Sunday, April 28, 2013

Creating William Luis's Palimpsest

Palimpsest defined, according to Merriam Webster:
1: writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased; 
2: something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface 

Though the exact title for William Luis's sculpture didn't come to me until after the piece was created, as soon as I began thinking about how I would visually evoke his poem "The Heterogeneity of My Two Grandfather's"/ "La heterogeneidad de mis dos abuelos" I found myself inside the theater of palimpsest. (It could easily be argued that so much of the world is precisely this: layer coiled around layer, moments revealed and concealed by overlapping bodies and scenes, desires and memories drifting through sometimes clear, but more often murky waters that evoke the nature of palimpsest and its ever-changing instants.)
The symbol of palimpsest: material upon which text is written, then erased, then written upon again brings Shakespeare to mind: "If the skin were parchment, and the blows you gave were ink." This is particularly true when thinking about cultural and national identity and movement from one place to another. What is visible in one location might disappear, be written over in another. The self (a self) articulated in English may express itself differently in Chinese or Spanish, for example. As a person moves through the world, texts of identity are written and rewritten; body, skin, is written upon, etched into, and itself becomes sign and signifier contributing to these texts. Languages, family, history, tears, all leave their blows on the traveler as the traveler's flesh produces its own ink in turn.
I used English, Chinese, and Spanish, in my example above because these are the languages and locations in which William Luis and his poem begin: his life as a Cuban Chinese man born in New York City and in relation to his two grandfathers, one Chinese, the other Cuban ("I still carry in my veins/ The pain of their bones," writes William in his poem). Of course, even these divisions are not simple as the Chinese and Cuban  identities themselves already contain other geographies, travels, and intertwinings. ("Africa of humid swamps/ Conquering Spain and Cuba mulata/ Says my grandfather Ventura./ China of imperial traditions/ Marvelous wonders/ Ancient Wisdom/ Says my grandfather Lei.")
I first met William when I was working at the Frist Center, during events planned around contemporary artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (who also has a Cuban-Chinese heritage) and her exhibition Journeys, curated by Katie Delmez. I heard William speak as part of a panel at Vanderbilt University that included Campos-Pons, and then had the chance to talk with him personally at a party held in the artist's honor. We soon discovered that we had a shared past: Binghamton University—the place I did my PhD work and where William earned his bachelor's degree and then returned to as a professor some years after. Discovering this shared world was a fabulous ice-breaker. Soon, we were talking about the various projects we were working on, the nature (necessity) of interdisciplinary work, and the fact that he had recently been weaving autobiographical approaches into his academic work, which is something I had been concerned with in my own ways as well. William was fascinated with Campos-Pons, as was I. I mention our meeting through events around Campos-Pons's time in Nashville, because it is directly relevant to the way we began our work together for the Identity Sculptures Project.
As soon as I found out that I had received the grant for the project, I immediately thought of William and hoped I would be able to convince him to participate as one of the writers. Since I was looking for people who were writing about identity, and ways that identities are created, I thought he would be perfect. Needless to say, I was thrilled when he agreed.
Part of our collaboration included email and in-person interviews and conversations about the work and concerns he was bringing to the project. As background, William provided me with a copy of the Afro-Hispanic Review, the journal he edits, in which there is an interview between him and Campos-Pons. In the interview, Campos-Pons says this about her use of water in her work Everything is Separated by Water:
" ... whatever separates us actually brings us together as well, so there are these double implications of the water and the meaning of what this kind of insularity of the island [Cuba] brings... I was thinking about separation and proximity. Everything that is near is because of those waters. Those same waters that put life on the island are the same currents that could bring us to Africa, to China, to Europe, to any point of the planet ..."
This idea of water surrounding, separating, facilitating movement from one place to another, became part of my conversations with William. We talked about his thoughts on Campos-Pons's use of water. Yes, water as a symbol that could be used to evoke the connection and separation between William's American-ness, Cuban-ness, and Chinese-ness made sense to both of us. I was also attracted to water because of the way it is so strong, but also itself always moving. There is nothing stable about it, though the boundaries it creates can also at times be impassable too. Of course, water and the oceans take on even darker meaning and the heavy weight of history when one thinks about Cuba, its sugar cane and coffee production, and the bodies, blood, and death of slaves upon which that production was built.
Water and palimpsest ultimately became the two overarching aesthetic themes that led to the assemblage I created in response to William's poem. I wanted to make a piece in which nothing was settled or stable, in which various moments and bodies and identities shifted over one another, in which the text of the poem itself, as well as William's family name written in Chinese, like the past (the shadows with which William begins his poem: "Shadows that I can only see/ My two grandfathers are with me."), drift over and between the many images of William, his family, and various places he had traveled in both Cuba and China. Essentially, I wanted the images to "float" over each other.
Palimpsest at night
The piece itself is made up of two wooden frames, each one 4 x 3 feet in size. The wooden frames were intended to evoke traditional Chinese screens. From the frames, the images, which I printed out on laser transparencies, are hung, three deep and five across. In addition to these images, there are four columns of images, also on transparencies, mounted flat against the back of each the screens. These are all images of William's writing, the Chinese character for his name, and images of his family. Two columns in the back are deliberately left empty so the work itself is interrupted by views of its current setting. In the Sarratt Center, where the piece will be through June, the view on the other side of the work that comes through during the day is of trees, buildings, and sky as seen from the third floor of the center. At night the view is completely different. The adds yet another aspect of motion and a sense of the transitory to the piece since the way it looks changes with the seasons and the time of day. As I was creating, I decided to take advantage of the space and its windows, especially with this piece, to interrogate the notion of identity even further by suggesting the way identity and one's own history is continually in conversation with the changing present as well as the past. The metal washers I use at the bottom are meant to evoke traditional Chinese coins.
You can listen to William reading his poem (in English and Spanish) at his project page:

William Luis in front of "Palimpsest"
William Luis in front of "Palimpsest"


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Exhibition opening at Sarratt Student Center on March 16, 2013, where it will be on view to June 15, 2013 (followed by VU's Stevenson Library to September 15, 2013)

Lori Anne Parker-Danley. Palimpsest (detail), 2013. A response to 
"The Heterogeneity of My Two Grandfathers," by William Luis.

NASHVILLE, TENN.—(March 6, 2013)— The Vanderbilt Sarratt Student Center’s newly renovated Connector Space features the work of Nashville artist and Vanderbilt Curb Creative Campus grant recipient Lori Anne Parker-Danley in an exhibition entitled The Identity Sculptures Project from March 16 to June 15, 2013. The Identity Sculptures Project, a multimedia installation composed of 11 sculptures and sculptural assemblages created in response to 11 writers from the Vanderbilt University community, is a 2012–13 Curb Creative Campus Initiative. In this unique exhibition, Parker-Danley also uses QR code technology to transform the typical art-viewing experience into one that includes an audio and web-based component and effectively disrupts the boundaries between visual art, writing, and spoken word. A public reception in honor of the artist and writers will be held at the Sarratt Center on Thursday, April 11, 5:00–7:00 p.m. After closing at the Sarratt Center in June, the exhibition will “travel” across campus to the Stevenson Science and Engineering Library, where it will then be on view through September 15.

Led by Parker-Danley (who is also an editor in the Patient Education Department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center), The Identity Sculptures Project is a collaborative public art and grant project that was born out of Parker-Danley’s interest in the relationship between writing and art and the ways language and storytelling shape (and are shaped by) our bodies and identities. During the initial stage of the project, Parker-Danley solicited writing from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff on the topic of “creative identities.” She then created sculptures and sculptural assemblages in response to and engagement with the writings and the writers. One of the goals of the project is to create occasions for unexpected and spontaneous encounters and conversations (with art, writing, and amongst community members) on the Vanderbilt campus. This goal aligns with the Curb Creative Campus’s support of projects that break through the daily experiences to heighten engagement, stimulate curiosity, and provoke dialogue. To that end, the works will be on display in high-traffic, very public areas on campus. In a unique twist that takes advantage of contemporary technology, the sculptures are themselves interactive: Each sculpture will have a QR code paired with it. The QR codes connect to the web-based exhibition pages, which include images, audio files, and written texts. Viewers will be invited to scan the QR codes and “listen” to the artworks—in the form of the voices of the writers reading their own words.

“In addition to being visual works of art, each work is in conversation with its associated text on various levels,” says Parker-Danley. “Every piece in the exhibition includes actual bits of text that are incorporated into its structure, as well as links to the audio files of the writers reading their words. By doing this, I am hoping to not only get people to think about the various ways our identities, creativity, and the creation of identities are shaped by and use language, but also the way art and our experience of looking at art is steeped in text and the ways one artwork might respond to and overlap with another. I also want people to have the experience of ‘listening’ to a visual work of art—not in the sense simply listening to words that ‘go along’ with that particular artwork, but words that respond and engage with them in a closer, more intimate way. Similarly, the artworks themselves are not meant as simple “illustrations” of the texts, but also an authentically engaged conversations and reactions to the texts.”

In addition to responding to the writers and writings, the 11 pieces in the exhibition have been created and arranged with the physical space of the Sarratt Connector in mind. In the same way that identities shift and change, the pieces will be in front of large windows make the outside environment and its daily and seasonal shifts part of the installation. “Although the pieces are naturally very different from each other, as they are each responses to particular writings and different makers, I have set them up in various ways so that they converse with the outdoors—through structures that mimic the shapes of branches and leaves to pieces that invite and play with the natural light,” says Parker-Danley. “Architecturally, this space by design calls attention to the outdoors; as an artist, I had to take advantage of that.”

This is the first time art has been shown in the Sarratt Connector hallway. "We are over the moon to partner with the Curb Center Creative Campus initiative and specifically to have Lori Anne's unique sculpture exhibit debut in the newly-renovated Sarratt Connector,” says Celeste Sagi, director of the Office of Arts & Creative Engagement at Vanderbilt University. “This space, with its natural light, lends itself well to showcasing artwork. Lori Anne's intricate 3D dialogues are an ideal kickoff installation. Her sculptures are engaging and will promote conversation as well as enliven our experience as we travel through the Sarratt Connector hallway. This exhibit will remind us to take a moment from our busy lives to appreciate the power of creativity. If our goal is to foster a culturally rich environment that provides participants with opportunities to understand and appreciate the value of art in their lives, this is a fantastic step toward that goal."

As one of the 2012–2013 Creative Campus Innovation Grants, the Identity Sculptures Project will contribute to larger campus conversations about human and creative identities in a way that directly supports the grant program’s goals. “The Curb Creative Campus Innovation Grant Program provides Vanderbilt faculty, staff, and students the opportunity to produce original ideas and harness their creativity as forces for positive social change,” says Elizabeth Long-Lingo, director of Curb Creative Campus. “Lori Anne’s Identity Sculptures Project was an ideal one to support—she has developed a series of compelling, beautiful, and provocative interpretive sculptures that illuminate the participating writers’ extraordinary and everyday creative lives and combine mixed media, written, and spoken word.”  

The 11 writers in the project, who are faculty, staff, and students from the university and medical campuses are: Tessa Chillemi, senior, College of Arts and Science; Lisa Dordal, MFA, faculty, English Department; BeLinda Hall, perioperative service surgery scheduler, Administration Operating Room Services; Rick Hilles, MFA, assistant professor, English Department; Caitlyn Danielle Le, sophomore, College of Arts and Science; William Luis, Ph.D., Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Spanish, Department of Spanish and Portuguese; Lori Anne Parker-Danley, Ph.D., editor, Patient Education; Nancy Reisman, MFA, associate professor, English Department; Wanda Rogers, insurance coordinator, Vanderbilt Risk and Insurance Management; Ames Sanders, junior, College of Arts and Science; and Janice Savage, administrative assistant, Department of Patient & Family Engagement.

At the end of the project, Parker-Danley will give the sculptures to the participating writers in gratitude for their participation.
Learn more:
Curb Creative Campus:
Lori Anne Parker-Danley:

The Sarratt Center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week during academic sessions. The exhibition is open when the building is open. The Identity Sculptures Project will be on view at Vanderbilt University in the Sarratt Center’s Connector Hallway March 16–June 15, 2013, and then June 16­–September 15, 2013, in the Stevenson Science and Engineering Library.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Exhibition dates and locations ... and just who are the writers behind the project?

The project's exhibition dates and locations have been finalized, and I am really excited to share the news. The project will be on display from March 15 through June 15 on the Vanderbilt campus and the locations couldn't be more perfect: centralized and well-traveled spots that will encourage cross-campus movement.

One of the locations will be on the 3rd floor of the Sarratt Student Center (the new addition) in a beautiful hallway space with floor-to-ceiling windows and an excellent view of the campus, including many excellent trees(!), which will mean a changing backdrop of light and the natural environment during the exhibition as the light changes throughout each day and the seasons shift from early spring to summer. The sculptures in the Sarratt Center will be placed along the window ledges.

The second spot will be on the other side of the library lawn in the central lobby/study area (across from the circulation desk) in the Stevenson Science and Engineering Library. And just like the Sarratt space, this location will also provide a changing backdrop, as one of the walls of that area is also floor to ceiling windows. These windows look out into a grassy area and those wonderful circular concrete stairs that remind one a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright meets giant, concrete nautilus. In this spot, the sculptures will be placed along a long shelf that runs perpendicular to the windows. One sculpture will probably also hang from ceiling to floor in front of one of the windows.

The writers in the project are a diverse group and are:

Vanderbilt undergraduates Tessa Chillemi, Caitlyn Danielle Le, and Ames Sanders; Vanderbilt staff members BeLinda Hall, Wanda Rogers, Janice Savage, and Lori Anne Parker-Danley; and
Vanderbilt faculty members Lisa Dordal, Rick Hilles,William Luis, and Nancy Reisman.

More about the writers and their writings to come. That was only the briefest and cursory introduction! And if this post is a bit on the dry side, please chalk that up to the cold I have that has left me in a partially brain-dead state. More mellifluous turns of phrases also to come.

Meanwhile, stay tuned, and please help spread the word about the project by joining the Identity Sculptures Project group on facebook, and of course, by then inviting your friends to do the same!

Stay tuned,