Over the last few years we’ve shared our mutual interest in performance by exploring works by artists at multiple experimental performance venues around New York City like the Chocolate Factory Theater and Roulette.
The idea for this conversation began at a dinner after attending one of these performances. We realized that both of us had experienced an unexpected life–altering event that pushed our work into unknown territory. A desire for our work to communicate more directly with an audience followed these events.
Nancy Davidson: I know your artist residency at a neuroscience lab has informed your work for many years. Can you talk about your interest in neuroscience?
Nene Humphrey: It started with my abiding interest in the body’s paradoxical attributes of strength and vulnerability. This evolved organically from the exterior of the body to its interior, which is not visible unless you have some kind of technological aid. And that leads you straight to the brain. Eventually, I started a conversation with a neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux, about the amygdala, the seat of emotions in the brain. He runs his lab at NYU in a very open and creative way, so he suggested I start coming in and meeting with some of the scientists. This was the beginning of my artist residency at the lab. I wanted to find ways of not only asking questions about our emotions and how the brain processes those emotions, but to visualize and conceptually explore that information in my work. I’ve done numerous sound recordings of neural activity in the brain. One of my favorite things is to draw the amygdala. I use a high-powered microscope that has a camera lucida attached to it. I can watch my hand as I draw—the material is so densely layered that that you need a reference point. Each section of the amygdala takes hours, sometimes days, to draw. Looking at this tissue is like looking into hundreds of layers of jumbled patterns. But we know there’s deep structure there because of the purposeful electrical communication going on in that part of the brain.
ND: When did mourning braiding become another focus in your work?
NH: In 2006, my husband suddenly became ill and died just two months after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. After such an immense loss, I found myself disconnected and trying to ground myself in my work.
I was Googling ideas having to do with mourning and visual patterning, and just by chance found the lost craft of Victorian mourning braiding. Those patterns had a direct visual correspondence to my drawings and I connected in a deep way with the activity of braiding. I started researching the history of mourning braiding and learned how to make them from a nineteenth century instruction manual. I worked with wire and made my own braiding table. Working alone in the studio felt too isolating, so I began inviting other people to braid with me. This was the inception of the Circling the Center project, which now involves communal art making, installation, and performance.
ND Tell me a little more about Victorian mourning braiding
NH: This was an extremely popular craft in the nineteenth century. When a family member or close friend died, people created intricate braided objects to wear like pins, wristbands, and rings, as a way to honor and remember loved ones. It was often practiced communally, like a quilting bee or knitting circle, and was widespread in England and the United States. This craft had to do not only with acknowledging the depth of the loss, but was a way to transform your grief into an object that was, paradoxically, beautiful. It gave everyone a culturally sanctioned place to go to express these deep emotions in both a private and public way, a concept that is so lacking in our contemporary culture. I wanted to explore ways to re-introduce that kind of physical and psychological place in visual and performative ways.
ND: So you’re taking one of the most advanced methods of technological investigation, and combining it with a nineteenth century craft to explore the loss you mentioned earlier?
NH: Yes, at first, I felt emptied out of absolutely everything but that loss. I had to find a way to fill up again. I began to see all these surprising connections between the braiding activity and the strands of neurological data that dictate primitive human emotions.
Nene Humphrey: And in your case was there a particular event that triggered your investigations?
Nancy Davidson: From my studio window, I watched the World Trade Center towers fall and witnessed the devastation of my neighborhood up close. I asked myself, what is it about America that underlies so much of the pride and patriotism on display in the United States these days? As a child in the 50s I was inspired by the cowgirl character and her “can do” spirit—Doris Day as Calamity Jane. I remembered the Rhinestone Cowgirls in Hollywood films and musicals. My memories coupled with 9/11 set off an investigation into the history and legends of the American West. The embodiment of a free–spirited woman with agency emerged as a guide through the devastating tragedy.
NH: How did you go from exploring the American West to the rodeo cowgirl?
ND: In 2005, Creative Capital funded my proposal to make a series of giant inflatable cowgirls. I was enticed by roadside giants. I was doing research for my grant at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum in Ft. Worth, TX. The women working there said to me, “[y]ou should go next door and see the Women’s Professional Rodeo.” I had never been to a rodeo and I didn’t know what to expect and it was the next day; so I went. I captured on video the last bucking bronco ride of Jan Youren’s 47-year career. The experience of the rodeo was fascinating to me on many levels. I couldn’t believe someone who was sixty–two years old would be riding in such a physically dramatic way. Rodeo became an obsession for me. I had to find out who these cowgirls were and what their history was. I started traveling to all kinds of rodeos with both male and female contestants. I had been completely unfamiliar with rodeo history and culture but I began to realize all [of] the popular culture tropes I’ve worked with in the past are present in rodeo. The participants are all scripted characters in a repeated drama of the eight–second ride.
NH: Your cowgirls are large, comic and absurd…did your idea begin as a tribute?
ND: Yes, I started with tribute as my focus. When researching the cowgirl, I realized how taken-in by this character I was as a child. It was important to me because it presented a woman who was outside of the cultural structure. She was unruly; she was beyond the rules. When I went out West and started looking at rodeos, I became fully aware that the rodeo cowgirl maintained her own place outside the structure of society. She did things that were unacceptable. That character, that trope, was fascinating to me because it worked with all the ideas I had about popular characters, tropes, and stereotypes, but is a very real American icon, a Western icon. There are aspects of characters that are inspirational and make people want to do and create things in their lives. That’s the kind of transgressive complexity and self-motivated mastery I’m attracted to in popular culture. By using comedy and extreme exaggeration in the cowgirl inflatable sculpture series, all of these meanings coexist to generate a sense of wonder, pleasure, and absurdity. In many ways I see myself in the roll of the fool/trickster, using parody because of it’s potential to displace, energize, and re-embody the underlying desires of consumer culture.
NH: Humor and seduction are strong elements in your work. What made you turn to humor in the face of tragedy?
ND: I think it’s my absurdist bent that motivated me to turn the 9/11 tragedies into a body of work filled with comic humor and extreme exaggeration. I felt the need to communicate with my audience more directly, using character as an entry point. Presence, empathy, comedy, tragedy, and social position are all contained within character. My goal is to bring the movable inflatable sculptures to public spaces where spectators gather and can engage with the animated spirit of the work. I envision these as events in themselves. The portability of this monument provides diverse localities with an opportunity to present the icon of the cowgirl in all its complexity, emphasizing the “can do” attitude of women’s individualism.
NH: Is this when your work started including aspects of performance?
ND: I’d been looking at the inflatable works in my studio; how they blow up and look wonderful and full, and then they lose air and deflate.
NH: They perform?
ND: They do perform, when inflated they are fully alive. Over time they lose air and collapse on the floor. I began working with a cameraperson and a sound artist, Judy Dunbar. She composed a sound score, recording squeaky sounds of balloons inflating and deflating. I was fascinated with the fixing of time and editing.
Nancy Davidson: What about you, how did your work move into performance?
Nene Humphrey: The performance grew organically out of the studio work over a number of years. I exhibited the first braiding work in 2009, and during the preparation for that show I was introduced to a young Ecuadorian composer, Roberto Carlos Lange. He was interested in the braiding apparatus itself and the actual sounds of the process. I organized small groups of people to braid with me and he started coming to the studio to record the activity—the sounds of tin snips, pattern instructions, and spooling wire. Eventually, a number of sound scores were created from this material. From there we started working on performative ways to incorporate this communal art making with sound. That was three years ago. As the ideas expanded I found other people to work with who had the technical skills needed to explore video, vocalization, and movement. The performance now weaves together film images of animated MRIs, electronic circuitry, and mourning braiding, along with sounds of rats serenading each other in a lab, metronomes, and chanted pattern instructions. A choir accompanies a cellist, a woman braids shimmering red wire, and three performers sing a lament.
ND: Neither one of us worked with video/sound until the recent works we’re discussing. This move for me was taking a big leap of faith in my ability to expand my practice to include time and space. Inspired by watching Jan Youren, I was fascinated with the space of the rodeo, the rink, the ritual and reenactment. It felt absolutely necessary and worth the risk of failure to follow my desire to bring movement, sound, and space into my sculpture installations.
I think we should talk about taking that choice…. risking failure…. using uncertainty as an inspiration. How did you make that jump in your work?
NH: I agree. Moving into those areas was taking a big leap of faith for me too. I didn’t know exactly how to make that move, yet I felt it was absolutely necessary. That place of not knowing can be an uncomfortable, even frightening place to be. Initially, I think I was operating from a very basic survival instinct—that fight-or-flight response from deep inside our brains. I just wanted to stay in the game and started asking lots of questions. Instead of a solitary studio practice, I wondered what would it be like to create a community of people and braid together. I questioned how animating my drawings or using film as a collage device could amplify the scientific and emotional processes I was exploring? Could sound from the neuroscience lab and the communal braiding process become a powerful compositional element, weaving in and out of the visual layers? The danger of failure was always there but the questions were far too interesting to ignore.
ND: Yes, surrender to something dangerous!
Nancy Davidson is a New York–based artist who makes sculptures, installations, photographs, and videos. Her awards and fellowships include The National Endowment for the Arts, The Anonymous Was a Woman Award, the Pollock-Krasner Award, and the Yaddo, MacDowell, and Pilchuck Artists Fellowships. Davidson’s work has been featured in solo exhibitions at Robert Gallery (New York), Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, PA, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, OH, and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. The New York Times, Art in America, Artforum and Frieze are among the publications that have reviewed her work. Davidson received her MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Nancy Davidson – http://www.nancydavidson.com
Nene Humphrey has lived and worked in New York since 1979. A selection of exhibitions include the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX, Mead Museum, Amherst, MA, Palmer Museum, PA, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, Sculpture Center, PS1 Contemporary Art Center, and the Lesley Heller Gallery, New York, NY. Humphrey received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Rockefeller Foundation, Brown Foundation, and Anonymous was a Woman, among others. Her work has been written about in numerous publications including the New York Times, Art in America, ArtNews and Sculpture Magazine. Since 2005, she has been artist in residence at the Joseph LeDoux neuroscience lab at NYU where her work has focused on explorations of the brain mechanisms underlying human emotions.
Circling the Center – www.circlingthecenter.com and http://www.nenehumphrey.com