Artist Jenny Polak is about to be a familiar face on campus. The 2012-2013 Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities artist in residence began her stay at Northwestern with a speech Wednesday evening about her past work and future plans at the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art.
“This is an historic occasion, the first time that a Kaplan fellow has come to Block as they begin to work at the university,” Lisa Graziose Corrin, director of the Block Museum, explained to an audience of about three dozen students, faculty and community members.
Jenny Polak was born in England and received her M.F.A. in fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her work, which combines architectural and web design with immigration advocacy, has been displayed across the U.Ss and internationally. She lived across the street from a New York City detention center and was constantly exposed to the mistreatment of immigrants. Polak was also deeply moved by her family’s survival of the Nazi occupation in Poland.
She displayed her fictional online design company, Design for the Alien Within, which combines her “fascination with Ikea with my interests as a kid with games.” The interactive website shows possible hiding spaces for illegal immigrants in an otherwise ordinary apartment.
Her work also addresses the problem of “the invisibility of inner space.” She has designed and constructed furniture, entryways and even a tree-like house covered with billboard vinyl, which all contain hidden spaces to be explored by the public. Through her art, Polak wants to address “an absence of design briefs for people who aren’t in power, especially people who aren’t official citizens.”
Last year, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street encampment, she created wearable tents made out of shredded paper documents. She also produced insulated jackets from the material.
This quarter, Polak plans to learn about and work with the successful protest movement to prevent the construction of a large detention center in Crete, Ill. Her project, titled (N)IMBY, builds on her previous themes of hiding and migration. Activists from the protests were in the audience and were acknowledged by the artist.
In the following Q and A session, art history professor Stephen Eisenman described her work as “art that uses invisibility to challenge invisibility,” a challenge to the sometimes hidden practices of immigration and penal systems.
Polak said she agreed with Professor Eisenman that her art addresses serious topics with a whimsical nature. However, she stressed, “The situation is depressing and the only thing to do is to make fun of it.”