Letter to Ardina: 4th Graders and Re-Contextualization | Mark Dzula

Editor’s Note: This post inspired the following response: Reply to Mark: 3rd Graders & Site Specific Installation.

Dear Ardina,

I hope your residency is progressing well.  Both of my residencies are wrapping up their introductory phase.  In Staten Island, the fourth graders and I are exploring the question “How do we make the familiar strange and the strange familiar?” We’ve made collages, drawn everyday objects from observation, reinterpreted everyday objects in a game called “What Is It,” and re-interpreted images in an activity I call “This for That.” Here are some pictures:

Recently, we have been talking about “re-contextualization.” These eight syllables and nineteen letters are wildly popular with the students. Although this topic may seem difficult, we’ve had some exciting conversations, thanks in part to art inquiries with Maurizio Cattelan’s “Hollywood” sign. Cattelan is deeply involved with problems of image and representation (or re-presentation). Once, he built a version of the Hollywood sign over a dump in Sicily. The students laugh when they learn that it is in a dump. One student even suggested that this placement indicates Cattelan’s critical attitude toward Hollywood.


Interestingly, it is doubtful that the students will get to see Cattelan’sexhibit at the Guggenheim, even though the Hollywood sign is their “key artwork” for the year. The exhibit shows many provocative works and our administration is struggling with how/if they can show any of it. This brings up an interesting question—as teaching artists, what kinds of conversations are we ready to have with students? What kinds of conversations can we have?  Museums inevitably show work that students may be shocked by; even abstract nudes throw groups into fits if they’re not properly prepared.

Cattelan knowingly presents a different sort of shock, which understandably has caused the administration’s cautious stance. However, I personally appreciate Cattelan’s dark gestures; his morbid humor raises pertinent questions about contemporary society, questions that children deal with very often. Although schools would like to promote a rosy sense of childhood, I know you have also witnessed many students dealing with dark and difficult realities. Still, I understand that it’s not my place to broach these topics or force these conversations to occur. Right?

Then why keep the Cattelan piece as the key artwork? For one, it is a great catalyst. It is an exciting, appropriate, and accessible work that has enabled us to explore questions of image, context, and meaning. Also, as a professional goal, I want the students to work with images. Furthermore, no other work on view at the Guggenheim similarly captured the teachers’ enthusiasm during our initial planning meetings. Finally, the work relates to our essential question very well.

We’ve talked a little bit about this in person, but I am interested to know more about your thoughts.  I’m also interested to know about your own current challenges as your residency takes flight.



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