I found Oliver Tsai’s exhibition flyer as I was being forced to pay ten dollars at the bubble tea place near my apartment because of a ballsy credit card minimum. One of my favorite extracurricular activities at Penn is collecting flyers, pamphlets, and Facebook invitations for events I theoretically want to go to and then never actually end up going. However, Oliver’s pamphlet was particularly well-designed, and the reception was perfectly timed for the night before my flight home, so I decided to go.
On the Friday before spring break, I traveled to the Tyler School of Art at Temple University expecting a subdued, intimate gallery exhibition for Tsai’s ceramic collection. Instead, I accidentally found myself in Temple’s austere art building on the night of public receptions for some of their 2019 MFA thesis exhibitions and other art students’ latest presentations.
I was in no rush, so I chose to linger and walk around as many exhibits as I could. These are some of my favorite pieces from that night.
1. Creature by Oliver Tsai
I have always thought that masks carry a specifically erotic undertone. There is something sexual about anonymity, and a mask naturally pulls attention to the body by occluding the face. A masked face seems to demand physicality over any other forms of connection, exploring how intimate one can know another without knowing them at all.
Tsai’s exhibit, Creature, was tucked away in the last gallery space on the bottom floor of the building. The overwhelming motif throughout the three walls of art was the ceramic canine head, more akin to a mask than to the actual animal. On one wall, these masks were arranged in four elongated rows, joining to form an imposing wall of glazed eyes, pointed ears, and protruding snouts. The outer rows surrounded a white canine mask in the middle that had its mouth open with a ceramic flower blooming directly underneath.
As a whole, the wall was highly unsettling. The masks seemed homogenous and distinct simultaneously with the wolves adopting new subtleties and shifting in expression as one moved across the wall. Furthermore, the white mask in the center had its mouth open, but it did not convey the threat of a bite with its jagged teeth. Instead, the mouth just hung open without conviction, suspending the viewer in expectation.
There was a feeling of fear there, but it was the type that grounds you in place. A heightened anxiety that keeps you wondering what is behind the masks and waiting for a physical touch to confirm their humanity. It may seem contradictory, but even in real life, fear and sex are a perfectly natural combination.
2. “Transparent Upheaval” by Dani Blanchette
In the next room, I felt an immediate punch in the gut. The space was sparse and suggestive like an abandoned crime scene. I tiptoed carefully around the bare room and watched my every step like a voyeur illicitly violating a private moment.
In her exhibit, Exposed Vessels, artist Dani Blanchette created a space that was made for hushed whispers and expressive eye contact. Viewers step over and sidle around pieces like they are taking the first steps into the aftermath of a destructive tsunami. Much is left unsaid.
My favorite work, called “Transparent Upheaval,” lay in the center of the room. A transparent figure sat on the floor with their hands locked under their knee and the other leg folded in. Blood dripped from the chest to the insides of the thighs and their crotch. The pain of this figure was its only defining characteristic. The adhesive tape, latex, and cling wrap that stitched the body together otherwise have no identity besides utter fragility.
Here was someone eternally frozen in their experience of pain, their vulnerabilities exposed and their body writhing. It’s not that they were asking for help necessarily; more likely, the viewers just want to end their pain. Unfortunately, any approach beared the danger of the taped figure’s total collapse, already threatening to blow away with one swift gust of air-conditioned breeze. So, we can only watch, contending with the experience of pain as it manifests outside of us.