'(Un)governed Spaces' at Bennington College maps Afghanistan in photos and stories
BENNINGTON -- Hanging scarves, a broken wall, a pencil sketch on pages of a newspaper in Arabic, snow in the mountains -- a new exhibit at Usdan Gallery at Bennington College will show Afghanistan from a dual perspective. Artist Gregory Thielker and anthropologist Noah Coburn have traveled through the country, recording people and places in the hope of offering clarity about the real situation there.
"(Un)governed Spaces," opening at Bennington College on Tuesday, Oct. 28, gives a multi-media representation of travels and insights in the Shomali Plain of Afghanistan. Once the Silk Road crossed through here, and now around the U.S. military base at Bagram sits in the center.
Gregory Thielker's 35-foot long panoramic painting of Shomali Plain and smaller paintings and photos accompany Noah Coburn's interviews excerpted in audio installations and his accompanying text in rotating projections.
Coburn has worked with Bennington College students who have created a visual timeline of the area for the show, as well as some related student art pieces. After its time at Bennington College, the show will head to Gettysburg College as a modern echo to its famous Civil War panorama.
But Coburn and Thielker do not focus on war.
They met as students at Williams College and reconnected years later as they worked on their own projects, Coburn in Kabul writing books, Thielker painting and sketching along the Grand Trunk Road between Delhi and Calcutta.
"It got us talking about the intersection of art and ethnography," Coburn said. "There was some interesting tensions and ambiguities and contradictions that I had trouble writing about. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that taking a more artistic approach would add something. ... That's really the moment when we started working together."
The land itself drew Thielker into the collaboration, he said -- Afghanistan has centuries of depths to explore.
"We chose this location because of its rich history and current military importance," Thielker said. "From the very beginning, we saw this as an opportunity to not only try to describe the environment now, but to look back and highlight images from the past."
They moved around the country, finding one consistent aspect of their investigation in walls, which offered possibilities for the fascination of both the anthropologist and the photographer.
"From a sociological perspective, walls are interesting because they usually mark big family compounds and they shape the landscape," said Coburn. "I would explore more anthropological ideas of who is living where, what are these walls dividing, whereas Greg was very interested in the texture of the walls, so a lot of his artwork revolves around the texture of the mud, the texture of broken concrete."
Coburn did interviews, and Thielker sketched and took photographs. They regrouped later at home, getting each other's perspectives.
"We don't really talk that much when we're doing our work," Coburn said. "I'm talking to other people, and he's looking around, and then at the end of the day we'll come home and have a conversation about what we saw. Oftentimes even though we were in the same place, our accounts are very different."
"As an artist, I found it both challenging and thrilling to work closely with an anthropologist," Thielker said. "In my work, I often use representational imagery as a way of opening up a dialog about place, so this collaboration with Noah specifically felt very directly connected to my own interests, but in a sort of mirror relationship. I also appreciated that we both understood the complexity of the place. Perhaps we speak about this complexity differently, but many of our discussions have led to very compelling results both visually and conceptually."
Coburn credits Thielker with attuning his eye to the landscape rather than focus on the minutiae of a place.
"From a distance, you can see how villages melt into each other or divide and why groups are settled in certain places and not in others," Coburn said. "He got me thinking about how we can look at the landscape around us and how these visual markings mean something."
"He would point to certain voids or holes in the landscapes where there were no buildings, so we explored why certain areas were left empty. That's one of those things I wouldn't have noticed necessarily otherwise. And often there is political relevance as to why there is something one place and not in another."
Thielker's fascination with and focus on the landscape brought surprises to him within his own scope. He said history and conflict were visible at all turns, but life moved along as it needed to aside from the bigger issues.
"Rusting Soviet tanks hardly warranted a second glance to many of the people passing by, so in some ways, I tried not to pay as much attention to that," Thielker said. "This ended up benefitting the work, since I was forced to look away from the most dramatic elements I might perceive as a foreigner. Instead, I focused on textures, colors, and rhythms of the places we visited."
They hope the different texts in the show will present the different narratives that are taking place in Afghanistan, Coburn said, from points of view that aren't often represented when the media focuses on the simple narrative of the bad Taliban versus the good Afghan government.
"There's a way in which the international media portrays war in these spectacular forms of explosions, and gnarled metal, whereas really the conflict can be very mundane and beautiful at the same time," said Coburn. "We've intentionally avoided using sensational pieces and are much more trying to look at the everyday landscape that the conflict is embedded in. Our real hope is that we generate some conversations about that."
If you go ...
What: ‘(Un)governed Spaces,' multimedia show
When: Opens 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28
Where: Usdan Gallery, Bennington College, Bennington
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