Mere Object: Exhibit tells stories of sexual violence

For the past month, artist Sarah Jane’s exhibit “Mere Objects” has been display at the MAC Gallery at Wenatchee Valley College. The exhibit is a bold commentary on sexual violence, created from the submitted materials of dozens of people from across the globe.
Glass spheres suspended from the ceiling are filled with items which represent individual experiences with sexual violence. We spoke with Jane about why she chose to incorporate the voices of others in her exhibit, and what this process of curation has been like.

The exhibit will remain on display at the MAC Gallery until Dec. 15 and Jane will speak at an artist’s reception on Friday, Dec. 1 from 5-7 p.m.

Jane is continuing to accept submissions for the exhibit. You can learn how to participate and read about Jane and “Mere Objects” at mereobjects.org.

The Comet: Why did you choose to make the exhibit participatory by asking people to submit their own stories?

Sarah Jane: I really love how participatory art disrupts the established roles of artist and viewer. For me, inviting participation adds a wonderful element of unpredictability to my process, keeping me on my toes and stretching my creative boundaries. I believe it can be equally valuable for viewers, inviting them into the meaning-making process and allowing them to shape the resulting piece.

For this particular project, the use of objects chosen by individuals allowed me to make the piece very personal and intimate, while still protecting the anonymity of the participants. I initially requested letters as a way to identify any trolls, but one of the lovely unpredictable surprises of this project has been the thoughtful and powerful things that many participants choose to write. Once I realized how powerful the letters and stories were, I began making them a more central part of the project — in fact, I will be reading from several participant letters at the reception on December 1.

How many people have sent you items to be included? And where are they from, generally?

As of today, there are 67 participants, and new objects continue to arrive. There are participants from across the US, and a few from Canada. There’s a map on the project website that shows where all the letters have come from. I can imagine this eventually becoming a global project; certainly it is a global issue.

May we ask if you created any of the spheres that are on display?

I did, obviously because of my own history of sexual violence, but also out of solidarity with the other participants.

Tell us about some of the items you’ve received that have most resonated with you.

Every one feels sacred, because it represents a human life marked by incredible pain and profound courage. Even when I don’t know much about the individual or the objects they’ve chosen, I feel humbled to be entrusted with this part of their story.

Some objects, like the tiny book or the paper crane, stand out because of their creators’ painstaking care. Others are deeply cathartic, like those from participants who’ve asked me to ritually destroy things associated with their experiences. Others — like the bottle filled with glitter “because he can’t take my shine away” — are joyful and sassy.

What resonates most with me is seeing how everyone relates to the project differently, which comes across in the incredible array of objects that people have chosen to send.

What was it like to reach out to people to ask them to participate? Were you nervous? And how did they respond when you first explained the exhibit?

This project is emotionally demanding, and I often feel unqualified to hold these stories with the reverence and tenderness that they deserve. And yet so many people have this absolutely ravenous hunger for their stories to be heard, validated, and believed. So I try to swallow my anxiety and listen hard and hope it can be enough.

Many participants describe it as a healing, empowering, cathartic experience. Some say this is the first time they have told anyone, or the first time they have acknowledged even to themselves how serious it was. And a few have also told me that it’s very difficult for them to see the participant numbers continually adding up higher and higher.

Why did you choose to address sexual violence with this collection? And what do you hope people will get out of this exhibit at the MAC?

Nobody chooses to be a target of sexual violence, but that is a significant part of my own story, and I am committed to making art that is rooted in lived experience.

The most important audience for this work are those who have experienced sexual violence. I very deliberately chose the word “honoring” in the subtitle for this project, because that’s how I want people to feel when they view the exhibition — that this is a space where our incredibly painful stories can be held with absolute honor and dignity. I want every person who has experienced sexual violence, regardless of whether they choose to participate, to come away knowing that they are not alone.

“Many participants describe it as a healing, empowering, cathartic experience.”

The secondary audience are those who have been fortunate not to experience sexual violence, and who may be unaware of its prevalence or its long-lasting impact. Personal narrative can be a powerful tool for awakening compassion and understanding, which is a necessary first step for societal change.

We noticed that there’s no deadline for people to send you materials. How long will you continue accepting them? What’s the future of this exhibit?

I truly hope I will see the day when “Mere Objects” becomes irrelevant, but that feels deeply unlikely at the moment. In the meantime, the project will travel to more locations and continue adding new participants along the way.

And honestly, it just feels right to not have a deadline. Recovery from sexual violence is a lifelong process for many of us. Not many people are ready to participate as soon as they learn about “Mere Objects,” so I’m glad that I can encourage people to take as much time as they need.

What else should people know about this – or about yourself?

One sort of understated aspect of this project that I’m really pleased with is its physical design. I chose to use entirely manufactured materials, including clear glass bottles and steel ball chains, in order to remove my “hand” as much as possible and allow the objects themselves to be the most visually interesting part of the piece.

All photos provided by the artist.

Author: Holly Thorpe

Holly Thorpe is a writer and journalist.

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