Interview posted to Aljira a Center for Contemporary Art’s Blog September 2012:
INTERVIEW WITH AN ARTIST: Alyson Pou
Wherein Fury Takes Flight… the time of our silence is over
Wherein Fury Takes Flight…“the time of our silence is over” is an exploration of dreams, generational stories and transformation on view at Aljira through March 2013.
Here the artist shares her thoughts on dreams, creative process and Surrealism.
Wherein Fury Takes Flight is based on a dream you had. Do you often create art inspired by your dreams?
Yes, this wasn’t the first time I have created a piece inspired by a specific dream. There was another project I did called To Us at Twilight based on the same dream about black dresses flying around the room. I had the dream at the same moment my Grandmother died and I couldn’t get it out of my mind, I had it over and over again. I couldn’t shake it, even after my grandmother’s funeral. It would even come to me during the day. Finally, I decided I had to give voice to the women in my family. To Us at Twilight started as a performance piece in which I used 50 black dresses spread out over the floor. Later an installation grew out of that and included black dresses on the wall with stories attached to them. Creating the performance and the installation was about a five-year project. It had a long life to it because it kept evolving. More than 20 years later I decided to come back to that dream because all the women in my family have died. I’m the only one left and I wanted to see what the dream said to me. This time around it became Wherein Fury Takes Flight. Wherein Fury Takes Flight is about the moment with all of the women in the room deciding to transform and move on, to not be confined anymore and to go on to the next place. I wanted to capture the energy of that suspended moment of decision, which is why all the dresses are spinning in the room. I’ve created other pieces that have dreams in them, some where I actually quote the direct content of dreams. Dwelling with the Strong Eye is one of them, Stories About Buildings and Bombs and The Garden, The Fall, The Tea Party—all three of these pieces had dreams that figured prominently in the performance. I mix visual imagery, text —both spoken and written — and objects. It’s not theater, and it’s not visual art. It’s more like tableau vivant, which draws from multiple art forms and is sometimes called Live Art.
What are your thoughts on how dreams can influence art in general?
In most of my work I am after creating an environment that is dreamlike where you’re not making narrative associations with a narrative logic but, when you put the whole thing together, it makes sense. That’s the way dreams are and actually that’s the way our lives are. Using and accessing dreams in our creativity, in art, makes sense because our dreams and our imagination come from the same place, from our subconscious mind. Only ten percent of our mind is conscious and the other 90% is subconscious. Tapping into the other 90% of our consciousness is what artists do. We either do it intuitively or train ourselves to go in that direction. Spiritual visionaries do that, mystics do it too. It’s what you do with tapping into the subconscious that is the uniqueness of what the artist’s voice is. Obviously then, dreams are closely related to the artistic process and give us access to it. When I’m in the midst of my most creative process, I do feel like I go to a place of intense focus that’s like being in a dream. I think the creative process is a two-part thing. The first part is conception and inspiration that comes from that deeper place. The second part is the execution, the craft. That’s when you bring the subconscious into the conscious place. That’s where the craft of being an artist comes in and you engage yourself in a practical and pragmatic place. You practice painting, writing, or whatever medium you choose to execute what’s come from this other place. Those two things together are the practice of being an artist, I think.
Do you know of any other artists whose work have been inspired by their dreams?
Early 20th century Surrealists for sure. I don’t know if these artists would say that they were always inspired by specific dreams but dream imagery figures large in their work. Surrealism is defined as based on “the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.”
Some of my favorite Surrealist artists include: Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Man Ray, René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, and although he’s not a personal favorite of mine, Salvador Dali is probably the most famous.
Man Ray’s photographs like Le Violin de Ingres (1924) that portrays a woman’s back with painted-on violin holes, Glass Tiers (1932), a woman’s face with glass tears, and Observatory, Time, The Lovers (1936) an image of a large set of lips floating above a reclined female figure are all major icons of dream-like imagery used in art. Odilon Redon was also important. His work was pre-Surrealist but an inspiration for a lot of the Surrealists.
I also say of the Surrealist movement, there has been a controversy raised among feminists that it exploited and objectified women but it goes beyond that for me in the way the works reach into the subconscious. They go beyond labels. I think all of that work is very important.
Frida Kahlo’s work is often seen and defined as being more closely related to the traditions of folk art and that is one of the things I love about her work. It is a bridge to another kind of art that moves me, often called naïve, outsider, or folk art. A lot of this work comes from the same visionary, dream-related place we have been discussing.
Other artists who came before Surrealism but that I think are great examples of accessing the dream or visionary world are: Modernist painter Marc Chagall who did gorgeous paintings of figures floating in the sky. William Blake, an 18th century poet and painter, whose work was inspired directly by his mystical visions of heaven and hell. Then, of course, there is Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting called The Garden of Earthly Delight, a powerful triptych painted between 1490 and 1510 depicting vivid images of heaven, hell and earthly temptations.
Finally, I must at least mention a few amazing women artists of the 20th- and 21st century whose work I admire: Maya Deren, Diane Arbus, Louise Bourgeois, Nancy Spero, Kiki Smith, Faith Ringgold.
Wherein Fury Takes Flight touches on the theme of transforming personal and familial histories. Why is this important to you and what is the value of using art in this way to you?
I make a connection between dreams and storytelling and the relationship between storytelling and who we are. Ever since I was a little girl, I was interested in mythology, fairytales, and legends. In the South everybody tells stories. It’s powerful because it’s how you learn about yourself and your community. Mythology and legends and the stories we tell about our families are really just a way to tell ourselves about who we are. The archetypes in mythology come back in artwork. We need to keep telling the stories of who we are and retelling them from one generation to the next. I think that artists have a particular way of doing that. I’ve read a lot of mythology from as many cultures as I can lay my hands on and I’ve studied the work and theories of anthropologists/ethnologists like Claude Levi-Strauss and Margaret Mead as well as psychologist Carl Jung who developed the concepts of archetype and the collective unconscious.
How long was the evolution of the project in terms of the fabrication from dream to conception? What was your process in making the installation?
I worked on the project for almost two years. Much of the time was spent on the technical part, figuring out how to make the dresses spin and how to make the vision work technically. At the same time, I was working on the dresses themselves. I went around to thrift stores and collected cast-off pieces of clothing and took those garments and began to combine and re-combine them in different ways. Some garments I took apart, some I dyed. Each garment had a distinct personality associated with it. Some of the layers in the garments I created myself. It was a combination of creating new things and combining old cast-off things. I wanted to take old things that weren’t used anymore and not wanted and transform them into something else, give them value and expression. I did create a kind of crinoline armature under each one of the dresses to help them spin. That was the fabrication process. The dresses relate to the piece because of the specific inspiration from the dream. Each dress does not represent a specific woman though each has a distinct presence.
The rabbits symbolize transition and transformation. They come out at dawn and dusk, the witching hour, the most vulnerable time of day, when things slip from life to death, from evil to good. They’re gathering to bear witness, and support the movement from stasis to change. They also represent the underlying secret world in my family that I learned about as a child and visited through observing the women around me. In unspoken ways they instructed me and gave me glimpses into the depth of their experiences. Through them my imagination was drawn to the past and a desire to understand the women who came before me. For me, this piece goes beyond representing specific women in my family to something bigger, more metaphoric and less literal.
What personal experiences do you hope viewers will reflect on in their own lives?
Part of my intention or hope with the work is that it would invoke something for the viewer to make them think about their own lives, their own stories and their own history but I don’t think that’s a necessity. The piece becomes its own presence in the world and people come to it with their own ideas. It becomes a relationship between the work and the person who is seeing it and you can’t control that. Some people are going to connect in a very similar way that you do as the artist and other people will have a completely different response. Whether someone loves it or hates it or doesn’t get it, that’s the way it is. I wouldn’t want to try to control that. All responses are legitimate.
At the opening some people wept because they were so moved by it, some people peeked in at the door, made a face and wouldn’t even walk in. They all had a response and all responses are great. That’s the best you can hope for I think.
I remember one person talking about her family, particularly the women in her family and how it made her think about that. She talked about our relationship to time and to history. She said, “This is such a profound thing that you are dealing with. It’s psychology, philosophy, and physics — string theory.” It was so exciting to me that she got all those connections. I’m very interested in physics including string theory. What is string theory? Wow, it’s complicated! They call it the theory of everything. String theory is about dimensionality, present, past, future. If you follow out the logic of string theory everything is composed of pure energy and there are several extra dimensions to the universe that we don’t see. So what does this do to our concepts of time and history, life and death? There’s no difference between the past, present or the future. They are all here now. The fact that she understood that’s something that I’m dealing with in my thinking and my work was amazing.