Thursday, April 21, 2011

Drawing Post #5: 36th Chamber of Shaolin

I can definitely relate to the protagonist’s situation when he wanted to join the Shaolin temple, and mostly when he was in it as well. Before he joined, it was something he didn’t really know a lot about, but he just knew that he wanted to do it. He imagined it being wonderful, and I’m sure he did anticipate some challenges even though it ended up being very difficult in the beginning. When I was thinking about to going to college, I imagined art school as an amazing, perfect place. I was angry that I had to go to regular college for a year, and I kept thinking that once I got to art school my life would just be all set and I would belong there. Of course I knew it would be difficult, and I wanted to be challenged and give my all. Now that I’ve been here, I know I was wrong. It’s definitely not for me. I’ve learned a lot and I have been challenged in positive ways, but I feel overloaded and unable to create anything. Much like the protagonist of the film, I was unpleasantly surprised by certain parts of the training. Unlike the protagonist, I am miserable enough to give up and run away.
However, Shaolin and art school have some fundamental differences (besides one being for martial arts and one being for visual arts). We live in a society where you don’t have to go to art school to be an “artist.” This is also because our definition of art is so broad. Shaolin kung-fu is a very specific thing, and a thing for which school and training are necessary. The fact that I can still be an artist on my own terms even if I don’t go to art school is one reason I don’t feel compelled to continue it. Another reason is that my goal was never to have “Artist” as my sole career. The film’s protagonist was in a tenuous situation: a corrupt ruler murdered his family and was out to kill him too, and he tried to help a revolutionary cause and failed. Shaolin training was something he needed to get on the way to achieving his larger goal. He knew that he could never beat the armies oppressing his town as a regular guy, so he had to become a Shaolin master. Art school has this function for many people, not just in terms of career goal but in terms of personal philosophy and desire to contribute something to the world. One of the reasons I am choosing to leave is that I want to use a different vehicle to contribute to the world. Art school doesn’t need another first-world white female.
In terms of artists and art students being similar to monks, I think this is often the case. Art school or an art practice is like a personal haven away from problems that come with “regular” jobs and day-to-day life. Artists dedicate lots of time and attention to their work because it is important to them. However, for Shaolin monks it is important for them to focus and stay detached from most worldly things. Artists need to focus on working while also taking in the world around them for inspiration and knowledge. I feel like it would be very difficult to continue making meaningful art if artists were literally monks. Nevertheless, art school can become so rigorous that it is all-consuming, and there is the prevailing stereotype of art students never having free time or never sleeping. It can be argued that this stereotype is for college students in general. I have begun to wonder why we condone this. In this respect, art school and college in general seem to be very different from Shaolin. Martial arts are about pushing your body to be at its most powerful. In college, we stay up late, drink, smoke, and totally neglect our bodies, and it’s normal for a lot of people.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Drawing Post #4: Emily Rooney's MFA Thesis Show

Last Thursday, March 17th, I had the pleasure of seeing Emily Rooney’s MFA photography thesis exhibition in Temple Gallery. Circumstances allowed for Emily to have use of all three spaces inside the gallery, and she used this opportunity to its fullest potential with a sparse but extremely specific exhibition incorporating a variety of media.

The gallery’s initial space was populated with groupings of objects, some abstract and some representational, and three black and white photographs with ample space around them on the walls. In the next gallery space, there were only two objects: a flag with a yin-yang symbol hung on the wall by one corner, and a rectangular wood frame with a marble tile top and an organically formed, brown plaster concave in the middle of the tile. The final space was reserved only for a video projection. In the video, viewers would hear a song with dramatically downshifted pitch while seeing a stop motion animation that features an Asian man’s face, a black woman and a white woman dancing and kissing, and a black figure skater. In addition to having its own room, the song from the video could be heard throughout the gallery during the entire exhibition experience before the video was viewed.

Instead of being isolated from each other, the arrangements of works in each room correspond to each other through particular themes and features. First, there is the recurring idea of images and objects in black and white. The few photographs are developed in black and white, and one also shows a black woman and a white woman beside each other. Objects arranged on the floor of the first room also share this theme, like a black pair of ceramic shoes on a white pillow. The viewer is greeted with the yin-yang flag in the next room, possibly one of the most iconic symbols illustrating black and white of all time, and the marble top on the wood structure contains a variety of greys. A piece of drawing paper laid on the marble with a few strokes of charcoal on it continues the theme, and makes viewers very curious as to whether it is part of the exhibition or a forgotten drawing homework assignment. While we enjoy the objects, we constantly hear the extremely low pitch and minimal structure of the song, reflecting the stark and minimal nature of black and whites images and objects. The women in the video further correspond to the ideas of black and white in terms of race.

Walking back out to the marble-topped structure from the last room, it is apparent that the deep pitch of the song corresponds to the shape of the concave amidst the marble tiles. The indistinguishable syllables formed by the pitch-shifted voice allude to the lumpy, brown organic texture in the concave, as does the simple structure of vocals and piano. Observing the concave from the entrance of the last room, it is also worth nothing that the shape of the concave projects down visibly below the marble surface inside the wooden frame. The resulting lump is wrapped in white cloth and has a mysterious, visceral weight to it. On the wall opposite the structure, the flag hanging from one corner also has this quality of weight and organic shape. Revisiting the first gallery room again on the way out, we see that the abstract wood framework forms in a row on the floor correspond to the basic structure of the song, of black and white, and of the marble-topped structure in the other room. We also realize that a photo of a large marble slab being taken from a quarry was giving a hint about what kind of materials and surfaces to expect later.

Emily mentions in her MFA thesis statement, which is on the Tyler exhibitions website, that she deals with the juxtaposition of minimalism and obvious content, and the subversion of conventionally gendered objects or images to talk about queer culture and gender issues through “queered formalism.” This process allows her to challenge the way symbols have become gendered, and to explore a wider variety of creative possibilities regarding the way minimalism, formalism, and heavy content work together. I think she has achieved these goals through the themes in her exhibition, particularly through juxtaposition of stark black and white contrasts, structural outlines, and organic forms. The huge variety of media she employs deepens the effectiveness of this juxtaposition by making viewers see and hear relationships between these elements.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011