Monday, July 29, 2019

Q&A with Joyce Cronin and Louisa Bailey, Founders of Innovative Feminist Gallery in London

Artist in Transit Crosses the Pond!

In December 2018, Louisa Bailey gave me a tour of The Bower (a gallery and publication studio in a former public toilet block) and The Bower Hut Café (which doubles as a book shop and is housed in a former park keeper's hut), in Brunswick Park in southeast London, close to the artists’ studios and galleries of Peckham and within walking distance of the South London Gallery and the new Centre for Contemporary Art at Goldsmiths. I caught up with Louisa and co-founder, Joyce Cronin, in 2019.

HS-First, thanks for giving me such a warm welcome in December. I realize it was a busy time of year for you with setting up the fundraising shop, Box of Delights.

JC&LB-Thanks for coming down, it was great to meet you! It seems like such a long time ago now! The Bower—Box of Delights had a range of artists’ editions, books, gifts and vintage and handmade items for sale. All proceeds went towards supporting our 2019 programme of exhibitions and publications. We are planning to do this as an annual December event.

HS-The two of you have been collaborating for over five years. At this point, can you practically finish each other's sentences?

JC&LB-It’s more like we prop each other up than finish each other’s sentences. We each bring different things to the project, we come at things from different angles but with a shared sensibility and understanding of what we’re working towards.

HS-Your previous collaboration, Finishing Touch, was a pop-up operation in a former barber's shop, which strikes me as a masculine counterpoint to your current venue of a repurposed ladies' loo. I recall Louisa sharing that you found the Brunswick Park location by chance. It wasn't that you set out looking for a derelict water closet, but you found it on a list of options for lease and decided it was a good fit. How much have the gendered associations of these spaces impacted your programming choices?

JC&LB-Our work at Finishing Touch became the precursor to The Bower and many of the relationships and much of the research that began there continues to manifest in the exhibitions, events, and publications that take place at The Bower. When we moved into the former hairdresser's it still had the mirrors, sinks, signage, and remnants of its previous life. Among those were hairstyle suggestions and postcards to the family who ran it and lived in the house above. Several women passersby told us they had their hair cut there so it never really held a masculine presence of a barber that you might immediately conjure. From the beginning we invited Open Barbers to be in residence throughout the pop-up. Open Barbers is a not-for-profit hairdressing service welcoming people of all/no genders and sexualities, with any hair length and type. We did a basic but transformative refurb so it never felt like a gendered space in that way or carried the gender associations of a traditional barber’s shop. Equally the former toilet block is both the male and female toilets and although we really like that the Ladies sign is the only thing that remains from that history, it’s also not lost on us that it would have been used for cottaging/gay cruising and it’s not necessarily only a female history.

We acknowledge these anti-establishment acts and the need for intimate space as part of the building’s history and as something that informs our work. We are currently researching a project that looks at deviant spaces and their histories. We weren’t specifically looking for a toilet block but we were looking for a council property that would be more affordable and significantly less than high street commercial rent. We also respond to the context in which we’re working - at Finishing Touch the wood panelled walls lent themselves perfectly to a screening of Vanished! Gef the talking Mongoose and Grey Gardens. Holly Slingsby made a performance around the symbolism and mythology of hair in popular culture and art history which became The Bower/ Publication Studio London’s first collaborative publication. Equally at The Bower it’s not about the gendered associations of being in the toilet, it’s about being in the park.

HS-I can appreciate that. There is a palpable atmosphere—I found the experience of being there was different than viewing the website, in particular through seeing the space activated by people of all ages. Tell me more.

JC&LB-What we’re trying to do at The Bower is not to do with it being a toilet, there are elements of intimacy there and you can’t get away from it being a toilet but it doesn’t influence our programming. We’re really interested in the sense of encounter here - that someone might come to the park to walk their dog or play tennis and by chance encounter a contemporary art exhibition or learn about Publication Studio. We see this a lot when we do events especially, and passersby join in. As an exhibition space and publishing studio we have retained the small, intimate scale of the toilets and now seek to create an intimacy with the artwork that we present, inviting artists to respond to the unique size and privacy of the space and its location in a public park. At the core of our mission and work is a commitment to feminist principles of collaboration and exchange, and a belief that art and publishing can be an agent for change, engaging diverse audiences in complex and challenging issues.

HS-Hear, hear!

Did working on a pop-up prime you for making an ultra-efficient use of space in your current location? And how much size do you have to work with precisely?

JC&LB-The pop-up was actually bigger! We always saw the building as central to the project - but we think about the wider context of the park all the time - how we can use it, how the artists we work with use it and how the public use it. We programmed a pop-up cinema last year in the park and always think about how we can expand our work into the park, for example for performances or perhaps one day we might have some artwork outside. Within the building itself, artists have to respond to the smallness of it and the intimacy the work will have with its audience—we like the challenge this presents to artists and how the people we have worked with have risen to this challenge. The Publication Studio equipment manages to look like it was custom-made, it fits so perfectly. When planning the renovation of the building, measuring just 15 square metres, we spoke in depth to Nakamoto Architects, based in Japan, about designing a small space, making it a flexible space and a multi-functional one.
HS-I am curious about how your feminist mandate came to be. When your paths first crossed at the research and publishing organization, Afterall, with Louisa bringing Luminous Books bookshop on site, did your mutual interest in feminism stem from that time or from an earlier period?

JC&LB-We were both already feminists.

In part, the motivation to work together on an independent project stemmed from the context of being in the university, which contrary to what one might think, is a very corporate and highly competitive, masculine environment. We got to know each other and realised we had shared interests, but also a shared work ethic, a passion for the work we were doing and a commitment to getting things done, regardless of the money (or lack thereof) behind it. When we talk about this as a feminist project, we mean it not in terms of only working with women writers and artists, or showing feminist work—but as an approach to a working methodology. We also include everyone in our feminism—women, trans and non-binary people, men, children. Rather than a network of collectors, commercial galleries and dealers, our network is a continuously expanding group of peers who are friends, colleagues, collaborators, advisors, teachers, and activists. As such, our network is not just local art organisations and practitioners, it is also the local bread maker or the chair of the tenants and residents association. In alignment with our way of working together, A Feminist Organization’s Handbook by The Women’s Centre for Creative Work in LA describes themselves as a “home of cultural production. As practitioners, we endeavor to bring these day-to-day aspects of cultural production into the place of preference. Distributing the event info, sweeping the floors, buying the beer for the reception: these are the tasks that propel creative and social actions. These duties are just as important as installing the sculpture or organizing the march. Indeed the sculpture and march could not exist without these services.” (1) We put care into our work and into making The Bower a social space as opposed to a cold commercial white cube. We also put care into ensuring that the artists’ work is presented to the highest standard possible within our small budget, and Publication Studio London’s books are designed, hand-made and printed on demand by a dedicated team of two. Our way of working also relates to the exhibition and publication X-Operative which took place at Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge in 2013, in which X Marks the Bökship referenced an essay by Ksenia Cheinman where the term 'X-Operative' is used to describe “common places where the cultural space becomes creative, productive, commercial, domestic, and educational all at once.”

HS-You offer a range of programming. Some is more obviously feminist, like a screening of Desperately Seeking Susan, but there are also events like book readings for kids and wreath-making workshops. Is the thread running through all of your programming community engagement? If so, how does that dovetail with feminism in your view?

JC&LB-Desperately Seeking Susan was important because it was a female director and female lead roles; it’s a film about ‘shaking off the social conventions that come with being a woman, and the city as a place for reinvention and female freedom’ (Susan Seidelman, Director). We wanted to find something accessible to reach as broad an audience locally as possible—it was also Madonna’s 60th birthday that weekend! All of the artists and writers we’ve worked with at The Bower are women, but actually the artwork is not explicitly feminist as you might expect. Our work is not community-run but we are a part of the community—we respect the fact that the park has many different users and uses. As well as the community projects you mention, we are also planning a series of events for children aged 9-11 years who will become our Bower Builders. We want to encourage and empower young people to shape a future that is creative, tolerant, and socially aware. Our young Bower Builders will work with artists, activists, and creative professionals on projects exploring identity, feminism, and social change. This is inspired by the work of the Radical Monarchs in the US—an alternative Brownie troupe where the badge units are centred on social justice and empowerment, and the first in the series, Leaves Remain, was run by Rose Nordin of OOMK last spring.

HS-Hearing that makes me (a former Brownie) wish I were a kid today…

Are you at liberty to share the most frequently requested title from Publication Studio London?

JC&LB-That’s probably Two Augusts in A Row in A Row by Shelley Marlow, published in the Fellow Travelers series, which is dedicated to supporting new risk-taking literature. It’s a love letter between generations of queer people, set in NYC in 2001. Although it was originally published by the studio in Portland Oregon, Shelley has collaborated with us on a number of events in London, including a 14-person reading at the London Centre for Book Arts in 2015 and issuing a special art edition of the novel in 2018. These initiatives have connected with readers locally, which has in turn created a community around the book. This community continues to grow as people recommend Two Augusts to friends and they recommend it to others and so on. It’s a really good example of how the PS network and print-on-demand model can support writers and artists who engage with its potential to foster the sharing of material on a one-to-one basis. This approach can be really powerful because it’s based on making genuine connections over a shared love of a book that has lasting effects. Shelley is really brilliant at engaging readers and, as part of a visit to the UK again a few months ago, read at Strange Perfume, which is a queer culture book fair hosted by South London Gallery, and at Category Is Books in Glasgow.

HS-Louisa, you started PS London in 2015 after working in Vancouver at one of the other satellite locations. As a Canadian, can I ask how you enjoyed your time in Canada?

LB-I spent just over a year in Vancouver and loved it! I was very glad of the change of pace and the beautiful surroundings (I think Tofino on Vancouver Island might be my favourite place ever)! I made friends and connections that continue to be part of my life and work back in London and I’m really happy to be part of the PS network of 11 sibling studios around the world from Rotterdam to Sao Paolo! I worked with Kay Higgins and Kathy Slade, who run Publication Studio Vancouver and learnt the process for making books using affordable and accessible materials and binding methods. I was inspired by the way PS Vancouver supported the development of artists’ publications and engaged with the community and politics locally. On my way back to the UK I visited the founding studio in Portland Oregon to talk about opening a London studio. Their open studio storefront created a really unusual social working space that was also an inspiration for the set up at The Bower.

Shortly after returning to the UK I met a graphic designer from Vancouver, Sharon Mah, who had recently moved to London. When I set up the London studio, with the support of friends and collaborators London Centre for Book Arts, Sharon came on board to design the publications.

In September 2018 I returned to Canada for a week to work with PS Vancouver and PS Hudson, NY on a collaborative project as part of their residency at Emily Carr University of Art + Design alongside an exhibition on publishing as an artistic practice called It’s difficult to put a painting in the mailbox: Toward new models of artists’ publishing.

HS-I love Emily Carr University’s artist book collection. I’m going to Google that exhibition momentarily—sounds brilliant, as you would say.

All in all, would you describe the Bower as a labor of love?

JC&LB-We do love what we do, The Bower and the park and the projects, but it is hard work. There is a misconception around the term ‘labour of love’ that because you love something you will do it regardless of any payment or appreciation, like wages for housework or parenting. Yes we love what we do, but we also give a lot in terms of our time and commitment to artists, writers, and the community and it’s hard to remunerate that. We don’t have any core funding—we rely on small cafe sales, grants and donations, and that precarity is difficult to survive on, especially in a city like London. Our friend Louise O' Hare wrote about this for Plastic Words, a public event programme at Raven Row and publication by Publication Studio in 2015:

“It makes you vulnerable to say you love something, to give a gift without expectation of return…what if love isn’t the motivation…but the strategy?
What if love isn’t reciprocal?
What if love isn’t enough?
How do you sustain love?” (Louise O’Hare, Plastic Words, Publication Studio London, 2015)

It goes back to the issues of care we talked about earlier—because of the care and love we put into it, we create something we’re really proud of that receives warmth and positive feedback in return, but just because we love it, doesn’t mean we can sustain it on that alone. Public funding in the UK is under threat, competitive and difficult to secure, and the cost of living is high. We are looking at other models in order to try and survive and make what we love doing sustainable for the benefit of the people we work with and our audiences.

We received a civic award—the Honorary Liberty of the Old Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell—for our contribution to art, culture, and the community. At first we were really shy about it and didn’t tell anyone, but then we felt proud and happy that the community valued our work.

The plan is for the café takings to support the art projects, but it is still getting established. We don’t pay ourselves a salary yet, but we do incorporate artists and other fees into our fundraising. We don’t have a board at the moment, but we are thinking about how an advisory structure might be put in place in future. We have to see this as a long-term strategy, that the investment of time and energy we put in now will help to build a more sustainable future, where we can pay ourselves a salary and cover our overheads, and continue to pay technicians, writers, and artists’ fees.

HS- Congratulations! I look forward to following your trajectory.

What is your submission and selection process for exhibitors?

JC&LB-It is a curated programme. We work with artists and writers over time and we do not generally accept unsolicited applications for exhibitions or publications; there is always a relationship built up that leads to the end result—be it an exhibition or publication or event.

HS-Are there future plans for The Bower and the Bower Hut Café that you would like to share?

JC&LB-The best way to keep in touch with our plans is to follow us on social media and sign up to our mailing list via the website www.thebower.org.uk

HS-I see that people can follow you on Twitter (@_the_bower) and Instagram (@_the_bower_ and @thebowerhut). You can also join their email list via thebower.org.uk.

Thank-you for your time!

(1) https://womenscenterforcreativework.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/FeministHandbook-For-Web-Download.pdf, pp. 8-9.

Images, top to bottom:
Top - Louisa Bailey (l.) and Joyce Cronin (r.). Photo: Arts PR London, courtesy of The Bower.
The Bower (exterior). Photo: Heather Saunders.
The Bower (interior) with Louisa Bailey in PS London. Photo: Arts PR London, courtesy of The Bower.
The Bower (interior) with Louisa Bailey providing a tour of Box of Delights (2018). Photo: Heather Saunders.

After 10+ years, I am wrapping up Artist in Transit in pursuit of other projects. My apologia of the blog is slated to appear in the Library Juice Press publication,
Art at the Intersection of Librarianship and Social Justice. Thank-you so much to everyone who has helped make this experience rewarding!

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Art of Feminism

"...how far artists will go..."

Recently, a young black man hopped on Cleveland's #32 bus and bolted to the back. His mother scolded him laughingly, saying, "We fought to sit at the front of the bus! Get up here!" She grumbled, albeit jovially, "Back of the bus..." As he made his way past me to the hard-won front, the woman with his mother referenced Rosa Parks.

This winsome exchange was an antidote to other transit conversations about race that I have experienced here lately. The last black Uber driver I had told me that he looks forward to moving with his daughter to Atlanta because he feels safer there, and he will give up his gun when he relocates. I felt for him and expressed as much. However, I had a hard time relating as a white woman from Canada, where: there is more gun control; there are 31 firearms for every 100 civilians (compared to 89 firearms in the US for every 100 civilians); and the last census found that while firearms were the top form of Canadian homicide, they accounted for fewer than 225 deaths in a one-year period (compared to an annual average of 30,000 firearm-related deaths in the US cited by Amnesty International--granted, there is a difference in population, but with scaling, gun-related deaths in the US are more than 15 times that of Canada). So, I ended up blathering about the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta. I should have spent more time listening but I was nervous because the previous conversation I had had with a black Uber driver about race relations unravelled quickly. That driver launched into condoning racial profiling in multiple criminal contexts even if it leads to offense or fatalities, foregrounding his comments with the revelation--in a protective tone--that he was in a interracial marriage with a white woman. I tried to employ the skills I learned at the Women's Convention two years ago in Detroit to encourage a broader view by acknowledging an opposing viewpoint before gently nudging it. At the same time, I felt conflicted because in a recent workshop at the ACRL conference in Cleveland, attendees were urged to take up less space when in a privileged position. What prompted me to fall silent for the rest of the ride was learning that he was armed at that very moment, which I did not realize at the time is against Uber's policy.

Back to privilege, never have I been more aware of my own in Cleveland than the spring day I found a broken beer bottle in the grass and carried it for about 5 minutes to the public library, where I wrapped it in newspaper before disposing of it in the garbage can. I kept my arm down, to look less threatening. Along the way, two young black men walked past; one exclaimed in shock. The next pedestrian I passed darted out of the way, giving me a wide berth of several feet. To my knowledge, no one reported the incident. Would that have been the case had the bottle been transported by the first men to cross my path (I ask of a city that has not yet reached the five-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice)?

So, why am I sharing these anecdotes, besides the fact that my blog's subtitle mentions transit and libraries? The book I have been reading, which I now highlight in my penultimate post, is The Art of Feminism: Images that Shaped the Fight Against Inequality, 1857-2017 (Chronicle Books, 2018). Its cover features Deva Pardue's 2016 poster with three upraised fists in various skin colors. The website for For All Womankind, the public benefit company founded by Pardue raising funds for not-for-profit organizations, states, "We believe that issues of gender and race cannot be separated." (1) Initially, my impression was that highlighting intersectionality on the cover is a reminder that feminism has come a long way since the first and second wave. However, in the introduction for The Art of Feminism, editor Helena Rickett (chair of the Women's Art Library and senior lecturer in curating at Goldsmiths, U. of London), whom I had the pleasure of meeting back when she was at Toronto's Power Plant, argues that feminism has always been plural and intersectional--though not without its shortcomings.

The book is organized sequentially, giving a sense of how feminism has evolved over the years. It features essays; color and black and white images with easy-to-read didactic texts; an index; and a bibliography organized into three sections that correspond with those of the book. Rickett notes that The Art of Feminism is the first publication to showcase subversive visual expression in the name of feminism from the 19th Century to the present. It begins with a constant back and forth between the US--where the first public discussion was held about feminism in 1848 in Seneca Falls--and England, revealing the mutual influence of their burgeoning suffrage movements; for example, the branded combination of colors in British parade banners was repeated with only slight adjustment by the Americans. Because this pairing of nations dominates the first third of the book, I thought it would be a fitting prelude to me signing off: my final post, which will be the only one outside of North America, will feature an innovative feminist gallery in London, UK.

In The Art of Feminism, works are included by women, men, and non-binary artists like Claude Cahun (1894-1954). From Cahun's captivating self-portrait with a mirror to J. Howard Miller's Rosie the Riveter poster (which, although famous today, had an original print run of only 42 copies), there is a mix of fine art and visual culture. Also included are works on both sides of the feminist movement. Satirical cartoons like a female boater about to be capsized by a wave whose crest is ridden by a boat with a male passenger and a sail that says, 'VOTES,' seem ridiculous now. Personally, I felt a twinge of smugness when I read that these anti-suffrage works are less strong artistically than those of their rivals. The importance of critical acclaim is underscored elsewhere, when the reader is exposed to the impact of exhibitions, such as Kunst Mit Eigen-Sinn. Curated by VALIE EXPORT to unpack "the complexity of art-making within patriarchal culture," it emphasized body-based work and served as a counterpoint to the Venice Biennale that took place shortly beforehand (it also attracted many of its audience members). On the flip side, there are those who work largely outside the gallery system, like the Guerilla Girls with their cheeky exposés of sexism in the art world through posters and the donning of gorilla masks. Parallels of high and low art are touched on in the music world too, such as Beyoncé using mainstream venues like the Super Bowl to bring attention to blackness, condemning police brutality while simultaneously celebrating the importance of family and of cultural contributions by the likes of visual artist Carrie Mae Weems; and Pussy Riot, the anonymous punk band who had three members imprisoned for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for performing in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in protest of the Orthodox Church's support of Vladimir Putin. Since The Art of Feminism is billed as being about visual art and not music, it would be helpful to have added that Pussy Riot has been cast as an arts collective. For example, as I've blogged about for Paradigm Shift, the book, Punk Prayer for Freedom (2012, Feminist Press, City U. of New York), notes that one of Pussy Riot's many venues has been an art gallery, and their supporters in that publication use terms like performance art, action art, protest art, art attacks, and sacred art to describe their interventions and even the prosecution framed their intervention as “so-called contemporary art.” At any rate, the example of Pussy Riot taps into the question of how far artists will go, and there are many fascinating examples in The Art of Feminism, from ORLAN who underwent voluntary plastic surgery nine times in the early to mid-90s to emulate ideal beauty in art (cherrypicking elements from the Mona Lisa and Botticelli's Venus), and Tanja Ostojić, who became married and divorced to a German artist she met online to draw attention to modern-day mail order marriages in the late 1990s to escape the former Yugoslavia because of civil wars. Key social movements from the recent past are also included, such as #BlackLivesMatter, represented by the photograph of leshia Evans standing stoically as she is about to be arrested, while protesting the shooting death of Alton Stirling in 2016; and the Women's March in DC in 2017, which prompted a pink pussy hat (the symbol of protestors) to be added to the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Some overlap exists between the content in this book and the content in my blog--from coverage of Toronto's Feminist Art Gallery to the New York-based second wave feminist publication Heresies to Sutapa Biswas' painting, Housewives with Steak Knives--making me hopeful that I have done feminism justice in this decade-long project.

This post is dedicated to my mother and sister, who dropped everything last spring to be with me in the hospital when I could barely raise a fist in the air. Three are stronger than one. Happy Mother's Day to both of you!

(1) https://forallwomankind.com/about

Cover reproduced via fair use/dealing. Source: https://www.chroniclebooks.com/titles/the-art-of-feminism.html

Sunday, April 28, 2019

En Masse: The Collages of Carmen Winant and Jenny O’Dell

“Somebody line 'em up
Line 'em all up
Line 'em up...” ~ James Taylor


In mid-February, my week was bookended by two artist talks that dovetailed uncannily: Jenny O’Dell (lecturer in Internet art and digital/physical design at Stanford University) was the keynote speaker on February 11 at the San Francisco Museum of Art, where I was also speaking in the same symposium, Advancing Art Libraries and Curated Web Archives; and Carmen Winant (Associate Professor; Roy Lichtenstein Chair of Studio Art, Ohio State University) delivered a presentation entitled, Unmaking the Picture, on February 16 back at my home base, the Cleveland Museum of Art, in the Fran and Warren Rupp Contemporary Artists Lecture Series. Below is an overview of how I imagined—through a fog of jetlag—their visual and text-based work in dialogue.

Frequently but not exclusively, both artists appropriate photographs in themed collages with an almost patterned repetition of elements. When evolving her practice, Winant determined that making new images “seemed too…sanitary.” The artist, who trained in photography, described photographs as slick, illustrative objects that can be seductive in their beauty and containment. She later commented, “I wanted to find a way to still use pictures, but destroy that illusion a bit, muddy them up in more ways than one.” And so, in the process of creating unwieldiness, Winant “dispensed with making.” O’Dell, evidently, is drawn to the less-than-sanitary and the unwieldy; witness her residency in the city’s Recology dump, for which she documented one cart of discarded objects per day, “kind of like the undead of the object world,” as part of a mock bureau she created to archive the contents. Even though this project, The Bureau of Suspended Objects (2015), which is one of her favorites, involved producing new photos, when O’Dell speaks about her process generally, she refers to it as, “without mak[ing] anything new.”

Image - Jenny Odell, The Bureau of Suspended Objects, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.



Image - Jenny O'Dell, 1,378 Grain Silos, Water Towers, and Other Cylindrical-Industrial Buildings from the series, Satellite Collections, 2009-2011, digital prints. Courtesy of the artist.





Image - Carmen Winant, Being: New Photography 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 18–August 19, 2018. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Kurt Heumiller.


Interestingly, both artists referenced their upbringing as informing their subject matter. O’Dell was raised with a heavy awareness of information technology because of her parents’ vocations in Silicon Valley, so she comes by her fascination with Byte magazine, Google Earth, Google StreetView and the like, honestly. Winant credits her mother, who was active in Second Wave feminism until Winant was born, with informing her interest in empowering images such as women bracing themselves for self-defense, and on the more radical end of feminism—living life without males of any age, in a lesbian commune. Winant’s work is perceived as feminist, but she says she hopes that her “work does more than complicate an existing ideology” by “teas[ing] out contradictions...and occupy[ing] that unresolved space.” O’Dell too has worked with feminist subject matter—for example, reimaginging Fountain (1917) attributed to Marcel Duchamp as a female urination device.

Both artists use a process that involves amassing images, which they speak about with reverence. O’Dell has scoured the Internet, archives, libraries, and even office filing cabinets of the City of San Francisco for images. She enjoys encountering hard copy material that she imagines has gone untouched for a great deal of time and her artist statement states, “I am compelled by the ways in which attention (or lack thereof) leads to consequential shifts in perception at the level of the everyday.” Winant, similarly, is interested in haptic images. She pictures them touched and worn away, and appreciates their circulation between people, for example, upon death. She sources her images from book sellers, estate sales, bookstores, and archives, and finds herself registering the contents of book collections obsessively when she visits someone’s home for the first time.

As a librarian, I was excited that both artists spoke about the need for, and the dilemma of, categorizing images. O’Dell, a mixed race artist, expressed concern about the “violence of categories” like race and recommended less damaging ways of finding overlap among images, such as ‘heads’ (see image below). Winant ruminated on the dilemma of what she can reasonably claim as a white, cishetero artist, and offered labels and artist talks as a way to acknowledge absences, such as the dearth of images of women of color in historical childbirth images. She added, “...demarcations of privilege appear everywhere.”



Image - O’Dell recommended Matt Lipps’ 2010 HORIZON series based on Horizon magazine. Reproduced using fair use/fair dealing, from https://www.mattlipps.com/HORIZON-S-2010

The tidy nature of Winant and O’Dell’s collages provides a compelling contrast to their subversive subject matter, which is likely to be considered controversial to some viewers. Winant came to this way of working because she felt collage was over-stylized, and she was curious if eschewing composition for a neat arrangement of pictures would be effective. O’Dell’s aesthetic is similarly orderly, almost as if generated by a search engine. In my opinion, displaying images in a loose grid with the retention of right angles and roughly equidistant surrounding space is evocative of science (taxonomies, grids, etc.) and by association, objectivity. As a result, these representations of society feel anthropological more than social critiques that might cause a knee-jerk reaction. The format makes space for closer looking. Through repetition of related pictorial ‘evidence,’ the collages become socially revelatory. One image tells a story, but multiple images telling similar stories expose trends. En masse, each instance cannot be denied as a one-off; collectively, they reinforce a statement of Winant’s (made in specific reference to reproductive health in the context of birthing images): “Information, is of course, power.” She describes the result of repeating a subject like childbirth as making it salient and politically potent, and the same could be argued of collages by O’Dell that address such contentious subjects ranging from fracking and oil pipelines to close-ups of Donald Trump’s raging, open mouth.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Fray from Wray

“...we are all de facto experts in textiles...” - Julia Bryan-Wilson

One year ago today, as if enacting a Grey's Anatomy storyline, I was airlifted* under life and limb protocol from a regional hospital to the country's largest trauma centre where a neurosurgeon operated on me at nightfall. Brightening my spirits when I arrived home from the last of three hospitals was a care package from a friend I've known since before kindergarten--long before we both became librarians. Sometimes a friend knows you so well, they can anticipate your needs (bizarre though they may be) in a time of crisis. For me, that something was the thrill of unwrapping a book about the political dimensions of textiles by an author/ art historian I admired already.

The front cover was, and in some ways still is, relatable to me. Its figure by Chilean artist, Cecilia Vicuña, is made almost entirely of medical bandages. As a car crash victim, I was operated on for a single injury, but what qualified me for entry into a trauma ward was having multiple injuries--ranging from a collapsed lung (which is fatal for one-third of car crash victims) to a concussion made more dizzying by the rotation of helicopter blades, which foretold three months of vertigo every time I got in bed and sometimes at points between. Meanwhile, the psychological definition of trauma hinges on believing you or a loved one may be about to die unexpectedly, which was absolutely the case in my situation. People say I'm an inspiring survivor, but continuing to exist, in my opinion, is not inspiring. For legal reasons, I cannot divulge the arguably heroic element of the experience, which could certainly be inspiring. Initially, that was very challenging and there were moments of feeling like I was unraveling.

I have only gotten around to reading this gift recently because I've minimized the handling of hard cover books to allow myself to heal. Also, I've been prioritizing self-help books with titles like Surviving an Automobile Accident and first-hand accounts (both fictional and autobiographical) of the subject as a means to cope. Rest assured, I'm cognizant that this is my corniest title for a blog post by far, but it's an appreciative shout-out to Laura Wray for sending me Fray (University of Chicago Press, 2017) by Julia Bryan-Wilson.

Although Bryan-Wilson's focus is on case studies in the past half-century, she includes context from the broader history of textiles like: quilts being used to encode escape routes for enslaved people via the Underground Railroad; textile factories being a site of labor organization; and socialist William Morris advocating for the production of well-made goods by hand--all feeding the impulse to read leftist politics into textile work wholesale. As to the time period that is the focus of the book, the reader is exposed to highlights like the establishment of the World Craft Council in 1964 and of the Church of Craft in 2000.

Intersectionality is ever-present in Fray. As Bryan-Wilson challenges binaries like associations of textiles with women rather than men or the split between craft and fine art (with the former seen as inferior), she facilitates a broader understanding of the ubiquitous nature of textiles by drawing attention to contradictory examples and marginalized voices. She is drawn to those who blur boundaries like queer black artist Ramekon O'Arwister, who invites passersby to help make whorls (evocative of sea creatures, in my opinion) in the ongoing participatory performance, Crochet Jam. As a nod to the female family members who taught him to crochet, it is a collaboration of sorts over time in addition to being a present-day collaboration.

Bryan-Wilson observes, "...we are all de facto experts in textiles." Thus, it is appropriate that occasionally, she includes personal anecdotes such as: wearing her mother's t-shirt from the 1970s featuring the text, "Ladies' Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society" with an innocuous-looking floral design; seeing Chilean arpilleras (illegally stitched scenes of political life during the Pinochet era) in a maid's suitcase when she was a student abroad; and writing a friend from high school to ask if she had ever considered contributing a memorial rectangle for her father to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (1987-present). Her wry sense of humor also surfaces here and there, in expressing amazement at the innovatively costumed drag theatrical troupe from San Francisco, the Cockettes, bringing tinsel in their carry-on luggage; in choosing the heading, 'Harmony Hammond Goes Down' to reference the sexual connotations of the lesbian artist's painted rag rug sculptures; and in imagining Freudian language used in a woman-seeking-woman personal ad.

Most of all, what I appreciated about this highly readable book was the visceral nature of Bryan-Wilson's writing--for example, describing cross-stitching as biting into a figure. I am unable to wield a needle at this point in my recovery--pity, because I have commented over the years that I feel most like myself when I sew. Reading Fray gave me that back to a degree as I could picture the manipulation of fabric, which I know is around the corner.

Thank-you to others who sent gifts and flowers, ran errands, visited, called, wrote, etc. as I convalesced. Now, onto year 2 of my recovery...

*When I named this blog, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine medical helicopters making the list of forms of transit about which I would write.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Rania Matar at the Transformer Station

“The stars align sometimes.” ~ Rania Matar

Rania Matar met with the Friends of Photography of the Cleveland Museum of Art at the Transformer Station on November 17 in Ohio City to conduct a tour of In Her Image: Photographs by Rania Matar. Organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, it consists of excerpts from four series in color featuring portraits of girls and women, in the US and Lebanon.

Though trained as an architect, Matar told the crowd that she “fell in love with photography.” This happened through the process of photographing the simple, mundane moments of the lives of her four children in the late 1990s. Before she knew it, Matar says, she had embraced photography full-time.

After 9/11, the Lebanese-born, Boston-based artist became interested in telling a different story of the Middle East than what Western media portrayed and one that countered “the rhetoric of the news.” Matar also wanted to explore her dual identity; “I was them and us,” she explains. At the time, she worked in a documentary style and she later shifted to portraiture.

The obliteration of stereotypes has continued in Matar’s portraits. Commenting on Samira 17, Bourji El Barajneh Refugee Camp (2016)—in which the subject wears a vibrant red headscarf and meets the viewer’s gaze—Matar says, “[W]hat I love [is]…there’s nothing oppressed about her.” When her portraits taken in the Middle East and the US are viewed as a whole, she feels that the universality “combats the otherness.” Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan has described Matar’s portraits as defying categories such as “simply American,” “simply Arab,” or “simply Muslim, Christian, or Jewish,” which reflects the fact that the Middle East and the West “do not constitute mutually exclusive worldviews.” (1)

Matar’s warm personality endears her to would-be subjects. She approaches them “literally anywhere,” including once at church on Christmas Eve. In fact, I witnessed her make arrangements for a future shoot with a willing gallery attendant mere minutes before she delivered her talk at the Transformer Station. She estimates that 95 per cent of invitees agree to appear in her photographs. She feels that her success rate is helped by the fact that she is a female photographer who reveals that she is a mother.

Her process is no-frills, without studio lighting or a tripod. Matar, who describes herself as “almost obsessive,” gets right into the action—for example, “climb[ing] all over the bed” when depicting young women in what functions as their private sanctuaries. Matar’s young subjects are often confounded by her use of analog photography (most of the works in the show were shot on film). They’re also prompted to take the photo session more seriously because of not being able to see the results instantly. Matar asks her subjects not to smile, but to look at the camera and express themselves. She monitors the details of the hands, the feet, the eyes, and body language. “The stars align sometimes,” she says. “It’s a matter of seeing it.” Matar uses a medium format camera, and when switching out film after ten shots, she strikes up a conversation. It’s “like pressing the reset button every few minutes,” she says. Expressive and enigmatic portraits follow.

Another semi-autobiographical thread besides cultural self-exploration emerges through Matar capturing the passage of time. Through photographing predominantly females from puberty to middle age, sometimes solo and sometimes in mother-daughter pairings like the haunting Leila and Souraya, Jounieh Bebanon (2015, shown above), Matar says she is “following my [her] own aging in my [her] daughters.” As a mother, she has watched her daughters’ behavior shift in lockstep with bodily changes. She observes that in general, young women eventually express pride in their altered selves but beforehand, there tends to be a phase of “beautiful awkwardness,” a term the artist borrowed from a friend describing Matar’s work. One such example is Lavinia 11 Brookline Massachusetts (2013); the girl tucks a bent leg above and behind herself on the stairs and turns the other foot at a seemingly irreproducible angle. Matar tried to mimic it for the audience but lost her balance. A subsequent portrait shows Lavinia in the same stairwell at age 13, with the earlier photo hanging on the wall in the background. She is still gangly, but what Lois Lowry describes as “awkward ambivalence” (2) is starting to pass, for there is a hint of a smile.

In my own work, which has crossed over into photography on occasion in recent years, I am interested in gender as a social construct, especially the widespread sexualization of young girls in the cultures I know best, the US and Canada. Having observed so many situations where girls don’t have agency, I find Matar’s work refreshing because it’s celebratory and well-intentioned. Evidence of this can be found in the catalog for A Girl and Her Room. The artist statement printed in the catalog describes Matar feeling moved by the girls’ “beauty and strength, the aspirations and dreams…” (3) Moreover, in Susan Minot’s essay in the same catalogue, Matar stated that “…she was struck and humbled by how sweet and vulnerable all the girls were, one after another” and that she attempted to capture “the soul of each girl.” These sentiments contradict the oversimplified reading of her work seen in, for example, online reactions to Yasmine 12, Beirut Lebanon (2012), in which the subject clutches a large, fluffy pillow to her torso—in the process covering her clothing entirely—while flanked by other pillows that feature starlets who might read not just as idols but as competitors. Some interpreted it as a sexualized portrait. In terms of that particular image, Matar points out that protective poses are common at this age. Also, in general, she says that since she isn’t instructing her subjects on how to present themselves, her portraiture retains an element of documentation. By helping young women celebrate their true selves, she feels that she is empowering them. Matar elaborates, “In our society today, we often tend to send mixed messages to girls—they can be who they are, but if they pose a certain way, we then criticize them.”

The exhibition runs until January 13, 2019.

(Quotations are from Matar’s artist talk and from follow-up correspondence by email).

Images – top to bottom:

Matar with Clara 8, Beirut, Lebanon, from the series L’Enfant-Femme, 2012. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 28.8 x 36 in.

Samira 17, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, from the series Becoming, 2016. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 24 x 19.2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery

Leila and Souraya, Jounieh, Lebanon, from the series Unspoken Conversations, 2015. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 28.8 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery

Lavinia 13, Brookline, Massachusetts, from the series Becoming, 2015. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 24 x 19.2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery

Yasmine 12, Beirut, Lebanon, from the series L’Enfant-Femme, 2012. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 28.8 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery

Sources:

1 – Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, “Introduction.” L’Enfant-Femme, Bologna, Italy: Damiani, n.p.

2 – Lowry, Lois, “Becoming,” L’Enfant-Femme, Bologna, Italy: Damiani, n.p.

3 – Rania Matar, “Artist Statement,” A Girl and Her Room, 1st ed. New York: Umbrage Editions, n.p.

4 – Suan Minot, “Keep Out.” A Girl and Her Room, 1st ed. New York: Umbrage Editions, n.p.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Gripping Jan Yoors Biography

“Without judgment, Dean describes how the polygamous relationship of Jan, Annabert, and Marianne developed and evolved.”

Perfect for a long bus ride to visit my family for the holidays, the memoir, Hidden Tapestry: Jan Yoors, His Two Wives, and the War that Made Them One (Northwestern University Press, 2018) contains corroborated tales that the author, novelist Debra Dean, acknowledges sound improbable. And she’s not even referring to the trio’s unorthodox living arrangement.

Frankly, the first mystery is not how bigamy comes to pass among the bourgeoisie in the Netherlands, but how the friendship of Annabert van Wettum and Jan Yoors that forms at summer camp blossoms into romance after 12 years of separation. Their initial meeting, when Annabert is 7 years old and Jan is 12, is told from Annabert’s point of view although Dean’s source material comes from both parties. As a result, Annabert seems more invested in the relationship. However, one detail tips the scale slightly: after pretending to be married to a fellow camper, Jan assures Annabert that he will marry her one day for real. Later in the biography, the dynamic continues to feel unbalanced: Annabert kept Jan’s photo beside her bed, while Jan called her his “little sister” (p. 101). As Annabert matures, though, the scale tips yet again. After not hearing from Jan for some time because of World War II, Annabert receives a brief update from him and from a friend of his; to the friend, she admits that having met when they were “tiny children,” they “don’t know each other” (p. 103), seeming wise beyond her years. When Annabert and Jan meet again in 1945, she is 18 and he is 23. A delayed reunion makes for a more enticing story, as it allows for a tryst at minimum.

The passage of time before the couple reconnects is not just because of limited travel stemming from the youngsters’ lack of financial independence or from WWII, but also because Jan has a secret life. Captivated when his artist father told him about the Romanji (commonly called ‘gypsies,’ a term contested by some for its arguable racism), Jan sets out to see them with his own eyes near his native Antwerp. He bonds with boys from the Lowara tribe, and a dinner invitation extends to a sleepover. The next morning, in the chaos of a police raid—common for breaking up the congregation of nomadic peoples—Jan is still inside their covered wagon when it takes off. Dean captures the local color of the Lowara, from their feasts to their fortune telling, allowing the reader to appreciate why Jan embraces adventure with them.

Curiously, Jan’s relationship with the Romanji formed outside of his own culture feels more reciprocal than his fauxmance within his culture. His bond with the Lowara tribe deepens when a violent altercation puts Jan at risk and causes the death of one of their own. That the father of the tribe gives Jan a gypsy name and selects a bride for him proves their acceptance of the outsider; Jan declines the latter offer, realizing that he isn’t fully committed to the Romanji lifestyle. Though he leaves the tribe for a while, he crosses paths intentionally with the Lowari and the Romanji more broadly several times throughout the rest of his life. He also writes professionally about their customs to correct existing accounts of the Romanji.

When Jan first parts ways with the Romanji within a year because of harsh winter conditions, his parents, who are described as bohemian (itself coincidentally a pejorative term for the Romanji at one point in time), are startlingly calm to see him return home. They even agree to keep up his ruse by sending Annabert’s letters to Jan to various European locations and by sending his replies out of Antwerp while he travels with the Lowara during the warm months over the next seven years. There is yet another noteworthy tipping of the scale: Annabert records in her diary that Jan was molested by a school priest, which Dean speculates could have spurred Jan to seek escape by following the Romanji. This anecdote suggests that Annabert knows Jan on a deep level, even if clueless about how he spends the majority of each year.

When Marianne Citroen, the third member of the love triangle and Annabert’s childhood friend from school, is introduced, she—like Annabert—appears simple in relation to Jan, whom she does not meet until the couple is engaged. Dean’s writing style changes with the two chapters that introduce Marianne by more than just name, with shorter sentences that feel jarringly abrupt. For example, when her sister died suddenly, Marianne conveyed the news to the maid. Dean writes, “And that was that” (p. 29). At Marianne’s mother’s funeral, she is criticized for crying and Dean writes, “She stopped” (p. 35). A footnote justifies this shift, underscoring its value in evoking childlike simplicity, but it would be helpful to convey the following content within the prose so it isn’t missed: Marianne reveals in an interview that in that era, children were separated from death. “And because you are kept away…” she noted, “you don’t internally grow…I think there was a plug on top of me: nothing drained, nothing grew” (p. 271). In addition to dealing with grief twice in her childhood, Marianne is separated from her Jewish father, when he goes into hiding. A small consolation is that she is surrounded by her original bedroom furniture in two temporary homes. Marianne is reunited with her father but his fate seemed sealed when he is sent to Auschwitz. Miraculously, he survives by doing laundry and being overlooked by guards at the end of the war. As with the local color of the Romanji, Dean conveys the wartime atmosphere effectively. For example, she lists the ingredients Marianne uses to cobble together a birthday dessert for herself during a time of rationing, and she describes people blinking as they emerge after months or years of hiding when liberation is expected from the Allied troops.

Jan also has a difficult wartime experience, which bonds him to Marianne. Because of his connection with the Romanji, he is approached by the British intelligence to encourage the participation of his adopted family in the Nazi resistance. It begins on a small scale, with the Romanji providing food stamps to those in hiding. Then, their involvement expands to blowing up bridges and derailing trains. Jan is devastated by the widespread beatings and deaths of the Romanji when they are caught. Jan, meanwhile, is captured by the Gestapo in Antwerp and imprisoned for six months. His anticipation of torture is as painful to read about as his actual account of torture, which ranges from waterboarding to solitary confinement. In prison, his imagination brings solace as he pictures specific colors of things with a degree of differentiation and reverence that eventually inform his artistic exploration in textiles. Jan is sentenced to death but inexplicably, he is kept alive and permitted to write friends and family. Equally strange, he is released in what may be a case of mistaken identity. He sends a reassuring note to Annabert, Dean writes, so as to not taint her innocence through concern for him. Jan then connects with the Romanji to acquire fake identification to reach Madrid, where he is pulled into intelligence work once more. His new role is to bring people from occupied France to Spain over the mountains, guiding the final group personally with a stranger he approaches along the way. To survive the severe conditions, again, he wills hallucinations about colors. After feasting in Spain, Jan is arrested and sent to a Spanish concentration camp for five weeks. As per usual, Annabert receives a reassuring piece of mail from Spain. In 1945, when he is free at last, Jan makes his way to Annabert in England. Their first kiss is so intense that Jan has to steady Annabert. He becomes honest about his past, professing that he doesn’t want any secrets between them. During their engagement, they travel around Europe so that Jan can show Annabert the places and people important to him from the war. However, he struggles with depression that is likely PTSD, and eventually, he realizes he cannot confide the horrors of the war to his “starry-eyed bride” (p. 137) because doing so literally makes her sick.

While engaged, Jan attends London University, after telling the admissions office that the majority of his transcripts were destroyed in the war. He studies sculpting, painting, international relations, and anthropology. During his trip with Annabert, he settles on becoming an artist. However, his other studies remain significant, for he has been exposed to the pervasiveness of polygamy through anthropology. After what he has endured in the war, Jan is determined to do only what he wanted. Although Dean shares this detail in relation to him skipping class in favor of art making, that rebellious confidence seems to inform his personal life. Jan “wanted to build a new world…one that would be an affirmation of the joy of life, the beauty of the soul and man’s need for beauty” (p. 124).

Without judgment, Dean describes how the polygamous relationship of Jan, Annabert, and Marianne develops and evolves. She regards the women’s respective childhoods as predisposing them to unconventionality, referencing Marianne’s grief and Annabert’s parents’ broken marriage. She speculates that the war further affects their values. Marianne, who is broken by the war and disappointing romantic encounters, feels Jan is the first person to truly hear her when she models for him at Annabert’s request. Annabert’s grandmother warns her that Marianne is going to steal him away from her. Amazingly, Annabert agrees to share him before anything transpires. When Jan first seduces Marianne, he reveals that Annabert had sent him to comfort Marianne. Annabert and Marianne feel he is a genius artist to whom standard rules didn’t apply. Annabert isn’t above jealousy. Marianne feels conflicted and attempts to run away. Marianne’s expired visa gives the trio an opportunity to reflect on their situation when she is forced to leave England. Dean observes that it was through their letters that Marianne is cast as a second wife. Amid family scrutiny, they reunite in the Netherlands, determined to make their polygamous relationship work. Eventually, Marianne becomes Jan’s legal wife when carrying his child; Annabert divorces Jan but includes a note on the envelope with the divorce papers that she loves him very much and she is only doing it so Marianne could marry him. Dean describes sleeping arrangements, public displays of affection, cover stories, run-ins with the authorities, childcare arrangements (both women bare him children), and ambivalence about two additional live-in Japanese lovers. Buy-in for this blogger was difficult, so Dean is wise to end the biography as she does: after Annabert’s death, she shares Annabert’s recollection of a dream in which she discourages Jan from inviting the first of the live-in Japanese lovers to return, stating, “Can we not stay like we are? We [Jan, Marianne, and Annabert] have it so good together” (p. 256).

Acceptance of their marital union is critical, because as Marianne observes, with weaving—a medium that demands precision—“You cannot have your mind wandering away” (p. 179). Jan designs tapestries with modern figures and patterns reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s work, in brilliant colors that recall Georges Rouault. Annabert and Marianne do the majority of the weaving and offer their opinions, taking on a more active role than the typical technician. Dean points out that the polygamous set-up lends itself to the production of tapestries, as weaving was laborious (taking eight hours for both women to weave a square foot) and the women were willing to work without compensation. The self-taught, resourceful trio scrimps and pinches and take on odd jobs as well as side projects when there isn’t sufficient support for Jan’s work. Ultimately, he has a successful career, starting with a solo show in London when he is a student, and securing a solo show in New York in 1953 three years after Jan moves there and two years after his wives follow him. As Jan hobnobs with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, Annabert and Marianne remain isolated, not even realizing that the Stonewall riots had occurred nearby until a few years after the fact. Jan dies at age 55 from health complications related to neglect during his incarceration and his travels with the Romanji. After three decades as a trio, Annabert and Marianne remain together for another three decades, with 100 designs in the queue and a shared commitment to bolster Jan’s (read: their) legacy.

Source of image reproduced in 2019 via fair use: http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/content/hidden-tapestry

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Yayoi Kusama and Infinite Possibilities

“...the poignant and the penultimate...”

Before my near-fatal accident in the spring (shown here), the second last thing I did was attend Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Art Gallery of Ontario with my sister (the last thing I did was have pizza with my husband and artist friends). And so it was that Kusama’s work became a visual marker for the last day my life felt normal.

Because humor is my default response to tragedy, in the hospital, I mused that I looked primed for a Kusama performance, with round electrodes dotting my torso. Of course, humor only takes one so far in recovery. My sister and I both wrote therapeutically about my brush with death and referenced the exhibition symbolically, though in different ways. What struck me as poignant was the sensation upon exiting each mirrored room, of infinity being curtailed against will. Simply put, I felt disappointed (distressed, even) to have to leave so soon.



When I returned to work, the installation of Kusama’s touring show began the following day. I must be the only person who flinched habitually when walking past the artist’s large pink polka dot-covered balls, as they are completely charming. In fact the title (Dots Obsession--Love Transformed into Dots, 2007) indicates that they stem from a positive emotion. The reason I bristled is that I kept recalling a photograph from the AGO by the same installation (shown above) where I'm wearing clothing fated to be cut off of me by emergency room staff only a few hours later. Realizing that the show was a trigger, I declined shifts in the very Kusama Lounge that I helped plan, instead becoming oriented in reference so I could provide backup upstairs in the library while my staff engaged lounge visitors.


Over the course of the show, unexpectedly, traumatic associations began to be weaken as new memories formed. For weeks on end, my proudest moment every weekday was remaining steady while using the curb at the north entrance of the museum as a balance beam, cheered on by Kusama’s whimsical polka dots covering the tree trunks nearby. My mother and sister (pictured here) brought my nephew to see the show with me, and my husband joined me later, sparking no negative responses. So fine were these experiences that my husband and I returned to the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh to see my favorite Kusama installation. Back in Cleveland, I offered to write an institutional blog post about the Kusama Lounge; helped coordinate a book display outside of one of the screenings of Kusama - Infinity, the documentary about the artist; and watched said film not once but twice. Now that the show is in its final week, I am starting to put the poignant and the penultimate behind me and facing a future of infinite possibilities. To borrow translated wording from a poem by Kusama--who (as the film shows) experienced childhood trauma, sexism, the stealing of her art ideas and a related suicide attempt, plus public shaming for her use of nudity in art happenings--“I collected my thoughts and got up again.”

To acknowledge that the meaning of the show has evolved for me personally is timely because this week, the Cleveland Museum of Art hosts the inaugural Keithley Symposium with Case Western Reserve University’s Department of Art History and Art and the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities. In this symposium--for which I am conducting a workshop about the serendipitous discovery of social context in artists’ clipping files--the theme is the life of art objects and how their meaning shifts as time passes.

Infinity director and Ohio native Heather Lenz attended screenings of her film on September 22 and 23 at the CMA. At the screening on the 23rd, a theme of resilience ran through Lenz’s Q&A that resonated with me. She described Kusama as “really ahead of her time,” yet lacking recognition for a long time, which was a situation compounded by sexism. Lenz shared, “The thing that propelled me...[was that in] undergraduate...art history...I probably learned an average of 1,000 male artists for [every] five female artists.” She set about “[w]riting this wrong in history.” Lenz observes that Kusama’s story has a happy ending, for she has achieved immense success; while there are many ways to define success, but one example is the fact that she’s the top selling female artist alive today. Lenz said with satisfaction, “Her time has arrived!”

Lenz reflected on the fact that it took 17 years to create the film, because of massive challenges like securing funding and convincing people that a “foreign female” subject was worthwhile. She said that ultimately, the process was, “[h]arder than I [she] thought.” She noted that in the film industry, one makes sacrifices that may or may not be practical with no guarantee that things will work out. In the end, though, her “passion project” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and based on the applause at the CMA, it’s winning over audiences.