An Act of Gathering: Whitney Lynn Interviewed by Kim Beil

A public artwork layers history and language.

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A mural featuring wooden sailing ships and text titled, Wine-Dark See, by Whitney Lynn

Installation view of Whitney Lynn, Wine-Dark See (detail), 2020–21. Courtesy of the artist.

Whitney Lynn is an artist whose research-based practice spans the disciplines of drawing, sculpture, installation, performance, video, and sound to investigate power relations. For several recent projects, Lynn has studied The Odyssey through Emily Wilson’s celebrated translation, focusing on the representation of the Sirens and their role as keepers of forbidden knowledge. Lynn then traces their transformation through the centuries to their eventual disempowerment as voiceless mermaids. In previous projects Lynn has focused on other symbolic relations to power, including a mural of flower imagery representative of nations affected by the 2018 Travel Ban and a project that plays birdsong from Iraq through speakers embedded in military bugles. 

—Kim Beil 


Kim Beil I know that the term “an artists’ artist” is a loaded one, but I feel like you’re a scholars’ artist. Your work just makes all the synapses fire. It reminds of a definition proposed by the educational theorist Eleanor Duckworth. She describes learning as “the having of wonderful ideas.” And, teaching is, then, helping others to make or recognize these ideas. Your work does that for me. How do you go about discovering your own wonderful ideas?

Whitney Lynn When I first started teaching at research universities, I began to question what “research” meant for art, because it looks so different from the methods encountered in other disciplines. And I started to think about research as a process of sustained engagement. One of the things I love about art is that it can be a call to discover without the burden to prove. And so it is particularly touching when you call me a scholars’ artist—the highest compliment—because it makes me realize that my work is really rooted in encouraging others to continue the research, to keep asking the questions. I love how, in the thick of a project, research is an act of gathering. It’s a call to keep your eyes open, whether you’re scrolling through the internet or walking down the street. Research becomes a state of being. 

It reminds me of one time when the artist Wilfredo Prieto was in San Francisco for a lecture, and he was in the middle of doing a project at a museum in Mexico City where he would come up with a new piece—and install it the same day—for the duration of the show. He and I were wandering around the city, doing typical tourist things, but what was so incredible was watching Wilfredo, eyes open, scanning for the next potential idea. We’ve hung out socially many times, but I’ll never forget that experience of seeing him on and just flooded with potential ideas. It really inspired me, because it made me realize that we all have that capacity, but it’s a matter of choice. And maybe that’s what research is? Making the choice to be on.

A color tapestry of a mermaid titled, Reflection, by Whitney Lynn

Whitney Lynn, Reflection, 2019, cotton jacquard tapestry, copper. 33 × 25 × 2 inches. Courtesy of Bass & Reiner.

KB That’s a wonderful definition. And it is absolutely evident in your work! The first project of yours that I saw was Sirens, Silencers, Mufflers, and Mutes at Bass & Reiner Gallery in San Francisco in 2019. It focused on how the depictions of Sirens were transformed from disembodied sound in The Odyssey to physical representations of singing birds in Classical Greece, and eventually they became mermaids or, as you call them, “silent, sexy fish.” You’re really tracing a history of women’s disempowerment. How did you begin this project? 

WL At the time I was doing work that was looking at traps and decoys. Eventually I came to the figure of the femme fatale, which is like the embodiment of a trap. This all stemmed from reading Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. I realized that the Sirens were never physically described in The Odyssey. They’re only known by their voice. And so I began thinking about the silencing of the Sirens, which led me to the use of tapestry for the hanging works in the show, since tapestry was historically used to absorb sound. 

I was also looking at bugles, which are traditionally war instruments. I learned that there aren’t enough buglers anymore to play for military funerals, and so they’ve developed a little stereo that looks like a mute. The stereo fits into the bell of the bugle, and it plays “Taps” when turned on. In the show, tapestries hung on the wall with depictions of mermaids that I’d gathered and altered, and the muted bugles rested on tapestry pillows on the floor. Putting it all together, the show became, Sirens, Silencers, Mufflers, and Mutes. 

A photograph of a sea-themed mural attached to a fence titled, Wine-Dark See, by Whitney Lynn

Installation view of Whitney Lynn, Wine-Dark See (detail), 2020–21. Courtesy of the artist.

KB I really felt the call to “keep your eyes open” in that show. One of the things that I love about your work is that it’s an encouragement to do that with anything that seems given or obvious in the world today. If you look hard enough, you’ll see that it’s either not what it seems or that it was something else before.

Your current project is a temporary outdoor mural. Do you approach public art projects differently than those that are destined for a gallery setting?

WL I feel a different responsibility with public projects. With a gallery project people walk in and know they’re going to see art. Then, if they’re not into it, they just walk out. But in public spaces, people don’t have a choice. People aren’t going specifically to find the work, and there are things about that that are exciting. I tried to make elements of the work bold enough that you may want to get closer and spend a little bit more time, but then I also packed some layers into that. If you are passing by this project every day, maybe there could be a new kind of encounter as you discover new things in it.

So, the quotes I’ve taken from The Odyssey are very open in how they might be interpreted. One of my favorites is: “an octopus pulled from its den has many pebbles sticking to its suckers.” Some of these phrases are laid over images of Sirens, particularly figurines that were made in occupied Japan after World War II. The Allies occupied Japanese ceramics studios, maybe as a way of getting the economy going, and they made these little bisque figurines of mermaids. They are popular as collectibles because they’re cheap, but then they also have this historical connection to war and to the aftermath of war that I want to spend a little bit of time working through in the mural. Like, what are these objects really? Maybe that’s the same with all of my projects; they’re a way for me to spend time with things, to try to figure out how I can pull apart these images and ideas and then put them back together, but with some of the cracks showing.

KB And where exactly was this installed?

WL Alongside the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle. It’s right across from the ship canal. So it looks out on the water, and originally it was going to be an extension of my Sirens work.

But I’m also really trying to be as considerate as possible to the fact that for a lot of people, one of the only times they have been able to get out of the house during the pandemic is to walk along this trail. So I started to pull back and look a little bit more at the story of The Odyssey, which is about these struggles in the aftermath of war, but it’s really also about a homecoming. Odysseus is trying to get back to a place that doesn’t really exist anymore.

A photograph of a sea-themed mural attached to a fence titled, Wine-Dark See, by Whitney Lynn

Installation view of Whitney Lynn, Wine-Dark See (detail), 2020–21. Courtesy of the artist.

KB Could you briefly describe what happened to the installation?

WL Soon after installation, Wine-Dark See was hit with multiple tags. My contract with the city stipulated that I was responsible for cleaning or removing graffiti, and, ultimately, it became impossible to keep up. After three months, the installation came down.

KB What feelings or thoughts have you wrestled with in the aftermath?

WL I’m forced to confront my expectations about the work, or how I hoped it would be received, and what it means to be an artist who embraces collaboration with work that questions issues of authorship and power. And yet, I have to admit, I was disappointed.

From the beginning, this project was meant to reflect a circuitous journey, and, in the end, I have to understand the hasty inscriptions as another layer in the collage—part of this whole pandemic story—no more or less significant than the lines culled from Homer: “POETS ARE NOT TO BLAME.”

Whitney Lynn’s Wine-Dark See is a FLOW 2021–2022 installation along the Burke-Gillman Trail in Seattle. 

Kim Beil teaches art history at Stanford University and is the author of Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography (2020).

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