Meg T. Noe interview

“I love the pattern headstones make in the distance.” The Chicago-based artist discusses death and magic.

Interview by Casey Hutton
Published November 2013

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i. ERAL from Black Sun series, 2013
  Chains (plaster) from Black Sun series, 2013
  :) from Black Sun series, 2013
  beaver tree, 2012
  From let's talk about the weather book, 2011
hail to the guardians of the watchtower (detail), 2012
mr. tragedy (nylon, felt, puppet, fan, timer) at Terrain Exhibitions biennial, 2013.
  Amelia May Oslund with corpse paint, 2011

All images © Meg T. Noe 2013


What are you doing today?

Today I spent most of my time working for an artist friend named Sabina Ott. We're preparing some of her sculptures for a few different exhibitions she has coming up. And I spent a little time writing a piece, which I guess at this point is closer to prose than an essay, for an upcoming exhibition. Sabina, the woman I worked for today, curates her front lawn under the project name Terrain Exhibitions. The prose piece is meant to be distributed at the biennial they're having this weekend. I plan on putting this writing bit in a mini booklet or zine and leaving them around to take away at the biennial.

How long have you been in Chicago and how do you find it?

I moved to Chicago in 2008 and so far it's been pretty nice. I've never lived in a city for longer than five years and I've made it that far living here, so it can't be all that bad, right? 

I'm not a big fan of the winters, although I've become fond of hibernating. The arts community is really accessible and rent is reasonably cheap. I love my friends here and everything but I think in the near future I might try and move somewhere more challenging, and hopefully go to graduate school. 

“When I imagine a work, I see it first as a photograph and then I have to talk myself through its true materials.”

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in Texas. We moved around a lot when I was growing up, so I have a rotating list of places I would call my hometown. My dad works for city/local governments. Every town had its own flavour of conservative. I think I liked San Antonio the most – lots of good festivals and delicious food. Texas was a very challenging place for a liberal teenager with a strong attraction to subculture.  

Are you from a creative family?

As I said before, my father has mostly worked for city/local governments, and has worked as a civil servant to some degree all of his life. I'm really proud of him and he what does for people – it takes a lot of commitment and compassion. He played guitar some growing up, and was always encouraging of my music-playing or art-making. My father and his wife are great art enthusiasts even still.  

My mother was a graphic designer and an illustrator for many years but only worked professionally for a short while. She would draw these elaborate scenes from Sesame Street for my brother and I, in these beautiful colour pencil panels. The first camera I played with was hers.

I would say they are somewhat creative.

“I'm not interested in irony because that's so cheap and seems to be an attitude problem of the Millennials.”

Would you describe yourself as conceptual artist?

The term conceptual artist I feel has this whole definition surrounding it – I'm not sure if I would use that term verbatim. My work is mostly led and driven by concept, and not really so much of a fluid, intuitive understanding of material that leads to a product. The thing that I'm trying to avoid with that term is this sort of ’70s dryness, where artwork seems equative and less poetic – or at least that’s what I think when I hear the term ‘conceptual artist’.

You work with a variety of media. How do these things fit together for you?

I make and work with photographs, collages, sculptures, textiles, videos, performances, ceramics, found objects, books, sometimes paintings. They are all driven by concept.

My primary practice is photographic and everything else branches out from there. When I imagine a work, I see it first as a photograph and then I have to talk myself through its true materials. 

What threads or ideas recur in your work?

I've worked over many themes in recent years. At times it feels like I have too many eggs in too many baskets.

The most recurring interest has consistently been death – multiple perceptions of it, distanced and intimate. I am fascinated by my own necromantic obsession. I'm interested in an autobiographical semiotic. I'm not interested in irony because that's so cheap and seems to be an attitude problem of the Millennials. I feel like my work may often appear to read in ironic tones but my interest is often genuine.

I'm interested in comedic objects, narrative, memory, kitsch, the uncanny, anxiety, mortality, symbol, ritual, and a duality of emotional states. I love to play with words, little dark puns. I love the pattern headstones make in the distance. 

Your previous studio was in an old funeral home, which seems apt. How did that come about?

Roxaboxen Exhibitions was a DIY gallery that was fairly active for a few years (maybe five?) in the neighbourhood I live in. I had known some people who had lived there, subsequently had studios there and eventually moved away, when I decided to slide in and see if I could get a space. It was a really amazing experience. I'm sad I couldn't have stayed there longer. 

Pop culture in America has a blatant obsession with fatalistic perspectives that you can hear in any major pop songs... and yet no one feels the agency to grieve.

I'm interested in hearing more about your necromantic obsession. Historically, there's such a rich visual language around death and magic. Is your interest in finding your own language and/or in addressing the way society currently frames death and ritual?

I've always been deeply fascinated with the visual history that surrounds death and magic. My interest is in both – finding a personal internal index, so that we can reveal how culture influences that imagery and how that visual history is continually shifting.

I think we are in a time right now that is fascinating. Pop culture in America has a blatant obsession with fatalistic perspectives that you can hear in any major pop songs (‘Let’s party all night cause we're gonna die young’ etc.); fashion has turned an interest to subcultures like goth; and yet no one feels the agency to grieve, and the majority of people are still dying in hospital beds, which are fairly alienating environments. It really messes me up when I think that there had once been a time when people could know the hour of their death internally and ask for their last rites.  

Do you believe in ghosts?

Ghosts are a funny issue. I'm an atheist so to say I believe in ghosts isn't to agree with any religious doctrine. I feel pretty spiritually in touch with things. There are many unknowable, completely magical and mysterious things in this world.

I like the idea of an autobiographical semiotic. How have you gone about constructing your own?

I think people intrinsically generate autobiographical semiotics. A stop sign is still a stop sign but we all have memory associations with things in the world that trigger a deeply personal meaning.  

Can you tell me about the works you have in the Shades of Darkness group show at the moment?

The works I have in the Shades of Darkness show at the C33 Gallery come from a project that I started at the beginning of the year called Black Sun. 

The title of this project actually comes from a Julia Kristeva book that I have been fascinated by for the past year – always picking it up to read off and on – which examines depression and melancholy in art, literature and philosophy. Although the photographs aren't specifically about depression and melancholy, I can enter a space where my thoughts are sharpened and pressed against my own mortality, and sort through memory. I've been making photographs and casts of objects that act as sign and symbol for my own romanticisations of death. It's a sort of visual codex of my feelings of mortality, melancholy, loss and desire. It's a work still in progress, which seems to be taking on new directions.  

There are three photographs in the show, the largest is titled :). That image is a photograph of a funeral spray where the flowers made a perfect smiley face shape in the foreground, which allowed me to simply delete the background. The other two images are still lifes of objects that I have either collected or made replicas of. There's an aspect of this project where I'm photographing the objects on a plain backdrop that alludes to a performance, a staging of layered meanings, which I'm really into.

“I came across a stack of Polaroids used as continuity photographs for the movie set of The Craft.

Your works I, who have felt the horror of mirrors and mr. tragedy seem to encourage spectators to interact with them. Were you surprised by any reactions?

Ha! Yes, although they get two very different reactions!  

The work I, who have felt the horror of mirrors was a really intense self-deprecating performance where the audience had a whole spectrum of roles, from witness to support. I wasn't ever expecting that performance to feel like I had a compassionate audience. I wanted them to feel a modest amount of discomfort and unease through watching me suffer but at times I actually felt their emotional encouragement – it was very touching.  

My piece mr. tragedy was far more playful; he's a very humorous object. People seem to immediately respond with laughter or a smile and then slowly put together how pathetic he is. Children aren't ever my target audience but it was the first work I've made where they could interact and be surprised by a wind puppet in a gallery.  

Can you tell me about a work of yours that’s particularly meaningful to you?

In 2011, I came across a stack of Polaroids used as continuity photographs for the movie set of The Craft. It was the first rated-R movie I had ever watched – my sister let me watch it with her late one night when she was in college. I have always loved that movie. It was weirdly empowering to watch as a strange little girl.

I appropriated the imagery from those Polaroids in making collages, both digital and tactile, which eventually led me to make this mobile with all of The Craft’s girls' heads. I called that mobile hail to the guardians of the watchtower as a sort of homage to them and that feeling of strength I felt as a bewitched girl.  

What do you dream about?

I sleep really hard, so when I dream it has a really profound impact.

I dreamt the other night that I was sleeping/dreaming while a creepy figure frantically paced my apartment. In my dream I kept fighting to wake up so that I could protect myself or see what was happening but I had no control. I was fighting so hard to wake up in my dream that it caused me to actually awaken but continue to fall back into the dream. I saw a blue strobe light on the sleeve of my robe that hung limply from the back of my bedroom door. The sleeve of my robe had a lace collar that rose its head like a snake and talked to me about the creeping figure in my house.

I have a lot of dreams about escaping death.