As I climbed the stairs to the second floor of Slifka on a quiet Sunday afternoon, the world around me did not seem particularly wondrous. The smells of kosher cooking mingled with the heavy, persistent odor of old food, something that had me thinking not of the grander meaning of life, but rather, what I’d be eating for dinner. The lights on the second floor were off, but when I squinted through the dimness and saw a photograph of a small, wide-eyed child staring intently at the viewer, I knew I was in the right place, as I am pretty sure that it is a truth universally acknowledged that small, wide-eyed children symbolize wonder.
Most of the other pieces in the show are subtler, more unexpected representations of the theme. The exhibition, consisting of fifteen photographs by Wesley Chavis ’14, Victor Kang ’14 and Emily Cable ’15, “displays moments of wonder — be they banal or beyond” and invites viewers to consider the meaning of wonder and the potential to discover it in everyday life. Curator Lucy Partman ’14 writes in the exhibit introduction that the title of the show was taken from a quote by 20th century rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Herschel. “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and He gave it to me.” Standing alone in the dim gallery space, listening to the soothing sounds of Yale’s Jewish a cappella group singing in a language I’ve never understood, it was easy to slip into a state of wonder.
Moving clockwise through the room, I first encountered Cable’s three photographs. A shot of wispy, gray smoke hung directly above a close-up of a turgid blue sea. The smoke, although slow moving in real life, seemed filled with a burst of energy, while the roiling ocean was frozen in time so that each ripple seemed a long-standing mountain range. These portraits of everyday scenes evoke the exhibit’s main goal, challenging viewers to consider the splendor hidden in even the most ordinary of settings. Unfortunately, Cable’s third photograph is hung directly above the water fountain, a setting more appropriate for the campaign poster of an eager candidate for middle school student body president. But the image of a half-dressed girl sitting on a bare mattress with light shining through cheap plastic blinds still captivates and intrigues.
Kang’s shots seem the most professionally polished, but they are also the least surprising in the show. Here is a wide-eyed child, here is a close-up of a dew droplet on a plant, here are some more wide-eyed children gazing in awe at a perfectly formed soap bubble. Kang’s last shot, however, speaks to a more imaginative view of wonder: in a print that mixes digital photography with collage techniques, two little boys — rendered giants relative to the rest of the scene — stand on a bridge and gaze down at a river, while a cathedral behind them looks like a dollhouse. The piece plays with perspective and captures the confusion and wonder of childhood, a time when the world seems at once very small and impossibly huge.
Many of Chavis’s seven pieces are abstract and perplexing, yet they are also the most overtly spiritual in the show. The images of a priest half-developed in front of a sumptuous altar; an angelic female form floating in water; a woman pressing her hand against glass — trapped yet calm, eyes closed and face relaxed — convey both the beauty and darkness of religion and mysticism. A frame filled with bright orange fibers initially puzzles, and the exhibit lacks title or information cards in order to preserve each photo’s power to provoke personal responses. I called Chavis to ask about the image, which turns out to be the inside of a pumpkin. Then, looking again with this new perspective in tow, I wondered less about the reality behind the photo and more about the strange and hidden beauty of the everyday.
The setting is not ideal for becoming wholly absorbed in these works of art. Glare on the glass frames and bickering among the rehearsing members of Yale’s Jewish a cappella group occasionally broke the spell cast by the images of wonder. But the imperfections of the space also make the photographs more remarkable, and the interplay between art and setting helps convey the true lesson of “I Asked For Wonder:” if you aim to find wonder in life, you will. If instead you aim to find boredom, banality and distraction, you will. I hope we’ll look for wonder.