Things Are Not What They Seem, Nor Are They Otherwise

Wilson Museum, Roanoke, VA, 2009

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The installation,  “Things are not what they seem, nor are they otherwise.” asks that perception, and its inherent metaphor of a point of view, be contemplated and challenged both visually and philosophically. The title for this site-specific installation references a koan, a Japanese Zen Buddhist ‘riddle’. The paradoxical question, “What is the hand of one hand clapping?” is a koan that is perhaps more familiar and known to audiences. A koan is a kind of riddle. It is used in Rinzai Zen Buddhist doctrine and is a rigorous system towards enlightenment and awareness. There are “answers,” so to speak, to all of the koans. The understanding is demonstrated however, not by language but by actions and experience. The student is assured, composed and confident, yet energetically and dynamically alive with a fresh and refreshing perception.

The Wilson Museum is located on the campus of Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. The installation uses examples of a campus and landscape that are also images of most Western academic institutions in non-urban areas: imposing staircases with equally imposing columns, a meandering brook with a bridge, and a singular building that represents the school itself.

I rendered each of these formidable symbols in foam core, tape and/or paper. In addition, paper birds flew overhead, across the 2300+ sq ft space. Most significant was the use of a purposefully skewed perspective. For example, when viewing the bridge directly, it looks quite authentic. (So much so in fact, that an eager young visitor ran to “jump” on the bridge, closing the exhibition for a short time while I repaired the broken bridge planks of foam core. The child was unharmed save a scolding from his mother). Standing to either side of the bridge, however, it is clearly skewed and out of  proportion.  The columns and staircase in the exhibition provided similar experiences. A 17’ high willow tree made entirely of straws and paper held court in the installation, as the paper birds flew overhead. A distorted view was also created on the floor of the exhibition, using white vinyl in a geometric pattern based on the wide pavements around museum and campus. This coffered pattern appears in some of my other works, a reminder and reference to my impactful experiences at the Pantheon in Rome.

Listen to Barbara discuss the installation on NPR//Radio IQ: