Belt loops and hooks
There’s a good chance that when you walk into the Sheppard Gallery to see Orion’s Belt, one of the first questions that will cross your mind is, “Huh?”
If you’re used to looking at what we call, in artspeak, the “discreet object” (a piece of artwork where all the ideas are condensed and edited into a single painting or sculpture), you might feel a jolt of alienation trying to figure out what’s going on here. But hang in there. The Sheppard Gallery has a good reason for inviting you out of your comfort zone.
Fortunately, as I was mentally debating whether it was OK to let my kid run all over the liquid-light floor projection that greeted us at the door, I saw curator Marji Vecchio come through the front door and step on artwork, leaving a trail of melting lights in her wake and designating it officially OK to interact with the thing.
While I was enjoying the visual dazzle of lights on the floor, I attempted to decipher what this piece, titled “Healing #2,” has to do with healing. (Fun equals healing? Interactive projection equals metaphor for health?) No dice.
Is it enough that this piece was fun to play with, or was I supposed to get something more out of it? Artists don’t tend to go for the easy answers as of late. Especially artists like Virgil Wong, who went through the hassle of building an entire room into one corner of the gallery and constructing a futuristic hospital waiting area, where fictional advertisements tout “nursebots,” and a video “documents” the story of a pregnant man. I walked away from this installation watching viewers scratch their heads, and I wondered why the artist chose to devote 10 years to refining this multi-media presentation instead of using a more directly audience friendly medium such as text or film to express his ideas about how weird the future of medicine is likely to be.
Artists invent their own language, their own rules, their own way of doing things, which, honestly, makes a lot of art hard to assess. Especially in an exhibit of artwork about medicine and health, it’s not surprising that the work tends toward the indecipherably personal.
But still, hang in there. The point of an exhibit like this is to open a forum for honest discussion, to set up some topical parameters within which to explore some ideas in ways that no one else was going to come up with. Maybe you will relate to these ideas and the way they’re presented. Maybe you won’t.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of reference points to grasp as you work on parsing out the esoterica. There are even a few lovely discreet objects, eerily corporeal images hinting at mortality, such as Sonya Clark’s “Long Hair,” a starkly sensual inkjet print on a scroll, which looks like hair glued onto paper, and Joy Garnett’s intimate little paintings that look like what they’re titled, “Hand X-Rays.”
The artist and the curator are asking for a lot from viewers in terms of investing our time and attention. The verdict is still open on whether gallery-goers are going to play ball. (One alone, a video by Project Moonshine, has a running time of 65 minutes—20 minutes longer then the gallery’s parking meters allow for.) But they are offering, in return, a taste of academic art that is theoretically open to everyone, not just scholars.
For now, think of this Orion’s Belt as a kind of intellectual resource, an ivory tower with its saloon doors wide open.