Interview with Jonathan Monaghan

As you all know, I am very interested in unicorns (especially in the context of clean pop). Unicorns as part of our aesthetic environment. Unicorns as part of our consumer culture. And I wondered where I can find unicorns in contemporary art and have come across with Jonathan Monaghan. He is an American computer animator and artist and has been working on a series of works on unicorns for some time. In my opinion, his current video work entitled „Disco Beast“ is the most exhilarating. I asked Jonathan a few questions.

Hi Jonathan, you exhibited in Pietrasanta last month. How was your time in Italy?

I was in Italy, at the foot of a quarry where marble is sourced, working on a marble sculpture. The work is related to my latest film Disco Beast. I used digital fabrication techniques to help produce the piece, I then finished the sculpture by hand over the period of about a month. I find the transition from the virtual to the physical very interesting, specifically transforming this virtual form I made into something as heavy and ancient as marble. 

There are no people in your works. Only (mythological) animals. Everything is clean, clear, free, sometimes floating. How would you characterize the world, where your movies are playing?

For what I am trying to do, I have always felt human characters or actors can be a distraction in that the viewer may become absorbed in or associate with the actor. But with my work, mythical histories, architecture, futuristic contraptions, and relics of consumerism take the place of those natural associations we make and I want my viewers instead to become absorbed in this dystopian, dehumanized world. It’s like a video game where you don’t really see your character, you become the avatar and unfold a story by exploring the environment. The work is confrontational in this way.

Are you creating an analogy between the mythological and the digital?

We never really lose these stories and narratives in mythology. They are so completely human that even in the digital age they stick around. But we tend to forget that, we tend to forget that history still applies to us.

Your films are imbued with a futuristic sci-fi quality. In general: Do they tell us more about the future or the present time?

The works are very futuristic but they are very much about the present day. For instance in my 2015 video installation, Escape Pod, we travel through what appears like a luxury boutique store, only there is riot gear (tear gas, batons etc) for sale instead of luxury products. At the time, this was very much a reaction to recent Occupy movements and protests and the increasing wealth disparity we are witnessing.

I grew up in New York City and in my lifetime I have witnessed the city become essentially a kind of fortress for the rich, where the working class can barely afford to be there and more and more of these sterile glass luxury high-rises characterize the city’s atmosphere. So the work interprets this kind of militarized affluence.

Does one have to understand your work as criticism?

Yes it is a critique in way, but not direct, it is open for interpretation.

There are no cuts in your movies. The camera moves through the various virtual spaces, creating a movement full of grace, remind me of William Hogharts theory of „Line of Beauty“ (1753). According to this theory, S-shaped curved lines signify liveliness and freedom and stimulate the imagination of the viewer. In my view, your cinematography works the same way. Is that intended by you?

Yes I think so, in many of my works there is a kind of smooth processional motion in the videos and this makes the ‚camera‘ almost imperceptible, and so the narrative unfolds by exploring the environment in a way.

In your newest work „Disco Beast“ a psychedelic unicorn wanders through a series of empty commercial spaces, including an abandoned mall and a luxury hotel lobby. The video starts in an empty Starbucks Coffee shop. Why does a unicorn go to Starbucks coffee?

In the video, the unicorn is resurrected in a Starbucks bathroom. For me Starbucks is one of these kind of ultimate symbols of globalization where you can find this generic space anywhere, what Marc Auge calls a non-space or non-place; an environment that doesn’t denote a place or culture. You can go almost anywhere in the world and be in a Starbucks and so its like you haven’t really traveled anywhere, and it narrows your perception of reality So I like interjecting this otherworldly moment of a unicorn coming to life, and everything is all rainbows. Interestingly, a while after I completely finished Disco Beast, Starbucks came out with a unicorn frappuccino, so I guess I was on to something.

I’ve seen on Instagram that you’ve researched a lot about unicorns in art history. What did you find out, what do unicorns mean? And has the meaning changed today?

It is a remarkable history, in different cultures they take on very different meanings, appearances and contexts, but throughout all the unicorn tends to represent the unobtainable, the hidden, the mystical, the alchemical. So its ancient but also pop; it is an emoji, it is in advertisements. As a kid I was big fan of the cartoon She Ra, who rode a colorful unicorn with wings. But there is also a darker, more real history tied into the myth relating to dominance over nature, such as the animal husbandry practiced by various cultures on horned animals to make them unicorns, and the hunting of narwhal and rhinoceros horns for their supposed medicinal and magical properties. The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers is a great book on this subject.

On the one hand, a unicorn is something unobtainable, because it’s a mythological subject. On the other hand and in the world of contemporary consumption it is something that is very ordinary and banal. Is this ambivalence something that interests you?

Often in my works, I examine how consumerism appropriates and corporatizes mythological animals. For instance, in 2010 I created a video installation of a polar bear tattooed with CocaCola logos, which references their 3D animated polar bear mascot. In the video the polar bear dies a slow death over 3 minutes. So I like playing with boundaries with pop-familiarity, ancient symbols and something more alien or sinister.

At some moments of your video „Disco Beast“ I had to laugh out loud. For example the way the unicorn is standing on the escalator. What role does humor play in your work?

In my work I combine and conflate recognizable objects or imagery in very unconventional or unexpected ways, and I think this is where the humor comes from.

You are also producing unicorn sculptures, mainly they are white and gold. This is a classical color combination of an aristocratic look. Overall, luxury and wealth is very central in your work. Why?

Yes in addition to the marble sculptures, I am making sculptures with porcelain and gold. These works very much evoke baroque decorative arts; aristocratic displays of power and affluence. So I like appropriating those aesthetics and subverting them to say something about our contemporary desires and materialism. The 3D computer animations work a similar way, only appropriating the processes and aesthetics of commercial media.

You were born in 1986, so you are a „Millennial“. Do you identify with your generation? I’m asking this because the main colors of your work „Disco beast“ are variations of the so called „millennial pink“. Did you hear of it? What does this color express for you?

I haven’t really thought about it before within that precise term, but it certainly makes sense. The work is very non-committal, it doesn’t say anything too specific. There is also uncertainty about the future in the work. I entered the art world through technology. All of the work is made on my computer, even the sculptures are largely produced there, so there is a reliance on technology, but at the same time I try to express the anxieties surrounding the evermore pervasive technology in the digital age.

Your work has a very specific type of style. I would describe it as Clean Pop. Clean Pop is the result when pop and purity mingle. When the trashy appears under the blur and over-exposure of Instagram filters. Clean Pop are poppy motifs in bright colors or mixed with white. Is this an aesthetic or a reference that interests you? Is that something, you’re reflecting in your new work?

Yes in my work I want things to be familiar, but in an eerily clinical kind of way. I think art which deals with pop aesthetics or culture in some way is trying to uncover what is suppressed or hidden within it. So my videos are colorful, glossy and refined, but there are darker moments.

At US-universities, there has been an excited debate for several years about „safe spaces“ – places that are free from discrimination. Even the unicorn is now a sign of tolerance, when it (beside the rainbow) acts as a mascot for the LGBT movement. Is the aesthetic space you created for your videos a kind of visual safe space?

I think the unicorn makes for an interesting mascot, in that it is unique and strong, and as someone who identifies with LGBT, I think its a fine choice. But I don’t know if I would call my videos a visual safe space; my videos are a bit confrontational in many ways.

This question interests me very much: What does the public toilets in „Disco Beast“ mean?

Well, in case someone needs to go.

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