“At the Table” is a space for thoughtful discourse about powerful issues like guns, health care, immigration, education. Justice. And our self-image as heroes; Americans as the perennial “good guys”.
I’ve struggled to hold all of these issues in my mind. There’s just so much to think about right now, so much turmoil and change. It’s dizzying. I needed to see the issues in physical form. And I wanted to present them as a dialogue among Americans.
Where do we have our best discussions? At the dinner table, of course.
So I put symbols for justice, nationalism, family, and a dozen other issues into serving dishes and set them on dining tables. I gave many of the serving bowls cards indicating some of the ingredients that go into these complicated issues.
I added plates and spoons and placemats, and set the tables as though people were eating a meal and being served the incendiary topics. Because, in a sense we are – if we watch the news or follow social media, we are served those issues on a daily basis right now.
I used a wide variety of place settings at my table, because people with all styles and tastes belong at our American table.
In addition to a variety of small, man-made objects, I also added real (dead) insects, bringing in something genuine from nature. They were simultaneously beautiful and repulsive sitting on plates, reminding viewers that everything alive eventually dies.
I put grids on the floor to symbolize the gridlock in our government. I also opened the blinds so that the windows would cast shadows in a grid pattern across the tables, floor, and walls. Being locked into that grid is powerful.
On the walls in the background I set some very emotion-laden paintings. They’re hung askew, left leaning. I framed them with aluminum foil, tearing it and letting it fall in different directions.
Regardless of one’s political leanings, we are all affected by the sense of conflict and discord. The heavy fear, the anger, the anxiety.
I ran a bubble machine to activate the gap space and to symbolize the information bubbles that trap us.
Our current culture is more chaotic and divided than I can ever recall. What frightens me more than the chaos is the lack of dialogue. A scream-fest doesn’t solve anything. There’s a subcurrent of violence, with civility barely in charge.
Where are we headed, if we can’t sit down and talk?
At the end of the exhibition, I took down the civilized place settings. I took down all of the tidy symbols of issues. I eliminated the dialogue and made the tables blank.
And then I put shattered dishes in red, white and blue onto the grids, along with the labels describing the issues previously situated on the tables.
This was my first installation piece. Installation art means that the whole room is the artwork. Typically viewers can walk through and interact with installation art, seeing it from various angles. Some artists create installation artwork that changes over time; others have created things viewers can touch. Ann Hamilton, a professor at Ohio State University, is one of the most famous and successful installation artists working now. Her work inspired me to engage all of the senses and reach just beyond the horizon of conscious understanding.
Judy Chicago is another famous installation artist; her “Dinner Party” (1979) is one of my inspirations for “At the Table”. Chicago created distinctive place settings telling the stories of 39 famous women, from pre-history to the women’s revolution.
Many thanks to the Tippecanoe Arts Federation.