Do we take totem poles for granted? They are among America’s earliest sculptural artworks and the antecedent of today’s urban sign poles. They were spiritual guideposts and funerary markers with large, carved human figures representing ancestors along with winged and other animal spirit helpers carved from Redwood and painted brightly. They are great pieces of environmental signage before the age of the advertising towers. But I’ve never seen them in a design history book. Have you?
“Tall Tales” is an exhibition of uniquely conceptual totem pole designs by SVA’s MFA Design: Designer as Author + Entrepreneur students. Curated by Kevin O’Callaghan, the exhibit re-imagines the classic totem pole for today’s tribal and social cultures. While some tackle heavy sociopolitical issues such as gun violence in New York City, the world’s leading dictators and sanctioned criminal torture; others celebrate the lighter side of life, with a timeline of donuts, the evolution of pixels, and an ode to Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”.
Each totem presents a story as varied as the materials used to tell them; from paper to plexiglass, to metal and wood. One totem is comprised of hundreds of eight-track cassettes and another scores of vinyl LPs. The show, which is housed in The School of Visual Arts’ SVA Gallery at 209 East 23rd Street (ground floor) is as technically beautiful as it is thought-provoking. The exhibit of 20 (average 12′ high) totem poles, curated by Kevin O’Callaghan, is waiting to tower over you through May 25.
The exhibition includes work by: Danah Abdal, In Hee Bae, Chiara Bajardi, Yiming Bao, Kara Bermejo, Tomas de Carcer, Timothy Cohan, Camille Collazo Ortiz, Shimeah Davis, Bridget Dearborn, Ali Dogramaci, Diana Haj Ahmad, Francisco J. Hernandez, Donica Ida, Tiffany Jen, Jamie Kim, Kimberly McGuire, Simone Noronha, Elliot Salazar and Hena Seo.
The SVA Gallery, located at 209 East 23rd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, is open 9am to 7pm, Monday through Friday, 10am to 6pm on Saturday. Admission is free. The gallery is accessible by wheelchair. For further information call 212.592.2145.
Photos by Esther Ro Schofield
For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.