Seeing A Human Record, for me, was like drinking good whiskey. Nostalgia and just the right amount of philosophical possibility served up in a mattress-wrapped glass. I couldn’t forget the installation because it felt like I had stepped into someone else’s memories for a minute, just to find hints of my own.
To the artist, Ashton Bird, A Human Record was kind of like an abandoned house. And after spending time with the painted mattresses and wallpaper peeling away from the structure in layers, one viewer told the installation’s curator, Sarah Odens, that it felt like “Post Apocalyptic Princess and the Pea”.
At the forefront of the installation Ashton crafted mattress-sized structures out of lumber and stacked them vertically, separated by the top layer of a mattress. He called it the filing cabinet, where “anonymous histories…[are] on file”.
Just past that, a sort of walkway lined in salvaged pallets led to an open white space, ceilinged with reclaimed lumber.
Rounding the corner again led to a space with painted mattresses lining its sides.
Mattresses and Paint
Let me tell you about those mattresses.
Pre-install, they looked like a stack of twenty in a mattress recycle store in Sioux Falls. The employees had collected them for Ashton and intoned a pseudo-apology by saying, “we tried to pick the clean ones for you”. Thing is, used mattresses have a certain…scent about them, because a chunk of a lifespan has been spent on them. Both artist and gallery didn’t want the scent of a used mattress wafting through the space, so Ashton gave them a thorough, sanitizing wash and then the health inspector looked them over.
Why mattresses? Let’s back up and I’ll tell you the story.
Once upon a time Ashton was working in the Habsburg Exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where he stared at a few tapestries on a daily basis. Those tapestries indicate a family’s lineage, and that sparked a thought: “Hey, I wonder if I could make an anonymous lineage of people’s history?”
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Minneapolis, a woman decided, for unknown reasons, to relocate her mattress. By the time she’d lugged it out of her apartment, Ashton was at the Vietnamese restaurant right next to her apartment complex and he caught a glimpse of her. He said that both the woman and the mattress she was carrying looked a little tired and worn. Kinda like a pet can start to look like its owner.
He was a senior at Minnesota State University at the time, where he started out as a ceramicist. His professors pushed him to integrate outside media with clay until “eventually clay became just a material…like a painter. A painter can paint with anything. So…I can make art with anything, and then just making a composition with that, so it’s still interesting to look at, but combines things in kind of unexpected ways.”
Like combining salvaged lumber with recycled mattresses? Yes, of course.
The Little Gallery
Kara Dirkson is the director of the Visual Arts Center at the Washington Pavilion, and she’s just as cool as her title. She says one of the benefits of the Corner Gallery is the lack of windows and its darker wall color. See, the gallery used to be a study room. But a name change and a wall demolition later and the Pavilion had gained an intimate studio right off of the Everist Gallery.
Ashton wanted to utilize the intimacy of the space by making the focal point “just me putting my energy on the mattresses,” so he painted them. “But then it turned too carnival, and then it looked like insanity…I didn’t want that. So I went through and whitewashed it to kinda tone it down,” which ultimately made room for a “kind of spiritual [feel]”.
Spiritual or commemorative, Kara pointed out that mattresses themselves record a large part of our personal histories. “All those aspects of our bodies that get absorbed into these odd things…[Ashton’s] kind of exposing them and putting them in our face.” So it makes sense that a number of conversations Ashton’s had with people at the exhibit revolve around “this reminds me of…” type of comments.
And that art has gotten people talking. Sarah says that’s quite the feat. “Because starting a conversation with art is hard, and I’m sure that that’s something you hope for…the magic of contemporary art that hasn’t been put into a historical canon is that there’s still a lot to debate and talk about it.” And Kara says those conversations are what the Pavilion hopes for with the exhibits they house in the Corner Gallery.
Now That it’s Over
When A Human Record came down, Ashton rolled it up and took it back to Tallahassee with him where his next work of art is grad school. He says he’s gravitating towards creating work with a “dreamy, dreamscape feeling” now.
I hope you got a chance to see it friends, and if you didn’t I hope Dan Thorson’s pictures in this post help dry your tears. And don’t forget to check back in a couple weeks, because I’ll be venturing back to the Pavilion to wander its galleries and tell you about their new exhibits.
Until next time.