Arts + Design

A fantastical interpretation of the Earth’s formation

Jan 19, 2014 /

In the opening of Miwa Matreyek’s TED performance, a pair of shadowy hands wave over a plate, and an apple halves itself. From there, goldfish swirl around the plate, before morphing into birds and flying away. For the first minute, you think you are watching video — an intricate blend of real-life footage and animation. But soon you realize that what you are watching is more complex than that. The shadow hands controlling the surreal montage aren’t a part of the video itself — they’re created by Matreyek, who is on the stage and casting shadows through the projection. Soon, Matreyek begins crawling slowly across the stage, a beautiful landscape unfurling around her onscreen. It gives way to a city of skyscrapers that appear to grow around her like plants. As her shadow weaves a complex path through the buildings, hot air balloons swirl around her.

Miwa (pronounced Mee-wa) Matreyek is a multimedia artist who blends, animation, shadow play and music into extremely surreal experiences. At TEDGlobal 2010, she premiered her piece “Myth and Infrastructure.” In early 2014 she completed “This World Made Itself,” which takes inspiration from her love of physics and natural history museums. We caught up with Matreyek to discuss the piece — and to talk about how she goes about creating these intricate performances in the first place.

What would you say is the idea that you wanted people who watched your TED performance to walk away with? Because I think there is definitely an idea there.

Overall, a sense of wonder, magic, creativity, imagination. It’s a very surreal and dream-like thing for me. In the process of making “Myth and Infrastructure,” a lot of ideas were inspired by things in my surroundings. In a small way, what I’m interested in people taking away is the sense that it’s tinkering and invention with everyday objects. I’m using projectors and a laptop, but it’s not that different from shadow play or magic lantern shows — so there’s an old feeling, I think, to what I do. There’s a connection to the physicality of the medium and the performance that I think is often lacking in new media installation — that you don’t have this human component.

What have been the most heartwarming reactions gotten to your TED Talk?

A lot of people talk about how they just let it wash over them, and how they feel kind of taken on a journey. It’s funny, because it’s a video that’s on, but as a piece itself, it’s very much about the live performance. People who have seen it online come see me at festivals — and they’re like, “Oh wow, the video was really great. But seeing it live, and seeing your real live body…” With a real body, you can see each strand of hair moving, my eyelashes flickering, when I smile. There’s such a visceral and physical connection — the audience can get something else when they actually come and see me.

Have you gotten any reactions to the talk that you thought were a little strange?

Some comments say, “This would’ve been better if it was all video, instead of it being a performance.” Which is funny to me, because it misses the point. I could have easily made that whole thing with a composited green-screen shadow figure — it would be easier, and it would always be precise and perfect. But I really like the struggle. There are moments where I’m physically struggling to keep up, or I’m just slightly off. I like the divergence and convergence between the media and the body. There’s an uncanniness to it — the animation and my body connect to create an illusion. And I like the fact that the audience helps complete the illusions. Because when it’s a little bit off, the audience is actively watching in a way that they help me complete the illusions.

For my work, there’s the flat screen, and so the cinematic space of the animation — the body collapsed right on to the flat screen. Then there’s also the theatrical space of seeing the set-up on stage: projectors, screen, laptop, and me. They see my body get bigger when it’s closer to the projector, and smaller when it’s closer to the screen. The audience is aware of the narrative of how I’m staging what they’re seeing cinematically. I’m really interested in that dual narrative of seeing the fantastical illusion, and also seeing the technical narratives of it. I think that takes them on a journey of suspension of belief and disbelief. It creates a more active kind of viewing — they’re invested in figuring it out. I like to keep it in the mysterious space where there’s some sleight of hand and it gets a little bit tricky for the audience.

Did the experience of performing at TED and having your talk go online, inform new works in any way?

I think so. “Myth and Infrastructure” is about being taken on an emotional journey, and thinking about creativity and imagination. After TED, I wanted to make work that expanded beyond that. It was a driving force to try something different.

With “This World Made Itself,” the first half is natural-history based. I’ve always been interested in science, and I feel like my place of interest in science comes from a very visual and physical sense of the world. I was actually a physics major for my first year as an undergrad. Once it got separated from having a visual sense and a physical sense of the mechanics of things, then it just became math. I lost interest, because I couldn’t really imagine it or feel it in my body. So I feel like with this work, I’m trying to reconnect with that.

With my piece that just premiered, it starts with the Big Bang and the formation of the earth, and then goes through different stages of prehistory in kind of a dream-like, abstracted, way. The Precambrian oceans, the Ordovician oceans, and the carboniferous forests. Coming from a place of imagining: what does it feel like to be the earth that’s just forming? It’s all molten lava and there’s no atmosphere and it’s just forming as a planet — and what does it feel like when the atmosphere forms, when there’s steam, when there’s the first oceans forming.

So interesting. Was there a moment that launched the idea for you?

Because “Myth and Infrastructure” was on TED, I got a lot of invitations to festivals from people that saw me online. So I was flying around a lot. Even just being on an airplane, and looking out the window, and being amazed at what the earth looked like. I noticed that you can kind of read landscapes, and how they formed is really interesting to me. Flying over the Southwest and seeing dead riverbeds and then where there’s formations of plants growing because there’s an underground river or something. You can see fault lines. That’s just takes my breath away — to look out the window. I always make sure and sit by the window.

How long does it take you to create a piece?

“Myth and Infrastructure” took me about eight months. “This World Made Itself” took me about two years.

How do you get from the concept to the visual ideas?

Often, I just explore with everyday objects. “Myth and Infrastructure” started with me grabbing things from the kitchen and being like, “What are ways I can transform this? What are ways I can play with this?” With this piece, because I was thinking about natural history, I tried to make it a point that, wherever I did travel, I would go to a natural history museum or a science museum. To get a visual reference. Though that’s always been something that I’ve enjoyed and liked a lot.

Do you do the animation first, do you think about the music first, do you think about how you physically want to do the interacting?

It’s the animation and the interaction first — the visual sense and the physical sense. I build them as many vignettes, and then figure out ways to tie it together. With this piece, I had the prehistoric timeline, so I would imagine something like being on fire. And then the visual world comes after that. Oh, there’s asteroids in the sky? I start building that and then figuring out how my body might fit into it. But it’s a very integrated process. I normally have the projectors and the screens set up in my living room so I can constantly turn it around and test it out. I build up a still image before I build animation — I build out the ground and the sky, or an ocean that I’m floating in and then try to physically figure out: Am I swimming in it or am I underwater? So it’s very physically exploring a place.

Is your animation stop-motion, or a combination of stop-motion and drawing?

It’s not really stop-motion. I’m making it in AfterEffects, so it’s more like a composited collage. It’s a lot of things that I shoot photos and video of, including just textures, that I layer on top of each other. Some found things, some things that I draw with the computer and then animate. It’s a mix of layers and layers and layers of things that are constructed with the computer.

What was the visual effect in “The World Made Itself” that was the hardest or most difficult to figure out how to create?

The hardest scenes are where I get into a battle of the laws of physics of the world that I’m in, versus the laws of physics in fantasy — where I can play with time and gravity with animation.

I have one scene where the idea was that I’m being dragged across a field of flowers, and it’s kind of me being dragged back in time in my mind. So for that scene, I’m actually lying across two stools, and just kind of holding my body up, Pilates-style, flailing. Hopefully, there’s a sense that I’m floating above the flowers and kind of weightless. By combining animation with the body, the body becomes a little bit more fantastical.

Miwa Matreyek is pulled through a field of flowers — and time — in her 2014 work, “The Word Made Itself.”

In your TED performance and in the trailer for “This World Made Itself” (above), both contain the image of the natural morphing into a city. Why is that something you find yourself coming back to?

It’s a strange dichotomy for humans to live in, that we are both a part of the natural world and that we build up these concrete beehives to live in. We’re drawn to both, and afraid of both. We seem unable to live without one or the other. It’s funny, because that is in every single thing that I make. I feel like it’s something that I’m still kind of figuring out.

With “Myth and Infrastructure,” because it’s 17 minutes for the whole piece — and for TED, I had a time limit of 10 minutes — it was short. Too short for me to go somewhere dark, and then come back out. So I kept it really light-hearted and magical. Whereas with this piece, it’s something that came out of a complete history. In the second half of the piece, when it goes to more of the human world, this is the world that we’ve made for ourselves. Which is kind of dark.

You’ve lived in Los Angeles for a long time, right?

Yeah, eight years or so.

Is Los Angeles a part of your work?

I’m not sure about Los Angeles particularly, but the city thing is there. Los Angeles is so sprawled out that you mostly feel like you’re in a city, but also it doesn’t feel like a city in some ways too. I think that dichotomy is interesting. Overall, I think there’s a kind of problematic relationship being in a city. I haven’t really lived anywhere rural, so I have no reference point, but a city is a strange system to be a part of.

In an alternate universe where you weren’t an artist, what do you think you would be doing? I think I know the answer.

I would love to be a scientist. A geologist, maybe.

Do you have a secret talent that you think most people don’t know about?

Making surprises for my friends. I feel like I’m good at getting really invested in making something that’s “Oh, my friends are going to love this.” That’s how I started making art, really. When I was a kid, I’d paint a really beautiful thing on a birthday card for my mom. In some ways, it’s a lot like my “serious art,” because I build magical surprises into it. I do that in a small scale for friends too.

Where would be your dream place to perform “This World Made Itself?”

I would love to perform it at a natural history museum or a science museum type setting. I did perform it as a work in progress at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. There’s science-based stuff in the story itself, but I’m also interested in tinkering and inventiveness within art being part of the conversation there. It’s scientific, but it’s more on a children’s encyclopedia kind of level. So I would love to perform this at museums, where younger audiences come, and can get inspired to want to learn more.

A fiery scene from Miwa Matreyek's "The World Made Itself."
A fiery scene from Miwa Matreyek’s “The World Made Itself.”

Find out more on Matreyek’s Sundance Film Festival performances. Or find out how to see “The World Made Itself” at RedCat in Los Angeles in February.