Graduate Alumni > David Harper (MFA 2011)

I am drawn to the form and idea of memorials, those markers that formalize links between memory and present experience. My main fascination is for the ways in which people bring facets of these ritual systems and objects into domestic spaces in order to amplify their personal identification with them, or perhaps with the cultures that support them. 

There is intense empathy in the will to memorialize, to lay down a particular meaning on an object that is not inherent to it—life as remembered in the ripe fig of an ancient Xenia painting, or death anticipated in a skull. In my work I am taking account of these empathic tendencies, both in the sense of identification with and understanding of an ‘other’, and in the sense of joining one’s own feelings to an object. 

To frame these elements of my work, I refer to certain periods, modes of craft, and domestic embellishment that articulate peculiar links to an ‘ordered’ natural world – the presentation of taxidermy in the home or museum setting, for example. The pleasure of asserting control over what is uncontrollably “wild,” satisfying an urge to have the animal form present in our controlled spaces, reminds us of what we no longer have and no longer are. These eccentric fusions of nature and culture are the uneasy disguises of pathos and pride that allow us to recognize and even celebrate an animal’s mortality while deferring our own. 

The figurative connection between nature and mortality is evident in both historical and contemporary environments; the memento mori surrounds us in myriad forms at all times. In my lifetime, however, its presence has been more or less sanitized, the natural world euphemized, along with its suggestion of the inevitable. Rather than experiencing our link to mortality, we celebrate our disconnect with the things of which we have no control over. 

By creating elaborate objects and situations that combine common and unusual materials and historical techniques, I hope to amplify an ephemeral natural world with enduring monumentalization. I am attempting to engage the viewer in a dialogue on the metaphoric weight that the objects present both historically and emotionally. I have always tried to create work that addresses collective truths while retaining intimacy and reflection; so that the viewer can connect with the objects, and delve into my relationship with them.

As I negotiate my relationship with things like cloth, ceramics, animal hides within the precision of sculptural practices, I am aware that they carry their mix of material histories and social conditions with them. I point to these from my own present position, exalting and commemorating their origins even as I reshape and reposition the same materials to carry specific emotion or meaning. My main work is to narrativize the two, and to not have one story obscure the other.