Untitled (Graves), photo courtesy of the artists and Western Exhibitions, Chicago.
Husband and husband artist team Dutes Miller & Stan Shellabarger’s art documents the bittersweet rhythms of human relationships. Their work shifts between moments of togetherness and moments of separation, between spaces of private and public, protection and pain, and visibility and invisibility. In Untitled (Graves) , the artists dig, in close proximity to each other, two holes, deep and large enough for each man to lie in. They then dig a small tunnel between the holes that enable them to hold hands while lying in the graves.
Kristan Kennedy: Many of your individual and collaborative performances test the limits of your bodies through exhaustive, repetitive action. How do they test the limits of your mind?
Dutes Miller: Some of our longer performances really test my ability to stay focused or concentrated, which is a limit of the mind. But the limits of my mind are more apt to be tested during the development of a piece; how will the action of the performance work in the world, how could it be interpreted, how do I translate or manifest a concept into a meaningful performance or object?
Stan Shellabarger: I’d have to agree that by the time the performance takes place, we already have prepared ourselves for what lies ahead. Not to say we aren’t surprised sometimes.
KK: In Untitled (Graves) you dig side-by-side and you lay side-byside; do you speak to each other? If not, why? If so, why?
SS: We talk to each other and the audience. The performances are not theater. There is no separation between the audience and ourselves. We share the same time and space, so we interact and talk with anyone who wants to interact.
DM: Well, while in the graves, we can’t really talk to each other because of the dirt wall between us. But we can communicate as we are holding hands via the tunnel between the graves.
KK: Can you talk to me about the symmetry or mirroring in your work? You are often side-by-side, face-to-face, or are dressed alike, with complementing facial hair. Is this a matter of design or a trope?
SS: Maybe a bit of both. The detritus of our performances may be the only thing some audiences see of our performances, so we give careful consideration to the choices we make concerning materials, locations, and the method of documentation. The facial hair is a more recent similarity and has developed out of our series of conjoined silhouettes. Our physical similarity really ends there; we’re really different in height, weight, and build.
KK: Is it important for your work to be beautiful?
SS: Beautiful? The physical result of our performance/detritus or the conceptual framework for the performance?
DM: I haven’t thought too much about that—I do think that a certain kind of attention has been paid to the visual aspects of our performances and that there is a sense of beauty to them. It is more important to me that the concepts or ideas that the audiences derive from the work be interesting and in some way meaningful.
KK: Do you think you will be together in the afterlife?
DM: My thoughts on the afterlife change. Mostly, I don’t believe in one. If you were talking about heaven, being there with Stan would be nice. As far as some implication of the afterlife in (Graves), for me it points out the impossibility of being together in death. [It is] more of an attempt at the impossible, an acknowledgement of the loss that occurs at death and the willingness to proceed knowing the cost of love.
SS: I’m not sure there’s a heaven or hell, but it would be nice to be together in whichever one we might end up. For now, I think we have to find our bliss in the here and now.
Miller & Shellabarger are represented by Western Exhibitions on Chicago.
This conversation was excerpted from a collection of interviews published on the occasion of Human Being, a series of exhibitions, installations, and happenings curated by Kristan Kennedy, for PICA’s 2010 Time-Based Art Festival. You can download a PDF of the full ON SIGHT catalogue here, or pick up a hard copy at the Washington High School galleries (through October 17), or at the PICA Resource Room.