Other Investigations: Aspen Mays

Understanding the universe is quite a feat, a futile one at best. But scientist or not, we all can look up into a night sky and let our minds wander into the universe and beyond.  This human desire to understand concepts beyond ourselves by looking out and cataloging a night sky, systematically plotting and naming each star, may be teaching us less about ‘out there’ and more about ourselves. In this investigation, Make Space looks at artist Aspen Mays. Aspen graduated from the School of the Art Institute Chicago in 2009. In 2010 she received a Fulbright Fellowship to work along side astronomers at the University of Chile’s National Observatory in Santiago, Chile.  Aspen is now based in Los Angeles, California. 

Aspen, you have said you were inspired by Whitman’s title Leaves of Grass when creating your piece Every Leaf which lead you to the thought, “What would you know about a tree even if you knew what every leaf looked like?” In the larger context of your work, and considering the piece Einstein Rainbow, I felt you may be posing the question of how we experience the universe by way of nature. As if you where asking, ‘what would you know about the universe even if you knew what every star looked like.’ Is there any connection between photographically documenting the singulars of the mass of the tree and astronomers documenting the night sky?

Yes absolutely. I think of those works as connected for that very reason. The idea of systemically trying to understand or know the physical universe is an impulse that I think is essentially human. But that task is so fraught and perhaps truly impossible that what we have is often a description of the universe. Maybe that description is just one step in the journey its not the same as knowing. Cataloging the entire night sky, naming each star, plotting its location, determining its chemical makeup tells you a lot but so much more remains mysterious.

Is the fact that your fingers are in some of the photos holding the leaves suggests the viewer exists here on Earth with them. Is the distinction between the two ideas the tangibility and intimacy of leaves?

In the context of the Every leaf on a tree, I was hoping to set up a sense that something as seemingly simple as say, one tree outside of my studio, when presented in the deconstructed context of the large photographic installation of the exhibition would feel no more legible, no more comprehensible than Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or the sort of obsessive need to understand how and where his insights came from. In making that work, I couldn’t get out of my own way. And that was the point. I think in that piece in particular, seeing my hand was also a conceit to the “hand of the artist” in the way that the titles of the books about Einstein really reference an obsession with this notion of his personal “genius” as the source for his insight – something almost outside of him.

But yes, seeing my hand over and over again I think functions in the much the same way that seeing a tree through the rectangular prints in the large rectangular grid reinforces the framing (of the camera) itself that is very much a part of astronomical images too of course, but with astronomical images you can sort of ignore or forget it for many reasons (unless you hole-punch all of the stars out! We’ll get to that…)

Going back to some of your earlier work from 1% of this is from The Big Bang, which included lush color fields created by exposing film to fire flies or static from a TV, combining formalism with a keen sense of concept from process, a few pieces stuck out. Pieces like Boom!, The Future of the Future, and Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Universe? seem to have been a precursor to your work in the From the Offices of Scientists exhibition. For example Boom! (2009) moved from the representational to reality in 2010, now existing on, or as, a dry erase board calendar. What motivated you to move from the photographic representations of objects we saw in your earlier work to the objects that exist in and of itself?

Deciding to more literally or physically depict the experiential research (i.e. visiting scientists and scientific institutions) that has always formed part of the inspiration for all my work was a really great learning process for me. I learned a lot about my own working method, and I think the opportunity to just try it is what motivated the move. I wanted to see what sort of presence the objects could have, and it gave me a chance to try out multiple iterations of the same piece – like Boom! which you mentioned. Working in that way of multiples is connected to thinking through work photographically and putting that show together helped me think through the sort of directions I want my work to take in the future; it certainly freed me up to explore three dimensional strategies, etc.

In your new work Punched Out Stars you have punched out the stars from old black and white photographs you found at the University of Chile’s National Observatory, while on your Fulbright in Chile. For me, the tension in the pieces seem to be the difference between the black void of the universe still represented in the photo and the material void of information that you have punched out. What does the act of punching the stars out hold for you in terms of the information that was given in the original photographs?

I think this goes back to your first question as well. For me, the act was a destructive one that became a sort of index of action as well as for the missing information. I wanted the photographs themselves to be made fragile by this intervention in order to suggest that all of this information is fragile or at the very least our relationship to what we think we know or our endeavor to know and catalog it is unstable.

Along with the Punched Out Stars work, in your new series Sun Ruins, there seems to be a resemblance in the methodology we saw in 1% of this is from The Big Bang. I make this connection between the sparse formal qualities that rely on process (punching of the stars, exposing film with fire flies, or static tv) to become a deeper piece. Can you talk about this process and do you consider it experimentation?

Yes, I think that Sun Ruins is more in line with that earlier work as well, and in many ways, I think it resulted from the sort of clarity (about what direction to move in) that was achieved in working through From the Offices of Scientists. I think the sparse formality is way to distill my thoughts or have the work speak from its own logic. I suppose the best description of my process in relation to experimentation is a methodological one. For example, for Fireflies or 1%, I began with a testable hypothesis of sorts – I have some idea of what might happen if place fireflies inside the body of my camera while there is film inside but actually testing it has its own results. I enjoy yielding to those results but of course I’m also editing these experiments. I think of the camera and the photochemical process as a location and source of experimentation.

What are your thoughts on the role photography plays in both science and fine art?

The role that photography plays in science sets part of the conceptual stage for how the medium is interpreted through art (or how I interpret it). By that I mean, ideas about objectivity that are inherent to how the camera was first used in science and the necessary (imagined or otherwise) remove that it must have from the humans operating the camera is a rich source of exploration. The technological innovation in photography that often stems from necessities in science (and really astronomy in particular) add layers of complexity, meaning or potential for art to pull apart or tease out.

It is always interesting to hear how an artist, like yourself, confronts making work. Could you shed a bit on your studio practice?

Studio time is really an essential part of my practice- I use it as a safe space to try anything and everything I can think of, to explore with no pressure to know where its going at first. That and library time! Especially when I’m in a phase of starting new projects and work, I like to cast a wide net in terms of artists that I might look at or subject matter that I might read more about. Lately having access to a darkroom is becoming more important as a play space, so I’m working on that too.

What do you have planned for 2012!?

Well, 2012 has already been a wild ride, and its just underway. I’m participating in a couple of group exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles and really trying to get cracking on some new work. I’ll be back in the Midwest this summer to teach a course at Ox-Bow. Can’t wait for that.