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One of the two window displays at Vertigo
Avenue for the Arts’ current venture, Free Radical, has taken over a series of storefronts on South Division and turned them into art galleries, as is the case with “Map of Tasmania” at Vertigo Music. The event occurs annually as a recognition of local artist Mark Rumsey’s gallery, Free Radical, which this year is celebrating its tenth anniversary.
The gang over at Avenue for the Arts has changed things up for this year’s event by adding what they are calling official “documentors” to each gallery space. The event opened last Friday and will continue this coming Friday, when each space’s documentor will present their response.
When I was asked to be a documentor I was given the choice of which venue I would prefer to cover. Once I was given the options I was immediately drawn to “Map of Tasmania.” When the show opened last Friday it had been installed throughout the entirety of the shop and had over twenty artists contributing to it.
However when I chose it, the show had yet to be named and had only one artist. It caught my attention because among the various zombie or Halloween-themed shows Avenue for the Arts’ Jenn Shaub was describing to me, Vertigo stood out as “a show about women’s rights.”
The show’s curator Jess Hacker began setup last Wednesday and by Friday had everything just about ready to go. When I arrived at Vertigo at 6 p.m., both the shop’s front windows were playing host to various art installations, among them an enormous vagina with hot pink string criss-crossing it, created by artist Miranda Brouwer. Inside the store the show wound its way around the perimeter of the shop. To the left of the entrance Jess had two tables set up, one peddling small buttons with feminist slogans, and the other covered with zines and informational pamphlets from Planned Parenthood.
Each artist took the overarching theme of feminist art and ran with it. As a result a broad range of issues is addressed throughout the show, from body image to gender roles to racial and gender stereotypes and how they affect each individual’s identity.
“While it started with a more specific interest in current events and women’s reproductive rights,” says Hacker, “we didn’t turn anyone away that was interested in participating, so the general theme of the show expanded to cover a broader range of women’s issues.”
The show in its entirety is meant to be a response and a commentary on “the frustrating discussions of women’s issues by certain politicians” in this country.
“Feminist art today is grounded in the present and the future unlike its previous manifestations which tend to focus on the past,” says Hacker and Brouwer’s joint statement for the show. “Rather than taking a didactic and legalistic stance, we wanted something more lighthearted and approachable, not taking ourselves quite as seriously as past activists and artists.”
Hacker’s piece included a pink curtain she had erected in a doorway, behind which was what appeared to be a combination of a stockroom and office. Once behind the curtain, the viewer had the option of speaking into a tape recorder. Hacker’s artist statement just outside the curtain poses a number of questions to be considered, but also leaves the option for the viewer to respond however they prefer. The recorder will then serve as another form of documentation during the second reception. It will be available for viewers to hear, either on a sound system or on the recorder itself with headphones.
One piece drew attention to patriarchy’s presence in modern society through its ties to mythology, while several other artists chose to tackle body image and the societal pressures surrounding it.
“Some issues are very difficult to talk about, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them,” Hacker continues. “The conversation that we started having after the show was hung was about lack of diversity among the artists in the show. Feminism can’t successfully be addressed without simultaneously addressing multiculturalism.”
“Looking at the pieces in the show, there are lots of backgrounds and experiences represented,” says contributing artist and co-curator Miranda Brouwer. “All of the pieces are unique and tell a part of a larger narrative of what it means to be female. I hope that the conversations created [by the show] spread outward to the larger Grand Rapids community so that more ranges of experience can be voiced and heard.”
As with any show, some pieces were more successful than others. I was curious about one video on body image in particular, which from the artist’s statement sounded fascinating. Unfortunately the shop's internet was spotty, and I never actually saw the video play.
Only a few pieces successfully transmitted their intended messages on their own. For the most part it was only once I had read the accompanying statements that would I fully understand the piece's point. Some pieces that did stand on their own include Sarah Scott’s piece, “Mine”, Miranda Brouwer’s “I Don’t Believe You” and Lydia VanHoven’s “I’m a 4 Letter Word.”
However, that’s not to say the work wasn’t successful overall. The statements were engaging and informative. In some cases, as with the video that wouldn’t work, my initial interest in the piece was heightened. Hacker presented the show’s collective statements in a pink binder on a pedestal as a play on Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” quote from the second presidential debate.
Because the show is spread throughout the store, it doesn’t quite read as a coherent exhibit. This is partially because you have to be looking for the specific pieces among the imagery Vertigo already has on their walls, and because with so many different artists participating the art doesn’t reflect a uniform style or common media. As a viewer it’s worth the extra effort, though, since some of the strongest pieces are actually located toward the back of the shop.
Despite its hiccups, it’s clear that a lot of care and thought went into organizing “Map of Tasmania”. Even after the show had begun, Hacker was moving throughout the space, brainstorming new ways to improve and enhance the viewer experience. The artists are all participating because of a cause they share and believe in, and it shows in the bulk of the art they produced.
“I had some great discussions/dialogue about women’s issues [during the show], which to me was more important than the artwork itself,” says Hacker. “The fact that the work was able to generate some meaningful discussion was great. Many people shared their views on the female experience, which was obviously difficult at times, but important and productive.”
Free Radical’s closing reception will take place this Friday, November 2, from 6-10 p.m. Vertigo Music will be extending its hours to accommodate the show. It is located right in the midst of the participating venues, allowing for viewers to move in between them with ease.
Although I originally hail from Northern California's Bay Area, I moved to Grand Rapids in November of last year and have happily installed myself in my new post-grad, East Town life. I work part-time at a local bookstore, and when I'm not in the store peddling their wares I'm usually at home reading them. The Rapidian is my first writing gig, but I've been thoroughly enjoying it and learning a lot, so I hope I can keep throwing things out there to be published, and who knows: maybe I can keep doing this when I grow up. In the meantime I shall continue on in this vein, watching re-runs of Frasier and The West Wing between my article-writing and reading endeavors.