Alyssa Taylor Wendt and Elaine I-Ling Shen are multidisciplinary artists living and working in Austin, Texas. Their collaborative exhibition In the Absence of Ideal Conditions thoughtfully examines the ambiguities and complexities of existentialism and impermanence and the fine line between creation and destruction. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Rebecca Marino: ICOSA is a collective of 20 artists. Each month two artists show their work together in the collective’s gallery. So, how did you two end up as an exhibition pair?
Elaine I-Ling Shen: I emailed Alyssa to see if she was interested. She was actually in Croatia and Detroit at the times everyone was pairing up. People were talking about becoming duos, and I contacted her because I just had a gut feeling she would be a great show partner, and she agreed, no questions asked.
RM: So you were familiar with her work?
EIS: I was familiar with her work, but we really didn’t know each other at all. I had gone to a screening of her film HAINT that was at Women and Their Work, and I was really intrigued by that project.
RM: Where do you two maybe overlap in your individual practices?
Alyssa Taylor Wendt: Well, especially in the context of ICOSA, I’d say we’re both more conceptual artists and less medium-based artists. Our projects evolve out of ideas, and the process and the inspiration determine the medium. I think we both also deal with a lot of subject matter that’s about transient materials and how that relates to existence. We’re both interested in impermanence and change and the destruction and rebuilding of ideas, phenomena, and materials.
EIS: If you were to look at our work separately, I think most people would say, “Whoa, you’re really different artists,” and I think it’s really interesting to have that relationship of contrast as our starting point. When we first started working together, we did recognize basic, general overlap, and as we got deeper into the project, we began to see more and more connections.
We also approached the project so similarly in that we really allowed the process to take us from one point to another without having a very rigid idea of what we wanted.
ATW: Exactly. Not having a preconceived, strict idea to adhere to was important. I feel like really good work is all about listening to how the process talks back to you. So this sort of instructed us as we went. It often went in many directions. And we tried to embrace all of those. Of course, many of the things we developed didn’t end up in the show because it just didn’t fit with the final concept, but it was a very organic process. We started with ORB, and we called that “the mother of ideas” because it was the first thing we started and also the last thing we finished.
RM: What was the conceptual seed with ORB?
ATW: I think the seed was really talking about the balance between creation and destruction—trying to embrace the ambiguity of something that looks like it’s possibly been destroyed or has it burst open? It’s like seeing a chicken come out of an egg. The egg is broken into a million pieces, but it’s because of something being created. So we were trying to make an object that was abstract but that also had a lot of organic references we could explore using materials neither of us had tried before.
EIS: Working with the idea of something beginning and/or ending is so attractive because often this blurred line exists between the two extremes.
RM: You’ve set up a Divination Station wherein people randomly select a page from a book, receive their fortune, and tear the page with their fortune out of the book. Can you tell me a little about this piece and the conversation it has with the rest of the show?
EIS: We kind of had this psychic connection before getting together for the show. We had been thinking on our own what this show would become, and separately we arrived at fortunes. We’re in a weird place, collectively, and we don’t know where things are headed so exploring a method of seeking truth made total sense. The book also came from knowing our show was opening close to the new year and this idea of searching for answers and being receptive to ideas or a message that may not be clear. You have to take what the book gives you and then reflect on it. The fortunes are all pretty abstract and can be interpreted in many different ways.
ATW: I also think that as a country we’re in this existential crisis, and everybody is looking for guidance of various kinds. I like the idea of people turning to art, and I like making art that is abstract and that provides ambiguity when people don’t really have clear answers.
One thing that was really important to Elaine and me was having a place where people could really interact with the show. We both like interactive pieces and shows that change over time—having things that might rot or fall apart—which is why we also used impermanent materials like newsprint and latex. The book changes as people interact with it. All the fortunes were chosen by Elaine and me and in the end we used about 90 quotes from a variety of sources ranging from Carl Sagan to Black Sabbath. We chose things that related to the show but didn’t have that trite aphorism quality, which was actually really difficult.
EIS: The material, the paper quality, you can also trace back to the beginning. We had to tear so much paper for the ORB, which has this papery wasp nest-like shell. We tore so many strips. They made this lovely ripping sound, and we loved all the raw edges, and that definitely helped inform the book. We wanted people to have this visceral connection with the book and by tearing out those pages.
RM: I really appreciate the sense of humor that subtly shines throughout the exhibition. Can you elaborate a bit on the role humor plays in this work?
EIS: We didn’t set out to do it. It just emerged. We both love this undercurrent of humor that came out because life is absurd. Senseless things happen all the time without explanation and cosmic relief is a way of dealing with the unfathomable or big picture matters.
ATW: Yes, and I also think it was a necessary product of making work that was so existential. It occurred naturally, but without humor it could be way too heavy-handed. It is a portal of access, for sure. When artists take themselves too seriously, it really alienates people’s ability to connect with the work.
RM: I had a funny moment of discovery when I looked deeper into the ORB and saw the chunks of hair in there, and I really loved the hair ball in the armillary sphere, which is made from both of y’all’s hair mixed together? Let’s discuss all the hair.
ATW: I think we both just really like visceral materials, and so we both like gross things. We like ooze and goop and hair and slop and mold. Those organic materials represent life and death. With hair, those are dead follicles that grew out of a mammal, and it’s actually dead matter, but it reminds you of a living thing. So again, that paradox plays a role. Same thing with the Aerial Drosscapes, which are actually photographs of the wheat paste that we used to make the ORB as it molded in the bucket. It’s rotting and blooming.
EIS: The hairball has a funny backstory. I had actually been collecting my own hair for some time. In the process of washing it in the shower, I would gather the loose strands and then felt them into a ball. It started out as a practical thing so my hair wouldn’t clog the drain. I had been saving, unbeknownst to Alyssa, all this hair—just because that’s what artists do; they do things but they may not know why at first. That’s about two years’ worth of hair right there in the armillary sphere.
ATW: We thought it was fitting to blend our hair together, too. It’s kind of a symbol of our collaboration.
RM: It is so impressive to me how seamlessly you’ve collaborated, especially with so little time and without really knowing each other beforehand. What was that collaboration process like?
ATW: Intense, but magical. While difficult, it was so worthwhile and so rewarding. There’s so much listening that has to happen. As artists, we don’t usually have to stop and listen to another person, so to add that into the practice—there is compromise but there’s also flexibility. There’s no way I could have made the show without Elaine and vice versa.
EIS: None of this would have existed without the both of us together.
In the Absence of Ideal Conditions will have a closing reception and artist talk this Saturday, February 11, 6–8pm with the artist talk at 7pm.
Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest and works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX. Marino is gallery director at Pump Project where Elaine I-Ling Shen and Alyssa Taylor Wendt have their studios and where ICOSA is housed.