All photos by Mike Ojeda; Interview by Kelly Lovemonster
San Francisco based performance artist Dia Dear uses light, the body and ethereal sounds to compose electric performances that envelope the viewer in a blissful trance. Dear started their performance career with forays on nightclub stages and drag shows throughout the country. Recently awarded with one of Airspace’s queer performance art residencies, Dear has created a new body of work entitled “Nightmare: A Visual Performance”. Dear will channel their signature performance style into an immersive installation exhibition which includes Dear’s most recent exploration of drawing and writing.
I caught up with Dear via email to discuss her upcoming show. I was interested to find out if “Nightmare” was the continuation of a dialogue Dear has been having with the viewer through performance. Dear opened up about upcoming performance fears, and their intention to present the audience with the most honest artwork possible. Dear’s “Nightmare” takes place at CounterPulse Underground (8PM, $15, 80 Turk Street, MORE), which is soon to be the remodeled home of art institution CounterPulse.
“Breeze” performed by Dia Dear; Filmed and edited by Stephen Quinoes
AHDM4U :: Describe your experience moving from performative base pieces of work to the more tactile medium of drawing and writing.
DIA DEAR :: The experience has been very different. Making objects takes time and patience, literally stopping myself in the middle of painting and standing back to look. That act is probably basic for visual artists, but was completely revelatory for myself. Making a performance based piece, I get immediate feedback from the audience that feels hugely generative and enlivening. I don’t get high from painting, drawing or animating. It’s the difference between doing a long distance run versus sprinting, in a way. Also, performing for me is/was ephemeral and mostly of the moment, not to last. So much of the quality of my performance was the energy in the room. Turning it up, collecting it, holding it, putting it under pressure, releasing it. In making objects versus performing, time functions differently. A performance exists until it is over. But objects remain. So time is sort of on your side when making objects. Or at least, it is a participant in your process in a positive way because it encourages second looking. This piece is still ephemeral in the sense that, I’m creating a site specific installation of visual art that also incorporates performance. So Nightmare isn’t completely distinct from pure performance/drag. It’s a show.
AHDM4U :: In your artist statement you talk about forming a new language through drawing. In fact, you state that you were initially illiterate in this language. How do you feel now? Are you becoming more fluent?
DD :: I’m not particularly becoming more fluent. I’m pretty sure becoming fluent isn’t the point. Today I was talking with someone who has been helping me hang this show. She is a visual artist in SF. We were talking about the art we each make. She asked me if I thought of myself as a conceptual artist. My understanding of conceptual art is the art of highly refined abstraction. I understand conceptual art to be an art form that requires a huge knowledge base in a particular subject and artistic discipline of viewer and maker. And I think that it involves an ability to act as architect – to possess a concept and then figure out how to present it.
I want to think of myself as a conceptual artist, I want to be that. It sounds sexy and smart. And I realized in talking with my artist friend that I feel my performance works when I do not understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. I think my performances are best when I’m open to being a channel for something else. I don’t get to judge my performance or make meaning of it, even if whatever is coming to me seems like a bad idea, or embarrassing, or ugly. I’m just receiving information and saying yes to it and giving it life. Creating the images for ¨Nightmare¨ is a similar surrender. So, it’s not my job to understand them. The images come and stay and I’m trying to be ok with that. I think a part of this project is accepting that reading the language isn’t my job. Also, I’m not making sentences. I’ve strayed away from composition. It’s just image, image, image. Like everything is dislocated. I’m trying not to place meaning on things. I’m afraid of doing that.
AHDM4U :: The photographer Diane Arbus was fascinated with imagery that could be construed as grotesque or freakish, and yet in Arbus´ portraits I feel the beauty and light of the individuals’ souls. Do you consider ¨Nightmare – a Visual Performance¨ dark in nature?
DD :: I don’t know anything about Diane Arbus’ life. Why did she take the photos she did? I wouldn’t call the photos of hers that I remember beautiful. I think they are more brutal and confronting. I remember having a desire to look and a desire not to look. I remember feeling like I was stealing glances at people on the street. I guess there’s a beauty in honesty.
I’m having realizations while writing to you. I couldn’t have articulated it, but yeah! I do think of the grotesque that I present as being deeply beautiful, even though I absolutely do not approach the art I do as making a beautiful thing, or making an ugly thing. I’m making an honest thing. I totally have that intention with my performance. It’s so funny to me right now. I’m noticing how I relate to your description of the grotesque in Arbus’ art. It’s typical for me to feel repulsed and then attracted to. And I perform about this as if I’m not the one on the voyeur side of this exchange. Yet I am! Especially as a consumer of visual art. Diane Arbus is a great example. As is Lucian Freud. As is Phillip Guston, the painter whose imagery and language of imagery really connected with me when I started drawing these images. Repulsed by their imagery then attracted to — although, I’m not attracted to Diane Arbus’s work. I’m reconsidering this now.
The title ¨Nightmare¨ sounds loaded, or dark. I don’t know why ¨Nightmare¨ is still the title. The imagery is loosely reminiscent of my earliest memory of a nightmare. I think my performance is dark in nature because metaphorical darkness (or what is rejected) is something I’m drawn to and consider when making performance/drag. But ¨Nightmare¨ isn’t super deep about that as a topic. I mean, to me it reads as having a relationship to that which is rejected, but from the feedback I’ve gotten, I may be the only one who feels that way. I get nervous that this means I’m failing. I’m being made aware while writing to you about two strong and somewhat conflicting desires I have, a desire to be conceptual and a desire to channel.
AHDM4U :: What should viewers anticipate to feel and see at your show?
DD :: I feel nervous at the suggestion of anticipating. I kind of assume that’s why people currently respond the way they do to my performances – because I delivered an anticipated feeling. The viewers´ anticipation, what people like, I can’t make art thinking about that. I didn’t start making performance pieces thinking about what people may like. It was surprising to me how people got excited about my drag early on. This last year I struggled with delivering the thing I thought made people excited about my performance. I thought the anticipation was emotional catharsis, being bald and brow-less and gender ambiguous. When the real thing, I think, was that I was just honest as fuck.
Performance artist and SF drag queen Mica Sigourney really likes bad ideas in performance, and I think he maybe helped me out a lot cause I used to make bad decisions all the time! I’d be corny, I’d be confusing, I’d twitch, I’d be tender, I wouldn’t ‘do’ anything. But I was honest. I didn’t know they were bad ideas. I was doing what I felt compelled to do. I have made performances thinking about anticipation, and it sucks. It kind of snuck up on me and now it’s a hard habit to break. I want people to like me! I’m really leaning away from the orgasmic burst and giving the audience a release thing. Well, actually, we’ll see what happens – my compulsion to do the latter is pretty strong, I don’t know if I’ll be able to resist. It’s fun too. ¨Nightmare¨ is a piece that has taken me much more time to make than I am accustomed to. And ¨Nightmare¨ has been in development for many months prior to this installation. I don’t expect anyone to have huge emotions during it. I’d be interested to hear what people think about it several days, weeks or months later.
You’ll see me and I’ll see you and you’ll be able to see everything really well cause I’m not using darkness and strobe lights.
AHDM4U :: What happens after the nightmare?
DD :: I love this question! Well, after a nightmare, you could wake up, you could slip into another dream, you could have a recurring nightmare! That’s my childlike answer. This is super useful to me right now, thinking about what’s next, thank you Kelly.
I’ve started to really play with this question of who or where since ¨Nightmare¨ seems to be more of a location and inherently a where. And my childlike answers to your question also immediately posits an identity: YOU wake up, YOU have another dream. I’ve been planning after ¨Nightmare¨ to continue building this piece with a character. Although it may not be time for her, we’ll see. I want to also begin making sound. I intended on incorporating sound into this installment of ¨Nightmare¨ but there wasn’t enough time.