ART AS CHANGE AGENT

“I think art can change the world just like anything can change the world. We all make a difference every day,” says artist Elin O’Hara Slavick, who has produced a substantial body of work that explores the impact of political violence; another recurring theme is the nature of labor and the worker. Slavick will speak with artist Michele Oka Doner in a presentation at The Wolfsonian on October 24. The event, Practicing Political Art, honors the memory of Zena Posever (1911–2012), a Miami-based artist and activist, and is made possible with support from the Zena Posever Memorial Fund.

Slavick has taken on subject matter such as the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and U.S. military interventions, work that is collected in the books After Hiroshima (Daylight Books, 2013) and Bomb after Bomb: A Violent Cartography (Charta, 2007). How to portray such topics in art? Slavick’s answer, as evident in her work, is to use beauty to lure the viewer into looking. “There are a lot of artists who deal with really ugly subject matter. I don’t want to put more ugly things out in the world. I think beauty is a strategy—if you make it ugly, people won’t look,” she says.

Her work on Hiroshima—various forms of photographic images such as cyanotypes, rubbings, and autoradiographs—“are attempts to visually, poetically, and historically address the magnitude of what disappeared as a result of and what remains after the dropping of the A-bomb in 1945,” according to her artist’s statement about the work.

We spoke to Slavick the day before she was leaving for Japan, where she planned to make new work documenting the aftermath of Hiroshima, including photographing a selection of the sixty trees that survived the bomb. Slavick says that her work on violence is an outgrowth of her commitment to pacifism, one honed through decades of political activism. Her roots as both an artist and a political activist go back to her childhood in Portland, Maine, as the seventh child of politically engaged parents in a household where making art was the norm (she reports that all of her sisters are artists).

Slavick’s work on Hiroshima is in reaction not only to the horrors of the past, but to the fact that currently there are over seventeen thousand nuclear weapons in the world, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. How, almost seven decades after the bomb, can art speak to this event? “Hiroshima is a huge topic, and a lot has been done on it. How do you get people to look at it in a different way in 2013? Art has to stand apart from gruesome realistic documentary. I can’t do away with violence, with Hiroshima. But I can make people think about it,” she says.

Her Workers Dreaming project, ongoing since 1999, is a series of large-scale, color photographs of workers, most in the service professions, from a range of countries—all shot with their eyes closed. Slavick, who is now a professor of visual art, theory and practice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, held a number of service-industry jobs when she was younger, ranging from waitress to chambermaid to cashier, experiences that informed her views of labor, she explains. “It is horrible to see how workers get treated and ignored. When their eyes are closed, it kind of empowers them. I do these portraits when I see the right person.”

At The Wolfsonian event, Slavick will discuss some of the artists who have most influenced her work, such as Käthe Kollwitz, Sue Coe, Doris Salcedo, and Alfredo Jaar. Her brief presentation will be followed by a conversation with Michele Oka Doner, an acclaimed artist whose work is often inspired by nature. Oka Doner is perhaps best known to Miamians for one of her local works, the Miami International Airport’s nearly mile-long terrazzo floor inlaid with marine-inspired imagery in bronze and scattered with mother of pearl. She is also a founding board member of The Wolfsonian and the designer of the terrazzo floor in the museum’s shop and café area.

>>>Practicing Political Art: Thursday, October 24, reception at 6:00pm and conversation at 7:00pm. Free. 

Captions:

Top:

Photograph, Architectural Fragments, from After Hiroshima, 2011
Elin O’Hara Slavick (American, b. 1965)
Cyanotype
24 x 30 in
Courtesy of the artist

Bottom (click to enlarge):

Drawing, World Map, from Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography, 2005
Elin O’Hara Slavick (American, b. 1965)
24 x 30 in
Courtesy of the artist

Photograph, Mathilde Llambi, gallery attendant at Fred Wilson’s installation at the Venice Biennale, from Workers Dreaming, 2003
Elin O’Hara Slavick (American, b. 1965)
C-print
30 x 30 in
Courtesy of the artist

Article Image(s): 
ART AS CHANGE AGENT
ART AS CHANGE AGENT