Jonathan Monaghan in conversation with Alexandra Gilliams

Jonathan Monaghan is an artist working across multiple mediums, including installation, sculpture, and print, with a common thread exploring the fragility of dependency placed on technology and consumerism.

Using video game software and 3D printers, his haunting, yet playful pieces merge historical references with sci-fi, and morph contemporary anxieties into surreal, technological outcomes. In other words, the outcomes of a hyper-capitalist, technological society if it were to further develop and eventually succeed. By using classical, Baroque motifs, Monaghan intersects the future with the past through the repulsion evoked by decadence and exhibitionism, aligning it with similar feelings induced by social media and consumerist culture. Soft-looking cushions have been manipulated into obscure shapes, and are superimposed with electronics and golden surveillance cameras. Others tend to be ambiguous, resembling commercial products or spaceships mimicking Fabergé eggs, complete with cameras and consumerist objects created for convenience, such as bike-share stations and vending machines. Monaghan has created a new world: a dystopian, consumerist police state under the seductive guise of gilded ornamentation and decadent imagery.

Disco Beast 2016. video (color, sound), media player, screen or projector, 18 min loop. Music by Furniteur. Disco Beast follows a psychedelic unicorn as it wanders through a series of empty commercial spaces, including an abandoned shopping mall and a luxury hotel lobby. The work references both medieval iconography of a unicorn in captivity and its appearance in popular culture to build a new mythology about modern confinement by technology and materialism. This symbol of otherworldliness and the unobtainable in discord with banal, corporate spaces in the piece elicits subconscious anxieties surrounding globalization and consumerism.

AG: Could you describe what your days have been like during confinement? Are there any new pieces that you are currently working on?

JM: I’ve been in quarantine making artwork. I’ve had a lot of exhibitions and shows postponed and cancelled so this is an opportunity to make new work. It has, I think, influenced my work quite a bit. I’m working on a new piece right now following these wolves that are scavenging these empty grocery stores and environments from our consumer culture – so it’s a surreal, dreamlike film that looks at our fears and anxieties that we have about the current situation but also about the future in general.

AG: You’re working more with video animation than with sculptures and prints?

JM: It’s a little hard for me to work with the physical mediums right now because number one, there’s just not many opportunities to exhibit them right now, and number two, I work often with fabricators and other people – I use a lot of digital fabrication and a lot of 3D printing, so a lot of those services are delayed a little bit because of the situation. So I have been focusing more on the video work which has always been the central focus of my practice and it allows me to be more fluid in the ways I exhibit it.

Animus / Animus is a series of sculptures evoking animals entombed in ornamented couch-like skins. Fabricated in materials such as marble and gold, the works elicit the aesthetics of baroque decorative arts, while conjuring notions of confinement by technology and materialism.

AG: Your pieces are loaded with references: classical art, technology, surveillance, capitalism, consumerism, science fiction, mythology, video games… From where have you been inspired to make these references?

JM: A lot of what I do is combine elements that are very familiar to us from the present day, things like consumer products and company logos. This is very much in the tradition of American pop artists who look at our consumer culture with a critical eye, and examine this culture that we are all apart of. In addition to that, I take elements that have a reference to art history, whether that’s Baroque architecture or historical artworks, and I combine all of these different things together to create essentially what I call a “new mythology.” Mythological stories have traditionally been invented or used as a means to help people cope with the unknown, or with what they’re scared of. One that might have a relevance or pertinence to our present situation, so these different elements combined seem familiar but sometimes it can be new and alien, and dreamlike all at the same time.

Sentries 2019. custom wall decals Sentries is a series of custom wall decals. Candy-colored, yet unsettling, the large installations take on a confrontational presence. With computer-generated imagery of soft fabrics juxtaposed near ambiguous electronic devices and surveillance cameras, these cryptic works draw attention to the increasingly blurry lines between the organic and artificial.

AG: I find your use of Baroque motifs to be quite compelling, and you have mentioned the similar ties between social media and Baroque extravagance. What are some of your ideas behind connecting classical imagery with contemporary themes of technology and consumerism?

JM: I think we live in a very decadent time with our obsessions with technology and consumer goods and consumer items, so often I will draw references to the Baroque era through architecture and through the artworks of that era – I think decadence often leads to downfall. I think it provides a cautionary message for the way we live our lives today, and what that could lead to, particularly in the context of whether there are ecological consequences of our consumer culture or our open dependence on technology and the alienation that comes with that.

Beam Me Up 2019. powder coated steel frame, 3D-printed rose gold-plated brass, LED display. 18 in x 29 in x 3 in Beam Me Up is a series of computer animations housed in ornate frames. The video depicts an otherworldly scene where an egg-like form emerges from a portal, only to be sucked backed in. The work contrasts a wide-array of references, such as baroque architecture, science fiction, designer fabrics and organic life-forms. Combining both video and sculptural elements, the work defies boundaries while drawing attention to the increasingly blurry lines between the natural and artificial.

AG: Having described that you are “attempting to create a contemporary form of mythology while referencing historical mythology”, what does creating a “mythology” for contemporary society mean to you?

JM: In one of my films, Disco Beast – this artwork follows a psychedelic unicorn through different environments. This piece, for me, was a kind of recreation of unicorn tapestries; there is a famous series of these tapestries housed in the cloisters in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. They’re medieval French tapestries that show the hunt and capture of a unicorn; this is a multi-faceted mythology. I was looking at this unicorn that was hunted and captured and “confined,” and I was thinking about that as a metaphor for us today, and our relationship to technology and our relationship to consumer culture… we are very much trapped. When the Met wrote about this artwork, they said that the unicorn could escape if it wished, that it was a particularly “happy” confinement. That, I think, is a very interesting metaphor when we look at ourselves today and our obsession with or reliance on technology, within a security and surveillance state; I’m trying to draw these parallels. There are these deep, kind of psychological connections, these mythological stories which go into the unconscious – these kinds of raw human elements – and [what I am doing is] sort of connecting that with current elements, whether that’s technology, consumer culture, etc.

Police State Condo 2017. dye-sublimation on aluminum, 3D printed 18K gold plated brass, acrylic, 3D printed acrylate, MDF frames A dystopian tone characterizes these sculptural print works as security cameras, TSA checkpoints, and ATM machines blend with designer fabrics and penthouse views to create ominous vignettes reminiscent of advertisements for posh apartments. Each work in the series is titled with a corporate slogan of a defunct American bank affected by the 2007 housing collapse. Composed of both two-dimensional imagery and 3D printed sculptural reliefs, the works occupy the liminal space between the virtual and physical.

AG: I’m interested to know more about the relationship between the organic and artificial in your pieces, where despite having no human beings in the world you have created, there are eyes, teeth… organic elements adorning artificial ones.

JM: I always strive for a strange discordance between these natural and synthetic elements. For me, it is an examination of our very discordant relationship we have to ourselves and to nature, in the context of technology. So much of our lives are lived and so many of our emotions take place on these technological platforms, and the consequences of our society ecologically are quite drastic as well, so there is a serious imbalance, I think, that’s causing a lot of problems. I am trying to personify that visually, through these tensions, these contrasts and juxtapositions between these natural and synthetic elements in my work.

Wind 2016-19 Wind is an ongoing series of animated videos and prints which re-imagine highly-ornamented building facades as flowing organic material. The result is a dream-like discordance, which examines the increasingly blurry divide between reality and the virtual, between the natural and artificial.

AG: Do you think you will display or diffuse your work in a different way during and after confinement?

JM: I have been working experimentally on online presentations, considering how people might experience the work. Ideally, my work is experienced in a physical space – in an art gallery or museum or some sort of public space, so the videos are really not designed to be looked on on a small screen at home. There is actually no beginning nor end to my works, there’s not a spot where you are supposed to press play. These works are seamless loops, and so you enter a physical space and you are presented with the work at any point in time and you just sort of jump into this world for however long you want, and then you leave. So it’s definitely a different situation in terms of exhibiting in these online platforms.

AG: You work across a variety of disciplines, including 3D printed sculptures, inkjet prints, wall decals, and video animations. Would you ever consider making an interactive piece?

JM: I am very interested in these platforms, and I guess today they makes more sense. One of the things that I really enjoy when I display my work, [is that] I display them as these large video installations, so you go into a physical gallery and you see a large projection on the wall or on some sort of surface. You are oftentimes experiencing that with other people in the gallery, so there is a sort of communal, social aspect to these works, you are immersed in this world together, and I really enjoy that. Moving onto these more isolated viewing experiences, whether it’s at home, on the computer, or through a VR [headset], it’s definitely a different situation. That is a challenge for myself and other artists to remove the social aspect of experiencing artwork.

AG: What are a few things have been the most therapeutic or inspirational for you during confinement?

JM: Definitely cooking and food, I am doing a lot more cooking. I guess also, wine and alcoholic beverages are therapeutic! I’m a little ashamed of it, but I’ve been playing video games more than usual. We’re just so isolated in here and you can “get out” virtually.

Rainbow Narcosis 2012. video (color, sound), media player, screen or projector, 9 min loop. Music by Evan Samek. Rainbow Narcosis follows a headless lamb through a series of otherworldly environments. With a visual style that shifts between photo-realism and video games, the work highlights the increasing disconnect between whats real and whats mediated. From the Palais Garnier to an art-filled modernist loft, the subject matter references wealth and power, while maintaining an unsettling ambiguity.