The Arthur Greenberg Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship is a competitive program that offers upper-level art history majors the opportunity to curate an exhibition in the Kemper Art Museum’s Teaching Gallery. The student curators are Morgan Dowty, a senior studying studio art with a concentration in printmaking and a second major in art history; Gabriela Esquivel, a senior studying architecture and art history; and Alejandra Zarazua, a senior studying fashion design and art history. Faculty advisors are Ila Sheren, assistant professor in the Department of Art History & Archaeology in Arts & Sciences, and Karen K. Butler, associate curator at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. The exhibition, Neither Here Nor There: Borders and Mobility in Contemporary Art, will be on view from April 10 to August 2, 2015.
Allison Fricke: Your exhibition, Neither Here Nor There: Borders and Mobility in Contemporary Art, opens on April 10th. If you could describe the exhibition in one word, what would it be?
Morgan Dowty: I would say “relevant” because the issue that we’re dealing with is incredibly relevant.
Gabriela Esquivel: I would say “challenging” because our goal was to bring to light the very real and negative aspects of globalization. We often focus only on the romanticized ones. I think in that respect it’s challenging.
Alejandra Zarazua: I was going to say “contemporary” which goes along with what Morgan said. It’s very apropos of the time we are living in and also promising in that it may be giving people a wider view of things. Hopefully this leads to some better knowledge of what’s going on.
MD: Adding to “relevant”, these are also issues that are seen around the globe and our goal is to bring it home. These are issues that are in our city and it is relevant to us here.
AF: Tell me a little more about the exhibition.
GE: When we were initially trying to put our ideas together into a proposal we were interested in this idea of a global citizen. A turning point for us was when we were all abroad in Florence and we saw an exhibition that dealt with the realities and challenges that many people are faced with on a daily basis because of the globalized world. It was interesting for us as international students who weren’t being faced with any of the challenges associated with borders or mobility to see the lack of this privilege through the lens of art. For us, that was a point where we really understood that we wanted to explore the realities of globalization. That it’s not just about moving freely, but instead that there are things that result in the opposite—that people are stuck because of the various structures (political, social, economic) of globalization.
MD: That is a good description. Artwork in the exhibition is from all over the world, so there were many approaches. Some of the artists were looking back in time at how the Berlin Wall affects Berlin today, for instance, or very personal things like Zarina’s concept of home. She has experienced these political changes, but has also been able to move around a lot, so she has very different concepts of home. Being able to draw from those stories gives the show a lot of different things to grab onto.
AF: It sounds like you came up with this idea about a year ago when you were abroad. How has your concept of the exhibition developed from a proposal to a full-fledged exhibition? Has it changed?
GE: It’s changed a ton since the very beginning of us just being interested in the fellowship.
AZ: We really didn’t know what each others’ interests were, so we had to ask “do we want this? Or that?” until we realized we were all interested in contemporary art.
MD: But even once we honed in on this idea of the global citizen and wanted to do something with contemporary art, we spent hours with the Kemper’s collection searching through things that might be relevant. We started to hone in on works and research the artists and figure out whose story fit, whose artistic process and lens fit, while we were simultaneously going through the readings Dr. Sheren had given us to deepen our understanding of globalization. We had all taken Contemporary Art, but this was sort of an intensive course over the summer doing all of those readings. So our understanding of the available works changed.
GE: This summer was a really pivotal experience, learning about the concepts and different theories of criticism and globalization. We also did a lot of research into the basic historic aspects once we had identified artists we were interested in. Understanding the history that informs the artwork helped us understand how the art is functioning.
AZ: What started out as a proposal with a good general knowledge of these terms and ideas and theories deepened extensively in reading and researching historical background. We were able to finesse where we were going, how we wanted to show the different sides of globalization, and what conflicts we wanted to understand. We actually kind of laugh at our proposal now.
MD: It’s so interesting to look back at the first draft of the essay we turned in to Dr. Sheren at the beginning of last fall.
GE: When we got the essay back with Jane [Neidhardt]’s edits, I was like “Did we really write this?” I think it was a surreal moment because we’ve been working on this for over a year now, but also because as Morgan says if you go back to those original drafts it’s a huge difference.
AZ: We grew up, not to sound sappy. And the paper grew.
MD: One part of this experience that has been so cool is that it’s one of the first opportunities I’ve had to work on a project for this long. Even huge projects for classes are generally a semester.
GE: It’s been really rewarding to work on it for so long because we’ve been able to put so much more effort into it because there haven’t been typical time constraints with the end of the semester.
AZ: And it’s had a lot more time to evolve.
AF: You’ve selected a number of photographs for this exhibition. Why photography?
AZ: We knew that Yto Barrada was part of the collection, so that gave us a jumping off point in exploring the collection. The Yto Barradas are both photographs and they capture quite nicely that whole “living between”.
GE: It was never intended to happen. The Yto Barradas were some of the first pieces on our checklist proposal, but I think there’s something really special about the photographic medium. Photography achieves something that no other medium can because we see it as a metonymic representation of reality. It’s both accessible and conceptual (at least in art photography), so there’s room to bring in really big ideas (like what Barrada’s working with) that I don’t think would be conveyed as strongly in any other medium. So it’s just kind of a coincidence that the artists that fit into our thesis happened to be working as photographers. And another thing we found to be quite interesting was that a number of photographers walk this fine line between documentary and art, and that’s something really relevant to contemporary practice in general in addition to the issues we were exploring.
MD: Inherent to photography it is a good way to talk about the issues—the documentary and the idea of absence. Gabi and I took History of Photography last fall, and this was the impetus for us taking the class. It was really helpful to understand…
GE: … the power of the photographic image and its place in the art context.
AF: I’m wondering too about the prevalence of landscape in the exhibition.
MD: That’s another thing we didn’t articulate until we started writing. It makes a lot of sense when you’re dealing with issues of territory and displacement. Retrospectively, the landscape and photography make sense. The land is central to [globalization].
AF: What were some of the challenges you faced in putting together this exhibition?
GE: Our initial challenge was just reading what we were given. It was a long list and the readings were dense. [The authors] were covering really complex topics with new theories and ideas that I had never really encountered.
AZ: We felt like we had to do background readings for the readings.
GE: That was our biggest challenge—just making sure we understood it. Since there were three of us, we divided up the reading and we were each in charge of knowing our readings very well and conveying them to the others.
AZ: We have a lot of notes and charts and Gabi basically wrote a whole history book.
GE: I spent one week where my entire task for that week was just to research all the different pieces of history that were relevant to the artworks. So I researched the Rwandan Genocide, the Berlin Wall, the partition of India, the Bosnian Genocide, the US-Mexico border, the Schengen Agreement… and I learned so much about all these things that I didn’t know about before and didn’t expect to need to know in such depth. There were a lot of times where knowing the history helped us so much.
MD: That was a difficult time. There was this continual balance between researching the theory and history, and then really looking at the artworks. We would get so pulled in to the ideas and the concepts that we would forget to look.
GE: There were a couple meetings with Kate where we’d come into her office and be like “Okay, we’re understanding these things” and she’d say “Now what about the artworks” and we all paused…
MD: But it was important for us to be reminded. And when we went back to the art, we saw it differently.
AF: Has anything surprised you in your work on this project?
GE: How hard it is to write a condensed essay when you have a lot of comprehensive research that you would like to include, but don’t have the space.
AZ: There were so many things that we wanted to include that were extra details, mostly history and artist background and even techniques like the lithograph. It was hard to realize that even though we wanted to include it, we didn’t have the room.
GE: Dr. Sheren said that this is literally enough information to write a thesis and we had to stay under 4,000 words. It was hard for me because I was attached to the information and wanted to share it.
AF: What have you enjoyed the most about this experience?
AZ: Working with each other!
MD: Getting to know each other. It’s been a really fun process. Over the summer we had Greenberg movie nights where we watched movies that were relevant.
AF: Fun! What did you watch?
GE: We watched The Lives of Others…
MD: Alan Sekula did a film, The Forgotten Space, about the sea as a complex arena for global trade.
GE: We also watched one about Jamaica called Life and Debt. It’s a documentary about how Western tourism affects underdeveloped countries as a result of globalization practices.
AZ: The funny thing is [Gabi and Morgan] didn’t know each other before the Florence program.
GE: [Ali] was the mutual connection that brought us all together.
AZ: I knew they were interested in the Greenberg Fellowship, so I introduced them and we started working on it.
AF: it’s wonderful that your interests were overlapping enough that you could create a cohesive project.
AZ: It was also good that we liked each other enough that we didn’t want to kill each other!
AF: How has working on this exhibition affected your own practice or your thinking about your work?
GE: It’s hard for me to answer because my primary major is architecture, which is creative in a very different capacity. Through the research and my class last semester on photography, I’ve become really inspired by the photographic medium, so I’m actually in a photography studio class now. I hope to continue it as my creative practice in the future because that is a medium I really understand and relate to.
MD: I didn’t really have an understanding of photography or the impact photography has on all contemporary art, even if it’s not obviously based in photography. Pushing my research away from my direct interest (for my studio classes) and investigating something I’m interested in intellectually has been useful for broadening my horizons. This project has affected how I view the world: how I interact as a person and my place in the world, and my own privilege. It’s impacted both my studio and my world view.
GE: I echo that point. In studying photography, I’m more aware of how images mediate everyday life. We relate to and through images. So it’s made me see that element of our culture in a new way. Very eye-opening.
AZ: I can’t say it’s really affected my practice. Fashion can be intellectual, but I’ll admit that it’s not that deep. [laughs] I agree that the project has made me more aware of my place in the world and how the world is mediated by images. It’s broadened my understanding of things in other classes (art history, culture, etc.). I’ve seen how globalization has been such a powerful, double-edged sword.
AF: Is there anything else you want to add about the exhibition or your experience working on it?
GE: This has definitely been the best part of my undergraduate experience. I have learned way more through this than through any class.
MD: I would encourage anyone who is interested in this fellowship to spend time thinking about what they are interested in. Getting involved in research of this depth has been incredibly rewarding.
GE: Working with Dr. Sheren so closely was also amazing. I don’t think we would have been able to do that in any classroom setting. And we learned a lot from working with the Kemper staff.
AZ: It’s definitely been something that’s cemented our interest in art history (our second major). It’s been amazing and wonderful and we’ve learned a lot. It’s been challenging, even the small challenges of teaching Gabi how to use Google docs.
GE: Hey now…
AF: On that note, thank you for talking with me about this exhibition! I’m looking forward to seeing the final product.
Interview by Allison Fricke, assistant educator, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum