Multimedia artists break ground in new gallery

‘Inherited Traits’ incorporates photography, video art and inventive object-arrangements in its exploration of ‘the family.’ (Tom O'Dell)
‘Inherited Traits’ incorporates photography, video art and inventive object-arrangements in its exploration of ‘the family.’ (Tom O'Dell)

For a building designed to nurture creative spirit, the new Art and Interactive Multimedia (IMM) Building was surprisingly devoid of color.

That is, until last Wednesday, when the unveiling of a new art gallery exhibit, the first opened in the new the Art and IMM Building, interrupted the drab gray of new concrete walls with a shock of color, warmth and vibrancy.

“Inherited Traits,” which features artwork by Nina Katchadourian and Heidi Kumao and runs until March 2, premiered at the College on Wednesday with a two-hour ceremony, during which the public and campus community were invited to view the works and speak with the two artists.

Also in attendance were Sarah Cunningham, director of the College art gallery and curator of “Inherited Traits,” and Karin Christiaens, senior art history and English double-major and curatorial assistant. The two worked tirelessly for months over the past summer shaping the Art and IMM Building’s inaugural gallery based on a number of inspirations.

“The CCIC (Committee for Intellectual and Cultural Community) theme for the year is family,” Christiaens said, “so we decided to do something related to family, whether it be cultural or generational, something related to various types of inheritance.”

They also wanted to utilize another force guiding the College this academic year — the spirit of embracing new types of media and technological advances embodied by the College’s newest building.

Working as an assistant to Cunningham through the College’s Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience (MUSE) program, Christiaens spent the summer combing directories, the Web and the streets of New York City, searching for artists whose visions aligned with theirs.

“It was really exciting when we found two artists whose works spoke to each other, as well as to the ideas we had been batting around all summer,” Cunningham said.

Though this interplay between the two artists’ different visions is one of the more fascinating aspects of the exhibit, each artist’s work is firmly planted in its own interpretation of the words “inherited traits.”

Katchadourian’s three pieces, “Genealogy of the Supermarket,” “Accent Elimination” and “The Nightgown Pictures,” celebrate familial legacy. The first is a large-scale wall installation — 90 framed photographs connected by metal rods to take on the likeness of a family tree, accentuated by a background of richly textured red wallpaper. What makes this piece stand out, besides its magnitude, is the photographs. They are not of a family in the traditional sense — they are of supermarket characters.

“‘Genealogy of the Supermarket’ is not so much working with my family,” Katchadourian said, “but, you could say, with our collective family.”

“Accent Elimination” and “The Nightgown Pictures,” on the other hand, are works rooted deeply in Katchadourian’s family. The former is a multimedia presentation — six television sets showing Katchadourian, her mother and her father attempting to acquire or drop a distinctive accent. The latter is a series of photographs taken alternately by Katchadourian’s grandmother and the artist herself that depict, respectively, Katchadourian’s mother in a childhood nightgown on every birthday from infancy to adolescence and the spots, revisited decades later, that those pictures were originally taken.

“Although ‘The Nightgown Pictures’ is rooted in the tradition of the family photo album,” Cunningham wrote in the catalog exhibit’s description of the piece, “Katchadourian transcends the pitfalls of saccharine sentimentality with her stark complements to her grandmother’s images.”

Kumao’s works avoid sentimentality altogether by presenting an unvarnished portrait of both the joys and the horrors of familial inheritance. Focusing on “the family” in just one out of three pieces, the bulk of her work concerns itself with the discrimination and hatred that can arise from one group of people not accepting another’s “inherited traits.” Her first piece, “Transplant,” is a video installment depicting the Japanese internment of 1942, a piece that requires one to consider, according to the exhibit catalog, “inheritance sociologically … (and) at the same time, genetic legacy.”

Kumao calls her second piece, “Translator,” a “‘kinetic sculpture’ — a combination of robotics, video projection and viewer-controlled media.” Without interaction, it is a plastic bowl with spindly metal legs and tiny skates attached, hanging from a rod balanced between two video projector heads seated atop tiny armchairs. With interaction, the viewer can move the “bowl girl” back and forth with a tiny hand-crank, between the two armchairs while the projectors squawk instruction and beam images onto the bowl “body.” Kumao said she wanted this piece to explore how it felt to be “trapped in a family.”

Her third and final piece, “Trace,” thrilled Cunningham and Christiaens upon its arrival at the College.

“Heidi Kumao’s piece ‘Trace’ is being shown for the first time here at (the College),” Christiaens said.

Indeed, “Trace,” a video installment depicting Frederick Douglass’ journey to literacy, makes its debut at the College. Kumao continued to explore themes of being trapped by and escaping from inherited traits brought up in “Translator” in this piece.

Students were awed by the depth of thought that went into the work displayed in the new exhibit, though in some cases it was something simpler that drew them to the gallery.

“The walls have been gray in here for so long,” said Emma Kapotes, a freshman graphic design major who takes several classes in the new Art and IMM Building. “I was just excited to finally see some color.”