White Sands, Maypole, and the Endless Tumble of Curiosity: Tête à Tête: Embodying Dialogues at the Zhou B Art Center

A dune of white sand crests like the folds of cotton bedsheets, projected onto the fine grain of drywall; the frothing white sand has a rhythmic, undulating pattern to it, arranged by the relentless pummeling wind as it stirs up powdery wisps of dust. Nothing happens at first. I grow a little impatient and shift my weight from one foot to the other. I consider moving on to the next work in the exhibition, but I tend to have a weak spot for video art so I give it another moment. I’m rewarded at the two minute mark as a human figure, encased head to toe in a caustic green morph suit, tumbles into the frame of the video.

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Michelle Murphy, "Spread Out Tuck and Roll", 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

The figure haphazardly rolls across the sand with their arms stretched out towards the camera and their legs trailing unwillingly behind. The figure is clutching a tumbleweed in both of their hands as they struggle to roll themselves across the declining slope of the dune. Their elbows and knees leave faint pockmarks in the sand. In a little under two minutes, the figure descends behind the peak of the hill until only a faint puff of the tumbleweed’s scraggly branches is visible and then even that disappears into the merciless white as well.

Spread Out, Tuck and Roll, a series of endurance performances by visual and performance artist Michelle Murphy captured on single channel video with sound, is one of the most visually arresting works in Tête à Tête: Embodying Dialogues, an exhibition organized by The Drama Science Lab as the centerpiece of their annual sciart festival. The Drama Science Lab, founded by art educator Filippa Christofalou aims to challenge the separation of art and science and instead introduces patrons to “art that flirts with science, ignites curiosity, and inspires.”

Tête à Tête—a French idiom meaning a private conversation between two people, especially friendswas curated by Kat Buckley, an independent curator who I first met while we both worked at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago. For this exhibition, she focused on gesture as a pivotal concept. Unlike the traditional art historical uses of the term, such as a gesture figure drawing involving a model, this exhibition explored the gestures initiated by the viewer in response to art. The viewers bodily participation becomes a critical way for audiences to understand the concepts being presented.


Installation view of "Tête à Tête: Embodying Dialogues". Photo taken by Guanyu Xu.

While watching Spread Out, Tuck and Roll, I cannot help but notice Murphy’s accompanying found object sculpture in my periphery, a tumbleweed dangling above a neon green disk. The shadow cast by the tumbleweed is eerie and unsettling. Three photographs of the tumbleweed against a post-production, black background and one of a green-clad Murphy shaking the tumbleweed in a similarly colored studio hang nearby on the walls, constituting Tumbleweed Centripetal Force (2019). I circle slowly around the tumbleweed once and then a second time. I have never seen one in person. The skeletal, airy arms feel heavy and impenetrable, yet also airy and revealing at the same time.

The majority of tumbleweed is actually Russian Thistle, an invasive plant that first showed up in South Dakota in the 1870s, probably hitchhiking in sacks of seed grain from the steppes near Russia’s Ural Mountains. By 1900, it was widespread in the western U.S. in roadside ditches and fields. These motifs of classic American Western films can wreak havoc on natural ecosystems, agriculture, and private property, as they did to a Southern California town in 2018. Mature Russian Thistle is not edible and outcompetes the native grasses that pronghorn antelope, bighorn and domestic sheep eat to survive. These invasive plants are an unfortunate example of the catastrophic effects of human activity on biodiversity and natural habitats, which is often exacerbated by climate change.

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Michelle Murphy, "Tumbleweed Centripetal Force", 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Filmed at the White Sands National Park in New Mexico, Murphy’s performance is acutely aware of the perilousness of unrestrained human interference on the natural world. White Sands is the world’s largest gypsum sand dunefield rising from the heart of the Tularosa Basinat the Northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert. The region was home to more than 200 indigenous groups, such as the Tarahumara, Apache, Comanche, Apache, and Guarojío, many of whom were slaughtered by invading Spaniards during the 16th century.

The isolation and weather patterns of the Tularosa Basin have allowed the great wave-like dunes to engulf 275 square miles of desert. Gypsum sand doesn’t absorb heat from the sun, so even on the hottest day of the year the dunes are comfortable to walk on. The sun gleamed blindingly against the vast expanse of ivory gypsum and temperatures exceeded 100 degrees during the filming of Spread Out, Tuck and Roll. However, the continued rise of temperatures under ongoing climate change will likely lower the water table under the dunes, increase the rate of evaporation, and reduce soil moisture that stabilizes the dunes, allowing the prevailing northeasterly winds that shape the dunes to blow them all away.

Murphy’s surreal work is acutely aware of the complex history of White Sands as a cross-section of the human-induced global climate crisis, as well as the increasing threat of nuclear armament, which have been described as the two imminent threats to decent human survival. On the White Sands National Park’s website, visitors are warned not to touch strange objects because they may be unexploded ordnance that fell into the park from the nearby missile range. Near the Northern boundary of the White Sands Missile Range, the first atomic bomb, codenamed “Gadget,” was detonated at the Trinity test site on July 16, 1945—a mere seven days after the missile range was established. Two months later, the United States dropped “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The acid green morph suit worn by Murphy concealed their identity from incidental viewers: a family of tourists, a military employee, and a park ranger. Kat describes the similarly-hued morph suit and sculptural disk beneath the tumbleweed as a reference to green screen technology and the post-editing process used to remove visual information from a photo or video during our interview. The green becomes a stand-in for the naive hope that we can edit human interference out of the natural world; however, the bundled shadow of the tumbleweed is gnarly and persistent—a fitting metaphor for our perilous future.


Participants interact with McWharter’s "Conspire", 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

In an Instagram post after our interview, Kat wrote, “a visitor to Tête à Tête asked me why I didn’t “pair works together”. I created a show with flexible, interwoven narratives. In other words, I want you to make your own pairs. I want an open room where you can see the dialogues between works and think about how they might be related.” One of the most immediate pairings that I experienced in the exhibition was between Murphy’s work and Kristin McWharter’s virtual reality sculptural installation Conspire (2017). Hanging from a metal pole that Kat purchased at Home Depot and painted in her apartment’s living room, Conspire reminds me of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman with it’s five dangling arms like an otherworldly mother begging you to come in for a cup of tea. Each arm has a virtual reality headset that viewers can use, isolating viewers’ hearing and vision. Where Murphy has suggested the removal and digitally erased human presence, McWharter invites her viewers into a communal space.

The participants play a hybrid game between tetherball and wrapping a maypole inspired by the manipulative nature and allure of virtual reality, as well as the persuasive rhetoric of game mechanics. While the origins of the maypole are obscure, medieval Celts often danced around the pole to ensure a fruitful planting season. The Christian church disapproved the ceremony’s pagan roots and overt phallic symbolism and the maypole was later transformed—to the church’s appeasement—by Victorian England into a celebration of maidens, virtue and other 19th century ideals of womanhood. As dancers circle around the pole, they typically wave colorful ribbons around the cedar or birch pole. Tetherball, however, involves opposing players who hit a tethered ball back and forth. Each player tries to hit the ball one way; one clockwise, and the other counterclockwise. The game ends when one player manages to wind the ball all the way around the pole.


Kristin McWharter, "Conspire", 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Conspire feels most immediately like an investigation and critique of technology’s profound influence on social relationships as viewers are isolated from one another, despite being in such close proximity. Rather than coming across as a self-righteous and pedantic critique, McWharter’s hybrid, virtual reality game offers an alternative vision to consumption-driven technology such as social media, which has been linked to social isolation and depression, and instead encourages participants to engage in pleasure and play with one another. The work feels like a poignant response to the biting indictment of Spread Out, Tuck and Roll, offering audiences the chance to collaborate with one another through this disembodied technology, imagine new possibilities for democratic exchange, and experience the joy of being in community with one another.

The expansive, industrial space of the Zhou B Art Center feels endless and reverent like the vaulted nave of a centuries-old cathedral. There are only a handful of other people traipsing back and forth, politely holding their hands in front of themselves and leaning in closer to inspect each artwork. Kat’s minimalist curation never feels underwhelming or intentionless, despite each work being clearly displayed as singular, individual objects. Yet, I cannot help but notice the implicit connections between pieces like Spread Out, Tuck and Roll and Conspire as I teeter back and forth on my heels with a notepad and pen in hand. I begin to furiously scribble down at least two dozen questions. My curiosity is piqued, rampant and insatiable. Kat has achieved a remarkable feat with Tête à Tête; she has made our need to learn feel effortless like we are children flipping stones in the garden again—never certain of what we will upturn next.


Curator Kat Buckley in "Tête à Tête: Embodying Dialogues". Photo taken by Guanyu Xu.

Curated by Kat Buckley

Kat is an independent curator of interdisciplinary art. She holds a Masters of Arts degree in Modern Art History, Theory, and Criticism. She is currently a curatorial fellow at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and was recently the Assistant Director of the Visual Resources Center in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. As a Curatorial Fellow, she supports the interim Senior Curator on curatorial and research-based projects and participates in various aspects of curatorial practice, including exhibition planning, work groups, didactics, artist residencies, and other programs that advance the Kohler Arts Center’s mission to “generate a creative exchange between artists and the public."

She has presented her research internationally and is a published scholar. Most recently, she was Shortlisted for a Study/Research Fulbright Open Award to the United Kingdom. Her other recently curated exhibitions include Fabric of the Universe at the Adler Planetarium and the 2017 Masters of Fine Arts Show at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Artist Bios

While I have not done them equal justice, Tête à Tête: Embodying Dialogues contained the work of five phenomenal artists exploring varied and complex concepts across a variety of media. Each artist featured in the exhibition is listed below with a brief bio and hyperlinks to their respective websites.

Ziv Ze’ev Cohen

Ziv Ze’ev Cohen is a Chicago-based Israeli artist who believes technology and tools are all part of natural evolution, and, as with any evolution something is gained and something else is lost. He is currently a Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Kristin McWharter

Kristin McWharter is a multi- disciplinary artist whose work explores the entangled relationship between competition and intimacy. She is currently an Assistant Professor in Art & Technology Studies at SAIC and received her MFA from UCLA in Design Media Arts.

Michelle Murphy

Michelle Murphy is a visual and performance artist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Chicago, Illinois. They are currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of New Mexico, and Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Cathy Quintero

Cathy Quintero is a teacher and mixed media artist, born and raised in Chicago. Her work addresses ways cultures remain the same, adapt and change in a technology-driven world. She portrays these changes through combining traditional and contemporary techniques, materials and themes.

Rory Scott

Rory Scott is a multidisciplinary artist, whose work is recognized for its use of patterns, glitter and for its likeness to the Universe. Scott lives in Chicago and is an Alumni of The School of The Art Institute of Chicago.

INFO: Tête à Tête: Embodying Dialogues

TitleTête à Tête: Embodying Dialogues
DateDecember 12, 2019 - January 4, 2020
VenueZhou B. Art Center
Address1029 W 35th St, Chicago, IL 60609
HoursMonday-Saturday, 10 am-5 pm
URLTête à Tête: Embodying Dialogues