Currently on view at The New England Gallery of Latin America Art, X ME LAB is a collection of assemblages, installations and video projects by artist Vela Phelan. Recently, Phelan took me on a tour of the show, and we discussed religion, performance art, Latin American nationality and dead birds.
Matthew Nash: What is the origin of X ME LAB? Where did the title come from?
Vela Phelan: It’s actually from a piece that I made, which is in the show. It is a box that I was altering, and it said “Experiment Lab” and I started covering the letters, and X ME LAB was what came out. It seemed like a very proper description of what I do, because, for me, X is the unknown, and my person is the lab. So, my art is my experimenting with the unknown inside me.
MN: So, you are probably best known as a performance artist.
VP: Definitely. Often I collaborate with Jeff Huckleberry, we’ve been working together for over ten years. We were at the Museum School together and we had an uncanny connection, despite how different we are, we make a good pair together.
I am definitely known more as a performance artist, or a sound artist, yet these assemblages are something that I’ve always done. For the last seventeen years I’ve been making them in my house, with objects that have involuntarily accumulated in my room. What I mean by “involuntary” is that most of them were given to me, I didn’t seek them out. They just came to me.
For many years, I would ask people to give me objects that meant a lot to them, and I would make them a piece. After I finished making these objects for many friends, I wanted to make myself a piece, and that’s what X ME LAB is… it’s the piece I made for myself. Not that all art you don’t do for yourself, but in this case it was more of a gift to myself.
MN: All of the pieces in this show are very sculptural, they are delicately constructed objects. When I think of your performances, including the ones with Jeff, there seems to often be an element of construction and building, and there is a lot of destruction too. What is the connection between these pieces and the performances?
VP: That’s interesting to think about, especially when you bring up my work with Jeff, because Jeff is a factor that gets something out of me that only he can. He’s actually mutated this, what you see on the walls here, into our performances. There are a lot of similarities visually and aesthetically — I always want to include nature, representations of food, dolls, masks… So a lot of what is present here is also involved in the performances. But there is a fragility to what you see in here that you don’t necessarily find when we perform. He definitely takes the fragility away from me.
MN: A lot of the pieces here are not made to last. There are a lot of biodegradable elements — gumdrops, animal parts…
VP: Well, I think that is part of what is charming for me. I see pieces of the work lasting for a long time, or maybe added into something else. For me, that would me more of a proper life-extension for the work, rather than maintain its whole for a long time.
MN: You want these to become something new over time?
VP: Pretty much. That’s what all these objects do… what I make them do. I made them into something new. Eventually they are going to break down, and hopefully those pieces will become something new again.
MN: You seem to be pulling from a lot of different historical, political and social themes in these pieces. What is the background of this body of work? Where are these themes coming from?
VP: The background is really my psyche, I think. Sometimes I just have a certain kind of connection to these objects as I’m moving them around. I believe that there is something in me that brings all these various objects into my home, and this iconography has made itself by the nature of random collection. But it’s very distinct, it comes together in a very specific way.
I was born in the Dominican Republic, but I grew up in Mexico and Venezuela. I almost consider myself a Latin American assemblage, and I think that is in the work. Of all of my Latin roots, the one that comes out the most is Mexico, because Mexico has a lot of spiritual magic.
I definitely feel that in my assemblage work, I am mostly thinking about Mexico and my history there. It’s the only work that I think in Spanish as I make it, so I’m certainly pulling most from my Latin identity in these pieces. I feel that when I perform, it is more just me, without a nationality. I like altering gods and religious icons, and I feel that you have to be separated from a nationality in order to do that.
“X ME LAB” is on view through March 13, 2010 at NEGLAA.
Read Sandrine Schaefer’s review of X ME LAB in Big RED & Shiny #125.