Terry Adkins’ Flumen Orationis (from the Principalities) is a forty-one-minute video that juxtaposes old black-and-white photographs of hot air balloons and other inflatables–once used for passenger transport but also military purposes–with audio of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking and music by Jimi Hendrix. The photographs are manipulated in such a way that they almost appear to be set in motion, similar to modern GIFs. The result is simultaneously mesmerizing and also a little unsettling, like a mild bout of seasickness.
An exhibition with a persistent, underlying sense of feeling unbalanced might not seem appealing, but it’s an important part of the journey that co-curators Gaetane Verna and Mark Sealy are taking viewers on through The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding at the U-M School of Art & Design’s new downtown Stamps Gallery.
Verna and Sealy used cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s 1973 essay “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse” as a jumping-off point for the group exhibition featuring Adkins’ piece as well as image and video work by John Akomfrah, Shelagh Keeley, and Zineb Sedira. Together the works look at how sociopolitical events are captured and framed–and the importance of understanding these events through multiple perspective to avoid histories shaped only by those in power. The exhibit’s description notes, “history agitates and causes anxiety in our personal lives and in the political realm,” but the artists don’t just tell us that, their works produce a visceral reaction forcing us to experience it firsthand.
From dirigibles to an oral history of an Algerian photographer to forbidden photographs of the Congolese city of Kisangani to a three-screen installation focused on Hall himself, the seemingly disparate components of this exhibition are tied together with a timely nudge: tackling current social issues and truly understanding the world we live in today requires capturing and listening to all voices, not only the mighty’s.
The exhibition is at the U-M Stamps Gallery through October 14. The new gallery’s downtown location makes it an easy addition to a night out, but this isn’t an exhibition to breeze through. Plan to spend a couple of hours taking it all in.
This article has been edited since it was published in the October 2017 Ann Arbor Observer. The source of the quote that begins “history agitates…” has been corrected.