These Coachella Visual Artists Made the Music Festival Into a Surrealist Wonderland
Is This What Brings Things Into Focus? by U.K. artists Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan
While music and selfies are the main draw at Coachella, the festival's art installations offer some of the most Instagrammable moments. In years past, festivalgoers have witnessed a wide variety of works: colorful, intricately patterned structures by L.A.-based artist Shrine; Philip K. Smith's mirrored monoliths; local Coachella Valley artists Date Farmers' boxy iconography; and who can forget Poetics Kinetics' slow-roaming giant snail in 2013 or their gargantuan astronaut in 2014? This year, Goldenvoice enlisted four American and international artists to create some of the biggest installations in the festival's history. We caught up with some of the artists to talk about the inspiration behind their whimsical works.
Adam Frezza and Terri Chiao created an expansive sculpture park called The Chiaozza Garden.
Terri Chiao: We’ve been working together for five and a half years. Our practice has grown out of our relationship with each other. We’re dating, we're in love, that kind of thing. Our work is about this domestic play we have together. We try to think about things that were inspired by nature, walking on the edge of experiencing and seeing. I think we are trying to bring in that sense of discovery and pleasure into our work. Our projects are sculptural in some way, whether it’s painted papier-mâché or wood. This project was taken to a large scale and was inspired from some of our paper sculptures. These sculptures were made of wood frame and stucco.
Adam Frezza: We think about experiential moments, whether it’s on a small or a large scale. We aren’t animators or illustrators, but we reference certain things from those worlds. We have a series called the Cartoon Plant Sculptures. It’s like imagining if Jim Davis made a series of plants, like if Garfield had a plant collection. Using those prompts gives us permission to make forms look a certain way. The cartoon aspect of what we do isn’t something we try to keep away; we try to dance with it and refine and bring a certain elegance to it, as to not get too quirky.
Chiao: Talking about animation and “characterness” of things, the forms really started to take on a life of their own as we’re working, from a small drawing to a model to an armature to a finished piece. At different points, they’ve taken on different characters. I’ve become very fond of the ones that are bending or leaning over. They look like they’re engaging with the person looking at it or that they’re looking at the ground, being sad or thoughtful. I think it’s exciting to have so many sculptures because people will find their favorites. They will take lots of pictures with them or make it their meeting point or even give them names. We saw a little girl about 3 or 4 wearing big headphones, because her parents wanted her ear buds to stay fine, and she kept hugging one of the sculptures. I thought it was really adorable. It makes you remember being a kid, where there’s always something that you want to hug or run to. That experience can be lasting for people.
Chiaozza's sculpture garden was influenced by cartoons and artists like Ken Price.
What kind of influence did you take from the Coachella area?
Chiao: Our palette was developed when we came out last year for the festival to do research, and we went on drives through Joshua Tree and other areas. The sky and the shift of light at dusk is so special out here, and the way flowers and plants can thrive and grow in this pretty extreme environment is pretty inspiring. We love those bleached-out lime bushes with yellow flowers. We were playing with the tonal shifts in the sky and how the dusty desert, seen in the right light, can be filled with colors.
Frezza: We were also thinking of the idea of a mirage. This garden is a substantial mirage too, it exists for these two weekends, and beyond that it becomes a memory. It brings a certain hallucination to life.
Brazilian artist Gustavo Prado and his piece Lamp Beside the Golden Door
Lamp Beside the Golden Door
by Gustavo Prado, Brazil
What was the inspiration behind your piece?
Gustavo Prado: It’s a system that involves breakage and convex and concave mirrors. I was thinking about Richard Serra and sculptors who deal with a lot of mass. Instead I tried to conform to whatever is around the piece, and the viewers and their bodies. Although it has a very clear structure and clear identity, it absorbs everything around it. Every piece of art is an index of things that you can relate it with. In California we have this amazing sky. We’re close to Mexico with those beautiful ruins. I started remembering how [the Aztecs] were using paths of light [in the temples], and how they would track the paths of the planets and the stars through those chambers. Down here in the desert, I think about that too, how this piece looks like an astronomy experiment. At one point in the day, it looks like 12 suns. Then at night you have a huge moon that comes up, and the mirrors turn in that direction, too.
There’s also the selfie thing, that some folks try to diminish as a minor experience but is so much part of culture today, and very present for an entire generation of people. I think that the piece shouldn’t avoid that experience; instead, it concentrates it and observes how people observe themselves.
Is there a political message hidden in your work?
I tried in the context of a music festival that’s about joy and celebration to slightly pull toward a more political tone, but it’s there in a very subtle way. I needed to create a landmark and incorporate the political climate of the last few months. I tried to make it be welcoming to people from a distance, kind of like a lighthouse structure, with a light that signals that everyone is welcome to be here.
Also the piece encourages people to ask, "Who am I and who are these people around me?" So many people try to take their selfies by using the piece. Yet there are so many people around them trying to do the same, but the mirrors are concave and convex, so you never get an isolated view of just yourself. Everything around you is included, so it says a lot of how we need to be more accepting of other people’s points of view.
Brooklyn/Nigerian artist Olalekan Jeyifous and his towering Crown Ether
by Olalekan Jeyifous, Brooklyn
What is the concept behind this work?
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Olalekan Jeyifous: There are several narratives occurring concurrently in it. On the one hand, it’s sort of an extension from this piece in Socrates Sculpture Park called Conditions of Exile. I had one building sitting on top of a trunklike base with a long aisle in between. The idea behind that is you have these new luxury developments that occur in very rich neighborhoods that have a strong history, but they are detached. The idea is elevating the building above the community that it occupies was part of that narrative for that project. But then for this one, I was continuing the idea of the community being aloft but transforming that from a scale of 12 feet tall to 50 feet tall, and then adding the plate and the base — and that was kind of connecting the two communities as well. Because now the shadow provides shade, and the base provides a respite [from the heat]. I was also thinking about, since the beginning of time, gathering around the shade of the tree where people would gather and talk and share stories.
What kind of things from your own background influenced the piece and/or the way it looks?
I went to school for architecture, and I started a practice in 2008 that I had for about four years, but I left it to focus more on art. So all of my stuff has speculative architecture at the center of it, from design projects to things I dream up based on particular narratives. And being born in Nigeria, and moving to a whole bunch of cities within the United States — I moved like every three to four years — so I [also] have a kind of detachment perspective. I’m kind of navigating these spaces that features in my work: It’s detachment, community, being introduced to new spaces and trying to figure out how you fit within those spaces — playing off the idea of participation as well as alienation. It’s essential to what I do.
Did your Nigerian heritage influence how you created this piece?
In the actual shapes and forms, I’m inspired by brutalism as well. And it does tie into my background and being born in Nigeria. Because a lot of my work focuses on a political narrative. Nigeria gained independence in 1960, and a lot of the new buildings signified nation-building, and a lot of the prominent civic buildings in Nigeria, and throughout West Africa, are these very iconic and brutalist, modernist architecture. So that architectural language throughout West Africa became almost synonymous with the architectural language of newly independent countries. I played around a little bit with that, because I visually like the brutalist and modernist language, and the simplicity in geometric lines. But also I’m interested in the politics of how architects from England and Europe are defining the national architectural language of newly African countries and the kind of interesting relationship there. I play around with that and I kind of transform it into my lens through my specific experiences and background.
Is This What Brings Things Into Focus?, by Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan
Is This What Brings Things Into Focus?
By Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan, United Kingdom
What was the vision behind your giant works at Coachella?
Joanne Tatham: We wanted to make a work that awkwardly masquerades its presence at Coachella. The patterns are carnivalesque and were designed as such in response to the festival context. However, we were also interested in how these exuberant patterns are at odds with the expressions on the faces on the constructions. Despite their hats (or are they horns?) they present as somewhat reluctant partygoers.
What is your creative process like for developing pieces for music festivals? How do you think your pieces interact with the music?
Tatham: This is the first time we’ve made a work for a music festival. It’s a very different context to the ones we usually work with, but that’s why we wanted to do it. That’s what made it interesting for us. We’ve always been interested in the aesthetics of music festivals. I’m thinking here about the 1970 documentary on Woodstock (on which Martin Scorsese was one of the editors), or iconic images from, for example, the Isle of Wight festival.
What messages do you want Coachella goers to take away from the experience of interacting with your piece?
Tatham: Looking at all the Instagram posts, there’s this real sense of Coachella being this big annual event in people’s lives. Our work is very much part of that spectacle, in that moment. If it’s thought about at all after the event, then it might be thought about quite differently.
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