In celebration of the University of Michigan's Bicentennial, art professor Jim Cogswell was invited to create a sequence of public window installations, titled "Cosmogonic Tattoos," based on reassembled fragments from a broad selection of artworks in the collections of the U-M Museum of Art and the U-M Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.
For this visionary project, he created a procession of vivid images on the glass walls of the museums in a rhythmically evocative narrative, as well as a series of related drawings at UMMA. The exhibition is open through the end of 2017.
Cogswell, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at U-M's Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, primarily teaches painting and drawing. In his creative practice, he explores a variety of media languages and has been involved in interdisciplinary projects with a diverse range of colleagues.
Q&A with Jim Cogswell
Your most recent campus and community collaborations have been vibrant and highly visible vinyl-on-glass installations. How did you come to this medium, and how does it relate to your training as a painter?
Cogswell: Large glass windows are such a common architectural feature of contemporary public spaces that we hardly notice how they open out our built environments. Adhesive vinyl technology enables me to transform those spaces while escaping the physical constraints and social expectations of the white cube. Viewers encounter the work unexpectedly in the places where they walk and congregate. They don't need to be looking for it, or even identify it as art. Through vinyl I'm also exploring the potential of painting beyond the conventions of brush and pigment applied to canvas.
Can you explain the title of this dual-site installation—"Cosmogonic Tattoos?"
Cogswell: "Cosmogonies" are our explanations for how our world came to be, reflecting our assumptions about the fundamental nature of the universe. They inflect our values and help determine how we behave in the world, how we think of who we are as a species, as a society, as individuals. Through collection, curation and display, our museums narrate the objects they contain to make statements about how we see ourselves. I am tattooing the exteriors of UMMA and the Kelsey in this project, ornamenting their architectural skins with images of what is found inside and reframing the stories they tell about who we are and how we came to be who we are.
You bring together design elements from objects of diverse cultures and periods of time—where did you get the idea?
Cogswell: My installation comments on museum collections to get at a larger issue, which is the mutability of all objects and meanings, how the significance of an object or experience changes depending on its context. Cultures thrive by borrowing from each other; both the borrowed objects and the societies involved are altered in that transaction. The collected objects in museums are only one example of this. Any gathering of objects alters their individual meanings. Museums provide a context in which gathered objects take on added significance by virtue of the values we associate with museums themselves, most often without examining whose and what those values are.
In many cases you employ parts of an object, a particular design feature, rather than the whole. Do you want the viewer to be able to recognize the whole from the parts?
Cogswell: It's not essential that viewers recognize where the fragments I'm using come from. I emphasize their fragmentary character to make it clear that these reconstituted objects don't belong together, and to trigger associations between otherwise unconnected objects and experiences.
At the Kelsey, we encounter many objects in a state of fragmentation, wounded by the violence of history, defaced by natural disaster, reshaped through the normal course of physical decay. Their presence in the museum itself is an act of fragmentation, a separation from the original contexts that gave them meaning. Combining fragments from the Kelsey with fragments from objects at UMMA allows me to capitalize on their original meanings while opening them up to new interpretations. It also turns the tables on time and power relations, ancient cultures looting modern splendor.
Having said that, there are rewards for viewers who recognize the specific origins of a hybrid configuration. For example, the hand staunching General Wolfe's mortal wound is offering the same towel to Aphrodite in her shower; the inverted Yoruba mask has been reconstructed using fragments from the ancient eastern Mediterranean, a kind of reverse colonization; or the arm riding on a longboard and cupping an ear belongs to Nydia, the blind girl of Pompeii, headed across State Street toward another volcanic eruption in progress at the Kelsey.
Describe how the narrative evolves as the viewer moves around the windows of the UMMA Commons. How are the installations at UMMA and the Kelsey in conversation?
Cogswell: The installations at UMMA and the Kelsey are intended as a single continuously unfolding narrative that includes the gap between the two buildings. I think of the narrative beginning in the south UMMA windows facing the courtyard, where patterns establish a vibrating hum—background radiation emanating from the singular moment of cosmic origin. On the adjacent door, a teeming human presence picks up transmissions that viewers can follow around to the north face of the building and onward to the front entrance of the Kelsey on Maynard Street. Hands sail a harp on a great voyage across the cosmic ocean in the south windows. Weeping hands hover high in the glass corner of the commons above a pool of tears. Around that corner calamity awaits. A trail of refugees begins here, fleeing the cataclysm, migrating toward a chromatically more various geography above, mirror image of the doomed place they've left behind. A witness tree stands sentinel beside them. Its roots spread upward into the archaeological layers protruding down from the mass of the museum building above. Beyond the tree, a new architectural folly is being assembled around a structural pillar of the museum.
PLACE: U-M Museum of Art (525 S. State St., Ann Arbor), U-M Kelsey Museum of Archaeology (434 S. State St., Ann Arbor)
INFORMATION: The U-M Museum of Art is free and open to the public. Regular hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; Noon-5 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday
The U-M Kelsey Museum of Archaeology is free and open to the public. Regular hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 1-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; closed Monday
SPONSORS: Lead support for "Cosmogonic Tattoos" provided by U-M Office of the Provost. Additional support for the artist's project provided by the U-M Bicentennial Office and Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design.