Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street
November 14 – December 22, 2018
Until she represented the United Kingdom at the Venice Biennale in 2017, Phyllida Barlow could scarcely be said to have been a star in the contemporary art world. This is not to say she was unknown. Far from it. She had long been something of a marginalized stalwart. In London, as a teacher at the Slade School of Art for over forty years, she fostered such brilliant talents as Anthony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, and Martin Creed, but, although a Royal Academician, remained almost always behind the scenes. All that has changed.
Now she has come to New York with a major exhibition of new work made since her triumph in Venice. She describes the new pieces as economical and stripped down. The layers of hessian dipped in cement are largely absent, though the sense of exquisitely improvised assemblages of discarded utilitarian things from some dystopian city streetscape remains.
Some works are on a scale that crowd the space and impinge on the viewer, such as untitled: hung4; 2018. This is a gathering of four large plywood boards, each with a circular hole cut in it, aligned with each other out of kilter, painted shades of red and orange, and suspended from the ceiling. Barlow said that she had tried a less threatening color scheme of blues, but that the work lacked the sense of danger she values. There certainly is an alarming aspect to this piece, and to other large works in the exhibition.
For instance, even more menacing than the hanging sculpture is untitled: pinkspree; 2018, a tilted stack of three toothed boards resembling giant hackles—spiked tools for combing flax—roughly smeared first with black and then pink paint. Barlow’s genial reference to it in conversation as “that big pink thing over there,” may have disarmed it somewhat, but only fleetingly.
There is an irreverent side to all the works on view, as though a graffiti artist bent on mayhem had aimed her spray paint at exquisite sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Lynn Chadwick. Barlow’s sculptures, for all their bad girl messiness, retain a vestigial poise of the kind found in the works of those British artists of an earlier generation. The hanging sculpture, untitled: hung4; 2018, evokes a Barbara Hepworth after an earthquake, while she follows Chadwick’s work in the sense of balance with which she imbues numbers of them. This can be seen no more clearly than in untitled: pointer; 2018, an assemblage of four seeming offcuts of plywood daubed with glued sand and sprayed with orange and yellow paint, that balances on the apexes of two triangles on a steel cube.
Barlow expresses a love of big city streets where builders improvise work-arounds in the course of messy and disruptive infrastructure projects. One such chute for pouring concrete, knocked together from rough planks, caught her eye on a building site, and inspired the ensemble untitled: shute 1,2,3 – wall,leaning,floor; 2018. Barlow is the master of robust abjection.
At times, it is not the worn and encrusted artifacts themselves that fascinate her so much as the shadows they cast in urban space. She captures such a shadow in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-like projection in untitled: tilt(lintel); 2018, the work that gives its (non-) name to the exhibition. The vertical though angled steel element is like the bare, stripped frame of a doorway in a Kurt Schwitters Merzbau, while rising from its base is a construction of grey painted plywood spreading horizontally across the floor. It represents—Barlow said—the shadow; though she genially allows it to be anything else that an engaged viewer might fancy. Asked about the fall of actual shadow from the sculpted shadow, and the part that shadows play in her works, Barlow admitted that lighting is a huge challenge, and that this issue is what she termed the Achilles heel of her practice. If that is indeed so, no one has yet fatally found the mark. Phyllida Barlow’s tilt is a triumph for an artist of great acumen and experience at the height of her powers.
Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.
EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam
January 21 – May 7, 2017
Is it possible to make a satisfactory museum exhibition comprised of not much more than film clips? This is what curator Jaap Guldemond has done in collaboration with the renowned Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Tarr’s career has spanned the momentous changes that swept eastern Europe since the late 1980s. His accounts of social dysfunction and moral gloom are unsparingly bleak. His mastery of the long take rivals that of the late Chantal Akerman.
Tarr’s is a black and white world in which depressed and deprived people perform rituals of seemingly unending self-abasement, often in driving rain. A pre-adolescent girl strides purposefully yet stumblingly towards the ever-retreating camera, staring uncompromisingly into the lens, marching through day and night, carrying the cat she has killed. This sequence from Tarr’s seven-and-a-half hour long 1994 movie, Sátántangó (Satantango), is projected in the same gallery as a sequence from Werckmeister harmóniák(Werckmeister Harmonies), 2000, in which two young boys refuse to go to bed and enact their own disruptive and obsessive ritual of clanging pan lids, jumping on the bed, and threatening their father with a stick.
Tarr’s socially deprived characters express homespun Nietzschean nostrums, as when a shaven-headed man braves a furious wind to come to a father and daughter’s cabin to ask them to refill his bottle with pálinka, a strong Hungarian brandy. Seated at their rough-hewn table—the same table in the gallery at which visitors sit to watch—he delivers a monolog on never-ending strife, the death of all gods, and the hopelessness of existence. This sequence is from A torinói ló (The Turin Horse), 2011, Tarr’s last completed feature film. Tarr’s inspiration was the famous incident when Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed the maltreatment of a horse, which is said to have triggered his final descent into insanity.
Tarr’s characters also model the universe, as when at closing time in a bleak village bar, a young man organizes his fellow drinkers to enact a solar eclipse, playing the roles of the sun, moon, and planets, as a swaying, dancing human orrery (Werckmeister Harmonies). These are “simple people,” as the protagonist in the eclipse scene describes his companions. They oscillate between states of impassivity and sheer awkwardness, with outbreaks of angry determination, as when a crowd of men, many armed with staves, marches down a nighttime street in a sequence from Werckmeister Harmonies. Yet for all their bewilderment, these are people with inner lives that Tarr seeks to capture through bathetic monologs, and monotonous actions.
To reach these screened cinematic extracts in which the fictional figures are all, in their various ways, waiting for the Hungarian equivalent of Godot, visitors must pass through two galleries each containing an installation specially contrived by Tarr for the exhibition. One contains a dead tree from which all the leaves have been blown to swirl around the darkened gallery, animated by large roaring fans. Immediately preceding this Beckettian scene is the opening installation, Fence. Flanking fences of frontier razor wire lead the visitor through a border zone to a screen showing horrifying news footage of fighting, bombardment, and rescue attempts from rubble shot recently by journalists in Syria. The desperate refugees to whom Hungary closed its borders are the real, contemporary counterparts of Tarr’s movie characters. In the final gallery, we see one such figure in a sequence made specially for the exhibition, titled Muhamed (2016). A young boy in a shopping mall mournfully plays Arab melodies on an accordion while staring at the camera—again in black and white. Muhamed occupies an ambiguous position between fact and fiction, his stare daring us to deny the actuality of his predicament.
The thirteen film sequences—twelve from Tarr’s movies made between 1988 and 2011, plus the specially shot Muhamed—and the two opening installations, certainly make a compelling exhibition, skillfully and variously installed so as not to appear monotonous. Much, of course, depends on Tarr’s directorial skill as a cinematic auteur, but others deserve credit, too. Not least among them are the various cinematographers with whom Tarr has worked, most consistently Gábor Medvigy, screenwriter László Krasznahorkai, and the composer, Mihály Víg.
One sequence stands out for its lucidity and delicacy, and its escape from the long cinematic shadows of Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. This is a segment titled Prológus (Prologue) from an anthology film, Visions of Europe (2004). The camera tracks slowly along the heads and shoulders of men and women standing two or three deep in a line against a building. When the camera reaches a window, it opens, and from it a young woman dispenses a plastic cup of soup and a plastic bag containing two small rolls of bread to each person in the line as he or she shuffles past. She has an embarrassed smile and word for all. There follows a list of names: that of the young woman followed by those in the line, each an individual, each with an inner life, however downcast. The delicacy and pathos of these five minutes of film derive as much from the superlative cinematography of the great Dutch master, Robby Müller as they do from the quiet patience of the performers, under the direction of Béla Tarr. Yet this exhibition is truly one of Tarr’s own vision spanning the last thirty years of his career, and Jaap Guldemond and his colleagues at EYE Filmmuseum have been fully vindicated in their decision to present Tarr’s work in this form.
Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.
Houghton Library, Harvard University: Manuscripts from Church & Cloister
September 12–December 10, 2016
McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College: Manuscripts for Pleasure & Piety
September 12–December 11, 2016
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Italian Renaissance Books
September 22, 2016–January 16, 2017
While hunting for rare volumes on vacation in Venice in 1890, the art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) discovered a French sixteenth-century manuscript book of hours illuminated with exquisite miniature paintings. The artist was unknown at the time, but Mrs. Gardner knew quality when she saw it. Now identified as the work of Jean Bourdichon (ca. 1457–1521), court painter to four French kings, from Louis XI to Francis I, the book is one of the highlights of the exhibition Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.
Gardner was one of many wealthy, art-loving Bostonians who imported medieval manuscripts to New England in the late 1800s, along with other less portable artifacts including sculpture, ironwork, and panel paintings. Thanks to this concentration of riches, often gathered first in private collections and later donated to institutions, including public libraries and colleges, Beyond Words presents what is billed as the largest array of medieval manuscripts ever shown in North America, drawn from nineteen Boston-area institutions.
When the historian of medieval art Jeffrey Hamburger came to Harvard University in 2000, he was familiar with Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Venetian find, now known as the Bourdichon Hours. He suspected that a wealth of medieval material lay dormant in Boston collections, much of it inadequately catalogued and unknown to scholars. With William Stoneman, then librarian of Houghton Library, Harvard’s rare book repository, he began a systematic trawl of local institutional collections that netted around three thousand medieval manuscripts and fragments dating from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries.
Along the way, Hamburger and Stoneman joined forces with Italian specialist Anne-Marie Eze, then associate curator at the Gardner; Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America; and Nancy Netzer, director of the McMullen Museum at Boston College. The five collaborated as cocurators of the exhibition and coeditors of the 375-page, fully illustrated catalogue, with entries by eighty-three international experts.
Through their selection of over 250 books, single leaves, and cuttings, the curators tell the history of the book over the course of a thousand years in Europe. They bring to light the variety and richness of medieval material in Boston-area collections, and explore the tastes and preoccupations of the Brahmin collectors of the Gilded Age.
Each of the three venues highlights a particular kind of book production and readership. Houghton displays “Manuscripts from Church and Cloister,” showing books mainly made by and for monks and nuns from the seventh century through the twelfth century. “Manuscripts for Pleasure and Piety” at the McMullen explores the growth of a lay readership and the role of secular and religious books in medieval society, and “Italian Renaissance Books” at the Gardner charts the birth of the modern book in fifteenth-century Italy, and the importance of the Renaissance humanist library as a storehouse of intellectual and visual culture.
The display at Houghton Library focuses on the central role of books in the lives of medieval monks and nuns. Books created in the scriptoria, or writing rooms, of monasteries and convents ensured the transmission of classical literature and learning, as well as preserving and annotating religious texts and promoting practical guidelines for the good life.
Hand-made books were expensive and time-consuming to make, and their bindings were often fitted with chains to ensure that they did not wander from their proper place, as four chained volumes of genealogies and sermons from Germany and northern Italy attest. Another rare survival is an ingenious medieval bookmark—a long strip of parchment with a little rotating wheel that allowed the reader to mark the precise column and line where he or she left off.
A line drawing on a page from a German twelfth-century copy of a Gospel commentary gives a glimpse of the human relationships and labor behind this communal scholarly effort. The scribe—a tonsured, robed monk—is shown kneeling in deference to his abbot, while presenting the volume he has just finished. Above his head is a Latin poem, thanking the abbot for keeping him busy, and assuring him that “it is for sure a pleasure to copy, for it is distasteful to be idle.”
A document from the Cistercian abbey of Saint Mary at Sawley in present-day Lancashire, England, shows the origin of the term indenture. The jagged-edged parchment from around 1265, with black wax seal still attached, concerns an exchange of lands. An indenture was made from a single sheet of parchment with two identical records of the agreement, notes William Stoneman in his catalogue entry. The sheet was then cut along a zigzag line, or into teeth, hence indenture. Each party retained one part, and in case of future disagreement they could be matched to prove authenticity.
If the indenture shows the importance of mundane matters such as land management to ecclesiastical institutions, three large leaves from the Noyon Missal (France, ca. 1225–50), show the artistry with which texts for the celebration of the sacred mystery of the Mass could be adorned. Elaborate illuminations show Gregory the Great against a burnished gold ground, seated at his writing desk, inspired by the dove of the Holy Spirit. An athletic figure of Christ rises from the tomb, and allegorical figures of Ecclesia and Synagogaflank the Lamb of God, the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. On the most elaborately illuminated leaf, with the prayers for the consecration of the host, even the notation of the Gregorian chant is highlighted in gold.
Across town at the McMullen Museum on the Brighton Campus of Boston College, while there are still plenty of Bibles and other religious texts on show, the focus is on the place of books in medieval society beyond the monastery walls. The growing importance of visual demonstration in matters of both faith and science fueled an expansion of imagery, ranging from exquisite, jewel-like miniatures by master painters to rough and ready anatomical diagrams showing physicians how to treat specific ailments by bleeding.
The McMullen recently moved to new premises at the former Boston archbishop’s residence, at 2101 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. With its light-filled atrium, expanded exhibition space, and roof terrace with spectacular views of downtown Boston, the museum is well equipped to host the largest section of Beyond Words.
The opening gallery offers a primer in manuscript book making. A video shows the laborious stages, from the preparation of parchment from sheep, goat, and calf hides, to the ruling of pages prior to writing, and the underdrawing and gold-leaf application that went before the addition of the final, brilliant colors—derived from ground minerals and organic plant materials, usually mixed with egg white to make tempera.
Exhibits in the opening section show manuscripts in various phases of production: parchment pages nested into “gatherings” before binding, sheets showing underdrawing, an instruction manual on the use of various scripts, and an unfinished Gospel page in which the scribe has left a large Q-shaped void for the addition of an illuminated capital letter. “These manuscripts are not simply vessels for text and image—they are material objects in which every feature was crafted with a view to their function and expressive purpose,” said Hamburger in a phone conversation about the ideas behind the exhibition.
Medieval book production was a highly collaborative process. Illuminators often relied on model books to give their productions the authority, authenticity, and accuracy considered crucial in the realm of religious texts. On display are two tiny, exquisite drawings from early fifteenth-century Prague showing the heads of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin of the Annunciation. With her high forehead, narrow chin, and pursed, rosy-red lips, the Virgin Mary reflects contemporary ideals of courtly beauty. The drawings would have been part of a collection showing heads of holy figures to serve as models for use by artists in illuminations and other media, such as panel painting.
Two rare surviving examples of complete model books—a late fifteenth-century French compendium of botanical and costume studies, and a book of bird designs for a moralized bestiary—are among selected exhibits accompanied by wall-mounted iPads. These allow viewers to “turn the pages” of a complete digital facsimile and so overcome an inherent limitation of book exhibits, the fact that only one opening can be displayed at a time. Set at half brightness, so as not to outshine the originals, the tablets enable not only exploration of other, hidden, pages, but also enlargement of details from the page on display. Since much of the fascination of these manuscripts is in the weird and playful creatures that flourish in their margins, the chance to see them in high magnification is a real bonus.
Technology also brings to life the music preserved in one of the McMullen’s treasures, a fourteenth-century German Franciscan antiphonal. This well-thumbed compendium of music used by monks for their daily services shows signs of wear and tear, with wax stains on some pages, says Michael Noone, chair of the Music Department at Boston College. Thanks to its accompanying iPad station, visitors can access video of seven chants from the volume, sung by a Spanish group specializing in medieval music performance.
With so much material to digest, the smartphone-accessible online audio guide, narrated by the curators, is an invaluable resource. In one of her lively contributions, Anne-Marie Eze describes an intriguing survival from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, an image collaged from devotional books looted by French soldiers during Napoleon’s occupation of Rome at the end of the eighteenth century, showing the Last Judgment. “When people think of the Sistine Chapel and the Last Judgment they think of Michelangelo’s famous fresco, so it’s very interesting to see an almost contemporary image of the same subject, and to think about the interrelations between monumental art and illumination in books,” she says.
Recently removed from its constricting 1969 binding for conservation, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s exquisite Bourdichon Hours is displayed here sheet by sheet—offering a rare chance to see the original miniatures side by side. In his audio guide narration, Hamburger draws attention to Bourdichon’s skillful deployment of varied light effects and his use of elaborate architectural frames to mediate between the viewers’ space and the dramatic scenes of Christ’s passion and other devotional images.
The third-floor Monan Gallery at the McMullen takes the visitor into the realms of power and politics, and courtly pastimes including hawking and the tournament. Highlights are the first conduct manual for women written by a woman, by the prolific fifteenth-century French author Christine de Pizan; and a magnificent thirty-four-foot-long illuminated French roll telling the history of the world from the Creation to the time of its production in the 1470s.
Among the three venues hosting Beyond Words, the Gardner offers the most elaborately designed presentation, using paintings, furniture, and classical antiquities from the collection to evoke an Italian Renaissance humanist scholarly studiolo, and deploying scrims with life-size photographic reproductions of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library to summon the architecture of sixteenth-century Florence. In the age of digital media, when many question the future of the printed book, this segment of Beyond Words invites visitors to think back the 1400s when the invention of printing signaled the beginning of the end for the hand-painted, hand-written manuscript.
The show charts the humanist book from its origins in Florence around 1400 to its flowering in Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century. Alongside the humanist bestsellers—Boccaccio’s Decameron, Dante’s Divina commedia, Petrarch’s Trionfi—are books of mathematical games, maps, and views of whales and sharks and other exotic creatures, as well as religious works for both public and private devotion. Among the Italian Renaissance books recently discovered in Boston-area collections are a prayer book of Pope Julius III (r. 1550–55) and a book used in the preparation of the Mass in the Sistine Chapel, painted by Vincent Raymond (d. 1557), the first official illuminator to the popes, as cocurator Anne-Marie Eze notes in her introductory catalogue essay. As Eze also notes, Isabella Stewart Gardner, fascinated as she was by historical art patrons who shared her name, would have been delighted by the inclusion of sumptuous books of hours that once belonged to Isabella, queen of Naples (1424–65), and Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (1474–1539).
A comprehensive website, beyondwords2016.org, offers detailed information about visiting each venue, a calendar of public programming, a link to the smartphone-accessible audio guide, and a searchable database of objects in the show. With guaranteed funding to maintain the website for five years, the curators promise regular infusions of new material. Updates are also posted on Twitter @BeyondWords2016. If these media prove anything like as durable as the parchment, ink, and paint that came before them, the great scholarly effort behind Beyond Words may have a long afterlife.
Jane Whitehead is a writer in the Boston area.
The Foundling Museum, London
May 27 – September 4, 2016
William Hogarth was a founding governor of the Foundling Hospital, chartered in 1739, and his example ensured the commitment of leading artists to “Ornamenting this Hospital.” The Hogarth Fellowship commemorates their involvement. Cornelia Parker (b. 1956), the most recent recipient, has used her appointment to mount an exhibition of works contributed by over sixty fellow artists, writers, and musicians. The premise of the project is that each thing shown should have been found by its contributor. They thereby echo the human purpose of the hospital, which is to care for abandoned children. Parker is among the most admired, respected, and well-liked artists of her generation, and she has drawn on her wide circle of acquaintance to create this thoughtful exhibition. Many of the objects are distributed among the existing displays of the museum, playing off things in the permanent collection. Others are gathered in the temporary exhibition gallery.
The Foundling Museum is an extremely difficult venue in which to make display interventions owing to the superb quality of the artworks donated to the hospital by leading eighteenth-century artists. They include paintings by Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Benjamin West, and Richard Wilson. Louis-François Roubiliac’s portrait bust of George Frideric Handel (a supporter of the hospital), and ornately carved wood paneling by William Hallett add to its richness. An even greater challenge is the presence of small things that in other circumstances might scarcely be remarkable but that are here extraordinarily invested with affect. These are the tokens left by parents (mostly mothers) consigning their children to the hospital, usually out of desperation. These tokens were to ensure that any future claim for their return might be verified. Many are kept in the Billet Books, the records of admission. One is displayed open to show the page recording the admission of a male child. Affixed to it is a pink ribbon cockade, of the kind commonly attached to boys’ caps to identify their gender. This is the token of child number 13,733, admitted on August 21, 1759. Given the circumstances, these simple things—coins, scraps of embroidery, cheap jewelry—carry a considerable emotional charge.
To place other things among these charged objects can be no casual undertaking, and not every contributor rises to the occasion. Some clearly gave more thought to Parker’s project than others. Among the successful additions in the gallery containing the tokens is a vitrine containing a photograph from about 1911 of Cornelius Alfred Phipps, then aged about seven, wearing a sailor suit and holding a bucket and wooden spade. Phipps was the grandfather of artist, Sue Pritchard, who found it among her mother’s possessions after her death in 2012. Phipps had himself been brought up in an orphanage in view of his mother’s inability to care for him following his father’s death. He was reunited with his mother when he left school. Shown with the photograph are not only fragmented pieces of his sailor suit, but also the very spade held by the boy. These are relics of a childhood that parallels those of the children in the hospital, but one distinguished by reunion of mother and son, and the private preservation until her death of things that characterized her dearly loved child.
The museum contains many tokens of the hospital’s and its governors’ wealth and social standing. Among them is a case containing the hospital’s silver. The fine chargers, cups, and ewers were intended for both use and display on great occasions. Into this array, Humphrey Ocean has introduced a circular, plain, but variously dented, apparently silver object that at first is scarcely distinguishable from the platters that flank it. But, as Ocean explains in the accompanying label, it is a car hubcap that he found many years ago in Peckham Road, London, and that he has kept in his studio ever since. Its character and status is a gentle reproach to the grandeur of the social claims associated with the vessels it accompanies, as well as a reminder that beauty can reside in abjection.
The aesthetics of degradation informs several other works in the exhibition: a glass bottle encrusted with the hardened casts of marine tube worms found off the west coast of Ireland and contributed by Dorothy Cross; a military helmet, probably a World War I Austrian M17, eroded to a lattice of fragile metallic corrosion, found in the Veneto and contributed by Ackroyd & Harvey (Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey); soiled and crumpled pawnbroker’s coupons covering the year 1951, pierced and threaded on a string over eight feet long, each, as contributor Ron Arad states, “a document of someone’s hard time.”
The aesthetics of degradation can shade into the aura of the relic. In one of her own contributions, There must be some kind of way out of here, Parker has installed on the walls and floor at the base of the museum stairwell several worn pieces of the dismembered staircase from 23 Brook Street, London. There is an echo here of the woodwork of her sculpture on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Transitional Object (Psychobarn) (April 19 – October 31, 2016), a scenery flat of a Victorian gothic house inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the Bates family’s mansion from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). But the sympathetic magic of these staircase remnants depends on their verifiable associations. She recovered them from a dumpster outside the house in Mayfair in which Jimi Hendrix lived in a top floor apartment between 1968 and 1969. It was recently converted from office space for the Handel House Trust (George Frideric Handel had lived next door) into a museum. These were the stairs up and down which Hendrix, to use Parker’s term, “scampered.” Hendrix had himself been a child in precarious circumstances, his parents having given up three of his four siblings to foster care and adoption. Like Parker’s rooftop sculpture in New York, There must be some kind of way out of here is a locus of associations that grow ever more disturbing the more one recollects them.
The pieces that work best in this exhibition are those that take on the challenge of sentiment directly: sentiment in the eighteenth-century sense of openness to tender emotion. This is not sentimentality in the contemporary, pejorative sense of self-indulgent sadness, sympathy, or nostalgia, but an acknowledgment of the power of affect in addressing the human condition, in this place exemplified by the fate of helpless children and the anguished mothers who gave them up. By these criteria, one piece steals the show.
A well-lit second floor anteroom has been emptied of all furniture. There the visitor sees a life-size likeness of a newborn infant, lying face down as though at the breast but finding small comfort on the plain wooden floor. This is Antony Gormley’s Iron Baby (1999). The sculpture suggests vulnerability on a macro- as well as a microcosmic scale, for it is cast in a material that, as Gormley notes, forms the core of our fragile planet. Gormley made it from a “body case” derived from his newborn daughter, Paloma, now a London architect. Several sculptors have made personally invested likenesses of their own infant children—Hiram Powers’s Loulie’s Hand, 1839 (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC), Paul Manship’s Sarah Jane Manship, 1930 (Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA)—but none suggests tenderness with such eloquence for both the human at her most helpless, and for the entire Earth. Antony Gormley’s Iron Baby is the fitting emotional focal point and climax of Cornelia Parker’s varied but rewarding exhibition project.*
Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.
* The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue: Found: An Exhibition Curated by Cornelia Parker (London: The Foundling Museum, 2016).
Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte, Halle (Saale)
November 6, 2015 – May 22, 2016
A tangle of human skeletons embedded in a soil matrix presented vertically in a gun metal grey case well over twenty feet high dominates the entrance to this exhibition on the archaeology of war. The bones and skulls, many of them open-mouthed as though caught in a last agony, seem about to tumble onto the viewer standing beneath. This is a mass grave containing the remains of forty-seven soldiers, stripped of their clothes and tossed naked into a shallow pit. This is not a mere representation of a grave, some carnival ghost train mock horror, but the grave itself and its actual human contents.
These were soldiers killed in a battle between Catholics of the Holy Roman Empire led by Albrecht von Wallenstein and a Protestant army of Swedes and Sweden’s German allies commanded by the Swedish king, Gustav II Adolf (also known as Gustavus Adolphus or Gustavus Adolphus the Great). In the Battle of Lützen (November 16, 1632, NS), a key battle of the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedes saw off the imperial threat to their northern German allies, but their charismatic king was one of approximately 7,000 killed.
This exhibition takes the discovery of the mass grave in 2011 and its excavation as a starting point for an archaeological examination of warfare in hominim history up to 1632. It proposes that archaeological evidence is immediate, empirically incontrovertible, and objective, whereas that of documents is the result of human calculation, subject to interpretation, and therefore untrustworthy. This is the view of processual archaeologists who study what used to be called “prehistory” (Vorgeschichte: a discredited term) rather than the informed opinion of historians or post-processual archaeologists trained to interpret texts and things as complex human products that are never quite what they seem.
What is to be learned from such excavations, and why might historians want to obtain such information? There is much to be said for improving the scope of accounts of the past to include ordinary people, rather than focusing exclusively on the elite. Challenges to exclusively elite history were mounted long ago so that “history from below” is now so well established that its practitioners often accommodate an entire social range in their accounts. Even if Krieg is questionable as archaeology, it nonetheless presents historically useful data on ordinary soldiers. For instance, the analysis of tooth enamel led to the identification of their geographical origins. Most were from within the Holy Roman Empire, and only two or at most three were from Sweden. The majority were likely Wallenstein’s infantry, though one, who had a previously healed leg injury, was probably a horseman. Krieg gives insights into the elite’s experience of battle and its ultimate consequence no less than that of the unidentified soldiers. Leading a cavalry charge, King Gustav Adolf was shot several times and killed. Among his clothing taken by imperial soldiers was the buff moose hide coat he wore (Royal Armory, Skokloster Castle, Stockholm). Sent as a trophy to Vienna, it was only returned to Stockholm following World War I. Gustav Adolf’s antagonist, Wallenstein, is represented by the taxidermic mount of one of the war horses he rode during the battle, and his red velvet-covered saddle embellished with gold braid (both Muzeum Cheb). Wallenstein survived the battle by little more than three months, for he was assassinated in February 1634.
The ambition in this exhibition to cover both high and low in the account of the Battle of Lützen is admirable. There must be, though, an ethical concern over exhibiting the remains of the dead. The excavation of the mass grave, and the analysis of the remains, respectfully conducted, might be ethically acceptable. This accomplished, though, one might make a case that responsibility to the dead requires their re-interment without exposure to the public gaze.
European treatment of those killed in battle changed between the seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. One watershed was the American Civil War, vividly described by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering (2008). As Faust shows, for the first time, governments took responsibility for the respectful burial of the dead, ideally with individually marked graves. The British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens memorably implemented this innovation following World War I in his meticulously sited cemeteries in northern France and Flanders. War cemeteries became sites of remembrance at once public and private.
As a consequence of the nineteenth-century change in war burial practice, it would be scarcely conceivable to exhibit the remains of the dead disinterred from a mass grave from a nineteenth or twentieth-century conflict. Should contemporary standards be applied retrospectively to the fallen of earlier European wars? It seems reasonable to assume that most, if not all, of the soldiers from the Lützen mass grave were Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant, and hoped to find rest in consecrated ground. However secular an archaeological or historical project might be, is there not an obligation to the dead that transcends any advantages to be gained from public display, and conceivably even from scientific curiosity?
Are such qualms characteristically North American but not European? In Skull Wars (2000), David Hurst Thomas discusses the indignities and insults to which settler scientists have long subjected Native American bodies, prompted by the recently concluded case of so-called Kennewick Man or the Ancient One. He is an approximately 9,000-year-old human skeleton discovered in Washington in 1996. After twenty years of legal wrangling, he is to be returned for reburial to the five tribes that claim him as an ancestor. The current protection of Native American human remains, including the obligation of institutions receiving federal funds to repatriate them to Native successor communities on demand, is in stark contrast to their previous treatment as objects of anthropological research. Many Americans, whether Native or not, have either long respected the dead or have been newly sensitized to the obligation to do so. Even if some may still see no wrong in analyzing human remains, many would draw the line at their display. Thomas argues that “scientists must deal with human bones in a more respectful and sensitive manner.” From a North American viewpoint, this seems incontrovertible.
The display of the dead—at least, some classes of the dead—may not be as questionable in Germany as it has become in North America, but even making such an allowance, the display in Krieg arguably crosses a line. An exhibit of these skeletons designed to promote understanding could have been presented horizontally, in the same plane as the grave existed in situ. Instead, these people are transformed into a monumental relief. But this is no sculptural representation, rather a ghoulish spectacle: a sublime aestheticization of the actual dead. This Barnum style showmanship may bring press and public attention, but its sensationalism seems unconscionably exploitative.
The analysis of the skeletons has arguably added to the historical understanding of the Thirty Years War, but their display in an otherwise engaging exhibition is a miscalculation.*
* The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial publication: Harald Meller and Michael Schefzik, eds., Krieg: eine archäologische Spurensuche (Stuttgart: Konrad Theiss Verlag, 2015).
Niedersächsischen Landesmuseum Hannover
May 8 – September 6, 2015
When does an artwork become so compromised by damage or deterioration beyond the power of conservators to restore that it loses its artwork character? Can such a damaged thing acquire non-art aesthetic characteristics that compensate, in some sense, for the losses of those aesthetic characteristics it had as an artwork? These are but two of the questions immediately prompted by an extraordinary exhibition in Hanover comprising European paintings that were damaged to varying extents by fire during an air raid on the night of October 8–9, 1943. But other, more sinister, considerations emerge on further perusal.
First, let us consider some of what is to be seen. Some of the paintings have been recuperated to a considerable extent, including a large canvas painted in 1902 by Max Slevogt that stands in the center of the gallery, a portrait of a Württemberg dragoon officer on horseback. Others present insurmountable challenges to conservators, as well as to viewers seeking to identify a subject. Among them is a Still Life with Wild Ducks (1885) by Carl Schuch. This painting is now no more than black, cracked and blistered paint crusts. Yet this canvas unquestionably has an aesthetic character, albeit inadvertent, the direct consequence of its near destruction.
The presentation of this and other badly damaged works in a setting that uses the art museum apparatus of display, invites viewers to attend to the current aesthetic qualities of the paintings. In addition, many viewers will bring aesthetically validating memories of artworks by later artists, such as Alberto Burri, who deliberately employed the destructive capacity of fire in their works. Such associations can only encourage and enhance an aesthetic response to these damaged remnants. Yet the curator responsible, Claudia Andratschke, has not presented these things unequivocally as objects of aesthetic contemplation—that they are this is an unintended irony—but rather as witnesses to the destruction wrought by a pitiless aerial bombardment.
The late W.S. Sebald analyzed Germans’ reluctance to address the consequences for their country and for themselves of the Allied bombing campaign in his great essay, On the Natural History of Destruction (1999). This exhibition is further evidence that the amnesia that so bewildered and angered Sebald, while slowly receding, still retains its power. This vestigial power lingers in the sobriety of tone of the labels and text panels in the exhibition, and of the accompanying publication. The firsthand evidence presented is chilling but discreet. Typed letters from the archives on view seek and convey conservation advice following the raid. These are letters of a kind to be found in many art museum archives, but, unlike those from other times and places, each of these concludes with a signature following the closing words, “Heil Hitler!”
Andratschke addresses not only the immediate circumstances of the fire that destroyed and damaged so many artworks, but the climate of fear, hatred, and power abuse in which this occurred. Equaling the shock of seeing so many artworks damaged beyond repair is that of the story of the administration responsible for them. The art historian, Ferdinand Stuttmann, a Nazi party member since 1933, assumed the leadership simultaneously of the major Hanover museums following the flight to the United States in 1937 of the suspended director of the Landesmuseum, and the near simultaneous dismissal of the director of the municipal Kestner-Museum, whose wife was Jewish. Having consolidated his power, Stuttmann arranged for the receipt of artworks confiscated from Hanover’s Jewish community. The exhibition includes works acquired by Stuttmann from the confiscated property of Gustav and Elsbeth Rüdenberg, who were among the many Jews deported from Hanover to Riga, Latvia in December 1941, and who subsequently perished in the Nazi genocide. The unrecognizable Schuch still life, mentioned above, was theirs, as was the relatively well-preserved canvas, Die Nacktheit (reclining female nude), by Lovis Corinth (1908). The Rüdenbergs’s heirs may have been financially compensated after the war so that their eleven surviving, fire-damaged, paintings might remain the property of the City of Hanover, but—perhaps inexplicably to contemporary museum visitors—Stuttmann, rehabilitated following denazification, became director of the Landesmuseum again in 1952, retaining the post until his retirement in 1962.
Above all, though, it is the blackened ghosts that are the artworks, through their pathos and inadvertent aesthetic power, which implicate both perpetrators and victims in shameful acts. No one comes out of this well, except perhaps the victims of the victims—the Rüdenbergs and their ilk. This important and disturbing exhibition shows us that only now is the amnesia of which Sebald wrote with such sorrowful anger beginning to recede in the discursive field of the museum, a full seventy years after the end of the war.
Queens Museum, New York City
March 8 – June 28, 2015
Arshiya Lokhandwala, independent curator and founder of the Lakeeren Gallery in Mumbai, has assembled a fascinating exhibition in two complementary parts that offers visitors to the Queens Museum in Flushing’s Corona Park a selective crash course in Indian art from independence to the present.
To show Indian artists’ engagement with international Modernism, she successfully appealed to private collectors in the New York area to lend examples of works by members of the Progressive Artists’ Group (active from 1947 to 1956) and some of their contemporaries. This was an era when painting still ruled, and artists left India, usually temporarily, for Paris and, increasingly, New York, several with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. They sought stimulation from the School of Paris and emerging Abstract Expressionism. V. S. Gaitonde, for instance, drew inspiration from the works of Mark Rothko, with whom he became acquainted. In spite of their urge to work within European and North American internationalism, their best paintings retain a cultural peculiarity that is distinctively Indian. The abstractions by Ram Kumar derived from his visit to the holy city of Varanasi (Benares) on the banks of the River Ganga (Ganges) in the early 1960s are the high point of the first part of the exhibition. One canvas in particular sets bold, irregular blocks of rich blue and orange in a maze of earth colored forms infused with the fluidity of a Max Ernst.
If the anxiety of the painters of the Progressive Artists’ Group generation to be internationally relevant revealed itself in the adoption of European and North American Modernist conventions, that of the current generation represented in the second part of After Midnight shows how artists can address specifically Indian themes while yet conforming to the conventions of the global art market that allows their work to function in the successive biennials that dominate the international art world today. Anita Dube (fig. 1) has created a huge linear form on one wall incorporating the epigram familiar from Francisco Goya’s suite of etchings, Los Caprichos, “The sleep of reason creates monsters.” So far, so European; but each and every sinuous line of this 2001 work that constitutes the monster and its epigram is composed of individual enameled votive eyes of various sizes used in Hindu devotions. The sleep of reason to which Dube alludes has a specifically confessional cast, for the monster to which it gives rise is implicitly that of Hindu extremism responsible for the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, and other outrages that have subsequently led to huge loss of life.
Equally political within a specific cultural nexus is the monumental work by Jitish Kallat, Public Notice (2003) (fig. 2). Kallat stenciled the entire text of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech given at midnight as India gained independence on August 14, 1947 in flammable adhesive onto five huge acrylic mirrors. When he set fire to the letters, burning them into the surface, the mirrors buckled. The resulting panels, each in a glazed heavy steel frame, recall the angry stenciled texts of African American artist, Glenn Ligon, but the resonance is specifically Indian. Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech has a cultural standing in that country equivalent to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 in the United States.
Mithu Sen can work on a large scale, too, but her piece in After Midnight is intimate. She has gathered a plethora of odd, small things, from plastic dolls to kitsch phalluses, in a dimly lighted cylindrical vitrine titled MOU (Museum of Unbelonging) 2 (2015). Some of the toys, keepsakes, and votive items are Western, others Indian. The juxtapositions are messy but deliberate: a votive eye like one of the thousands used by Anita Dube in The Sleep of Reason Creates Monsters is laid atop one of Albert Einstein’s in a print of the famous photograph of the physicist sticking out his tongue. A momentary irrational irruption of Western rationalism is itself overlaid by a token of Hindu irrationalism.
Most effective as a reminder of the lives of those millions who exist outside the immediate terms of Western rationalism and cupidity that contribute to the reduction of those millions to penury is a composite object that serves as an anti-monument, What does the vessel contain that the river does not? (2014) by Subodh Gupta (fig. 3). A real river rowboat is loaded beyond the gunwales with the useful things and detritus of a human life: soiled blankets, battered cooking vessels, a mattress, clothing, wire mesh, oars, pieces of charred wood with the smell of combustion still lingering. This is not an image of hopelessness, rather of the ingenuity of desperation that still far outweighs burgeoning high tech and middle-class prosperity in the world’s most populous democracy.
Several of the eighteen individual artists and collectives in the exhibition have had recent exposure in North America and on the international biennial circuit, but their work remains to a large extent little known to an American audience. Their cultural specificity is their strength: viewers would do well do attune themselves to Indian issues. After Midnight gives New Yorkers who take the Number 7 train to Mets-Willets Point that opportunity.
Painted Pomp: Art and Fashion in the Age of Shakespeare
The Holburne Museum, Bath
26 January 2013–6 May 2013
Renowned for his incredibly detailed full-length portraits of courtiers during the reign of James I, William Larkin (1580s–1619) is especially important to the study of historic costume and dress. Nine portraits by Larkin of members of the Howard and Cecil families are currently on view at the Holburne Museum in Bath, loaned from English Heritage while renovations are undertaken at Kenwood House. Displays of extant seventeenth-century fashions and objects accompany the paintings alongside quotes from Shakespeare, articulating the importance of clothing and accessories in the establishment of aristocratic identity.
The well-known portrait of Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, (1613) is mounted above an early seventeenth-century Ushak or “Lotto” rug (English Heritage). These rugs, acclaimed for their distinctive red and yellow geometric and foliate designs, were imported from the region of Ushak in present-day Turkey and were especially popular with European aristocrats. Several examples of European leather accessories are displayed in the exhibition, including a pair of once-heavily perfumed gloves (Worshipful Company of Glovers/The Fashion Museum), an elaborately pinked pair of shoes (Ashmolean Museum), and a fan (Royal Collection) that was pierced in a manner echoing examples of Italian reticella (needle lace) featured elsewhere in the show. Two men’s shirts decorated with delicate embroidery and cutwork identify the possibility of what lay beneath heavy brocaded and damask silk garments.
Unofficially, this exhibition signals the start of the year of the Stuarts, with a number of UK institutions “going seventeenth century,” to borrow the words of one British museum educator. Officially however, Painted Pomp continues in the tradition of integrating material and visual culture for a better-rounded study of courtly culture.
For more information, visit: http://www.holburne.org/painted-pomp/.
This review first appeared in artUS and is posted here with permission from the publisher.
Whitechapel Gallery, London
September 9, 2011–February 26, 2012
Artlyst.com interview with Nayia Yiakoumaki, Archive Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery about Rothko in Britain.
To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first large exhibition of the works of Mark Rothko in Britain, held in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961, the same institution has organized a single gallery show. Its focus is just one painting, Rothko’s Light Red over Black of 1957. I have yet to see a mature painting by Rothko that disappoints—though some in museums are insensitively displayed—so it is hardly surprising that this one work should so thoroughly and convincingly command the space it occupies. Viewers are encouraged to recline on beanbags before it, a considerate touch that acknowledges the demands the painting makes of them if they accede to its implicit demand for unhurried concentration of attention. While doing so, they can also listen to recorded commentaries on headphones by a variety of luminaries who recall their experiences of the 1961 exhibition. This might be enough in itself, but there is more.
Curators have the great privilege of access to materials that relate to the artworks in their care. These include correspondence with collectors, scholars, dealers, and sometimes the authors of the works themselves. Traces of business transactions, including dealers’ invoices, can also find their way into curatorial files. Although scholarly researchers can sometimes gain access to this material, it is rarely shown in public. The Tate, thanks to the perspicacity of John Rothenstein, acquired Light Red over Black two years after its completion. The exhibition organizers have persuaded the Tate to show the contents of the files. The result is an extraordinarily informative display.
The correspondence between Rothenstein and Sidney Janis, Rothko’s dealer in New York, reveals the fragile contingency of the conditions of acquisition of Light Red over Black. Janis offered a customary ten percent museum discount, so the Tate paid all of $4,500 for this great work. Was the paint application thin enough so that the canvas might safely be rolled for travel to London? Yes, Janis replied, though—perhaps fortunately—he made arrangements for it to be crated with another stretched painting to be delivered to London. Rothko’s own letter announces his pleasure at the purchase. Then we see the later correspondence in which he offers as a gift to the Tate a group of nine canvases originally intended for the Seagram Building in New York. He had withdrawn from the commission when he (and surely others) realized they were wholly unsuitable for a restaurant. He is to the point, polite, and urbane.
This impression is strikingly reinforced by a group of photographs made during Rothko’s visit to England in 1959. His enthusiastic reception by at least some artists and arts administrators helped inspire the respect and even affection he felt for Britain, which was to prompt the gift of the Seagram paintings in 1968. This is not to claim that Rothko’s generous gift was not without self-interest. His terms were clear. These paintings, which could never be alienated, would ensure him a room to himself, like Picasso and Giacometti, thereby asserting his newly earned status among the already acknowledged great Moderns. It was a brilliant assertion of ambition on Rothko’s part from which the knowing Tate worthies were ready to benefit no less than was the artist.
In the 1959 photographs in Cornwall, Rothko appears with William Scott. In contrast to the earnest, anxious Scott, casual in an polo-necked shirt, Rothko is a gently overbearing presence from another world, every inch the New York sophisticate, polite yet reserved in jacket and fashionably narrow tie. He looks totally though resignedly—even comfortably—out of place against a rough Cornish stonewall. In one photo his young daughter, Kate, clings to him, anxiously eyeing the lens. In another, at a rustic outdoor tea table crowded with pottery plates and mugs, he evokes the shade of the worldly Pieter Breugel visiting the so-called peasants in the sixteenth-century Flemish countryside.
Letters from those who saw him in Cornwall reveal the awe in which some British artists held Rothko, and expose their squabbling and jockeying for his attention. Patrick Heron complains that Peter Lanyon had deliberately kept him from seeing more of Rothko than he could help by not telling Rothko that he, Heron, was living and working in Cornwall (Rothko was understandably oblivious) and had not pointed out his studio to Rothko, even though Lanyon and Rothko had parked immediately in front of it. All this was done, Heron suggests, so that Rothko might think that Heron didn’t particularly want to see him, whereas he was in fact most anxious to spend as much time with the great New York painter as possible.
The Tate’s purchase of Light Red over Black in 1959, Rothko’s Whitechapel show in 1961, and his extraordinary gift of the Seagram Building paintings in 1968, quite overshadow the lionizing and the petty jealousies occasioned by his 1959 trip to Cornwall. However, the letters and photographs from that visit poignantly capture the incommensurability of the two worlds concerned: the emergent giant of Abstract Expressionist New York, and the British reticence of St. Ives, Cornwall, from where—for all the undoubted accomplishments of Scott, Lanyon, Heron, and others—only Barbara Hepworth survives unequivocally in the international canon.
If Light Red over Black is not sufficient to exemplify that chasm, a visit to Tate Modern to view the Seagram Building paintings in the light of Rothko in Britain, can only confirm the scale and scope of Rothko’s achievement. Their dark cold fires assuredly earned Rothko his place in the pantheon, for these are portals to aniconic mysteries; the antechamber to the infinite; afterimages of the blinding sight of omnipotence. Of course two years later he was dead, so the last letters on view at the Whitechapel are of condolence to his widow.
Given what Rothko must have seen in his mind’s eye, it is no wonder that his own expression in the Cornish photos is so abstractedly melancholic. We must thank the Whitechapel and the Tate for opening the files and giving us a glimpse of that great, visionary sadness.
This review first appeared in artUS and is posted here with permission from the publisher.
British Museum, London
May 12–July 10, 2011
Background Story in 60 Seconds: Front View courtesy of the British Museum.
Enter the British Museum, turn right, and there, against the deep blue background of the gallery walls, is a freestanding, sixteen-foot-high screen supporting a Chinese landscape. The image of steeply receding mountains, forest, and river is clearly a monochrome pen-and-ink drawing, a monumental hanging scroll. Or is it? The surface is backlit, so the landscape seems painted not on the side facing you, but on the reverse of the translucent screen. Or is it? On the left is a smaller hanging scroll. The landscape is similar. A label tells you that the scholar-artist Wang Shimin painted it in 1654. Why has Xu Bing reproduced it?
Venture round the back and discover the artifice. The light-box, open at the rear, is edged with fluorescent tubes. A jumble of branches, leaves, twigs, and teased hemp fiber is stuck to the screen with Scotch tape. Similar, locally gathered material, together with stubs of colored chalk and rolls of tape, litters the inside of the bottom of the light-box. Return to the front and disbelievingly correlate the shriveled vegetation stuck to the screen with the exquisite image on the front. Xu has recreated Wang’s landscape not in ink, but with the shadows cast by vegetable fragments stuck to the back of frosted acrylic. Where twigs and leaves stand out slightly from the surface, the shadows lose depth, darkness, and clarity. Their penumbrae imitate the delicate wash of diluted ink. The illusion is intense. Xu has created a contemporary trompe l’oeil that examines the conditions of representation in the Chinese tradition, yet participates fully in contemporary Western self-reflectivity.
This is a work of multiple resonances. What are Wang’s ink and paper but products derived from the vegetable world, like Xu’s, only more thoroughly processed and refined? Not before you enter the zone of direct light behind the screen are you literally enlightened. In front of it, you occupy the Chinese equivalent of Plato’s Cave, viewing the illusion of a shadow world that you take to be a real painted representation; yet behind it you see that this apparent reality comprises shriveled remnants of actuality.
Background Story 7 is the latest in Xu’s series of scroll recreations using light-and-shadow boxes, his first in vertical format. The project enacts a peculiarly Chinese procedure of imitation, emulation, and conversation with older art. In his 1654 hanging scroll landscape, Wang Shimin had imitated, emulated, and conversed with scroll paintings by Huang Gongwang, his predecessor by three hundred years. Vice-president of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, Xu is a government official, as was Wang over three hundred years previously. As such, Xu is surely aware that the detritus of reality only finds its representational perfection in the contrivance of shadows to maintain illusions. In Background Story 7, as in earlier works in this series executed in China, Korea, Germany, and the USA, Xu exposes the illusion of perfection to be the skillfully improvised manipulation of messy reality. As in art, thus in life.
Ivan Gaskell teaches history at Harvard University, using tangible things as historical sources.
This review first appeared in artUS and is posted here with permission from the publisher.
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
October 2, 2010–April 24, 2011
Follow the signs through the galleries of ship models and Chinese-export porcelain to a stairwell where projections flicker across the wall above. Climb the elegant stairs and emerge in a Federal-style chamber, some 120 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 20 feet high. The arched windows are blocked. The only light comes from sixteen projectors, ten at dado height, six at the cornice below the coved ceiling. They cast tumbling words, red and white, on the walls, ceiling, and floor. The words appear handwritten, for Charles Sandison scanned them from eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century ships’ logs and customs manifests. Groups of raw pixels swirl among the ever-shifting words. They resolve into log entries—“The First Part Fresh Breezes & Squally”—and diagrams of navigational calculations. These hold steady among the constantly stirring words before bursting into brilliant spume.
The largest gallery in the Peabody Essex Museum—East India Marine Hall, completed in 1825—has not been emptied to accommodate Sandison’s work. Sandison’s ever-shifting light falls on portraits of ships’ captains and merchants who founded Salem’s East India Marine Society in 1799. It falls, too, on wall cases of curios these voyagers brought back from the South Seas and China, where they traveled in pursuit of trade and profit. The projected light also bathes nine carved and painted ships’ figureheads, each surging forward from the wall that supports it.
This installation, the first in a series of contemporary art interventions at the museum, marks an advance on Sandison’s earlier computer-generated data projections, for it marries theme and form perfectly. Sandison has contrived a phosphorescent sea in ceaseless motion using an algorithm derived from weather data streaming in real time. Words—some in Arabic—change direction as though caught by a shift in wind or current. The artist has incarnated the nautical memory of frail humans attempting to give shape and order to elemental flow through language and math in the great age of sail. Yet the images that froth and eddy imply more besides. They seem emanations from the room, its contents, and its absent original occupants, as though extrasensory perception has made visible all those intangibles that accompany the portraits and keepsakes. These emanations find evanescent embodiment in a matrix of wave and wind that stirs an ocean of human traces from long ago.
A display in an adjacent gallery, organized by Samuel Scott, associate curator of maritime art and history, complements Trevor Smith’s curatorial realization of Sandison’s vision. In Written on the Waves: Shipboard Journals and Logbooks, we can examine the very documents that Sandison scanned. Who could fail to be stirred by an entry in the logbook of the American privateer Tyrannicide describing a chase “within Gun Shott” in 1779, resulting in the disastrous springing of her main mast? We can read the very words, inked at sea and bound in coarse sailcloth, now cast by Sandison on the ceiling of East India Marine Hall. I can recall no museum intervention by a contemporary artist more evocative.
Ivan Gaskell teaches history at Harvard University, using tangible things as historical sources.