The Art Assassin 2

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang, or a portrait of the artist as a young failure…


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Photograph of Julia Oldham with her dog. Courtesy of Facebook.
Julia Oldham: Still from video “Thaw,” 2009. Courtesy of Art in General and Julia Oldham.

Last summer during my solo exhibition at envoy enterprises, I had a chance to drop by the non-profit space Art in General on Walker Street and saw some fascinating video art of a human behaving similarly to an insect. As a kid, I became enthralled by the way that insects on biological documentaries behaved through television footage, so the recent work of Julia Oldham crashed into my imagination as I stood there staring at the screens in the storefront depicting the mysterious cycles of insects with a human subject. What did this all mean to me and by extension to all humans?

The Timber,” as I found out later on during the late summer, was part of a larger project examining human relationship with nature, specifically insects which live in tiny environments that differ substantially from the human perspective. The cyclical rituals of bugs become the basis for understanding how people can relate to nature in spiritual and scientific terms. Whereas Terry Winters combines biological patterns within his magnificently epic paintings, Oldham prefers to use innovative videos that not only look at the way humans and insects are part of the larger domain of nature but also the way that insects are depicted within biological documentaries in the media. Much props for the artist being able to merge biology and art in an exquisite way!

If you have any questions about Oldham’s artwork, feel free to contact her at

And now on to the show and here are THE ART ASSASSIN’s latest details of this “assassination”:

qi peng: To start off on a lighter note, what are some of your favorite artists, books, television shows, sports, art magazines, toys, movies, and other cultural artifacts that you wish to share with your fans of your work here? Do you have any recent galleries or exhibitions that you have seen and would to recommend to us? What things in those shows inspired your artistic eye and tastes?

Julia Oldham: I tend to find particular movies or books that I love, and then I watch or read them over and over.  I am obsessed with Masterpiece Theatre (I inherited this obsession from my mother), and I love nature shows.  My video shelf is composed mostly of David Attenborough documentaries and literary mini-series, and my bookshelf is similarly packed with bug books and Victorian novels.  I also love fantasy books and movies… I love escaping into make-believe worlds.

As to your question about exhibitions, I just returned from a walking trip in England, and while I was there I didn’t get a chance to see tons of art, but I did go to a lot of history museums.  I learned in the Museum of London that in the olden days all of the heads of executed criminals were thrown in the Thames, so there is a seemingly endless supply of human skulls that can be dredged from it.  That little tidbit really stuck with me for some reason (and made me want to dredge the Thames).  I love being reminded of all of the clues that are hidden in the earth.

qi peng: Are there any restaurants or hangouts such as bookstores around New York, particularly Brooklyn, where you are based out of or anywhere else that you wish to recommend us? What are the qualities that you enjoy best about the places that you have chosen?

Julia Oldham: I live in Red Hook in Brooklyn, which is such an incredibly friendly and delightful neighborhood.  I don’t really hang out at bookstores or coffee shops, but instead do a lot of walking through the neighborhood with my dog.  We walk through Carroll Gardens, we walk over to Valentino Pier right here on the water, through parks, and also into Brooklyn Heights.  There’s a really interesting park over by the Ikea in Red Hook, that is also a great place to explore. And the Red Hook Ball Fields are not only great for walking and playing, but are also the home base of a large group of vendors who sell pupusas and other yummy El Salvadoran foods in the summertime.

This spring was especially lovely for walking in Brooklyn, because it was cool and so very rainy.  A couple months ago while I was walking in Carroll Gardens, I saw mushrooms growing from the sidewalk.  Wonderful!

qi peng: How do you feel that the current economic recession impacted the contemporary art market and way that it functions in the larger national economy? Do you feel that artists will be pursuing more personal and intimate projects than the overly commercial work, typically geared for the art fairs, during the upcoming years? How do you think that galleries and non-profits will be coping with the dramatic shifts within the political and corporate culture, particularly in America?

Julia Oldham: I don’t feel that a lot has changed for me personally. I have always had a day job, and I have never supported myself with sales.  I have relied on grants here and there, and those are a little trickier to come by right now, but for the most part I am balancing artmaking and moneymaking the same way I was a few years ago.  I think it remains to be seen how artists and galleries will weather all of the economic problems—I have no prediction.

qi peng: Do you have any favorite hobbies which you enjoy in your spare time? How do these activities inform the studio work that you pursue? With your personal interests, are your painting, works on paper, and installations reflective of those hobbies you engage in?

Julia Oldham: I am an avid hiker.  Every weekend my partner, dog and I scurry out of the city and into the mountains.  I typically go hiking once or twice a week, more if I can swing it.  I really love getting out into nature, spending the whole day away from concrete and noise, and getting the opportunity to observe all of the little dramas that happen on the forest floor or under a rotting log.  This certainly informs my work—I often use these hiking excursions as a way of finding sites for video shoots, finding inspiration for new performances, and learning about new insects and invertebrates to study further.  I always bring a camera with me so I can document what I see.

qi peng: As a graduate of both Saint Mary’s College of Maryland and University of Chicago, what were those school years like? How was life in the studio like back then? Did you have any influential professors or students during that time and what was their impact on you and your work? Also what got you interested in studying Japanese art history and how does it impact your video work? How does “The Timber” fit into the context of your earlier video work and performance pieces?

Julia Oldham: St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a tiny liberal arts school situated in the woods along a river in southern Maryland.  It was a beautiful and intimate place.  Art and art history weren’t separate majors there, and everyone in the department was required to take a mishmash of studio and history courses.  I started as a studio major and found my way into Japanese art history through a series of wonderful classes taught by my advisor Rebecca Brown.  I spent a semester in Tokyo, where I took my first ever video editing class, and consumed a lot of Butoh performances which really changed the way I thought about my body and my art.

At the University of Chicago I was in a very small MFA program with ten other students.  We were all very close and supportive of each other, and many of us are still in touch, which is wonderful.  The school is not in downtown Chicago, but in the neighborhood of Hyde Park, which is very green and is right on Lake Michigan.  It was an interdisciplinary program that encouraged experimentation and mixing of media.  I had come in with a painting portfolio, but immediately began experimenting with video, which I had become very interested in since my class in Tokyo.  I’ve been working primarily in video since then.

I have been working with insects as a source of inspiration for performance for the last 5 years.  The work has changed a lot over time.  In the beginning I was faithfully mimicking mating rituals and navigational dances, and now I’m working in a much more interpretive way.  I think the newest work is about hybridization of human and bug rather than pure imitation.

The Timber is a series of videos that explores insect and invertebrate behaviors and activities through performance, video and sound.  I did a lot of research of bugs’ life cycles and interactions, and then translated what I learned into sets of movements I would perform in nature in front of the video camera.  I think of these performances as a sort of intuitive choreography that develops as I am doing it.  I manipulate this footage in a major way in editing.  I speed things up, slow them down, chop the footage into minuscule pieces and put it back together in an almost stop-motion fashion.  All of the sound is done in post production.  I add bits and pieces of sound to punctuate movements and create strange atmospheres.

qi peng: I had a chance to peep your lovely piece “The Timber” which is taking place at Art in General’s project space. Where did the idea originate for this ambitious examination into bug culture executed through an admixture of performance art and video work? By incorporating your own human body in the patterns of an insect’s existence, what is the underlying salient points about you wish to convey to the viewer about our relationship to nature, particularly insects which have fascinated and repulsed people throughout our natural history? How would place “The Timber” in the context of biology and art history, particularly in Renaissance painting where there is an ongoing concern for various human positions of balance, particularly contrapposto, and Japanese prints where there is more of a dynamic flow in the character’s poses?

Julia Oldham: The Timber was an exciting project to pursue.  As I mentioned above, I’ve been interested in invertebrate behaviors as inspiration for movement for about 5 years, but my interest in bugs in general is much older.  I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t obsessed with insects—searching for them in the woods as a kid, keeping them as pets, delighting in finding them in my parents’ house.  The Timber was an opportunity for me to try to “think” like an insect.  I learned sets of movements that related to certain imperative activities: mating, egg-laying, fighting, displaying, dying. A lot of these movements were repetitive or strenuous, and so I emptied my mind while executing them and let my body sort of act on its own accord.  It was strange, rather meditative.  I usually started with a plan—typically a little set of symbols written on a piece of paper that reminded me of particular movements I wished to perform.  During the performance, though, I would generate new movements as I transitioned from one repetitive activity to another.

I don’t want to tell my viewers how to interpret these pieces in terms of a political or environmental position.  I do like to provide a little bit of background about how I conceptualized The Timber, although I think most people see just by looking at them that something buggy is going on.  I am most interested in the bodily response that people have to this work.  Do they imagine trying to do these movements themselves?  Do they become absorbed in the rhythmic sounds and tap their feet or twitch along with them?  Are they reminded of hot summer afternoons when they hear cicada sounds that I use in my soundtracks?

Absolutely, I think about the Renaissance—a time when artists were also doctors and scientists and philosophers, before we became so specialized.  I’m not necessarily romanticizing that model, but I find it very interesting indeed.  As for Japanese art history, I mentioned Butoh before, which has been a huge inspiration for me.  It’s elegant and ugly and alarming and frightening and beautiful.  All of the things that I want in my work as well.

qi peng: What type of biological research, in relation to personal experiences, did you conduct for “The Timber?” How do you incorporate subtly the scientific concepts into the overall narrative of the idea of insect/human dichotomy? Do you feel that there are any overtones with Kafka‘s character Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one day to find himself as a huge insect or vermin? What is the idea between conflict and balance that constructs the idea of wilderness and its natural cycles?

Julia Oldham: I watch a lot of nature documentaries (my favorite is David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth); I look at photos and videos captured by naturalists who share their findings on the internet; I read a lot of books about bugs.  I took some classes in graduate school that turned me onto an interesting group of animal behaviorists who were writing in the 1950’s: Konrad Lorenz, Nico Tenbergen, Karl von Frisch.  I’ve also read a lot of works by the naturalist Jean Henri Fabre, a school teacher who wrote numerous books about insect behavior in the early 1900s.  His writings are almost fairytalish.  He can make insect activities seem so beautiful.

I feel it’s important, though, for me to say that I don’t have a science background and would never call my work “scientific.”  I have done a lot of personal research, but ultimately my work is very subjective, very intuitive, very interpretive.  I definitely do not use the scientific method!

You mentioned Gregor Samsa.  Whenever I read The Metamorphosis, I feel a great sympathy for this gigantic bug that everyone finds so horrific.  I used to work at a nature museum in Chicago, and there were some Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches there at the museum that I would introduce to children who visited.  They always reminded me of Gregor—they are so big that you can really see their faces, all of their joints, even their parasites.  Everyone initially finds them disgusting, but they are really very charming and gentle creatures and folks tend to come around eventually.

qi peng: Do you have any favorite cuisine or dishes that you enjoy? Considering that food is essential for the artistic soul, what things do you enjoy about meals either prepared in a restaurant or home setting?

Julia Oldham: I am not much of a foodie at all.  I have an enormous sweet tooth, and I really like drinking tea while thinking about my projects.  I am mostly a vegetarian, for completely emotional reasons—it just makes me too sad to eat a critter.  That said, I am wild for escargot.

qi peng: What is the methodology behind your video work from start to finish, from preparatory studies to the completed work? What types of video and editing equipment do you use to create the final work? And what is an average day like within your studio?

Julia Oldham: My process starts with research (at home and in museums) and field observations of invertebrate movements and behaviors.  I then translate my observations into choreography and make simple notations on scraps of paper and in sketchbooks.  I return to the field and bring these notations with me.  I set up my camera, place my notations somewhere that allows me to refer to them, and perform alone in front of the camera.  The notations are a starting point, and I never practice them beforehand—the process of following the notations generate new movements that I incorporate into the performance.  I bring my footage home and then tear it to pieces in the editing process: I speed parts up, slow parts down, chop everything up and rearrange it.  The sound is edited in as I’m rearranging the footage. I record a lot of the sounds myself using my body or instruments; I record sounds out in the field; and I also steal a lot of sounds from the internet.

I use Adobe Premiere, Audition, and After Effects. I currently shoot on a Canon HV20; all of the new work is shot in high definition.

There isn’t really an average day in my studio.  Some days I spend hours sifting through my compost bin, playing with worms and mites; some days I’ll spend the whole day watching nature documentaries; some days I draw insects from morning until night; other days I’m out hiking and observing.

qi peng: How do you think that the new media, ranging from video art to Internet-based projects, will impact people’s appreciation of painting and photography and sculpture, more traditional and established media, which are interacting with each other in terms of visual motifs and archetypes? Do you feel that as people interact with new media, they will be able to critique the cliches of mainstream media and have a profound understanding of what it means to be human?

Julia Oldham: For me personally, successful artworks go beyond their particular medium. Regardless of how a piece is made, if I find that I continue to think about it for days after I’ve experienced it, I always seek out that artist again.

qi peng: Recently your work has been accepted into the curated artist registry at White Columns. What was the experience like being able to engage with the larger art community there? Also what is your opinion on juried competitions such as New American Paintings and curated artists registries such as The Drawing Center‘s Viewing Program or White Columns in the development of a young artist’s career? Do you feel that being judged by “officials” or “art referees” help to create a strong reputation for the artist’s work? What elements do you think are necessary to make a particular artwork strong and communicative?

Julia Oldham: I’ve participated in both The Drawing Center’s Viewing Program and White Columns’ Curated Registry. I think these are good tools for increasing visibility of work—curators will sift through these websites, and so will other artists. I’ve made some interesting contacts through those programs, and have been invited to participate in show by folks who have found my work through them.

qi peng: What are some of your future projects or exhibitions that you will be pursuing soon? Will these new artworks be an extension of the themes and ideas that you are examining now or a different direction instead?

Julia Oldham: I am definitely going to continue working with similar themes in my upcoming work.  There are so many insects left for me to explore!  I imagine it could be a lifelong endeavor.  This summer I built my own worm compost bin, which I have been digging around in with glee for the past month.  It is full of amazing creatures: redworms, potworms, mites of all colors, pseudoscorpions, and fruit flies (which I am less excited about, as they fly out into my apartment in a cloud whenever I open the bin).  I am planning all sorts of wonderful explorations of decomposition using this worm bin as a tool—recently I’ve been taking footage of these critters with a video microscope that my dad gave to me.  Oh, it’s just revolting and wonderful seeing these things magnified!

I am also participating in the Blue Mountain center residency in the Adirondacks this coming October, and I am really looking forward to having a full month of time in the woods to observe and make new work.

qi peng: Do you have anything else which you would like to share with your readers and fans of your video work and upcoming exhibitions here?

Julia Oldham: I recommend that everyone in the world see the French film Microcosmos if they have not already.  Even the most squeamish bug haters would find it irresistible.

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at

Written by qi peng

January 18, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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