Enter into Cynthia Schira’s latest work, titled EYTEMON, and you will find yourself surrounded with monumental Jacquard weavings and other textile-related goodness. This is Schira’s first venture in into exhibiting her weavings in space and creating a site-specific installation. Several long white and black woven panels hang vertically from the ceiling and nearly touch the floor. Sheer printed fabric are intersperse with the woven forms. Large weavings line the gallery walls featuring written text about cloth and abstracted imagery of objects from the Spencer Museum of Art’s permanent collection. The room is divided in to three sections, making, showing, and saving, revealing the life cycle of an art objects destined for the museum.
Fiber artists began to move works off of the wall and into space by the 1950s, at the same time that artists working in other traditionally two-dimensional forms like photography and painting were exploring the role of literal space in the exhibition of their mediums. This investigation of the third dimension became necessary as artists saw the demarcations between art and everyday life disappearing in the second half of the 20th century. Assemblage and the use of non-traditional materials in artwork became prevalent. There was a departure from artwork depicting a single fixed view point to an emphasis on multiple perspectives. The viewer came to play a more active role in the art work itself.
The idea of an amplified art experience in museum and gallery spaces was formally introduced by exhibition designer Herbert Bayer in 1937 and in a sense foreshadows what we now call “installation art.” In his book Fundamentals of Exhibition Design, Bayer proposed that displaying an object in a museum in a “symmetrical and axial” fashion was no longer enough. Exhibition design needed to account for the viewer’s entire field of vision, which includes the ceiling and floor. Furthermore, an exhibition should create an overall experience for the viewer. The result would be an assemblage that included the artwork itself, plus lighting, architecture of the gallery, diagrams, text and proper font, advertisement, educational programming, etc. Bayer writes: “ the theme [of the exhibition] should not retain its distance from the spectator, it should be brought close to him, penetrate and leave an impression on him, should explain, demonstrate, and even pursued and lead him to a planned and direct reaction.” Radical at the time of its inception, Bayer’s philosophy is an early signal indicating the shifting relationship between the viewer, the work of art, space, and the “outside world.”
Raechel Cook studies art at the University of Kansas
After An Errant Line ends in August, the presepio figures and indigenous objects will return to their respective places in storage and the prints and weavings will be returned to their makers. The pink curtain will be removed from the piano so it may return to its accustomed decorum in the central court. The installation will only remain through various forms of documentation: a catalogue, photographs, the museum’s website, a video perhaps. Of course, documenting the work is crucial due to its temporal nature. The museum needs documentation of the installation for their records, the artists for their portfolios and personal research, and viewers and researchers who perhaps were unable to see the work in person. So, while the complex display of work by two renowned artists creates a compelling experience for the viewer, it also creates a challenge for documentation.
How can one capture in documentation an installation that spans three galleries and includes sounds, textures, seemingly countless objects, and an impressive spread of large-scale art works? In order to begin to answer this question it is important to understand that documentation is simply evidence, an attempt at reconstructing an event that took place. It cannot represent the actual experience of viewing the work in person. Without moving through the space of the galleries and seeing the different works as they relate to one another, without inspecting the detailed presepio dolls in person, without hearing the piano played amidst Hamilton’s floating figures in the central court, and without weaving through Schira’s hanging textiles it is impossible to experience the work entirely. With that said, this type of complex exhibition requires thoughtful and extensive documentation. It is safe to say that An Errant Line is a unique work that can never be remade in quite the same way, but documentation provides an opportunity for a potential afterlife.
Rena Detrixhe is an artist who graduated from the University of Kansas in 2013.
During the opening evening of An Errant Line (2013), Cynthia Schira stated her belief that our society is increasingly concerned with product over process. The materials and diffuse elements of her contribution to An Errant Line combat what she notices as a developing cultural trend. For the artist the work presents a process of creating and, and for the viewer it offers a process of experiencing. Likewise, Ann Hamilton seeks to provide a journey rather than a distinct destination. In referring to her works as site-responsive, she desires to bring out the environmental presence of a space rather than obscuring or transforming its identity. With the installation’s variety of fabric and imagery as well as its spatial nature, both artists stress a process of continual discovery instead of a perceptual gestalt moment.
We generally strive for a coherent, organized, and meaningful totality of experience in our life—a striving accommodated primarily by our visual sense. Our sight fosters the creation of hierarchies and comforting classifications of the surrounding environment and our place within it. Looking seems to offer perceptual certainty as a product. In contrast, our sense of hearing is inherently process-based because of sound’s spatiality and temporality. Thus, it is much more difficult to organize our aural experience into a meaningful totality, as it is constantly coming and fleeting. With this primacy of the visual sense in mind, Hamilton offers a sensorial discovery by covering the grand piano in figura. A pink satin garment envelops the instrument and obscures it from the certainty of sight. The shroud frustrates our processing of the piano’s physical appearance and heightens our awareness to its aural nature, which ironically clarifies the piano’s telos: to generate sound. We are forced to stop watching and begin listening. This relationship between fabric and piano contextualizes the instrument as an aural process rather than a visual product, which more broadly reinforces the installation’s purpose as an environmental experience that engages more than just the visual.
Joel Coon graduated from the University of Kansas in 2013 with degrees in art history and anthropology.
The works of Ann Hamilton often employ technological elements to isolate essential “gestures” of communication through sound, video, and digital images. This scanner’s specific software and contact image sensor (CIS) technology, developed in the 1990s, played an essential role in Hamilton’s decision to generate the ghostly images of the presepio dolls for Figura, on view in the Central Court. CIS devices produce lower quality images with a limited depth of field due to lower power consumption and LED lighting. In comparison to older, tri-linear charge-coupled device (CCD) devices, this CIS device brings into focus the points of contact for 3-D objects, while leaving the background blurry and indistinct. As a result of this property, Hamilton’s scans of the presepio dolls isolate their communicative gestures.
The scanner’s presence in the teaching gallery raises other questions about the relationship among three entities: contemporary artists who incorporate technological elements; the technologies which support these elements; and museums. Should technology, which will eventually become outdated like the CCD devices which preceded the scanner present here, be accessioned or conserved by museums as integral parts of the artworks that depend on them? Andrea Pitt, History of Art graduate student
“Artist-Museum Collaboration” Class, Fall 2012 & Spring 2013 (Nici Ashner, Rebecca Blocksome, Andrew Boyd, Grace Chin, Raechel Cook, Katy Darr, Michele de Chadenedes, Rena Detrixhe, Kelly Ghahramani, Bridgett Harvey, Whitney Mahoney, Johanna Mehl, Josh Meier, Pearl O’Brien, Sarah Travis, Kristen Watson, Anna Youngyeun)
Do these hands look familiar? They are from a project to catalogue through photography all the hands from artwork in Spencer’s permanent collection on view during the fall 2012 and spring 2013 semesters. Assembled here as a book, the images offer new perspectives on selected pieces of art by focusing on gesture and the language of the hand.
The book’s title, Handbook, alludes to reference works small enough to be held in the hand that museums often publish of their collections.
Handbook is one of a variety of independent and collaborative research projects undertaken by KU students who helped artists Ann Hamilton and Cynthia Schira explore overarching themes they were considering as they prepared for An Errant Line. The students were enrolled in a special topics course in the Visual Art Department titled “Artist-Museum Collaboration,” taught by Mary Anne Jordan, professor of textiles.
Raechel Cook, Visual Art graduate student
“Artist-Museum Collaboration” Class, Fall 2012 (Nici Ashner, Rebecca Blocksome, Andrew Boyd, Grace Chin, Raechel Cook, Katy Darr, Rena Detrixhe, Bridgett Harvey, Whitney Mahoney, Johanna Mehl, Josh Meier, Pearl O’Brien, Anna Youngyeun)
Coverings serve many purposes: they provide warmth, protection, concealment, even decoration. In the museum context, thousands of objects are carefully covered in archival material and tucked away in storage for safe-keeping until they are brought out for exhibition. Ann Hamilton and Cynthia Schira began their research for An Errant Line by mining the Spencer Museum of Art’s expansive and diverse collection of art, craft, and anthropological objects. In doing so, they became intimately acquainted with the inner-workings of museum storage, which led them to explore how museum objects are subject to a continual process of ‘concealing and revealing.’
As part of the research for An Errant Line, students in Mary Anne Jordan’s special topics course were encouraged to explore the concept of ‘concealing and revealing’ by covering objects of their choice. The playful curiosity in each student response brings attention to both the covering and what might lie within. This book represents some of the student projects, which ranged from a gold-leafed version of the Cheez-it snack cracker to a classical sculpture clad in crushed velvet.
Rena Detrixhe, Visual Art undergraduate student
Rubbing from the Wu Family Shrines, South Wall
China, Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)
ink on paper, rubbing produced early 1900s
Gift of Mr. Laurence Sickman, 1981.0007.07
Ann Hamilton regards herself as a reader of architecture. The participatory roles of her audiences are often involved with reading either directly from texts or indirectly from visual representations. The stone engravings on inner walls of the funerary shrine of the Confucian scholar Wu Liang, created in AD 151, are a multi-sectioned and multi-layered message to read. The pictorial representations were to remind people of the ancient sages of Confucian morality, the basic code of conduct during Han; the images of Dong Wanggong and Xi Wangmu embodied people’s dreams of immortality.
The images on paper were originally on the walls, which turned the architecture into an information-carrying medium. According to Ann Hamilton, architecture is the skin of her site-responsive installation art and skin is the organ used to communicate with the outside world. Storytelling engraved on the wall in Wu Family Shrine is then like the skin sensing the outside world and bringing the senses to the inner body – the site-responsive artwork.
This ink rubbing turns specific but private communication between a functioning shrine and its worshippers into a functionless image for audiences freed of that time, geography, and purpose. In this way, the early 20th-century rubbing made in China functions as the prints of the presepio figures do for those viewing Hamilton’s artwork. Created to tell stories to 18th century Italians, the presepio figures are now decontextualized: they are collected by a museum at the University of Kansas and scanned into two dimensions, receiving a readership who is expecting something other than the original stories told by the figures.
Xing Zhao, History of Art graduate student