Earlier this month, multimedia artist Jacolby Satterwhite mingled with the Guggenheim Young Collectors Party. He is perhaps best known for his maximalist 3D animations, and a preview of his latest video project was to be shown on the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda. He had made the final edits up to the event.
“This is by far the greatest labor of love I’ve had,” he said. “The scale and vibrancy of the piece was a feat I thought I couldn’t handle.”
Pygmalion’s bad season is Satterwhite’s 27-minute symbiotic companion to ugly season, the just released album from Mike Hadreas, who performs and records as Perfume Genius. The collaboration grew out of mutual fandom; after the two were introduced and embarked on a year-long phone relationship, the project sprouted organically.
The video features the artist, Hadreas, and an all-male coterie in a metaverse modern dance recital. What begins as a queer animated fantasia turns into a live-action relief escapism. Far from MTV fodder, Satterwhite’s epic digital maelstrom pits shattering, streamlined utopian visions against a meditation on the human condition. As with his previous works, the video evokes a feverish dream world that is as visually compelling as it is difficult to decipher.
“Jacolby taps into pure chaos,” says Hadreas. “There are a million competing ideas about the future, and then there’s a lot about family, memory, and the past – all at once. But in the end, it’s harmonious and elegant, even s there are so many elements.
On June 1, the evening of the Guggenheim soiree, Hadreas was in the basement locker room. He seemed calm before his performance. The day had been good. Earlier, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their first song in nearly a decade, “Spitting from the end of the world,for which he had provided guest vocals and a video cameo. But Perfume Genius went far beyond traditional indie-rock styles. of soul, dub, electronics and strings – the perfect experimental backdrop to inspire your collaborator.
“Jacolby’s animation and the way he does things is very physical and spiritual,” Hadreas noted.
Later that night, Satterwhite beamed as her dreamscape lit up the room. Party guests danced under a towering image of a shirtless man cradling Hadreas as lava swirled around them.
Satterwhite took a break from adapting the video into a longer two-channel installation for next month. Front International: Cleveland Contemporary Art Triennial (opening July 16) to discuss the Perfume Genius project and other projects.
Pygmalion’s bad season is a huge undertaking. Where will he live beyond YouTube?
I do not know. The concept of the piece is rooted in something I’ve been working on for two years,”Dawn», a public commission and a work of art that I made in Cleveland. I spent the lockdown commissioning drawings from homeless people, teachers, students, and essential workers in this black neighborhood.
I would redeem Amazon and Netflix gift cards [with the public] for the drawings. The prompt was, “What is your utopia perspective?” I had a line that represented different ideals and capitalisms, whether it was urban infrastructure or Cadillac and Rolex. Some were rooted in family and motherhood. Some were poetry, others philosophy. Some were about nature and pets. I kind of turned this town into Pygmalion during their darkest hour. I had to mediate: What is utopia for them?
I took these drawings and traced them for six months, and built all of the wacky objects you see in this video. It relates to Perfume Genius because ugly season promotes and lyrically studies the same ideas, about utopianism and the search for a partner and a man and idealizes it so much that it is unrealizable.
There are themes that run throughout the album: songs about health, the human body and healing. The album is existential, experimental and atmospheric, and it coincided with what I was doing. Our friendship feeds on the synchronicity of where we were going conceptually. I thought it would be interesting if the stories and words of ugly season have been put into this world that I have built.
The film begins with you sitting down, almost naked, before your body fades into symbols.
You see maps on my chakras, basically dissecting my body. The camera zooms in on each chakra and you basically enter different portals of capitalist desire. At the end of the video, they reform me to wholeness, bringing me back to secular space.
Are all the visual elements of your work representative or are some things purely aesthetic?
Everything I do has meaning and purpose. Well, the formalism comes first. I am a painter; I come from painting. You can’t really communicate without knowing what form, color, line, space and light can do to convey meaning. I do things by myself. I work with lighting, rigging, rendering shapes, and coding things, so gravitational liquids can fall to the surface convincingly. Or I’m working with how a lighting system can cause fog and atmosphere and dust to appear on a body while you’re using the camera to create depth of field, and you have to use some type of code to make the field depth occur.
I wake up at 7:00 a.m. and work from 8:30 a.m. or 9:00 p.m., thinking “How can I make this fit together like a Hieronymus Bosch or Peter Paul Rubens or a modernist painting?” The best way to seduce and manipulate the viewer into your conceptual terrain is to be a master of color, light and form, and that’s my thing. I am a colorist.
Your work is also often about dance. Perfume Genius based this album after a dance project, and you dance together in your collaboration. Can you tell us about the influence of dance?
Movement has been a big part of my practice for over a decade – originally it was because I had no one else to play with. [in my videos]. I went to University of Pennsylvania for my MFA after Maryland Institute College of Art for undergrad. I studied painting, but started doing video animation and experimental art after school. In a way, I went into it with a very roundabout experimental process. But I was a big art history nerd and I have people I looked up to. My devices were regimented by late modernist artists.
When it comes to dance, I was inspired by [the choreographers Pina Bausch, William Forsythe, and Anne Teresa De Keersmaker—their Modernist movement styles and how they were able create interesting shapes compositionally for a still or a moving image. It felt like these movement styles were kind of object-oriented, and that allowed me to do my own on a green screen with composite objects on top. I can actually do interesting time-based narratives with image composites and 3D animations. It was sort of about composition and interactivity.
I sent Mike [Hadreas] hours of images of my movement. When we met in person, I gave choreographic gestures. My instructions were open-ended, but there was structure, because I knew what I wanted to animate.
Language is binding and language has limits. The movement is universal and can also act as a Rorschach test which leads to a more open narrative construction. It allows me to dive into iterative and constantly inventive visual abstractions.
It is remarkable that you have completed this project in such a short time.
I was just finishing a painting show for MoMA PS1 and I’m getting ready for my show at Lincoln Center. There were so many things on my plate. We were filming in February, when I was teaching at Yale and doing stuff at the University of California, Los Angeles.
But I squeezed the time, and it was a pretty tough feat. I didn’t leave the house except occasionally, and I was crazy. It was very painful, but it was rewarding. I like what I do. It makes me really happy. Although I may have periods of depression or anxiety about it, there is nothing better than performing something that pushes you forward.
Anxiety and depression are often part of the creative process.
The key to happiness is having a mix of dystopia and utopianism, because it’s so relative. You don’t understand light without having darkness.
We all yearned for utopia during the pandemic shutdowns. We needed escape. That’s why the disco is so great.
But even the disco is dystopian, in some ways the politics of nightlife. There is a lot of joy and there is a lot of transgression and self-destruction. It’s a bit like Dante’s Inferno: if the world were utopian, we wouldn’t have a happiness index.
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