Three groupings of transparent hangings are suspended from the ceiling. From either door of the gallery the forms seem indistinguishable. However, as one passes from the door toward the front of the space the forms appear as fragments of faces. From the front of the gallery, the fragments tessellate to form a face for each of the three groupings — a chimerical juxtaposition of different faces and, by extension, of different stories.
EXCHANGE is the culmination of a semester-long project headed by Katherine Williams, ‘20, a recipient of a grant from the Cornell Council for The Arts. Williams also collaborated with Caley Drooff ‘20, Cornelius Tulloch ‘21 and Zelia Gonzales ‘20. EXCHANGE will be open in the Jill Stewart Gallery in the Human Ecology Building until November 20th. The exhibit aims to address the nuances and inherencies of the social climate here at Cornell and incorporates a combination of visual and audio media to negotiate a space where this dialogue can occur.
The transparencies occupy the majority of the spatial dimensions of the exhibit and this particular installation affords many layers of metaphorical signification. Williams remarks, “We wanted to transform and manipulate the space of the gallery. Centralizing and hanging the pieces in the middle of the gallery created a dramatic effect and allowed for people to move around and through the pieces, rather than having them up against the walls. This layout engaged viewers with the space and also enabled them to explore and experience EXCHANGE.”
For one, the way in which the overhead and ambient light interacts with the hangings is a relation not only of illumination — in the spaces where the uninterrupted passage of light is permitted — but also of obstruction and refraction where the facial fragments are positioned. These fragments are also aligned through the layering of their positioning, permitting the viewer to see the forms as superimpositions upon each other — and by extension we are given to understand the ways in which the stories behind the faces are inscribed, both in their own respect and in relation to each other.
On one of the walls, there is a collection of photos of the individuals who participated in the study. The collection of photos is punctuated by the various quotes of the respondents printed on the same wall. Many speak of the excitement of the innumerable possibilities that Cornell offers as an institution. One said that to be a Cornelian was, “to be someone who is passionate about what they are doing and where they want to go in life… who battles through tough times because they know at the end of the road it will be worth it”.
Others talked about the often ceaseless obstacles they face, with one respondent saying, “no one else in that class looked like me”.
Between the soundtrack of the chimes and commencement speeches playing overhead, there are interspersed segments where the participants discuss what Cornell means to them. Their testimonies reveal a combination of doubts, wonder, loneliness and everything else one might expect from such a microscopic but significant time in our lives. And because of this, EXCHANGE represents a project of breathtaking honesty that will undoubtedly resonate, in some aspect or another, with anyone who engages with the work. Through the collectivisation of the space, the exhibit interrogates the notion of isolation as a mode of being and in doing so embraces a devotion to the collective narrative that we inhabit.
Varun Biddanda is a senior staff writer in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.