We are all obviously aware of the time we are living in: a digital-obsessed, selfie-taking, internet-friend-making age. Humans are experiencing the world like we’ve never been able to before. We can get anything, even friends and romance, at the touch of a button. And millennials are taking full advantage of the tools they’ve been given.
Since people who grew up in the 2000s have been overwhelmed by technology most of their lives, it’s hard to tell what life might have been like before everyone had their phones practically glued to their hands. What was life like before Facebook relationship statuses? And before Jennifer uploaded her salad on Instagram? Nowadays, the question is raised: if you didn’t put it up on the internet, did it really happen? There is no true excitement and mystery in getting to know someone. Every weird thought someone’s had and any bad date anyone’s ever been on has been thrown out into the great void known as the world wide web.
Not all millennials are totally consumed with their internet perception. Disillusioned photographer, Ella Mikayelyan, has encapsulated the human existence in all of it’s sad, pessimistic, washed out beauty. Like a true anxious millennial, Mikayelyan fidgets and darts her eyes back and forth when talking about her art; sure of the craft just not so sure how to define it. I talked to the young concept artist about the disadvantages of technological advances, lack of intimacy in the 21st century, and growing up in LA suburbia.
Who is Ella Mikayelyan as an artist?
I’ve never spoken out loud about my art. This is super weird. I mainly do photography and I make films. I think I’m mostly focusing on the way people interact with each other and how indifferent we are now. I feel like that’s happened a lot because of technology. Other than portraying themes about technology vs. human intimacy, a lot of my work has a dark, sexual edge to it. think that everyone has this “I don’t give a fuck” attitude and people don’t really want to be vulnerable and open up. I’m just trying to be a lot more vulnerable and raw with my art to break down the walls people have up. And I’ve noticed that I put those walls up too. You have to cut people off first before they hurt you. You have to act like you don’t care. It’s this constant fear or idea that someone’s going to hurt you. It’s being passed back and forth between people, which is why no one wants to say exactly how they feel. In this new series I did with collage, I painted over a lot of my photos, especially people’s faces, with white. Everyone’s on their phone and in the background there’s a girl kissing a mannequin. I’m just kind of playing with the idea that everyone is so afraid of each other, yet they try to be really open on social media, like Instagram. When it comes to actually getting to know someone people can’t seem to be as intimate as before.
So kissing the mannequin must be what it feels like to kiss someone nowadays…
Yeah, it’s like kissing mannequins now. I feel that way with a lot of people when I get to know them or I’m intimate with them. No matter what it doesn’t feel that intimate anymore. It doesn’t feel how it felt when I was 15… when it felt really real. It kind of just feels like everything’s routine and this is what we do just because we’ve done it and we keep on doing it. It feels like people are mannequins. And I’m also including myself.
I’ve noticed that in your work, the colors feel very drained. Is that having to do with how you feel humans interact in the 21st century?
A recent aesthetic I’ve been going for is a desaturated, minimal look. I think that’s part of this issue that I have where I can’t be raw with people or I feel like people aren’t as raw with me because people do feel drained. And it all feels unsaturated. That’s how I see the world right now, visually too. Everything seems desaturated and monotone. When I went to the desert everything was very barren and drained. And that’s how I see life. Even in the city.
Why did you start seeing the world through this lens and when did you realize it?
Yeah, I wasn’t like this when I first started doing photography. At first it was a lot darker. And really personal. It’s still really personal, but now it’s just kind of making a comment on modern day society. So I guess if you’re asking when, it was probably about two years ago.. I guess this feeling has become more apparent ever since I moved back home, things feel really grounded and safe and secure. But almost too grounded where it’s really…mundane. A lot of exciting things have happened in the past two years, but it wasn’t like before where everyday there was something new for me. I’d wake up and not know what was going to happen that day. But now I wake up and have school and work on a project.
“The last film I did was about a woman in suburbia. She lives in the perfect little town and seems to have a perfect life, but she’s actually really deranged. It’s a reflection of my own character. I feel super out of place in this cookie cutter town.”
I feel like that’s such a millennial thing too. Because everyone kind of lives with their parents until they’re 28 now. You said earlier that even the city feels desaturated. You technically live in Glendale, so do you feel like you’re actually in LA?
No! It’s so different. It’s complete suburbia here. I feel very detached from LA life and I always wish I was part of that scene because it’s more exciting. I feel like there’s more people I can relate to than there is here.
Do you feel like living in this suburbia has directly and consciously affected your art?
Definitely. I’m very interested in the suburban lifestyle. The last film I did was about a woman in suburbia. She lives in the perfect little town and seems to have a perfect life, but she’s actually really deranged. It’s a reflection of my own character. I feel super out of place in this cookie cutter town. Even though it’s not the typical suburbia, it still very much feels like it. Especially right where I live.
Who would you say are some inspirations of yours?
Definitely One Direction.. Justin Bieber.
I can see that. It really shows in your work.
I’ve always been obsessed with the Beatles. I don’t know if you can directly see their influence in my work, but they’re very playful, like “Yellow Submarine” is random and just nonsense drama. It’s literary nonsense, like the writing on my collages. It’s all very vague and doesn’t make sense, yet it’s personal. It’s kind of like Alice in Wonderland or The Little Prince. It can be a simple picture of someone’s hand, but it means so much. And The Stranger, which is a book about Existentialism. There’s some existential themes going on in my work. There’s also a meme with a guy and he’s on fire and someone asks “Are you okay?” then he says, “I’m fine.” It’s hilarious, but I think that sums up our generation. No one says how they really feel. I think that’s at the base of this series. Some of them have quotes from Pink Floyd like “The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older.” “Time” by Pink Floyd is also a big influence. No matter what happens to you, the world keeps on going. It’s cool how unimportant we are.
Exactly. “The human condition does not allow us to be alone,” is part of a poem I wrote. It’s human nature that we cannot be alone. We’re very social creatures, yet the world is the most divided right now.
As far as…?
Well, I don’t want to bash on people, but I’ve just noticed that when you’re out at party or social event that division sort of happens a lot.
People want to be social, but they don’t want to talk to anyone for fear that actually being outgoing will deem you uncool.
They have this whole persona up and they act a certain way. They know this person and that person. But when you actually try to have a conversation with them, they don’t want to talk to you or they’re too good for it. I have my end quote by the way…… do you want it right now?
Like for the end of the article? Sure, let’s hear it.
“Life is like the man in the trench coat and boots.” That’s it.
What does that mean?
I wrote that. I don’t want to reveal it too early on in my career… I’ll wait 20 years until I’m super big. Until everyone’s talking about it and it’s trending on Twitter.I’ll just have to wait I guess. So obviously you have a lot of naked people in your photography..
Yes, I do own a lot of naked people. I love shooting women nude.
Is this a new thing you’re into?
I’ve always been super into it. I did this one series in my first film class about censorship and female identity. I had a friend of mine pose nude and I was making a comment on censorship on Instagram; you know how you have to censor nipples… it’s fucking stupid.
Free the nipple.
Yeah, free the nipple. I covered up her face and everything. Except I cut an entire strip in her shirt so that her boobs were exposed and cut a hole in her pants so that her vagina was exposed. So it was like the opposite of censorship. I feel like the picture is very haunting. Actually a lot of people that commented back on it said it felt very “rape-y,” which I wasn’t going for, but that’s totally part of it. It’s weird that we censor our nipples, but you can still sell porn. It’s all part of the whole male gaze thing. It’s very haunting. I want to normalize being nude because I think it’s beautiful. And I want to normalize sexuality and nipples. I like abandoned places too because I like comparing abandoned places and homes to our bodies. It’s like our bodies are our home and we can do whatever we want with them. I feel like it’s a weird contrast.
Let’s talk about Lizard Jesus.
Lucy the Lizard… she actually passed away.
She was my friends lizard and was my model for the day and I was just taking her around to grocery stores and having her pose next to chemicals. Wait no no. not chemicals I wouldn’t do that to a lizard. Posing next to cleaners and different places. I love reptiles because I have this really weird experience with reptiles. I’ll just leave it at “underwater lizard aliens.”
Let’s just leave it at that. We passed by this Jesus poster at a Church and I had her pose in front of the Jesus. Her head fits directly in front of the halo and you can see the typical Jesus pose. That image means a lot of different things to me though. When I first took it I didn’t really think about it a lot, but when I saw it again I was like “Woah this makes so much sense.” I am not too fond of religion in general. It divides people. I understand people wanting to look up to some higher power, but I don’t like the idea of a practiced regime. It feels too political for me. I think in a way this picture was kind of a “fuck you” to extreme religious people who I’ve experienced in my life, shoving their thoughts and beliefs down my throat. A lot of people have tried to convert me. I’m not just one thing. I’m spiritual. I feel like a lot of religion divides people rather than being this holy beautiful thing where you’re talking to the God that you believe in. It’s become this battle thing where my faith is better than yours.
I’m not going to imply that you’re mocking religion, but it does seem very satirical.
I’m not trying to mock Jesus and religion at all, but I will be honest, yes, it’s a satirical photograph. And it’s ok to be blunt sometimes.
Aren’t reptiles a biblical symbol too?
Reptiles are seen as evil in a way. But It’s not only about religion. It’s a fuck you to any institution, any place, any one, who’s told me you can’t do this or you can’t be this way. It’s me telling off anyone who has tried to narrow me down or put a box around my art or anything I’m thinking or saying. And not just for me, that goes for anyone. So, go be that lizard in front of the Jesus! Going back to the Beatles — I once read about how John Lennon said that the Beatles are more famous than Jesus, and it started a whole frenzy. People were so upset and burning their albums. Going crazy. That’s an example of how crazy people go over religion. He wasn’t saying that they’re better than God. He was just saying religion was not as popular as rock music is. Times are changing. Religion is something that’s blocking people from experiencing life.
Do you make art to challenge people or make them feel uncomfortable at times?
This is what I aspire to do: I want to make work, whether it’s a film or a photograph, where people really want to look away from it, but they just can’t. I want people to be uncomfortable but intrigued.