[Correction, Nov. 2, 2018: An earlier version of this article failed to attribute the artwork pictured above and referenced in the article as the “blue piece.” The work, titled “Crossing Over: Mexico-US Oral Histories,” was created by Jackie Neale.]
The “Tipping Points” exhibit by Paul Mpagi Sepuya remains on display through Oct. 25 at Vassar’s Palmer Gallery, located in the College Center. The exhibit features 35 works from photographers from the Northeast United States.
For better or for worse, art is a reflection of the time from which it comes—and turbulent times produce turbulent art. On display for the month of October in the Palmer gallery has been the exhibit “Tipping Points,” which focuses on pivotal social, environmental, psychological and political moments in our current day and age.
The Palmer Gallery is usually a space that I take for granted. I like to visit it when an art class’ pieces are on display and see what other students have been doing. I like to walk by and just gaze at whatever catches my eye inside. For the first half of my college career though, I watched the pieces of that gallery be swapped out and only saw mere decorations change.
But as I’ve gotten older and grown with all of the supreme wisdom endowed by age, I’ve decided that it’s a good idea to see as many pieces in exhibition here at Vassar as I can. I humbly suggest that you do the same. We as students are in a place where we will never get opportunities to view incredible exhibits so easily again in our lives, so you should take advantage of what we have here while you can.
Even nobler than viewing incredible works is the idea that art could actually change the world for the better simply through its existence, and such a shift is what “Tipping Points” aims to accomplish. The exhibit is one that responds to the world in which we find ourselves. The summary for the exhibit reads: “The world is facing unprecedented change on multiple fronts—environmental, technological, sociological, psychological, and political. While historically things are always in flux, the exponential acceleration of so many factors is new to our age, as is the concept of humans propelling irreversible tipping points at a global scale” (Vassar, “Tipping Points a juried exhibition by Paul Mpagi Sepuya”).
Whether you are looking at a photo of a man in his Walmart uniform next to a quote from him saying how hard it is to look cool in a uniform, or a picture of a grave in Panama, IA, each piece evokes the emotion described in the summary—the feeling that the powers that be in this world are affecting our lives in ways that extend both beyond our comprehension and our control.
The picture of the grave in Panama comes from photographer Jen Moon. The piece also includes a quote from talk-show host Stephen Colbert: “Who’s Britannica to tell me that the Panama Canal was built in 1914? If I want to say that it was built in 1941, that’s my right as an American.” Above this quote is a picture taken from the viewpoint of someone looking up a hill at a grave from behind. We see a cross, and we can make out the arms of Jesus drooping down from either side.
The (chilling) sense that I got from this piece was that of media and history outliving humans. America and its people have to deal with all of the heinous acts committed by politicians or by ordinary civilians in the name of democracy. But for most of us, the recognition of these crimes might come only from a throw-away quote from a latenight host, or from a coincidental name of a town far away. In “Tipping Points,” a real sense of displacement temporally, spatially and existentially is on display.
Associate Director of the James Palmer ’90 Gallery Monica Church commented on the exhibit: “You feel the anxiety, even if it’s from a distance.” I agree. I’m sure you’ve all seen that giant blue piece hanging in the corner of the gallery as you walk past. It’s ominous, eye-catching and intriguing. I would even argue that most of us who have witnessed this piece from a distance noticed the tension in an insidiously intriguing way: This exhibition draws you in with some sort of feeling, makes you feel on edge about the world around you, but leaves you with a sense of anything but dread.
The exhibit is bright, filled with powerful colors and brimming with emotion. There’s an energy in the pieces that invokes the precipice of change. With this energy comes a blank feeling that the world is changing rather than stagnating. I’m not calling this feeling positive or optimistic, but it does entail a sense of hope—a hope that is well aware of the pain that surrounds our lives. The cover piece for all of this, featuring a man with durags hanging down his face, is equal parts solemn and brilliant.
And that is art: taking in these contrasts that come with society and pulling something creative out of them. Art is a social presence, not just something we examine in the classroom. As the exhibit is closing on the day of this paper’s publication, Oct. 25, I can’t tell you to go and appreciate these pieces. Unfortunately, that time has passed.
What I can inform you about is the special place on campus that is the Palmer Gallery. I’ve talked with too many friends that have just labelled this space as “that art thing,” and I think that’s a real shame. I had a very meaningful experience with “Tipping Points” this month because of the Palmer Gallery. The more that people choose to use spaces like the Palmer Gallery, the more we can learn to see the world for what it really is.
Furthermore, if we support artistic displays on campus, then we can give the artists resources they need. This extends to the infrastructure of art on campus. As much good as a new science building does for this school, it would be a cardinal sin if the College ever valued places for classes over places for expression. Indeed, we should all be wary of ever valuing the voice of the institution over the voices of students.
There are many other spaces for art to be displayed on campus, and we shouldn’t think about them as just places for decoration. Art in all forms imbues life with meaning and changes our worlds. Do not forget to go out and experience all of the wonderful exhibitions that appear on campus. Even if you can just pop into the Palmer Gallery for a couple of minutes, it will be well worth your time.