One day, children were frolicking outside their elementary school, soaking up the water showering down from a fire truck’s nozzle.
There are gleeful smiles on their faces as they sprint outside for summer break – then the camera pans to what appears to be teachers posing for a last photo together.
A bold video installation at Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art, “Death of a School,” chronicles the shuttering of Schumaker Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., in 2014.
The Ulrich bought the piece by Los Angeles-based artist Nicole Miller in early 2016.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“Death of a School” is serendipitously timed, given the current state of flux that Kansas schools are in.
“I think that by virtue of showing this work, we’re not necessarily stating what we think about how teachers or how the educational system or the process of education is valued in the city, or state or nation,” said Sally Frater, the Ulrich’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “I think we are saying that what is contained within this work bears reflection.”
However, Frater concedes she is “of the opinion that all things are political, whether they are inherently or overtly political.”
“I think it was more that the Ulrich decided to exhibit this work because our faculty show is on at the same time,” she said. “Even though this is specific to a community in Tucson, Arizona, it also has relevance for Wichita, Kansas.”
The Ulrich Museum of Art began looking into the purchase of “Death of a School” in 2015, and it was bought in early 2016.
“Death of a School,” which is not coincidentally staged across from the museum’s Faculty Biennial, is accomplished through four projectors on the four walls of the Joan S. Beren Gallery.
Only one of the videos has audio – and that’s the video documenting the children’s last day at school. It’s accompanied by natural sound mixed with classical piano.
The other three videos are mostly slow-motion pans of empty classrooms, exteriors of the deserted building and shots of teachers carting boxes out of the building.
Frater was at the school with Miller for part of the filming of “Death of a School.”
She said the finished product in the gallery projects a somewhat different energy than what was immediately palpable at the school that day.
“This is an artist who’s doing really important work,” Frater said. “She’s interested in reconstitution and looking at either individuals or demographics that have experienced different forms of social fracturing, and, through her work, she is offering this process or an experience of reconstitution, becoming whole again.
“I think providing a platform or portal through which we can see different people’s experiences is extremely important.”
It’s not a documentary film by any means.
Isolated scenes from that last day – when viewed together – form a narrative that’s incumbent upon the viewer to piece together.
Video installations can be tricky to pull off well, as the linearity of the format often provides a stumbling block for entry: You wouldn’t want to start watching a video three-quarters of the way through, right?
This piece, however, succeeds largely through the merits of its three slow-motion pan shots across desolate classrooms and exteriors. Those shots are smartly positioned to invite potential viewers into the gallery to investigate further.
Given the fanfare typically associated with grand openings, it’s worth realizing that closings – though never glamorous – can provide a truly authentic view into what makes places important.
“Death of a School” is on display at the Ulrich Museum of Art through March 26.
Admission is free.
‘Death of a School’
When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 1-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays. Exhibit closes March 26.
Where: Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, 1845 N. Fairmount, near 17th and Hillside, just north of the Millipede sculpture.
How much: Free admission