29 May 2014

Ai Weiwei exhibit "According to What?" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Museum entrance; exhibition poster.

On May 23, the day after our son graduated from a law school in Manhattan, we took the #3 train to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. We planned a lunch meeting with our delightful friend Elke, who lives in Brooklyn, and the museum is a convenient place to meet (and, of course, there's some good art there!).

Before  lunch we viewed a retrospective of the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (pronounced Eye Way way) entitled "According to What?" on exhibit here through August 10, 2014. The show has been favorably reviewed in The New York Times, unfavorably reviewed in The New Republic and given a just-the-facts-ma'am review in The Wall Street Journal (the Journal is print media sponsor of the show.) Lots of press - so, whatever else, his work trains eyes on human rights abuses in China and succeeds in its activist role. The question for some seems to be whether the work succeeds on an artistic level. There is a lot to see; in this blog entry I discuss three works which balance the artistic and the political triumphantly.

The expansive exhibit fills the fourth and fifth floors of this spacious museum and the layout works well. Installations and artifacts are well-lit, flow is logical and the gallery spaces are appropriate to the work.

Although some of the items in this survey are gimmicky puns, such as a "ready-made" of two boot soles wrapped around a wine bottle and titled Chateau Lafitte (feet=soles, get it?), many of the later works, responses to particular events, are original, imaginative and moving.

In the work pictured below, Straight, AiWeiWei and his team recovered and straightened tons of twisted rebar salvaged from schools which collapsed in the  Sichuan earthquake of 2008. For those unfamiliar with concrete construction, rebar - short for reinforcing bar -  is the name for steel rods embedded in  concrete beams, columns and slabs. Concrete has almost unlimited compressive strength, but not much tensile strength - that is provided by the metal rebar.

Making concrete structures earthquake-resistant requires attention to seismic construction detailing; evidently many, if not most, of the collapsed schools were not engineered or built for seismic risk. When the earthquake hit, tons of material fell, without much warning, onto the occupants, in this case mostly children, whose schools became tombs.  Like a display of weaponry in an armorial hall, we are looking at instruments of death, decoratively arrayed, but lethal.

The ordered, undulating landscape of reclaimed rebar forms a chilling contrast to the piles of mangled concrete and steel pictured in the photographs of the destroyed schools on the gallery walls.  To bring the point home, on one wall of the gallery there is a listing of the names of many of the dead. This almost makes the installation too specific - there are many people around the world who have died in unsafe buildings, structures thrown up by owners or governments heedless of safety. This work could be a monument to them all.

Straight, 2008 - 2012.
Straight, detail.

I don't think it's too literal an interpretation to suggest that the circular ends of the  rebar are reminiscent of small, round faces.

Another powerful work is Ye Haiyan's Belongings, pictured below.  Ye Haiyan is a gender activist whom the government evicted from her home and dumped by the roadside with her daughter and all her hastily-packed possessions. The walls of the gallery are papered floor to ceiling with a photographic inventory of her household items, and, in the center, recreations of her belongings as they were packed in flimsy boxes and sagging suitcases, standing alongside domestic appliances, including a refrigerator and fan.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, there is a photograph of Ai WeiWei and Ms. Ye, along with several other women; all are nude. In our celebrity culture, nudity doesn't have much impact to shock anymore, at least not in the West. The idea of bodily chastity and privacy of the person seems almost quaint.

However, in consumer culture, where we worship at the altar of aspirational consumption, one's identity is constructed from what one owns. Confrontation with all of Ms. Ye's belongings feels more embarassingly intimate than viewing her nude body in the photograph.  She voluntarily took off her clothes; however, the forced eviction led to exposure of all her stuff - she and her family are without shelter, with no  boundary between their things and the world, with no home.

This installation recalls news photos of evicted American families, their belongings at the curb, during the foreclosure crisis caused by our government's failure to address abuses in the mortgage industry.  Again, the work succeeds partly because the result of homelessness as an outcome of  government action is a cross-cultural issue. Mr. Ai's work makes visible the obscenity in the misuse of government power in relation to that  basic human need, shelter.

And yes, I exaggerate to make my point - I do not equate the actions of a totalitarian regime with the greed of some banks that led to worthless debt collateralization. The Western press reports on the problems at lending institutions without fear of retribution; Mr. Ai's passport has been taken and he is essentially under house arrest.

Ye Haiyan's Belongings, detail, 2013.
Ye Haiyan's Belongings, detail, 2013.

Mr. Ai was forcibly detained and held incommunicado for 81 days in 2011. His response to his detention may be the most powerful work in the show. Titled S.A.C.R.E.D, it is six large metal boxes, each with a locked, numbered door, and a glazed window, either on the top or side of the box. The viewer steps on a small metal step to peer through a glazed window into the interior of each box. The interiors recreate, at a scale slightly smaller than life-size, the tiny cell in which Mr. Ai spent his detention. These are the dioramas from hell.

New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith compared the boxes to work by Richard Serra, at least when viewed from the exterior, but Richard Serra's work has never been this gut-wrenching.  Imagine a mash-up of the Thorn miniature rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago with the forensic creations of Frances Glessner Lee and with Francisco Goya's Disasters of War.

The miniaturization upends the usual domesticity associated with children's doll houses and other model toys. The reduced scale makes us feel the hallucinatory compression and confinement endured under near constant surveillance from guards who crowd and jostle their prisoner as a means of intimidation. The experience of political prisoners has rarely been so potently expressed as in this work.

S.A.C.R.E.D., exterior of boxes.
S.A.C.R.E.D., details, 2013.

There is a lot of food for thought in this exhibit, not least of which is the nature of the West's response to Mr. Ai's situation specifically and to human rights abuses in China as a whole.

08 May 2014

Quilts and Color

Streak of Lightning, detail. Amish maker, ca. 1930.

On Friday May 2, 2014, DH and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts for the much-promoted exhibit Quilts and Color, on view from April 6 through July 27, 2014. The MFA offered a number of color theory-related events as well this spring, such as a lecture by Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute.

Left, elevator to exhibit. Right, Entrance banner.

All quilts are from the collection of Gerald Roy and his late partner, Paul Pilgrim; they began collecting in 1974.  The curatorial theme of the exhibit is color theory as exemplified in the work of quilters, and the show is divided into sections, such as "Harmonies" and "Contrast." In addition to the quilts in each section, there is at least one work by a contemporary artist, such as Sol LeWitt or Bridget Riley, or the king of color theory himself, Josef Albers. So this exhibit is meant to appeal to two audiences - quilt and textile fans, and students of color theory to whom "quilt" might still mean bed-covering.

Installation and viewers.

The small, isolated modern works look a little, well, wimpy, surrounded as they are by the quilts which are just monumental presences. I'm all for finding affinities and the exhibit wall text draws connections between the modern works and the quilts, but the quilts need no such justification or validation. As Boston Globe critic Sebastion Smee said in his review, just go and enjoy the impact of the quilts. 

A note on my captions - in most cases the name of the quilt artist is not known, although her religious or ethnic community may be identified; for example a quilt may be made by a member of the Amish community. So, I follow the curatorial labeling, and identify the community of the maker where indicated.

Sunburst, Mrs. Ephraim Scott, ca. 1856.

One of Mr. Roy's conclusions is that until consumers of art  - the museum-going public as well as critics - were ready to accept abstract art (which acceptance occurred sometime in the mid-20th century) we weren't ready to understand quilts as art, because traditional quilts are abstract.

I would beg to differ.  Mr. Roy is correct that it is only relatively recently that quilts have been viewed as works of arts in and of themselves, rather than artifacts in the backwater that was the history of textiles.  However, non-representational, or abstract, art has been around even earlier than the 20th century.  So the barrier to acceptance, and to exhibits like the one now at the MFA, may not have been so much the abstract composition of the quilts but rather two other hurdles - the fabric medium and quilts' history as utilitarian objects. By focusing on color, this exhibit effectively makes all considerations of medium and functionality inconsequential - the quilts are simply masterworks of color usage.

Log Cabin, ca. 1890.

The fifty-nine quilts in the show have been meticulously mounted and dramatically lighted in such a way that the colors absolutely glow.

Scherenschitte, Mennonite maker, ca. 1880.

For the active quilter, the exhibit is a textbook of corner and border treatments as well as quilting patterns and textures. There is a companion book, but I found the photography and text disappointing, so try to see the exhibit in person if you can. 

Corner details.

Also problematic is Mr. Roy's statement that “I often wonder if what we know now as ‘color interaction’ was not something mysterious and spiritual to these quilt makers.” This is a bit patronizing - why is it when women use color effectively they're drawing on some quality not of the intellect but of some magic earth mother-y psychic power or something. How about giving credit to powers of close observation and planning? The quilts are, for the most part, models of precise piecing and quilting - let's assume that women who could teach technical skills could also impart lessons on use of color, even without a master of fine arts degree.

Economy Patch variation, ca. 1870.

However, these are minor quibbles from a feminist on her soapbox. We are very grateful to Mr. Roy and Mr. Pilgrim for gathering and protecting these beautiful quilts, a number of which have been acquired by the museum.

Thousand Pyramids, Amish maker, ca. 1930.

Double Irish Chain, on point. Mennonite maker, ca. 1880.

Double Wedding Ring, detail, African-American maker, ca. 1940.

Buggy Lap Robe, Mennonite, ca. 1900.

We also saw an anniversary display of the To Boston with Love banners - small cloth Boston-themed pennants made by artists from all over the world to show support for Boston in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. These banners are in the venerable but somewhat neglected tradition of commemorative textiles - fabric creations that document and respond to events and activities. I do hope the banners will find a permanent home in the museum.

To Boston with Love banners in the Shapiro Family Courtyard.