Posts filed under ‘Memorials/Monuments’

Re-Thinking Representation: Applying Paulo Freire’s Ideas to Memorials

Detail of Ida Wells-Barnett plaque, Extra Mile: Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, Washington, D.C.

Detail of Ida Wells-Barnett plaque, Extra Mile: Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, Washington, D.C. Photo by author, 2010.

Lately I’ve been considering how Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed* can help me to study memorials.  The book isn’t about visual representation and it isn’t a typical source for art historians.  However, it is prominent in educational literature and many of the author’s thoughts apply to the contentious world of visual culture.  Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian educator, argued that a restructured educational system rooted in collaboration, critical reflection paired with organized action, and real-world issues could empower people to fight social oppression.

Of his many important ideas, his perspectives about research have strengthened my interests in inclusive, participatory approaches.  Similar to his suggestion that teachers and students work in a dualistic manner (both groups instruct and learn as they critically assess problems), Freire proposes that researchers work as partners with people “who would normally be considered objects of that investigation.” (87)  He identifies these people as co-investigators and suggests that the researcher include their views in the evaluation process.  For Freire and sociologist Maria Edy Ferreira, the purpose of the research shouldn’t center on studying people.  Instead, researchers should seek to understand people’s situation or experiences in the world. (91)  To conduct research cooperatively, Freire encourages researchers to focus on understanding through sympathetic observation.  This approach forgoes dictating to the participants.

As I discussed in my previous post “Learning through Participation,” I employ collaborative, socially based methods for my study of lynching memorials.  One of my main challenges involves addressing current criticisms of therapeutic memorials (“victim memorials”).  In addition to considering the role of sentimentalization and art historian Kirk Savage’s useful historical discussion of “victim memorials,”* I believe Freire’s work will help me to reveal the political dimensions.  His attention to how oppressed groups can work together to improve their condition will help me to dismantle censures such as “Why are these people getting a monument? Why is their pain more important than the pain of someone else?”  Freire’s arguments could help to enrich memorial scholarship by identifying the assumptions of these perspectives.

References:

*Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin Books, 1993, 1970.
*Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 236-244.

August 31, 2013 at 10:04 pm Leave a comment

Learning through Participation

Ribbons of Remembrance at Clayton Jackson McGhie vigil, June 2013, Duluth, Minnesota

Ribbons of Remembrance at the Clayton Jackson McGhie vigil, June 15, 2013, Duluth, Minnesota (Attendees tied ribbons to this fence adjacent to the graves of the three men lynched in 1920)

In my research I’m blending approaches from the fields of memorial culture* and public art* for a holistic perspective as I study how people commemorate lynching violence in the U.S. To uncover social significance I attend memorial events and interview artists and various community members. My direct involvement with these contemporary practices encourages me to also ponder the role of the scholar in the production of culture. When I meet with folks, I realize that my presence and interest in their work may influence their understanding of the memorial process. Because I’m focusing on the social, I also need to indicate my degree of participation and people’s reactions to my actions in a thoughtful manner.
——–
A few weeks ago I presented a paper* at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Annual Remembrance event in Duluth, Minnesota. Members of the board asked me to address how the memorial operates as a sacred space.  This event was my first talk at a memorial site and I was honored to participate in the ceremony.   Although I’ve presented my research at several venues, this occasion posed its own challenges. I couldn’t rely on the visual comparison method via PowerPoint that academic art historians often employ. I was outside in the memorial space. So my experience discussing objects for museum visitors proved helpful in this circumstance.  I focused on the history of the lynching, the community’s present activities, and the physical space of the memorial. The studies of cultural geographer Kenneth Foote* and cultural theorist Marita Sturken” helped me to highlight how the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial functions as hallowed ground.
For the sake of time, I didn’t delve into current discussions in memorial studies centered on “victim memorials” or the ambiguities associated with the concept of community. (I will wrestle with those complex issues at a later time.) I aimed to provide a balanced, contextualized assessment. Also, I spoke with reporters about how the Duluth memorial differs from other commemorative practices.  While my participation did identify the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial as noteworthy, I tried not to steer any of the committee members’ decisions about the memorial. Afterwards, several residents thanked me for providing this overview and specific attention to the spatial aspects of Duluth’s memorial.
——–
The process of evolving into a scholar entails identifying one’s allegiances, values, and mindset. Through my interdisciplinary orientation, I’ve realized that I’m not interested in traditional notions of the scholar as someone who tells individuals and communities how they should memorialize persons or events. Instead, I understand my position as providing historical context, demonstrating similarities and differences between memorials, sparking discussions, facilitating the memorial-making processes by helping communities discover related projects, and learning from the actions of communities and my participation in commemorations. For me, research is about collaboration.

*PDF copy of my address “The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial as Hallowed Ground” – Autry-CJMM as Hallowed Ground-remembrance event 6-14-2013
I would like to thank the following organizations for supporting my recent research trip to Duluth, Minnesota: The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Board and the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware.

A Few Key References
*
Memorial Studies– Savage, Young, and Winter encourage scholars to consider social issues

  • Kurt Savage, “History, Memory, and Monuments: An Overview of the Scholarly Literature on Commemoration, http://www.nps.gov/history/history/resedu/savage.htm.
  • James Edward Young, “America’s Holocaust: Memory and the Politics of Identity,” in The Americanization of the Holocaust, edited by H. Flanzbaum, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University, 1999.
  • Jay M. Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the 20th Century, New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2006.

*Public Art

  • Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000.
  • Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2013.
  • Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002.
  • Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2004.

*Cultural Geography and Collective Memory

  • Kenneth Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2003, 7-33.
  • Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2007, 200.

July 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

Strategies for Remembering Trauma

Trees at City Hall, Los Angeles. Photo by author, March 2013.

Trees at City Hall, Los Angeles. Photo by author, March 2013.

When I was in Los Angeles a few of weeks ago, I explored Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching Walking Tour from his Erased Lynching series, 2002-2011. While journeying on this path through the El Pueblo and Civic Center areas with a print-out of the tour instructions, I was often struck by the lack of physical markers on the landscape.  This brutal yet significant history involves multiple bodies. But the tour sites mask those bodies.

This experience made me return to my ruminations on how people memorialize trauma. Art about devastating historical events and other violent ordeals engages difficult issues of representation. How does one express the effects of suffering on the body? Is figurative art too literal? Is it too revealing? Does depicting a person’s body in pain remove her/his subjectivity? Is abstraction a more responsible choice? Or is abstraction insensitive? Does it use form to mask human feelings? What is the most appropriate way to represent trauma experienced by individuals versus groups? Is absence a more ethical strategy when dealing with violence involving spectacle and fetishization? What are the sociopolitical repercussions of these choices?
These are difficult questions to confront. Artists make personal choices here that sometimes become more complex when working for commissions. When the work is for outdoor public art, the stakes are even higher because the decision-making process involves more voices and a greater number of people will interact with the work.

This conundrum is central to the memorials of lynching violence that I study. For example, in Duluth, Minnesota, artists Carla Stetson and Anthony Peyton Porter, and memorial board members of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial opted to include naturalistic figurative reliefs that restore the victims’ bodies to an intact state. Sculptor Carla Stetson even elevated the social status of each man by dressing the figures in middle-class attire instead of clothing resembling those of itinerant laborers. In contrast, in Waco, which is located in Central Texas, an area with an extremely high number of lynchings, residents have had trouble building consensus about commemorating this aspect of their history. While they haven’t established any outdoor artworks or markers to memorialize the lynchings, they did produce three resolution statements. Community members presented two of these at outdoor public gatherings.

The lack of physical forms commemorating lynching violence in the U.S. contrasts greatly with how we memorialize the Holocaust in our built environments. Artists memorializing the Holocaust sometimes employ abstraction as Joel Shapiro did in his Loss and Regeneration, 1993, Washington, D.C. However, many employ figurative art that depicts effects of pain on the body like Nathan Rapoport’s 1964 Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs in downtown Philadelphia or Elbert Weinberg’s Holocaust Memorial, 1979 in Wilmington, Delaware. While these works highlight anguish, the figures aren’t personalized. Instead of depicting particular individuals, these memorials present anonymous, stylized stand-ins to represent an ethnic group.

Detail of Memorial to the Genocide in the Ukraine, Los Angeles. Photo by author, March 2013.

Detail of Memorial to the Genocide in the Ukraine, Los Angeles.
Photo by author, March 2013.

After I finished the Lynching Walking Tour, I walked into a park off N. Grand Avenue in the Civic Center area. I happened upon a memorial to genocide in the Ukraine (see photo at right). The artist and the committee obviously felt that stylized figurative art that features the body in a diminished condition was the most powerful way to communicate their message. Again, we have types instead of individuals. As I was looking at this structure, I felt that it was somewhat ironic to come across this memorial to violence that occurred in Europe after witnessing the lack of material commemorative signs to the violence that occurred on the streets of Los Angeles.

April 15, 2013 at 6:08 pm 3 comments

Evolving Reflections – The National September 11 Memorial

IMGP3398

National September 11 Memorial, New York, NY
[Reflecting pool at North Tower, September 11 Museum by Davis Brody Bond in background] Dedicated September 11, 2011, Michael Arad, architect and Peter Walker, landscape architect; Photo by La Tanya S. Autry, 3/6/13

My recent visit to the National September 11 Memorial continues to linger on my mind. Over the years I have read many articles by scholars and journalists about the site. So I already had an idea of the memorial layout and design strategies. However, my experience at the site profoundly affects how I now understand it. Some key reflections:

  • The scale of Michael Arad‘s beautiful and austere pools on the architectural footprint of the World Trade Center is impressive. The immense size prohibits the ground-level viewer from seeing into the bottom of the open grave-like centers.
  • The waterfalls create a very dynamic element. The persistent sound of water is probably soothing. But on a stormy day such as when I visited, the flow of water was unsettling.  The unruly waves of water blowing out of the pool created a highly dramatic aspect that I didn’t anticipate.
  • The park-like space encourages contemplation and interaction. But it is counter-acted by the heavily guarded borders. As I expected, the area is highly regulated. Visitors have to secure passes to enter and go through airport-like security measures. But I hadn’t thought a great deal about how these restrictions intervene with the city layout and public memory until I was at the memorial.
  • Additionally, after following the roped paths to the exit,  a gift store – the visitor center, confronts the visitor. This consumerist feature relates the memorial to the prevalent museum strategy of blockbuster art exhibitions and, as Professor Marita Sturken describes, the “kitchificscation of experience.”  Yet, the memorial visitor fortunately isn’t forced to walk through the shop as is the case at many museums.

In a  2012 Huffington Post editorial, Sturken argued that the National September 11 Memorial needs to contextualize 9/11 within the broader realm of human rights issues.  She cites various memorial strategies that people have implemented in several South American countries.
As an art historian, I appreciate her position. Yet I think it’s important to note the role of politics in shaping the public memory of 9/11. I think the National September 11 Memorial is responding to our current situation that remains embroiled in a contentious flux involving definitions of national tragedy, military conflict, anti-terrorist measures, and citizenship. Similar to the surrounding construction zone, this memorial is still in a state of evolution. With time the memorial’s interpretative strategies will probably change and perhaps become more expansive as Sturken suggests.

March 12, 2013 at 5:56 pm Leave a comment

“Seeing Photographically”- Best of 2012

Vietnam Women's Memorial, Glenna Goodacre, 1993Washington, D.C.Photo by La Tanya S. Autry, June 2012

Vietnam Women’s Memorial,
Glenna Goodacre, 1993
Washington, D.C.
Photo by La Tanya S. Autry, June 2012

“The photographer’s most important and likewise most difficult task is not learning to manage his camera, or to develop, or to print. It is learning to see photographically – that is, learning to see his subject matter in terms of the capacities of his tools and processes, so that he can instantaneously translate the elements and values in a scene before him into the photograph he wants to make.”Edward Weston

I read Edward Weston’s “Seeing Photographically” essay years ago. But I only came to grasp its meaning this year as I was taking a digital photography class. Although I’m not sure how Weston would have felt about digital photography since he wasn’t a fan of color, hated what he called photo-painting, and preferred simple equipment, I believe my learning experience corresponds to the core idea of his essay – the need for good composition. Weston urged photographers to carefully frame their subjects. He believed this process should happen as the photographer captured the image, not later in the darkroom.

In the past I’ve created many poor images because I didn’t pay attention to composition, focus, lighting, or image quality. While my shots were usually ok as informal snapshots, they were horrible for sharing my research. This problem was doubly worrisome because I study the history of photography. Although I often examine well composed photographs, I wasn’t spending much thought on constructing my own images. One day while presenting blurry images in a PowerPoint, I realized that I needed to upgrade my camera and learn how to take photographs of outdoor art and landscapes that actually conveyed the work and experience of being in those spaces.
The course that I took at Delaware Art Museum taught me how to use the dslr that I purchased for my fieldwork. As I learned how to frame my shots, I began to better understand photographic techniques such as depth of field. In addition to now being better able to teach my students, the class has also encouraged me to see public art differently. Now when I’m looking  I’m thinking about how to best document and capture the spirit of the works. Consequently, I spend more time closely looking at the works than I did before.  After taking numerous shots of a memorial, I study each image at home on my computer. This process often leads me to realize what I’ve missed. So when possible, I return to sites to re-look.
For instance, a couple of years ago I had visited Glenna Goodacre’s Vietnam Women’s Memorial, 1993. At that time I quickly surveyed the sculpture and took a few wide shots and one close-up. This past summer, after my photography class, I re-visited the memorial and I spent much more time at the site. I paid closer attention to the sculpture as a multidimensional work and I noticed more details of the individual figures. My new training encouraged me to zoom in on those details. As I kept looking, I realized that there’s a tenderness in the faces and interaction of these figures that I didn’t recognize when I was just snapping quick shots.

I’ll continue working on my photography skills over the next year. You can see more of my photographs of Glenna Goodacre’s Vietnam Women’s Memorial and other public artworks on Flickr.

December 29, 2012 at 9:37 pm Leave a comment

Summer of Memory: Memorial News

The summer is always a good time to explore public art.  With Memorial Day around the corner, it’s important to highlight some of the recent news about memorials.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Site, Washington D.C. at the Tidal Basin. Photo by author.

The Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC is scheduled to open August 28th.
To attend the opening ceremonies, tickets are needed. To obtain tickets, there’s a lottery system open through May 31st on the memorial website. (Click on “Week of Dedication” on the left for event and ticket information.) For detailed information about the memorial, see: http://www.mlkmemorial.org/.

Other memorial news:
NYC Tries Luring Tourists with 9/11 Rebirth Story, http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110519/ap_on_re_us/ny_sept11_nyc_tourism_1
9/11 Museum Changes Course to Incorporate Bin Laden’s Death, http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/A-New-Chapter-for-the-911-Museum-121213464.html
Berlin’s Baffling New Seesaw of a Monument to German Unification, http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/37524/berlins-baffling-new-seesaw-of-a-monument-to-german-reunification/
In North, Civil War Sites, Events Long “Forgotton,” http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110417/ap_on_re_us/us_civil_war_forgotten_north
Facing Five Years in Jail, the Artist Who Fried Eggs and Hot Dogs on the Flame of WWII Monument, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1378369/Artist-Anna-Sin-kova-fried-eggs-World-War-II-flame-face-jail.html

Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. Photo by author.

This summer I’ll blog about my adventures to various memorial sites in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston. Stay tuned for updates.

May 24, 2011 at 9:22 pm Leave a comment

Promising Presentations: Memorials+

Detail of Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs, Nathan Rapoport, 1964, Philadelphia. Photo by author.

Redemption
Stony Brook University, NYC, April 1-2, 2011
Call for Papers due January 13th
This conference isn’t specifically about memorials.  However, memorials seem to fit within the objectives.
Conference description: Redemption evokes both the threat of and promise inherent in the experience of loss, for it never hides the sense or the scene of destruction accompanying potential rescue. The agon(y) of the exchange is often chaotic. This conference explores questions such as: What constitutes being in a state from which one would want to be redeemed? In what ways is the act of creation itself a redemptive, cathartic, or therapeutic act?  How does art that deals with redemption reflect tensions between theological and secular significations? What role does reparation – the reconciliation of disparate elements, and the balance between destruction and construction – play in art and creative thought broadly construed?
Keynote speaker: Professor Kaja Silverman, University of Pennsylvania.
For more information, see http://www.philosophyartconference.org/2011-conference.html.

Memory and Representation
University of Oregon, Eugene, April 21-22, 2011
Call for Papers due February 4th
Conference description: The symposium will focus on the visual culture of commemoration, documentation, and memorialization and will examine the variant roles of the arts in the representation of memory.
Keynote speaker: Professor Jordana Mendelson of New York University.  She is author of Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition Culture, and the Modern Nation, 1929-1939 and curator of the recent exhibition “Revistas y guerra: La guerra civil española y la cultura impresa” at the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía in Madrid.
For information, check out the announcement posted on UPenn’s website:
http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/39623.

Moralities in the Visual Arts
University of California, Santa Barbara, April 29-30, 2011
Call for Papers due December 31st
Again, this conference isn’t specifically about memorials.  However, memorials seem to fit within the scope.
Conference description: The conference hopes to explore various moral systems as they are manifested in visual materials. They ask what ethical purpose(s) are expressed through the visual arts? What are the moral responsibilities of artists, architects, historians, curators, and audiences? How do value systems figure into the production, display, and collection of visual culture?
Keynote speaker: Richard Dyer, Professor of Film Studies, King’s College, London has published widely on aspects of race and sexuality in film and popular culture and will share some of his ongoing research.
For more information, http://www.arthistory.ucsb.edu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=50&Itemid=128.

December 20, 2010 at 7:25 pm Leave a comment

‘Tis the Season for Memories

This season is a great time to relax and remember the past year.  Here are a couple of wonderful books on memorials to enjoy as you sip your favorite wintertime beverage.

National World War II Memorial. Photo by author.

Monument Wars: Washington D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, by Kirk Savage, published 2009.  In this book Savage, an art historian at University of Pittsburgh, provides a comprehensive history of D.C.’s monuments from the district’s founding to today.  While demonstrating the changing character of the landscape, Savage goes beyond the Mall as he discusses memorials that haven’t received much press, such as the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism located north of the Capitol building.  Also he questions the need for monuments and the idea of collective memory.

This book is well respected by scholars of American art.  Savage won the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum’s 2010 Charles C. Eldredge award for Monument Wars.  Earlier this month Savage gave a lecture about D.C. memorials. You can watch the video at http://americanart.si.edu/research/awards/eldredge/webcast2010.cfm.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum‘s press release about the event offers some background information on Savage, http://americanart.si.edu/pr/library./2010/eldredge2010_savage.pdf.

Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism. Photo by author.

Erika Doss’ Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, published 2010 also deals with collective memory.  As the title implies, Doss, an art historian at University of Notre Dame, is interested in what she perceives to be an “obsession with issues of memory and history and an urgent desire to express and claim those issues in visibly public contexts.”  Her scope is extensive.  In addition to discussing familiar war memorials and the D.C. landscape, Doss includes monuments in various parts of the U.S.  The diverse subjects include victim monuments such as the Salem Village Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial and the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial that honors the three African-American men lynched by a mob in 1920 in Duluth, Minnesota.  Doss holds  the book together by grouping the memorials in terms of emotional content under chapter headings- Grief, Fear, Gratitude, Shame, and Anger.  This far-reaching book will keep you engrossed.

December 20, 2010 at 8:10 am Leave a comment

Ghosts, Dragons & Spiders in Public Sculpture

Things that frighten us often involve memory and cultural context.
In the spirit of the season, here are three public sculptures that have the potential to shock, scare, and even make us smile.

Ghost Structure, Robert Venturi, Venturi & Rauch, 1976, Franklin Court, Philadelphia. Photo by author.

Philadelphia’s Phantom Place: Architect Robert Venturi ‘s 54’ tall steel sculpture, Ghost Structure in Franklin Court memorializes Benjamin Franklin’s home which was demolished in the 19th century.  Little is known about the appearance of the original exterior. In preparation for the bicentennial celebrations Robert Venturi of Venturi & Rauch was hired to design the monument.  In 1976 Venturi met the challenge by making  an outline of a house with the painted white steel beams.  The resulting form represents both presence and absence.  The haunting, empty feeling is heightened by inscriptions on the stone floor.  Visually this postmodern memorial contrasts with the historic red brick buildings in the area. However, Ghost Structure is a welcome surprise and apt materialization of what is lost, yet remembered.

Scary Parking in Philadelphia?:  Philadelphia is notorious for parking trouble.  So it seems appropriate that since April 2009 four bronze dragons have presided over a parking lot in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

Dragons Guarding Arch Street Parking Lot, Ward Eliker, 2009, Philadelphia. Photo by author.

When I photographed these lanky, green hybrid monsters a woman asked if I was an art student.  She went on to say that a person would have to be an art student to like these dragons. For her the dragons were too hideous to admire.

Dragon on Arch Street, Ward Eliker, Philadelphia. Photo by author.

Although many people may also find these dragons frightening,  sculptor Ward Eliker had happier ideas in mind when he designed the work.  Eliker was inspired by Chinese folklore.  Similar to the dragons that grace the Chinatown Friendship Gate just a couple of blocks away at 10th and Arch Street, these creatures are symbols of fortune and prosperity. While in European folklore dragons are usually terrifying beasts that breathe fire, in Chinese culture dragons protect areas from fire.

To see behind the scenes images of the production process, check out Eliker’s webpage: http://www.elickercasting.com/index.html.

Giant Spider in DC: Many people fear spiders.  However, others find them intriguing. Louise Bourgeois’ monumental bronze spiders elicit this volatile mixture of emotions.  Last year Bourgeois’ spider and other works were exhibited at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Unlike Bourgeois’ frightening environments featured inside the museum, the outdoor installation of this giant arachnid generated many smiles.  After recovering from surprise, visitors playfully engaged with the work.

Louise Bourgeois' Spider at the Hirshhorn, DC, 2009. Photo by author.

For an in-depth study of the psychological dimensions of Bourgeois’ work, see Louise Bourgeois. Maman: For the Outside In by scholar Trisha McCrae. McCrae argues that Bourgeois’ work showcases how our fears are exaggerated.

Related:

Franklin Court Renovation Plan Needs Reworking, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 23, 2010

There Be Dragons: Behind the Scenes at the Creation of Chinatown’s Newest Piece of Public Art – Philadelphia Weekly

Chinatown to Get Bronze Dragons- WHYY News and Information

October 31, 2010 at 3:34 am Leave a comment

October ArtHop: Met’s Big Bambú is Worth Experiencing

Big Bambú, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2010. Photo by author.

“It’s a bird nest, it’s a treehouse, it’s an ocean wave?”
No, it’s Big Bambú.  It’s Big Bambú: You Can’t , You Don’t and You Won’t Stop to be exact.  And yes, it’s big and made of bamboo.
On view April 27th – October 31st, 2010.

Located on the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the exhibition consists of one work- an immense sculpture that visitors can survey from the deck,  walk underneath, and, if lucky, venture inside.
Since April 2010 twin brothers Doug and Mike Starn, along with a team of rock climbing assistants,  have been sculpting 5,000 bamboo poles and more than 50 miles of nylon rope to create this site-specific installation .  Unlike most of the Met’s past roof exhibitions of sculpture, this work is an ever-changing, work in progress.  The artists continue to  shape Big Bambú while it’s open to the public.  In fact, team can frequently be observed manipulating the form and documenting their work.

At Work, Big Bambú, Met, October 2010. Photo by author.

The atmosphere is something between spectacle and playground-like.  Museum visitors eagerly snaps photos as they gaze in awe of the team members at work 50 feet in the sky.  The crew also take pictures, but not of the crowd.  As one of the team member’s balances on the edge of the sculpture, she captures their work for documentation purposes.  The museum and artists have posted various photos of the progressing work on Flickr.

Big Bambú, October 2010. Photo by author.

In contrast to the general demeanor witnessed within the museum’s galleries, the visitors are more in a play mode.  There is, of course, a sense of freedom created just by the outdoor space. However, the colossal work generates much of the excitement.  People don’t know what to make of Big Bambú.  Although most of the visitors probably had some of idea of the exhibition before reaching the rooftop which is somewhat off the beaten track, the size of the work and sense of danger that emanates from the work overwhelms them.  Noting the fragility of the materials, visitors stand in amazement of the composition. They scrutinize the brightly colored thin but abundant roping.  Some people playfully test the poles and remark on how the structure moves when tugged.

For those visitors who arrived on the roof via the stairs and without prior knowledge about the exhibition, the work is completely bewildering.  Because the exhibition text panel is located at the rear of the deck, underneath the structure near the snack bar, the surprise isn’t quickly relieved by textual explanations.  Most visitors have to experience Big Bambú before finding the exposition.  And in this case that’s perfectly OK.  Although prominent placement of interpretative text is often useful in museums, here it would get in the way of the work.  Because  Big Bambú is really more than the sculpture.  It’s everything: the sculpture, the experience of being with and inside the work, and the evolution of the form.  Visitors should feel the wonder of it before relying on the curatorial note.

To travel along the elevations within the sculpture, visitors need tickets for the guided tour.  From inside the structure visitors gain a different perspective of the work and the city skyline.  Unfortunately, all of the tickets  were already dispersed when I arrived at the museum.  Most of the visitors were in the same situation.  Because tickets are only available in person, it is very difficult to obtain them, especially on weekends.
Even so, art hopping to Big Bambú was worth it.  As I enjoyed the afternoon, I overheard several fellow museum visitors commenting on the work:

Big Bambú, October 2010. Photo by author.

“If I had my choice of any place to live in the city, it would be right here.” – a woman said to her friends as she stared up into the web of poles
“Imagine how many panda bears these poles could feed.” – a mother talking to her son
“It’s cool. It’s awesome!” –  a couple of 20 somethings
“It’s uber cool!” – a young tourist
“I’m just baffled.” – an older man notes to one of the guards
“What is this supposed to be?” – a man asks one of the other visitors
“Is it real?”-  a small boy asks his mom

Big Bambú, October 2010. Photo by author.

Yes, it is real.  You can touch it and, if you are an early bird, you just might be able walk inside it.  But even if you can’t get tickets, venturing around and underneath Big Bambú is still a pleasure.
Hopefully, the collaborative nature of the work and viewing experience compounded with the materials and the urban skyline will inspire people to consider the larger environment beyond the Met’s rooftop that is also composed of a series of natural and societal networks.
Weather permitting, you have until October 31st to be a  part of  this monumental experience.

October 18, 2010 at 12:33 am Leave a comment

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