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Skidmore College

A sugarcoated world

June 5, 2019
by Michael Janairo

“Our taste for sweetness is a powerful force,” notes the opening description of the faculty-curated exhibit, “Like Sugar” at Skidmore College’s Tang Teaching Museum. The spring 2019 exhibit explores the many ways sugar affects our lives, including “the problematic and joyful aspects of sugar, complicating our view of how this multilayered substance affects us.”  

"Like Sugar" follows a nearly 20-year Tang tradition of supporting faculty curation of cross-discipline exhibitions that tackle urgent issues from multiple points of view.  

Visitors and students experience a combination of contemporary art, historical objects, material culture and data visualization through the lenses of mathematics, language, environmental studies, biology and more.  

How, exactly did they achieve this liberal arts masterpiece? Each exhibition organizer contributed unique ideas from their fields of study.

Here they are reflecting on the experience in their own words: 

Nurcan Atalan-Helicke

associate professor of environmental studies  

I tried to bring in nuances of sugar cane as an interaction between the natural world and social, political, economic and environmental structures. I learned to let different objects talk to each other to open up conversations. The exhibition has a clear juxtaposition: When it comes to health, we blame the individual, but we need to think about the impact of those larger structures. I also learned that when you have an opening reception, you see the impact and emotions immediately. Many people come up to you and say, “Wow, you did a great job!” 

Sarah Goodwin

professor of English 

My scholarly work is in late 18th- and early 19th-century British poetry, and I hadn’t noticed that sugar was everywhere in those texts until this project. I suddenly saw the sugar trade — and slave labor — as a cornerstone of Great Britain’s empire and wealth. With the exhibition, watching the works go up was unforgettable. Everything looked like a commentary on everything else. The show is rich in ironies, tragedies, playfulness and contradictions. It has taught me how carefully chosen and arranged objects can change our thinking and transform us. 

college students examine art at the tang teaching museum

Trish Lyell

teaching professor of art   

This project provided a chance to work with people across campus, and once we got to some core ideas — fun, nostalgia, gender, power, health and the body — then we understood how we all fit together. I view my experience as practice in taking a really big entity and pulling it into something concrete without thinking it has to be singular and particular. My co-organizers and their scholarship helped define what needed to be understood and what could be left as a series of questions. I learned so much from everyone! 

Monica Raveret Richter

associate professor of biology 

As a behavioral ecologist, I research food choice and its consequences, for both eaters and their environments. In the language of plants, sweetness attracts pollinators and frugivores in a mutually beneficial process of gamete exchange and dispersal of progeny. My co-curators expanded my perspective on the relationship between sugar and my own species. We humans are also shaped by those advertising sweet rewards. Recently, extended family visited and I made a cake. I measured out 1/3 cup of cane sugar and froze, contemplating its path to my kitchen and the consequences of eating it. 

college students examine art at the tang teaching museum

Rachel Seligman

Malloy Curator at the Tang 

Working with these outstanding Skidmore professors has been tremendously rewarding. Collaborating with them to translate all larger themes and our ideas about sugar into a lively, engaging and thought-provoking exhibition was deeply satisfying. They taught me about their scholarship and approaches to teaching, and we explored together the ways that sugar was a connective thread among them. I saw how the process of experimenting with new forms of object-based learning created new energy and excitement in their practices of research, art-making and teaching.  

“Like Sugar” is on display through June 23, 2019. For the latest exhibitions, including future interdisciplinary projects, visit tang.skidmore.edu.

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