KAARI UPSON | A WHITE PICKET FENCE, OPEN FLOOR PLAN, TRAUMATIC IMPRINTING
Sculptural installations, drawings, and videos by Kaari Upson are complexified manifestations of a singular artistic impulse— to make a more complete record of the world. She’s obsessed with getting to the truth, but often employs strategies of mediated fiction to pursue it. Her work involves houses, homes, important furniture, trees, fires, archetypes, voids, and disappearances. But not content with depiction, Upson instead invents methods for a kind of somatic realism, in which real and allegorical objects are transformed into life-size impressions of themselves and drawings are really maps of time’s passage.
Lately, she’s been making life-size latex molds of giant old trees, architectural elements, and even entire rooms in an attempt to recreate, in as physically direct a way as possible, the psychological pillars of her identity. At present, she’s preparing for a trio of large-scale European presentations this year—at the Venice Biennale, Kunstverein Hannover, and the Kunsthalle Basel. Every inch of her industrialized studio is filled with work in various stages of readiness. What look like trees in shrouds, prefab houses, frisbee-sized clit piercings, real teeth, and eccentric miniature furnishings are, in fact, all those things. “It’s a long story,” Upson says, “but let’s start with the dollhouses.”
The work that Upson will show at the 2019 Venice Biennale is based on dollhouses, a pair of them which actually belonged to herself and a friend. Through an intensive process of fragmentation, replication, and augmentation, those miniatures expanded both in scale (12 times up) and conceptual purview. They will form the basis of a mammoth sculpture and video installation exploring concepts ranging from memory transfer to projection, mirroring, transference, the shadow self, traumatic imprinting, and jaded, self-actualized nostalgia. “There was this unbelievable mechanism of going through the real fictitious space of two mothers’ dollhouses made for their daughters,” says Upson. The work is called “There is No Such Thing As Outside,” and it is much more than just a giant miniature. Across two fragmented but conjoined spaces, evocative items spread out, video walls, designed to be interactive, intersect. She hopes people will explore the space and climb underneath the dollhouse’s “porch,” a site of particular resonance for Upson.
Her focus has always been on such underneath, behind, and between kinds of places—representing the emotional distance between two subjects or two people, the geographical and temporal spaces that separate life events, past and present, and the gaps in recorded history and personal memory alike. “I fill in those gaps,” she elaborates, “with fantasy speculation. It was always my intention to take facts and kind of contaminate the shit out of them. And I sometimes think that no project is ever really over; it kind of keeps running at a lower vibration while something else takes over, and it all interconnects only later, maybe years later.”
For her best-known series, The Larry Project, Upson culled, deconstructed, and reimagined elements of the house, land, furniture, archives, and life of a man on her street who died around the time of a wildfire that decimated her childhood neighborhood. The new dollhouse, and a series of related sculptural works destined for her upcoming exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel in August of this year, titled Go Back the Way You Came, are also based on the houses and trees on that very same street—elements of her own parents’ home. These, in turn, are tethered to the video works headed for Venice. In pulling apart and reorganizing the anatomy of her own past, she exercises a kind of gravitational field that pulls other people’s lives into the vortex alongside her. If this all sounds somewhat esoteric, just look at the regal and vaguely medical majesty of a life-size latex cast of a Ponderosa pine, or an entire bathroom, or a prefab fireplace. There are a lot of ways to record our experiences, but photographs and receipts both leave a lot out. Making an imprinted skin is more specific, more undeniable. Oddly, it is also more malleable.
Upson uses the phrase “skin of the real” to describe the conceptual foundation of her reenactment processes for video and latex-molding of space. Materially, she is able to take a life-size mold of whatever she likes, which she then can use as a mold to create a fabricated sculpture. Because the results are often flexible, she can bend and reshape if she chooses, as she did to the forms of the sofas and mattresses in The Larry Project, essentially turning them into paintings. In the new work, while an epic tree stump may retain its organic shape, elsewhere, a sheet of bark enacts an architectural element. She’s done this to a tree from her family’s yard in San Bernardino. She’s done this to the bathroom of her childhood home, once a refuge of privacy as the only room in the house with a lock on the door. And she’s done this to the fireplaces in tract houses in Vegas, which she found on her hunt for an A-frame doppelganger, which is where the videos come into play. That’s another story, though.
In brief, Upson became interested in the idea that somewhere in the world there would exist a mirror house, a sort of secret twin to her childhood home. She tried in vain to purchase one, simply pretending to house-shop, and videotaping the excursions. This went on for years. She didn’t find the house’s true spiritual twin until a visit with a friend in Vegas. “When I walked into her house, I was like, here it is!” Upson says. “And I didn’t know about her dollhouse! We found that out at the very end when we were filming, much later.” The video “In Search of the Perfect Double,” which was shown in a 2017 exhibition at the New Museum in NYC, chronicles some of this process. “We just would go from house to house. And the characters in it developed very organically. I have it all recorded on my body; I’ve gone into like 60 or 70 homes making weird videos, going into the closets, recording it, measuring it, feeling it on me, somatically on my body.”
“And anyway, it’s all mirroring,” Upson says, “because in tract houses it’s all variations on the same floor plan and sometimes its own opposite.” One day on a drive through her old neighborhood, where a six-month casting of a felled pine tree was underway, it fully clicked. “All of the sudden in one moment I was like, ‘There is no mirror house. There is no perfect house.’ I realized it was all in the searching.”