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Who Speaks for Who


The exhibition Who Gets To Look, which took place in the University Art Gallery in Irvine, California, featured Erik Benjamins’ multimedia installation, A group of elderly ramblers passed by our front door on the way to their hearth... (2016), and Sable Elyse Smith’s single channel videos How We Tell Stories To Children (2015), untitled: Self-Portrait (2013), Men Who Swallow Themselves In Mirrors (2016), and a sculpture title Landscape 1 (2016). Each artist grounded their work in sites of extreme social mediation. Benjamins’ work, comprised of text and field recordings of music and performances that took place in People’s Park in Chengdu, China, examined conventions of home and abroad, comfort and discomfort, through the lens of tourism. Smith’s videos, informed by popular and personal narratives of prison and racialized violence, complicated the boundaries between myth and reality, prompting a consideration of the consequences of representation. By bringing these artworks into conversation with one another, the exhibition sought to reveal how these differing bodies of work challenged notions of personal and national identities being natural, cohesive, and stable. The following thesis, Who Speaks for Who, builds on the theoretical framework of the exhibition to analyze the aesthetic and political propositions that these works implicitly make. As I examine resonances between Benjamins’ and Smith’s bodies of work, my aim is to illustrate how each artist considers the ways in which uncritical modes of viewership insidiously work against the possibility for critical interrogations of identification informed by social constructs and nationalist ideologies.

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