I am happy and honored to report that, for the past month, I’ve served as Recess’ Critical Writing Fellow. Recess is a fantastic organization that selects artists to use their Soho and Red Hook spaces as a hybrid exhibition and work space. Recess invites Critical Writing Fellows to work alongside these artists, producing a piece of writing that tackles an underlying issue or theory informing the project.
For my tenure as a Recess writer, I had the chance to delve into Eyes as Big as Plates, a fascinating project by Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth, which turned into a deep dive into the wonderful world of [contemporary] folklore. Check it out.
Eyes as Big as Plates began in 2011 as an exploration of classic Norwegian folk tales. (The project’s title itself is a reference to folklore, borrowed from Asbjørnsen and Moe’s 1840s tale “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” featuring a troll living under the bridge that has “eyes as big as tin plates”; a few years earlier, Hans Christian Andersen had published the “The Tinderbox” in which the Danish fairy tale master describes a dog as having “eyes as big as saucers.”) Ikonen and Hjorth invited senior citizens from southwest Norway to be the subject of their photographs, often identifying a character from local lore and clothing them in wearable sculpture that synthesized the tales and the Norwegian landscape. In 2012 in Finland, and now in 2013 working with seniors such as Bob in New York City, the artists phased out this emphasis, in part because of the participants’ discomfort with folklore. But as Ikonen and Hjorth move away from folklore, I’m inclined to move toward it.
In 1999, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota invited Ligon to lead a family workshop during a residency at the museum. The artist, whose work often explores his identity and the larger politics around being black and gay, brought copies of coloring books for African American children from the 1960s and 1970s. A black girl in a graduation gown, singer-songwriter Isaac Hayes, bell-bottom clad figures with the word “soul” printed under them: these images had originally been made with the intention of fostering pride in African American culture.
When Ligon presented the coloring books to the group of young children, the message of empowerment morphed into one of absurdity. Stemming from a range of ethnic backgrounds, the middle class kids at the Walker Art Center were oblivious to the cultural references they scribbled upon. Hayes was given peach skin and a blond beard, Malcolm X was gussied up in pink lipstick and blue eye shadow, reminiscent of a drag queen. Intrigued by how the images in these coloring books meant something different to kids in Minneapolis at the turn of the millennium, Ligon used the resulting drawings as the foundation for his silkscreen-on-canvas Coloring series.
What Ligon’s project demonstrates is that an artist can have new, profound experiences by working directly with the audience. With this is mind, I talked to artists Las Hermanas Iglesias and Kara Hearn about how they include the public in their artmaking practices, both in developing projects and how they evaluate the projects afterwards.
Over at the Brooklyn Rail, I wrote about how Trevor Paglen’s Last Pictures project, in which the artist launched over 200 images into orbit via satellite as an artifact for whatever beings may find it billions of years from now, is a lot more about words than it is about pictures.
Paglen is the first to admit that The Last Pictures is an absurd gesture, one that questions the fundamentals of vision and communication. Can we properly represent life on Earth in only a couple hundred photos? Or perhaps more importantly, does it even matter which images we choose, or who does the choosing?
As a linguist, feminist, and a rabid media consumer, I like it when people point out the misogyny entrenched in language, and I’m all about correcting linguistic usage when it is derogatory and hurtful. But panties is not the bellwether of the oppression of women everywhere, and pretending so (“’panties’ forces us to call our underwear something sexy, when really we decide for ourselves whether our underwear is sexy”) is more harmful than helpful.
Since the first season, we’ve witnessed social unrest brewing among the lower classes. Meanwhile, the aristocratic protagonists try to protect their riches and traditions, all, supposedly, in the name of social responsibility. As Lord Grantham once explained to his eldest daughter, Mary: “I am a custodian, my dear, not an owner.”
That’s a fascinating word, custodian. It’s one I heard just the other day, but in reference to the role of museums. Just as the Crawleys are responsible for maintaining the honorable grandeur of Downton Abbey, so museums are custodians of the past.