Fractured Narratives at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum

“As I photograph the other night sky, the other night sky photographs back,” writes Trevor Paglen. His 48 x 60 image of a soft-hued skyscape is part of the Fractured Narratives: a strategy to engage exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College. The peaceful scene, blues transitioning to warm orange hues, hides something intrusive. When one studies the image closely, a tiny black dot appears in the lower third of the photograph. It’s a drone in mid-flight. Untitled (Reaper Drone, 2012) reminds us that we live in a surveillance society where natural beauty is interrupted by technology built to observe, record, track, and even attack human targets. Paglen (b. 1974, U.S.) aims to expose “the other night sky” that we are not aware of its existence, or, perhaps, we wish to not accept as reality.

Open until January 4, 2015, Fractured Narratives is the first exhibition inspired by the Cornell Fine Arts Museum’s Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art. Museum visitors have the opportunity to view work by both established and emerging artists from around the world who address privacy, modern warfare, the environment, and freedom of expression. What makes this exhibition different is that these artists use film, painting, sculpture, photography, and sound to call attention to contemporary global issues, without taking a didactic or “direct polemical” approach. Instead, they ask visitors to reflect upon the artistic work and engage in critical dialogue.

“Through Fractured Narratives, we seek to expand upon the narratives depicted or evoked by the works in the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, and to further examine how objects can express societal struggles and ills in less direct – though perhaps more complex – ways,” remarked co-curator Amy Galpin.

The museum is located on Rollins College’s picturesque campus in Winter Park. The city known for art and literature, as well as for its chain of lakes and gorgeous mansions, is fifteen minutes north of Downtown Orlando. At the close by Alfond Inn, a visionary philanthropic boutique hotel owned by Rollins College, where additional works extend the exhibition.

“We hope that [Fractured Narratives] offers opportunities for visitors to engage in the noble effort to turn visual literacy into a kind of global sensitivity,” writes co-curator Abigail Ross Goodman.

The exhibition invites the viewer to look closer at fractured pieces, stills and moving images that are fragments of complex narratives, and reflect. It invites us to reflect on stories and real events that should be part of a global dialectic.

In one corner of the exhibition, a black and white photograph shows a man sitting at a desk, as a hand reaches into the photo and takes him by the neck. In the background, through a diaphanous curtain, we see a man’s silhouette standing in silence. The actor sitting at the desk represents Baalu Girma, author of the Ethiopian novel Oromay (The End), while the outstretched hand symbolizes the oppressive government censoring his work. And the silhouette is Tsege, the novel’s protagonist. Tsege is a young man who works for the government and ends up traveling to Eritrea – an experience that will forever change him. The novel was published in 1983, but was soon banned due to its implied critique of the flawed political regime. Seven months after its publication, Girma disappeared. His voice, however, was not silenced forever.

A new regime in Ethiopia allowed Oromay back on the bookshelves, and now both novel and late author are viewed in a positive light. Intrigued by Oromay and Girma’s story, Eric Gottesman’s body of work, according to the exhibition’s curators, implies “the legacy of censorship and political impropriety in Ethiopia, while simultaneously emphasizing the power of human intimacy and identity.” Black and white photographs restaging Girma writing, film and color photographs reimagining the content of the book, all “[hint] at the concept of trace – a lingering remnant of something past but also an intuitive precursor to knowledge,” say Galpin and Goodman. On November 16, at 3 p.m., Gottesman (b. 1976, U.S.) will speak on his works in the Fractured Narratives exhibition. Sponsored by the Thomas P. Johnson Scholar Fund, the event will be open to the public.

Across from Gottesman’s display, visitors can sit in a small Mediaroom to view William Kentridge’s Second-hand Reading (2013). The seven-minute HD video features the voice of Neo Muyanga taking the viewer into the artist’s world. Muyanga’s music provides the soundtrack to the flipbook-style illustrations on the screen, which picture Kentridge (b. 1955, South Africa) in constant motion (though going nowhere). In one part, swaying trees smoothly turn into men waving flags, as words appear on the pages: “TEAR & REPAIR; END WITH LOVE.” According to Galpin and Goodman, “Kentridge’s skillful presentations encourage us to unpack things that cannot be said easily or explicitly, only felt and explored.”

Other featured artists include Rivane Neuenschwander (b. 1967, Brazil), Goshka Macuga (b. 1967, Poland), and Alfredo Jaar (b. 1956, Chile) among other international talents.

“Over the next few months, Fractured Narratives will create opportunities for visitors to reflect on and engage in conversation about the intricacies of our changing global landscape,” states Ena Heller, the Bruce A. Beal Director of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College. “The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art was established to inspire this type of dialogue and contemplation, and I hope that every visitor will become an active participant.”

For more information on Fractured Narratives and upcoming events at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, please visit rollins.edu/cornel-fine-arts-museum