Try and think back to what you were like when you were 9 years old. What sort of things did you care about? How would you have described your friends, family and school? What did you hope you’d achieve as an adult? Though the viewer’s own childhood memories and experience are external to I Want To Grow Up Fast, Pentimenti Gallery’s current exhibition, they’re impossible to ignore, and they make the show all the more poignant.
Hoping to highlight the challenges children of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds face today, Philly-based conceptual photographer Judy Gelles has spent four years traveling to private and public inner-city schools in China, India and America. Of the 140 students she interviewed as part of her Fourth Grade Project, Gelles asked each the same three questions: With whom do you live? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?
With their responses now a part of her art, these children are brought to life inside the Old City space, the show’s title having been taken straight from the mouth of a 9-year-old girl from a Chinese school for migrant children. It is that same girl first greeting you at the door, appearing precious yet unnervingly statuesque in a life-size photograph, followed by those of nine other children. There are no goofy faces or crazy poses, just slight grins and grimaces. In fact, with their playful personalities almost completely undetectable, these 9-year-olds eventually start to look like hardened old souls.
To give audiences a more comprehensive look at Gelles’ unique aesthetic, a selection of her older works are featured on the opposite side of the gallery, including the photos series Trailer Park, which is currently a part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection. With three books and roughly 20 years of experience under her belt, the quality of the New Hampshire native’s work is hardly surprising. Perhaps the most provocative pieces in Gelles’ mix are the portraits from her After 9/11 series, capturing Muslim women in their traditional burkas with fashion logos sprawled across their faces.
Yet, the real heart of I Want To Grow Up Fast is the accompanying video playing in constant rotation inside the project room, giving a voice to the wishes, worries and home lives of the fourth graders Gelles interviewed. While their audio airs from above, the children’s images flash across the screen, this time, with their backs facing the audience, forcing one to really listen. While you may have been wishing for frivolous things like a puppy or a million dollars at that age, these kids have far more daunting issues on their minds, issues like global warming, poverty, immigration, bullying and death.
Expressing many of the same interests, hobbies and career aspirations, the cultural differences between the youths are really only pronounced when they discuss their families. Ultimately, the sharpest contrasts are drawn between the students of different socioeconomic statuses, especially those here in America. While a boy from a Jewish day school wishes for a “fully functional robot” to do his homework and tell him the scores of the Giants game, a girl his same age from an urban public school is wishing for “bad people to stop killing good people.” As for the urban private school students, well, they don’t have a lot of wishes or worries. They do, however, have lots of Apple devices.
Perhaps the biggest conclusion one can leave the gallery with is that kids today aren’t in fact becoming more intellectual, tolerant or cultured. Maybe it’s just gotten harder for adults to see them for what they really are: Children.
Through Feb. 23. Pentimenti Gallery, 145 N. Second St. 215.625.9990. pentimenti.com