Michaela Younge graduated from Michaelis last year. Her grad exhibition, In the Stables, was a precursor to her current work. In this exhibition Michaela considered the place of the horse in society, at once the ‘trusty steed’ to the knight and the ‘beast of burden’ to the farmer. Ascribing beasts anamorphic qualities, Michaela considers the psychology of ‘othering’ and how this has been used in folklore and fairytales through the ages.
Michaela’s current work includes intricate felt tapestry narratives that compress entire stories into one tableaux in a single work. These are populated by strange shapeshifting creatures and scenarios, the product of Michaela’s dreams, experiences and research into obscure folklores. Central to her work is a fascination with animals that take on human characteristics yet retain their animalistic nature, thereby complicating the notion of familiarity. Alongside these works Michaela creates digital drawings which reiterate the same themes and ideas.
We speak to the artist about boredom, anthropomorphism, and the internet.
What does boredom look and feel like?
I associate boredom with those long school holidays, when your parents are at work, so you text your friends but they’re busy or don’t want to see you so you end up sitting in a chair or lying face flat on your bed for hours. I don’t know, maybe that feeling of restlessness when you do one task for too long, or feeling fomo can totally be mistaken for boredom too, but as feelings they’re still possible to turn around and be busy.
How do you get your creative juices flowing?
Google search and going to bars. A good thing to do is screenshot the Internet, so you can remember that you once found something funny or interesting and look through the album later. I sometimes jot down aspects of my dreams that I remember. Fears are also a big part of inspiration, and often come into play especially with how dreams pan out etc.
You’ve recently been working with felt. In the past you’ve created digital drawings and sculptures out of a range of different materials. What appeals to you about working in this range of mediums and materials and how do they each relate to one another?
The transition into working with wool, and creating felted scenes came from a desire to merge the flat and colourful characters from my prints with the tactility of my sculptures. In the past, I used a range of materials such as leather and vellum which, along with the wool are all animal byproducts. Within my tapestry works (for lack of a better term), I really enjoy how the wool, when it is felted down, offers both a flatness and a textuality with its surface depth and soft touch, that is further emphasised with the layering of characters. I have been fascinated by the idea of creating my own felt ever since I got into using horse hair, which led me to wondering if one could make a netting from hair. Coincidentally, although the materiality of the mediums are different, they all share a similar colour palette that ranges from mustard yellow to pink to brown.
Narrative seems to play a strong role in your work. How does this influence your creative process?
Narrative is very important to me. Many aspects of life are told through stories, from joke telling, to the anecdotes you tell your mother about your friends. The idea of creating narratives through woven materials is also an age-old craft. For thousands of years tapestries were used, not only as insulation against dampness, but also to record a noble person’s wealth, as well as historical events, such as battles and mythological stories. The word ‘tapestry’ comes directly from the word ‘textile‘ or ‘text‘ because one overlays fibres to create layers that mirror the complexity of the narrative. In my work, however, there are several narratives or scenarios unfolding at the same time as none of the tapestries have a singular narrative when I set out, and shouldn’t be read as such. The works are instead an amalgamation of concepts and ideas that unfold during my process. For instance, in the backgrounds, I often include a repetition of a small girl’s face, which reminds me of a Peeping Tom, not in a sexual way, but rather in a, “I should be in bed but I don’t want to miss out on the fun” way, and is an ancillary element.
Is the dark humour in your work intentional or an aspect of your personality? What is the intended effect?
Although some aspects could be read like that, I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as dark humour. Rather, I approach humour within the pieces in a playful way. For example, in my one felted piece, the frog that has been squashed and the narrative of his death is almost secondary to the story behind how the frog came to afford such a car, and how he flew through the windscreen of said fancy car. Within my work, the often distorted or amputated figures play out the phantom limb, where amputees still experience pain or feeling from their missing limb. The characters within the work that could come across as somewhat macabre, I see more as being uncanny, as they often come about from my dreams where reality is intersected with the unfamiliar. In my work, I merge my lived experiences with dreamlike narratives that I often write down when I wake up. This enables the creation of a scenario that is both familiar but also somewhat unknown or even sinister, playing into the uncanny.
Many of the figures in your work have anthropomorphic elements or are deformed or distorted. Can you tell us more about your interested in form and identities?
The involvement of anthropomorphic figures within narratives of mythology and children’s stories is particularly interesting to me. For example, mythology and folklore often involve shapeshifters, that resemble human forms until they become their true animal form. These creatures are frightening because they no longer perform the ideals of humanity, such as rationality, and are therefore unpredictable. In children’s stories animals often perform societal norms through the donning of clothes and the use of furniture, which can be seen in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but despite the bears’ manners, they still want to eat her. I read an article called ‘Animal Animal Animal Animal’ where the author writes about how people’s fear of such creatures come more from their fear of being ‘othered’ or placed on the outside of society, than the animalistic behaviour they evoke. The distortion of the figures within the felted work also comes from the materiality of the wool.
How does the internet influence your art making?
I listen to audiobooks online, which helps keep me occupied when I work on one thing for a long time. In terms of process, I suppose the internet provides a very useful research platform, where I often screenshot images that interest me later. I also get inspired by reading through old news articles, ghost stories and looking at photographs of old buildings.
Your new felt collages are a little of Hieronymus Bosch. What is your intention behind these uncanny tableaux?
I have a compulsion to tell stories deriving from things I find amusing. Storytelling is the original record, it’s how people remember facts or dates, stories taught morality and logic, like not to trust your grandmother because she is most likely a wolf. What I really enjoy about the medium of tapestries is that their original purpose was to celebrate big events, like battles or achievements, but in my own felted works the narrative of the underdog is being told, with old people feeding birds on Muizenberg beach and the monkey karaoke band reforming. The process of the tapestry work also allows me a space for my own reflection, as it is repetitive and in some ways therapeutic. Hopefully the work imbues the desire to tell more narratives and evoke humour and a sense of playfulness within the viewer. There is also a space to reassess the position of the non-human in relation to us, with the agency that is evoked by a non-human protagonist within a story, and in how when a non-human crosses the anthropomorphic divide, the animal is seen as less ‘beastly’.
What’s next for you?
Next year I will definitely continue making work and experimenting with new techniques that tell more narratives. I’m not really sure what the year will hold, but I’m looking forward to being a part of a group show early next year at Smith. I am also hoping to travel a bit, and perhaps separate my studio from my bedroom as I often feel like a hamster, in a nest, where I wake up to find bits of wool in my bed and on my clothes. It does make it extra comfy though.
See more of Michaela’s work on her Tumblr.