4 - The cultural icon who I had to google.

When I learned that David Bowie had died, I immediately went to Wikipedia. His name was familiar but I wasn’t quite sure why. His music wasn’t a huge part of my childhood, but upon seeing his picture, I remembered why I knew Bowie. He was actually one of my biggest inspirations but for a rather peculiar reason.

I spent much of high school interviewing Tibetans living in exile about the situation unfolding in their homeland. As I prepared these interviews into a movie, I faced a slight problem. My entire documentary project was all about Tibet and yet I had never been there. I ran out of B-roll forty-five seconds into the trailer.

I jumped at the opportunity to work this into an exhibition rather than a movie. That’s when I heard about this guy named David Bowie. My art teacher mentioned that there was an exhibit called, “David Bowie Is,” and it featured an audio guide with his music that accompanied the exhibition. 

Although I never saw it, the Bowie exhibition opened a door for me. It gave me permission to create an audio guide that was more than a white man talking in a British accent about the birthplace of a painter. I was coming to learn that audio guides could be dynamic–an integral part of the story. They could include the voices of the individuals pictured. They didn’t have to be the side show. Their importance could be elevated to the same level as the photographs and installation art itself, functioning in a manner that was synergistic with installations.

I wanted the viewer to feel that their physical interaction with the material was a part of the story.  My hope was to create an experience for the viewer that was akin to walking inside of a documentary–I called it a walking documentary.

As I created that first exhibition, I learned that I could manipulate the audience’s position through the size of text. Small text and they would come in close. Large text and they would stand back. Too much text and they won’t bother reading anything. 

I used red books – a reference to both Chinese passports and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Books. They included quotes of repression. (A complete virtual tour of the exhibition can be viewed here).

 
 

I used barbed wire and transparent identity cards to reflect the invisible stories of prisoners. 

 
 

I included art books, which told the story of environmental impacts. 

 
 

I ended the exhibit with a “reflection space.” It featured a large paper banner with quotes and headlines from two opposing perspectives on each side. The viewer sat low on the ground, from which the towering banner of headlines seemed insurmountable, blockading them from connecting to the viewer on the other side. They were, however, given one opportunity to connect through a tiny hole in the banner through which eyes could meet.

 
 

The idea was that political and psychological differences are impossible to overcome when you remain entrenched in your own perspective. However, they can be breached through the human connection. Not only would the viewer see the vulnerability of the human connection, but they would feel and experience it. In this way, the structure of the audience’s interaction with the piece contributed to the storyline.

My first exhibition helped me to fall in love with the flexibility and creativity of multimedia work. But I would soon encounter the frustrating difficulties inherent to exhibitry. One big difference: I am upfront about my intention in the work, and my installations are intentional. There is a singular, accessible thesis. Some people disagree with that approach and embrace the mystery of art. I cling to the clarity of story, and use installations as a vehicle for sharing that story.

Another difficulty I have encountered comes from the fact that my work doesn’t fit neatly into a box–it’s not really art because what “should” be the captions is written inside and on the installations. It’s also not just a didactic panel because many of the pieces cannot be so easily replicated. 

I worked with the Illinois Holocaust Museum for nearly an entire year working to remaster this exhibition for their space. The project eventually fell apart, largely because it didn’t fit into the box of “didactic panels.” 

In my second exhibition, I faced this issue from the opposite end. Working to put my climate change work in the Power Plant Gallery was an incredible opportunity and I am very grateful for Caitlyn’s guidance. But again–to no fault of her own–I had to alter my work in order to fit it into an art gallery. My captions, including key quotes of those photographed, couldn’t be mounted at an angle that easily meets the eye and placed directly below each framed photograph. Instead they were mounted flat to the wall, and off to the side. After all, in an art gallery, the image is seen as the art, and the caption, a separate, author-less entity. 

Personally, I don’t care if my work falls into the class of art or didactic panels. But when I present my doc work, I like to present the images and the captions as inseparable, as I view them as mutually supportive and of equal importance. One is not favored over the other. All that really matters is the story!

 
 

So I started this piece with two sentences about Bowie and proceeded to talk about myself for the next twelve paragraphs. Sounds like a horrible first date. In all honesty, I have a multitude of other exhibit inspirers–Ai Wei Wei, JR’s exhibitions, etc. The installation world is a beast of its own. But I think it is an exciting yet challenging space for documentarians. Full of potential yet with more rigid borders and a higher barrier of entry.

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A complete virtual tour of my Tibet exhibition can be viewed here. We See The Change Exhibition description is here.