On Looking

In my day-to-day job, I find myself thinking a lot about how others see art. I spend time in the galleries with visitors; at my desk formulating programs that will connect with people and ask them to engage in new ways; or working on accessibility initiatives to consider those who we are not reaching effectively. I am often reminded of the importance of art viewing as not only a comfort, but a challenge, a wonder, or – sometimes – even a chore. At this particular moment, with many individuals home-bound during the COVID19 global pandemic, the experience of art viewing has been on my mind even more. What does it mean to connect to an artwork? I have been thinking about how I will recognize my privilege of getting to be with the art – how will I experience it, when I am allowed to next?

Throughout my time interning and working at museums, I have had the repeated pleasure of witnessing the processing of looking in those around me. As a student educator at the Smith Museum of Art, I designed and led tours for K-12 school groups. On a regular basis, I was awe-struck by the students. On some days they were so wiggly we used our bodies as a kind of tuning-fork – trying to match the artwork by stretching out our arms or legs. On other days the children seemed to access deep wisdom: I will never forget the experience of a 4th grade class debating the landscape status of an Ed Ruscha print. The eyes of a child, it seems, have not yet been clouded, they are not yet worried to be wrong. 

My grandfather has Alzheimer’s. His mind works in other mysterious ways. Across the country institutions are hosting programs for individuals with the disease, hoping that the art will tap into some deeper brain frequency, and allow participants to find comfort. There are foggy days and moments of clarity. It seems that each time I go back home to visit he is another step removed. I think of a Carrie Yamaoka work that was once on view at ICA called “crawl/ stretch 2”: a sheet of black reflective vinyl covered in resin, that looked like raindrops on a window at night time.

What does it mean to experience art without all of your senses – to watch a video without being able to hear the artist’s voice, or to touch a material without being able to see the full object? Rather than thinking of this as some incomplete experience, can it be resituated as a different kind of interaction? I think so – like closing your eyes during a meditation. 

I am a proponent of a teaching method called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which uses open-ended questions to foster collaborative conversation, and encourages participants to come to their own personalized interpretations of art objects. This epistemology creates space for unique backgrounds and experiences to build meaning individually and jointly, rather than asking for tombstone information (artist’s name, object title, year, intent) to be the foregrounded experience. I believe that this makes people feel welcome in front of an object, to be part of the work, rather than a passive onlooker. I wonder, though, about the value of not just slow looking, but also re-looking. What would those 4th graders say about the Ruscha on another visit on another day or in another decade?

I have the pleasure of looking at works over and over, using my Monday eyes or my Friday eyes, or revisiting a show in September or in December. I have the privilege of reassessing. Each time I visit an object I get to re-learn that process of looking, by responding with my new experiences, and being guided by what the object asks of me on any given day. Today, where does it want you to look first? What if you are the height of a 4th grader? What if you can’t hear the voice? Like each new visit to my grandfather, I approach the artwork with my memory of it, and have to build from there – what did I mistake last time? Why does it look so inarticulate today? What might I see that I missed before?

I have been thinking about my duty to look and look more closely, then return to look again. On same days, it feels like a game, on others an uphill climb to give an object my full attention. Now, sitting on my couch, working from home, unable to meet the public and try to experience alongside them, I face a new challenge of learning to look, and realize that the key is not the looking – the intense stare at an object – but the seeing, the presence of the artwork, the experience of being in a space with it. I look forward to the return, to re-learning my looking, as soon as I can. 

Quick Take: Habibi at MoMA

On a warm summer evening in the middle of Manhattan, five women stepped up to the large patio of the Museum of Modern Art’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Habibi, the name of the Brooklyn-based band whose music Pichfork has called “charming and intriguing,” is an Arabic colloquial term for a loved one. Beneath the pastel evening sky, the performers were cool sisters to each other and the crowd. They wore white, accented with psychedelic colorful neon prints and began to casually jam away, comfortable in front of the audience. They looked ready for their late-’90s rooftop close up, à la Ten Things I Hate About You.

The gathered crowd of young hipsters and well-timed tourists crammed in – sitting, leaning, standing, vying for a good view, despite the fact that they could hear perfectly well, with the sound flying around the boxed-in space, bordered by fancy apartments, offices, and crystal clear windows giving peeks into the layers of galleries inside the museum. It was about the performance – the presence of the player.

Habibi

The poppy-rock music has a sitar-tinged vibe and hippie-era cool. The whole scene was full of alternative, dip-dyed glamour. It unfolded like a series of hipster polaroids, ready for the trendiest dorm room. It was a show of girl power beneath a thirty-six foot tall metallic rose by artist Isa Genzken. Under its magic, the beauties were unveiled as bass-thumping beasts, causing a mellow head-bobbing, hip-swaying trance to pass over the gathered listeners.

 

Find Habibi on Facebook, YouTube, and Bandcamp

MoMA Summer Thursdays run July 5 through August 30, 2018.

 

Arthur Jafa: Message Received

 

 

November 25, 2017 I saw Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC. At the time I was struck, wordless, unable to formulate a coherent thought about the video. Three weeks later I returned to the Hirshhorn and sat in the gallery for a long while, watching the seven minute video over and over. The gallery was a black cube – dark, with a few benches set back from the wall-sized screen.

The video was second-to-last in the Hirshhorn’s “The Message: New Media Works” exhibition, and when I eventually stood up and walked out I wished it were last. I wished there were a decompress room, a fainting couch, a net on which to fall and be caught for a moment – Kanye’s lyrics still echoing in my head, the tear-streaked face of a little black boy practicing putting his arms up for the cops burned onto my eyes like the sun flare image interspliced in the video.

But there was no pause except for a breath before the video started again.

Just like real life.

That day, when I had sat stationary and let the video play on loop before me, I found that even though it was the same artwork, I noticed different parts. It was like some clips had been taken out and others added – a trick of my mind as I noticed different things and tried to absorb as much of the content as I could. Before my eyes flashed images of love and dancing and pain and comedy and power and destruction and kids and icons… Joy and violence alternated, my processing was truncated.  I was breathless. I had chills. Time warped within the video, becoming syncopated with the rhythms of the song. Time warped between the videos, as other sound from the artworks before and after – separated by thin walls – bled into the room, seeping in under doorways like gas. Multiple voices rang out, then silence. Pause. Movement. A change of viewers around me – the group of men who had been standing in the corner left, the person who had been sitting next to me was replaced with another, a guard from the exhibition eagerly ushered in visitors and hurriedly told them about what he thought of the artwork. Play.

Jafa has been in the news a lot recently, from exhibition reviews to articles about his work and background to interviews in sources like artnews and Frieze (that one was my favorite). Each time one of these popped up over the months following my experience at the Hirshhorn I would sit down and think about writing something about the object, about Jafa, about anything even tangentially related to this gorgeous artwork. Every time I felt like my computer was staring at me rather than the other way around. The memory of the object would play in my mind, still catching me off guard and unprepared to say something. I looked and looked for the video online or in museum collections, but it doesn’t currently exist in the public domain; for now only shooting around the gallery and museum circuit like some kind of anti-morphine: amplifying, challenging, making you feel everything harder. Yet somehow still comforting.

Now, listening to “Ultralight Beam” on repeat as I write, I’m still not really sure what I have to say. With this piece, I don’t know if I’ll ever be. This one might be more about the feeling – the goose bumps racing up arms and down legs; the flash of images threatening to drive you into overload as they flash in a dark room; Kanye’s rich voice unsettling you like seasickness or love; other bodies scattered in the gallery, faceless but full to the brim with humanity, engaged with seven minutes of knife-sharp clarity.

 

The Message: New Media Works is on view at the Hirshhorn in Washington DC through September 30, 2018

Arthur Jafa: Love is the Message, the Message Is Death runs June 27 – September 30, 2018 at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston

A review of the Jafa artwork (and more) on view at the MCA Denver through May 13.

Cleaning Lesson II

Participants' shoes outside Sacerdote Gallery at SCMA

You step into the gallery, shoeless but not barefoot. Your socked feet slide and pad across the wooden floor. There is movement, but a semicircle is slowly forming, settling the gathered crowd. In front of you a woman in red and blue looks around the exhibition. No one gets closer – people go about their not-quite-bare-footed business, with an invisible line. Border.

The crowd is gathered. Quietly, feet move and tip-toe and push into place, they lift a body up for viewing.

Below: a rustle of fabric against skin against floor against fabric again passes across the gallery. She is wearing so many skirts, layered over her like smooth armor.

A Korean mother, UMMA, cleans the floor, occasionally saying something in Korean that hardly anyone understands. Her white rags sweep back and forth and back and forth and back and forth… She cleans for peace. For hope. For unification. For luck. For this museum and for the college.

UMMA cleaning

She step-slides across the floor. Slowly she hunches more and more over. Breathless. With each motion and moment her white towel (like your white socks) dirties, each little violent sweep gathering and moving the gallery grime. More words in Korean. Unknown. Border.

There she is, the good Korean mother, UMMA, on her knees. Take your shoes off when you come in, when you come home, when it is time for a change. Respect. You watch this woman bend and work before you, offering no help, barely making a noise except your toes screaming to push you higher so you can have a better view of the spectacle.

She pulls herself up. She bows. Her border speech is musical and rhythmic and meaningless to you.

Behind her, she leaves a small pile of dirt and dust, two once-white towels, and a unification flag.

IMG_5972

 

Cleaning Lesson II was a performance by Korean-American artist Mina Cheon as her persona UMMA (“Mommy” in Korean). Cheon is a performance, new media, painting, and sculpture artist who divides her time between Korea and the United States. This event took place on Friday, March 2, 2018 at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, MA as part of the special exhibition 体  Modern Images of the Body from East Asia, on view through August 26, 2018.