Culture and Ecology: an Interview With Celeste Neuhaus

Celeste Neuhaus is an artist working at the intersection of the synthetic and the organic, balance and imbalance, and culture and nature. From video work to sculpture to 2D compositions, her practice is only limited by her thematic ambitions.

I spoke with her about her use of found materials (the range of which includes VHS tape, feathers, sand, confetti, tinsel, plastic eggs, and much, much more), her artistic and philosophic influences, and her views of ecology.

When and how did you begin to integrate found materials in your art?

When I was in undergrad, I did a piece where I spelled the word “Feeding” with bird seed in a park in downtown Chicago where many homeless people took refuge. As birds ate the seed, the word became less clear, but it killed the grass beneath it, leaving its trace behind.

I filled a room with the ashes of all my collected papers, bills, forms, cards, and receipts and then made a snow angel on the floor.

I cut up some animal remains from a butcher shop and repackaged them and hung the new products on hooks on a wall.

I used doll hands holding bottles as the nipples on three breast forms I cast and then painted with milk and hair.

Those were my first works I can remember making with materials other than those traditionally required in art classes.

Hallow, 2014  6' x 8' x 8" plastic jack o’ lantern buckets, foil wrapping paper, gift bags, cellophane gift wrap, metallic garlands, foil confetti, paint, plywood

Hallow, 2014
6′ x 8′ x 8″
plastic jack o’ lantern buckets, foil wrapping paper, gift bags, cellophane gift wrap, metallic garlands, foil confetti, paint, plywood

Do the materials inform and shape your art as you create it, or do you seek specific materials for each project?

Both. It is a conversation between the two. I have to explore the behavior of the materials I use, since the goal is to create an experience other than what those materials typically provide. For example, before arriving at the composition for Hallow, I stacked the plastic jack o’lanterns vertically, cut them up, made cross sections and slices, made serpentine forms, etc. I had to figure out what else they can do formally other than what we expect them to do. So in that way their structure can determine what the piece will be. Once I knew what the form of that piece would be, I had to seek out more jack o lanterns. Initially I was working with a couple dozen from a free giveaway on craigslist.

How do the materials inform your works’ themes? 

The materials employed in celebrations as decorations or as objects of ritual, such as plastic jack o’ lanterns, birthday candles, and balloons have a function, a purpose, a role. These are the materials I select. I see holidays as rituals that mark times like seasonal changes, life cycles, and things like fertility. I try to take the formal qualities inherent to these materials and alter our experience of them to arrive at a connection between the excesses and consumption that have become inherent to these rituals and the underlying intention of recognizing ourselves as part of a cosmos.

What are you reading right now/what piece of media is influencing your current process?

I am working as an artist in residence with a high school class that is currently studying transcendentalism and the romantics. I read Emerson’s Thoughts on Art and made connections and distinctions between his ideas and the work of Ana Mendieta. I am curious about the things that contribute to the way we culturally position ourselves as part of nature, or as separate from it, and the tangled lineages of ideas regarding this subject that goes back and back and back.

Your works seem to me to form microcosms of a world ecology that’s heavily influenced by human culture, or even form ecologies of their own. What’s your view of ecology? Does that influence your process?

The human culture aspect in my work I think of as a kind of pseudo anthropological study of culture’s continuing relationship to nature. I would say “evolving” relationship, but that word has connotations of a notion of progress or improvement, and I’m not trying to qualify the relationship in that way.  I am trying to call attention to the way that we have become removed, through consumption, from the cycles and processes our celebrations initially existed to recognize.

My view of ecology is that the interconnectedness that we now know is essential to how ecosystems function extends to a relationship between the internal environment of emotional and psychological states and the external environment of the planet. A refusal to accept something like climate change seems to me to come from a psychological/emotional place. It is a form of denial. Some people are too scared to face truths, whether within themselves, or without. Acknowledging and recognizing suffering is difficult. It is easier to push it away or push it down. There is a need for integration of the conscious and the unconscious, to bring some of what remains unseen although right in front of us, into awareness. I haven’t seen any one talk about our environmental destruction in psychological/emotional terms, but to me there is a clear relationship.

Wax and Wane, 2014 4 squares 2' x 2' x 2" each crepe paper, melted birthday balloons, ribbon, crayons, glass beads, VHS tape, packing tape, sign material, silver foil tape, pencil, acrylic paint, panel

wax and wane, 2014
4 squares 2′ x 2′ x 2″ each
crepe paper, melted birthday candles, ribbon, crayons, glass beads, VHS tape, packing tape, sign material, silver foil tape, pencil, acrylic paint, panel

One result of patriarchy is a prevalent belief that things like magic, mystery, dreams and the unconscious are silly, frivolous, or superstitions people once believed in before Science came along and made us smarter. This is a shunning of the archetype of the feminine, or yin, or anima, which is a part of us and that we need, whether we are capable of acknowledging it or not. I think this dismissal of the unknown or the mysterious is part of what allows us to do things like let the polar ice caps melt and seek to do further drilling in the Arctic.

I think healing is necessary. I have studied and experienced many different kinds of approaches to healing body, mind, and spirit.  Healing is about integration and balance. One thing I see interfering with healing, is compartmentalization, specialization. I see a dire need for balance. The forms in my work and my use of light have correlations to different understandings of healing. And again, there’s that internal/external continuum. The understanding that the body itself is a microcosmic version of the macrocosm that sustains it. The elements and forces like earth, fire, air, and water are in continual motion within and without.

The themes in my work involve an emphasis on cycles and continuums, which are the processes by which the natural world exists. I kind of strive to make space for non-binary or linear structures of perception and to draw attention to the limitations in that kind of construct. For example the linear model of the “food chain” we now know is an ecosystem, a process of interdependence that is continuously in motion and totally interrelated. I am very intrigued by the relationship of the microcosm to the macrocosm. And like in the structure of a hologram, the idea that the whole can be found in each part.

Could you elaborate a bit on the relationship between Emerson and Ana Mendieta? 

I think both Emerson and Mendieta, although through very different methods, were trying to dissolve the firmly established perceived boundary between humans and nature. In Thought(s) on Art, Emerson wrote that all we create we owe to a collaboration with nature and its forces.

“As in useful art, so far as it is useful, the work must be strictly subordinated to the laws of Nature, so as to become a sort of continuation, and in no wise a contradiction of Nature; so in art that aims at beauty as an end, must the parts be subordinated to Ideal Nature, and everything individual abstracted, so that it shall be the production of the universal soul.”

“I say that the power of Nature predominates over the human will in all works of even the fine arts, in all that respects their material and external circumstances. Nature paints the best part of the picture; carves the best part of the statue; builds the best part of the house; and speaks the best part of the oration. For all the advantages to which I have adverted are such as the artist did not consciously produce. He relies on their aid, he put himself in the way to received aid from some of them, but he saw that his planting and his watering waited for the sunlight of Nature, or was vain.”

Mendieta gave form to some of these ideas (although not as a response) and those of the Romantics at large by merging herself visibly with nature and its forces in her Silueta series, and in performances like the one in which she lets the tide carry her. She says, “My art is grounded on the belief in one universal energy which runs through everything; from insect to man, from man to specter, from specter to plant, from plant to galaxy.” This perspective interests me as opposed to the idea that humans are separate from nature and are tasked with subjugating it. This is the Christian legacy, latent in the continued application of Bacon’s scientific method.

Exhibition view.

Exhibition view.

Bacon had his particularly aggressive brand of science, which is problematic considering how science and patriarchy are related. However, without science, we wouldn’t have been able to step back and even consider climate change a possibility. Do you consider science a ritual to criticize alongside holidays like Halloween and Christmas?

Bacon felt that human salvation could be found through scientific inquiry and discovery, and that through it we could find our Edenic state before the fall from grace, but this comes with the attitude that nature is to be conquered and subdued.  I think most of us now think of science and religion as diametrically opposed, but in actuality, the history of the philosophy of science involves the two being in bed together for centuries. (There is a book called Pythagoras’s Trousers, God Science and the Gender Wars by Margaret Wertheim that does a thorough tracing of this history.) For example, physicists are currently searching for the “god particle.”  All of this to say, that I think it is problematic that scientific research masquerades as neutral and objective, when it clearly has agendas informed by culture. It is dangerous because rationalism tends to minimize what it doesn’t understand. (Think “junk DNA”) (Jeremy Narby goes into this in The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge ) So I think if we are talking about patriarchy and science, we need to also credit Comte’s positivism for the idea that there could be a singular source of or approach to knowledge. Science is an approach to quantitative understanding through rationality. Ritual is an approach to qualitative, experiential and embodied understanding. We need a balance of both. Jung struggled with his relationship to scientific inquiry and distinguished between the empirical and the phenomenological. I think one clearly cannot do the work of the other.

So I don’t consider science a ritual. I think it is more like a useful lens, but it can’t be the only lens we use to understand ourselves or the planet. And I should be clear, I am not criticizing the rituals of Halloween and Christmas in my work. I find it very moving that we continue to honor the observance of holiday rituals. I think it speaks to our need for ritual and reveals its power, that it can adapt to and incorporate the effects of commerciality and a culture that encourages excessive consumption.

Give and Take, 2014 6' x 6' x8' tinsel “icicles”, tinsel garland, gift bags, wrapping paper, cellophane gift wrap, ribbons, doilies, decorative cob web, Easter fun fill, tissue paper, paper garland, paper snow flakes, fabric rose petals, cellophane tape, bubble wrap, plastic bags, insulation, mirrors, dental X-rays, ultra violet LEDs, louver, ash.

give and take, 2014
6′ x 6′ x8′
tinsel “icicles”, tinsel garland, gift bags, wrapping paper, cellophane gift wrap, ribbons, doilies, decorative cob web, Easter fun fill, tissue paper, paper garland, paper snow flakes, fabric rose petals, cellophane tape, bubble wrap, plastic bags, insulation, mirrors, dental X-rays, ultra violet LEDs, louver, ash.

What kind of balance is there to strike between the psychological, the mythical, and the scientific?

I think the answer to this comes down to not seeing the concepts of psychology, mythology, and science as separate compartments, but more like different capacities of one thing. Just as the body can be visceral, or intuitive, or mindful. Mythology and psychology mirror each other. Think of archetypes. Psychology is a scientific approach to understanding the inner workings of the psyche. (We just need to be sure not to confuse the brain with the mind.) And science and its empirical evidence are not entirely removed from sensory experience, which also brings us back to the body.

Thinking and feeling are not so independent of each other, and I think we would have much to gain from discontinuing the privileging of the rational over the emotional, and the limiting of ourselves to the construct of rationality versus irrationality. I think we need to be acknowledging paradox and making space for the supra-rational.

Celeste Neuhaus will be presenting in a group exhibition at the Comfort Station in Logan Square, opening March 7. 

Intro and questions by Patrick Jaojoco. Images courtesy of Celeste Neuhaus.

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