The following is excerpted from a conversation between the artist Chris Doyle and Wave Hill Senior Curator Jennifer McGregor, in which Doyle describes his influences and ideas. The full version can be found in the exhibition catalog, available for preorder at The Shop at Wave Hill.
On select evenings through May 24 as the sky is darkening, the sculptures comprising Chris Doyle’s The Lightening have been animated with aquatic imagery like plant cells, water ripples, and swooping herons. Conceived as a bridge between the day and the night, this artwork has also spanned the chill of mid-April and the budding warmth of May.
Jennifer McGregor: The Aquatic Garden is more formal than our other gardens, contained by three pergolas and a hedge with a central pool filled with captivating water lilies that bloom later in the summer. There are many different ways to work with this garden. Early on in our conversations you talked about making the pool a focal point. How did this evolve?
Chris Doyle: The pool is the earliest screen, the prototypical black mirror. I feel like we understand the Narcissus myth so much better today, as we are all absorbed in our screens. For me, the pool became a kind of protagonist because it holds in tension two worlds. When you look at the surface of the pool, you see the heavens reflected in it. At the same time, you are seeing into a murky depth as if looking into the physical body. Those two worlds exist simultaneously, collapsed onto a single plane. One morning, as I was staring at the surface of the water and flipping back and forth between seeing the mirror and the window, several striders skated across the surface of the water and suddenly, the physical, molecular presence of that surface emerged as a third reality.
In part, I wanted the piece to get at the simultaneity of this visual experience. The optical complexity of mirror and window, and material surface became the central organizing principal for the project. The animation fragments that I was making began to group themselves into three areas, those exploring the realms above the water, those below, and those dealing with the surface itself.
The plant architecture and the way each species grows had a big influence on the evolution of the forms of the viewing devices. Reflection and refraction, and transparency and projection all became part of the development of the structures.
JM: It’s been fascinating to watch The Lightening develop over the past six months. There has been a dynamic push-pull between the structures and the animation. The relationship seems to have become more complex as you fabricated the structures while working on the animation. Can you describe how the animation functions in each piece and how it relates to the form?
CD: Many projects I’ve made have looked at the way we represent the natural world through landscape, architecture and design. Patterns derived from plant life are found everywhere in design, as if stylizing the wild aspects of fractal growth helps us to comprehend it. The initial concept for The Lightening was that the structures would function as viewing devices for animations. The animations always begin as individual images or very short sequences. Here, as they developed and aggregated, they began to influence the vocabulary of the structures. Conversely the structures started to inflect the animations more and more over time. Their geometries began to sneak into the animations, slowly at first, and then in a more aggressive way. It was always my intention that they would develop together.
Early on, I thought about the way each structure would be animated. Of course, like almost every other aspect of the project, this ended up changing constantly. Eventually, each structure and animation developed a distinct relationship. On the tower-like structure, the animation is fractured and enlivens the surface from within. One structure presents a more narrative series of images of the surface of the water onto its exterior, like a skin. With the third piece, you look into it through windows to see the imagery derived from the underwater world.
JM: Concerning the animation itself, can you talk about how you develop the images moving from photo/video to drawn image to digital? And why this process works for you?
CD: Often when making a piece about a specific place, I start from observation. In this case, I took a lot of photo and short videos. I then make drawings and sketches from those photos. These drawings end up being basis for the moving images. A good number are rejected. Some make quick cameos. Some of the animations are rotoscoped from video that I shoot. For a long time, these bits and fragments accumulate in a folder that feels like a big sloppy soup. Then, like molecules that attract, certain pieces begin to stick to one another. Eventually, a kind of visual logic emerges.
The goal at the start of a new piece is to learn something. In the beginning, I’m not posing a question. I don’t even know what it is that I want to learn. I think the process works for me because in the end, I am always surprised at where I end up.
JM: There is a transition from representation to abstraction throughout, where we see a specific element found in the pool such as a water lily, a koi, or a dragonfly in motion that interrupts swirling sequences of seemingly abstract patterns which might be the water surface. Can you talk about how the animation moves between micro and macro?
CD: Since I started working on the Course of Empire series of animations, I have been increasingly interested in the tight relationship between abstract painting and the natural world. I’d say that the animations in The Lightening are a continuation of that exploration. I not only looked closely at the plant and animal life in the Aquatic Garden but I looked at those plants at the molecular scale as well. At the same time, I was captivated by a lot of art that I saw as related to what I found, including works by Dove, Birchfield, Klee and Hilma af Klint.
A limited-edition benefit print and catalog for Chris Doyle: The Lightening and Landscape Fictions (preorder) are available for purchase in The Shop at Wave Hill. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 718.549.3200 x252 for more information. All proceeds benefit Wave Hill. The print is shown above: Chris Doyle, The Lightening, 2015. Digital and silkscreen print. 20” x 20”, edition of 50. Printed by Brad Ewing and Erik Hougen, Marginal Editions.
Shown at top: Chris Doyle during the installation of The Lightening. Credit Joshua Bright..