The UMKC Gallery of Art was abuzz with lights on Thursday, Jan. 21. Cutting through the icy chill of the night, the windows facing Sweeney Hall shone with soft magenta, green, yellow and blue lighting that reflected on the snow outside. The event was the opening of the Gallery of Art’s newest installation, “Body-Mind Entente,” a collaborative presentation by the Graduate Art History Association and local artists. The goal of the installation was to “contemplate the entanglement of the body and the mind within the world.” The name itself refers to the political term entente, meaning an informal alliance between warring parties, though in this context the parties are the mind and body and how their interconnectedness can be represented. The result is a strange and obscure exhibition that oftentimes teeters on the thin line separating grotesque and gorgeous.
Mass by Jamie Bates Slone is the first thing to catch the visitor’s eye. Resting on a block pedestal 10 feet from the door, Mass is an intoxicating statue of a woman’s upper body. Her skin is a map of shifting blues and greens that open up into a blossom of warm orange on her breast. She is turned, her waist solidly fixated on the pedestal with her back twisting as she looks behind. Her arms are cut off just past her armpits so there is only an illusion of the complete pose. There is no Venus-esque self-censorship present in this pose however, as there is nothing but exposure. Her form is decorated with bumps resembling a fungi or barnacles. They are small, like moles, but present in clusters dotting her body and painted in a deep blue that shimmers against her matted skin.
Another of the most striking works of the collection is Jim Sajovic’s Dolce, a wondrous and enthralling image of colors amorphously filling a space. At first glance the canvas itself appears to be a 38 by 42 inch square of lush, dream-like indulgence, almost giving the eye too much to contemplate at once. It’s a hot image possessing the intensity of bright pinks and blues in a sort of battle for control over the shimmering surface. It’s as though Sajovic has captured an image from the very center of a nebulous supernova, a cluster of unimaginable heat that serves as a building block of existence and matter. It’s only when the viewer observes it from across the room or with their blurry eye that it’s evident that it’s actually simply a blurred and oversaturated painting of two people kissing. Then again, that might be the point.
Breath Take by Diana Heise is the only interactive work. Resting in the far corner of the gallery across from the door, it is a small desk set before a rough depiction of a tree. The trunk and sprawling branches are made from a combination of soil and red clover seeds, giving the impression of having been applied to the wall slowly with a sponge. Visitors are directed by a card on the desk to “Take a breath. Take another. Maybe a third. Write what makes you breathe easier. Place it near the tree. Remember this moment when it is hard to find your breath.” There is a stack of green sticky notes provided so visitors can write out their “breath taking” and place them on the tree like leaves. Some of the ones already up include “Idaho,” “Everybody home safe,” “Painting trippy paintings,” and “End of the day knowing I made it through.” While at first this can come off like some kind of therapeutic hoo-ha disguising itself as art, it’s actually the opposite.
There exists a certain cynicism about works like Heise’s that attempt to not only engage the viewer but also try to uplift or emotionally encourage them. For instance, there’s a book in the Nelson-Atkins’ modern section that instructs visitors to write what the 60’s mean to them. It’s no wonder that Heise’s tree is growing with genuine testimonials of self-care and that the book at the Nelson-Atkins has more pot leaf illustrations in it than the illustrated companion serial of “Reefer Madness.” A work like this can usually only be effective in a small setting like the Fine Arts Gallery, when it asks the viewer for this level of closeness. It’s interactivity for the sake of being interpersonal. If anyone finds the sticky note in the upper right corner of the tree that says “Dancing like Leland Palmer,” you’ll know who it’s from.
The second room of the gallery is an almost completely different space as far as artwork and aesthetic. The first thing visitors will notice is the sound: a strange noise moving between whispers and moans. When one looks in on the room they instantly notice the large projection of 20 young singers clad in black and sitting in a half-circle on a stage. They all hold microphones close to their mouths and are not singing at all but actually reciting a fragmented transcription of a conversation about the synaptic events in the brain with the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux. This is a recording of a performance of Nene Humphrey’s Everything That Happens from October of 2013. While the complete recording is a little over 20 minutes, sitting and actually experiencing it for the entire running time it feels more like 20 hours. The fragments of phrases take on a meditative quality while still remaining spastic and manic, as so much activity is happening audibly. This incredible combination of performance and outright musical brain scan is one of the big hallmarks of the exhibition and demands a full viewing from anyone willing to truly listen to their own head.
Body-Mind Entente is one of the best and most compelling exhibitions that the Gallery of Art has held. It’s moving, it’s bold and it’s ruthlessly familiar with its portrayals of mind-body connectivity. It’s a collection of images of places we’ve all known and been living in our entire lives, only there are no road maps – just ranges of altitude.
Body-Mind Entente is open at the UMKC Gallery of Fine Art from Jan. 21 to Feb. 26.