I have never given much thought to whether or not I am an artist. And the whole idea of whether or not photography is an art is a whole ball of wax that I try to avoid. So when Pam Winfrey (whose idea it was to have the Exploratorium host the “Normal” exhibit) invited me to be part of an artist’s night, I said yes without giving it much thought. So it was a bit weird for me to be introduced to people as one of the artists whose work was on display. I’ll accept it for the time being but I doubt it will go to my head. The event was pretty cool. Since I was basically alone, I wandered around looking lost for a while before I ran into my refound friend Katie Hahren and her daughter Annie. That loosened things up a bit. Eventually Karen Miller and I ended up signing catalogues and chatting with guests. / One thing about San Francisco that I really like is that dogs seem to be accepted in most public places. When I was at the Exploratorium in February I met a 4 month old black lab who was on his way to work for only the second day. I can not imagine bringing the Pearl to an office job even now when she is 12 and mostly calm.
This is the new Exploratorium on the Embarcadero at Pier 15. It is amazing. Go check it out if you ever get the chance.
I finally got the chance to see the exhibit, and while I have a few quibbles, it is very exciting.
The space is situated very close to the front of the building. There are basically three components. On the left of this photograph (↑) is the Utica Crib display which deals with the idea of confinement. To the right of that is the entrance to the “attic” where the cases are located, along with my photographs and Karen Miller’s poems. And out the back is the interactive space where visitors can write about their feelings toward the exhibit and the ideas represented.
After entering the door ( top photo above) one enters the attic. (This is the core idea of the exhibit space. Gordon Chen based his design on the room where the cases were rediscovered. I think it mostly works, although I did hear several complaints about the lighting. It does seem a bit on the dark side. The wall to the right has nine 12 inch prints. I think they could have used more. There seems to be a lot of empty space, and given that the cases are displayed in three levels it would make sense to me to have used more photos in this area.
This shot (↑) shows the relationship between the photographs on the right and the actual cases on the left, which are placed behind chicken wire. The wire is a bit distracting for me. Viewed from a distance it works well, but when one gets close to the objects, it makes it difficult to read text and get a feeling for the items. I would stress that this could be a problem only for me, since I have had such an intimate relationship with the contents of the suitcases while photographing them. Others might not have any issue with this. At the far end of this shot is one of the amazing 36 inch photographs that Alex Ross printed (they used six of these). The idea of big prints has never really appealed to me in general, but I will say that they work really well in the space. Behind that wall is a series of video monitors with different people talking about mental illness, and I heard many visitors found these interviews fascinating.
This view (↑) looks back toward the entrance and shows how the cases are displayed. The hanging clipboards are Karen’s “then and now” diagnosis of the patients. Several people told me that this was an extremely effective way to connect with the owners of the suitcases. It is a simple concept that describes how the doctors at the time of admittance made a diagnosis, and how those same symptoms might be treated today.
Here is another one of Alex’s 36 inch prints, with cases on the right.
This view is toward the exit, and leads into the interactive space.
And this is the exit door looking back into the attic.
Visitors are encouraged to sit at tables and use small cards to answer questions like the one above. Most of the answers are heartfelt and interesting, although some trolling is present. What is especially touching to me is seeing comments in the handwriting of children. I visited on two separate occasions, and I saw parents with their kids viewing the photographs and objects, and reading Karen’s poems. This is an exhibit that is clearly provocative, although not in the negative sense at all. What it does, and was clearly intended to do, is open up dialogue about mental health issues.
Here’s another one of the questions. The card on the right reads “My stuff toy Johnson”.
The Exploratorium folks thought it would be a good idea to print up some cards with my photos on the front and a snippet of one of Karen’s poems on the back. These are beautiful and so far seem to be selling well. I bought several sets and am excited to have them.
I have a few comments about the whole experience and am not really sure where to start. But here goes.
The new Exploratorium is simply amazing. It is a beautiful space with so much to see. Keeping in mind their original charter as a hands-on learning environment, it is completely successful. And the fact that they are now branching out into the social sciences and presenting more artistically orientated concepts is great. Not only great, but brave and daring as well. My first visit was on an extremely busy Sunday and the place was jammed. As I lingered in the “Normal” space, I noticed some visitors were clearly not expecting to see something like it, and there were a few who were obviously put off by the whole idea. I even heard one young kid use the word “awful” twice in one sentence. And that is why I use the words brave and daring. They are now doing everything a public museum should be doing by exposing visitors to concepts that are not always comfortable. And I am honored to have been asked to play a small role in that process.
My second visit on Tuesday helped me to be objective about my involvement in the project. I was able to talk to quite a few people and get some very positive feedback. Early on, I accepted my role as an adjunct player in ” The Changing Face….”. It was difficult at times as most of the decision making was out of my hands. And there are still some elements of it that are at odds with my initial concept of what to do with the photographs. But as I move forward, I will be able to show the work at venues where I have much more control. That said though, I am happy and excited by what the Exploratorium has done. The photographs are being seen by a diverse audience and that is always a good thing.
So, big thanks to Pam Winfrey, Stephanie Bailey, Julie Nunn, and Stacy Martin who have all supported my involvement. Please go see the new building and the exhibit, and I would really appreciate any feedback.
We will be heading back East early tomorrow. I had hoped to have a long post about the Exploratorium exhibit ready to go, but I am still processing my feelings. I will have something up by Thursday. What can be said now though is that by mounting “The Changing Face of What is Normal” in what was basically a museum dedicated to science related issues, they have done something incredibly daring. It is not what many people familiar with the Exploratorium expect to see, and for that I give them a ton of credit. It is a very interesting experience and for those of you who get the chance to be in the area, well worth the effort.
The Lucy Davies article about the suitcases is now online. Here is the link to the story. And here is the link to the slideshow. It is getting quite a bit of response. / Things are moving along at the Exploratorium. It is all about working with a committee, so it feels a bit different, but when done, it is going to be very interesting. / The 14 suitcases arrived safely last week in these lovely blue shipping containers and are being prepped for display. It is all quite exciting.
For much of last week Stephanie Bailey from the Exploratorium in San Francisco has been at the museum picking out objects for the exhibit that will be also featuring my suitcase photographs. I went out to Rotterdam on Saturday to meet her and help out a bit. Karen Miller and Craig Williams were there as well. Details are mostly in place, and while there isn’t much information available on the web as of yet, the title of the exhibit is “The Changing Face of What is Normal”. In addition to my photos, there will be a number of Karen’s poems and around 15 of the suitcases themselves. I have seen the design for the display and it is going to be amazing. It will open on the 17th of April when the new Exploratorium itself opens in the Embarcadero on (I think) Pier 15. I will be there for the opening which should be a huge event. At some point in mid May I’ll come back out for some programming to do with the exhibit. And we are hoping to set up an “artists talk” sometime in the Autumn.
Some of the cases that are traveling to the exhibit were new to me and it was nice to see more of the possessions of the patients.
Madeline was a French teacher before she came to Willard. This is a very beautiful copy of an illustrated Petit Larousse.
Her little coffee pot is nice too. / It is amazing to me that some of the personal possessions of Willard patients will be shipped all the way across the country to be seen by a huge number of people. As I have tried to handle the objects with great care when photographing them, the Exploratorium is showing great sensitivity in the way they are preparing the exhibit. I really think it is going to be amazing. As I know more about the timing of things over the next few months, I will post updates. This will be an incredible and rare opportunity to see the cases up close. The exhibit will run for at least six months, and we are hoping to have it extended for a full year.
This is not a suitcase per se, but Henry L.’s possessions were in this cardboard box. As I continue this project, I occasionally come across different ways the museum has preserved the items. This box was not wrapped like the others, but was in an archival box of its own.
I was particularly moved by this box.
Sometimes I don’t know what to write about these remnants of someone’s life.
As usual, I have obscured his surname here.
The quality of the his artificial foot and leg was amazing. I am not sure when it was made as there was no date of Henry’s admission on the tag attached to the shoe.
The parts on the brace above were machined beautifully.
Thanks to you all for following the project. And now for some really great news. I have signed a contract with the Exploratorium in San Francisco to have a large number of the suitcase photos in an exhibit to be called “The Changing Face of What is Normal”. One third of the exhibit will deal with mental health issues and my work will be a part of that component. I am so excited and proud to be involved in this. There will be a formal opening on 19 April, 2013 in their new space at Pier 15 in the Embarcadero and it looks like I will be doing an artist’s talk a few days after that. My friend, the poet Karen Miller will also be involved. She has been working with many of the same cases and her poems are amazing and evocative. So I will look forward to seeing some of you next April in San Francisco. Again thanks for all the feedback and support.