Dani Dodge works across sculpture, drawing, installation, interactivity, and performance to create experiential, narrative works in which audiences often help complete the finished forms. By engaging architectural and landscape spaces, and activating them with sculpture, text, image and material derived through performative collaboration and crowd-sourcing, Dodge sets viewers up for intimate, individual experiences.
From simple gestures like asking viewers for their biggest vice or to define their happy place; to more complex interrogations of personal self-awareness, shared trauma, and fickle memory; and witty surrealist environmental interventions from forest to boulevard, Dodge continually courts the unexpected and offers up its meaning. Her new project for Lancaster MOAH is currently requesting contributions of words and images.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
DANI DODGE: In 2003. I was a newspaper reporter embedded with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force during the Invasion of Iraq. It was an incredible experience to be able to tell the stories of American men and women from the front lines of that battle. But when I returned, I felt like words were no longer enough to tell the stories of humanity that filled my heart. And I turned to art.
My mother is an artist, so I had spent my childhood visiting art shows and museums and watching my mom work in the studio. But, as a child and young adult, I had always gravitated more towards the professional inclinations of my father who was a business owner and former newspaper photographer. I had felt that by being a newspaper reporter I could have the most positive impact on the world. But newspapers were changing. And to tell the stories of the soul, rather than of the substance of city council meetings, I needed a new language. That language was art.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
At its heart, my work is about changing perceptions. Sometimes it is perceptions of the world, the desert, of our own souls. I often do this by creating interactive installations or surreal landscapes that are a visual takeoff of the literary tradition of magical realism. I often do work that engages the public in a dialogue about themselves and their environment. My work is aimed at building communities and tearing down walls.
In previous projects, I asked people to write their burdens on rocks, which I then threw into the ocean; I had people tear wallpaper from a wall, write their fears on it, and then I burned those fears. I posted/wrote/spray painted the phrase, “Just the way you are,” every day for an entire year around Los Angeles; I painted dead stumps fluorescent colors in an Irish forest; hung paper boats along a downtown Los Angeles street; and took confessions from people attending an L.A. Pride Festival, which was recognized as one of the outstanding public art projects of the year by Americans for the Arts.
Did you go to art school? Why/Why not?
When I returned from the war in Iraq, I knew I needed to start from the beginning. Although I fully expected my art to take a more conceptual bent, I wanted to have all the basics under my belt. I started with life drawing at a community college and moved onto classes in painting. I earned a certificate in photography from UCLA Extension. I studied videography and sculpture. I also studied art history and did independent art studies in Spain and France. But I never attended formal art school. Although I think there is immense value in completing art school, I also believe that an art degree is not a prerequisite to being an artist. Although knowledge is. If you don’t know the rules, you can’t break them in a meaningful way. So now, I just go about breaking them in my own way.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
I moved to Los Angeles in 2012 because I knew there was no place better in the world to be an artist. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Not only have I been able to show work in many places, but I have found other artists who have the same desire to create something important through art. As a part of Los Angeles-based Durden and Ray collective, I have helped to bring artists’ work from around the world to Los Angeles, and also been able to show my work in places such as Greece, Germany, and Hungary.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
I am currently leading Southbound | Northbound, a community engagement project that will inform the public art program in the Antelope Valley, which is located in northern Los Angeles County at the western tip of the Mojave Desert. The goal of the project is to understand how the residents of the Antelope Valley’s main cities, Lancaster and Palmdale, view their communities, and build a language that can guide public art in the future. Residents of the Antelope Valley can participate by submitting their photography or poetry or by completing a short survey before Saturday, August 1.
The upcoming Durden and Ray series, Personal Contacts, uses the physical space at our gallery as a launch pad for two-week shows mainly viewed online and through artist interviews. I will be part of curating one of those shows and be in it as well. The shows begin on August 1.
I also have two solo shows scheduled for 2022 which are both based on desert residencies. My solo show in Lancaster at MOAH:CEDAR will be based on my yearlong residency at the Prime Desert Woodland Preserve in 2019. My solo show at the Kelso Depot Visitors Center inside the Mojave National Preserve near Baker, California is inspired by time spent among the Joshua trees of the Mojave.
What artist living or dead would you most like to show with?
So many artists have inspired me over the years that narrowing it down to even a dozen is heart wrenching, and to one, impossible. So here’s three: Ai Weiwei because of how he has been able to create new forms of social engagement through his art; Judy Chicago, because she is such a feminist art pioneer and her work The Dinner Party makes me want to weep; and Robert Rauschenberg because of the imagination he brought to his work, and his piece Bed (1995) inspired me to use beds and mattresses in many different ways throughout my career.
Do you listen to music while you work?
YES! Music has always been a part of my life and work. I grew up playing piano and am now learning cello to use in my art. If I’m working alone in the studio (as opposed to creating something in the streets or through public engagement) I always have music on. The music that inspires my work veers wildly among genres from classical to the latest releases, Luther Vandross to Ludacris, Nina Simone to Amy Winehouse, and Prince to Yo-Yo Ma. And, of course, the Rolling Stones. And, so, so many more.
Website and social media handles, please!