SOUTHERNSCAPES / by Heather Topcik

On September 24th, we opened our fall exhibition at the Society for Domestic Museology. SouthernScapes is made up of two series of photographs by Joshua Kristal.  Both were taken in the American South, and that is where the similarities end.  Or do they?  In keeping with the geographic theme, we went southern with the food for the opening: brisket sliders with coleslaw, baby-back ribs, macaroni and cheese, Ritz crackers with pimento cheese spread and collard greens... Our apartment smelled like a smokehouse.  

There were 10 photos in all, and between the two series, we expanded out of our conventional "exhibition" space and installed photographs in the hallway.  One of the issues with a domestic gallery such as ours is the substandard lighting, which proved to be a challenge in the long, narrow space, where the photos were barely visible.  With only about two hours to go until the opening, Joshua MacGyvered some hallway gallery lighting by re-purposing some random lamps from around the apartment and securing them to the wall with blue painter's tape.

Of all of the work that we have shown here (and granted this is only our first year), Southernscapes is the most challenging in terms of subject matter.  Upon first glance the photos are either serene and beautiful (if you're looking at the black and white series) or curious and eccentric (the color photos), but upon closer study, they are each disturbing in their own way.  After about an hour or so of mingling around with ribs and Ritz crackers in hand, we gathered around to hear Joshua talk about his work.

The black-and-white photographs are images of places curiously devoid of people, which is a striking departure from Joshua's usual focus.  As he explained, this series was inspired by the book Without Sanctuary, which documents the strange and horrific history of lynching in this country and the even stranger, more horrific trade in postcards commemorating these events. This photo series is the beginning of a larger project that Joshua would like to continue -- one that goes back and documents these now vacant spaces in order to commemorate and acknowledge these events.  The conversation that followed ranged from talking specifically about the photos (Do they qualify as landscapes? Should the descriptions be part of the photograph or part of the wall text?) to the unwieldy issues they represent (How do these images, while beautiful as photographs, read against the horror of the postcards? And what does that kind of cruel voyeurism say about us?)

We tend to think of this as a Southern phenomenon, yet lynchings occurred everywhere in the US.  How does one commemorate appropriately? There was an acknowledged irony to our gathering of all-white urbanites, eating southern-fare and talking about this subject.  But that is exactly the point: being confronted with these photographs is to realize that we are all complicit in this story. 

The second group of photos, candid moments from a baby beauty pageant in Mississippi, tells another tale, one that we might also like to think of as a "southern" phenomenon but is all too universal.  Happening across a small-town beauty pageant where the contestants were all under the age of 3, Joshua spent about an hour capturing this ritual that at once seems so fringe and weird but has everything to say about kids, gender and sexuality. Then he got kicked out.

In our comfortable domestic setting, the theme of the conversation that evening was violence, from the overt violence of the public lynchings to the subtle violence that happens when you dress up your toddler in a ball gown and tiara (or a bathing suit!) and parade her down the catwalk.  My favorite thing about these openings has been the conversation that happens around the work. What starts as a party with food, drinks, and small talk evolves into an earnest discussion about art and ideas, devoid of irony.  The kind that can be hard to find sometimes.

For almost a month we have been living with this installation, and it sneaks up on you. Now that I have gotten used to the transformation of our space, I find myself puttering around at home, oblivious to my surroundings in a way, until I look up and am jarred into really looking at the work we have on the walls and what it represents.  I feel guilty about enjoying the formal beauty of the trees and absurdity of the pageant photos. While our kids want to know why we took down the pictures of our family and replaced them with pictures of people none of us knows, they haven't asked about the black-and-white photos yet.  I've also found it to be an interesting social experiment to see who notices the work when they come into the room and who doesn't bother to look.  After all, we're not a gallery; just an apartment with things on the wall, right?