Thursday, September 11, 2008

Art Space Talk: Caroline Mak

The systems that emerge in Caroline Mak's installations contain references to disciplines ranging from biology, topography and the decorative arts. She has stated that natural processes are translated, reflected and re-created in her installations. In the process of construction, systems become apparent in the spaces they are assigned to, each self-contained worlds with their own inherent logic.
Disposable Gloves and Cheap Pearls, 2005. Expandable insulation foam, ink, lace, plastic pearls. 14' x 8'.
Disposable Gloves and Cheap Pearls (detail)

Brian Sherwin: Caroline, I understand that you studied art at Stanford University and the University of Chicago. Can you recall those experiences? For example, did you have any influential instructors? Also, do you have any advice for students who are interested in those programs at this time?

Caroline Mak: I was a biology major at Stanford (and only minored in art). I definitely didn't think I'd be an artist while I was in college, but my experience studying biology at a major research institution was fairly influential in how I approach my practice now. Studying for a bachelor's degree in science I believe afforded me a greater breadth of experience, than a more traditional artistic academic path would have, and it taught me how to experiment and address problems in a way that continues to affect my work now.
My MFA program at University of Chicago was small and intense, and my practice changed drastically during the first year I was there. It was the first time I had been able to make work uninterrupted for two years non-stop, while your advisors are continually questioning your work, and really making you think about the direction of your practice - it shaped me as an artist, but also exhausted me too!

BS: You have stated that by performing and enacting a series of repetitive transformative actions you bestow upon the material an ability to further decay, multiply or spread beyond its original confines. By doing this you explore the juxtaposition between the familiar and the foreign, repulsion and attraction, and utility and decoration. Can you tell us about the thoughts behind your work and why these themes are of interest to you?

CM: My background and interest in science doesn't manifest itself in artwork about science, nor do I think it falls into this realm of 'bio-art', but I am very interested in the systems that exist in the natural world, and allow for these processes of growth and decay to happen. I try to envision my installation area, whether it's a corridor in a gallery or an outdoor space, as presenting me with a set of conditions that I then apply to the materials I'm working with.
As I didn't have a conventional sculptor's training, I tend to gravitate towards non-traditional materials, ranging from paper towels to hundreds of yards of latex tubing (the installation at Socrates Sculpture Park), employing techniques that often verge towards labor intensive craft processes, which results in forms and shapes that seem familiar like those that could exist in the natural world, yet bizarre and potentially repulsive.
Cellular Spaces, 2007, bubble wrap, latex paint. 22 ft x 14 ft
Cellular Spaces (detail)

BS: Can you go into further detail about your methods and process and how you utilize said methods and process in order to further explore these transformative themes? Perhaps you can discuss a specific piece as an example? Such as Cellular Spaces?

CM: Cellular Spaces began as an investigation into the idea that there could be a 'skin' encasing a uniform amount of air (the individual bubbles in bubble wrap), and that each sheet of bubble wrap would always encase the same volume of gas. I wanted to explore the way that these multiple units could all come together to form a larger cohesive structure, especially utilizing the translucent qualities of bubble wrap. At that time I'd been looking at a lot of geological structures such as cave formations, and was struck by their formal similarities on a microscopic level, to our intestinal folds and structures.

BS: Caroline, your art has been described as "detailed and wonderfully formal in an obsessive kind of way". What are your thoughts on that observation?

CM: Sounds fairly accurate!

BS: What are the social implications of your work? Do you explore aspects of society as you see it within the context?

CM: I don't create my work to have any specific social message, and any social implications that result are not intentional, which isn't to say that they're not relevant, I just think I tend to shy away from making any obvious political or social statements in my work.

Root Architecture, 2007, Socrates Sculpture Park, New York

BS: What about influences? Are you influenced or inspired by any specific event or artist?

CM: While I think I have a range of artists who influence me, I often find that specific projects come about through seeing natural phenomena or reading about a specific experiment or new material in a science journal or blog.

BS: Can you tell us about your recent work? What are you working on at this time? Do you have any plans that you are exploring for future works?

CM: I've become very fascinated with stalactites and stalagmites in the past few months and have been playing with the possibilities of creating man-made analogues of these natural geological growths.

Untitled, 2008, masking tape & aluminium tape on wooden pillar. dimensions variable.

BS: Your work has been exhibited in the US, Germany, and Hong Kong. I assume that you were present during these openings. Can you explain how your travels have influenced your art? Have you noticed a difference in reaction to you art depending on which country you are exhibiting in?

CM: Unfortunately I couldn't make it to the Berlin show! That show ( was a collaborative project with my friend Kevin, and was about the movement of goods across borders, so that would have been an appropriate show to be present at...

Showing in Hong Kong was interesting because that's where I grew up, and the art scene there is quite different from that in New York, but the installation I did in Hong Kong was part of the art fair, which is already a mildly surreal experience. I definitely think having lived in different cultures does affect how I approach materials - I'm always aware of how different materials and objects have different lives and usages in different cultural spheres.

BS: Speaking of exhibits, I understand that you are involved with an exhibit at the Islip Art Museum in NY. Can you tell us about that project?

CM: That was a group show in their Carriage House space, where each artist did a site-specific installation for a room. My installation is in an old bathroom space which was challenging. I ended up using the exposed pipes in the bathroom and my own PVC pipes, and mapping out the unseen sections in an imaginary network using neon tape, onto the floor and walls.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

CM: Thanks for taking the time to look! check back for future developments...

You can learn more about Caroline Mak by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


Anonymous said...

These are personal fetish objects, not art.


Art Collegia Delenda Est

Anonymous said...

You know, if you are going to post favorable comments, you should unfavorable too. If she cant take it, she isnt much of an artist, gotta have confidence, and take criticism, and reply to it if you want to. It can either spur you on to more and better work, destroy you, or make you reevaluate. Any way, artist need more toughness these days, the PC way has created generations of weakness. Art is for the strong. That other stuff is therapy for the weak. Not exactly good for arts standing in the world, which is already at a alltime low, deservidly so. I am not as mean as I come across, but gotta say wahts what, and if mean, others will defend anyway. But Truth is always arts goal.

Art collegia delenda est

Balhatain said...

Donald, so what is art to you? It is obvious that some people view this work and work of the same nature as art. So who are you to dictate what should be viewed or not viewed as art?

Is your work art? Don't you think that there could be thousands, perhaps millions, of people who question the validity of your art? In that sense, art can't be defined because it all boils down to who is viewing it, correct?

As for your statement on fetish objects and your mention of "a REALLY big"... well... one could say that psychologically you are projecting your own desires upon viewing this work. Be careful with your exploration of psychology. Tables can be easily turned. :P

Balhatain said...

I don't play faves. Just behind on comments due to dealing with archive issues.

Anonymous said...

I dont mind feedback at all. And I have made my definition of art quite clear, after that, it is a matter of whether it works or not, most good artist fail most of the time, the rest successful to varying degrees.

Art has purpose. The current art world denies that. Which opens the Pandoras box of incompetency and arrogance. As you have stated, the romantizing of the artist has led many with dreams of grandeur , and hyper sensitivity, and a lack of ambition to really work and do something in the real world, to self involved lifes of delusion. Often offspring of the rich, and daddies supplement their incomes and buy them vanity galleries.

As an artist, one must justify EVERY SINGLE DAY ones occupation. You are in a privileged state, avoiding the menial and mind/body wearing labors of actually building something useful in the world. i dont see this. I see personal fetishes completely unrelated to the lives of 6 billion other people, therapy, games, children at play being justified by supposedly coming from a bad background, as in your latest artiste above. As that kid is gettng a Masters from CAI, not exactly of those masses he has no real relationship to. Which would be political propaganda even if it was. It is catering to the rich and their amusement, which is and always has been Fine Arts.

The mind, body and soul that makes a life has been dissected into three separate categories. Gamesmanship for amusesment, of the weak minded and pseudo intellectuals. The splashes of color and decoration, glorified wallpaper, of the bodies senses, hedonistic. And the false spirituality of therapy, fetishes, and self expression.

Art msut combine all, for all are one, only to be separated in cold, clinical, isolated, protected, sterile environment of academia. Real life has blood, guts, anger, sex, war, fights, competition for survival, and love, nurtering, passion,SACRIFICE. An unknown quality in the art world, and rare overall, but there and cherished when come upon.

My 20-60-20 theory i have often tested and found sound. In any large group, 20% are at the top in any endeavor or positive virtue of mankind, 60% in the middle and will go either way, according to conditions, they want to do good, but will do whatever it takes to survive and thrive. And 20% at the bottom, but as this covers a myriad of human abilities and attributes, no one is in the top 20% of everything.(well, maybe Yeshua)

The art world being small, changes in these proportions, It is currently mostly the 60% with the bottom 20% controlling it. The top 20% has gone elsewhere, other works of man more interesting and vital at the moment, art is stagnant and so feeding off the refuse of the world, decayed, silly at best.

Now, things are fundamentally changing in the world, and art may be called to finally perform its function. To visualize, or auditorize, the threads of life, to reveal all of who we are, show how life is interconnected and one, not separate and voyeryistic.
i have stayed purposefuly apart form teh art world for these very reasons, though I grew up in a house of an artist, but also an athlete, so have a much better perspective of lifes variety and depth, its idiocies and genius, than most inward viewing art folks. I do see art being of use now, and must get rid of the decayed rotting flesh, the flies surround it, NOW.

I have stated HOW we got into this state in my article, Imperial clothing. where we are going i have no idea, art is an evolution, but one must evolve From someting, and remain 99% of that thing with some positive mutations. we must know who we are FIRST. Now, if you dont agree, thats fine. I aint no autocrat, and accept any means of creation, but my definition of what art is and its purpose is clear. Just study art from the beginning of time, not just the last two or three generations of degenerates.

As a history major, I know we are but a blip in time, and wil be laughed at and studied in bemused anger in the future, as we do the past. We are FAR from being perfect or the endall of human development, most of which is in the dark ages, especially in art. There are times of change that demand we perform our jobs, our roles, now may well be one. We are to relect our people, OUR people, not just the decadent rich, which is the current art market. I aint no commie, but art has ALWAYS been created by those outside the system, ones who can see it clearly, and not corrupted by its lack of values. Ones who have the energy and desire to go on anyway, despite the idiocies of life. Before the nineteenth century it was almost always through religious art, the public art which defines that individual people. It is no longer about one culture, but all. Art must relate to a farmer in Peru, a rich businessman in Japan, a worker in Russia, to be true. Of course, not all relate to the visual language, but when it can easily cross boarders, and people actually talk about art instead of the idiocies of the performers who entertain the rich, the court jesters of our time, then it can be called alive. And of God.

Thats about it. You can judge me anytime you like, i dont hide my identity, my work is there. Old, been out of the stupidity for over a dozen eyars raising a family, you know part of life, and contributing to it. my new stuff is getting back to basics, the human figure, then in society, then of life, animals plants, for art is about Man and our place in the universe, the relationships that join all. Not separate. That will be up soon, but will evolve as those who live in their times, but know the past, do.

Would love if someone would argue with my thesis, what art is, but no one ever does, they cant. They just state lamely that art can be anything. Of course, it can be CREATED from anything, but arts purpose has always been clear, til the colleges of mediocrities took over. Thats about it, back to work. have a nice day.

Art Collegia Delenda Est

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post.I will keep reading....

josephbolstad said...


I've checked up on you. You're hitting up all these art blogs with these pathetic tirades. You really need to learn to check your pomposity at the door.

It's hard to really comment about this mini-thesis you've just wrote, because I know you've already placed your stunningly naive little theory on quite a high pedestal which, most likely, I have little hope of toppling due to your arrogance.

But I have to go ahead and try, regardless:

You claim to have made your definition of art "quite clear," but in your rush to construct flimsy generalizations, you seem to have lost the ability to describe what you think is good with any degree of lucidity. It's a telling sign that you fail to site any specific works in your diatribe, and have to resort to broad stereotypes to justify your argument.

It is truly pathetic, not to mention rude, to leech onto the blogs of others to stroke your ego.

You said in your post: "As an artist, one must justify EVERY SINGLE DAY(sic) ones(sic) occupation."

Writing this garbage isn't real justification, Donald. So why don't you stop these tirades and get into the studio like the rest of us! When you think you've made something good, show it to us.

Caroline, it was nice to see your work.