Ken Nintzel's "You Are Here" Presents a Celestial Atlas in Three Dimensions
Ken Nintzel (2009 Performing Arts) is premiering his Creative Capital-supported project, You Are Here, with an installation in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Lepercq Space as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival. You Are Here is a modular installation that recreates the constellations of the night sky in physical form, as they are depicted in celestial atlases, and suspends them overhead to create a life-size stellarium. Each animal and human constellation figure has embedded LED lights plotting the stars that make up the constellation. In natural light, viewers experience the three-dimensional animal and human forms; as the light fades, the figures recede into silhouette and the star patterns emerge.
I connected with Ken to learn more about You Are Here and how this project developed.
Jenny Gill: How did you become interested in the celestial atlas as a source for installation work?
Ken Nintzel: I am always on the lookout for things that really get me going, that give me ideas, that click. I came across a plate from a celestial atlas that illustrated the stellar constellations of the Northern Hemisphere in corporeal form. It pictured this giant group of wild and domesticated animals, birds of the air, creatures of the sea, mythological beasts, heros and heroines—all posed in this celestial tableau vivant. I imagined it real and imagined myself there smack dab in the middle. For some reason I have always been attracted to spectacular events that involve lots of people, activity, visual languages and symbolism, and this becomes fodder for work—like the marching band from a version of The Rite of Spring I did at CalArts or Pageant, a beauty contest structured around the life of the Virgin Mary. So the constellations and celestial atlases seemed right—they’re just teeming with activity.
Jenny: You created a related work, Exploratory Committee, in 2007. Can you talk about that in relationship to this new work, You Are Here?
Ken: Yes, Exploratory Committee was a precursor to You Are Here. I was exploring with how to physically represent the sky and the constellations. I had been pouring through image after image of the constellations as they have been illustrated in all of these atlases across the centuries—how they are depicted, their pose, their garb, their props, their relationship to the other constellations around them. There is a very rich and significant history behind why the constellations are identified as they are, where and when they appear in the sky. At a similar time I had been thinking about carnival attractions and especially about the cut-outs you stand behind and put your face through. And also the group photos you can have done where you dress up in costume and get a sepia photograph as a souvenir. A little later on I had an opportunity to participate in this group installation project at the Whitney Museum’s sculpture court, on 42nd St opposite Grand Central Station, where we would have the opportunity to engage volunteers in an activity. I painted an enormous muslin drop in black and in white the silhouettes of a dozen or so constellations as they appeared in a celestial atlas. The human constellations had openings for the volunteers to insert their faces and limbs. It was a giant celestial blanket carnival cut-out with people lying under it and posing through it as constellations like Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Virgo, Perseus, etc.
Video: Ken Nintzel, “Exploratory Committee,” 2007
Jenny: What was your process in creating these 3-D representations of constellation forms?
Ken: You Are Here was originally conceived as an installation with performance. I knew the animal constellations would be made from taxidermy forms and the object constellations would be real objects and I wanted the humans to be real people, to get as close to a tableau vivant as possible—another of my fascinations. But as I was developing the piece, two things occurred. The first was that the logistics of aerial suspension would be so physically and technically complicated, with the fact that these people would be hanging at all sorts of odd angles for long periods of time, since the constellations essentially don’t DO anything. So then the piece turned out to be all about the aerials, which is what I didn’t want.
The second issue was that, as I was working on You Are Here, I had already been moving away from performance and more towards events, happenings, immersive installations and exhibitions, so to perform the piece seemed the wrong direction to go in. Slowly the piece showed that it should be more poetic and less didactic, that the materials it is constructed from and the methods used would become the means of communication. As well, the live element of the work still remained. As the sun goes down and the natural light dims, the figures become silhouetted and the star patterns within them become more pronounced, like a reverse reveal that removes the constellation’s features, bringing them back to the points of light they originated from.
So, if not people, then what? What to use to represent the human constellations? I have a fascination with mannequins, akin to that of the surrealists, for their sense of the uncanny and as doppelgangers. But I knew I didn’t want regular mannequins as they would look too specific and contemporary. I was more attracted to the articulated mannequins from the turn of the century, so I started assembling the figures in pieces, cobbling together dress forms and tailor’s dummies, riding boot trees, articulated wooden arms and various mannequin parts. To me the human constellation figures are like life-size Santos (devotional statues of saints) or effigies of these constellation characters, and the way they are constructed emphasize a real devotional DIY quality.
To create the animals, I used foam taxidermy forms that I articulated with their specific facial and body details like eyes, ears, teeth, claws, etc. I knew I wasn’t going to use real fur and I didn’t want to get into pattern making so I discovered that I could use flocking to create a fur like appearance. The flock is applied through an electro-static process that shoots tiny fibers out of a gun towards a substrate that has been coated in adhesive. The charged fibers land end-up in the glue and therefore can be very closely applied. With a little grooming and a lot of practice, the fur has a very effective look.
I wasn’t going for hyper-realistic animals, but something more akin to how they have been represented in the celestial atlases that inspired You Are Here. For Draco, the dragon, I created a frame much like the skeleton of a snake or the bamboo structures used for Chinese dragons using PVC pipe for the spine and ribs. The scales—over 7,000 of them—are iridescent paillettes sewn onto pieces of fabric then sewn onto the frame. It took a while!
The fact that I am transforming these constellation figures into three dimensions is significant. You Are Here continues a transformation that began ages and ages ago—taking one dimensional points of light in the sky and making them into shapes, assigning them names and identities, then illustrating them in two dimensions, and finally, creating them in three dimensional, sculptural form—bringing them to “life”.
Jenny: What other projects do you have on the horizon?
Ken: While this is the premiere, the ultimate goal for You Are Here is to recreate all the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere, which is somewhere between 40 and 50. So right now I’m about half way there. I really want You Are Here to be seen in as many places, in as many configurations, as possible and for it to be experienced with the fading light effect I mentioned. As well, I would like to incorporate a star guide or storytelling element into the piece, as a way of sharing some of the ancient mythology and modern significance of these celestial constellations. So there is definitely work to be done.
In terms of other projects, I have a theatrical work in mind that sets folk songs to jazz. It’s called Frances Faye Sings Folk Songs, and I was just accepted to Labapalooza, a new puppet theater lab at St Ann’s Warehouse, to develop this work. I would also like to continue creating installations and designing exhibitions. I am really excited by the possibilities of immersive environments, where things unfold around the viewer. Overall, I am really trying to just keep following my impulses. I don’t want to be fettered by discipline or medium when creating work—the ideas I get tell me what medium they should be made in or expressed through—and I get all sorts of ideas about all sorts of things.
Ken Nintzel’s “You Are Here” is on view at BAM’s Lepercq Space (30 Lafayette Avenue, upstairs), Brooklyn, NY, through December 22, 2013, as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival.