Terrific Visions, an essay about Jen Clay
On the occasion of Clay's exhibition, "This World Doesn't Belong to You."
By Tyler Emerson-Dorsch
Jen Clay developed her take on friendly aesthetics and cosmic horror to make tangible her childhood monsters. Clay promoted her early work by creating immersive and interactive installations and performances and gradually became known for a body of work that holds the paradoxes of human existence in a soft, disarming encounter. Her textile pieces often have flaps which, when lifted or turned, reveal a written message conveying a fear, threat or reassurance. They always carry with them an uncertainty as to their trustworthiness. This direct address engages with the aesthetics and discourse created in the crossovers between the horror genre in popular culture and theorists associated with it, like Victoria Nelson, Eugene Thacker, Max Fisher and science fiction novelist James Vandermeer.
Her rich multimedia practice manifests monsters and their worlds. On the surface, her non-human figures are soft, charming and sweet. With hands and feet evoking talons or pincers, appendages drape over the creature’s bulk, and a viewer can peer beneath, where seed sacs lie. Often in these crevices phrases hide in curving lines of stitched script. Clay first made versions of these amorphous forms to illustrate the hallucinations which populated her childhood. Art and behavioral analysis were both fields of study which gave her the ability to understand and communicate those experiences. Her research scope widened to encompass many instances of anxieties, fears and phobias experienced in society and culture at large. In a world where we find comfort in explanations, she says that she is “most interested in areas where there is no category.”
The root word for terrific, Clay says, is terror.
A number of methods characterize Clay’s “friendly aesthetic,” with attraction adaptations similar to those in plant biology. Texture, form, and color interact to capture a curious, uninhibited attention. When a monster draws in the viewer with a cuteness informed by popular edutainment, the work often “bites” in the details, as in a slogan beneath an limb-like flap that reads “the world doesn’t belong to you”.
In Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation, Area X’s mysteriously alive tower sprouts words somehow captured from human visitors. The regurgitated text appears re-embodied, and, once it attracts a reader, the organisms forming the words expel spores which infect the viewer. Those looping lines of text sewn into the flesh of Clay’s monsters have a similar ambiguity; are they part of the body or utterances? Or both? An organism culling words out of the ether and representing them echoes the uncanniness of Chatbots’ remittances. When humans tattoo stories onto their bodies, are they absorbing the pictures and texts into their corporeal being, just as they wear it?
Clay’s choice of fabric, palette, and forms all center the cultural inputs proximate to her childhood in semi-rural North Carolina. Television shows like Yo Gabba Gabba and Sesame Street infused her visions which seemed at first to be imaginary friends. Now, the fabrics she collects hew toward the craft store kitsch. The quilting technique also lies close to home, though this is where she defies expectations of the medium, using a cutting-edge sewing technology to create ever more elaborate stitchwork.
The friendliness is her overarching strategy for softening otherwise terrifying other-ness. With these “friendly aesthetics” she encourages engagement with monsters who materialize personal, societal, planetary and cosmic fears. Indeed, it’s critical that Clay’s trap and salve is softness with relevance, we think, in the many ways of considering horror beyond those we’ve mentioned here. Suggestions of a different perspective lie in the nature of her works’ attraction strategies. Instead of the overt aggression of monsters like H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or the many other creatures from the pantheon of fear, her figures are cushioned, bright and slightly goofy. Their quilted and tufted surfaces invite touch and the flaps tempt physical engagement. Her figures’ disobediant bodies do not align with societal categories or human expectations. And yet, there is something deeply unsettling about them.
In particular, Clay layers anxiety of impending disasters among first hand struggles with mental illness. In her work, she troubles the lines containing sanity, questioning the boundaries between being and nonbeing, human and nonhuman, hallucination and vision, a the earth with humans and a planet without humans. Her creatures may once have been bodies, some human and some animalistic, that were overtaken by nonhuman growths whose features are taken from plant life, viruses, bacteria, and fungus. All of these occupy human bodies but, when magnified, are monstrous.
Drawing from a wide range of references, she engages with the discourse surrounding cosmic pessimism. Through the show Rick and Morty, she discovered a link between popular culture’s versions of horror and philosophy with a capital P. According to Morty “nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, and everybody’s gonna die.” In other words, we are faced with the cosmic insignificance of humanity as a whole, and, on the other hand, we have the frivolity of human life. In the early 2000s, a blogger who critiqued music and popular culture on a deeply thoughtful level, Max Fisher became one of the preeminent theorists of cosmic pessimism, eventually teaching at Goldsmiths. Though he enjoyed enormous influence in bringing philosophical rigor to discourse about popular culture, he struggled with depression and finally committed suicide. He faced the abyss beneath human knowledge, and it was truly, deeply troubling. His close friend and interlocutor, Eugene Thacker, is also among Clay’s references. He marries cosmic pessimism with what he calls the Horror of Philosophy, where his hypothesis is that the greatest horror that exists is that nothing exists and nothing matters. From this perspective, the world we live in doesn’t care about us. Another figure who looms large for her is Junji Ito, whose virtuosically illustrated horror manga spins out ever more bizarre heights and depths to human fears of the unknown.
Clay’s response to these references do not deny the horrors we as humans face. She creates instead a space to encounter and sit with discomforts that have driven many people mad. The monstrosity of that madness and the precision with which we map them have had ambiguities that predictedably cohere to cultural hierarchies and hegemonies. One of the pioneers of anthropological medicine and psychiatry, Erwin Straus, MD PhD, explained the experiences of the other in his 1962 essay “Phenomenology of Hallucinations.” He wrote,“sickness estranges us from our body; then the body is turned into an object, a thing no longer to be trusted. Stricken by disease, we discover the other in ourselves.” The literature surrounding hallucination phenomena in science, as in philosophy, tends to describe ways to understand mental divergence that are palatable to the gatekeepers of Knowledge proper. Clay’s use of campy materials combined with exceptional crafting pressures the typical class-based diagnoses of hallucinations vs depression. Descartes, Kant and many other philosophers, Thacker reminds us, suffered mightily from pushing the limits of knowledge. “There’s a vanishing line,” Clay says, “between madness and truth.”
Junji Ito. Uzumaki. San Francsico, CA: VIZ Media, 2021. [Fifteenth printing, First English edition published 2002]
Mark Fisher. The Weird and the Eerie. London, UK: Watkins Media Limited, 2017.
Victoria Nelson. The Secret Life of Puppets. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Max Res, Mark Fisher, and Eugene Thacker. That Which Lies Beyond: How Horror Disturbs Our World. [Zine] Published by Viscera.
Eugene Thacker. In the Dust of This Planet [Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1]. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010.
ibid. Starry Speculative Corpse [Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 2]. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2014.
ibid. Tentacles Longer Than Night [Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 3]. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2014.
The Philosophy of Rick and Morty, Wisecrack Edition. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWFDHynfl1E
James Vandermeer. Area X: Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance. New York: FSG Orginals, 2014.