Other Investigations: David A. Parker

David Parker‘s interdisciplinary practice provides a sense of possibility and connection. His work spans installation, sculpture, video and photography–focusing on the concepts of  promised travel (or flights of mind), sincere demonstrations of what the world has to offer, and imaginative spaces that evoke a sense of reflection. David has graciously taken some time to talk to Make-Space about his recent residency in China, his practice, and his thoughts on art making.

David, your concepts reveal themselves quite fluently across multiple mediums spanning video, photography, installation, performance, and sculpture. Could you describe your studio practice or process? Also, how do you collect or record imagery/text/information/materials?

In general, it’s a process of getting some idea in my head of a more-or-less fully-finished work, sitting with it for a while and examining it from different angles to see if it is strong, and then when I can’t get it out of my head, realizing it through whatever means seems the most appropriate. I suppose this puts me in the bin of “post-studio,” in that I don’t follow a routine of going to a studio space, working with certain materials, creating sketches, etc.  I will sometimes work out details of the idea in a sketchbook or computer drawing.  I actually would like to change this method a bit, because sometimes those ideas don’t come along all that often!  Also, I read a quote from Baldessari recently: if a work ends up being what he was expecting, he considers it a failure.  I’ve been thinking about that—it goes back to notions about the importance of chance that have been in play for 100 years or more, and I feel that there’s something to it.  But so far, that’s been my story.

Residency in Zhang Jia Jie, China
Residency in Zhang Jia Jie, China

As for collecting info: I use a few basic methods. I have a pretty good camera on my mobile phone, so I use that quite a bit.  Also I can use it to jot down ideas to pursue later. I am online a lot, and will find things that I like – I used to print them out and store them on paper for later reference; now I have decided to collect those things on a blog. Maybe others can enjoy them too, and plus I generally can’t misplace the blog.  Finally, I pick up stuff here and there and keep it in boxes in my home and studio area.

I understand that you have recently returned from a residency in Zhang Jia Jie, China. Could you shed some light on your experience at the residency?

It was a great experience; organized by a few Chinese artists, it was an invite-only event that assembled 30 artists from about 12 countries for 2 weeks in a national park. The scenery was the main draw for me: pillars of stone towering hundreds of feet connect with my ongoing interests in the materiality of the body shared with everything else.  Artists often get together and organize things based on who they know; in my case, one of the organizers is an old friend who kindly invited me along – even though it was billed as an “oil painting workshop” and he knows that I don’t make paintings!  He partnered with a Chinese property developer that owns a hotel near the park, and so our group spent 2 weeks at the hotel, checking out the local landscape and making art.  It was pretty funny; they emptied out one of the restaurant spaces for our studio space, and we did use it – but then many of us worked in a very raw semi-finished building – the management was surprised, but they let us use the space!  Our job was to provide a minimum of 3 finished works measuring at least 80 x 60 cm (that’s 31.5 x 23.6 inches).   I was the only American among Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Swiss, French, Slovenians, Canadians, and Croatians. I made good friends and made progress in my work, thanks in part to the interactions with the other artists.

The four new works that you had made at the residency consist of found objects adhered to tourism photos of Zhang Jia Jie that had been printed on canvas. In reading the work, perhaps some tension stems from the work being both aesthetically playful and at second glance very political. Other sources of tension may come from the distinction between the idealized image of Zhang Jia Jie and the cheap manufactured objects from the area adhered to the surface. In all, I ask myself what is the commodity and what is the experience?

As I mentioned, all the other artists invited were painters.  I was, ahem, “concerned” that they would insist that I produce a painting, so I prepared by taking images inkjet-printed onto canvas. These were, as you say, tourism shots that I found online. As I stared at them in the context of a tourist hotel, I started to appreciate that the imagery of tourism can imply a sort of violence.  What I mean is that often, a single viewpoint is privileged – the “Kodak moment,” perhaps – over other things and meanings in a place.  Think of hordes of tourists fighting for the best photo op in a place, swarming in and out of a site with no regard for other aspects of the site, leaving a mess in their wake.  In these cases, the views of the park seemed to be the privileged viewpoints that, as you say, were being used to sell the place as a commodity. But as I looked closer, I was finding lots of other things of interest in that place: for example, the majority of the locals were not the dominant ethnicity of Han Chinese; rather, they were a minority group called Tu Jia with their own language and customs.  As I walked around the region, I would find objects on the ground or in the trash that were visually interesting. At first I collected things like azure cigarette butts and a huge, turquoise insect; then I shifted to synthetic materials like bright plastics for longer art-life.  Your question seems to want to separate commodity from experience; I think to do so is very difficult to do, yet it’s important to try.  I’m reminded of a pair of quotes:  Marx said that price is obscene because it collapses all meanings of a thing into the single value of price (visit an art auction to feel this first-hand).  And Martin Buber said, “since we cannot avoid using power, let us love powerfully.”  For me, the goal is always to keep my mind wide open, appreciating the plurality and multiplicity of things, even though reduction can be tempting for expedience’s sake.  It’s so easy to have a lazy mind, but it can be so dangerous.


Continuing on the above question, could you expand on the piece Hallelujah and how it talks about the complicated relationship between the “Avatar” film and Zhang Jia Jie, China?

When I got the call from my friend inviting me to the residency, he told me that the Avatar filmmakers shot some footage at the Zhang Jia Jie park.  In point of fact, there is some question as to how direct that connection was/is.   It is true that the “Hallelujah Mountains” featured in the film (the floating islands with dragons swooping around) bear a striking resemblance to the rock formations in China (Image 1).

One of the film designers confirms that they did look at the karst limestone formations in China, including Zhang Jia Jie, for inspiration.  When I arrived in China, I learned that the Chinese had officially changed the name of one of the most prominent formations, “Southern Sky Column” (an image of which I actually featured in my work “Column to Support the Sky”)  to “Hallelujah Mountain,” to tie it in to the film. At first, my reaction was mild disgust; why should the Chinese choose to link to this foreign film for validation when this breathtaking site has great cultural value on its own merits? Later, my attitude softened; the region really is very poor, with subsistence agriculture the main source of income for most, and so I thought, “if the Avatar connection brings more tourist cash to this region, where’s the harm in it?” Anyway, perhaps more importantly, these stones were there eons before any people showed up to assign names to them.  My “Hallelujah” work speaks to this by featuring ghostly images of dinosaurs, made by cutting a dino-shaped liquid candy container in half and gluing the parts to the canvas – to evoke the countless lives that have come and gone at that site.  Those passages make our human assignment of names a silly act of hubris.

Does your geographical location directly/indirectly impact how and what you make? If so, how?

I think so, yes.  I have found that I make art as a way of processing my life and its experiences.  So when I go somewhere, the art may be dictated by that place.  Most recently, I visited “Sky Gate” when I was in China, a naturally-occuring hole in the side of a mountain.  To reach it requires ascending 999 steps.  When I got there, I knew right away that I wanted to make a video of that ascent, so I’m sharing that with your viewers now – first time it’s been shown!  It’s one long take of my out-of-shape self making the climb.

As another example to address your question: when my wife & I agreed to share a home with my in-laws, we found that suburbia was the best choice for our needs, despite my strong aversion to living there.  So my discomfort spawned a body of work called “Escape Strategy,” featuring a character who tried a number of futile means of escape, most prominently a trampoline as a means of flying away from it all.

As another example, when I was a grad student, I had to take a demanding job to support myself.  Prior to that time, I had enjoyed making installation works, but the time and space required made such projects difficult during my MFA studies.  One day, I chanced upon a ring-shaped kite, 6 feet in diameter, being flown by a guy at the Chicago lakefront.  He told me the design was online, so I made 2 black ones, and set them up in various sites before photographing them.   So my location & circumstances during grad school birthed my “Circular Reasoning Series.”

As yet another example:  one of my favorite stories involves the fable about a frog in the well, told by the Chinese sage Zhuangzi (4th cen. BC).  Basically, a frog who lives his life at the bottom of a well has no way to even conceive of the vastness of the sea.  I sometimes think that if that frog could come up out of its well, perhaps its capacity to understand might expand – and that would be a great thing to strive for in one’s life. So when my wife and I visited a palace in Korea and happened upon a stone well (complete with a metal grate upon which one might stand), I had to hop in there and have my wife take a photo of me as the frog trying to get out of the well.  This is still my favorite self-portrait image, impossible in any other location – my wife is Korean American, and the Korean setting connects to the family I have through her.

Space allowing, I’d like to digress a bit here to recount a fine story.  Before I started art school, I had a studio in the basement of my in-laws’ home in Maryland.  I felt mentally constrained by that space, like I needed a different space to get anything done.  I called up my mentor, Mr. Yongjin Han (b. 1934), to discuss my feelings.  He told me that he is always happy to make art wherever he can.  That pretty much settled it for me; I try to get whatever circumstances I have to work for me.   I want to share this story from Mr. Han.  He started art school in Seoul, Korea, in 1954, as soon as the art college opened up following the 1953 cease-fire that paused the Korean War.  Over 90% of the capital was flattened.  There were 4 students in the sculpture department.  One day he and another student were sitting in a café, discussing art.  An older man overheard them, and gesturing at the surrounding ruins, said, “What are you kids talking about?!?  Look at our country – do you think we need art now?”  Mr. Han thought for a moment, before replying, “Yes, we do.  Just as we take in food, process it, and put it out of our bodies, so it is with experience, emotion, thought – we have to have some way to process these things, and put them out of ourselves.” The man left in disgust.  But I think this is the “definition” of art that works the best for me: a processing of life.  And it explains why NOT making art makes me feel constipated!


Could you talk about the exhibition Time Switch? What role did photography play in your concept of the body of work—is it an inherent medium to use when representing a range of spatial scales that are beyond our natural senses?

Time Switch is a series of 15 photographs that had a simple origin.  A few years ago I visited the Thornton limestone quarry, located 20 miles south of Chicago.  It is still being mined, and they allow people into the pit just two days per year to collect 400-million-year-old fossils. I noticed that the southern wall of the rim has been cut as close as possible to a 2-lane road, and that the road is all that separates the quarry from a cemetery.  What was more, that particular cemetery holds the county contract to handle paupers’ graves, and so groups of anonymous people are piled up in a hillock of dirt immediately adjacent to the quarry.  I found this an irresistibly compelling situation: bodies go into the ground on one side, and millions of years later come out the other side, to take new forms as limestone-based products like concrete and plaster.  Immediately, I knew that I wanted a photograph that would contain both these moments in time and space and the continuum that they define:  the cemetery in the top half of the image, a road at the center, and the quarry in the lower half.   One day, I got a spam email from an aerial photographer.  Though money was super-tight, I knew that I had to go for it and have him shoot the photo (his insurance would not allow me to go up in the helicopter with him!).  He sold me the rights to about 200 hi-resolution photographs, and I saw that another view was also very compelling: that of the view from the cemetery to the Chicago skyline to the north, showing a path linking our bodies to our built environment.  Once I decided to include that view, I chose to continue to build the series with photography for its indexical link to reality. In other words, we tend to trust that which photographs show to us, at least more than we do paintings, drawings, sculpture etc, and so I thought this would be the most convincing way to provoke new considerations of our bodies’ materiality and the commonality of that material with the rest of our world.   More to your question: while I don’t think we can call photography an “inherent” medium for my purpose, there is the superb precedent of the Eames’ “Powers of Ten” film, not to mention all the mindblowing footage from NASA and other space agencies as well as photos of atomic activity, etc.

What do you have planned in 2013!?

My current work in process is a sculpture that will be devoured by birds, and I’m capturing the process in photographs (spy shot documenting the setup below).  The next one will be a sculptural project involving life-casting of family members.  Stay tuned!