Persistent Visions: Andrea Dezso

Persistent Visions: Recent Work by Andrea Dezsö

Embroideries were my introduction to the work of Romanian-born artist Andrea Dezsö, but I quickly learned that embroidery is just one element of Dezsö’s broad practice. In addition to textile pieces, she designs public art, creates artist books, is a professional illustrator, teaches communication design, writes fiction, and recently has turned her hand to animated film.

Dezsö moved to New York City in 1997 and now lives in Queens. Between her teaching commitments as Assistant Professor of media design at Parsons School of Design and caring for her son, she maintains an ambitious studio practice. Putting her ideas into production often requires a great deal of multitasking, epitomized in her recent series of embroidered samplers stitched while riding the New York subway to Manhattan for teaching classes, gallery visits, and trips to the gym. The forty-eight-piece embroidery collection Lessons from My Mother (2003–2006) depicts many of the myths she heard while growing up in Transylvania. The series was started as part of an effort to “figure out how things work here [in America],” says the artist, and suggests connections between the bizarre and often unfounded superstitions that exist in every culture. Tongue-in-cheek in tone, the series includes pieces such as My Mother Claimed that AIDS can be Cured by Fasting for Forty Days.

About her subway stitching, Dezsö notes, “It is very rare for people to ask questions. People in New York City are immune to what is going on. In the subway people try to create an island of anonymity and invisibility.” As a result, Dezsö ironically sees the subway not as a public space but as a “no-pressure environment. I’m not expected to make outstanding art in that context, so it takes off the pressure.”

Recently, during a three-month residency at the Kamiyama Artist in Residence Program (KAIR) on the Japanese island of Shikoku, Dezsö created a number of new pieces, including drawings, painted screens, artist books, and an animated film based on resist-dyed indigo patterns on fabric. For a New Yorker, the residency could hardly have been further from her usual daily life. “I could barely sleep at night,” she admits, “because of the sounds of nature! I’m not even aware of insect sounds in New York City.” A trip to a local indigo museum during her stay provided a formal introduction to the wonders of dyeing with natural indigo. “The master dyer Ryoshi Maino ‘fed’ the dye bath with sake,” she explains with a laugh. “Apparently cooking sake is not good enough. Instead, high-quality sake is required if the offering is to please the bath!” This fortuitous introduction to indigo dyeing, coupled with a deep sense of history found in the surroundings at Kamiyama, provided inspiration for her animated film Heart (2008).

The village of Kamiyama is situated between two shrines on an eighty-eight-shrine pilgrimage route, which has brought Buddhist pilgrims through the area since the eleventh century. The community has long experienced and supported what Dezsö describes as “the world coming to them.” Local residents help the pilgrims traveling through the area and, perhaps more importantly, it is considered rude for pilgrims to reject this help because, symbolically, donations such as food, shelter, and money are believed to carry with them the spirits of their donors. Dezsö was treated similarly as an artist-in-residence, “The locals did everything they could to help us succeed in the way we needed.” Responding to this experience, she chose to use the Heart Sutra, which is traditionally chanted at every shrine along this lengthy route, as the audio element of her nine-minute animated film.

To construct the animation, she intentionally kept her production methods simple. Taking her new-found knowledge of indigo, she resist-dyed sixteen pieces of cotton cloth that were then folded like origami to create over 200 patterns. Using a flatbed scanner, the patterns were digitally recorded and then brought together using the computer editing software Final Cut. Dezsö explains, “The patterns dissolving into each other and to black (emptiness) echoes the meaning of the Heart Sutra (in Japanese called Hannya Shingyo), which begins: ‘Listen: All things are no different from emptiness; emptiness is not different from all things. Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. . . . ’ ” Heart was shown at the end of the KAIR residency last November at the Old Sake Factory, a gallery and performance space in Kamiyama.

Back in the States, Dezsö returned to work she began prior to the residency—a stop-motion puppet animated film The Demon Bridegroom (2008). The project, she explains, is “about the illusory nature of time, space, and human experience, a theme often revisited in mystical Judaism.” Based on Howard Schwartz’s The Hollow of the Sling (1993), which was inspired by a story attributed to Rabbi Nachman (1772–1810) of Bratslav, Ukraine, the work recalls a bride’s nightmare when her soon-to-be husband is exchanged for a stranger in the wedding crowd who reveals himself to be a demon. Before her anxieties can become real, the bride wakens from her nightmare to find herself back under her wedding canopy, the demon stranger no longer lurking in the crowd. The test piece for The Demon Bridegroom was Lilith Cabaret (2007), a one-minute study with puppetry, embroidery, and stop-motion animation.

The Demon Bridegroom uses six-inch-tall puppets on a stage that is a sprawling nine feet long. The project was developed at the Brooklyn-based Puppet Lab, a fellowship program that supports eight projects per year, sponsored by St. Ann’s Warehouse, a theater dedicated to puppetry. Dezsö acted as art director as well as set, puppet, costume, and lighting designer, with the support of summer intern, Gabriel Aronson, a graduate of the Sarah Lawrence Theater Program. The work uses more than twenty puppets, in a hinged, collapsible set built to allow camera access from many different angles. “The stop-motion technique is based on the persistence of vision,” Dezsö explains, “The animator poses the puppet, shoots one still picture, moves the puppet a tiny bit, shoots another still picture, and so on. For one second of animation, typically twenty-four individual stills are strung together.”

In January, The Demon Bridegroom was shown as part of the Labapalooza Festival of New Puppet Theater at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. Dezsö concedes that the experience of creating this film made her reconsider the values and energy that drive her work. Her next project returns to low-tech and involves a series of stop-motion animations made of cut paper and shadows using a flashlight and camera. Working with what she refers to as the “bare bones,” she is interested in creating “animations that will not have plots or stories. They will be oddly disjointed like dreams or nightmares. I want to make them poetic, fully a visual experience rather than ‘telling a story.’ ”

Of her recent forays into filmmaking, Dezsö reflects, “The way I work is more theater than animation: I create puppets, costumes, sets, and a basic premise, and let them drive me to play it out in the way it feels natural, rather than according to a pre-existing plan.” Instead of blinding us with the latest technology, she strives to use the most simple of methods to create moving images. “Animation has a material to it,” she reminds us, “and this is what interests me most.”

FiberArts magazine (April/May 2009: 48-51)