Frame 61

Cathy Akers

Frame 61
Cathy Akers

Background/education: I have been a practicing artist in earnest for the past 12 years. I have love drawing, painting and photography from the time I was about 12 years old, but I don’t feel that I was committed to maintaining an active “practice” until I was in my late 20s. I feel very lucky to have gone to California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) for my graduate studies at a time when I was ready to do some artistic soul-searching.

The philosophy of the school, which pushes students to analyze and articulate their artistic goals, and my desire to finally commit to my artmaking, lined up perfectly. The experience helped me to find the roots of my artistic interests, and start to develop them in earnest.

Pee performances: I starting making my Pee Performance photographs when I was in my first year at CalArts, in the spring of 2005. For several years, I had been making photographs of women in nature with a vaguely surreal/fantastic edge, since I was interested in the symbolism of the forest as a place of transformation, where people get lost and then discover some part of the world, or of themselves, that was previously unknown. These photographs were heavily influenced by fairy tales, as well as the style of staged photography popularized by Gregory Crewdson in the late 1990s/early 2000s. 

I was particularly interested in the work of some of Crewdson’s female students who went in more a fairy tale, female-centric direction, such as Anna Gaskell and Justine Kurland. However, I was too concerned with mimicking the look and feel of these other artists’ work to discover my own photographic voice. After being heavily criticized for the derivativeness of my work at CalArts, I started to develop ways to break out of my old patterns. I realized that the work I had been making was overly complicated, and ended up not communicating a clear message about my intentions.

I started by defining what my intentions were. I wanted to make work that addressed my own experience of being a woman in the woods. Since I moved to California in 2000, I had spent a lot of time camping, and had gotten a lot of practice peeing in the woods. I began to think about how this action, which is a very pragmatic one, could also serve as a criticism of the association of women with nature in Western culture, where women are seen as more “earthy” than men, and more passive.

I asked one of my friends to pose for a photograph while peeing in the woods, but she became too self-conscious and was unable to pee. Instead, I had her take a picture of me peeing, and that was the beginning of the series. All the women peeing in the photographs are me, since I am my most reliable model!

Backdrop/scenery: Yes, the backdrops are important to me. The photographs were taken in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The ones that are set in iconic “Western” landscapes are influenced by the tradition, originated in German Romantic painting and continued by early photographers of the American West, of the lone, male figure surveying a sublime, untouched landscape. Through my photographs, I as interested in disrupting this tradition by presenting “altered” landscapes—landscapes that bear the marks of human intervention, both through my act of peeing and by the

human-built structures on the land, such as the irrigation pipes visible in Pee Performance #5 (Valencia) and the road in Pee Performance #16 (Nevada). In other Pee Performance photographs, I am more concerned with “making my mark” on specific sites, such as in Pee Performance #10 (Biosphere 2), where I wanted to contaminate the perfectly-preserved, but failed utopian experiment of Biosphere 2 in Arizona. I also wanted to make my own “contributions” to important works of Land Art, such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels in Nevada.

Installation “Open Hearts, Open Land”: (See two images below) At the same time that I was making the Pee Performances, I was also working on building a series of dioramas that depicted an imaginary, all-female world called Hertopia. The women in these dioramas were wild and feral, and acted on all their impulses, both good and bad. They fought each other, hunted deer and rabbits, and had sex with coyotes. This work was also concerned with the “women in nature” theme that inspired the Pee Performances, but it took this theme to a fantastic level in order to explore what a world free of all societal rules would look like. After finishing these dioramas, I heard about some “open land” communes that existed in the 1960s. They had no rules or organization, and exposed the best and worst of human nature. I began researching one particular commune, Morningstar Ranch, in earnest, since it seemed to be a real-life analog to my Hertopia world.

I met a few former commune members and attended several reunion events, and became fascinated with that unique cultural moment in the mid- to late-1960s when young people truly believed they could change the world for the better. To me, it really doesn’t matter that Morningstar only lasted for a few years, since it made such a positive, enduring impression on the people who lived there. I think there is a relationship between the Pee Performances and Open Hearts, Open Land in that both bodies of work explore the idea of freedom in various ways—the Pee Performances by embracing peeing in nature as a freeing act for women, and Open Hearts, Open Land by exploring the various freedoms (sexual, physical and psychic) that commune members enjoyed during Morningstar’s brief existence. 

Shock value: As a culture, half-naked female bodies are used all the time in advertisements, and I don’t think we are shocked by it. The Pee Performance photographs are different because they do not show an idealized (therefore safe) female body, and they show me performing a bodily function, which some may view as an abject activity.

However, if you are a woman who has ever gone camping, it is actually a very every day, normal thing. The fact that I’m a woman colors people’s perception of the work—if the photographs showed a man peeing in nature, I don’t think the work would elicit such as strong reaction. 

Studio, routine: I don’t have a lot of time to spend in the studio right now, but I do try to spend the full day in the studio on Saturdays. I have two studio spaces—a ceramics studio near my house where I rent space, and my garage. You could certainly swing a cat at the ceramics studio, but you’d probably knock over quite a few boxes if you tried it in my garage! I usually try to get to the ceramics studio by 10:30, and I spend about an hour looking at what came out of the kiln that day and documenting the work, taking notes, etc. Then I try to make at least 3 or 4 new pieces that are more ambitious, either because I’m trying a new idea for the first time on using a technique that is tricky. I’ve been experimenting with photocopy transfers on clay for the past few months and I’m trying to push myself to make bigger and bigger pieces, which is technically challenging.

I’ll spend three hours trying to push forward some new ideas in this way, then I’ll take a break, have a snack, and sit in the sun for a while. When I go back into the studio, I’ll finish up work on the morning’s projects, and then start a few easier, more relaxing pieces such as animals (I love ceramic goats) or some primitive bowls. I spend a few hours doing this, and then leave the studio by 5 pm. I mainly use my garage studio at home for thinking about and organizing the work I’ve made at the ceramics studio, and planning ways to further develop and/or clarify the ideas in the work I’ve made. Throughout the week, I try to take the time to think about my work and sketch out new ideas. My most productive time for discovering new ideas is right before I go to sleep (daytime nap are especially productive) when my mind is half wake/half asleep. I feel like my mind is really loose and open, and I can come up new and inventive ways to handle creative challenges.

Art influences: Like most people, I have had different influences during different periods of my life. Right now, I’m really enjoying discovering more about ceramic artists. I particularly love Ruby Neri’s and Ken Price’s ceramic work, as well as Matt Wedel’s giant ceramic pieces. As for photography, I am really interested in artists who use photography in a sculptural way, such as Soo Kim and Katy Grinnan.

Artist website

Titles: I have a hard time naming my work, so I tend to use utilitarian titles. Titles are really not that important to me.

Future/shows: I am going to be in a show here in Los Angeles sometime this summer at the beautiful Brand Library Art Gallery—it’s a group show curated by Shannon Currie Holmes. I’m also hoping that a group show about pee in art moves forward—it’s scheduled to be held at Atelier 34zero Muzeum in Brussels in early September.

Publishing date of this interview 29/04/16