As NCMA director Larry Wheeler said at the press preview for You Are Here, on average, a visitor spends a mere sixty seconds experiencing a work of art that might have taken years to create. But this exhibit challenges visitors to the North Carolina Museum of Art not only to invest more time into the experience but also to become a part of the works. Using light, color, and sound, an incredible collection of world-renowned artists takes over an entire floor of galleries as well as Museum Park. The multisensory experience dazzles with themes of identity, nostalgia, technology, and more.
Some of the environments created throughout this vast collection feel almost sacred. Anila Quayyum Agha evokes the majesty of worship centers with her iconic piece, "Intersections." Using laser-cut wood, lacquer paint, and a single light bulb, Agha transforms an ordinary room into a jaw-dropping display of pattern that twinkles across every surface. The simplicity of materials is remarkable, given the dramatic effect they achieve on such a large space. Agha is inspired by traditional Islamic motifs and uses the transmission of light through an elaborate cube to create an emotional environment. The motivation to create emotional moments ties the diverse body of work in this exhibit together.
For example, Janet Cardiff recreates the grandeur of a traditional cathedral choir in "Forty Part Motet." Visitors enter a stripped-down room with forty speakers arranged in a circle. Each speaker projects the pitch of a different voice to create a harmony that evokes a deep sense of unity. Whether religious or not, one cannot help but be moved by the cohesive blend of human voices. The simultaneous low rumble of the people with you in the space creates a beautiful juxtaposition of organized musical production and the ambient tone of our shared presence. Our passive connection is another thread that runs through the exhibit, explored from both a positive and a negative viewpoint.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer takes on "big brother" in his high-tech installation "1984x1984." Guests become the subject of the piece as they draw near a screen filled with colorful house-address numbers from Google Maps images. At first glance, these numbers seem like a random collection, but as the viewer stands before this larger-than-life piece, they will recognize their own shape and movements mirrored before their eyes. Lozano-Hemmer illuminates the deterioration of privacy as we leave more and more digital footprints in our daily lives.
- Photo courtesy of NCMA
- Mickalene Thomas's "Diahann Carroll" from the installation Do I Look Like a Lady? (2016)
Mickalene Thomas, whose "Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes Noires" is included in the museum's permanent collection, is known for multimedia pieces depicting black women, and the work that she created for this exhibition takes her signature style to the next level. Her installation Do I Look Like a Lady? is a two-channel video surrounded by soft, vibrantly upholstered seating and several large, wall-mounted wood-panel pieces. Upon entering the installation, one notices a strategically placed collection of books. Thomas told the INDY many of them were books that made an impression on her as a child. Other books further the narrative of the video projected across the room, which features multiple generations of black female singers, actresses, and comedians from the mid-twentieth century. Thomas said that many of them were not recognized for their talent while working in the U.S. It wasn't until they left the States and gained acclaim in Europe that they were celebrated at home. Thomas said that it's important for her to highlight how much black women's identities have been defined by watching the rise and fall of these iconic entertainers.
As for the seating, it continues the storytelling with allusions to the black American quilting tradition. Using fabric from her personal collection, new African print fabrics, and collected vintage work smocks, Thomas takes visitors on a journey through black female identity by simply having a seat.
It is important to note that You Are Here is Wheeler's last exhibition as director of the museum. He has championed the inclusion of contemporary art at NCMA for his entire twenty-four-year tenure. You Are Here exemplifies his legacy of curating the best of what can be presented to North Carolina art lovers. In this exhibit, the museum also reveals its latest permanent acquisition, a highly sought-after "infinity room" by Yayoi Kusama. Perhaps we can consider it Wheeler's parting gift.
Each piece in this exhibition is layered with sentiment, innovation, and individuality. Set aside an afternoon to engulf yourself, even though it will not take long to discover that, among all this greatness, you are indeed here.