Real Danger With Bonkers

An Interview With Artist Hilja Keading

A pioneer of Los Angeles video, Hilja Keading looks at the intersection of psychology and comedy. Her works include video installation, sculptural installation, billboards, drawing, and painting. She has received the National Endowment for the Arts New Genre Fellowship, and her work has been featured in national and international exhibitions, including the Getty Museum’s “History of Video in California” in 2008, “Videoformes” in Clermont-Ferrand, France, and “Made In California” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In our conversation, I asked Keading about her recent video project, “The Bonkers Devotional,” which documents the time she spent in a tiny bedroom with a live black bear named Bonkers. The following is an edited, condensed version of our exchange.

Q. You put yourself in real danger to make this video. The idea of a natural predator feels so removed from how we all live now.

A. I did not see any point in doing it if there wasn’t a real danger, otherwise the video would have been a representation of some kind of a fairy tale or fantasy. Although I considered Bonkers literally and symbolically, it could have been very dangerous if I didn’t understand that he was a bear, not a symbol. I often say that this piece was an act of “radical trust.”

Q. Yet at times the piece feels almost like slapstick. What does the mix of danger and humor get at?

A. I’ve read that some things just cannot be reconciled through anything but comedy or faith. That is the
best and most concise explanation I can give, and I wish I could claim authorship of it.

Q. You’re interested in psychology, particularly Jung. Bonkers, the bear in your video, is big and soft and dark and has a tendency to lurk behind you.

A. On one level, I considered Bonkers to be a symbol of the shadow archetype. The term archetype designates only the psychic contents that haven’t been submitted to conscious elaboration–once it comes to consciousness, it becomes a symbol of the archetype. In Jungian psychology the goal is to integrate the shadow. Coming face to face with your shadow could be absolutely devastating if you are not prepared for it. This is not only true for individuals but also for communities and cultures.

Q. Can you say more about communities and a relationship to politics?

A. I believe that to one degree or another, all art is political. And politics is a philosophical subject. The psychological self and the political self are intertwined. Once you identify your politics, it fundamentally changes you, and now we are back to essential questions about the self. It’s been said that conflicts of culture are external representations of the internal conflicts of individuals in the culture.

Q. So the symbolic is made physical and almost literal. You’re using clinical terms from Jung. But you also use the religious term “devotional” as in “The Bonkers Devotional.”

A. More and more I think that the divisions between things are ultimately artificial. Maybe working with Bonkers was part of that revelation. If you say someone is bonkers, it means that they’ve lost the ability to distinguish the difference between inner and outer reality. One informs the other, but they are not the same; they are all parts of a whole. To make any action or object devotional is an attempt to become connected to the whole; the divine beauty, horror and mystery of it all; with everything, everything.

Q. Then there’s the running tension between ideas of nature and performance.

A. The scenario between the bear and me was a real manifestation of the question of what distinguishes being from performing. Perhaps nature in “The Bonkers Devotional” is related to instinct and consciousness. Part of the power of this piece for me lies in the fact that even though Bonkers was trained to perform, I wasn’t asking him to perform. At the end of the day, we were both just two trained animals.

Q. Why explore these ideas through images? What does “seeing” mean for you?

A. That is a difficult question. I think seeing is connected to, and often mistaken for, understanding. Our senses filter sensory information, and our minds filter sensory information, and then there is the issue of language, which is another filter. The discrepancy between experience and language is what has motivated me to make work from the start, and it may be what motivated me to be an artist.

Q. We’ve spoken quite a bit about the ideas informing the work. Can you relate an image from your own work to another that’s been an influence on it?

A. After completing the Bonkers Devotional, I realized I had been using editing to force the connection between the literal and the symbolic, but reality itself is always literal and symbolic. So I’ve become less interested in editing and more interested in something beyond the visible. Here is a still from Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker.”

It is not necessarily the way the film looks, but the shift in consciousness I experienced after watching it that has had a profound effect on me. The film is awe-inspiring, horrifying, and beautiful. It revealed–but did not illustrate; just understood–grace. This next still, from “Dove,” is from an experience that I later turned into a short video.

I made it by twirling a dead bird in front of my body. The bird had actually fallen in my lap one day while I was sitting outside on a bench under a tree. I took the bird home and saved it until I knew what to do with it. My favorite thing about the video, other than how my hands look like the wings of the dead bird, is the end; it was not twirling a dead bird carcass that scared me, but dropping it.

Stephanie Washburn is an artist based in Ojai and Los Angeles and a lecturer in the Department of Art at UC Santa Barbara.

*Images from “The Bonkers Dovotional” and “Dove” by Hilja Keading.


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