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Folktale-inspired exhibit invites viewers to look more closely

By Emma Kahn

Section: Arts

November 13, 2015

The Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) is now home to “Tea of Oblivion,” a new exhibit based on the Chinese folktale of Meng Po.

In the tale, Meng Po brews a tea made with various plants and herbs collected from ponds and streams and serves the tea to souls on the path to reincarnation. The brew causes a bout of amnesia and allows previous lives to be forgotten. In certain special circumstances, a life about to be reincarnated may refuse Meng Po’s tea and instead retain memories of previous lives upon rebirth. When a child is somehow able to speak prematurely or unexplained memories surface in someone’s life, the mysterious brew of Meng Po comes to mind, and the intangible truths of life are thus explained. The folklore manifests itself in the exhibit through the augmented use of texture and materiality.

The exhibit contains both black and white photos as well as small sculptures. The photos, lacking color detail and tone, draw the viewer specifically to the materiality of the subject and its sublime texture. Photographer Megan Ledbetter captured obscure subjects such as chicken hearts and fetuses, as well as mundane subjects like curtains and landscapes. Regardless of the subject matter, the viewer is inclined to lean closer, viewing the image carefully and imagining the feel of the textures at play. Ledbetter’s graphic and lifelike photographs yearn to be examined in further detail than would normally be awarded to a black and white image.

Sculptor Heidi Lau builds off the images with even more tangible access to the viewer, playing with rustic-looking materials that invite the eye to analyze every knot, twist and shape. The subtle use of color keeps Ledbetter’s photographs present despite their pallidity in contrast with the mangled, vine-like twisted organisms of Lau’s creation.

The entire gallery stirs up sentiments of oblivion. The simplicity in color, the unifying materiality of both photo and sculpture and the blank walls giving no titles or reference to the individual pieces leave the artwork stark and unscholarly and add to the sublimity of the exhibit. In the corner of the room lies an unlabeled binder of laminated images referencing each work and grants them titles. However, the act of referencing the binder after each piece would diminish any impact on the viewer. While the titles of their works grant clarity to the images at hand, such as the title “Mental Ward” or “The smallest and the largest of the 46 chicken hearts,” the titles are not visibly promoted in any way.

The rich creativity here lies in the force generated through the capture of tangible, Earth-born materials and their lens into the intangible forces of legend. Each individual art piece combines to form a labyrinth of shapes and materials that sink the viewer into the ground beneath their feet, yet alludes to a divine force that manipulates lives down below. Those familiar or unfamiliar with the tale of Meng Po can resonate with the impression set by the “Tea of Oblivion” exhibit.

“Tea of Oblivion” will remain on display in the Kniznick Gallery through Feb. 19 and is open to the public. Lau will also be hosting an artist talk and will hold a clay handbuilding workshop on Thursday, Jan. 14. Ledbetter will then host an artist lecture on Thursday, Feb. 4.

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