Immigration-focused ‘CAN – YOU – DREAM – AMERICA’ opens Inferno Gallery
The Sewall Hall courtyard is often home to strange sounds, and Thursday evening was no exception. Laughter mingled with soft indie music and juxtaposed with the sharp, peculiar clanging noise of falling forks as students and visitors took in Inferno Gallery’s first fall opening, “CAN – YOU – DREAM – AMERICA.”
The exhibition, created by local Venezuelan artist Violette Bule, features multiple multimedia components packed into the tiny gallery. As onlookers peek through the French doors, their attention is first drawn to “Homage to Johnny,” an interactive sculpture in the far right corner and source of the clanging noises. Composed entirely of forks stuck at all angles to a magnetic surface, the sculpture evokes a cold, unfriendly air, made especially poignant by the consistently jarring sound of visitors throwing forks and failing to make them stick. As visitors continued to poke and prod at the sculpture, the temporality of each fork’s position was made clear, as some forks dropped to the floor and others stuck out precariously from the piece.
“This is an homage to a guy who worked in restaurants in New York and polished forks,” Bule said. “He could not afford to find a different kind of work because he’s an illegal immigrant.” Bule said she knew Johnny from her time at the same restaurant, spent making bread.
To the right of “Homage to Johnny” hangs “American Dream,” Bule’s interpretation of Andrew Sander’s “Peon, 1929.” The piece juxtaposes two dramatic photographs. The first shows an immigrant woman, defeated by the physical and mental weight of dirty plates. Its allusion to Sander’s work shows that the issues immigrants face have not changed throughout the years – instead, they take different forms.
“You can see the person [in the present], with their work and their eyes closed to reality,” Bule said.
The second shows the same woman, now hoisting an American flag. The look of mixed determination and dissatisfaction evokes a revolutionary feeling, emphasized by the juxtaposition of the two portraits.
Directly across from “Homage to Johnny” and “American Dream” resides “Can you?” a hanging piece consisting of multiple rectangular mirror fragments. According to Bule, the piece seeks to challenge the exhibit “America Is Hard to See” by the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. A sample of the event’s marketing asks, “Can you see America from here?”
“I’m offering a reflection, a question about the idea of identity,” Bule said. “ I started to question if I could see America from [the Whitney] building, from that collection, or if I could see America from another perspective.”
“Can you?” asks one question in response, and closer investigation reveals the answer — the reflection brings the viewer closer to both themselves and to the text, “you can see America from here,” indicating that America is the sum of its individual parts and not necessarily an entity in itself. Standing further away lends itself to a lively dialogue between Bule’s other works, as the visitors observe themselves in a fragmented existence amongst fallen forks and dramatic portraiture.
“I decided to make this whole piece so that everyone can be America, reflected in the room,” Bule said.
While turning to exit the small space, the eye is drawn to a slightly tilting tower of soap bars. Uniformly labeled as “hispano,” the bars are stacked with the careful precision of bricklaying, but lean with the weak support of their origin cardboard box.
“Every country in Latin America and in Spain has the same kind of soap,” Bule said. “I was amazed by the logo (Calidad de gente que progresa! / Quality from people that keep improving!). To me, [improving is] so hard, because you’re always climbing, and everyone is climbing on another to try and [fulfill] their dream.”
Visitors may miss the last component of the exhibit, an unassuming stack of illustrations sitting on top of the same soap that comprises the soap tower. The illustrations themselves, however, are colorful and kitsch. They tell the tale of “La Bestia,” the hazardous method of running on top of trains to travel from Guatemala to Mexico to the United States, and show the dangers of police violence, rape and natural obstacles along the way. The illustration ends with an arrival to a hostile United States, filled with corporations, racism and a failed illusion.
“I was trying to offer a different point of view of this kind of reality,” Bule said. “[It’s] an open question to the spectator.”
Indeed, it is no coincidence that “CAN – YOU – DREAM – AMERICA” comes during an age of turmoil around immigration in America. But Bule says these issues were always here — and their reemergence only offers space and motivation for discussion.
“Problems with immigration that have always existed in this country, but now they are more in the forefront,” Bule said. “The pot is opened, and everything is boiling, boiling. Now is the time to show everything that’s been happening for a long time. I’m not happy, but I’m encouraged to work.”
“CAN – YOU – DREAM – AMERICA” will be installed until the next Inferno exhibition. To schedule a visitation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.