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Creative Research Lab

FEVER - July 2005

still image of video by Steffensen

Jared Steffensen
May I Have This Dance, Tree?, 2005
5 min. 17 sec.

Catalog Essay by Marie-Adele Moniot:


Jared Steffenson spent the summer months of 2004 away from the hills and asphalt of Austin as a lonely intern at the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh. To cope with his solitary living conditions, he began to alter his surroundings, and eventually transformed his apartment with a comforting vision from his youth, the mountains of Utah. He added to the room tiny visual reminders of this evocative, personal landscape.

Steffenson was raised in Salt Lake City, and moved to Austin several years ago to attend graduate school. Like other displaced students, he identifies home not as the roof over his head but the security found in the memory of places. On returning to Austin last fall, he collaborated with other students in his program to produce customized landscapes in their apartments and houses. For one woman from Hawaii, who longed for the beach, he built a sand box under her desk, and for a man from Maine, he constructed a truncated forest in a rental property.

Although these customized landscapes became a part of the students' daily lives, they could not provide steady sustenance, so the artist began to experiment with portability. He made clunky wooden clogs with sand in the soles and sewed mini mountain ranges on the sleeve of a sports jacket. Using very simple materials, he recreates a landscape as an absurd security blanket of adulthood, a constant companion and comfort.

Steffenson's more public experiments with how we shape and manipulate our perceptions of the natural world emerged in two recent installations. In East Austin's Blue Theater, he constructed a tiny landscape surrounded by trash and dust under a staircase. With plastic trees and figurines, he built a toy landscape in an inhospitable location. Another unusual site of his work is the Austin Shoe Hospital, a quirky shop on Congress Avenue, where he created tiny landscapes inside shoes and scattered them on display throughout the store. By reconstructing the elements of a vague landscape, trees, grass, and mountain ranges, in unusual places, he emphasizes the falseness of such a project. If landscapes are easily moved and rebuilt, they are stripped of their mystery and nostalgic power. They are no longer mythic ideals but crude, embarrassing reminders of the way things really were.

In his most recent work, Steffenson expands his romantic notions of landscape with a ballroom dance performance between an individual and a life-sized tree on a parade float pedestal. It is an explicit send up of the longing and desire often felt by people towards the land, and the result is tragicomic. The artist's move is not political but reflects the deeply-felt fantasies about origins and places. When we move from city to city, what we miss most, the beach, the trees, or the mountains, is less important than how we miss it. Steffenson's work reminds us that memories are composites, often refashioned as a reflection of our future hopes and fears.