“Oh, wow, that’s made of paper? Really?”
This has by far been the most popular response to Sun Young Kang’s installation,
“In Between Presence and Absence” (2009)–the first part of Paperscapes that visitors see when they walk into the Wetherill Mansion. Hundreds of fragile paper vessels fill the entire floor of the gallery, luring you to look closer but simultaneously denying you entry. People hover at the threshold, enthralled and mystified by the paper bottles, cups, mugs, bowls, and vases that almost overflow the room. It’s a work that challenges and confronts you, but in a subtle, understated way–quietly, delicately, much like paper itself.
Sun Young Kang’s work signals right away the importance of interaction, the give-and-take between a viewer and a work of art, to Paperscapes as a whole. Each artist and installation asks something of us–to listen, to be present, to reflect, or to immerse yourself. These are works of art that flourish in the space between presence and absence, between subject and object, between the “me” of the self and the “you” of the other.
This “me” and “you” is expressed literally in Dawn Kramlich’s work, particularly her two installations on the second floor, “The Solipsist’s Cell” (2013) and “Mind’s Forge” (2013). The two pieces function like mirror images of one another. “The Solipsist’s Cell” consists of square panels of black matt board with the same words have been cut out, over and over again–I,” “me,” “you,” “have,” “changed.” These individual panels are suspended with clear monofilament from the ceiling, and form a small cell filled with shadows and light from twin projectors on the east and south walls of the gallery.
These absent words rematerialize in “Mind’s Forge,” which consists of two groups of black words cut into various sizes piled into heaps and arranged like the twin poles of an hourglass, connected by the most tenuous line of diminutive words. This fragile sense of connection between the two halves of the piece echoes the fragility of our interpersonal connections and the words we use to communicate with one another. Rarely do visitors step over the thin line of words on the floor, but the piece encourages us to be aware of this dividing line that separates the “I” from the “you,” the self from the other.
On the opposite end of the second floor are Elizabeth Mackie’s “Ortler Kettles #1” and “Ortler Kettles” (2015). Although her work is accompanied by a sound installation, these are among the quietest pieces in the whole show, and they reward slow contemplation. Large sheets of handmade paper hang in layers extending out from the wall and into the viewer’s space, up to sixteen layers deep in one case. Irregular, organic shapes have been cut out of each layer of paper, creating topographical maps of positive and negative space.
Mackie’s work is inspired by the Ortler Mountains in the Italian Alps, where glacier loss has radically reshaped the landscape within people’s lifetimes. As you pass in front of her layered panels, you see your shadow reflected on the paper landscapes, reminding all of us the extent to which we are each implicated in the ongoing crisis of global warming. Kaitlyn Paston’s sound installation brings the noise of dripping water into the gallery, where it echoes through the space, spilling out into the rest of the building.
Tucked between the larger galleries with the work of Mackie and Kramlich is Sun Young Kang’s “In-Between” (2014), which consists of myriad pieces of paper rolled into tubes and suspended between the floor and the ceiling. This matter-of-fact description doesn’t do justice to the immersive experience of this installation. Pulling aside a heavy curtain, you walk into a darkened, chilly gallery. As you approach the piece, motion-sensitive lights located beneath the paper tubes light up, throwing dramatic shadows onto the ceiling. This is arguably the single most interactive piece in all of Paperscapes. It is activated by the presence of the viewer, and responds to your movement around the space.
All sorts of enthralling little details become visible in the magical space of the darkened gallery–the light glistening on the clear monofilament from which the paper is suspended, the warm yellow tinge of the paper, the dancing shadows on the ceiling. Kang has created an immersive experience that seems to exist outside of normal time and space, and almost all our visitors have remarked on what an extraordinary installation it is.
Moving back downstairs to the first floor, Sue White’s “Encircle” (2017) transforms the domestic interior of the Wetherill Mansion into a sort of deconstructed fairy tale. Paper flower buds with silkscreened leaves wind their way across the walls and windows of the room, parting only around a turret-filled castle in the center of the western wall. The castle is made of small, precisely rolled tubes of paper, the pages of old books whose contents are now illegible. Like Prince Charming in Sleeping Beauty, our attention is focused on the castle in the distance, but in this case, it is truly impregnable, an imaginary castle made of illegible words and fragments.
White spent weeks cutting paper by hand and affixing it to the walls with wheat paste, a medium used in bookbinding as well as for ephemeral street art. And for all its labor-intensive, involved set up, White’s installation is ultimately ephemeral; its life will be over when all the pieces are stripped from the walls. If you can’t make it by the PAA to check out her work by April 30, you’re in luck, because “Encircle” will remain up until May 15.
Catch Paperscapes before the show closes on April 30. The PAA is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 6 pm.