Michael Workman’s studio was cluttered with tables, white pillars, cords and pink gelatin Tuesday morning, without an unused surface in the room.
He was in the process of setting up his multimedia performance art piece “Masses,” which is set to show on First Friday, Aug. 7. By then, the room will be stark and empty, with a white and pink color scheme and a gourmet dining room setup.
Workman expects a different reaction than the display suggests.
“At first, maybe (people will) feel disgusted,” he said.
The disgust would come from blobs of pink gelatin, the focus of the piece, chosen to represent the artificiality of consumption and sales. The idea, Workman said, is that if an undesirable object is sold well, it will become of value.
Workman decided to use gelatin for his undesirable object after he used it for a previous project and found it grossed him out.
“The material was so grotesque to me in a lot of ways, because it mimics flesh, but it flops around and smells gross,” Workman said.
Performers will sit around the dining tables and eat the masses while video screens play and an auctioneer sells the blobs to the performers.
The white in the color scheme is representative of starkness and sterility, Workman said, while the pink represents the grotesque, maybe subtly sexual, side of consumerism.
Workman said he’s interested in the idea of selling something that’s completely undesirable to people and then showing them consuming it, all under the thumb of commercial desire.
“The way that you display it or show it can make it desirable,” Workman said.
A smaller room off of the dining room will be lit up by bright pink fluorescent lights with a lone gelatin mass turning on a pedestal like a department store window display.
A few seats around the dining tables will be open to guests, Workman said, but they have to win a raffle to sit, emphasizing the elitism surrounding the consumption of the blobs. Pink gelatin will be for sale outside to all visitors.
Workman has worked within these mediums and ideas before, but never this focused. For his BFA project last spring, he made plastic copies of his finger and sold them at the exhibit, making a statement on the value society places on artists and their work. He first used gelatin there, to make a cast of his hand, which lost a finger in a looping video played at the exhibit.
Video, his favorite medium, is often used as the crux of his work, the conceptual jumping-off point.
“I feel like I can articulate a lot more thoroughly through film,” Workman said.
He’s been making films since high school and is the associate programmer and coordinator for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
The films in “Masses” are displayed on two TVs and a projector on the wall. One shows a hand in a clean, white glove cutting the gelatin into squares and arranging them. In another, a person piles the sticky gelatin on a plate and then messily eats it with their hands.
Workman graduated this spring from the University of Montana and is the first artist-in-residence at Jack Metcalf’s Real Good art space. He started working on the idea of “Masses” right after his BFA show, and after a trip to Europe at the beginning of summer he "hit the ground running."
Working without the School of Art's resources has been tough, Workman said. He relies on a combination of begging the school for supplies and making do on his own.
“I’ve gotten pretty crafty at making things look professional,” Workman said.
Part of his craftiness goes toward the technical side of his shows. Workman is skilled in pairing technology with his art, most of which he has to code, wire and fix himself.
The rotating mass uses a motor to spin, which Workman had to fiddle with Tuesday morning before he got it working.
“That’s always the fun of my show is there’s a lot of technology,” Workman said. “I spend 99 percent of my time troubleshooting technology.”
Workman’s intentions for viewers to feel disgusted are purposeful – he wants to make something that will stick with visitors and make them think.
“I’d rather go in and have this experience with the work, rather than just something on a wall,” Workman said.
The only downside to giving people this experience, Workman said, is that it isn’t sellable.
He’s mostly worked in mediums or on pieces that don’t last, so he hasn’t been able to make any money from his art.
“I’m always shooting myself in the foot with selling my work,” he laughed.
This may come off as hypocritical – an artist who makes work about the dangers of commercialism, then worries about selling his work – but the balance, Workman said, is a part of his art.
He isn’t worried about making money right now, just making the art he wants to make. But selling something does factor into Workman’s art, albeit in a roundabout way.
His interactive critiques of commercialism wouldn’t be complete without any opportunity to sell and buy for the viewer.
In “Masses,” the gelatin that’s for sale is an extension of the idea of buying and consuming a disgusting object, Workman said. It isn’t even real Jell-O, just a knockoff that’s sold to the general public.
“A lot of times my work, maybe naively, is a criticism of commercialism, so I try to subvert that,” Workman said. “It’s always kind of poking fun at, or challenging consumerism.”