This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Exhibition examines the act of watching

Published: September 9, 2004

Reporter Contributor

Issues of privacy and surveillance are not new to the world stage, but with the passage of the USA Patriot Act, conversations surrounding these issues have been revived.

"Shutters," an exhibition of the work of nine international artists organized by Sandra Firmin, UB Art Gallery curator, responds to this renewed dialogue with multi-media works that address the act of watching to investigate personal and detached experiences of domestic spaces.

"Shutters" will open with a reception from 5-7 p.m. tomorrow on the second floor of the UB Art Gallery in the Center for the Arts, North Campus. The exhibition, which is free and open to the public, will remain on view through Nov. 27.

The exhibition is being held in conjunction with "Government Policy, Cultural Production, Personal Privacy," a workshop being hosted tomorrow by the Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy and organized by the UB Art Galleries and the UB Law School, and sponsored in part by the UB Department of Media Studies.

The workshop will address the impact of government policies on cultural production and personal privacy, and the art sector's response to censorship. Two of the artist exhibiting in "Shutters"—Niels Bonde and Nancy Buchanan—will participate in the workshop. For further information on the workshop, see the story in the "People, Events, etc." section of this issue.

"Shutters" brings together work from the 1970s to the present in a variety of media—video installation, painting, artists' books and photography—by artists Bonde (Copenhagen), Buchanan (Los Angeles), Sophie Calle (Paris), Gordon Matta-Clark (New York), Sarah McEneaney (Philadelphia), Courtney Grim (Buffalo), James Johnson (Philadelphia), Joel Ross (Chicago) and Shizuka Yokomizo (London).

Similar to the impact of the industrial revolution, today's societies are experiencing a pivotal moment, completely transformed by media technologies that often are utilized by an increasingly sophisticated surveillance industry. The artists in "Shutters" contend with these radical shifts in perception by mapping the internal and external monitoring systems that regulate contemporary domestic activity.

Buchanan's "Fallout from the Nuclear Family" (1980) is a collection of 10 artists' books chronicling the life of her father, Louis N. Ridenour, a nuclear physicist working for the U.S. government in weapons development during the 1950s. During the McCarthy era, the FBI kept an extensive file on Ridenour that eventually numbered more than 1,000 pages. Buchanan obtained 400 of these pages, which she interspersed with news clippings, memorabilia, photographs and letters. This compilation of primary materials creates a candid, yet loving portrait of her father while presenting an engrossing overview of the Cold War era.

Bonde and Grim's multimedia installations incorporate cutting-edge technology to undermine the home and the assumed privacy it protects. Bonde's "I never had hair on my body or head" (1995) is a life-size construction of an apartment room that explores innocence and paranoia by endowing inanimate objects with the ability to see. Grim's peepholes reverse the object's function—and the security it thus provides—by allowing audiences a myopic view into populated, domestic interiors where ambiguous familial scenarios are played out.

A seminal video piece, Matta-Clark's 1971 "Chinatown Voyeur" exploits the camera's unblinking stare to survey New York's distinctive skyline. At times, the lens zooms in and out of windows, capturing routine activities while building dramatic anticipation.

The snapshots that comprise Joel Ross's "I Drove Around Your Block One Hundred Times" (1999) convey the uniformity, vulnerability and alienation inherent to new suburban developments.

While "Shutters" strives to critique monitoring systems used for social control, the exhibition also looks at how artists have appropriated—and in the process neutralized or transformed—surveillance technologies to create intimate portraits of people and their home lives.

Yokomizo's "Stranger" series features portraits of individuals in their environments at night. These mysterious photographs are the result of exchanges in which the artist and subjects never meet, but enter into an unspoken contracts Willing participants stand in front of their windows at a specified time to have their photograph taken by Yokomizo, who waits patiently across the street hidden from view.

Hired as a chambermaid at a Venetian hotel in the early 1980s, Calle took advantage of her employment to photograph the personal belongings of unassuming travelers. Her black-and-white photographs, reminiscent of crime-scene photography, are paired with text written by Calle. At once amateur detective and fanciful diarist, Calle pieces together profiles on the hotel guests' behaviors and tastes.

Johnson's mirror pieces appear to take the viewer as their subject. The first impression on encountering these works is one's own reflection, but like Alice's looking glass, each mirror possesses a single aperture that reveals another room on the other side.

The kitchen, living room and home studio—populated with cats and dogs—most often are the settings for McEneaney's biographical, egg tempera paintings. Several layers of looking structure her compositions. There is an uncanny sense that the artist always is watching herself from a distance and in the third person. The viewer is invited to adopt this perspective, which is like a security camera or cat perched up high surveying the domestic terrain.

The UB Art Gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 645-6912.

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