As machines whirred and whined in his Red Hook studio, Dustin Yellin told me that he had recently been to Africa, where nearly a quarter of some countries’ populations are affected by HIV, and where Yellin was collecting experiences to discuss at a United Nations conference with politicians and scientists. He was also collecting rocks—so many, in fact, that, when he packed his suitcase with them, he could barely carry it. “Rocks. Rocks. Just so many rocks,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, this rock is so beautiful. It came out of this river. I don’t know what it is, but it represents everything that this river means for last ten million years.’ ”
Yellin is a packrat. He accrues objects and, more often than not, doesn’t know what to do with them. He’ll cut out images from old magazines and books, and file them away in drawers, classifying them loosely by ideas, periods, or places, like “Pre-Columbian art” or “Machinery.” Some of the lucky images get used for his “Psychogeographies,” elaborate collages that are pressed between glass and resemble humanoids from afar. Yellin’s first major permanent installation of the “Psychogeographies” goes on view in Los Angeles, at a new development project on Sunset Boulevard, this month.
The artist demonstrated some of his ideas for the “Psychogeographies” using my head as an example. He said, “If I was to take your head right now between two glasses with a vise and then start going like this and like that”—he mimed tightening the glass panels—“so that the vise closed, and your head exploded? Now, in this reality, I would just see blood and brain, right? But what’s that made of? That’s what I try for these to be—things we can’t see.”
He added that the “Psychogeographies” are what might happen “if there was a way to rip the shell off of the human and see into their soul, and if there was a way to then take that information and make it legible.”
Yellin, whose reddish beard and clear-rimmed glasses seem to have personalities of their own, thinks of the Los Angeles works as being like aliens, in a way. “It feels a bit sci-fi because it’s a public work,” he said, and then added, “If you’re far away, it looks like this two-headed human stuck in these tanks of water, under these microscope slides, but then, if you go up close, there’s the reveal of what you’re looking at,” by which he meant cut-out images of Lucille Ball, the Lone Ranger, and Bob Dylan.
From the Manson murders to 1920s movie stars who held séances, Los Angeles has had a long history of occult activity, much of it drug-induced—“people going west, doing lots of LSD and magic, talking to dolphins,” as Yellin put it. In that sense, with their supernatural undertones, the “Psychogeogprahies” fit right in well in the city. Yellin explained that the new works ascend in height and are placed in a diagonal line. The smallest are human-size; the largest is closest to the sunset, “a deity, so this unattainable thing,” he said.
“I feel like there’s an apocalyptic undertone in everything,” he added. “I relate it more to the species. Not the romantic sense of apocalypse so much, just the facts.” He cited rising temperatures and natural disasters as evidence of something big and bad coming, “things we’re actually dealing with in real time. So I always feel like I’m making future artifacts…It seems like there’s a lot going on here, but in my art practice, I feel like I’m many years behind what’s in my head.”
The series’ name, Yellin said, refers to this idea of working within a headspace, not Guy Debord’s Situationist concept of the same name, as I suggested. “It wasn’t like, ‘Guy Debord! I’m going to name the works “Psychogeographies” because I’m such a Guy Debord freak!’ They felt like these geographies of the psyche,” he said.
I asked if Yellin found these works personal at all, since he was born in Los Angeles. “Well, I don’t know because I don’t believe in place,” he responded. “So it’s a bit of a homecoming, I suppose, but I believe that my home is Earth. That’s just a cool coast on a cool piece of land.”
Nevertheless, people seem to identify with the “Psychogeographies.” Yellin enthusiastically recounted how a woman came into his studio, saw one of the new works, and said, “Shit, that’s my daughter! How’d you get a picture of my daughter?” Yellin said he didn’t think it was her daughter, but she was adamant that Yellin was wrong.
“Maybe it is her daughter,” he said. “That’s what I like—that, in a hundred years, someone could be like, ‘That’s my daughter, that’s my father.’ You know, [the ‘Psychogeographies’ are] not about an individual. It’s about us as a collective.”