Friday, 01 March 2024 12:25

Lessons Of The Hour: Acclaimed Film Installation Goes On Exhibit At The Tang

Isaac Julien, Lessons of The Hour. installation view at the  McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco, photo by  Henrik Kam 2020. The Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs has just undergone a similar transformation. Isaac Julien, Lessons of The Hour. installation view at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco, photo by Henrik Kam 2020. The Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs has just undergone a similar transformation.

“Rightly viewed, the whole soul of man is a sort of picture gallery, a grand panorama, in which all great facts of the universe, in tracing things of time and things of eternity, are painted,” – Frederick Douglass "Lecture on Pictures," 1861. 

Frederick Douglass quote prominently depicted in the 272-page catalogue companion to the Lessons of the Hour Tang Museum exhibition, serving as a visual and literary meditation that juxtaposes artist Isaac Julien’s works with archival images of Douglass and essays that acts as a worthy introduction to the exhibition. 

SARATOGA SPRINGS — He was considered the most photographed man of the 19th century, and among the finest of orators of his time. He last visited Saratoga more than a century-and-a-half ago and spoke publicly on multiple occasions. 

A new exhibition at The Tang Museum brings the life of Frederick Douglass back front-and-center, in a bedazzling film installation that features scenes from the life of the former slave and abolitionist. Created by London-based artist Isaac Julien, it is titled Lessons of the Hour.   

Inside the Tang Museum’s Malloy Wing - mapped out in configuration to the artist’s specs right down to the deep red carpet underfoot - 10 screens of varying dimensions flex across the massive space, depicting an abundance of moving images that dance in a multitude of ways. 

Speakers slung across the room punch-in from all directions with dialogue, music, and sonic ambience. The noisy hammering of a sewing machine meets the peaceful hum of a vanishing water tide. A gentle breeze flows through cotton fields. Train wheels steam violently across long roads of rail. 

Here, is Frederick Douglass (as portrayed by actor Ray Fearon), draped in along blue overcoat and accessorized by an ascot of brilliant color, speaking in sepia tones of our vintage past.

There, viewed from a variety of angles (if not alternating points of view), is the turbulence of our most recent days. It is a morphing overlap that embraces who we were, and what we are.   

“You get the sense that it’s not just about history,” says the museum’s Dayton Director Ian Berry, watching the dynamic juxtapositions of images of Douglass’s life unfold on the hanging salon-style screens. 

The 28-minute film, which runs continuously and invites multiple viewings, features the 19th century abolitionist, writer, and freed slave reciting passages from some of his most famous speeches. Open-ended narrative vignettes are set in Washington D.C, London, and Edinburgh and portray Douglass with influential women of his time—including Susan B. Anthony and Ottilie Assing—dramatizing ideas of racial and gender equality. 

“The work rewards repeat viewings, telling us that the hour is now, and lessons still need to be learned,” said Berry, who will give a curator’s tour of the exhibition at noon on Thursday, March 28.

Frederick Douglass In Saratoga

Douglass visited Saratoga to speak on multiple occasions. In 1849, he included Schuylerville, Quaker Springs, and Dean’s Corners on his speaking itinerary, according to the Saratoga County History Center, and returned decades later to speak to a large gathering in Saratoga Springs.  Newspaper reports published in early April 1870 by The Saratogian inform of Douglass’ upcoming lecture on the 15th amendment at the Congregational Church, adding “the building is likely to be crowded, and those who wish to make sure of a place should engage reserved seats.” 

The First Congregational Church of Saratoga Springs was “centrally situated on Phila street, just out of Broadway,” according to Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester’s “History of Saratoga County, New York.” An article published in late April 1870 provides a lengthy report of the daylong events that featured Douglass, including “a procession during the day and an address in the evening (at the Congregational Church) from one who ranks among the very first of living orators.” 

“I wished to use the distinctive language of filmmaking, photography and bookmaking to create artworks that would hopefully inspire others,” said Julien about his created Lessons of the Hour. His films and photography have been shown worldwide in solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums. 

“Frederick Douglass’s belief in the importance and power of photography and picture-making in advocating for social justice is brought vividly into the 21st century through Julien’s poetic vision,” Berry said. 

Also On Exhibit

Also new on view is an exhibition of work from the Tang collection—many of them recent acquisitions—that explore studio portraiture and archives, from 19th century daguerreotypes and vernacular photography to contemporary portraiture and video, exploring themes of agency and visual representation as a tool for empathy and justice, and organized to complement Lessons of the Hour.

“This is the advent of photography,” Berry said, moving through the exhibition space in the museum’s lower-level gallery and gesturing to a tabletop display where photographs dating to the mid-19th century are housed in ornate cases. 

“With this (then) new invention of photography, Frederick Douglass said he would have his picture taken, it would hang on people’s walls and when they would see his face, they would see his humanity. So, he saw photography as a key to his abolitionist ambitions,” Berry said. “It’s history-telling, but it’s also using the portrait for power, to reveal something about oneself.”   

In the Mezzanine Gallery, artist Yvette Molina’s “A Promise to the Leaves” creates a museum community space devoted to art, conversation, and contemplation; In the Winter Gallery a student-curated group exhibition titled Abject Anatomy features a selection of two dozen photographs, prints, drawings, and paintings that asks viewers to reflect on deep-seated fears about their own bodily nonconformance and those around them, while instructing: “as you explore the exhibition lean into the unease.” 

Then, there is the Elevator. Elevator Music 48: “Alone, only in flesh,” is a site-specific, collaborative meditation on diaspora combining spoken word poetry, experimental cello, traditional Vietnamese garments, and Southeast Asian home goods. 

In this exhibition, artists Antonius-Tín Bui, MIZU, and Theresa-Xuan Bui create a space for all to commune with the unknown and untranslatable and meld the language of altars—spaces of presence, transcendence, and transmission—with the liminality of the shifting elevator and welcome all to commune with the unknown. Watch the elevator doors open, see mallet, bang a gong. 

Lessons of the Hour premiered in 2019 at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. It will be on view through May 19 at The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College. The museum is open to the public Friday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and on Thursdays til 9 p.m. For more information, go to:

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