centuryplant: Silhouette of an agave flowerhead with three birds perched on it (agave)
Last month Pamela and I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to catch up on some exhibits before they went away. As often happens, it took us a while to get where we were headed. We were waylaid first by this Japanese suit of armor with a mantis waving its forelegs on the helmet. (Note the photo on the linked page is zoomable.) If I'd seen that mantis out of context I think I'd have guessed it was Art Deco. Anyway, it was an insect so I had to admire it. Then there was a display of Chinese Buddhist art on the second floor, which I would have walked right past, except that Pamela noticed a set of Stone Rubbings of the Five Hundred Arhats. (No photo at that site, alas.) These were taken from late 18th century temple carvings, which unfortunately were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. We were both struck by how different the faces were, and how much personality they all had. Since they were bound into books, only a few pages could be displayed at a time, and of course there'd have been no room to show all of them anyway, but 500 figures as different as those would be amazing. I was also taken with a wooden figure of a monk from the 9th or 10th century CE -- again, no picture. It's a simple figure, but very delicately carved, especially the eyelids.

Eventually we made it to the first of the exhibits we came for, In Pursuit of a Masterpiece. This is a sort of offshoot of "The Louvre and the Masterpiece," a big ticketed exhibit that neither of us had cared for very much when we saw it. There were a few impressive pieces, like this bronze lion and Vermeer's The Astronomer, but a lot more that we didn't care about. Also, the theme was annoying -- it was all about what constitutes a masterpiece, and what people at various times have considered to be one. I realize that's an important subject, but I don't actually find it very interesting. After a while the tags all started to blur into a chain of boring superlatives. We got more out of a small side exhibit of star charts and other astronomical paraphernalia contemporary with Vermeer, which included a copy of the book shown in the painting.

We also liked "In Pursuit of a Masterpiece" better than the main attraction. It was a fairly small exhibit: they just asked various curators to pick one object from the permanent collection that they considered to be a masterpiece, and then explain why in a short essay in the first person. That is exactly what that theme needed to make it interesting. There was a ridiculously elaborate silver inkstand that probably belonged to Pope Pius VI, with its own leather carrying case, useful if you want to travel with an inkstand bigger than your head. According to the museum website, "the two doves can be made to kiss by means of a lever located under the fountain." I wonder how often the Pope did that.

In a slight departure from the premise, they also had a Chacmool statue that was considered a star of the collection in, if I remember right, the 1960s, until someone realized it was a forgery. The curator's essay explained rather sheepishly that there wasn't a pre-Columbian specialist on staff back then, but even so it was hard to see how anyone had ever been taken in by such a crude fake. Next to that was a real ball game yoke from Veracruz; the difference in craftsmanship was certainly obvious. Unfortunately, the online photo doesn't show the faces carved into the ends, which I thought were the best part. Pamela and I took turns squeezing against the wall to see them better.

We also spent quite a while looking at Bertel Thorvaldsen's Ganymede and the Eagle, even though we've seen it before. If I were passing through town and only had one chance to visit the museum, this is one of the things I'd make a point of seeing. It's beautiful, and the tender scene between Ganymede and the eagle is certainly an interesting revision of the usual "When Animals Attack" treatment. Sometimes Neoclassicism is a lot like fanfic.

I wanted to know what kind of eagle the artist based his depiction of Zeus on. I always want to know what species everything is, but they never tell you. According to the Raptors in Denmark website there are Golden Eagles breeding in Denmark, so it might be that. He certainly knew what he was sculpting about -- the leg feathers especially are amazing.

We managed to leave this exhibit just as a large, annoying tour group was arriving. Perfect.

Next up was From Our Ancestors: Art of the White Clay People, an exhibit of A'aninin and Nakoda art. When I first heard about this exhibit, I wondered where the "our" in the title came from. This article on the MPR website explained it: Joe Horse Capture, the curator who put the exhibit together, is a member of the A'aninin nation. He and his father went around locating A'aninin art that was scattered around the country, often misidentified as coming from some other tribe, and brought it all together for this exhibit. Very cool. The odd thing is that I only know this because of that article, and because I read part of the exhibit catalog in the museum gift shop later on -- the exhibit never mentions it. I don't get this. I can understand not wanting the story of the exhibit to distract attention from its contents, but not mentioning it at all leaves people to assume that the museum just decided to speak in the first person on behalf of a Native American tribe, which seems like a pretty outrageous thing to do. I might have guessed that the museum thinks curators should stay anonymous and behind the scenes if I hadn't just seen Joe Horse Capture's name on the wall next to this very impressive Bella Coola frontlet in that Masterpiece exhibit right around the corner. So what gives? I kept thinking I'd missed some text somewhere, but if so, I never found it.

Anyway, the exhibit is excellent. The highlight of it is a large teepee liner painted with feats of war; they had found out the names of everyone depicted, and for one of them -- the curator's great-great grandfather -- they even had a photograph by Edward Curtis for comparison. I also liked the two examples of recent art they included, especially a metal shield by Robe Walker -- and I would swear I saw a picture of it online, but I can't find it now. It almost doesn't matter, because the photo did no justice to the lustre of the different metals or the patterns on them (anodized, I think). The A'aninin beadwork was also terrific. The basic color scheme seems to be purplish rose, usually with white or sky blue, sometimes accented with red or green -- just beautiful.

After that, Pamela sat down to rest for a minute while I went upstairs to look at Kehinde Wiley's Santos Dumont - The Father of Aviation II. As an experiment, they've hung it in the Baroque Room -- home to such paintings as Dog Trying to Call His Mistress's Attention to a Wardrobe Malfunction (they call it something else). You can see them putting it up in this Flickr set. It's an interesting idea, but I don't think it works -- the clash of styles is just too great. You wouldn't think it from the Flickr photos, but the Wiley really dominates the room, making the Baroque art look washed out and fussy, yet without actually gaining anything from the comparison. I found myself focusing too much on its style, which I don't think is really the most interesting aspect of it. I do like it, but but I had to sort of shut out the rest of the room in order to realize that. They had a guestbook in which you are invited to write down your reaction to the experiment, but that would have required legible handwriting, so I didn't.

Finally we stopped by a small exhibit called iAfrica: Connecting with Sub-Saharan Art. This is another exhibit that just takes pieces from the permanent collection, but in this case the idea is to try out different ways of presenting them. One piece was in a rotating display case you could turn by hand; another case had airholes so you could smell the traces of curdled milk if you wanted to. This memory board came with a video of a man reading the history it records, but instead of a translation of what he was saying, there was a voiceover explaining what a memory board is -- essentially, repeating what we'd just read on the tag. I don't know if the video got better later; we got tired of waiting. A musical instrument came with two videos that were supposed to show traditional thumb piano playing and a contemporary band with a lamellophone, which seemed interesting, but the touchscreen was malfunctioning and we could only get one of the videos to play.

Then there was the big sign explaining that they try to make sure the art isn't stolen if it left Africa later than 1970, because that's the year the U.S. signed a treaty saying that stealing is wrong. (I paraphrase slightly.) This came with a laminated sheet listing the dates of relevant laws and treaties. I would have been more interested in a list of works they know are stolen, but are keeping anyway.

One experiment I liked very much: they included some photos of objects in the exhibit being used. For instance, this grater/stool from Tanzania came with a photo of a woman sitting in front of her refrigerator, using it -- or one like it, probably -- to grate a coconut. The label explained the object, but the photo made sense of it: you sit on the grater because that keeps it in place, and then you can use both hands to hold the coconut. I was especially glad of the photos because I remember being annoyed by an Asmat art exhibit last year, which explained that cuscus tails and flying fox feet were common decorative motifs, then left you on your own to guess which of the various stylized designs these were, based on the extensive knowledge of New Guinean fauna that all Minnesotans naturally have. (Pamela figured it out; I failed because I thought a cuscus was a bird.) So it's good to see the museum recognizing that photos aren't just art, but can also be used to convey information.

My favorite piece in the exhibit was this Nkisi Nkonde, or "nail figure." I'll just quote the label:
In traditional Kongo villages a religious specialist, or diviner, is responsible for the spiritual and physical well-being of society. He relies on the assistance of a powerful spirit that resides in sculpted wood figures, or nkisi. Nkisi are brought out for healing, for taking oaths, and to seal agreements or make legal settlements. The spirit is activated by driving nails or blades into the figure. Each blade or nail represents an oath, an agreement, or an episode in village history. Kongo people take pride in the fairness of their legal and social system. As the legal scholar and philosopher Fu-Kiau Kia Bunseki explains, judicial procedures take place in public. "The accused is seated within the circle. Any community member is allowed to ask questions. The main goal of this is to understand social problems and conflicts and to try to find a remedy to cure him as well as the entire community." The judgment is sealed before an nkisi, with the understanding that the spirit within that figure would punish any violation of the settlement.
Actually, that's the label from the permanent exhibit. The label it had in iAfrica left out the quotation from Fu-Kiau Kia Bunseki, and overall was not as clear. Whoever wrote it was worried that the nails would make people imagine "a link to a popular misconception of voodoo practices." Only after we left did it dawn on me that they'd been trying to say "this is not a 'voodoo doll.'" I never thought it was, so I was just confused. I think that goes to show that no matter what other experiments you're trying, it's still more important to write clearly.

But what struck me about this figure -- with his bundles tied all over, and all hammered up with nails -- is that he looks delighted. Really, this is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in a museum. I couldn't take my eyes off it.

But I have no idea what his expression means, or if it even matters. What you can learn about a culture from a label in an art museum is not much, after all. One of the signs in the exhibit talked about how important it is to show African art in context, instead of just presenting it as an object for aesthetic contemplation. But of course, everything in a museum is out of context unless it was made to hang in a museum. You can't fix that, you can only mitigate it. Probably the best way to mitigate it is to have exhibits with a strong focus, so that instead of just one label, you have lots of displays and text working together. And that's what's wrong with this exhibit: "Sub-Saharan Art" is a ridiculously broad topic for an exhibit that only takes up one medium-sized room. (Imagine an exhibit called "European Art" that contains a copy of the Discobolus, the cover of Abbey Road, a Theremin, a chasuble, an empty lambic bottle, a potato peeler, and Da Vinci's Codex on the Flight of Birds.) The exhibit is all about experimenting to find out the best way to present art, but I think what it really demonstrates is that you shouldn't run exhibits like this. Instead, go upstairs and look at what Joe Horse Capture did, because that was a lot better.

At the end of the exhibit there was a computer running a survey, so you could give them feedback on their experiments. Oh, good -- no penmanship required. So I sat down intending to say that they should use more photos and try not to be so scattershot. Some of the questions on the survey were pretty silly -- like, do you prefer art behind glass or out in the open? I, for one, insist that all art be sealed in a lead box for my protection. Also, do you want art in the middle of the room or at the edges? That's not quite as silly; I would have liked it if that ball game yoke had been moved so you could see the ends better. Also, on the third floor there's a triptych by the Master of the St. Lucy Legend with a chiaroscuro Annunciation on the cover that you can just barely see; I'd love to get a better look at it. But it's still pretty silly, because of course they're not going to quit putting things by the walls (I picture paintings stacked up in the middle of the room like a house of cards). They're going to decide which objects need to be seen in the round, the same way they did before the survey. If they wanted to consult me about every individual case, I guess that would be okay.

That was the first page of the survey. I clicked to go to the next page and got an error -- it couldn't find the server. There were no "back" or "reload" buttons, and the standard keyboard shortcuts didn't work, so I was stuck and had to give up. Welcome to the museum of the future.


centuryplant: A Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Default)

August 2013

456 7 8910
1112 1314151617


RSS Atom

Page Summary

Layout Credit

Based on "Crossroads" by
[personal profile] branchandroot

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags