In Conversation with Olivia Erlanger

Words by

Lore Alender

In Conversation with Olivia Erlanger

Olivia Erlanger’s play Humour in the Water Coolant premiered in the UK at the ICA. Set during a séance to cleanse a home of its haunted aura, the play delves into the inner lives of domestic objects. The appliances, now able to speak, reveal their emotions, including dissatisfaction, sadness, and a longing for connection and love. The psychological effects of their declining use and functionality challenge the notion of technological progress as inherently positive, instead presenting it as a form of escape. The play questions what ageing means for these objects, “born” on the assembly line, with easily replaceable parts and planned obsolescence.

I read an article that described you as the chronicler of late capitalist fatigue. How does that label make you feel?

That sounds like a lot of responsibility. In my opinion Jenny Nicholson is the real chronicler of late capitalist fatigue. I’d say there is a general exhaustion as the promises of the 20th century, that of social mobility and linear (liberal) progress become increasingly less attainable. Fatigue stems from believing in these myths.

There's a lot of references to youth culture, and adolescence, in your work. What kind of a teenager were you? Do you think we ever really leave our childhood behind? Do we have to?

I was always in my art teacher Ms. Eskell’s room, making drawings and covered in schmatte, same as I am in my studio today. Growing at any age can feel painful, embarrassing, and awkward. While I believe we grow out of childhood I feel we all cycle through moments of adolescence. For that, I’m actually grateful. Life would be quite boring if we remained static!

I look to my own adolescence as a source of inspiration and to understand my motivations. For example, my play Humour in the Water Coolant takes direct inspiration from the idea of enchanted objects, which appear across many children’s stories. Who, as a child, wasn’t mesmerized by Lumière, the talking candelabra from Beauty and the Beast, or Chairry from Pee-wee’s Playhouse?

Olivia Erlanger, 'Green Sky', 2024. Balsa wood, resin, snow #15, plaster, foam, acrylic, aluminium, graphite, shoe polish, LED, plexiglass, driver, 127 x 81.3 x 91.4 cm (50 x 32 x 36 in). Courtesy of the artist and Soft Opening, London. Photography Daniel Terna

A large part of your practice touches on and plays with the notion of home and domesticity. What does home mean to you?

While there are many ways to approach my practice, ‘home’ is an approachable entrypoint because shelter is a universal need. The idea of home cuts across all languages and is a component part of the first stage of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Talking about home is extremely political, especially in the United States due to our housing crisis and a growing unhoused population that is often overlooked and remains with limited or no access to many social services. As a woman it’s almost a trope to make work about “home” or “domesticity.” Like, hello, retro! Relegating a woman artist’s practice to the domestic sphere feels similar to the same kind of subjugation women faced in the past—but tropes are ripe for subversion.

My exhibition If Today Were Tomorrow at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is specifically focused on your question “what does home mean to me.” The exhibition tries to depict the scales of home. The show uses these shifts in scale as a formal conceit, kind of zooming across and into different works: dioramas that propose alien landscapes, large-scale planet sculptures, a one-to-one representation of a living room that doubles as a screening room for my film, and on-going point of research “Appliance.”

I recently saw your play Humour in the Water Coolant at the ICA. I absolutely loved it! What excites you about a play as an artistic medium?

Thank you! As to the success of the performance, I am completely indebted to the talent of the cast as well as Alexis Georgopoulos’s score. Honor, Olivier, Michelle, Aimee, Callie, Adrian, Dani—there is so much knowledge and creativity between all of them. It really allowed the parameters that I set on the page to blossom into something way beyond what was written.

My initial interest in writing a play stemmed from a desire to be present with others. I wrote it during lockdown and the idea of a future where we could be in a room with one another, breathing the same air without fear, being witness to a shared event was intoxicating and at that point in time seemingly impossible. Oh, and I love making people laugh so that’s always a win.

Studio image. Courtesy of the artist

The play was incredibly funny at times. What role does humour play in your work?

Humor and its evil twin, horror, exist as polar opposites on the same axis, an axis that provides relief from reality.

I’ve always been most excited by art forms that are quite democratic. This isn’t to say I want to make Disney art (although maybe I do) or Koonsian editions. And don’t get me wrong, I love more austere presentations and institutional critique, but that has never felt natural to me as a working methodology. I’ve always wanted to be able to have a child or a grandparent feel like they “get” my work. This to me is the most powerful because it means you can talk to a wider audience. I think humour plays a part in this.

What does your artistic process usually look like? Is it very different when creating a play?

My process always begins with reading and research. Sometimes this translates into sculpture or an installation, or other times it becomes a narrative project like Humour in the Water Coolant or my short film “Appliance.” This is a way of working that suits me and was forged during my first research-based project Garage. The original impetus to make the play came out of writing a series of essays, each focusing on the history of a different domestic technology. In compiling this writing I began to listen to the stories that the objects were “telling” me. The process of writing is quite different from sculpture but materially both begin in the same world of ideas.

What’s happening next for you?

I’m working towards my exhibition, Fan Fiction, which opens in September at Soft Opening. It’s go-time.

What would be the one thing you’d want people who see your work to take away from it?

I don't think there's one thing in particular that I hope for; that would make the work perhaps too didactic. If people connect with the work at all, then it is a success.

Olivia Erlanger, 'Pergusa', 2019. Commercial Washer, silicone, polystyrene foam, MDF, plywood. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and AND NOW, Dallas

Olivia Erlanger, 'Soft Kiss', 2020. Plexiglass, architectural model, urethane resin, dibond, lichen, charcoal, wood, acrylic paint, artificial snow #15 114.3 × 76.2 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Bel Ami, Los Angeles

Olivia Erlanger, '38.9173100271627° N, -77.22183907758908° W', 2021. Silicone, aluminium, LED lights, transformer, cables, 76 x 47 x 38 cm, 30 x 18 1/2 x 15 inches (OE17). Courtesy the artist and Soft Opening, London. Photography Theo Christelis

Olivia Erlanger (b. 1990, New York) is a New York-based artist whose practice explores ‘American dreams and delusions’ through sculpture, writing, and filmmaking. Her recent solo exhibitions include If Today Were Tomorrow at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2024), Appliance at Kunstverein Gartenhaus, Vienna (2022), and Home is a Body at Soft Opening, London (2020). Her group exhibitions include Nonmemory at Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles (2023), Dream Journal at Company Gallery, New York (2023), and The Heavy Light Show at Night Gallery, Los Angeles (2022). Olivia is the author of Appliance (Wild Seeds, 2022) and co-authored Garage (MIT Press, 2018) with architect Luis Ortega Govela.

Humour in the Water Coolant cast:

Honor Swinton Byrne as ‘Sophie’ and Olivier Huband as ‘House’

with Michelle Newell as ‘Crystal’

Callie Hernandez as ‘Lamp’

Amie Francis as ‘Oven’

Dani Moseley as ‘Shower’

Adrian Pang as ‘Fridge’

No items found.
Images from the play 'Humour in the Water Coolant'. Courtesy of the artist