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Animal Art At The New Children’s Museum

Above: Entrance to the "Animal Art" exhibit at The New Children's Museum.

Audio

Aired 11/5/09

Artist Jason Hackenwerth will construct four large-scale, original balloon sculptures for the latest exhibition at The New Children's Museum. Using 1000s of balloons and a technique developed after years of working as a children’s entertainer, Hackenwerth turns the unlikely material into ancient animals borne from his imagination.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): We've all seen lovely drawings and paintings of animals. Some artists have specialized in using animals as subjects, from the incredible detailed drawings of birds by Charles Audubon to the stark jungle animal images of Henri Rousseau. But no matter how the animals were drawn, there was no doubt who was in control; it was the artist’s view of the animals’ world. But what the animals are seeing is still a mystery. An exhibition at The New Children's Museum is taking another look at animal art by bringing animals into art. It asks questions like what do we see when we look at animals, and what is it like to be an animal? Every artist featured in the exhibition explores how and why animals excite the human imagination. Joining us to talk about the exhibit are my guests. Rachel Teagle is the executive director of The New Children's Museum, and curator of the "Animal Art" exhibit. And, Rachel, welcome to These Days.

RACHEL TEAGLE (Executive Director, The New Children’s Museum): Hello. Thank you so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Jason Hackenwerth is a New York-based artist who makes large-scale sculptures out of balloons. His work is part of the “Animal Art” exhibition. Jason, welcome.

JASON HACKENWERTH (Artist): Thank you, Maureen. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Rachel, The New Children’s Museum is a little different from your average children’s museum. Part of your mission is to also be a contemporary art space. So I wonder if you could tell us how the “Animal Art” exhibit continues this idea of a space for both children and adults to experience contemporary art.

TEAGLE: Well, our approach is really simple and direct. We, instead of going to exhibition design companies, we go to artists. And in this case, we went to artists who were interested and passionate about animals and we asked them to create their regular art, the art they would make for any kind of museum but, we said, our audience is different. Our audience is toddler to teen and we want you to think about making your own art but making it approachable for these – this younger audience.

CAVANAUGH: What were the questions you want children and adults to consider about the animal world in terms of this exhibit?

TEAGLE: Well, the questions really varied by artist. Some of the questions are very simple but actually quite profound. One of the through lines of the exhibition is the very simple notion that we are all animals. Human beings are, in fact, animals. And for our youngest visitors, the two and three year olds, that’s a pretty funny idea. But some of our artists are more sophisticated about that and have started thinking about DNA and more complicated resolutions of that question.

CAVANAUGH: You know, as a kind of coincidence to the theme of this art exhibit, in the last decade, a number of contemporary artists have actually focused their work on animals. Why do you think that is?

TEAGLE: I think partially it’s changes in science, understanding how our genetic code is so closely related to gorillas. Part of it is changes in ideas about animal rights, that perhaps animals have rights just like human beings do. There are a lot of interesting issues that play in this exhibition, including issues about our shared environment.

CAVANAUGH: You must’ve had fun putting this together, reviewing all this animal-themed work by artists. Did you find yourself sort of totally preoccupied with animal life? Did it change your view of animals?

TEAGLE: Oh, my gosh, I have a two-and-a-half year old little boy…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

TEAGLE: …so I have to say that some of the highlights of the exhibition for me have been going through the museum with him howling because there’s a coyote.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

TEAGLE: Or pretending that we’re a rabbit because there’s a rabbit in the exhibition as well. We’ve all gone a little animal crazy at the museum.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Jason, I want to bring you into the conversation. You are one of the artists who makes work related to the animal world. You make large scale sculptures out of balloons. And I want our listeners to know that they can see images of your work on the KPBS Culture Lust blog at KPBS.org. But for those who don’t have a computer or they don’t have one right now, can you describe the pieces that you’re making for this “Animal Art” exhibit?

HACKENWERTH: Well, I’ll try, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

HACKENWERTH: I take thousands of the kinds of balloons that one might imagine that a clown would use to make a poodle or something like that. But I use them the way a knitter might use yarn to weave a sock. And I twist them together in such a way that they become a form, and they grow in a way that is related to hyperbolic geometry, which is a kind of geometry that is similar to the way coral reefs manifest or grow themselves. And so as the rotation of adding more and more balloons in this – in this weaving process, the form begins to develop and can be shaped one way or another. And so if you can imagine a large sort of vessel form that is sort of somehow related to many different life forms, whether that would be amoebas or jellyfish, I hear lots of different answers from people when they see my work and they think that it looks like a sea creature or an insect. But I’m happy to hear all of those things.

CAVANAUGH: You don’t necessarily try to recreate the – any image of any kind of animal, you create your own, right?

HACKENWERTH: That’s true. I’m interested in the connectivity of life forms and I feel very strongly that we are all connected and very similar. And I feel like when you can recognize the relationship between the bumblebee and the flower, those are the kinds of connections that I would like to maybe remind people of or inspire people to imagine with the works that I’m making rather than pick one specific thing and try to reproduce that.

CAVANAUGH: You know, one of the things that’s interesting about your work and I believe – do you have a name for your balloon creations? Are – Trilodons? Is that what you call them?

HACKENWERTH: Well, the title is always a way to communicate with an audience. And so in this case, the title “Trilodon” or “Return of the Trilodon,” in my mind was a fantastic notion of the creatures and animals and organisms that existed during the Precambrian era in the Burgess shale is where we’re finding those fossils. And some of them are so fascinating and, in a way, my work is reminiscent of those, regardless of whether I ever set out to make that happen. They just seem to be related…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HACKENWERTH: …and so, in my mind, the word Trilodon is related to those things but not specifically one or the other. Just imagine if you can, one of those things coming back in this day and age and being enormous.

CAVANAUGH: Enormous. That’s what I wanted to really stress, that your work, your balloon sculptures are enormous. And I think – And they’re so incredibly complex. And one of the things about them that’s so interesting is that it’s also temporary. Talk a little bit about what that means to you in creating these huge works of art.

HACKENWERTH: Okay, thanks, Maureen. I think that the idea is that it’s experiential work and though it is temporary that probably increases that metaphor about the connectivity of life forms and, hopefully, increases the urgency for people to come and enjoy these things while they exist, as we all are, you know, are here now.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have to go – often they’re big and they hang from the ceiling. Do you often have to go and recreate them while the exhibit is still on?

HACKENWERTH: Well, that’s something, interestingly enough, that I’ll be doing at The New Children’s Museum for “Animal Art,” and it’s the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to do this. And what Rachel and I have discussed doing is leaving the sculpture up through its complete transformation, if you will, as it sort of devolves and deflates and shrivels up and ages, and leaving it to the kids to decide when it’s time to replace it. And so we’re going to leave it for several months and then I will actually come back and make a new sculpture, and each sculpture will be different and we’ll have a new title and we’ll, hopefully, continue that dialogue.

CAVANAUGH: That’s wonderful, leaving it to the children to decide, okay, it’s time for a new one. That’s great. Rachel, I want to touch on a few other artists who are featured in this animal exhibit at The New Children’s Museum. Sam Easterson has a series of videos on view throughout the museum’s three floors. Tell us about these videos.

TEAGLE: His Museum of Animal Perspectives is made up of 30 videos that are hidden throughout the museum so there’s a little treasure hunt game that you need to do to find all the animals. But Sam creates these beautiful and very moving videos in a very simple way. He takes tiny, tiny cameras, and I’m talking about medical cameras here, and places them on animals or in their nests so that you can really see the world from the point of view of, say, an armadillo. And Sam’s thesis, his intent behind his work, is so simple but so profound. He hopes that once you’ve walked a mile in an armadillo’s shoes, you’re going to be a lot more passionate about armadillos and how they live in our world.

CAVANAUGH: And describe to us, there’s this video from a buffalo perspective. What do we see when we watch that video?

TEAGLE: Well, I have to say one of my very favorite moments in the museum in the “Animal Art” exhibition is that these buffalos are nuzzling each other, these great big, big buffalos. We have it on a big monitor near our bridge that is the main entrance to the museum. They’re nuzzling each other a highlight day for me was when I saw a little girl, she couldn’t have been more than three years old, she went up and she just kissed that monitor along with those buffalos who were nuzzling each other. I mean, if that’s not a great reaction to a piece of contemporary art, what is?

CAVANAUGH: What is, indeed?

HACKENWERTH: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know also local artist Roman de Salvo is featured in the exhibition. You invited him – you had him for “Child’s Play” and you invited him back for “Animal Art.” Describe what he made for this exhibition.

TEAGLE: Roman created a piece called “Apex Chariots.” And they are, indeed, chariots but they’re horseless chariots. They’re very beautiful objects made out of rattan and a very special kind of shellac because Roman was very careful to use sustainable materials to fit in with the green mission of our museum. But the reason they’re horseless is that in the place of an animal out front of the chariot, he has put on the shield of each chariot the image of an animal that is an extinct and that has gone extinct recently. One of the dates of one of the animals on his chariots is as recently as the year 2000.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

TEAGLE: And that missing horse at the front of his chariot is to call attention to the fact that animals still go extinct. It’s not a prehistoric issue from the Cambrian era but that we need to think about how we live in our environment and how we care for our animal friends.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller who has a really quick question for us. Jose Maria, welcome to These Days.

JOSE MARIA (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. Yeah, I do have a quick question. What I’m wondering is if – I’m really excited about this exhibit. It sounds great. I’m wondering if it’s bilingual at all. I want – there’s some kids from TJ that I’d like to bring over to check out and some kids from the barrio, so that’s my question.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that.

TEAGLE: I am so happy you asked that question because we are completely bilingual. Actually The New Children’s Museum was one of the first museums in San Diego County to adopt a bi-national mission, so we’re very proud of our outreach and we think of the fact that our materials are bilingual are just one of the ways that we want to make sure that our museum serves both sides of the border.

CAVANAUGH: Now there’s a giant horse also involved in this exhibition. In the brief time you have left, can you tell us about that?

TEAGLE: Marcos Ramirez created “Toy An Horse,” a huge Trojan horse, over 30 feet tall. He originally did it as part of “Insight,” the bi-national arts festival that’s held every few years here in San Diego. And his Trojan horse used to sit on the U.S.-Mexico border. And because of our history of being a bi-national institution, we wanted to bring that very important work of art back and feature it in San Diego. But also, it’s a Trojan horse. You can actually climb up inside.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, it really works.

TEAGLE: So we do story time – you can also climb around underneath. You have a beautiful view of the city because the horse is on the second floor of our museum so when you’re looking outside, you’re sixty feet up in the air. It’s a beautiful view of the museum, of the convention center and the park across the street, and it’s just really cool to be inside the belly of a Trojan horse.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I mean, it just sounds like a wonderful exhibit and I want to thank you both so much for talking to us about it and sharing it. Rachel Teagle, executive director of The New Children's Museum, and curator of the "Animal Art" exhibit, thank you.

TEAGLE: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Jason Hackenwerth, a New York-based artist. His work is part of the “Animal Art” exhibition. Thank you so much for your time.

HACKENWERTH: It was my pleasure. Thank you both.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that the “Animal Art” exhibit is currently on display at The New Children’s Museum in downtown San Diego. Thanks for listening, and stay with us for the second hour of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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