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Navigating The Enchanted Forest

Kristi Malakoff

By only

Wednesday June 29, 2005

A Conversation with Kristi Malakoff

The Enchanted Forest is a show featuring work by local artists Jared Ferguson and Kristi Malakoff, both recent graduates of Emily Carr Institute. The show is based around the idea of ‘enchantment’ and consists of a dozen works, six by each Ferguson and Malakoff. Where Ferguson’s works are 70’s nostalgic sculptural works, with echoes of artist Joseph Cornell, Malakoff’s installations consist of meticulously cut-out images creating both miniature dioramas, as in the namesake of the show, a tiny forest sitting on the floor made of cut-out trees and figures, as well as immersive large-scale pieces like Swarm, which encompasses two walls with life-size cut-outs of full-colour butterflies.

ONLY: What was the initial idea for The Enchanted Forest?

**Kristi:* Since I first met him 3 years ago, I’ve always really loved Jared’s work and have had a lot of respect for what he does. Our work also shares a lot of similar themes, and I wonder if we have been subtly influenced by each other over the years — we both use birds, trees, literary themes, etc, in our work. I think our work really compliments and strengthens the other.

Having started talking about doing a show together around Christmas, at first we were trying to find the connections and common interests. It came out that we both grew up reading fantasy novels (especially CS Lewis), we both loved Disneyland (I was going there for the holidays), and we were both using nature themes a lot in our work–and we were both born in Penticton!

In thinking about filling the space, we were both leaning towards creating a mix of a gallery-wide installation (creating a fantastical environment for the viewer) and more individual pieces. Both of us were fascinated with the Grimm Brothers fairytales and were intrigued with how they were supposed to be for children but, like all 19th century fairytales, were actually quite horrific and violent. The idea of dualities was present right from the start–we were interested in beauty but also beauty that has gone over-the-top; a sense of awe, but also the feeling of being completely overwhelmed.

Initially, we were also interested in notions of the journey–the base of all great narratives. In fairy tales, the basic premise usually seems to be a naïve character that sets out on an adventure of some sort, undergoes trials and returns in a slightly altered state. In considering all these ideas, The Enchanted Forest seemed to fit well. It pulled in literary references, denoted a fantastical environment and hinted at a journey of some sort (don’t most 19th century characters have to travel through this forest at some point en route?!).

ONLY: Where would you place your influences?

K: My primary influences come directly out of past experiences or clips from my memory. I am not consciously aware of being influenced by theory or other practicing artists (though, invariably, some elements must seep in to some degree). My personal development was strongly shaped, I think, by my exposure to all these great books I read as a child. It is not that I reference them directly, but they seem to have informed the way I look at the world.

For example, as a kid, I had a lot of extra-curricular stuff going on. Reading and letting myself escape into a story was the one way I could cope with all the discipline in my life. Now, as an artist, I want to recapture this feeling of being immersed by the work and letting myself be overtaken by it.

Some form of fantasy and escapism is essential for human emotional and mental health (it is/was in my case, for sure!). When I make work, it is almost like it takes on a life of its own. I want to be enchanted by the work, but I also want to enchant the viewer–show them how great it is to be momentarily transported somewhere away from the responsibilities of “real” life.

ONLY: How do you perceive your childhood experiences informed your current practice?

K: All of my life experiences, childhood or otherwise (many of my interests have remained the same!), have had a major impact on my art practice. I seem to work more instinctively than academically. When I have an idea for a project, it sort of comes to me all at once and is usually the manifestation of some previous experience or way of feeling. Lately, with my installations in particular, there is this heightened reality going on–for example, as a child I was really moved to see a small swarm of butterflies, but now, in the process of trying to recreate this experience, I have kind of pushed it over the top. Maybe it is that the emotions I experience at times are so overwhelming that I am frantically trying to find a way to express the visual equivalency for them–usually a futile effort though! I think you can pick a bit of this up in my work —I just don’t quite know when to stop!

Both my childhood and my current experiences have informed the work in the show — childhood setting the stage for my adult interests. As a child who grew up on Disney movies and books by Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis, I have always been intrigued by notions of fantasy and the possibilities for escape into new, marvelous worlds via mundane objects such as a wardrobe (C.S. Lewis), a peach or an elevator (Roald Dahl). Parallel to this fascination was the delight I took, and continue to take, in the possibility of inanimate objects coming to life (i.e. talking scarecrows, flying cars and “living” marionettes). As a serious child who was engaged from a young age in heavy discipline and competition, fantasy was my one escape from the expectations placed on me.

ONLY: Are there any interests or past experiences outside of your artistic concerns that you feel inform your practice?

K: I used to run marathons and do triathlons–I did the Ironman Triathlon in my foundation year at ECIAD. I also grew up in the Okanagan, picking fruit, and have a diploma in forestry (I worked in the bush for 7 years). Nature has been a pretty major part of my life–one I rejected in my art for a long time, but one that is definitely creeping back in!

I was always pretty disciplined as a kid–I was a competitive piano player while growing up and always had to practice, in addition to that, I planted trees for 5 years. I think both of these experiences prepared me for the exceedingly tedious tasks of actually making my work (i.e. just between Swarm and Garden, I had to cut out 9800 bits of paper!). I also have hearty arm tendons from playing all that piano, which has held me in good stead for sure!

Most of the work I’ve done in my life has been piecework, so understanding the importance of the economy of motion in repetitive work has been invaluable!

ONLY: Is the idea of ‘enchantment’ something that you see intrinsically linked to childhood???

K: People of any age can experience wonder and enchantment. Many people suppress this experience because they feel like it is a loss of control. People are funny sometimes–they want so badly to be taken seriously, to be intellectual, and do not ascribe much value to primary emotions like awe and wonder. I think that letting oneself be open to beauty and wonder is a pretty essential part of being a balanced human.

I don’t see The Enchanted Forest as a regression or nostalgic return to childhood themes because both Jared and I are still, as adults, interested in these ideas. I found myself just as excited creating this work as any other — or more thrilled, actually, because I felt real somehow — like I was really following my gut instincts and, for the first time (since graduating from art school), I did not have to justify everything so heavily.

ONLY: So the enchantment pervades all of the work in the show.?

K: The idea of enchantment seemed to describe our thoughts well: it is like this double-edged idea where the word enchantment can mean both to be under a spell (kind of creepy) but also to be filled with awe (kind of beautiful). Jared and I both liked the idea that our work attempts to capture or describe beauty in some way but ends up going too far and becomes overwhelming.

This idea is especially true with my work where I have these obsessive-compulsive tendencies that result in work that is pretty over-the-top and sometimes uncomfortable, for example, the room at the gallery that is totally swarmed by butterflies.

ONLY: Since you integrate found objects into your sculptural work, how is the choice of material dictated by the content or initial idea?

K: The choice of material is completely related to my idea–it kind of pops into my head as a package deal.

This last year has seen me do an extraordinary amount of paper cutting, but in years past, I have used a real variety of materials. I have always been interested in alternative materials and used to push this direction quite a bit: cereal paintings, raisin sculptures, glycerin soap light panels, etc … but lately it seems that my choice of materials is bound-up with the project concept and not as much pure experimentation anymore.

For example, with Candy Train, I have this really vivid memory of my dad using this expression when we were about to leave on a trip (“Toot, toot! Hop on the candy train!”). He’s dead now, so I can’t ask him about it, but I just wanted to illustrate how that piece came to be and how it couldn’t have been made with any other material (I tried to use the types of candy that were around at that time — the late 70s, that is!).

ONLY: How would you describe the process you take in making your sculptural works?

K: I am becoming increasingly aware of my tendency to try to bring inanimate objects to life (whether human, animal or botanical); in particular, I have been working on the 3-dimensional animation of flat, 2-dimensional media. I often frame this trend as a formal investigation–that is, as rebellion against the pervasive, 2-dimensional image and my identification as a sculptor, attempting to bring this image back into its pre-representational (3-dimensional) state. While these formal concerns have provided great impetus for the creation of work (I have “3-dimensionalized” paper currency, wallpaper and cereal boxes), it is the desire to bring things to life that is the primary source of my inspiration.

ONLY: Although your smaller works share certain pragmatic qualities with your installations, i.e. using cutout 2-dimensional images to form 3-dimensional forms, there is definitely a huge leap in the effect on the viewer between the small diorama-like sculptures and the immersive, verging on overwhelming, installations?

K: I think I am attracted to extremes. So much of what we experience is kind of similar somehow–human reality scale. I want to push human experience into the realm of the fantastic. I have always been interested in both miniatures and overwhelming installations, whether overwhelming through the use of light, through scale, through unusual materials, whatever.

Through my installation work in particular, I am interested in creating a tangible, visceral experience for the viewer —allowing them a space and opportunity to be visually and emotionally transported to somewhere they have never been before; ultimately a place that alternates between beauty and foreboding, awe and intimidation and reality and the façade. My work can be thought of as an escape of sorts: I have always believed that some form of escapism and fantasy–as a respite from the burdens and responsibilities of daily life–is crucial for both human emotional and mental health and I wish to provide this sanctuary to the viewer.

With my miniatures, I am interested in escape and enchantment too, but rather than overwhelming the viewer, I try to induce wonder through other ways–like through the material I use (money), or by trying to make it super perfect and really tiny and delicate — almost impossibly delicate. I have a long way to go, but this is the goal!

ONLY: It is really refreshing to see a show like The Enchanted Forest where it looks like the artists not only enjoyed making the work, but also want to share that enjoyment with their audience?

K: Definitely! I truly want the viewer to enjoy the work and to experience a sense of play or fun or wonder while doing so and I hope that they are able to let their guards down a bit. I want to provide a sanctuary for the viewer, allowing them to forget about the busy world for a second.

Along with the content of the work, I have always felt it was important to appeal to primary human emotions in my work as well. In this sense, I think my work has always been pretty accessible. If I am going to spend 300 hours on a piece, it has to be pretty darn appealing on a base level as well!

The Enchanted Forest continues at the Butchershop Gallery on 26th at Main, until Sunday, July 3rd. Images of the show can be viewed here.