VISUAL ARTS | “Leave the mystery”: Powerful performance artist Julia Kouneski talks about her work


I met Minneapolis artist Julia Kouneski last year in the basement of the former Art of This space; I was drinking a beer, and she was standing on the bar, holding her hand against the ceiling. In the ceiling, I learned, a small hole was drilled so as to expose the palm of Kouneski’s hand—just the palm—to gallerygoers upstairs. I walked up and, sure enough, there was a palm in the floor. The phenomenon was thrillingly surreal; people sat around the palm as though it was a campfire. I decided that Julia Kouneski was an artist to watch.

Julia Kouneski Nice to Meet You

And now you can watch her too—on video, in her piece Kairos (2011), the result of a yearlong Jerome Fellowship. The nine-minute video is on display in the MCAD Gallery through Nov. 6, along with pieces by four other fellowship recipients. (An opening reception takes place on Oct. 7, with an artist discussion on Oct. 12.) Kairos documents another simple gesture: Kouneski lies in a field. At first, she is alone, then horses are seen trotting by in the distance. Eventually, they approach the prone, barefoot artist, her eyes closed and her limbs occasionally twitching. It’s a powerful document that resonates in many directions without dictating any particular interpretation. For some, it will be a horror film. For others, it will be a beautiful meditation on our relationship with nature—or, perhaps, a turning of the tables.

A few days before the exhibit opened, I sat down with Kouneski at the Seward Cafe to talk about her life and work—so far.

How did you end up in Minneapolis, making art?
I grew up in Minnesota, in St. Paul and in Scandia. For college I went to the University of Minnesota, where I got my BFA in art in 2007. I have family here, and I guess I just never left; I thought of leaving. I think Minneapolis is a nice town to make art in. There’s a lot of support right now for artists, so I feel like I haven’t totally exhausted the art community here yet. I have other jobs; most recently, for a few years I’ve been teaching media arts classes for kids at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

The work you’re showing at MCAD was funded by the Jerome Foundation?
Yes. The fellowship started officially last November, so this is the end of the fellowship year. It included financial support, and we [the fellowship recipients] met with each other several times throughout the year. We had studio visits with each other, we had one visiting critic/curator come have studio visits with us, and we’ve been meeting with a local arts writer/critic/curator, Jonathan Thomas, who wrote the essays for the catalog. I have a studio in the Purity Bakery Building in south Minneapolis; I got that during the fellowship year. Some of my work doesn’t need a studio, but it’s nice to have one.

Julia Kouneski Kairos

Tell me about this piece.
It’s a video installation. One of the things I did with the fellowship support was to take horseback riding lessons during the summer; that comes into this piece. I was thinking of it as physical training for myself. As a result of that process, I made this piece where I basically lie down in a field and have four horses approach me. It was totally unknown what was going to happen.

Were you afraid?
Yeah, for sure. I actually had the idea to do this piece before I started the riding lessons; the lessons were just sort of to get to know the horses. I didn’t grow up horseback riding, and horses are pretty scary if you don’t know them very well. They can be pretty unpredictable. I did a little test with this situation before I took any lessons; I did a test at somebody’s house with a couple horses. I just went in without permission and lay down just to see what would happen and it was super scary. I didn’t even get to lying down; I was just sitting down, and one of the horses started coming at me. It got super intense, too much to handle. I decided I needed to learn a lot more about horses, to be around them; that’s how the riding lessons came about. At the same time I was learning a lot about horse perception and their sense of smell, their sense of touch. Horses communicate primarily through touch and physicality, which is a theme in my work, so part of why I chose horses in the first place is that they’re very sensitive to touch. They also have a really amazing sense of smell; there’s a gland in their noses that humans don’t even have for smelling. They’re very sensitive to people. Part of it is because they’re prey animals, so their evolution is such that they have become super aware of their surroundings—super aware of animals or people in their surroundings—and they can pick up on each other’s states. If one gets scared, everybody around them gets scared. In some ways, they can pick up on humans’ emotional states, and some of that has to do with smelling pheromones and things like that, so this is all why I was interested in horses in the first place. So I was working with this woman who has horses, learning to work with them on the ground, and riding them; this led up to the performance Kairos.

Julia Kouneski Kairos

Where does the name come from?
It’s a Greek word, and it denotes a quality of time. There’s chronos and kairos; chronos is sequential time, and kairos is this special moment in time.

What initially brought you to horses?
This piece came out of another piece with a collaborator of mine who lives in Amsterdam. We had done a piece together where we floated down a stream. We put foam and stuff in the back of our clothing so we could just float. There happened to be a herd of cows around us; this wasn’t supposed to be part of the piece, but as we traveled down this stream, all the cows gathered around us. They were so curious, and it was such an amazing experience to be lying down beneath these huge animals looking down at you. I was thinking about that piece, about distilling just that experience, that relationship with the animals. Here you’re below them, flat on your back in a very vulnerable position. I started hearing about horses and their sensitivity, and I thought it might be interesting to choose those animals. There’s definitely a lot of risk involved. I don’t think I would have done it unless I trusted horses. I asked the woman I was working with whether this was physically safe, and she basically said yes, she thought it was but there’s always some unpredictability. That was enough, and since I had been around the horses I felt more comfortable than with strange horses. Through this all I’ve learned that horses are super different from each other: which ones you’re working with, how they’ve been trained.

Julia Kouneski Kairos

I presume not all this background will be apparent in the piece. How much interpretation do you like to leave up to the viewer?
My personal preference is to leave a lot to the audience. Everybody brings their own experience to your piece, and what they take from it is based on their experience, so I hesitate to give too much information at the show itself. I think that’s okay in the catalog or some other format, to give some information as to how it came about: all the research is fascinating to me. But I don’t think I need to put that all by the piece. I think that it comes through in a piece if a lot has gone into it. You don’t necessarily need to spell it out for people. Leave the mystery.

What in particular drew you, as an artist, to interactive performance art?
From the beginning I was always interested in the interactive aspect of pieces. Just inherently that was more interesting to me, but I think everything kind of came together during college when I started taking classes in the dance department. That totally influenced the direction of my work. Using the body, physicality, physical communication: that all kind of comes from dance, which I continue to study in various forms.

Julia Kouneski Shared Breath

What are the most memorable moments you’ve had interacting with viewers?
In one piece, I made these balloons that had double ends and went around the city asking strangers to blow them up with me. One guy I encountered was in the skyway; he was some executive director downtown, this portly man who had this nice light blue striped suit on. What was crazy about him was that he didn’t ask any questions; he was like, “Sure.” When you blow those balloons up, whoever starts blowing first, the other person gets a little bit of their breath. It goes down your throat. Until that time, I didn’t know that because I’d always been the first to blow. But he actually started blowing first, so I have this intense memory of this particular minty breath from him. That was the first time I realized how intense that action was. Definitely the piece you saw at Art of This, Nice to Meet You, was a novel experience. Several people licked my hand that night. That was interesting, that that’s a desire of people. It wasn’t just one: it was several people who decided to do that at different times.

Julia Kouneski Nice to Meet You

Who are some artists who have inspired you?
Lygia Clark is someone I’ve researched extensively. She’s not alive any more; she was a Brazilian artist working in the 60s and 70s, doing some really interesting work. I think it relates a lot to what I’m interested in, in terms of this kind of participation that involves the body in a deeper way. There are so many types of participatory art out there. Some are just on the surface, it’s just an activity; but Lygia’s work is very intimate in its form of participation and working with the body. Another artist who is sort of in a similar vein but more in the way of performance is Marina Abramović. She’s incredible in sort of the same way. Both of those artists were working on affecting the body; whether it’s the audience’s body or your own body, the experience changes you, produces something else. It’s in that experience that the work really lies.

Where do you think the most exciting art is happening locally right now?
I think there is definitely a younger group of artists who are starting to do exciting things. Art of This is a really great space for young artists to experiement; they’re currently renting a temporary space. There’s not a lot of pressure to have an audience, so you can try things out. A lot more happens in those kind of spaces than in museums. I think that’s a good energy to have to get  projects going. There’s more of a raw experience going on in spaces like that.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m not sure if I’ll stay in the Twin Cities forever. I’ve definitely thought about moving before. I’m in a spot where I have no idea what’s next, but I would definitely like to continue this work.