Process and Presence: Contemporary Disability Sculpture Exhibition

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Following the livestream of a disability fashion show on the 22 September, Chris Smit, Co-founder/Co-director of Michigan-based disability arts organisation, DisArt, talks to DAO about their current exhibition and programme of events ‘Process and Presence’ on show in Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park and online until  6th January 2019.

The concept for the exhibition Process and Presence: Contemporary Disability Sculpture was generated through a very close collaboration between DisArt and Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. In 2015 DisArt was approached by the Michigan-Shiga Sister State Board with a request for assistance on a unique project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the relationship.

rows of small ceramic sculptures sit on shelves in the art studio

Ceramics Studio at ATELIER YAMANAMI in Japan. Photo © Kendra Larsen

Shiga Japan is becoming widely known for what it calls ‘Art Brut,’ or what the world of contemporary art commonly refers to as Outsider Art. The state government of Shiga has for some time supported artist workshops for disabled people within the prefecture, much of which has been kept within the country. However, in the last several years, stellar examples of this work have begun to make a presence for themselves in the international art scene, including astounding works by Shinichi Sawada and Norimitsu Kokubo.

Meijer Gardens and DisArt began to think about this project on a more global scale, wanting to take this invitation as an opportunity to explore disability sculpture more generally. We began to understand the importance of the work from Shiga more clearly when we contextualized it with other aesthetic languages and cultures in the world of Disability Arts.

It became clear to us that broadening the exhibition would not only allow us to introduce audiences to the work from Japan, but also interject impactful conversations about the ways in which the international lived experience of disability and the creation of aesthetic objects provide avenues of new knowledge regarding community, identity, and disability itself.

The following wall text greets every visitor to the galleries, and summarizes the central themes of the exhibition:

Living as a Disabled person in a non-disabled world requires continual adaptation to spaces, living conditions and social situations. Because our bodies and minds are uniquely vulnerable, disabled people are highly conscious of our difference as we enter new circumstances. The need to problem-solve and re-invent fosters a dynamic creative energy that circulates throughout these galleries.

DisArt and Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park invite you to experience disability in new and illuminating ways through the work of sixteen artists from five countries. The ‘disabled experience’ that you will encounter here will no doubt feel different from your other experiences of disability within popular culture.

Disability is presented here not as the counterpart of healthiness, nor as a mere physical or mental condition. Disability is a culturally situated, and complex way of life, one that draws attention to the process of experiencing space, materials and situations.

Our presence within our surroundings and our interactions with each other become part of the creative act of recognizing and connecting with disability as a fundamental part of the human experience.

Our hope for the exhibition has thus been attached to the idea that these curatorial visions of processes and presence are recognisable in all of the objects collected for the exhibition thus pointing to (albeit carefully) universal elements of a global Disabled culture.

DisArt realized that although great care had gone into making sure that the messages and presentation style of the exhibition were accessible to a wide audience, the gallery experience can be intimidating for some. As a result, we intentionally designed events to convey the vision of the exhibition in multiple formats.

The Process and Presence Fashion Show is a key illustration of this idea. Our fashion show program is the most popular of all DisArt productions, generating over 2000 audience members in 2016. We felt that this type of attention could afford us a unique opportunity to distill the vision of the exhibition in a more mass-produced, professional media production. In addition, we knew that the Fashion Show format would allow us to stretch and even amplify the themes of the exhibition due to the inherent spectacular nature of this type of production.

A young female wheelchair-user is dressed in a space age costume

(Bri) Process and Presence Fashion Show Photo © Kendra Larsen

Our international call for designers made it very clear that we intended the ‘looks’ for the show to be guided by the overall vision of the Process and Presence exhibition; DisArt leadership and our panel of experts made selections not only based on design, but how well the outfits being proposed would carry the weight of the themes and goals of the exhibition itself.

A woman in red wearing a large golden haiirpiece poses for a fashion shoot

(Kimberly) Process and Presence Fashion Show. Photo © Kendra Larsen

In addition, we took extreme care to match up designers with our Disabled models, trying to ensure that the powerful voices of our models, all of whom are self advocates in their own right, could be heard and felt throughout the year-long process of production.

Pushing further, the presentation of the fashion show included visual cues (video, photography, etc.) of the process DisArt and the models went through to get to the point of the event itself. This added a richness and depth to the overall feeling of the evening’s production.

DisArt worked with Hwa-Jeen Na, professional photographer, to capture the essence of our models and to create a portrait book of the models. The goal of of this project was to allow audience members to see these talented men and women as multidimensional. Our hope is that the photo collection, entitled Chrysalis, provides an authentic view of the lived experience of disability, one that brings to life the ever present creativity embedded in living with a different mind or body.

Early on in the process of putting together the exhibition, DisArt began to notice a similar visual language in Disability sculpture from around the world. More specifically, there seemed to be an aesthetic connection between objects made from a variety of cultural locations based on creative uses of found materials and objects, the repetition of form, and evidence of durational practice (i.e., the objects communicated quite clearly the amount of time spent making them).

Consequently, it became clear that the Japanese examples of Art Brut, which were the genesis of the project, found their thematic and stylistic counterparts in Outsider and Disability Art from locales as disparate as California, Michigan, Taiwan, London, and Australia.

A tall thin man stands with hand outstretched, giving a talk to a group of gallery visitors

Creative Growth Dir. Tom di Maria explaining the work of Judith Scott in Process and Presence Gallery. Photo © Kendra Larsen

As we continued our work on the exhibition, it became clear that the aesthetic language we were identifying and connecting between countries often came from a similar practice of community-based art making. And although these experiences varied from country to country, (i.e., some were state-funded while others were privately funded) we soon realised that they all had a similar approach to artistic autonomy. In other words, each of the workshops allowed artists to explore and eventually decide on their chosen materials, processes, and outcomes. These were not artists being trained in a particular artistic style or genre. Rather, these were artists who were given a supported freedom to find their own voice within the materials provided for them.

Consequently, when displayed together, the objects speak to a Disabled imagination which is rarely understood or given attention within the contemporary art world. Viewers are encouraged to contemplate global connections between the unique ways disability is experienced and expressed within a wide variety of communities and political realities.

The Process and Presence season of events provides a variety of opportunities for visitors to increase their awareness and understanding of Disability culture, the fashion show being just one example. As an organisation we try and provide enough space for dialogue, conversation, and contemplation of some of the main ideas driving our exhibitions. These sorts of educational opportunities include guest lecturers, artist demonstrations, artist chats, artist performances, guided tours, and podcast episodes.

Prior to being able to focus on the outward facing educational programming, however, it was necessary to make sure that we and our partners at Meijer Gardens felt that the themes of the show were clear to the staff. As a result, DisArt spent time with the guides who would be the ‘frontline’ for visitors, a process that included discussion about language, accommodation, and community making.

One frequent question during these sessions had to do with the disability status of each artist. guides were correct in assuming that visitors to the gallery would be quite interested in the particular disability that an artist lives with.

As curators we were very careful to invite artists represented in the exhibition to decide how they wanted to be identified on the labels throughout the gallery. Some chose to self identify as disabled people while others chose not to. Because of this, we spent time with guides and volunteers explaining that the overall goal of the exhibition was to identify Disability as a cultural identity, leaning heavily on this communal identification rather than on the individual experiences of disability being shown.

The focus on Disability community rather than the individual Disabled identities became one of the guiding principles for the exhibition’s educational and supporting programming. In lectures by Vanderbilt University Associate Professor Aimi Hamraie, Director of Creative Growth Arts Center Tom di Maria, and exhibition curator Lisa VanArragon, audiences were guided through the impact of understanding disability as its own cultural identity.

A side shot of a man with silver hair stands holding a white cloth

Artist Brian Catling performing at Process and Presence Opening. Photo © Kendra Larsen

This was also true in the curricular project we did with arts educator Olivia Miller with whom we created lessons for students based on understanding disability not as only a personal experience but one connected to community, aesthetics, and history. And even in artist visits and demonstrations with Norimitsu Kokubo from Japan, Wesley DeVries from Michigan, Brian Catling from London, and Chun-Shan (Sandie) Yi from Taiwan, audiences were encouraged to experience their work not only as an extension of their own identities, but more importantly as expressions of a larger, cultural community of Disability.

Finally DisArt is a learning-centered organisation; we continually talk about our programming as experiments as a way of being transparent about the fact that we are constantly looking for ways to improve the public presentation of Disability expression.

With this exhibition and seasonal events, our learning has been constant. From designing, testing, and monitoring the experience of new gallery accessibility measures, to figuring out how to present Disability Art to a wide variety of audiences, DisArt has noted ways to improve our work into the future.

Perhaps the most rewarding lessons from Process and Presence, however, have been the many ways in which we have learned to disseminate the vision and mission of this work in multiple ways. It is clear that Disability Arts can be a significant field of work within the arena of Contemporary Art. Yet it is also apparent that in order to maintain the relevance of this sort of work that there must be a concerted effort to not only provide access to the work, to carefully explain its impact within the gallery itself, but to develop programming to facilitate greater understanding.

To see the exhibition online and to experience the podcasts generated in response to Process and Presence please visit https://disartnow.org