Artist Suzy Kellems Dominik on nature as a collaborator

A woman crouching down in a field wearing a hat

The Wyoming and San Francisco-based artist and New York member talks learning to cooperate with the great outdoors for her newest performance, Rapture

By Osman Can Yerebakan   Sunday 11 October, 2020    Long read

After spending 16 summers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, artist Suzy Kellems Dominik embarked on her first car ride to the uninhibited state of American Northwest last June with her daughter. During their 15-hour road trip from San Francisco, the pair were stunned by the Idaho landscape and rock formations leading them into Wyoming’s endless skies, which ‘you could almost grab, but they escape your fingers,’ says Kellems Dominik. A gesture, in fact, goes a long way in the artist’s life and career, which have been defined both by subtlety and reaction, most recently culminating into a melange of both in Rapture (20:50 to 20:53)

In the three-and-half-minute performance of poetry and movement, Kellems Dominik dances with the backdrop of her poem, I Can Feel, and the Wyoming alpenglow, which puts any landscape painter to shame. ‘The sun was reflecting all its lights while dipping into the horizon – it felt like I was in a snow globe of pink and orange lights.’ Equally combative and compassionate, her movements in a spit not far from her ranch present the artist as self-assured but vulnerable, on the cusp of a transformation into a next phase of herself. Physical resilience dates back as far as her teenage years when she was in the US national gymnastics team. The drone’s bird’s eye view captures her Eve-like presence, entirely alone in a deserted land. 
A woman dancing in a field
Like all of our lives, Kellems Dominik’s met an unexpected turn in the early spring, when our movements slowed down and our imaginations had to think beyond our windows and screens. The choreography of Rapture found the artist during the beginning of the pandemic in San Francisco. And when she reached Wyoming, her movements were flushed out in her mind. She wrote I Can Feel last year, based on her archive of 10 years of notes, in reaction to her namesake neon installation of an orgasmic vulva. She debuted this artwork during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2017 and later brought it to Ludlow House in November 2019. 

In its 27.68 second flicker of pinks and oranges (similar to the Wyoming dusk), the three-and-half-metre sculpture moans, ‘I can feel’, surrounded by flashing lights and adorned with a bow carried on a blue bird’s beak. ‘I didn’t realise I had created something audacious at the time,’ says Kellems Dominik today. The work’s elated nature, however, predates its form. After a night of ‘spinning on the dance floor’ at a party in Wyoming in 2014, Kellems Dominik returned to her ranch and uttered the words that would comprise the work. Recovering from a painful separation, she could sense the explosion of feeling once again. The work did not demand ‘the copious amount of research’ she invests into the conceptualisation of her projects and appeared in ‘a moment of serendipity’, almost out of a primal drive for expression. 
A neon art piece
After conveying female pleasure in an explosion of rays during the height of the #MeToo movement, her next venture, unsurprisingly, taps into the zeitgeist with its introspective tone and muted colour palette. If notions of distance, isolation and mobility rhyme differently these days, watch Kellems Dominik’s dance, which she carries out with the precision of a soldier and the elegance of a ballerina. ‘When I started rehearsing, I immediately had tears in my eyes, but then I’d suddenly smile,’ she remembers. She considers the poem a scaffolding, a vertical core, to her movement. Minimal in their word count, the verses move between single words and two words, ebbing and flowing, similar to the water or mountains around her choreography: 

all but dead
the walking dead 


landscape unknown
ice hot

The poem’s winding rhyme and appearance echo Kellems Dominik’s surrounding, where a serpentine mass of water joins lush green hills, sheltered by brushstrokes of clouds. She notes the transition from dimness to light throughout the footage, similar to her words’ ‘inward-facing’ tone towards a hopeful one. The nature, too, however, is in its unending flux. When the artist kayaked to the site for the shoot, the sand was wetter than usual and an uninvited scourge of mosquitoes had arrived. She weathered the difficulty of dancing on damp sand, and the bugs organically turned into a component of the piece, adding vibrancy with their buzzing and movements. ‘Nature is my collaborator, but each time she will make me work for it,’ adds Kellems Dominik.
A woman lying down on some rocks
An aerial view of a woman arranging rocks
In Wyoming, where summers are short and Canada geese appear no later than 1 August, Kellems Dominik manoeuvres her way around Mother Nature’s flow. For her ongoing You Are Dead To Me project, she hand-painted 7,368 local river rocks collected from her and a neighbour’s ranch with Japanese white ink. And she did so every day for eight weeks, from 6.30am until noon, during the summer of 2018. ‘The work’s physical aspect was tremendously difficult,’ but she knew the light at the end of the tunnel would demand effort. ‘I sobbed when I put down the last stone,’ she says, about the cathartic ritual she imposed on herself to heal from grief. Yet, she did not stop. In order to process and bury her heartbreak, Kellems Dominik built a tomb out of her painted rocks as tall as she could reach. ‘Scale is not my friend,’ she says, but the real challenge is in befriending the beast. One person’s heartache may be minuscule in nature’s grand scheme, but that was her pain and only she could build a place to monumentalise it. 

Kellems Dominik occasionally visits the tomb while the performance’s documentation is still in postproduction, and observes the changes in her rocks. ‘Some of them are buried or swept away, or the writings are erased,’ she says. She enjoys seeing what she built change through time, disappear and transform, just like her grief or everyone else’s. ‘I have this fantasy of an anthropologist or even an alien finding one stone that managed to stay intact and witnessing my emotional autobiography.’ Writings or movements, Kellems Dominik leaves her light touch on nature in a way that’s familiar to each of us who has faced stormy weather but eventually reached the land. 
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