Home is Ourselves is our Project: An interview with collaborators Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen

[uds-billboard name=”home”]As committed artists, we are highly adaptive; work and play become indistinguishable, distinctions between friends and professional contacts often fade, and art and life become one. Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand follow these lines and then push the boundaries even further. They are a married couple who’s practice has become one. So adaptive are they, that their domestic realm, creative life and even the daily lives of their children become fodder for a new series of videos and photographs. Their everyday, exposed, becomes larger than themselves as they question gender roles, parenting roles, their lives as artists and their environment.

Sasha Dela: Gender normative roles make a short appearance in DIY Love Seat and Elevated Landscape and then are quickly shattered. For example, Mary, your role in both is as a sort of destroyer, first by taking a chainsaw to the couch and then using an axe to chop down the posts that hold up the upper stage/landscape where Stephan is mowing the lawn. Who are the characters you play and how did those striking rolls come about?

Stephan Hillerbrand & Mary Magsamen: We think those characters you see on the screen are a sort of archetype. We have always said that viewing our work you will understand more about us but we hope you understand something more about yourself. So that archetype that you see on the screen really is all of us in the confusion that we face now in our normative gender roles.

We have been married now for 10 years and we have constantly been trying to figure out what our roles should be. Now that we have children in the mix, trying to decipher those roles becomes even more complicated because we are not only trying to decide for ourselves what those roles are but we are now filtering that information down to our children.

Both of us comment all the time about how we can’t believe the amount of media “noise” out there. The competing information from media outlets, social networks, school, community, culture and family is more complicated than ever to digest. All of that has a direct reflection on how we define those archetypes.

SD: In your work the everyday takes on a momentous scale. Can you talk about that quality in the videos and the photos? For example, in Diane from the photographic series House/Hold, Mary, you seem 7 feet tall and you seem to be caught at just the moment of a major revelation.

MM: Oh wow, that’s one of our favorite photographs because it really articulates what we are trying to express: the idea that the everyday or mundane really has a larger than life or heroic quality. In Diane, it is not clear as to what is happening but there is a balancing between love and burden, which carries through into many relationships.

SH: When I grew up my family had a copy of the painting Peasant Wedding from the German painter Bruegel. Three times a day during meals I would look up at that image and think how magnificent such a simple subject matter could be. No winged cherubs or blue-faced aliens from another world but still a beautiful image. As a society, we haven’t lost that ability today to see the monumental in the mundane, but because of the speed, volume and quantity of what is given to us, we really have to take an active role in fleshing it out.

SD: What sorts of events, whether in your life or in your environment, spur the narratives for the videos and photographs?

SH & MM: We have always been interested in that singular moment that can be frozen and then expanded. Our earlier work, like Coffee and Milk, was more abstract and our newer work, such as Elevated Landscape, is more narrative and surreal. You can see from our House/Hold photograph series that anything from doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, walking the dog or bathing the kids inspires us and holds that idea that connects us as a family. We always joke that a family that makes art together stays together. Many artists work with themes of identity.  Our identity is being a family.

Thinking about home and inspiration, it is also interesting because we have spent a lot of our lives making art, working towards careers and building a family and we often think about how the very things that we have wished for and acquired are the same things that weigh us down. This is the idea that we were working with when we made the video, Accumulation.

SD: Mary, How does your artistic practice influence your direction as a curator and vice versa?

MM: It is a big mash up.  My life is very circular because everything revolves and informs one another: curating, artistic practice and family. I feel very fortunate to have the support networks of family, friends and co-workers in all these areas too – otherwise I would go crazy.  I only wish I had more time because I love everything I do.

I actually got to know of Aurora Picture Show because Stephan and I had shown our work in the Extremely Shorts film festival in 2002 and 2007. I see a lot of excellent work because of my job at Aurora and I am sure that influences my art practice. I am especially interested in the work that merges film, art and performance, such as Christian Marclay or Joan Jonas, who both have been honored with the Aurora Award. When I see something that resonates with me I will try to figure out an event where the work would fit – sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.  Knowing this has been helpful for my ego as an artist too. Just because our work is rejected doesn’t mean it is not appreciated. I am currently curating a show for January about dark shorts – they are all a little surreal and disturbing, which reflects my current interests in my own work.

SD: Stephan, Do you find that working with students influences your creative practice?

SH: Absolutely! I think that one of the greatest blessings that I have in my life is to be a teacher. It’s not only for the community that an educational environment provides but also as I said before with the amount of information that is coming to us now it is virtually impossible to keep track of all of one’s interests. You have to be connected to some type of community now in order to stay current. I really see my students as peers, where we are all trading, mixing and matching information that we find.

SD: What’s next?

SH & MM: We have got a lot of projects going on right now. We are going to finish up the House/hold photographic series. That is something that we’ve been working on for the past year and feel that it is really resolved and strong now. We also just started a photographic series that expands on the Accumulation idea where we’re going into each room of our house and taking everything in the room in tying it up into a huge piñata that hanging from the ceiling and taking pictures of the object. They’re these crazy images because you can’t believe in this day of Photoshop and digital manipulation that everything in your living room could be suspended from a rope. These are currently on view at Darke Gallery in an exhibition Linda Darke put together of artists that were in the TX Biennial.


Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen’s current work is on view at If you didn’t get to Austin to see the Texas Biennial, DARKE Gallery in Houston, TX, until November 19th, 2011.

Images courtesy of the artists.


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