Published on January 23rd, 2013 | by Alison Kjeldgaard0
Review of Ursula Brookbank’s SHE WORLD
In a few words...
Summary: Strange and otherworldly, SHE WORLD is both sentimental and scientific, letting us imagine for a moment that the past is not as far away as it seems.
On the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade and the dawn of the 1970s feminist art movement, photographer Ursula Brookbank’s new exhibit, SHE WORLD, opens at an interesting moment in history. On display at the Krowswork Gallery in Oakland, California, SHE WORLD investigates the private histories of real women through objects that Brookbank has collected for over a decade.
Armed with a flashlight, visitors can explore two dark rooms that open into a world of minute discoveries and alluring inferences, all from what looks at first like a clutter: everything from handmade crafts, to sewing scissors, to newspaper clippings.
SHE WORLD drew me into an investigation of personal archaeology. To her, Brookbank’s objects disclose a narrative that links them to other times, places, people. Each finding in SHE WORLD is a clue that suggests something about its origin and owner, and suggestion pulls the eye and mind to something richer and more unsettling than any straightforward conclusion.
Her photography and films show a similar disposition to let objects tantalize and provoke. Brookbank zooms in relentlessly on details in a scene, piecing them loosely together to tell a story that can be shaped by the viewer.
“The objects themselves are emblematic of the spaces they occupy,” said Annie Buckley in her article, The Fiction of Spaces: On the Photography of Ursula Brookbank. “It is as if, in trying to portray what is always already gone, she must seek after shadows.”
There are plenty of shadows in SHE WORLD, caused both by the flashlight in your hand and by the enigmatic depth to Brookbank’s work. I went through the exhibit twice before I started to fully understand Brookbank’s genius.
At first, all I saw were old antiques displayed as though they were part of a rather creepy estate sale: open jewelry boxes revealing a scattered collection of sewing scissors and black-and-white photographs; blackened, disintegrating shoes placed in rows on a table; a framed Mona Lisa above a bookcase containing random detritus. The objects and their placement in the room seemed arbitrary, and combined with the darkness of the room, I felt palpably sad that I couldn’t quite strike up a connection with all of this old stuff.
But then certain objects began to resonate with me: a microscope sitting on a dusty shelf, a nameless book burrowed into the crack of a wall, a photograph of a man with the caption, “This is Tony with Jester looking toward a cloudy downtown L.A.” I became entranced with the endless number of stories these objects could tell, each spotlighting a woman who probably never thought her personal life was that interesting. Hours later, I found myself dreaming up stories behind certain objects captured by the narrow beam of my flashlight, as though prints of the objects had developed in the chemicals of my brain.
The most impressive thing about SHE WORLD is the endless number of ways a visitor can experience it. One wall of the exhibit has printed explanations about some of the objects on display, but Brookbank wisely leaves much to the viewer’s imagination. In this way, visitors lend their own vitality to the exhibit, picking out certain objects on display that are personally interesting. The flashlight is a stroke of genius: you must look, you must cast your focused eye, with the constant sense of how much remains unseen.
Strange and otherworldly, SHE WORLD is more than an impressive collection; it is both sentimental and scientific, engaging us with people we never knew and letting us imagine for a moment that the past is not as far away as it seems.
See SHE WORLD by Ursula Brookbank at the Krowswork Gallery through February 9. For more information about Ursula Brookbank, visit www.ursulabrookbank.com.