Guest lecturer discusses strangeness through zombies

Kellie Nock

Maud Lavin of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago came to Kent Friday afternoon to discuss and analyze human nature and relationship to what is strange through creators’ use of zombies in popular media.

“We are each — in one way or another — strange,” said Lavin, a professor of visual and critical studies, art history, theory and criticism, as she began the lecture.

Lavin analyzed two pieces of media: Cao Fei’s art piece Haze and Fog, and AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Both pieces of media feature zombies as a part of the lore, though they are presented in different ways.

“Cao Fei is a big favorite of mine,” Lavin said. ‘She’s an amazing contemporary Chinese artist. She does all kinds of stuff with different media platforms and trans-national viewing. I’m always really interested in looking back and forth between Chinese and American cultures and sort of who’s looking at who. Like who’s quoting whom in mass culture and art, kind of like who’s looking at whom in that corridor.”

Lavin first heard about Cao Fei from her students at SAIC. According to Lavin, Cao Fei’s appeal had a lot to do with her combining art history and media references, which was a large focus of the lecture.

Kent State art adjunct faculty member Maria Campbell did her thesis on fandom and culture and was drawn into the lecture by the zombies — despite not being a huge fan of them herself.

“She (Lavin) focused on the connection between art history and mass media culture,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s thesis was centered around fandom and its relation to culture as a whole.

In her lecture, Lavin explained the difference between “Haze and Fog” and “The Walking Dead” as a difference in “hopeful strange” versus “fearful strange.”

In “Haze and Fog,” much of the what the zombies represented to Lavin was a “creativity and mobility” in their makeup and movements. With “The Walking Dead,” on the other hand, the zombies represent something to be feared and killed.

Lavin also spoke about gender organization, government, courtship and gun culture in relation to both “Haze and Fog” and “The Walking Dead.” She remarked on the U.S. obsession with guns and how that is portrayed on the show and among the fans.

Those in attendance, such as junior fashion design major Emily Staffileno, were able to see Lavin speak on the strange, and why we, as a society, seem to gravitate towards it.

“I wanted to look for a little inspiration,” Staffileno said. “I wanted to hear her take on the art.”

A Northeast Ohio native, Lavin was born and raised in Canton. She has written three books, including “Push Comes to Shove: New Images of Aggressive Women,” “Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design,” and “Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Hoch.”

She is currently working on an anthology titled “Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan” co-edited with Ling Yang and Jing Jamie Zhao. In the work, Lavin focuses on critical theory in art history and media.

Zombies as a cultural phenomenon appealed to Lavin in a more technical sense as she credits the realistic makeup as being a huge draw for her in watching The Walking Dead. She also credits the thesis that the monster reflects society’s feelings as a whole.

“There’s some mythology … when the economy is good it’s all about vampires, and vampires are sort of glamorous. But then when the economy is bad, people are sort of reading it as more like zombies are so depressing,” Lavin said. “Vampires are about kind of renewable life even in a morbid form … It’s like death taking over everything.”

Kellie Nock is an arts reporter, contact her at [email protected].