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Jim Cogswell Explores Cosmic Dust in Greece, Portugal

Professor Jim Cogswell’s adhesive vinyl installations have delighted the U‑M community and visitors to our campus for years, most recently with projects at the U‑M Museum of Art, the U‑M Museum of Natural History, and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

James in his Ann Arbor studio with the original drawings of Vinyl Euripedes.

Cogswell’s installations, often placed on the exterior windows and doors of museums and cultural institutions, inspire fresh considerations for visitors on the artifacts, art, and scholarship within. 

Created by photographing works from cultural collections and digitally isolating specific elements – a soldier from a vase or a sculpted mask, for example – Cogswell’s colorful vinyl elements are placed on the architectural glass of cultural institutions to evoke a loose narrative of the powerful internal and external forces that shape human history.

While each installation offers a different focus, they all harken back to a shared theme, cosmological dust,” described by Cogswell as that idea that everything we know, including ourselves, is constituted by the same cosmic dust that originated at the singular moment that our universe formed, in a continual state of dissolution and reconstitution ever since.” 

Cogswell describes his quest to explore origin stories as a lifelong pursuit: I was raised as the child of missionaries. I was immersed in Biblical traditions that were all about trying to get a picture of The Whole Thing – what’s this all about? Once somebody starts asking those questions, they never go away.”

In 2022, Cogswell brings these explorations to international audiences in Athens, Greece and Santo Tirso, Portugal with two site-specific installations: Vinyl Euripides (Michael Cacoyannis Foundation’s Cultural Center, opened April 2022) and Hand, Nets, and Other Devices (International Museum of Contemporary Sculpture and the Municipal Museum Abade Pedrosa, October 2022-October 2023). 

Vinyl Euripedes installed at the foundation

Cogswell in Athens, Greece

A site-specific installation at the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation’s Cultural Center in Athens, Vinyl Euripides responds to film director Michael Cacoyannis’ cinematic adaptation of three tragedies by Euripides: Electra (1962), The Trojan Women (1971), and Iphigenia (1977). The project is organized by the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation in Athens in celebration of their 10th anniversary, with funding from the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, the University of Michigan Office of Research, and the Modern Greek Program in the Department of Classical Studies, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.

As part of his research process, Cogswell visited Athens in 2018 to explore the physical space of the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation, followed by in-depth research of Cacoyannis’ career and the context in which he was making his films. 

Cacoyannis produced films in Greece in the decades after the Second World War, a time when the country was ruled by a right-wing military junta, supported by the American CIA, as a way of bolstering Europe against communism,” Cogswell said. Cacoyannis was caught in a moment of history where some really brutal stuff was going on right around him.”

As the research continued, Cogswell was moved by the connections between Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedies, Greece’s post-WWII dictatorship, and contemporary geopolitical turmoils. 

At the time I was starting to think about this project, the civil war in Syria was exploding, there were refugees at our own borders – and out of my own past, there was Vietnam,” Cogswell said. Thinking about Vinyl Euripides, I knew I didn’t want to tell a sword and sandal’ story. This was about something bigger.”

A college student during the Vietnam War, Cogswell drew on his own associations with that era, including the many revivals of the Euripides play Trojan Women, seen as a powerful anti-war statement. He also reflected on the deeply unsettling press image of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, a young girl photographed fleeing her napalmed village. Naked and howling in pain, this iconic 1972 photo played an important role in the growing American anti-war movements of the time. 

Installation view of Vinyl Euripedes, showing a colorful vinyl depiction of a scene from Euripedes' play

To make visible these relevant and urgent connections between antiquity and the modern day, Cogswell made the decision to use this iconic photographic image in the installation, in a panel interpreting The Trojan Women, with soldiers chasing women and girls. In other panels, Cogswell incorporated additional images from the Vietnam era and from the broader vernacular of his creative practice: squadrons of helicopters, a press image of a soldier from Tiananmen Square and a funeral pyre of burning hands as a representation of carnage. 

Hands and images of hands are so important in my work because that’s what I do: I make things with my hands to help me think about the world,” Cogswell said. 

Nets too are an important symbol found in Cogswell’s work, an element found in both Vinyl Euripides and in Hand, Nets, and Other Devices.

Cogswell uses the nets in Vinyl Euripides to harken back to the story of Electra, where a vengeful Clytemnestra invites her husband Agamemnon into a bath, traps him in a net, and murders him. 

Cacoyannis lingers on the imagery of the net because it is part of the story, but also because it is a part of Euripides’ message: we are caught, not by impersonal forces manifested by the gods, but we are caught in a net of our own devices,” Cogswell said. 

The nets used in Cogswell’s vinyl installation were originally created as part of a 1997 creative collaboration at U‑M entitled Seven Enigmas, created in partnership with dancer/​choreographer Peter Sparling, biostatistician Fred Bookstein, and astronomy research scientist John Clarke.

In Seven Enigmas, Cogswell and Bookstein used a program devised to map brain anomalies to map Sparling’s dance movements onto a morphing grid. Those grids are alive,” Cogswell reflects. There’s something about their motion that is lyrical and human.” Using film stills from Seven Enigmas, Cogswell repainted the grid, adding little knots and curves to create a net.

Cogswell in Santo Tirso, Portugal

In addition to its appearance in Vinyl Euripides, Cogswell’s net is stretching across the globe for his second 2022 installation, Hand, Nets, and Other Devices, on view at two jointly-run and neighboring sites on the same museum campus in Santo Tirso, Portugal: The International Museum of Contemporary Sculpture (October 2022-January 2023) and The Municipal Museum Abade Pedrosa (October 2022-October 2023). 

Housed in the historic 17th century Benedictine Monastery of Sao Bento, the conversion of the Municipal Museum Abade Pedrosa from monastery to museum has garnered international acclaim for its design by two Pritzker Prize winning Portuguese architects, Alvaro Siza Vieira and Eduardo Souto de Moura. 

As Cogswell describes it, the museum layout includes a long hallway where monastic cells have been converted into gallery spaces. Each cell contains objects from a different era to create a linear progression through history. The objects in the museums’ collections are all from the region of Santo Tirso and include stone age implements, artifacts from the region’s Roman occupation, and 19th century looms.

If a modern-day citizen of Santo Tirso were to encounter that stone age person, what do they have in common? What would they understand about each other? I’m not saying that they wouldn’t, but there are gaps there and connections to explore,” Cogswell said.

Cogswell’s installations in the museums use adhesive vinyl, intaglio prints, video installations, and several hundred painted studies of archeological objects to explore those connections.

The museum space is exhilarating,” Cogswell said. I kept asking myself, are they really going to let me do this?’ The museum director, Álvaro Moreira, has been just unbelievably receptive to my ideas.” 

The exhibition will also feature a screening of Jeweled Net of the Vast Invisible, an immersive animated simulation of the distribution of dark matter in the universe, created in collaboration with cosmologist Greg Tarle and composer/​musician Steven Rush as part of a 2014 M‑Cubed project, first installed at the Duderstadt Center. 

Even the didactics at the museums will feature Cogswell’s work. By incorporating what he calls cosmic images” into educational videos about the archeological sites where the museum objects were unearthed, Cogswell hopes to infiltrate the narrative to encourage expansive interpretations.

A didactic video of a Roman fort will be infused with dancing grids or a simulation of dark matter from Jeweled Net, changing the way we perceive it,” Cogswell explains.

The museum gift shop will sell tiles featuring figures from Cogswell’s Anthropomorphic Alphabet” series, works where the letters of the alphabet are composed of human figures bent to the shape of each letter. The genesis of this work dates back to the mid-’90s and has been revisited as part of this exhibition to occupy an entire museum wall. 

Designed in the color families of traditional Portuguese tiles – blues and golden yellows – the alphabet on the museum wall spells out a passage in Latin from Ovid’s classical narrative poem, Metamorphoses: All things change, nothing perishes.”

The images in these exhibitions are very playful, but they have undertones that might not be so playful,” Cogswell said. Ultimately they are playful because I’m playing. It’s that simple. I’m experimenting. I’m making rules and I’m breaking them.” 

Story by Truly Render.