Working with subject matter that is politically charged has its inevitable benefits and disadvantages. While the content can be intensified due to controversy in politics, there is a fine line between being profound and being clichéd. In the show, Sites of Passage, at the Mattress Factory, many artists’ works danced along this line, some of them being able to invoke the perfect amount of contemplation, while others inevitably fell into the trap of becoming predictable political commentary.
Sites of Passage is the exhibition of work from a project known as the “Firefly Tunnels,” brainchild of Tavia La Follette. Egyptian and American artists work collaboratively in this ‘virtual lab’ of sorts, exchanging ideas as well as creating together. “Firefly Tunnels aim to create a global network of experimental artists who can communicate and work together through this virtual performance art lab. Our vision of a cooperative lab stems from the belief that the arts & symbolic communication can reach humanity on a deeper level than rhetoric, which is often times misinterpreted” (http://fireflytunnels.net/vision).
The show as a whole holds together through the exploration of subject matter dealing with culture and identity, as well as this juxtaposition of American and Egyptian artists. The interplay between various mindsets and backgrounds add layers of intrigue to the exhibition, and the identity of each artist arguably plays a distinct role in the read of the work.
Upon entrance to the gallery space, you are confronted by Egyptian-born Amado Al Fadni’s “Passport Agency” installation: a mock airport setting, complete with takeaway Visa applications and a wooden body ‘scanner’. As if bizarrely being transported into a different country, the viewer is immediately estranged through this greeting, setting an appropriate mood for the rest of the presented work. It posed the question: who exactly are the ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ of this show? As I progressed through the gallery, it appeared that much of the work transcended these categories, the nationality of the artist became a guessing game, furthering the notion of art as a universal language.
Although I found Al Fadni’s work to be pleasantly kitschy, it shared the room with another installation—a collaboration, “Over My Dead Body,” by Noha Redwan, Mark Bellaire, Holly Thurma, with graffiti art by Matt J. Hunter—which somewhat missed the mark. Initially, the work came across as impressive, utilizing bus seats and including intimate and expressive audio through the use of headphones. However, the more time spent with it only revealed its less appealing features. I found the aesthetics to be distracting: the combination of the imagery with the audio and the objects all just seemed like too much. I understood the “street art” vibe that perhaps they were aiming to achieve, but the graffiti seemed too much like sketchy doodles, and the mixture of actual, painted graffiti with digitally manipulated images just didn’t mesh well aesthetically.
The installation on the third floor of the gallery, “Tahrir Squared” had much of the same overdone qualities. Individual elements of the room would have been sufficient were they exhibited alone. It could be said that the payphone with droning, yet mesmerizing political audio would have been an exceptional and engaging piece…if displayed by itself. But by combining the graffiti, multimedia collage work (which technically looked a little sloppy), audio, etc., it just didn’t come off as cohesive. Both “Tahrir Squared” and “Over My Dead Body,” seemed disjointed, making it hard to grasp any depth conceptually or aesthetically.
Thankfully, there were other pieces that possessed a subtlety that contrasted these overstimulating works, which was much appreciated. In a quiet room on the second floor, American Suzanne Slavick’s delicately rendered paintings were displayed in an unassuming manner on crisp, antiqued white walls, allowing the pieces to speak to (instead of shout at) the viewer. Like other artwork in the show, her “Alexandria” series of paintings were multimedia, featuring digital prints of war-torn scenery on which she depicted a painted ibis, omnipotent and graceful amongst the scenes of destruction. Simplicity clearly worked in her favor, as no one element in her paintings distracted from her intent, allowing me to derive my own commentary.
If anything, the exhibition as a project itself is commendable. Considering the political tensions of today’s society, it is inspiring to see the collaboration of artists from varying backgrounds, creating works that speak to relevant political situations. Regardless of the fact that some pieces spoke a little to brashly; it remained worthwhile to explore the results of this unique blending of cultures.
Thomas, Mary. “Two Art Exhibits Tussle with Political Issues: Post-9/11 and Arab Spring.” Post-Gazette.com. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 07 Sept. 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2011. <http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11250/1172578-437-0.stm>.
“Current Exhibition: Sites of Passage.” The Mattress Factory Art Museum. Mattress Factory, Ltd., 09 Sept. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://www.mattress.org/index.cfm?event=Exhibitions>.
La Follette, Tavia. “Firefly Tunnels.” Firefly Tunnels Project. 2010. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://fireflytunnels.net/>.