EXCHANGE: Split in Two

by Jessica Santone

In an effort to further regional dialogue between Chicago and Detroit artists, the Chicago Artists’ Coalition BOLT Residency and a group of artists in Detroit travelled to each other’s cities during 2012, sharing ideas and developing conversations. The resulting exhibit, EXCHANGE: Chicago < > Detroit, is on view in its first installment at the Chicago Artist Coalition gallery on Carpenter Street this month. Next month, the project’s second installment opens in Detroit with works by the Chicago artists who participated.

Featuring ten artists (and one design collective) from Detroit, one of the most striking aspects of the Chicago exhibition is the glimpse of landscape, architecture, and detritus from the other side of the lake. In works by Scott Hocking, Clinton Snider, and the Design 99 collective, one sees the elsewhere of Detroit, especially its marginal spaces. What is also remarkable, to my view, is the degree to which so many of the works in the show take on the thematic of exchange. That is, several pieces operate on either side of an axis, whether visible or metaphorical. The viewer’s attention or participation is divided in two, so that we must look back and forth to understand the exchanges which are internal to the works themselves.

These exchanges are most evident first in the two participatory pieces in the gallery: Graem Whyte’s Venue For Advanced Conflict Resolution (Battle of the Gods) (2011), a modified ping pong table which few attendees at the opening dared to try, and Jessica Frelinghuysen’s Helmet for Telling Secrets (2003-12), a pair of paper masks designed to amplify sound in an intimate conversation. While opposite in tone – one facilitates collaboration, the other frustrates healthy competition – the double-ness implied by these two pieces sets the tone for the rest of EXCHANGE. The solitary visitor to the gallery can do nothing with either work. Both of these demand from us an exchange of two.

Rather than making the viewer into a half of a pair, two single-channel video works in the rear room of the gallery are themselves twinned in their compositions. First, Chido Johnson’s Staring Contest (2009) presents alternating views of two sculptures facing each other across a street near the Detroit Institute of Art. One is an existing 1973 statute of Nicolas Copernicus, on the west side of the street; the other is a new sculpture by the artist of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, a Persian astronomer whose important work preceded that of Copernicus by several hundred years.1 Johnson’s video documentation activates the installation as a performance, with the two historical figures gazing out into space at one another. Neither figure wins in the staring contest of course. Instead, we are offered the corrective to a Western history of science through the artist’s portrayal of enduring cultural exchange between East and West.

Nicola Kuperus, Video still

The other video in the back room of the gallery is by Nicola Kuperus. It features two scenarios in which the artist puts on display first intense mania and then petulance. In each scene, the performer appears doubly, using an edited split-screen, with head completely concealed by a large red ribbon. In the “Angry Bow” scenario, the red ribbon is in the shape of a gift wrap bow that jumps around excitedly. In the “Hopeless Bow” scenario, the ribbon indicates an award for second place and alternately expresses despondence and resentment. The doubling within the work is further elaborated with the artist’s repetition of gestures (at a slight delay between left and right) and in the second scene the pouty phrase “It’s not fair!” spoken over and over in a deliberately childish manner.

Kuperus’s compelling video threw the entire exhibition into relief for me as it brought to mind the aesthetics of the double discussed in Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay “The Uncanny.” Here, Freud analyzes the linguistic origins of the uncanny, in which the familiar and unfamiliar are confused in the mind through a process of psychic doubling. He writes,

“an uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality, such as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions and significance of the thing it symbolizes, and so on.”2

This merging of the bizarre or strange with a sense of homesickness recurs throughout the exhibition (whether expressed more literally through architectural remnants or more metaphorically in Kuperus’s work or the uncomfortable repetition of mechanically pumping breast milk in Faina Lerman’s performance documentation video). On the one hand, one might imagine that this presence of the uncanny emerges from the strained socioeconomic conditions of Detroit, in which remnants of the city’s former vitality linger in empty lots. Or, one might otherwise see in this collection of works a renewal of modernist surrealistic fantasy manifested as an anxiety of the psychosocial, hyper-technological bodies in the twenty-first century.

To conclude, consider the poem by Vincent Troia in the exhibit’s program. Here he writes, “Multiplied until opaque, the real is masked, and walled-off through seamless cuts and savvy edits. So me now: real or simulated?”3

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Notes:

1. See: Chido Johnson, “staringcontest,” chidox.com/desktop/woodward/staringcontest.html.

2. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” [1919], The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol XVII, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1955), 244. Available at: www.clas.ufl.edu/users/burt/uncanny.pdf.

3. Vincent Troia, [untitled poem, c. 2013], chixdet.com/portfolios/vince-troia/.

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