Dreaming Up Hypothetical World’s in Olivia Erlanger’s Studio

In her new column, Studio Sense, contributor Maria Vogel asks an artist to take us on a tour inside their studio using the five senses.

Installation Image of “Olivia Erlanger: If Today Were Tomorrow” at Contemporary Art Museum Houston. Photography by Sean Fleming.

For an artist, the studio functions as a second home, a space where they spend equal, if not more time, than the actual home they inhabit. For Olivia Erlanger, whose practice explores the concept of place, the studio space holds various levels of significance. In Erlanger’s uncanny oeuvre, as much time is spent dreaming up hypothetical worlds as is spent on physical output.

It was within this very studio Erlanger envisioned her latest exhibition (and first institutional show in the US), If Today Were Tomorrow, which is on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston through October. 

Read on to learn more about the space where Erlanger’s humorous, surreal creations find conception, through the five senses (plus a bonus prompt).

Portrait of Olivia Erlanger. Photography by Bobby Doherty

What are you looking at? 

A month ago, my studio was packed with sculptures for my exhibition If Today Were Tomorrow at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The exhibition is a commission of all new sculptures, a site-specific installation, and my first narrative short film, Appliance. The exhibition design was done by architect Jeremy Schipper. 

I was working on that project for two-plus years and really executing the past year and a half, so since opening the show, it’s been an adjustment period. To the right is my window that looks out onto the BQE. Highways and infrastructure are a huge point of inspiration for me because they act as a kind of artery between the urban epicentre and suburban periphery of my large planet sculptures in ITWT. I’m still sweeping up the railroad train flocking that I used in the dioramas I sent off—I’ll be vacuuming shortly. 

Olivia’s studio. Courtesy the artist.

What are you touching? 

I’m bad about gloves. I like to feel things unmediated but that means that my wardrobe suffers.

Olivia’s studio. Courtesy the artist.

What are you listening to?

I find music distracting at the studio; it’s emotionally manipulative! Music is one of the darker arts—like comedy. I try to stay attuned to my own intuitions and thoughts while I’m at the studio so I like it quiet and still. That being said, once I’m in the execution phase of production, I’ll put on science podcasts, like Alie Ward’s Ologies. 

Olivia’s studio. Courtesy the artist.

What are you tasting?

This is also a no… very little tasting here. Mostly because the studio is likely covered in stuff that I do not want to ingest. There is a vending machine in the footprint of the studio building and a bougie bodega around the corner. When I need a break I’ll go down, buy some snacks, and sit at the playground next to the skate park under the highway onramp.  

Olivia’s studio. Courtesy the artist.

What are you smelling?

Smells with sculpture usually mean you’re dealing with toxic materials, so hopefully I am not smelling anything. The older I get the less interested I am in working with hazardous materials. Call it growing up or maybe it’s because I fell in love, but I really don’t care to risk my health for art. If you look at the materials I’ve used in the past few years they’ve become increasingly benign. For example, with my new dioramas, the next logical step for me after having made sculptures with dollhouse materials for a number of years, has been to shift into train-set diorama art. Wherever your grandpa or grandma are getting their crafting gear, so am I.

What are you thinking about?

I’ve started to call myself a genre artist as a joke with friends. I’m not totally clear on what I mean but it feels right. I think it’s because genre in cinema provides a framework, a system of logical evocations, tropes, symbols. Similarly throughout my practice I’m constantly looking for a frame. For me, this means that an object, a concept, even an architecture can act as a lode I mine until it is no longer creatively fecund. One consistent throughline that’s apparent throughout the past decade and especially explicated in the bodies of work on display in If Today Were Tomorrow is my investigation into the semiotics of suburbia. In the exhibition I do some genre bending and mix in references to institutional vernaculars of display and tropes of science fiction, horror, and mythology. With this in mind, I’ve titled my next exhibition Fan Fiction, which will open in September at Soft Opening in London. As I prepare for this show I’ve begun to alter pre-existing appliances, re-engineering them to serve new purposes. As for what I’m reading, I recently restaged my play Humour in the Water Coolant at ICA London, and actor Adrian Pang, who performed as Fridge (aka a refridgerator) gifted me Haunted Houses by Lynne Tillman. Highly recommend it!

Words by Maria Vogel