Art Department hosts a collision of cultures

Visiting German art students met with their College correspondents and installed projects that blended aspects of American and German culture. (Photo courtesy of Lindsey Hardifer).
Visiting German art students met with their College correspondents and installed projects that blended aspects of American and German culture. (Photo courtesy of Lindsey Hardifer).

It’s a classic moment. The two friends beam at the camera, bright-eyed and excited. Behind them looms a stately red building with traditional architecture, every brick placed in accordance with the style of its neighboring structures. The two girls grin, elated to be part of the scene. One’s arm is draped lazily over the other’s back. Both are in their early 20s. It is Hamburg, Germany, in the summer of 2009.

It seems like a standard photo when you look at it in late February 2010, tucked into the pages of an old-fashioned scrapbook and bookended by ribbons, stickers and random bits of riffraff. Two friends pose in front of a building, a staple of tourist culture. But a closer look reveals this “normal” photo’s glaring incongruity — one of the friends is not really there.

She is Anne Ruffner, junior art education major, and she did not go to Germany in the summer of 2009. The girl in the photo is actually a lifesize cardboard cutout of her. It was fashioned by German art students as the cornerstone of a conceptual art piece entitled “You Were Here,” a scrapbook featuring pictures of the students posing in various places around Hamburg with the cutout of Ruffner. The scrapbook is one of many pieces appearing in the newest College Art Gallery exhibit, “Hier and There.”

Produced by Hanna Rieß and Katja Keller, “You Were Here” captures the dominant theme running through the approximately two-dozen pieces of art that comprise the exhibit. Produced entirely by students of the German art school and College international sister school Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, the gallery focuses on the relationship between German and American culture.

“The topic was intercultural relations,” Anselm Scheuhluhu, one of 14 German students whose art was displayed in the exhibit, said. “We looked at things like our hometown, Frankfurt, different views on the same facts, the perception of Eastern Europe on contemporary art and the stereotypes from the perceptions.”

Jochen Fischer, chair of Goethe-Universität Frankfurt’s art department and advisor to the students, added, “We were thinking about a theme to connect these ideas. It started with research of cultures in both places, what is the same, and what is different. It started with the Internet before we arrived.”

Though the students’ research for the exhibit began on the Internet this spring, the idea for the exhibit had begun long before. Elizabeth Mackie, associate professor of art and program coordinator for graphic design at the College, taught at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt during the 1996-1997 academic year. During her stay, she struck up a conversation with Fischer, whose art students were studying topics similar to those of Mackie’s American students. A friendship, and soon an idea, were born.

“We really wanted to do something that would be an exchange between the two universities,” Mackie said.

The first half of the professors’ dream was realized when this exhibit was made public on Feb. 17. The second will come to fruition over the summer, when a group of College students travel to Germany to exhibit their work at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt.

“We’re going over in late June and coming back in late July,” Keith Kostelny, a junior art education major participating in the exchange, said. “We’re going to install work in Goethe-Universität Frankfurt and spend time in another country, have fun, get experience with another culture. Most of their work is about German culture, so most of our work is going to be about exposing them to American culture.”

It is this exploration of cultural differences and similarities that has made crafting the exhibit such a delight for the exchange’s participants.

Besides the scrapbook, which sits leatherbound and elegant on a small pedestal in one gallery, the exhibit features many pieces that similarly juxtapose the culture of Germany with that of the U.S.

Hanna Rieß’s “1 Quadrameter – 1 Square Yard” is one of those pieces. Rieß’s artwork consists of two large wall sections, one in the Art and Interactive Multimedia Building’s East Gallery and one in its West, entirely covered in pieces of bread. The bread, glued to the wall to form a large square, comprises an area in one gallery exactly one quadrameter, and in the other one square yard. Rieß used rye bread, a staple of the German dinner, to form the quadrameter and white bread, a staple of the American sandwich, to form the square yard.

It is important to realize, Jan Stüben pointed out, that the “1 Quadrameter” and the “1 Square Yard” are in the same position in each gallery.

“You have to see it as a mirror,” he said. “One side mirrors the other.”

Some pieces provide a small glimpse of life in Hamburg. One interactive exhibit involved two or three German students cooking traditional German food and serving it to passersby, speaking kindly but deliberately, and always in German.

“Part of the cooking exhibit is that they only speak German,” Barbara Thormann said. Her piece, titled “Hamburg,” captivated those walking through the East Gallery. It consisted of plush, colored skyscrapers arranged on the floor into a makeshift aerial map of Hamburg. Masking tape zigzagged the floor to create the illusion of streets and rivers.

“As you can see, it is small,” Peter Kasselkus said half-jokingly, gesturing to his small stuffed city. “Sometimes we call it Mein Hatten.”

The art students were captivated by the characteristic blend of cultures that defined the exhibit, and a small group of College art students is thrilled at the prospect of reciprocating the exchange this summer – for a variety of reasons.

“I’m actually going to get to see the lifesize cardboard cutouts of me,” Ruffner said with a smile. “I can’t wait.”