The plastic dolls suspended from a central beam in the Hatch Art Gallery are stunning, but undeniably eerie.
The exhibit, Free Fall, is an exhibition by artist Ran Zhou, a fifth year BFA visual arts and art history double honours student. Zhou sourced the dolls from a factory in China and coloured them the bright, jarring red herself.
“It’s a pretty labour intensive process,” said Zhou.
Zhou is a quintessential visual arts student, and described her inspiration behind the exhibition with a passion that matched the intensity of the art itself.
“I was thinking: ... We don't have the right to decide who we really want to be. We're born to a certain kind of family and we get a certain kind of education. What we are experiencing is not in our hands,” explained Zhou.
The experience of Free Fall is more disturbing the closer you go and the harder you look. There is something so jarring about disembodied plastic dolls hanging from strings — the materials form an image that almost looks like a wall, or perhaps a beautiful but toxic anemone. When you walk past the baskets sitting along the edges of the room, you’re likely to accidentally kick some of the dolls, which only serves to increase the atmosphere of creeping dread.
“It’s a time-based installation,” said Zhou. This means the strings of dolls hanging from the ceiling tend to get loose and fall regularly. “I didn't design this myself, but when I first installed these they started falling down and then I [thought], ‘Oh! It works!’”
This enthusiastic flexibility seems to be a running theme throughout the exhibit, which is adaptable according to the room it is displayed in. Free Fall is already booked for a run at Gallery Z later on this year.
Zhou doesn’t want to direct the audience’s thoughts. The only text in Free Fall is an ambiguous and vaguely ominous poster with lines like “Laws, Algorithms. We are dependent, reliable. We are available sources.”
With an air of nonchalance, Zhou explained, “I just give some words and then the connection between words can be naturally found by readers.”
While there are undoubtedly links between the artwork and the poster, the words on the poster seem to have no connections to each other. They reference at least three highly distinct concepts: Child abuse, education systems and simulations of reality, in the most logically disparate manner imaginable. The name Free Fall conveys a sense of institutional nonchalance while the piece, according to Zhou, is more about overwhelming control.
Nonetheless, as it is such a powerful work of art, it seems highly likely that someone who didn’t talk with the artist could still very easily work out a coherent meaning for themselves. That said, it is equally possible that any meaning they could find has already been predicted by Zhou, who has cast an extremely wide net in her conception of the piece.
If her oversights in Free Fall are in itself a reflection of the systems she references however, she is truly a benevolent artist. During the exhibit opening, an unfortunate audience member bumped into one of the strings. As it crashed down, Zhou was quick to reassure them.
“It’s part of the art!”