“This show is about Beijing but not about Beijing,” said Barbara Tyroler while discussing her upcoming art exhibit.
“Beijing Impressions, Portraits of a Shifting Landscape” opens April 18 at the FedEx Global Education Center at 301 Pittsboro St. on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
This through-the-looking-glass statement is just one of the many reasons to go see this show of 25 works by Tyroler, commercial photographer, artist and educator, that will be up through Sept. 13.
Tyroler’s comment alludes to the visual response that viewers will likely have of these large, somewhat mysterious works, but also the reasons that took her to Beijing.
In the spring of 2004, she was teaching a University of Maryland class on photo theory and Photoshop compositing, a technique of blending imagery to present a union of realism with abstraction in photographic portraiture. At the same time, Tyroler read her daughter’s Brown University honors thesis. Fluent in Chinese, Samm Tyroler-Cooper had translated essays by the Chinese writer Lin Bai. One essay in particular whispered “Pay attention to me,” Tyroler said.
It begins, “In the sun setting city I felt I once heard something,” and goes on to describe how the stars that hung above her were suddenly also beneath her feet and in a place not far from her nose. “I could touch them if I stretched out my hand.”
Tyroler-Cooper had received a Fulbright to study women and migration in Beijing and would be spending a year there.
“I started thinking about my own artwork and thought how beautiful it would be to translate this work through photography. I thought how Samm could take me around China and help me understand what this author was trying to say,” said Tyroler, who received a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council for the project.
Her daughter showed her a Beijing foreigners often missed.
“In 2004, Beijing was being torn apart so there were signs everywhere announcing the teardown. Samm would introduce my husband and me to people who would say they had to move because their home was being torn down. You couldn’t ignore it,” Tyroler said.
“I was holding in my mind Lynn Bai’s words. She heard stars and it influenced a lot of what I took. I would see people and think it was a great face and it brought out the feelings I was experiencing. Partially from the writing and also how I was feeling seeing my daughter and knowing I would not see her for a year.”
Works from this Beijing journey have been exhibited in eight venues, each time with new work. This show has 10 new photo works from her Beijing images and an installation created by Chapel Hill textile artist Peg Gignioux. She selected one of Tyroler’s images, “Night Travelers, Distant Whispers,” that is layered with sketches Tyroler-Cooper did of China.
Gignioux printed the image on silk, sliced it up and sewed the pieces onto nine, translucent, silk panels, 10 feet long and 40 inches wide.
“I love that the human hand is represented by Samm’s sketch and there is the merging of the hand with the exact moment of the camera,” Gignioux said. “Barbara is a genius at merging in Photoshop and making something connect with something that might not otherwise connect.”
A 10x13 foot banner of Tyroler’s favorite composite, Urban Spectacle, will be on exhibit. The primary image Tyroler used in making it shows a round-faced boy wearing a hat. It is blended with about 15 layers of flags and walls that were being torn down creating a striking design pattern.
“The first Chinese person who ever looked at my photos told me incredible symbolic things about them I would not have known, like the significance of the boy’s hat,” Tyroler said.
Luna Lee Ray curates shows at the FRANK gallery on West Franklin Street where she and Tyroler are members and Tyroler asked her to help curate Beijing Impressions. The works, each of which takes Tyroler about 50 hours to create, were arranged by Ray so that Tyroler found the photographs speaking to each other in a new way, even for her.
Laura Griest, manager of global events and exhibitions at the Global Education Center, said the venue’s mission is to highlight international issues of significance and complexity of various world regions. The art committee was captivated by Tyroler’s blended and altered images that offer a bridge between the viewer and the viewed. “Her work is also interesting because the portraits are viewed from an outsider’s perspective, a person on a temporary journey to capture the history of these individuals and to consider their futures,” Griest said.
Tyroler invited two UNC undergraduate students who are Chinese to be a part of the show and is taking their portraits for the exhibit. Manchen Hao and LeTian Dong are translating the English titles of the works into Chinese and writing down their reactions to Tyroler’s photographs. These will be put into a book in which visitors may share their own impressions and photographs.
Hao, who came to the United States in 2007, is a senior economics major with a double minor in entrepreneurship and mathematical decision science, and is the assistant director of Carolina Creates Visual Arts. She is from the city of Weifan in Shandong province in China. She says people may not understand the connection between the photos and her responses she has recorded. “But I don’t think it matters, because I consider this response as a private outlet for my emotion.”
For her portrait she asked to be shot at the airport. “Ms. Tyroler told me that the show was about transition and moving and the airport is a symbol of transition to me. The airport was the last place I was when I left China, and was also the first place I arrived at when I came to the U.S. The airport is like a door through which I enter into different worlds. It sees both the beginning and the ending of my journey,” Hao said.
If you would like to meet Tyroler at “Beijing Impressions” for a tour email her at Tyroler at email@example.com. The gallery is open 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday. With or without sharing firsthand conversation, viewers will certainly hear Bai’s words, as well as their own.