Head, Heart, Hand: Ohio State University Students Respond to Blues for Smoke 5

Fri, Dec 27, 2013

Maurice Stevens, Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University, recently held a course that directly engaged students with our exhibition of Blues for Smoke. He divided the class into groups and we're sharing their responses. Today's entry comes from the Saffron Group discussing the work of Rodney McMillan. For more background on this series, head here.

The Blues for Smoke exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts is filled with artworks and creations that immediately evoke feelings within the observer. From Asterisks in Dockery by Rodney McMillian is no exception. When one walks in the first thing that jumps out is the color of the room. The floor, the walls, and the ceiling are all vibrant red. It can be safe to assume that the color red is symbolic of pain and/or blood. From that it has either a positive or negative connotation attached to it and that depends on the interpretation of the viewer. The negative aspect deals with the violent nature attached to the imagery of pain and blood. The positive perspective comes from the fact that the red room sort of envelopes the viewer, thus creating a womb-like experience. The intentional color of the red room plays an important role in the observer’s overall perception of the piece.

From Asterisks in Dockery represents the birthplace of the blues. The piece is a room set up to look like a small church that is covered in red leather like material. The blues has origins in Gospel music so McMillian used a church atmosphere to represent that birthplace. This piece attempts to approach the origins of the blues in a new and different way. Dockery was a cotton plantation in Mississippi where it is believed that blues was born. The Dockery Plantation had a railroad terminal that made it a place easy to get to and from for impromptu music and performance. The blues happened when the sharecroppers had time to themselves to relax, something most plantation owners did not allow. McMillian experimented with an avant-garde approach to the blues and it’s southern and religious origins.

Rodney McMillian’s red room creates different, though immediate responses from those who enter it. Walking in as a group of four, half of us had completely opposite reactions to the others. Two of us had experienced dread upon our entrance. The drapey walls gave the feeling of being trapped and suffocated while the enveloping red color of the room gave off a hellish vibe, despite the room being designed as a church altar. Turning to see the white light from the entryway made it seem oddly disconnected from the world. The other two felt at ease in the room, describing their experience as calming and comfortable, getting a womb-like vibe from the color and drapey-ness of the surroundings. Which experience was McMillian aiming for? Perhaps both. The piece represents the birthplace of the blues, a movement that was born from both pain and comfort.

There was so much detail in every inch of the entire piece and in its structure. One of the most impressive and remarkable structural components was that the piece was an entire room in which the viewer was able to actively engage in by stepping in the room and even sitting on one of the benches. By being able to interact with the piece at such a deep level of engagement, the viewer is naturally allowed to have a strong reaction to the piece. The red room’s other striking structural components were the church furniture and how it was covered in different material than the walls and floor. The stitched leather of the floor and walls was not pulled taught which gave it a very natural and organic look, which made the room feel as the interior of a womb would, soft, red, and insulating. Those of us who viewed the piece together felt that the womb was symbolic of the church being the birthplace of the blues.

Intersectionality is at play throughout this piece because of the way that religion, race and the female body have a role in the interpretation of the room as a whole.  Depending on the religion of the person entering this piece of art, the experience will be very different.  Since the room is set up like a church, those who attend church on a regular basis will feel a certain connection and level of comfort that those who are not Christian may not have. In addition, the blues was very prevalent in the African American community.  As a result, there will be a different reaction for those who experience this piece with background on the blues, or a connection with that genre of music.  Lastly, given that this room may represent the womb from which the blues was birthed, women may have a different feeling when entering this room than a man. In this piece, the female body is compared to a room in which people feel uncomfortable and awkward. The way in which the audience views the female body definitely impacts the way in which the piece is interpreted. Intersectionality is at play in multiple aspects of the experience associated with From Asterisks in Dockery.

Throughout our time experiencing this piece, our group had so many different reactions and experiences fueled by our personal intersections at play. With our group, it was exciting to see how we all reacted differently to each piece of this work of art. In addition, our thoughts on the background of the piece and meaning behind it helped us to deepen our understanding and appreciation of not only this work of art, but also the exhibit as a whole.

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