Pixilated portraits of iconic artists and musicians like Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, and John Lennon as well as political and revolutionary figures like Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Lincoln stare at the viewer through thousands of lenses. The lenses distort their identities, forcing the viewer to contemplate the figures’ influences within history. Contemplating Warhol and Lincoln’s existences lead to subsequent questions of our own existences, and for artist David Datuna, this is the goal. “It’s not about celebrity. It’s not about fame. It’s about their influence, identity and place in the world,” Patrick Dawson, owner of Birnam Wood Galleries, says. “David is not a commentator. David is an observer.”
Last year, Datuna became known as the first artist to incorporate Google Glass into his artworks, and on view at Birnam Wood was Datuna’s solo show—sans Google Glass—Elements. The exhibit featured 13 large-scale portraits depicting iconic figures throughout history, but whose faces change with every step the viewer takes. Perspectives change due to Datuna’s signature use of discarded prescription lenses and their encasing frames as his medium. Marilyn Monroe appears behind an array of colored lenses, while Martin Luther King looks at the viewer through black, white and shades of gray. After seeing the exhibition earlier this month, we sat down with Datuna to speak about his influences.
Can you talk about what sparked the idea for these pieces?
This idea starts from my previous work, because any new work continues from the old. My signature is glasses, the lenses that I use. Lenses, for me, mean people’s visions—how people feel energy, how people see life, how people see this world. For example, the portrait of Einstein is not about a portrait of Einstein. It’s about the energy and what influenced Einstein to become Einstein? It’s making you think about what made these people influential and ready to change this world.
How did you come up with the people that you wanted to include?
Usually, who is close to me, why they’re important, and also how these people connect with each other. For example, Einstein connects to Lincoln because they both were influenced by the same book, The Elements. Then, how does Lincoln connect to JFK? They had the same idea. All of them have connections—history connects them and I just see what history did. It’s not from me. It’s from history.
What made you select all clear lenses for Einstein? Obviously Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson’s colorful lenses make sense.
Color means nothing for me. When I do the work, I don’t know what kind of color I’m going to use, but Einstein is an exception. I especially chose the clear colors, because in Einstein and Elements, it’s so clear and understandable. This is only work that I try to make my answer. It’s not a question for me. It’s done. It’s absolute. Everything else is a question mark—I try to push you, to stimulate you to answer my question mark. It’s your vision. It’s your life. It’s your feeling. My job is just giving you questions. But normally when I work, I have a big table and maybe a 30, 40, 50, 70 different color lenses and I don’t know what color I’m going to use. It’s the same thing when you work with oil paint. This is just my medium. Just like Dali used oil paint, but always had a different meaning, for me, the lenses are my oil, but the concept is always different.
How long does it take you to create these pieces?
A couple months for each one, maybe less—depends on how drunk I am! [laughs] But if I tell you seriously, it’s very detailed. Each piece comes from 50,000-80,000 parts. I had a few helpers, but this idea took a few years and just one piece takes two or three months.
How do you distill all of your ideas when you’re creating art?
When I crate new ideas I never think about if somebody else did this or not, because there are so many artists, so many ideas, so many things come out everyday. Just do whatever you want to do. It’s very simple. [pauses] I create what is born in myself. When that’s born I know I can’t sleep and I have to go to the studio and start working…I think people are sleeping and contemporary art and artists have to wake up our civilization. There is too much advertising, too much answering of questions, too much everything. Sometimes we forget why we are born, what the real meaning of living this life is, and what we want to leave after. I don’t answer, I just question. So I try to say: You are a live person. Don’t forget. We’re humans and we came here to do something. Find your answer.
Do you see yourself incorporating technology again like you did with the Google Glass?
It isn’t about technology. The line in the National Gallery to see the piece was two to five hours long. A couple thousand people stand in line and 80 percent say, “Oh, we want to see how Google Glass works.” Two minutes after the experience, all the questions were about the art, not about technology. We used the Glass as a high tech brush, like the bridge between the contemporary viewer and fine art, a bridge to bring people immediately inside the piece and open the concept of exactly what this means.
And it becomes really interactive, which is an experience often lacking in art.
Yeah, exactly. But it’s not about technology and how we use technology, because with the Glass or without the Glass, the concept of the world doesn’t change. My son—he’s eight years old—gave me the idea to build this piece. Years ago when I explained my work to him, he told me, “Father, come on. It’s too boring. It takes too long. I have to play a game.” I started to understand that he’s right. Today the reality is different; timing is different; attention is different. They need something quick—a new language for a new generation. After this, my son told me, “Father you’re good. It’s not boring. I understand what you mean and it’s quick. So I have time to play games.” He’s happy now. [laughs] But will I do something in the future with the Google Glass or something else? Maybe, yes. Why not? It’s not a rule yes or no. But again, it won’t be about technology. It’s going to be about the art.
So do you create your art with that in mind? With it being quick to digest?
No, no, that’s just for my son. I create my art to touch people, to make people answer questions, to try to show the world differently. This is why I use lenses. Through all lenses you see the same images from different perspectives.
Are any of these iconic figures someone who really means something to you?
Yes, Elvis Presley, because when I was five years old my father was arrested in Georgia in the USSR just because he listened to Elvis Presley. For me, he’s a very important figure because Elvis Presley makes me move to the U.S. Elvis Presley makes me an artist. When I was five years old I did not understand what was going on, why if someone just listened to music they had to be arrested. Nobody gave me an answer. “Because,” they would say.
This is why I started to create the flags. For me, flags are not just the banner of a country. For me, the flag for each country is a huge resurgence, just like these are not just famous figures. It’s about what makes this country like it is? The flag is who we are. They can be sick. They can be pregnant. For example, I did the Israel project with three flags: one is black and white and all images are about the holocaust, the colored one is the original colors and about what’s going on today, and the third flag is white like canvas without images. Part of the installation is to stand in front of that flag, close your eyes and think what kind of images you want to see inside. When I did this project for the first time I saw old people, like 70 years old, who stood in front of the flag, closed their eyes and started to scream and cry.