March 20, 2015
Bridge 2: Memory Research
For my memory, I chose my family’s annual gatherings at the tourist town Lake George, in upstate New York. These family gatherings provided experiences that have instilled in me a respect and value for my family heritage. While researching for this memory I looked at themes of family, heritage, and kitsch. I wanted to look at the authentic experience of family gatherings and connections with one’s heritage in contrast with the inauthenticity of kitsch. My own authentic experience of connecting with my family and heritage every year occur in a place that is full of tacky tourist shops that offer inauthentic memorabilia. These kitschy shops that sell merchandise entirely unrelated to the lake itself or its history seemed to mock the love that my family and I have for the Lake. The aspects we admire about the town of Lake George- the beaches, beautiful mountains, and deep blue lake, are the very things that are used to garner sales for tacky merchandise. I looked primarily at the artists Faith Ringgold, Donna Sharrett, Jeff Koons and Mark Neville, who deal with themes of memory, family heritage, and kitsch.
While researching these things I considered how the surrounding tourist town seemed to delegitimize genuine experiences with family. Are these family gatherings mocked in a way by the tourist culture of Lake George? How does the authentic experience of singing old Irish folk songs, for example, correspond to the abundance of cheap mugs stamped with sea creatures and pirates? There are many memorable times that families experience during their vacations that bring them closer together, despite the shallow or vapid nature of the businesses they may frequent during their vacations. These tourist shops clearly turn a significant profit as they continue to stay in business and more open each year, so there are people spending money at them. That’s not to say that I haven’t bought any merchandise from the village stores at Lake George- because I have bought plenty. My concern is not so much with the existence of tourist shops, but with what they seem to provide- a distraction from the actual beauty of the lake, or from the purpose of visiting there. Surely when you’re on vacation, you don’t want to focus all your attention on the merchandise and the tourist shops, but on the activities and sights. Perhaps I react so strongly to these kinds of shops in particular because the town of Lake George is so important to me and my family, and there is a kind of sacredness around it (my aunt says the lake’s waters have healing powers), that when put in the context of the tourist shops, the Lake seems mocked by the cheap, impersonal merchandise that’s been shipped up from Florida.
I looked at a number of artists who were dealing with themes of family heritage, memory and culture, as well as artists who worked with the concept of kitsch. The first artist who came to mind was Jeff Koons- he frequently turns kitschy objects into million-dollar works of art, questioning the viewer’s concepts of the value and worth of objects. One piece in particular, John the Baptist (1988), is a porcelain sculpture depicting the prophet John the Baptist from Christian scripture. The sculpture mimics Leonardo Da Vinci’s controversial depiction of John the Baptist holding a thin cross in his left hand and pointing up towards Heaven with this right hand. In Koons’s version, John holds a pig and a chicken in the crooks of his arms. What struck me about this piece was the way it made serious religious iconography seem trite and silly. The pig and chicken cradled in the figure’s arms as well as the exaggerated, cartoonish features on the face suggest something darker, more sinister. I considered addressing religion in my piece because Catholicism is such a significant aspect of Irish history and culture, but it wasn’t close enough to my personal experience of my vacations at Lake George, and Catholicism in Ireland was much too broad and complex a topic to tackle in the amount of time for this project.
Still working with the idea of kitsch, I stumbled across a piece by documentary photographer Mark Neville, St. Patrick’s Day (2012). The photograph shows a family dressed all in green, the two kids hold green balloons, the son has a sprayed green mohawk, the little girl has a green elastic bow-tie, the dad wears a University of Michigan tee-shirt that features a small green ‘U’ on the front of it, and the mother wears a lime-green wig. The piece got me thinking about the way Irish culture is viewed in this country. St. Patrick’s Day is much less about celebrating Irish culture than it is about having fun at a parade, wearing green, and drinking a lot. And again, I have similar feelings towards this as I do about the tacky tourist shops lining the streets of Lake George. I understand the reason people celebrate when they’re not Irish themselves, and I enjoyed going to the St. Patrick’s Day parade as a kid, but drunk people with their faces painted green seem to mock Irish culture more than celebrate it.
When researching, I especially enjoyed looking at the work of Faith Ringgold and Donna Sharrett, who both worked with themes of documenting one’s heritage. In particular, I looked at Faith Ringgold’s work with quilts, something which has long been a means of storytelling and preserving history and culture. I looked at Donna Sharrett’s work with textile, needlepoint, and embroidery, which she says is “informed by research into cultural and religious traditions of memorial and remembrance.” Sharrett and Ringgold’s use of textiles was intriguing- something about the handmade seems more grounded in culture and tradition, and although I did not end up using textiles in my final piece, looking at their work got me thinking about personal family narrative
In researching my memory, I found that works of art that dealt with similar themes as my memory, of family heritage and the kitsch, were the most helpful in formulating my idea for what I would create. Although I looked at factual information about Lake George, like the Lake George website, the Wikipedia page for the town, and the Lake George Steamboat Company’s website (a major tourist attraction), they weren’t as inspiring, and didn’t give me as much to grasp as images and artworks did.
The Brooklyn Museum. “Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: Feminist Art Base: Faith Ringgold.” Brooklyn Museum. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/gallery/Faith_Ringgold.php?i=1493.
Koons, Jeff. John the Baptist. Porcelain, 1988. http://www.jeffkoons.com/artwork/banality/st-john-the-baptist.
LakeGeorge.com. “Lake George – Official Guide to Lake George NY: Hotels, Restaurants, Vacations & More at LakeGeorge.com.” LakeGeorge.com http://www.lakegeorge.com/.
Lake George Steamboat Company. “History Of The Lake George Steamboat Company.” Lake George Steamboat Company. http://www.lakegeorgesteamboat.com/.
LeonardodaVinci.net. “St. John the Baptist by Leonardo Da Vinci.” 2011. http://www.leonardodavinci.net/st-john-the-baptist.jsp.
Neville, Mark. St. Patrick’s Day, in “St. Patrick’s Day (2012), Available for Sale” Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/mark-neville-st-patricks-day.
Ringgold, Faith. The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles. Faith Ringgold. http://www.faithringgold.com/ringgold/d15.htm.
Sharrett, Donna. “Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: Feminist Art Base: Donna Sharrett.” Brooklyn Museum. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/gallery/donna_sharrett.php.