A collector, a curator and an India-born photographer collaborate on CMA exhibit that seeks to 'flatten the hierarchy of human experience'

Every five years, art collectors and curators from all over the world fly to a small town in Germany for Documenta, an expo of arguably the most important, sophisticated work in the world of contemporary art. It was here that Columbus collector Neil Rector rounded a corner and saw a group of 25 images shot by photographer Gauri Gill.

In the photos, men and women from the Jawhar district in Maharashtra, India, wear large masks while seemingly going about their everyday lives. It was completely new to Rector; he’d never seen anything like it. He was both moved and confused — a sensation he found appealing.

“It was just puzzling to me,” Rector said. “I can be a very logical, deductive reasoning kind of person, but I particularly love things that speak to me that I can't figure out right away what they are. … I liked that disconnect, and I wanted to learn more.”

The images reminded him of a Greek tragedy, with actors wearing masks that portrayed exaggerated emotions. Yet this was different. The masks were more ambiguous. Was this person happy or sad or somewhere in between? Were the masked subjects supposed to be apparitions? Was the person in a water buffalo mask in one photo haunting the people in the foreground as they pump water from a well?

“They felt like myths,” Rector said. “What are they doing just standing there? Are they presences that are part of the world?”

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Rector reached out to Gill, who was born in Chandigarh, India, and earned her MFA from Stanford in 2002, and asked her which images had already been sold, but found out Gill had not intended to sell them. “That's when the idea came up [that] maybe it would make sense to try to acquire this as a package,” Rector said.

After some back and forth, Rector eventually purchased the entire set — not the digital images, but the exact 25 objects from the Documenta set, which are part of Gill’s ongoing “Acts of Appearance” project that she began in 2015.

Concurrently, Rector had been speaking with Anna Lee, associate curator of photography at the Columbus Museum of Art. “I just accepted this position a year ago,” Lee said, “and Neil was one of the first people that I met, and he has a very different rationale for being a collector than anyone I've ever met before.”

“That's a polite way of saying I'm a weirdo,” Rector said, smiling.

“It's not like a market game [for Rector],” Lee said. “He wants to preserve things that he thinks are valuable and need to be preserved.”

Through a collaboration with Rector and Gill, Lee curated “Object/Set: Gauri Gill’s Acts of Appearance,” on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through Feb. 2, 2020. The suite of work features the entire set of images from Documenta, plus larger, editioned work by Gill displayed on nearby walls.

In researching the project and speaking with Gill, Lee began unraveling the stories behind the photos. In rural parts of coastal India, villagers celebrating Bahora festivals wore masks that depicted Hindu and tribal gods. The masks in Gill’s photos hark back to those traditions, but the subject matter is entirely different. “Instead of representing these iconic happy, sad feelings, or figures and characters, they’re representing these in-between states of feeling, and animals and figures that aren't typically given recognition in that kind of iconic form,” Lee said.

Gill commissioned a team of more than 30 people to create the masks, paying them for their labor. These villagers are often expected to perform their culture and history, but instead, Gill wanted them to ponder the mundane.

“She said, ‘What are the animals that you see in your everyday life?’ And they said, ‘Well, dogs. Flies.’ And she said, ‘Well, those could be topics for masks.’ And they laughed at her. They said, ‘We don't want to make masks of those things,’” Lee said. “It was a little bit against the grain of what they were used to doing. ... But once she allowed them to think in a way that didn't have a precedent that they could latch onto, it became a fun collaboration between Gauri and these people.”

Gill hired volunteers to be actors and performers for her photographs. “She also gave them directives, like, 'You think of happiness, sadness, anger... but what about just boredom? Or being pleased? Or being calm?’”

Those directives ended up imbuing the photographs with subtlety and, often, a sense of humor. “She really was attracted to this idea of lending that kind of iconicity to everyday feelings and everyday scenarios and everyday people and seeing what would happen, what that would look like,” Lee said. “And so you do get this end result where you see masks, and masks signal a kind of iconicity, but then you look closer and you're not really sure what you're supposed to be celebrating or knowing from these masks because they're a little bit ambiguous.”

“I wished to flatten the hierarchy of human experience,” Gill says in a quote prominently displayed on a wall amid the “Object/Set” exhibit.

“I wasn't really thinking about any of that [initially],” Rector said. “This exhibition has been incredibly eye-opening to me, in part because Anna, the way she's dug into it and pulled out so much more than I had ever thought about.”

To Rector, it’s important that all 25 objects from the original 2017 Documenta set are exhibited together. “You [can] get the same image on your phone [as] a small, little thing, and then you see it big, and our reaction is different to it,” he said. “Context matters. The size of it matters. The way it's lit matters. The border that it's on matters — all those kinds of things.”

Still, “Object/Set” is not a fetishistic presentation of the Documenta set. They’re all together, but displayed differently on purpose. “You have the same material, but it can be stretched and formatted in different ways to bring out different aspects of the works, even though they're still all together,” Lee said. “It's not just about remounting the same exhibition over and over again. It's about preserving something very specific, and then allowing it to exist in these different forms.”