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Occupying East Duke

If you’ve been wondering what Duke’s MFA students have been up to all year, now is your chance to find out. Occupations, the inaugural exhibition by students in the new Masters of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts program, is now on display in Corridor Gallery of the East Duke building. Inspired by the various Occupy movements that have swept the country, the students came up with their own interpretations of “occupation,” resulting in a group of pieces diverse in subject and medium. From silent video montages of political turmoil to vibrant still shots of everyday objects, the exhibition provides a unique look into what the experimental and documentary arts really are.

The corridor of the East Duke building, however, is dark, cavernous and dismal; in short, not the best place for an art exhibition. This proves true with Occupations: the tall ceilings and the poorly lit hall space neither emphasize nor enhance the art. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ve been in the building recently and never noticed the exhibition was there. The art manages to shrink into the spaces between offices and classrooms, taking on the role of decorative wallpaper.

For this, I don’t blame the art, but the venue. Though Occupations is small (it doesn’t take more than 20 minutes to see every piece), it isn’t insignificant. Each piece, whether a moving image or photograph, contributes to the cohesive whole of the exhibit, reflecting the students’ societal concerns as well as their individual artistic viewpoints and styles. The art deserves your attention, and it works hard to get it, especially the pieces that flash across giant flat screens with unflagging energy. And yet, even as I walked around the exhibition, students wandering into the building between classes stared at me as if I were doing something wrong. Some of them even did double takes, as though they had never seen artwork here before.

As I examined “Commuter Portraits”—a series of photographs taken with a cell phone on the D.C. metro—I realized how ironic it is that Occupations fades into its surroundings at first glance. Many of the pieces in the exhibit focus on things that often go unseen: the commuters on a train, the clutter on a desktop, the graffiti on a city wall and the faceless protestors at a Charlotte, N.C. courthouse. To create this artwork, the students had to take the time to stop and observe their surroundings, to see beauty in the most ordinary of places. And that is what Occupations requires. The art is there for us to admire, if only the Corridor Gallery made us want to stop and appreciate it.

Occupations runs through Mar. 15 in the Corridor Gallery in the East Duke Building.

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