This semester the Visual Arts Department Seminar, “Issues in Contemporary Art” sought out to not just learn about the tides of new art, but also to take hold of it as curators, theorists, and writers. For the next few weeks, an exhibition of the works of established contemporary artists like Nikhil Chopra and Joshua Kirsch will be displayed in 185 Nassau and the new Butler gallery as a curatorial project of the visual arts department. Open to the school, these projects bring a bit of the contemporary art scene to Princeton, NJ and allow us to understand and explore questions of self-representation, technology and the consciousness of space through the medium of art.
–*Saba McCoy for Visual Arts 392*
**Exploring notions of identity**
**by Saba McCoy, Zoe Goldman, Victoria Lewis, Jun Koh, and Jessie Dicovitsky**
This exhibit aims to explore the different ways of defining and building the concept of “self.” Through careful selection of artists, we have crafted a show that explores how one might create a perception of self through art. We hope that in bringing together the work of four selected artists, our exhibition will illustrate a greater understanding of both individual and collective ideas of identity.
The first artist, Andrea Cote, works with the spaces between the body, the emotional and creative self, and the outside world in her piece, “Cut” (2007). In this work, Cote chops sections of her hair off, dips the hair in paint, and uses it as a brush on a canvas. To her, hair cutting symbolizes a break with an emotionally traumatic moment of her past – by severing the hair from her body, it ceases to be a part of her. This transformation of her hair from being part of her, to being removed from her symbolizes the fleeting and shifting definition of the self. Additionally, this piece records her own personal history, illustrated by the remnants of her body and of her self.
This idea of “personal history” is one that another artist in this exhibition, Nikhil Chopra, explores through his work in the nine-part series, Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing I-IX . Through a multiple-day performative-installation, Chopra inhabits a position of both the mirror and storyteller, taking on various identities, including that of a character loosely based on his draughtsman grandfather, and creating large-scale drawings of his surroundings that transform the space. The series serves to explore the question of personal history and self, and to compel the audience to engage with the physicality of his body in order to delve into the infinite nature and influences of time and history.
Hester Scheurwater is another artist that utilizes the physicality of the (female) body in “Kaltes Klares Wasser” (2005), examining the interaction between female identity as sexual objects and the exploitative camera. Presented through a feminine lens, “Kaltes” attempts to reflect the female perspective of bodies as governed by the expectations of male-dominated society. Scheurwater achieves this by projecting images that feed society’s fantasies of violating and abusing the (weaker) female sex, all the while questioning the morality of the audience. Scheurwater implicates that the collective, female self as confined to the identity of “the object of sexual desire”, and showcases in “Kaltes”, the tragic disintegration of female self-worth due to this objectification.
Much like Scheurwater’s exploration, Nathalie Djurberg uses her stop-motion animation films to explore the most complex instances of human behavior, morality, depravity, and emotion. In her most recent installation entitled Experimentet and displayed at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Djurberg created a “hellish” Garden of Eden comprised of giant, colorful, and grotesque sculpted flowers dispersed throughout the space and accompanied by three of her films. Through the often disturbing or disorienting visual scenarios, Djurberg challenges her viewer to confront their own sensations and experiences.
Juxtaposing the works of these very distinct artists, we begin to gain a greater understanding of the diverse interpretations of self-depiction that can be manifest through artistic methods. In examining these works through multiple lenses: the body, gender, the subconscious, and history, we more completely understand this group of artists and their individual quests for a definition of “self.” This exploration and juxtaposition allows the viewer to more deeply examine their own conception of “self” and the factors that define it for each individual.
**An Artist in the Nation’s Service**
**Dialogues with Chin Chih Yang**
**by Snow Li, Kaitlyn Hay, Julie Dickerson, and Katie Boyce**
Chin Chih Yang’s art deals with a variety of political themes, from disease and climate change to Taiwan’s political identity. Much of his work is done in the form of site-specific performance art that engages his audience. He also works with sculpture, photography, installation, and drawing. During a personal phone interview, we asked Chin Chih how he balanced developing the aesthetic aspect of his pieces with their potent political themes. Chin Chih answered without hesitation: “My art is about the people.” Instead of describing his art through aesthetics—in terms of form, color, shape, texture or facture, the defining element in his art is the people it engages. Chin Chih often spoke about the “complicated relationship” between people, and his art truly reveals a sophisticated understanding of this relationship. It’s rare to see an artist who internalizes the world around him to the point that the primary material he works with is the complex society he speaks of with such frustrated passion. What happens when art is no longer in a gallery because it cannot speak to the public directly enough, but instead moves out to busy streets? Can art still be conceptual without being complicated? Perhaps Chin Chih himself said it best: “I hope that people can understand.”
Chin Chih attempts to present his art in ways that he believes will garner the most attention from his target audience. He explained that when people see his work, he wants them to “adopt [his] mind”—to understand the political issue as he does, and to think to think it over extensively. The placement of his installations is very strategic; his ambition is to engage the people who will be most interested, in the hopes that they will then pass the message on to others. When asked about a recent piece called “Burning ICE,” which featured large blocks of ice that participants were asked to sit on during a hot summer day, he said that he chose to install the piece in Union Square because he felt that a lot of “diversified people” came to that particular location—people that would most likely internalize his piece. He also alluded to the large number of (often political) events that take place in Union Square. The goal of “Burning Ice” was to demonstrate the effects of global warming and the impact that our individual routines have in accelerating the process.
We are currently discussing plans with Chin Chih for a project stemming from the collective issue of information transmission—the trend towards digitization. Very recently, the University implemented a change in the printing policy for students, issuing a quota of 2100 sheets. The policy caused quite a stir as printing was previously unlimited. While on the surface the quota is merely a trivial inconvenience for otherwise pampered students, the change represents a much more widespread shift in our society towards digitization. With the newly implemented quota, more students are opting to read documents and articles directly off their computer screens. The downside of this is that students likely retain less of what they read. Our goal is to convey this quandary, and this piece of Princeton politics, in a conceptual work about the quota. We wish to incorporate Chin Chih’s approach of making people into artists and of using found art to convey a simple message. Our installation will incorporate advertising flyers, commonly found affixed en masse to light posts, as evidence of communication methods in transition, from paper to digital. By presenting an installation targeted to reach the diverse Princeton community, students will become co-artists, no longer passively viewing art, but instead actively creating it.
**Presenting Joshua Kirsch’s sympathetic resonance in the new Butler residential college**
**by Maddie Douglas, Justine Drenan, Adrian Gallegos, and Jonathan Goh**
While rushing through the New Butler D Hall to precept, deep in contemplation of Max Weber and the Protestant work ethic, the relative efficiency of polymer batteries, or the stylings of Roberto Bolaño, you may suddenly find yourself in a stairway filled with the unfamiliar reverberations of a marimba. If curiosity prompts you to explore, you will find a tangle of red wires and swinging mallets snaking across the floor of the James S. Hall ’34 gallery. Sympathetic Resonance, by up-and-coming artist Joshua Kirsch, is a dynamic piece of installation art that asks viewers to play it.
Think of it as a marimba dissected by technology. Wooden slats and resonant tubes are individually mounted on birch stands, which are installed on a platform in the gallery. Wires run from the central keyboard to each individual unit, and, at the touch of a key, carry electrical signals, which cause a mallet on the corresponding unit to strike the marimba key, making its pole resonate. The 56 separate units comprise four and a half octaves.
A recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts in NYC, Joshua Kirsch is as comfortable around hand-forged sheet steel as he is around three-axis computer-controlled milling machines and laser cutters. His diverse set of skills is evident in the craftsmanship of Sympathetic Resonance—in both the gracefully curved birch and African padauk and the clean, functional lines of the machined aluminum fittings that support it. To fulfill its function as a musical instrument, each note had to be tuned and electro-mechanically calibrated to allow quick and proper response. And to support frequent and repeated user interaction, the piece had to be designed with robustness in mind—and yet still remain portable and flexible enough to allow for a variety of arrangements. Thorough design and quality of construction allow the piece to perform its function unobstructed and to withstand the stresses of its purpose, demonstrating that craftsmanship is still important in some modern art.
It is the quality of the craftsmanship that allows the wires and units of Sympathetic Resonance to fluidly bridge the gap between the technological and the organic, the scientific and the artistic. “Sympathetic resonance” is the technical name for the phenomenon where one object picks up the vibrations of another object to which it is physically connected and resonates at the same pitch. Kirsch’s title could also refer to the relations that the piece creates between notes, space, and people. One aspect of the piece’s “sympathetic” nature is its adaptability to a range of spaces in many possible configurations. In its current setup, wires grow organically across the platform like vines. In another potential configuration, Kirsch envisions wires wrapping around pillars like ivy. Sympathetic Resonance’s potential for endless new formations both in spatial orientation and in the music it can produce gives the piece an engaging unpredictability.
Especially when installed at a university, where intertwined and overlapping ideas are often artificially separated into clean academic disciplines, Sympathetic Resonance is a reminder that these distinctions are artificial. Its unconventional form transcends the sort of academic categories that Princeton creates, while at the same time, its familiar keyboard welcomes visitors to play on it. In a place caught up in the process of learning, Sympathetic Resonance encourages students to look up, listen, and maybe participate, bridging the gap between viewers and their environment.
Its sympathetic qualities are not the only aspects of Kirsch’s piece that draw attention to the process of experiencing art and music. By turning physical input to electronic signals and then back again into a mechanical-acoustic output imitative of the real human action of playing the marimba, Kirsch highlights the ironic disconnectedness inherent in the electronic connection. First, the “clickless” keyboard—the same capacitance technology found in the iPod wheel—reduces the necessary human motion to the barest of minimums: a single touch. Then the vibrating keys are decoupled from the keyboard by distance, so the viewer can hear and see the musical note but cannot feel it. Cause and effect are separated from each other by an impassable electronic translation, such that the sound at first seems to be—unnervingly—some abstract coincidence, a new relationship to whose feedback patterns the viewer’s brain is unaccustomed. The units seem to act of their own will, sympathetic to psychic suggestion through the electronic ether rather than slave to solid, physical contact. We are confronted with both the wonderful magic and the disturbing aloofness of the electronic.
**The sound of space**
**by Allen Porter, Robert Cha, Sydney Egan, and Jae Won Choi**
Christian Tomaszewski’s installation PLAYTIME (2009) was originally shown as part of the exhibition Of Other Spaces at the Bureau for Open Culture (Columbus College of Art & Design). Thematically united by the Foucauldian concept of “other spaces”, the various works in this exhibit sought to explore the practices of architectural spaces and the practical effects of such spaces upon consciousness and perception.
PLAYTIME, a reconstruction of the architectural and acoustic assemblages of Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Play Time, was originally installed in 950 square feet of floor space, which was painted with a mazelike geometric pattern and populated with filmic elements (designs, furniture, objects, lighting, colors, sounds) from Play Time; additionally, a clear, plastic half-globe hung from the ceiling, in which one visitor at a time could place his or her head and listen to Tomaszewski’s original kaleidoscopic soundtrack, composed of mixes and samples from old Parisian music and the audio track of Play Time, while taking in a 360º Panoptic view of the space of PLAYTIME. The installation was flooded in bright, white light, recalling a film set’s lighting. The furniture, representative of Tati’s critique of modern architecture, was not constructed for comfort—superficially aesthetic rather than actually functional, its formal function is to cause visitors to question both the artificiality of the realized/reconstructed filmic space and its relations to practice(s).
Tati was famously attentive to both cinematic architectural and sonic space, and intricately interwove sound in his films to create a sense of temporal identity. Indeed, sound is one of the few constants in the continuously-varying architectural spaces of modernity, and it contributes prominently to the conflation of disciplinary spaces articulated in Play Time. In Tomaszewski’s PLAYTIME, the form of the transparent globe of sound functions to isolate each visitor from the sonic space occupied by the others—an instantiation of the molecular isolation enforced by modern architectural space—as well as to conflate the reconstructed aspects of the filmic space in an ironically personal, synchronously Panoptic view. The doubly edited soundtrack foregrounds the assemblage processes of post-production sonically, as the doubly edited space does visually—together creating a conceptual realization of the molding or “post-productive” processes of actual social, architectural spaces.
The current exhibit, “Playing Time”, is comprised solely of Tomaszewski’s soundtrack for PLAYTIME, which has been reproduced in the space of the Princeton Lewis Center for the Arts. Instead of a confined or disciplined space for sound—the space of the installation, the subspace of the interior of the globe—the open space of the Lewis Center, a relatively undisciplined space for creativity, provides a synchronous social experience of the sonic, rather than a narcissistically isolated or paranoidly personal one. Furthermore, the doubly post-productive composition of the visual and acoustic space of PLAYTIME has here been transformed into a new, positively productive space, where the now triply post-productive soundtrack functions as a repeating sonic element to unify in synchronicity the unorganized, chance flux and flow of humanity through these halls. Instead of a confined, post-productive sonic present which immobilizes and isolates the listener and Panoptically conflates the visual and architectural spaces of the installation, this exhibit literally “plays time” through sound—for here the sound is itself fixated not as a totalizing case but as a fragmentary element, while listeners, visual, and aural elements flow by in the flux of an ever social synchronous present.