A CONVERSATION WITH RAINA BELLEAU
ON THE OCCASION OF WOANDER, CURATED BY COREY OBERLANDER AND LINDSEY STAPLETON
GRIN: How would you describe your relationship with nature? Is this something you often consider? Does living in a city affect this relationship?
Raina Belleau: I'm often bothered by my relationship with nature. Especially having lived most of my life in cities. Nature feels precious in a way that isolates it from me most of the time. I grew up loving wildlife documentaries and going on family camping trips. I have to remind myself that nature is everywhere; that there are urban ecosystems. They're just not as glamorous as the ones we see on TV. In my work, I often poke fun at my own relationship with nature, a relationship that feels very American. The hot dogs and marshmallows that appear in my work have become icons for me when it comes to thinking about this. They are very American and very much tied to nature as a leisure commodity.
G: Would you mind providing some background information about the works in Woander? Where do these ideas germinate, and why have they held your attention?
R: The three works in Woander are all about animals but they are each about animals in their own way. I've always been drawn to animals whether it's in fairytales, science, taxidermy, the zoo, etc. The human relationship with animals is long and has gotten more and more complicated.
Companion is very much about the animals that live among us: dogs, cats, household pets. These animals are familiar to us but also very different from us. They are often our closest relationship to other creatures. Companion is a grotesque creature but I gave it marshmallows to eat as a gesture of kindness towards it.
Brood takes on a totally different kindness towards animals. It was inspired by the costumes conservation biologists wear when raising endangered baby whooping cranes. They don't want the birds to bond with humans so they dress in these strange costumes and impersonate the mother birds to feed and teach the chicks. There is a dependency that is literally masked. I was interested in the bird puppet as a tool and as an animal and how they could be both simultaneously. I'm interested in the moments when they shift in between utilitarian object and animate creature.
Porcupine and the Ghost Flag sits somewhere in between the other two works. It's about the connections we feel towards animals and the disconnects. It embodies many frustrations I have about how humans look at animals and was a way for me to work through them. The tendency we have as humans to anthropomorphize rubs me the wrong way and it spurred my decision to give the porcupine a hotdog stick. I've never seen a porcupine in the wild and I took my own ignorance into account when making into more of a character. The porcupine quills are zip ties. I'm not sure how I made the mental leap from zip ties to porcupine quills, but they bring in a material connection for our human-centric attitudes. The porcupine has become a mascot for how I look at human relationships to nature.
G: Do you find that materials inform your work? Is it the other way around? Or is it in constant motion?
As an artist working with images and forms from nature, I try not to use natural objects. Making things from the natural world out of things from the constructed world is a way for me to present my ideas on how we look and think about these to seemly opposing realms. I like to use materials that mimic nature or the realistic, like the quills made out of zip ties on the porcupine or the clay hotdogs and foam marshmallows. I just made a turkey with window blinds for feathers.
In Brood I knew I'd be filming against a white wall so I found hunting camo with a white background. The idea of camouflaging against the wall was funny to me but the twigs on the fabric call the bluff. Sometimes I'm drawn to materials because of their ability (intentional or not) to mimic other materials and other times because I find them humorous.
G: You've created a pretty charismatic cast of characters with your work over the last few years. Do any of these characters have a story? If so, do you consider yourself a story teller?
R: I do consider myself a storyteller but I'm not sure how continuous the story is. Perhaps my work can be looked at like a collection of short stories with reoccurring themes. There definitely are a lot of characters. Some are related, some aren't. Porcupine and the Ghost Flag is the most connected to other works as a character. I'm thinking about my scout videos. The other two stand alone. Although, the conservationist in bird's clothing is a character I'd like to revisit. I have a few ideas percolating. I have started to work with a vulture character. He has reappeared a couple of times as a kind of defender or conqueror.
Often I feel like I might be one of the characters!