As stand-ins for the real deal, substitute teachers often breed mischief: Kids can sleep through class, wear headphones, swear a little louder than usual, and, if reprimanded, give a false name. As an outdated video drones along in the background, students gladly ignore the intended lesson to begin their own study of authority and subversion.
The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center‘s latest group exhibition, Substitute Teacher, focuses on such unexpected, yet highly educational, experiences. Run-of-the-mill life–what we do when the teacher’s not looking–often teaches us the most, and this fact alone challenges the primacy of traditional learning.
So how else do we come to know things? The show unfolds as a primer on the pedagogical, both out in the world and in contemporary art. To begin, Bulgarian conceptualist Daniel Bozhkov briefly tutors us in his creative process of perpetual exploration, or what he calls the “apprentice syndrome.” In the front gallery, Bozhkov’s video Flag finds the artist beneath a bed, his face partially obscured, answering the same questions posed to immigrants who seek naturalization to the United States. The rote trivia he rattles off (state capitals, the names of senators, etc.) on its own fails to encapsulate an experience so broad and personal as immigration, but Bozkhov’s sheepish delivery from his childlike shelter imparts an endearing fragility to the otherwise standardized test.
Borrowed texts like this one run throughout the exhibition: Glenn Ligon‘s declaration in Untitled (I Am a Man) comes from a sign held during a sanitation workers’ strike in 1968–the many scrawled-on caveats, however, are Ligon’s own; Brian Dettmer cuts into a stack of dictionaries and encyclopedias to create a sculptural carousel of colorful images; and Luis Camnitzer’s Last Words reproduces death row inmates’ declarations of love and stoicism in monumental, textbook-like pages.
Though the realization of Camnitzer’s source is inevitably gut-wrenching, schoolyard tropes buoy the exhibition’s overall tone. Wall texts are scrawled out below eye level; a “cheat sheet” provides viewers with added context; and a bulletin board announces extra-credit events and artist talks, chief among which will be Paul Ramirez Jonas’ rock-scaling performance at Brasstown Bald Mountain in North Georgia on April 24.
Unlike the faltering control of conventional subs, guest curator Regine Basha manages to focus a disparate, unruly pack of heavy-hitting contemporaries around a single subject. Left open, as the exhibition brochure declares, to “any being, situation, or object that has the potential to impart knowledge,” Substitute Teacher satisfies the most with its sharper point: Teaching oneself is its own small rebellion, and there’s plenty to learn when the curriculum is just plain ignored.
Substitute Teacher continues through Sunday, May 16, at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.
Joel Withrow is the former Art Editor for Flavorpill.com, based in New York City, and has contributed feature articles to BPM Magazine. He currently lives in his hometown, Atlanta, GA, where he throws pots and teaches kids at the Spruill Center for the Arts.