This week we meet zach dorn, an artist whose intimate yet extravagantly detail-rich puppet-based performances include elements of sculpture, light projection, live music, and his own voice and movement. With narrative structures resembling the half-dream consciousness of curious childhood, yet reflecting adult joys and anxieties and a mature bricolage craftsmanship, dorn’s “Sponge Hollow” debuts at REDCAT on July 25 as part of Week One of this year’s New Original Works (NOW) Festival.
When did you first know you were an artist?
Oh, boy. I am not so sure I am an artist. For a period in middle school, I felt pretty sure I was an artist. I drew a pretty rad picture of an alien staring up at a departing spaceship. I embellished the alien with a tear falling from their eye. I proudly showed it to one of my parents, who was a Free Zone Scientologist. They informed me that, in fact, I didn’t draw it. It was illustrated by another being from a previous life who was utilizing my body as a vessel. I felt pretty shameful and disappointed in myself. Maybe this is when I became an artist? When I realized I was both simultaneously a failure and an imposter.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
If I had my phone, I’d probably pull up a clip of this Japanese reality TV Show, Hajimete no otsukai. The program secretly records children around Tokyo as they perform ordinary tasks for the first time. In the middle of these trips, some kids become so overwhelmed by a sense of abandonment they fall on the pavement and sob. Sometimes they get so inspired by an insect or a swing set they forfeit the task altogether.
My work is about these moments when the wonder of childhood butts up against the disappointment and dread of adulthood. When we face our anxieties with the vulnerable spirit of a four year-old buying toothpaste.
When was your first show?
In 2006, I accidentally downloaded an album from an illegal FTP music exchange. It was by this Swedish folk band Det Gamla Landet. When I heard it for the first time, I immediately visualized an entire theatrical performance with helicopters, skyscrapers, rioting crowds and Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any friends. My only option was a puppet show. I spent two years cutting out characters from manila folders and fabricating my first performance on an overhead projector. Afterward, I dropped out of school and decided to keep telling stories with puppets for the rest of my life.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
I premiere my new puppet show, Sponge Hollow, at REDCAT on July 25. The performance takes place on a miniature train layout with live-streaming video cameras, cardboard buildings, and a Lionel O-Gauge Southern Pacific train engine. I perform from the center of the layout, and there’s live music from my composer, Danielle Dahl.
I could only write the show while flying on airplanes, which is odd, since the performance takes place on a train. The catalyst came out of a period in my life in my mid-20s when I obsessively watched four to six hours of Gilmore Girls everyday for about two years as a way to mourn for a dead parent. Now in my early 30s, my family has shrunk considerably, and Gilmore Girls is the only thing I have left that feels like home. I tie this period in with my experiences working at Pittsburgh’s Miniature Railroad and Village, where I spent my days building tiny trees out of hydrangeas and replicas of historic stone walls out of wax and Plexiglas.
What artist living or dead would you most like to show with?
Do you listen to music while you work? If so what?
However, while rehearsing for my new show, Sponge Hollow, I have the pleasure to listen to Danielle Dahl playing synths and Casio keyboards and guitar. Danielle is a Norwegian experimental musician and her album, Loosening Orion’s Belt, is extraordinary. I recommend a listen. We ended up working together because we both create work that feels like it’s about to fall apart at any second. And sometimes, if the mood is right, it actually does.
Website and social media handles, please!