Rebecca Vickers and Elissa Rae Ecker’s show runs through August 17 at Arts + Literature Laboratory. (Gifs by Andy Manis, still photos by Jennifer Bastian.)
The objects we pass by in our everyday lives—billboards or buildings, signs, or street posts—tend to hardly register in our consciousness, perhaps creating a neural blip before quickly fading into the subconscious.
But when a person is removed from their usual setting, any object, however ordinary, can begin to show its inherent aesthetic, performing in a way that feels unfamiliar and unexpectedly revealing. In the show per se per form, running through August 17 at Arts + Literature Laboratory, artists Rebecca Vickers and Elissa Rae Ecker pay homage to the objects that have sparked this phenomenon for them while living in Bangkok.
Individually and as a part of a collective, the two Midwest-born artists—Vickers is from Madison and Rae Ecker is from Minnesota—have worked to turn the objects that construct the everyday substrate of life in Bangkok into pieces of visual art.
In one of her pieces, “Chair Columns / Whirlylights,” Vickers, who earned her bachelor in fine arts from UW-Madison in 2007, creates sculptures from the imposing tall stacks of plastic stools that stand in Bangkok’s soup shops and custom-made whirlylights that line its streets . In another, “Content with infinite content,” she manifests the ceaselessly repeating LED billboards that light up Bangkok’s skyline like the sun.
In depicting these objects, though, from the perspective of expats, the exhibit also becomes not just about the objects that are performing, but also about the personal experience itself of seeing the objects perform.
Before the exhibit closes, Vickers spoke with Tone Madison about her life abroad, the challenges of making art that engages with a culture that is not her own, and the process of positioning of repositioning objects from the fringes of consciousness to the center.
Tone Madison: What prompted you to want to do this show in Madison?
Rebecca Vickers: Every year when I come visit I try to go see a lot of shows, and I had been to the Art In last year, and that was very cool space. It’s also nice to have a project to work on while I’m here. I get to come for a long time. I also really wanted a chance to share what I’ve been doing with all of the people here.
Tone Madison: You graduated from UW-Madison in 2007. How did you end up living in Bangkok?
Rebecca Vickers: My boyfriend, when I was an undergrad, he was doing landscaping and would always have the winter off and would travel. For the last two years in my undergrad, I would do these independent studies for winter and go travel with him. So, I got into traveling in that time. One one of those trips, we had gone to Bangkok, and I just really like the energy of the city and, I don’t know how to describe it, the visual culture.
Then, I wanted to do a master’s program, but I wanted to do it somewhere abroad so I could have a new life experience, and I was able to find one over there, which got me a Visa. We went over there, and stayed there, and now I actually teach.
Tone Madison: What was taking a master’s program like there. Were your classes in Thai?
Rebecca Vickers: There were two tracks to the program. The one I did was strictly studio-based thesis work. It was not an international program, and I really had to convince them to let me in. I did three semesters just as a special student first to show them I was serious about this.
Tone Madison: What were those three semesters like?
Rebecca Vickers: They just invited me to join classes with the other students, kind of like auditing, but also to produce work and participate in critiques. And the faculty, pretty much all of them speak English. Anytime we had to submit something I just did it translated so that they could have a Thai version.
Tone Madison: What was your art like when you finished undergrad and how did it evolve as you moved to Bangkok and began your graduate work?
Rebecca Vickers: The biggest change, and one that I think shows up in this work a lot, is—and I think this happens to anyone who produces stuff in a space they don’t really consider their home turf—there’s some kind of distance. Sometimes it feels a little bit restricting. Even having been there for 10 years, I would never feel very genuine making work that commenting on politics, or even just being really critical of society in any way. You feel like a guest in some ways.
I think on the other side of that, that distance also gives me a lot of space to operate in your own realm and see and respond, and see and respond, in a different way than I could experience here. For me, I’ve found a lot of opportunities to engage with the environment through everyday types of materials. Having seen them through that distance, they can be special.
Tone Madison: It’s one thing to note that or experience that, but it’s another thing to make art based off that observation. What prompted that?
Rebecca Vickers: I think it felt like an “in” to engage with the environment, the community, with my neighborhood, in a way that I felt confident about. I can point out that this thing that is normally nothing is something. It’s something that I can contribute, in a way.
One of the projects in the show, the chairs. Those are everywhere, all over the city. And I just really love them as forms and objects. What I learned in getting ready for this show when I went to the equivalent of a Walmart trying to get some of these chairs, was that they only have two colors available. They’re basically seasonal.
And I was like, “oh, shit.” I wanted all these different colors. I just made up a sketch of what I wanted them to look like in a gallery space and started approaching the soup vendors and telling them I wanted to create this in a gallery in the US, and the vendors thought it was so funny. But I ultimately asked them if they’d be willing to sell me chairs that they have that are all in different colors and aged, or if I could go to the store and buy new ones and trade. But they never questioned the project, and they totally got on board on it—one woman so much so that she heard I was looking for green chairs and took down my phone number and called me and asked to bring them to my studio. They all easily recognize the value of the objects, which makes me feel really good about the project.
Tone Madison: How did you end up collaborating with Elissa Rae Ecker?
Rebecca Vickers: Elissa is originally from Minnesota, but we met in Bangkok. We actually do a lot of projects as a part of the Liv_ID collective in Bangkok. We do some work together but then also a lot of curatorial work. We both have the summer off and I knew she would be in Minnesota for the summer, so I asked her if she wanted to do the show?
Tone Madison: How do you think your work interacts with Elissa’s?
Rebecca Vickers: Something that we were both thinking about a lot was when you’re making something from that space that’s a little bit removed from your audience in some ways, it can start to feel very performative in some ways. So, we wanted to bring that nature into the work. Here, I was thinking about it like staging a performance here in Madison, and these objects are the performers. We wanted them to have a dialogue with each other, and there’s a lot of movement and light too. The idea is that they are talking with each other and playing with each other.
In general, though, we wanted the show to feel fun.
Tone Madison: Usually, when we think of the idea of performance it’s something that’s limited to humans. Have you always been interested in this idea of object anthropomorphism?
Rebecca Vickers: I think I’ve definitely become more interested in that since living abroad. Objects and forms just tend to speak a little bit louder when you’re in an environment you’re not familiar with. I think that idea led me to start thinking about more.
Tone Madison: I want to delve more into the idea of performance. Can you unpack why it’s performance and not some other action? Are they performing for an audience?
Rebecca Vickers: I guess there’s two sides to that word. Either you’re voluntarily putting yourself out there and performing for an audience, but there are other times where it’s not up to you and you’re just on a stage in some ways, and I think that happens a lot as foreigners in an environment, or anyone in an unfamiliar environment feels that way.
Tone Madison: I also wanted to talk about the repetition and recursion at work in the show. The billboards you’ve created and their endless repetition is something that’s featured prominently in your artist’s statement. What is it about this idea that interests you?
Rebecca Vickers: Sometimes I joke that I’ve yet to come up with an idea that I only have to do once. In all of my work, there’s a hundred of something or 999 of something. It’s just really comforting for me, and I also really like how the act of collecting and bringing variations of forms together can amplify the similarities and differences between them.
Tone Madison: Are you turning the objects into art, or is there a more apt way to describe your process?
Rebecca Vickers: I think of it as rotating the value, I guess. But I also try really hard not to make the objects feel precious in any way. I still want them to feel very approachable and not like this thing that’s on a pedestal, like that can’t be touched, or whatever.
Tone Madison: Like not fetishizing it, in a way?
Rebecca Vickers: Yeah, I want to try and avoid that. And I think the everyday qualities of the objects allow me to do that. Some of the material in the piece “This/That/Here” is just like everyday tarp, and it’s all over the city. They use it to cover structures and there’s hundreds and hundreds of them across the city. My friends find the pieces with it funny, and I think it’s a little funny, but for me it’s about the color and the shape.
Also, because these are objects that people use to carry out their work, it almost shows the value in their actions and their labour that they’re doing.
Tone Madison: How do you notice people react differently to your work in Thailand as opposed to elsewhere?
Rebecca Vickers: Sometimes, like when I was doing my master’s program, where all my classmates were Thai, and they would say that my work was so Western, which was surprising because I couldn’t really see that aspect of it, but they would comment on the color palette and things like that.
I started collecting the whirlylights, and they were surprised by that and they hadn’t noticed the different patterns, which makes sense because there are probably a lot of things in our environment that we don’t notice. I definitely felt like having a show here would be an opportunity to share them with an audience that would see them from a different perspective.
Tone Madison: Do you think this exhibit is about the objects or about conveying your experience of seeing the objects in the kind of way we’re talking about, with that kind of distance?
Rebecca Vickers: I’m actually not sure. I think maybe because I’ve spent more time with them and because I really love them, maybe my view of them as objects and forms are more defined than someone who just walks into the room. My mom visited the exhibit and she said it was like she was visiting Bangkok, and it doesn’t feel like that to me. It’s more about the objects as individuals.
Tone Madison: It’s interesting from a phenomenological perspective. Like there is viewing the objects on level of consciousness, but then there is another level that is an awareness of one’s self viewing those objects. Which one does the exhibit portray?
Rebecca Vickers: What do you think?
Tone Madison: I don’t know. I think it’s the second one for me in the way that everything is put together in a curatorial way. It feels more like I’m in someone’s head who is observing the objects, rather than me myself observing the objects in the physical space they exist in.
Rebecca Vickers: It kind of becomes the act of recognizing the objects.
Tone Madison: Yeah, and from that distance you talked about, of viewing them cognitively without them having been etched into your brain every single day as a child.
Rebecca Vickers: In one of the billboards, I wanted to think of them together as being an ad campaign for something, and of what they would be an ad campaign for. And it’s kind of exactly what you’re talking about, of being aware of the experience of experiencing them.
Tone Madison: I think that’s also where the universality of your work kind of enters in, because even though your pieces are based on such a specific place, that experience we’re talking about is one that anyone can have when going to a new place. But, I guess there is obviously a privilege there as well.
Rebecca Vickers: It’s definitely an opportunity.