In a lot of ways, Erica Eyres’ primary medium has always been herself, in the most discursive and far-reaching way possible. For the better part of two decades, Eyres has amassed a wealth of work tapping into the fabric of her life and fantasies to irreverent and at times unnerving effect. Eyres has always flourished in the idea of failure. Or rather, she always seems to eschew consensus of the norm. She engages this idea of failure as a banal occurrence. And she does this through hyperbole, bizarro conceits, and seriocomedy. In doing so, Eyres reveals her own disquieting vulnerability.
You can’t help but giggle with nervous recognition at her more recent videos like Clay Head or Pool of Blood or even CPR Conference, where one of her characters has a one-sided conversation with the viewer, or the humourously peculiar Video Tutorial, where the character gives advice to viewers on how to make the optimal personal vlog. The same can be said for her seemingly unassuming ceramic works and her meticulous pencil figure drawings. They are at times hard to discern in their affectless and slight uneven form. Nevertheless, Eyres has a knack for finding poetry in the most inconsequential, and dead simple observations without any frills or metaphor.
We had the pleasure of speaking with the Winnipeg raised, Glasgow based artist. We talked among other things her former aspirations of being a zookeeper, her PhD research, and her recent colossal contribution to Plug In ICA’s STAGES biennale.
You are pretty good (or I guess technically skilled ) at rendering the likeness of figures- for a contemporary artist like yourself. I mean, it's rather rare for contemporary artists to be concerned with technical accuracy of the work--something that is typically overlooked in favour for the ideas or narrative. And also working with something as elementary as pencil on paper. Your clay based works are also similar in this way. I guess what I'm asking is why the painstaking task of working this way and why those materials?
I always want the work to maintain a degree of believability, which I try to achieve through realism or accuracy. There is also something “off” about the figures and objects that makes them slightly distorted. This leads to the question of whether the person in the image actually looks like that or whether I’m just inept. I suppose this is what makes the drawings and sculptures deadpan, by appearing extremely serious in their portrayal of something exaggerated or ridiculous. I like the idea of working with traditional materials, but also those that are inexpensive and unassuming such as clay or pencil and paper, using these to portray my immediate experience (like watching a lecture for school or a banana peel or my hands). The materials are also extremely familiar to me as I’ve been using them since childhood. I think that art should be “easy” and that artists should do the things they enjoy.
Portrait of a Girl
You use “off” as a descriptor, which is a good word to attribute to the majority of the work you create. I think that quality of them being “off” recurs often in your work, it stops being about you being inept and it starts being something you are after. So how do you think are you using “off” to describe the figures in your work? What do you think the center they seem to be deviating from is?
I’m trying to represent a kind of awkwardness. With regards to the figures, they allude to that awkward gap between the image a person hopes to portray, and the very different way they are perceived. It’s a bit like the experience of hearing a recording of your own voice; the voice inside your head is completely different from that same voice when emitted from another source.
Your videos, on the other hand, are purposefully untechnical so to speak; the aesthetics are seemingly clumsy and amateurish. Yet I'd guess that from pre-production, to filming, to post-production, there's so much painstaking work that goes into every detail. You seem to be clearly at task in convincing us of the reality of the characters you create. What do you typically want to achieve by creating these specific characters, spaces, and instances they find themselves in?
I don’t necessarily aim for “low budget”, but that’s the best I can do! [Laughs]
Filming involves endless takes over a period of days, as I obsess over the details. The characters and spaces need to appear authentic, similarly to the drawings and sculptures, as an attempt to create believability. Embodying those characters enables me to be the things that I am not, like acting as someone who is aggressively confident.
There’s a consistency to what you are calling “doing your best,” in that it surfaces a specific low budget/amateurish aesthetic that appears purposeful to the videos and the characters in the end. Both CPR Conference and your new Video Tutorial have that aesthetic quality for the purpose of articulating the characters and space they are in. Would you agree?
CPR Conference and Video Tutorial both represent characters that are based on myself (they live in my house and sometimes speak as “Erica Eyres”). There is an emphasis on flattened space, particularly in Video Tutorial, which is created through the Chroma key technology, and reflects the character’s promotion of flattened emotion.
Video Tutorial, 2017
What do you think you are able to achieve by constructing via traditional drawing that you can't necessarily achieve through your performance and video work?
The drawings and sculptures require a different head-space than the videos; there’s something almost meditative about them, where I can work while watching television or listening to the radio. This gives me time to think about the videos and the ideas behind the work. The videos require a lot of planning, building up to something that may only entail a couple of hours to film but is very mentally draining. Perhaps there is something more immediate about the drawings and sculptures that demands less thought or emotion from the audience.
Do the characters you conjure and draw ever inform some of the characters you take on in your video performances?
Perhaps the hairstyles are inspired by the drawings. I try to render the characters with a similar attention to detail, trying on different wigs and costumes, carefully selecting the jewellery and perfecting the makeup.
Eyres' ceramic works
Was it ever a surprise to you that you became an artist, or your trajectory led you into being an artist?
My first aspiration was to become a zookeeper or to work in a store because I thought you got to keep all the money that goes into the till. But I started drawing and making things from a very young age, so knew fairly early that I wanted to become an artist.
I like the thought of you as a zookeeper. Do you ever wonder what your life as zookeeper would have look like?
I have a great love for animals, so I suppose working with the animals would be rewarding. But I now find zoos to be sad places where animals are on display in small spaces. And I don’t like the uniforms. Though I still have an interest in the set-like quality of the fake environments. I once tried to make a film of all the empty spaces at the Winnipeg Zoo (before it underwent all the recent changes), and children kept asking if there was something in there that they couldn’t see.
Did you ever think you could be doing something other than fine arts, such as acting in movies/theatre/tv, or other sorts of performance outside of the fine arts setting ?
I’m not sure that I could act in someone else’s film or follow direction. Occasionally I think about what it would be like to have a different job, maybe as a psychiatrist or to make prosthetic makeup for films or television, but can’t imagine starting over at this point. Being an artist is the only thing I’m qualified to do!
Why a psychiatrist?
My parents worked in psychiatry (my mother is a psychiatric nurse and my father was a child psychologist), and I think I’ve inherited their habits of asking a lot of questions and being overly empathetic. I always find myself listening to other people’s problems and trying to offer practical advice!
Head, 2017 as part of Plug In ICA's STAGES:Drawing the Curtain. Photo: Karen Asher
Your latest sculpture (for STAGES) --the inflatable head-- seems like an inevitable piece within your canon of work, but at the same time, its physicality is rather monumental compared to your previous pieces . Is it the largest scale work you’ve done thus far? Can you talk about the drawing you started with? And can you talk about the site you chose to install it in?
Yes, it’s definitely the largest sculpture I’ve ever made. The drawing was inspired by a series of ceramic test tiles I had been doing (very small sculptures for testing new glazes). I kept making severed heads for some reason. The drawing is based on a mask that I bought from Gags Unlimited in Osborne Village. I love that store. The last time I went, the shop assistant was showing off his snake tattoo to the young woman who was also working. She said she wanted a snake wrapped around a sword. Someone told me the owner did a publicity stunt a few years ago where he offered to sell his life (house, business and dog) for a million dollars. The drawing changed a lot from the original mask, it has very different proportions. My communication with the fabricators was quite awkward, as they tried to clean up the image and put the features into proportion. They sent me a funny mock-up that had a blonde woman standing next to it for scale. I begged them to follow the original drawing as much as possible, and I think the finished work landed somewhere in the middle. I still wish it was a bit more misshapen, like the drawing. I prefer the sculpture when it’s only half inflated.
My initial idea was to install the work in the abandoned American Apparel in Osborne Village. I liked the way the space could be viewed from the street, and resembled a white gallery. I imagined the sculpture filling the store, too big for the room. However, that space wasn’t available as it was in the process of becoming a 24-hour fitness gym. We looked at a lot of other shop-front spaces, but nothing was quite right. We heard that the former Mini Mart might be a possibility, and I started imagining it on top of the building, like a severed head on a plinth. Inflatable sculptures are most often used to announce the opening of a business or a sale. Instead, this head commemorates the death of a small, family-run business. I liked the way the head references the sign that advertises a new development just beneath, and the red lips are accented by the Coca-Cola signs. There’s also the mural on the side of the building, and the Colosseo restaurant across the street that looks a bit like a theatre set.
CPR Conference, 2016
You are currently about two years into your Ph.D., and you are interested in exploring detachment. This seems like a very specific area of focus. What about detachment are you after? How has your research evolved over the past few years? How does this relate to your visual practice?
This is kind of a big question but will do my best… My PhD is actually looking at deadpan, though detachment is a part of that humour. The detachment is specifically in relation to the personal narratives, as a detached delivery is contradictory to the confessional nature that is most commonly associated with those types of stories. I also think detachment is needed in order to laugh at ourselves, an ability to separate from the body and look at the self from another point of view.
I started the research by establishing a definition of deadpan, or the ingredients that contributes to deadpan in my own work. In a few words, this involves a serious demeanour, in contradiction to surreal or ridiculous narratives. There is a kind of lowered affect that erases the visual cues that tell an audience when to laugh. So, instead of pulling funny faces, the deadpan comic remains stoic. There is still a great deal of emotion bubbling beneath the surface, which sometimes seeps out through the edges, but it does not change the performer’s expression.
The research has always been very driven by my visual practice, and over the past two years, the written research has become increasingly tied to the videos. I sometimes appropriate my own writing in the scripts, and more recently, I’ve begun to incorporate segments of the scripts into the writing. My research moves in a cyclical direction, starting with the videos, which I then reflect on through writing, then situating the work alongside other practices. This writing feeds back into the videos and visual thinking, which then leads onto further reading and writing.
What did you think you were doing when you first began recording yourself performing these characters you conjured?
I started doing the videos during my second year at University of Manitoba in a video class. I wanted to make animations, but was extremely technically inept with computers and technology at that time. I didn’t even have an email account. My first video had no dialogue and was just me making faces at the camera. So it was a way of working that I could manage without becoming overwhelmed by the process. This also led to my realization that I could make people laugh and that humour could be used to make the narratives more complicated.
Filming Baby Marleena, Toronto Travelodge, 2006.
The Male Epidemic, 2009
How has your relationship with performance evolved since you started using it as a means of working through personal narratives?
I’ve always used personal narratives, in some form or another, so it’s difficult for me to say how the performances have evolved since the two have long been intertwined.
Have you ever tried your hand at stand-up comedy? Sometimes your video performances seem akin to stand-up, or as if they are within a sitcom without the laugh track.
I haven’t tried stand-up comedy. Probably because I prefer not to perform live. The performances can only happen when no one else is present, otherwise I become too self-conscious or want to laugh when someone else is there. I also enjoy the process of editing, cutting down to find the perfect timing for the video. I’m not sure if that would translate to a live performance.
How do you see humour in mediating how narratives are received and interpreted by audiences?
Humour is a way for me to draw audiences into narratives. A story might start with comedy, then gradually become darker. This also enables me to mix personal narratives with fiction. Of course, we all laugh at our own tragedies when we retell them, but laughter often seems out of place within the tragedies represented in the videos. These dark stories might be otherwise off-putting, but humour makes them easier to digest. I also enjoy the awkward sensation that occurs when showing videos to an audience, as if some people really want to laugh but they’re not sure if they should. Perhaps some people don’t get the humour at all and don’t laugh, and this makes the other people even more hesitant to laugh.
Cover image is from Eyres' Pool of Blood, 2017