Getting into the Artwork

April 2, 2009

When I first entered the Franz West show and encountered the papier-mâché articles that are meant to be interacted with—the Adaptives—a smile bubbled up inside me. West makes art that includes you in its space. It’s art that changes over time, either in its use or by its use. This may be the quickest and easiest route to creating engagement with the art viewer, but it is an honest invitation all the same, and I find beauty in that.

A photographer whose work reminds me of West is Erwin Wurm. The first photograph I remember seeing by Wurm was Outdoor Sculpture Cahors. It’s mostly a photo of a street. There’s also a wall on the right and a man bent over at 90 degrees at the waist with his head completely obscured in what is ostensibly a hole in that wall, as if he had no head at all. My reaction was, “This guy Wurm is funny.” Wurm makes photographs that I find funny because they are pictures of people interacting with the space around them in ways in which that space is not usually interacted with. Ultimately, this realm of interaction reaches the same slapstick spot that stupid human tricks tickle—but it gets there via the glossy photo book, museum, or gallery setting, which only compounds the amusement.

Erwin Wurm, Outdoor Sculpture Cahors, 1999

Erwin Wurm, Outdoor Sculpture Cahors, 1999

In January, I went to SFMOMA and partook in “The Trap of the Truth,” one of Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures. To do so I held a can of beans, a carrot, a banana, a green pepper, and an orange (all of which were plastic) between me and the gallery wall, as a small pencil-drawn diagram told me to do. “The Trap of the Truth” was part of the exhibit The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, a multi-artist show examining “how artists have engaged members of the public as essential collaborators in the art-making process.” Like with West’s work, lots of visitors were enjoying participating with the artwork. I’m just glad I summoned the gumption to grab a stranger and ask them to take my picture with my balanced fruits and can.


Sarah Bay Williams, Ralph M. Parsons Fellow, Photography

Rethinking Oceanic Art

April 1, 2009

At a presentation I attended last month at LACMA, scholars and leading art historians gathered to talk about the museum’s new Oceanic art collection and consider different ways to present it. It was a provocative discussion. Christina Hellmich, a curator of New Guinea and Oceanic art at the de Young, presented an interesting point of view. She quoted a Michael Kimmelman review in which he said, “Objects are not static; they are the accumulation of all their meanings.”

Representing nearly 1,800 distinct cultures and hundreds of artistic traditions in an area that covers about one-third of the earth’s surface, the new Oceanic works of art in LACMA’s collection have accumulated multiple stories and layers of meaning before arriving here. Some of the objects were used for ritual and ceremonial purposes and are considered sacred. Many have a distinguished provenance and reflect an era of exploration, such as the eighteenth-century Hawaiian drum collected by Captain James Cook in 1778.

Hawaiian Islands, Drum, circa 1760

Hawaiian Islands, Drum, circa 1760

Others, like the Solomon Islands ceremonial shield, depict the human form and inspired various modern artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Solomon Islands, Santa Isabel Island, Ceremonial Shield, circa 1800

And others, like the Rapanui dance paddle with its fluid, curving forms, can simply be appreciated from an aesthetic point of view.


Easter Island, Rapanui Dance Paddle, circa 1800

These multiple layers raise the question: How will these artworks be presented? Jack Flam, president of the Dedalus Foundation, encouraged us to preserve the individuality of each object. To give the objects space and breathing room. To not overemphasize the otherness of the artworks, but instead find commonalities with our own culture and across the museum’s collection. This will be a challenging task, but one rich in possibilities.

Since attending the panel, I’ve been asking myself these questions: A work of art can tell stories about the spirit and identity of people past and present; which stories do we tell? What stories or layers of meaning will visitors bring to these works of art? I can’t wait to find out.

Rachel Bernstein, Senior Education Coordinator

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