A transparent Plexiglass box containing two tally clickers — one red for “no,” one green for “yes” — appeared alongside Middle Path in front of the Olin and Chalmers Library on Monday, Sept. 16. A sign posted next to the box challenges passers-by to think about whether affirmative action benefits them.
This installation, designed by Ryan Muthiora ’18, was one of eight created by students in Professor of Art Claudia Esslinger’s annual Installation Art course that appeared across campus last week. The pieces range in location from the lawn beside the Church of the Holy Spirit to the Borden Atrium in Peirce Dining Hall, and tackle subjects from affirmative action to the difficulty of selecting a cause to support on a limited budget. Esslinger challenged her students to design installations that would “intervene” with daily life on the Hill and encourage faculty, students and Gambier residents to confront questions they would not usually consider.
Muthiora was inspired by his experience applying to college as a person of color. “I was constantly being told not to forget to mark that I was African-American on college applications,” Muthiora said. His feelings about the positive role his ethnicity has played in his college experience are complicated by the discrimination people of color face. “I personally have never faced any discrimination based on the way I look,” Muthiora said. “At the same time, I have reaped … the benefits of being African-American. I don’t know if I have guilt surrounding that, but I wanted to have people think about how their college experience has been improved indirectly from affirmative action.”
Only hours after Muthiora set up his installation, the glove that allowed participants to reach in and use the tally counters was ripped from the nails that secured it to the plexiglass box. “It was vandalism, as far as I know,” Muthiora said. A stronger glove was put in place by Muthiora, who is not upset by the alleged vandalism. “I knew there was a possibility that, having a politically charged piece, some people would not be happy with it,” he said. Over the weekend, unknown persons further damaged the installation, leaving only its metal frame.
Muthiora was not alone in designing an installation that challenged participants to consider issues that merge the personal with the political.
Situated between Rosse Hall and Olin, Caroline Chang’s ’18 installation looks almost like a giant’s chemistry experiment: Seven test tube-like vessels filled with various amounts of water rest in a large wooden rack. Each tube corresponds to a location currently dealing with a water-related crisis — from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico to a small English village flooded by a burst water main. Chang was inspired to create this installation by an environmental issue near her home in Maryland.
“Recently I heard the government was cutting funding for the Chesapeake Bay,” Chang said. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve been going there so I was upset when they cut this funding, which is used for restoration.” When Chang told a friend about this cut, she did not receive the response she expected. “[My friend] said, ‘That’s such a small issue compared to immigration and all these other bigger issues.’” This got Chang thinking about the process of resource allocation when resources are limited. As she was discussing her piece, she clarified this point with a hypothetical: If you have $10 and you want to donate it all to one cause, how do you choose which cause deserves it most?
At Chang’s installation, participants are faced with a similar problem. Each participant is challenged to pick up one water bead from a small bowl and drop it in the tube corresponding to the cause they think is the most critical. The beads swell when exposed to water, representing the growth of each donation’s impact over time, according to Chang. Subtle irregularities in the tubes warp the effect each bead’s impact has on the tube’s water level, reflecting the varying levels of impact any one donation may have.
Not every installation is political. Matt Garrett ’18 explored his personal ideas on mortality and consumer culture in his installation located between the cemetery and the Science Quad.
“The piece is an exploration of my personal ideas about death and materialism, and the certainty of both and death and materialism in life,” Garrett said. The installation is three grave plots with headstones made from steel rods and photo transparencies, and features the crinkled gold foil of survival blankets.
“I wanted to juxtapose death and materialism, so I put the gold survival blanket down in the grave and it sort of represents materialism, and then the grave obviously represents death,” Garrett said. The survival blankets complicate this duality. They represent both an effort to stay alive and consumer culture. In one plot, the blanket is laid out over a sheet covered in cyanotype process chemicals. As the week passes, these chemicals will react with light and create ghostly exposures.
“Photography is a process that represents time and continuation, but I placed it in the grave,” Garrett said.
In another plot, a survival blanket is woven in and out of shipping packages wrapped in golden duct tape. “I was inspired by the pile of Amazon shipping boxes in my NCA,” Garrett said. “I just thought that was so symbolic of materialism.”
Although Garrett’s installation is not as direct as those of Muthiora or Chang, he is confident visitors will be drawn in to confront their own thoughts on death and materialism.
“I want people to explore the space,” Garrett said. “They see the plots and they walk carefully from plot to plot and think carefully about each one sort’ve like they would in an actual cemetery.”
The three installations mentioned here, in addition to the other five spread across campus, will be on display until Thursday, Oct. 5.