Malcolm Cochran’s exhibition Requiem, currently on view at the Weston Art Gallery, is a grand gesture of remembrance.
The three-part exhibition begins with “History Lessons,” an austere installation in the gallery’s street-level atrium of a larger-than-life replica of a 1955-57 Chevrolet side-view mirror. It’s precariously standing on its thin aerodynamic mounting, and perched upon three large wooden beams.
The oversize arrow-like base points at viewers facing the 6-foot diameter reflective sphere, unsettlingly demonstrating that objects in the mirror are indeed closer than they appear. The humongous polished sphere visually consumes anyone within a wide depth of field. The original mirror, which the Columbus-based sculptor and multi-media artist found in his father’s workshop after he had passed, is in a small box on a nearby wall.
Gallery literature describes this monumental sculpture as “a metaphor for this country’s relentless optimism and scant historical memory.” And the cantilevered, top-heavy reflective object also stands as a proverbial question mark: asking audiences to consider how far we may (or may not) have come as a society since 1957 and all that has happened since then. (The 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, for instance.)
In a chat at the gallery, Director Dennis Harrington says this sculpture is “certainly pertinent to right now and this kind of willful ignorance of history.”
Made in 2011, “History Lesson” has only been shown once before and is a kind of an emotional wind-up for the exhibition’s titular installation, “Requiem.” It’s Cochran’s most recent work.
For it, a downstairs gallery has been transformed into a starkly lit room with white wooden benches along the perimeter, adhesive white vinyl covering the floor and white fabric panels encasing the ceiling and walls. Even the long glass door to the gallery from the stairway is coated in opaque vinyl, which makes the space seem out of a dream — or perhaps an episode of The X-Files.
Fluorescent lights hang in place of the gallery’s usual track lighting and 16 coffin-like, candy-colored vintage refrigerators lie on their backs — some of them open, some of them shut. Several of the closed receptacles are piped with speakers so they’ll play 35 minutes of songs, each a few minutes long, with 25 minutes of silence after a cycle.
The 11 mournful songs are of ancient, classical and contemporary vocalise, and Cochran collaborated with singers and composers for a live performance last Sunday. For that event, which involved eight vocalists, Cochran commissioned four songs by contemporary composers.
The refrigerators themselves are precious objects that feature porthole windows — a motif that’s echoed in the vinyl on the glass and on the door to the gallery office — and are coated on one side with jewel-toned beeswax, a material that was commonly used in mummification.
With their bright colors, these fridges seem to challenge the solemnity of the moment. But if we read these capsules as a reference to the figure (all are approximately the size and scale of an average body), perhaps this is Cochran’s way of paying homage to the individuality of actual lives lost, and the precluded joy whenever a precious human life is lost.
The final piece in Requiem is “Washing Feet,” a modified video recording of a performance the artist gave during a residency at California’s Headlands Center for the Arts in 1996. Cochran was inspired to perform foot washing for 47 people at Headlands by a similar gesture of kindness that he saw a younger man do for his elder relative at Heathrow Airport.
In “Washing Feet,” Cochran comes back full circle to the optimism seen in “History Lesson.” But this time, the artist’s performance seems to advance the idea of moving forward. Images of the heads and feet are fully in sync, yet isolated and disconnected as they are simultaneously projected onto a small screen and a 5,400-pound piece of marble.
Though an ostensible cleansing after “Requiem,” the disconnection between the feet and head in “Washing Feet” leaves the viewer unsure what has actually been achieved. Is the artist’s penance enough to absolve the sins of previous generations? The future remains unknown.
Requiem is on exhibit at Weston Art Gallery (650 Walnut St., Downtown) through April 8. More info: cincinnatiarts.org/weston-art-gallery.