January 25, 2010

New Year’s Resolution at the Johnson

Print More

College students have the advantage of being able to make resolutions several times a year. If you fail to resolve things at the beginning of the school year, you always have New Year’s; if you fail after New Year’s, you’ll have the beginning of the next semester, then summer. So it goes. I myself resolved to break habits on New Year’s that I have already returned to. Thankfully, it’s a new semester and life has given college students second chances. After all, college is a time to discover and establish one’s own identity through constant self-revision and methodological scrutiny.

If this task seems too daunting, then one must head to the Johnson Museum, where a mixture of exhibits are likewise in search of identity. During this Sunday’s “Artbreak” at the Johnson, museum educator Hannah Dunn Ryan discussed the overarching framework that unites them. In almost every exhibit, a question of identity is posed. For instance, an array of photos shot of artist Carolee Schneemann, in which she is unraveling a long scroll out of her vagina, isolates the artist’s sexual identity — her own personal narrative is quite literally produced as a sexual act. We cannot help but pass harsh judgment on the rawness of Schneemann’s photos, but that is just the point. Her work of art opens a dialogue between the artist and audience in which the artist’s method of arriving at an end is uncertain and open to revision, raising questions about the artistic technique itself.

Other exhibits toy with unconventional artistic techniques, borrowing ideas from other eras to represent actuality in new ways. A timeless piece in a collection of photo portraits entitled “In Your Face” portrays a strong young girl in black and white exuding an unusual level of confidence. If you can detect any trace of recent antiquity in the style of the portrait, it’s because the photographer used techniques of negative development similar to those used during the Civil War.

James Siena, a Cornell ’98 grad whose work is currently on display, takes interest in dated technology as well. Several old typewriters of his are featured in a room of colorful, lined images that, as Dunn Ryan noted, seem to borrow some visual character from the typewriters and then obscure them.

While we can perhaps interpret Siena’s work as a re-hatching of his own technological musings, Sam Jury reveals a darker side of technology — its confounding of identity. Jury’s eerie superimposition of hundreds of similar photos in a film projection make the personal identity, of what appears to be a single individual, utterly unobtainable and incomprehensible.

The challenge posed by different exhibits discussed by Dunn Ryan on Sunday is to overlook the bizarre medium through which art is displayed. If you can’t get past the bluntness of their presentation, then you’ll find it difficult to reconcile their goals with your own. In many cases, the goal is to loosely portray identity while ignoring the method of doing so, and even to display the method itself. It’s time that we clearly think about our own identities independent of how we want to form them, especially since we have the chance.

Original Author: Joey Anderson