In the throes of election season 2018,  Ringling College of Art and Design brought journalist-turned-artist Sheryl Oring to campus for a wide array of interactive and overtly political exhibitions, challenging the student body and local community to engage with the issues of the day and wrestle with the ghosts of the past. With the performances ending in December, SRQ checked in with the artist to see what registered.

With the “I Wish to Say” exhibit what kind of engagement did you hope for?  ORING  I’m looking for someone who’s willing to think. What was remarkable, in October, was that I met a number of international students, who had come to Ringling. Two were from Eastern Europe and were talking about how they had always seen the U.S. as a role model, and as a place where people from different cultures could come together. They’d been really surprised at the discourse since they got here, and that it no longer seemed to be this place of the melting pot, where everyone could come and get along. That was very striking to hear.

Did you notice any change between reaction in October and then post-election in December?  There weren’t as many people who participated in December. I don’t know if that was a function of less interest after the election. There were more people in December who were pretty much in favor of Trump, sending really positive messages. That was different from October.

How did the community respond to “After the Dinner Party”? I was really touched by the response. There were a number of people that wanted to sit next to Michelle Obama. This one is great: “I would like to have dinner next to Haifa Wehbe.” She’s an Arabic singer from Lebanon. She challenged the norms of what is sexually accepted and how a woman should present herself in public. She has a huge role in the women’s empowerment movement in the Middle East. And a lot of people mentioned family members. 

How does “Agitype” fit in?  “After the Dinner Party” and “Agitype” are two really different looks at feminism. “After the Dinner Party” is a celebration of women. “Agitype” is more a critical look at what’s been going on in society. For that one, I took quotes from news articles that reference things that happened relating to #MeToo. The most recent one was a quote that came up in the Kavanaugh hearings, where Senator Dianne Feinstein said, “The republicans no longer attack the victim; they ignore the victim.” I took the quote, “Ignore the victim,” and incorporated that into the work. There were just three drawings in the show. But I’m pretty sure I’ll keep looking for more quotes. There are plenty of them. 

Why did “Writer’s Block” come out of retirement? It was made in 1999 and had a tour around Europe and to Boston and New York. And it’s been in storage since 2003. But last year, some folks at University of Virginia asked if they could show it. It turned out to be crazy timing because it was shown on that campus six months after they had that really violent neo-Nazi march where a woman was killed. That show led to showing at another university, and now down at Ringling, and next year it’s going to another school in North Carolina. I think universities are noticing that students are not having the education about the Holocaust that we would like them to have, and that this art might be a way to engage them.

Is all art inherently political? Is there such thing as apolitical art?  A lot of art that we don’t think is political has some political elements to it. My work is pretty overtly political. And some artists are not as overt, but the message still comes through. In a way, making art in itself is a political statement in this world.

Where would you like to take this in the future?  The last couple years, I’ve been focusing on doing shows in places that were swing states, or places where the votes were really close. In those places, there’s the most room for making some sort of an impact with the work.


The Exhibitions

“I Wish to Say” 
Donning the appearance of a 1950s secretary—and armed with postcards and a typewriter—Oring asks passersby to narrate a brief and honest letter to the sitting president. 

“After the Dinner Party”   Participants continued a feminist exercise begun in
the 1970s by Judy Chicago, identifying one woman through history they would choose to have dinner with and explaining why. 

“Agitype”   This gallery exhibition highlights quotes from news stories about the #MeToo movement as though they were headlines. 

“Writer’s Block”  Fresh out of retirement, this installation of caged typewriters from the 1920s and ‘30s premiered in Berlin, and honors the writers silenced by Nazi