As snowflakes began to dust over the green of campus late Tuesday afternoon, the mood was quiet, reflective of the sky’s dreary gray. Within Zilkha Gallery, however, where Clarissa Tossin’s Stereoscopic Vision was holding its opening reception, the ambience was lively, even warm. The venue’s golden yellow light, coupled with the cool blue outside the windows presenting a stark contrast, as well as fine intersection between exterior and interior, curated and natural, both historical and very current.
Stereoscopic vision, or namely, our ability to perceive depth, is greatly enhanced when we see with both eyes. Depth perception due to binocular vision disparity, or stereopsis, occurs because two slightly different images are consistently being projected on to our retinas, even if both eyes are focused on the same object. Our brains are able to make use of visual cues that tell us about depth, which we can more easily process when received by both eyes. Tossin’s show, which is also her solo debut in the Northeast, draws on this concept by examining the relationship between two unlikely codependent economies, the United States and Brazil. Through her photography, sculpture, and video work, she urges audiences to “see in stereo,” and think about their role as consumers in an increasingly globalizing world—the geopolitical future of which has perhaps never been more in question than at this moment.
Much of Tossin’s show seeks to tie together two distinct Ford company towns, without which the Model T would most likely not exist. The first is Belterra, a rubber plantation village located in the Amazon Forest, which provided rubber for Model T manufacturing in the United States. The second is the sawmill town of Alberta, Mich., which was built up the same year as Belterra in 1935 with the purpose of supplying wood for Ford. Though Alberta is located at 46.6 degrees north and Belterra at 2.6 degrees south, houses with similar architecture pepper the two towns, despite the obvious cultural and geographical differences between them.
These houses served as the inspiration for Tossin’s photo series, “When two places look alike.” Within the six pictures, various dwellings in Belterra and Alberta are captured in front of their nearby surroundings: tall pines, blue skies, and storybook clouds. Superimposed upon each Belterra house is a hand that holds a fragment of an Alberta house, a gesture that is repeated inversely with the Alberta houses and shows that they are nearly indistinguishable from one another. The effect goes to demonstrate the striking external similarities between the two towns and calls into question the idea that concepts of “place” and “home” can effectively be mass produced and transferred around the world.
Tossin continues her exploration into the Belterra-Alberta narrative through a sculpture titled “Geographic Accident (9,468 miles Collapsed).” In this piece, she topographically compares satellite images of Belterra and Alberta by conflating them as a single map: In essence, she is constructing a new space and place in an increasingly industrial and interconnected world.
For a viewer who is unfamiliar with the landscapes, it is impossible to know which part of the hybrid map corresponds to Belterra versus Alberta. The effect of this piece reveals a modern phenomenon: We are able to collapse the distance of 9,468 miles between the two towns so that they grow to rely on each other economically, to the extent that it erases their own distinct identities.
It’s evident that Tossin’s own identity–a Brazillian-born, Los Angeles based artist–serves as a starting point of conversation that she carries forth through her work. A few pieces in Stereoscopic Vision focus on political and social phenomena unique to Brazil and its people. In “Ladrão de Tênis (Sneaker Thief)” she displays 36 plaster casts of the interior of individually worn sneakers and adorns them with subtly recognizable stitch patterns of brand name shoes. Here, she reflects on the killing of people in Brazil over their sneakers and points to the class conflict brought on by the development of capitalism alongside desire fueled by materialism.
“Monument to Sacolândia Brasília” also gives a glance into a Brazil on the cusp of development, but tells the narrative from the perspective of those who have aided in the modernization without reaping any benefits. Built in 1959, the presidential palace, Palácio de Alvorada, was the first Oscar Niemeyer building erected in Brasília, Brazil’s modern planned capital. The workers who helped with the palace’s construction likely lived in nearby shacks made from leftover cement bags, giving the settlement its name: Sacolândia, or Bagland. A year after the settlement’s establishment, an artificial lake named Paranoá was constructed in its place.
Tossin’s tribute to the lives associated with Sacolândia was multimedia in genre and serves as a sort of response to the government-sponsored eviction of its own people. She built a small-scale model of Sacolândia out of cement bags and filmed a video of it floating down the Paranoá, which played on a screen behind the 3D model. Stills from the footage were made into postcards, which were displayed on a stand and available for viewers to take as they please.
“Monument to Sacolândia Brasília” and other works throughout Stereoscopic Vision invite viewers to critically engage with ideas of the natural and contrived in the face of global modernization. Industrialization, automation, and globalization have given commodities to people from every corner of the earth. Many commodities, like the Ford Model T, changed lives and entire societies forever. They rendered distance irrelevant both for consumers of the Model T and those who lived in Belterra and Alberta, where surroundings were entirely shaped entirely by the Model T’s production.
The difference between the consumers and the producers with regard to the Model T is that the latter are seldom given the opportunities to benefit from the modernization they are aiding. The untold narrative is that of the worker who toils each day to make sure someone that is likely more advantaged can continue to be so; it’s the person who built the majestic Olympic stadium in Rio, or the Palácio de Alvorada in Brasília, and whose parents may have helped turn rubber into tires that would propel Ford and the United States into the cultural spotlight.
In the center of Zilkha lies a Volkswagen Brasília cast in latex, a piece that Tossin has called “Transplanted (VW Brasília).” The Brasília was the first model entirely designed and manufactured by Volkswagen in Brazil and was long emblematic of a modern Brazil, just like the eponymous planned capital itself. The piece examines the grim history of Brazil’s latex industry, which died when seeds from Brazilian rubber trees were smuggled to Kew Gardens in London and then dispatched to Malaysia. The latex industry soon after became a British monopoly that operated out of Asia, where labor was cheap and sought after.
Tossin’s personal identity puts her in a unique position to further delve into the histories of U.S.-Brazilian relations, especially with regard to industrial and economic relations brought on by globalization. She encourages viewers to take the exhibit home with them, to continue the dialogue, even to take a postcard. In the exhibition’s title and in nearly all the work featured, she posits the questions of how we continue to retain our own identities in a world that seems to shrink, and how we can approach the new age of manufacturing in a way that is ethical without disrupting the lives and natural surroundings that were already in place.
The answers to these questions are nuanced, multifaceted, and undoubtedly tailored to whatever is being built, whether it is a presidential palace, Olympic stadium, or new car model. Tossin doesn’t propose any concrete solutions within Stereoscopic Vision, nor does she mobilize for any direct action. What she does propose, however, is palpable through each piece of featured work in the show: Always approach history through a critical lens, and never stop seeing and learning in stereo.
In the following weeks, there will be a series of student performances in Zilkha as an effort to continue the dialogue and respond to Tossin’s work. This series, titled In Stereo: Pop-Up Performances in the Gallery, will consist of music, poetry, and dance performances on Tuesdays at 5 p.m., starting Feb. 7 and the following two weeks respectively.