It’s a date is a new column of Contemporânea written by Alberta Romano dedicated to studio visits with artists from Lisbon and from all over the word, both in person and online.
Episode N2: Dana Lok
Lisboa > Brooklyn, September 23, 2020
I recently understood (or at least I presume I did) the difference between MY time and the time that the rest of the world seems to “impose” on me. At first, I discovered that the difference between the two was bottomless; then, I realised that all the actions performed according to my time were much more original and creative than the homologated ones made while accepting the time of “others.” I know, this incipit may recall a self-help tape, but you know, I’ve decided that I don’t care. It is the first consequence of respecting my individual time.
In Ancient Greece, the concept of “time” was expressed in various ways, and it consequently assumed different values. Among these ways were Chronos (χρόνος) and Kairos (καιρός). Chronos was the chronological time or sequential one, so it related to quantity. Kairos referred to an opportune time for action, so it was used to describe the quality of time.
It is not surprising that over centuries, with a society focused on production, all traces of this semantic difference have been lost and we’ve preferred to merge the two temporal concepts into a single one, reserving to Kairos the limited space of a weekend or the long-awaited dream of retirement.
I already knew Dana Lok’s work is related to time, even before I called her for our virtual studio visit. Indeed, I’ve known it since I first saw one of her pieces. The subjects of her paintings are kind of suspended in an unidentified portion of time and space, and they always look like custodians of something that is going to be revealed only by accepting to get lost in their universe.
Skype rings with its usual sound. She has a picture of herself in what seems to be an endless field of sunflowers. Suddenly, she appears in the flesh, smiling in her studio. The date has started.
She has a big painting leaning against the wall behind her and some other smaller ones hung around. It’s morning in Brooklyn, while in Lisbon lunch time has just passed.
Covid-19 still ranks first in the 2020 icebreakers compilation, but today it does in a very pleasant and stimulating way.
“This past spring, normal points of reference for the pace of life evaporated, and time took on a strange character. It seemed to flow erratically. Days moved like mud, but months rushed by.”
These are some words she wrote in the press release of her latest show at Page (NYC). The show is called
One Second Per Second, and after showing me some pictures of it, she tells me about the reification of concepts related to time on which she focused her attention on this occasion.
“What happens if we flesh time out into spaces, situations, objects that have a particular mood and tone?”
I scroll through some installation views and I see two big paintings, Casual Wedge (Front) and Causal Wedge (Back), facing each other in the gallery space. Looking at them, it seems like a single moment has been crystalized in a particular slice of time and Dana gives us the possibility to see both its back and its front. The other smaller paintings capture other reifications, and they all represent different perspectives of the same situation. It’s fascinating to weigh time through her eyes, and that’s how Chronos and Kairos came back to my mind. Perhaps, if we still had two different words to distinguish the concepts of time, we would all have a clearer idea of its weight, who knows.
Suddenly, looking at the images she sent me, a yellow painting with a sweet cat catches my attention. It is different from all the others, it looks so intimate to me; and I am not surprised when Dana tells me that the sketch for this painting was made on the first day of the actual lockdown in America.
“You can definitely say that this one represents a personal experience of time, and yes, I love cats!”
We begin to talk about animals and how they keep coming back in her practice. It could be bunnies, or butterflies that through their familiarity want to look inviting in order to bring viewers’ attention in.
“They are kind of a door,” Dana says, “that brings you into something more complex, sometimes darker… surely with a different tone.”
That makes me think about cuteness and how, most of the time, it can also be used as a tool to catch our attention, like Disney’s cuteness, for example, which is driven by a pure commercial interest in their merchandise. The way in which Dana uses tenderness is similar, but her aim is stated from the beginning by how she plays with lights and shadows, evoking an uncertain, mysterious scenario. The element she uses, different from those of a “fraudulent” cuteness, immediately state that a bunny will not necessarily lead us towards something that is simple to deal with.
“One of my hopes is that they can be open enough and that they can be taken up as tools to think about something else, like how language can be used, or which kind of power dynamics are in the act of looking or in the act of putting something on display.”
What she says becomes even clearer when looking at her last show Words Without Skin, presented at Clima, in Milan.
For that show, Dana put a spotlight (literally and metaphorically) on metaphors, trying to take on their mechanics in order to show “what it looks like when abstract concepts become anchored in material forms at a human scale.”
Some of the paintings she made for that occasion represent statements written in the middle of the canvas. Some are perfectly visible, some are partially erased. To each of them, she gave a particular solidity.
Again, her work made me think about something as topical as the overwhelming use of HOW-TO instructions. They used to be mostly on books and DVDs, created to provide advice on a particular activity. Nowadays they have taken the form of Instagram posts, and are consequently seen everywhere. Their flaw is not just to be ever present, but to be extraordinarily distracting and to strip any kind of content away from what they are supposed to "teach".
There is always a world of layers, meanings and possibility behind the surface of appearance.
As the huge painting (Trapdoor, 2019) leaning against the wall of her studio since the beginning of our conversation implies.
A thin portion of our surroundings seems to have just risen from the floor.
It proudly offers its best side to the spotlight of what appears to be the centre of a stage. Unfortunately, we can’t see it, but I am sure the public appreciates it. However, the lights that pervade the stage and our preferential point of view allow us to glimpse at the deep gap that this thin slice of reality seems to have left behind. A bottomless staircase brings our imagination down together with its steps. Despite the tone, it is terribly clear where that staircase could lead, but it is up to us to choose to take that direction or to only remain with the awareness of its existence.
Our conversation is coming to an end, but I can’t keep from telling Dana something that is a bit silly but makes my eyes shine.
“Do you know that some of your paintings remind me of Spyro the Dragon for PlayStation 1?”
She laughs. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know Spyro, so we take a few minutes to fix this. Then she says: “I don’t think that I have consciously thought about the way that video games are built. I mean, what happens with those pieces that show this kind of extrusion of images… It is exactly the same thing, no? For video games, you take an image that has a lot of information on one surface, and then you just extrapolate from them to create a three-dimensional object… right?”
And it’s incredibly interesting that she is able to see this similitude with her works.
My association was way easier. For me, this kind of video games represented a continuous discovery made across new worlds and new characters (sometimes friendly, sometimes not) who constituted the only way to fight through new portals and to get into new worlds.
That’s also, in some way, what I believe could happen looking deep into Dana’s paintings, following her cute bunnies or going down these dark stairs.
The Skype call has finished. I feel overwhelmed by the number of possible worlds that her works open up in front of my eyes, but for now I think I am just going to check if by any chance I can download Spyro for PlayStation 1 on my MacBook.
The Mystery Box
The Mystery Box is made out of links, randomly arranged at the bottom of the page, that will take you to things we’ve been talking about during the studio visit. The way in which they are presented is not only a nostalgic way to remember the magic suspense that belonged to early internet structures, but also hides the hope to tickle the curiosity of the readers a bit more than the classic footnotes.
Dana Lok is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She has had solo exhibitions at Page (NYC), NY; Clima, Milan, IT; Bianca D’Alessandro, Copenhagen, DK; and Chewday’s, London, UK. Group exhibitions include shows at Chateau Shatto, Los Angeles, CA; Halsey McKay, East Hampton, NY, Miguel Abreu Gallery, NY. She was a 2018 recipient of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant. Lok received her MFA from Columbia University (2015) and her BFA from Carnegie Mellon University (2011). The artist is represented by Clima.
Alberta Romano is an art historian and contemporary art curator born in Pescara in 1991.She is currently the curator of Kunsthalle Lissabon. Since 2017 she has worked with the CRC Foundation in Cuneo, coordinating the acquisitions for their contemporary art collection. After graduating with a BA in Art History at La Sapienza in Rome and with an MFA in Visual Cultures and Curatorial Practices at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brera in Milan, she attended the curatorial program CAMPO16 at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin. She has written for Artforum, Flash Art, Contemporânea and Kabul Magazine, among other magazines.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
Images: Virtual Studio Visit (Cover); Causal Wedge (Back), 2020, oil on canvas, 56 x 62"; Parasol, 2020, oil on canvas, 56 x 62''; Language Device (All Examples), 2019, oil on canvas, 18 x 14”; Trapdoor, 2019, oil on canvas, 42 x 48”; Dana Lok's studio (2). Courtesy of the artist.