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Dustin Yellin and the Anthropocene in motion: «Students should learn about Frank O’Hara and Jesus»

The Descriptive, Prescriptive and Impossible: to tear down distinction between art and science – Dustin Yellin taps into societal issues: «What I do is make a trail through the woods»

Dustin Yellin art

Dustin Yellin is an artist based in Brooklyn, New York. In line with Joseph Bueys or Buckminster Fuller, he says: «We’re not making enough progress, we are distracted by the ideas of, like, ‘let’s put a band aid on this or let’s fix this’, or left/right politics, or ideas that are antiquated. We have to update our system. Religious studies should be classified under art as poetry is. Students should learn about Frank O’Hara and Jesus». His concept of system is focused on the Anthropocene – the period during which humans have had the dominant influence on the climate and the environment. His efforts can be divided into three branches: the descriptive, the prescriptive, and the impossible. 

Dustin Yellin background

The Shared DNA of Humankind. Born in Los Angeles, Mr. Yellin was raised in Colorado until the age of 18, when he encountered a renegade physicist who introduced him to muscle-injected ketamine. «I literally had a vision for my entire life. About time…I kind of saw it all. Then I went and did it». Forbidden by his mother from further meetings with the physicist, Mr. Yellin moved to New York City. Upon arrival, he formed The Stable, a bohemian collective of New York artistic elite, literati, and scientists, housed in a former stable on 18th Street at 10th Avenue in Manhattan. His work at this time was primarily abstract expressionism, some of which made its way to the walls of swanky Cipriani. Following the death of a close friend, Mr. Yellin experienced a mental-breakdown and captured the episode on video, calling it ‘The Crack-Up’, taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay collection of the same name. In the next millennium, Mr. Yellin changed medium and began working with resin after a bee fell into one of his collages. He discovered the transparency of resin and its ability to support art in three dimensions. When the toxicity of resin became prohibitive, he turned to glass, and he continues to work with this medium today. 

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Psychogeographies at Lincoln Center, 2015

Psychogeography

Nested in the descriptive branch is Mr. Yellin’s Psychogeographies informed by Chinese Terracotta Army funerary art which, when viewed from a distance, appears as ethereal human forms trapped in a glass fish tank. On closer inspection, the human shapes are revealed to be crushed between enormous panes of glass, exploding into a representation of human DNA that is not merely genetic code, but a reflection of the history and destiny of human existence. Thousands of images are arranged in a three-dimensional tableau: leaves, automobiles, soldiers, birds. The images inside these glass sandwiches are taken exclusively from print media: art books, issues of National Geographic, encyclopedias, or terrorist trading cards – a morose relic from 1980’s American appetite for violence. Termed by Mr. Yellin as ‘Frozen Cinema’, the artwork evinces narrative structure connecting humankind. The observer considers what may lie within their own psychogeography. Simultaneously, the figures serve as a time capsule, providing a roadmap to our culture to foreign visitors in a future time.

The politics of eternity

The Politics of Eternity, created in 2018, is a chevron-shaped heptatych comprised of a three-dimensional mixed media collage embedded into individual laminated glass steles. As a series of three acts, this descriptive work forms a clear example of Mr. Yellin’s narrative structure. Flowing within the human species lies a vision of impending doom, wrought from and curable by humanity alone. The past and the future are mirrored on the right and left sides of the sculpture, respectively. Looking to the past, a cave of minerals is mined by anthropomorphic creatures and is mirrored on the future side by a particle accelerator. In the center of the piece is the present, part of and apart from either side. All built from the incalculable collisions of culture, myth, and technology that are inching humanity towards a sinister end. The artwork is aesthetically pleasing – purposefully so. «You may have a tree, a beautiful Redwood. Ten people can look at that Redwood, but only one of them is going to be moved by it. It’s the shape of our aperture, it’s how we see. Culture and the sciences help us build that aperture». No matter the subject, each of Yellin’s work explores our fate within the Anthropocene and the lasting impression we will leave on the Earth. Tucked away in the quiet Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, sits Pioneer Works. Housed in a repurposed Civil War-era Ironworks factory, the multidisciplinary arts and cultural center embodies Mr. Yellin’s prescriptive branch to reshape the human species. At Pioneer Works, he serves as the programmer and administrator of a vast array of cultural endeavors – radio stations, science labs and photography studios, among others. Each September, candidates are selected for a 12-month residency in Visual Arts, Technology, Music, and Narrative Arts. Given a free space, residents are encouraged to mingle with others to develop cross-disciplinary techniques and solutions that exist outside of convention. Pioneer Works’ Board of Directors touts entrepreneurs, professors and investors, including Janna Levin, the Tow Professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University, Matthew Putman, the cofounder and CEO of Nanotronics and Neal Katyal, the former solicitor general of the United States. «I find people that know a lot more than I do. We’re all conductors, we’re all working with one another. There are all these different visions, but the conducting happens through discourse».   

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PioneerWorks: The Building

Pioneer Works

The roots of his creations in Pioneer Works are found in The Stable. The members of The Stable drafted a creative blueprint, titled Project Creation that outlined plans for various media labs, and a set of rules guiding creating activities. «The ideas of PW were all there, but impossible to realize. When PW came to being then it was kind of like all this, the soil had been tilled, the seeds have just been there all this time». While Pioneer Works may have the financing and reputational backing of international society’s upper crust, it retains a quality of naivete. «The way I decide if someone is right to come on board. I would get up from my chair and I’d be like, hey come inside, sit down and leave the room I’ll come back three hours later and hopefully the rest of the group is like. Dustin, can you come back tomorrow?» With the state of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Yellin hopes to expand Pioneer Work’s mission outside of Redhook, through broadcasts and print materials. «I am making something called the PW Textbook. We will issue it every two years. If it’s not something that is going to stand out in 10 to 20 years, I won’t publish it. That will be a resource and then we’ll continue with the broadcast, while creating this book». 

The impossible

The last, and most challenging branch of Mr. Yellin’s work is called the Impossible. This category includes massive, terraformed rock-gardens on the grounds of Mr. Yellin’s upstate New York home and the fabrication of gargantuan bronze sculptures, both of which are works in progress. The centerpiece of these efforts is ‘The Bridge’, a plan for a permanent art installation: an upturned oil tanker, nose down, half-submerged in water. Mr. Yellin has noted that the costs associated with this project are enormous, and yet, he has found backers who are willing to finance his project. The 1982 Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo, and its companion documentary Burden of Dreams tell the story of an opera fanatic determined to transport a massive boat through the jungle. The production of the film was infamously plagued by catastrophe. To Mr. Yellin, Mr. Herzog’s insistence on hauling an actual boat and his perseverance through dwindling funds and ailing actors, was integral to his conception of his Impossible work. This segment is designed to smash notions of existing systems through spectacle. A reminder that human beings must move beyond petroleum in order to survive, and a testament that a solution lies within the grasp of humanity. «Everyone in India wants an air conditioner, so we need to deploy resources to then create conditioners that don’t make a carbon footprint. There is a way to cool the air differently. It’s not about just doing it the way we are, and that’s where it’s really complicated. We’re not making enough progress.» Arts and science expand the human aperture, but the Impossible is intended to provide a system reboot. 

Uniting the body of Mr. Yellin’s work is a fixation upon time, and the mortality of man. He nearly drowned while on a hallucinogenic trip off of the coast of Panama and witnessed the damage inflicted upon Pioneer Works by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The destructive force of water is found in his art. The urgency present in the Psychogeographies, and the goals of Pioneer Works is reflected through the artist’s confrontation of a finite lifetime. «I’m 45 years old. I don’t have children, and I have a hard time settling down because I don’t like the idea of going into one frame». Mr. Yellin has stated that he judges his success in terms of his obsolescence. He is designing his projects to self-perpetuate. In December 2019, Eric Shiner, the former Director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, stepped in to become the Executive Director of Pioneer Works, giving Mr. Yellin more latitude to focus on more ambitious projects. There is also the question of his legacy. Most of the Psychogeographies and other artwork created by Mr. Yellin is sold directly to consumers, bypassing the traditional art-world gallery system. Though the Brooklyn Museum has included Mr. Yellin’s artwork into their permanent collection, Manhattan based museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art have yet to induct his work. Mr. Yellin is unperturbed. «You just make sure you keep making shit and you don’t stop making shit. Hopefully what I make resonates. And I can push it to the point where people can interact with it.  The only thing I care about is what I’m going to make, and that’s it. If I can keep making my work, that’s what matters, and the work will find its way».

IMAGE GALLERY

Dustin Yellin (B. 1975, California) is an artist who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the founder and director of Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Yellin specializes in sculpture which uses clipped images sandwiched between glass sheets to create objects called ‘Frozen cinema’. 

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