Below, in narrative form with alternate images of the art.(Click red phrases to jump directly to sections.)
Information Inundation | Bye-bye Big Sky, Hello Bladerunner | Imagination Engine | To Love and Die in L.A. | A Shinjuku Zulu, A Sheryl Crow | Pix Remix | On and Off the Static Wagon | Morse-code Forests and Multiple Past Lives | Divination Inclinations Laser Palimpsests | Downstepped Nature | DNA’d Cowboy Hats
Encountering a building transforming from a beautiful insect into a finely tuned machine, sandwiched between a traditional wooden home and a large apartment block; entering a forty-foot high minimalistic stepped zen concrete garden, inside a bank tower; watching torrents of people streaming past thirty stories below, perched in a neon forest… being exposed to such intense visual experiences every moment while living in Japan had a profound affect on K.I.A.’s art. “My future-self must’ve called back to me — this voice in my head just insisted I go to Tokyo.” Bye-bye Big Sky, Hello Bladerunner K.I.A. (Kirby Ian Andersen) moved on impulse from western Canada to Japan after his third year of studying english literature at university in Calgary.
Bye-bye big sky, hello Bladerunner
His early art in Tokyo consisted of slicing up subway advertisements. “Posters were a familiar medium I knew from doing collage displays when I worked in a record store. I was broke when I first moved to Asia, and the posters were, uh, ‘free’, just pinned to the walls.” He’d rip, cut, and reconfigure his acquisitions in the kitchen at 2 am, the only way to make art in peace while living with five other guys in a no-bedroom studio. He also worked the material directly on the wall in the subway, cutting out, rotating and re-pinning a quadrant or a couple segments of the ads for a subtle deconstruction. The anonymous public experiments led to holding an exhibition in a telephone booth (“A comment on space, of course, but also turning the audience into the show”), then sneaking one-thousand editions of an image into museums, (“Okay, mostly into their postcard racks”,) to eventually hanging (and leaving) three enormous paintings, with an unofficial official “opening”, in a subway station.
A chance encounter with a famous artist had a lasting impact. While K.I.A. was walking through jam-packed Shinjuku he witnessed a Japanese man handing over his jacket to a ‘gaijin’, who drew on it, to the man’s great excitement, in a distinctive manner in silver marker. That ‘foreigner’ was Keith Haring. Carried along by the throngs of people, past blasting pachinko parlors and hostess bars and electronic shops, K.I.A. pondered the importance of having an instantly-recognizable style. Finally, in the eye of a hurricane of hurrying commuters, he stopped to sit. “I remember exactly the spot. It was beneath a massive flashing jumbotron, near the subway entrance, on a slab of concrete. You don’t get much sleep living for weeks in a room of snoring and farting guys — I dozed off.”
He awoke with a fully-formed technique: he would cut his base material into thin slices and arrange them in a linear fashion. The first, third, fifth line, and so on, would be one image, while the second, fourth, sixth lines would be another… like a rhyme scheme in a poem. By stripping down most of the originating images, he could compress a lot of information from many sources into an artwork. He could also alter any single image simply by shifting segments a little. His collages would be easily distinguishable from other ones which just cut out and placed whole shapes. In Shibuya later that same day he saw, totally by chance, a tiny poster in a stairwell announcing a party for the opening of the Pop Shop — the reason Haring was in Tokyo. He went to the venue that evening, the only local westerner, and ended up meeting Keith and his entourage (and sleeping at McDonald’s after missing the trains for home.) He was invited out to dinner the next night. “We all walk through this nondescript ground-level door, cross over a silver bridge, and descend an enormous marble stairway to the tables two stories below. Huge pillars, red velvet walls, totally awe-inspiring. All I’m thinking is: I can’t even afford the water in this place.” It ended well; Keith picked up everyone’s tab. K.I.A. saw that a career as an artist was actually possible.
He went on to create many of the sliced linear collages, stacking, layering, interleaving, and weaving images from single as well as disparate sources: anime, ads, washi paper, porn, gothic imagery, garbage, and western magazines (“The most expensive part. But at least I could read them first”.) The works grew in scale. He did an eight-foot high collage of a pillaging conquistador for his first show in an official gallery in his new rhythmic style. Due to his tiny working space, he’d had to create it on four panels. While installing the work he had the insight to collage the collage by rotating a quadrant — to remix it. Over the course of the show he kept moving the panels — interchanging, offsetting, reversing, separating them, even revealing the backs — so that the image was never the same from day to day. This breakthrough led to his next phase of works, where it was important to start out with a coherent initial image and concept, but to allow, via the mobile components, the work to be infinitely reconstructed. “The method was like an imagination engine. I couldn’t possibly pre-plan all future shapes”. Or the new contextual meanings . By the time of his next gallery show, this idea had evolved into using wooden panels connected by clamps, with the addition of paint used for color and to emphasize the grid. So: a Geisha composed from Hokusai waves, litter, money and manga, rendered Picasso-esque with the rotation of a single panel; a red and blue Christian cross made of words and landscapes, in one surprise recombination, forming a Hindu swastika; a long-necked Myanmar girl created from fashion photographs, the panels stacked vertically suddenly emphasizing her coiled neckwear… and so on. K.I.A. wanted to scale-up the work even further, and combine it with his earlier public-space experiments. “I decided to project my images onto a skyscraper.” To do this, he had to get the approval of the Canadian Embassy, two separate police forces, the civic government, and three major corporations. While only being able to speak conversational Japanese.
To Love and Die in L.A.
Meanwhile, he was falling in love, across the Pacific Ocean. During a 24-hour layover in Los Angeles he reconnected for a couple hours with a Calgary acquaintance, Zanesha Gowrali. “We’d only ever said hello before in our hometown, but that two-hour visit with her was magical.” Afterwards she confided to her friend that he was the type of guy she could marry. They began calling and writing each other. It took another year of red-tape for K.I.A. to pull off his “Project Project” — the final images were six stories high, displayed over the world’s busiest intersection — and the voice that called him to Tokyo was now saying go. Zanesha suggested he come to L.A. She was practically a stranger, but he moved in with her. Years later they found his first letter to her. In a p.s. at the bottom, he’d proposed. “Some kinda pre-birth plan, or something. We’d both known from the start.”
They lived together in Santa Monica, just up the street from Frank Gehry’s enormous binocular-building, and above a cafe where Keanu Reeves hung out. K.I.A. experienced reverse-culture shock, going from a place where you bow at a distance to being long-hugged hello by complete strangers; moving from densely crowded , overcast urban streets, countless trains and never-shirtless Japanese, to bright skies, countless cars and barely-dressed beach bums. Oh, and riots. To process it all he took to writing, eventually completing a novel of genre and era-jumping stories interlinked by character, which could be read in two different directions. He continued taking the karate he’d started in Japan, and nearly joined a cult. (“We’d go on great group mediation hikes, but were eventually asked to become computer programmers and give our salary to the organization. So, no. The cult leader eventually killed himself, and his dog, with a massive LSD overdose outside his mansion.”)
K.I.A. also continued painting, extending his series of remixable quatra-panel paintings, doing an Aztec mask, a collaged Sudanese woman, a Muscle-beach bodybuilder. He showed his paintings and new cut-up wordworks in a warehouse, obscure galleries, and a hair salon. “Shepard Fairey was in the early stages of his Obey stuff, postering hoarding up the street. And Wayne White’s thrift-store paintings were in a diner around then. So a beauty parlor — I think it was owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger — maybe wasn’t so bad.” He sold a few pieces there, one to a big-time entertainment lawyer who only signed his checks with a star. “Not much else happened in L.A. for me, except I think I got cruised by George Michaels at the Armani store on Rodeo Drive. He liked my pants.”
A Shinjuku Zulu, A Sheryl Crow
K.I.A. and Zanesha moved to Toronto. More culture shock. “It was cold. And it was cold.” Meaning it was thirty below zero the first winter. And the people were not long-huggers. A major music fan, he became a writer for a culture magazine in order to get free CDs. He also got to meet and interview the bands he loved (Massive Attack, Underworld, Bjork). There was always a negotiation with the labels, who were trying to get coverage for Canadian bands in return for access to the international superstars. “Fine, but at that time the Canuck stuff was all rock, and I wasn’t.” He couldn’t find much of the music he loved being produced locally. So he made it himself. He’d always considered doing music, but had no training, had never picked up an instrument, and had a terrible voice. Speaking with successful bands, though, made it seem possible. “My inner-voice shouted ‘Now! Fast!’ It was like a starter-pistol went off in my head.” He didn’t even know how to turn one on, but he bought a computer. He maniacally studied every available book, manual and how-to magazine related to music-production. He put medical-intern hours into the practice of songwriting. His albums, released under the name Shinjuku Zulu, and later as K.I.A., got four-star rave reviews in major newspapers.
Like his visual art his music was multicultural and modular; he wrote nearly every type of song possible,with multiple styles on each CD. He made albums across albums; if you only wanted a group of songs of a single-genre, you could make your own compilation from all the releases — mp3s made this easy. “I liked a wide variety of stuff, so that’s what I made — dance, downtempo, singer-songwriter, hip-hop, blues, dub, acapella, happy, sad, aggressive… sometimes all in the same song. One track mashed up cabaret, electro and Japanese cheerleaders. I even wrote a square-dance!” Having a bad voice was a good thing, because it forced him to work with a range of singers and therefore tell many stories through their different styles. He even sampled (with permission,) vocals from Janet Cardiff, a Venice Biennale award-winning sound-installation artist . (“It’s called ‘Large Slow River’, after her work, and it’s an epic electronic Laurie Anderson vs Kraftwerk kinda thing.”) Ultimately, songs he wrote were used in many Hollywood productions and soundtracks, from films featuring Samuel Jackson to tv shows starring Paris Hilton. His song “Mrs Major Tom” was even recorded by Grammy-award winner Sheryl Crow.
K.I.A. produced 6 albums and two kids in that period. He also, of course, made visual art. The panel pieces were now massive: a ten foot by five foot Masai shield composed of mathematical formulae, was on thirty five panels; a Polynesian mask whose interior collage was Victorian-era etchings and etiquette instruction, was on 64 panels, and eight feet by twelve feet … The panels were now lightweight aluminum, connected by bolts. Their smaller size exponentially increased the recombinant possibilities. Individual panels, columns, rows, linear segments or entire sections of the picture could now be rearranged. The shield, for example, could be reconfigured to reference a kimono, or a Sikh’s dagger, or a canoe. The higher volume of the panels also enabled the works to become more sculptural. Panels could be hung at angles, or the entire painting in or around corners or volumes. The pieces could be stacked into a solid column, arrayed like a sail, or spread flat on the floor like tiles, carry on up the wall and onto the ceiling.
The next big leap with the recombinant works, however, was to intermix them. He started to insert panels across paintings. Sometimes just a few rows, like he’d done in those paper collages in Japan. But then larger sections, and subsequently half a painting, which led to splicing three works together, then interconnecting four. Suddenly he realized he was also intermixing time. “It was very, very interesting to cross-pollinate works done a couple years apart, because it suggested that everything was interconnected; the past and the future were happening at the same time. When I realized that, you know what I did? I sent a message back to myself when I was in university, saying ‘Get started, go to Tokyo’.“ In each of these multi-panel paintings he was using graphic black (Keith Haring?) lines to shape and contain the information, so when he started grafting together separately created works there was a unifying visual. It also dawned on him that he was really creating a giant super-work. All the paintings — though each was conceived and completed completely on its own — were really just one. “It was like quantum-theory art: all possible future states of the painting already existed, it just so happened that the arrangement currently in front of my eyes was the one I was experiencing. There were so many expanding possibilities and permutations.“
The more individual pieces he made, the more complex the possibilities for the super-work became. (This also underscored the earlier idea that the movable-panel artworks were infinitely rearrangeable and therefore never ‘finished’.) An exhibition of these works started with each painting in its original state, with new combinations every few days, each time more radically mixed across the works. The finale was a synthesis of all the paintings into a single fourteen-foot high, forty-foot long installation. One review described it as “looking not so much constructed but as if it had grown.” The widest-circulated paper in Canada, recognizing the links between K.I.A.’s music and visual art, headlined their article “If you can remix music, why not art?”.
On and Off the Static Wagon
The downside of a work without a constant form is that people like a constant form. The multi-panel pieces were harder to sell. (“It could also be that they were ginormous”, K.I.A. acknowledges.) So he morphed the signature look developed in Japan, of linear sections comprised of compressed information, into a more human-scale and painterly style — the slices becoming monochromatic colored lines with the hints of picture-shapes and word-portions as shades and tones. All on a single, static, larger panel. The compositions were still full of data, but it was now only hinted at: DNA subtyping, bar codes, city grids… and with a more organic feel, like lines raked in a zen garden, dune-waves, geological strata, or patterns on shells. The changeable aspects of his works remained, but were shifted to the viewer’s perspective. Each painting was done on aluminum, and had many varying layers of translucency, with matte and gloss elements, allowing the work to reflect light differently and change appearance significantly according to the physical position of the audience and evolving lighting. These works grew in size, culminating in a magnificent twelve-foot work commissioned for an oil company’s lobby.
“Then I fell off the static wagon.” He went on to make square works composed of ten long thin aluminum panels, using his distinct DNA/strata surface. He started with a simple geometric form (for example, an off-centre circle inside a circle), which would become very complex the more you horizontally moved the panels. He did a few in this series, and though each work stood on its own, you could deconstruct them further by interchanging panels amongst them. “I had a problem, though. The paintings looked great in all light, even in a dim setting like with candles, but I hadn’t solved complete darkness.” So he subtly added touches of phosphorescent paint. For about ten minutes after you turned off the light, there was a surprise — a gorgeous glow of fractured lines. “It looked like a star field pulled sideways.”
By the time those works were done he was ready for a tremendous undertaking: a 288-panel remixable sculpture. “It was a twenty–seven by sixteen foot painting, composed of blueprints, to be hung three-dimensionally in the shape of a cocoon fuselage, and rearrangeable over time. So 2, 3, and 4D. Hopefully implying 5, 6 and 7D.” It hung over a metal skeletal structure, which became the inspiration for a subsequent twelve foot by thirty foot sculpture — a tree comprised of off-the shelf metal piping and strapping.
Following that was a three-hundred-component wall installation of needles segueing into darts and then feathers. “A needle could be painful, but with another perspective it could be lifesaving. A dart could be a weapon or a game, a feather could be a spiritual symbol or signify loss or death. You could read the work many ways. ” The always-mutable aspect of K.I.A.’s art was now internalized in the viewer.
Morse-code Forests, and Multiple Past-lives
“I hated landscapes. So I started doing them.” Sort of. A sampling: a birch forest, made of a morse-coded poem, along with secretarial shorthand; a pastoral scene slyly acknowledging four Canadian art-giants, organic shapes undercut with minimalism; a glorious greeting-card landscape of a rainbow over a farm, translated into thousands of scintillating squares via 18th century Jacquard-cards (the precursor to computer programming). “I’d had some interesting experiences where it became clear that the brain or body was not the seat of the soul but was more like a receiver, or translator, of something bigger. Reality was something we each decoded. I wanted to express that.”
He’d received an energy-healing at a meditation class that completely fixed an old eye injury from karate. He also had a profound psychic reading. “I was told of this woman living this muddy, mundane pioneer life on the prairies, sod home and all. Her big creative outlet was was to hang the laundry, woo-hoo, and read the one book the family owned, over and over.” There was a fire, they lost the book. The woman was so despondent that her kids gave her blank pages to rewrite it from memory, which ultimately led to writing her own original stories, which were eventually widely-read. “That pioneer woman was me. This stranger had zeroed-in on my appreciation for writing, abhorrence for housework, and avoidance of anything cowboy.”
But what really resonated was the description of the laundry: the woman expressing herself by creatively hanging the piles of washed clothes in colorful and interesting patterns on the line. “Months later, I was describing the reading to a curator who’d come over to see my work, and it hit me — we were, at that moment, looking at colorful and interesting patterns of panels, hung in long lines.” Embedded in the past-life story was a description of his recombinant painting-installations, which were very, very specific to him. The idea that the soul was an infinite thing, and that each lifetime was just a part of the whole — like pieces of a collage, like panels in a painting, like paintings in a giant ‘super-work’ — echoed his art. The living of past (and future) lives even suggested a reason for K.I.A.’s ongoing inclusion of cross-cultural, multi-era imagery in his pieces: he was simply drawing from his own other lifetimes.
Though he subsequently shifted away again from doing multi-panel works, he continued with the global and para-temporal themes: a painting of a Kabuki jet engine (a turbojet schematic made from Japanese masks); a piece incorporating Aztec, Chinese, medieval, and modern-math dragon imagery; a map-themed work referencing ancient tribal land-drawings along with early seafaring maps and 21st century star charts… Most of these new works also evolved the exploration of visual change from a a static state: each is done on a large (7’ x 5’) single rectangle of aluminum, many of which have been shaped to increase the angles of light reflection, like facets on a diamond. But even the bends in the substrate hold information tied to the work — the 3D angles reference an unfolded origami dragon, a crinkled map, or the curves in an unrolling carpet. In addition to their levels of meaning these works have many physical layers, which are often painted, destroyed, then covered over again. The sanded, scratched and scored surface allows silver threads or glitches to sparkle through for a moment as you move past the work, like brief lifetimes in a much larger experience in space and time.
The next phase has K.I.A. adding external elements to his paintings. Monofilament billowing inside threaded staves in front of a forest of sound waves. Stainless steel wire enshrouding a variegated painting, allowing only glimpses of the imagery below the linear silver. Strings of sinew crossing a shiny, tribal surface…
One work, which came to him fully-formed while sleeping, encapsulates all his methods and concerns: it uses proletarian materials in an unusual way; it contains imagery from many eras and cultures; it has layers of poetically veiled information; it changes — shadows or pinpoints of light or details get revealed as you move around the work. (“Even the back. Especially the back. Everyone loves the back. They all have to peek around the back. But I made it with a front!”) It was also insanely labour intensive, involving hand-screwing 3000 nuts and bolts. “I have so many examples of cool dreamt pieces, like, say, an enormous sculpture made from sliced-up supertankers. Or like, hey, a painting pierced by a few thousand things. But I mean, WTF? So easy in R.E.M., not so easy IRL, ha.” Those thousands of bolts were painstakingly arranged in a pattern formed from I-ching, kabbalah, and geomantic shapes, poking through colorful imagery from the Tarot deck and Rorschach blots, then scratched with tiny graffiti-like lines referencing automatic writing, then covered in white. Then it was sanded and scraped back. Then painted, and unpainted, again. Left visible in the end were only hints and flashes of what was beneath. This work, a synthesis of many divination systems, functions itself as a device for finding meaning. He sums up: “You don’t have to know the ideas behind the pieces — they’re all in the aura of the work. By looking at it maybe you download it, even if you are only consciously reacting to the art’s aesthetic appeal. I hope the work moves people to decode their own unique experience of reality. Shifts their perspective in some way. Nudges them to peek around the back.”
Layering and accretion are an ongoing method of exploration for K.I.A. One series of works uses bas-reliefs of highly-detailed cut imagery which are beneath layers of acrylic and oilstick, and which are only revealed upon close inspection. The textured element itself is a fusion of many sources — ancient temple floor-plans with space-station blueprints; crop-circles with rose windows, and so on. “Palimpsests have always appealed to me, how each new text compares and contrast with the past work that has been overwritten.” Sometimes K.I.A. overwrites a series with techniques developed separately at a later date — bas-reliefs have been added to some of the minimalist linear works; collages have been wound in stainless steel; those wound works get calligraphically-stroked with layers of glitched spray paint from a different series. “It’s a bit like genetic modification — what happens if I add this butterfly gene to a snake. The outcome could be beautiful or terrifying.” So rather than the x and y gridded recombination of his earlier collages, or the three-dimensional x-y-z remixing of his paneled sculptures, he’s added a fourth-dimensional axis: time.
An example of palimpsesting a previous work is his series of downstepped spray paint pastorals. The genesis of this series came from an ephemeral outdoor work he made on a frozen, snow-covered lake, using only ash, found natural objects, doilies, and cardboard (below, top left). He liked the soft drift patterns created by the wind, and tried to create that effect later with raw canvas laid out over snowdrifts using spray paint. He then combined this method with his early signature linear slice technique, as well as his newer downstepped (jagged digital line) series. The outdoor works + the spray paint series + the glitched line paintings + collage slices = FlowaSteppa (below, top right), PaperSteppa and Cobaltsteppa (bottom, l/r).
DNA’d Cowboy Hat
And And on to the next projects: “Resequencing a cowboy hat, and making a conduit waterfall, and and glitching a canoe, a 10,000 foot painting that is skate-able, a frost sculpture,and, and and…“