The Share Zone: Ann Arbor Art Center launches multimedia exhibit "Sharing Space," the first show in its new building
What is space?
Is it the physical area around you?
Is it your mental perceptions of isolation versus intimacy, distance versus closeness? Finding your place in a crowd versus being alone with your thoughts?
Is space the place where we should launch Elon Musk on a Major Tom-like mission to Mars?
The artists in Sharing Space, a new multimedia exhibit at the Ann Arbor Art Gallery (A2AC), ask variations of these questions—except the one about an Elonaut floating around a tin can, that's all on me.
Sharing Space is A2AC's inaugural full exhibit in its newly increased footprint, which came about because the venerable institution bought and expanded into the building next door, reconfiguring nearly everything throughout the three floors of both structures. (MLive did a nice story on the renovation.)
The name Sharing Space is also a nod to a driving idea behind A2AC's newly configured galleries and workspaces. While A2AC has always been about sharing space with the community—the exhibits are free; the paid art classes welcoming to newcomers—its commitment to expanding deeper into the general public is front and center now.
The pandemic has also made us reconsider how and when we share spaces with others. Even though covid variants are still raging everywhere, the world has made the conscious decision to open up again, which means whether or not we're emotionally or physically ready, we have to figure out how to share spaces once again.
"I wanted our first exhibition to be something that spoke to our own process of coming back into the public emerging with our new space," said Interim Gallery Director Ashley Miller.
Emerge is the overarching title for A2AC's 2022 exhibits, and Miller said "it's an open-ended theme for the year that I think speaks to that process ... of experimenting with trying to get people in our doors and asking questions about what they want to see in our space."
With its physical retooling nearly complete, a few months ago A2AC reached out to the community to see what they wanted to happen with the gallery.
"The feedback was how can we reach different and new audiences for this space," said A2AC Marketing Manager Jeremy Wheeler. "And how can we begin to build a program that takes programming and audience connection and participation as a central part of the process."
Even Miller's call for Sharing Space artists was less programmatic than a curator might normally write to allow the artists to interpret the theme on their terms.
"For this particular exhibition, I tried to make it as open-ended as possible with the call to see what people thought about this idea of space and what it means to share space," Miller said. "Whether it's physically—some of these works look at how [the artists] shared space with their families at home [during the pandemic]. ... Others talk about spaces of memory and history ... and others in the show think about comfort and how to protect your own space."
Eastern Michigan University professor Jason J. Ferguson normally produces large-scale works, but for Sharing Space he shrank everything down, creating a series of small resin sculptures that appear to be 3D printed. They feature depictions of his home, such as a bench piled with clothes and a doorway with a nearby snow shovel.
Perhaps because Sharing Space was the first gallery show I've attended in person since the pandemic started, I tended to look at everything in the exhibit through a covid lens even if that wasn't the intent of curator Miller or the artists. But when I saw Ferguson's miniature reproductions of everyday home scenes, and knowing Ferguson tended toward larger works, I read these reduced pieces as commentary on how small and mundane our homes felt as we locked ourselves inside them during the first year—and especially the first winter—of the pandemic.
My pandemic filter was also applied to Dessislava Terzieva's All The Places I’ve Called Home; 1989-2020 (i-iii), which features a series of Google Street View images of unremarkable roads and exteriors from numerous places in the world. The random pedestrians who happened to be present while the Google car drove by and documented the scenes had all been cut out of the images by Terzieva, with only ghostly white silhouettes remaining of their bodily shapes.
Terzieva is a Detroit-based Bulgarian-American whose work in Sharing Space is something of an atlas of her life, but my brain interpreted the scenes for what was lost over the past two years, not what was remembered: One million dead Americans cut out of the fabric of our country, their memories clouded in a white light of anger over how the pandemic was handled. Their bodies are gone but the screaming white shadows of their deaths remain.
Detroit-born Rachel Elise Thomas has a video in Sharing Space that seemed to be an impressionistic look at convening with nature, an activity many people began to explore more—or for the first time—when public interior spaces were closed down in the early days of the pandemic. But it was the photos of her mother, having just received her first shot of the covid vaccine, that took me back to that hopeful spring of 2021 when it seemed like the world might get back on track again. Thomas' mother has a gentle and quietly proud smile on face as sunlight parsed by blinds covers her face, torso, and arms, one of which is exposed to show the Band-Aid when the shot entered her skin.
Her mother's face captures what it felt like to get that first vaccine: the psychic relief coupled with the wary need to live again.
Photographers Yiyun Chen (Cleveland, Ohio) and Elise Kirk (Lawrence, Kansas) both capture public spaces in their works but do so by evoking different emotions.
Chen's two photos feature people photographed from a distance with their backs turned: six people on a frozen beach; one man on a bridge with high fencing. The shots indicate emotional isolation, though not necessarily among the subjects but perhaps of the photographer to the rest of the world. Chen seems to have captured these scenes as a way to try and connect with people from a safe length. (I thought of the Joy Division lyric "Touching from a distance" from "Transmission.")
Kirk's photos are more playful, highlighting "safe" spaces in urban scenes such as a park in Williamsburg, New York, across from a factory, or the shady needles of a cemetery pine. The photos feature figures who are obscured, showing just legs and some torso, no heads. The figures seem content to let people know they're not hiding from the world but, at the same time, are enjoying the time alone.
Breanne Johnson (Detroit), Nicolei Buendia Gupit (East Lansing), and Elise Marie Martin (Detroit) created sculptural installations that explore space in diverse ways.
Johnson crafted The Swivel Table, which has fixed benches and a rotating top with an asymmetric inlay. The table is meant to break up what she calls the "ritual stage" of a dining experience and forces those sitting at it to share space and work together while considering others. (Miller told me it created a lot of conversations among gallery-goers who had ideas about how to make the table itself "work better.")
For Pamilya, Gupit uses audio, video, and resin plus paper-pulp casts to re-create a Philipino dining table. An overhead projector casts a video of the noodle-based dish onto a plate as her family members share memories and stories. The piece represents one way Gupit connected with her California- and Philippines-based family and her heritage, perhaps reducing the emotional space between them when there was no option to close the physical space.
Martin says she's an "introverted empath," which sounds like she wants to comfort others but also needs to keep a protective space for herself. The two sculptures in Sharing Space address this through whimsy as she created a chair in her likeness—"Put your weight on me, I'll carry the burden," it seems to be saying—and a coat rack with arms to hug the viewer. Martin's art strives to provide you empathy as she takes an introvert's step back from the process.
Bay-area photographer and printmaker AJ Schnettler created books whose interiors show what the artist considers to be safe spaces. Those books were then placed in crafted boxes, which provide a protective layer for the spaces depicted. But Schnettler can tell how many people entered those safe spaces because the boxes are lined with light-sensitive fiber paper whose color morphs the more it is exposed. It's a subtle way of admitting that even the safest of spaces can be breached and changed over time.
Stacy Isenbarger (Moscow, Idaho; Cardiff, Wales) uses upholstery fabric remnants and other everyday household materials to create sculptures that look like your grandma's couch as it's turning into a tentacled alien. The simple trick of turning familiar fabric styles into something quietly menacing makes the cozy home not feel safe, which is the opposite of what most people felt the past two years: Our homes were the only safe spaces.
Tyanna J. Buie (Detroit) interprets her upbringing in the foster-care system through photos-and-found-materials collages that express impermanence and the importance of creating your own backstory and building self-agency as a way forward.
Kat Spears (Bloomington, Indiana) and Rachel DeBoard (Detroit) are the painters in Sharing Space. Their works look at the interior and exterior spaces—mentally and physically—of our lives and how we might interpret the tension between the two.
One of Spears' paintings features their friend in the front seat of car, scrolling through their phone as a dog lies on their lap and looks out the window at a sea of flames—or perhaps it's just the sun reflecting off the water. The hypnotic comforts of social media and puppy love feel like secure choices when we're not sure if the world is burning or we're simply misinterpreting a beautiful sunset.
My favorite piece in Sharing Space was DeBoard's painting of what looks like a person talking to a giant parakeet—the sort of conversations many of us might recognize having with our own pets during the pandemic lockdown when they were the only ones around to hear us out. The painting is bold and bright while also being dreamlike, and I thought of the 1950 movie Harvey starring Jimmy Stewart as a man whose family is convinced he's insane because his best friend is a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. (My actual sounding boards were a smelly rat terrier-chihuahua mix and nervous wreck Australian Sheppard-papion mutt who were on the receiving end of my pandemic monologues.)
Reading through my interpretations of Sharing Space shows my brain is still trying to comprehend the past two years even if the exhibit's focus isn't necessarily the pandemic. I looked to these artists' works for insights into my own experiences, a sort of shared headspace, and the exhibit gave me the mental room to explore my feelings about the pandemic.
That sort of self-reflection is not something I do too much of these days because I'm too busy ping-ponging between work and family, trying to keep up with a pre-pandemic speed of life even if my mind and body aren't ready to resume at that capacity. So, you block out the way you've felt for two years because you have to move on to the next task, the next assignment, the next kid pickup, the next dog walk, the next car repair, the next home improvement.
You don't give yourself the space to breathe, consider, or grieve.
Ann Arbor Art Center and Sharing Space did that for me, however briefly, however small.
They gave me space.
And that's enough sharing for today.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
"Sharing Space" is at the Ann Arbor Art Center, 117 W. Liberty St., through July 8. The opening reception, featuring MEMCO DJs, is Friday, May 27, 6-9 pm. The gallery and reception are free. Starting Tuesday, May 31, the gallery resumes its normal hours of operation: Mon-Sat: 12 pm-6 pm; Sun: closed.