in conversation with Jody Graf
On a muggy summer evening, I sat down with artist Elaine Cameron-Weir at her studio in New York City to discuss her multifaceted practice. I first saw Cameron-Weir’s work at Ramiken Crucible in 2014: giant, gaping, elegant clamshells that doubled as incense burners. Her approach has continued to intrigue, mining strange seams of material possibility. Over wine, we touched on a range of topics: mythology, preppers, techno-optimism, and the origins of the word “hypocrisy,” to name a few.
Jody Graf I want to start by asking how you feel about descriptions of your work as contrasting the technological or non-human, and the organic. The more I think about it the more I question if this dichotomy entirely holds true, but I feel this perceived tension in your work is probably one reason why you were asked to be part of this issue, whose theme is “are we eternal beings?”
Elaine Cameron-Weir I think there is definitely part of my practice that has to do with that, but it’s an incomplete picture, probably because I don’t think of the artificial and natural as that different. There’s always a bit of disjoint between what you think you’re doing and what people are going to see. That doesn’t bother me. But if I was going to say what I think I’m doing right now, I actually don’t know. It has taken me so long to be able to say that—to un-professionalize the way that I feel like I’ve been expected to talk about things. I don’t know what I’m doing… but I am usually interested in talking about anything related to eternity.
JG: it takes a lot of confidence to lean into doubt and the kinds of vulnerability that art stems from—that space of unknowing. Something I struggle with as a curator is having to clarify or wrap things up nicely so they become digestible. Some art wants or needs that, depending on the context. But oftentimes, I think we jump to certain structuring dichotomies that are easy to relate to current events, when the work itself is speaking in a much more confused way. I mean confused in a positive sense. I was thinking about this vis-a-vis your materials, which you always list completely—concrete, neon, lead, Frankincense, clamshells, to name a few examples. You could read the works as contrasting the natural and the unnatural, but what’s really interesting is that you’re calling attention to a spectrum or leveling of materials rather than a contrast, insofar as everything that you’re incorporating ultimately comes from the earth. This is potentially a much more unsettling kind of perspective. It’s easier to be like, “oh, there are these dominating or negative technological elements, and then the good and natural.”
ECW: That makes sense. I want to complicate morality. There are very few things that I’m ready to declare as pure evil or pure good. I don’t put that kind of black and white thinking into my work. It’s a problem when understanding starts to mean oversimplification. I’m not trying to be didactic and echo popular perception. Like, “Yeah. Nature is grand and beautiful. We have to save it and let’s not put plastic in the ocean.” That has nothing to do with what I’m interested in.
JG: Yet your work does set up certain tensions—maybe there’s a structuring tension between porosity and fragility and disappearance, on the one hand, and things that armor themselves against change, on the other. Human life is often designated by its absence in the work. This got me thinking about death, not to get too serious.
ECW: Yeah. [laughter] First of all, I think that porosity and ephemerality—things that have to do with continuums of time and duration—are definitely qualities of materials and ideas I’m really attracted to. A metaphor about the durability of power structures hovers in some of the materials… It seems like no one talks about death directly but it’s so implied in everything. And artificiality seems to be a way to avoid it, or separate humans from the world. There’s something related to faith and belief in there too, a psychological aspect either in tech, science, or religion that seems related to exceptionalism or something.
JG: We are dealing with a scary techno-utopianism now—some bizarre faith that tech will save us from planetary disaster, from our ephemerality. I was struck by the works that you showed in the Venice Biennale, which incorporate cases used by the US military to transfer human remains. I was thinking back to your older work, and realizing that a similar appeal to loss or transitional states is there—in the silk parachutes you used in your show at the Dortmund Kunstverein, or the repetition of gates, or the burning of substances. There are also many references to Greek mythology, which is so much about understanding our material world via before- or after-lifes. I’m curious to what extent this question of loss or mourning has always been part of your practice.
ECW: It’s easy to forget that Greek mythology comes from religion and isn’t some neutral thing. I’ve always wanted to talk about belief but I think that there has been a shift for me from referencing Greek and Roman gods and goddesses or myth—something I don’t personally believe in and that I have distance from, but has surrounded me—towards Christianity. I’ve never been a practicing Christian, except when I got scared for a few weeks when I was twelve because they gave Bibles out at our school. And I was like, “What the fuck? I am definitely going to hell!” and I read it every night to scare myself. But I guess I’m drawn to Christianity now as an iconography that exists in the world. I feel I’m separate from it, but I’m influenced and affected by it because look at where we live… God is on the money here in the US. It’s not like this is a secular society. I’ve also become more interested in thinking about state power. You can’t disentangle religion and state power.
JG: There’s an interrogation of belief systems of many forms in the work, religion being one belief system—referenced sometimes through the ritual-like burning of incense. That of course carries a lot of transmuted cultural baggage, in terms of discourses of self-help and self-care, which are in my opinion rather sad attempts to bring order in the face of chaos. But also state power and science, which are belief systems that don’t often get apprehended as such.
ECW: Yes. Science is big for me, though all of my knowledge is amateur. I went to art school and I learned how to chop wood and make ceramics. I don’t know how to do anything else. [laughter]. But I think that the amateur mindset is actually helpful for me. I’m into the idea of observation overthrowing conventional wisdom. A misunderstanding of the technicality of science and a desire to grasp it through metaphor is maybe akin to religious experience. You can’t grasp the Trinity. It’s like contemplating infinity or the speed of light—going back to duration again. But science is full of metaphors that help us wrap our heads around things. Even the name of something, like the “Big Bang,” helps us conceive of what it is. It was originally called the “hypothesis of the primeval atom” but got inadvertently renamed by a skeptical scientist referring to it dismissively as “this big bang theory” on the radio. There’s something interesting about how systems at odds with each other employ the same means of communication—again, often metaphor. I’m more interested in thinking about meaning—what it is and how it’s created—than I am in depicting subject matter.
JG: And, well, art becomes its own belief system. You have to buy in. I find the idea of condensation helpful in terms of thinking about metaphor and how systems create meaning. Maybe an effective artwork is a condensation or distillation—there’s a density—in the same way that any effective political system or religious system has to simplify and boil down. But that’s also really scary.
ECW: Yes, a concentrated power flowing into or from a single point—like God, or the Big Bang. The consequences of that being a goal are scary, but where it comes from, where it drips off from, is the saltiest part, you know?
JG: I’m interested, too, in the idea of transmission in your work, and how art itself transmits meaning. And I was thinking back to your antenna-like pieces, some of the first works of yours that I ever saw in person, which suggest the sending or receiving of messages.
ECW: I think a good metaphor relies on poetics to be clear, like a weird meme or a good joke. It’s also why I’m interested in garbled language. I’m not interested in misunderstanding or attempting to be incomprehensible for its own sake. That’s so annoying to me actually…
JG: It’s one of my least favorite things.
ECW: In terms of the transmission and reception of a signal, I’m interested in my audience, too, though I don’t know who that is all the time.
JG: Thinking about audience reaction, I’m wondering about the hints of dread in your work, which are mixed with elements of seduction. There’s a shared societal dread that feels palpable right now, and which manifests itself through heightened forms of faith, but also through nuts-and-bolts survivalist, prepper culture.
ECW: Oh yeah, I’m really into prepper culture. I think it comes from my fascination with things on the edge of decline, and loving fin de siècle doom and gloom as in Baudelaire, Huysmans etc. A lot of the military equipment that I research or get close to tangentially is also close to the prepper world. The person I bought the body transfer cases from suggested that I bury them and put weapons in them. The idea of someone who would prepare for the downfall of society seems archetypal to me, and has to do with duration, the body, protective measures, revolution. The apocalypse maybe.
JG: I’m reminded of the clam shells you’ve used quite a bit, which are another kind of protective architecture that has been released from that function.
ECW: Yeah! [laughter] I’m curious about what happens when there is no structure to protect or oppress you, like a shell might. In high school, I used to hang out with people who called themselves anarchists, but in the way that 15-year-old punk rockers do. Even at that age, I was like, “You guys aren’t really anarchists. You live with your parents.” [laughter] But I’ve always been interested in hypocrisy that arises from the thwarted desire to set yourself outside of society, the impossibility and ennui of that as well as the dandyism of that position. I have myself been a hypocrite in that way, like many people, but I’m more interested in hypocrisy as a functionally compromising position now, how people use it as a weapon.
JG: I think about hypocrisy a lot.
ECW: It’s hard not to.
JG: I’m just realizing, I don’t know the origins of the word.
ECW: Should I find out?
JG: Yeah, I’m curious. Obviously, working in an institution I think a lot about feeling compromised. I find it interesting that it has become a go-to form of critique, especially in the art world, to be like, “Oh, that’s hypocritical.”
ECW: Or “impure.” Which is actually so dangerous.
JG: As if there could ever be a space of pure politics or morality. I’m thinking now about the way that you use materials. You tend to retain the integrity of each material. I don’t know if that has any connection to what we’re talking about… Like letting each material live in its own time and mess.
ECW: Actually, I think it might. I want the constituent parts of things to be seen because I see them as the words in the sentence that make the meaning. I structure meaning the way that I think about poetry, in which you can put one word next to another without narrative, necessarily. The meaning might be nonsensical or stupid or ineffective, but it will still do something because each element has meaning it contributes to a whole. I’m so obsessed with the meanings of materials.
JG: In your work there’s nothing extraneous. Everything is serving a purpose, holding something together. The simplicity of gravity at work. What you are saying about poetry as a logic of juxtaposition, sparked me to think about how you use pairings or doublings in your work. There are a lot of instances in which you have two of something in a work, or two sculptures next to each other. Where does that impulse come from for you?
ECW: Yes, the doubling aspect of my work, it’s like the real world and its double: which one is the original? Ideas of truth and perception underlie every kind of system that we’ve talked about. I’m naturally attracted to symmetry in things and mirror images, reflections. I’ve never fought that impulse, but I think there’s also something about how the perceiving organs on the human body are usually manifested in pairs—looking at the world from two singular points of vision and seeing it as one. Or, the brain having two hemispheres, bodies having two imperfect sides. A lot of things that are organized around a spinal cord are ‘symmetrical.’ I’m really interested in that hinge point. It’s also a challenge to try to make something roughly physically symmetrical one side at a time. It forces me to look at what I did the first time, when I wasn’t thinking about the eventual symmetry. To reverse that is a way to reflect back using my own body, like writing backwards or something. Once it’s been finished for a while I usually forget which side of the work I made first.
JG: To return to the first dichotomy I brought up between the human-made and the natural, I feel like, at first glance, the kind of doubling or symmetry in your work might be read as falling on the side of things that are mechanical or technological, versus the chaotic, organic world. Yet, there’s actually so much symmetry, almost uncanny and hallucinatory, in nature. Symmetry reads as both artificial and primal. This brings me to the function of heat in your works, which often emit light or heat, or gesture towards that through artificial means. Burning candles are emblematic of the eternal; we burn candles to keep the memory of someone alive, but burning is also an expenditure and an eventual disappearance. It seems related to this underlying prompt of “eternal beings.”
ECW: I think “expenditure” is a good word. It’s also related to why I have been so interested in smell, because it’s an evaporation and a using up of something. And I do use it, again, as a metaphor. Different types of light sources connote different things: a real flame says something different than an artificial candle, like I used in Venice. Humanity still hasn’t figured out free energy, it’s a finite resource still, but, theoretically, energy is never destroyed. It changes state. There’s a facade to an artificial flame, which appears to go on forever but relies on electricity. I was making that work in the height of the summer of 2020, so it was a tumultuous time and it just felt right to talk about facades or showmanship. Going back to hypocrisy, it’s like saying, “oh don’t worry, this will never burn out. We’ve got this artificial thing, don’t worry about it.” Engaging in hypocrisy is a way to bend the truth, and there’s something not necessarily hypocritical about a fake candle, but paradoxical—like double speak. That whole installation, which was first shown at the Henry Art Gallery and then in Venice, was about a set-up or questioning of narratives billed as truth.
JG: Yeah. And the fake candles are reminiscent of the ways in which “thoughts and prayers” are a stand-in for actual change or action. Something that we hear a lot these days.
ECW: Let me tell you the origin of the word hypocrisy though. According to Google the Greek word is rooted in ‘hupo’ which means under and ‘krinein’ which means decide/judge. I’m going to butcher the pronunciation, ‘hupokrineisthaie,’ which means to play a part or pretend. But then it morphed into another Greek word ‘hupokristies,’ which means the acting of a theatrical part. And then it went to Latin. Then it went to old French as ypocrisite and then English hypocrisy.
It’s interesting that it is the word for acting.
JG: Makes a lot of sense because if you’re being hypocritical, you’re probably having to fake.
ECW: But to be a good actor, you have to access something really genuine.
JG: Yeah. I used to not understand why anyone would be interested in theater when there was so much already in the world. I didn’t understand why acting was so impressive [laughter]. But now I have the opposite feeling about it; I think it’s one of the most impressive things that one could do. It’s so hard to emote. Transmitting the signal is hard.
in conversation with Jody Graf
Are We Eternal Beings?
Fall Winter 22-23
Courtesy of the artist, JTT, New York, and Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles
Elaine Cameron-Weir (b. 1985, Red Deer, Alberta, Canada; lives and works in New York). The artist’s work is currently on view at the 59th Venice Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani. Past solo exhibitions include: STAR CLUB REDEMPTION BOOTH, Henry Art Gallery, Seattle (2021); strings that show the wind, JTT, New York (2019); exhibit from a dripping personal collection, Dortmunder Kunstverein, Dortmund (2018); a large-scale installation as part of Outlooks, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (2018); wave form walks the earth, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles (2017); viscera has questions about itself, New Museum, New York (2017). Her work was featured in the 2017 Montreal Biennial and in numerous group exhibitions at institutions including the Remai Modern in Saskatoon and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Jody Graf is a curator and writer based in New York. She is an Assistant Curator at MoMA PS1, where she recently organized the group exhibition Life Between Buildings. She additionally curated the 2021 Parsons MFA Thesis show, and has worked as an independent curator on numerous projects. Her writing has been featured in publications including Texte Zur Kunst, Frieze, Mousse, CURA., and The Exhibitionist. She received her BA from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, and her MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.