph and that image? Wouldn’t it mean something? Wouldn’t we see ourselves connected and present in the world in a new way? The perspective gained by that photograph would alter our consciousness, alter our sense of place in the universe and how we get along with each other. I think that image did have an effect when it came out. It was shocking, it’s still shocking to look at. I wanted to point to the larger knowledge out there, the universal knowledge, and wouldn’t something also be gained there? I don’t know but it has that potential.
Aspen Mays, The Future of the Future (Spaceman), 2009, Archival inkjet print, 53" x 68"; Courtesy of the artist
AR: You bring up utopianism, I wanted to talk about that too. The Future of the Future [seen at left, image credit at bottom] has the sense of being this kind of cardboard space suit like the kind you might have made when you were a kind, at least I did.
AM: I did too! I did too.
AR: And the suit is very empty, you can see that through the mask and that there’s no person in there. I wanted to know where you got some of your influences from, like that piece is kind of a childhood dream of exploration and the future. Are you influenced by any science fiction or things like that?
AM: I don’t cite a lot of science fiction as an influence, other than going up with Star Wars of course, and that kind of mass pop culture. I’m not a voracious reader of science fiction. But I do trace a lot of influence to a childhood feeling of possibility and armchair travel. I grew up in a small town in the South where the worldview was fairly narrow, so a lot of my personal world was imagination and that kind of wanting to see something else.
A piece like The Future of the Future is very connected to those kind of ideas. With the mask being empty, it may feel a little melancholy in a lot of ways. But you could be inside that mask, it’s a sense of possibility.
ArtSlant would like to thank Aspen Mays for her assistance in making this interview possible.