Death and Home at the Minneapolis Photo Center

Turning the first corner after entering the Minneapolis Photo Center is akin to what I believe it would feel like to get slapped in the face with the face of death. But in a good way.

The first of the two exhibits at the center is “Youshen,” Wang Youshen’s collection of 36 photographs from the series “The Whole Story of the Death of My Grandmother” created between 1989 and 1994. The hallway that houses the exhibit has been “transformed” into a darkroom, with red lights illuminating the black and white photographs.

The photos of Youshen’s grandmother hang from string and clothespins. Along the left side of the corridor, we see her in a small apartment, usually on a bed. Her face often looks like life has spent 90 years continuously beating the crap out of her, and to top it off, her grandson keeps taking pictures. It’s incredibly intimate – and you feel like you are violating her privacy. As if this wasn’t enough to make you feel like some sort of junkie for watching other’s pain, Youshen takes it to another level.

Wang Youshen, Minneapolis Photo Center

Wang Youshen, Youshen, from the series “The Whole Story of the Death of My Grandmother,” Minneapolis Photo Center, Minneapolis

Like the automatic on/off switch between life and death, you turn around and the other side of the hallway is a chronicle of the preparation of the grandmother’s dead body. In one, the undertaker is going in her mouth with tongs, yet it’s slightly more comfortable to see than the photos from the end of her life. Youshen takes the project beyond the intimate and into places we don’t want to look. In this way, we are forced to confront our own desire for death over age, and it’s not a happy place to visit.

After enough time bathing in death images, I’m primed to head upstairs to the second exhibit at the Minneapolis Photo Center, “Home: Where We Live.” The Minneapolis Photo Center frequently calls for submissions from around the world for these themed collections. David Fraher juried the collection of 70 images from more than 1,000 submissions.

At the top of the stairs, visitors are greeted with a quote on the wall from Maya Angelou: “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

If nothing else, the exhibit gives the viewer time to consider the idea of home and what it means. The definition of “Home” is intensely personal. Fraher notes this difficulty in nailing down what home means as he curated the collection, that it can be a literal building, a memory, a mythological point of longing, a collection of people or simply ourselves. Fraher states that another juror could have easily selected 70 completely different photographs because of this complication of theme. Fraher does hit upon one commonality with all definitions of home – “The notion of home inherently implies a human intervention.”

Home: Where We Live, curated by David Fraher, Minneapolis Photo Center

Home: Where We Live, curated by David Fraher, Minneapolis Photo Center, Minneapolis

The problem is, if this collection is our collective subconscious idea of home – we’re in trouble as a species. For every rather interesting portrait of a family at rest, perhaps lounging on a couch or making rolls, there are 10 pictures of some desolate, crowded, entropy-ridden, dust-covered environments. Many of the pictures submitted for this “home” theme were taken by photographers while in different regions or nations, futher blurring the theme of “home.” Is this picture of a place the photographer once called home, or is the photographer imposing their idea of what home is on another culture? The titles often give no more information than the names and places, so it’s impossible to be certain. The overall effect of this causes “home” to become a soupy cloud of thought miasma as the pictures of empty rooms and windows begin to blur together.

A few standout pieces do emerge at the show. A striking photograph of a hospice bed by a window egress overlooking an area as well manicured as any golf course with a man-made lake, other homes, and off in the distance, the Rocky Mountains. The bed is empty, conjuring death by absence. The effect is quite different than the pain seen in the Youshen photos downstairs, and by the absence of the dying subject, we once again make ourselves feel better about death. Perhaps the person in this bed is now in a place as idyllic as the surroundings in the photo.

Home: Where We Live, curated by David Fraher, Minneapolis Photo Center

Another photo shows the angular geometry of a trimmed wall of shrubbery blocking off nearly all views of the home behind it – bringing to mind how homes are much more a matter of privacy in these days of virtual exhibitionism in the online world. No one in the exhibit submitted a photo of Facebook, interestingly enough.

If nothing else, the exhibit sparks rumination on the concept of home and what it means in an intensely personal way. It’s the extreme inner journey that takes place while at the exhibit — more so than even the photos themselves that are a catalyst to those thoughts — that makes this exhibit worth visiting.

Wang Youshen, “Youshen,” Minneapolis Photo Center, Minneapolis through June 22

“Home: Where We Live,” Curated by David Fraher at Minneapolis Photo Center, Minneapolis through June 23

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by Joel Hagen
in Focus on the Midwest

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