I'm writing this sentence from inside a cardboard snowdrift. The sweet acridity of smoldering tobacco leaves wafts down the tunnel I crawled through to get in here. Out the tunnel's mouth I can see a curl of heavy smoke dispersing, a mound of red earth behind that and a photograph of a sidewalk with the chalked words, "Do you hear birds?" on a wall above and past the mound.
Various intense artworks and documentation projects from more than 50 American artists have been crowded into the old Chapel Hill Museum building for a show called Local Histories: The Ground We Walk On, co-curated by artist elin o'Hara slavick and historian Carol Magee. Exploring artist Alfredo Jaar's reality-check statement that "place can not be global," the show embodies that notion, rejuvenating the currently nameless building that has housed the Chapel Hill Historical Society since it ceased being a public library in 1997.
At a jam-packed opening night celebration last Friday, UNC-Chapel Hill MFA student Ashley Florence talked about "Drift," the cardboard igloo that she and Lee Delegard have built in a corner of the gallery.
"Something that I had noticed in a lot of interaction with people over the years was the stories of the blizzard of 1996," she told me. "What I found really relevant was that pretty much everyone who had lived here had a story about it. So it was like this one collective history that people had together."
While collecting those stories, Florence and Delegard were impressed by how extreme weather brings people together, which brought up a whole new realm of questions about place and community.
"We started becoming curious about why, in the face of impending environmental disaster that we're always told that we're in, that same urgency isn't there. Why aren't we coming together all the time?"
"Drift" terminates a north-facing wall of the gallery, one of several takes on local geography and history. "Smolder," the tobacco pile by Chapel Hill's Travis Donovan, periodically exhales its plume with the help of a whirring machine. In a piece called "Grounded," Durham-based Cici Stevens installed unearthed glass jars and a protruding mound of Piedmont clay in a stone fireplace set into the wall. And Texan Julie Thomson's "Do You Hear Birds? Chapel Hill" photograph hangs above a pile of chalk that gallery visitors are encouraged to take. The chalk wrappers contain a little bird-call guide and instructions to write down the piece's title—Do you hear birds?—in chalk wherever one hears the sound of birds.
Many of the works hover between the poles of art and documentation, to varying effect. In its understated superimposition of a painted 10th-century gardener character upon the photograph of a raided Iraqi archeological site, Susanne Slavick's "Regenerate II (Gardening the Robber Hole)" succeeds in reclaiming an ancient emptiness. But Michael Webster's overwhelming "Back to the Future" installation comes off as heavy-handed in its critique of Greenville's 1960s Shore Drive redevelopment project, which displaced a prominent African-American neighborhood and resulted in a church burning. The installation is as visually dry and dense as an evidence locker. That Webster was successful, however, at getting a proposal passed to rebuild a lost bell tower in a new park redeems the work by reminding us that aesthetics and concepts are not ends in themselves but means to make life better for people.
Curators slavick and Magee received work from more than 150 artists who answered an open call for submissions. From the variety of pieces on display, it must have been a fun show to hang, with so many fabulous resonances between proximate works. One corner brings together two works that use language in fascinating ways. Durham-based Heather Gordon's paintings "1st Amendment 24027" and "2nd Amendment 12344" present the amendment text converted into binary code in circular analog charts, amounting to a pair of eye-like, checkerboarded circles with red numbers over their pupils. The unreadable binary carries implications for the encoded laws, making for great gallery discussion. To the right is Los Angeles artist Cathy Weiss' "Light," comprising five sheets of acetate, each with an ornate drawing of a hand making each letter of the title word in sign language. Suspended away from the wall so that the ceiling fixtures cast blurry hand shadows on the wall, the piece conflates the visual, tangible and auditory into a differently loaded code.
Many of the pieces depend upon gallery text to explain the history of an issue, or the relationship between the materials in the artifact and the place to which it refers. It's too much in some places. Morgan Muhs' two photographs of New Orleans architecture—"Untitled (overpass)" and "Untitled (pulpit)"—echo the unnecessary language, obfuscating the haunting power of her two images. Muhs doesn't need to tell us that the church is dilapidated or that the overpass is perceived as unsafe. The work should carry the content more than the text beside it.
Local Histories contains a lot of content, but much of it is presented in such a variety of ways that visitors of all stripes—including kids, who were enjoying the opening as much as their parents—will take something away. And the takeaways are actionable. I chalked "Do you hear birds?" on the bike path this morning as hawks discussed the rising sun.