Through April 24
By Ayah El-Fahmawi
“Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world” James Baldwin
Together, We Dream Many Dreams is a moving installation in dialogue with artist, activist, and writer James Baldwin. Chad States integrates sound, color, light, sculpture, and video to make tangible the intangible dreams of people. In doing so, he explores the conflicting ideas of vulnerability and power, fantasy and reality, and love and danger, themes that Baldwin explored frequently throughout his work. States references perhaps Baldwin’s most famous work, Giovanni’s Room, which narrates the life of David, a white, gay man who is struggling with his identity and his masculinity.
Before entering the room, which is closed off by a curtain, there is a sign telling the viewers to remove their shoes upon entering, creating a space that is not only intimate for its physical separation from the bustling gallery, but also for its nostalgia. Feet and body are no longer separated from the bright blue carpet, and their contact incites a tension between reality and fantasy. The carpet immediately sends the viewer’s mind to thoughts about home, a domestic space with which most are instantly familiar, but the brightness of the color gives it an ethereal feeling that is associated with the memory of a dream. This memory is unnervingly familiar and clear in texture, but also remarkably distant and difficult to grasp. While experiencing the dream, it feels immediate, clear, and realistic, but after waking up, we question whether or not it was true. Exiting the exhibit was like waking up. The tension between the otherwise lively, crowded, and remarkably normal gallery and the surreal experience of entering the room underscored that between fantasy and reality that States so eloquently articulates.
The amalgamation of the carpet and the sculpture that sits on it is called Sea/Sky. It is the composition of two mattresses that have been split down the middle and joined. At the seam is a collection of jock straps and underwear that are stained with urine, fecal matter, and semen. This is significant when considering what Baldwin believes to be important to American masculine identity: whiteness and cleanliness. The stains on the underwear visually represent the stigmas that David links to homosexuality and consequently internalizes. The two mattresses are alike in theme, but divergent in style as one is brighter in color and bolder in print. The other is slightly faded, with a more subtle floral print that is arranged into stripes. The garments spilling out of the center of the composite mattress speak to the secrets that it carries.
The room is altogether small and vast, transcending its physical boundaries through color and spirit. Three of the four walls have images on them, and all are equally striking. The first is a projection of an 18-minute video entitled Sunrise, which features a man’s lower torso, wearing white underwear, repeatedly urinating himself. The video is striking and immediately disturbing, but somehow, when connected with the eerie, yet peaceful music, speaks both to vulnerability and pleasure. It communicates the danger of losing all control when submitting completely to a dream. This is the struggle that David faces throughout Giovanni’s Room. He feels pleasure in having sex with Giovanni, but filthy and ashamed afterwards. The conflict between these two emotions makes it even more difficult for him to reconcile his homosexuality with his masculinity.
The wall directly opposite the video is painted two bright tones of blue, creating an ombré. A faded print in the back is only noticeable at close proximity. Above eye level on the left side of the wall sit two bright yellow canaries next to one another. The piece is entitled Love Birds, making clear reference to David’s love life and the tension between the themes of love and danger. The canaries, while beautiful, also connote the idea of a canary in a coal mine. Suddenly, they are expected to drop. They communicate the volatility of love, and the tension between desire and danger. This is underscored when observed through the lens of Baldwin’s work. In Giovanni’s Room, David describes sex as a bright yellow glare, making the canaries not just an expression of love, but also of sex, a highly stigmatized act.
The wall to the right, directly adjacent to Love Birds, holds a piece entitled I AM THE SUN! It is a series of concentric circles made with neon lights that light up in sequence along with the rise and fall of the rhythm of the music. From bright white to bright yellow, the neon lights cycle through a series of colors. They are hypnotic and mesmerizing, forcing introspection. When contrasted with the video, they show the different extremes of dreaming. It is simultaneously possible to feel completely powerful and to lose control through the sensation of dreaming. Looking into the “sun”, we catch a glimpse of the light that David uses to describe those around him and the light that David wishes he could be.
Chad States explores the tension between often dichotomous themes that unite in the experience of dreaming. He articulates this through the framework laid by Baldwin, reminding his audience that the struggles and concerns that Baldwin addressed in his 1956 novel are still relevant today. The exhibit was breathtaking upon entrance even though Vox Populi did not explicitly mention States’ engagement with Baldwin’s work. On the website, however, States chooses to include a quote from Giovanni’s Room. While the installation is powerful and significant without that context, being able to recognize it opens a whole new world of discussion that enhances the viewing experience dramatically. It makes tangible the intangible dreams of Baldwin, David, and States himself.
Ayah El-Fahmawi is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania studying Biology.