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Walking into the Jill Reynolds exhibit The Shape of Breath can be a slightly intimidating experience. As Reynolds herself points out, "[The exhibit is] meant to be experienced as one thing. When you're entering the room, you're entering the piece."
The small black-painted room in the MIT List Visual Arts Center can seem, paradoxically enough, simultaneously minuscule and immense at first. For instance, there are only three exhibits on display in the entire room. But each one is so exquisitely delicate in appearance--and colorfully versatile in meaning--that a viewer can easily spend more than an hour entranced by the wonders that Reynolds' hand-blown glass holds.
The first display, an entire wall covered with tiny glass bubbles lit from behind, greets you before Jill Reynolds herself has a chance to. At first glance, the piece, Alphabet, reminds one vaguely of elementary school trips to the planetarium. But as one gets closer, what looks like a sea of stars metamorphosizes into a myriad of glass bubbles, stretching from the floor to the ceiling and spanning a length of about 20 feet. According to one of Reynolds' assistants, the approximately ten thousand inch-wide bubbles may look lethal to touch, but they break more like cellophane than like glass--no dangerous shards, only a delicate cracking and crumbling.
When asked what she believes Alphabet stands for, Jill Reynolds herself is almost bubbling over with ideas. "An alphabet is an arbitrary mark," she replies between giving careful instructions to her assistants, who are still constructing and inserting bubbles into the wall. "It stands for an arbitrary sound, to which we attach meaning. So these are arbitrary shapes that I'm inviting you to attach meaning to, that combine to make a larger picture." She sees the wall as "a diary of the breath that it took to make [it]," as well as "footprints in the sand" and "an accumulation of gestures."
"What I try to do with my work in general is keep the possible associations as wide open as possible," she adds as she gazes at the second part of her exhibit, "so that the viewer[s] can bring their own experiences to the piece." With a smile, she comments that one viewer of the next piece, a tangled-looking work dubbed Exhalation, was quick to pick up on its "definite influence of Dr. Seuss-aesthetic." Several good-sized hollow glass letters dangle between the ceiling and a podium, suspended by clear fishing wire and connected by flesh-colored rubber tubing. The letters spell out a hidden message (sorry, you'll have to see it for yourself), and a small fluttering feather balances precariously at the end of the final letter, thanks to the stream of air being pumped through the interconnected parts of the sculpture.
But perhaps the most intricate and fascinating of all the pieces is the final one, Landscape. The first segment of the piece that "draws you in," as Reynolds puts it, is the window, or windows in this case. 26 bubble-shaped holes in the wall, each with a small constellation sketched onto it, invite the viewer into the small forest scenario at twilight located inside. A ceiling of oak leaves, with an enormous wasp nest nestled snugly amidst them, shelters a large tea-stained book with various letters printed upon its thick pages. To the left, a small skeleton made of grapevine branches twirls slowly in circles.
It is delightfully easy to enjoy Landscape for its simple aesthetics, and nothing more: The piece is drenched with both wonders for the eye to view and metaphors for the mind to play with. "Fundamentally, metaphor is the basic unit of thought," Reynolds declares as she presses a small button to the exhibit's right.
Suddenly, the forest corner has come alive. An unseen fan whirs on and begins to flip the pages of the book, which actually have letters printed upon them in ferric sulfate. Tea, or tannic acid, drips from the oak leaves and unites with the letters to form ink. According to Reynolds, "The wind is in effect writing itself, because the text is in onomato-poetic sounds of the wind." Thus, the figurative becomes the literal, and the metaphors that spring to mind when one first peers through the bubble windows reach a new and wonderful level.
What is so enjoyable and intriguing about Reynolds's new exhibit is that it can be appreciated on so many different levels. The quirky pieces in the exhibit are certainly a pleasure simply to observe. But the breathtaking expanse of metaphors laden in each one are a fantastic and exciting journey to embark upon. Sadly, Reynolds will be leaving her work shortly, but a few plaques will be placed around the pieces to try to compensate for the loss of her enthusiastic conversational skills. The plaques themselves are also still in progress.
"I'm trying to find a way to [describe the pieces] that's not too didactic, that's more poetic," Reynolds explains--only too appropriate for works she herself describes as "visual poetry."
Overall, The Shape of Breath is a deliciously intricate exploration of the physical construction and constraints of speech itself. The pieces are funky and original, and their marvelous metaphorical components are worth mulling over for some time. Do not be intimidated by its seemingly-small stature--this is an exhibit that exemplifies the statement "Less is More." In Jill Reynolds' own words regarding The Shape of Breath, "It's about the three-dimensionality of language and breath--that those things exist in space, that [they are] not just flat text on a page or a cartoon balloon. Language has form and substance also; [it] exists like little bodies also." So make the trek down to MIT and watch as Jill Reynolds and her assistants make language come alive. You might never look at your sourcebook the same way again.
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