[April 26 2016]
Oliver Clegg’s “Life is a Gasssss” at Erin Cluley Gallery in Dallas is the Brooklyn-based artist’s first solo exhibition in the US. The 13-piece multi-media installation aims to address the repercussions of social and technological progress. Inside the gallery ten oil-on-canvas paintings, which depict partially deflated Mylar balloons in the shapes of iconic 20th century cartoon characters like Bart Simpson and Bugs Bunny, are accompanied by two sculptures: a bronze carrot dangling at waist-height and a mirror lit up with the neon words “Life is a Gasssss.” Affixed to the ceiling of an an annex next door to the gallery is an illuminated disco ball which reflects the word, “ME” all over the surrounding walls while an eerily distorted recording of Carly Simon‘s “You’re So Vain” plays on a loop. Read on as Oliver explains his intentions with the show and the misgivings with modern digital communication that inspired it.
Paige Silveria – Can you explain to me what you meant when you said in the prose section of your press release that cultural icons are “seemingly on the decline”?
Oliver Clegg – I see all of these figures as very much belonging to my generation. Born in the ’80s and Mickey Mouse, Garfield, Sesame Street, that was the kind of childhood I was brought up on. But if we look at what children are watching on TV today or being proposed to buy in the shops, it’s a very different cast of characters. The characters I chose for the show represent a pre-digital era. Sesame Street still exists, but it doesn’t represent the same tour-de-force that it had when I was a kid.
Paige Silveria – And they’re remaking Sesame Street.
Oliver Clegg – Right and they did the Garfield movie and the Peanuts movie, but again it’s a resurgence. As with these paintings, they’re not totally deflated and on the floor, finished. They’re only halfway there. For us, we had four channels and we’d watch an episode of something on one day. You couldn’t Google cartoons and have 50 options. The speed at which things are being replaced is happening much faster in the digital era. There will always be something else that is bigger or better. This particular cast of characters that I chose stand as metaphors for the point that I’m trying to express.
Paige Silveria – Which is?
Oliver Clegg – That technological change can be problematic. When I was laying all of this work out, I came to the conclusion that in a culture with too many options, you start to think about the measure of yourself against all of the options. Social media is sort of a vehicle accelerating our narcissism. I don’t know if it’s a problem that already exists or if it goes hand-in-hand with the reaction to so much imagery presented to contrast yourself against that you eventually have to stand and wave a flag proclaiming, “This is me, this is me.”
Paige Silveria – Do you think there’s a positive side to that as well, an opportunity for self-reflection?
Oliver Clegg – I think narcissism is ugly. Expressing your self interest on social media doesn’t have very positive personal repercussions. A lot of people say that they care more about how others see them as opposed to them questioning the idea of themselves. I don’t think it’s a spiritual thing. I think it’s more of a competitive thing. And competition is not a foundation of spirituality. I’m not saying that I’m anti social media. Or anti computers or any form of digital communication. My perspective is that the narcissism is seeming to get out of control. One selfie leads to people taking pictures of themselves at the gym. I don’t know how that’s going to be something that has any spiritual benefit.
Paige Silveria – So you think that people are becoming more narcissistic?
Oliver Clegg – Yeah, I know that they are. Well, they’re given tools that are accelerating their narcissism. You could give someone a brush, who’d never held one before and they may realize they’re a great painter. They might get obsessed by it. It’s the same; today they’re given the tools. I think the point is, if you do something repetitively, it will become a kind of second nature. And I don’t think a kind of narcissistic obsession is good. I’m not saying that it never existed, I’m saying that as newspapers were invented, you had the emergence of the socialite. Now we’re in this culture where everything can be exemplified so quickly. Do you know what I mean? Maybe I am looking at things from a negative perspective. Maybe there’s a sense that I’m like a grumpy old man. Part of me wishes I could be more into this generation where I didn’t have to think about the transition. We survive as a fictional creation of ourselves: the people we hang out with, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to. Now with Instagram there is this very visual platform. I do fear for the lack of control and the way that it’s conducting us to be completely consumed with ourselves.
Paige Silveria – The rise of narcissism and the role of technology is definitely a big topic of conversation today.
Oliver Clegg – I see the benefits of technology. I see the benefits of being able to follow people like Bernie Sanders on Instagram. I do feel that it’s kind of a needle-in-a-haystack scenario. I like to discover things and in a more incremental way. Maybe that’s just a generational thing. Like I would prefer to put on a record. And listen to it from head to toe.
Paige Silveria – You’re remorseful for the past.
Oliver Clegg – I’m incredibly nostalgic. My father died when I was 29 and ever since then I’ve been thinking about what made me happy in my childhood. I’ve been focusing on these childhood characters that were a part of that happy time, when I had this control. And now I feel that I kind of have less control because of what I see as too many options. It’s like the donkey that is so hungry and thirsty at the same time. And there is a pool of water and a pool of grain. He can’t decide which to take so he just dies. It’s such a depressing story, but it’s true. Can you be happy when you’re consuming so much information the whole time?
Paige Silveria – Well you could choose to listen to that record instead.
Oliver Clegg – I want to live in Costa Rica for a few months each year where there is no technology and I’m completely disconnected. I can be more in tune with myself, more healthy, eating well. As opposed to being unnaturally concerned with everything that’s going on in the world at the moment. You don’t mind having a ton of information all of the time?
Paige Silveria – Well you have the amount of information that you want to have. It’s up to the individual how often they’re engaged in their Instagram account and how much time they spend reading a book.
Oliver Clegg – But do you find that when you have the options, you just get greedy? Like, I’m going to take in a lot of information and just see how far I can push myself?
Paige Silveria – That implies that you have no self control.
Oliver Clegg – That may be true.
Paige Silveria – But you do.
Oliver Clegg – Yes, but it’s quite hard to say, “No.”
On view until May 7th, 2016, at Erin Cluley Gallery, 414 Fabrication Street, Dallas.
Text and photo Paige Silveria