Alexa Horochowski

Interview with Alexa Horochowski by Marianne Combs

Minneapolis-based artist Alexa Horochowski is deeply aware of systems, both natural and man-made. Her work often investigates how those systems intersect and impact one another, often unintentionally. She wrestles with the consequences of human action on the planet, and seeks to inspire viewers to reflect on their own place within our intricate, interdependent biosphere. 

For the WAKPA Triennial, Horochowski is presenting “Post Tenebras Lux” (“After Darkness, Light”), a 16’ x 13’ banner that features the Eye of Providence found on the US dollar bill. But in this piece Horochowski has replaced the iris with the coronavirus.  The banner is displayed on the exterior of Moon Palace Books, located in one of the neighborhoods that became central to the uprising following George Floyd’s murder.  

I was thinking of how the Coronavirus and the COVID pandemic created a new world order. And that if we heed it, it’s telling us something; it’s telling us we can’t disassociate from nature, that we’re integrated with nature and that we need to pay attention. It’s gold on black cloth, and I was thinking the shape is sort of funerary, so I see it as a memorial to COVID victims. I feel like the pandemic created so much chaos and grief, but that we really haven’t reckoned with it. It’s almost like we want to just move on and act like nothing happened. 

How does the symbol of the Eye of Providence fit into this conversation? We traditionally associate it with money.

I wanted that association, actually. Because I was thinking the Coronavirus was capable of bending global markets completely, and so it’s a reminder of who’s in charge here.  In a cosmic way, we are not in charge and we’re just here on borrowed time. We should feel fortunate. But if we think in a bigger way – it’s about hubris, right? I’m trying to remind people that, this idea that capital controls the world – I mean, it kind of does, it controls our world, our personal world – but it doesn’t really control the reality of this planet on which we live. 

The term Anthropocene is used a lot to refer to this geologic time – they’re saying that our time on earth will be visible in the strata because of the changes we’ve created to climate and to the environment. And so we’re already leaving a trace, that’s geologic and so that’s interesting, even though it’s actually quite a very thin layer, it’ll still be present and not in a good way. 

A plastic layer…

Exactly. Years ago, I did this exhibition at the Soap Factory. And in that exhibition I actually made a fake fossil of a credit card. Because I was like, What is our legacy as humans in a geologic strata? And I thought, well, plastics, credit cards, capital. But if you remind yourself that it’s temporary, then I think you can start to think about ways to act and know that things aren’t forever, and that maybe there are possibilities for changing systems in which we live, by which we live.

Scholars have come up with other terms for the Anthropocene because they say we shouldn’t name it “age of man,” which is what it means, because man has created chaos and not positive outcomes. So some scholars have argued that other terms are better like “capitalocene” because it means the generation of wealth leads to the destruction of the planet, because you’re continually consuming. And that’s the ethos of it. You need new terms and you have to invent new language. So the Coronavirus is part of that language – a new symbol.  

 Because you’re thinking of the Coronavirus as not just a single event, but as a part of our new reality.

Yes. This is very likely to continue to happen and even now, the avian flu is happening and it’s one of the most aggressive versions to have hit. Condors in California are being impacted and there are so few of them that chances are this could be their demise. So we’re looking at potential extinction in many species.

In some ways, I can imagine it might be reassuring to think of the planet in terms of geologic time, not in terms of human time, right? Because then our time here feels like a small blip, inconsequential in association with everything else that happens on this earth.

I guess I don’t see it as inconsequential. There’s creativity, there’s beauty, there’s appreciation of this environment in which we live… I think it’s the disassociation that’s the problem. And that as long as we can continue to stay present to the beauty that surrounds us and nurture and care for ourselves and the environment… Thinking about repair, how do we repair things in the Anthropocene? It might take having strange relationships, relationships that aren’t just human-human – it might be human-animal, or human-virus. Biologists talk about how, even as humans, we need all these microorganisms, and that there are all these things that live in and on us that allow us to be human and live. So there are these invisible caretakers of our bodies, and we’re an ecosystem in and of ourselves. And I think more and more people are starting to understand those systems better – mycelium systems under the ground and how trees communicate – but we’re all part of bigger systems. That awareness is what I’m interested in.

Going back to the banner that’s going to be up on the side of the Moon Palace bookstore – what do you hope to inspire in people? When they see this image, what do you want them to contemplate? 

I don’t think people are going to know immediately what it is. It’s a familiar symbol, and I think people do associate it with power. And it’s very large. I want it to be somewhat mysterious – hopefully mysterious enough where people notice the corona eye. That symbol’s pretty familiar by now, so I think if people pay attention, they’ll notice it.  So I think some of those ideas will translate without necessarily reading about it, but there will be text. So hopefully it’ll be interesting enough where they want to see what it is.

You’ve talked about tactility. And so many of your recent works have involved sewing – flags, banners, patches. Tell me a little bit more about the importance of this kind of handwork for you and why you keep coming back to it.

 The sewing came out of the pandemic. It’s funny because I have a sort of a love-hate relationship with sewing. As a young kid in Argentina, I had to take embroidery class. And I resented it but I did learn a lot of skills. I resisted forced gendered things. In Argentina it was embroidery and then in the US, I got stuck doing this Home Ec class. And even as a really little kid I have pictures of me with a hammer. So I think I wanted a different version of doing and making, and mostly I’ve worked with metal and wood and other more sculptural materials. 

But what happened was, George Floyd was murdered on my dad’s 85th birthday. And it was during the pandemic, so I hadn’t been able to see him and I was already concerned about my father’s health, but he’s getting older and so the significance of that date was just… it was just this strange moment of feeling distraught.  Also, after witnessing the uprisings in Chile, I had this premonition that the US was due for something like that – an uprising that was about inequality. Because the fight seemed so similar to the problems here – it just seemed like a smaller version of America. But I never imagined it would be 10 blocks from here, that it would be in my neighborhood and that it would be so intimate. I was just in shock. I was also reeling from the election of Trump. I thought it was very anti woman. And obviously, the pandemic, the fears of the pandemic, it was all of it, right? I mean, we were participating in these uprisings wearing masks. The time just felt fraught, but it had felt fraught before that already for me.

The first flag I made – I had an American flag and I dyed it black,and put George Floyd’s name and the date of his death. That was more of a memorial for myself, a way to emotionally come to terms with it. But then I enjoyed the process, it focused me. And I started just making another one and another one. They’re all linen, and felt – I’m cutting felt into shapes, letters. It was a way to bring writing to my making. I studied journalism as an undergrad. I worked so hard through my MFA to get rid of text in my art practice. I saw it as a prop. But with the uprising, all of a sudden I needed to go back to writing, to journalism. I think because it felt more pressing, everything felt so accelerated or pressing. How do you communicate? Visual art felt too distant, so I brought language back with the banners, making it very clear and overt what I’m saying, and at the same time, they’re like markers of time.

I’ve made about 30 flags. There are a lot of them and they communicate with each other. They form a picture as a whole, and it has to do with the environment, with our relationship to the environment, and also with politics, and how power works. Also with how language fails; I have a few pieces about that. Because of the way we were gaslighted for four years and continued to be gaslighted, you start to really pay attention to those things. 

How do you feel your work connects with the WAKPA triennial theme – the “network of mutuality?”

I’m thinking of the term “networks of mutuality” as including both human and non-human – in that sense I think it very much fits. So I’m attempting to find better ways to do no harm, but it’s very hard. We live in such a complicated society where even recycling is an ethical dilemma. I think more and more that we just need each other if we’re going to find new ways of existing in this period of climate change.

I think one of the challenges of your artwork is it’s very compelling, and it looks with somewhat of a sense of detachment at all these systems that we’re interacting with, and that we’re doing harm to, in some way. How do you draw in people to recognize their own complicity in this? I mean we’re all participating in capitalism. 

That’s a hard question. Because, yeah, it’s troubling. At least looking at it is a way to… you have to see it before you can do anything about it. And I do think people are starting to notice. I mean, I worry about young people growing up – I grew up in the 70s, 80s. I know people who cut logos off all of their clothing, blacking them out or whatever, because they don’t want to advertise for anybody, they don’t want to be a walking billboard for any particular corporation. That is where I come from, but now, selling out is what you do. Instagram is about posting yourself – the individual becomes the commodity – that’s your brand. We sell our identity. So I have no answers. I just have questions. 

I don’t know if I can convince people of things. Hopefully, I can inspire them. Sometimes I think you can infiltrate; if an image is compelling, it’s sort of like the way you are convinced to purchase something that you don’t really want, right? I think if enough people are putting these ideas out there, eventually they infiltrate. I think people are starting to understand, even young people who grew up immersed in it, are wanting some reality, right? They want to experience something real. I teach sculpture – these students are getting their hands dirty making things and it’s like, this must be the only time they do that – it’s such an usual practice, now. 

Marianne Combs is an award-winning broadcast journalist, producer and writer with more than 25 years of arts and culture reporting experience. You can find her work on National Public Radio, in podcasts and in national magazines. She was named 2020 Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. She has earned multiple awards for her investigative work and currently serves as News Director for the Center for Broadcast Journalism in St. Paul.