Category Archives: museums

AI Weiwei @Large

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I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about Ai Weiwei. I’m not totally sure why—definitely a reaction to hype but there was more going on too. Anyway, I was in the Bay Area for a week and while there were many other museums I wanted to see, the big Ai Weiwei show on Alcatraz was not on my list. But my family bought tickets and we had a nice outing to Alcatraz to see the show. I’m glad I went and I can report that Ai also completely won me over.

Ai Weiwei’s work presented a very interesting double bill with the Trevor Paglen show I’d seen a few days earlier. There are overlaps—specifically the Edward Snowden area—where the effect of surveillance on free speech and national security and how observation and confinement are often two sides of the same coin. But where Paglen is concerned about surveillance and our lack of awareness of being observed, Ai instead addresses the situation where we know we are being observed and his art concerns the resulting cost to freedom that this entails.

That scary thing about governmental surveillance is that it makes no sense unless there is some consequence for saying the wrong thing. Most of us assume that what we say is if little importance yet at the same time, the observer effect does seem to apply to more than just physics. Being watched does imply a certain amount of being controlled.

Situating the exhibition on Alcatraz is a masterstroke. There are few prisons with an international reputation as a prison space—let alone a maximum security space—that also function as a tourist destination. Repurposing a tourist prison, with its already-existing information about how prisoners are controlled and watched, allows for visitors to physically experience how closely surveillance and incarceration can be related.* Experiencing this exhibition involves walking through both prisoner-exclusive spaces and guard-exclusive spaces and really seeing how they inform each other.

*After all, the panopticon was a prison design.

Ai Weiwei’s point though is that as much as this crackdown on free speech is bad, it’s imperative that we continue to speak—even after you know the state is trying to silence you. And as heavy as this subject is, Ai treats it as something joyful and beautiful. To exercise your freedom of speech is to be free—no matter that the state is doing everything in its power to restrict your freedom.

His kites are a joyous, beautiful way of making this point. The juxtaposition of flight and color with the heavy content and the situation inside prison allows for so many different interpretations. Taking flight from within the walls of a prison. Or being restricted from that freedom. Desiring to fly but being weighed down by all the heavy baggage that comes with that freedom. Or being free and carrying and accepting the inherent risks of that freedom. They call out individual countries for restricting speech while implying that free speech will always be trying to take off and free itself.

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The Lego portraits also touch on this by being creative free-expression* childrens toys used for a serious purpose. They also demonstrate how so many small pieces can work together to deliver a message. I can see what he’s trying to do with these and they do look kind of cool. But even with all that they don’t quite work for me since everything feels a bit forced and the result is less than the sum of its parts. But the parts are still good—especially the list which forces us to think about who’s pictured** and what they are being silenced for saying. The medium in which the portraits are realized doesn’t add much to this. Portraits alone, and the acknowledgment that these people exist and matter, are enough.

*Well, ideally. In practice Legos have become a bit too model-like and instruction-based for my taste.

**And who’s not. For example, doing a gender headcount is recommended here.

I really loved Stay Tuned though. Sitting in a jail cell and listening to the words or music created by people who the state has tried to silence through incarceration? Quite a powerful way to experience their voices. And an even more powerful way to prove how those words have also lived on and not been silenced. While not quite the same experience as being in a prison cell, I highly recommend listening to the the recordings on the @Large website.

The sense of listening to all this is both that free speech cannot be silenced and that governments from all over the world—including the US—have tried, and will continue to try, to silence people anyway. I had a special soft spot for the Víctor Jara room* because I can understand Spanish but hearing languages from all over is a wonderful demonstration at how this is a universal human right.

*I also wondered whether Aloha ʻOe could/should have been included here.

Ai’s global point of view in selecting the detainees in this section is wonderful and deserves special note. I’m not sure a western artist would have been so sensitive about selecting from all over the world. That Ai manages to both show a global awareness while not letting the US off the hook for its own abuses is a perfect balancing act.

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Blossom is also great. Where the other works on display are pretty heady, it’s nice to have something at such a smaller, subtler scale. The porcelain flowers are so delicate and beautiful. It doesn’t matter whether they represent hope or joy or just whatever small amount of fragile humanity you can hold on to while being imprisoned. Where the Legos ended up being less than the sum of their parts, these are more—most dramatically for me in the empty rooms where you can’t get close to the flowers and have to take in the entire, empty space with just a trace element of humanity and freedom present in one far away corner.

It’s Ai’s Illumination piece that sealed the deal for me. So. Smart. Just two rooms with a sound recording to listen to in each one.* But rather than being about individuals, this piece is about cultures—American Indians and Tibetans—that have seen attempts at governmental erasure and silencing. That a Chinese artist making a piece for specific installation in the US is making this comparison between the two countries is smart. Locating this piece in the psychiatric observation rooms as a way of commenting on how this erasure works is brilliant.

*As with Stay Tuned, the recordings are on the @Large website. They’re worth listening to even without the psych ward experience.

And the site-specificity goes beyond brilliance. Ai doesn’t just use a “native” chant, he uses a Hopi one—with the full awareness that Hopis were some of the first governmental prisoners on Alcatraz and that their imprisonment was specifically because of the fight to keep their culture and freedom. That Alcatraz was later occupied by American Indians just emphasizes the importance of this piece in this location. There are deep wounds here and acknowledging and learning about them is something all of us non-natives need to do.

The parallels with Tibet are also interesting. I think they’re completely valid both in a government eradication way but also in a whitey appropriation way.* It’s a good reminder to us that as much as we like to shake our heads at what the Chinese government is doing, we would do well to look at our own government, and its history, as well. As for the appropriation stuff, I can’t help but wonder how much the attempts at erasure have made it easier to do, whether it’s perceived as an orphan culture or as a way of raising “awareness.”

*Similar to what Annu Matthew’s work reminded me of.

Still, despite the attempts at erasure, Tibetans and Native Americans are present and continue fighting for their freedoms. As sobering as it is to see all the oppression in all of the artwork on display, Ai’s point about continuing to speak and be free carries the day. I didn’t come away from this exhibition depressed at the state of things. This is artwork that reminds you, pushes you, to use your freedoms. There’s inherently uplifting about that.

Postdate

Nandan Ghiya. Download Error, DSC02065, 2012.

Nandan Ghiya. Download Error, DSC02065, 2012

Pushpamala N. Toda (after late 19th century British anthropometric photograph). From the photo-performance project Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs , 2000-2004.

Pushpamala N. Toda (after late 19th century British anthropometric photograph)

Gauri Gill. Urma and Nimli, Lunkaransar, from the series Notes from the Desert, 1999-2010.

Gauri Gill. Urma and Nimli, Lunkaransar.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. An Indian from India.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. An Indian from India

As has become somewhat standard*, the San José Museum of Art put together a show featuring non-white modern artists in a way which works as both an introduction to another culture while being tremendously relevant to the existing San José community. In this case, it’s their Postdate show of Indian photography.

*Off the top of my head, Rising Dragon’s Chinese photography and Mexicanismo’s Latino art are both relevant here.

Walking through this show reminded me a lot of Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show in how it features a highly visual culture which is using and remixing old images into new artwork, creating pieces that not only reference the old meanings but also evolve the imagery into something that’s currently relevant. In this case, a lot of the old imagery references India’s colonial past and got me thinking a lot about photography as it applies post-colonial cultures dealing with the legacy of colonialism and colonial images.

Despite photography’s (correct) description as being a democratic medium, there’s also its history of tropes and power dynamics which still informs a lot of the way we approach and react to images. As point of view gathers historical momentum that it’s good or noteworthy, it becomes increasingly difficult to break away from it and see other points of view. This isn’t a function of copying as much as there’s momentum built up in the idea of “good” that most people can’t escape or don’t know how to break. It’s one thing to be able to represent yourself. It’s quite another to do so in a way which breaks free from all of what you’ve learned is the “correct” way to view yourself.*

*Something I explore a bit in an older post on self representation, this time involving American Indians. 

Postdate breaks out of the traditional views. While none of the photos at San José explicitly reference The People of India, they reference similar works, or works which grew out of the stereotypes in there, or the stereotypes themselves which have become the face of India in the West. This isn’t just photography as self-representation, it’s reappropriation of non-representative works. Which is very cool to see.

Pushpamala N.’s photography in particular is relevant and notable here in how, similar to Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems, she’s actually performing a lot of the cultural baggage which she absorbed and grew up with. But these themes are in a lot of the photography on display. I especially liked Guari Gill’s work and how, in addition to addressing the representation issues in how India and Indians have been photographed by the west by showing non-trope images and collaborating with her subjects, a lot of her work is also evoking the physical history of photography by being printed on glass and becoming a physical object which feels more like an ambrotype or glass plate than a photographic print.

I also really liked Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya’s work of photographs of the National Instruments factory and how, while it looks like ruin porn, it explicitly looks at the history and infrastructure behind producing cameras made by, and made for, Indians.* It’s not just seductive aging textures. What was made here, who it was made for, and the implications of the manufacturing (and its cessation) matter. In this case, these photos ask what it means to produce your own tools of self-representation as well as what it means to no longer have those tools available in the modern globalized world. Does it matter where a camera is made?

*That the National 35 appears to actually be a King Regula Sprinty because National Instruments purchased the production equipment from the original German manufacturer adds a whole new layer of interesting complications and food for thought here.

I saved Annu Palakunnathu Matthew for last. Partly because her work was very funny. But mainly because she loops in Native Americans and tries to deal with what it means to be Indian in a culture which defaults to a very different image of what “Indian” means. Her reenactments of the Edward Curtis photos work on so many different levels. When displayed in an American museum, they remind us of our own colonial history while also calling out the falseness of the supposed truth in those images. They also draw parallels between how elements of both cultures are appropriated by progressive white Americans. And they capture the humor that results in trying to distinguish which kind of Indian we’re talking about.

Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen. NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK, 2014.

NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK, 2014

One of the constant discussions in photography has been about the issues of surveillance and voyeurism and the appropriateness of observing and recording the lives of other people. Much of this discussion is as much about the identity of whoever’s doing the recording as much as it’s about the actual act itself. Some people get upset by government surveillance while others find individual photographers more threatening.

I’ve seen numerous projects over the years which push the issues with regard to individual photographers. Hidden cameras, infrared flash and film, telephoto lenses, anything really that allows you to take pictures of people in situations they wouldn’t want to be observed in. At their best, these kinds of photos make me think about the nature of photography and my practice of it. At their worst they end up being creepy and creepshotty. But the experience is always as much about the individual photographer and his technique in capturing people candidly as it is about the subjects themselves. Looking at the photos makes it easy to put ourselves in the photographer’s shoes; we see what he sees and our enjoyment of, or reaction to, the image often aligns itself with his intent.

Trevor Paglen though is one of the few photographers who addresses the other side of the discussion. Paglen investigates the pervasive surveillance by the state and its effect on all of us as subjects, or possible subjects, of that surveillance.* His show at the Altman Siegel gallery is small** but extremely thought-provoking in this regard.

*His Last Pictures project is sort of related in that it covers the infrastructure of surveillance but is a much different provocation in that it asks questions about what kinds of images and things humans will leave behind after our extinction.

**You can see everything in the show on the website.

It’s especially interesting in that rather than being angry or outraged, Paglen’s work is very quiet and contemplative. It’s easy to be upset about rights abuses and blame politicians for prioritizing immediate comfort over principles. It’s quite another thing to really think about the nature of how much we, as a society, have invested in watching ourselves and what it means to have that subtext lurking underneath everything.

Trevor Paglen. NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Point Arena, California, United States, 2014.

NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site
Point Arena, California, United States, 2014

The photos are pretty in a minimal, natural, elegant way.* Which is exactly the point. Just underneath the quiet scene is a ton of infrastructure dedicated to watching and monitoring and controlling us. All of us. A few images are paired with maps that feature a lot more information** about the location and the nature of the infrastructure there. This information demonstrates the magnitude of the surveillance while also giving it a material presence. As clean and elegant as the photos may be, the maps show the messiness we’re not supposed to know about. They work really well together as diptychs and really increase the sense of wrongness and unease that I get when just looking at the photos.

*I happen to like minimalist seascapes anyway so that’s a bit of a bonus.

**Much of which comes from the Edward Snowden disclosures.

Paglen’s photos are also especially noteworthy here because they’re photographs where the actual subject of the image isn’t just hidden but is actually incomprehensible without any of the provided context. This isn’t merely hard to do with photography, it’s not how photography is supposed to work at all. Yet Paglen manages to not only make it work but turns all the potential problems into features. How do you take photos of hidden infrastructure? Don’t show it at all and instead imply that it could be anywhere and everywhere.

Rather than showing what we think of when we think about surveillance—cities and security cameras and other places where physical crimes may be expected to occur—these quiet scenes tell us that we can’t get away from that eye. And that it’s not being watched physically that’s the really creepy part of the surveillance state.

What’s creepy is the sense that the surveillance is everywhere and watching everything.  What’s creepy is that we’ve all bought into the system that supports this. What’s creepy is realizing that as much as this upsets me, there’s part of me that’s glad it’s there.

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Which makes it nice that Autonomy Cube is also in the gallery. It’s always fun to have some artwork that you can interact with. And while this isn’t a major bit of interaction—just connecting to a Wireless Access Point which routes everything through Tor—it’s enough make me start to think about the alternatives. The idea that it’s part of an ostensibly private/anonymous internet is comforting. At the same time I also felt myself questioning whether or not I could trust it. Or whether anonymity is even all it’s cracked up to be.

As much as I may not trust the government, it is the devil that I know. Anonymousland meanwhile is unknowable. And the internet so far has not been particular good about demonstrating that anonymous cowards are any better.

Plus there’s the whole question about the wisdom of changing your behavior because you can’t trust the government to act responsibly.* I totally understand wanting to protect yourself. But this is also the first step toward victim blaming. The scale and scope of surveillance should prompt us to think about reining it in or providing proper guidelines about its application, not how each of us should protect ourselves better on an individual basis.

*A point Snowden himself makes at the end of this video.

Vitra

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I went to Philadelphia to see Paul Strand but I couldn’t help but be excited by their Vitra Exhibition too. For the same reason I would always hit the design rooms at SFMOMA, I never ignore a design exhibition at a museum I’m visiting. It’s not just because of my background, I enjoy seeing items which make me think about the things I use, how I use them, and how they’re made.

The Vitra show offered exactly that in addition to reminding me of SFMOMA’s chair obsession. While it’s interesting to see all the information about how Vitra works and designs things, it’s being able to see the objects—in particularly the chairs—that’s really fun.

Most of the objects on display are furniture. Most of the furniture is seating. Which is great since seating is one of those universal things that we all understand. I used to side-eye SFMOMA’s seating infatuation but I get it now. This isn’t like looking at a DWR showroom.* Instead, there are designs which push the concept of usability. Maybe they’re not comfortable. Maybe they’re not practical. But they’re playful and expand the concept of what a chair could be.

*I’m beginning to be convinced that the Ikea Nesting Instinct is really the affordable DWR Nesting Instinct.

And that’s kind of the point, Vitra doesn’t play it safe. Yes, there’s a heavy emphasis on usability. But you can’t be truly innovative without playing and being willing to put something crazy together. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of wood laminate. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of sheet steel. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of corrugated cardboard. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of iron mesh. Some of those work. Other’s don’t. You learn from what doesn’t and enjoy the result as an object anyway.

Paul Strand

Paul Strand. Wall Street, New York.

The Paul Strand show turned out to be the motivation I needed to finally make the trip to Philadelphia. I’m glad I went. Strand—like Weston was for a long time—is one of those photographers whose work I’ve absorbed but never really looked at in a specific, comprehensive way before. Sure, some of the images are extremely well-known, but many of the rest I’ve never seen before yet have sensibilities which feel just as familiar to me.

Needless to say, I really like his work—especially his precise framing and composition. He’s able to find the order within the type of scenes that often catch my eye but which challenge me when it comes to finding the photograph in them—door hardware, a clump of plants, items which I can’t abstract to pure texture or sculpture because they contain both an interesting structure as well as their real-world function.

Strand’s work is also very interesting because he was right there at the beginning of photography as an art form. From his early work consisting of “fuzzy” pictorial contact prints to portraits and street photography to urban abstractions and still lifes to contrasty enlargements to finally combining photos and text together in book form, his journey as an artist parallels a lot of the medium’s journey as he learns to embrace what the medium does well and address things it doesn’t. The result of this is that many of his photos remind me of other photographers’ work. Not in a rip off way, just that looking at Strand’s work made me realize how much of an influence he had on other photographers. He’s not someone to ape. He’s someone to study and learn from and take what he learned and apply it to whatever I’m interested in.

What most struck me was realizing that while Strand’s most-famous images—those that you’re supposed to know and recognize—came from his early work, this doesn’t mean that that work is better. Instead it reflects on how his sensibilities shifted and he went from producing individually great photos to collections and books that, while consisting of great photos, are more about the way the photos work together to describe a place.

Paul Strand. The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis)

It’s his later work which has stuck with me after seeing this show. Strand would spend a long time in a location, photographing details, buildings, people, etc. all of which together form a portrait of the area. His images though don’t try and explain the area to us but rather provide a sense of how it was when Strand was there. They’re documentary without feeling anthropological or journalistic. They’re positive and empathic without being propaganda, Looking at them is like looking through an exceptionally high-quality photo album and offers a lot of food for thought as I think about making my own photo albums and books.

The exhibition itself is also noteworthy for having a lot of technical detail about the different printing methods Strand used. It does a great job at demonstrating how they differ—both on the production side and in the final product—but especially the final product. There are examples of copy negatives and interpositives and information about how they were modified before contact printing. There are also displays of the same images, or similar images from the same shoot, reproduced as platinum, silver gelatin, and photogravure prints set up so we can compare the differences in detail and contrast each method allows for. Mixed with these comparisons are discussions about how his cameras impacted his working methods and different printing methods impacted distribution.

It was nice to see an exhibition which realized and explained how much the tools of photographic capture and print production impact the art. It’s even nicer to see an exhibition discuss issues of distribution and display. While his prints are great, that Strand eventually settled on books as the ideal form for his photography puts a very different frame regarding the intended audience of the artwork. Most things we see in museums are elite objects for elite people. Strand’s work is more populist. It’s only fitting that I’ll be aware of his influence everywhere I look now.

Washington DC

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Between Christmas and New Year’s we spent a few days in Virginia where we spent Thanksgiving. We decided to go into DC for one of those days and take the boys to the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History. No reviews or anything from this trip. Just fun to see the boys get excited about airplanes and skeletons and dinosaurs and rockets and the subway.

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Camden Aquarium

DSC_0147 As the weather’s gotten colder, we’ve followed the advice we’ve received and checked out the Adventure Aquarium. It’s a great aquarium for kids. Lots of sharks and touch pools and exotic colorful fish to see. Plus hippos and crocodiles and other charismatic megafauna. And it’s mostly indoors so it is indeed a great place to spend a cold winter day. I’m less impressed with it as an adult—I appear to be a weirdo who would have liked the original aquarium that no one visited because it featured only native fish—since it’s all exotic non-native fish and reminds me of why I find zoos to be so frustrating. It’s a collection of animals that look interesting, not a great education space. And while it offers good experiences to kids who want to learn the basics and see things in real life, I’m already wondering when my kids will outgrow it. I don’t think about this with Monterey, or even the Academy of Sciences. But then I haven’t outgrown either of those myself. DSC_0149 Untitled DSC_0183 DSC_0198 DSC_0200 DSC_0213 DSC_0216 They did however have Santa in one of the tanks though. That was indeed very cool and a big hit with the kids. Untitled