ArtSlant's writer, Nicholas Weist, spent some time with Jen DeNike shortly after her show, Thirteen, opened at Smith-Stewart Gallery in February, 2008, in New York. They talked about the new work, as well as magic and ritual.
To learn more about Jen DeNike, visit her ArtSlant Profile (here)
Nicholas Weist: Jen, your new show at Smith-Stewart Gallery uses the American flag as an object rather than a symbol. How did you arrive at that decision? How did it impact your use of semaphore signs, which are symbols but barely objects?
Jen DeNike: Well actually it's the reverse: the American flag is more of a symbol that is an object and the semaphore flags are more objects that carry hidden meanings. These meanings mean nothing to the average viewer unless you're fluent in semaphore flag language. Using the American flag as a vernacular object was my point of entry for this work, and also something I hoped to depart from. Flag Girls, the new video at Smith-Stewart, was directly inspired by a postcard I found (printed circa 1918) of six young girls wrapped in flags, forming one large colonial American flag.
NW: You know it's funny, I'd never thought of your work as vernacular before, but it sort of totally is. I'm thinking of a new kind of vernacular imagery, which involves the landscape and suburban interior spaces, and in your case two dudes rassling in a, um, a crick. Creek. River?
JD: Yes, in the video Dunking the boys wrestle and dunk each other, but in a pool. My reference point for the vernacular is Ed Ruscha, and his use of swimming pools, parking lots, a street, words... and how he translates objects into space and space in objects and language into form and form into nothing and nothing into something.
NW: Like a kind of art magic: the transmogrification of matter. There are some spells and rituals in your new work that weren't really there before. Or I guess it started with Seasons In The Sun?
JD: Seasons In The Sun is mostly about death and memory. I wanted to reference the Terry Jacks song in a piece because it doesn't whether or not you have a personal connection to it, it still remains nostalgic. It's a prefabricated sadness that, no matter how much it's sappy pop feeling makes you want to puke, still works. You brought up magic: my next semaphore flag secret message will be MAGIC. The first was SURRENDER; the second, WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IN. These messages started through an email correspondence with a friend that we wrote in Morse code.
The video Gold Stars definitely alludes to ritual. The five boys in the video march around in a circle chanting repetitively after entering the video nude. I wanted to create an ambiguity regarding a ritual where you sense the actions of the figures carry meaning, but the message is never revealed. You have to question what happened before they entered the stage and why are they were nude. It's a reverse counterpoint to the action of Flag Girls, where the women begin clothed and exit the video nude.
NW: The story of Flag Girls is pretty amazing.
JD: Well after finding it in a shop annexed to the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side, I decided to enlist the help of my mom to sew the six flags pictured in the original, and make a video recreating the photo. I went to Tucson for a month where my mom lives and we worked on sewing the flags together by hand. In the course of sewing, my mom remembered a scene from the Disney movie Polly Anna where a group of people sing America the Beautiful in the town square. In my version the girls hum the Star Spangled Banner.
NW: You made a video in Tucson, too, of a young man jumping up and down in a pool with a flag-a friend's brother I believe? Is it way awesome that any dude will just take off his clothes for you and let you tell him what to do?
JD: Yes, Flag-Boy. It was my friend Sarah's brother, and I made the video while I was sewing the flags. Sarah called me up one day and said, "Hey, I'm in Tucson visiting my brother who's working on a theater production for a few months..." It was a serendipitous meeting for all three of us (Sarah, her brother who ended up being the Flag-Boy, and me) that culminated in a trip to the Titan Missile Museum. It's an institution located in a remote stretch of desert going towards Mexico, an underground missile site that you can actually go down into. It's straight out of an apocalyptic science fiction conspiracy film except its real. Just before we all went on this little adventure we stopped off at her brother's temporary apartment, and on the wall in his makeshift bedroom the only decoration was a faded American flag (his grandfather's from WWII). I believe that coincidences always find you if you let them.
I'm continually amazed at what people will do for the videos but it's also a process of collaboration: of them wanting to reveal some element of their own vulnerability, sexuality, or desire that I recognize. Sometimes it's uncomfortable or awkward, but that friction becomes part of piece.
ArtSlant would like to thank Jen DeNike for her assistance in making this interview possible.
(All images courtesy of the artist)