On the wall in UNC Charlotte’s Rowe Lower Gallery hangs a restaurant’s old industrial dish rack.
Stuffed inside – where glasses were once ritualistically scalded clean of their pasts – are scuffed tennis balls. Their worn-down green fuzz and dried dirt bruises reveal glimpses of their own hard-hit histories.
“It’s curious, isn’t it?” said Kendra Harris, 23, a photography major, studying the display. “It’s kind of an element of familiarity to me. I used to play tennis.”
Each ball probably has a different story: One could have been regularly soused in the slobber of a Saint Bernard at a dog park; another might have split its time between a concrete sidewalk and a brick building on an inner-city block. Maybe one of them was volleyed for a minute straight in a match on campus between a photography student and her friend.
For the next 11 days, anyone who visits the gallery can take one of the balls. They can take the Elvis lamp, the Styrofoam mannequin head or the coconut monkey. They can even take all the balls out, hitch the dish rack on their shoulders and carry that straight out the door.
But they have to leave something of their own for it.
It’s called “I Like Swap: Something with a Past,” a new exhibit at the gallery that challenges patrons to trade an item of their own with something from the collection on display.
The idea is to create a connection with others by trading the objects. Each item already brings its own past. When it’s traded, it begins another story.
“I Like Swap” is the collaborative brainchild of the university’s installation art class, made up of students like Harris and artist-in-residence Erin V. Sotak, a photographic, installation and performance artist whose work has been exhibited throughout the United States.
“It seems like, at first, it’s a room of left-behinds,” Sotak warned.
On one side of the gallery hangs a rack of hundreds of keys. On another side, the empty box of a vintage sunlamp sits on a shelf. In between, everything from a mound of tiny burlap sacks to colorful reels of ribbon to fish-themed knickknacks lie scattered about.
The gallery usually has a more familiar look, with the sculptures and paintings of students and professional artists. For this exhibit, it has taken on the atmosphere of an intriguing swap shop instead.
“I hope it’s an experience that’s unusual, fun, silly, absurd, charming and something that basically gives them a story to share with somebody else,” said Sotak. “It’s more about everyone coming together and having this group experience.”
Alone, each item tells one story; together, they create another.
In the corner, a boxy, old-fashioned briefcase stands next to a gold velour living room chair. Beside it, an end table holds a vintage Life magazine, a 45 rpm record and a telephone that’s outdated by several decades.
“When you put this object next to that object, they tell a whole new story,” said Sotak.
“That’s the whole idea of swap,” said Harris. “To create new stories and forge new connections.”