Jonathan Monaghan: Art of Tomorrow

Animator and sculptor Jonathan Monaghan warns us of the damage that technology can cause on art and humanity. 


All images/video courtesy of "bitforms gallery, New York"

Queens native Jonathan Monaghan questions the power of technology and its place in society through the use of digital animation and sculpture. Through the challenging nature of his art, Monaghan seeks to create a dialogue between his work and the viewer. His primary aim is to explore human dependence on technological advancements.


The self taught digital artist, with an educational background in fine art, uses his eye for contemporary art to create otherworldly scenes where time and space collide. The use of robotics, classical architecture, unicorns, and precious metals are common components in Monaghan’s work. Monaghan’s often peculiar and otherworldly elements are intentional pieces of his wider societal commentary.

"Disco Beast"

2016. video (color, sound), media player, screen or projector, 18 min loop

How would you describe your work?

JONATHAN MONAGHAN: I make computer animated films, sculptures, and flat two dimensional printed work. The works transform a broad range of imagery, such as elements of present day consumer culture and historic architecture, into dystopian objects and worlds. All of my work is made using digital technology in some way and our anxieties about technology and the future permeate everything.


What kind of software do you use to produce your animations?

I use high-end 3D animation software, the same software that is used in a variety of commercial fields such as architecture. But I make things that are a bit more challenging and experimental than what you might see in the commercial world.


What kind of genre would you say your work is?

I do not necessarily think in terms of genres. My work has elements of surrealism to it, but it also has a lot of references to pop culture. I see many of my animations as contemporary mythologies, so they also have reference to historic, mythological stories that I reinterpreted and reimagine for the digital age.


Are you trying to convey a message with your work?

I think with all of my artwork I try to create an experience for the viewer to reflect and to think about the world around them in a different way. It is made to get an audience out of their comfort zone, but I am interested in issues surrounding technology and the encroachment of technology on us and the natural world. So you will see in my work this sort of discordance between the natural and the synthetic, as well as issues surrounding wealth and authority, and how those issues are playing out today. With my work I explore collective fears and anxieties that we have surrounding these different elements.


I noticed the use of architecture is quite prevalent in much of your work. What role does architecture play in your art?

Well, I grew up in Queens, New York and so architecture is part of the fabric of the city, and so architecture is something I have always identified with. As seen in my work there are often references to historic pieces of architecture as well as contemporary corporate architecture that appear. In a way, architecture is a kind of character, because if you notice in my films there are no human characters, there are mythological animals moving through these architectural spaces.


Would you say that your upbringing in New York influenced this idea of the natural versus the man-made?

Yes, the part of Queens that I grew up in was Rockaway Beach, so you have the ocean and beach on one side, and then the Manhattan skyline on the other. I was on this edge between a massive natural landscape and the built up environment of New York, making it an interesting border to grow up in. I think that the influence also comes from a worry about reliance on technology and the negative effects it has on us and the environment. Oftentimes when we look at the language coming from Silicon Valley or these kinds of corporate spaces, a lot of the dialogue is very optimistic about the future. In other words, many of these Silicon Valley types would say that technology can solve all of our problems. They think that more technology is the answer to everything, and I think in what I am trying to do in my work is to be a kind of counter to that to portray some of the ugly, more disconcerting sides of technology.

So, would you say that you are using technology to battle technology?

Yes, exactly, which is very ironic because I am using that medium, working complicitly, but complicity to subvert.

"Animus (After Zurbarán)"

2015, Carrara marble, 3D printed gold-plated steel, 76 cm x 53 cm x 27 cm

Referencing your sculpture work, explain the type of sculpting you do?

So everything I do originates in the virtual computer space, but what I am able to do, using technology like 3D printing, CNC milling, and other techniques is to bring out this imagery into physical form. So I work a lot with 3D printing as well as marble sculptures, using milling techniques to create large marble pieces. In terms of the narrative, though they are related to the animations, they take on a new meaning through the different medium.


Is there a message with your sculpture work?

There is still that connection to the natural versus synthetic paradigm. When you look at the surface it appears much like tufted leather, like you would see on a couch or something, but in reality it is a hard marble surface. It is meant to deceive a little bit.


Would you say that you are using technology to further shape an organic material like marble, therefore continuing this narrative of the power of technology?

That is a very interesting point. This process uses very new techniques to shape not only a natural material, but a very ancient material. We are redefining this area of sculpture, which is very exciting.


How long does it take for you to produce an animation? A sculpture?

For the animations, those will be about 15-20 minutes long and I produce about one a year, so those take a while. I do all of these works by myself, so I am always running into technical limitations. The marble sculptures were part of a workshop, so those only took about one month for each, but it took a lot of physical labor such as hand sanding to get the finish I needed.


Tell me about your two dimensional print work.

Recently I had a show at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. This was a series of large inkjet photographic prints in which I created this digital imagery that referenced Faberge eggs. These prints were exhibited next to the original Faberge eggs from the museum’s collection. It was a very exciting format to show in, where you have these iconic symbols of wealth, imperialism, and status, and then next to it, my take on how that plays out today.


Tell me about your recent exhibit in Paris.

My 2016 video installation, Disco Beast, was exhibited at The Palais de Tokyo, one of the largest contemporary art venues in the world, as part of an exhibition entitled “Childhood” or “Enfance” in French. The subtitle was “Another Banana Day for the Dream Fish” which references a J.D. Salinger short story. Much like Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s work was concerned with the transition between childhood and adulthood. The work had a lot of childhood, playful imagery, but had this undertone of seriousness and aims to show how childhood influences your reality and perceptions as an adult.  Disco Beast follows a mythological unicorn through various corporate spaces such as an abandoned mall, or a Starbucks.


What is the significance of unicorns in your work?

These kinds of mythological creatures become a stand in for us in a way. The unicorn is the symbol of purity, other-worldliness, but in my film is placed in these very corporate situations, very banal places that always look the same. So having that otherworldly mythical beast in these ordinary spaces provides a certain discordence that I was looking for.


Do you have any other upcoming exhibitions?

I am going to have a solo exhibition in Denver at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. I am opening it on September 17th. That is a big university out there and we will be having large print works as well as large video installations as part of that exhibition.

"After Fabergé"
2014, prints on Hahnemühle photo luster mounted on dibond, 43 in. x 57 in.

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