SLAUGHTER = LAUGHTER?

Sign says just two words, but gets people talking

Laura Palotie Sep 6, 2004

Upon entering Carnegie Mellon?s campus this fall, students have been confronted with a curious change in the campus landscape: A flashing red neon sign tops the Purnell Center, alternating between the words ?LAUGHTER? and ?SLAUGHTER.? The sign causes one to stop and think, if just for a second, because many students are not likely to have given thought to the fact that two such seemingly opposite concepts can be so close in their linguistic structure. Although the sign provides a rather powerful artistic message on its own, it is only one of several works dealing with the question of authenticity and cultural identity in ?A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad,? an exhibition featuring 11 of today?s leading African-American and European artists.

The exhibition, running at the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery from August 20 until October 3, was originally produced at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. ?A Fiction of Authenticity? began as the premier exhibition at the museum?s brand new facility. ?It is quite an impressive group of people they have brought together,? said Jennifer Strayer, director of the Regina Gouger Miller gallery. In addition to featuring a premier group of the world?s contemporary artists, the show is particularly exceptional, because each of the artists involved was asked to produce an entirely new work for the exhibition. ?This is a very massive undertaking, an extremely ambitious show,? Strayer explained.

Strayer, along with Shannon Fitzgerald, a curator from the Contemporary Art Gallery, decided to bring the exhibition to Carnegie Mellon, having noticed that this would be an appropriate art show for a university setting. On September 10, some of the artists involved will be giving gallery talks, performances, and demonstrations on campus at a special artists? reception. The event ?will give students the rare opportunity to connect with artists of this stature,? said Strayer.

?A Fiction of Authenticity? examines the notion of authenticity from several different angles, from personal to cultural and artistic standpoints. All of the featured artists are native Africans, but now live in the United States or Europe. Thus, they possess a dual identity as a result of feeling a connection to two very different cultures. Furthermore, the exhibition examines the question of what associations one draws from art that is labeled as authentically African or European. Those who previously have seen a sharp divide between their perceptions of African and Western art will soon discover that old, stereotypical definitions no longer hold.

?This [show] is a broad representation on what is going on in the contemporary art realm,? explained Strayer.
From a purely artistic standpoint, the show plays with the notion of validity in modernist terms. An artist might ask himself what it truly means for a work of art to be authentic. In the past, our perception of authentic art was one where a piece was entirely handmade, while in today?s art this notion has passed somewhat. This idea of art?s authenticity is utilized in some of the pieces as well. The exhibit blends numerous different forms of visual art in refreshing, innovative ways, from photography and painting to sculpture and video.

The noticeable and controversial SLAUGHTER/LAUGHTER sign was created by Kendall Geers, an artist born in South Africa who currently works in Brussels. This highly respected current contemporary artist addresses the relationships of words within words in his work. These relationships are often ironic and amusing, such as that of the words ?laughter? and ?slaughter,? and frequently just one letter can make a world of difference. The piece is sure to produce reactions, and might cause one to think about the ways entertainment and violence are connected in our society.

So far, many have not been aware of the connection between the exhibition and the sign. ?I do not think many people on campus pay much attention to the sign,? said Allan Velzy, a junior design major. ?My personal reaction is neutral, though it does leave me wondering about the exhibit below it.?

Although most other student responses, according to Strayer, have been positive, there have been some upset reactions from students who have found the content of the piece offensive. ?There are definitely people who would prefer all the risqu? artwork remain at The Frame,? said Velzy.

Strayer reminds students that it is important for art to be provocative and to encourage discussion. ?[The fact that people talk about the sign] is a positive thing. We want art to be an occasion for reflection, thought, joy and pleasure. Especially on a university campus, you want there to be dialogue among the community on meaningful issues, especially during current times,? she said. Velzy?s opinion on the controversy reflected this idea, showing that among the student body there exists appreciation for the discussion that art stimulates. ?I think it is kind of cool that we are on an open-minded campus. It would not be ?the college experience? without controversy,? Velzy said.