Washington, DC boasts a great deal of iconic landmarks: the Smithsonian, the White House, Capitol Hill, etc. But our inner hipsters remarked, “Why would you want to go visit something so mainstream? Art is where it is at.” Therefore, we decided to deviate from the norm and check out the gallery (though, to be fair, the Corcoran Gallery is not exactly “under the radar”). Although we initially decided to visit the gallery for rather frivolous reasons, our experience altered the way that we viewed the world afterwards, as detailed below.
We began on a chronological tour of the permanent exhibitions, starting with the “classical” works. This section featured pieces of early American artwork, ranging from colonial portraits, depictions of Native American life, and vivid oil paintings of everyday objects and landscapes. We then “fast-forwarded” to the mid-20th century, the era of greater experimentation and unfettered creativity: the pictures ranged from the art of shapes, abstraction, and bizarre scenes ranging from “lively” skeletons, the rise of consumerism, and blue collar American life. These glimpses showcased the dynamic nature of American art, especially against the backdrop of rapidly shifting technological, political, environmental, and socio-cultural environments.
Besides reveling in the permanent exhibitions, we took a keen interest in the three main temporary exhibitions: Mia Feuer’s “An Unkindness”, ““Question Bridge: Black Males”, and Alex Prager’s “Face in a Crowd.”
“An Unkindness” focused the devastating effects that pollution has on the environment. Feur, a native Canadian, used one of her home country’s most prolific symbols (a black hockey rink) and hung a tangled web of black-painted raven feathers, steel beams, uprooted trees, and other pieces of junk above it. The black color and motley display of trash symbolizes oil politics (Feuer cited the Suez Canal, Canadian tar sands, and Arctic oil drilling as specific case studies that she used for inspiration) and its catastrophic impact on the natural world. The ugliness of this centerpiece juxtaposed with the beauty of the rest of the museum, but it honed the point that careless, unregulated oil practices has and will continue to defile the world unless we take stronger measures to counter it.
“Question Bridge: Black Males” was a film series that interviewed 150 black males of various backgrounds across America and asked them how race has affected their lives. The film was set up as multiple short individual monologues combined into a dialogue. The topics included self-perception, perception of others, family matters, masculinity, education, community and more. The film gave an incredibly valuable insight on the diversity of ideas and views on what it means to be a black male in America. The dialogue revolved around the crucial questions, such as “what is your purpose in life?”, “how do we reclaim our communities?”, “at what point did young people stop respecting the elders?”, “what are you doing to make your world, your community a better place?”, “how do we break the cycle?”, “why do so many of us live in the present tense”, “what is the last word that we can remember you by?” (source: http://www.corcoran.org/exhibitions/past/question-bridge-black-males). The clips allowed us to connect with our fellow human beings and reflect on some of the structural frameworks that create commonalities and differences for various groups of people.
The main showcase of the temporary exhibitions was Alex Prager’s “Face in a Crowd.” The display featured a variety of candy-colored photographs depicting a wide mix of people crowded together (i.e. the beach, a stadium, a busy street crossing, etc.). It allowed its viewers the freedom to focus on one (or more) person and try to imagine his/her life story, how he/she interacted with the other people, etc. “Face in a Crowd” also consisted of a series of short films, which in contrast turned the viewers’ attention to the tale of one specific person. The film that stuck out the most for us was “Despair”, in which we saw an unnamed heroine make a tearful phone call before joining the bustling crowds of people in the street, losing her identity as she became awashed in the sea of urbanites. As she returns home, the focus redirects to our heroine…only to show her enter her apartment and jump out the window. Admittedly, the piece was very quirky and unsettling, but it did show the power of looking at the individual face that all too often gets “lost in the crowd”, as there might be more going on than meets the eye.
We left the Corcoran Gallery with a deepened awareness of our surroundings. We saw the evolution of American life depicted in the medium of art, received an ugly reminder of irresponsible oil production’s consequences, gained deeper insights into the layers of race and gender, and contemplated on how to remain an individual amongst the masses. So despite the deprecating labels that we sometimes associate with the world of art, it makes its viewers think in different ways. In turn, it inspires them to try and change the conventional order for better alternatives- and that can truly be called a “masterpiece.”
For all of the North Star Project 2013-2014 Reports, see https://mgjnorthstarproject.wordpress.com/
For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see http://www2.css.edu/app/depts/HIS/historyjournal/index.cfm?cat=10
The North Star Project 2013-2014 School Year Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We gratefully acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also warmly welcome Duluth East High School and Dodge Middle School to the North Star Project.
Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
Having re-tooled and re-designed the collaborative program, we are drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This school year The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their brief dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.
Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, 2013-2014 School Year
(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.