Confession, Revelation and “Afterfear” in the work of Dani Dodge
By Jennifer Susan Jones
Dani Dodge’s solo show “Afterfear” is on view at HB Punto Experimental in San Diego through February 11th
One may be tempted to label Dani Dodge’s interactive installations- namely “CONFESS,” “(un)burdened,” “Peeled & Raw,” and her latest, “Afterfear” – as ‘art therapy’ for the public because, much like art therapy, her installations use art media to help people solve conflicts and problems, reduce stress, increase self-awareness, and achieve insight. Dodge’s work also confronts emotion by inviting people to write, to burn, to tear, to throw. It requires participants to reveal hidden aspects of themselves. Dodge states, however, that her work is “not art therapy, but contemporary art transported to an interactive space.”
Regardless of how one defines her work, it is obvious that Dodge is making powerful strides in transforming participants for the better, and with the Harvard Divinity Bulletin recently publishing the effects of fear on the body, her work comes at a time when help is needed most: “Fear is hard on bodies,” states Margaret Miles, emeritus professor of historical theology, “and anxiety is the number one health problem in the country, leading to epidemic depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, and prescription drug addiction…American society is violent because it is so fearful.”
When asked about memorable feedback and reactions from the viewers and participants who have experienced her work, Dodge stated, “The most profound outcomes for me have been that people say they felt more connected afterwards than they had before. And that’s what I am hoping to do, help people to see the humanity in themselves and in others. If I can change even one person’s outlook from one of these works, my job is complete. I am content.”
Dodge’s latest exhibit is “Afterfear,” an installation created from the ghosts of her exhibitions past. In order to fully understand this exhibit’s symbolism and intention, it is important to explore three of Dodge’s influential works that precede it. The first of these three is an installation from June 2015 titled “CONFESS,” in which Dodge built a confession booth within a twenty-square foot room with walls covered in black fabric. The artist later typed participants’ confessions on gold paper, then posted them anonymously on the walls of the room. The experience was positive for participants but somewhat devastating for Dodge. “People ache with loneliness,” she said, “and bear deep, deep scars from mistakes they have made. While I was glad to be able to help them process their grief and pain, it was difficult.” The experience, however, did have a bright side, in that people said it made a big difference to them. Dodge couldn’t see the people’s faces who were confessing, but she stated that many people have come up to her since, to tell her they had confessed and to thank her. “One even helped me do all the wallpapering needed to create my later installation, ‘Peeled & Raw,’ ” the artist said.
The second recent, noteworthy, and therapeutic installation, “(un)burdened,” was conceived by Dodge in 2015. With this work, Dodge invited visitors to write their burdens on rocks she had gathered in the studio space. The artist later tossed these rocks with penned burdens into the ocean at the close of the exhibit. “I felt very, very heavy while I had all the burdens in my home,” Dodge stated. “As I read each one, I thought about it and sent hope to the person who wrote it. To throw them into the ocean was such a relief. And I felt lighter than air.”
In a way, releasing a burden is a bit like praying or journaling, in that you are voicing a concern and handing it over to the universe, or a higher power, much like letting go of a helium balloon to send it soaring upward to the heavens. In his book, “Conquering Fear,” Harold S. Kushner writes, “praying can ease one’s sense of helplessness. It can make us feel more hopeful and optimistic, possibly clearing our minds and freeing us to take effective action rather than remaining paralyzed by fear.” Dodge created “(un)burdened” twice: once at Coos Art Museum in Coos Bay, Oregon, and once at Gallery 825 in Los Angeles. You can hear all the burdens from the Coos Art Museum as they are thrown into the ocean here: https://vimeo.com/150592076 and a shorter version is here https://vimeo.com/151482451
Dodge created a third powerful installation in December of 2015 at LA ArtCore Brewery Annex, and again in April of 2016 in her art studio during The Brewery Artwalk. For this work, the artist covered the walls in layers of soft sage, off white, and cream colored vintage wallpapers, and positioned two dressed, faceless mannequins, also covered in wallpaper, in the center of the room. The couple watched a television that played clips of nuclear explosions, disaster preparedness, and a how-to on wallpaper installation. This was “Peeled & Raw” and participants were invited to peel off strips of wallpaper and write something they fear upon their strip, such as fear of being disconnected, fear of losing their mother, fearful they will lose their jobs, and fear of death. A significant amount of the April 2016 fears – more than two dozen – were related to concerns about Donald Trump. Many people wrote their fears in long sentences. Others included fears about drowning, fears about their children’s future and fear about being alone. When asked which fears she found most memorable, Dodge stated, “It’s likely the ones that stood out most to me were the ones I shared, which are fears of failure, disability, and dependence.”
At the close of both “Peeled & Raw” installations, Dodge collected the wallpaper strips containing all of the written fears and burned them. “In the first installment,” Dodge said, “I filled more than a trash can full of the fears. In the second installment, I used a burn bin and a barbecue and it took hours to burn them. There were about three large garbage bags full.” In the first installment at LA ArtCore, Dodge closed the show with a performance in which she swept up all the fears with a very small broom. The music that played was ‘Angel’ by Massive Attack; ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ by David Bowie; and ‘Burning Down the House’ by The Used. After she completed the sweeping, the fears were taken outside into the parking lot and burned while about 70 people watched. “I read some of the fears as I laid them onto the embers,” Dodge said.
For safety reasons, the burning of the fears for the second installation of “Peeled & Raw” was done privately with only a few of Dodge’s friends helping. The installation was done during the Brewery Artwalk, which brings large crowds to the area, so there was no safe place to burn the fears with so many people milling about. “So I closed my patio,” Dodge said, “and burned long into the night. The burning took about three hours using a burn bucket and a barbecue.”
Reactions to the powerful installation were overwhelmingly positive, and surely participants would agree with the Mark Twain quote, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of fear.” Many participants called “Peeled & Raw” cathartic, and April 2016 participants declared that taking part in the installation was “a great way to start 2016.” Some also said they “felt free now that they had actually put their fear into words,” and several people cried while watching the fears burn. There is something powerful about processing fear and other intense emotions in a safe place, among emphatic people. Again, to quote Kushner – this time from his writings about churches overflowing following catastrophic events such as 9/11: “they needed to feel that they were doing something with their grief, their fear, their newfound sense of vulnerability rather than helplessly keeping those feelings inside them.”
Was this cremation, this laying to rest of the fears of “Peeled & Raw,” the final installment in Dodge’s exploration of fear, or would she continue in this vein and perhaps delve even deeper? “I knew I would use the ashes in some way,” Dodge said when asked this question, which explains why she saved the ashes of the fears. “At that point, I did not know what I’d do, but later, with the talk of the wall that Donald Trump wants to build, and discussion with a friend who does glass work, I came upon the plan to do the glass bricks I used in “Afterfear” and build a wall that could be seen through, walked around, and would contain the remnants of fear. It was a wall that was the opposite of one built of fear, instead it was one built by being freed from fear.”
For “Afterfear,” which is Dodge’s latest interactive installation, visitors are invited into a room to witness the remnants of fear via reboots of her previous exhibits, as well as new work, whilst contemplating, “Who are these residual ghosts? Are they us?”
One of the features of this exhibit are thirteen totems Dodge constructed to represent her fears and other emotions expressed in her previous interactive installations. For example, the eight foot-tall totem shaped like a missile represents Dodge’s fear of being dependent on others due to illness, and the totem hanging from the ceiling – a hollowed out piece of recycled Styrofoam with typewriter keys inside – represents all the sins she typed for people when she did her 2015 installation, “CONFESS.” “My work does not deal with the cause of fear,” Dodge said, “but helps people to recognize the good and humanity in each other and in themselves.”
With Dodge’s tagline for “Afterfear” in mind – If we can’t banish our fears we must learn to live among their ghosts – consider her apt use of Styrofoam. It’s a stubborn material whose nature parallels the pervasive power of fear perfectly: On the one hand, it protects delicate objects from damage, and for that reason we are grateful for it. The flip side however, is a bulky mass that refuses to decompose and instead lives on to pollute the earth long after its job is done. It is for these self-opposing, paradoxical undercurrents that Dodge chose to construct many of her totems from discarded Styrofoam – the type that had been used for packaging. Dodge is emphasizing the idea that, as she says, “fear is cheap and easy to come by, but lingers long after its initial use is gone.” Kudos to Dodge for creatively giving a bulky, unwanted substance a functional and illustrative second life.
Upon entering the gallery, the first thing “Afterfear” participants see are the “Gunpowder Ghosts” on the walls and the video of Dodge creating them. She created these in the desert as a way of working through her own fears of explosions following her time on the battlefield as a war correspondent in Iraq. The colors of the Gunpowder Ghosts are bright, but at the same time muted, as if aged. People are then immediately attracted to the video, which gives them insight into the making of the Gunpowder Ghosts.
At the end of the narrow part of the gallery viewers could see the glass wall, “Moments,” created from glass bricks with the ashes of fears from “Peeled & Raw” suspended within them. “Then participants walk toward the brick wall, which depending on the time of day, can be glowing or casting shadows or both. Most people are so drawn to it they don’t turn to their left immediately to see the room.” Dodge explained that as they reach the glass bricks, they step forward and back to get a better view and to understand what it is. Then they saw the room to the left, which is a cacophony of objects and color, but the colors are the same colors used in the Gunpowder Ghosts, just in different ways. “It is as if Grandma’s house is filled with totems instead of too much furniture,” Dodge said. “They don’t understand immediately what they are seeing. It is odd, but as they inspect it they realize it is all made from Styrofoam!”
Finally, participants walk around the “living room” and explore the hidden video that is only visible in a mirror on the floor. “Some don’t see it, and they walk right past it,” Dodge said. Lastly, participants approach a sign, which tells them they can be a part of the work, and many excitedly participate. “Participants consider their own fears as they further wander around looking at the totems and some go back and paste their fear onto the wall.”
In summary, the gift of “Afterfear” is the opportunity participants have to exorcise their own ghosts, and in the process, free themselves from fear, while simultaneously learning about a brave and creative artist working through her own trauma and anxiety.
Dodge has won significant awards for her installations every year since 2014, including the Americans for the Arts’ “Outstanding Public Arts Project of 2015” award. When asked if her own personal fears have quieted since conceiving and executing these fear-related installations, Dodge stated that yes, unexpectedly, her fears have subsided quite a bit. “When the firecrackers and M-80s were going off in my neighborhood to celebrate the New Year, I didn’t even flinch! In the past, it would have caused me significant anxiety for days.” It seems apparent that Dani Dodge’s cathartic work is a win-win all around.
“Afterfear,” is on view by appointment at HB Punto Experimental, 2151 Logan Ave. Section B, San Diego, California, until Feb. 11, 2017.