Eyes of the Skin wraps around you like a quilt. “I’ll show you the way,” the screen prompts, as a hand reaches out from the projection of a fabric forest. Light pink velveteen couches offer a place to sit as you surround yourself with sewn leaf-like appendages. “Are you lost?” the projection asks again. “I’ll show you the way. I’m so nice.” The softness seduces me like a comfortable bed or familiar habit. Yet, as Jen Clay’s stitched together avatars begin to offer advice, it becomes clear that these cozy woods won’t release its captive without a fight.
It’s easier to define how Clay’s solo exhibition at Locust Projects makes me feel than what it is. The warm light and muffled soundscape that fill the room recall a womb, or the warm pocket of a giant with particularly pushy pocket lint. A dating simulator, a novel, a quilt of manipulative monsters stitched and cast like shadows on the cave wall—all these things and a world of more are held within the work’s simple prompts and pinkish-blue projections. But after a few times playing through the game, it began to feel like its own structure. It is a temporary building referencing the essay by Juhani Pallasmaa that lent the installation its name, constructed through light and sound and touch, instead of concrete and steel. Controlled by a simple yellow button and a tracking ball set into a quilted podium, it is an entire movable digital universe that requires no headset or suspension of the real world for immersion.
Most immediately, it’s a forest, organic and infinite and impenetrable, and based off the landscape of Clay’s native North Carolina. Her monsters evoke both the cryptids famously rumored to inhabit those hills and the creatures she saw lurking around the corner during childhood hallucinations. As you stand alone at the podium in the center of the installation, the cryptids’ offers of guidance and comfort can feel tempting and familiar to anyone who has dealt with depression. It would be easier to linger in their comforting quilted grip, to lose years of your life laying on the forest floor. But I’ll let you in on the trick: To find your way out of the woods, you must resist the inertia of the cryptids’ companionship. You must walk out on your own.
Like any quilt, Eyes of the Skin is a piece that tells a story through disparate scraps stitched together. In this case, a merging of Clay’s sewing practice with her husband Samuel Lopez de Victoria’s knowledge of video game design. During the pandemic, he introduced her to a dating simulator called Hatoful Boyfriend: A School of Hope and White Wings, which focuses on a flock of sentient pigeons competing to romance a teenage girl in a Japanese high school. Clay had no background in coding before starting to design Eyes of the Skin, but she was excited by the structure of the visual novel and the way the pigeon’s prompting mimicked the experience of navigating an overstimulated mind.
Clay’s unevenly dyed work resists the uncanny valley of computer-generated graphics, with their repeating textures and unsettling smooth colors. Instead, stitched fingers periodically rain from the ceiling as if to recall that these images were made by hand with the intention of being touched, worn, and loved. Open palms and grasping fists reach for passersby from the projected forest, urging players to remain in the soft grip. One of the characters, The Claw, appears like the hand of God from above. “You’ve been CLAWED!” the game tells you smugly. In another moment, the woods begin to thin, only to close in again. “Congrats, you’ve made it out but um it’s still with you,” the letters scroll slowly on the screen. “Try again.”
Even after playing through the game a dozen times, I continued to find new writing and unexpected prompts, and the choose-your-own-adventure format recalls both the impenetrable vastness of the setting and the experience of navigating a chronic mental illness. The soundscape, created by Nashville-based longtime collaborator Elise Anderson, draws on the cries of baby goats and her own guttural throat noises to create an auditory world that is uncomfortably unnatural.
Though it’s rooted in the NC woods of Clay’s youth, the game’s scenery and storytelling is deeply influenced by the undying tropical vegetation of her chosen home of Miami. Some of the characters recalled the unsavory seductions and players that haunt the city’s nightlife. “Don’t let this beautiful weather fool you into thinking everything’s fine,” the game reminds you when you do finally emerge into the light pink dawn. It would be easy to imagine this work as a horror game, but the effect is comforting. In order to make the work accessible for different physical and mental abilities, Clay collaborated with mental health consultant Tayina Deravile. The opening reception invited community members to join for a healing group cuddle in the space after the gallery talk, and on October 21, Clay brought the piece to life by hosting a playful Scooby Doo-like “fun run” with costumed characters constructed by the artist that chased participants around Miami’s Little River neighborhood. But for those of us that have walked through the daunting mental health woods Clay so cleverly reconstructs, it is gratifying just to visit the game for an afternoon, press the big yellow button, and tell the demons “not today.”
This piece was published in partnership with Oolite Arts as part of a project to increase critical arts coverage in Miami-Dade County.