“If we can’t banish our fears, we must learn to live among their ghosts.” – Dani Dodge
Installation artist Dani Dodge has done it again, taking on the enormity of human emotion and shaping it into an art form. Her Afterfear, now at HB Punto Experimental in San Diego, is a revelation in its beauty, and a passionate extension of Dodge’s work.
“The exhibition is directly related to Peeled & Raw, an installation I created originally at LA Artcore in December 2015, and then brought back for an encore at my studio during the April 2016 Brewery Artwalk. The installation encouraged people to purge their fears by tearing the wallpaper from the walls, and writing their fears upon the scraps,” Dodge explains.
The catalyst for Dodge to create that piece was the mass shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and the aftermath of that attack.
“I was tapping into the material’s metaphorical potential as both a critique of Western values as well as an opportunity to peel it back. At the end of each show, I burned the fears in a symbolic exorcism,” Dodge relates.
Afterfear goes even bigger. Gallery owner Hugo Heredia Barrera gave Dodge the ultimate “canvas” – an entire gallery for her to fill.
“Rather than making a single installation, I created a three-part story. In Part 1 I deal with my own fear, in Part 2, I deal with global fear, and then in Part 3, I deal with how the inability to rid ourselves of fear leads us to be forever haunted.”
One of the things that is the most fascinating about Dodge’s work is her ability to seamlessly meld deep meanings with installations that are simply gorgeous to look at. Like all the best art, her work illuminates; however it can also simply be viewed as a sculptural, immersive work that is pleasing to the eye. There is a trick and a gift to doing this: appealing to a visual aesthetic that a viewer can easily tap into, while delving deep into her own, and the viewer’s psyche.
“As people walk into the gallery, the first thing they see is the results of me facing my own fears. Ever since 2003 when I covered the war in Iraq as a journalist, I have had a fear of the sound of explosions and guns,” she attests.
Dodge went to the desert to confront this fear. “The desert is a mystical and inspiring place for me. For all appearances it is a place that is dead, but you look intently and you see life teeming under your feet and all around you. It always reminds me to look beyond the surface of not only what I see, but what I say with my art. To understand that even if people don’t look beneath the surface, that all the work that goes into the invisible layers adds to the richness of the ultimate expression.”
So it felt natural and right to Dodge to use the desert as the location to mine the fears in her own heart.
“The Fourth of July is difficult for me because of the anxiety caused by the noise of the fireworks. As part of this exhibition where I deal with other people’s fears, I figured it was only fair to face with my own. I lit the fuse on firecrackers in a remote desert area to create art for the show. The video is here: https://vimeo.com/194511343 It was empowering. And I loved using the source of my fear to create something beautiful.”
Dodge was originally invited to cover the Iraq invasion after the assignment was turned down by a reporter not eager to be on the front lines. Unlike her peer, she didn’t hesitate to take the assignment. But she felt her stories of calamity, bravery, and loss only scratched the surface of the war, and she was compelled to turn to the creation of art. The tales she tells now through her installations are powerful indeed, visceral, and comprehensive. Starting the Afterfear exhibition with her own fear is brave and bold; it immediately creates a connection with viewers. Who has not been afraid of something? Who does not feel fear?
“As people continue into the gallery, the come to a low wall, built with more than 100 glass bricks with the ashes of the fears burned from Peeled & Raw suspended inside them. The wall is translucent. Some of the bricks are cloudy white, some are crisp and clear and the ashes distinctly visible,” Dodge reveals.
This is such an incredibly moving section of Afterfear. The idea of containing one’s fear, destroying it yet retaining its aftermath, is potent. But it is the image itself that resonates. If the viewer did not know what he or she was seeing, it would be just as strong. The bricks glow. They are ice, they are X-rays of the human spirit, vessels for passing down, for remembering, for separating. They are the DNA of human nature, captured and preserved as if they represented a prehistoric creature caught in amber.
“As gallery visitors turn the corner into the main room the simplicity of the first two parts of the exhibit are lost in a cacophony. I created the wallpapered effect in Peeled & Raw by covering 8 x 4 foot panels with about six layers of wallpaper, starting with wallpaper from the 1940s and ‘50s, and using current wallpaper as the final layer. So as people tore the wallpaper to write their fears upon it, they revealed earlier and earlier vintages of wallpaper, and created a time-based work of art,” Dodge explains.
When Peeled & Raw opened, the artist said “We’ve covered up beauty by letting our fears run amuck instead of dealing with issues in positive ways.”
In today’s politically inspired emotional context, this is truer than ever. And Dodge has not only transformed the panels she utilized in that previous exhibition, she has mutated the fear itself into something gestational, something from which things grow – in some cases good things.
“I took those panels and painted them to enhance the designs created through the process of people tearing, but also used spray-paint to desecrate them simultaneously. The pieces now are the walls in the back gallery, or Part 3 of the show,” Dodge relates.
“Then, within the room I piled 13 totems, each one relating to previous installations I had done where people shared secrets, dreams, burdens or sins with me. The predominant material of each of the totems is Styrofoam, recycled from packing boxes. As I created it, what I had in mind was a place where the past doesn’t die, such as a grandmother’s home where mementos from the 30s are crowded together with the image of their newest great granddaughter on a digital photo frame. At the opening, one person remarked to me that they were ‘experience embedded in object.’ Another person related that they reminded her of ancient ruins.”
Viewers – and it would be a mistake, perhaps, to call those who visit the exhibition merely viewers, participants is perhaps more apt – pick their way through the totems, some as tall as eight feet, to get to a blank wall.
“There they can write what haunts them on wallpaper, and glue it to the wall face down – making their own specter into a communal work of art,” Dodge reveals.
In short, the artist is helping us to learn to live among the ghosts of our fears.
Interestingly, when people responded with their fears during Dodge’s Peeled & Raw, particularly during the shows April 2016 revival, many had fears of the future. “At least two dozen wrote Donald Trump. And one wrote Hillary Clinton,” Dodge says.
“I burned those fears of a certain presidential candidate, along with fears of death, rape, injustice and snakes. I made glass bricks and suspended the ashes inside. My intent was to build a wall that was unlike Trump’s proposed border wall; it would be a wall we could see through, past our fears incinerated within. We could walk around the wall to find hope and joy and each other.”
The poetry in what Dodge says is fully expressed in her art. That is perhaps one of the most striking things about this artist’s work: it is as large scale, in a visual sense, as a novel is to the written word, yet what one takes away from her installation is a kind of emotional haiku. It is a shorthand for life. Nothing more or less.
“My art is not overtly political. It is about showing people their better selves by helping them to confront their secrets and emotions. Now more than ever, that is important for our country. This election has torn us apart. Our civil liberties face assault. The value of basic human dignity has taken a nose dive,” she asserts. “Now is the time for art to elevate, to inspire, to hold up a mirror to our country and shout, ‘Look at yourself. Is this who you really want to be?'”
Dodge has recently received a number of well-deserved accolades.
In 2016 Americans for the Arts named her installation CONFESS as one of the previous year’s outstanding public arts projects. CONFESS debuted at L.A. Pride in West Hollywood, CA, in 2015.
“I sat in a confessional and allowed participants to share their worst sins with me. The result was not sacramental grace but a twisted penance and an anonymous typed note that detailed each transgression on a gold piece of paper. Thus absolved, at least in the eyes of art, confessors could move forward unburdened,” Dodge states. “The confession booth was within a 20-foot-square space with walls on three sides covered by black fabric. As the weekend went forward, the walls went from black to gold with people’s deepest sins revealed.”
Dodge was also honored with two of ArtSlant’s 2016 juried winner awards, one for the installation Night Clouds, above, the other for the new media of Losing Perspective.
“The accolades are great, but for me, success is about connection, when an artwork reaches people emotionally and mentally.”
On Facebook Kelly Brumfield-Woods remarked about Afterfear: “I walked away realizing we all have the same fears and it strangely made me happy.”
As Brumfield-Woods aptly notes, there is something about Dodge’s work that not only tackles our fears, but allows us to embrace them, and reveals that we are all, each of us, vessels, which, after fear, contain beauty. And that does indeed make one strangely happy.
Next up for Dodge:
January 27-29, 2017: Exhibiting at stARTup Fair LA, in Los Angeles.
April 2017: Solo show New Museum Los Gatos, in Los Gatos, California.
June 2017: Solo show MOAH: Cedar in Lancaster, California.
October 2017: Solo show A.I.R. Gallery, Brooklyn, New York.
Afterfear runs through February 11th at HB Punto Experimental
- Genie Davis; Photos: Courtesy of the Artist; Peeled & Raw, Jack Burke