Surviving in Interesting Times

The SP/N gallery featured work from several artists, including some university professors. The exhibit ran from Sept. 20 to Oct. 19. Photo by Roshan Khichi | Mercury Staff

A bathhouse. A garden of books. A portal to different dimension. These were just a few of the exhibits that appeared in the “May You Survive in Interesting Times” art exhibition, which served as an exploration of modern society from the perspectives of various artists.

The gallery featured a total of 10 exhibits and ran from Sept. 20 to Oct. 19 at the Synergy Park North gallery. Greg Metz, UTD clinical associate professor and curator of the exhibit, said that the theme was inspired by a Chinese proverbial curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

“When someone tells you that, you’re in trouble because interesting times are coming ahead and we don’t like anything that we don’t understand, or that we’re not used to or that is represents change,” Metz said. “It was also used, in a lot of ways, to — in a spirited way — inflame a coalition: to meet some challenge that is, in many cases, fabricated.”

The idea of survival, he said, was incorporated to explore how artists deal with modern times, and how they express their own creative survival mechanisms.

“They may be political, they may just be humorous, but usually they have something to do with their personal situations and their identities,” Metz said. “(The exhibition was) really developed around fake news and alternative facts and the way that they’re being used today by the media to create crisis that can coalesce like a kind of unionized opposition.”

These mechanisms took a variety of forms in the different exhibits. One was “Public Bathhouse,” by Ashling (Chunyu) Han, depicting the nakedness and erasure of class lines that occurred in Chinese bathhouses. Another was “Books, Borders and Boundaries,” a collaboration between artists VET and Sheila Cunningham, featuring the way pages from books can be recycled and re-invented into complex shapes and designs. Still another was “Suburbia Stargate,” by Ryder Richards: a large, portal-shaped structure of plywood, wires and AstroTurf — replete with functioning sprinkler system. 

“It took me about a week to construct it,” Richards said. “Then I put some Pine-Sol inside the sprinklers so that when people would step on a pressure-sensitive mat, the sprinklers would pop out, and would mist them with the scent of Pine-Sol, like a disinfectant.”

The piece represented a sci-fi portal into a suburban “pocket universe.” Richards said that making interactive pieces — like “Suburbia Stargate” — can be tricky to do in an art gallery, where viewers are taught not to touch the art. That in itself, said Richards, was a commentary on the sets of rules in the art world; how, in many ways, the environment of an art gallery is a false construct, like the stereotype of suburbia.

“To get people to break out of that construct is one of the purposes for “Suburbia Stargate”: to start talking about the idea that we’re possibly living in a utopia right now, instead of living in one of the worst times ever,” Richards said. “The fact that I can live in the suburbs and not think about anything but my lawn—I think that’s an amazing time period to live in. Yet, we choose to engage ourselves in all this political turmoil.”

The 6,000 square feet of the SP/N gallery allowed some artists like Richards to occupy large amounts of space with their works. Another such artist was Josephine Durkin, an associate professor of art at Texas A&M, whose wall drawing “Lost in Translation” took up three walls in one room of the gallery.

“There’s a repeated form in this work. In earlier works, I’ve made these things that look like flowers,” Durkin said. “But in this instance, it was new. These do have a kind of similar shape, but because of the color palette and because of what these were stemming from, I really wanted them to take on that look of a storm.”

“Lost in Translation,” Durkin said, is representative of something, that, in itself, is hard to articulate: the psychological impact of experiencing certain events alone, and the difficulty of translating that experience to others.

“I really enjoyed making this work because it was like the up-and-down of going up and down the ladders and looking and so forth,” Durkin said. “I think that kind of activity, that physical exertion of making the work — especially in a short amount of time — I think that mirrors the kind of exhaustion that can take place from trying to communicate something that’s impossible to communicate.”

The exhibition incorporated works from alumni, as well as distinguished and emerging artists. Metz said he sought to create a balance between the two.

“I also wanted to use artists that were performing with different materials and mediums, and I also wanted to have artists who had diverse methodologies for how they approach their work,” Metz said. “So, we had a good presentation of very different approaches to this idea of ‘survival in interesting times.’ And interesting times are what you make them, you know?”

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