Nancy Davidson is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in sculpture and installation in New York, NY. She grew up in Chicago and received a Bachelor’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University, a BFA from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After completing her graduate degree in 1975, Davidson began her professional career in Chicago before moving to New York in 1979. While initially working in painting and drawing, Davison has become most well known for her works in sculpture investigating the feminized body. She has exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and in numerous galleries across the country. Davidson was a professor at Purchase College SUNY from 1984-2008.
During the mid-to-late eighties, she began a series of sculptural investigations into the feminized body as theater. The artist later described, “I was still interested in minimal forms, but I began to sense a need for more communication with the viewer”.
How did you combine ancient and modern in the inflatable sculpture you created at the Krannert Art Museum?
Hive is installed in the Kinkead Pavilion, a classical glass box portico addition to the Krannert Museum. Seeing the pavilion outdoors at night with Illuminated columns immediately conjured an image in my mind of gigantic goddesses holding up the portico. The portico, a post-modern version of an Egyptian temple, is a perfect site for my inflated sculptures. The twin 18’ temporary monuments disrupt the classical gendered architecture of the pavilion by creating a space empowered by comically abundant, erotic, body forms. Iconic elements of ancient objects are joined to create new hybrid creatures both goddess and maiden; the body of Artemis of Ephesus, a beehive-like form is joined with a wide maiden braid emerging from the top of the sculpture reaching the floor inspired by the caryatids on the Porch of the Maidens at the Acropolis. These monuments are no longer permanent. They are filled with air, breathing, emitting light, and communicating with light and sound.
In addition to the effect of the facade, what kind of effect did you target on the user in the interior?
The interior space is inhabited with towering female forms, lit from inside, and supported by braided columns. Breathing sounds, haunting and at times disturbing voices resonate throughout the installation. The soundscape by Lakshmi Ramgopal, a multidisciplinary artist, was commissioned for the exhibition. Her sound composition is made from recording the breath of several vocalists from along the feminine and feminized spectrum of identity. The mechanical sounds made by the sculpture’s blowers and the pavilion’s ventilation system influenced Ramgopal to think about breathing, in a medical context, such as a person using a ventilator to breathe. Light from inside the sculptures subtly pulses during the day and slowly becomes more visible as the day darkens.
Your artistic work has become part of an old museum, how did you achieve this integration in the context of space?
The Kinkead Pavilion where Hive is installed was built in 1988 as an addition to the original building completed in 1961 in the style of Mies van der Rohe. The portico, a post-modern structure, references ancient porticos and the museum as a temple. This cultural mixing of different architectural styles establishes a dialogue about the fusing of ancient and modern. Hive introduces a conversation about monuments. Using traditional scale and placement of monuments in architecture, Hive’s gigantic inflated temporary bodies question the need to continue the tradition of permanent monuments.
Hive operates as a site-specific installation and a public artwork, utilizing the architectural function of the portico as a transitional space, negotiating between private and public.
Could you inform us about your selection of the material and color palette of the installation?
A photograph of the Porch of the Maidens at the Acropolis at twilight inspired my choice for color wash lighting inside and outside the portico. Liminal time, the time between day and night is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ Conceptually this site of transition underscores the concept of the portico as a threshold or transitional space.
The sculptures are made of nylon fabric and have blowers for continual inflation. They are covered with several shades of red fabric, reflecting on the fact that most ancient statues were originally vividly painted. Lit from within, the light program runs 24/7 but is most noticeable from dusk till dawn. The sister sculptures pass color signals back and forth like Morse code, inspired by the signaling depicted in “Close Encounters of a Third Kind”.
Could you explain the reason for describing your exhibition as ‘Hive’?
As a center of activity, a communal construction and a form, the structure of the hive is a social structure. While studying the site of Artemis of Ephesus, I began to realize the importance of the fertility symbolism imbedded her relationship to the bee. Her dress is classically decorated with bees. Artemis is often associated with the beehive as a symbol of community, and female power. The form of the hive as center of energy, is a perfect metaphor for regenerative power, conversation and community.
Hive opening reception on January 20, 2020
Photography by Della Perrone / Krannert Art Museum, Unıversity of Illinois
Interview: Özlem Kan