Junior Year Writing Students Collaborate with University Museum to Present Virtual Exhibition: Dis/playing Dis/ability
By Shannon Chan '18 | Tuesday, December 5, 2017
Shannon Chan '18
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
Through January 1, 2018 the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA) hosts a virtual exhibition, created in collaboration with students from English 300: “Dis/ability and Literature.” This Junior-year writing class led by Professor Janis Greve of the English department focuses on different portrayals of people with disabilities in various texts and pieces of art. Their goal was to explore and gain insight on various perspectives of the words “disability” and “body.” The virtual art exhibition displays carefully selected works of art that speak to the theme of “dis/ability” alongside students’ written interpretations.
Chosen from the museum’s permanent collection, the exhibition features artists such as Ben Bishop, David Herskovitz, Danny Lion, Eugene Richards, Sandy Skoglung, and many more. With diverse aesthetics and through various media, each of the drawings, photographs, and sculptures both stands apart from and adjacent to the works around it, opening up the viewer to multiple interpretations.
Sometimes controversial, sometimes ambiguous, this class took on the difficulty of analyzing the term “disability” and what it means for people who identify with or are associated with that term. Professor Greve explained the choice to insert a slash into the term for the title of the exhibition: “Slashing the term ‘disability’ helps us being to erode the stigmas and assumptions usually attached to the word. It foregrounds ‘ability’ while detaching non-ideal physical conditions from the notion of being ‘less’ or ‘inferior’ with the prefix ‘dis’.” In order to break down barriers and separate the negative connotations from the pure meaning of “disability,” Professor Greve and her class set out to “take apart the term and look at the art in more playful and non-prejudging ways.”
But despite this goal, tying “dis/ability” with literature and art can take on political undertones. As Professor Greve explained, “the political part is raising sensitivity and awareness about disabilities and what disabilities mean, [which can cause] an overload of political correctness.” However, Professor Greve encourages her class to move beyond these strictures and instead, “invites students to think about it flexibly.” The class focuses on the reality that there is no single perspective or definition of disability, and acknowledges that the topic is a difficult one to discuss. In doing so, other societal issues are brought to light.
Eva Fierst, curator of education at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, played a prominent role in selecting and assembling the artworks for the exhibition. She believes that the term “disability,” “pigeonholes people into a negative space.” Without labeling artworks with that term, only the work itself remains. Thus, viewers are invited to see the artwork in its purest form and derive multiple interpretations. Without the preconceptions a label might bring, one person can view a piece of art altogether differently from the person next to them.
Through this course and exhibition, students acknowledge that “disability” is not the only term burdened with negative connotations. Terms like transgender, gay, straight, race, or abnormality can also be assigned to identity. "Dis/playing Dis/ability" encourages students to consider these attributes and how they have been perceived as disabling. Eva Fierst mentions that anything “outside of the norm or what is perceived as the norm is worth listening to and hearing because it provides a richness to our everyday life and our understanding of the world.”
Kristen Forscher, a student of the class who took on the challenge of analyzing some of the artworks wrote, “As pieces of art, these images are meant to be gazed at; however, the viewer must break down their assumptions and thus barriers that come from mainstream culture. […] We must consider ambiguity as something that challenges our immediate perception of images.” The logical conclusion is that this consideration can extend to the imagery we are presented with every day, through news media, entertainment, or social media. By exploring the controversies of identity and tackling societal issues, Dis/playing Dis/ability--both the course and the exhibition--engages students and viewers with multiple perspectives in the end, encouraging a new way of looking at pictures.
Dis/playing Dis/ability" A Virtual Art Exhibition appears on the UMCA website until January 1, 2018. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 1:00 pm to 6:00 pm, and Sundays, 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm.