Docent team selects Leonard Suryajaya’s Quarantine Blues as 2021 Block Museum Student Acquisition

The Block is proud to announce that its undergraduate Student Docent team has made the formal recommendation to Block Museum director Lisa Corrin for the acquisition of Quarantine Blues (2020), a photograph by Chicago-based artist Leonard Suryajaya from his series of the same name. The recommendation comes after an intensive 7-week selection process by the group as they sought an artwork that would complement the museum’s holdings, connect to the mission, and resonate with curriculum across Northwestern. The acquisition project reflects the expansion of the Student Docent’s role within The Block, which includes not only engaging with the public, but also work to advise the museum and shape its relevance and connection to student experience.

“At The Block, our student-led art acquisition program enables Northwestern undergraduates to shape the museum’s collection. They meet with artists, learn about the inner workings of the art market, and experience the complex decision-making processes that go into acquiring a work of art as a teaching resource. They also get an inside look at the museum from members of the curatorial team. For the Block team, hearing the perspectives of students is equally a learning experience. Seeing works of art through their eyes keeps our thinking current and our acquisitions relevant so that the collection is meaningful to student experience. It is a reminder of what it means to be an academic museum—to stimulate student thinking about what art is and what art does, its role in helping us understand our world and each other.

Lisa Corrin, Ellen Philips Katz Director

The students’ recommendation was was unanimously approved by The Block’s Internal Acquisitions and Loans Committee with purchase funds generously provided by Craig Ponzio and the Julie and Lawrence Bernstein Family Art Acquisition Fund. Quarantine Blues, accompanied by a student-authored label, will be on view in Fall 2021, as part of the exhibition Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection. The selection marks the second annual student-led acquisition, following the 2020 selection of Myra Greene’s Undertone #17, #23, #51 (2017-18) by students enrolled in The Block Museum/Art History co-taught course Collecting|Critique: Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts?.


Acquisition Overview

In this video, Student Docents Erin Claeys and Mina Malaz present an overview of the artwork and the docent’s process for selecting it.

Captions in English and Spanish

Selections from the Acquisition Justification

As with all acquisitions to The Block collection, this selection required a formal justification document and presentation. Below selections from the group’s work and research.

Context and Significance

Quarantine Blues is a series of photographs conceived in Chicago during the COVID-19 pandemic by Chinese-Indonesian artist Leonard Suryajaya. Many of Suryajaya’s works are rooted in his multicultural upbringing as an Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent; as a Buddhist educated in Christian schools in a majority Muslim country. He explores definitions of love and family, having left a culture that rejected his identity as a queer man. His photographs investigate these tensions in everyday interactions by creating chance juxtaposition of culturally-coded objects. He layers personal emotional connections with larger, layered histories of exile, religion, citizenship, and belonging. 

Suryajaya creates a relatable scene to commemorate a moment in history when most people were forced to spend more time indoors at home surrounded by objects of everyday life that, if read closely, tell a story of identity, place, and time. 

Using a large format film photographic process Suryajaya creates work that is collaborative and often includes performance elements. The resulting images are both expansive and intimate. In the photograph Quarantine Blues (which has the same title as the series), the subject is his partner Peter carefully posed to be part of the installation of objects from their home during quarantine in 2020. The title Quarantine Blues refers to both the color of the objects in the image and depression. This reference to mental health challenges posed by the pandemic imbues the work with a darkly humorous tone. The list of blue objects in the image ranges from a pool float and suitcases—representing activities made impossible by travel restrictions posed by the pandemic—to domestic staples like tissue boxes, dry shampoo, cleaning supplies, rubber gloves, and Epsom salts. In other words, everything colored blue in the artist’s apartment. Products like almond milk from Trader Joe’s supermarket and a jock strap carefully placed on display on a filing cabinet give some hints into the lifestyle its the inhabitants. The scene is elaborately draped with printed fabrics to create an intimate yet fantastical setting for the statuesque figure poking out of the pool float—a scene that brings to mind a private a shrine, perhaps for a patron saint of quarantine. Suryajaya creates a relatable scene to commemorate a moment in history when most people were forced to spend more time indoors at home surrounded by objects of everyday life that, if read closely, tell a story of identity, place, and time. 

How does this work relate to The Block’s collection and other existing collections at Northwestern? 

Quarantine Blues builds upon The Block’s existing collection of photography, including photography in the still-life, conceptual, and portraiture genres. It engages in aesthetic and thematic conversations with the works of numerous artists in The Block collection, including Laura Letinsky’s 2002 conceptual still-life Untitled #49, which presents viewers with a nuanced, intentional assemblage of objects similar to Suryajaya’s own construction in Quarantine Blues; Tseng Kwong Chi’s 1986 Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota (from the Expeditionary Self-Portrait Series) and 1980 Costumes at the Met Series, which explore personal identity in a manner parallel to Suryajaya’s; and Catherine Opie’s 1993 work Skeeter, a portrait that expands representation of the LGBTQ+ community just as Suryajaya does through Quarantine Blues. Notably, Suryajaya has directly cited Tseng Kwong Chi as influential to his own practice, and Suryajaya has been featured previously as a discussant on Tseng’s work during The Block’s 2016 exhibition Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera. The inclusion of Suryajaya’s work alongside all these aforementioned works in Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking  about History with The Block’s Collection will lend to even deeper dialogue between Quarantine Blues and The Block’s existing collection.

How does this work connect with The Block Museum’s mission and through lines? 

The Block Museum of Art aims to present art across time and culture. This year will forever be defined by the global pandemic that shaped all aspects of life. Quarantine Blues acts as a time machine to this era of isolation, making it a poignant addition to the collection. While we move forward past this time of pandemic, this piece will remain as a resource for the inevitable conversations surrounding COVID-19 and its emotional, physical, and mental effects on society. Quarantine Blues will be a springboard for interdisciplinary discussion across campus on this topic and the other topics the piece suggests such as mental health, gender, and performance, among others, fulfilling The Block’s mission of being an academic center for conversation, thought, and curriculum enhancement on Northwestern’s campus. For additional connection to the current collection, Quarantine Blues can be put into conversation with many of the already existing pieces in the collection surrounding queerness, isolation, and Asian identity. 

This year will forever be defined by the global pandemic that shaped all aspects of life. Quarantine Blues acts as a time machine to this era of isolation, making it a poignant addition to the collection. While we move forward past this time of pandemic, this piece will remain as a resource for the inevitable conversations surrounding COVID-19 and its emotional, physical, and mental effects on society

Leonard Suryajaya is a promising Chicago-based artist who is working at the forefront of contemporary photography practices. He is also a young, Chinese-Indonesian, queer man – all of which are identities that are underrepresented in The Block’s collection and connects the work to The Block’s goal of showcasing diverse artist identities. These identities also further connect Suryajaya to Northwestern as his young age makes his quarantine experience all the more recognizable to Northwestern students. As they examine his representation of quarantine, it is likely they will see themselves reflected in the almond milk, nalgene water bottle, and other items that define everyday life featured in the photograph. This will hopefully ignite an interest in them for the work, meeting another aspect of The Block’s mission. 

What is the potential use in teaching and research? 

We imagine possibilities for teaching and research across campus, and in co-curricular programming and activity with and for Northwestern students. While this work is rooted in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it broadly explores ideas of immigration, health, and queer identity; domestic spaces and how we fashion notions of home, family, and security; isolation and community; mental health and its impact; how we sustain ourselves in moments of crisis; the deployment of humor, and more. 

While this work is rooted in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it broadly explores ideas of immigration, health, and queer identity; domestic spaces and how we fashion notions of home, family, and security; isolation and community; mental health and its impact; how we sustain ourselves in moments of crisis; the deployment of humor, and more. 

It would be exciting to engage in cross-disciplinary teaching around this work, including in public health and medicine, historical and contemporary issues surrounding immigration, gender and sexuality, Asian American studies, and performance studies. There is also a potential opportunity to engage with the Bienen School of Music in exploring connections between this work and the musical genre of the Blues as they both grapple with expressions of human sadness and joy. Suryajaya’s unique community-focused artistic practice and intricate staging would also lend itself well to teaching possibilities in ATP and Art History.. Outside of the classroom, we envision this work serving as a generative springboard for co-curricular learning, identity formation, and community development through the exploration of questions including: mental health and its impact on campus; how we build systems of mutual support and care; how we relate to the material and immaterial things 

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