Sometimes you come across images that provoke a visceral response – and so it is with Jessica Wohl’s Moutainaire Hotel. The Tennessee-based artist – who originally trained as an illustrator – created this fascinating hairy staircase in an abandoned hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, using (thank goodness) fake follicles. The power of the piece is almost overwhelming – I am compelled to look and then repulsed by what I see in a never-ending loop of response and reaction. We caught up with her to find out more.
Hi Jessica, tell us how did this project come about…
The Mountainaire Hotel is a striking example of Art Moderne architecture in Hot Springs, and truly is a structure that people are always curious about. Being abandoned for 20 years, Low Key Arts – a non profit arts organisation – initiated a two-day exhibition of installations in the empty hotel. I was fortunate enough to be one of the artists invited to participate.
What was the effect you wanted to achieve? Where did you get all the fake hair from?
I’m interested in the secret lives of people and structures, and in this case, wanted my work to exemplify the life that was temporarily being brought into these abandoned buildings. My installation implies growth in this dead space, and if growth is implied, so too is life.
This life can be interpreted as some kind of spirit, and spirits in houses are always unsettling. So that’s the effect I was shooting for – something unsettling and beautiful that would make viewers consider the new energy being brought into the space.
I got the hair from the African American beauty supply. It’s filled with wigs and hair extensions – divine. I suppose the sadness I feel over not being able to pull off wearing any of this hair myself was finally put to rest.
What were the responses to it like?
Most people thought it was creepy. Many asked if it the hair was real, and they were curious about how I made it. Overall, I think they were surprised by it; as you came down the hall, you only see a small grouping of tendrils peeking out around the corner. Out of curiosity, they would approach it for a deeper investigation, and then seemed shocked that the hair cascaded down the entire staircase.
When did you realise you wanted to do more than just illustration?
I knew immediately after graduation from college that I wasn’t cut out for commercial work. I just wanted to make what I wanted, and didn’t want to be told what to do. When I found a way to use art as a form of expression, rather than as a way to illustrate someone else’s ideas, I was sold.
You’re based in the American South which obviously comes with strong cultural connotations – how, if at all, do these inform your work?
I’m going on my fifth year in the South, and in many ways am still processing what it means to live here. The part of this culture I am most fascinated by is the degree to which people manicure, compose and present themselves and their immediate environments.
I’m always trying to figure out what’s within, underneath and behind these facades, and this culture is prime real estate for my curiosities.
What’s next for you?
Blonde hair coming out of my fireplace, spilling out into my living room. And a large scale portrait project where I’m painting the invisible people (custodial staff) who maintain the university that I teach at.