Andrew Ohanesian doesn’t just create art; he creates art that passes for reality. The 30-year-old Bushwick transplant—when he isn’t working at his “day job” as studio manager for NYC-based new media artist Jon Kessler—is busy in his studio (site of such detritus as a working stove, piles of raw lumber, a man-sized safe, and dismembered mannequins), plotting out how to best create his next, accurately textured, convincingly lit, art installation that feels, looks, and smells so real, it blurs the boundaries between art and life. “Mandies” was a fully working, fully-stocked (Bud on tap!) bar that he installed last fall at Bushwick’s art gallery-cum-boutique ARCH Collective. (You’d sit on the bar stool, admire wall-to-wall wood paneling, drink to your heart’s content, then step out into the bright lights of the gallery and wonder how in the hell you got there.) “Untitled (Jetway),” installed across town at Famous Accountants gallery, was a so-real-you-figure-you’re-at-LaGuardia airport walkway that Ohanesian partially fabricated himself from scratch, and partially sourced from real airport castoffs he schlepped all the way from Ameribridge, a jetway refurbisher in Indianapolis, Indiana. The floor even had that bouncy, queasy-making give that real jetways have. “I think we’ll be talking about “Untitled (Jetway)” for years to come,” says Kevin Regan, who, along with Ellen Letcher, runs Famous Accountants. “Andrew spent two years thinking about doing this piece; two months figuring out how to fit it in Famous Accountants; two weeks fabricating it (off site, in his Bushwick studio); and 24 hours installing it. If I had to use only two words to sum all this up, they would be ‘high production’—and I mean that in every sense.”
And then there was the giant, walk-in, refrigerated cooler he installed at English Kills Art Gallery, a weird, stage-set like piece that essentially reconfigured the entire space, and re-routed guests into a new (and rather chilly) world as they entered the gallery.
There’s something amazingly uncomfortable about the places Ohanesian takes us. But after talking to the artist at his Central Avenue studio, where he’s planning his next two projects—a pent-house apartment located in a basement, and a strip club where the viewers may well find themselves participating in un-expected ways—we now understand that “uncomfortable” is a great place to be, and that the only true art of the future may be the one that screws with the way we perceive real life.
Your art feels like the perfect, sculptural response to life in the digital age. Is what you’re doing somehow related to the Internet and virtual space? It’s definitely related. We’re in this weird age now when everything is in a virtual world. You can have all these environments on the Internet, but you never actually go there. You can see the deadhead special effects that are completely underwhelming, but you are floored if you encounter 1/10 of that in real life. I think it’s really important to work in three dimensions, to make sculptural space that involves your senses, to recreate the sounds, the smells, the tastes, and then to put it into a place where you wouldn’t normally find it.
Tell us more about why you purposely site your art in unexpected places. Why, for instance, did you install an airplane walkway—”Untitled (Jetway)”—in a basement?
A jetway is a hybrid of architecture and vehicle, a place that’s at once anchored to the terminal, but also gets driven around. It’s the last thing you see before you leave the airport on your trip and the first thing you see when you arrive. It’s the most liminal of places, and chances are, when you’re in it, you’re never thinking about the space itself, the actual jet hallway; you’re thinking about where you’re going, what your seat number is… “Jetway” [the installation], however, lets you examine not only the room but the mental place the room puts you in. It’s both a room and not a room, and when you’re in it you can’t divorce yourself from from the feeling that you’re going somewhere. By siting it in a basement—a place you don’t expect—you’re able to examine the feelings that go along with travel, in a vacuum.
So your one-man bar, “Mandies,” works much the same way? Because I made that bar so small and claustrophobic, it creates a bubble; once inside, you get so lulled into a false sense of comfort that it makes you forget you’re also inside an art place, an installation. So, you finish drinking, or you want to switch sides, become the bartender rather than sit on the stool. Now you’re being forced to leave “Mandies” through one of its two doors, and walk back into the bright white light of the gallery, which creates a schism in your mind. You’re in shock and a bit upset by the fact that you’ve been “taken in” by this art piece without realizing it.
Tell us briefly about how you trained as an artist, and how you became an artist who does installation. I entered Berkeley as a English major and switched to drama. Then, just before taking two years off, I took an intro art class and loved it. When I returned I was 100 percent focused on taking art classes and became a regular fixture in [contemporary sculptor] Michelle Lopez’s sculpture/mixed media classes for my remaining two years. Michelle (herself a New York native) told me to move to new York once I graduated, and I have never looked back. Well, not too many times anyway. Later, I began working for Jon Kessler, who makes kinetic sculptures, and have been his studio manager for the past four years. Having Jon as a boss/mentor has been a great help to my process, and has offered me an unparalleled view into the underbelly of the professional art scene in NYC. It’s been a long process, but also a very efficient one, all considered.
Tell us about your least successful installation piece—and what it taught you. My least successful piece was in a way the one I learned the most from. It was called “Nadia Styles and My Mom” and was installed in the English Kills Gallery group show “Gods of Mars.” All the demons I had about artists needing to be complex and subtle and telling a narrative in their work and fitting it onto a wall all came together in it, somehow. I tried to layer the piece with stories—of the great recession, of lust, infidelity, and…No one got it. I tried to give them a story, and in the end I realized that people aren’t interested in passively trying to decipher some artists crazy subtle vision about how he thinks the world should be interpreted. I realized they’re interested in HAVING that crazy fucked up experience.
Tell us about your next project. Do you have a master plan? Well that’s an interesting question, because, after building a few of these large installations, I quickly began to realize that they can’t be stored, transported, or documented like smaller 2D works or sculpture. It was around this time that I also began thinking of making an ultra-massive installation that fit together like a puzzle, incorporating a story that was told only through the jux-taposition of “real” spaces and their relationship to each other. Its working title is “Prolapse,” and ultimately it will in-corporate all the projects I built last year (2010). I was attracted to the term “prolapse,” which mens to slip or fall out of place, in part because I’m fascinated by digestion. The rooms won’t provide a narrative as much as act like an intestine, consuming the viewers and slowly digesting them into, well… shit. The metaphor of constructed places as “body” has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I often find myself looking for an airport’s broken nails (pun intended)…
Where will this new viewer-digesting master plan be realized? The project is loosely scheduled for the fall of 2011 at English Kills Art Gallery, but a piece of this size, much like a space shuttle [laughs], requires so many moving parts to come together in a particular order for it to launch that that date is still a little flexible. Chris [Harding], who owns the gallery, has been fantastic. He refers to himself as an “art conduit,” and I agree. He lets my ideas ferment, congeal, without stress. He’s offered to provide me with a standing engagement with his space once it’s done.
There’s a freaky sense of serendipity in all your work, like in “Mandies” (Wow! a free bar!)—but nasty. Can you tell us about your serendipity? It’s like you’re giving us a gift, and then taking something else, away. “Mandies” took me by surprise; the piece took off like a fucking rocket, and I’ve basically been doing my best to hold on ever since, to tell you the truth. I thought for a long time it was the free beer, but now my feelings have changed. I think the thing that people love so much about it is it’s theirs: I am giving them this whole bar—beer included; they can be the bartender, the client, the barfly, or the teetotaler; they can carve dicks into the wall or punch a hole in it. As an artist, it makes me very excited to see the piece being taken over by the audience. There is a glimmer of un-bridled joy in the eyes of a person when you tell them they can do whatever they want in a piece. I mean, you can’t carve into cyberspace.