Art requires research too
MIT List Center presents a collection of works by Becca Albee
List Projects 20: Becca Albee
MIT List Visual Arts Center
On display until Feb. 9
I never expected an art exhibit to persuade me to do my homework, but that’s exactly what Becca Albee’s project at the MIT List Center did.
Albee is a Brooklyn-based visual artist. She specializes in photography and installations, often addressing themes of feminism and identity. From Dec. 12, 2019 to Feb. 9, 2020, a brand new collection of Albee’s works is on display in List Projects 20: Becca Albee.
I ended up going to the show on two different occasions. On my first time, I stopped to take a glance at the small space on a whim as I was walking past the List Center. I knew absolutely nothing about the exhibition. I stepped inside and admired the collection of photographic prints and the installation of three television screens playing videos of horseshoe crabs on a dark ocean shore. Some of the pieces immediately appealed to my sense of aesthetics. Four black-and-white photographs of sand showcased complex abstract patterns. A small photograph of a shirt pocket was beautifully intimate in its unique cropping and size, while a large, bright orange image of frothy waves radiated power and magnificence. The videos of the crabs, filmed under ultraviolet light, created stunning green, purple, and pink hues. There seemed to be a slight motif of interpersonal connection, best seen in the personal shirt pocket picture and the image of part of one of Albee’s email correspondences. There was definitely a beach theme, as nearly every piece depicted either sand, water, or both. And I also detected an undertone of time — Albee’s mysterious image of a sand dune at night demonstrated the drastic impact of viewing a place at an atypical moment, and the four monochrome pictures of impressions in sand betrayed the existence of something that was once there.
I appreciated her long titles, which read like quotes, as a unique artistic choice, yet many of them were hard to understand or seemed to have little to do with the images. I struggled to form a connection between all of the works and to draw meaning from snapshots of an email and a file folder. The exhibit left me a little confused and frustrated, fruitlessly searching for meaning. Eventually, I realized that the pieces together formed a chaos so complex that every viewer could find their own message, drawing on their unique personal experiences and maybe learning something about themselves in the process.
My perception of the exhibit changed drastically when I attended Albee’s public discussion on Jan. 24. I learned about Robert Blanchon, a conceptual artist who was Albee’s professor, mentor, and friend before he died at the age of 33 due to AIDS-related complications. After his death, many of his works and personal items were compiled into a large archive of his life. Delving into this archive and her memory for research, Albee created her exhibit to eternalize Blanchon and the brief but impactful relationship she had with him.
Once I took the time to research each artist and the personal history they shared, the installation began to take on a clearer shape in my mind. Some of the pieces incorporate found objects from the archive but add Albee’s own spin. The artist captured a sheet of film photographs Blanchon had taken, creating a narrative timeline of his whereabouts and actions. Every title is a quote from Blanchon, exemplifying his witty yet sophisticated views. An image of a sand dune in the dark seems specifically taken to represent his words, “at night the brilliant moon rings equal the sun’s rays in the dunes....” Albee makes heavy use of photography and video, both of which her mentor worked with extensively. And her focus on the beach is a reference to much of Blanchon’s work with waves or motifs of the color blue. The exhibition is not an illustration of Blanchon so much as a reflection on him through his student’s eyes. Looking at the pieces is almost like looking at a collection of inside jokes, which possess much more complexity and context for the artists than can be understood by viewers. Even so, it is incredibly interesting to look at someone through another person’s perspective. The works feel personal, as though Albee is letting us into her memories. As she spent time poring through his archive, she gained a new understanding of her relationship to Blanchon. In her discussion, she remarked that the professor was such a strong inspiration that parts of him were permanently incorporated into who she is as a person and an artist. Though he’s present in everything she does, Albee is especially conscious of the parts of Blanchon that manifest themselves in her art for this exhibit. Viewed in the context of both artists’ work and experiences, the collection serves to preserve and expand Albee’s memories of Blanchon in a material way to move them into the future.
From my research I also discovered that, apart from the archive, Albee spent a significant amount of time at Plumb Beach in Brooklyn to produce this installation. This was the site of all of her photos, as well as the videos of horseshoe crabs featured in the main part of the exhibit. The crabs seem out of place at first glance, but they weave overlapping connections between the seemingly disparate themes of the beach, time, and the two artists present in the installation. Albee lives with a blood clotting disorder and so feels uniquely connected to these animals, whose blood is often used in medicine for its clotting ability. In turn, both the crabs and many of Blanchon’s works are brought into existence at the beach, linking Albee with her mentor. More significantly, the crabs’ complex existence in time is analogous to the pair’s relationship. Horseshoe crabs spend their entire lives at the bottom of the ocean, coming to the shore only to spawn. Albee visited the beach in the middle of the night to capture this transient moment, reflecting her short-lived friendship with Blanchon. In the same way, her photographs of markings in the sand left by the crabs illustrate their lasting effects just as the memory of Blanchon will be preserved in his archive and now in Albee’s project.
Educating myself on the rich history behind the installation made my second viewing a completely new and unique experience. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and all artworks have their own autonomy. If you want to look for your own meaning in the pieces in Albee’s exhibit, go ahead. But it can also introduce you to new perspectives if you allow yourself to see through her eyes. This may have been the last time I walked into an art show without any background research. I enjoyed the exhibit when I first viewed it, but in my opinion, it’s better if you do your homework beforehand.