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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Sensing Place

Issue cover
Cover Caption: Christine Lorenz, Halophilic 2-1344, 2022 (this volume). Courtesy of the artist.


Front Matter

Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal

Sensing Place | Volume 5 | Issue 1

Editor's Letter

A letter from the managing editor.


Sensing Place, the fifth volume of Refract, investigates the intersections of ritual, place, and the sensorium: it asks how rituals reify power, resist structures of oppression, or construct senses of identity. The expansiveness of this theme is evident across the contributions to the volume, which suggests that concepts of space, place, and site, distinct as they all may be, are at the same time rich, varied,and overlapping. By drawing on diverse and sited articulations of somatic experience, the essays in this volume explore the ways in which ritual is influenced by its material and ideological surroundings while contributing to the creation of place. This leads us to consider: What can be said of embodiment, a visceral experience of space that articulates place as a site of ritual? In so doing, this volume contends with an otherwise empty conception of space as neither here nor there,inviting the lived, embodied, and repetitively performed elements of place to takehold: sensing place.

Looking Backward into the Future: Thoughts on the Study of the Past, Ritual, and Women’s Eucharistic Experiences in Byzantium

As a student of Christian visual production of the so-called medieval period (specializing in Byzantine culture), I have often marveled at the theological richness of seemingly simple narratives that could communicate a wealth of possible meanings in the eyes of their intended original audiences. The mundane act of Mary drawing water from a well or spinning purple thread at the time of her Annunciation (whether in verbal or visual forms of storytelling) could resonate with deep theological significance in the minds of cultural insiders who were familiar with the basic religious beliefs, symbols, scriptural sources, rituals, and other cultural practices of their tradition. Believing they lived in a universe created by their God and ruled by his laws and providence, Christians of the past were taught to seek deeper meaning and guidance in aspects of the material world, their daily experiences, and their communal history, as all these manifestations could reveal divine wisdom and God’s plan for human salvation. In this context, familiar and simple objects like water or thread could make complex theological concepts more relatable and understandable to the faithful.

Beyond Borders and Biology: Lisa Myeong-Joo’s Self-Portrait of a Circle (2016)

Situating the art of Lisa Myeong-Joo in a history of South Korean–Australian politics and cultural relations, it is possible to see her series Self-Portrait of a Circle as an interrogation into the limits and imaginative potentials of the adoptee body in contesting the bodies of the nation-states of South Korea and Australia. In this essay, I argue that Lisa Myeong-Joo consciously plays with ethno-nationalist conceptions of representation and appearance through “performative anonymity” and equivocation toward place. By interrogating the dominant biological and cultural essentialist paradigms of family and state, Lisa Myeong-Joo’s practice contributes to ongoing scholarship on the Korean diaspora.

Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun

For Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun (2019), Maureen Gruben borrowed fourteen hand-built sleds from families in her Western Arctic hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk and brought them together on the spring sea ice outside her home to form a short-duration installation in which elements of multiple genres—land art, portraiture, performance, monument, photography—converge. Sleds have always been integral to Inuvialuit life, particularly in the spring when community members expertly pack them with everything they need to live on the land. Hitching them to skidoos, they cross miles of frozen tundra and ice to Husky Lakes, where they prepare their canvas tents and off-grid cabins for the ice fishing season.

Maurice Denis (1870–1943) and the Sacred Grove: Temporality in Fin de Siècle France

This article explores the temporalities of three of Maurice Denis’ paintings from his Nabis period: The Green Trees, or Beech Trees in Kerduel (1893, Musée d’Orsay); The Muses (1893, Musée d’Orsay); and April, or The Anemones (1891, private collection). All three paintings represent scenes set in forests or woods populated by ethereal figures engaged in processions along paths delimitated amid the trees. I have chosen to name this natural setting “sacred groves.” In the “Definition of Neo-Traditionalism,” Denis defined his artistic practice as the “sanctification of nature.” To Denis, art has the ability to make nature sacred. Denis’ use of natural environments in his works, such as the woods and the forest, holds a particular meaning that goes beyond mere landscape painting. I argue that The Green Trees, The Muses, and April are three paintings that synchronize multiple levels of temporality within them: spiritual, decorative, and mythical. Temporal synchronicity is made possible by the subject of the sacred grove that ties these levels together and grants their homogeneity and integrity. My approach is inspired by art historian Giovanni Careri’s concept of the revival of the work of art in the “Now-Time.” As works meant to decorate modern interiors or to be kept private for spiritual contemplation, their purpose is revived in the viewer’s time, the “Now-Time.” Thus, this article questions the way this revival functions with mythical times, how a work can connect private spaces with linear and public time, and how the spatiotemporality of the decorative, central to Maurice Denis’ art, is articulated around the paintings’ spiritual purpose.

Strange Weather Forecast: Inside Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s New Exhibit

The exhibition Strange Weather took place at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, from April 14 to August 14, 2022. Strange Weather provides a survey of the relationship between history, bodies, and the environment through artworks that span from 1970 to 2020. This exhibition showcases a range of mediums, from painting to installation, to draw attention to the impact of trauma on humans and land. This review explores how the MAH’s recent exhibition acknowledges hard truths within history through art and forces viewers to consider moments that have shaped our current social and political environment.

Public Displays of Affection

Public Displays of Affection is a multimedia project on makeshift, spontaneous, and unconventional memorials randomly encountered throughout Toronto, Ontario (Canada). Small-scale, personal, and ad hoc in nature, each documents the passing of marginalized and lesser-known individuals. Found in random spaces of civic sprawl, these sites were documented between 2019 and 2022 in public housing, alleyways, sidewalks, storefronts, parking lots, bridges, parks, street poles, and apartment lobbies. If we are all interconnected, death, loss, and grief are obvious equalizers. These ad hoc memorials, disengaged from commerce or the need for social likes, often yield beautiful, community-minded, radical expressions of love.

“If You’re Out There, Please Listen to Me…”: Voices of Mourning Through the Wind Phone (Kaze no Denwa)

Overlooking the ocean, near the town of Ōtsuchi, Japan, a white telephone booth containing a disconnected rotary phone sits within the Bell Gardia Kujira-Yama garden. Itaru Sasaki, its creator, named this booth kaze no denwa, or the wind phone. Sasaki built the wind phone in 2011 to “call” his cousin, who had recently died of cancer. He built the wind phone for personal use; however, after the March 11, 2011, earthquake/tsunami that claimed the lives of nearly twenty thousand people and left around twenty-five hundred missing, the wind phone unexpectedly became a destination for others mourning the loss of their loved ones. This essay examines how the wind phone reinvents the communication technology of the telephone as a technology of mourning that helps the living feel heard by and connected to the dead. Taking on multiple forms, the wind phone offers an interactive sensorial encounter that is not necessarily available through traditional material objects associated with mourning, such as gravestones, statues, and plaques.

Mapping Sonic Futurities

Mapping Sonic Futurities (MSF) combines sound art, listening practices, and ecological research to trace the present and future histories of ecological habitats. The project involves twenty-four-hour “sound vigils” in outdoor spaces and habitats with tenuous futures. During these retreats, the keeper of the vigil commits to being in one location for an entire day and night. For each of the twenty-four hours, they dedicate time to acts of ecologically engaged listening and sounding. This involves making field recordings of the space, performing music that responds to nearby sounds, and/or sitting in meditation with a focus on modes of listening outlined in a series of guided prompts.

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Land, Water, Explorer: Place-Making “America” in the Early Modern Period

After Christopher Columbus’s 1492 landfall on the island of Guanahaní, artistic representations over the next century worked to visualize the Americas from a Eurocentric perspective. The male explorers associated with “discovery” such as Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci were bonded to the intellectual creation of “America” happening in early modern Europe and were often visualized in littoral spaces to convey their arrival. This essay analyzes the role of the explorer as an essential instrument in the place-making of the Americas. It examines the ways in which the European navigator, through his positioning in coastal areas and the deep sea, became a figure visually bound to green land and blue waters and inserted into developing narratives of the “New World.”

Tenga Tenga: Can I Help Carry Your Load?

My work can be read as a reengagement with colonial history that seeks to center Indigenous voices, particularly those from Zambia. My latest project focuses on a modest brick monument made to commemorate the Tenga Tenga, Africans drafted as porters during World War I. With this project I aim to remember the Tenga Tenga through performance art as a way to reinscribe their presence onto the contemporary story of present-day Zambia.

Tobaron Waxman’s Red Food: Jewish Ritual, Mourning, and Queer Utopia

On January 23, 2012, Tobaron Waxman performed Red Food for luncheon guests at the Raging Spoon, a restaurant in Toronto, Ontario. In this performance from the Jess Dobkin–curated Artists’ Soup Kitchen luncheon series, Waxman shaved his hair as viewers slurped borscht, sipped red-dyed water, and gnawed on other red foods, aptly surrounded by all-red decor. After cutting his hair, a bald Waxman approached the viewers at their tables, serenading them with slow, melancholic mourning tunes from the Jewish Eastern European and Central Asian diaspora. In this essay, I argue Waxman’s Red Food used the context of sharing a meal alongside a ritualistic performance to grieve for the loss of queer communal space. I suggest that in hardship, this mourning process can be repeated to strengthen community relations.


These photographs are acts of engagement with the nonhuman world, in forms that reflect the entanglement of the organic and the synthetic. In the Halophilic 2 series, I use polarized light to illuminate salt crystals, chasing color effects that activate the imagination. The colors come from the interaction of light and plastic: layers of various disposable, transparent plastics are put to use as retarders, standing between the crystals and the light source. As a result, the salt and plastic collaborate in refraction to create shimmering constellations and uncanny, gravity-defying spaces. In our time, salt and plastic are everywhere humans are, and most of the places where we are not. These are materials that have thoroughly permeated the physical earth, enmeshing all its creatures. As familiar and close at hand as salt is, imagery of it abounds in cultural expression, from the enigmatic to the mundane. Plastics have become as inevitable as salt, and nowhere near as benign. What kind of poetics do we have for a world that is infused with plastics at every level? What kinds of stories could possibly fit the world we are creating now?

Voices of Visual Studies

Strategies of Il/legibility: Lorraine O’Grady, Gayatri Spivak, and Visual Decipherment

This essay seeks to explicate a practice of visual reading that respects the dissembling practices of the artist Lorraine O’Grady and the scholar Gayatri Spivak. It interrogates the promise of a visual reading praxis that could respect the opacity and illegibility of women of color in performance and images as strategic complications of hegemonic interpretation. The essay argues for a practice of reading that leans into both the promise and the productive frustration of incomplete decipherment. It maintains that such reading can function as an ethical praxis of criticism and analysis.

Rogue Masks: Visualizing Multidisciplinary Studies

In April 2022 Sheku “Goldenfinger” Fofanah, an exceedingly talented artist largely unrecognized outside Sierra Leone, created one Ordehlay and two Fairy masquerade ensembles for a major international traveling exhibition currently titled New Masks Now: Artists Innovating Masquerade in Contemporary West Africa. Emerging from previous dissertation research, the planning of this exhibition project, and my training in visual studies, this essay explores Fofanah’s vibrant, multicultural urban masquerades as a parallel of my own scholarly journey toward the discipline of visual studies, and the necessity of resisting overdetermined paths and dichotomous categorizations to approach, research, understand, and present/contextualize African masquerade arts. Like my own pedagogical journey, Ordehlay is not linear, nor does it stay in any one lane. Such a rogue mask calls for a rogue discipline.

Full Issue

Sensing Place

Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal | Sensing Place | Volume 5 | Issue 1