Contemporary art is changing, evolving into something much more conducive to our culture's relationship with technology and growing interest in creative collaboration. Advancements in new media and participatory art are at the forefront of these developments. Sometimes murkier and harder to qualify than traditional art-making, they aim to be more, not less, accessible. Cheekwood is currently hosting two exhibits that represent both trends, and they have much in common besides their approachability.
The Way We Move is a video art installation curated by Ron Lambert, a professor at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film. For this exhibit, Lambert has chosen videos that incorporate ideas about the human body as an instrument. His curatorial statement is almost sociological: "As humans we need to project ourselves into different roles; we look outside to look in." Immediately familiar and relatable to real life, the use of the human body in video is a particularly savvy means by which new audiences can be exposed to video art.
In "Endless Motion," by Aurelia Mihai, video surveillance of staircases being ascended and descended repeats in a hypnotic fantasy that recalls M.C. Escher's famous "Relativity" lithograph. The video begins as a three-by-three grid, but as the video progresses each frame multiplies to include more and more people during the in-between moments of their lives, active in an anonymous way, like bees in a hive. Similar to the way that Japanese woodcuts make use of a monochromatic color palette and off-center composition, Mihai has managed to use the bustle of daily travel to create a minimal, almost Zen-like ambience.
"Sanctus," by Barbara Hammer, is a beautiful reworking of footage made from Kodak X-rays during the 1930s. Part spooky science video, part psychedelic cartoon, the video shows people performing various acts, such as drinking, swallowing, wearing watches and holding hands, all while under the lens of an X-ray camera. X-rays are typically seen as still shots, so video renews a fascination with the technology. A segment featuring a model applying makeup is captivating — the space between her skeleton hands as they pass over the invisible skin of her skull reminds the viewer that these are live bodies in action. "Sanctus" literally points the camera inward, replicating with simplicity the kind of existential horror Francis Bacon painted, while remaining detached in a system unique to contemporary technology.
"Loose Control," a collaboration between artists Monica Panzarino and Nadine Sobel, is a hyper-simplification of a music video. They have deconstructed and rearranged the choreography to Missy Elliot's "Lose Control" in a compelling but sometimes cringe-worthy performance. The video uses its medium self-referentially, since this particular performance is inspired by mainstream video culture. Panzarino and Sobel use the style of b-boy dance and hip-hop videos to communicate the flash and glamour of pop using only vulnerability and coolness.
Lambert has chosen pieces that hew very close to the media they examine: closed-circuit surveillance, scientific tutorials and music videos. Ultimately, the similarities between the videos and their subjects also serves to highlight the ways they are different.
Participatory art is another increasingly popular trend in the art world. In the Temporary Contemporary gallery, artist and head of Vanderbilt University's art department Mel Ziegler uses this collaborative practice to examine the meaning of place, the duplicity of boundaries, and the conflict between individualism and collective attitudes.
Smell the Flowers consists of photographs, sculpture and a one-day social engagement event. Ziegler is an extremely philosophical artist, and he explores relevant issues by presenting them ambiguously and in layers, allowing his audience to decipher their own positions while keeping his under cover. "I want to be part of these conventional systems without necessarily disrupting them," Ziegler tells the Scene.
"Catch and Release" features two photographs that document a project Ziegler worked on with an active-duty marine. Ziegler commissioned the soldier, who was stationed in Iraq at the time, to collect air in a jar and ship it back to him. Two years later, Ziegler joined the soldier at the geographical center of the U.S. in South Dakota to document him again, this time as he released the Iraqi air within U.S. boundaries. Instead of using photography to represent a specific artistic vision, Ziegler opens up the medium to document an interaction that belongs just as much to the real world as it does in an art gallery.
"Occupied Yosemite" is a sculpture of a fireplace mantle painted the specific shade of white used on the White House (the paint color is actually called "White House White"), topped with a model of Yosemite National Park being infiltrated with soldiers. The model is meticulously rendered — complete with tiny patches of moss and a wandering stream that cuts through the greenery — and the miniature soldiers effectively address the disturbing idea of U.S. occupation while remaining playful. The symbolic elements of a fireplace mantle (a sign of comfort — literal and figurative warmth) and the White House (an institution whose very name suggests domesticity) are bold but well-handled under Ziegler's astute vision.
The most noteworthy element of Ziegler's installation is the Free Military Day that he hosted with Smell the Flowers curator Claire Schneider. Equal parts site-specific performance and social gathering, Free Military Day crossed the boundaries between art and real life. Ziegler worked with Cheekwood to give active-duty military and their families free access to the museum and botanical gardens. An organic extension of the pieces in the gallery space, Ziegler's Free Military Day was an act of engagement. Just as "Occupied Yosemite" plays off of the discomfort with military presence in secure, pristine locations, Free Military Day took soldiers that could be called into action at any moment and situated them in a place of respite. Words like "domestic," "security" and "homeland," have dual meanings in American culture today, and Ziegler is highlighting that relationship. He essentially created a cultural readymade, transplanting active-duty military and their families, many of whom had never before visited Cheekwood, into a place of leisure, cultural learning and seclusion.
Art propels culture, and artists exist at the frontier, maintaining boundaries between the physical and the cerebral. They coax our culture forward and onward, and, like the soldiers in Ziegler's photographs, they clear the way for safety. Collaborative artists like Ziegler and video artists like Mihai, Hammer, Panzarino and Sobel help us familiarize ourselves with each other, our bodies and spirits connected. We are progressing toward a type of universal art that brings people, not just artists, together.