One of the pleasures of a small museum, like the Rubin Museum in New York, is that you can wander through the entire museum in an hour or so and spend time on everything. It’s contained and focused. It doesn’t overwhelm. You can settle into the art without wondering where you need to go next.
Last week I went to see an intriguing exhibit of Lisa Ross photos of Muslim shrines called mazars in a huge Western desert region of China, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. I love the sense of vast places and minimal resources, and the significance that sense lends to the work of constructing even a fence post, a stick, a scrap of cloth. According to the notes “Ross’s remarkable images are largely without the presence of the human figure, allowing the viewer to inhabit a space that is unmediated and complex.” I certainly got that feeling from the photos, as well as a video of pilgrims at a shrine in which almost nothing happened but blowing sand.
But the pleasure of a large museum is both its ability to display grand size works, and the way one happens on something delightful and completely unexpected. I went to the Brooklyn Museum to see the exhibit of El Anatsui, called Gravity and Grace. Anatsui is best known for his huge textile-like hangings of tiny pressed “bottle caps from a distillery in Nsukka… pieced together to form colorful, textured hangings that take on radically new shapes with each installation.” There’s one in the DeYoung here that I’ve always liked, but this show provided scale and complexity.
Above is the central room with hangings made largely from tiny circles of metal stitched together with copper wire and hung at varying heights. More typical is the wall hanging of flattened bottle caps. There were many varied hangings of all colors and shapes, and some of his earlier constructions, made of wood.
Below a close up of one hanging shows what the “fabric” is made of. In one of the videos, Anatsui said that he used bottle caps from Ghana because they were both integral to life there, and had so many associations–impermanence, imperialism, capitalism, color.
They reminded me very much of the Chinese burial suits made of small jade squares sewn together with copper or red thread. They inspired the title poem of my book, Jade Suit.
An in case you’re still with me, I took a walk on the New York High Line, which extends down the lower west side, an outdoor art installation built from what used to be an elevated rail track. In the summer, it looks like this. Now, of course, there’s not much green, but there are still wonderful art works, and the featured work, and the one that sent me off the the Brooklyn Museum, is a huge metal sculpture by El Anatsui. It mingles mirror, sky, and rusted metal. There were many subtle installations: A balcony edged in driftwood, a series of concrete blocks facing a concrete structure, and a not-at-all-subtle neon mural visible on a side street. The best part for me was the way art mingled with the city itself, much as Anatsui’s work did, so that soon everything I looked at–snow by the old rail track, a heating duct, a building under construction–seemed beautiful. Here’s a slideshow of my walk (if you’re getting this via email, you may need to go to the website to see it).
And I haven’t even gotten to the Birds of Japan and the taxidermied crystal deer at the Met–but enough art for one day. I can’t try to fit a week’s worth of museums into one post. And I’m not even finished with R. D. Laing!