Mixed media installation
El Diablo Inn
TRACEY SNELLING creates hybrid spaces—between cultures, between locations, between media—in her multimedia installations and sculptures. Often referencing fictional representations of space in film and literature, she asks the viewer to step into the role of voyeur. Her miniature sculptures of motels, store fronts, and urban environments incite curiosity about what exists behind the facades, while her lifesize recreations of interiors allow the viewer to consider the facades of our cultural identities, which are even more difficult to penetrate. Tracey exhibits internationally and her work is on view this fall in Virginia, California, Utah, France, Denmark, Belgium and Norway. Tracey lives in Oakland, CA.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your installations usually involve miniature versions of buildings like gas stations, motels, and gift shops. Did you grow up with an interest in dollhouses or train sets, before you started making miniatures in the context of art?
When I was young, both my sister and I each had German manufactured Lundby Dollhouses
: modern 1970's multi-storied ranch houses with orange carpets, lights and a fish tank that lit up. We played with those nonstop, acting out all sorts of crazy scenarios, such as the house burglar who breaks in and kidnaps the whole family. I also had little adventure figures and a speedboat, and I constructed an island setting in our garden, complete with a lake made by digging a hole, lining it with a black plastic trash bag, and filling it with water.
OPP: Tell me about the first miniature you made as part of your art practice?
TS: The first small scale sculpture that I made as an artist was a craggy mountain that turned into a lit castle at the top of the rocks, based on a Dorothy Parker poem. I made it during a sculpture class at the University of New Mexico, but destroyed it when I left school. The first surviving small scale sculpture is called Untiltled 1. Inspired by a two dimensional collage I made of a brownstone apartment building missing its front wall, with all the rooms exposed, I constructed a small scale house. Both the inside and outside walls were covered with black and white collage from 1940's Life magazines, and small lights iilluminated each room. I went on to make ten untitled sculptures. These led to my more realistic sculptures--the first one being Motel (2002).
LA Swimming Pool
Wood, metal, plastic, paint, lights, transformer, lcd screens
14 x 18 x 17 inches
The buildings in your miniatures are so detailed and also feature LCD screens playing appropriated clips from movies and found videos in the windows. The process of designing, building and detailing must be complex and intricate. Tell us about what goes into the process of creating sculptures like LA Swimming Pool
(2011), Stripmall (Los Angeles)
(2007) or Mexicalichina
(2011). Do you have assistants?
Often, I start with an idea either from my travels, photos I have taken or images I have gathered from the internet. I will make a very rough sketch, then start building. When I build, it's very intuitive, so it's difficult to use assistants until I have the main structures cut out and at least initially staged, waiting for assembly. Once the structures are somewhat determined, I sometimes work with assistants to get the work close to the finishing stages. Still, the works constantly change and evolve as I build them. It often feels like a puzzle that I need to solve, and once it's solved, the work is finished. Working on the small scale sculptures is quite a contrast to constructing or installing my installation work, where I often manage a dozen assemblers, professional builders and/or artists.
OPP: How has the process changed the longer you do it?
TS: Now I know certain building issues to avoid, ways to build the sculptures better and how to make the electronics more easily accessible. Recently, in LA Swimming Pool and Mexicalichina, the sculptures are starting to either grow vertically or break through the structure of the base. I'm excited about this development and look forward to more experimentation with this.
Pass Off a Fisheye For a Pearl Trading Post (detail)
Lifesize store installation with motion sensor, lights, sound, gifts
9 x 12 x 9 feet
A piece like Pass Off a Fisheye For a Pearl Trading Post
(2010) features the juxtaposition of the commodified versions—the souvenirs and the signage—of Native American and Chinese cultures. It not only reveals a space where the commercial versions of these cultures meet, but hints at the border between the surface and the depth of any culture. There's also an exploration of the border between literal facades and interiors. The miniature sculptures only show the outsides of buildings and give the viewer a hint of what is going on inside, but the life-sized room installations allow the viewer to step inside. Why is it important to explore borders and liminal spaces?
After traveling through China and visiting Chinatowns in different cities in the West, I had been wanting to make a life-size Chinese gift shop (with motion censored lights, sounds, and moving toys). When Rena Bransten Gallery
offered to give me a ten year survey exhibition, I decided it was time to construct it. One of the challenges of a ten year survey was how to lay out the show so that it acted as an encompassing, overall environment, rather than as a show of individual works. I decided to have the exhibit
flow from different locations and cultures, which then altered my plans for the gift shop. Instead of being a store with one entrance and solely Chinese gifts, it became a Native American trading post/Chinese gift shop with two entrances. It also acts as a passageway to the last area of the exhibition—China. The combination of these two very different cultures was fascinating to me. When combined in a gift shop, one gets the sense of how these inexpensive gifts and souvenirs from different countries are all probably made in the same factory. It also looks at how we travel as tourists and try to capture the layered, wonderful experiences by buying cheap, little trinkets and how these objects carry much more value than they would initially seem to.
For a while now, I have explored combining larger or life-size scale structures with smaller ones. The first instance of this was in my exhibition Dulces
at Wedel Fine Art in London. Big El Mirador
(2007) was a seven-foot tall hotel with six synced videos in the hotel windows. At times, the action would move from one window to the other. There were two sets of videos--one set from black and white Spanish Buñuel
films, and the other looking at love and drama in present-day American West. I also had a life-size rundown motel room called Room at El Mirador
(2007) in the exhibit, which is now part of the David Roberts Art Foundation
collection. Since then, I have worked with larger and life-size scale quite a bit. I find that, by having both the small scale and a version of the life-size scale together in one space, the experience of interacting with the subject expands exponentially.
Pass Off a Fisheye For a Pearl Trading Post, as well as many of my other works, are good examples of my exploration and interpretation of culture. I translate culture into visuals that other cultures can understand. In my sculpture Mexicalichina, I have combined Hispanic, Chinese and Californian culture into one work that speaks to people from these cultures as well as from others. Though I enjoy traveling and looking at many different locations and cultures, the intersection of these cultures is even more fascinating to me. At the borders, unusual and interesting mixes start to happen. Unfortunately, clashes between different cultures happen here too. But that's also an important issue to observe.
Mixed media installation
House: 197 x 203 x 203 cm, Telephone pole: 344 x 80 x 50 cm
OPP: What is the role of cacophony in your installations?
When placing my sculptures and works in an installation, I am aware of the soundtracks of the different works and how they will combine. I spend quite a bit of time adjusting each sculpture's volume after placement. When the sounds mix, the feeling of the place that the works represent is captured further. For my exhibit Where Mr. Wong Sent Me
at Galerie Urs Meile
in Beijing, the theme of my work was my exploration of the places I visited in China. The sounds of local markets, busy streets, a traditional singer and a more modern song, firecrackers and kids yelling and playing combine to capture the feeling of walking down a bustling street in Chongqing or Beijing. At other times, it's necessary for the sounds to be quiet and distinct. I recently installed five new sculptures at an exhibition The Storytellers at the Stenersen Museum
in Oslo. Each of my sculptures was based on a different literary work of Latin authors. The works were very individual and the sounds were more important as individual pieces than as a group, so it was necessary to adjust the balance so that one did not affect the others.
My favorite part of an installation like Woman on the Run
(2008) is the layering that creates a sense of seeing a single idea from multiple angels, all at once. What I mean is that it's hard to figure out what came first, because everything feeds into everything else. The video footage acts as backdrop for the life-sized motel rooms and miniature sculptures. The comic book features stills from the video. The miniature sculptures feature portions of the videos in their windows. The sculptures also act as backdrops for images in the comic. Could you talk about this layering?
TS: This layering is an extension of all of my artwork, in one way or another. A photo I take of a motel might evolve into a small sculpture, which I then film and incorporate into an installation that might have several other aspects of that theme or even that particular motel. This layering in my work speaks to the idea of reality and how everything is subjective. There are so many nuances to each and every thing and experience in life. By adding layer upon layer to my works, I'm able to add different meanings and create a fuller, more engaging experience.
Woman on the Run
Mutli media installation
OPP: How does the installation of Woman on the Run change every time you install it?
The idea initially came when I was making a series of photographs to accompany my installation Another Shocking Psychological Thriller
to be shown at Lokaal 01
in the Netherlands. I titled the photo series Woman on the Run
and these fed my ideas when I was invited to write a proposal for Selfridges in London.
After the Selfridges exhibition
, a friend and collaborator Idan Levin
stepped in to act as producer and help me travel the installation in the U.S. We decided that it would be much more interesting if the installation kept changing and evolving as we showed it. Since it's made of many components, we've been able to set the installation up differently in each location. Woman on the Run
has traveled to Smack Mellon
in Brooklyn, 21c Museum
in Louisville, the Frist
in Nashville, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art
in Winston-Salem, and is now showing at the Virginia MOCA
. We have added the comic book
in Louisville, a 16 foot billboard
with projection in Nashville, a new projection
and video in Winston-Salem, and our newest creation is a life-size fortune teller's storefront added in Virginia Beach. The Mystic Eye
, as it is called, has a crystal ball that plays video related to the character's past or future. Old gypsy music plays in the background. If one calls the phone number on the front of the building, they are met with a special message.
We also added a performance element during the opening. A young woman playing the character "Veronica"
sat forlornly on the bed in the motel room, occasionally taking a swig of whiskey from the bottle in her hand. She also roamed over to the Mystic Eye, sitting and gazing into the crystal ball. In addition, we had a "detective"
character who lurked behind the buildings and flipped a coin. Considered more as live sculptures than actors, the performers added a whole new dimension to the experience of the installation. We are now in the final stages of completing a new extension of Woman on the Run
called Woman on the Run Redux
. It's a site-conforming mystery treasure hunt that can be installed in various places, such as hotels and museums, with props as clues and tags that one can scan with their iPhone to see related videos. It can be shown independently of the original installation, or in conjunction with it.
Lifesize room installation with video and sound
Your most recent film, Nothing
, premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year. Was this your first foray into making a film which screens in a more traditional way, as opposed to a film or video for part of an installation?
TS: This was my first endeavor into more traditional film, although Nothing would still be considered an art film or somewhat avant-gard by the general film viewer. While I writing it, I wanted to capture the quiet, long, slow, burning hot days in the desert combined with the drudgery of being stuck in one's life. There is no dialogue, and most of the sounds are ambient. The pacing of the film is deliberately slow, with the exception of one small part.
What was different about working that way?
It was quite a different experience making this film, as opposed to building sculptures or an installation. Working as the director with a crew of seven is much more of a collaborative effort, even though we were all working to achieve my vision. By having professionals do what they do best, I was very happy with how the film turned out and how quickly we were able to achieve this. I definitely look forward to making more films, though the next one will most likely be feature length.
When I initially came up with the idea for Nothing
I envisioned it showing in a museum space, along with sculptures, installation, and a photo series that relates to the movie. The film festivals have been a good experience. Besides the San Francisco International Film Festival
, it has also shown at several other festivals, and will be included in the Thessaloniki International Film Festival
in November. I plan to develop the exhibition and its components, and to travel the show to museums in the next few years.