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Challenging boundaries

By Carole McNamara

At the University of Michigan, cross-disciplinary teaching fosters a learning environment that is necessarily complex and nuanced. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Photoformance: An Empathic Environment, an exhibition through May 15 in the Irving Stenn, Jr, Family Project Gallery at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Three distinguished artists take this approach out of the classroom and into the museum gallery setting: the result is engaging and richly inflected. Architect and Dean of the U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning Monica Ponce de Leon (photo left); Ernestine Ruben, experimental photographer of the human form and University of Michigan alumna; and Peter Sparling, dancer, video artist, and U-M Thurnau Professor of Dance collaborated on this project that challenges the boundaries and limitations of architecture, photography, and dance to create an experience that melds these media in new ways.

From the beginning, the human form provided the shared point of departure for each of the artists. The concept of “skins”—both as the body’s single largest and most familiar organ, but also as a living, porous landscape for experience—was a key component; an environment onto which opaque layers, like membranes, can be projected, peeled away, and revealed. Forms take shape, coalesce, and dissolve through a constantly modulating series of images and experiences.

Many architects have also worked as sculptors; Ponce de Leon’s sculptural structure dominates the gallery, consisting of undulating arcs that recall the sinuous shapes of the human body.

Onto this form—and onto the two adjoining walls that create yet another “skin”—are projected three permutations of a video that grew out of the combined work of Ruben and Sparling (photo right). For both of these artists, transforming depictions of the human form from two dimensions into three dimensions was a concern; as Ruben states, she wanted to “free a photograph from the wall.” Ruben photographed Sparling dancing in a series of still photographs, which the dancer then “re-animated” by combining the still images into a series of videos. These images of the human form are then further transformed by melding those images of Sparling dancing with Ruben’s Dancing Veils photographs of rippling reflections of light.

The resulting videos are projected onto Ponce de Leon’s structure, creating an ever-changing sequence of images and experiences that have at their foundation a deep appreciation for the complexities of the human form.

The installation that resulted from the collaborations of these artists addresses our perceptions of form that moves between two and three dimensions, and also asks us to consider whether dance has a role within a museum setting. Sinew, muscle, bone—and skin—are evoked through this collaboration in a way that challenges our understanding of our spiritual as well as corporeal existence.

Carole McNamara is senior curator of Western Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

This exhibition is made possible in part by the University of Michigan Office of the Provost. Additional support has been provided by UM’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, Office of the Vice President for Research, and Digital Media Commons at the James and Anne Duderstadt Center.

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