Yvette Molina: Big Bang Votive at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey

In Dialogue with Yvette Molina

Yvette Molina in residence at the VACNJ before shutdown. Photo credit: Ettienne Frossard.

Big Bang Votive, Yvette Molina’s collaborative storytelling art installation has evolved over fifteen weeks, utilizing the Mitzi and Warren Eisenberg Gallery at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey through January 18th, 2021. Yvette Molina creates an immersive audio-visual experience — accompanied by a 30-minute surround sound composition played on a loop, her installation includes three hundred paintings of starry skies, some with votive symbols of delight or love taken from stories gathered from the public, a work-table with the artist’s materials, and an on-going “story catcher” project involving public participation.

Your exhibition includes paintings and elements of an interactive project. What prompted this idea?

My art often centers on how we care for one another and in turn, how we privilege certain places, stories, and living beings over others. I had been developing work about the global refugee crisis; grappling with the anguish and injustice that comes with the massive displacement of human beings from their homelands. As an artist and culture maker it is important for me not to avoid difficult topics, but I was becoming very heavy. As a counterbalance, I decided to begin a series of painted symbols representing those things that spark love and delight in my life. This naturally led to asking friends, family, and eventually everyone, to share their own stories that I would then represent with a painted symbol. I began to imagine a massive, collective offering of love and delight as a defiant celebration of what remains good and possible for our world. I suppose it all returns to this idea of caring and believing that everyone deserves to be seen, heard, and cared for.

Over 300 starry panels make up the full installation. Chairs arranged for in-person interviews. Photo credit: Ettienne Frossard.

Tell me more about the project.

The most visually obvious aspect of this project is the starry field on which each votive symbol is painted. This is meaningful to me for several reasons. I am in awe of our relationship to the stars — the fact that most of the elements in our bodies were created by supernovae (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur, and so many more). Beyond the science, stars are the poetic locus of our hopes and dreams. Why else would we “wish upon a star?” I wanted to capture that feeling of magic by creating an installation that would envelope the viewer. Finally, the stars represent infinite space, where there is room for each of us and for all our stories.

Sound is another vital element of the project. I record all my interviews. I worked with sound artist Joshua Michele Ross (who also happens to be my husband) to create a four-channel audioscape for the installation. He composed an original score using edited selections from my interviews, found sound, and field recordings. Thus, the installation is an immersive experience, simulating a great cosmos within, each symbol and story adds to a growing constellation of human experience and connection.

You said that despite the shutdown, the interactive element of collecting participants’ stories has continued on Zoom. Can you highlight a couple of examples?

Originally I was going to be present in the gallery two days a week to meet with museum visitors in person. While I miss being in person, it was surprising how effortless the shift to Zoom was. Sometimes I even wonder if it makes people feel more comfortable. The stories shared have run the gamut from whimsical to profound and each becomes my favorite in the moment of telling because honestly they are all so wonderful. The most recent story is interesting because it was not told in person or zoom. It is from someone who does not speak English. They wrote a letter, had it translated, and sent it to me through email. The story is about a 16th century musical form called the “Decima” that employs a very specific rhyming scheme. This technique began in Spain and moved across the world, getting renamed and absorbed into each new culture. Eventually each country forgot the origin and came to believe it was their own musical heritage. As an immigrant to the US, the storyteller expressed joy in this idea that one can eventually find deep belonging in many places.

From stories shared over Zoom, clockwise from top left: “With My Pile of Books,” “For the First Time,” “Go With the Flo,” 2020, Egg tempera on panel. Photo credit: Yvette Molina.

Tell me a bit about your painting process for this body of work.

I work in egg tempera on panel. For the current installation at the Visual Art Center of New Jersey, I painted over 350 panels. To create the starry field I build each surface with 10 – 20 layers of transparent color washes. I begin with magenta, then varying shades of greens, purples, and blues. I sometimes sprinkle dirt, glitter, or salt between layers as well as flicking a light spattering of white at intervals to simulate stars. Sometimes I will hand paint a few individual stars or other various cosmic phenomena. It’s a long, but meditative process where time disappears. While I expect to paint thousands of these cosmos panels over the course of this project, I see each one as complete unto itself. Many of them will have a symbol painted onto them later, but they might remain as they are – a small moment within the universe.

What is your takeaway from this project?

I have been collecting stories for about two years now. My biggest takeaway is about the restorative power of storytelling. When listening to someone share a story of love or delight there is a clear physical transformation that takes place. Postures change, eyes light up. There is smiling, laughter (sometimes tears) and a palpable, energetic shift. The memory may exist in the past – but in recounting, the feelings are made fully present.

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: artspielblog@gmail.com