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Time spent: an interview with John Douglas Powers.


John Douglas Powers is an Assistant Professor of Sculpture at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He has an M.F.A. from the University of Georgia and a B.A. from Vanderbilt University. As the recipient of the 2008 SECAC Artist's Fellowship Award, he will be given a solo exhibition at the 2009 SECAC conference in Mobile. Powers's artwork draws from areas as diverse as natural history, architecture, and the history of technology to examine what can be revealed though the intersections of cinema, computation, music and physical space. Powers expounds on such connections in his art in an interview with Jessica Dallow.


Jessica Dallow: I know that you have done a short digital film, called The Collector (2006). How do you think cinema, or working in film, has influenced your work and do you see yourself continuing in that direction?

John Douglas Powers: Yes, I do see myself continuing to experiment with film. There is a growing connection between that and my sculptural work. The larger works like Field of Reeds (2008) have started to operate in the space more directly. In the piece with the typewriters [Remember, 2006], especially, where I had complete control over the entire space, the lighting and the acoustics started to become key elements to the experience of the piece.

JD: Why is that so very different than sculpture, since you are also working in space with sculpture?

JP: Well, yes, that is true. I still think of my work more as objects, but they are trending towards what we think of as installation, or whatever that word means anymore. Being able to control the space to a greater extent is becoming more a part of the piece, and the venue itself is a part of the piece, in the same way that with drama or cinema the stage is controlled in such a way to support the actors.

JD: But do you think that is a product of working with film, or just a natural progression, since as you work with larger objects you become more conscious of the site in which they are placed?

JP: I think it's probably a little of both, but the reality is that first just documenting the work with video is essentially making a short film about it. And on the other hand, working with animation and stop motion, again another form of filmmaking, is working with objects in a very different way. But there is definitely a dialogue, a back and forth, between the film and the object.


JD: After working on The Collector, are you still interested in doing stop motion, or another form of animation?


JP: I definitely want to continue to work with stop motion because it presents opportunities to work with space and objects and time differently than the sculpture. It allows for different understandings of light and motion and story telling.

JD: Now, let's go back to the way you present your work and how your work encompasses time and space and sound. Past artists, such as the earth artists or even architects, considered photography and film, or the documentation of the work, an integral part of it. Are you beginning to conceive of the documentation as part of the work or do you still see it as separate?

JP: I am starting to see the integration of the two--documentation and objects--as a potential direction with my work. Right now, my animation projects are being shot as films and then exhibited as films through festivals and screenings. I could see approaching animation from the angle that the end result would be some form of video or projection that works as installation or in conjunction with objects in a spatial environment, in contrast to a cinematic environment.

JD: You wouldn't be averse to sending out your work primarily as a film or video rather than an object?

JP: Maybe not. It's hard to say. I haven't done it. Beyond The Collector, the other videos with sculptural objects have so far all been executed strictly as documentation. I don't really feel that the documentation can take the place of actually experiencing the sculpture.

JD: What is the importance of sound in your work?

JP: I have an interest in and a little background in music, playing in a band. I'm becoming more attuned to ways that sound could be something that I could exploit in the work. Very few of the pieces are explicitly musical, but the way that sound operates in space, and again, the time-based nature of sound is key to the understanding of them.


JD: So, do you see yourself composing for future work?

JP: I'd like to, especially with the animation. It's a goal to have more and more input and control over the sound. The sounds could be composed more specifically for what is there, as I do with the objects. I find stuff and then build and design the objects and characters that go into the films. To a similar degree with the sculpture as well. With Field of Reeds, there had been an object done earlier based on a similar mechanism and a discovery was made of the tones that I could get out of that piece. And so then it became an intentional decision to build a mechanism in a similar way because I knew that I could replicate those sounds, and I knew that I wanted them to be there in that piece.

JD: You have a B.A. in art history from Vanderbilt University. Why did you decide to go the route of M.F.A. rather than Ph.D.?

JP: I found my way into art kind of late. I changed my major a couple of times. I took the second half of the art history survey to fulfill my humanities requirement and, during the same semester, I took a drawing class just because I wanted to have something fun. I realized that I loved both of them very much. The next semester I took another art history class and a sculpture class and things really clicked in the sculpture class. At that time Vanderbilt only offered a degree in art history and a minor in studio art. So I did that. I probably would have double-majored, otherwise. It became apparent to me after taking more studio classes that art making was the direction in which I wanted to go.

JD: Do you believe that being informed about past, or historical, artwork is important?

JP: I still argue that it is important. There is a debate, but there is only so much you can do without being aware of what happened before you. Otherwise, it's gesturing in the dark.

JD: You have talked about your interest in memory, particularly since memory doesn't perform as a linear narrative. Do you see your art working against narrative then?

JP: The idea of narrative is important to the work, but again it's not about this linear story, a start and finish and fill in all those spots in between. It's more about setting the stage for a narrative, or setting up a circumstance, where the viewer comes and there are a series of possibilities that are there, and one of these is recognized. Then that sets up the tone of the conversation.

JD: In Field of Reeds, I [the viewer] don't necessarily know about your Japanese temple references or childhood growing up in the cornfields of Indiana. But the sculpture still works two different ways for me: in the absence of narrative, the soft movement of the swaying reeds and sounds start me daydreaming, but they also provoke a desire for something to happen. There's both provocation and frustration. But you have to spend time with your work to get that. So how do you get viewers to spend the time?

JP: It's hard for anybody to do that, whether it's my work or someone else's work. So if viewers only spend three or seven seconds with it, they are not going to get much. The fact that my work moves is enticing; it's a trick and it's a strength. But it's also inherent to the meaning of the work. So there's that hook. We pay attention to things that move or are shiny. So if I can catch them with that hook, that they are drawn into the piece, then there is instantaneously this cycle. This thing is moving and it is operating in time. There is that temporal relationship between the viewer and the piece that is very different from the experience of a static object. So that relationship between the viewer and the object moving forward through time sets up a very specific kind of dialogue, sets up the pretense of narrative.

JD: Field of Reeds is also a very beautiful piece--natural, landscape-like--a beauty that can give a viewer pause. Sometimes, the way that you talk and write about your work reminds me of Ann Hamilton. With her work, it is often so hard to process that it has to pull you in with its beauty, lushness, and strangeness....Is she one of your influences?

JP: I've been looking at her work a lot over the last few months, especially over the summer once I got out of school. She was someone that I had looked at a few years ago and her work didn't resonate with me at the time--it was so different from what I was doing then. And then, after working on Field of Reeds, I looked back and started to understand the relationship between what I'm trying to do and what she's also doing. Now, there's something there for me.

JD: Your process also appears to be getting even more laborious and repetition is becoming increasingly important--for example, putting all those reeds in, or the type writer typing out the one word over and over and over?

JP: Repetition is absolutely key--I see it as a vehicle for transcendence in these pieces. With the reeds, it's sheer quantity. A single blade of grass is a single blade of grass, but many becomes a field or a landscape. With the typewriters, the repetition of the printing is one of those aspects of the work that caught me off-guard a little. It was just about making the typewriter spit this word out so that there's this string of words, but then you step back and start to pay attention to it and it becomes hugely interesting. There becomes this understanding that through repetition, by saying it so many times, by reinforcing it so much, that it deconstructs the power of that word. The meaning changes in a way.

JD: So when you did Dream (2006), you really just wanted to see if you could make the typewriter type one word over and over?

JP: Ha! Yes, here I'm oversimplifying my own work. It was a bridge from my earlier work. I picked that typewriter up because it was exactly the same one that my grandparents had. I felt this immediate attraction to the object so I bought it for two dollars at this junk store. It sat around my studio for months and then I picked it up with the intent of taking it apart to make something out of the pieces. Then one day just looking at it, around the time of making the film [The Collector], I realized that it didn't have to be dissected to use the parts inside but it could be used as its own thing. I thought, "What if I can make this thing that interacts, if I can get it to do what it's supposed to do?" So it was a dialogue, a pairing of the thing that I made and the thing that I found. A number of discoveries come from that piece.

JD: Is the personal becoming more submerged in your work? For example in Field of Reeds, the personal meaning is nearly invisible, or unknowable, unless one hears you explain it. Starting off as an artist, did you tend to be more autobiographical?

JP: Yes, maybe as how we were talking about at the beginning of the conversation, that it has been a natural part of the progression of my work, but one that I am also conscious of and want to continue to facilitate. I want to get away from that self-referential quality being so overt. The pieces can become less particular.

JD: Are you concept, process, or object-driven?

JP: It's about the intersection of those things. The Field of Reeds piece is one where I was driving a lot. I did a lot of trips where I was driving back and forth from Athens, Georgia to Nashville, Tennessee. These ideas would come. That was one where just the image--that piece--came to mind. It was inspired by my trip to Japan, but it is also about these other things--self-reflection, my childhood in the Midwest, the tenuous relationship between life and death--it's a constellation made up of all these points. That work is what showed up in the middle I guess.

JD: Do a lot of your ideas come when you are in motion?

JP: Yes, I think it's so much about getting away from the routine you are in, changing your frame of mind by changing venue.

JD: In your artist statement, you mention "the allure of the unattainable." What does that mean?

JP: You mentioned something about desire earlier in Field of Reeds. A number of people who saw that work told me that they wished that I had split it, so that they could walk through it. But the act of trying to achieve that--walking through it or climbing on it--would destroy that which is desired.

JD: So you see it as both a result of your piece, and as part of your process? That is how you work?

JP: Very definitely, yes.

JD: Do you have ideas for your SECAC show this fall?

JP: I don't know what I want to do for that show. I have ideas for new pieces, but I'm waiting to hear back so that I can look at the gallery and know what I can do in the space. Beyond that, I do want to redo the Field of Reeds piece. I can see that piece, its scale exaggerated greatly, in a turbine hall or a space the size of a gymnasium--so that the scale of the work is mirrored by the space, and it all becomes somehow exaggerated into infinity. There is also another piece that I want to do with a single typewriter. One version was with the roll of paper going up to the ceiling and the logistics were a problem--but I have been thinking about reworking this with something to do with the story of Faust.

JD: When you do something like that--working with literary references--how do you gauge that to your audience?

JP: I think that my ideas are only one aspect of the work. There's a tricky delineation between content and inspiration. Maybe viewers are familiar with one part of the story I am referencing and they get that meaning from it, but again, like what you were asking about with Field of Reeds, and how do viewers know it is about my trip to Japan, well that is only one part of it. It could be about growing up in the Midwest; it could be about the meditative quality of the materials and sounds. It could be landscape. There are a lot of possibilities and I hope that people can interpret my work in many different ways.


JD: How has the scale of your work changed?

JP: It's funny, but my early pieces were small. Then, coming out of undergrad, I got the response that my stuff was nice but to be taken seriously it needed to be bigger. I railed against that a little, out of sheer stubbornness. The biggest factor honestly has been studio size--you tend to build in proportion to the size of a space you have to work in.

JD: Has living in Alabama influenced your work at all yet?

JP: Not yet, but I know it will happen. When I went to Japan, I knew it was this powerful experience, but it was two years before it worked its way all the way through and came out. I can tell already that being here is going to affect me, but it will take a while before I can know that something came from being here.
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Author:Dallow, Jessica
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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