Author: Rachel Cohn
Books of feminist theory are strewn around a round table and evocative photographs of two women wearing nothing but blankets and boots hang along the walls in a small room.
These scenes are part of a new art exhibit by the Los Angeles female duo CamLab that opened two weeks ago at the Weingart Gallery. The duo Jemima Wyman and Anna Myer chose to focus their exhibit, “With Respect To…,” on a provocative subject close to home: rape, sexual assault and the feminist movement that is fighting back against this crime.
According to a short essay by Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal that accompanies the exhibit, CamLab takes an unusual approach to displaying such serious subject matter. Unlike the work of female artists such as Suzanne Lacy, Sue Williams and Kara Walker on the theme of physical violence, CamLab does not attempt to make their subject ambiguous. That is, they depart from an artistic approach that depersonalizes the experience of sexual trauma in an effort to universalize it and instead opt for the specific — this rape didn’t happen to anyone, this rape happened to you. The work is at once intimate and abrasive, inclusive and yet alienating.
In the first room of the exhibit, called the “Holding Hearing Court,” there are three photographs of the CamLab duo in different poses against various spaces outside LA City Hall. In the first photograph, the two women are squatting, their knees fully bent and their bodies hovering a few feet above a tile floor. The women cover their naked bodies in blankets — some orange, some black, an intentional selection of campus colors — a source of pride and spirit turned on its head.
In front of the picture is a physical object, a tiny podium built so low to the floor that a spectator would have to crouch down, assuming the same position of the women in the photograph in order to reach it. In this way, viewers are invited to interact with the work, to assume the position, to become the subject.
Beyond sharing a physical likeness with the women in the photographs, viewers are invited to speak out about, or perhaps to speak out against, the experience by reading from binders filled with material at each of the podiums. The material ranges from a news clipping on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an original short story about coming home to a dark house. The work as a whole reflects the artists’ fascination with voyeurism, knowledge production and social interaction by blurring the lines between viewer and creator with its experimental, interactive approach.
In addition to constructing the exhibit, CamLab is teaching a semester-long course called “Power Play” that exposes students to the different power dynamics and shifting sense of agency that takes hold when individuals interact with others. The ten students in the class worked intimately with the artists to produce some of the work featured in the exhibition, like the writing in the binders. Each week, students were encouraged to bring to class “binder offerings” — anything from news articles to a text from a friend. The writings are thus both personal and public, but all connected by the theme of co/inter-dependence or force.
In another room, the “Reguarding Room,” sits an exact architectural replica of the Weingart studio itself. Miniature artworks fill the tiny walls of the replica. According to the artists, some of these miniature artworks were created by Occidental students at a workshop held by CamLab in October. Another miniature art-making workshop will be held Nov. 22 and is open to all students and the public.
The choice to use work that was produced on campus and to emphasize the physical location of the Weingart studio through the replica serves to remind the viewer that the context for the exhibit is indeed Occidental College. The replica forces the audience to think reflexively about what it means to occupy this space — to be here. The artist essay prompts viewers to recall that Occidental is one of 144 colleges in the United States under the investigation of the Department of Education for the alleged mishandling of sexual assault. To be here is thus more than just to be physically present.
Despite the exhibit’s serious subject matter and its homage to foundational feminist texts and scholarship, it is impossible not to encounter what appears to be a lightheartedness while walking around the exhibit. Little details in the photography — like the subtle smirk across a woman’s face, the women’s boots against their otherwise unclothed bodies and the women’s reclined pose sprawled out on a stair step — give the exhibit some levity.
Aandrea Stang, Director of OxyArts and the woman in charge of selecting the artists for the exhibit, explained lightheartedness was not intended.
“Intimacy and dialogue are really important to their overall practice,” Stang said. “They are incredibly respectful with any practice that they take on, and you know, they wanted people to have a way in. They wanted it to be a fairly easy starting point and then allow you to get to the meat of the subject matter.”
In an email, the CamLab duo echoed Stang’s sentiments.
“We are very intentional with our tone and we carefully calibrate the ‘invitation’ of our work so that people feel comfortable engaging with it or interested at least in witnessing others participating,” CamLab said.
It is not incidental, for example, that chairs from the Market Place surround the exhibit’s table. The chairs are meant to give students a sense of comfort and familiarity while dealing with subject matter that is both emotionally taxing and academically rigorous.
But still, the juxtaposition of serious subject matter to surreal imagery can be disorienting, even disturbing. Perhaps this juxtaposition is a further effort to establish the artwork in second person and to allow the audience to take on the muted emotion that often accompanies sexual trauma. The viewer leaves feeling confused, reminded that something is not quite right.
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