Between Artists: Emilie Gossiaux and DonChristian Jones
Posted May 27, 2021
The world’s monuments often tower over us, imposing a sense of hierarchy that values their impact or ideology over the interpersonal scale of our lives. Artists Emilie Gossiaux and DonChristian Jones—who are preparing new artworks in sculpture and music performance, respectively, for Open Call, and who met online to talk about their progress in late March—imagine a different expression of monumentality rooted in the intimate relationships that they’ve grown from in their lives. As the two shared more about the inspirational relationships behind their Open Call commissions, their discussion followed their hopes for what audiences will find in their works this summer at The Shed as well as their visions for living in love and interdependence in the world.

Emilie Gossiaux:
I am really inspired by the interspecies relationship that I have with London, who is my guide dog. I’ve made artwork—sculptures and drawings—of her in the past, and for my commission, I wanted to continue exploring this theme of human and animal relationships. So I started sketching out anthropomorphized animals, and drawing me and London together as a hybrid being.

Right now, I’m working on two figurative sculptures that will stand next to each other. One is of a woman’s body with a dog’s head, and the other is of a dog’s body with a woman’s head. They’ll be life-sized, holding hand in paw, and looking at each other. I envision them as being monumental, capturing this moment of intimacy. They’re going to be made out of a material called CelluClay, which is a paper pulp that you mix with water, and it dries super hard like stone, with a very stone-like appearance. I imagine they’ll seem abject and strange, but also fantastical and surreal.

DonChristian Jones:
I’m so excited by the idea of these sculptures, and to hear you say they’ll be monumental resonates so much with me. I’ve been thinking about monuments, especially as we witness the toppling of monuments and statues, and also the preoccupation with architecture and monumental architecture. I’ve been thinking about how I could install or design something that is both a testament and a testimony to honor the women that raised me, my aunt and my mother. To have it picked up by The Shed for Open Call is almost serendipitous, because The Shed very much feels like a monument to me in its vastness of its design.

“I envision them as being monumental, capturing this moment of intimacy.”

I think I first mentioned this piece going on three years ago, but as I’ve also researched, I’ve realized that I have probably been thinking about this project since I was a very little kid. In retrospect, all of my childhood drawings are of women and cars, and only that.

So, I’m thinking about this work as a living monument and a performance installation. It will be anchored in a car, with five islands inhabited each by a woman cast as representative of one of these women from my life. I’m planning on the stage as essentially the dressing room, but the audience is meant to bear witness to all of these sites, and the performances of these women are meant to surround the viewer.

Are you going to have a car in the installation?

Yes. There will be a car installed on a simulated driveway made out of wood chips. I’m really interested in how both our takes on the form of the monument are founded in love, yours for London, mine for my mom and aunts.

What you describe feels almost like a monument to an era in your life. And London is more than just a dog to me. I hope that audiences will have an emotional response to my sculptures, and will also recognize themselves in them—will see their own animal connections, or their own animalistic qualities. I want them to remember the connection that humans once had with the animal world and with nature. I’ve always been inspired by Egyptian, Greek, and Roman statuary, especially by the way they hybridized animals and humans into these God-like figures. I’m also interested in how ancient civilizations and Indigenous cultures have recognized and respected the importance of animals.

I feel you harking back to a reverence for that relationship that we may have lost. For me, the integrity of my piece means it has to be entirely for these women, my aunts and my mom. As I finish the work, as I fine tune it and finish the music, I want to be generous to them, and I believe that as long as I do that, the audience will receive whatever they are supposed to.

The Shed:
What kinds of decisions have you found yourselves making to give the emotion and affect of your work physical form?

I’m striving to be more abstract in how I do this kind of translation. When this project began, I was thinking about lighting and color coding, and ways to create a system or framework to help a viewer digest the work more easily, but now I’m working more from a place of spending time with these women. I’m driving to and from Philly in the same car that will be installed at The Shed, and to and from Atlantic City, and having phone conversations, and diving deep into their own archives and wardrobes, finding letters that were written to them, or letters that they wrote, and divorce papers. I’m really delving into these uncomfortable, and sometimes very comfortable, conversations, allowing for that to be their scent. For instance, I’m thinking about how my aunt Toni smells or her home smells—how does that translate to music? How does that translate to a musical score, and I’m trusting that my own way of translation will suffice.

I began working on this commission by making models out of clay, and something that I really enjoyed about working with this material is that it demands a lot of care, and patience and time, and sometimes mistakes, too. What I like about the clay figures that I made is that they’re doll-sized, and they can be picked up and handled. They remind me of votive sculptures, so they feel precious to me.

Now that I’ve moved away from working with clay, and started the larger sculpture work that’s made out of polystyrene foam and CelluClay, I’ve had to grapple with the scale of these sculptures. How big do I want the sculptures to be? Do I want the body of the dog to be to scale, or do I want it to be larger than life, towering over the viewer? Ultimately, I wanted to resist the temptation to idealize the bodies, so I decided that both of the sculptures would be the same height as me. I’m five feet tall, which is shorter than average, and I thought it would be important to make the figures the same height as each other, to erase the idea of a hierarchy between humans and animals, so that one is not looking down on the other. This project is also very personal to me. I realize that when I’m talking about the woman’s body and the dog’s body, I’m also thinking about how these are self-portraits, a portrait of my and London’s relationship.

As I’m working, I’m thinking about how London and I are interdependent, meaning that we’re mutually dependent on one another, and I want this piece to convey that sort of relationship.

“Our freedom, our liberation, is tied to radical joy and the pursuit of happiness that is often made inaccessible to us.”

If you don’t mind, you mentioned mistakes with regard to materiality and the making of these sculptures. I wonder what a mistake looks or feels like?

It’s like a disfiguration, something that shouldn’t be there or looks off, but I enjoy that aspect of my work. I like its strangeness, and I embrace the abnormalities.

I hear that. In terms of the personal I’m most concerned with making this joyful for me and everyone that’s in it—and peaceful and generous and all things that vibrate at a high frequency. I don’t want the women I’ve cast to play my aunts and my mother to act. I don’t want them to give in to notions of theater. I want them to simply occupy space. I want them to simply be themselves, to move like themselves, to walk like themselves, as embodiments or new versions of these women that I so love.

For so many of us who are coming from marginalized spaces, or disenfranchised spaces, or otherized spaces, our freedom, our liberation, is tied to radical joy and the pursuit of happiness that is often made inaccessible to us. I know this work will engage so many social issues, because we’re living them on a daily basis. If this work is merely a moment of escape or reprieve for us, over the course of two days, then that will be radical to me.

I love how there’s something about being selfish, in a good way, where you’re making this work for yourself and for your own joy, and for other people to experience. I’m also making this work for myself, and for my feelings for London. It feels vulnerable to put this very personal expression of human and animal love out there. Other people might find it strange.

“Love for me is a really radical idea.”

The Shed:
What does love mean to you as a concept, or as a way of living in the world?

Love for me, along with this idea of interdependence that I mentioned earlier, is a really radical idea. Our culture values independence and individuality so much. As if feeling vulnerable or needing to depend on another person or being is a bad thing. But for me, it’s such an important part of my relationships with other people, including the one I have with London. I think of the idea of love—loving yourself and other people—as a window for understanding, and that joy of acceptance is so powerful. It is in opposition to hate and to fear of the other, and of marginalized people.

I love that you equated love to acceptance, and as antithesis to fear and hate, which to me are very much the same thing. I’m thinking about love these days more as a practice, as this thing that actually we throw all out into the world and evoke so flippantly, or with this expectation that everyone understands love, and everyone is emotionally intelligent, and everyone is capable of doling out love. But I think it’s actually a much more conscious and holistic and complicated and nuanced process and practice. A daily one that has a lot to do with affirmations and yes, acceptance, and I think love is boundaries, and I think love is knowing when you got to walk away. It’s a hard practice, but it’s probably the most important one to me.

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