Once an exhibition goes up, it can be difficult for artists to get feedback about viewers’ reaction to the work, especially if the venue is not in the place you live. But because “The Thread in the River” is currently being shown at the Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati (until April 2), I have been able to meet with multiple classes of high school and university students who have shared their thoughts about what they see in the work and how they experience it. This has, in turn, led me to think a lot about how I might proceed as I continue to develop this project.
A student asked me why I presented the images that appear in “Twelve Summers” as a video animation, rather than as still images.
My answer was that I had tried out numerous ways of presenting them as still images, both on the wall and in book format. But nothing I tried captured the idea of the sometimes subtle transformation of a child from one age to the next. I was also failing in conveying the idea that our childhood selves are still buried somewhere deep inside us, despite the layers of complexity that we gain as we age into adulthood. Putting these pictures into a video that allowed for layering them with different levels of opacity allowed me to speak to these ideas successfully. This conversation made me ask myself in what other ways I could use video presentations for future work.
Discussing “The Wind Telephone” with students reinforced for me how important it is to not have the work answer too many questions for the viewer, to let the audience ask and answer questions for themselves.
They liked it a lot that this particular body of work didn’t explain the answers that my relatives gave me when responding to the questions I had asked of them. The students said that it made them ask themselves what their own answers would be to these questions, and made them more interested in the work.
One series, titled “The Long Arc”, consists of many self-portraits that I began taking when I got pregnant in 1995 and continue to take up to the present day. I asked the students what they saw as the difference between my self-portraits and “selfies”, as they take them and understand them. One students’ reply has stuck with me (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here): “Selfies are all about covering up who you really are, while your pictures are about revealing who you really are.”
While talking with these students, I felt like I was learning things about my own work that I hadn’t yet seen. Unless I am invited to an exhibition venue to talk about my work, opportunities to talk with viewers in a gallery while a show is up don’t happen a lot. Because this is the first time that this work has been exhibited, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to get this kind of feedback.