UMaine sculptor explores the
twilight zone between fact and fiction in our media-saturated culture
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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 7July 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
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