On Monday afternoon, Calla Di Pietro — President of the History of Art Majors Society, or HAMS for short — gave me a tour of the group’s new exhibit at the Johnson Museum of Art. As we bounced from one piece to the next and glided through the rooms, I gained new insight into the intricacy of space.
Calla explains that the exhibit is a dialogue about how we move through space and how we project ourselves within certain spaces. “Space can be chaotic, orderly, defined and undefined, and with [space]: Constructing the Intangible, we aim to suggest alternate ways of seeing,” Calla tells me. “Through a careful selection of works we investigate new contrasts and negations of space in the modern, abstract and less tangible world we live in.”
[space]: Constructing the Intangible is the culmination of a year-long initiative on behalf of the History of Art Majors Society. These 19 individuals compiled works of various styles, origins, sizes and artistic media — painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture and video — in a valiant attempt to define space, an intangible and immensely complex place.
Calla and I started our tour in the hallway, the part of the exhibit dedicated to showing the outer realm. Five images from Richard Estes’ 1981 Urban Landscapes line the first wall. The lack of human presence within the urban environment and the reflective surfaces within image evokes a feeling of entrapment, a lack of control within a highly regulated setting.
The wall opposite Estes’ Urban Landscapes explores the idea of the gaze, one of the many running themes within the exhibit. The works by Frank Paulin and Robert Frank examine the intrusive gaze, as the viewer invades a private or self-reflective moment. In this way, the boundary between viewer and object is blurred.
The gaze becomes a running theme throughout the exhibit. A concept that Michel Foucault attempted to unravel in a number of works, including “Discipline and Punish” and “Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias,” the gaze is intimately related to self-regulation, surveillance and the ways that people act as a result. Calla stresses that gaze is an important point for the exhibit.
Leaving the hallway and the public sector and entering the inner realm, my eyes immediately fell on an abstract creation. E. V. Day’s “Dissected Wetsuit # 4” was constructed from a deconstructed neoprene wetsuit and surgical wire, set within an aluminum frame. The breaking down of this protective skin is another way of breaking down the boundary between our inner and other selves. As the panel explains, Day’s work is displayed as “a pause in an exposition” that demonstrates “potential and past movement” as they are literally suspended in a single moment.
The exhibit weaves an intricate, spider web-like discourse between various sets of contrasts — private and public, presence and absence, personal and impersonal, familiar and unfamiliar. [space]: Constructing the Intangible aims to breakdown the political, geographical, technological and personal spatial spheres that define our daily lives. The exhibit challenges spatial boundaries and succeeds in providing a rare and intimate glimpse into these shrouded spaces.
The set-up of the exhibit is incredibly intricate. [space]: Constructing the Intangible is as much about how one perceives the movement within the various works of art as it is how the viewer moves within the space of the exhibit. As every piece works in dialogue with each other, many also relate to the viewer. The viewer might relate to a similar experience or mood, or at times the viewer might literally be pulled into the scene by the image’s reflective surface. As the viewer sees himself or herself within the frame of the image, the space that separates the two is obliterated.
My tour of the exhibit stopped in the third and final room. Amidst all the works of art, one image stood out. Nan Goldin’s 1991 photograph, “Aurele with his finger in Joana’s mouth,” is hauntingly beautiful, as the viewer invades a single, intimate moment shared between a husband and wife, a father and mother, a man who is HIV-positive and his lover who is not. The image is laden with intimacy and intensity. The nudity of this scene is not erotic but rather powerfully intense. This piece is a culmination of every theme presented throughout the exhibit. It is central as a piece of otherness. As the viewer, I felt a little unsettled about intruding on such an intimate moment.
Again blurring the boundaries of space, there is a video displayed at night on the side of the museum that acts as an extension of [space]: Constructing the Intangible. “Untitled (Beirut Ferris Wheel)” was contracted on external loan for this exhibit, the first of its kind for HAMS, who typically work within the Johnson’s pre-existing collection. The video is a reconciliation of the artists’ past and present as a dual-citizen of the U.S. and Lebanon, and what that means in today’s turbulent society. Stranded on a Ferris wheel in Beirut’s barren Luna Park, the artist John Jurayj captured on video only what he could see from his seat on the Ferris wheel. The way in which he later distorted the imagery is a commentary on the instability of temporal boundaries.
The exhibit is a reflection of the uncertainly of our age. “As a generation, we have had to negotiate indefinable boundaries of surveillance, remembrance and privacy,” Calla remarks. “We’re a group of young kids trying to figure out the world we live in. As the world is constantly changing, how we relate to it also has to evolve.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story appeared with a photograph taken from a different exhibit.