Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Contemporary Art

Last May, we went to DIA: Beacon for the first time. It was a transcendent experience. So, when we planned our end-of-summer jaunt to New England, we had high hopes. We came away disappointed. Where the Beacon museum, a converted box factory, makes large-scale contemporary art gorgeous, accessible, and meaningful, everything at Mass MoCA, a converted textile factory, seemed over-thought and over-theorized. The exhibit about post-9/11 history had all kinds of goofy curatorial theatrics. (“In this time after history we find that the time of history is a time out of time…”) Some of the art was all right. I loved an installation by Peggy Diggs—a bunch of jars of ephemera from her life, all labeled (e.g. “my father’s press pass, 1967”; “tea bags from the best conversation my sister and I ever had”). But some eighteenth-century European dresses fashioned out of African kente cloth left me cold: once you’d figured out the trick, what is there to say?

I was the only one in the family who liked the Huang Ying Pong retrospective, however. And my attraction to that taught me something about my aesthetic. Way too complicated. Pong is a Chinese artist, born in the fifties and working in Paris. A lot of what was on display was not so much art as divination tools used to make decisions about how to make art. From what I gathered (not much as we were shepherding the two children), he takes Chinese and Western tools of divination (I Ching, tarot, astrology, etc.), and uses them to guide his aesthetic decisions. In short, there were lots of very complicated wheels within wheels. I had trouble tearing myself away. Very Matteo Ricci...

I love things that are way too complicated. For all that I try to simplify my life as I live it (short commute, groceries by delivery), I am consistently attracted to the most baroque, most colorful, most intense design. When I first learned about memory palaces, I became obsessed—I eventually wrote an essay on them.

When I was much younger, my mom helped all of the neighborhood kids make papier mache masks out of grocery bags for Halloween. There were bears and pumpkins. I was a wizard. The front of my mask was his face. The back was a portrait of him taming a unicorn with the first line of a never-to-be-written short story written above the sunset scene. Crazy. Far too complicated.

I’m less patient with this side of myself lately. But I was very happy to see that Mr. Waggish found echoes of hermeticism and memory palaces in the work of a contemporary graphic novelist. He’s readier to figure this as a kind of genius. I’m so aware of it as a potential rabbit hole that I fear falling into that I don’t quite know how to judge it.

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