I spoke with Lethbridge artist David Hoffos a few days ago on the eve of his excellent, magical exhibition Scenes from a House Dream, a long term, five-phase series of illusionary installation works that premiered in 2008 in Lethbridge, Alberta at The Southern Alberta Art Gallery, before going to the National Gallery in Ottawa (where I saw it.) The show is now at MOCCA in Toronto and will soon head to Calgary’s Illingworth Kerr Gallery. The touring exhibition is curated by Shirley Madill and circulated by Rodman Hall Art Centre.
Scenes from Scenes From The House Deam, Phase Two: Airport Hotel. Image: seemagazine.com
Scenes from a House Dream
Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA)
September 10 – 31 December, 2010
Another still from Scenes from a House Dream. Image: Viewoncanadianart.com
Five phases to the work; Five questions from VoCA:
VoCA: What led you to work with holographic techniques?
DH: It’s not actually holography, which uses lasers in a coded film. I had been making mini models for a few years and needed to see them animated – I had to come up with a low cost way of making 3-d models. So they are actually 2-d. They interact with the space of the model, and I use forced perspective so that they appear ghostly. They are reflections, they are TV monitors, reflected.
(My technique) was the result of experimentation in my studio. It goes back to the ancient Egyptians, who used a piece of glass to make things appear and disappear, like a water glass inside a box. Like Pepper’s ghost, where off stage actors could appear as ghostly images. So my technique has historical precedent, though for me it was an honest discovery. It’s rare for the artist to have that moment of discovery. I immediately thought that the applications would be unlimited.
Strangely, (at the time) I had a dream where I was on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, which uses the same technique. (In my dream), I could take apart the way the illusions were operating. The next day in my studio, the very materials that I would need were already on my table. It only took about 30 minutes to set up.
VoCA: Like it was meant to be!
DH: Yes, and I’ve been using that technique in my work since 1998. You can see the evolution from 2003 – 2008 in the exhibition. If you look closely, you can see the modifications.
It’s a different show here in Toronto (than at the National Gallery.) We have a 5000 sq ft installation inside a 3000 sq ft space. It’s much denser. This was a particular challenge and we had to design things carefully to make the space work.
VoCA: What I found most interesting about your work is that the viewer plays a part in it, he/she has to figure it out, and his/her role as a viewer is highlighted. Why is this important to you?
DH: I want the viewer in a position of dominance. I want them to make choices – where they can make the choice to be seduced by the illusion. There’s a moment that triggers them. I’m using illusion to talk about illusion. The viewer must be surprised, shocked. It’s a discovery when they realize (what they’re looking at).
I need the viewer to go on a journey that puts them in a position of dominance. It seems that I’m creating a trap but in fact (the viewer is) the ambulatory centre of the work , he or she decides what to do. It’s a cliché, but the viewer does complete the work that way. They provide the mind body centre of the experience.
Going though a dark curtain there’s an automatic suspension of disbelief that puts the viewer in the zone of alertness so that they are susceptible to the illusion effects.
VoCA: Art that has a ‘wow’ factor, or a magical quality, seems to be especially popular now, particularly with installation work. Why do you think this is?
DH: We live in a world where it’s harder to create the wow factor, with interactive technology etc. I think any consumer of culture still needs to nurture a sense of wonder. A lot of this spectacular work – is an acknowledgment that it’s harder to get peoples attention. Using home technology to create these moments of spectacle…for me it’s a way to separate myself, to not blend in with other artists. I have found a territory for myself that is purposeful and recognizable as mine. I can fully inhabit that territory and use it to entertain, amaze, shock, scare…
VoCA: You live and work in Lethbridge, Alberta – of all places. Do you ever think of leaving? What do you think of the fact that so many Canadian artists leave for major art centres like NY, London, Berlin? Have you ever been tempted?
DH: I came to Lethbridge by default. I was trying to go to film school, and I was rejected. So I decided to go to art school and I ended up in Lethbridge because they didn’t require a portfolio. Once I was there, I saw the advantages. There was more studio space, and the mental and physical space to work on the scale I do. When I talk to students I try to get them to think about where their network is. If it’s in a big city, then (I tell them to) use that; if it’s in a small city, then use that. I’ve seen so many young artists move and just become anonymous and maybe even stop making work. I’ve found there are less distractions here.
Lethbridge is a place that the world comes to. It has one of the best visiting artist programs in the country. People come through – all the movers and shakers in the art world. You can build a network in Lethbridge. My agents are other places, though, so my network expands beyond Lethbridge and there’s no need for me to move beyond there.
The impulse to go where the action is, is faulty because the action should be in your studio not the streets of a big city.
VoCA: Scenes from a House Dream has been a major, multi-year, ongoing project. What’s next for you?
DH: I’ve got a few things on the books – I do some art direction and design for stage – so I’ll be translating my techniques to the stage, and possibly film as well. This tour continues for a while, to the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, which is the last Canadian stop on the tour. I’ve lived with this exhibition for seven years, so it is harder to still care about it on the level I need to, but the initial impulse was to make smaller work. Ironically, I was trying to make work that was more containable.
I now have a taste for the multi-year project, so my next one is going to be similar but working with life-size natural historical dioramas, with larger effects that would be more elegantly displayed in the gallery – maximized with techniques from scenes with an HD, plasma screen kind of level. I’ll take it in to the next version of the technology. I’ll probably stay away from computers, working more with analogue video and digitally mastering it.
It will be a walk through history of a “museum of the strange and wonderful”, with cave paintings, a re-creation of the moon landing, these kinds of big events put through the filter of my technique. But fundraising is the first thing. I had a fire last year in my studio so I’m rebuilding. That’s a priority. I’ve been sketching out some ideas, so I won’t start production until the spring of next year.
VoCA: Ok that’s great, thanks David.