“Baggage Claims”, a new exhibit at UNCG’s own Weatherspoon Art Museum, featuring various works by 17 international artists, opened on Jan. 27. The collection seeks to explain the way in which literal baggage – a suitcase, for example, packed for travel – as well as figurative baggage – emotions, thoughts, memories and experiences – influence our daily lives.
The weekend of the exhibit’s reveal was a gloomy one – thick gray clouds covered the vast expanse of sky, while drops of rain trickled down the crystal-clear glass panes of the Weatherspoon’s abundant windows.
This melancholic vibe stood in stark contrast to the vibrant nature of “Baggage Claims.” Upon entering the exhibit area, one instantly notices the lively sound of Mexican popular music, blaring from the far left corner of the room. The noise is jarring, echoing throughout the subdued atmosphere of the space. It is coming from one of the collection’s most flamboyant works – Abel Carranza’s “Audiomobile” (2008), featuring a normally inconspicuous black backpack filled to the brim with speakers and multicolored flashing lights.
Sitting in the midst of the seemingly infinite floorspace was American artist Joel Ross’ “Room 28” (1997), a stack of colorful vintage suitcases filled to the brim with dismantled box springs, mattress stuffing and other objects stolen by Ross from a roadside motel somewhere between Texas and Chicago. The work’s backstory is as interesting as it is ambiguous, with the artist stating he stole the objects to explain some unidentified universal truth to an unidentified, yet apparently significant, woman.
Although a handful of pieces seem slightly more esoteric, the most common theme running throughout the course of the works is that of migration (of both people and things) and the ripple effects these migratory movements can create.
In some instances, the effects of migration upon each art piece were more tangible and outwardly visible than others, a prime example of this being Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin’s “Sneaker Thief” (2009). The Hydrocal shoe casts included in her work were damaged during a search for cocaine upon the work’s reentry to the United States from Colombia – one clean split down the middle of a tennis shoe marks the impact of the U.S Customs Authority.
A few of the pieces proved harrowing in their straightforward, direct approach to criticizing migration policies. Artist Taylor Batniji, from Gaza, produced two works included in the exhibit – “Transit” (2004), a collection of heartrending videos and images detailing the Palestinian refugee crisis, and “Untitled” (1998), featuring a lone, tattered suitcase filled to the brim with golden sand. Each piece represents the way in which we as humans carry the weight of our past lives from the homeland to our immigratory nations, every memory, custom and experience left intact.
Other works focused less on the concept of refuge and immigration, and more on the impact of migratory patterns on an abstract, yet broader, scale. Artists Mieke Bal and Shahram Entekhabi, from the Netherlands and Iran, respectively, produced “Road Movie” (2004), a 16-minute video filmed on long stretches of road within Amsterdam and Berlin. The film features live footage of a multitude of cars passing on the two-lane street, as well as still frames of the surrounding landscape.
The most curious aspect, however, is the presence of an unidentified man, traveling alongside the roaring automobiles with only a small suitcase in hand. He reaches the end of the road and disappears without warning, making the weight of his absence fully known. In the same sudden fashion, he reappears a few minutes later, still clutching the tiny suitcase after returning from his original destination. This change of heart causes the viewer to wonder – what could have possibly caused him to turn back?
The questions raised by the examination of these works tie into those themes prevalent in this year’s Keker First Year Common Read book, Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” The novel explores, in great detail, the intersectionality of humanity during a time of massive change and seemingly insurmountable differences.
Designed as a companion piece to enhance each Freshman student’s understanding of the studied work, “Baggage Claims” proves itself as a diverse and rather remarkable journey through the human experience, highlighting the impact of modern day migration and the significant metaphorical weight of those things which we choose to carry on our way.