American artist Gray Wielebinski rips up the fabrics of society only to stitch it all back together to form the patchworked pink leather, PVC and python puzzle. Their work probes questions around gender, mythology, patriotism, power, religion, and sexuality. But wholly – identity. Dark Air is a piece that overcomes archetypes, exploring binaries as a state of being – beginning or end, feminine or masculine – and rejecting them, in favour of the in-between and betwixt.
The curation by Dateagle Art invites you closer into the lair of the creature and has you wondering less about security alarms and more about what could be in its jeans back pocket. We catch up with both artist and curators on the cusp of the exhibition’s close at Seager Gallery to discuss the concepts behind the work and its ever-changing but infinite possibilities.
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Gray Wielebinski, I’m a new but huge fan of your work. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’ve been doing since recently moving back to London?
I moved back to London after doing an artist residency in Hong Kong at the Academy of Visual Arts – I felt really excited about being back and being able to put down roots. Since February, I’ve been an artist in residence at City and Guilds London Art School and have been lucky enough to be in a variety of different shows with artists whose work I really admire. But essentially, I’m still trying to get to know my own work, where I want it to go, and what contexts it can work best in.
In your current exhibition, Dark Air, the first thing I noticed was the shape of the central piece – it’s a creature that’s designed to lie somewhere between a sphinx and a scorpion. What’s the relationship that this work has with Egyptian history and mythology? Is ancient symbolism a common theme in your work?
I’ve found that studying myths from faraway times and places helps me feel closer to other ways of thinking and living. It makes me more able to dissect and critique how the myths around myself function – the ones that I grew up with. About who I am, where I come from, and who I’m meant to be. The United States relies heavily on myths and controlled narratives about ourselves, our history and our place in the world. Myths about gender, about whiteness, about capitalism and about who’s meant to be revered or reviled. Ultimately, myths past and present can tell us a lot about power and who is able to craft and retell narratives. So I think it’s supremely relevant and necessary to revisit and interrogate them and make our own.
For my piece in Dark Air specifically, I created this hybrid creature between scorpion and sphinx that used the exhibition as a form of ritual, or a way to play with our expectations about them. The scorpion has a symbolic role in contemporary culture: it can be a sports mascot, a tattoo, or show up in martial arts and Western films. There’s also the myth of Scorpius: a scorpion who was immortalized in the stars by Zeus for overthrowing Orion. Other myths are that of Aqrabuamelu or Girtablilu, the ‘Scorpion Men’, that have the head, torso and arms of a man and the body of a scorpion. They guard the passage of the sun in Akkadian language myths. This in particular then bridges the symbolism of the scorpion to that of the sphinx.
The sphinx is a creature with many variations throughout mythologies but is meant to be a ‘threshold’ figure that guards important tombs or monuments. It was also famously depicted as a figure that guarded the city of Thebes with an impossible riddle and threw herself to her death when Oedipus finally solved it. Instead of its usual role guarding or standing in the way of one’s goal, my creature becomes the final destination or goal itself. Thus I was hoping to subvert, or ask people to reconsider, these epic tales and understandings of the hero’s journey.
Your work often picks apart social and cultural constructs: gender and sexuality, power structures and even nationalism. By creating this hybrid piece in patchwork, are you cutting up and stitching back together in order to reinvent an identity free from constraints?
I think about my sculptures as a kind of collage. This is a process that runs through my practice in various forms, in terms of materiality but also in the content or concepts behind them. With these creatures, in some ways, I was finding solace in making these new ways of representing a body. I was consciously and subconsciously drawing attention to our obsession with ‘reading’ bodies. My process of putting together new forms and new ways of embodiment directly challenges that idea and draws into question what it is that makes a body, more than the sum of its parts. Is it the genitals? (Which is an obsession in mainstream media over trans bodies) The chest? The hair? The skin?
I think you’re right in pointing out that I’m trying to reinvent an identity and am able to create another world or context – one where I can live more ‘freely’ for moments at a time. But I think the point is that they are never actually ‘free’ from restraints or able to exist in a vacuum. They are always in opposition to certain realities that give them their meaning, and at least for me, their power. This can sound a bit pessimistic, and as an artist, I often come against the question of ‘what’s the point?’ But the fact that we keep trying is the point. The creatures wouldn’t be what they are if they were ever able to be ‘free’ from restraints, from meanings being embedded in them and thrust upon them – and maybe that’s why I identify with them quite strongly.
“Collage has always been integral to my practice because of its potential to subvert or recreate contexts and meanings” Gray Wielebinski
You’ve mentioned before that the creature represents a false prophet, resonant of The Wizard of Oz, a story that is more about the journey than about the destination. Why is that?
It doesn’t necessarily represent a false prophet itself; it’s more to do with the context that it’s presented in. It’s meant to lead us to interrogate our relationships with obstacles and prescribed paths in life, our preconceived barometers of success and failure. It sounds cliché, but there’s something in that idea of it being about the journey rather than the destination. More specifically, it’s about recognizing and checking-in with ourselves along that journey, so that we can recalibrate our destination or be better prepared for it along the way. It might lend itself directly to a literal journey or lifespan or practice, or on a more personal level, how we each relate to our own identities and how we craft, maintain, and change them every day.
The fabrics you’ve used in the piece suggest an exploration of national identity and Americana, with cowboy-esque materials such as pony-skin, suede and stonewash denim. What does their amalgamation with PVC and leather represent within the narrative?
Collage has always been integral to my practice because of its potential to subvert or recreate contexts and meanings. Once I started to move in this direction, the sculptural work became a really fruitful way to create hybrids as I could collage with materials that have existing symbolism and could invert or embrace those expectations.
When I first started making these textile creatures, I noticed a relationship between them and stuffed animals. This got me thinking about the idea of transitional objects; items that infants attribute value to and psychological comfort. In this way, the PVC, for example, was a way of referencing sexuality without overtly sexualizing the creatures themselves. I think that this is relevant to the queer experience of projecting back onto our memories and childhoods through our own contemporary lenses, experiences, and language.
We can recognize these ‘queer’ moments of desire, of otherness, of shame or of unadulterated joy. Whilst sex and sexuality are there, they are something else, and there’s a futility in trying to pinpoint exactness in this sense. Sometimes, we struggle to let ourselves imagine or discuss sexuality in a time without sex, but I think that this opens up the opportunity to discuss the ways in which it can be just that, but also so much more.
For this piece in particular, I collected worn jeans, sportswear, motorcycle gear, off-cuts of leather and even leather cut off from couches on the street. The use of recycled or worn textiles that have already lived another life adds to this idea of imposing individual or personal meaning onto objects or materials. There are histories behind why we wear certain things or don’t wear certain things. Clothing can signify individuality or conformity, or community and belonging. It can be a secret language that only some can decipher, or it can be simple, direct and utilitarian. To not care or think about what you wear is a privilege that not many people have, and in that sense, clothing and textiles are heavily charged: politically, emotionally and symbolically. I’m grappling with this aspect in my choice of materials.
Much of your previous work probes sport culture, from baseball to the Women’s Football World Cup. What is it about sports that you’re scrutinizing, or celebrating?
In this piece, I was thinking about the intersections between sports, mythology and religion. As an artist, there is this relationship between the grand event and the mundanity of the everyday that build up our experiences and our relationships to them. Holidays, championship games and art exhibitions certainly hold their own meanings – they can build community and give us something to look forward to or remember. But these go hand-in-hand with the everyday and a myriad of other emotions and experiences.
Personally, I’ve also been thinking about gender and transitioning, and the relationship between insular and exterior identities. How do we shift narratives from a ‘before-and-after’ to a whole other way of being? By experiencing and becoming oneself on a daily basis and letting ourselves be both complete and in-progress at the same time, we put control over our narrative back into our own hands.
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How do the football scarves on the wall in Dark Air weave your research threads together, and is it a medium you’ll continue to use?
The scarves can be thought of as a combination of ideas, influences and meanings. Meanings between art, fashion and sports that then make something else. I originally started making a series of multiple football scarves. Each was woven with individual parts to ultimately make up a larger drawing. This was playing with ideas of memorabilia and fine art, clothing and uniforms, fanmanship and fetish objects, painting and textiles. It sometimes feels like I’m going out of my way to think of new ways of making ‘paintings’ without actually having to paint.
Martin and Vanessa, could you tell us about the curation of Dark Air and how your own research and writing relate to the work exhibited? Also, what are your opinions on the white-walled gallery space, and how was the artwork designed to interact with it and within it?
Regarding the curation of the work within the space, we have kept it as minimal as possible by having the larger-than-life creature as the main piece. The white-walled space is quite unnatural for the creature, which seems displaced from its natural habitat and also a bit disorienting. This mutant lies in the space, seemingly guarding or blocking it. Both the sphinx and the scorpion in their respective mythologies are threshold figures, mutually entangled in roles of guardianship. In Egypt, the sphinx was built as guardian of the horizons, the rising and setting sun (and, therefore, representing that 'transition’ between the day/night, very much paralleling to the artist’s own gender transitioning).
One has to side step, lean and bend to get around it. It stands in our way and highlights a confrontation between the viewers and the work. It also has a take on the choreography one is forced to take when entering art institutions, a prescribed set of rules such as keeping a certain distance or not being allowed to touch or photograph the works. In Dark Air, we are reminded that vision is corporeal, that it is made possible through the approach of the body, forcing us to question what and how we see, embracing a bodily sight.
Outside of the main space, there is a merchandise wall composed of a set of Dark Air scarfs that serve as a reminder on how we use objects or memorabilia to mark these events that we hope will ‘bring us back’ to the experience or mark the occasion to remember it, or transport us back in time. These limited-edition scarves, which are a work in its own right as well as a promotional piece, are positioned outside of the ‘main event’, mimicking those stands that one can commonly find at a sports event or a concert.
We were also interested in ideas of fanmanship, worship and spectatorship; thinking about how one could collect a scarf and wear it inside the main event and create a ritual around the viewing of the creature, a gathering that can be paralleled to those around religion or sports events. More specifically, we were thinking about the creature paralleling a football mascot in a sports game and using the luminous neon lighting from the gallery to 'spotlight' this creature and enhance the performative element around it.
The exhibition Dark Air by Gray Wielebinski curated by Martin Mayorga and Vanessa Murrell is on view until August 2 at Seager Gallery, Distillery Tower, 2 Mill Ln, Saint John's, London.
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