ArtPrize 2014: Show Me What's Fleeting and Frail

ArtPrize is here once again, which means three square miles of the city of Grand Rapids have been transformed into an art gallery for works of every kind imaginable: sculptures, paintings, performance art, mixed media installations, film, photography, art in nature and art indoors — you name it, and it's competing for a piece of the contest's $560,000 purse.

What I love about ArtPrize is that, for 19 days, and free of charge, I'm invited to meet with souls from across the world. In viewing their works, I get to connect with a part of what makes them human: their creativity.

Sure, I could find those connections in galleries or museums. But for the span of two weeks in the heart of my own city, the art is inescapable. It practically comes to me.

The question I get to ask myself anew each year is, "What speaks to me this year? This week? In this moment?" And during each visit to ArtPrize, I answer that question differently.

This year, I've noticed myself being drawn to works that illustrate the fleeting nature of life and the frailty of humanity.

That which is fleeting

"The Shed Is on Fire," by Katrin Albrecht (Photo: Rachel E. Watson)

My photograph above doesn't suffice to capture "The Shed Is on Fire." The sculpture, which is on display at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, depicts the shell of a structure, an imaginative portrait of the remains of a fire. The "bricks" are made of old clothes, cast-offs donated to the artist's project by friends and family members, and the bricks appear to be melting as if from intense heat. 

This work made me think about how we accumulate so many things — clothes included — that we think will add value to our lives, but when they go up in flames, do we miss them? Not in the same way we miss the people we've lost. Those are the relationships we really need to treasure, enjoying each moment, investing in the currency of memories, building a life on joy and love, rather than on a collection of inanimate, soulless objects.

"Peralux," by NewD Media 

"Peralux," by NewD Media, aka Detroit-based duo Gabriel Hall and Daniel Land, is a time-based, visual installation that features animation projected onto sculpture inside a room on the fifth floor of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts

The projected video takes viewers through a series of scenes. One made me feel I was flying through outer space. In another, I felt like I was swimming with the fish in the ocean. In another, I felt like I'd stepped into a scene from the movie "The Fifth Element" — all of those hot, orange tones colliding and filling up my senses. And in some scenes, I felt like I was in a game of laser tag, and my friends could be about to jump out from behind a corner and "tag" me at any second.

The artists managed to take me on several journeys within the span of probably two minutes or less. I left the "theater" space with a smile on my face, feeling like I'd just witnessed something I'll always treasure. Something that's here for ArtPrize but will be gone thereafter.

That which is frail

"Feather Child 1," by Lucy Glendinning (Photo: Rachel E. Watson)

This sculpture on display at Meijer Gardens is of a small child at rest. Instead of skin made of flesh, the child's body is covered with feathers. I found this touching, delicate and tender. I thought of how a mother hen protects her chicks by gathering them under her feathery wings. 

In her artist's statement, sculptor Lucy Glendinning references Greek mythology, the story of Icarus, who created wings fastened with wax to escape from Crete, but flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he fell to the sea and drowned.

The connection to a story meant to illustrate hubris, and the fact that the artist chose to depict a small and innocent child, reminds me that one of the common threads to be found throughout all humanity, whether child or adult, is that we are vulnerable. Mortal. "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down."

This is one photograph in a series of self-portraits called "Home Sweet Home,"
by Danielle Owensby. It bears this caption: "This room was going to be my bedroom,
once the house was finished. Ten years after moving out, it's still a construction site."

"Home Sweet Home," on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, was arresting. I found it incredible that the artist was able to be so vulnerable, depicting scenes that are painful, revealing and evocative, both for her — and I'm sure her parents — and for the viewers. 

The series is visual memoir. I saw her posed in various attitudes in her childhood home, dressed in clothes like she would have worn as a child, but which now are incongruous with her size and age.

For me, the bedroom scene I've included above was the saddest photo of them all. That her room was never finished lingers deep in her psyche. Putting myself in her shoes, I can imagine the feelings I would have felt: "Will this ever be 'home'?" "Where do I truly belong?" "Will I always be waiting?"

The human mind is a powerful organ, but also very frail.

Share your favorite entries

Have you been to see any ArtPrize exhibits this year? If so, I'd love to hear from you about what themes you've been noticing and connecting with, or maybe just share a little about your favorite entry so far. Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook Community page.

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