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Can Art Change the World?

by Stephen Kaye
Wed May 18th, 2016

Dustin Yellin at Pioneer Works

Dustin Yellin thinks it can.  

His life and work is all about making things, and saying things; they leave a strong impression.  He has, by dint of hard work and a streak of genius, become big enough to maybe do that.  He and his work make an impression.  You see one piece, or a group of pieces, as we did recently at the State Theater of Lincoln Center where fifteen life-size figures in the form of dancers were mysteriously encapsulated in glass: and you are left with a strong impression.  The figures were not figurative in the sense of either drawing or sculpture, but in the sense that they were made of of bits of things – primarily bits of what seems to be vegetative matter - so arranged in the glass as to suggest the human form in dance postures.  Yellin calls them “Psychogeographies”. 

Dustin hosted a group of visitors to his studio last Tuesday, May 17.  The studio is in  a warehouse  building on Pioneer Street in Red Hook.   In a vast well-lit factory space we found finished works and works in progress in an orderly arrangement.   It was after hours.  If we had arrived earlier we would have found over a dozen helpers putting together these complex artworks encased in glass. The glass enclosed pieces weigh between 800 and 3,000 pounds, needing heavy equipment to move.  A large front-end loader hovers in the background.

He explains that from a concern with objects and boxes he evolved in covering them with resins and, fearing death from the fumes, moved to glass.  He never went to college, knew nothing, but grew to appreciate what man had done to the earth and fears what the future might bring.  His primary concern is that man doesn’t talk to his fellow man, divisiveness divides us, prevents us from seeing what is happening all around us.  He was affected by Sandy, the first warning of global warming, a fact that is happening.  He says it will happen regardless of what we do and it will be ferocious.   We could stop using fossil fuels tomorrow and there will still be a frightening amount of global warming.  It is having to deal with it that now matters, but if we can’t talk to one another then we are in trouble.

Art is a way of talking to one another.  His art suggests apocalyptic visions. He wants to marry art with music, theater, writing, education, science; to begin conversations. 

We ask about the piece before us  - a series of different blocks of glassed visions of  disintegration, with little men set in a biosphere that is undergoing turmoil.  Each block weighs 800 pounds; they will combine in a series that will be one work of art.   Maybe hundreds of man hours goes into each block.  We ask if the creation of this project is funded by an institution.  No, it is for sale, and the price would be substantial, maybe more. Yellin explained that he is attached to no gallery - he sells his work on site. 

Pioneer Works, Red Hook NY

Yellin leads us outside and into the next building which is another factory building (the date 1882 is carved into façade) that houses Pioneer Works.  It has two floors of renovated space, divided into studios, offices, a gallery and open areas that are multi-functional and a website that describes itself as a "center for research and experimentation in contemporary culture."  We are introduced to Suzannah Lessard, a writer who talks about bridges, new ideas, confluence, cross-currents, writers who take us into a new world that is changing quickly, demanding new understandings on a global basis. She is an editor-publisher.  Her project has not been named.  They will publish a new journalism.  

We move by classrooms, production studios, photography studios,  spaces where a radio series – Clocktower productions - is made and broadcast,.  A physicist is on staff.

Pioneer Works collaborates with or underwrites the School of Apocalypse that is devoted to defining survival in monthly meetings.  Pioneer Works has its own distinguished board of digital-age leaders who contribute their own visions and skills to Pioneer Works.  We go outside to see a walled garden filled with sculpture, objects and design that is already collecting a history of strange contributions and happenings.  It is the site of plans for more classrooms and more functions that will center on a courtyard. Meanwhile it is a welcome greenspace adjoining a dockyard where cranes, trucks and ships move the cargos of global commerce.   We are slightly overcome with the sheer excitement, the daringness and the accomplishments. 

Dustin Yellin’s website is http://dustinyellin.com/

Pioneer Works’ website is http://pioneerworks.org/

Layers of images on sheets of glass creates density, richness and a three dimensional space that seems almost alive. Enter in and you are entrapped forever in a glass cage.

Closeup of a Yellin construction.