“There’s not a line between my art and my life,” multimedia artist Tracey Snelling told me plainly via Zoom from her live-in studio in Berlin a few weeks back. She was describing a performance art piece she had done at her Tokyo Arts and Space exhibition this summer entitled “Tell me you love me” in which she became a work of art herself. Snelling worked with famous shibari artist Hajime Kinoko, who tied masks, wigs, and photos directly onto her body. “I became this giant sculpture,” she said. “I was making myself into this giant sculpture of all of the stuff that I use.”
Snelling is an artist in the purest sense of the word. Like any true creative, her artistic practice is central to her soul and isn’t something she can just turn off at the end of a 9-to-5 work day. Each of her projects informs the rest and weaves into the next, creating an atmospheric body of work that feels like its own mini universe. While she has a particular affinity for constructing small-scale sculptures of buildings that often incorporate video, lighting, and sound, she’s also created life-size room installations that have shown at galleries around the world, along with her other work.
The Oakland, California native is presently based at the Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. She first moved to the city after falling in love with it when she was doing a project at the Frankfurt Historical Museum in 2015, and now much of her work is directly influenced by it. “It’s definitely been inspiring here,” she told me of living in Berlin. “The art scene here is amazing because it’s so international. The scene in the Bay Area is pretty quiet, it feels like, but here, there are artists from all over coming in; there are really big shows and really small project spaces. And then you can hop to Venice or London really easily.”
Snelling currently has sculptures featured in “Suddenly Wonderful,” a Berlinische Galerie exhibition about West Berlin architecture in the 1970s. As part of the show’s mission to preserve and protect these historic buildings, she’s recreated Mäusebunker and Bierpinsel from her unique lens. “These are buildings I look at and I fall in love with them, and want to make them,” she said. “It’s interesting to try to at least capture places that might disappear. It’s really amazing to me that I can have any kind of influence over the actual future of these beautiful buildings; that’s something I didn’t realize I could even be a part of before.”
While we chatted through our computers from across the world from one another, Snelling showed me around her studio space, carrying my floating head from project to project, each in various states of completion. She brought me over to a sculpture of a large industrial apartment building that’s used for social housing located just down the street from her studio. Its windows were filled with media players illuminated with videos, bringing the sculpture to life with an immersive color and movement. She had even considered the back of the sculpture and added visual elements to make it compelling from all sides. “I kind of made the back its own separate piece,” she said. “There’s little details I normally don’t put, like images, but for this one, I wanted to make the back as interesting as the front.”
Wood and plaster are the fundamental materials in Snelling’s toolbox, along with wall putty, media players, LCD systems, and even a tiny saw which she held up to her screen proudly so I could get a good look at it. “I use this constantly to cut windows and stuff. I hope they never stop making it!” she said. While she primarily uses these building materials now, she cut her teeth as a photographer, studying at the University of New Mexico with a major in art studio and a minor in photography.
“I was really experimental with photography,” Snelling elaborated. “I was cutting up the negatives, tearing them, taping them. I was influenced by the Starn twins, Joel-Peter Witkin, Cindy Sherman, all these people. Then I started doing a collage series using old Life magazines, and one of the pieces was an apartment building with the front wall missing. Even though it was a two-dimensional piece, I made the rooms look three-dimensional using collage, and that made me think to build a three-dimensional house.” This was the jumping off point for Snelling’s fascination with creating small-scale buildings in her sculpture practice, taking her eye as a photographer and building those images with her hands.
Snelling is also heavily influenced by film, and some of her work draws on her experiences growing up watching horror movies with her dad. This impact is clear from the film noir energy that emanates from so many of her pieces. “I liked almost every movie I saw and continued being a film buff as a teen,” she said. “Then, when I went to school, I took as many film history classes as I could.” One of her sculptures, “Motel,” is loosely based on the motel from Psycho. “That one had a little pump room in between the two bathrooms, and if you pushed the button, the toilet would fill in one and the shower would go in the other. I really like experimenting and trying to figure this stuff out. Something that always seems to come back and forth in my work is changing skills.”
While each of Snelling’s pieces is a stunning work of art in its own right, they’re often connected by repeating themes, motifs, and ideas. A particular image or visual element will capture her attention, and she’ll experiment with it in different ways throughout her work. “I like to play with scale with the same subject,” she explained. “Maybe I’ll shoot a real motel that exists, and then build that motel. Or I might take the photo of the motel and put it in a video, or I’ll shoot the motel and put that in a film, and then I might end up blowing up the motel sign and making it into a life-size sign. So the subject repeats often, but in different forms, and it’s all intuitive. When I look at something and think about it, it illustrates how everything in life is not a set thing. It’s fluid and changes depending on who’s looking at what.”
Chatting with Snelling even for just a half-hour offers a media-player-filled window into her kaleidoscopic perspective. Bopping around from thought to thought and corner to corner of her studio, she was eager to share anything she could with me within the limitations of our laptop cameras. As my Zoom meeting timer ticked down, she came upon a few figurines positioned on a table she told me she recently acquired while vacationing in Bangkok. “I loved Bangkok, but I also realized I can’t really take a vacation,” she admitted. “I went to an island nearby and it was pretty boring, so I did some kick-boxing; I went to fights and I took some classes, and I think I’ll do a project on it. Just because I like it.”
Even through the pixels, I could see Snelling eyeing the figurines on the table with intrigue, the gears in her head already spinning. “These are crazy, I don’t know what I’ll do with them…”
Something tells me she’ll figure it out.