Absurd Spaces: Exaggerating the Everyday with Lenka Clayton

Interview by: Candace Opper

I came to know Pittsburgh-based interdisciplinary artist Lenka Clayton and her work through An Artist Residency in Motherhood—a self-directed residency program she founded to encourage artists who are mothers to reframe parenthood as a “valuable site for creative practice, rather than an obstruction to be overcome.” Though the residency was originally a product of Lenka’s own parenting experiment, the project now exists independent of her, as though she wound it up and watched it saunter off into the world to fend for itself.

This is no accident. Clayton has a history of orchestrating projects from which she ultimately removes herself to let the artwork unfold in real time. As part of the 2018 Carnegie International, she and artist Jon Rubin collaborated on Fruit and Other Things, an exhibit in which the titles of the 10,632 rejected artworks from the show’s 57-year history were made into individual hand-lettered text paintings, exhibited for a day, and then given away to visitors for free. In Unanswered Letter, she resurrected a letter sent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1978, in which the writer questions why a now-famous work of art was chosen for the collection over a similar work produced by his great-grandfather; forty years later, Clayton re-sent the letter to 1,000 contemporary curators and art professionals, eliciting a variety of replies from tender to bitingly pretentious. In her own words, her extensive body of work—held in collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, SFMoMA, Hamburger Kunsthalle, The Carnegie Museum of Art, and The Philadelphia Museum of Art—”considers, exaggerates, and alters the accepted rules of everyday life, extending the familiar into the realms of the poetic and absurd.”

In En Pointe’s first COVID-19-era interview, we spoke with Lenka about life in quarantine, encouraging artwork to move through the world on its own, and embracing the space between the self and the collective.

We’re recording this in week five of quarantine. How has being stuck at home affected your practice?

I spend a lot of time at home or in the studio anyway, so the way I go about my business hasn’t changed much. I have two kids, seven- and nine-years-old, and they’re around a lot more, which I love. It reminds me of when they were younger, and I had to find tricks to navigate space where I could escape from the all-encompassing mindset of parenthood and give myself a few minutes to think. 

When I became a parent for the first time, I remember having this sudden realization that I was engaged in a global activity. The way you feel about your kids is universal; it was very touching to step into that shared human space, and I was immediately aware of it. Perhaps there’s something similar going on now in some ways. Part of how I make a living is working as a mentor to artists. Every few days I’m talking to someone in a different country and different situation and I’m hearing many shared experiences. It’s been fascinating. 

On the subject of parenthood, let’s talk about the Artist Residency in Motherhood (ARIM), which is how I initially came across your work. What was the origin of that project? 

When I had my first son almost nine years ago, I became much more aware of the sexism in the art world, which is sort of obvious, but I hadn’t seen or felt as keenly before I had a kid. Artist residencies had played a large role in how I made my way professionally—and suddenly I had a baby. Not only was it not easy to travel with him, but I was often specifically excluded. Most residencies focus on creating rarified spaces outside the confines and responsibilities of everyday life. Not only are these spaces temporary and unsustainable, but they entirely negate the value of everyday life to an artist. Why is going into a creative bubble more valuable than paying careful and acute attention to your own actual surroundings? 

I looked at what a residency offers artists and instead implemented these supports and structures into my everyday life as a parent. I applied for funding, made a studio space in my home, set office hours, appointed mentors, and made a website. I essentially created a frame through which I could interpret my life as material to work with. I also temporarily lifted my own critical voice and decided that anything I made during that time was enough. It didn’t have to be finished, and it didn’t have to be perfect. I had almost no studio time, so all of my work had to be made in the context of also looking after my kids. I mostly made tiny things or the beginnings of ideas, but they slowly started to accrue into something bigger because of the frame I had constructed.

Lenka Clayton, 63 Objects Taken from My Son’s Mouth, 2011–12. Acorn, bolt, bubblegum, buttons, carbon paper, chalk, Christmas decoration, cigarette butt, coins (GBP, USD, EURO), cotton reel, holly leaf, little wooden man, sharp metal pieces, metro ticket, nuts, plastic “O”, polystyrene, rat poison (missing), seeds, slide, small rocks, specimen vial, sponge animal, sticks, teabag, wire caps, wooden block. Laid out as shown 40″ x 40″ x 1.” Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

against a stark background, 63 objects photographed in color are lined up in 7 rows. The objects include are written in the image caption.

Eventually you decided to open up this residency to other mothers. What inspired you to make this shift? 

A lot of people showed interest in applying, so I created a website to invite others to create their own residencies in motherhood. An Artist Residency in Motherhood is essentially a mental shift that reframes the space of parenthood as a valuable creative space rather than an obstruction to creativity. I created a long questionnaire that prompts participants to create their own structure and framework for their residencies. The last question is, “How will you begin?” All the participants are added to a world map, which creates a visible network of usually invisible labor. Mothers in Ghana can see mothers in Australia who can see mothers in China who are all making work through the lens of An Artist Residency in Motherhood. 

Did you expect the project to expand to all corners of the globe?

Not at all! I didn’t do any marketing except one Facebook post to send it on its way. Now it has expanded dramatically way beyond the bounds of my own network, and rolls along by itself via word of mouth. I feel similarly about it to how I feel about my kids: if they’re independently engaging with the world, it’s working. That’s what the residency is doing; I’m not ushering it anywhere, I’m just letting it go, and it’s finding its own way. 

In your An Artist Residency in Motherhood manifesto, you write, “Despite a legacy of public artists/parents, it still seems to be a commonly held belief that being an engaged mother and serious artist are mutually exclusive endeavors.” Can you talk about how this myth shaped your residency?

My sense was that owning up to being a mother was taboo. Before I had kids, several people warned me to think very carefully about having kids because I wouldn’t be able to be a serious artist. After I had a baby and started making work, people said things like, “So now your work is going to be about babies and breast milk and blood?” I got the impression that either you don’t say anything at all about having kids and you pretend you don’t have them in every professional setting, or you have kids and your entire work has to directly reflect that. Neither of these worked for me. 

I am an interdisciplinary artist. My materials include the audience, the residency participants, my own standpoint, the physical environment I’m in—not just the materials I manipulate in order to manifest the work. An Artist Residency in Motherhood is about making work that is powerfully informed from the position of being a parent, without that necessarily having to be the subject.

Your piece 63 Objects Taken From My Son’s Mouth seems like a really good example of that. How did that project come together?

My son would put something in his mouth and my heart would start pounding and I would panic and pull it out. I’d never come across anything like it—something that felt so dramatic in one moment becoming funny a moment later. 

I started collecting the items because I loved that edge between horror and humor. I kept thinking I needed to make something out of them. Over time I realized that they themselves were the work and just needed a title. The work is sixty-three various objects, arranged in a grid. It was purchased by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which was extraordinary. It ended up in unlikely places, too, like Esquire Magazine in Russia and the Daily Telegraph, where my own grandmother saw it. Over breakfast she read about me taking things out of her great-grandson’s mouth. 

Lenka Clayton, Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind, 2017. Made in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Photo by Michelle Cade.

eight white sculptures reminiscent of lumps of clay or smooth rocks sit on white and black pedestals. In the gallery, the pedestals are arranged in almost 2 diagonal lines, and the lighting on the sculptures is very dramatic

Your work often recontextualizes forgotten or everyday objects. Are there qualities that draw you to certain objects? Or is your process more intuitive?

I’m often drawn to where two things come together to make a new space. For example, there’s a project I did called Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind, which began when I went to see a piece by Brâncuși called Sculpture for the Blind in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When I got there, it was displayed inside a glass case, completely inaccessible to anyone blind. It was so beautiful it stopped me in my tracks. I loved how these two logics—the artist and his title, and the museum and their display policies—came together and dismantled each other, together making an absurd space. My work started in that found space. 

In an interview with Crystal Bridges Museum, you talk about making space in your work for viewers to create their own narratives. Can talk about how that relationship transforms the experience of your work?

I’ve come to understand that my relationship to my own work is standing behind it. I don’t want to be in a position of interpreting and delivering it exactly, I want to make something, like the Residency in Motherhood, that I can release and that moves through the world by itself. I imagine that my job is to translate my own experience and make sure there is a space in the work that allows anyone to stand inside it. Essentially I just need to get out of the way as an artist. 

Mothers’ Days, a project by Lenka Clayton, published by An Artist Residency in Motherhood, 2020. Photo by Phillip Andrew Lewis.

hands holding Lenka's book open - the book is a coral pink, and its open to a white page with black text

An Artist Residency in Motherhood has evolved again with your most recent project, a book called Mother’s Days, which collects accounts of the same single day from mothers all over the world. How did this come together?

This is based on a project I did during my Residency in Motherhood, where I invited about 60 mothers to write what they had done all day, whatever day they wanted, and then I typed it up with the idea that this invisible labor was being witnessed, accounted for, and honored.

This new iteration of the project sourced people currently participating in the residency. All the participants recorded the events of a specific but ordinary day—July 15, 2019—in as much or as little detail as they chose. I’ve always loved the idea that whatever we’re doing there’s someone else doing the same thing—especially with parenthood. Everything that seems so incredibly particular to your child is happening everywhere all the time, you just don’t see it. 

What larger narrative emerged from those collective submissions?

As I read them, I was weeping and laughing; they were immediately really powerful. Asking people to simply report, without editorializing, resulted in an immense honesty and humility. I decided to arrange them one after the other without naming authors within the text, so the whole book becomes a collective narrative of the same day, lived again, and again. Many participants told me that when they were reading through it, they kept thinking each entry was their own because they were so familiar. Across this 19-countries-broad experience, everyone is engaged in similar cycles, yet at the same time, attitudes, circumstances, and individuals are so different. I’m always drawn to things that point to the relationship between the individual and the collective, and that’s what this book does. 

That’s similar to what you said earlier, about how being a parent places you into a larger collective, just like the experience of this quarantine. 

The comedian Mitch Hedberg is one of my absolute favorite inspirations. He has a joke about how every time he goes to shave he says, “I’m going to go shave, too,” because he knows that there must be someone else on the planet who’s also shaving at that moment. This could be a motto for my life, knowing that you’re alone but also that you’re always connected to others in ways that you’ll never directly experience. Acknowledging that is so beautiful to me. 

Featured image: Image courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

About the author:

Candace Opper is the author of Certain and Impossible Events, selected by Cheryl Strayed for the Kore Press Memoir Award. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, Longreads, Narratively, Literary Hub, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Vestoj, among others. She is Point Line Projects’ Editorial and Operations Manager.

Find Candace on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook.

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