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We Are Living, Talking Shapes

A Reflection on Seat or Stand and Speak, and Cyclorama: The Shape of Things, a Video in 7 Parts.

On The Hill
On The Hill
We Are Living, Talking Shapes
Zihan Zhang

Zihan Zhang

Date
February 21, 2024
Read
3 Minutes

These two exhibitions are from the Brown Arts Institute’s campus-wide project, Varying Shades of Brown. I encountered this exhibition on Brown Arts Institute’s Official Instagram page. Yet after seeing it in person, I realized that the pictures can never represent the exhibition, as its significance and effects depend heavily on shapes—how shapes claim spaces, how they affect the audience's experience, and how they are contained within one another. 

Overview of the project

The exhibition space begins with a long corridor with scattered installations from Seat or Stand and Speak. They are simple installations, each set containing an unpainted plywood chair, in a very neat and simple shape, unlike the chairs designed to fit the human body figures. That is to say, the act of sitting and being silent is slightly uncomfortable, and when sitting, there’s a subtle force that urges the visitors to sit straight. In their unnatural sitting postures, they are essentially apart from the installations and not activating them. The seated viewers are not only physically and explicitly silent, but also left out from the realm of truthfully voicing their opinions. Without the megaphone collecting and concentrating voices, the seated viewers are directionless and lost in the alignments of the installations.

The megaphone in front of each chair invites visitors to stand in front of the chairs and speak directly to activate it. Standing behind the megaphone, I started to wonder who the audience was—who remained in the space to listen, as we stood and spoke, turning ourselves into a part of the installation.

A picture of “Seat or Stand and Speak” reflecting on the glass in Lindermann Performing Arts Center, courtesy of Zihan Zhang.

I took this picture while walking through the megaphones. The lights were carefully staged to reflect myself on the glass, and the sparseness of the space kept generating echoes of my steps. Every movement, along with sound, was absorbed into my experience again. Truth-telling is mostly self-reflective.

As I walked down the corridor and looked back, all I saw were the megaphones facing me, reduced to a pure round shape. This arrangement of shapes reminded me of the opening scene in Agnès Varda’s film Happiness (Le Bonheur. Dir. Agnès Varda. The Criterion Collection, 1965. Kanopy. Web. 20 Feb. 2024.), a 1965 French drama. 

The sunflower field appeared in Agnès Varda’s film Happiness (Le Bonheur). (Image: Filmspotting Forum). 

Another screenshot, with flowers in the foreground of a family. (Image: Filmspotting Forum). 

The film opens with a painterly focus on the sunflowers. These flowers, like watchful eyes, distinguish themselves from the background with bright colors. The conscious confrontation of the flowers and the stark color contrast almost become a musical motive—the single sunflower stands out from the harmonious blurriness of the field in the background, conveying an inviting and captivating message to the audience.

Similarly, the megaphones, although deactivated without a speaker, remain a captivating power that follows the visitors as they walk away, always standing there as an inviting symbol to speak. Therefore, re-thinking the title, Seat or Stand and Speak, I read this as a process rather than a choice with equal emphasis on each option. Sitting down and remaining silent is the uncomfortable beginning of the urge to stand up and speak.

Activating and de-activating the exhibition: who is being viewed?

As I walked into the huge cylinder theater, the visitors scattered around to sit on the short cylinder-shaped stoops and sofas, stand between the sofas, or sit on the ground. I chose to sit on one of the cylinder-shaped sofas. Looking up, I realized how overwhelming this space was. Tall, curved screens stretched to the roof, blocking most of the lights coming in, like a cage without bars, yet trapping people with soft fabrics of the curtains, fluid filmic images, and surrounding sounds. There was no clear gesture that pushed people to sit down and watch. Yet, the lack of indicative direction in the installation urged people to stay where they were and realize that the voices and images coming from everywhere required them to participate and be present. In addition, the design of cylinder sofas inside the cyclical installation, a shape within a shape, allowed people to re-gather themselves in the overwhelming environment and ground their positions inside the large cylinder.

I won’t touch on all seven parts of the story because this installation was so rich in content. One part of the story features ten people, spaced equally throughout the curved screen, getting rained on, as the rain gradually turns into snow. Sitting on one of the cylinder sofas, I could only focus on a maximum of three people presented in front of me because of my limited vision of the installation; some of the visitors were also turning their bodies around, trying to capture a fuller version of the installation. Yet it was impossible to view everything simultaneously: though people turned and searched for other bodies, the confused and defiant gazes cut off the connection between bodies.

However, as the film continued, the audience themselves became the focus of viewing. The parts of the videos that went on behind me, those which I failed to grasp, were indirectly reflected in the facial expressions and reactions of people sitting in front of me and looking in opposite directions. The viewing experience was fulfilled through other bodies. In addition, in one part of the film that features a moment during the pandemic, people were filmed walking on the street, facing the direction of the camera (yet somehow not noticing it). Their moving direction was not filmed clearly as the frame cut out, yet they seemed to have the urge to break the curved screen and enter the dimension of the viewer. Although they eventually dissolve by the edge of the screen, the figures of people sitting in front of me substituted for the disappearance. In other words, outside of time and different dimensions, the story from the video is added to every viewer’s experience. The cylindrical depiction of stories is also added to the linear time and history of viewers and continues in an interweaving way: as the video progressed on the tall, curved screens, it physically enclosed the audience with an authentic retrospection of the Pandemic, as well as emotionally nudging the audience to establish their personal memories in the public archive. The obscured personal identity within a masked crowd displayed on the cylindrical surface thus became a blurred, general background of the past. What is real is the condensed existence and emotions of the audience in the cylinder, and how they once lived within this non-negligible background, then managed to distinguish themselves from it, yet still with the reminiscence reflected on their bodies.

Continuation and Fragments

In later parts of the film, there are some moments when one clip was played repeatedly and arranged horizontally through the cylindrical screen.

A picture of Cyclorama: The Shape of Things, a Video in 7 Parts, courtesy of Zihan Zhang. 

This alignment of images rings a bell to The Body in Pieces, an essay written by Linda Nochlin, an American Art Historian. She comments on verticality and horizontality:  “The plane of verticality is… the hanging together or coherence of form… Further, this vertical dimension, in being the axis of form, is also the axis of beauty. The plane of the horizontal is desublimatory, associated with base materialism.” 

The visuality of this moment in the film, as the bodies are arranged and displayed horizontally, was reduced to and unfolded as a bare materiality. The sound, in contrast, is vertical, describing a fatal encounter, a story of violence, yet addressing the visitors as “you.” This shift of agency establishes a connection between the story and the visitors, directing them back into a conscious state of subjectivity in storytelling.

After-image

This was the first time I had been inside the Lindemann Performing Arts Center. When I walked out of the installation, I realized that, since I was previously captivated by the cylindrical space, I was no longer accustomed to the transparent glass windows and the reflective mirror doors (which are very inaccessible to visitors). But the transition from the enclosed space to the reflection makes me think about different modes of seeing. In both ways, I see myself. However, compared to reflections in the mirrors and windows, my experience of seeing myself inside the installation was more collective. By entering the space with other visitors and activating the story collectively, I approached the full authenticity of storytelling by searching for connections with others. Eventually, I understood the ongoing story by becoming a part of it.

(Cover Image: Image courtesy of Zihan Zhang)

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