Walking across the open playa near sunset, I was caught in an inconstant dust storm that would block the whole world out for minutes at a time, then suddenly part and open up, allowing a distant glimmer of the strange and surreal structures dotting the desert landscape.
This was the first time I saw the Totem of Confession: when it appeared before me, a tower of impossible images in black and white, then vanished again when the world disappeared in dust.
The Petaluma studio of Mike Garlington and Natalia Bertotti is just as variable and changing as the playa landscape, as they constantly move and rearrange both finished pieces and in-progress designs on a weekly basis. Their credo is to do whatever inspiration calls them towards at the moment – but working like that comes with a cost.
“We’re constantly having to clean up the studio because everything moves so much, and we need a clean environment to work in,” they say. “Honestly, art is 90% sweeping up.”
The day I visit, a large crew photo of the Totem of Confession was posted on a wall next to a concept draft of their next architectural project: the Spire of Babel, which will debut in Virginia in 2017, and which will be used as the prototype for “The Chapel of Babel,” to appear at a future Burning Man. A few meters away a dressmaker’s dummy stands alone, with the beginning of what will be Garlington and Bertotti’s next project, to be displayed at Art Basel: a pair of dresses which, when finished, will be as much baroque decoration as clothing, to be worn by the same model. It’s dress making turned into sculpture, turned into photography.
The magical and bizarre black and white photographs which circle the rest of the warehouse studio are the work Garlington is best known for, and represent that blurring of boundaries between art forms.
“With our photos, we’re building sculptures. Even just a person in an outfit, every created backdrop becomes a sculpture in a sense. So first we build it, even if it’s just out of cardboard and tape, and then we photograph it,” Garlington says.
It may be hard to believe, but everything you see in a Garlington photograph is really in the frame. “We are using Photoshop now, and it is very tempting to start putting on third arms and eyes, but so far everything is you see is really there,” Garlington says. Often that makes for novel and interesting challenges.
“This picture,” he said, “is called ‘Balloon Horse,’ because obviously … and what happened was, I had the model here, and asked her what she liked, and she said ‘horses,’ and I said ‘how about a balloon horse?’ And then, as soon as I said it, I was terrified, because oh, now I have to actually do that. So we put together this set of balloons to look like the shape of a horse she was riding, and I spent all this time to make it look like it was actually floating above the ground.”