A life-size cutout of a woman stands in the middle of the Handwerker Gallery, two holes carved in her to reveal looping video screens. On one screen, fastened between her legs, her father explains how he once believed childbirth occurred in the breast. Behind her right breast, artist Itty Neuhaus explains her own encounter with the facts of life.
The installation, “Unter Mensch,” is part of the gallery’s latest exhibition, “Common Ground.” Made up of videos, sculptures and collages, the exhibition features Neuhaus’ work throughout the past two years. At the exhibition’s opening last Thursday, Neuhaus told students that her intent was to explore the relationship between genealogy and geology.
“The work comes out of the idea of the precariousness of life,” Neuhaus said.
The cutout of the woman is a reproduced illustration from an encyclopedia that Neuhaus’ father owned as a child. Adding videos of herself and her father to the installation, Neuhaus used “Unter Mensch” to add a genealogical aspect to the exhibition.
During her stay in Iceland, Neuhaus had heard stories of people falling into crevices in the ground, reminding her of the time her father fell into a hot spring while hiking in Oregon. He survived, but Neuhaus said she was struck by both the fragility of the earth and of people.
“There’s a permeable membrane in what we think is solid, whether it be the body or the earth,” Neuhaus said.
The sculptural works in “Common Ground,” collectively called Strata, were originally made with a geological theme. Created with ripped sheets of glassine paper, the sculptures are made up of many layers. However, in the context of the exhibition, Neuhaus said the layers may not only refer to geology.
Senior Michael Belcher said he sees Strata as a commentary on the human body, with the flower-like structures of the sculptures relating to females in particular. Belcher also said the video installations added a hint of personal identity to the work.
“Everything seems to be connected to the body in some way,” Belcher said. “It’s really organic.”
Cheryl Kramer, director of the Handwerker Gallery and associate professor of art history, said she hopes the exhibition encourages students to consider their own identities and collective existence.
“I like her emphasis on geological history, and how she brings that to a personal level,” Kramer said. “And this intersection of what at first may seem like two completely unrelated elements.”
Because of the personal theme of identity and the global theme of geology, Kramer said “Common Ground” can attract many people at the college level. From film students to science professors, she said the exhibition can be an effective resource for a number of campus community members.
Mara Alper, associate professor of television and radio, has worked with Kramer since 2004 to bring the exhibition to the college. They chose Neuhaus to coincide with Alper’s course, Light Fantastic. For the past eight months, they arranged everything from grant writing to the layout of the gallery.
Belcher said having a giant video installation in the middle of the room is a refreshing change of pace and changes the gallery’s layout in a way that is different from past exhibitions.
Senior Greg Harris was also drawn to “Unter Mensch,” watching as the two videos played in the darkness of the room. He said the piece was provocative because of the placing of the screens, and he respected the artist’s ability in creating the work.
“The overall creation of it and to sync everything up, and to have it keep on playing over and over again, that’s just really hard to do,” Harris said.
After talking to students about the exhibition, especially “Unter Mensch,” Neuhaus said many students related their experiences with learning about childbirth. Once she heard their stories, Neuhaus said she might be interested in making them the theme of her next project.
“It’s not just about my story, it’s about other people’s stories,” Neuhaus said.
Kramer said the best part of the exhibition is the ability to penetrate the surface of the work and interact with it.
“It’s important to have people not only interact with the art, but with the artist because so much of it is personal,” Kramer said. “You’ll be able to go beyond the surface, and look at it more deeply.”