February 20, 2012

Covering All Bases and Walls at the Tjaden

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Enter Olive Tjaden Hall and walk up the stairs in front of you. Then, open the first door on your left. You will find yourself in the Experimental Gallery, a room converted into an alternative exhibition space. Until this Thursday, the gallery is home until this Thursday to the three-dimensional installation Unfold by Michelle Chen’13.  Sit on the armchair in the corner after you’re done exploring the piece and enjoy the view.

Unfold, as an installation piece, is site-specific.  In simpler terms, it was designed specifically for the dimensions of the Experimental Gallery and aims to change the viewer’s perception of the environment. The space itself is a central component of the entire piece; space transforms art, then art in turn alters perception of space. An explosion of bright color on the walls initially greets you once you enter the room. The transition from the pale morning light to this colorful world is harsh, in particular for tired eyes. At first glance, the intensity of the colors overwhelms your vision; all you can do is circle the room, trying to take everything in at once.  It takes a few moments to adjust but fairly quickly, the eye gets accustomed to this busy environment. Suddenly, shapes and colors come alive. Now, you can not only detect patterns and distinct shapes among the swirls but also distinguish geometrical dimensions.

The piece takes up the room’s expanse. Chen carefully utilizes her entire canvas, in this case the dimensions of the room. This is impressive mainly because Unfold is constructed out of intricately folded hand-painted paper. On one side, her creation crosses the boundary between wall and floor. It spills out on to the lacquered, wooden floor in a perfect mirror image of what appears on the wall, as if reflected on water. Colors dominate the stark, blank edges of the room; mint, navy blue and red flow across the walls . These shades are entwined in undulating streaks of paint on paper. The paper is folded, much like origami, in three-dimensional pyramids and secured to the wall by their bases. The points of the pyramid create depth, further emphasizing the wavy movement of the colors. The pyramids form indeterminate fluid shapes, reinforcing the concept of the graceful wave. These paper creations seem to produce a beginning, middle and end to the installation. There is little doubt to where one should start viewing the installation.

The visible white pipes and few areas of exposed brick give the room a dense quality which seems at odds with the fluid nature of the installation. These industrial characteristics ground your thoughts to the room while the sweeping pyramids on the wall lift the mind away from the earthly confines of borders and space. This internal dichotomy is represented by the title of the piece as well; the folded paper constructions make up what is Unfold. ‘Unfold’ literally denotes to opening or unwrapping the folds of something, implying a sense of freedom yet ‘folded’ denotes a contrasting notion of ­­encasement, suggesting confinement.

One detail about a visit to the Experimental Gallery that is fairly irritating: one of the crafted pyramids had fallen off the smallest wall of the room. The tape was still visible on the back of the pyramid, which made it highly improbable that it was meant to be placed there. This lack of care is irritating to say the least because it indicates a lack of appreciation for Chen’s vision. Cornell has spent hefty amounts of money to renovate campus buildings; the actual products of a student’s education at Cornell should be valued just the same if not more.

After all this, one wonders if Unfold ultimately reaches its goal. Does it indeed change our perception of the space around us? Although one should not expect the almost magical power of an optical illusion when gazing at it for the first time, it does subtly change your awareness of the room. It blurs the boundaries of space, places a beginning, middle, and end to it, and connects the separate walls into one fluid area. So if you ever walk into Tjaden Hall this week for class, don’t forget to walk up the stairs and open that first door to your left. After you have observed Unfold to your heart’s satisfaction, sit down on the one chair in the corner and come to your own conclusion.

Original Author: Eleni Konstantopoulos