Brian Zegeer: Porous Identities

O for the days to be yowling down the valley at a full galoop! On Pfizer! On Moderna! On
AstraZeneca! clip from 22 second cg animation, 2021

In his stop-motion animation and mixed media installations the Brooklyn based artist Brian Zegeer creates fantastic landscapes which draw on his domestic family life, dissecting what is the meaning of identity – body as an organism, cultural heritage of childhood in Appalachia with Lebanese roots –altogether fuse into a mysterious and complex system where the viewer is prompted to get immersed.

You were born in KY, “encountering the Appalachian and Lebanese landscapes” of your parentage. Tell me about how this statement is reflected in your art?

I can’t help but think of this question through the lens of January 6th. The US is a nation divided into separate little culture bubbles that will probably never be reconciled. As a child growing up in a college town in the South, I was hatched into a conflict between conservative southerners and cultural elites. I think this incommensurable gulf between differing world views predates the social media era, but is now weaponized by corporate and state interests to effect their own ends.

As I navigated the country stores and college campuses growing up, this factionalism seemed to be largely a class conflict between Americans of European descent, everyone else being more or less sidelined. My Lebanese family navigated this culture war in West Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina through several generations into assimilated Whiteness, and is now fully enmeshed.

As an artist, I am interested in the way we as individuals fit ourselves into these defining mythologies, and how family seems to be the strongest force that sets a person on a given track. My works present identity as porous– a cloud of ideation around a skeleton of familial and environmental predeterminants.

You seem to explore both materiality (sculptures and installations, using diverse materials) and moving imagery (video, stop-motion animation). How do you see the relationship between the two and can you elaborate on your process in each?

I studied painting in school, and got absorbed in the tradition of miniature painting, how you get really close and swallowed up in the environment. Around 2006 I started playing with video projections in a sculptural environment as a way of reproducing this feeling of immersion. I imagine a walk in the woods. The play of light through a scrim of tree branches keeps coming to mind when I plan installations. I like an experience that is optical but also surrounds you. It’s like an awareness of the performative nature of social encounters; you get to be an observer while being thoroughly enmeshed in the experience. You get to be the player and the piano.

In your recent installation at Trestle Gallery, A Sphinx: On the Hwang-Zegeer Biome you arranged on the wall fragmented images of your partner, your daughter, yourself, and your domestic space, to evoke a 6th century B.C. carving of a Sphinx from modern-day Lebanon. Can you tell me more about the idea behind this project and about your work process?

Recently my partner and I became parents. The act of raising a child requires you to continually sublimate your desires to serve the greater good. The outcome is mutual irritability, the queasy equilibrium of family life.

Against this backdrop, perhaps to escape responsibility on some level, I have been thinking about the microbiome, the body’s ecosystem of competing microscopic organisms, and it gives me pleasure to think that my own life choices might arise out of the invisible consensus between competing populations of bacteria, out of which grows a composite consciousness, and the illusion that I am an individual with a monolithic will. Like the family as a whole, I am just a tentative equilibrium between competing interests.

To extrapolate from this example, what if the members of my family can be seen as the organs of a larger, composite animal? What does that animal look like, what kind of footprints does it leave, what does it eat, what does it leave behind? We know this animal exhibits elevated levels of waste and consumption, we observe the path of neglected friendships and annoyed subway passengers in its wake.

A Sphinx… was made at Trestle Gallery in Brooklyn–photographs of our domestic lives cut up and assembled on a plywood armature. The overall structure is meant to suggest a sphinx-like figure in profile, fashioned after an ancient Phoenician ivory carving. This is meant to allude to the strong, even unconscious, influence of ancestry in our lives. Together we take on a form consonant with my Lebanese ancestry.

A Sphinx: On the Hwang-Zegeer Biome, mixed-media installation, Trestle Gallery, Brooklyn, 2020

Let’s take a look at another sculptural installation, The Golden Hour (at EFA Project Space, curated by Carrie Moyer). Here too you are referencing the domestic, reinterpreted your small living space. How do these 2 installations—A Sphinx: On the Hwang-Zegeer Biom, and The Golden Hour—interrelate?

The Golden Hour was inspired by experiments with 360-photography. I love shooting this way because the photograph captures imagery from all sides at once. the photographer is visible in any shot, so it does interesting things to the power differential inherent in conventional picture-making– I’m caught in my own snare! If you hold the camera close to your body and shoot, you end up with a little image of the world surrounded by a big distorted rendition of you, an inverted cosmography in which the world is contained within the body. Reminds me of those wonderful St. Hildegarde paintings from the 12th Century, presenting a human as a microcosm. Reminds me of the little universe of the microbiome in each of our stomachs.

So I decided to invert spatial relationships in the manner of a 360-camera to recreate the room in the tiny apartment where we’d passed the first year of my daughter’s life. In this reimagining of space, the little room would be contained within my body, a way of capturing and holding a year of slow time, ticking by on the rise and fall of an infant’s chest.

The Golden Hour is a free-standing wall, covered in photo-collage. It was made specifically for the Near and Dear show at E.F.A., and the wall has many little holes cut into it through which you could look out of the bank of windows behind. There are several embedded monitors playing animations, and the entire experience of near and far, still and moving is meant to activate as you approach the installation, and walk along its length.

A Sphinx… at Trestle was inspired by similar ideas, played with the same inverted scale relationships in a gathering of my photos of our family life. In this case the overall structure was meant to evoke a kind of hybridized person, the sort of collective body of our family, as mentioned above.

The Golden Hour, archival inkjet prints on plywood structure, embedded monitors with mixed-media animations, mixed-media, 13 by 10 by 3 feet, 2017

Detail, The Golden Hour

You have worked with archivists and community groups to recover the story of Manhattan’s Little Syria and the early 20th Century literary movement that blossomed there. What is your takeaway from this project, and can you give me an idea how it is expressed in The Book of Khalid for example?

Around 2008 I rediscovered Ameen Rihani, a writer who had been mentioned a lot by family members when I started making art, “your famous relative… his poems are taught at the American University in Beirut”. I discovered that his proto-Orientalist, NYC-coming-of-age story, Book of Khalid (1911), was getting renewed interest in academia. I got to know an historian and activist, Todd Fine, who had fallen in love with Rihani’s writing, and was fighting to preserve the last remaining buildings of the Little Syria neighborhood, the original Arabic enclave in lower Manhattan that was erased by an on-ramp to Robert Moses’ Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. I got a bit involved in the activism, and helped to catalogue the wonderful archive of Little Syria artifacts collected by Carl Antoun, which he houses in an old steamer trunk between reptile tanks in his parent’s basement in Rockaway Beach.

The Little Syria advocacy, with a fictional overlay from Rihani’s novel, evolved into a series of 3D Stereoscopic animations, entitled, The Book of Khalid the Movie. I also staged a Little Syria Parade in 2015 in conjunction with that year’s MENASA-focused Armory Show. I was an artist-in-residence at the Queens Museum at this time and exhibited a version of the Little Syria Archive as a conversation with Robert Moses as visionary behind Corona Park (for Two World’s Fairs) and architect of Little Syria’s demise. My studio at the Queens Museum was an evolving sculptural installation that mixed the utopian architecture of the 1939 World’s Fair with borrowed archival objects.

Little Syria Parade, archival inkjet prints on hardboard, performance and historical tour, commissioned for The Armory Show, curated by Ava Ansari, 2015

What is happening in your studio these days?

Over the past year, I’ve been continuing to use my domestic environment as subject matter. I am making computer-generated animations at the moment, and have produced a series of short videos inspired by our efforts during the 2020 pandemic to grow a garden from sprouted potatoes, carrot stubs, seeds recovered from grocery store produce. Photos of our socially-distanced living space become textures to wrap objects in the infinite 3D environment.

Another thing I’m excited about, my musician friend, Baby Copperhead and I have been reinterpreting a long-running collaboration called Pull My Daisy. The project consists of an improvised live video and digital audio performance, playing with the conventions of filmic storytelling and the problematic inheritance of the Beat Generation. We have been performing Pull My Daisy in one way or another since 2008, and now we are hosting an improvised session every few months on Instagram Live.

Kitchen Garden, cg animation, 4 mins 50 secs, 2020

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: