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Encounters at the Edge of the Forest Exhibition now open at Gallery 400, UIC

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Curated by the 2014 Exhibition Practices class of the Museum and Exhibition Studies program in the UIC School of Art and Art History, the Encounters at the Edge of the Forest exhibit opened this weekend and will run through Sunday, June 14 at Gallery 400.

I asked Associate Professor, Art History, Theory, and Criticism, and Faculty Advisor for the exhibit, Rhoda Rosen to tell me more about the exhibit.

What will we see?

Encounters at the Edge of the Forest, is an exhibition surveying a far-flung and worldwide range of artistic responses to the strange and fraught ways in which trees and forests have often proved staging grounds for ideas about nationhood, nation building, and nationalist violence.

Trees are typically thought about as a natural resource. However, trees are, perhaps, just as much a cultural construct. And that’s a harder idea with which to come to terms. They are tightly braided into our cultural imagination, for example, the forest of our dreams, or desires. A simple illustration of this is in fairy tales, like Red Riding Hood. The forest is both a dangerous place, a forbidden place, but also the site of Red Riding Hood’s unnamed, untamed desire. She just can’t stay away from it even though there are other routes to grandma’s house.

The trees in this exhibition are also cultural, but they are of an entirely different order. They mark borders: they defend territory: they are in service to the nation. Like lines on a map, they have a delimiting function. Some examples: Andreas Rutkauskus’ Cutline, pictures the US Government’s calculated deforestation for surveillance purposes by the U.S. government of a half-mile cutting across vast forests along the border between Canada and the U.S; Ariane Littman attempts to heal an ailing and bare Olive tree at the Hizma Checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank as a haunting meditation on the way the uprooting of trees mirrors the uprooting of people while it holds out the hope for a repair of the scarred landscape of conflict; David Goldblatt’s photograph of the surviving parts of a hedge, planted by the first Dutch settlers to the Cape, South Africa, to demarcate an area, beyond which indigenous black South Africans would be considered trespassers – all these are breathtaking reminders that modern forests, far from being elements of nature, are culturally and scientifically managed artifacts of power.

The exhibit includes video, photography and a participatory sculpture by artists: Vaughn Bell, Ori Gersht, David Goldblatt, Ken Gonzales-Day, Tim Knowles, Philippa Lawrence, Ariane Littman, Steven Rowell, Andreas Rutkauskas, Jennifer Scott. Juxtaposed with these artists are historical and cultural objects that point to the impact of trees in our culture: the patriotic yellow ribbon tied around a tree for a returning soldier, an historical lynching postcard, a newspaper article, for example.

In the grand scheme of things, why is this important?

It’s important because it breaks apart a cherished notion that nature and culture are separate entities and that nature is somehow just 'there', given. The exhibition opens the possibility that those categories we most assume, are in fact framed as culture in some ways. More importantly the curatorial process demonstrated what a 21st century classroom might look like. Students constructed the knowledge, owned it; I was one member of a group of knowledge-makers, and the students opened the curatorial practice to their friends, colleagues, other professors, expanding what kinds of knowledge(s) were produced.

The product of and also one moment in a wider conversation hatched in an exhibition practices class in the Museum and Exhibition Studies graduate program (MUSE) of the School of Art and Art History, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) it proved to be an utterly participatory, organic process that upended the traditional authority of the curator, and also that of the authority of the faculty position in the classroom. An entirely different kind of curatorial process was put in place out of which an entirely different kind of knowledge was produced, in the exhibition and programming itself, and through audience reception.

What do you hope to do with this exhibit? Where do you go from here?

Great question: Exhibitions are often seen as end products. In that sense, they are the culminations of research. They are assumed to relay the authority of the curator or curators. But we wanted to change that model and to think of this as one part of an ongoing conversation around issues of social justice that won’t end. Therefore, there is less didacticism and more openness to one another’s and our audience’s perspectives. We imagine we will continue to work together in some way to move forward the conversations embedded in the exhibition content and, perhaps to stage a different iteration of this exhibition at another point.

Admission to the exhibit is free. Exhibit hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m., Saturday 12:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. and by appointment. Group tours are free of charge but require reservation. Go here for more information.

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