Segment of artist EA Meuser's "May 4/An American Guernica," displayed as a work-in-progress in the "Kent State/May 4" exhibit at Young Library.
A new exhibit by Kentucky artist Erica Meuser, “Kent State/May 4: The Making of an American Tragedy in Art,” is on display now at William T. Young Library through the end of the summer. The multimedia exhibit centers on the events of May 4, 1970, in which the Ohio National Guard shot thirteen students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University, killing four, and the subsequent protests that occurred on the University of Kentucky campus and colleges around the country. As a whole, Meuser’s work considers the complicated process through which tragic events are collectively remembered or forgotten.
The exhibit, curated as a walking tour, begins in the Rose Street entrance of Young Library, winds its way behind the central staircase into Core 1, and then descends the stairs into the Basement. “The experience can change depending on where the viewer enters the exhibit,” said Meuser. “There’s no right way to see it.”
Comprised of paintings, videos, charcoal drawings, textiles, objects, and photo prints, Meuser’s work blurs the line between past and present by highlighting visual and auditory motifs that recur across media and across time: the female artistic gaze, looking out from behind a camera or out of a window; chiming bells and blooming trees; guns, militarism, and the university campus; mothers and American boyhood; innocence in the face of violence; and the fragile connection between memory and place. By walking through the exhibit, viewers experience “flickers” of images, objects, and textures, passing in and out of awareness “just like memory,” said Meuser.
Meuser, who lived in Kent, Ohio while her mother was an art student at the university, remembers walking home from school on the day of the shooting. “I was nine years old. There were tanks rolling down the streets,” she said. The tragedy, and the relationship it forged between herself, her mother, and the place they once called home, has long been a fixture of her work. “I think about May 4 all the time,” she said. “Walking across the UK campus, it’s always on my mind.”
A Site-Specific Work
An art major and a graduate of UK, and now an adjunct humanities professor at Bluegrass Community & Technical College, Meuser used to walk daily through the UK campus. While an earlier version of “Kent State/May 4” was shortened by the pandemic, the idea for the present iteration came to Meuser while she was walking through Young Library. The exhibit communicates directly with the space, utilizing unique sight lines and architectural features of the building to allow the pieces to play off of one another and frequently surprise the viewer. Photographs and paintings speak to one another across the hall. A series of black and white prints located behind pillars on the First Floor show “behind the scenes” images giving context to the events of May 4. Tapestries hang from the railing of the stairway in Core 1, subtly transforming throughout the day in the changing light, at times glowing and at others suggesting burial shrouds. As one descends from the First Floor to the Basement, the pieces become collectively more abstract: they turn from the representation of historical events to the question of the historical process.
Itself a site-specific collection, the exhibit also comments on the role of sites in the formation – or erasure – of memory. The exhibit ends with a video piece focusing on the demolition of the Kirwan-Blanding Dorm Complex, a vestige of late 1960s social architecture. Meuser suggests that the demolition marks the “end of an error” as well as the “end of an era,” as remnants of the experiments and experiences of the 1960s and 1970s are buried and the landscape wiped clean. At the end of the exhibit, the viewer is left struck by the continually echoing nature of American history. As the Vietnam era fades in our collective memory, new tragic events spring up in their place and the United States reckons once again with deeply-etched political, social, and economic divisions and competing visions of a free society.
The Library as a Space of Creation and Preservation
Meuser’s inspiration for her exhibit came from her daily walks around campus and particularly from her experiences walking through the interior spaces of Young Library. “This place holds and preserves our memories,” said Meuser, “and allows all of us to access them.” In this sense, the library serves as an especially resonant venue for work that asks questions about what we remember and how we remember it.
While the tragic events at Kent State have come to stand as the emblem of the student protests during the Vietnam era, they are only the most extreme case of a struggle that was unfolding at universities across the United States. As long as students remain drivers of social change, said Erica, “that’s who I’m trying to speak to.”
In an age of eroding public space, libraries stand as some of the last true social commons. As places that facilitate the forging of connections, they are essential for maintaining social infrastructure and creating shared space that allows for dialogue, understanding, and ultimately, healing. Meuser’s work wonders how we can heal in the face of forgetting: the library provides a piece of the answer.
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