The month of September has become an especially sensitive time in America, since the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent war it launched. A new generation of artists all over the world have become more attuned to the concept of war and how it affects the world–even in our own protected little Midwestern pocket. Curator, writer, and CVA faculty member Christina Schmid tackles the subject head on with a handful of artists whose interpretations may surprise you. In Deceptive Distance, a myriad of mediums, experiences, and thought processes collide in a thoughtful, representative exhibit. This week we caught up with Schmid, who gave us a fascinating earful about the exhibit and her curatorial process…
The subject matter in this exhibit plays on themes of war. How is this different than other exhibits of similar nature and what can people expect at the opening?
Well, the first difference that comes to mind is that the six artists in this show, all of them based in the Twin Cities, share a certain reflective, inquisitive, at times commemorative approach to the topic. Their work is not activist in the sense of trying to raise awareness about war and inspire a desire for change. They don’t tell us what to feel or think—we have to figure that out on our own. And I think that’s an important difference from other shows: the work here asks questions rather than make definitive statements about the war.
As a curator, I resisted the urge to simply impose my own political vision on the show. That soapbox approach would probably not be very interesting to anyone but me. So instead of embracing any one political ideology, the work on view explores the psychological consequences of being at war: grief, anguish, a reckoning with responsibility, the painful need to memorialize—and the longer-lasting repercussions on what has been called the “9/11 generation.” Recently, in conversation, a young artist felt the need to explain the word ‘pacificism’ to me—and I was struck that a term like that would no longer be assumed to be a part of our shared vocabulary—or that generation’s vocabulary.
But back to Deceptive Distance. The six artists share what I would call a very thoughtful, contemplative approach to engaging with the decade since 9/11, an approach that is also intensely personal at times—and not without its problematic moments. But rather than erase or exclude these moments, I am hoping they will spark some critical dialogue and conversation. This topic is fraught with controversy—why not acknowledge that rather than ignore it? Now, what to expect at the opening: drawings (some of them created specifically for this show—which I am very excited about), paintings, photographs, and installations, as well as a panel discussion on opening night–with three very smart people: Jane Blocker, Patricia Briggs, and Camille Gage. Two of them are art historians, one of them is an artist/activist—and I hope for a spirited conversation about the work on view and, more generally, socially engaged art.
As a curator, how do you tell a fluent story about such an intense topic? What was your process?
When I was first invited to curate a show for CVA, the topic was open. So I consulted with my colleagues who are practicing artists and active educators about what they thought might benefit our students the most. Quickly, I learned that the students needed to be exposed to more socially engaged art. Then, Vesna Kittelson approached us with a proposal for a 9/11-themed show—and that is where the original idea for this exhibition came from. Thanks to Vesna’s generosity, I got to develop this idea farther.
Starting out, I knew that I wanted to avoid the kind of political art that blatantly sets out to raise awareness in order to inspire a desire for change—that is, art that literally means to ‘activate’ viewers by exposing them to previously unknown facts, to shock them out of their happy complacency into action. Historically speaking, there is of course a time and place for such work, but I was reluctant to base this show on similar assumptions about our audience’s ignorance, complacency, and guilt.
Instead, I was interested in work that took seriously the fact that this nation has been at war for most of the past decade—and made that fact personal, while, at the same time, recognized the limits of even the most well-intentioned creative feats of empathy and imagination in the face of the immensity of war. I set out asking myself, how do artists create work about a topic like this, very well aware of the futility of their efforts, the dangers of making suffering look too beautiful—but nonetheless compelled to engage with the subject anyway? I was curious about work that did not follow the perhaps more familiar activist route but wanted to expose something other, and, in my mind, possibly deeper—in that it tries to see beyond ideological divisions and invites us to be human, mindful of our humanity and the suffering we so habitually inflict on each other.
In my studio visits, I was both interested in the recurrence of certain formal elements—there are a lot of doublings, shadows, reflections, refractions, and double-exposures here—and a narrative that would tie the work together. The narrative that eventually emerged was one of connection—connecting the current wars to the long, brutal history of war in general, and connecting the political to the personal—and distance. The artists I chose to work with all owned up to a certain distance in the face of war and recognized the impossibility to “accurately” represent the experience of war from the outside, vicariously. There are no heroic glorifications here and, on the other hand, no vilifications, I hope. Instead, the artists in this show invite us to ponder what seems to have gotten accepted as the inevitability of war: is it really an inevitable, necessary, even “natural” part of the human condition?
My own questions and much of my thinking about this topic were inspired by Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others and, on the other hand, by Jacques Ranciere, whose writing suggests a different connection between politics and aesthetics. The essay I wrote for the show ends with a line from Ranciere: “The images of art do not supply the weapons for battles,” he writes. “They help sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the possible.” It is my hope that the work in this show begins to imagine what charting such a new topography might look like…. And what we no longer see because we have learned to just accept it as a given.
Do the artists have personal connections to the subject matter? Any particular stories you’d like to share?
This is a tricky question to answer: there are, of course, differences in how to define the relative proximity and/or distance of these six artists to the war. Megan Rye’s brother served in Iraq, and her work is based on the digital archive of photographs he took while there. But other artists are mothers or grandmothers whose kids are growing up in a world where war has become normal. These kids have never known this country not to be at war. And that shocking normality of war—the way war has become this inevitable, ordinary part of life—that is the way we all are connected to these wars.
When President Obama, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, said that the “the imperfections of man and the limits of reason”—I hope I got that quote right—necessitate war, that literally means we are creating and accepting a kind of reality, a kind of world where we no longer can imagine peace as the normal, inevitable state of affairs: “war has been the norm, peace the aberration,” writes Susan Sontag. And accepting war as this ordinary, normal event—that touches all of us, connects all of us to this war, personally. That is a man-made reality we live with daily.
What’s on CVA’s plate exhibition-wise for the rest of the year?
Following Deceptive Distance, we are hosting our annual Leaders in Design series: this time, the lecture and exhibition are dedicated to Minnesota women in design—WOMN, so the official title. Then we’re on to our holiday art sale, before we begin 2012 with the third installment of Illo MN, a showcase of Minnesota illustrators.
What are your favorite things about Autumn in St. Paul?
Running along the river with my two dogs at Crosby Farm and Hidden Falls Park, watching the trees change color along Summit Avenue, seeing eagles migrate along the river… and taking advantage of the bounty at the Farmers’ Market each weekend! And, of course, fall means that I get to work with my wonderful students at CVA again.
About Christina Schmid
Christina Schmid writes about art and teaches at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul. Deceptive Distance is her first curatorial adventure, and her essay on the show can be found on CVA’s site here. Her writing has been recognized by the Warhol Foundation and published in ArtPulse, Flash Art, and afterimage. For more of her essays, visit www.quodlibetica.com, an online journal devoted to arts, writing, and criticism.
Deceptive Distances opens this Thursday, September 15th with a reception and panel discussion.
5:00 – 7:00 p.m. Reception
7:00 p.m. Panel Discussion
(Exhibit Runs through October 16th)
CVA Gallery / 173 Western Avenue North / St. Paul / (corner of Western and Selby avenues)
Expanded gallery hours:
Wednesday and Friday
12 – 6 p.m.
12 – 8 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday
12 – 4 p.m.
For more info on the exhibit visit www.cva.edu