Shoeboxes

One of the exhibits at the SF Museum of Modern Art was a room whose walls had about 40 roughly shoebox-sized recesses in them. Each recess contained one or two women’s shoes, and each had animal skin (or maybe it was gut lining) stretched drum-tight over it and stitched to the wall. The skins were yellow-brown and gauzily translucent, so that you could see the shoes inside, but not terribly well. The boxes were of varying widths but roughly the same height, and they were at sternum level for me. Most of them had two shoes vertically oriented, toe-down. Some had just one shoe, and some had one shoe oriented vertically and the other leaning against it at an angle. The blurb about the exhibit said that its artist (whose name I forget) was reacting to a situation in Colombia that caused women to be killed. Each pair of shoes represented a particular woman who had been killed. In one corner of the room, a number of boxes composed of the skin/gut were stacked up sort of haphazardly.

I found the exhibit compelling (though apparently not enough so that I took time to remember precisely what it was a reaction to), and just this morning, it made me think of an exhibit that came to Chapel Hill when I was a student there. This one too filled a room. It was a set of plaster masks formed from the faces of AIDS victims. Each mask had a little blurb about the victim beside it. Besides the variety of the masks (anybody can get AIDS), what affected me the most about the exhibit was what the experience of its composition must have been like. Consider that people get the heebie jeebies about AIDS, going so far (maybe not so much anymore, but this was always a point that was gone over in my health classes when I was younger) as to try not to use a toilet after somebody with AIDS. AIDS always seemed to me, educated as I was about it, rather like leprosy: You just didn’t really want to get near somebody with AIDS if you could help it lest the virus ignore the nice safe assurances that it’s communicable only through the exchange of bodily fluids and leap from the carrier to you. And so here this artist has gotten really sort of up close and personal with each of the victims represented in the exhibit. Moreover, I imagined at the time that having your face plastered to make a mold was probably sort of therapeutic, like applying a hot towel after a shave but better. So the process of the art for this exhibit resulted in a three-pronged work of documentation, therapy, and art that I found very satisfying and sort of touching.

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