How to Showcase Detroit Art
Written by Isabella Achenbach — Photography by Michelle & Chris Gerard
Oooh, Look, They're Kissing!
Imagine you’re in an elevator when someone steps in with you. You’re going up 15 flights and know that you have approximately 30 seconds to either make conversation or stare at your hands. It’s tense, awkward, sometimes uncomfortably sexually charged, and it always feels like time has slowed down dramatically. That hyper-awareness of one’s physical being was my focus in the year-long process of curating Personal Space, an exhibition of Detroit artists staged by Grand Circus Magazine and Public Pool.
Our physical surroundings, relationships with one another, hidden insecurities and desires, and the examination of human traces are examples of the interpretations made by the sixteen participating artists. Spotlighting performance, audience interaction, photography, painting, video, sculpture, installation and prints, this exhibition used different forms of media to directly and abstractly confront the relationship between the human figure and its surroundings.
Work ranged from humorous and lighthearted to serious, challenging, and stretching to the uncanny. On the more playful side, photographer Chloe Sells exhibited a found photograph that had been tucked and hidden behind a photo frame that she had purchased at a resale shop. The image, most likely a disposi-cam snapshot, is a birds-eye view of a bunch of grannies’ newly pedicured feet. We’ve all seen the “footstar” shot. From sparkly prom heels to old lady pedis, it’s timeless. Sells’ appropriation of this image is cheeky and fun, and the work displays a closeness between the figures that allows the viewer to enjoy it in all its silliness.
A painting titled the couple by Bryan Corley also centers on human relationships, but this one has deeper roots. Corley’s piece depicts two young men in an ambiguous relationship and moment. The piece looks like it’s been through the ringer. It’s painted on cardboard, packing tape still hanging on to one side (I imagine Corley ripping open a taped-up cardboard package and painting immediately), edges bent out of shape, with paint applied aggressively and colorfully. One of the figures is a self-portrait, the other a friend that materialized in and out of Corley’s life in confusing and challenging ways. The pressures of masculinity seem to have created an uncomfortable and silencing dynamic between the two boys. You can feel the emotional energy that was expended on this work.
It’s art like this that makes me hyper-aware of my aversion to vulnerability. This piece is brilliant in that it makes it easy to see, internalize, and feel the moment that is on display and then agree that it is exactly this kind of tense, awkward, scary confrontation that must be avoided at all costs. I blame that fear, in part, on social media.
With our ritualistic consumption of social media, our personal space has become enormously broadened and porous. We seem to take pleasure in being overly open with people. We share hot selfies, tumultuous breakups, political beliefs, and tidbits on the internet as if we’re being paid for it. This extends to everyday, IRL practices. In the same way that we gather followers on the internet, in real life we collect friends and pad ourselves with other people to feel comfortable in social situations. Feel vulnerable? Never.
I believe that there is an important, and also confusing, dichotomy at play when it comes to the concept of personal space in modern life. On one hand, we’re arguably too open with one another. This allows for unwarranted opinions and rude insertions, i.e., for people to overstep their boundaries. On the other hand, I believe that a culture of extreme privacy and closed doors has also developed in our basic relationships and communication. It has become the norm to announce trigger warnings and to allow people to shy away from uncomfortable conversation. There is a very palpable fear of invasiveness that I think most people, who are thoughtful and empathetic, skirt around. Hard questions and even simple curiosities don’t get asked because it’s easier to just avoid the possibility of touchy conversation.
Olayami Dabls’ work, Pool Room, comes to mind, as it depicts a crowded pool hall, one of many that existed decades ago. This work was made in 1989 and now is shown in what, to many, is a very different city. Because of the dramatic cultural and economic shifts that are continuously taking place in Detroit, Pool Room unintentionally represents demographic changes and our favorite topic: gentrification. I think that all Detroiters, born-and-raised or transplanted, would agree that that conversation is a must. I think Dabls’ work speaks to the idea that the conversation must be had from many perspectives.
The point of this exhibition was not to call “right” or “wrong” on anything, nor make a political statement, but rather to acknowledge the variety of ways in which personal space can be perceived and to open up conversation about it. I think that safe spaces, trigger warnings, and maybe even Facebook statuses are important, but so is the possibility of serious and open discussion about challenging topics, and especially about working with and respecting one another. I hope that after seeing the show, people open up to the idea of leaving their personal spaces undefined.
Many of the Personal Space artists also had international showings and projects underway whilst the exhibition was on view at Public Pool. Check out where they’ve been and what they’re up to!
Harare: Chido Johnson
"Zimbabwean Cultural Centre of Detroit (ZCCD) exists physically as an archive in a residential home in Detroit. It was initiated by artists both in Detroit and in Zimbabwe, re-imagining our domestic homes as cultural consulates. Recognizing our roles as cultural ambassadors, the mission is to foster a culture of research, dialogue, and production across geographic boundaries of Detroit, Michigan and Zimbabwe.
It is important to us to highlight the richness of our locally driven cultural producers and organizers. For example, when Detroit artist Haleem Rasul (aka Stringz) did his residency in Harare, Zimbabwe, the ZCCD partnered with Jibilika Dance Trust, run by Plot Mhako. Another Zimbabwean artist, Masimba Hwati, was able to conduct research in Detroit through a partnership with Popps Packing, a Detroit art space and residency organized by Faina Lerman and Graem Whyte.
We are now working with the upcoming ZCCD resident, Zimbabwean author and archivist, Joyce Jenje Makwenda, who will research cultural connections between Detroit Motown music and Harare Township Jazz. She will particularly focus on spaces of social organization and resistance, such as the social clubs that proliferated Detroit in neighborhoods such as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, as well as the shebeens in Mbare, Harare. This exchange was curated with our collaborator, Dana Whabira of Njelele Art Station in Harare. Makwenda will be staying at the Jar House Residence via Power House Productions, a Detroit artist space run by Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert. Please visit zccd.org or the ZCCD Facebook page for information on any upcoming events, or make an appointment to visit the archive by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org."
Hong Kong: Annica Cupetelli & Cristobal Mendoza
"Our long running series Notional Field was exhibited in Art Central, a yearly art fair in downtown Hong Kong. The series consists of playful interactive installations that explore the aesthetics and concepts of Op Art and Kinetic Art, while adding a contemporary approach that combines physical materials with interactive video projections. In Notional Field, movements of participants are transformed into virtual forces that affect a digital interactive system, the result of which is projected on twin wall-mounted sculptures."
Mexico City: Corine Vermeulen
"For the last two years I have made several trips to Mexico City and have been photographing a series with the working title, Improvisations on Rooftops. On my last visit there this Spring, I met up with the wonderful Pablo Landa, an anthropologist from Mexico City and researcher at Princeton University. He has been working on an essay to accompany the photographs. Landa writes:
'Unlike parks and plazas, streets and sidewalks, rooftops are inaccessible to most, and yet they are collective. Only a building’s residents have access and, more often than not, only some residents do... Rooftops offer lookouts unto cities. They also offer a refuge from bustling—or deserted—streets. In vecindades and housing projects, women do their washing on rooftops, and leave clothes out to dry. Buildings often have gas and water tanks on top; technicians go up to fill and fix them. People store broken furniture, and keep their dogs on rooftops. Adolescents enter rooftops at night to have sex, or to drink and smoke before they are allowed. Rooftops are sites of peace, danger, intimacy, and solitude. They are social spaces, and the refuge of the anti-social.'"