Wexner Center's 'Climate Changing' asks big questions about itself and us

Joel Oliphint
"Wexner Castle," a 2020 reprisal of Chris Burden's work, which originally debuted in 1990.

Lucy Zimmerman has been at the Wexner Center for more than six years, doing curatorial research for exhibitions and organizing single-gallery shows. But “Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment” is Zimmerman’s most involved project yet. “I was given the opportunity, and I seized it,” she said.

Zimmerman went big, curating a show that features 19 artists and three collectives and includes nine new commissioned works. She’s also asking big questions: What are artists’ roles within museums, communities and cultures? Whom do museums serve? Is the museum a fortress or castle designed to protect “precious” cultural objects, or rather, is it a platform for producing new ones?

That museum-as-fortress query applies directly to the Wex’s currently altered façade, which features battlements on the structure’s brick exterior that resemble castle turrets. It’s a reprisal of Chris Burden’s “Wexner Castle,” a work originally commissioned during the arts institution’s inaugural year in 1990.

Zimmerman initially planned “Climate Changing” for May of 2020, the Wexner Center’s 30th anniversary year. But, if anything, the delayed, pandemic-induced opening of the exhibition last weekend has only drawn Zimmerman’s questions about inequity, access and the roles of artists and artist institutions into sharper focus.

“It was pretty astonishing to see how magnified these issues became in 2020, dealing with COVID and seeing different strategies museums took to try to save themselves,” Zimmerman said, “and thinking about racial injustice and the reckoning with that in this country, and grappling with who they're serving and who they're representing in their spaces.”

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The Wexner Center is addressing the issue of access in one direct, practical way: The galleries are now free and open to the public on Sundays.

“Climate Changing,” though, is more interested in raising questions than offering answers. “I wanted to invite opportunities for conversation and questioning and not lead people to conclusions,” Zimmerman said.

One of the exhibition’s centerpieces is “A Vessel in a Vessel in a Vessel and So On,” a 2007 work by the artist Pope.L, who grafted a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s head onto the body of a female pirate. The piece is mounted upside from a pedestal on the ceiling, and chocolate syrup drips out of the statue’s head onto the floor. The piece quite literally turns the gallery space on its head, leading viewers to ponder where they are and what they’re observing.

“[Pope.L] has dealt with social issues in his work for so long, especially in thinking about the body and its different positions, and thinking about race in America: What does it mean to be a Black person? What does it mean to be a Black man?” Zimmerman said. “This work is playing with ideas of monuments and memorialization. … Where does [King’s] legacy lie? How do we represent this man, and how does he exist in our memories?”

In a multi-channel video installation by Jibade-Khalil Huffman titled “We Don’t Need Another Mural,” the artist deals with yard signs and virtue signaling. “People have [yard signs] that say, ‘In this house, we believe: science is real, Black lives matter, feminism is for everyone,’ but this is saying, ‘What are you actually doing with that? How are you showing up?’” Zimmerman said. “A lot of this work is asking, ‘How do you go deeper?’”

Two medical-related pieces by Carolyn Lazard, “Extended Stay” and "Pain Scale,” were created in 2019, prior to the pandemic, but they deal with issues of race and healthcare that COVID-19 has brought to the fore. In “Pain Scale,” instead of the standard depiction of the Wong-Baker pain scale, which depicts a series of faces ranging from happy to crying, Lazard displays a series of identical, brown smiling faces as a way to talk about racial bias in pain management.

“It speaks to this issue of … racism as a public health issue. And it's not just that Black and brown people are disproportionately being gunned down by policemen, but also within the biomedical industrial complex, how people are being treated, where there is bias and discrimination that's happening, and how during the pandemic people of color have disproportionately been affected by COVID,” Zimmerman said.

In one of the largest pieces from “Climate Changing,” visitors are invited to walk, sit or lie down on a wooden ramp, which emits strong vibrations courtesy of artist Constantina Zavitsanos. “What you're feeling is the artist’s voice speaking, and their voice is being cut through transducers and these things called ‘butt-kickers’ that vibrate,” Zimmerman said. “The transducers are modulating their voice to a level that's below the audible spectrum of what most humans hear, so that sound becomes haptic — it's vibrating. And so it's something that everyone can experience. Everyone can have access.”

Coming up in her curatorial career at the Wexner Center, Zimmerman knows the gallery spaces well, including how challenging they can be, and she decided to lean into that knowledge. “It feels like a project that's just tipping on being totally unruly and out of control,” she said. “But I think when you spend time with it, especially when you’re in the space, things start to resonate in really unexpected and exciting and interesting ways.”