(Vas Mathur / Sun Staff Photographer)

March 20, 2017

Redefining Space at the Johnson

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Located in the Gold and Picket Family Video Galleries, Empathy Academy succeeds in synthesizing art and the human experience via an organic transmission of the unspoken immensity of the exhibition to the viewer. While the works embody the material forms conventionally tied to them (sculpture, film, etc.) the medium takes a platform that is undeniably human in nature.

In “Colors, Cultures, Knots, and Time,” Ernesto Neto invites the viewer into a space of wordless dialogue. Neto’s installation consists of plastic rings serving as loci from which vividly colored cotton strings connect. The threads are not, however, limited to single hoop; many are seen taking a journey across rings and sharing their own space with that of others.  Immediately, a profound sense of ambiguity is evoked as it is unclear whether the threads are emanating from or converging upon the ring. This uncertainty confronts the idea that space must have an orientation and brings to the artistic stage the idea that objects exist through their relationship with their users and with each other. The direction, and the implicit question of spatial existence, is thus thrust upon the viewer. Adding to the layers of nuance is the underlying notion that the rings may in fact embody spaces of connection, points of transition along a string’s journey, rather than dichotomizing the space between origin and destination. The six principal hoops join together in what can be interpreted as an interconnected reconception of the six inhabited continents; by excluding the geographical separations of the oceans, Neto’s installation draws a parallel to the idea of a world linked across oceans and time.

The perimeter of the Gold Gallery is flanked on three sides by “Untitled 2008–11 (the map of the land of feeling) I–III”. Renowned for his critical role in the genre of relational art — a practice which places emphasis on social relations and their contexts — this piece is one of few that the  Argentine-born Thai artist Rirkit Tiravanija has created. The 84-foot long work is an expression that spans a multitude of media and appears to document the artist’s life story. There is one wall in particular which captures my fascination and along its center lies a succession of adjacent scans of Tiravanija’s passport. Fusing place and time, the imagery superimposed on the procession of passport scans overflows with allusions to his travels while city maps, letters and countless other artefacts of his past traverse the space of the palimpsestic installation. Along this panel there are currents of arrows which meander along the canvas in what initially evokes a parallel to the experiences of the artist. Yet there also are arrows that contradict the general flow of what at a cursory glance assumes the narrative of a mass migration. The arrows mirror not only the countless decisions of a journey but also the innumerable (and often contradictory) narratives which simultaneously inhabit and construct their space. Thus, while Tiravanija’s life may have been the original inspiration for the work, it is certainly not the only one. He has elegantly created a breathtaking space that may be by him but certainly not of him, a space of staggering proportions and humbling reach that initiates a conversation of global inclusion.

The murmur of a recorded voice eventually draws me away from the mesmerizing intricacies of Tiravanija’s work. Emanating from the Picket Family Video Gallery, the enigmatic and almost mechanical narration comes from the 1975 video work “Semiotics of the Kitchen” by Martha Rosler. The black-and-white film exploration assumes the format of an alphabetic progression, with common kitchen implements being utilized as representatives of their respective letter. Beginning with over half a minute of the unflinching gaze of the artist holding a sign of the work’s title, an undeniable sense of discomfort is produced from the start; none of the kitchen objects of the study are used in conjunction with their typical substrate: food. Rather, the implements are often utilized, oftentimes against each other, in ways that range from laughably contradictory (the act of utilizing “Grater” on “Fork”) to visibly violent (exemplified in one instance by the stabbing movements of “Knife” forming a stark contradiction to its conventionally associated movements of chopping and dicing). After T, the remaining letters are drawn by Rosler’s own movements while she holds a knife and spoon. Relinquishing the spoon before the last letter of the alphabet, she concludes her work by motioning Z with her knife incising the air with rapid and jagged movements. These underlying emotions of rage and frustration are accentuated by both the persisting emotionlessness of the artist’s expression as well as the rhythmic oral iterations of her mechanistic narration, creating a juxtaposition that constructs a powerful critique against the relegation of women to the role of the happy housewife. Throughout the performance, the divestment of domestic objects from their intended purpose makes increasingly obvious how little Semiotics of the Kitchen has to do with the actual kitchen. The result is a dissolution of the docility conventionally associated with the domestic space and as the implements are stripped of their typical substrate, these tools become the helpless objects of the artist’s contained, yet at the same time undiminished, rage. In the implements’ transformation from tools of oppression to tools of insurrection, they not only realize the transition from domesticity to violence but also transform domestic space into a space of revolution and resistance.

At the heart of the Gold Gallery is a mosaic of sticky notes and human experience. An extension of “Subway Therapy,” Matthew “Levee” Chavez establishes an amalgamation of human thoughts and emotions. A central problem to inclusive practice in art is the assimilation of the diverse narratives into a single piece without disrupting or otherwise altering the original distinctiveness that each story tells. The employment of sticky notes, pens, pencils and markers as a choice of media surmounts this problem in a way that enshrines the sublimity in simplicity. The undemanding nature of the medium invites a visual dialogue that transcends age, artistic ability or any other barrier that conventionally determines the loudest voice in a conversation. A given sticky note is endowed precisely with the meaning it was written with and, while perhaps intersecting and being superimposed by others, is thus untouched in nature from the point of its artistic departure.

My personal conception of a museum is that of an exposed shelf. I unquestionably reject the contrasting image of a jealously guarded cabinet that so many elitist institutions try to ensoul; while still protected, the former allows the gaze of the entire world and permits itself to be eternalized in the hearts of millions. When art is democratized in this manner, the viewer is brought forth from the role of a passive spectator to that of an active and engaged participant in the artistic processes. In doing so, the works of Empathy Academy embody at the same time both a reduction and a magnification of the human condition in that in a single exhibit is to be found echoes of stories innumerable. It is this undeniable feeling which constitutes the underlying theme of the exhibit. The sublime beauty of the exhibition, therefore, does not originate from the aesthetic techniques manifested by its works, though undoubtedly impressive in their own right. It resides in the notion that this exhibition does not for an instant adopt the model of the exclusive preserve but rather radiates a universal metaphor for the prismatic entirety of the human experience.


Varun Biddanda is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].