Spoleto's perplexing poster talk of the town

Nigel Redden, general director for Spoleto Festival USA and Paula Edwards, director of marketing and public relations, unveiled the 2010 Spoleto poster Tuesday, and people have been pondering it since.

Upright or sideways? North or south? Flat or 3-D? Is it art? Does it make sense?

The 2010 Spoleto Festival USA poster has a number of people scratching their heads. Created by Maya Lin at the invitation of festival officials, the image is from facing pages in an atlas displaying the state of Rhode Island on the left (in portrait format) and the state of South Carolina on the right (in landscape format) -- which means that either way you look at it, one of the states is turned on its side.

In the middle of each state, Lin has excavated material, like a strip mine, revealing a sliver of printed matter along the edge of each layer.

The title of the poster is "From Rhode Island to South Carolina," which has caused what is perhaps the most common question: What does Rhode Island have to do with it?

Nigel Redden, the festival's general director, has said that Lin revealed "a third dimension that typically we don't see" and referred to the relationship between the two states without specifying what it is, leaving it to observers to speculate.

Both states are original New World colonies; both relied heavily on boats (for whaling in one case, slavery in the other); both are on the East Coast; both have two words in their name.

Deborah Bowlby, 38, a pediatric endocrinologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the poster looked like the cover of a AAA magazine.

She wondered why Rhode Island was included. If there is no significant connection, she said, the northern state is a distraction.

On the other hand, the three-dimensional treatment draws the viewer into the work. "I think that is great," Bowlby said. And maps are intriguing to her no matter what. "I love maps. I think maps are great. I always wonder who lives in this little town." Maps, she said, spark the imagination.

Bowlby's father is a geologist, so she grew up aware of the Earth's material seams of quartz, granite, shale and bedrock. She surmised that Lin might be attempting to reveal not only the physical layers of the state, but its historical foundation too.

Jennifer Blackman, who works at the S.C. Aquarium, saw the poster at Rising High Café on East Bay Street.

"I'm trying to figure it out," she said. "It reminds me of art my boyfriend does." She couldn't quite fathom the connection between the states, though the artist's excavations certainly call for scrutiny, she said. "It's the Rhode Island thing that's confusing."

Then Blackman learned that the work was done by Lin, an artist she's familiar with, and the emphasis on topography began to make more sense.

Marian Mazzone, professor of modern and contemporary art at the College of Charleston, said Lin is an artist who spans two fields: architecture and object art, often combining the two. "Lin was trained as an architect, so she approaches space in a functional way," Mazzone said.

Since she made her acclaimed Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which emerges from the ground in an open "V" shape, Lin's conceptual work and outdoor sculptural work have been intricately linked to landscape, Mazzone said.

For her gallery art, she deals with landscape in small-scale ways, using wood and other traditional media, layering pieces based on computer analyses, Mazzone said.

So the poster, for which she wasn't paid, is indicative of her work; it takes a two-dimensional map -- "something we usually think about as flat" -- then creates a three-dimensional object from it, only to create a poster image rendering the object two-dimensional.

It's a deliberate piling up of images and conceptual thought, Mazzone said.

It is worth noting that Lin is not the only one to transform books and other objects into layered, three-dimensional works. Japanese artist Noriko Ambe creates intricate work that explores similar ideas. Her book cutouts were part of the 2006 Halsey Gallery exhibition called "Force of Nature Project."

Ellen Dressler Moryl, director of the city of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs and chief curator of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, said the excavations in Lin's image look like ears and seem to be asking, "Are you really listening?"

At first baffled by the Rhode Island-South Carolina connection, Moryl experienced a bolt of understanding. Rhode Island, she said, has the oldest synagogue building in America; Charleston has the oldest synagogue in continuous use in America.

That must be it, she said.

Editor's Note: A few readers have contacted The Post and Courier to emphasize another important connection between Rhode Island and South Carolina. Both states were heavily involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Rhode Island was one of the most active Northern colonies to import slaves. After the American Revolution, Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the domestic slave trade.