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Artist Jen Clay inside her installation at Young at Art Museum.
Artist Jen Clay inside her installation at Young at Art Museum.

Jen Clay's Annihilation-Inspired Exhibit at Young at Art Isn't Just for Kids

“Hello, my friends!”

A greeter standing at the entrance to Young at Art Museum's new exhibit, "Welcome to You & Me," offers a smile and a few rules: No shoes allowed. (They might damage the plush carpeting.) Not too many kids inside at a time. And, no, she can't tell you what exactly you're about to see.

“Is it, like, bacteria?” a mother asks.

“I'm not allowed to say — just that they're inhuman creatures," the greeter responds.

“It's not scary!” she adds as the mother peers inside warily.

Jen Clay, the artist behind "Welcome to You & Me," is familiar with that mix of intrigue and fear. Her work uses inspiration from children's educational TV shows and science fiction to create stories some viewers might find, well, creepy: tales of apparitions, visitors from another realm, and the tricks our minds can play.

"A lot of my work straddles being creepy and cute, and that kind of uncanny experience of when you like something but are also repulsed by something," she says.

"Welcome to You & Me" layers Clay's characteristic costume and sculpture work with disciplines ranging from video to quilting to rug tufting to performance art. Stepping into the gallery room, you enter a world covered in yellow, from the mustard hue all over the walls and ceiling to the paler, creamed-corn color of the carpet covering the curved floor. Small screens showing an amorphous, gooey portal dot the walls. (It's footage of jelly being mixed.) In one corner, a speaker plays the sound of a cat purring, amplified into a guttural growl. Inside an adjacent, cave-like space, kids can touch a screen to interact with white alien-like creatures that frolic against a Teletubbies-esque landscape.

Dominating the room, a tall, three-sided structure sits atop a platform sprinkled with handmade pillows. Yellow carpet crawls up its sides. Projected onto it are videos of those same creatures waving at viewers and musing, neutrally, about how nice our world looks, and how very much they'd like to inhabit it.

“I got help to make sure it was all kid-friendly,” Clay explains. “Sometimes when I write dialogue, it can get a bit creepier. Like, it goes into an obsessive place, where they like you too much.” For example, in an earlier work, Nearing, Clay created similarly costumed characters named Mothmen who wanted to absorb and replace the people in the audience. Screenwriter AJ Fitzgerald, who also voices one of the creatures in “Welcome to You & Me,” helped Clay proofread the characters' script to avoid inducing nightmares.

Not that “Welcome to You & Me” is scary, exactly. To adult viewers, it's perhaps unsettling, with the way the yellow creeps across the ceiling or darkens in corners reminiscent of mold or mildew — something growing, claiming a space you thought was yours. But it's also a warm, welcoming space full of playing children — and an incredibly impressive display of multifaceted talent.

"The show is so layered that any part of it could be a full show," curator Zack Spechler points out. "The textile work, the video piece, the sculpture." The video alone runs about an hour and a half, though Clay says it's not intended to be watched in full, and she spent countless hours sewing the quilted wall hangings and tufting the rugs that form a motif throughout the installation. "The costumes themselves could be on display and be a full show — they're eight-foot sculptures," Spechler adds. "There’s a touchscreen component that could be a standalone project. There’s just so much there."

Spechler has followed Clay's work for years and admits it often veers into the spooky unknown. "I like that there's some mystery behind [her] work," he says. Though Young at Art caters primarily to children (yet its exhibits are often just as compelling to adults), he had no qualms about inviting that mysteriousness into the museum.

"We had discussions about the way to make it the best exhibition, considering audience and the space," he explains, emphasizing that Clay was never asked to tone down her vision for the sake of kid viewers. "I'm of course thinking about the audience at all times, but I'm not trying to change her work."

Jen Clay's "Welcome to You & Me."EXPAND
Jen Clay's "Welcome to You & Me."

The story of "Welcome to You & Me" was influenced by Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach book series, whose first volume, Annihilation, was adapted into a 2018 film starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. “It's the story of an invasive growth that people are trying to go understand,” Clay describes, “and then, when they encounter it, they go crazy.”

“Welcome to You & Me” echoes the beautiful, unsettling growths seen in that film — and leaves out the going-crazy part. In fact, Clay hopes visitors can imagine this brave new yellow world as a happy place.

“It's this manifestation of perpetual change and uncontrollable change, but for it to be happy rather than [something] more anxiety- or depression-related,” Clay explains. “I wanted to make this embodiment of uncontrollable change — I think a lot of people are experiencing uncertainty for the future — but for it to be positive. It's something that is beyond our control — we can't stop the yellow growth — but it's not necessarily a bad thing.”

The children playing inside the exhibit seemed unfazed by the spreading, oozing vibe in the space. Toddlers rolled around on the carpet while gazing up at the alien creatures waving to them from the screens. An older kid practiced headstands on a padded platform inside the cave, while several others bounced off the carpeted steps and curved floors like ninjas. Children, for whom perpetual, uncontrollable change is simply a fact of life, view Clay's exhibit as just another unknown place to explore.

It makes you wonder: Was that mom creeped out by the world Clay has created because it's inherently creepy, or was it because of the fears and anxieties she brought into the space?

Clay insists her fascination isn't with aliens or other apparitions she believes are just hallucinations. “I'm really just interested in what our brains can do and how people can create these weird sightings and what it does to our brains afterwards. That's what I love,” she says. “Seeing something you can't put into a category, and how that can change our perspective, how it makes you question your viewpoint really literally.

“But I also sound like a mad scientist a little bit,” she laughs, "like, Oh, yes, I'm going to make these weird art things, and then people will be better or something."

It's a bold idea: that an exhibit inside a kids' art museum could inspire grownups to embrace the unknown.

But, hey, even in this world, stranger things have happened.

"Welcome to You & Me." Through January 5, 2020, at Young at Art, 751 SW 121st Ave., Davie; 954-424-0085; youngatartmuseum.org. Admission costs $14 for adults and children; discounts are available for seniors, Broward County residents, military families, and museum members.

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