Karen Yasinsky, Still Life with Cows, ‘00
Production still from 1 channel dvd projection



AS Bessa: Any Freudian writer would have a ball with your work exploring issues of sexuality and repression. For instance, the issue of fear of flying, or nausea in flying or the paranoia of an eminent disaster that you explore repeatedly in your films and drawings could be related to some anxieties in regard to sex. Do you think about that, did you ever think about that, or it just comes out “naturally”?

Karen Yasinsky: I certainly think about sex and repression and fear of intimacy in my work, but then again, it also comes about through the process—what you call “naturally” I think of more as stream of consciousness. For starters, using dolls instead of people when I’m thinking about the need and desire to connect between two characters—they can’t even change their facial expressions, let alone get it on. So repression is a given from the start. There are so many limitations with the dolls, which is why I love to work with them.

ASB: How did the transition from painting to film-making happened in your work? And why dolls instead of actors?

KY: The static nature of a painting started to bother me—I felt like I was making the same painting over and over, so it became difficult to start another one. I was interested in body language and narrative, so using time to create a series of gestures and responses to them was much more exciting. The process took a long time which held my interest. First creating the bodies and little heads and in that, the personalities of the figures. They became real things but not real people. DW Winnicott, a British Psychoanalyst wrote an interesting essay, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena”, involving the role that dolls or toys play in a child’s Psychological development. The animation models I make work for me in that transitional space between me and my subject. Also, I had no knowledge of animators whose work was in my territory, unlike painting, which was liberating.

ASB: There has been recently a trend towards working with dolls, toys, action figures etc. Some of it I see as part of a tradition that perhaps comes from Hans Bellmer, Surrealism etc, and I would include your work in this group. But there is also a great deal of simulating situations that strike me as very infantile. Do you ever get concerned about that? About your work being perceived as such?

KY: No, not in my work. I think my impulses during the animation stage tend towards the dark and awkward side of the human psyche—I have a built in fear of the cute and charming so I try to counter it if I think it has popped up. The struggle within my characters is the opposite of infantile—I see infantile as without Superego or repression. I certainly feel part of the Surrealist tradition and can remember how intensely Bellmer’s work took hold of me when I first saw it, as was the case with the work of Luis Buñuel, David Lynch, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons. George Platt Lynes made some amazing Surrealist photographs—one with a man blowing a cloud which contained squirrels. At least that’s my memory of it.

ASB: I’ve been thinking about your films in the context of the latter developments: terrorism, highjacking, everyday life vs “great causes” such as Fundamentalism. Your character in the plane films seems so oblivious of what might happen, but there is always a creepy mood lurking. Could you comment on that, and I also would like to know about your response to the several footages of the disaster. To me they seem so Surreal, out of a nightmare, but also an image that I just can’t erase from my head.

KY: You are not the only one who was having those thoughts. I am to show Fear, a 2-channel projection work in the “Animation” show at PS 1. It takes place outside with an airplane flying overhead and later, inside of the airplane. Nothing physically bad happens—except by possible interpretation, a man rolls around on the ground with a doll in gingham, fondles her as well. Of course, they are both dolls, but she is different—a doll within the animated man’s world. I was asked how I felt about showing it given the recent tragedy, but your question went straight to the heart of my work. It’s about internal life as opposed to social, political, cultural. Those all provide components for what we become but the voices inside are much more complicated than a Contemporary opinion or stance as a social animal. In my work, the fear is generated from within, not something easily named. All that happens in the plane is that the flight attendant hugs everyone in her awkward, lumbering manner. Also the man and woman are never in the same side of the projection together. Again, there’s the desire for intimacy but they are unable to act on this. The movements of the characters are creepy I think because they are so unnatural. The music also heightens this feeling. I think fear is a part of all of our lives. As a topic, it is much more on the outside now. People kill for fear of the other as well as for that which disgusts them in themselves. It’s a big ugly issue. The images of the disaster were, and still are, so Surreal. Probably because of their similarity to scenes in high budget action pictures coupled with the knowledge that this is real. They have stayed with me as well. What disturbed me the most about the successive appearance of specific footage on the news was the sound change. After a while of showing the towers collapsing they began to show the same footage with terror sound. It sounded strongly like people on a roller coaster. If it was the real sound that went with the picture, they would have had it initially. They created what they (the news) felt was scarier. The first day of TV was disbelief and fact. Then the networks began their job of pushing fear. That saddened me.

ASB: The sound track is an intrinsic part of your films, and I notice that you use the same composer. There is a sense of partnership as in Hitchcock and Bernard Herrman, or Fassbinder and Peer Raben.

KY: And David Lynch’s collaborations with Angelo Badalamenti. I just saw Mulholland Drive which is amazing. A seamless structure of the real flowing into a dream and back again. And the music and sound is perfectly aligned to everything Lynch achieved in each scene. It’s something that happens, I believe, after years of collaboration, and works if the films all share the same world. Think of Hitchcock, Fassbinder and Lynch—you know it has to be their film and no one else’s. All the music and sound for my films is composed by Winston Rice for the Moho Memo. I think we share a similar goal for our work. You could call it the emotional resonance of a piece. Winston will begin his work after seeing the final picture cut. A few days later I get handed a CD and it’s always right. We’ll talk about what I’m after before he begins, but I really don’t have any struggles in this part of the production. His work gives voice to my mute characters with their unmoving faces.

ASB: Yes, I agree. In your films sound and image melt together in a way that remind me of a dream. I also think your choice of design patterns and wardrobe very peculiar. I could identify some Prada prints in the upholstery of one of the planes, for instance. Also, the outfits are so severe-looking. They look home-spun and edgy at the same time. Like as if a Minnesota farmer’s wife was dressed by a Milanese designer.

KY: I love your description. I make the clothes by drawing a boxy, large pattern and then quickly constructing the piece on a sewing machine. Then the garment is hand stitched on the little body. This may create the severity you sense. That, and the fact that they can’t show any flesh since they have none. If they walked across the set nude you would see a Michelin Man-like body, due to their construction involving strips of foam rubber. I create clothing that will show as little skin as possible. I love fashion and base the characters clothing on the personality that I begin to develop when I sculpt their head and construct their bodies. Prada designs have been very present in my mind when I make the patterns. One ad campaign in particular from a few years ago had Carolyn Murphy as the model. My memory of the magazine photos place her out West, in a hot dry desert, wearing severe polyester Prada outfits. I love the absurdity of fashion photography and art direction. That’s her outfit and she will wear it everywhere. Since my characters usually have only one outfit, I relate to that. I also like their clothes, they are things I’d wear as well.

AS Bessa

New York, New York