In 1995, Aaron Taylor Kuffner decided to start a business. He went door to door, but he wasn’t peddling encyclopedias, solar energy or Cutco knives.
He was selling subscriptions to sky and memberships to culture. The name of his business? The Sky and Culture Corporation.
Kuffner, of course, wasn’t really trying to sell sky or culture. He was trying to get people to conceptualize two everyday things in a new and interesting way.
“My goal behind those personal exchanges was to feed a conversation and to be a trickster,” Kuffner said, “but from the point of view of making an offering.”
Kuffner and two other artists — Brent Allen Spears, who goes by Shrine, and Maria Sandners, who goes by Mia Dungeon — are now installing a three-part, immersive art exhibit at the Center for the Arts. But this offering doesn’t involve any trickery.
The exhibit is immediately tangible and entirely immersive, including two of Shrine’s three-story sculptures, Kuffner’s robotic gamelan orchestra (affectionately referred to as the “Gamelatron”) and a series of spectre-like “guardians” Dungeon created from skulls and knickknacks found in the area.
The exhibit, “All That’s Left Behind,” is the brainchild of event producer Jeff Stein, who puts on the annual Intergalactic Ball. Those familiar with the ball’s costume-clad opulence might have an idea of what the exhibit has in store.
For those who don’t: It’s the sort of project that would fit right in at Meow Wolf, the immersive art company that put Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the map as a national capital of artistic world building.
But “All That’s Left Behind” isn’t a touring exhibit. The pieces are unique to Jackson, made specifically for the show, which will open Saturday and stay up until September.
And though Shrine’s and Kuffner’s work has been featured at Meow Wolf, as well as at festivals like Burning Man (Shrine was the first artist after David Best to build the festival’s temple and Kuffner’s Gamelatron has been featured inside the temple) Stein cautioned against strictly associating the artists with either.
“It’s not fair to classify their work as Burning Man art,” he said. “This is contemporary immersive interactive art, but, at the end of the day it’s just art. Their work is now super widespread.”
Makers of space
Kuffner has moved on from his Sky and Culture Corporation days — that was, after all, over 20 years ago. But one thing still holds true in his work, which, like Shrine’s and Dungeon’s, is heavily conceptual. The common thread is his work makes people think, whether in a provocative or healing way.
“I’m trying to create artwork which confronts people with experiences that can become conceptual tools they use in the betterment of their life,” Kuffner said.
And if that sounds a little abstract, it is.
All of Kuffner’s, Shrine’s and Dungeon’s work is vaguely psychedelic, but it’s not intended to produce the sort of drug-induced trance that’s come to be associated with that word. Instead it’s a sort of psychedelia that’s easy to feel and see from first encounter. The artists aren’t trying to tell people how to think. They’re trying to create things that give people room to think, whether by creating a spiritual space or repurposing trash and bones into three-story towers and ghostly guardians.
Theirs is the sort of work that creates room, as Shrine said, for “expansion.”
“That’s a huge part of all the work I do,” he said. “As you walk into it ... you start to feel open. You start to feel expansion as opposed to constriction.”
Shrine started creating expansive spaces long before he was known by his nickname, a longstanding relic of his work with the Burning Man temple. When he was a kid he went to Catholic school, where he sat in front of altars every day. It wasn’t long until he started building them for himself, slowly expanding them until he created a 10-by-10-foot shrine and, years later, the Basura Sagrada temple at Burning Man in 2008.
Shrine said he used to call the space those projects created “sacred,” but he has since abandoned that word, as well as making large pieces. (They’re not sustainable when you have to fly or truck them across the country, so the “All That’s Left Behind” towers are a one-off project). Now he calls his spaces inspirational. He lives for the moment when people see something they think is beautiful, get up close and realize that it’s made from trash.
“In that moment, what they thought was beautiful has been changed,” Shrine said.
Kuffner has a similar mindset, though he hasn’t abandoned the word “spiritual” in describing his work. He is satisfied if his Gamelatrons, orchestras of Indonesian gongs played by robots that he programs, help someone have an experience — spiritual, revelatory or otherwise.
“If something that I’m making can translate into that for you and be the gas in the engine to drive you there, that’s great,” Kuffner said. “But I’m not going to tell you where to drive.”
All that remains
Dungeon sees her work similarly. Like Shrine and Kuffner she’s not trying to make people feel a certain way with her guardians, spectres created from animal skulls, antlers and found objects, from wedding dresses to candelabras and Jell-O molds.
Whether the two guardians she is building to guard the entrance to Shrine’s towers at the Center for the Arts, or the collections of other figures she’s built over the years, she called her work “an exploration of mortality.”
“We’re alive, but the closer we can be with the concept of death, it makes your life more vibrant,” Dungeon said. “This is just a way for people to access it that’s hopefully not too frightening.”
In keeping with the theme of the exhibit Dungeon’s work might seem the most obviously related. (Bones, skulls and thrift store finds are all clearly “left behind.”) But then again, Shrine, Kuffner and Dungeon are highly conceptual artists, in some ways tied to what Shrine called the “psychedelic visionary art movement.”
All of their work ties in to the theme, in one way or another.
Though the superstructures of Shrine’s towers are 25-foot aluminum poles, he’s decorating them in trash and other found objects. And though experiencing Kuffner’s work requires being in the room with the Gamelatron, the Center’s gamelan robot is one of about 50 the artist has installed throughout the country. At any given time a double-digit number of his creations are playing music he’s written for the robotic orchestras, without him, all across the country.
“I’m making pieces to go live out in the world,” Kuffner said. “Their intention is to expose people to the power of resonance in a way that maybe wasn’t accessible otherwise.”
And, in a way, that’s it.
Even though the work created for “All That’s Left Behind” has a vestigial nature, the installation’s unifying theme isn’t actually the traces of life, organic or manufactured, that they’ve used to make their work or are leaving behind. It’s the idea of using art to access something, whether inspiration, spirituality or a concept of mortality.
But nobody’s trying to tell you what to think.
And, for Mia Dungeon, it’s still all about the skulls.
“I think it’s a huge privilege to be able to work with them and give them a new perspective and a new way to exist and continue to exist,” she said. “They’re super spiritual to me, I’m spending time with [the remains of] a living breathing creature from the earth.
“This is all they’ve left behind.” ￼
Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7062 or email@example.com.