At Aspen Ideas Fest, artist Dustin Yellin considers a crisis of imagination |

At Aspen Ideas Fest, artist Dustin Yellin considers a crisis of imagination

Brooklyn big-thinker recalls his Aspen roots

Artist Dustin Yellin speaks during the Aspen Ideas Festival at the Aspen Institute campus on June 29, 2021.
Dan Bayer/Courtesy photo

For all the crises of our time — artist Dustin Yellin lists among them climate-related phenomena like fires and floods, social injustices like inequity and structural racism, technological elements like artificial intelligence and the bomb — there is also a plight of creative thinking, Yellin said during a Tuesday night talk on “Civilization as Sculpture” at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

“I really do fear that imagination is the crisis that we’re in, but we don’t dream alone,” Yellin said. ”Civilization is a sculpture and you all in this room are sculptors. it’s up to you, really, to build the world we all want to live in, or we’re all going to die.”

Communities that foster creative thinking could pave the way forward, he said.

“As our habitats collapse, we need to envision a new house of being, one in which access to tools, ideas — most of all a place where different minds like you all — are placed together and left to collide and spark off of each other,” he said.

Yellin, who lives in Brooklyn, has roots in Aspen where he spent time in his adolescence nearly three decades ago.

‘This is a strange place to be. I was raised by lesbian wolves up Little Annie’s Road — true story,” Yellin joked. “I dropped out of Aspen High School and I left this great town around 27 years ago and I can’t believe you’ll have me back.”

The town is a place he feels called to now, too; Yellin said he never wants to leave the natural world and briefly entertained the idea of moving from the city to the Castle Creek valley.

“I think if we open up the aperture of the sensors that is this hardware that we all carry, then that natural world and our natural selves at some point merge,” Yellin said. “Somewhere you know, you have sort of this natural intelligence that can start to be scoped.”

The artist seems to have no shortage of imagination nor that natural intelligence; he is nearly 117 sculptures and 15 years into a 150-plus piece series of humanistic creations he dubs “Psychogeographies.”

“I’m archiving human consciousness through found media that I cut up in books and I paint and I draw on these 3,000-pound microscope slides” he said of the series.

That work is only the tip of the iceberg; Yellin considers himself a storyteller through his extensive body of work, much of which entails spectacularly intricate sculptures of paint and clipped images encased in glass that taken as a whole (and by the sum of their parts) tell sweeping allegories of human experience past, present and future.

Neal Katyal, another Ideas Fest panelist and friend of Yellin’s who introduced the artist, said he considers Yellin to be “one of the world’s greatest artists” and “one of the most interdisciplinary people you’ll ever meet.”

“His entire life’s work is bringing back the marriage of the arts and sciences,” Katyal said.

That life’s work includes not only Yellin’s own artistic endeavors but also his effort to establish Pioneer Works, a cultural hub in Brooklyn where “a free liberal arts school meets a museum meets a community center,” Yellin said. Pioneer Works plays host to artists and musicians, physicists and virtual reality specialists alike; it is a place for education as well as creation and discovery, established with funds from Yellin’s art sales.

But back to that storytelling element: it poses a quandary of its own: “Are stories merely interpretive, or do they make real change?” Yellin asked.

The answer may lead toward the latter, if one of Yellin’s ideas in progress is any indication. The artist has been working for years with engineers, architects and others on logistics for “The Bridge,” a work that will vertically invert a 1,000-foot-long oil tanker with an elevator to the top in an effort to communicate the dire straits of the climate crisis.

“You could get someone who doesn’t even believe in climate change, but their kids are gonna still want to go up to the top of the boat, and by the time they get there, they will (believe in climate change),” Yellin said.

No matter the scale, though, inquiry and interrogation is a throughline in Yellin’s work and thought process.

“You have to remember that what we observe is not nature itself,” he said, “but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.