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Six of the most affecting works from Cheekwood's More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing Since the 1990s

This Is Love

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1. "Happy Birthday," 2000, by Laurel Nakadate
While still in graduate school at Yale, Nakadate began to explore ideas that would dominate her video work for years to come — the intersection between sexuality and awkwardness, and the fine line between earnest expression and exploitation. "Happy Birthday" was one of the earliest videos Nakadate created, and in many ways it's the perfect embodiment of her work. The three-channel video documents the sweet, baby-faced artist as she shares a birthday cake with a different middle-aged man in his apartment. Each of the men was a stranger whom Nakadate approached randomly, sometimes minutes before the video takes place. As Nakadate and her subjects attempt to celebrate her birthday by lighting candles on a cake, singing "Happy Birthday," or eating together in silence, the men look uncomfortable, Nakadate looks uncomfortable — and almost immediately, as if through osmosis, the viewer becomes uncomfortable.

2. "First Love," 2013, by Rivane Neuenschwander
Like many works in the exhibit, "First Love" is bittersweet. Neuenschwander's piece enlists the help of local forensic sketch artists who meet volunteers at a scheduled time to draw that person's first love, from memory, in the middle of the gallery. The refreshingly original method produces graphite drawings of doe-eyed teenagers scattered among one or two much older faces — perhaps a parent or grandparent. The finished products — faces tacked up together, oddly specific but somehow similar — is powerful, but the almost sacramental exchange between the artist and the volunteer, sitting together for hours, discussing minute details like eyelids, hair color and earlobes, makes this the central piece of the exhibit.

3. "Defiant Gardens," 2009-10, by Dario Robleto
From a distance, "Defiant Gardens" looks like a skull-shaped funerary wreath. It's made from handmade paper the artist created out of soldiers' love letters that people have donated, and he's fanned them into flower shapes that burst open around bullet casings and photographs of dead soldiers. Mourning is an ordinary thing, and love, Robleto seems to say, is its urgent, ephemeral defiance.

4. "Untitled" (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres
In this straightforward readymade, two identical clocks are synchronized and installed beside each other on the gallery wall. Gonzalez-Torres drew a picture of two clocks, similarly side-by-side, in a note penned to his partner Ross, who had just been diagnosed with AIDS: "Don't be afraid of the clocks, they are our time, time has been so generous to us ... We conquered fate by meeting at a certain TIME in a certain space ... We are synchronized, now forever." Gonzalez-Torres was a master of paring down the heaviest emotions — love, loss, mourning — into their absolute minimum, and it's something More Love gets just right; no overwrought sentimentality here, just smart, poignant devastation.

5. "Umbilical," 2001, by Janine Antoni
Sometimes simply understanding what a work is gives you all the information you need to appreciate it. Antoni's "Umbilical Cord," like so many works in this exhibit, uses symbolic language and everyday items to communicate something universal and profound. In it, a negative impression of the artist's mouth has been cast in silver as it closes around the end of a spoon. At the other end is a negative impression of her mother's hand, wrapped around the spoon's handle. The silver spoon is a replica of Antoni's family silverware collection, but this is more than just a pun about family inheritance: It's a quiet meditation on connectivity and the relationship between parent and child.

6. "Last Words," 2008, by Luis Camnitzer
With "Last Words," Camnitzer uses the words spoken by Texas prisoners just before their execution and assembles them into one long screed that takes up six panels, each one a massive 66-by-44 inches. The phrase "I love you all" repeats throughout the piece like a connective thread. At first the repetition, and even the words themselves, might seem formulaic or trite, but as the piece continues, the phrase becomes a mantra, and the many voices repeating those words in slightly different iterations becomes a chorus of ghosts in the room with you.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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