One Cosmic Brain: Olga Lamm in Conversation with Jane Ursula Harris
JUH: You like to play with notions of perception, often through visible optical and digital effects. Images of landscape and nature are mediated by a kind of inner vision. And there's a skewing of perspective, a projection of artifice that's alternately dreamy and futuristic. Can you talk about where this comes from?
OL: I believe our experience of reality is deeply tied to our inner thoughts, which ultimately shape our beliefs and our
sense of self. Our thoughts are the creative energy that stimulate synaptic activity. I am interested in neuroscience and the idea of Neuroplasticity, which asserts the brain's capacity to fine-tune itself in response to its environment. So, I approach the landscapes that I photograph as equally plastic, capable of being transformed through the imagination.
JUH: There’s a centrifugal force at work, a tunnel vision made literal in neuroPath, where landscape seems to be
re-conceived as a conduit to another state of mind. What are you expressing here?
OL: The tunnel-vision effect represents a portal to another state of mind or a wormhole from one environment to another.
My hope is to create a sense of momentum, a propulsion towards a desired experience or alternate reality, new roads and new actions that expand my awareness. The spinning landscapes become a play on the ancient philosophical concept
known as “music of the spheres,” where the movements of celestial bodies are seen as forms of music, more harmonic than audible. In my expression, it represents neurological “music,” because I envision our universe as one cosmic brain.
JUH: Are the landscape images significant in and of themselves, or do they function more to create this portal effect?
Where were they taken?
OL: A bit of both. The images were taken the week of my birthday in August 2017on bridges, trails, and roads around
the town of New Paltz and the city of Poughkeepsie in upstate New York. I have a tradition where, every year during my birthday, I travel to new, often far-away, locations to reflect on my life, explore new vistas, and gather new images.
I’m drawn to bucolic, aesthetically pleasing landscapes with paths that manifest human presence. The variety of paths
shown - roads, railways, bridges - symbolize the many directions one can choose to travel in life.
Also, the year I took those pictures, my father (Leonid Lamm (1928-2017)) was in the hospital. And within two weeks,
he passed unexpectedly. I was very close to my dad who was a major influence on my thinking. Conversations with him often evolved around subjects such as space, time, energy, light, art, science, philosophy, etc. He was an artist, friend,
and teacher. When I was taking these photographs, we were planning an installation together for his mini-retrospective
at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. So, neuroPath was a way to process his passing and engage the ideas
for that installation.
JUH: For me, your work also suggests the power of flights of fancy and surveillance culture. There’s a tension between the beauty of the unfettered imagination and the way technology is used to manipulate our experiences of nature. I’m thinking
of Architecture of metaFlight, and Sunset by Proxy here.
OL: I often dwell in the realm of fantasy as it stimulates my mind and allows me to dream. And while surveillance may also come to mind, it is more about memory. Mechanical devices and technology have always provided the outlet, or channel,
to express my dreams, fantasies, memories.
JUH: Can you give an example?
OL: When I was kid in Moscow, my bed faced a wall with four medium-sized semi-abstract expressionist paintings, made
in the 1940s and the 1950s by my dad. Three were of images of birds, and one of several large hands, with huge finger nails, that, in my mind, looked like giant wings with sharp claws. These images frightened me to the core, especially at night, and gave me lots of nightmares dominated by the sound of flapping wings, and giant claws.
This was especially intense when my father was arrested and taken away by the Ministry of Internal Affairs two weeks after my parents applied for an exit visa to emigrate from the Soviet Union. So, the bird imagery has its origins in my childhood, like a lot of my art. Even the coiled form in the center of these works, which represent a plane launcher, goes back to my early interest in aviation.
One summer, I learned to build model aircrafts at a sleep-a-way camp, transferring technical drawings of plane parts
onto plywood. We would use hand and electric saws to produce multiple identical shapes — for fuselage, wings, landing gear — and glue them together. When I told my parents about them, my mom said: “Your grandpa would be very proud,” because her father was a director of the first military airplane factory in the 1930s Russia. At the end of the summer,
there was a flying competition, and I won! So, Architecture of metaFlight, is a metaphor for creative freedom; that of the inner child.
JUH: And your choice of birds?
OL: The birds were all photographed in my Harlem backyard where I've created a garden oasis. I bird-watch a lot, and shortly after my father passed, a mocking bird flew really close to me, sat very still on a flower basket, and began to move its wings. This immediately reminded me of a detail in one of my dad’s works, the moving Lammatlin from 1995, that hung from a ceiling in my father’s studio. After that I began to think of all birds that came to “visit” as messengers and became curious about their symbolic meanings in spirituality and folklore. For example, in many cultures, pigeons are symbols of grace and peace, the Cormorant, in Norwegian folklore, symbolizes a messenger or protector. And Egyptians believed the Egret/Heron created light.
JUH: Do the birds represent you?
OL: They represent my father’s spirit, and the planes I made at camp. They also symbolize my dreams. Every night when
I would go to sleep as a child, I would find myself flying, often going back to the place I'd left off in my dreams the night before. Eventually, I was able to fly long distances, do all sorts of aerial tricks, take flight while swimming in the ocean…
It was exhilarating. The experience gave me a sense of freedom that I had never experienced in story books. I loved having this secret dream existence. And as I got good, I shared those dreams with my dad, and he said: “That means you are growing, I used to fly too.”
Architecture of metaFlight is about capturing that feeling and transforming it into a storyboard, reconnecting it to the emotions and sensations of those dreams. Such as elation, joy, ease, lightness, spontaneity, hope… In the work, I am projecting all that onto the birds that visit my backyard, I am simulating a feeling of flight. I have always wondered how this simulation in my dreams or that of others (flying is a common experience among dreamers) might have evolved if humans hadn't invented planes. If reality is an illusion generated by our mind, what other kinds of fantastical experiences might we still actualize through our senses?
JUH: Right, though your simulation in this work depends on related technology, no?
OL: For sure. But there were no tools or machines involved in my dreams. My mind was free of real-life limitations. And as we all know dreams can feel as real as the waking state. So, I am exploring the idea of abandoning those limitations.
If reality is an illusion, perhaps we can evolve to experience flight without a machine? And yes – I’m using technology to visually simulate the flight of dreams in order to engender my memories of it when I was a kid. It is a poetic conundrum,
I guess. Machines are great tools and definitely accelerate many processes and often provide safety.
Also, as far as I know, whenever humans have attempted to fly, it’s been with the aid of artificial wings, which become
a mere vehicle of transportation. In my twenties, I did get to fly a plane, once, by chance. Of course, I did not land or
take off, but I now know what it's like to pilot a very small six-seater in the air above New York City. It was awesome, but vibration from the engine was a bit distracting. The control wheel in a plane obviously creates a different impression.
While the sense of encapsulation was stifling, comparing to my experience of flight with my own body. The flight that I am familiar with in my dreams is more like swimming or gliding through the air; no wings necessary!
JUH: What about Sunset by Proxy? These prints look like you’ve used an infrared camera to make them.
OL: Sunset by Proxy considers that our experience of nature is often a mediated one, something we experience increasingly through images and photos that are often filtered with effects, but there’s no infrared used in these images. What you are seeing is an Anaglyph 3D effect that I add to allude to our mediated perceptions of nature.
JUH: To what end?
OL: The series explores how digitized imagery will affect our faculties and shape our sensory perception of the natural world. How will we evolve in the symbiotic continuum? Will we become so seduced by artificial reality that it will be more stimulating than the natural environment? The pixels on top, for example, suggest how digital imagery alters our relationship with nature. And if you look at the prints through anaglyph glasses, which create a simulation of a 3D environment, there's an afterimage, which also alludes to the filtering effect of technology. The plexi-substrate that the images are directly printed on (so they appear encapsulated) refers to experiencing nature on a flat screen - rather than in real world environment.
JUH: How you think digitized versions of nature are, or might be, impacting our evolution?
OL: On one hand, they expand our perception by adding additional layers to life experience. They also stimulate deeper levels in the realm of fantasy in terms of art and innovation by providing space to experiment. And by removing the tactile and olfactory aspects, digitized versions of nature hone in on visual and aural senses. It’s all so exciting and compelling.
JUH: And on the other hand?
OL: I enjoy hugging my family and friends, having get togethers, taking long walks, traveling, seeing art, going to concerts... You can't replace these experiences. But I grew up conditioned by the natural world, so there is no threat that
a virtual experience will ever replace nature for me, it just enhances it. However, I still wonder how virtual experience with nature might impact younger generations, and their spatial relationship with the natural environment when they spend so much of their time looking at the screen vs being in situ. How will this affect the hippocampus in the brain - shape spatial awareness and navigation, and the thalamus with visual cortex while processing light?
JUH: There's this crossing back and forth across time particularly in metaMorphosis on the Road, that feels both primal and futuristic; the way sci-fi films can.
OL: Absolutely. metaMorphosis on the Road is a metaphor for a spirit’s journey from conception to transcendence.
My father was born and raised in Russia, where he studied with Yakov Chernikhov (1889-1951), a well-known constructivist architect and graphic designer. Chernikhov was also an old college friend of my patrilineal grandfather, who was inventor and an engineer of electrical appliances. My upbringing was greatly affected by the works of both my dad and Chernikhov, especially their visual dialogues with such greats as Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky and Vladimir Tatlin. So, the spheres, cones, cubes, cylinders, pyramids, and tori in these images refer back to the Constructivists, while the egg motif represents my foundation as an artist. The sci-fi quality for me lies in my reconfiguration of these early twentieth-century visions of the future à la Constuctivism. Each successive image represents one of those “Aha!” moments of self-discovery when I realized, looking back, that I grew a little. Those moments are expressed through universal symbols akin to the Constructivists and Supremacists.
JUH: How do you create the layering of imagery?
After generating, a depth map, which produces peaks and valleys in a flat image on a two-sided plane - echoing the two sides of our brain and the wings of a butterfly - I project onto it my 3D geometric forms - eggs, cones, spheres.
JUH: There’s a Rorschach effect to the butterfly forms, which seem to pulse and flutter, despite their flatness and formal structure as “supports” for the 3-D objects centered atop each.
OL: Yes, the butterfly naturally suggests metamorphosis and also chaos theory (“the butterfly effect”). The sense of movement is important to evoke that kind of transfiguration of changing from one image-state to the next. This movement takes place across the images, and if you look at each work in the series, it unfolds sequentially. All of this takes place on backgrounds that represent the dark matter and space-time from which all life comes and returns; the great cosmic egg. The egg also has very personal associations for me.
JUH: How so?
OL: Well, it all goes back to my earliest childhood memory — when I was two years old. I still remember it vividly. It was when I was at my paternal grandma’s apartment in a Georgian town of Sukhumi. My parents and I spent six months of the year there, over a two-year period, when I was two and three years old. Day naps were big part of my regimen growing up. But I could never fall asleep.
So I would come up with little stories and games in my mind to keep myself occupied. One related to my family nanny who put raw eggs under my bed in order to keep them cool. One particular afternoon, I was laying in my bed and thought of Kolobok (a popular Russian fairy tale, similar to “The Gingerbread Man”); the little bun come to life. As the story goes,
there was a poor older couple living in a village next to a forest, and one day the wife scraped enough dough from the bottom and sides of a tin to bake a Kolobok for her husband. Suddenly, the bun, Kolobok, came alive, and rolled into
the forest where he encountered a cunning fox, who wanted to eat him. He sang her a song with confidence, but she said that she couldn’t hear him, and so asked him to come closer and sit on her nose, where she then gobbled him up. After thinking about him, I reached under my bed, pulled out the pan with one last egg, and said: “Kolobok, Kolobok, I will eat you,” like the fox in the story, and brought it to my face and took a bite, and, to my surprise, it cracked. Needless to say,
I got completely covered in yolk. I was afraid to move, and worried that I would get into trouble for breaking it. At some point my parents came in, saw me in my bed, completely covered in egg. They asked me what happened, and when I told them about “Kolobok,” they laughed. Lusha, my nanny, however, was very upset that I took her last egg, as she was going to use it that night to bake something. So that fairytale mutated into a real-life drama for me. This is why the egg plays such an important role in my work. There’s a part of me that’s still afraid of breaking an egg.
JUH: Right, it’s both archetypal and particular in meaning for you.
OL: Exactly. It embodies a desire to make work that’s universal yet self-contained. To tell visual stories that evoke metamorphosis and create worlds within worlds.
JUH: Speaking of worlds within worlds, you seem to draw the viewer’s attention to your digital manipulations, almost highlighting them, as if this were a subtext. Is this intentional?
OL: Well, I wouldn’t call them manipulations, per se. The digital realm became a saving grace for me a couple of decades ago, when I was living in a tiny studio. I barely had enough space to move, and no real option to paint or build anything, but I had my Mac. The computer, in all its various reincarnations, has been my mirror and tool ever since while people, animals, landscapes, and the other things I photograph, function as “ready-mades”; images to create visual dialogues with through digital collage.
JUH: Can you elaborate? Maybe through a discussion of Architecture of metaFlight, or Enlightened Black Square &
From Still to Life, which we haven't talked about yet.
OL: The black square in the first image of the series is a doormat from the building at the end of my block. It was hanging on the rail of some scaffolding, folded in half. From the distance, it appeared to be casting a white shadow. I noticed this scene one morning walking down my street. The image literally presented itself to me. In addition to the egg and the birds, another generative symbol on my work is Malevich’s Black Square,1915, which is part of where the work's title comes from.
JUH: Why does it resonate so much for you?
OL: It was an important touchstone in my father’s works ever since I was a child. And my mother, an art historian and curator, wrote a book about it, The Face of the Square: Mysteries of Kazimir Malevich (2004). The book argued that Malevich’s Black Square distilled a Russian Orthodox icon of Jesus into a universal matrix. My dad in one of his works transformed the (flat) concept of the “black square” - where a painting is a window onto the world à la the Renaissance notion - into a painting of a dimensional “sphere” (1965). In his words, manifesting “the energy of object [when it]
reaches such concentration as to give the viewer a sense of the merging of real and illusory space.” My mom alternately conceived of Malevich's black square as a universal icon. Both of them talked about, analyzed and probed this iconic work from every conceivable angle. In my developing mind, it became something of an enigma or a fairy tale. It became an invisible friend, an infinite space of freedom, where everything and anything was possible. It became my crib, my cosmos, my playground.
JUH: This all makes me think of the way you include previous images/bodies of work in new ones, adapting and evolving their purpose. The black and white photographs of Enlightened Black Square, which depict abstracted ladders and streetscapes shot from odd angles, for example, are transformed into kaleidoscopic animations in From Still to Life. And the Wigstock portraits in Renaissance Ball, 2000-2001, become part of the landscape in Journey, 2001-2003.
OL: Evolution - literal, spiritual, conceptual - is essential to my process. When I took existing characters from Renaissance Ball and invented new stories for them, I wanted to create a sense of movement relating to both the actor and the narrative.
I transposed candid portraits of drag queens I took on Manhattan's West Side pier into rustic landscapes I later visited, to highlight the artifice of their persona. I believe that we are all actors building our characters as we make sense of the world and our environment. By animating and adapting the black and white images of scaffolding from Enlightened Black Square to From Still to Life, I am revealing how what we see in front of us can be reconfigured to generate new possibilities. If we allow ourselves to look at what is around us as a reflection of self, we have the ability to shape and reshape our reality through our thoughts and impulses.
JUH: The animations have a surrealist film-noir quality where everything feels symbolic and nothing is as it seems. Esoteric, if you will. I know you ascribe meaning to the number 4, which is manifest in the work. Care to share for those of us who might not know why it’s such a powerful number?
OL: The series is comprised of four images. The first image, the black square (doormat) and “white shadow” has four sides and four vertices. Number 4 is a universal number of order, representing the four great elements - earth, water, fire, and wind; four seasons – spring, summer, fall, and winter; four cardinal directions or points of the compass - east, north, west, and south; and more recently the four chemical bases of DNA known as ACGT as well as four valves in a heart. And the animations represent motion or the fourth dimension of time, and our ability to self-reflect.
JUH: What about the role of the shadow, which can be traced to an earlier series, Oh’ Shadow, 2004. Is there a connection?
OL: Certainly. That work inverted the typical relationship between figure and shadow making the Wigstock participants shadows of themselves as their actual bodies are cast upon the ground. These shadows stand upright, alive, and however ghostly, still somehow corporeal. I wanted to challenge the idea that we know we have a body because we see it reflected through light, like everything else we “see.” But light also creates the illusion of separation, of individual forms always
apart from one another, when, in truth, we are all molecules interconnected and without boundary. This is what I ultimately want to say with my work.
JUH: Where do you see your work going in the future? What's next for Olga Lamm?
OL: Well, one of my biggest dreams remains to have a show of my work with my father’s as that was his wish too. But at
the moment I’m still working on the latest installment of Architecture of metaFlight, and have begun conceptualizing a new series tentatively titled, “The Golden Yak”, which is based on photos I took on a trip to China and Tibet in August 2018.
I became fascinated with how significant the yak was to life in Lhasa and Namtso Lake. It reminded me of the Old Testament idol, the Golden Calf, but seen through another cultural lens. There are more Yaks than people in Tibet, and in Tibetan legend, wild Yak are said to be “stars” living in heaven, so the yak is envisioned as a safeguarding god.