As the Hamon Arts Library opens up for the fall 2020 semester, the Hawn Gallery is very pleased to announce that the spring exhibition, Allyson Packer: Sounding, is also open for viewing until September 13. This exhibition, about which more can be read below, opened on February 7. Due to the campus closing in March, this exhibition did not continue its full run to March 29. Members of the SMU community holding an active ID to come into any of the SMU Libraries are now welcome to experience this exhibition. As throughout the University, staff at Hamon have also taken measures to create a safe and healthy environment in the building. All SMU visitors must wear a mask, remain six feet apart, and hand sanitizer is on site as well. Gallery occupancy is limited to three people at a time.
Fall 2020 exhibition hours: Monday, Aug. 24 – Friday, Aug. 28 – 8 am – 6 pm; closed Saturday, Aug. 29. Beginning Sunday, Aug. 30 – 2 – 9 pm on Sundays; Monday – Thursday, 8 am – 9 pm; Friday, 8 am – 6 pm; and Saturday, 12 – 5 pm until September 13.
Since it opened in 1961, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art has always had a commitment to exploring the breadth and complexity of American creativity through its collections and exhibitions. Evaluating Texas art’s importance in relation to the museum’s collection and the larger canon of American art has been one of my focuses since 2013. Though I started to work on a potential exhibition on Texas artist Everett Spruce (1908–2002) that year, the museum world’s ever-changing nature redirected my attention to other urgent and pressing projects. Although it may not seem the case, scheduling exhibitions is like solving a Rubik’s cube—there are millions of combinations and only one solution. Changes to the permanent collection, timing and availability of an exhibition according to a lending museum’s guidelines, and the complexity of each installation (are there videos or special cabinetry needed? etc.) are only some of the factors affecting an exhibition’s timing. In 2019, all the colors aligned on each side of a Rubik’s cube for a summer 2020 exhibition of Spruce’s work. I had a shorter period than usual to curate the exhibition and write the catalogue for Texas Made Modern: The Art of Everett Spruce (August 18–November 1, 2020). Because many of Spruce’s works were available to see regionally in private collections, I thought my task would be much easier than I imagined. After meeting with the artist’s daughter, Alice Spruce Meriwether, who graciously shared the inventory she compiled of her father’s artwork, I discovered that Spruce had painted over 800 artworks during his lifetime, many of which are either lost or in unknown locations. Continue reading “Research in the archives: Texas Made Modern”
Michael Corris: Incidents on a Page: Dallas-Venice Dreamscapes: 1976-2020 Online exhibition opening May 2020
The Hawn Gallery is pleased to present an online exhibition, Incidents on a Page: Dallas-Venice Dreamscapes, 1976-2020, of new works by artist, writer and SMU professor of art,Michael Corris. Corris has been active as an artist since the early 1970s, first as a member of the collective Art & Language in New York, and later, as a founding editor of the publications The Fox and Red Herring. Subsequently, he began teaching art criticism and art history in England, and eventually came to Dallas as Chair of the Division of Art at SMU in 2009. His expansive practice is not easily distilled into distinct categories or media, but rather maintains a sustained engagement with and critical analysis of the conditions of production and dissemination of art. Over the course of his career Corris’s work has taken many forms, including but not limited to essayistic writing, graphic design, curation, public intervention, community activism and organization, and education, responding to the needs of a given circumstance or lived situation. Thus, when faced with the necessary closure of the SMU campus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—like the many artists whose exhibitions were suddenly put on hold—Corris was quick to adapt the work to a digital environment.
Karen Weiner, gallery owner and curator of The Reading Room, recently interviewed artist, Allyson Packer, about her exhibition, Sounding, which opened in the Hawn Gallery and the Hamon Arts Library on February 7. Prior to the SMU campus closing in March 2020, Weiner walked through the exhibition installed on all four floors of the Library. To get a broader experience of the exhibition, readers may now watch a video walkthrough of Sounding hosted by Glasstire on its splendid Five-minute Tours series of Texas exhibitions.
1) How is this project different from previous work or is it?
This show feels significant in that it operates in a way that is similar to some of my previous work, but it also takes some departures. This space challenged me to expand the mode I’ve been working in for the past few years and find some new strategies.
I’ve been working in this format, with maps and text that direct a viewer to move around a site, for the past four or five years. The goal with these pieces has always been the same: to choreograph a set of experiences that reveal some sort of latent idea embedded in the space. These ideas are typically abstract, like infinity in the case of this show, but they are made tangible through the physical and perceptual engagement the work requires. My partner recently told me that the work “reasserts the viewer as the protagonist” in their own narrative, which I really like. I think he meant that the work makes the viewer aware of their body and what’s happening in their environment, and how they’re participating in it. I’ve noticed that when a viewer is really engaged with the work, they enter this mode of hyper-awareness where they’re noticing all the subtle details of everything around them, whether it’s part of the work or not. It’s really gratifying.
Because the work is so engaged with perception and subtle experience, it’s tough, and also really important, to find the perfect tone with the text—I’m essentially trying to direct someone to look at something just the right way. If they do, a whole new world opens up and if they don’t it just feels confusing. That’s never something I want my viewers to feel.
All of these things have been more or less true of all the installations I’ve done over the past few years, including Sounding. When I first started making this kind of work, I had to rely a lot on my intuition because I’d found this form that people really responded to, but I didn’t really know how it worked yet. When I was making the early installations, I would spend a lot of time writing and trying things out until I found something that felt like it resonated. I would basically build the whole show this way without really knowing where I was leading the viewer until I was near the end of the process. The past couple of shows have been different though. I can get a sense of a space much more quickly and know what I want to pull out of it. Especially with Sounding, I knew almost right away the kind of understanding of the space I wanted someone to walk away with, and where in the space I wanted to direct the viewer’s attention in order to achieve this. I developed and refined these ideas over the time I worked at Hamon, of course, but knowing this so quickly allowed me try new and additional things.
Working with light and text have been standard in my practice for a long time, but incorporating imagery (the JMW Turner books, the videos, and the scanned images printed on vinyl) is new for me. These were some of the later pieces that I produced and came after I had finished all the text and had a solid idea of what the show was about. I realized that even though I like my work to be subtle, I needed the installation to differentiate itself from its surroundings a little more or else it was going to get swallowed up by the library. There’s already so much text in the space, that I had to come to terms with the fact that I needed to expand my approach. Incorporating images, some of them large-scale, gave it the kind of presence it needed.
I was very careful about where these images appeared in the building. I’m always trying to get the viewer to notice how they’re interfacing with the language and rhythm of a space, and I’ve become very comfortable with using text to do this. It allows you to direct the viewer’s attention so precisely. In this show, I had to find a way to get the imagery to speak to what the viewer’s body is doing. I ended up using a lot of installation strategies that engage with the scale and movement of a body in the building: placing the vinyl at the end of long corridor-like areas so that you can feel yourself falling into an infinite space, or increasing the scale of the slow-motion fountain video so that you’re enveloped in that sense of looping time. It’s scary to do something new when you have a method that already works, but I think it’s really important to have these experiences that demand something different from you.
2) You refer to your practice as “precarious” (as defined by Anna Dezeuze) which seems especially pertinent at the moment. This denotes the possibility of failure. Have any of your projects failed or taken a turn that you didn’t expect?
Pretty much all of them in one way or another! Whenever I begin an installation in a space, I have a plan, but a lot of the work is invariably generated by spending time on-site and noticing phenomena that I could never have planned for. I’ve also learned that in almost every show, there’s something that viewers focus their attention on that was unintended on my part. It’s not always bad though, it’s just more information about what people pay attention to, which can be useful. When you make work that asks for such a high level of focus, you can’t expect that focus to stay completely trained on what you want all of the time. In this show, the way we angled the projector in the Hawn gallery created this totally unexpected reaction with the mirrored vinyl text, where this watery reflection appeared on the wall. I was so stressed getting everything done before the opening, that I barely noticed it, but it ended up being this thing that everyone commented on. It was great, and I think I’ll use it in my work again.
In terms of precarity, Dezeuze tells us that precarious artwork runs the risk of “sometimes disappearing completely into the very fabric of the viewer’s everyday.” Much of my work could be described this way. I really like pushing and pulling on that fabric, making something feel significant for a moment and then letting it collapse back into the everyday. The danger implied here is that something doesn’t get pulled out enough, or collapses too quickly, but sometimes I think that’s ok. Precarious work is anti-spectacular and always vulnerable in some way to the people who encounter it. One of its major vulnerabilities is to being ignored. The idea that the number of people who notice the work equates with its success is actually really tied up with spectacle, I think, so I like to push back on that. When I’m making an installation I usually try to have a combination of pieces that are more accessible to the viewer and a few things that only a couple of people will pick up on. I try to be intentional about what kind of audience each piece needs, and I like the idea of different pieces for people who are engaged in different ways. It creates an interesting rhythm within the installation.
3) Tell us about the title Sounding.
Because of the way I work, I often have to come up with a title for a show before I really know what the work’s going to be. That was what happened with this show, but I had a strong sense of the direction I wanted to take things, so it worked out. From the very beginning I had this image of blue-black water in my head, like looking into a very deep lake. I knew that I wanted the title to reference depth in some way, and after a frantic research process I arrived at Sounding. Sounding is the act of determining the depth of a body of water. Typically, you’d use sonar to do this, but it can also refer to more manual processes, like tying an anchor to a rope and measuring how much rope it takes for the anchor to hit bottom. I think it parallels how the show is trying to create a connection to the immense depths of the library.
Etymologically, sounding is related to a sound as in a body of water, but not a sound as in an audible vibration. I love that bit of confusion. I think it makes you pay closer attention. I get excited about any sort of title that does something unexpected with language—palindromes, misspellings, homonyms, double-valences, slang, truncations… It gives the show a kind of voice without totally explaining the work to you. I always find myself drawn to one-word titles. They’re really elegant if you can find the right word.
Researching the word sounding also unexpectedly taught me a little bit about my own work. Sounding falls under the larger category of “remote sensing,” which is basically any method of gathering information about something without physically making contact with it. It occurred to me that this is a way of explaining something that I often do in my work, which is to give viewers a way to experience something that usually seems too large, too distant, or too abstract to perceive. It’s been really helpful to have this language as a way to further articulate my work and to further connect this show to the broader themes in my practice.
4) Water is a recurring element in several of your projects. Is this related to environmental concerns or geography or other issues for you?
I keep coming back to water, as well as breath/air and light, because they’re some of the primary materials through which a body relates to its surroundings. We constantly experience them in small, direct, physical ways, like washing our hands, taking a breath, feeling the sun on our skin. But they can also provide a link to something really massive, like an ocean, a jet stream, the distance between the earth and the sun. (Many of these things fall under what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects.” It’s not a term I use much, but it may be applicable here). I do this thing a lot in my work, where I’ll ask a viewer to consider something very small, and then very large, or something very near, and then very far. It’s a way of having people become aware of their location through their proximity to these things. Water, breath/air, and light are very convenient materials in this way. They’re easily broken down into small parts, which can then be understood as part of something much larger. In Sounding, you see this happening in several places, including the fountains and the blinking lights, where these familiar objects become an entryway to the infinite.
I think a lot about how these materials are always with us as part of our bodies and part of any environment we’re in. I’m really enamored with making work that only uses what the viewer has when they enter a space: the basic conditions of that space and whatever the viewer’s presence brings to it. Water, breath/air, and light are always available in a space and can be used in all kinds of ways without having to introduce any other objects—like how can you get someone to consider a dripping faucet or the condensation of their own breath on a window, and then realize this room they previously thought was empty is actually full of water vapor? When this works well, it creates a real physical presence that people can sense. It’s like making a sculpture out of nothing. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of thinking this way in the past and still helps me form some of the foundational pieces in my more recent installations. Before I’m ready to introduce any objects to the space, I’m always trying to make work with what’s already there.
I often wish that these materials didn’t feel so poetic. While water certainly has a metaphorical function in Sounding, I’m actually typically more interested in encouraging viewers to think about them in a literal sense. Like, observing how the angle of light coming through a window tells us about the way architecture mediates our relationship to the sun is so much more interesting to me than reading the light as a metaphor for knowledge or something. But I suppose any sort of omnipresent material carries a whole human history’s worth of baggage with it, so I’m making my peace.
5) The waterlogged books were especially evocative for me, as objects with no legible content aside from the abstract water stains. How did this come about?
That’s so great to hear—a couple of people have told me that they really responded to those, which is interesting because I had felt unsure of them before the show went up.
They’re an extension of the repeating Turner books that you see on the lower floors, but they also came out of thinking about how I wanted to deal with the top floor of the building. I wanted the pieces there to push into the further reaches of some of the ideas present in the rest of the show. If the lower floors ask the viewer to look into the infinite depths of the library, the top floor asks them to lift their heads and look out onto an infinite horizon. To me, looking at all of those empty pages feels vast. It’s a reminder that emptiness is still a space we have to contend with after it all.
This part of the installation allowed me to incorporate the books while taking a break from text and imagery. They’re objects, but not fetishized in the way that the book-as-object usually is. They become a sort of field or a texture that creates a continuity among that mismatched set of display tables. The decision to use water-damaged books was intuitive. It may have to do with the transition I was speaking about before that I wanted to create on the top floor—pulling away from the deep water.
6) It was encouraging to see younger people exploring the Hamon library during your opening. How has the library and the way it is used been reframed by digital culture?
Yes, it was! Shows at institutions can be really great in that way. The reach seems to be a bit wider.
As any librarian will tell you, the collection of physical items is only part of what they manage and provide. This was on my mind as I was considering the library’s depth, although it didn’t make it into the show so much. The repetition of imagery in digital culture is very interesting to me. It’s like a hyper-version of the repeating images of Turner paintings that I collected. The internet is a great place to go looking for the sublime.
The piece I made for the computer desktops starts to touch on this a little bit. That piece first came about because every time I would go to spend time at Hamon, I would find myself looking at that image of the cave that’s on the desktop screens. It draws you in. The way the cave frames the landscape makes it feel like you’re really looking out a window. At first, though, I didn’t think I was going to use it for anything, because it felt too obvious. In the midst of putting this show together, however, I took a trip back east. I was in a hotel in Washington DC and I peeked behind the front desk as I was walking to my room, and I saw that all their computers had that same image on them. I was so shocked for a moment. But then it dawned on me that of course they have that same image on them. It’s the standard lock screen image for every computer with Microsoft 10. Millions and millions of computers. And that’s when I realized what was important about it: not that the ocean horizon suggests infinity, but that so many millions of people are having the same experience of looking out this “window” every day.
That experience led to the text and image piece I made that’s on the Hamon computers now, but it also highlights something that is very compelling to me about the internet, or maybe just technology in general: that it progresses towards more and more individualized user experience, but also creates these synchronous experiences that I find transporting. Libraries are transporting too, but for the opposite reasons. The objects in a library feel singular and you can go deep inside yourself. I hope this piece holds these experiences, and the fact that you can access them in the library, up next to each other.
In the process of making this piece, I also found the actual location for the photo that’s used on the lock screen. It’s at Wharariki Beach in New Zealand. I searched that location on Flickr and Instagram and found hundreds of people’s vacation photos of the same view, basically approximating the Windows 10 image. A couple of them had even taken a screenshot on their own computer and then set it next to their vacation photo for comparison, like Here I am, finally outside the window I look out every day! I think I would find that experience quite exhilarating, actually… These photos didn’t make it into the show, even though I really like them. I’m finishing up a PDF right now, however, that I’m calling “study notes” (basically a supplementary text for the show that has some writing and imagery from my research), and they make an appearance there. Although it’s not digital, I ended up creating what I think of as an analog version of this same idea with the repeating images from the Turner books.
7) The infinitude suggested by Jorge Luis Borges in his short story, “The Library of Babel,” is serious but also absurd. Comment?
The infinite is terrifying. And absurdity and terror actually feel quite close together to me—they’re both produced through the defiance of a logical progression of events.
8) The inability to encompass all that a library offers is also true of internet content. Do you think of the two as compatible systems or antagonistic?
I’m optimistic that they can be compatible, probably because of their differences. They certainly seem to be in my own research practice. I was just watching Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s short film Flânerie 2.0, which talks about being a flâneur on the internet, and that resonates with me. It’s not how I feel when I’m in a library, though. The internet often leads me to the library, but rarely vice-versa.
I sometimes think about the way in which we conceive of digital spaces, and how they often bear the trace of particular physical spaces. Like the way our computers have desktops, files, and folders, or the way that the layers in a photoshop document are based on the layers of acetate that graphic designers used to use. There are lots of examples and I love finding them. I wonder what traces of the library the internet might bear. I do believe their structures are fundamentally different, but I suppose I could conceive of them as parallel, or maybe layers of each other. If the library is infinitely deep, is the internet infinitely vast? I tend to think of a library’s structure as being more linear, while the internet is a web, but then again, Borges’ library is honeycombed. I may be digging myself into a hole trying to turn this into a spatial relationship….
This also begs the question, at least for me, what is the shape of a library’s digital presence? I wonder what it would be like to intervene in that space and how I might apply some of the same strategies that I used in Sounding to examine it.
9) There is a photograph on your website that features a note saying “Stay Alive”. Perhaps we should end by hearing a bit about that.
So here’s the story with that text. It’s taken on a bit of a life of its own.
I relocated to Texas last summer to teach at UNT. Things were really crazy when I first started and I felt like my brain just didn’t have the bandwidth to do the same kind of writing I normally do as part of my practice, so I started looking around for found text I could use in my work. When I was walking the dog early one morning, I noticed some graffiti written on the wall outside a middle school near our house. It said “STAY ALIVE.” It was scrawled in pencil with these skinny letters that were maybe 5 inches high. It would be pretty easy to miss—a precarious artwork.
I could just imagine some kid taking a pencil from the bottom of their backpack and writing it one day after school. It resonated with me so much. Those words seemed to perfectly impart that sense of dismay at being 13, at your peers, and at authority, but also the drive to carry on through all of that and maintain solidarity with yourself. I remember that feeling well and I can still tap into it sometimes. The words “STAY ALIVE” felt very personal in that way and walking by them became this affirmative act for me.
I eventually incorporated them into a sculpture that’s been shown a few times: a pair of Converse sneakers with “STAY ALIVE” written on their soles in the same handwriting from the wall. When they’re shown, they have their laces tied together and are hung suspended above the viewer’s head, so as to emulate shoes hanging on a telephone wire. The words also found their way into a performance I did this winter at my gallery, and I think they’ve held meaning for a lot of people beyond myself. They’re hopeful. I wish I could thank the person who wrote them.
Thank you to Allyson Packer and Karen Weiner for this interview, and to Allison Klion, Hawn Gallery Project Manager, for her assistance.
Allyson Packer: Sounding On view February 7 – March 29, 2020
Monday – Thursday | 9 AM – 9 PM
Friday | 9 AM – 6 PM
Saturday | 12 – 5 PM
Sunday | 2 – 9 PM
Opening Reception with the artist | Friday, February 7 | 5 – 7 pm
The Hawn Gallery is pleased to present Allyson Packer: Sounding, a site-specific, interactive installation spanning all four floors of the Hamon Arts Library at SMU. With looping video, text-based instructions, and subtle interventions into the architecture and resources of the library, Packer offers viewers an encounter with the possibility of the infinite. While infinity may only exist as a concept, spaces like libraries, Packer argues, can suggest it. The building itself has clearly defined boundaries, and at any given time the physical and digital materials that make up its collection of resources can be quantified numerically. There is a sense of impalpable depth too contained within The Hamon Library, the sublime potential of what is already known, what could be known, what is not yet known, and what is unknowable. The exhibition’s title, Sounding, describes the process of measuring— originally with lead and line, today with sonar— the depth of a body of water, without making direct physical contact with it. Likening the contents of the library to a body of water, the pieces included in this installation act as sounding instruments to plumb the collection’s literal and metaphorical depths. Water, in many different forms, recurs thematically across the whole exhibition. It appears in direct citation of J.M.W. Turner’s paintings, in reference to a fountain outside of the library, in imagery based on folders containing sheet music from the Hamon stacks, and on the public computer desktops.
For several months, Packer has visited the library regularly. She spent long afternoons wandering the stacks, getting to know Hamon’s internal and external rhythms and overlooked quirks. This extended visitation with no other purpose allows her to develop an outsider’s peculiar knowledge of the place that’s at once intimate and remote. The resulting interventions into the space deviate only slightly from a patron’s usual experience of the library. Most are subtle to the point of precarity— the term that French art historian, Anna Dezeuze, in Almost nothing: Observations on precarious practices in contemporary art, uses to describe artworks that exist on the verge of disappearing into the fabric of the everyday (5). By existing on the border between perceptible and imperceptible, Packer’s work redirects viewers’ attention to their own bodies, and their awareness of their presence in a space.
Allyson Packer will speak about her work at the opening reception on Friday, February 7.
Allyson Packer makes artwork that engages viewers in an examination of the myths and values embedded in the built environment. Her installations and performances have been shown at Nahmad Projects (London), Hyde Park Art Center (Chicago), and Birds + Richard (Berlin), among other venues. Her upcoming solo exhibition, Inland Sea, will open at the Las Cruces Art Museum’s Brannigan Cultural Center in July 2020. Packer earned her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her BFA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives in Denton, Texas, where she is a faculty member in the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas.
Image courtesy of the artist.
Dezeuze, Anna. Almost Nothing : Observations on Precarious Practices in Contemporary Art. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.
The risograph is a printing technology defined by its relative simplicity and the possibilities for experimentation. Invented in Japan in the 1940s, the technology was imagined as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative to the photocopy. In subsequent decades, riso has become a definitive creative tool for a global network of users including artists, designers, publishers and universities. RISO BAR is a collaborative exhibition that engages with the vast riso network, exploring the risograph’s potential as a tool for learning and experimentation.
Over the course of the exhibition, a risograph machine will be available for public use while the Pollock Gallery is open. The machine forms the core of the exhibition: it is what we learn with, practice with, and make with. Visitors to the Pollock Gallery are invited to use the risograph to create works of their own. A series of programmed workshops led by riso producers from Texas and elsewhere will allow visitors to develop and expand both their skills and knowledge of riso history and practices.These workshops will be free and open to the public.
In collaboration with SMU’s Hamon Arts Library, RISO BAR will include a curated collection of riso books and zines from all over the world, as well as fresh juices from Recipe Oak Cliff for sale to the visitors, playing off the idea of the bar.
RISO BAR is a space and long-term exhibition for collective learning and skill-building, a launching pad that will develop into an extant Riso press in Dallas after the exhibit concludes.
RISO BAR is a collaborative initiative between Strange Powers Press, May Makki, Finn Jubak, Recipe Oak Cliff and the SMU Hamon Arts Library.
Strange Powers Press is a letterpress and risograph studio operating out of Dallas, TX. Powered by a Riso GR 3770 and a Vandercook Proof Press, founders Mylan Nguyen and Taro Waggoner’s mission is to promote and publish interesting zines and prints as well as hold workshops on various forms of printmaking and making small publications.
Finn Jubak was born and raised in New York City, and received a BA in film from the University of Chicago in 2018. His work in photography and film engages the materiality of landscape and expressiveness of everyday objects. His images have been published in Hamburger Eyes and Aint Bad. He currently lives in Dallas.
May Makki is interested in collaborative systems and practices. She received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago, where she focused on the relationship between art, technology, media, and politics. She is the curator of a private collection in Dallas, TX.
Recipe Oak Cliff is a delicious food venture of The Susu Cultural Business Incubator dedicated to addressing food security issues and supporting health food entrepreneurs in South Oak Cliff, Texas.
The Hamon Arts Library serves SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts and the arts community. Its circulation and reference collections contain more than 180,000 items relating to the visual and performing arts. In addition, the Library has some 300 subscriptions to arts periodicals and provides access to more than 40 online resources that are specific to the arts.
Elizabeth Moran’s investigation into the origin of fact-checked news in the company archives at TIME magazine, Against the Best Possible Sources, concerns the (im)possibility of truth in both method and content. Henry Luce and Briton Hadden founded TIME magazine in 1923, we learn from Moran, as an “exhaustively scrutinized” alternative to the sensationalized, rapid-fire news media of the era. Luce and Hadden held fast to their belief not only that the public deserved verified, fact-based news, but that the facts of an event are, in fact, objective. The writers at TIME did not fact-check their own information, but rather depended on a group of young, well-educated women to follow up with extensive research to confirm “the truth.” So by the time of publication, a minimum of four people have interpreted a story through their own subjective lens: the writer, the fact-checker, the primary source, and the magazine editor.
Seeking more information about the earliest fact-checkers at TIME (the first publication to employ them), Moran turned to the source, the corporate archives of the magazine itself, expecting to find first-person accounts of their groundbreaking quest for verifiable information. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, she found almost nothing directly from the women who laid the foundation for TIME’s journalistic integrity, but rather gleaned their stories through second-hand accounts from their male colleagues. Through considered selection and recombination of these questionable materials, Moran composes a structuring narrative for Against the Best Possible Sources, that in its inherent subjectivity raises questions about an archive’s ability to contain any measure of historical truth.
Moran’sself-professed “preoccupation with the subjectivity of facts” owes much to artists who have mined archives or mobilized archival structures to uncover lost historical information, but more importantly to investigate how we represent, remember, and evaluate history. These artists’ work projects provide an important context for appreciating Elizabeth Moran’s research-based practice. One of the most important is the Lebanese-born contemporary artist Walid Raad. Born in Chbanieh, Lebanon in 1967, raised until the age of 16 in East Beirut, Raad grew up in a country ravaged by successive civil wars (1975-1991). His work in photography, performance, video, collage, and performance is highly informed by his experience growing up during the wars, and the socioeconomic and military policies that came afterwards. He’s best known for his long-term project, The Atlas Group (1989-2004): a fictional foundation—and archival repository—established to house, preserve, and contextualize a variety of documents and images related to the contemporary history of Lebanon, specifically the civil wars. In 2007, The Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin hosted the first large-scale solo exhibition of the Atlas Group works. Its catalog, The Atlas Group (1989-2004): A Project by Walid Raad, edited by Kassandra Nakas and Britta Schmitz, is included in the supplementary materials to Moran’s exhibition on the first floor of featured items in the Hamon Arts Library.
As the preface to the catalog explains, Raad’s work focuses on questions of subjectivity and personal experience, and how those individual memories might relate to the larger telling or fabrication of history.1 In her curatorial essay, “Not a Search for Truth,” Britta Schmitz underscores Raad’s starting premise that history isn’t constituted by clearly defined artifacts. She quotes Raad, “On the contrary, ‘The Lebanese Civil War’ is constituted by and through various actions, situations, people, and accounts.”2 The lack of an official account of what happened in the civil wars is compounded by the fact that until recently, the Lebanese government has surpassed any remembrance of the war, so its official truth has never entered public discourse, and any retelling of the stories are complicated by contemporary military and socioeconomic conditions in the Middle East.3
Taking a step back, for those who are not familiar with the complexities of the Lebanese civil wars, it is important to establish a baseline understanding of recent Lebanese history, however limited it might be in providing a structure to comprehend it. I admit here, that I am utterly outside of my breadth. My research to better understand the conflict sent me down rabbit holes trying to determine what I could understand to be fact. Events cited in one article as generally established truths, sometimes seemed impossible to back up—which is Raad’s point. In 1975, violence erupted between Maronite Christians and Palestinians as well as between Shiite and Sunni Muslim groups against a backdrop of a country deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines. As the war progressed, the fragile political system in the country (which was rooted in a French colonial agreement) fractured further along religious and ethnic lines, by some estimates into 186 different warring factions.4 How could any sense of a unified historical clarity ever come about from so many conflicting perspectives—when the number of reported casualties of the war varies by tens of thousands. Ostensibly, the wars ended in 1989 with the Ta’if Accord. The agreement established three key points – a modified system of the sectarian division of power that had been so tenuous before the war, the eventual passing of an amnesty law pardoning all political crimes up to that point, and the disarming of all militia groups with the exception of the Hezbollah in 1991.5
Unlike Moran, who worked within a preexisting archive of material, Raad develops his own—leaning on the public’s understanding of an archive as a politically neutral space of unquestionable historic authority. However, the content of the documents contained within the Atlas Group archive reflect the impossibility of recording historic events. Each document—photo albums, videos, recorded events—are identified as donations to the archive by a particular person (real or imaginary), and resemble private materials that one might add to a public historic collection. However, like the foundation that contains them, the documents are imaginary, and don’t provide many objective data points for viewers to piece together the narrative of the Lebanese Civil War. When looking at the extensive body of work contained within the Atlas Group archive, it becomes clear that none of the documents are totally fabricated. Raad appropriates and mediates primary source materials as well as his own photography to fit into his complex web of characters, stories and performances. His works deliberately confuse the real and the imaginary not to trick viewers, but in service of creating meaning. They combine details drawn from many sources, such that they become documents of collective memory rather than from the individual that they’re attributed to. In doing so, the fictional archive acknowledges a multiplicity of voices and the unreliability of memory than any single narration of history would be able to do.
An early project of The Atlas Group, Notebook Volume 72: Missing Lebanese Wars(1989/1998) is often cited as a particularly good example of the way that Raad uses fictionalized archival materials to interrogate the truth-making capacities of any archive. One of many documents attributed to an esteemed, but fictional historian, Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, it describes, in the form of a personal journal entry, an outing with fellow historians at the horse-races. Rather than wagering on which horse would win, these historians—identified as representatives from several religious or sociopolitical groups—put their money on “how many fractions of a second before or after the horse crossed the finish line—the photographer would expose his frame.”6 Here, all legitimate sources of information fail to provide indisputable truth. The photo of the racehorse, was taken from the Beirut-based daily newspaper, An-Nahar, but from many years after the war. Thesehistorians, supposedarbitersofhistory, placebetsonthedegreetowhichaphotographprovesunabletorepresent an event or provide concrete, visible proof, and none of them guess the exact number. The winner of the race—or the events of history—become secondary to the efforts to approximate what happened.7 The Atlas Group project, as Nakas and Schmitz discuss in detail, uses appropriation and narrative to present historical truth as something constructed by many, rather than apprehended by a powerful few.
The tenuous peace that followed the Lebanese civil wars, one that divided power between the nation’s eighteen recognized religious sects, and according to the New York Times “effectively institutionalize[d] corruption, with each group able to dole out government jobs, contracts, favors, and social services to its followers,” reached a breaking point on October 17 of this year.8 Massive protests broke out following a proposed tax on voice over internet protocol use, a feature used by various messaging applications like WhatsApp, which is the primary mode of communication for most citizens.9 Though the tax was repealed, the backlash against a leadership bent on exploiting sectarian divides to hold on to power has continued. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens, from every background and class, are demanding new leadership, and an end to the cronyism and corruption that has ruled the country since the alongside its political legacy. Walid Raad’s Atlas Group works deserve a revisiting in light of these major societal changes.
The Jerry Bywaters Special Collections at SMU has a good archive of Wingren’s materials, which is so appropriate considering that he graduated from SMU, taught at SMU, and he was greatly admired by Bywaters. However, Wingren’s SMU connections are a small part of his distinguished career as an excellent painter and as a highly respected professor of art and art history. Dan Wingren was one of my professors at SMU in the mid-1970s. By that time he had an extensive resume of major exhibitions of his paintings, of teaching at important museums and universities, and of numerous publications and critical reviews of his art. However, Wingren was modestly quiet about his accomplishments.
As a graduate student in art history, I was fortunate to have Wingren as a professor of art history when I took his courses on the history of photography and surveys of modern art. He was a demanding professor who challenged his students to think critically about art and art history. He asked me to view art “as though I had no eyelids,” admonishing me to not only look closely at art, but more importantly to look critically, without preconceived notions or assumptions. Wingren’s courses required memorization of details of names of artists, titles, and dates of artworks, as well as the larger more substantive understanding of stylistic analysis, cultural context, and visual literacy. I found his courses difficult, but highly rewarding. I admired Wingren for pushing me to move from art appreciation to connoisseurship, and I credit him for beautifully preparing me for my own successful career as an art history professor, a museum educator, and a museum director.
Blog post courtesy of Francine Carraro, Ph.D., Retired Museum Director.
Image credit: Dan Wingren, photograph by Beau and Martha Mood, San Antonio, Texas; Gift of Dianne Schlies and courtesy of the Dan Wingren Collection, Bywaters Special Collections, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University.
Exhibition, Dan Wingren: The Image and Magic, on the 2nd floor, Hamon, continues to May 31, 2021.
In some ways one could argue that every artwork is an archive in the sense that the accumulated knowledge of the artist is inherently embedded within the material of the work itself, both tangible or intangible. Another way to think about it might be in terms of the idea of a trace: some artists prefer to lay bare the evidence of their process–examples include visible erasures or corrections–such that the work itself becomes an archive of its own making. However, these two examples of process are largely self-contained and self-reflective; the archival qualities of the artwork are incidental or implied, but not the primary source material for the work, nor the primary content.
Elizabeth Moran, whose current exhibition at the Hawn Gallery, “Against the Best Possible Sources,” derives directly from the artist’s research at the TIME, Inc. corporate archives, is one of many artists whose practice reflects what the art historian, Hal Foster, broadly defined as an archival impulse. Artists working in this archival manner, according to Foster, “seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present.” He adds that they, “elaborate on the found image, object, and text, and favor the installation format as they do so.”1
To accompany Elizabeth Moran’s exhibition, I assembled a small selection of books from the Hamon Arts Library’s collection that offer further context on the installation. The selection offers a starting point for deeper research into archival practice–presenting canonical, theoretical texts and short essays on the archival practices of a variety of artists. Two significant exhibition catalogues, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, and Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing, and Archiving in Art, seek to document the importance of collecting, archiving and storing in artistic practice. As such, they offer useful introductions in the elusive effort to define archival and research-based practices in contemporary art. These two exhibitions feature work by many artists using archival materials or structures in their practice. I’ve included an additional text, The Archive, which highlights a few of these artists as well. They will be the focus of an upcoming blog post.
The Archive. Edited by Charles Merewether. London: Whitechapel; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
This text is particularly useful as an overview of how critical and theoretical notions of the archive have changed over time. It also offers brief introductions to several different strategies that artists have used as engagement with archival material. Essays included examine how the archive operates in various academic disciplines, including anthropology, critical theory, and history, and how these disciplines inform contemporary artistic practice. Artists highlighted are Christian Boltanski, Susan Hiller, Ilya Kabakov, Renée Green, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Walid Raad’s Atlas Group, both of whom will be discussed further in the next blog post.
Organized by the late, renowned Nigerian scholar and curator, Okwui Enwezor, in 2008 at the International Center for Photography in New York, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, is not only one of the most significant exhibitions on the ways contemporary artists have engaged with archival structures and archival materials, but also serves as an exemplary model for the curator’s ideas about how exhibitions themselves are opportunities for interrogation and research. The exhibition, in other words, functioned as an extension of the archive itself. Because it was held at the ICP, Enwezor’s exhibition focuses on artists who use archival documents–specifically photographic archives–in their investigations of history, memory, identity, and loss, which is a marked contrast from the more expansive approach used by the curators in Deep Storage.
The exhibition included work by a geographically diverse group of artists, some of whom were not well known in the United States. While the artists in the exhibition use a broad range of strategies to investigate their particular areas of interest, Enwezor unites them through their shared focus on the role of photography and film as a documentary practice. Artists include Christian Boltanski, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Jef Geys, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Craigie Horsfield, Lamia Joreige, Zoe Leonard, Sherrie Levine, Ilán Lieberman, Glenn Ligon, Robert Morris, Walid Raad, Thomas Ruff, Anri Sala, Fazal Sheikh, Lorna Simpson, Eyal Sivan, Vivan Sundaram, Nomeda and Gediminas Urbona, and Andy Warhol.
Like Archive Fever, Deep Storage is a massive exhibition catalogue that provides a highly useful overview of contemporary archival practice, yet its focus is quite different. Deep Storage attempts to investigate artists’ use of not only archival structures and materials, but also the process of collecting and storage as related to museum practice. However, it shies away from arguing for a comprehensive definition. The curators divide their strategy into four distinct sites of investigation into storage: the storeroom/museum, the archive/library, the artist’s studio, and the data-space. As a result, the exhibition covers a broad range of mediums and modes of working from over forty different artists.
For this exhibition the concept of storing information and material is the central point that unites the diverse group of artists. Organized alphabetically like an encyclopedia, it features brief essays on all participating artists, which serves as a solid starting point for deeper research.