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While most artists focus on finding ways to stand out, Pia Dehne is interested in what it means to blend in. The German-born, Catskills-based artist has spent her career analyzing mimicry, the hidden, and the unseen, producing a catalog chockfull of optical illusions and perceptual teases. From live recreations of controversial album covers to hyperrealistic comparisons of natural and artificial camouflage, Pia’s works deftly blur the line between the known and the unknown, leaving you with the feeling that nothing is what is seems.
Posted in Berlin for her new exhibition Project Blue Book, Pia filled us in on nude suits, UFOs, and the deceptive qualities of glasses.
A lot of your work questions the idea of camouflage. Why do you think we’re drawn to visual deception?
Humans have a tendency to crave power, and being able to deceive someone else makes us feel more powerful. The human urge to hide, suppress, or to change identity are all aspects of camouflage and human desire.
There also seems to be visual pleasure for humans in seeing nature’s optical illusion strategies—probably because nature is the most fascinating of all artists. Of course nature uses camouflage and mimicry to defend itself and for pure survival. People these days alienate themselves more and more from nature and use these strategies for other ends—like in the military, for hunting, and survival training.
Several of your earlier pieces were photographic re-enactments of iconic album covers, including Queen’s 1978 Jazz, which required you to create 40 ‘nude’ costumes for your models. What effect does the act of reproduction have on your perception of the original work?
After making my own version of those images my perception of the original works didn’t change much at all, to be honest. I still see them in about the same way.
I wasn’t making an homage to those particular images. Instead I turned the ideas of the images completely around. What I mean is that the original “Jazz” and “Electric Ladyland” images both portrayed women as objects of male fantasy. I took those same original images and recreated both in a way that portrays the women of today as I see them: empowered, healthy, strong and as real people with their own personalities one can imagine connecting with on a personal level.
When I recreated Queen’s album poster as a photo and performance I wanted to point out the phenomena of camouflage, masquerade and gender switching in our society. The nude suit I designed as a costume for the 40 women (and one man!) in my recreation was intended as an oxymoron. Dressing my cyclists in this nude suit put just the right perverted twist on the way in which a female body functions as armor against the conventions of representation and sexuality in present-day America. My girls on the bicycles were both vulnerable and protected at the same time—yet still totally sexy and empowered.
From Berlin in the 90s, to Bushwick in the early 2000s, and to your current residence in the Catskills, you’ve called a lot of places home. Which place has been the most conducive to making art?
Every place has had its own inspiration and special energy. I’ve gone through different phases in my life and therefore in my art. Berlin in the 90s was important to find my voice and identity as an artist. A decade later the permanent, impulsive stream of productive energy in New York made me explore various possibilities of expressing myself and to use more than one medium in making art. Most recently the peaceful atmosphere of nature in the Catskills has let me reflect on images in my mind and be in deep meditative touch with creative spirits while I’m painting. Home is where I’m able to realize my art because it comes from my heart.
What are the most important elements of a good disguise?
I think the most important elements are those which have the ability to confuse the observer’s distinction between subject and object, form and content, the real and the imaginary, waking and sleeping, ignorance and knowledge, and good and evil. Even wearing glasses is an example of this: most people wear them to improve their vision, but it’s more complex then just that. Glasses also have the ability to change the appearance of someone’s face and bring out the more striking qualities of the face, or hide the facial qualities that the wearer might find less attractive. Hunters sometimes wear glasses to hide the whites of their eyes so that animals are less likely to take notice. After all, everything is a reflection of our own minds and we live in an illusion. We all have the option of creating our own reality. Go for it!
You’re in Berlin for your new exhibition, Project Blue Book, which focuses on UFOs. Is there a connection between your previous explorations of camouflage and flying saucers?
The new subject of UFOs in my work connects fairly seamlessly with my previous camouflage-themed work, although with these UFOs I’ve changed my painterly theme to deception within the subject. If camouflage describes the best possible meshing of one’s own appearance with the environment in order to deceive a natural enemy, an encounter with UFOs can be understood as deception and reality at once. My camouflage works represent optical illusion that moves between abstraction and hyperrealism, mingling form and content as these objects are viewed from various distances. The UFO theme shifts my exploration to the realm of the paranormal, where gods, spirits, invisible powers and parallel universes escape the grip of scientific explanation yet cannot be denied. Thus I’m addressing a quality of human perception that’s still limited by the rational, a perception that has yet to encompass the full and expansive capabilities of the human mind.
There’s also a connection in that these flying saucers are an exploration of images that are part of our collective consciousness without any (or many), of these objects having been proved to be real. I’m also interested in how and why such images exist in our society. Why is it that these objects have such a strong imprint in our minds that they’ve become part of our reality?
Photos by Marlen Mueller