Multifaceted artist, Dan Ouellette, is an explorer. His creative work delves into the psyche exposing truths and ideas, uncomfortable to some, about commonly held perceptions. Viewing his work renders you a voyeur staring into the private lives of deviants, who dare you to confront uncomfortable truths about yourself. His creatures, often mutated, hermaphroditic or impossible, explore ideas of sexuality, reality, and the control we believe we have over such things. Possibly contrary to this is that his primary interest is beauty; and it is this beauty, and the familiarity of it, that draws us in.
Medusa; pencil on paper
Having directed music videos for Android Lust and The Birthday Massacre, as well as working with Floria Sigismundi on David Bowie’s Dead Man Walking video, Dan has amassed a dedicated team of people who are more than excited to work for him to realize his projects. He is currently in pre-production for his film, Dreams From a Petrified Head and, while he has a good amount of dough with which to get started, his producer has initiated a Kickstarter campaign to help with post-production costs.
Dan and I chatted about his work, past and present:
Samantha Levin You self-describe your artwork as being psychosexual in nature. That term, psychosexual, most familiar in psychoanalytical circles, fits the conceptual side of your work quite well. When you’re creating your work, how much does concept drive you over form and beauty; or are they completely intertwined?
Dan Ouellette That’s a tough question.
I’d have to say I often start with the desire to make something very beautiful, which leads me into exploring forms I’ve studied extensively over the years. I sometimes feel like the prototypical “mad scientist” attempting to manufacture some new idealized object, which might be used for pleasurable, but ultimately self-destructive purposes. So the search for subject matter from which to extract some hidden previously unknown beauty is clearly a regular starting point. But very often, as I delve into the hidden forms of beauty, I enter into an even more complex psychological playground.
And then along the way I run into pre-established aesthetic modes, social mores, sexual preconceptions and political flash points. These suggestions are powerful and cannot be ignored. If an idea has a relationship or a likeness to visual material that automatically engenders viewer reaction, this needs to be addressed. It brings to mind Dali’s clocks or Warhol’s soup can; so my work can easily slip into the conceptual arena. It is quite amazing how prevalent the psychosexual is embedded within all manner of shapes and forms in our collective mind’s eyes throughout human history.
So whenever I start my conceptual research for something I am drawn to the process of recognition. This often bleeds over into my film scripts. I began to realize so much of art hovers around that threshold of recognition. As a viewer we recognize in ourselves, or some part of ourselves, some emotional well, some forgotten experience, played out before our eyes. The effect is uncanny and draws us in almost against our will.
Working logo for Dreams from a Petrified Head
SL Speaking of your films, I am very excited about your script Dreams From a Petrified Head. You have received a good amount of funding to direct this script – Congratulations! What inspired you to write this intelligent, mind-bending scifi story?
DO Two strong inspirations for me are J.G. Ballard and Harold Pinter. I like how Pinter’s plays are all about distraction, with none of the characters admitting, or wanting to admit, what is really happening. It is all polite social facade masking a rather lurid aggressive underbelly. And then as the masks slip, the narrative moves into a surrealism, but uncannily familiar.
With Ballard I am so taken by the comfort of his language that yields a strange torpor within his scenarios. These aren’t stories with a racing urgency, as we so commonly see in the sci-fi genre, but a kind of languid mélange of unreal settings and characters with odd ambiguous yearnings.
Knowing that there are always budget limitations, the script became a kind of personal challenge. Could I write a sufficiently sci-fi-esque story in one set with a depth of meaning?
Synopsis: “Dreams From a Petrified Head is the story of a man, Jeremy, whose job is to re-write the seditious media of a woman, Amanda Sage. She is a dissident whose anti-government speeches remain accessible to the public well after her death. Working to comprehend her lectures and alter them effectively, he decides to dump her stored memory into a robot made in her likeness. This brings him dangerously close to her and her message.”
SL You have a strong team of professionals working with you, essentially for free, to whom you’ve entrusted the entire script. Doesn’t that worry you? A certain science fiction movie on which you had a large influence has hit the big theaters without giving you proper credit. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen more times than I can count. What are your feelings about this sort of loss?
DO The process of collaboration is a necessity in many kinds of filmmaking. And while I have thought long and hard about escaping that collaborative process in favor of a Brothers Quay type of DIY filmmaking, I must admit I enjoy the collaborative process. I’ve had many many successful collaborative experiences, a few not so successful and a few litigious ones.
I made a film in college called Alexandra’s Closet, which was beautifully written by my sister. The actresses agreed to be in the movie to a large extent because of the script. I somehow also managed to assemble a very enthusiastic crew, all of them still close friends now. I had, for the first time, the very odd realization in the editing room that I had not made the film. The film suddenly was bigger and better than anything I could have made myself and I had to admit it was because everyone involved had actually made it. This was important because it helped me realize what a true creative collaboration can feel like when it works. Part of the mixed emotion was a sadness, because, truth be told, as an artist I think one is prone to concept of sole authorship.
Film still from music video "Stained" by Android Lust
SL I think this respect for your team is the reason why you make very high-quality films with very little money. How do your ideas behind your films and your other artworks influence each other?
DO They’re all woven together in terms of my creative process. And they are all progressing simultaneously in my life.
Admittedly I am addressing other aims when working on a film than I would be working on a drawing or a mask design. Each of the different forms work on the audience in unique ways, so I need to adjust how I use my tools accordingly. I’m primarily a visual artist but of course filmmaking is more than just visual. Films have that wonderful power whereby all the elements can come together and form a kind of symphony. This effect, when it is done well, can be overwhelming. Whereas the drawings are a fixed image and so I must work very hard to create a doorway, which perhaps awakens something in the viewer far more complex than the immediate image.
SL Tell me a little bit about your obsession with masks.
DO Well, here is a good example of how woven together the different forms are for me. The mask work really began as a prop for a video called Queen & Drones: The Hospital Footage (see inset). Around the same time Matthew Barney was exhibiting the props from his short films at the Guggenheim.
Film still from short film "Hospital"
But before this I had become fascinated with the human tendency to see a face in something. Watch the Muppets for two minutes and you’ll see what I mean. They say that this works because of the eyes; their full creative attention is devoted to this aspect because it is the primary way we see a face. But I noticed that we can very easily read something as a face without any eyes and I wanted to figure out where that threshold was… where we still see a face where there is none.
There is the added quality in these masks that has to do with surface qualities. We have a reaction, a relationship to glassy smooth surfaces, for instance, that is quite different to say, vinyl or fabric. These surface qualities in themselves evoke their own tangible sense of recognition in us. I’ve been working towards what I call a “manufactured” surface that has a very forbidding tone to it.
This led to a bunch of sketches and design plans for a series of masks. Unfortunately this also demanded a whole new creative process of sculpting and casting which is unbelievably complex and challenging to learn.
Dan’s mask sculpture, Sex Mask for Religious People, as well as some of his drawings are available for purchase through Anagnorisis. If you are interested in helping with Dreams From a Petrified Head in any way, please visit the Kickstarter page or contact Dan’s film producer, Jason Goldman at Pharmacy Films.
Photograph of Sex Mask for Religious People sculpture modeled by Stoya