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Sam van Aken


Altered States
UMaine sculptor explores the twilight zone between fact and fiction in our media-saturated culture

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Just how many times can a man die?

Thirteen, according to Sam van Aken.

One man died in Los Angeles in 1985 and in Vietnam in '86. The same man was crucified near Jerusalem in 1988, was decapitated when he fell on his sawed-off shotgun in Big Tuna, Texas, two years later, and succumbed to hunger, cold and madness after 11 days subsisting on cheese crackers while ice fishing on Maine's Moosehead Lake in '92.

He also died in St. Martin, Prague, Beijing and New York City.

So how many times can we watch a man die before becoming jaded to the macabre, trapped in the twilight between fiction and fact?

That's the real question, says van Aken, an artist whose multimedia sculptural installations like The Multiple Deaths of Willem Dafoe are increasingly capturing the attention of art critics and audiences.

"I don't like to be didactic; I'm not trying to teach anybody," says van Aken, an assistant professor of art at the University of Maine. "But I do want to engage them in questioning. My works deal with historical themes — art, life, death, love. I'm trying to look at how technology and mass media change our perceptions about those themes. By involving viewers in questioning, I'm involving them in how popular culture and mass media are impacting them."

Van Aken has a heightened awareness of the subtle, subversive and sublime media-saturated cultural influences and life experiences that shape us. He is driven by inspiration and intuition. His work explores that increasingly indistinguishable gap between fiction and reality, and leaves us questioning not only what we know, but how we know it.

Take The Multiple Deaths of Willem Dafoe. In 13 movies, including Platoon, The Last Temptation of Christ and Spider-Man, the actor dies one horrific cinematic death after another. Yet viewers unconsciously suspend reality to watch the actor rise from the dead to take on another role.

In his multimedia installation, Van Aken takes this deathwatch to its "absurd but logical conclusion" — a funeral. On six black and white television sets surrounded by white floral arrangements, the death scenes from the Dafoe classics run simultaneously. Mozart's Requiem melds with sights and sounds of violence; electrical cords ascend to the ceiling.

The Multiple Deaths of Willem Dafoe, which debuted in Boston in 2003, prompted an e-mail from the actor to van Aken, in which he quipped that he hoped the streak of death scenes was not a career trend.

For van Aken, the career trend is Marshall McLuhan-ist — the medium is the message.

"Art is not necessarily an object or something contained; it's something between the viewer and artwork itself," says van Aken, who has been invited to spend this fall in residency at Tacheles, the largest art center in Berlin, Germany. "I approach art as a situation, rather than creating an image and having people perceive it. Through this the viewer becomes more involved in the act of questioning."


Theoretical aspects of '60s and '70s Minimalism, as well as his working-class background, sculpted van Aken's psyche and now echo in his work.

As a double major in communication and fine art at Slippery Rock University, van Aken learned about semiotics — the study of symbols — and the aesthetic model of communication. He dabbled in video production and learned graphic design, which ultimately landed him an opportunity to study and work in London in 1994.

In those early days, van Aken admits, the works of American Minimalist sculptors like Donald Judd appeared to him to be "just geometric forms." Yet he knew there had to be something more. Like Alice determined to get through the tiny door to Wonderland, van Aken spent afternoons in London's Tate Modern galleries. Ironically the paintings of the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko were van Aken's bottles labeled "DRINK ME," giving him access to a world where he now speaks the language fluently through his art.

"The Mark Rothko paintings were big colored fields with nothing representational. All these large blocks. I sat there an hour before I finally realized I was lost in them. I was providing the imagery and the works, the meditative state. After that, it was easy to see how Minimalist art is working. It's based on the visual, but also on the physical perception."

Van Aken's Minimalist approach expanded in the mid-'90s when he traveled to Poland as part of an international artist exchange. There, he met Poland's radical, Modernist artists who had just emerged from under the thumb of communism. They had spent years subverting the government and flirting with imprisonment, making art without traditional materials and holding one-night exhibitions in friends' living rooms.

"From them, I realized how important art is," says van Aken, who worked and later studied at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, Poland. "For years, they provided an alternative perspective of what the government was feeding everyone. I borrow a lot of that philosophy in what I do."

By 1996, Van Aken had moved to New York City to take up his career in graphic design. But he was restless, increasingly questioning his life, until one day he stashed $500 in his pocket, threw two suitcases and his fly-fishing gear into his car and drove west. He was headed for adventure and open spaces in the tradition of the Zane Grey novels he read as a kid.

He stayed in Oregon for three years. It's there that his education, travel and life experiences coalesced, and his art began to take shape.

For van Aken, the many facets of Minimalism that some critics initially deprecated are the very characteristics he champions. "Minimalism which was initially criticized as being too theatrical, because it required a viewer to perform with the work in order to get anything out of it," he says. "Yet that's the magic — the strongest element — of it. I get caught in the performative aspect, the interactivity that's close to what we have going on in a technologically driven culture."


Van Aken is a young artist with the sense to tap life experiences that leave indelible impressions and the sensibility to articulate the unspoken. Above all, he knows that art has the power to "change the way people see."

For instance, Hybrids takes up the contradiction between genetic modification and natural reproduction. As an adult, van Aken was surprised to learn that genetic modification is increasingly part of the production and processing of the foods we consume. As a child growing up on a Pennsylvania farm, the annual grafting of cherry trees in his grandfather's orchard mystified him.

"It amazed me that you could grow a new form out of something else," he says. "Even then, I knew it was tinkering with nature. It was scary."

His Hybrids installation in 2005, at the University of Massachusetts and then at UMaine, featured a forest of 20 vertical structures affixed with small Plexiglass shelves arranged in the spiral pattern of a helix. On each shelf perched a piece of mutated plastic fruit — hybrids like peach -banana and apple-strawberry.

"I don't necessarily approach art from a logical or a conceptual standpoint," van Aken says. "If I do there's no transcendent quality for me or the viewer. Intuitively, I know what I want to say; logically, I may not have a grasp on it. There are a lot of surprises for me in the pieces. It's a real introspective process, but I'm also researching the world around me to find a way to articulate it. I operate from states or a certain feel, looking around to find what something means, where it exists.

One of van Aken's works, Oh My God, is his response to Sept. 11. The artist had been in New York City three weeks before the terrorist attack. He also had just moved to Maine, having finished graduate school earlier that year at the University of North Carolina.

"Seeing the second plane fly into the tower over and over on television was numbing," says van Aken. "What also stood out was a woman's voice in the background, screaming ‘oh my God.' Living in Maine, the media brought this whole thing to me.

"The next time I went to New York, driving into the city from New Jersey and looking at the skyline without the towers really impacted me. I also realized how the media had been controlling my psychological state."

Van Aken began collecting "oh my God" sound clips wherever he found them — news clips, action movies, sitcoms and porno films. He also started buying used stereo speakers of all shapes and sizes.

The result is an installation of 180 speakers stacked like bricks, each eerily whispering those three little words. After nine minutes, the sound has built to a cacophony — a dissonant wailing wall of emotion.

"How does the media determine our different psychological states — shock, terror, grief — or our intellectual footing?" says van Aken. "To what extent is media shaping our reality?"

After 9-11, Van Aken heard eyewitness accounts describing the World Trade Center disasters as being "just like the movies." That's when he started looking even closer at derealization, the altered state in which reality feels unfamiliar.

"Movies become yardsticks by which we measure our lived experience," van Aken says. "Trends in our culture, all disseminated through the media, often are adopted and not even considered. If our day-to-day lives aren't equivalent to movie dramas, people feel inadequate. That gets to celebrity worshiping and contributes to the star culture. That also places an importance on images — including those images of ourselves as reflected in those throughout mass culture."

For van Aken, those images started with the 1977 Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first movie van Aken ever saw in a theater. He was 5. "In many ways I remember scenes from that movie more vividly than actual lived experiences I had at that age, the final scene with the light behind him as he enters the alien ship, the mashed potatoes in the living room: Those are the things you don't forget."

For his most recent installation project, Becoming, van Aken spent more than two years taking on the persona of Roy Neary, the character Richard Dreyfuss played in Close Encounters. Van Aken gained 30 pounds, grew out his sideburns and retraced the protagonist's pilgrimage from Muncie, Ind., to Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. For the reenactment, van Aken bought an '86 Buick station wagon.

Becoming featured a living room movie set, complete with the sculpted mountain, stills in which van Aken took on Dreyfuss' poses, video of the artist's journey and film footage — even the $300 Buick.

In this process of Becoming, van Aken noticed that he wasn't so much recreating the movie as he was creating something new — constructing an identity, a life, a world with its own props, sets and supports. But in these recreations, he could never quite get it right, and from the humor and absurdity in his failure, he began to draw a comparison with Don Quixote, whom van Aken sees as not so much delusional as much as "purposely taking up a fiction to make up for the inadequacies he perceived in the world around him." From that point on, the project focused on those gaps between fiction and reality.

"I got great reactions from this piece. It's not that people said, ‘oh, I get it,' but they reacted because it was filled with multilayered contradictions, allowing people to question their own identities as constructs," says van Aken, who debuted Becoming at UMaine. It most recently was installed at Colby College Museum of Art in the second annual emerging artist exhibition, currents2.

Van Aken's next exhibition is June 7–July 30 at the Maine College of Art's Institute of Contemporary Arty in Portland. From Baja to Bar Harbor: Transnational Contemporary Art will feature large-scale video and installation works by three emerging artists working in different corners of North American: Michele O'Marah of Los Angeles, Julio Morales of San Francisco and van Aken.

Oh My God will be there, a looming wall of 350 speakers amplifying life's agony and ecstasy.

"I'm trying to convey a perception of the world," van Aken says. "It may sound like an old-school artist, but it's a form of communication on a level that transcends logic and rational thought, that touches people through sight, sound, and three-dimensional form.

"Fluxus artist Robert Filliou once said, art is what makes life more interesting than art. Art does that for me," says van Aken, "and a lot more. It's hard to imagine not doing it."

by Margaret Nagle
May-June, 2006

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