Postmodern Femininity: A Conversation with Molly Dierks

Test Tube Baby No. 1 , Cast aluminum, wax, urethane, plastic, resin, plaster, paint, spray paint, Floam, Silly Putty, toys, found objects, 10 x 5 x 5 inches, 2016

Test Tube Baby No. 1, Cast aluminum, wax, urethane, plastic, resin, plaster, paint, spray paint, Floam, Silly Putty, toys, found objects, 10 x 5 x 5 inches, 2016

Artist Molly Dierks views biology and technology as related, socially constructed systems from which we attain historically specific and deeply held notions of self and our place in the order of things. And, it is the artist's obsession with the facture of things that allows her to begin to deconstruct the ontology of objects and systems from initial questions of "how" the objects of inquiry were made. Thus, Dierks is an artist concerned with process only as it relates to questions of power and agency, and her methodology ranges from appropriations of industrial techniques, into which she occasionally introduces handmade techniques, to assemblage of found readymade cast-offs of industrial production. In this interview Dierks speaks to Peripheral Vision about the dominant themes in her art and how pedagogy informs her practice. Follow the link below to view an exhibition curated by art historian Eric Stryker.


What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?

My practice looks at the themes of alienation and intimacy mediated through processes related to industrial production, where machine-body analogies figure prominently as metaphoric tools.

I have been using industrial processes, forms, and materials to examine a space between ‘function’ and ‘dysfunction’: The lack of function of objects or forms we associate with having a function (for example a rug that is not a rug in Rorschach made of stuffed animals and clothing that are rendered functionless, or Neon Shopping Cart - a shopping cart constructed of neon) act as a stand-in, a physical metaphor for ‘functionality’ as a psycho-social construct. The question of dysfunction as it refers to people is a very personal one to me, one that touches on my relationship with my mother, and to a history of ‘emotional/ mental’ dysfunction in my family.

To explore the space where humans and machines are analogized according to function,  and my place in it, I have familiarized myself with the processes of industrial manufacturing by approaching people in different industries for help with projects, and by learning these processes myself through rigorous application. Neon is just one material I use but it is representative of the way I investigate industrial processes by familiarizing myself with them and utilizing them: before the cart was fabricated supported by a grant, I did a year long residency with a neon bender in Richmond, Virginia. Through that process of fabrication by benders in Detroit, I learned about how industrial optimism deflated with the loss of so much industry in that city. For Hardbodies, a project which took over a year, I took a class to learn how to hand-lathe aluminum stock, taught myself how to lathe wood, learned the process of water jet cutting mirrors and found some automotive painters to apply color. In learning about the industrial process that engender a loss of contact with origin of the objects we consume, I am looking at the push and pull between material intimacy and alienation.



A sense of both intimacy and alienation extends to how I also look at my own relationship with femininity through gender performance, my body, and my relationship with my mother - and to motherhood in general. When I made the immersive interactive digital installation Postmodern Venus, which uses a technology that appears as a 3-dimensional hologram, I was looking at technology as a means of putting our bodies and our identities outside of ourselves. The 1950’s bathing cap and costume touch on roles women have been handed through the century that look at feminine ‘function’ - Venus of Willendorf, a 1950’s bathing beauty or synchronized swimmer, a fembot, an idealized marble bust. Probing the mysterious overlap between motherhood, machinery, and industrial production extends to pieces like Rorschach, a rug made from torn stuffed animals, which I designed after the pop psychology Rorschach blots. Rorschach blots occupy an interesting space of intimacy and anonymity, a mechanized set of forms that permeate popular culture meant to predict our presumably intimate and unique innermost emotional landscape. Rorschach forms are also interesting to me in the way they nearly always position the mother, through a culturally sanctioned and scientifically approved yoni, as a vessel, or maw, from which our emotions (unmanageable, raw, insane, mad, abnormal, dysfunctional) develop. In many ways, in the making of Rorschach, I thought about birth and rebirth. There is a kind of intimate violence embedded in that piece that comes from this tearing and stitching. Gestation is the ultimate material enmeshing, yet is followed by a slow alienation and distancing in the process of becoming a functioning individual, an adult, separate in body and spirit from the mother, but also bound. The process of tearing apart stuffed animals made by bodies – likely women – in another country, unseen to me and anonymous, mirrored the themes of alienation, violence, and intimacy in this piece, 3 themes always present in my work, even as it is changing.


What work in your portfolio do you consider your most pivotal accomplishment and why?

As I grow older and more in touch and comfortable with my own vulnerability, so too, has my practice changed, moving away from a pre-designed ideal based on a notion of perfection that mirrors the machination I am fascinated by, to a place that is more awkward, more bodily, and more imperfect, and unpredictable- using movements like dripping and pouring in experimental examination of process, body energy, and un-knowable outcomes influenced by mood, the weather, a random encounter or spontaneous movement. Stated another way, my work is moving away from a reliance on a design methodology – where the piece is pre-conceived and executed laboriously-  toward an intuitive, gestural practice, where the piece changes as it is being made. In this way, Test Tube Babies are pivotal work for me: the piece combine my love of industrial materials and processes (like aluminum casting, working with urethanes, rubber dyes, and plastics) with a spontaneous process of collecting that has been following me for several years and has finally found its place in my work, versus working solely as visual inspiration in my studio. Items like discarded styrofoam, plastic cord, bubble wrap, a plastic bag made their way into Test Tube Babies - items collected from what I think of as ‘borderlands’. Neither wild, nor completely tamed, areas like parking lots and medians function as unique spaces in post-industrial culture where human culture and nature dance, both intimately situated, and juxtaposed in an alienated psychological stance. This work feels gentler, more relaxed and spontaneous, but is also born of a desire to decrease the distance between myself and the geography (social, psychological, and physical) I find myself in in the Anthropocene era.


Art Make-Up: After Bruce Nauman, single channel video, 38:00, 2014

What is next for you in your art practice?

Currently, I am working on a large-scale installation for a solo show at 500x Gallery in Dallas. This work will again combine industrial materials and practices, with found objects, both natural (branches, moss) and artificial. This work continues to look at intimacy and alienation in contemporary society, and is born from work I recently dove into in a residency in Finland, where my encounter with nature was profound and practice-altering. The methodology behind these works is both open-ended and precise, requiring patience and spontanaeity and I am very excited about it. The installation will appear as a kind of strange forest – a series of islands where small and large ‘trees’ are embedded in discarded Styrofoam and combined with living and artificial cultures and growths. The appearance of the installation are fashioned after the Japanese Ikebana style of flower and tree arrangements: bent, somewhat grotesque, but elegant, and beautiful, haunting and strange. As with my other work, this installation will be surreal, both visually inviting and unsettling, referencing machine/human culture through the use of petri dishes, plastic nipples, acupuncture needles, and plastic tubing.


Describe your work as an educator or administrator and how this relates to your personal art practice.

I love my practice, but teaching is a living, breathing creature, and it inspires me. Before I taught Sculpture and Extended Media at Tarleton State University, it was Calculus and then Italian. I have just always always taught; it’s a part of who I am, as much as collecting strange objects and quizzing people on how things are made.

Sculpture is the realm where-in I can teach students to think critically about the world that surrounds them, to reconsider or re-frame the history of how objects, images, and systems that surround and support them are created. It’s my hope that my students to consider their role within these systems as questioners, disrupters, and observers. Nothing in this world is more important because this is where the most pivotal human inventions and trajectory-altering endeavors come from.

I want my students to study themselves in day-to-day activity to find their methods and sources of inspiration, and to question themselves, their family structures, their cultural heritage, the communities in which they live, both immediate and at large.

My methods are focused on integration over categorization: Where do process, material, form, and presentation meet in your work and why? What disciplines, passions, histories, questions do you pull from and why?

I like alternative narratives in my work – what was this person doing over here on the side during this period - and why aren’t we talking about this? Is it because they were Native American, black, ‘queer’, female? What can we do about this now? How does sculpture merge with contemporary literature, cinema, music? I have to admit, this approach is often accompanied by a certain amount of worry - am I sidelining myself by putting forth these lines of inquiry when my colleagues are addressing a more Eurocentric male art historical perspective? Ultimately, though, that’s simply not as interesting to me as looking at different voices and interesting contemporary practices because I want the students to see that everything is a system. The best work comes from questioning the system, the status quo.

Community is also so important to me. Teaching is where I foster and take part in an exciting community on a daily basis. I think of my teaching practice in the same way that I think of a garden I am tending to - each of the students has their own needs, their own schedule of expansion, their own wish for shade or light at different times that I must learn, observe, and try to respect while acclimating them to some of the discomfort that comes with growth, the same qualities I try to nurture in my personal practice. Teaching is where I can plant seeds and harvest thoughts that will bloom according to their own timeline into something unique, genuine, and personal. It’s always my deepest hope that my students, whether in my class or two years down the road, will blossom and proffer new growth in other gardens elsewhere, in their journeys. On the days where I feel like I am doing this whole mentoring thing right, we are growing together.