When I was in Los Angeles a few of weeks ago, I explored Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching Walking Tour from his Erased Lynching series, 2002-2011. While journeying on this path through the El Pueblo and Civic Center areas with a print-out of the tour instructions, I was often struck by the lack of physical markers on the landscape. This brutal yet significant history involves multiple bodies. But the tour sites mask those bodies.
This experience made me return to my ruminations on how people memorialize trauma. Art about devastating historical events and other violent ordeals engages difficult issues of representation. How does one express the effects of suffering on the body? Is figurative art too literal? Is it too revealing? Does depicting a person’s body in pain remove her/his subjectivity? Is abstraction a more responsible choice? Or is abstraction insensitive? Does it use form to mask human feelings? What is the most appropriate way to represent trauma experienced by individuals versus groups? Is absence a more ethical strategy when dealing with violence involving spectacle and fetishization? What are the sociopolitical repercussions of these choices?
These are difficult questions to confront. Artists make personal choices here that sometimes become more complex when working for commissions. When the work is for outdoor public art, the stakes are even higher because the decision-making process involves more voices and a greater number of people will interact with the work.
This conundrum is central to the memorials of lynching violence that I study. For example, in Duluth, Minnesota, artists Carla Stetson and Anthony Peyton Porter, and memorial board members of the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial opted to include naturalistic figurative reliefs that restore the victims’ bodies to an intact state. Sculptor Carla Stetson even elevated the social status of each man by dressing the figures in middle-class attire instead of clothing resembling those of itinerant laborers. In contrast, in Waco, which is located in Central Texas, an area with an extremely high number of lynchings, residents have had trouble building consensus about commemorating this aspect of their history. While they haven’t established any outdoor artworks or markers to memorialize the lynchings, they did produce three resolution statements. Two were presented at outdoor public gatherings.
The lack of physical forms commemorating lynching violence in the U.S. contrasts greatly with how we memorialize the Holocaust in our built environments. Artists memorializing the Holocaust sometimes employ abstraction as Joel Shapiro did in his Loss and Regeneration, 1993, Washington, D.C. However, many employ figurative art that depicts effects of pain on the body like Nathan Rapoport’s 1964 Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs in downtown Philadelphia or Elbert Weinberg’s Holocaust Memorial, 1979 in Wilmington, Delaware. While these works highlight anguish, the figures aren’t personalized. Instead of depicting particular individuals, these memorials present anonymous, stylized stand-ins to represent an ethnic group.
After I finished the Lynching Walking Tour, I walked into a park off N. Grand Avenue in the Civic Center area. I happened upon a memorial to genocide in the Ukraine. The artist and the committee obviously felt that stylized figurative art that features the body in a diminished condition was the most powerful way to communicate their message. Again, we have types instead of individuals. As I was looking at this structure, I felt that it was somewhat ironic to come across this memorial to violence that occurred in Europe after witnessing the lack of material commemorative signs to the violence that happened on the streets of Los Angeles.
- The scale of Michael Arad‘s beautiful and austere pools on the architectural footprint of the World Trade Center is impressive. The immense size prohibits the ground-level viewer from seeing into the bottom of the open grave-like centers.
- The waterfalls create a very dynamic element. The persistent sound of water is probably soothing. But on a stormy day such as when I visited, the flow of water was unsettling. The unruly waves of water blowing out of the pool created a highly dramatic aspect that I didn’t anticipate.
- The park-like space encourages contemplation and interaction. But it is counter-acted by the heavily guarded borders. As I expected, the area is highly regulated. Visitors have to secure passes to enter and go through airport-like security measures. But I hadn’t thought a great deal about how these restrictions intervene with the city layout and public memory until I was at the memorial.
- Additionally, after following the roped paths to the exit, a gift store – the visitor center, confronts the visitor. This consumerist feature relates the memorial to the prevalent museum strategy of blockbuster art exhibitions and, as Professor Marita Sturken describes, the “kitchificscation of experience.” Yet, the memorial visitor fortunately isn’t forced to walk through the shop as is the case at many museums.
In a 2012 Huffington Post editorial, Sturken argued that the National September 11 Memorial needs to contextualize 9/11 within the broader realm of human rights issues. She cites various memorial strategies that people have implemented in several South American countries.
As an art historian, I appreciate her position. Yet I think it’s important to note the role of politics in shaping the public memory of 9/11. I think the National September 11 Memorial is responding to our current situation that remains embroiled in a contentious flux involving definitions of national tragedy, military conflict, anti-terrorist measures, and citizenship. Similar to the surrounding construction zone, this memorial is still in a state of evolution. With time the memorial’s interpretative strategies will probably change and perhaps become more expansive as Sturken suggests.
- City Room: Flood Risk Will Not Alter Placement of 9/11 Remains (cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com)
“The photographer’s most important and likewise most difficult task is not learning to manage his camera, or to develop, or to print. It is learning to see photographically – that is, learning to see his subject matter in terms of the capacities of his tools and processes, so that he can instantaneously translate the elements and values in a scene before him into the photograph he wants to make.” – Edward Weston
I read Edward Weston’s “Seeing Photographically” essay years ago. But I only came to grasp its meaning this year as I was taking a digital photography class. Although I’m not sure how Weston would have felt about digital photography since he wasn’t a fan of color, hated what he called photo-painting, and preferred simple equipment, I believe my learning experience corresponds to the core idea of his essay – the need for good composition. Weston urged photographers to carefully frame their subjects. He believed this process should happen as the photographer captured the image, not later in the darkroom.
In the past I’ve created many poor images because I didn’t pay attention to composition, focus, lighting, or image quality. While my shots were usually ok as informal snapshots, they were horrible for sharing my research. This problem was doubly worrisome because I study the history of photography. Although I often examine well composed photographs, I wasn’t spending much thought on constructing my own images. One day while presenting blurry images in a PowerPoint, I realized that I needed to upgrade my camera and learn how to take photographs of outdoor art and landscapes that actually conveyed the work and experience of being in those spaces.
The course that I took at Delaware Art Museum taught me how to use the dslr that I purchased for my fieldwork. As I learned how to frame my shots, I began to better understand photographic techniques such as depth of field. In addition to now being better able to teach my students, the class has also encouraged me to see public art differently. Now when I’m looking I’m thinking about how to best document and capture the spirit of the works. Consequently, I spend more time closely looking at the works than I did before. After taking numerous shots of a memorial, I study each image at home on my computer. This process often leads me to realize what I’ve missed. So when possible, I return to sites to re-look.
For instance, a couple of years ago I had visited Glenna Goodacre’s Vietnam Women’s Memorial, 1993. At that time I quickly surveyed the sculpture and took a few wide shots and one close-up. This past summer, after my photography class, I re-visited the memorial and I spent much more time at the site. I paid closer attention to the sculpture as a multidimensional work and I noticed more details of the individual figures. My new training encouraged me to zoom in on those details. As I kept looking, I realized that there’s a tenderness in the faces and interaction of these figures that I didn’t recognize when I was just snapping quick shots.
As I’ve been working on my dissertation, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we learn from objects. How does looking at a sculpture change what we know or who we are?
People often use the word “aesthetics” to indicate an appreciation of the visual aspects of a work of art. Many people also consider this appreciation as merely a superficial survey of the outward properties. Yet, aesthetics is more than that. It’s a way of knowing based on sensory input instead of rational thought. I think that this form of knowledge is crucial. To understand works of art, we need to discuss the sensory data of works in relation to historical, social, and cultural contexts.
The Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial, 2003 in Duluth, Minnesota is one of the objects in my study of lynching memorials. I’m now thinking about how the memorial affects individuals and society. It’s easy to argue that the memorial alters the politics of memorial landscape. It’s a large structure commemorating a racially motivated lynching in a region that rarely participated in this form of collective violence. But how does the materiality of the object affect us? Do the inscribed concrete walls tell us something? Does the texture of the bronze figures elicit a particular sensation in viewers?
When I visited Duluth this summer, I took many photographs of the memorial. Several of the shots were close-ups of the walls and figural elements. I also spent a lot of time watching how people used the space. I’m hoping this research will help me uncover alternate ways of knowing.
*Over the next several months, I’ll be writing about the challenges and benefits of adopting a publicly active approach as an art historian. I’ll share what I’ve learned as a University of Delaware PEMCI fellow (Public Engagement in Material Culture Institute) and as a recent PAGE (Publicly Active Graduate Education) fellow of the national organization, Imagining America.
When I began graduate school, I was very interested in sharing knowledge with a broad audience. I wanted to ensure that my graduate school experience would help me become more socially relevant. Fortunately, my program is very amenable to student involvement in diverse projects. From the onset, I met faculty members who encouraged graduate students to write for local newspapers as well as academic journals. Through my experience as a fellow in the University of Delaware’s Public Engagement in Material Culture Institute, PEMCI, I learned how to write for non-academic publics. This program also taught me how to share my work via social media platforms.
Now that I’ve been blogging for over two years about public culture in the arts, I actually feel engaged with the world of art. Although I had previously secured an advanced knowledge of art history as a master’s level student, I usually felt that my training qualified me to serve as an adept observer, but not as an active producer in the arts. Fortunately, I made my way out of that quagmire with the help of various faculty and staff members at my institution and comments from many people who have reviewed my blog and tweets.
On this blog I write about material culture, the stuff people make. While I started this venue to provide further contextual information about my dissertation topic, lynching landscapes, I now write about diverse topics related to the arts. I aim to write two posts per month. However, sometimes life (school assignments, deadlines, etc.) gets in the way. Then, I’m lucky if I able to blog once a month. Unlike most of the papers I’ve written for class assignments and conference presentations, blogging is more personal. I allow myself room to investigate various issues without trying to prove a thesis. I’ve also had to develop a blogging voice. Although the tone of most of my posts is probably more academic than those by non-Ph.D. seekers, I seek to write in an intelligent, yet authentic, and understandable, manner that will engage a broad audience.
To date I’ve published over thirty posts. I’ve written reviews on exhibitions, books, and essays; disseminated event information; recommended exhibitions and public art to see; and ruminated on single topics.
Although I’m excited about being a public scholar, I have noticed that some graduate students do not consider public engagement as an aspect of their career goals. I hope my posts and other activities will encourage some folks to reconsider this option because I truly believe that digital humanities projects can help to create and sustain communities. We can use social media to empower stakeholders fighting exclusionary practices through four key strategies: knowledge, voice, collaboration, and planning. Blogging is a path toward participation in current issues, making history, and fostering dialogue between people from various backgrounds.
I plan to keep blogging for the remainder of my graduate education and throughout my professional career. This project is a type of community work and a practice that allows me to explore ideas, ask questions, and “keep it real.”
History and the Politics of Scholarly Collaboration, Part II: What is to be Done?, by Claire Potter, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/4/12
Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World, by William Cronon, American Historical Association, Perspectives on History, 2/12
Do the Risky Thing in Digital Humanities, by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/25/11
Scholars Use Wikipedia to Save Public Art from the Dustbin of History, by Mary Helen Miller, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/4/10
After being buried under heaps of books for a few months, I’ve resurfaced!
I’ve passed my comprehensive PhD exams and I’m ready to put away the PowerPoint presentations (for a little while) so I can get out and see some art.
Here’s a list of Northeast coast exhibitions I’d like to see this fall.
Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
Anthropocene Extinction, ends 12/30
Realistically, I don’t think I’ll be able to travel to Boston because of lack of time and funds. However, I’d love to see this site-specific installation by street artist Swoon. She has combined her hallmark cut paper drawing technique with a large bamboo sculpture.
Museum of Modern Art
New Photography 2011, ends 1/16/12
I’m particularly interested in two of the six artists featured in this show. Moyra Davey’s efforts to re-materialize and re-personalize conceptions of photography by circulating non-digital (film based) images in the mail sounds cool. And Doug Rickard’s reinterpretations of Google Map images touch on culturally and politically resonant issues of privacy and surveillance.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Romare Bearden: A Centennial Celebration, ends 1/8/11
Although I’m a Bearden fan, I haven’t seen much of his actual work. This exhibition, which features The Block, a mural sized landscape collage, sounds like the perfect solution to this predicament.
The Noguchi Museum, Queens
Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City, ends 4/4/12
I haven’t visited this museum yet. However, I’ve frequently checked out their website and other online materials. This community oriented exhibition, a tribute to Isamu Noguchi who worked with other artists on neighborhood revitalization projects, seems like a wonderful impetus to get me over to this museum. Four artists, Natalie Jeremijenko, Mary Miss, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and George Trakas, collaborated to re-envision how the area can better serve residents and businesses.
The Studio Museum of New York
The Bearden Project, 11/10/11 – 3/12/12
Romare Bearden was instrumental to founding The Studio Museum. Accordingly, the institution is honoring him and recognizing his 100th birthday (September 2nd). I look forward to checking out this in-depth and lively exhibition which will continually change over time. It should be interesting to compare the Met’s interpretative stance regarding Bearden’s subject, Harlem streets, with the approach taken by an institution located in that neighborhood.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Isamu Noguchi, sculpture garden installation, ends summer 2012
This exhibition was scheduled to close earlier this year. Fortunately PMA will continue to feature Noguchi’s work until next summer. Hmm, stars are starting to align. I can imagine having an awesome day in Philly checking out Noguchi’s work and finally going on one of those mural arts tours. Fingers crossed….
Smithsonian National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture, on exhibit at NMAAHC’s gallery in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History
For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, ends 11/27
For some reason, I missed this exhibition when it was at the International Center of Photography in New York last year. Fortunately, it’s a traveling exhibition so there’s still time to see it. After the current venue it will go to Baltimore, Maryland and Andover, Massachusetts (see the webpage for details). I’m very eager to see this exhibition since it relates to my studies in visual culture and it’s curated by Professor Maurice Berger. He has written extensively on issues involving the interplay of race, visual culture, and museums. So this one is on my absolutely must see list!
What about your list? What have you seen or hope to see this autumn?
Google Street View and the Politics of Exploitation, Visual Culture Blog, 10/19/11
Navigating the Puzzle of Google Street View Authorship, Wired, 8/19/11
The Romare Bearden Commemorative Stamps Unveiling, Katherine Finerty, The Studio Museum Blog, 10/6/11
Romare Bearden Honored with US Stamp, Hrag Vartanian, Hyperallergic, 9/28/11
It’s always fun to enjoy great public art when it’s nice outside. However, when the temperature and humidity are on the rise, art museums are even more attractive than usual.
Here’s my Summer ArtHop list of exhibitions and works of art to see in the Northeast to Mid-Atlantic region.
So far I’ve visited the Elliott Erwitt exhibition at International Center of Photography, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads.
The remaining shows are on my “hope to explore” list.
Stay tuned for exhibition reviews and have an art-filled summer!
Public Sculpture – Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei, at the Pultizer Fountain, in front of Plaza Hotel, 5th Avenue & 59th Street, on view through July 15th, ends soon
*My take-away: I was surprised by the large size of the 12 sculptures and the unusual blend of quietness and violence. Oriented across the front of the fountain facing Central Park, the disembodied heads seem like spiritual sentries. Oddly Ai’s work is well suited to the 100-year-old fountain designed by Karl Bitter and provokes one to consider cultural contact and tensions.
For those of you not in the area, you still may have a chance to experience this work because these heads will soon travel to Los Angeles and other U.S. cities. (See the NYTimes article listed below for more information.)
Costume/Textiles - Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, Metropolitan Museum of Art, on through August 7th
Yes, the line is very long to see this exhibition. Last Saturday morning I waited in line for about 30 minutes, but I’m glad I did.
*My take-away: The “romantic artist” rhetoric stated in the exhibit labels is somewhat heavy-handed. In the wall label text the curator attempts to highlight serious themes such as cultural appropriation and racial stereotyping. Unfortunately, the effort is too timid and the blockbuster-like crowd doesn’t promote contemplation. On a positive note, McQueen’s clothes and the museum’s exhibition design are very imaginative and dramatic. While the show aggrandizes the familiar “the Artist” trope and spectacularizes the fashion industry, for those with cerebral interests, there’s plenty here to consider on your own.
Photography - Elliott Erwitt: Personal Best, International Center of Photography, on through August 28th
*My take-away: This show is larger than I expected. It highlights Erwitt’s witty, engaging, dramatic, and stylish work. Beautiful black & white photography. Of all his great work, I found his photos of dogs the most endearing and ironic. Definitely worth checking out.
- 12 Heads Do the Talking for a Silenced Artist (nytimes.com)
- Anish Kapoor Cancels China Plans to Protest Ai Weiwei Detention (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- French Artist Cancels China Show Over Ai Detention (AFP)
- Alexander McQueen in All His Dark Glory (nytimes.com)
- Elliott Erwitt’s Best Picture? The Next One (lens.blogs.nytimes.com)