Artist's lecture examines political and historical allusions in her exhibition "More Weight"
Nearly three months after the debut of her latest project, artist Rachel Stern examined the political and historical allusions in her exhibition “More Weight.” Stern discussed the context and conception of her exhibit in her artist’s lecture at the Women's Studies Research Center’s Kniznick Gallery, on Thursday evening.
Stern began her lecture by saying, “The history and culture of photography is pretty central to everything I do.” She explained that many of the decisions she made during this project, as with many of her other projects, stemmed from her awareness of “violence against women through photography” — the ways that cameras and the male-dominated photography culture objectify the female body.
Stern also described how she found inspiration in world history and current events. She recounted her despair following Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, saying she didn’t know what she could tell the students in her 8 a.m. class the following day.
“It was very hard for me to think about how I was going to walk into that room full of students and say ‘What are we doing here? What is the point of being here today, right now?’ … The result is that I put a lot of effort into my teaching, and I stopped making art. I couldn’t really figure out how to do it.”
During this artistic hiatus, Stern began to study the topics and ideas that would motivate “More Weight.” When she encountered discussions of McCarthyism within the political discourse of the Trump administration, she read Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” which used the Salem witch trials as an allegory for McCarthyism during the Cold War. To pass the time on her commute to work, she began listening to podcasts about world history and culture. Those podcasts helped her refine her understanding of kitsch, which was already a large influence on her work.
The name of the exhibition comes from a line in “The Crucible.” One of the characters is sentenced to be crushed to death by stones, and ws. When the character is ordered to confess to witchcraft by the town magistrate he replies, “More weight.”
Kitsch is “art or artwork characterized by sentimental, often pretentious bad taste,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary. Souvenirs, like snow globes and commemorative t-shirts, are modern examples of kitsch, but Stern explained that kitsch has been around since the Victorian Era, when Marie Antoinette was the Queen of France. With her vast resources, Antoinette built a faux peasant village at Versailles, so she could pretend to live a simpler life. Stern said that, in essence, Antoinette wanted a replica of a different place and experience to keep for herself, the same way we might buy a snow globe to memorialize a trip abroad.
Then, as egalitarian monarchies were toppled, kitsch became more accessible. In 1851, builders erected the Crystal Palace in London, a building made entirely of glass and cast-iron. Stern explained that its construction marked the first time that plants could be kept indoors. The desire to bring a piece of nature into the home was fundamentally kitschy.
As Stern researched kitsch more, she realized that it is fundamentally about “longing… and earnestness.” It’s an attempt to capture a fragment of an experience and, crucially, augment it so it becomes your own, she explained.
It was at this point that Stern began to solidify her idea for the exhibition, combining the political commentary found in “The Crucible” with the artistic tradition of kitsch. Her final product contrasts the reserved portraiture typical of colonial New England with nontraditional imagery and interpretations of her themes.
To illustrate her point, Stern discussed the allusions and references in one of the collection’s portraits, “Justice in Repose.” She explained that the personification of Justice is most commonly depicted blindfolded, standing tall and proud, with a sword in one hand and a scale in the other. But she wanted her Justice to embody the flaws in the criminal justice system, so her Justice lounges on a couch holding only a goblet being filled with a blue liquid. Her scale is set on a table beside her, with jewelry and riches outweighing a tall candle. Her sword rests beside her couch.
Another piece from the exhibition, “The Boundary,” depicts two pairs of shoes separated by a green raised platform. Stern explained that it was inspired by the historic handshake between Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un and President of South Korea Moon Jae-in in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, earlier this yearin 2018.
Despite the density of these allusions, Stern said she wants viewers to consider the political and historic subtext of each piece for themselves, even if that subtext wasn’t her intent. “I trust audiences more than I trust myself,” she concluded. What matters most is that her work “makes people feel something that they didn’t feel before,” she continued.” “I trust audiences more than I trust myself.”