Last spring, I introduced seventh graders to the sculptures of Mark Jenkins, a local artist from Washington D.C. Jenkins who uses tape and plastic wrap to create plastic casts of people and objects. He then places his sculptures in various environments, some clothed and others partially translucent, with the process of casting left visible.
The sculptures run the gamut from serious to mischievous, humorous, and disturbing. They often draw the attention of police when a passerby, tricked into believing a sculpture is real, reports it to 911. Many of these clothed sculptures appear to be homeless, or at the very least speak to the feeling of emotional isolation. Closer inspection would surely reveal that they are not real, which makes me reflect on the distance we so often put between ourselves and those considered different, perhaps even dangerous. We choose not to interact, to avert our eyes, while casually dropping coins into re-purposed containers. Or worse, we wait for the next person to come to the rescue, which inevitably leads to a kind of bystander apathy. In both of these scenarios our own comfort wins out while we move through the world paralyzed by the thought of confronting our personal biases, assumptions, and widely-held stereotypes.
Jenkins’ clothed figures have an especially powerful effect in the way that they startle and surprise. His work reminds me of that strange mix of fear and exhilaration I get when riding on a roller coaster. In the image above we see three men, completely concealed by hoodies, ski masks, gloves and other articles of clothing. They sit, each with a baseball bat in their hands.
When I talk to students about work like this (or any image for that matter) I am always curious to know what they notice first. Their responses, and the order in which they come, provide a glimpse into our brains’ thought processes and our collective biases. These conversations are more important than anything else that happens inside my classroom because they prompt students to observe not only images, but the way we absorb information and interpret it.
A (fatal) love affair with efficiency:
Each day we are inundated with thousands of images, and even more so in our technology-driven world. In order for us to process all of this visual information our brains need to be able to “read” images efficiently. This process helps us to categorize, store, and retrieve information quickly, so we can do things like recognize people we know next to people we don’t; a shirt next to a sock- can you imagine how long it would take to sort through a basket of laundry if we could not distinguish between the two?
The examples above are just two of the many practical reasons why our brains have developed to work this way, but a consequence of this efficiency is that it opens the door to all kinds of stereotyping. One way that I help students to recognize the “pitfalls of efficiency” is to teach them to closely observe images and artworks and to notice the assumptions they make surrounding issues such as race, gender, and sexual-orientation, just to name a few.
If I can return for a moment to the image above: I observe that the figures are probably men, wearing hoodies, ski masks, gloves, and holding baseball bats. They are also wearing long pants, high socks, and shoes. Nowhere is any part of their skin or hair showing. They are sitting down in a public space, all three gazing at the tile floor in front of them. If I were in the space with the sculptures, and if I stopped to look at them even for 30 seconds, I would probably realize quickly that they are not real. But if I was walking by, my brain would see the ski masks, the bats, the gloves…now I am turning around and walking the other way or picking up my pace to move quickly past them.
I’ve observed three things about the entire scene and decided it’s unsafe to get any closer. While I’m walking away, my heart rate begins to slow down and I start to build a narrative around what I have just seen, only I haven’t really seen much at all. Maybe in my narrative the men are black and they are waiting to attack. They’re probably gang members out to get retribution. They are moral-less and uneducated. Before I know it, I have constructed an entire story around three articles of clothing.
In this case, I have the benefit of being able to look back at the photo again, see that the men are completely covered, and that there is no possible way for me to know their race. I can take apart my thought process and begin to see how the ideas I have inherited about black men and violence are so powerful that they exist even outside the observable facts of a situation.
Some of you might be thinking, well okay but we need to be able to make judgments quickly in order to protect ourselves from danger. To which I would say, this is true but not to the extent of our ancestral cavemen and women. I think the main problem here is that our bodies haven’t quite evolved to function within the world we now live. And perhaps more problematic, we continue to teach fear at the expense of seeking to understand and connect with people different than ourselves.
All of this looking, and thinking, and reflecting is an important part of how I try to start every project with my students; And so with my seventh graders we started by looking at a wide range of Jenkins’ artwork and talking about how he uses the environment to contextualize his sculptures and to break with the model of the white cube gallery. He uses humble and relatively inexpensive materials, not normally associated with fine art. He takes his work and its ideas into unconventional spaces, making the artwork accessible to a wide range of people, not only museum-goers.
Using Jenkins’ tape casting technique, seventh graders worked in groups to create sculptures of people (themselves), which they then installed at locations around the school. They could choose to clothe their artworks or keep them as they were, but all of the sculptures needed to interact directly with the environment in which they were placed. Casting proved difficult, especially as supplies became depleted (for future reference, it takes a whole lot of tape), but in the end we had at least a couple of sculptures that retained their form, and when dressed, were startlingly realistic.
The students loved this project. You could hear their enthusiasm in the giggles that filled the art room as they wrapped one another, and you could see it in the care they took displaying their projects around our school.
Then came some concerns about the artworks’ potential to frighten younger students and a few subtle requests to relocate certain pieces. As an artist these are the kinds of moments that I both look forward to and dread. I look forward to them because they are an opportunity to educate our community about the ideas and artists that have motivated the artwork; And in this case, to explain why exhibiting artwork in unconventional spaces is an important tool that artists use to question how artwork is presented and for whom it is accessible. It is a moment I dread because my initial reaction is often to feel under attack and I retreat from the opportunity to express my ideas and values in order to avoid conflict. I can say this comfortably because I know I am hardly alone in this feeling and because it is something I continue to work on within and outside of my school community.
In fact, I had all but forgotten about the requests to relocate the artworks when something (the very impetus behind this post) transpired.
When Fear is the Elephant in the Room:
Sometime during the weekend of a major wind storm, the power went out at school, causing the alarm to go off, and the police to show up. A staff member was at school during this time and later told me that when one of the officers approached the front of the building and spotted one of my seventh graders’ sculptures (below), he placed his hand on his gun. In case the photo is not clear, this is a child-sized sculpture sitting in a chair, clothed in sweatpants, a hoodie, bearing no weapons, and not displaying them self in any kind of threatening manner. Needless to say, I was shocked and mortified.
I was not there and cannot attest to the accuracy of the story or its re-telling. Nevertheless, I am deeply concerned by what it communicates about the current relationship between the police, students, schools, and gun violence. Without intention, the group of students that worked on this sculpture created a situation that perfectly reflects the fears and anxieties that are surging through schools and communities around the country, including our very own.
I thought about this story more and more in the days and weeks that followed: Okay, it’s the weekend, the alarm has gone off, perhaps there’s been a break in, maybe the intruder is still inside…maybe all of those things are true, and there’s a “child” hunched over in a chair with a hoodie on. The officer’s heart rate most likely increased, a momentary rush of fear running through his veins.
That feeling is what Jenkins is after when he creates and displays his work because it is what brings his figures to life. Surprise, even fear, at an artwork’s realness pulls his audience in and hooks them emotionally. And as we all know, emotion is at the heart of almost every choice we make. It is as powerful as reason, and sometimes more so. It connects us to objects, and places, and people…even plastic ones. So when we talk about emotionally-charged artwork, it is about creating the connection between object and audience that allows moments of vulnerability and reflection.
Mark Jenkins’ “84 Men” Installation For Suicide Prevention
So whether we call it surprise or fear, this feeling I am talking about connects seamlessly with what happened with the officer and the gun by underscoring the major role that emotion can play in matters of life and death. The responding officer (hypothetical or otherwise) was scared and in that moment failed to observe all parts of the picture, to contextualize the situation and the likelihood that an alarm went off because of an intruder versus the windstorm that had already downed a number of trees.
As long as we have a human police force we will never have a completely objective one. But there are ways to minimize emotionally-reactive decision making, and dare I say, chip away at this deadly culture of fear. Learning to notice how you respond emotionally in different situations and with different people is one way. While looking closely at how we interpret images, perpetuate stereotypes, and breed all kinds of “isms” is what I seek to do as an important part of being an art educator.
What strikes me most in all of this is the potential to change the way our youngest people learn to read the world around them, and consequently, to save lives. Students that learn to look at things closely and critically not only dispel the lies of stereotypes but they also learn to recognize real threats. Students that are indoctrinated into a culture of individualism, hate, and fear of the “other,” never learn to be critical thinkers nor to reap the benefits of self-awareness and interpersonal connection.
The views expressed in the post are wholly my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my colleagues or other members of my school community.
Some of the information presented in this post is hearsay and cannot be substantiated. It is included for its remarkable similarity to incidents of police misconduct that have been documented.