Crossing borders, one photo at a time

BY ABIGAIL B. COLODNER

Published November 2, 2006

Just across the hall from the Quiet Study Room in the Michigan Union is a space that is often quieter still - the Art Lounge. Functioning as both an exhibition space and a study room, the Art Lounge allows for appreciation of student art as well as "appreciation" of your Orgo textbook.

Jessica Boullion
Photographer Isabelle Carbonell with her work in the Michigan Union Art Lounge. (Courtesy of Isabelle Carbonell)

Most recently, the walls were hung with Isabelle Carbonell's "Crossing Borders into Vietnam." The photographs come out of the LSA senior's volunteer work for a development project on malnutrition through the student-run NGO Crossing Borders.

The Union Art Lounge is one of several spaces on campus intended for student exhibitions. Spaces in the Union, the League and Pierpont Commons accept applications to exhibit works of nearly any type for month-long installments. Unlike spaces that are juried by the School of Art and Design, such as Work on South State Street and the Warren Robbins Gallery in the Art and Architecture building on North Campus, the University Unions accept applications from all University students.

Carbonell's unlabeled 11x14 photographs evoke a strong sense of foreignness. In them, the innocuous and everyday mingle with the historically significant. Due to the near lack of context given to the images, it can be difficult to separate the two, except in the most obvious instances. As they are presented in this exhibition, Carbonell's low-profile images make no grand political gestures, although she had access and the ability to document many of these scenes only through special governmental permission.

In an e-mail, Carbonell said that what she felt compelled to photograph in Vietnam could show up anywhere: "A composition of something that has extraordinary balance or imbalance . a scene which is aesthetically pleasing." The exhibition's lack of fanfare helps the viewer see scenes as Carbonell might have, and according to the artist, may "let images affect consciousness without words."

The most politically sensitive images show the effects of Agent Orange, a debilitating herbicide used by U.S. troops during the Vietnam War to eliminate the ground cover that sheltered Vietnamese fighters. Between bucolic scenes of rolling hills in northern Vietnam and clusters of children playing under the eye of fellow villagers, Carbonell places a family portrait that includes severe deformity.

Carbonell has predicted the temptation on the part of the average viewer to attribute most details of a culture to the main thing we, as foreigners, know of its history: "It is a country so misunderstood in our national consciousness as frozen in the context of war. But Vietnam is not a time capsule - it has moved beyond the war in a multitude of fashions that are admirable."

Her sparing curation is a response to that impulse. While the exhibition does little to inform by way of facts and story, it reminds viewers that governmental restrictions and red tape are not the only boundaries to seeing the whole picture.

Crossing Borders into Vietnam
Today
At the Art Lounge, the Michigan Union
Free