A couple weeks ago I got to spend an hour or so at the Cantor Center. There weren’t any specific exhibitions I wanted to see but I always enjoy my visits as I’ve come to appreciate how the museum incorporates its teaching mission into the wall text and displays.
The main exhibition this time is about Contemporary Chinese painting. It’s one of those exhibitions that starts off rubbing me the wrong way since I’ve been developing an allergy to any museum show which over emphasizes the collector. It thankfully sidesteps the biggest pitfalls by being a collection which is distinct and focused.* Plus part of the point of this show is to showcase student curation so the result doesn’t feel like an attempt to increase the prestige of the collector.
*All too often it seems like these exhibitions are intended to glorify the collector and showcase the same group of big-name white western male artists.
It’s great to see these presented in a way which emphasizes their contemporariness and how they’re in conversation with modern art in general while also riffing on the specific history and legacy of different forms of Chinese art. The massive change in China’s role in the world over the past couple decades and how all the artists presented have lived that experience—whether in China or as part of the Chinese diaspora that’s had to rethink its relationship with its home country.
Where other museums lump this kind of artwork into the basement as ancient craft, the works on display are clearly something new and relevant. Many of them work on multiple levels that depend on your familiarity with all the context in play and I love that that so much of that context is provided in the curation as a few older, more traditional works are on hand to provide a comparison and reference.
I especially like the pieces that play with how calligraphy and line interact with illustration and pictographs. The investigation is especially interesting and I also enjoy the fact that it feels like I’m trying to understand a joke but just don’t have the knowledge (in this case being able to read Chinese) to fully understand it. Yes there’s an explanation. Yes, like with a joke, the explanation is never the same as getting it.
In some ways I feel like the joke’s actually on me—and other westerners—who can’t tell the difference between a fake character and a real one. But rather than finding this a problem I love that the Cantor is confident enough to roll with it. I don’t need to get it and I’m glad the museum isn’t catering everything to people like me.
Do Ho Suh
There was also a small gallery with three Do Ho Suh works in it. I particularly like the Who Am We? wallpaper and how it’s so subtly done that a fair number of museumgoers just missed that it was even an artwork.
The other two works—Cause and Effect and Screen—are much more obvious in a social-media-bait kind of way. I find it fascinating that they predate peak social media since they photograph so well. Suh though has been playing with the concept of scale and using little people to construct or support a large concept for decades now. It just so happens that Suh’s metaphors for how culture works are also metaphors for how social media itself works.
All those little people coming together to create content which is distinctly different. All those little people coming together to create content for the easy consumption of other people.
Also The Cantor displayed Do Ho Suh in the Asian wing. In the adjoining gallery they had on display a statue of the Vairocana Buddha. Having just seen all of Do Ho Suh’s work, I looked at the thousand Sakyamuni Buddhas which form the Vairocana Buddha’s seat with very different eye. I’m not sure this comparison was even intentional but I appreciated it anyway.
The small room of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was wonderful. The small cards were inventive and joyous and reminded me of Lotería in the way that they appropriate terms from a colonizer’s language by illustrating them in local style and accompanying them with rhymes and verse.
As with the Ink Worlds display, much of these feels like an inside joke that I don’t/can’t get and, more importantly, don’t need to get in order to properly appreciate these. What I understand is fun and funny enough and I appreciate again that things aren’t catering to my western-based cultural background.
Stanford needs to digitize more of these since right now its website is disappointingly image-free when you search for the collection.
In another small room was a small exhibition about a Sowei Mask. No image for this section since the most striking part of this room for me is that it included video of the mask in use and recognized that without that information there’s no way to possibly appreciate it correctly.
I love that Cantor recognizes use as an important part of the object. And not just handwaving at “ritual mask” or some kind of comment that often suggests that non-Western art is craft and Western art is part of a more-pure use-free tradition.* The video is great.** As is the explanation about how it represents gender and beauty for its culture.
*The Cantor’s African Gallery calls this out wonderfully as well although I wish the same disclaimer existed in the pre-19th Century European galleries.
**Though did make me wonder why no such treatment was given to the Nick Cave Soundsuit on display.
Humanity in the Age of Frankenstein
The other “big” exhibition is inspired by Frankenstein and the 200 anniversary of its publication. It’s a very interesting concept for an exhibition and a wonderful focus for mining the collection and finding works that investigate our knowledge of how the body works and interrogate the distinctions between man and machine (or computer).
Unfortunately I didn’t quite buy the reach in terms of the works on display and the story they were trying to tell. The show felt like it was going too shallowly in too many different directions. Some of it felt like a history of our understanding of the body. Other parts of it cast modern art featuring Tech and technology in Frankenstein’s monster terms.
I really like the second focus—especially at a place like Stanford whose involvement with Tech often precludes any self-reflection about the ethics of what they’re doing. But it doesn’t go nearly deep enough and leaves things at a facile surface comparison of “how scientific investigation has evolved” rather than making us think about what monsters we’ve unleashed on the world.