ALISHA WESSLER's work revolves around a "propensity for detail." This propensity emerges in the accumulation of marks in her intricate pen and ink drawings and in the repetition of gestures in her sculptural installations. In 2012 she received a Rackham International Research Award to travel to Serbia and Croatia, where she researched and made art as a response to the collections she found in museums and other sites of memory pertaining to former Yugoslavia and its socialist past. Alisha is currently an MFA candidate at University of Michigan, School of Art and Design, and in 2013, her MFA exhibition will take place at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, where she will display her work amongst the existing collection.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Most of your drawings have an intense accumulation of detail. How does this formal quality relate to your conceptual concerns?
Alisha Wessler: It’s true, the things I make are the result of many collected and accumulated parts coming together. They feel like they have minds of their own—through countless layers and additions, they are often unrecognizable from the form they began with. I feel that this desire to make many small marks is linked to the act of collecting—both figuratively and conceptually. I think a lot about collecting and the compulsion many of us have to possess small parts of the entire universe.
OPP: Yes, I know what you mean. Whenever I see an accumulation of detail, I always think about the process of creating it and about the experience of the maker. For me, those are tied to the meaning of the piece. But not everyone looks at art with these things in mind. In your experience, how have viewers responded to the accumulation of detail in your work?
AW: I've received a wide array of responses, ranging from those who feel that the detail pulls them in—making them stop, look, and wonder—to those who feel wholly overwhelmed by it. Some viewers, trying to make sense of the work, see (unintentional) forms emerge in the detail—and that's when things get interesting. And, of course, there are also the comments referring to my patient (or obsessive) nature or about the eye strain the work must cause me!
OPP: I see a similar kind of obsessive accumulation in the fabric stalagmites and stalactites of Back Channels, which was part of a two-person show at Johansson Projects in Oakland, CA. Could you describe this installation and talk about your intentions?
AW: I would describe it as a two-part installation: the interior was a cave environment that visitors were invited to walk into, while the exterior was an amorphous sculptural form that crawled into the gallery space with a tail-like end. The cave entrance was built into a pre-existing archway, utilizing the unique architecture of the gallery space. I wanted to create an experience that would make the audience forget where they were while they were inside, yet would also make them aware of its artifice on the outside.I’ve always been drawn to simulated environments—from museum dioramas to amusement park rides to religious grottos. Caves are a common theme in these fabricated spaces and, similarly, “real” caves are popular tourist destinations. I find the obsession with caves particularly interesting as they are naturally occurring sites of wonder but at the same time, humans have a history of altering them to make them even more fantastic. While researching caves, I read about an organist who dreamed of building a “stalacpipe” organ inside the Luray Caverns of Virginia and how he finally succeeded. The lithophone actually produces music by tapping the ancient stalactites with rubber mallets thus creating an eerie effect: somber organ hymns accompanied by intermittent dripping sounds from the cave.
OPP: In 2010, you illustrated Heinrich Hoffman’s cautionary verses to children in Der Struwwelpeter, published by Container Corps. I’d love to hear more about this project. Were you hired as an illustrator by the publisher? Or did you conceive of the project and approach them?AW: Container Corps had the idea to publish a new version of Der Struwwelpeter and asked me to illustrate it. The original drawings from the 1845 version are incredible, so at first I found it a daunting task but I eventually got over it and started making my own interpretations.
OPP: What's your favorite drawing from the collection? Does it coincide with your favorite story?AW: My favorites would have to be the hunter and hare characters from “The Man Who Went Out Shooting,” in which the hunter becomes the hunted. I like the details from the poem, especially how the unfortunate hunter awakes to find the mother hare pointing his very own gun at him and wearing his spectacles.
OPP: In 2011, you were in Prague as an artist-in-residence at Meet Factory. What did you work on while you were there?AW: It was a wonderful opportunity to live and work in Prague for two months. The residency is housed in a former factory building in an industrial neighborhood far away from the touristy center. My studio was enormous with high windows overlooking the railroad tracks below and then beyond to the east bank of the Vltava. While I was there I constructed a mountain-cum-tower-ruin with a miniature airship hovering above—caught in an ambiguous state of fleeing or discovering. The idea came to me while hiking around Český ráj beneath the ruins of a fortress that had been built into the cliffs during the 15th century. I began imagining the area in all its various stages: how at one point humans discovered the mountain and had plans to make it more useful and then, at another, how they had fled, leaving all their work behind. I wanted to create a still space in time where the viewer could imagine a hopeful scene as easily as a disastrous one. While I was there I spent a lot of time at the Bleší trh flea market where I found materials and inspiration. For instance, the aircraft I built was modeled after one from a book on Czech aviation.
It was during the construction of this project that I realized my propensity for detail, leading me to my most recent body of work. This project is an ongoing series of small artifacts, representing the intangible nature of dream imagery and exploring questions of intimacy and scale.
Salt crystals, wax and clay on wood
OPP: Are these drawings of artifacts? Or are you now making small sculptures? I'd love to hear a little more about this in-progress work.
AW: The current project is a series of small sculptures and drawings revolving around "artifacts" from dreams. In my dreams, I have always encountered uncanny three-dimensional forms and their fleeting quality has made me want to collect and record them in some tangible way. I find it fascinating that inside the dream, the objects appear logical and familiar, but upon waking, it is often impossible to locate language precise enough to describe them. They cannot be embellished, nor can they be communicated with any accuracy. Instead, they exist in a realm entirely their own, rarely remembered with true clarity and yet difficult to forget entirely.
The objects I make mirror this indeterminate place—both in process and outcome. I use a wide range of materials, both natural and synthetic, including found elements such as: milkweed, horsehair, wax, wood, mud, sea-reed, and salt crystals. In a nearly alchemical process, these materials come together and then are carved away at until they reach their desired form.