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Kirby's "Department of Reflection" tackles political shortcomings

stacey kirby exhibit

The Department of Reflection exhibit by Stacey L. Kirby. Photo by Jamie Cummings.

The thermal emergency blanket bunted flashes against the wood paneling beside the North Carolina and United States flags. 

Durham-based artist and UNC graduate Stacey L. Kirby was commissioned to transform the Ackland Art Museum ART& area into a quasi-governmental space in her site-specific work, “The Department of Reflection.” 

“In this site-specific commission, Stacey L. Kirby’s multimedia installation reflects on the ways in which government, citizenry and labor issues intersect in contemporary society,” according to the Ackland’s press release on the exhibit. 

Elizabeth Manekin, head of University Programs and Academic Projects, said “The Department of Reflection” brings interesting questions like the role of the government and the role of everyday people in identifying and labeling others. 

“I think that immigration and citizenship are very important to think about and to think about in very multifaceted ways,” Manekin said. “This is an experiential way of thinking about those ideas.”

The ART& space serves as a place for students to study, relax, participate in special events and eat or drink, while still taking advantage of the museum space. 

Assistant Curator for the Collection Lauren Turner has coordinated with artists to transform the space into a contemplative environment. 

“When we decided to devote this space to being a select-use space, I thought it was very important that we still have art be present within it,” Turner said. “So, I’ve been working with contemporary artists to commission installations that are food and beverage safe and that can get people thinking while they’re in there hanging out.”

“The Department of Reflection” also doubles as an interactive exhibit in which performances related to the citizenry social commentary are hosted periodically called "Civil Presence” assessments.

First-year student Sophie Polgar works at the Ackland, so she was on the job during the first “Civil Presence” assessment that took place last Friday. Still, she said she hopes to partake in the next performance after witnessing the reactions participants had.  

“Seeing how personally affected people were after going through made me want to try it myself,” Polgar said. “I would recommend people to come out if they want to put themselves in the shoes of immigrants and also of experiencing the legal system and experiencing bureaucracy in a very artistic way.” 

Polgar said there are actors posing as officers who treat participants as though they are just a number without real human identity. 

“It’s not subtle,” Polgar said. “I would not describe the exhibit as subtle. But I think it’s really important politically and socially.”

Turner said Kirby is keenly aware of local and national political shortcomings, which can be seen in every detail of “The Department of Reflection.” 

“I do think that fact that she’s used the emergency thermal blankets is very important because they are so visually tied into a lot of contemporary crises that we see — be it people being detained in containment centers or be it European refugees being pulled out of the ocean, and they’re being handed these blankets to keep from freezing,” Turner said.

Director of Communications Ariel Fielding said the participatory element is a unique aspect that should not be missed. 

“It’s somewhat indescribable, but the artist calls it a performative interaction,” Fielding said. “It really has to be experienced to be understood.” 

Manekin also said that students and community members should come see the work first-hand for free at the Ackland anytime, even if they cannot be there for the performance. 

“I think that you need to engage with them here," Manekin said. "You need to look at it. You need to see it in order to take it in. I think it’s best experienced in the flesh."

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