The New World Next Door | Arts & Culture

The New World Next Door

The New World Next Door

Artist and 2014 ArtPrize-winner Sonya Clark exhibits existing and new work which considers the relationship between object and story, including a new work that incorporates personal stories about hair derived from student engagement at the University of Michigan and from campuses nationwide.

This is an article from the spring 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

LSA’s Institute for the Humanities gives artists an intimate gallery space to ask challenging questions. And they put the answers right up on the wall.

There’s a shot in Doug Hall’s Chrysopylae where a container ship with the word “Evergreen”—it’s the name of the shipping company, written in two-story-tall letters on the ship’s side—pushes into the left side of the frame. Many shots in Doug Hall’s two-screen video installation show objects in and around San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge—boats, fog, people, birds—moving across the frame while the camera itself remains still.

But as the Evergreen ship approaches the rightmost edge of the video screen, the camera unsticks and starts to pan with it, keeping the ship just inside the frame. This rare camera movement makes you feel as if you have been lifted from your seat and carried through the air, floating after the ship as it heads away from the bridge and into port.

Chrysopylae, which literally means “Golden Gate,” was the first exhibit in the “Year of Conversions” programming at LSA’s Institute for the Humanities. Featuring artist exhibits, author panels, performances, and lectures, the Year of Conversions aims to illuminate the kinds of intense changes that we all experience, the places where those changes take place, and the ways in which we understand—and sometimes fail to understand—the consequences of those extreme changes.

Doug Hall Chrysopylae golden gate

The rickety elevator that artist Doug Hall used to ride to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge’s tower was so small he had to carry his video camera on top of his head during the ride up.

“When we decided to do the Year of Conversions, we wanted to make sure that we were thinking of conversions in a capacious way,” says Sidonie Smith, the Mary Fair Croushore Professor of Humanities and director of the Institute for the Humanities, “looking at many different aspects of change across time.”

Community and Conversion

The institute’s Year of Conversions program was inspired by a large grant-funded project on early modern conversions hosted by McGill University in Montreal and involving 15 partner institutions in Canada, Europe, Australia, and the United States, including U-M. The Institute for the Humanities wanted to take that topic and push it further, including exhibits and speakers that touch on conversions as broad as emigration and climate change and as personal as gender, race, and identity.

“The ability to do a turnabout or a flip, to reinvent oneself or think about things in an entirely new way, has long been a powerful notion, a bracing notion,” Smith says about the idea of conversions.

“There’s always the potential to make radical change—large and small, to project a new paradigm, to reorient meaning. And the afterlife of that turning, that conversion, plays out in often unpredictable ways.”

Highlights have included talks by Institute for the Humanities fellows on topics such as the power of the algorithm in the digital age and a lecture by writer Naomi Klein that drew nearly 1,000 people. But the daily connections that people make with the project are often through the institute’s gallery on the ground floor of 202 South Thayer, where students and faculty encounter art on their way to and from classes and office hours.

“The gallery has really become a different way to think about exhibitions on campus,” says Amanda Krugliak, the Institute for the Humanities curator, who worked closely with Professor Smith on the Year of Conversions exhibits. “It has become part of people’s comings and goings, something that changes their tracks, and I think that’s really profound.”

Artists who visit often spend time working with students, as multimedia artist Sonya Clark did. Clark’s gallery installation revolved around hair, race, storytelling, and identity, and like many other exhibits in the gallery, the Clark exhibit was interactive. Visitors were invited to pluck a story from the wall and then write their own story on a slip of paper, roll it into a slender shape, and place its end into the slot they had removed a story from. By replacing dark paper with white, the wall seemed to slowly age, hair by hair.

That interactive element is incredibly important, Krugliak and Smith agree, in creating a space on campus that is challenging and unique, the kind of place that has become a destination for engaging art on campus.

“The gallery has become a small space that holds worlds of ideas in it,” Smith says, “a space that explodes with provocative ideas and sounds and material forms. We want it to be a place that compels people to enter.”