'Close Encounters' at URI Gallery uncovers the human element of culture

TIME OUT; Narragansett Times

Thursday, January 31, 2008


KINGSTON-It is one thing to know the history of a country, the pivotal dates and influential figures of a time, and another to get to know the people. To know the people, the human element of a culture, that is an indispensable and understated aspect of learning.

Now at the Fine Arts Center Galleries at the University of Rhode Island you may see firsthand the human element of central European cultures in the video art exhibit “Close Encounters”.

Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are represented by six video artists in the Main Gallery. Slovakian guest curator Viera Levitt, now a resident of Wakefield, selected stories of her familiar culture to share with Rhode Island. “I wanted to bring something you can relate to. Something you feel connected to,”” said Levitt.
At multiple monitor stations visitors may view video loops at their own pace.

The stories in the films have a delicate quality in dealing with the fragility of human emotion. One such film titled It Doesn’t Matter, by Katerina Seda of the Czech Republic, documents her own attempt to awaken her grandmother from years of lethargy. Seda’s grandmother made a decision to do nothing; she would not communicate, she would watch the same television channel all day every day not thinking anything of it. So Seda attempted a social intervention, an artistic experiment by means of art itself. She gave her grandmother a drawing book and pen. She began to draw. Seda would ask her why she drew the things she did, which opened up conversation that eventually led to an awakening of sorts. A truly touching piece. The drawings have been printed in a book for viewing at the exhibit.

Another interesting piece is a video from Polish artist Artur Zmijewski. It is one that shows soldiers singing and marching in unison. At the beginning the soldiers march in uniform with a bit of passive pride. Then suddenly they are in a dance studio marching and singing naked, with guns over their shoulders. But something changes in them. They are laughing in embarrassment at themselves. All of the soldiers in the film are actually real soldiers, they are not actors.

“These are human stories about vulnerability,” said Levitt.
Zmijewski has another film in the Main Gallery, in which deaf children sing hymns in a church by a monumental organ. These children do not look handicapped. When you put on the headphones and begin to listen you hear a cacophony. It takes a moment to understand what is actually going on. Then you realize that these deaf children are sending a message to God.

“They are singing a religious song. Is it going to be delivered to God even though it is not perfect,” questioned Levitt, hinting at he message that she hears when watching the film.

The central work of the exhibition is a film by Milena Dopitova. The piece shows herself with her twin sister dancing and playing the piano. A make-up artist transformed the two into older women, so that they could experience a single day as old ladies. Levitt said that the idea for the film came from Dopitova’s own experience when she one day saw two sisters dancing in a park on a grey and rainy day. Why were they dancing? What brought them to that point?

In the curator’s statement Levitt writes, “…Where is Slovakia? Where is Central Europe? What are people like there? What do they think about? By organizing this show I wanted to answer some of these questions and in the process, make art from Central Europe more familiar to visitors and residents of Rhode Island……”

And “Close Encounters” does just that.

If you go
“Close Encounters” is currently on display until Feb. 10 at the Fine Arts Center Galleries at the University of Rhode Island. It is free and open to the public. For more information visit www.uri.edu/artgalleries or call 874-2775.


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