A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

Experimental Relationships: An Interview with Julia Oldham

David Xu Borgonjon, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, helps make Wave Hill a welcoming space for artists and a stimulating experience for visitors.

Each winter, Wave Hill opens Glyndor Gallery as workspace for New York-area artists. They benefit from intimate exposure to our garden setting, and also reveal part of their working processes to visitors through open studios and artist-led workshops.

For the last few years, Julia Oldham has been busy making quirky drawings that she lays over video recordings of performances. Even though they cast a wide net—topics include physics, insects and the geography of New York—each work follows a similar storyline: Two worlds meet and are permanently changed. In doing so, she has translated the laws of anti-matter into the language of Hollywood romance, and recorded herself in secret rendezvous with drawings of a coyote lover. She calls this search for connections “love,” so that’s where we started our conversation.

Julia Oldham, Mud Lair (video still), 2013. 

David Xu Borgonjon: My first question is, why love? You could have chosen, for example, jealousy or boredom to glue your work together.

Julia Oldham: I think it’s just a matter of taste and what I’m drawn to. I do incorporate emotions, like wrath or revenge, in works about cyclical murder stories, for instance. But, yes, they’re mostly love stories. I think it’s just because I’m a person of longing and romance. I’m someone who always wants connections. I grew up with a physicist dad, and when I was really little he would explain these complex theories to me using metaphors that created relationships between different forces, particles and heavenly bodies. He would anthropomorphize science or nature in a way that could help me to understand them, so I always had this sense of the world around me, as well as things happening inside me, as a fairytale, with elements of connection, friendship, collaboration, cooperation and love. For whatever reason, that way of looking at the world always stuck with me. I tend to superimpose these romantic stories onto different characters.

DXB: So it’s a kind of metaphor, or anthropomorphism. How real is this love story, for you? Do you think that the world really is made of these personal connections, or is it just a convenient means to imagine the world?

JO: In my physics work I create plotlines that follow particular laws and theorems. In one piece, a woman falls in love with her antimatter conjugate. When matter and antimatter touch each other, they annihilate and create this huge explosion. So, they’re navigating a fraught relationship that won’t end well. With those stories, I’ll make a simple love story and pass it back and forth with a physics collaborator, and we’ll start to apply rules to it until finally it transforms into something that’s both familiar and strange. Maybe that process is a way of searching for a scientific explanation for why love is so complicated, painful, tense and even awful , sometimes.

DXB: In your collaborations, whether with physicists or with artist Chad Stayrook in Really Large Numbers, friendship is crucial. You probably wouldn’t describe those relationships as painful and awful, but probably familiar and comfortable. Would you?

JO: Laughs. I think one thing that happens in collaboration is that I get to expand my own brain to include someone else’s; to get out of my self; and give myself permission to do something that comes from somewhere else. It’s helpful to toggle out of ruts of certain types of thinking and creating. Plus, it’s beautiful to make work with someone you trust. To put your two brains together and turn it into one bigger brain that has more stuff in it.

DXB: It seem like a lot of your work has to do with union.

JO: Yeah!

DXB: Maybe that’s what your love stories are. On the level of how meaning is made, I read a desire to discover a deeper meaning or connection, between social and physical laws, for example. You also mentioned you’re a person of longing. Not everyone would describe love as longing. You’re almost talking specifically about unrequited love: connections that should be made but are missed. 

JO:  Yeah, that comes up a lot. I’ve used love as an overarching word. People tell me you’re not necessarily talking about love, but relationships of all kinds, some comfortable, and some very one-sided. To go back, I’m looking at these different ways to look at the systems around us to describe those different relationships metaphorically. I give them new endings, and that leads to new meanings.

DXB: What might the connection be between art and science for you? It’s a big question.

JO: One of the neat overlaps between science and art is that we’re observing our surroundings and abstracting them. That’s particularly important for physicists, who are looking at things that aren’t visible, and so they have to calculate or measure in complex ways. They’re looking at other dimensions through a visual or mathematical lens. I’m doing the same thing, but using concrete stuff like coyotes and the woods and human beings. But I’m also looking at something that’s too complicated to put into words or to visualize exactly.

DXB: Tell us more about coyotes, and your work at Wave Hill.

JO: We’ve been talking a lot about physics, but the related other side of my work is all about humans turning into animals. The coyote has just been in my life forever. I run into them all the time. I have a coyote skull that my parents gave me fifteen or more years ago. It’s from New Mexico, and it came with a story about the trickster coyote. I thought I had better take good care of it, so I started to think of this coyote as a love interest. There’s something so physical and immediate and visceral about animals. So I’ve made work about falling for coyotes, breakups with them, making an ideal lover out of a coyote. [In the piece I’m making at Wave Hill,] I encounter a hand-animated urban coyote in this liminal space that’s both natural and human-made. Wave Hill hosts all these animals in search of a home, including coyotes, so I’m interested in Wave Hill as a borderland, an in-between or a meeting place. What would happen? What would we exchange?

DXB: Can you talk about the relationship between drawing and video in your work?

JO: Until recently they were really separate. I didn’t know how to fit the drawing and video practice together, but animation is the perfect medium! I first started in my experimental relationship with Chad Stayrook as an art collaboration: we’re always trying weird new things. I’m still trying to suss it out—it’s all self-taught, experimental, lo-fi—but that’s fun, because I’ve been playing with making worlds come together and collide, worlds that don’t have to really exist.

On Sunday, February 8, Oldham will be leading a workshop, Living Drawings, on hand-drawn cel animation. Come breathe life into the loving animal inside of you.

Pictured above: Julia Oldham, Mud Lair (video still), video, 3:30.  Directed and Performed by Julia Oldham. Animation and Puppets by Jenny Kroik. Courtesy of the artist.

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