Undergraduate Senior Thesis
A cave made of metal instead of rock, filled with precious objects of a culture that is not from our past or our present; this is my senior thesis. The cave is filled with blue light and faint metal on metal noises along with the echo of voices and the smell of earth. One must walk into the cave and wander through tunnels to discover the various objects; a bowl of coins, a cage, masks, paintings, turtles, tubes, and a sea slug. The cave and the objects: within are all my ideas but they have become their own creation when put together. The audience affects the cave and changes it over time with their placement of the coins throughout the installation, their voices and footsteps, and they change my thoughts of the cave as they share their own.
The health of an individual, an artist, and a people is the main focus of my installation and artwork as a whole. As an individual, health is the sum of the emotional, spiritual, emotional and physical health. As Plato would say, to find these in perfect form, one must always be striving for the Beautiful, the True, and the Good (Dorbol, 2002). My ceramics professor, Jerome Dubas helped me to define what art is to me with his definition; art is the accumulation of skill, idea, and time and place. I strive to find health, or the beautiful, the true, and the good through my art. In art, the Beautiful is the skill it takes to work in a medium. I discovered this beauty through hard work and long hours (Bliven, 2013). I work mostly with found or discarded materials and also in a wide variety of mediums, including metal, paint, found objects, and ceramics. I feel that a healthy artist is one who, although may not excel in all mediums, appreciates all mediums (Bliven, 2013). The True is the idea behind the work one is trying to express. For me, this idea, this true, is health. This has been an emotional and physical journey to find what the world means to me (Bliven, 2013). The best route for me to discover this meaning is along the path of health. The Good changes based upon society and is the societal relevance a work has. The relevance of my work stems from this idea of health, which everyone is worried about throughout life, and the importance of how being healthy as a culture or people can ease this worry. As an individual, there are three main stages of life: birth, living, and death. In only one of these stages, living, do we develop and either become healthy or unhealthy (Dorbolo, 2002). It is the same for a culture. I feel that Western Society focuses more on the individual and less on culture or the people as a whole. The more unhealthy this culture becomes the closer we come to faltering. This is why I have chosen to create a culture that is focused on the people as a whole, and that is healthy and thriving. This culture is not a culture that is recognizable, it may not even be from this world. This culture is industrious, ritualistic, and very community based. I have created a Freudian dream world installation, where viewers can step in to discover, explore, and become part of this culture. The dream world is held within a cave that is both an environment and a work of art in itself.
The cave started with an idea that came to me in the middle of the night two years ago, but the seeds of this idea go back much farther than that. I have always been fascinated with metal. My father is a mechanic and I always wanted to be doing what he was, so my love for metal started young. I also found an appreciation for trash or discarded materials at my Grandparent’s tool and die shop. They manufactured metal and plastic parts for various uses. It was from the machine that my Grandma would grab waste plastic that sometimes fell out the side and tell me it looked like “a witch with a broom” and then ask “What did you see?” I enjoyed this so much that I would begin to go and look for other objects that could become something else or something beautiful.
As I entered college, I began to experiment with creating my own beautiful objects out of discarded materials such as plastic silverware and metal coat hangers. This cemented my use of discarded and found objects in all of my artwork. I continued to explore different materials but also moved to bringing in light and sound. I created large seeds made from scrap metal and discarded fabric that I lit from behind so that the metal cubes within the seeds could be seen. For lighting my installation, I used faint light which made some pieces hard to see, which is why I ask the viewer to use a flashlight to explore the cave and find the hidden objects. My first experimentation with sound was a loud and annoying one, but worth the experience. I made three rain sticks out of muffler pipe, nails, and ball bearings. As a small motor turned the pulleys, they in turn moved the rain sticks in circles. The ball bearings then fell and made a very un-soothing noise. The sounds within my cave are not at all abrasive, but more relaxing. The sound the cave makes is of metal lightly hitting metal and the echo of the audience’s voices or sometimes their silence as they walk through the cave.
My installation is quite large and there are around forty 4’ by 8’ sheets of metal within, weighing just over a ton. I have always liked working on a larger scale but usually 7’ to 9’ in any direction was my maximum. That was until my professor Tom Kreager asked me what I would make if I had access to telephone poles. He asked this more as a mental exercise and not to literally go get telephone poles and make something but that’s just what I did. I created three separate pieces made from telephone poles. The tallest piece was 22’ tall and almost as wide. This project I set for myself really pushed me to think about how to work on a large scale. What I struggled with the most was creating stable works of art that could withstand being outside in high winds. Eventually everything came together, and despite 60 mph winds the pieces stood steady. Having that knowledge helped me create a safe installation the viewers could walk into without worry of it falling on them.
When I entered my 3rd year at Hastings College I was confronted with adding depth to my artwork beyond the materials I used but look at the ideas behind the work of art. Health has always been a major aspect of my life, whether it be good or bad. I have always had health problems with my severe asthma and allergies. I spent much of my early years living in an oxygen tent at the hospital. Despite this, I never thought of myself as a sick individual and my parents never led on that I was. I think it’s because of the attitude my parents portrayed (because I know now they were always worried) that despite the doctor saying I would never run or play sports, I played softball, and lifted weights. I didn’t really think about working with health in my Junior Thesis until my mother became ill. At the time we did not know but now the doctors believe she has multiple sclerosis. Seeing my mother sick made me examine what it is to be healthy. I looked into emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual health, and I created four pieces, one on each type of health each using found and discarded objects. Although my mother’s illness was more of an illness that dealt with physical or mental health, I found that spiritual health interested me the most. I believe this is because no matter the state of the other types of health, one can still have spiritual health. My mother was and is still fighting and not willing to give up and this is due to her spirit and her belief in something higher. I wanted to show that no matter your beliefs, as long as they were moral any kind of spirituality is beneficial. I used images of religions I thought embodied this idea within the piece.
When looking for an idea to work from for my senior thesis I could not leave behind this idea of spiritual health. I wanted to go more into the group dynamic that make up some aspects of spirituality. I was unhappy with the group dynamics I was surrounded by and decided to create a culture that was the essence of what I thought was needed for a healthy spirit; a culture that is moral and community based, supports each other, and a culture that is accepting.
One question that I have been asked over and over is ‘why a cave?’ I usually answer with, “why not a cave,” but I have other reasons than that. I’ve chosen a cave for this culture to reside in because of the ancient ties that we as human beings have to caves. We have always been curious about caves and have ventured into them for years, and we have and still are in awe of nature’s power in creating them. Ancient man used the cave as temporary shelter and a place for rituals. Several caves that ancient man lived in or near are filled with paintings. Some of these paintings are too deep within the cave to be anything other than a ritual. Archeologists believe that these deeper cave paintings may be a coming of age journey, while the other paintings could be a way to record the types of animal life that lived in the region. The types of animals that were represented the most were animals that were scarce or had disappeared. It is believed that because of this they were trying to preserve information about the animals that might be helpful to future generations. Several of the animals were predators, which would be valuable to know if the predator came back to the area and was hunting man (Clottes, 2002). Caves were very important to the ancient’s life in any case whether our assumptions about the reasons for the cave paintings are correct or not. The fact that cave paintings exist in such large numbers show that they were and still are important to understanding our past and our futures. This is also why I chose to make a culture that could be from our past or our future. I think it is important to think about both as we go through life because without the past our future would not exist.
On a personal level, caves bring back memories of building blanket forts as a child. I remember the cozy warmth that I felt while inside of them and the excitement of exploring them after completion. I have my parents to thank for those experiences. They let me build blanket forts that took up the whole living room and allowed me to leave them up for days on end. Other memories that have influenced me to use a cave to express my ideas are cave tours with my dad. I always feel safe when I am with my dad whether there is bad weather or I am a mile underground. On the cave tours I was amazed by the beauty that was hidden within the earth. Kartchner Caverns in Arizona was one of my favorite cave tours. We entered through a small hole in the side of a hill and went down short, narrow tunnels. My dad who is 6’4”, had to duck to walk through them. As we descended, the cave opened up into a giant cavern that went up forty feet. I was so amazed that something this large could be underneath such a small hill. I have tried to also give the viewer this feeling in my cave. As the audience walks around the cave the objects within the cave are hidden from view and the viewer must walk through tunnels to reach the larger spaces that contain the more impactful pieces.
There is also a lot of symbology behind caves that has brought me to the use of them in my thesis. One of the most famous examples would be Plato’s allegory of the cave. We all start in the cave just as Plato’s characters, not knowing anything of the truth. As we grow we must leave the cave to even begin to know what the truth is, but we all must also go back into the cave to help those left inside despite ridicule we might receive. Although I am taking the audience into my cave, I hope that it is a trip that helps them realize that maybe as we went back into the cave and we gave into the ridicule. We tried to forget the truth and specifically forget what it means to be a healthy community (Plato, 1993).
Installation art is the mode of art that I have chosen to develop the idea of my cave and the healthy community within. I believe it is the most effective way to really put the viewer face to face with my ideas. To understand what installation art is, one must know that the artists that have really shaped installation art do not all come from a specific art movement. What I have found is that installation art has its beginnings somewhere just before Dada and Surrealism, in which the period is marked by the hallmark of installation art: exploring dreams and the unconscious. During Dada and Surrealism, installation art was really explored and pushed to its still undefined limits (Bishop,2005).
The Dada movement started in 1916 and was punctuated with disgust for the state that the world was in after WWI and before WWII. They were commenting on the triumph of the absurd, a world in which the objects work but people don’t change. In response the Dadaists revolted by creating non-art made by non-artists. This was an attack against the reason of politicians perpetuating war, for the Dadaists to attempt to survive destructiveness by destroying. They wanted to make art that did not follow the rules of using granite and oil paint but instead used trash and repurposed material. The Dada revolt accomplished “art that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum” (Ruhrberg, 1998). Marcel Duchamp is an individual that embodied the Dada movement. He crossed the borderlines between media by using painting and sculpture together, and used novel materials like urinals and coal sacks (Ruhrberg, 1998). Without Duchamp’s and the Dadaists contributions it would not be widely accepted to use non-traditional materials, in turn making most of the materials I used in my thesis un-acceptable.
Surrealism worked on bringing system to the anarchy the Dadaists brought about in the art community. They began to idealize reality but drifting into the unconscious mind, hallucination, and dream-like state. Most Surrealists focused on Sigmund Freud’s work, despite the fact that Freud did not appreciate their work. The Surrealists painted environments that the viewer could get lost in. Inside my cave the audience becomes part of the world I created and can escape for a moment on the Path to Culture (Ruhrberg, 1998). Just like Surrealists works, to view my cave, the viewers can use their own experience to freely associate the individual objects within the cave to make sense out of the disjointedness between the pieces.
I have found that there are few statements that apply to all installations. The most important aspect of Installation art is that the viewer is immersed in the installation, and from that immersion, an experience is created for and by the viewer. This type of art is defined by a few innovators outside the studio art realm. Of these the most prominent would be Sigmund Freud, more specifically his writing titled, “The Interpretation of Dreams.” In this piece, Freud defines three key components of dreams: the visual, the composite structure, and free association. These three components are used by installation artists to create a dream scene. The dream scene is prevalent in installations; the visual is the images that one sees upon entering an installation, the composite structure is the “fragmentary disjointedness” between the different pieces which may not make sense when analyzed separately, and free association is when the viewer is allowed to freely form his or her own ideas about the installation as a whole and the individual pieces that comprise it (Ruhrberg, 1998). In my installation the masks of my culture would not usually be associated with a Sea Slug deity if it were not for my placement of the two within the same space of the cave. The same would go for many of the pieces within the cave; the turtles and a portrait of a young woman, a small cage and a painting of a cave, or metal walls and the smell of natural earth.
Another innovator to installation art was the philosopher, John Dewy, who wrote, “Art as Experience.” Dewy explained that as humans we must develop by actively inquiring into our own environment along with interacting directly with it. He describes this as “the complete interpretation of self and the world of objects and events'' or “heightened vitality.” This “heightened vitality” is used by installation artists: one by placing the viewer into a new experience (the installation), secondly, by introducing the viewer to something he or she can respond to, and third by giving the viewer a means in which they can respond or participate in the installation, creating an altogether new experience. The final innovator I am going to mention is the composer, John Cage. Cage was interested by the Zen-inspired combining of art and everyday activity. He showcases this idea in his event 4’33” where the performer and the piano are silent but the “music” comes from the audience; in their shuffles, coughs, and other noises. Installation artists take this and create a piece that like Cage’s, is not complete without the viewer’s interaction (Bishop, 2005).
Kurt Schwitters is the forerunner to Installation art in his installation “Merzbau.” “Merzbau'' was something that had never been seen before. Schwitter transformed his studio and house into a long, meandering installation with shrines and grottoes. What I find important about his work is his idea of Merz, a technique of assemblage or “the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials.” Although Schwitter says “all conceivable materials,” he usually used only those that had a sentimental meaning to him (Bishop, 2005). In the cave sentimental materials are present I used my Dad’s work clothes hangers but they are not prevalent. The sentimental materials are outweighed by the easily accessible materials (ceramics and donated metal). My cave does have a few grottoes in which pieces are displayed much like Schwitter’s Merzbau.
Ilya Kabakov is the next major artist to use installation art. In a large installation titled “Ten Characters,” he creates ten different personalities, that all inhabit a different room of an apartment flat. To determine as viewers these different personalities he or she is given a room filled with the occupant’s items but not the occupant themselves. From these clues the viewer must determine the personality or what may have happened to him or her themselves as is the case with “The Man Who Flew into Space'' (Bishop, 2005). In my installation the audience is left to decide what each piece within the cave means to the culture that created them. They can see the repetition of the shape of the sea slug in the coins, cave painting, and statue and infer its importance.
Marcel Duchamp is probably one of the more famous of the installation art world. As I mentioned earlier he was also a Dadaist, but he sometimes collaborated with artists like Salvador Dali (Surrealist) to create some of his installations. One such piece that Dali worked on with Duchamp is referred to as “Duchamp’s Coal Sacks” was also a collaborative effort between Man Ray, Georges Hugret, and Benjamin Peret. In this installation there is a large number of innovations for installation art as a whole. One, is that there is almost no light and the viewers are given flash lights to explore and discover the space and the objects within. Another is the use of smell (coffee) and sound (hysterical insane asylum inmates) to create a mood (Bishop, 2005). I have also used to use sound, smell, and lighting to create a specific mood of calm for the cave. The masks hanging on the cave’s walls ting as vibrations from people walking make the coat hangers that comprise the masks facial hair lightly hit my installation’s metal walls, bringing the viewer in. The viewer’s voice echoes off the walls bringing familiarity of their own voices into the cave. The rocks along the base of the wall put off an earthy aroma that mixes with the smell of metal and resembles that of natural caves. Green-blue lights truly bring a calming hue to the cave, dotted with small spots of red-orange lights that bring the viewer’s eyes down to the vegetative tubes that grow on the ground.
Allan Kaprow is the final artist that helped shape installation art into what it is today. He organized what he called “Environments” and “Happenings” (Bishop, 2005) In the environments he created just that, an environment for the viewer to explore, usually out of found or reused objects often even trash (Oliveria, 2003). Kaprow’s “Happenings” are more interesting to me in the fact that they are incomplete without the viewer/audience. He gives the viewer something to do in the installation like hang pre-written words on the wall in any fashion, making the viewer the co- creator of the installation (Bishop, 2005). Within my installation, I have given the audience two ways to interact with the cave. As they enter the cave there is a chance to pick up a coin and either take it with you out of the cave or place it within the cave as homage to the rituals of the cave culture. The other interaction would be that of exploring the cave with or without a flashlight. With a flashlight the masks become more prominent along with colors of the turtles becoming visible. Without a flashlight the masks can be passed by without a thought and most of the cave seen in a blue-green haze.
There are several artists today that work in installation and the number only seems to be growing. As seen with installations beginnings found objects are still greatly used (Oliveria, 2003). One artist that has mastered the use of discarded objects is Sayaka Kajita Ganz. She believes that when an object is thrown away before it’s time it sits in the trash can at night and cries. It is because of the belief that she uses plastic objects, such as toys and kitchen utensils to make her pieces. Her pieces have a real sense of movement, the pieces have so much life in them that they seem to get up and run away (Ganz, 2014). My thesis does not have this sense of movement in the individual objects, but it does in the walls. Every movement the audience makes is reflected in the metal walls, the act of them walking creates vibrations that travel through the metal and make distant noises, and the voices echo with every word spoken permanently becoming a memory of the cave.
Jean Shin is an artist that uses a different type of repurposed material, donated material. She works with societal issues such as homelessness and drug dependency by asking for donations of keys and pill bottles. She brings the donated materials together in a way that becomes part of the gallery (Shin, 2011). I heavily relied on donated material. The metal that forms the walls of the cave was donated scrap metal by Rutt’s Heating and Air Conditioning and Husker Power Products. I find that donated materials bring a different dimension to a piece. There is a struggle in working with sometimes imperfect materials that results in highly individual pieces. But there is a sense of community and accomplishment by keeping materials within the community and out of the scrap yard, at least for a small time.
For my final influence on my installation I did not find a single artist but a group of artists that go by the name, Numen. Numen works on creating installations that provide an environment the audience can enter much like I have. These installations are made almost entirely out of scotch tape. Numen’s use of non-traditional materials is an influence on me just like Jean Shin and Sayaka Kajita Ganz, but I pull more from their group making approach to art (Publishing, 2010). If it were not for my friends, family, and professors who helped me with the physical and metal work of this installation, there is no way I would have been able to accomplish the cave. My father helped me every step of the way with the metal of the cave walls, sea slug, cave painting, and so much more. I thank him and everyone else who helped very much for everything they’ve done. It’s because of the help I received that I have problems referring to the creator of the work as “I.” I find that more often than not, I use “we” to explain the steps it took to make this installation. I do not believe that this is a bad thing or makes my work any less mine, but it does give everyone who helped ownership of the art as well.
The first step for me in creating this installation was to lay out a floor plan, which was ultimately edited heavily when the final setup began to take place. The cave itself started with finding and gathering metal. Rutt’s Heating and Air Conditioning and Husker Power Products donated their scrap metal and about once a week I would go to their businesses and pick it up. I then began to bend the metal to get a variety of textures on the cave walls with a metal jig that I built also from scrap metal. After bending the metal I welded the pieces into roughly 4’ by 8’ sheets. To begin with, I made about twenty five of these sheets until I later realized I would need more and ended up making around forty sheets in all. About two and half weeks before the show opening I began to move in the sheets of metal into the gallery and screw them to each other to create the walls with the help from various friends and family. I attached four 19’ long 2’ by 4’s across the width of the gallery space, which the ceiling was then screwed into.
The sea slug was one of the first objects within the cave that I created. It started out as a drawing of a real sea slug which is a 3” long creature that floats on the surface of the ocean eating the Portuguese man of war jellyfish. I have increased the size of this little creature to about 4’ tall. The sea slugs sections and head are made of ceramic that I formed by hand. I then took these sections and placed them over a metal frame that I made out of muffler pipes. To hold the sections in place I filled the empty space with spray foam. The arm sections of the sea slug were placed over 4’ by 4’ pieces of wood cut to fit the shape of the arms. The wood was then screwed into the metal frame at the center of the body. To hold up the weight of the sea slug the base has a twenty-five pound weight in it which brings the entire sea slug to a weight of eighty pounds.
The masks and the cage are made in a similar way. First I worked in clay to make the mask base or the bowls for the top and bottom of the cage. Then after being fired twice I added the metal to the pieces. I used hangers on the masks to create hair and on the cage for the wires. The turtles are also made of ceramics; each is a thrown bubble that I then cut holes into the top and bottom. I made a base out of scrap metal and attached a piece of rebar which the turtles are placed over. The plant life on the floor of the cave are ceramic extruded tubes with small holes poked into the side. The bases that the tubes sit on are also scrap metal with holes drilled into them so that the light from the Christmas lights underneath can show through the tubes. The coins were made using a stamp I made by welding the shape of the sea slug on a small piece of metal and then welding that metal to a rod. After laying out small balls of clay I stamped them and they were fired. I ended up making over 500 coins.
The paintings are both done in oil but with different techniques and painted on different materials. The portrait was the first piece I painted. It began with me dressing up in my belly dance outfit and makeup because I wanted to show what the culture of this cave looked like. I wanted to show that they were similar to us so after taking a photo, I acquired a large piece of canvas paper and began my under drawing. Then I began painting in washes, paint thinned with linseed oil, for this painting. I only used three colors; cyan, yellow, and magenta. Each wash was a single color that I then let dry before I put the next wash or layer. This technique is much like the way older newspapers printed colored images. The second painting, the painting of the cave, started as a drawing and then the process of creating the panels began. I first laid out each on paper and then cut the metal for the fronts along with the wood for the frames behind the metal. I then attached each piece of metal to the wood frames with screws. I wanted a riveted look so the screws are about an inch apart around all four sides. After the panels were made I hung them on the wall and began to paint. I used a thick impasto paint using cold wax medium in black, whites, and browns. I then made a thin glaze using linseed oil to create a blue-green haze over the stalagmites and stalactites and a red glaze over the sea slugs.
To bring the blue-green haze from the cave painting into the rest of the cave, I used blue and green lights throughout the cave. I was also using this light to help bring a soothing feeling to the cave. The only pieces lit with a different color of light are the sea slug and the tubes along the cave walls. The tubes were lit with red orange lights to bring a little variety to the cave. The sea slug was light with normal white light because I wanted to show its importance to the culture, and as with many of the pieces lit with the blue-green light, I didn’t want the sea slug to lose any detail within the dim cave. To combat the loss of detail in the other pieces, I asked the audience to walk through the cave with their flashlights on the phones. I also did this to have them interact with the cave and have to take an active role in order to experience everything about the cave.
Bringing each piece together within the cave to create a whole installation was very challenging for me. Every step of the cave I had to learn new techniques and sometimes I had to use trial and error to accomplish what I wanted. I had to repair masks and redesign the layout of the cave because I miscalculated the amount of metal I needed. I believe, as this project went on I learned to let go of specifics and look more at the whole picture. In the future this will help me to work on the piece as a whole more and then when that is done to then start on the details.
The deconstruction was sad but necessary. I wish more people could have seen the cave while it was up, and in the future I will try to publicize my work better. It took only two days to take down everything that took me two years to create. This is a piece that will never be created again; not just because it would be hard to get everything in exactly the same place but because I have taken all 2000 pounds of the metal to the scrap yard. I am alright with this because that is the nature of installations; they are site specific and if removed and placed somewhere else; become something else. My cave will not have a chance to become something else, but the objects within will have the chance to become part of something different.
I hope that my cave has given people an insight into themselves and helped them either appreciate the community they have or create a want to improve the community they live within. Our culture has tried to increase community with technology but at times it seems that this technology has actually distanced us from each other. There is no conversation where each party is completely present. Either they are not present in a physical sense or they are not present in a mental sense, using their phones to look at memes or texts from other people. That is one reason I chose to not have the people of my culture present. I felt it accentuated the difference between our two cultures. The people of my culture are present with each other but not with us because even if they were present more likely than not we, with our technology to distract us, would not be present to be with them.
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