Teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime. Give Darel Carey a roll of electrical tape, and he’ll create another dimension for you.
It’s not an exaggeration, either. Stepping foot into a room that’s been blitzed by Carey is akin to stepping into a life-sized optical illusion. But those with weak stomachs might want to give his exhibits a miss: “Every now and then, someone comes by and tells me they would hate to be drunk in my rooms,” he says, laughing. “But most people react positively to my work.”
A former intelligence analyst in the US Air Force, Carey was just nine years away from a comfortable retirement before he gave it all up and enrolled himself in art school. Perhaps his sudden backpedaling was due to upbringing that tugged Carey away from art as a child (“I was raised in a strict Asian household. Being an artist was never in the equation,” he says wryly).
Or perhaps the thought began brewing in his head right after high school. A friend of his, Kathy, had just begun tattooing. She convinced Carey to buy a kit and try it out. Carey learned from her as she went, but they lost touch when he moved to San Diego.
Fast-forward to 2007. Carey, now in his second term in the Air Force, turned on the TV to reality show Miami Ink. And there he saw Kathy—now better known as Kat Von D.
“I thought back, and I realised there was a point in time where we were at the same place—but we went in completely different directions,” he says. “I signed up for the Air Force and had a stable, satisfactory career; She followed her passion and succeeded in doing what she loved.”
“That really hit home for me, because it showed me that it was possible.”
And so in 2012, Carey enrolled in one of California’s most notable art institutions, the Otis College of Art and Design.
As for how he found his muse? He was gridding the gallery walls and floor for a show in his senior year when something hit him: The tape he was holding wasn’t just a means to another end. It could be an art form in itself.
So in that very show, Carey put up his first tape art in the form of cubes that looked like they were sitting in the corner of the gallery.
Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher—famous for his drawings of the impossible Penrose stairs—also proved to be one of Carey’s biggest inspirations. He loved being able to create something out of nothing. He loved how simple lines could come together to create something so complex.
But above all, Carey loved to improvise. He never has any concepts or ideas of what he wants to create before walking into a room—everything is done entirely on the fly.
That’s in part due to the myriad of factors that Carey must consider. “There are so many factors that I won’t know about until I’m in a place,” he says. “The lighting, what shadows they may create, where the viewer will enter, which directions they will walk towards…” he ticks them off on his fingers.
This August, Carey heads to luxe beach resort The Sanchaya, where he will—armed with his trusty legion of tape rolls—transform its reception area into a life-sized optical illusion. Carey hasn’t seen the space at all.
And though his on-the-fly method might seem risky to some, Carey prefers not to commit to a creative approach until he’s properly seen (and reflected, and meditated upon) what he’s working with.
Carey doesn’t fear artist’s block—he has synesthesia, meaning that he can visualise sound waves—rather, his biggest challenge while creating a work is tiring out physically and mentally.
“It can also be mentally exhausting, because I need to keep track of several things at once, including what’s going on right in front of me and where the whole thing is going,” he says.
It’s a good thing that he doesn’t get motion sick. And judging by the ever-expanding scale of his on-going work at The Sanchaya (you can follow his progress on his Instagram), Carey’s surely going to need his sea-legs with him.