I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The supernatural and the everyday converge in Trinie Dalton’s writing and curatorial practices. On the occasion of Homunculi, her most recent curatorial project at CANADA, she selects work that transmutes one’s awareness of the unconscious forces of the mind via fantasy and figuration. Trinie Dalton explores her tendency towards alchemy in both writing and curation in conversation with Kari Adelaide.
Images of alchemists often include oil paintings of solitary bearded men staring at glowing bulbous flasks. The symbolic mist of alchemical principles, however, is even more wild and decentered. It’s no surprise that writer and curator Trinie Dalton has chosen to engage with the premise of the homunculi in her most recent curatorial project at CANADA. By alchemical standards, the homunculus is considered to be a miniature humanoid entity formed by unconscious forces of the mind.
Exploring this idea, Trinie’s curatorial cauldron includes Allison Schulnik’s hollow-eyed, opalescent hobgoblin totem and Matt Greene’s sprawling tangle of feminine creatures. Most of the work echoes a circular urge of appetite and destruction, as well as collapsing kaleidoscopic fractures, as seen in Ruby Neri’s painting of fluorescent ladies, awkwardly frozen yet aglow. Matthew Ronay presents costume as a quotidian way to delve into the fantastic realm—his textile wallpiece is suspended yet weighed down by the gravity of stones.
Trinie’s writing and curatorial practices continually blur the boundary between fantasy and the everyday, and in her most recent book, Sweet Tomb, she’s playful with metaphorical monsters, transmuting the narrator’s boyfriend, a vampire, into a cat and then into a chocolate cat. Trinie’s urge towards transformation is well contained by the principles of alchemy, and she’ll surely continue to expertly tinker with Carl Jung’s assertion, in Psychology and Alchemy, that “every archetype is capable of endless development and differentiation.”
Kari Adelaide What inspired you to center an exhibit on the alchemical idea of a homunculus, versus other alchemical symbols, such as the uroborus?
Trinie Dalton It all started with the Divine Hermaphodite. Matt (Greene) and I were wintering in a pink adobe in northern New Mexico, getting deep into costuming and photo shoots with our roommate. It was a winter of mixed-up identities, trying new ones on. Concurrently, for an interview for Paris, LA, I was faxing with Dorothy Iannone. This was hectic in itself because in our small mountain town, email was spotty and would go out each time a snowstorm came. There was no place to send international fax, without crossing a treacherous mountain pass. Iannone only communicates via fax so I was receiving scanned faxes and sending letters back to Dorothy via Peres Projects Berlin and CANADA, about topics related to ecstatic sexuality, one of Iannone’s big themes. Anyway, Matt and I, and the folks at CANADA, wanted to build a show around Iannone’s work and the notion of “ecstatic unity” (to borrow a phrase of hers) between genders.
But as the creative work came, and we considered more artists for the show, it morphed into less of a focus on this conceptual notion of male-female unity, and more into a study of art’s quality and texture—chunky, blobby, messy—in relation to the way it’s birthed, the inception. Matt thought of the work itself as the homunculus, and I thought of the artist giving birth to the homunculus. We built it from there, with the help of Sarah Braman, who also did a lot of the curatorial. This homunculus idea, then, came together in an apt way, I suppose, as a fusion of a few people’s thoughts and efforts. I really believe in the archetypal monster as key to not only the concept but the concept’s execution.
KA In your most recent book, Sweet Tomb, you present a witch with an endless appetite and there’s a massive amount of insatiable feeding that takes place throughout the narrative. This seems like a mirror opposite of Wide Eyed, where many of the short stories involve a protagonist who nurtures and continually feeds critters, attentively giving hummingbirds nectar, subversively feeding jelly-donuts to dogs, and casting cat-sized sandwiches to cats. Was this pattern change intentional?
TDMore subconscious than intentional, I’d say. But sure, that is true. Wide Eyed was all about the fantasy, the ideal self, the persona I, as fictional narrator, wish I could be. The nurturing innocent, the giving self. In Sweet Tomb I aimed to address the realization of the shattered façade, the taking self, the admitting of imperfections, the cannibalistic self formed through a series of inherited curses. Addressing stuff I (as a different fictional persona) can’t get rid of, writing as a means to expel the unwanted, and conversely, as a means to quell insatiable desires. I used fairy-tale language as license to be brave enough to discuss that. It would have been more direct through the language of realism, but increasingly I don’t buy that separation. In fact, I was just up at Vermont College, where I’m on the MFA Fiction Faculty, lecturing about this very topic. Riffing on a brilliant paper written by Kate Bernheimer about fairy tale form in non-fairy tale fiction, I spoke about the weakening lines between realism and fairy tale, through a horror lens. I spoke about writers like Vítězslav Nezval and Bruno Schulz, who I also quoted in the Homunculi press release. Maybe I convinced a few writers to ignore those boundaries and write whatever feels real, even if it’s couched in the formal conventions of fairy tale.
KA I saw that CANADA presented some of your printed ephemera, including the Werewolf Express zine, which resulted in an interesting exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center, in 2005. Can you provide any insights about the emergence of curatorial ideas, via your writing practice, or vice versa? Also, are there any insights on curating and community, in the spirit of the YBCA show and even in your publications, such as MYTHTYM ?
TD It was so kind of CANADA to leave that ephemera around, when I’m not even an artist in the show! I feel kind of embarrassed about that, but then again, I’m glad it brings up ideas like the one you’ve mentioned. I admit, I am not some genius curator. I rely heavily on the artists in the communities I try to encapsulate in each project. In fact, I often feel that I’m exploiting my friends, but I try to remember that their participation in these exhibitions is voluntary! These past three big projects— Werewolf Express, MYTHTYM, and Homunculi —were all exercises in training my eye to notice patterns and themes running through our community’s collective conversations.
I have strong opinions about curating, collectivity, teaching, and publication as salon venue. It’s tied to a couple things: to my beliefs about the nature of creativity and to the limited way we learn about the arts in America. As a teacher, I try to create dialogues between the arts, and I’m fortunate I’ve been allowed to teach interdisciplinary courses in both Art and Writing departments. Learning should happen not departmentally according to genre or medium but rather, it should reflect the crossover nature of how life amongst artists, writers, and musicians actually happens. Right? Sister Corita Kent got this concept completely and widened her students’ notions of not only interdisciplinary arts, but of links between fine art, folk art, and the definitions of art in other countries. I’m co-curating The New Everyday Life to address this; it’s a nomadic desert workshop series I’m helping Andrea Zittel launch as a satellite school based out of her High Desert Test Sites headquarters in Joshua Tree.
The reason I get on a soapbox about this is to say that we should learn in schools the way we assimilate information in the world at large. The Surrealists were having dinner parties and events packed with all sorts of creative types, just like us, feeding each other ideas and filtering them into text, art, or song. We all know life is not just “artists influenced by artists” and “authors influenced by authors.” When I got up to the podium to lecture about Can Xue and Barthelme’s Snow White alongside slides of Aurel Schmidt’s and Francine Spiegel’s work at Vermont College, people thought it a most unusual idea to show art while talking about literature.
Pedagogically, I’m attracted to the Bauhaus and Fluxus approaches, and especially to Lucy Lippard’s curatorial efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. I really admire Lippard’s work and realized, after MYTHTYM , that I was inadvertently covering a lot of territory she mapped out. Since then, I’ve been working in research libraries to chronicle the exhibitions Lippard curated and made amazing publications for, particularly the critical headway she made in the book arts, and have been reading her essays that allowed her a different kind of mental space to elaborate links between art and culture. Anyway, Lippard previously did what I’m trying to do, and much better, but what can I do? Keep chipping away, keep adding to the conversation.
KA Are there any archetypes that you haven’t experimented with, in your writing, that are on the radar for future works? Is there a gravitational tendency towards using new archetypes, versus recycling and shapeshifting previous means of inspiration?
TDI’ve been cycling on the Female Monstrous for so long now, that with Homunculi I felt like a new day was dawning. Finally! There are so many archetypes and mythological creatures that I could spend my whole life studying. They’re like mushrooms; the more you try to identify them the less you realize you know.
I’m really into Chinese and Japanese mythology right now, studying the wonderful variety of dragons and ghosts. Trying to dip into Tibetan Buddhist symbolism through visits to the Rubin Museum. In New Mexico, I was reading Pueblo and Navajo legends, and studying how the stories translate into traditional craft design. And I’m trying to get a handle on traditions in African fiction, especially after Amos Tutuola, who is an author I admire greatly. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Palm-Wine Drinkard, Feather Woman of the Jungle —in all of his books the spiritual and physical worlds commingle. It’s such a relief to me to know that there are cultures out there where there is no separation.
KA At your reading of Sweet Tomb, in Brooklyn, you had a lioness mask that you beautifully sported and felines seem to continually appear, in your work. Are you a cat person, in the real, or what does animal symbolism mean to you?
TD I have an orange tabby named Shug, after Shug Avery from The Color Purple. Shuggie, disguised as Dolly Parton, adorns the bellyband on MYTHTYM. I love cats but I’m primarily a dog person, a pack animal fan. I love Temple Grandin’s take on pack animals in her book, Animals Make Us Human. I hope I graduate to being a horse and pygmy goat person eventually.
KA And speaking of the real, what leads you to delicately balance the “too weird to be true” shadowy elements with ordinary realms (such as your chronicles of Echo Park, Los Angeles, in Wide Eyed)?
TD As I mentioned above, I don’t really buy the separation. I don’t mean to come off like a psychotic, but I do think those boundaries are falsified in American culture. They seem to exist solely to have a means for us to measure our sanity, but with these strict boundaries (shadowy vs. ordinary) everyone who rebels against participating in Capitalist culture looks like a madman. That’s sad and needlessly restrictive. I guess I measure my sanity in different ways, according to how I’m communicating with my loved ones, with friends, how much I feel I’m contributing to society, etc. Maybe that’s why I’m constantly struggling with income! I’m not scared to let my mind roam into weird spaces, because I hope America will embrace a more flexible definition of ordinariness in my lifetime. It’s my goal as an author and artist to try to expand this, which is a pretentious goal, I admit. But it’s true. I’m sick of us calling, like, half the population depressed, sexually depraved, or mentally ill.
Ordinary versus extraordinary varies according to culture, and as I also mentioned above, and in some cultures those lines look very different. For example, my new colleague at Vermont College, and an author I admire, Philip Graham, splits time between Illinois and the Côte d’Ivoire, where his wife is an anthropologist working with the Beng people. Lucky for me, I now have someone to trade African music with! Anyway, he tells me the extraordinary is daily life there, part of the mundane. Ancestral relatives commune daily with the living. Magic and sorcery happens. I’m not romanticizing that, as there is plenty of horror and trauma that accompanies belief systems like this. However, I’m endlessly fascinated by comparing differences between, say, my fantasies about distant tribal cultures and my own, as my narrators rummage their ways through Los Angeles, as you said. Landscapes are charmed and packed with totemic meaning, no matter what they look like. Re-watch Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout for a killer cinematic example of this.
KA Your writings continually present a powerful admixture of magic, horror, and humor. What does this balance mean to you?
TDMaintaining that balance has to do with two preoccupations of mine: first, not taking my ideas too seriously, and second, tempering too outrageous an argument so that I don’t exclude readers from grasping what I’m aiming to express. If I go totally berserk in the execution, fewer readers will get it. I aspire to more of a middleman’s approach, where I can expose skeptical readers to ideas and concepts they’d usually write off as hippie trash. I want my ideas to get increasingly more radical, but I want to embed them in texts that have a narrative palatability. I’m not trying to write unreadable books.
KA How do you feel about the practice of research versus the emergence of more slippery happenstances, in both writing and curatorial endeavors?
TD I am such a research geek! I was recently interviewing Lucky Dragons for Theme Magazine , and Sarah Rara was talking about how maybe they should be called “Researchers” instead of “Musicians.” Then Luke revealed the pride he feels in owning a Getty Research Library pass. (I have one as well). Some days, when I take my classes to various research libraries to view artists’ books, I feel as though the whole class syllabus and teaching expedition is one giant excuse to dig into museum archives. I used to be an art librarian. I met my husband as a result. Books are culture, love and passion for culture, so researching with actual books—not online—is so important. They’re paper talismans. I pull quotes and photocopy pages as if in a manic trance, some days at the library. As a last rant on the importance of using libraries: since I’ve been traveling heavily these past two years, libraries serve as home bases in whatever town we roll into. Books make me feel at home, and I try to transfer that bookish architectural sensibility into my printed matter projects and into the exhibitions I curate. All the happenstance stuff in my life is balanced by a sense of stability that I get when I open a book.
KAWhat is your relationship between your clear love of the natural world and your consistent creation of personalized fantastic geographies, as seen in Blood Mountain, Makeout Forest, Fate Forest and enchanted gardens, in Sweet Tomb ?<>
TD Those fantastic geographies are my (perhaps half-baked) attempts to create archetypal settings out of my favorite wilderness areas. Often in my writing, setting comes first. So I try to commemorate it by imbuing it with an equal blend of the real memory I have of the place (the concrete details) and the expanded version of that location, what deeper space it conjures in human consciousness (the metaphor). This is not a new idea; politically it goes back to the idea that humans cannot own land. As a literary device, Kate Bernheimer, in that lecture I mentioned earlier, calls this “Flattening.” It’s staple in fairy tales. Flattening details out in a story can make those details more open-ended, so readers can add in their own associative narrative threads. This happens, also, in children’s books. It’s about inviting readers in while still paying tribute to the forests I love. It’s also about keeping my favorite hiking spots anonymous and secret! I like being alone in wild places and there’s something mystically satisfying about discovering a place on your own. Just head out and see what you find.
Homunculi is open June 4th through July 18th at CANADA and features work by Matt Greene, Allison Schulnik, Ruby Neri and Matthew Ronay.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee