When Hammarby! opened on February 15th at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts it was supposed to be a sneak peek for what was to come from thirteen MFA students under the tutelage of artist-in-residence Kris Martin. The second floor gallery of the Wattis was to become not only a place to see works of art, but a classroom that was to be open to the public. However, for a project initially touted for its transparency, what exactly happened between February and May is unclear to many. Martin was noticeably absent from the reception for (Odds Are) 13:1, which ran from May 3—7 as the final chapter to the class he had been teaching.
In his place, curator Jessica Brier was given the opportunity to organize the exhibition in less than one month, this in order to provide some sense of closure for the students. Staged in the apartment Martin had been living in, his name may have been featured on the sandwich board outside of the exhibition, but the only trace of him was in the form of a photocopied note affixed to the refrigerator. The message, which was given to one of the artists earlier in the semester was in reference to her piece in the project. The jotting was short and ambiguously suggested some changes in the student’s work needed to be made. The brevity of the note made it feel like a reminder from a mom or dad, who passively insinuates their child’s room needs to be cleaned. Even though Martin was not there, his presence was felt throughout the space. There was an eeriness to the opening as if mourning the loss of a family member. Still fresh in everyone’s mind, the reception was, at times, like a wake as visitors moseyed from room to room quietly speculating where Martin had gone and why.
When this group of thirteen MFA students installed Hammarby!, the result of their collaboration was perplexing, resulting in a space that felt more like individual works presented together than the efforts of artists working on a common theme or shared idea. Nevertheless, since the opening of Hammarby!, their work has come together, which is largely due to the space it inhabits. In many instances the pieces are very literal in their reference to Martin, as is the case with Bean Gilsdorf’s installation, who chose the bedroom for a site specific work called Restless, 2011. A plethora of clocks stand next to the bed all set to varying times, which is a stress-inducing sight as one frighteningly ponders being woken up at various points in the night after alarm clock after alarm clock goes off. However, it is her interpretation of absence through the removal of a section of the blanket that emphasizes the missing artist.
This element of the work makes visitors want to sit down on the bed and place their hand on the void in order to have intimate knowledge of this empty space. Other works, such as that of Elizabeth Dorbad, are subtle, and successfully address the notion of an unknowing public visiting a private space. Dorbad’s framed photograph Mapping Itinerancy, 2011, is an image of a neighborhood desecrated by a tornado (printed before the carnage that affected much of Alabama). Having been framed and hung in the living room it does not look radically out of place and could even be mistaken as one of the many objects believed to have been part of the apartment’s aesthetic. Is it possible this work is referencing Martin by making a comparison between the unpredictability of weather and the apparently capricious character of their former instructor? Whatever the decision to include this work, it stood out as a piece that challenged the visitor to consider his or her removal from a white cube and placement into a private setting, even the relationship the students had with Martin. It is only in this type of venue where one is forced to interpret how the objects within the space have been mediated as well as deciphering what is art and what is an ordinary object.
Brier and the thirteen artists made the best out of a precarious situation by extending the exhibition space to a location that must have been a challenge for each of the artists and the curator to work in, especially considering the passion the artist had for the project when it first began and the energy each artist had when Hammarby! opened. In spite of all that has happened, what ultimately made this group of works much more memorable than their efforts put forth for Hammarby! is the noticeable link many of the pieces had to one another and the space they occupied.