EAF15 Artist Profile: Melanie McLain

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Consider the facilities that hover between public and private. Health clinics, spas, and medical centers, which all cater to personal, even intimate, needs, are nonetheless sites to be occupied and used by the public. Melanie McLain’s EAF15 work, Tactile Formation, is an architectural sculpture that invites the viewers to participate in transforming their sense of private and public. Using ceramic tiles, wood, cement, vinyl fabric, and stainless steel, McLain has constructed an environment that draws from institutional and corporate aesthetics. However it is decontextualized by existing in the outdoors, within a public park and surrounded by plant life.

Audience members are able to walk on, lie under, or grab onto the structure, and contemplate their own bodies within the context of a public space that has private intentions. Institutionalized health and cosmetic environments are deeply intertwined with the human body. McLain explores this relationship through her piece, which asks the audience to reconsider the public environment that has been removed from its interior context.

“I’ve always been drawn to clean-cut forms that are made for a specific function,” McLain says, “even if the function is unknown to me.” As a child, she often took apart household objects to inspect their individual components. McLain recalls getting her hands on a VCR, which she dismantled in order to examine its individual bits. Even though she would often be at a loss as to how the different parts might be functioning, she was nonetheless fascinated by the exactness of their form and purpose.

Human bodies function in a similar way, with each component assigned to perform a specific action. McLain, who has trained in gymnastics since childhood, is acutely aware of the body’s form and function in relation to the places that it inhabits. McLain’s focus on the body’s interactions with institutionalized spaces is not surprising given the combination of her history with gymnastics and dissecting objects. Currently, she is part of an acrobatics group that stages choreographed performances that highlight movements between two or more individuals.

Because of this fusion, Tactile Formation was given a performance component. Three to four acrobats will be present at selected times to interact with the sculpture and invite audience members to engage with McLain’s piece. They will be focusing on different forms of massage and movement therapy to heighten the awareness of physical boundaries established personally as well as socially.

McLain has produced similar sculptures that bend the boundary between public and private, object and action. Rubbing an Utterance and Damp Gestures (2012) both mimic the stylization of institutionalized health spaces to create an out-of-context experience for participants. In Rubbing an Utterance, viewers were asked to sit within the sculpture while watching a video of actors rubbing their faces or wiping their noses. For Damp Gestures trained performers gave viewers face massages choreographed to a projected video in the quasi-spa sculpture. These interactive works were the first of McLain’s to explore the notion of bodies interacting in an institutionalized space.

During the building process for each of these works, McLain considered the relationship between the performance and the sculpture, the action and the object. “The performance dictates the sculpture and vice versa,” she shares. As her ideas and desires for each component took shape, they inevitably affected one another throughout development.

McLain is participating in Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Residency for the 2015-2016 season. She plans to continue choreographing and performing with her acrobatics group.

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