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Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B Nguyen’s installations reimagine ways of seeing

The collaborative works of the Brooklyn-based artists Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B Nguyen trace the routes of perception to let the viewers have an immersive experience.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jul 01, 2020

The art of maximalism, with its scale and scope, manipulates our ideas of vision and two-dimensional physical spaces to add an element of newness. The creation of the larger than life experience, if involves artistic collaboration, could rightly gauge the moment to dig deeper with probing questions. One such creative collaboration runs strong between Brooklyn-based artists Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B Nguyen to produce immersive installations that investigate the ideas on memory, perception and imagination.

The zeitgeist of our times is suggestive of collaborative interrelatedness, where individualism of artistic conceptions has successfully extended its boundaries to encompass a plurality of ‘us’. In an interview with STIR, Kavanaugh talks about the journey of the creative alliance, “We began collaborating in 2005 in response to an invitation from Anna Hepler to make a work in her project space The Maproom in Portland, Maine. At the time, both of us were living and working in Brooklyn, NY, where we had by chance become neighbours in a studio building. At the time, Stephen was making conceptually-based paintings, and I was making sculptures based on human movement. We decided early on that we did NOT want to have an A+B=C type of collaboration. We did not simply want to merge our work and make painted sculptures or sculptural paintings. We wanted to have an A+B=Z type of collaboration, where our collaboration was a unique third entity”. Moving away from the formalistic nature of the autonomy of the artist and the individual life of expressive arts, the synergy of the collaborative arts has paved the way for experimentation that might seems less-plausible at the level of individual practice.

Hubris, Atë, Nemesis | Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B Nguyen | STIRworld
Hubris, Atë, Nemesis Image Credit: Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B Nguyen

The installation Hubris, Atë, Nemesis evokes the Greek mythology to give a sneak peek into what the future might hold for us. The work made of wood at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art engages with the visual vocabulary of the local community by reimagining coastal landscape of the place. Kavanaugh further explains, “Hubris Ate Nemesis was the first work we made entirely of wood. We are currently developing a permanent artwork that will make use of a whole range of plywoods, ranging from structural sheets to thin veneers that mimic the pliability of paper.” To create an immersive experience for the audience, the pathway between the artwork allows the viewers to recreate the world of art with their sense of perception.

Given the mammoth size of the works, an inquisitive mind would like to know the ideation process that leads to manifold aesthetic experience. Kavanaugh explains this, “For each project, we would essentially schedule a residency at the site where the work was to be created. Our work became deeply site-responsive and more akin to drawing than to architecture. We would begin to make marks in the space, but the form of the work would change dramatically over the duration of the installation. More recently, our work has come to rest much more heavily on digital and physical modelling. As we prepare work for a large public commission in a building that has yet to be built, our project development has become more rooted in the “fail fast, fail cheap” mindset. But our works are iterative in a much larger sense and we don’t really like to draw hard lines between one project and another, as they often build on each other. We never repeat ourselves, but our projects are iterative. We take successful elements in our projects and push them forward to become something even better”.

White Stag | Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B Nguyen | STIRworld
White Stag Image Credit: Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B Nguyen

Under the wave of urban development, the trees are unabashedly uprooted with a little scope of regeneration of the greens. The installation White Stag created out of the twisted and crumpled papers looks like overgrowing tree barks and roots. The sculpture spread at the two floors of the MASS MoCA’s exhibition entitled Material World: Sculpture to Environment highlights how the excessiveness of whether built environment or natural ecosystem could have a daunting effect on our lives. The hyperreality of the tree transcends the normality of the greens to the moment of fantasy that leaves the viewer overwhelmed.

473 Inches at 60 Frames/Second | Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen | STIRworld
473 Inches at 60 Frames/Second Image Credit: Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B Nguyen

To offer a holistic immersive experience, the artist-duo carefully select the material made from organic materials such as wood and paper. Kavanaugh emphasises the presence of immersive effects of the works, “The gallery where our first work Striped Canary on the Subterranean Horizon was made was partially submerged in the earth and we wondered if we could create a painterly engagement with the wall plane and push the viewer to imagine the landscape beyond the gallery walls. It was in our first collaborative project together that we defined a theme for our work that still holds true today. We aim to create a sculptural experience that exists at the intersection of real and imagined space. Regardless of what word we use, “enveloping” or “immersive,” our installations have always aimed to straddle real and imagined space.”

Besides the usage of mediums such as paper and wood, it would be interesting to see how the artists select rare materials from our environment and lend them a novel shape to create immersive installations. That itself may add an additional layer to interpret and carry a deeper meaning.   

Keen (No.2) in collaboration with Ivy Baldwin Dance | Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B Nguyen | STIRworld
Keen (No.2) in collaboration with Ivy Baldwin Dance Image Credit: Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B Nguyen

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