Saturday, April 29, 2017

A very belated substitute for a review of an Atlanta exhibition

“Voyages Unforeseen,” which closes at Kibbee Gallery a few hours from now as I write this on Saturday, April 29, 2017, is an exhibition of two independent bodies of work by Corrina Sephora (as Corrina Sephora Mensoff now styles her identity as artist) and Susan Ker-Seymer. I feel particularly guilty at being unable to present analyses of Ker-Seymer’s paintings, in which atmospheric and energetically gestural applications of paint, plus occasional passages of graphite drawing, produce effects that, in a better world than this one, would have received more recognition than the one published review of which I am aware.

But even as this exhibition culminates with a high tea from 2 to 4 p.m. (which seems strangely formal for an event commemorating such traumatic moments of present-day history—but see my ambivalent discussion of hope and optimism, below), I am led to at least attempt to pull together some of the notes about Corrina Sephora’s project, which seems like an extension of her earlier symbolism that acknowledges itself as a work in progress.

Since Corrina Sephora first applied her boat symbolism to historical crises in the group show she organized in response to Hurricane Katrina, and since her MFA show dealt with the personal experiences of “self-loading cargo,” as European emigrants to America were termed, it makes sense that she would turn her attention to the present refugee and migrant crisis. If she had not been prevented by circumstances from carrying out her project of recording and presenting testimony from refugee women, “Voyages Unforeseen” might have become a truly profound show.

As it is, it testifies to the capacity of her symbolism to expand and contract to meet very different types of subject matter. The boats that carried optimistic migrants to a hoped-for Golden Shore that for some proved to be truly golden could easily be transmuted into the solo vessel of a spiritual journey supported and tethered to the earth by tree roots—Corrina Sephora’s trademark symbol over the past decade. It might seem more difficult to adapt this symbolism to the refugee crisis, but the largest metal sculpture in the show, Uprooted Voyagers,
demonstrates that with a change in title, the roots upholding the boat can become the only fragment of a lost homeland that the involuntary migrants still possess. Whether the roots dragging the water under the boat can be successfully transplanted to an alien soil, or whether they have become just one more obstacle to successful navigation, are questions that arise naturally from this artwork regardless of what the artist intended.

The overcrowded boats titled or named Hope for a New World in her 2-D and 3_D pieces are a new adaptation of the symbol, intended to communicate the horror of cramming, say, nineteen people into a boat designed to carry three (one watercolor commemorates this specific recent event) while trying to suggest that it is our responsibility to do something about the world’s crises—“we’re all in the same (overcrowded, unseaworthy) boat.”

The endearing fabric sculptures of passengers in cramped quarters (in other pieces in this show, the boat passengers are made out of metal) hark back to the folk traditions of the works about European migration. However, the show acknowledges that the refugee voyage is one Across Uncertain Waters,

and there is some question as to whether the boats in Hope for a New World will reach a rocky shore or be swamped by the waves. “Hope” is the operative word here, however, and in some ways this veils the fact that for many refugees and economic migrants alike, the trip is not so much hope for a new world as it is a truly voyage unforeseen. The desperately hopeful quest for a new land comes after being uprooted from a home that they had no desire at all to leave. As in the tale of Pandora’s Box, in which hope is the only formerly contained evil that didn’t fly out into the world, the hope for a new world comes for such people because there is no other option.

The show is ultimately about turning hopes into solid realities. If that outcome seems too easily realized in this iteration, it is because the voices of recent refugees were excluded by the uncontrollable circumstances that prevented their documentation. However, since so much of Corrina Sephora’s recent work has been all about how trauma can be healed by retelling the story differently, perhaps this exclusion of the originating pain is appropriate. As Aeneas puts it in reminding his fellow refugees from Troy of their recent suffering (see book I of Virgil’s Aeneid): “A future time will make it pleasant to speak of these things.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

When we are being deluged with diatribes on a fourth-grade level, perhaps it is appropriate to become really, really stupid in response. But I hope not (hope against hope, or to borrow the title of Terry Eagleton’s book, hope without optimism). We are going to need all the intelligence we can get, and I am sorry that I seem to have lost track of the few shared articles that put the present moment in a sensibly analyzed global context.

I’ve been dipping into an advance reading copy of Adam Zagajewski’s Slight Exaggeration: An Essay (April 4, 2017; Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and realizing with a sense of depression that the Polish poets and intellectuals are becoming relevant again in the same way they were in the 1980s. As has happened several times before over recent centuries, we seem to be living in a moment in which the fine, multicultural, globalized and borderless planet of mutual prosperity that occasionally seems to be just around history’s corner is about to be bulldozed into rubble by the retrograde causes espoused by people who could find no place in that supposedly radiant future, or who were threatened by it.

Zagajewski tells different stories from the years of immense displacement and terror followed by the decades of relatively humane but repressive boredom, and I’m reminded again of the huge waste not just of actual lives, but of human creative potential in general, that comes with having to go into the streets not once but again and again. We have been seeing this cycle of repeated resistance increasingly often over the past half-dozen years, and now are likely to see even more of it; all of this made me remember Anna Swir’s poem about the Warsaw Uprising, “Building the Barricade,” and although I failed to find it online, I found instead some other marvelous poems of Swir’s that remind me of the level of bluntly spoken insight and subtle humane discourse that can come out of times of the worst disruption and mass death. But that isn’t our situation (yet).

Zagajewski recounts an incident recorded in his father’s flatfootedly written memoir in which a relative, trapped in German-occupied Poland, practiced piano faithfully in hopes of entering the Chopin Competition when Chopin Competitions were again a thinkable possibility. It’s an inspiring story that Zagajewski finds out isn’t true, and it illustrates our primal need for stories that affirm our deepest values (whether through positive or negative examples). We need them so badly that we consume them greedily in the form of fake news; failing that, we’ll make them up ourselves and convince ourselves that they really happened. Poetry, on the other hand (if I may burlesque a familiar saying of Ezra Pound’s) is fake news that we know is fake, and that thus stays news in spite of its fakery.

Understanding how to keep the creative imagination going (albeit sometimes in self-deluding fashion) in times of extremity is something that has been embodied in literature all over the world, in multiple languages, but in the ‘80s I picked it up best from Czeslaw Milosz and thus tend to fall back on the Polish examples. (I also grew up among people who shared similar delusions, thus making Polish culture more comprehensible. Regrettably, my surroundings rarely gave birth to similar self-critique.)

I’m already past the 500-word limit that is the outer expanse of most folks’ attention span these days (140 characters is more our thing, I gather). More thoughts later, I hope.