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CCRI art professor wins top award
at international festival for film work
June 27, 2011
When Community College of Rhode Island Art Professor Nancy Wyllie was selected as a contributor to the international Persona Art Festival last month, she didn’t know why the organizers insisted she come in person.
Only after she arrived at the East London event did she learn she had won the Persona Award for best work in the exhibition overall.
The Persona Art Festival was held at the Rag Factory, a gallery space in East London, and featured 40 artists from all over the world who displayed work in a variety of disciplines. Curators partnered with the University of Westminster, a world leader in the visual arts, to bring together artists from as far away as China, Greece, and Slovakia.
A video artist, Wyllie was recognized for her short film pieces “T-Minus Tome” and “Nothing.”
“It was wonderful to work with a variety of artists, especially to see what is going on around the world in visual art,” Wyllie said.
Wyllie has been an artist for 20 years and began making short digital pieces in 2002 that “subvert plot and dialogue.”
“It’s a montage of moving images that allow viewers to make their own connections,” she said about her work.
The videos have no narration, no characters and no plot, just imagery and a theme. The longer of the two, “T-Minus Tome,” is a retrospective of the space race and nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union and compares that history to today’s heightened cooperation and occasional renewed tension with modern Russia.
Wyllie said it is ironic that with the dismantling of the NASA space shuttle program, American astronauts will have to hitch a ride to space with their former rivals. At the same time, the two countries often strongly disagree on international issues, and there have been hints of the old Cold War tension.
For Wyllie, the evolution of the modern international space program is a symbol of political relations with Russia: There is potential for cooperation or renewed rivalry.
“I was a part of the ‘duck-and-cover generation,’” Wyllie said, in reference to children who grew up during the Cold War and especially the Cuban Missile Crisis. “We spent a lot of time under our desks.”
She added, “I’ve been obsessed with the space program because when I was born, the Russians had beaten us to it … they were a source of much fear and trepidation.”
Most of the footage in “T-Minus Tome” is from Wyllie’s visit to the Kennedy Space Center in 2008. There are long, reflective shots of the colossal vehicles that brought American astronauts to the cosmos.
These kinds of shots have long been a hallmark of Wyllie’s work – a montage in the style, she said, of the painter Robert Rauschenberg, who created the same effect on canvas.
“T-Minus Tome” ends with a reference to United States-Russian tensions in 2008, when President George W. Bush’s proposed European missile defense shield elicited tough talk from then-Russian President Vladimir Putin. The final words in the video are “Go for launch.”
“When at the end it says, ‘Go for launch,’ that could mean a few different things,” she said. It could be a reference to the start of a peaceful space flight, or perhaps the firing of a nuclear missile.
The second piece Wyllie showed at the festival is more concise, but still asks a question. “Nothing,” is a piece the artist calls “a subversion of syntax,” and a comment on the perceived irony and resignation of the current generation.
On the surface, it is eerie close-up footage of a discarded mattress that Wyllie found on the side of the road. A local teen had spray painted the pun “Nothing Really Mattress” on it. Many viewers misread this at first, as does a passer-by in the film.
Wyllie said she was fascinated that someone took the time to write a message on a piece of trash and by the wordplay itself, and this caused her to think about the ways people communicate.
She wonders if this simple graffiti reflects the attitude of this generation, right down to its sense of irony. In her classes, Wyllie asks her students what they think matters in the world, and what makes an education important to them in a seemingly dire time for the planet.
Wyllie has been using her art to ask questions and explore the world since 1980, when she began her undergraduate work at Tulane University. She holds master’s degrees from Tulane and the Rhode Island School of Design.
In the 1980s, Wyllie was a painter living in the SoHo district of New York City and spent up to a year on a single painting. She said she remembers her friends asking, “Your paintings are getting so narrative. Do you really want to make films?”
Wyllie decided that film would, in fact, be a good medium for her and she enrolled at New York University Film School in 1987. She attended RISD in 2002 to learn new digital technologies including the Final Cut Pro program and said her education in film informs her video art.
Wyllie’s work has been displayed in galleries and shows throughout the world, including the February 2011 Berlin International Director’s Lounge, at which she represented the United States.