The installation

 

The installation is designed to thematically replicate an elementary classroom. There are twelve tableaux, each a stand-in for a learning station in a classroom. For example, Heroes, with its shelf of five lunch boxes and coat hooks is like a school cloakroom, Global Mishap, with its tumbling globe suggests a study center for geography, while Our Animal Friends is reminiscent of a playground. Additionally, formal elements that function to unite the twelve tableaux/learning centers into one entity are: (1) the classroom door through which viewers enter the space; (2) the green cursive writing (reminiscent of elementary school alphabet instruction) that completely surrounds the space at ceiling level; and (3) the soundtrack that alternates clips of childhood tunes from the 50’s (“Innocence”) with more contemporary, issue-oriented music (“Experience”). The first image in each tableau's gallery is of the full tableau, followed by details including the altered book.

 

 

Altered Books

 

Twenty altered mid-twentieth-century (the period of my childhood) children’s books form the nucleus of this exhibit. Each tableau contains one or more altered books, which are referred to by the book's original name, even though each has been changed. The books chosen reflect the general happy-go-lucky optimism of American culture after World War II. Because the children’s books of this time often were bland in terms of content, they provided an ideal foil for the juxtaposition of issue-oriented information. Just as the post-World War II period corresponded with my childhood (“Innocence”), so the 1960’s and 1970’s coincided with my coming of age (“Experience”) and offered a plethora of historic events to consider for possible inclusion. Every book is opened to the page(s) meant to be viewed and are not intended to be interacted with, except visually. Each tableau is accompanied by a totally unaltered book so that the cover information is readily accessible. Great pains have been taken to imitate the original style of the book, making the new content more surprising when the interventions are stylistically integrated with the original.

 

Ideally, I would like my altered children’s books to be objects that offer a kind of mediation (“bridge”) between a few of the many conflicting realities that characterize our increasingly polarized world; for example, abundance and scarcity, kindness and cruelty, generosity and self-interest, and so on, ad infinitum. I believe that ironic juxtaposition that fails to inspire insight is just irony for its own sake and not a worthwhile end in itself.


 

The Tableaux

 

A general definition of tableau is: “an arrangement of motionless persons and/or objects that represent a story, an event, or a view of life.” Many include vintage objects that become integral to the piece, such as toy spaceships showing the futuristic glamour of the Age of Space Exploration in Lift Off!. Objects expand the meaning of the piece and recreate the time period, giving a wider milieu for the context of the book.

 

 

soundtrack

 

A mix of songs and sounds playing in the background reiterates the theme of moving from innocence to experience that children from the 1950s experienced as they became teenagers and adults in the 1960s and 70s. Beginning with a school bell and classroom scene, we first hear a children's rendition of "America the Beautiful," transitioning to the 1967 Janis Ian song "Society's Child" about an interracial relationship, over which wisps of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech strain to be heard. Stark juxtapositions continue to confront the installation viewer as a child's version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" follows until Neil Young's 1970's protest song, "Ohio," about the Kent State massacre breaks through. The soundtrack replicates the themes of the 1950s children's books altered with a contemporary social context by interrupting childish songs with songs representative of more turbulent times.

 

 

Child Figures

 

Nine out of eleven tableaux include a life-size image of a child from the 1950s interacting with the elements of the tableau. They are meant to evoke a more generic and neutral appearance than Norman Rockwell's more sentimentalized illustrational style of the same era. The face is sometimes obscured, and the clothes and positions are all carefully considered.  Scanned from a pastel drawing by Anne Reas, each figure was commercially printed on 1/4” PVC plastic, the other side black. Each child is positioned so he or she is experiencing an impending accident, symbolic precursors of the inevitable, more serious catastrophes of adult life. Each child's interaction with the tableau enlivens the piece. All the children are white, with the exception of one African American child, who appears as more of a specter, printed on translucent acrylic. This aesthetic choice was because even though Brown versus Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that mandated the integration of public schools, was passed in 1954, it wasn’t until 23 years later, in 1977, that a class action lawsuit (Carlin v. Board of Education) prompted the San Diego Unified School District to desegregate their “racially isolated” schools through voluntary busing and magnet schools.

 

 

Hidden Books

 

There are some discreet clues as to the meaning and inspiration behind the tableaux in the form of contemporary “adult” books. For example in the tableau Heroes, slightly obscured under some netting, is a copy of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien about the horrific experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War. In the cubby under the African American child’s desk in Distraction, is the 2017 book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, which is about the practice of redlining, the prescribed segregation of housing markets that kept minorities from being able to move into certain neighborhoods. Other books included are: 

La Otra Historica de los Estados Unidos by Howard Zinn

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Report from Ground Zero by Dennis Smith

Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario

Imagining Extinction by Ursula K. Heise

Resisting McCarthyism: To Sign or Not to Sign California's Loyalty Oath by Bob Blauner

Nuclear War Survival Skills: Life Saving Nuclear Facts and Self-Help Instructions 

by Cresson H Kearny

 

 

Alphabet lines

 

Inspired by traditional cursive alphabet lines in an elementary classroom, each tableau is accompanied by a quote that addresses the philosophical questions concerning the content of the piece. They lead the viewer around the room, giving the exhibition formal unity. They are mounted where the wall meets the ceiling as they would be in a classroom, thus enclosing the twelve tableaux.

© 2019 Christine Oatman