Whitehot Magazine

Moby in Conversation with Shana Nys Dambrot


 Moby, 2014, Untitled, color photograph

Moby: Innocents
21 February - 30 March 2014
Project Gallery, Los Angeles


By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, Feb. 23, 2014

Moby’s recently opened exhibition of new photographs is called Innocents (which is the same title as his most recent album, but he’d prefer you didn’t read too much into that). But analogies are inevitable, and the truth is the photographs share the album’s predilection for loveliness, negative space, ambiguous resolutions, balanced asymmetry, and poetic suggestion. Comprising a mix of images which Moby came across and documented, with a number of works he composed and constructed on location and with costumed choreography, the works are printed at a very large scale that sustains the nearly life-size presence at which the images are most effective. Although all of them are graphically arresting and visually sophisticated, the larger scale gives the audience greater access to the primary experience of the action and the evocative settings -- greater proximity to the events themselves -- rather than simply imparting information or outlining the elements of a narrative. These waking dreams are best encountered with room to move around inside them.

Individual viewers -- depending on their personal relationship to the iconography of the masks and cloaks that appear throughout the works -- will find the antics of the figures performing inscrutable pagan rituals in remote forests and downtown drugstores either terrifying or bemusing as a matter of individual psychology. Though atavistic, perennial, and as dream-symbols go, even conventional -- what Moby is interested in has less to do with the psychological or cinematic profile of masks per se, and more to do with the general dynamic alchemy by which the familiar is morphed into the unknown. Like Bunuel or Hitchcock or Lynch, Moby is curious about our reactions to shared signifiers, archetypes, and precognitive symbols -- that’s how surrealism got its name, by starting with the “real” and manipulating it for greater effect. There is a lot of art history in these compositions -- seeming references to tableaux of the Renaissance saints, Depositions from the Cross, Ascensions to heaven, Annunciations made by Angels to mortals through indirect omens and apparitions. There is also a lot of folklore and pagan sacrament displayed in the arrayed characters that gather and float in light and in shadow, on earth and in the sky and water, in these indelible, more than slightly magical, pictures.

Whitehot Magazine’s LA Editor Shana Nys Dambrot caught up with Moby at the historic Hollywood Hills castle he calls home. White stone and cast iron on the outside, mid-Century Modern on the interior, and with commanding views of all the nature LA has to offer, the hilltop perch has a role to play in the history of occult and alt-culture LA, and this energy is perceptible in every stone. In a sense, it is the perfect place to talk to the artist about magic, mystery, creepy masks, and the Apocalypse he believes has already happened.

Shana Nys Dambrot: So I’m one of those that’s freaked out by the masks, and in this work I go to the whole Jungian archetype of the disguised figure in the human psyche and its popularity in nightmares. I’d start by asking you about that, the “dark” part so to speak, and what that is for you.

Moby: It is interesting you mention the Jungian aspect, because there is this place down here by the house, the Besant Lodge. When it was built, it was a very early, early silent movie theater, and then Orson Welles took it over and had it as his directors’ club; then in the 40s-50-60’s a lot of people used to speak there, like Aldous Huxley who also lived in Beachwood Canyon; and Carl Jung used to speak there when he was in LA. And so the Jungian archetypes, those inherited, ancestral, species-specific images and symbols, are very relevant. When I went to college I was a philosophy major, and what I really wanted to study was semiotics. To me, semiotics in the broadest sense describes every aspect of the human condition, and making meaning from symbols. Because our reactions rarely if ever have anything to do with the way the signifier is, its inherent qualities. That’s one of the things that fascinates me about masks and sheets. Originally I just thought, you know, a mask is just a simple piece of plastic, with some shitty paint on it. I love the fact that it’s a costume that costs about ten dollars or 15 dollars, but instantly triggers so many reactions in people. The truth is though, that’s actually motivating them to conceal themselves in these images, is shame. They’re not trying to be menacing, they’re covering themselves up because they are ashamed.

Moby, 2014, Untitled, color photograph

The narrative that I’ve created for this whole weird project is: The Apocalypse has happened. Which I believe that it has. But it’s like the turning of an ocean liner, where you can spin the wheel but you don’t notice the trajectory has changed for days. And so I feel like if we are talking about something like human culture on this planet, then the Apocalypse could happen in the most gradual, subtle ways. And I think it’s been an incredibly benign, in keeping with the premises behind the Mayan Apocalypse, or even the one in Revelations some aspects -- we have a progressive, punk-rock, African-American President; our next President is probably going to be a woman who was a hippie in the ‘60s; we have access to every bit of information ever recorded and documented -- on our phones! Gay marriage is legal like almost everywhere… It’s expanding…. It’s just change. Slow change. It’s a gentle, benign Apocalypse. 

The other thing that is informing this, was being in NYC before and after 9/11. Where if you took a picture of a deli on Chambers St. on September 10, 2001 and again on September 12, the image would be identical, but so much extra meaning would be added to it. And also September 11 is my birthday, so there was that. Look, many things after September 11 really did change; but many things didn’t. But humans add so much extra meaning. You’d have a foreign news crew showing up in Lower Manhattan looking for significance; they’d show like a park bench that was dusty. And I’d be like, that’s just a dusty park bench… So that idea was also formulating… Some of the images in the show are “neutral” images, but if you recontextualize them it’s sort of like you are creating or suggesting an alternative narrative, and these are the ideas that I’m interested in playing around with. And so the idea for this show was take some images, including found/naturally occurring images like a dramatic sunset, and use those as evidence of the Apocalypse.

Moby, 2014, Vigilants, color photograph

SND: You’ve said it’s about half found, naturally-occurring things that you documented; and half that you constructed. So, about those constructed images. They are different to everyone in a way you can’t control, sure, but you did make certain choices, established motifs, chose locations, etc… So what are those things about for you, and with all respect to the open-endedness, what do you intend for them?

Moby: I don’t love art where the artist makes decisions for the viewer. And I think that goes back to Scooby-Doo. Which, I don’t know if you grew up watching Scooby-Doo, but every Saturday morning I’d watch the show, and in the beginning something very mysterious would happen; and at the end they would give it the most banal explanation. I was always hoping for evidence of the supernatural world, and instead, it’s the sad guy from the hardware store. And I was like, every time, I kept going back and wanting the mystery to stay mysterious!

SND: To just one time have Fred rip off the mask and have it really be a ghost.

Moby: Exactly. And it drove me crazy. Like horror movies, ghost stories, there was not one where the agents of chaos won. And I’d also get very frustrated watching a monster movie when I was like eight years old, and at the end, the monsters got killed. I was like, “No! The monsters are supposed to win!” I’m named after a monster, Moby Dick -- and he (or she?) wins! They don’t teach it that way, but Moby Dick is this phenomenal agent of chaos and this vast existential void -- and in the end, he wins. So when it comes to art, I grew up loving art that let me either make my own meaning or take comfort in my confusion. The Surrealists, the Dadaists. And I really resented art/film/literature or anything that told me what to feel, and told me what conclusions I should reach. And so I hope in my visual art to create something that implies a narrative but really welcomes a lot of ambiguity in the end. 

SND: You’ve mentioned the surrealists and Dadaists as influences. Please tell me more about what you appreciate about that work.

Moby: One of my favorite artists is de Chirico, especially what was called his Metaphysical Period. Because he uses a lot of very conventional iconography in the paintings, but creates great ambiguity in the images the way he arranges them. I love anything with a question mark at the end. It’s why I love David Lynch’s Inland Empire because at the end there is a resolution but you don’t know what it is; and the ambiguity is left ambiguous. It’s the power of suggestion.

SND: So what if any is the relationship to your music? Your albums keep having the same names as the photo series -- Destroyed, Innocents. And they were mostly made in the same time and place…by the same guy...

Moby: I don’t think they’re related except maybe in an esoteric sense. Except, well, I really like beauty. Whether the art is supposed to be dark or challenging I just still really want it to be beautiful, to have that quality of conventional aesthetic beauty; and in a lot of the music I make I strive for the same thing. I appreciate -- and this might sound subjective or esoteric -- but I call it “generosity of intent” or “the intent of generosity.” Another of my favorite artists is Marcel Duchamp; and in everything he did, he made stuff, even the last Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even he still wanted the audience to enjoy it, and lot of my favorite artists aspired to the same thing. He invited people in. Even with an artist like Richard Serra -- I sense he wants people to really experience the work, to be invited in. Andy Goldsworthy, too. That quality like a show-and-tell, even when it’s dark or obscure. Sometimes I feel in the galleries like I’m not cool enough to be invited into the artist’s world; or they’re such a misanthrope that they don’t want anyone to really be involved. So with the music, and the visual art, I want to draw people in, hand it over, and let them do with it what they will.



Moby, 2014, Receiving, color photograph

Moby, Lone, 2014, color photograph

Moby, Innocents, 2014, color photograph

Moby, Firsts, 2014, color photograph

Moby, 2014, New Spring, color photograph



Shana Nys Dambrot

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.

She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.


Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff


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