I went to see this exhibit, and wrote a review for this writing class I’m taking.
I hate writing, but not because I think I am bad at writing. I wish I didn’t hate it so much because maybe then I would do it more often, and without all the angst. I used to write a lot but it was all journal-y free-form drama. I’m glad I got rid of all those notebooks because while they helped me through a lot, I would be both mortified, and horrified to read them now. James brought up an interesting point many months ago- I have never had anyone I trusted enough to talk my drama out with, so I conversed with the blank, lined pages in my notebook.
And they were definitely conversations. I would sit there and babble streams of heavy-handed emotions into the pages. Half the time they were completely inarticulate sentences but it didn’t matter because the point was just to get out all the emotions and figure out what was real and what was what I wanted to be real. I learned a lot just from talking it out with myself.
This is not that.
I know that if you are reading, you are probably either a stranger, the two friends I know who read this, or someone else who would benefit from sending me an email. I decided a while back I wasn’t going to worry about burning bridges. My family has a weird passive-aggressive streak and I’m trying to not fall into that trap.
Here is my essay. It’s okay.
Lifelike: an exhibit
What is art? Who decides when something is art? Why is it that a group of people can so define an entire subset of culture? How do these definitions change over time? How don’t they? These are the kind of questions provoked by Lifelike, an exhibit curated by Siri Engberg and presented by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The exhibit is currently on the last leg of it’s nationwide tour, where I viewed it at the Phoenix Art Museum. Featuring an array of works from the 1960’s to the present, Lifelike explores the experiences we have with the objects that surround us, and begs the question, why are these objects and experiences so notable? From Andy Warhol’s iconic Brillo box sculpture, to Ai Weiwei’s jar full of hundreds of porcelain sunflower seeds, the exhibit tests the boundaries of the viewer, and seeks to provoke a discussion about where one would draw the line regarding the definition of “art”, and how that definition shapes the way we view our world.
If the goal of an exhibit is to stimulate discussion, and create controversy, Lifelike succeeds. I saw many people scoffing and glaring at the less obvious pieces at this exhibit. Take the large piece of cardboard, for example. That one there, leaning against the wall. Seems like awfully precarious placement for such an object – get closer, and you can read the plaque, which explains that the cardboard you see is actually cast from bronze. It is an uncanny moment, created by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. At the other end of the room is a huge, photorealistic painting of a self portrait by Chuck Close (aptly titled, “Big Self Portrait). From afar, it reads as a photograph. The closer you get, the more detail you see. The stubble on the face of the artist, the smoke floating off the tip of a cigarette. The details are so incredibly well-executed, the effect is breathtaking. The painting’s impact is weighty when viewed as a metaphor for the many small pieces of humanity and society that make up the world as a whole. Nothing beautiful, or even functional, would exist without the minute mechanics of our everyday struggles. Next to this, a short, stooped, irascible-seeming man is in the corner. At first glance, you are taken aback by the man, and his ratty uniform. It is only the small crowd surrounding him that calls attention to the fact that he is part of the exhibit as well: a perfectly rendered statue of an older man wearing a frayed leather belt, short-sleeved button-up shirt, and a well-worn pair of trousers, complete with sundries in his shirt pocket. He is known to us only as “Janitor”, and was created in 1973 by Duane Hanson. It is a compelling work in that we are forced to realize how our judgement is affected once we realize the man is a facsimile. Suddenly, this disheveled man becomes a work of art.
The exhibit is full of moments like these, challenging the viewer to jump to every conclusion possible, before revealing the truth of it’s execution. Some works never reveal themselves in this way, like the film by Thomas Demand, “Rain/Regen”. It plays in a room from which the sound of rain is emanating- enter, and against the wall is projected an animation with repeating patterns, creating the effect of rain. It is a compelling work- one has to wonder how dependent the visual is upon the soundscape. Would you even realize right away that you are looking at a stylization of rain falling on the ground? Would you realize that is it actually a stop-motion film made of candy wrappers, that the sound is of eggs on a frying pan? Our expectation completely changes and shapes our experience.
Also consider a work of film by Leonardo Elrich: a subway door, mounted against a wall, through whose window you see a few people in their seats, going about their mundane, but necessary commute. The image is almost indiscernible from reality, and for five minutes or so, the train moves through it’s world. The light in the subway car changes, flickers past walls and buildings. For a time, the car is dark, as you are presumably taken through a tunnel. As the minutes pass, the people on the car remain unaware of your presence in the gallery. They are alone, yet together, as you watch them turn the pages of their books, cross and uncross their legs. How many of us have been those people on the train car? How frequently do we see each other in this removed, almost clinical way? What does that say about the society we live in, that we are all so close in space, but often so distant? What is more important to this piece, the technique presented, or the message communicated?
My favorite work in the exhibit was by Yoshihiro Suda, entitled “Weeds”. Tucked in a corner, barely noticeable but for the slim cording acting as a barricade, tiny, delicate leaves emerge from the joints where the walls meet. The plants are carved from wood, hand-painted, and delicately assembled. I stood there for over ten minutes, thinking about how much moments like these are my absolute favorite. Tiny pockets of beauty and perseverance, making their way into the world despite barriers as resilient as concrete and bricks. It is hard not to see the connection between a work like this, and the similarly-scaled work by Ai Weiwei. Housed within a plexiglass box, sits a large mason jar containing hundreds of life-sized sunflower seeds. Each seed hand-sculpted in porcelain, then painted with such detail you could stare for a million years and not see the difference between them, and what’s inside the bag of sunflower seeds you might have bought at the gas station earlier that day.
Overall, the exhibit very much succeeds at what it sets out to do- the many works at the exhibit form a cohesive experience and represent an astounding variety of mediums and techniques. The intention of the curator to provide such a wide range of experiences that nearly any individual could relate to the exhibit is very evident. If Brillo boxes (Andy Warhol) don’t say anything to you about culture or humanity, maybe the trash bag sculpted of white marble will (Jud Nelson). We are all humans experiencing waste, re-invention, and the glorification of ourselves and our inventions. Lifelike puts these ideas to work in the gallery, asking viewers to see, to understand, and, ultimately, to decide what makes a lifeless thing, lifelike.