The new exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) sits behind glass doors, ready for viewers to explore and reflect on its immersive collection of contemporary art. The expansive space welcomes guests, first, with large block letters announcing the exhibition’s name: Third Space.
The name comes from the idea of an imagined third space where ideas and people can come together in one environment to search for answers that are expressed from the past and that are still relevant today. This third space, referred to as a “Global South,” is, as noted on the exhibition’s wall, a “concept that unites places that have a past that defines their present.”
“The Global South is a sort of imagined space that ties together cultures by their common experiences and considers the voices of people who are often unheard,” said Wassan Al-Khudhairi, the curator of modern and contemporary art at BMA and the primary driving force behind Third Space.
While researching for the exhibit, Al-Khudhairi said she kept finding that specific keywords kept popping up — words like “representation” and “gaze,” which inspired questions about how people view each other, and words such as “nature” and “landscape,” which provoked ideas of heritage influencing a person and culture’s present and future. After dividing these words into four main categories, Al-Khudhairi and the BMA staff separated the exhibit accordingly, with the main entrance to the gallery serving as a nucleus, with pieces that represent, broadly, characteristics of each of the four themes.
“Third Space refers to this idea of an alternative space or in-between space that brings together a combination of cultures, people, and ideas,” Al-Khudhairi explained.
The exhibit is the first of its kind at BMA, drawing almost exclusively from their permanent collection. It all began coming together in 2014, when Al-Khudhairi joined BMA and started collecting all the pieces to this project, explained Gail Andrews, the museum’s director.
“[Al-Khudairi’s] very thoughtful thematic approach to this exhibition will let you really see and understand these works in a different way and, I think, enhance your perceptions and your perspectives on the world right now,” Andrews said. “I also think that it serves really great touchstones for how we look at Birmingham and how we explore the connections between Birmingham and the South and the rest of the world.”
The museum staff hope attendees will make those connections. Many of the plaques and descriptions on the walls go beyond giving readers an ordinary description about the piece of art or what they’re looking at but asks questions such as “can you imagine how you’d be described if you were lost or running away?” pulling the reader’s mind into the piece of art they’re looking at — with the hope of connecting them to it on a deeper level.
“I think I really felt like there’s a way these works, these kind of contemporary works could provoke those kinds of [self-exploring] thoughts and conversations for people and I think that those are really relevant conversations for us to have, in Birmingham especially, in the times we’re in today,” said Al-Khudhairi.
This isn’t the only way the exhibition is immersive, though. The museum has brought in iPads for the gallery and a smart guide, which allows visitors a more in-depth look at the pieces and the exhibit.
“You can zoom in, you can zoom out, you can look at additional facts about each work of art, you can even link to additional websites that can show you videos,” Al-Khudhairi said. “It’s really this opportunity to dig deep and really get a lot of content if you are really excited about a work of art; or if you’re a teacher, and you want to get ready for bringing your class here; or if you want a follow-activity after you go home.”
They’ve also infused the community into the exhibit, including numerical prompts that attendees can type into either the smart guide or into their own device that allows access to audio commentary from members of the Birmingham community. These public voices belong to people such as band members from St. Paul and the Broken Bones, a local seven-year-old, and select collectors who have lent a few of their pieces to the exhibit.
The idea is to immerse the public into the exhibition, inspiring them to “really think about the work in relation to themselves,” Al-Khudhairi said. There’s a personalization aspect to the exhibition. She’s hoping people can leave with a deeper understanding about themselves, how they see themselves, or understand the kind of world we’re living in today, instead of simply reflecting on why a piece of work was made or what it’s trying to say.
“What I love about contemporary art is that there’s really no right or wrong way to look at contemporary art,” she said. “You don’t have to have a lot of background about the history of art. Really, what you bring to the work is how you interpret it, and I think that is a real big strength about these kinds of works.”
Al-Khudhairi said the goal is to “break down the barriers that people often put up for contemporary art — ‘Oh, it’s difficult’; ‘Oh, I can’t relate’; ‘Oh, I don’t know how or what it means to me,’ because this exhibition is full of content that relates to current, present moments; things that are either happening today in our country and around the world. And I think that there’s an access point for everybody in this exhibition.”
Third Space opened to the public on January 28 and will be on display for two years, with rotating pieces every six months. BMA is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.