KRISTEN SCHWENGER and LUKE SIRIMONGKHON: “Faintwater” and “The Creature and His Crayon”

Kristen Schwenger and I have known each other for a long time now, from our years at Warsaw Community High School.

Luke Sirimongkhon is some dude who I don’t know at all. I just hope he’s not some 68 year old, chain-smoking dude who practices reverse psychology and promotes the greatness of the Pixar movie Ratatouille.

But knowing the kind of people that Schwenger has been known to bum around with, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The two Columbus of Art and Design students collaborated in 2011 and created two very interesting short claymation pieces entitled: “The Creature and His Crayon” and “Faintwater”. The brevity and wordlessness of the pieces means that a wide array of interpretations are possible, but I will here try to interpret the pieces within the Midwestern, specifically Northern Indiana, artistic context. Within this context what we see happen in both of these claymations is that something surreal and incredible occurs in a rather bland environment. This kind of magical occurrence within a mundane context has many predecessors in and similarities to other contemporary underground artwork from Northern Indiana, particularly from Kosciusko County.

Check out the Videos first:

“The Creature and His Crayon”: http://lukesir.tumblr.com/post/4567185196/kschwenger-the-creature-and-his-crayon-stop

“Faintwater”: http://kschwenger.tumblr.com/post/5180967587/claymation-luke-sirimongkhon-and-i-made

[For the sake of simplicity I will use the term “The Creature” when referring to the figure from “The Creature and his Crayon” and “Frank” when referring to the figure from “Faintwater”]

Firstly, in both videos we notice a very bland, empty background. In “The Creature and His Crayon” this mundane background is black and in “Faintwater” the setting is two indefinite shades of brown, which are out of focus. Perhaps these background choices were simply choices of necessity, but regardless they set a scene reminiscent of French surrealist paintings from the 1920’s

For example: Yves Tanguy, 1926, Je suis venu comme j’avais promis, Adieu. http://www.abcgallery.com/T/tanguy/tanguy5.html

Max Ernst, 1923, Ubu Imperator http://www.abcgallery.com/E/ernst/ernst34.html

Salvador Dali, 1928, Unsatisfied Desires  http://www.abcgallery.com/D/dali/dali111.html

In these works of 1920’s French Surrealism one notices that the backgrounds are also very bland and dull, consisting of simply a brown landscape and a cloudless sky or even an undefined whiteness.

It is very unlikely that Schwenger and Sirimongkhon used 1920’s French surrealist tendencies as the highest inspiration for their works, but these kinds of empty backgrounds serve as an artistic device to focus attention on the character, instead of on the setting. Thus we tend to place more importance on the clay figures in Schwenger and Sirimongkhon’s videos than on the background or context. These dull backgrounds can also be interpreted to symbolize the context of the Midwest. The flat, corn-filled landscape of Northern Indiana is perhaps just as dull as the backgrounds in Schwenger and Sirimongkhon’s claymation sequences. The artistic community of rural northern Indiana is just as lifeless, just as empty, with few worthwhile outlets for musicians writing original music, for poets (Kaveh Akbar’s The Quirk is a noteable exception), for painters and others. Few artists willingly come to Northern Indiana and many of the northern Indiana artists find their creative outlets elsewhere. As a result, the vitality of rural Midwestern Art is heavily dependent on the vitality of its individual artists as opposed to some sort of established “scene”. In a similar vein, Schwenger and Sirimongkhon’s videos are not heavily reliant upon their backgrounds, but rather on the individual figures themselves.

As mentioned before, these lackluster backgrounds lead one to focus on the importance of the characters within the videos. While it may be simple at first glance to draw comparisons between these videos and those of Allison Schulnik (probably best known for her Music Video of Grizzly Bear’s song “Ready, Able” http://www.allisonschulnik.com/FILM/FILM.html), in reality when one looks deeper there are also large differences. Schwenger and Sirimongkhon’s clay figures have a sort of simple, ancient feel to them. The two main figurines are shown bare-chested, their eyes are of exaggerated enormity and their skin tones are simple and earthy. These kinds of simple earthen skin tones stand in stark contrast to the vibrantly colored characters of Allison Schulnik. Furhtermore Schulnik’s characters roam in lush and vibrant worlds, while Schwenger and Sirimongkhon’s live in dullness. Schulnik’s characters are complex and morphing; Schwenger and Sirimongkhon’s characters are simple and fragile. Although the link to Schulnik is noteworthy, I tend to connect Schwenger and Sirimongkhon’s characters more with the simple, antediluvian Venus of Willendorf (http://www.pbs.org/howartmadetheworld/episodes/human/venus/) than with Schulnik’s bright, fluctuating figures.

One also notices that critical decisions made by the characters in the two videos wind up determining their outcomes. In “The Creature and His Crayon”, “The Creature” decides to eat his crayon and in “Faintwater” Frank decides to taste the water. These two crucial decisions are the principle factors leading to the bizarre occurrences that follow. The results are not caused by some outside determining factor but instead are caused by the characters’ free will. The Creature did not have to eat his Crayon; Frank did not have to taste the water. But in both cases the curiosity and actions of the characters led to the peculiar, fantastic and fascinating conclusions.

In “The Creature and His Crayon”, the little lizard that is birthed from the stomach of “The Creature” destroys its parent with an aluminum foil spit spray. In “Faintwater”, a scooting, enormous head begins to eat Frank. These conclusions function not only as aesthetically pleasing endings, but also as critically important symbols for Midwestern Art. Through the combination of a bland context and simple characters, something extraordinary occurs. This theme can also be seen in the work of Dylan Ettinger, who despite his bland upbringings creates fantastical musical tales of the “hard-as-nails ex-cop” Gordon in a 2069 metropolis in his New Age Outlaws Album. Steve Henn also touches on this in poems like “Royal Rumble: Gay Pride Parade and Klan Demonstration” where the seemingly sterile environment of Warsaw, Indiana becomes home to an outlandish brawl between KKK members and homosexuals. Ethan Bartman turns the dull Midwest into the backdrop of a fantastical Zombie Apocalypse in his unreleased “Zombie Album”. Poet David Thompson also, albeit cynically, comments on this idea of the extraordinary sprouting from the mundane briefly in his poem “Face it” as he describes youthful dreams turning into poignant swigs of “gas station coffee”.

In all the idea of a fantastical occurrence stemming from the mundane is something that can plausibly be interpreted in the claymation pieces “The Creature and His Crayon” and “Faintwater” from Kristen Schwenger and Luke Sirimongkhon. And this idea partially connects the pieces to the broader Northern Indiana artistic context. The decisions of the simple, earthen figures produce phantasmagorical deaths for “The Creature” and Frank. And this phantasmagoria happens within very empty and bland contexts. I do not know how many more collaborations between Schwenger and Sirimongkhon will materialize, but the two videos that we see now, leave us definitely hoping for more.

Check out Kristen’s tumblr here: http://kschwenger.tumblr.com

And Luke’s incredible Vimeo site, with music videos of P. Blackk and his boss travels, is here: http://vimeo.com/user2626104

September 4th, 2011

Andrew Morris

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