Feb 27. 2012

Detroit finally revealed? A photography exhibit at the DIA

by Emily

A blog post by Emily Biegas. The first image I saw upon entering the Detroit Revealed exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts this past Friday was a print of Sweater the Sheep, by Dutch photographer Corine Vermeulen. Sweater stared out at me somewhat jarringly and somewhat comically, considering this was an exhibit about urban life! What could a sheep have to do with Detroit? Sweater the Sheep lives at Catherine Ferguson Academy, where young pregnant women and parenting teenagers are educated in raising children and navigating adulthood, on top of the usual core curriculum. Students at the academy also get to work on a farm with chickens, goats, beehives, vegetable gardens and even a horse (to know more, see the excellent documentary movie made on the school, Grown in Detroit). Hence, Sweater the Sheep. Right away I was excited for an exhibit that would highlight the underpublicized postive change happening in Detroit. But my expectations were confused when I moved on to see Detroit-native Scott Hocking‘s photos. Artistically, his images of Detroit’s post-apocolypic landscapes, abandoned lots overtaken by nature, and the dilapidating Packard plant are striking. But was this ruin porn? Surely not, or at least I hoped not! I knew there must be something more than the face value of the images, and I also realized that the exhibit couldn’t really reveal Detroit if it shielded us from the city’s ugly side. Hocking didn’t just snap pictures inside the abandoned Packard plant, he created art installations there. Ziggurat, a pyramid built from 6000 found blocks, and Garden of the Gods, a Packard plant rooftop scene where old T.V. sets rest atop even older pillars, express the “cyclical nature of civilization and history.” Maybe these images weren’t so pessimistic after all.

Meanwhile, the room is filled with murmurings coming from a small television screen mounted on the front wall. Four Stories, a video installation by Dawoud Bay, presents brief interviews with four students from Chadsey High School (one of the Detroit’s most ethnically diverse schools  until it was demolished last year to make way for a brand new Pre-K-8 Munger school). The video is striking because we rarely see their entire face, instead seeing extreme close-ups, of Yahmaney’s lips telling about how he used to “act a fool,” robbing people for a cheeseburger at McDonalds. An Arab girl talks about how her parents pressure her to wear the hijab, about how she is not afraid to wear make-up so that she can feel beautiful.
Four Stories introduces us to four lives in only 15 minutes. It doesn’t provide us with any full stories- but then again, neither does Detroit Revealed. Even though the exhibit seems to aim for comprehensiveness by featuring eight artists – four Michigan natives and four travelling photographers – it is incomplete. But isn’t Detroit’s story itself incomplete and evolving?

The photos in this exhibit are powerful both aesthetically and socially, and the fact that they are housed in a world class institution such as the DIA proves that Detroit is more than a collection of vacant, overgrown lots. Carlos Diaz (Detroit photographer and professor at College for Creative Studies) captures the vibrancy of Mexicantown, a neighborhood usually referred to in terms of its restaurants and high crime rates but not much else. Also provocative are Michelle Andonian’s portraits of the Rouge River plant, representative of  industrial transition and modernization. Disappointing was New York photographer Ari Marcopoulous’ scant “exploration” of Detroit’s underground music scene. A separate room features older, black and white images of the city – The Supremes in the heydey of Motown, the now-destroyed Black Bottom neighborhood, psychadelic autoshow models of the 60s.

If the exhibit left me feeling a bit unsatifised overall, I’d say that’s the point. A room-full of photos can’t tell Detroit’s full story. Ultimately, it urges us to explore the city for ourselves, to take our own photographs and create our own experience, not only in the way we live in the city but in the way we talk about it.

Detroit Revealed runs through April 29 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Read a review by the Detroit Free Press here; you can also hear a WDET report with Carlos Diaz.

  • Rita Moore

    My family and I are looking forward to visting DIA

    • Hélène

      Dear Rita, you certainly should! If you become a fan of “Detroit Institute of Arts” on Facebook you can get free entry throughout the month of March;) And if you simply like our blog, feel free to sign up to our monthly newsletter in English: Looking forward to reading more of your comments here! The Frenchies.