By Maria McDowell
Mike, tell me again about your dad’s favorite brick!
My dad loves this brick he got from the old Chicago White Sox stadium, Comiskey Park, when they tore it down in 1990. He created a lot of wonderful memories inside that park, and he’s proud to have that brick that represents not only the physical stadium but also the attachment to something great that he shares with so many. I don’t share my dad’s sports sentimentality, but I am sentimental, especially toward art and the experiences I have with creative people. I began thinking about the dismantling of my work in sort of the same way since I lack the space to keep most of my larger pieces.
I recently found out from a friend who married into a Japanese family that in Japan they don’t have the space for graveyards, so they incinerate all of the bodies. That’s not a particularly unique thing. However, what’s compelling is their practice of having a relative go through the ashes of their loved one to find a piece of bone fragment to take home to add to their family’s collection of relics that will be passed on to the next generation. It’s a powerful thought that a dusty bone fragment becomes representative of the entire idea of a person in the minds of the living.
Reminds me of the passing down of wedding rings, visiting historical sites or unearthing dinosaur bones. Humans are inspired by the awe and wonder of it all. Your work can sometimes be mammoth in size, requiring many hours of labor intensive work. How can you let go of the product of your efforts so easily?
In many cases my work is intended to be temporary and – in rare cases – someone might want to purchase it or keep it around longer than a few months. Trying to keep my art hurts me more than disposing of them or reimagining them. Holding on to things has never served me well, even though I’m interested in why we hold on to things. I do use photography to capture my work before the dismantling begins because I still have the need to remember, collect and document.
It’s part of the human condition to find a way to keep the things we love. How important is the joy of discovery in your efforts as an artist?
Important work or work that’s touched the human experience is preserved so we can teach others about our joy or pain. A warning or a lesson exists in the process. I don’t think I deserve accolades, or that people should own a piece of debris from one of my creations, but I’m attracted to how we go about the process of honoring something or someone. For example, I would love to own one of the keys from Trent Reznor’s purposefully smashed keyboards. It’s just a broken keyboard key, but the possession of it tells a story about someone important in my adolescence and, as a byproduct, it mythologizes my youth. So, in essence, the key conveys part of my story.
Describe an instance where you struggled to let go of something.
I had a box of photographs containing every photo I had ever taken, and it was destroyed in a flood. I attempted to preserve the box that eventually became one huge moldy clump of faded images. Acknowledging that I had to let it go was not something I wanted to do, but I finally had to throw it away because it was figuratively and literally unhealthy for me. Yes, it meant something to me and holding on to every image was important to me for a while, but I came to the conclusion that it was just waiting to be destroyed. It reminded me that it’s a constant process. You build something that’s labor intensive, you cherish it, and you hope some good comes from it. Then you watch it get destroyed, you collect the artifacts of that creation to tell the story, and then that story itself gets swallowed by something else. It can be a spiritual process.
Having an experience is now considered more valuable and glamorous than buying expensive objects, and we are obsessed with purging our stuff these days. What are your thoughts on this?
Currently society is grappling with the idea of finding joy in letting go. Younger people are discovering the old concept of catch and release, if you will. Maybe the lack of job security and the lack of wanting the typical lifestyle of their parents prompted a lot of reality bending and adoption of new thought processes. Wanting less and occupying less space seems to be more commonm although we still want beauty in our homes. Someone might not have the room for one of my sculptures in their house, but they could certainly find room for a small relic of my art that’s representative of a larger piece, like my dad and his brick!
Your work seems to serve as a serious reminder of the past, and yet you also encourage people to play with the idea of childish escapism, both of which you convey with a lot of cheer. How do you view these two potentially incompatible concepts?
It seems that there is a universal tug of war with holding on and letting go. It’s a right and left-brain fight; wanting to hold on to a symbol versus letting go of an abstract thought. Both of these concepts are a perfect way to find harmony with people, because when you’re guided by example to lose yourself you become part of a group. I encourage people to connect with others. The ability to let go of ourselves and share an experience with others is what matters.
Does this process make you examine your own mortality?
I’m under the impression that when I’m dead nothing belongs to me and that my version of my narrative ends with me. I don’t care to cultivate a story that extends beyond my existence, but if the things I create carry on, so be it. I prefer to think about what those things might look like while one is still here on earth. What would it be like if we staged a eulogy for our living selves? I’m staging a grand object in my own tiny part of the world and seeing what it’s like to watch it decay into nothingness and then also watch that nothingness fade, creating a myth around that and then watch that myth fade from consciousness as well. To watch that process is what this series is all about. I get to witness this each time I make something. The experience is exquisitely fragile and temporary, and that’s beautiful to me.
Mike Stasny is an artist from the Midwest living and working out of Atlanta.
Maria McDowell holds a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the University of Florida and lives and works in Atlanta.