Friday, February 26, 2010

Rivane Neuenschwander and Regina Silveira

Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue

For the blink-and-you-miss-it span of February 17-21, Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue by Rivane Neuenschwander and Cao GuimarĂ£es was screening at The Institute of Contemporary Art as a selection in their Video Art: Replay, Part 2. The short film depicts a colony of ants collecting scattered sequins from the ground on Quarta-Feira de Cinzas (“Ash Wednesday”) against a minimal samba beat. They scamper over leafy ground, sometimes fighting over the colored discs, before pulling their booty into a dark hole. The ants also lick the sequins, surely tasting a cocktail coating of booze, salt, grime, sweat, and other unmentionable fluids. The sequins, ostensibly shed from samba dancers’ ornate costumes, represent Carnaval and all of the previous day’s debauched reveling.

Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue

The timing was accurate, as the brief screening began on Ash Wednesday; but I don’t think that the work and its framing within this window of time translate appropriately. I say this because we do not celebrate carnaval. I was able to get in the mood a little bit, having watched some Brazilian Carnaval celebrations on Rede Globo. In Brazil, or other South American nations, this film is a no-brainer: you could show it to anyone, regardless of their background or formal education, and they would instantly “get it”. Maybe it would come off well in a city like New Orleans. But in Philadelphia, and I would think most other American cities, it falls flat because it floats divorced of a greater cultural context and awareness, which, I would argue, the filmmakers take for granted in this particular work. It simply seems fun, a little bit absurd, and possibly trifling to watch scurrying ants carrying sequins in their mandibles. Perhaps a more appropriate time to show the film in Philadelphia would be January 2, the day after The Mummer’s Parade? But so much collective hope and anticipation is placed in Carnaval, not to mention the magnitude of the collective catharsis released through it, that nothing here seems to aptly compare; do we have an event such as this? (I won’t count the Phils or Eagles winning something important—this same spirit exists in Brazil and is distinctly different from what I am grasping for here.)

Mundus Admirabilis

Interesting by comparison, though undoubtedly coincidental in its similar motif, is the work of Regina Silveira, now on display at The Galleries at Moore as part of Philagrafika 2010. Before entering Mundus Admirabilis, one must don shoe covers which shield the art, spanning the gallery walls and floor, from dirt and degradation, a fascinating paradox considering the creepy, crawly scene you are about to enter. Are we keeping pristine something already so gross, or is it we who are being offered a measure of protection from having to touch the teeming ground? Of course, I understand that this was done as conservational measure, the vinyl would certainly peel away from the floor with traffic and wear; the previous times that I had to put on shoe covers were at historic palaces in Europe with vulnerable patterned floorboards or mosaics. But I felt some kind of psychological barrier about it all, mostly because what you are about to experience, for me at least, engages in a gripping, horror vacui sensory assault. Imagine that the insects are real: what would you feel, hear, see, or even smell? Inserting a measure of prophylaxis between the viewer and a work like this make the experience more remote.

Mundus Admirabilis & Rerum Naturae

I’m not sure that I wholeheartedly embrace the Biblical end-times assertions about the work. Yes, it calls to mind Old Testament plagues. There still is something morbidly fun, cartoonish even, about the installation owing to the bugs’ exaggerated scale. I consider her insects to hew closer to the self-serious schlock of a 1950s B-movie like Them!, than the terrifyingly lethal creatures of a futuristic dystopia like in Starship Troopers. And the close layering of the vinyl forms began to abstract the insects themselves, leaving the impression of a non-representational graphic pattern the more that I gazed at it.

Rerum Naturae

Where her conceit comes off best is in Rerum Naturae, the table mid-gallery. The scale is appropriate, and the imagery is more powerful: envision your place setting crawling with bugs. Here, she mines the heart of her Brazilian unconscious, with the embroidered tablecloth and ceramic ware as spins on traditional handicraft. These items are an important part of the living cultural patrimony, available at any feira de artesanato (“handicraft market”) and found at the breakfast table of just about any home in Brazil. Her tweaking of these forms is simultaneously nauseating and beautiful, but also more subversive than the insects writ large all over the room.

The Weavers have left the building

Yesterday at The Fabric Workshop and Museum we bid farewell to our resident weavers Li Chengfeng, Li Qiumei, Li Daiqin, Liang Aixiu, and Ye Jumei. Today they will travel to New York, whence they will start their long journey back home to Hunan Province. They had been with us since the beginning of December, working on a series of tapestries for Cai Guo-Qiang: Fallen Blossoms (see my previous post). While none of them spoke English, they were always cheerful and friendly to everyone, and their presence will be missed. I leave you now with a short clip of Ye Jumei practicing her incredible skill at the art of weaving. Xie xie!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Adventure Aquarium Analysis

Old entrance with VSBA visual branding design

A Valentine’s Day visit to Adventure Aquarium in Camden prompted me to write about my experience, in a piece that I thought would be an evaluation of a nonprofit organization falling into the “Zoos and Aquariums” category. After some cursory research I found that Adventure Aquarium is owned and operated by a commercial corporation. Having started its life as the New Jersey State Aquarium, a nonprofit organization, it is a relative youngster amongst the larger cultural orgs in the region, opening only in 1992 (read more here). I knew that something was up when I searched for their most recent 990 form, and the best that I could find was a document from 2003, which had most of the information redacted from it. But I still have a lot to say about the visitor experience, and I believe that there are some lessons visual arts organizations could take from the field of “living collection” institutes.

The Shark Tunnel

The first thing that you notice when you enter Adventure Aquarium is that it’s crowded and about every other person is pushing a stroller (we were there on a holiday that fell on a weekend). You are funneled first through the cafeteria and the air is heavy with the scent of fried food. A visitor can then make his or her way to a number of “adventure zones”. Kids are everywhere: they are excited and loving the experience, pointing at animals and “ooh-ing”; some seem a little bit scared or timid about the scarier sea life. There are lots of adults too, mostly youngish couples, and maybe a few gangs of teens.

For this kind of hybrid educational/adventure experience, it feels like there is no way that a visual or performing arts organization can beat a zoo or aquarium. At Adventure Aquarium, you can touch a shark, ogle hippopotami, and stare at all other kinds of sea life, large and small. And penguins—how can you compete with penguins? It’s impossible; even film producers know as much. It can be no coincidence that the shelves of the gift shop have been lined with any kind of stuffed penguin you could imagine.

In all, it is an immersive experience into which people of all ages can lose themselves. Though I don’t have any solutions, arts administrators should think carefully about how we can evoke this type of experience at a museum or theater. When a parent says to their kid, “We’re going to the Art Museum!” it should elicit the same type of glee as proclaiming a visit to the aquarium.

"Touch a Shark"

But I do feel that the educational experience at Adventure Aquarium suffers for the fact that they have become a for-profit entity. It exists sporadically, but it is clearly ancillary. Staff on hand to facilitate touching of sharks or feeding of birds do more barking out of rules for interaction, rather than interpreting and informing about the animals; it felt anonymous and assembly line, if you will: “you fed the bird, great! Next in line and keep it moving…” In another example, some tanks had no labels as to the type of fish that are in them, and those that do are very simplistic. I feel that you need to give simple, bullet-point information for the casual user and younger reader, but offer more detailed description for those who are interested. I see this as an area where content for smart phones can be employed, with the option to access extra information to augment a visitor’s experience.

Wall text example

There exists a greater intangible related to these examples: the fact that Adventure Aquarium no longer exists for the purpose of science, learning, and serving the community. A place like Mystic Aquarium has a certain gravitas, enabled by the fact that it and its partner, the highly respectable undersea explorer Robert Ballard’s Institute for Exploration, is operated by the Sea Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization. But at Adventure Aquarium, the visitor experience, even the fun to be had, is transparently commoditized. Serving a greater good has become obfuscated in the quest for the bottom line. This is not to say that we do not care about making money, at least to the point of covering expenditures, at a nonprofit. Even though losses are regularly swallowed, and sometimes the norm, earned income is still an important component of the revenue stream, all in the service of a greater purpose: the mission.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fallen Blossoms in Philadelphia

Cai Guo-Qiang - Life Scroll, 2009

I am posting a selection of photos from Cai Guo-Qiang’s Fallen Blossoms at The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Doubtless, many more people will have seen his parallel works on view simultaneously at Philadelphia Museum of Art; but I hope to provide a glimpse of what he did for FWM for those who may not get to see it. In order to avoid a conflict of interest, I will refrain from commenting on the exhibition, other than to say that the five resident weavers are doing amazing work that deserves to be seen by more people.

Cai Guo-Qiang - Time Flies Like A Weaving Shuttle, 2009-2010

Detail of a tapestry

Having been invited to participate as resident artisans by Cai Guo-Qiang and FWM, this group of five extraordinary women has travelled from a village in the Xiangxi region of Hunan Province, China. To give you an idea of how remote that is, it took 30 hours for them just to get to Beijing so that they could start their journey to the U.S.A. Each of them has been practicing their craft on traditional looms such as these for decades and it really is a wonder not only to see them at work, but also to appreciate the tapestries that they have completed. The subjects of these tapestries are inspired by their interpretation of the life story of the late Philadelphia Museum of Art Director Anne d’Harnoncourt.

Be sure to scan through my gallery to see more images of the exhibition, including the manmade river washing over his latest gunpowder drawing.

Cai Guo-Qiang - Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project, 2009

Cai Guo-Qiang - Timeline, 2009

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Man with the Karaoke Machine

If you’ve spent any considerable time in Philadelphia, you’ll probably know about Sonny Forriest, Jr. My first sighting happened about two years ago. It was a very warm summer day at the office and our windows were wide open. Music began to drift up above the general noise of traffic outside. It soon became identifiable as someone singing “Stand By Me” over an instrumental track, becoming gradually louder and louder. Looking down from the fourth floor window, I saw a man creeping down the sidewalk in his motorized wheelchair, singing into a karaoke machine that had been built into the chair. I have since encountered him many times in Center City near my workplace.

A Sonny sighting at 13th & Filbert

While I think that Sonny was always known in the city, videos of him became something of a local viral sensation parallel to the 2008 Phillies World Championship run. He was a fixture of the postseason, an expression of the sheer joy of unadulterated fandom, clad from head to toe in his Phillies red, and singing his original composition, the “Go Phillies Go!” fight song. Some cursory internet searches on him yield a few morsels of information and plenty of videos. If we can trust his bio, he was apparently a member of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes and the Philly Intruders, though other music database sites do not seem to confirm it.

After a recent sighting, I really began to ponder this gentleman and what he does. I say that he is an artist and what he creates is art. If you have seen the man live, it is clear that what he does is as vital to him as breathing. Is that not the defining relationship between an artist and his or her art? Without a shred of irony or self-consciousness, Sonny sings his heart out all around the city whether anyone is paying attention or not. Don’t agree that he is an artist? Pretend he was a university trained MFA with the blessings of influential dealers and insiders doing a performance piece; then there would be no question about the “art” status of what he does. Or imagine that someone photographed or video recorded him and then the work was curated into an exhibition; it has now become art because someone has appropriated it and placed it within a different and specific context.

Apropos to Sonny Forriest, Jr., and certain other situations, I would argue that taste has no bearing—in fact, it doesn’t even apply. We can talk about the concept of moral, immoral, and amoral. I believe that there is also tasteful, distasteful, and let us say “a-tasteful,” or something existing outside the realm of taste. In order for this concept of “a-tasteful” to apply, there must be a true lack of self-consciousness. That said, this kind of art can still tap the emotions of a viewer.

These thoughts bring me back to the magnificent James Castle retrospective at Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008. Here was a man compelled by an inner need to make art every day of his life, art that was intensely and personally significant to his very being, never shared with the public until after his death. Again, you can have experts and critics analyze the work, put it into a museum or gallery setting, and talk about its formal merits or how it betrays his true self-taught grasp of concepts like perspective and composition. But projecting any valuations of good or bad is simply a waste of time. Now Sonny, on the other hand, throws himself open to the world; but, I would ask, would he be acting any differently were no one listening?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Quem sou eu - A credo

Welcome to my blog! Bem vindos ao meu blog! I strive to bring you a fresh point of view on events and issues concerning the arts, with an eye towards visual arts and nonprofit organizations, especially those in the Greater Philadelphia region. I will also devote considerable attention to the visual arts and culture from Brasil, a particular passion of mine. The content of my posts will incorporate multitudinous topics, be they commentary on art exhibitions, rants or raves about artists and their work, ruminations on events in the art world, or general observations on culture. I do not intend to impersonate a curator, critic, or scholar of the arts in any way; my opinions are informed by a combination of my formal education, professional experience, personal taste, and gut reaction.

To tell you a bit about myself, I live in the Delaware Valley area and I work for a nonprofit visual arts organization in Philadelphia. I am currently a graduate student of Arts Administration. My educational background is in Art History and Classics (i.e. Ancient Latin/Greek/Classical History and Culture). Classical training notwithstanding, I follow contemporary art most closely. In addition to my current administrative position in the arts, I also have professional experience as an educator.

And what of this blog’s title, Post-Nonprofalyptic? The name is especially timely. It is a pivotal and galvanizing moment to be an individual both working in and studying the nonprofit arts sector. Moreover, it is an all around critical moment in the way that the arts and nonprofit organizations are perceived by the average person, the public whose interest these institutions are (or ought to be) serving. I see the “Great Recession” as a D-Day of sorts, a momentous reference point from which everything, including in the arts, will be evaluated as to whether it falls before or after. Most of my firsthand perspective comes from the “after” and whatever transpires in this post-nonprofalyptic era, as I forge my way ahead not only as a professional in the field, but also an enthusiastic consumer of its product. As professionals in the arts, we must become post-nonprofalyptic in our thinking and in our actions. Rather than being a rule which dictates the form and content of my posts, the post-nonprofalyptic mindset is a modality, a way of being that I will apply to my observations and criticisms of the arts.