Casey Curran

sculptor, Seattle / WA // July 2013
Essentially, I’m interested in examining the impulse that we have to go out and create things and how that impulse is connected to...our need to leave a legacy behind long after we have disappeared.

When asked to describe his work Casey says, “the short answer would be I make things move.” It’s true, that is essentially what Casey does— his sculptures bring together disparate components such as wood, silk flowers, wire, and animal pelts and feathers into a kinetic interplay that is surprisingly simple, but entirely mesmerizing. The simplicity comes from the fact that most of Casey’s sculptures are built piece-by-piece around a very basic crank shaft, so despite the elaborate appearance of the sculptures they are not actually heavily engineered or planned out— the complexity of them has less to do with mechanics and more to do with arrangement. Yet, even when you know this, it’s difficult to stand in front of one of his works and not feel swept away with wonder. Activated into motion by just a turn of the hand-crank, each sculpture presents a world all its own; creaking sounds emanate, flower-like forms open and close, delicate wire tendrils waver like grass in the wind, and animal parts come alive with just a single movement. The effect is powerful— time and our sense of story expand out— in the blooming and withering of mechanical flowers a whole life cycle is repeated over and over, and notions of emergence and revival, impermanence and loss become palpable.

Talking to Casey about dark, weird things… and death is inevitable. When we visited him at his Seattle home studio in Capital Hill we fell into easy conversation about the experimental performance group he is a part of, his desire to make a piece that incorporates parts (if not all) of a human skeleton, and how unexpectedly beautiful chicken feathers are. He also talked at length about Ernst Becker and how influential his book Denial of Death has been to his work, specifically Becker’s belief that so much of our behavior, both individually and collectively, is dictated by the process of denying our own mortality. At one point in our conversation Casey explained that he does his “very best to try and remove all the magic from each of my pieces” and that he wants the viewer to see “every lever, each pulley, and all the little interactions of the various pieces that create the final motion of the work.” In this statement, in his adamant denial of “magic” and in the transparency of his technique, Casey is confronting and asking his viewer to do so too, the biological and social systems we are a part of and bound to. The funny thing is that sometimes when you know how or why something works, the magic of it doesn’t dissipate… it just grows bigger.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
So much of my work is about making little tiny pieces that all fit together in a specific way. The short answer would be I make things move, but the slightly longer answer would be I make kinetic sculptures centered around emergence and our psychological relationships to nature and science. Essentially, I’m interested in examining the impulse that we have to go out and create things and how that impulse is connected to death and impermanence and our need to leave a legacy behind long after we have disappeared.

What mediums do you work with?
Wire, taxidermy, brass, motion, flowers, anything shiny. I generally don’t sketch out any of my work prior to starting. Despite the elaborate appearance of the pieces everything is pretty simple; they are all on a crank shaft and a little wire that moves it up and down. I don’t have to plan the components out the way an engineer might because essentially, I work piece by piece, creating a composition as I’m doing it. Everything is on a crank shaft, so as long as I place the pieces around the crank shaft in a general radius area then the components all come together easily and organically around this center.

Your kinetic sculptures aim to have viewers directly interact with your work— can you tell us more about this?
This interaction is probably more a product of hating the “magic” that surrounds a lot of computer driven art. I do my very best to try and remove all the magic from each of my pieces. I want the viewer to see every lever, each pulley, and all the little interactions of the various pieces that create the final motion of the work. Since a lot of my pieces have a pseudoscience quality to them it’s important for me not to pull any tricks. The viewer has to see everything and I don’t want them to spend too much time thinking “how did he do that?”

When I show my work I encourage people to touch pieces and turn the cranks on the work. Often they are initially hesitant but it’s so nice to watch people engage with the work in a physical way.

Besides your art practice, are you involved in any other kind of work?
I work with a performance art group called Saint Genet inspired by the works and philosophies of Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre. We do really complex, physically exhausting productions involving a lot of drugs, blood, and alcohol. They’re hauntingly beautiful but extremely difficult to watch.

What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
I’m always inspired by the natural sciences and philosophy. Ernst Becker, who wrote the book Denial of Death, has been a great springboard for a lot of the ideas I’ve been attempting to explore in my pieces. It basically postulates that society is built on a series of hero complexes generated by a culture, and when a citizen adopts one of these identities the fulfillment of those specific social/moral imperatives act as a stand in for an immortal legacy. We die but do not wish to be forgotten so there is this vastly complex social structure which we’ve unwittingly created, allowing each individual a pathway to what they feel is virtuous and lasting. For example— Achilles choosing between a long quiet life versus one ending too short, but yet gaining immortality through story and myth. This whole system posed by Becker has a consequence of building on itself, becoming more complex and reaching as new cultural identities shift from good to bad or bad to good as each cultures moral narrative evolves over the centuries. I feel I’ve done a poor job explaining it but I really recommend picking up his book Denial of Death.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
It means everything. I’d be homeless without it. To have an actual studio separate from my living space would probably make me less productive. As it stands now I roll out of bed and I’m at work. It’s very nice.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m very excited to be in the process of creating my first large-scale public installation. It’s being built for the lobby of a new green building where every floor is monitored by a central computer. The designers were interested in having a sculptural installation that could act as one part art and one part information. The basic idea is to create a large crack running along the wall where dozens of brass flowers and vines will be blooming and wilting in time with the energy usage of the building— the piece will be over 12 feet. Imagine driving down the freeway or walking down the sidewalk where tree roots push up the bricks and crack the cement, grass and weeds taking root. It will be like a little reminder of what was there before and what will come next.

I’m also currently an artist-in-residence for two months at Sculpture Space in Utica, New York. The facilities are amazing. I’m spending the majority of my time slowly, but steadily constructing my next piece which is going to center around some of the themes we’ve been talking about. Imagine a desiccated body going to bloom. Dozens of plants springing from a tangle of life and geometry, where a half formed body breaths and a dark void either births or envelops everything. I’m interested in self organizing systems and the way physical objects fit together, the micro and macro worlds of cities, the cosmos, organic bodies, etc. It will be examining different states of structure, be that living, mathematical or spiritual. I hope to evoke the feeling that these systems are at the same time breaking down and emerging into some new unknown state.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I know there are a lot of other kinetic artists out there, and there’s a loose band of people on the Internet. But to group all kinetic artists together doesn’t really work conceptually because we’re all doing something very different with the way we interpret the world around us. Basically, maybe… but I skirt a lot of genre.

How do you navigate the art world?
Haphazardly, with a lot of positive thinking. I’ve been really lucky— after my BFA show I was fortunate enough to be asked to do a show with a small but great gallery. This forced me to immediately create a new body of work and gave me no time to flounder, which can often happen right after school. I’ve been fortunate in that since graduating from school I’ve always had representation. I would love to show outside of Seattle though— that would be great.

I also hope to have more opportunities to make work for large-scale commissions; it would allow me to have more sustainability as a working artist.

Words of wisdom?… a motto, favorite quote?
Uh, if you’re not bleeding or crying at the end of the day you didn’t work hard enough.

To see more of Casey’s work: