‘Interdisciplinarium’ is more than just a pretty picture

Arlington Arts Center show integrates disciplines to shape social commentary.

Megaphone by Salvatore Pirrone/photo courtesy of Colleen Healey

A barely clothed man stands atop a staircase, his face and torso pressed against a wall. A woman hums off-screen as fabriclike light projections wave softly. The melody is pure, never straying from its melancholic simplicity. As he descends, the man pauses on a landing, hands stretched skyward, before turning to lie face-up on the steps. He reaches out again, toward the viewer, slowly writhing on the stairs.

Enact, a video installation by Lorenzo Cardim, is a scene of “rescue,” the artist says, and appears in Interdisciplinarium, a show at Arlington Arts Center running through Oct. 1 that highlights the work of 10 contemporary artists who incorporate other disciplines in their work—many of them touching on social issues.

“Unfortunately, sometimes there’s this perception that [art is] this frivolous thing that artists do in their studios and that it’s not sort of engaged socially, politically or with other things that are going on in the world,” says Karyn Miller, director of exhibits at AAC.

Baltimore-based artist Stephen Towns presents a collection of quilts on the life of Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who led a revolt that killed dozens. Towns says his work neither praises nor condemns Turner but invites questions about a figure who justified violence as the means to a noble end.

Another quilt, Birth of a Nation, is a colonial American flag emblazoned with a female slave nursing a white baby. Towns says the piece addresses the crucial role played by African-American women in U.S. history. “They’ve literally had to adopt white babies and not be able to take care of their own, and so they literally fed our forefathers,” Towns says.

One of the most whimsical pieces in the show, Salvatore Pirrone’s monumental wooden Megaphone spans the AAC lawn, with its large end open for observers who’d like to crawl in. “I thought to myself how terrific would it be to be able to project your voice out into the landscape and make yourself really big but also to use it as an ear trumpet and bring those sounds in, making something really large quite small,” Pirrone says.

Holly Koons McCullough, AAC’s executive director, sees the institution as a sort of “cultural emissary,” encouraging audiences to broaden their thinking through contemporary art.

“This kind of a show at a time when there’s so much debate about arts funding and the relevance of arts agencies—I think this really pulls into view the kind of intrinsic relevancy of visual arts practice to so many other disciplines.”

(August 2017)