The date the Berlin wall was destroyed was 11/9/1989. I was born 6/13/1990. This is what you will see if you google image search “berlin wall ruins”:
I believe it was around the time of my 16th year that I began to get the feeling that I was born into ruins. The feeling was ambiguous; it was the result of an atmosphere more than an environment. I didn’t know what, specifically, the thought of ruins referred to. What ruin was I born into? When I learned about, or rather, when I first comprehended the significance of the fall of the Berlin wall and the proximity of that event to the event of my birth, the question seemed somewhat answered. However, this answer was too obvious.
I searched elsewhere.
For context: I grew up in the suburbs of Colorado Springs. The photographs of Robert Adams accurately capture the feeling of the place.
To move to the suburbs is to move out of contact with other people. It’s to move out of history. I believe this move works, or did work, for a generation or two until the internet entered suburban homes.
If one googles “internet 1990s”, one will find a link to the website of the New Media Institute. The page you will be accessing will be titled “history of the internet- 1990s”. The first entry reads:
1990: ARPANET, thought outdated and obsolete is decommissioned. During the same year, Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, and other CERN scientists begin to create the first actual incarnation of the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee and his colleagues developed a shared format for hypertext documents which was named hypertext markup language or HTML. In addition to HTML, Berners-Lee and others created uniform resource locator (URL) as a standard address format that could specify the computer being targeted and the type of information being requested. URL and HTML significantly increased the possibility of interaction between users and networks across the Internet. URL also made different Internet services such as Usenet news accessible to all users employing the system.
For some time, I had faith that the internet was implicated with the answer. The birth of this technology had made for a new mode of interaction. Essentially, this new mode of interaction seemed destined to obliterate anything previous.
Yet there was something shallow in this revelation. I don’t feel mistaken; the internet has caused a rupture that distances me from pre-internet society (hence, ruins). Yet the weight put on this one development in isolation seemed too convenient. I began noticing people of my generation obsessing over the internet (and contemporary physics) the same way previous generations obsessed over religion and capitalism. It seemed like this answer was a quick fix to an existential dilemma.
It wasn’t until I began meditating on museums after moving to New York that I found a substantial answer.
History is always about the present, meaning it is an active practice of organizing events into narratives. Can history be frozen? This seems to be the role of the museum. For example: the mineral section of the natural history museum. Millions of years of geologic activity to produce a gem or mineral, but the object is never “done” with this process. Even in the museum, it is not “done” but it is frozen, for the purposes of observation. The
mineral is not developing while behind glass.
Something about an object produced without conscious intention by nature allows for this freezing. An object produced by human hands, however, is imbued with intent, and intent is interpreted. The Mona Lisa Curse, a documentary by Robert Hughes, elaborates on the unique ability of a work of art to be susceptible to damage due to interpretation. Further, he demonstrates the power struggle that is interpretation and contextualization.
Hughes does much to demonstrate the effect of the market context on art, and I believe his demonstration is still useful. I do not feel satisfied, however, by his analysis of the museum as a context. He talks about the need to bring in crowds, mega shows, museum directors, and more, yet I’m not sure if he elaborated in other texts on looming trends in curating. Such trends involve radical re-contextualization of visual culture. The curator as creator, not of art, but of meaning. A powerful position in the age of information.
I have been to the Metropolitan Museum, MoMa, the Whitney (new and old), the Frick Collection, the Denver Art Museum, The National Gallery, Met: Cloisters, Dia: Beacon, Museum of the Moving Image, the Brooklyn Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the Guggenheim, the New Museum, the National Gallery, and others. When I lived in Denver, this list was much shorter. Having had such a limited exposure to museums, galleries, and art in general, my understanding of context was severely limited. I was accustomed to understanding art as images in the context of the screen. The museum as an experience of context (the museum context) started to become apparent to me as my experience broadened.
The Met is a powerhouse of historically relevant works. Its permanent collection is more powerful than any special exhibit can be. The show on contemporary Asian fashion was a parasite that perverted the Asian wing for months. However, when a special exhibit is curated in the same manner as the permanent collection, as was the case with the recent Egyptian show, the result is rewarding. This is all to say that the Met is for showcasing work in an “impartial” way. It is a museum for looking at objects relevant to the narrative of art history that corresponds with the way in which the narrative is organized. This is not to say the curating is without intent. The intent is simply non-confrontational (or rather, was non-confrontational).
The Cloisters tries to recreate the experience of setting, mise en scène, of the era it specializes in. Thus, the architecture, the physical space enveloping the work, has some degree of consistency with the work. However, there are cracks through which contemporary culture shines, revealing the artifice.
Contrasting the Met are museums such as the Whitney and the Brooklyn Museum. In these institutes, the curator is given freedom to completely renegotiate the context of a piece. I’ve seen curators physically overlap works from different artists, play with the space in which the art is shown in such ways as painting the walls different hues, or, more simply but powerfully, place a work of art next to another work of art to create a desired “discourse”. In the Brooklyn museum, I’ve seen this take the form of subversion. At the Whitney, I’ve seen this take the form of amplification. Both these museums have overt socio/political intentions.
One might say that by re-contextualizing works of art, they renegotiate the narrative of art history to be more inclusive and to highlight injustices that have defined the narrative. Another could say they disrespect individual artists by undermining the experience of the individual work of art, that they truly fail to fulfill the museum’s function of showcasing. Through curatorial intent, artists are disrespected. (It should be noted that the Brooklyn museum houses The Dinner Party in such a way to isolate the experience from the surrounding museum. It’s architecture is designed to showcase this piece as if it were a holy relic in a temple. The selection of this piece for isolation reveals much about curatorial intent.)
Closer to home for me, the Denver Art Museum is a museum of less means. Their
permanent collection is weak. Their access to quality special exhibits is low. Their curatorial intent is born out of desperation. How can I make this exhibition more engaging? It is a museum, however, with a controversial architectural design. One might say the building itself is more important than anything inside. It’s main building is not designed well for showcasing; this is one criticism leveled against it. In hopes to address this criticism, the museum once curated a powerful show in which artists engaged directly with the space of the museum, making site specific works. (A show I considered more interesting and less spectacular was, appropriately, a retrospective of Robert Adams, who’s work largely involved Colorado.)
I could continue elucidating the differences between these museums. I believe the point can be more powerfully made by analyzing a specific piece: Rodin’s Thought. One can be found in marble, at the Philadelphia art Museum, one can be found in bronze down the street at the Rodin Museum. If we define the sculpture by its physical proportions, these two sculptures are essentially the same. Medium already creates a difference. The marble feels soft and deep, the bronze feels hard and surface. I see the context in which the pieces are shown, however, as creating an equally important difference. The marble is shown on what looks less like a pedestal and more like a big chair, in the middle of a room of paintings. The marble is soft, like flesh, and the “chair” further reinforces a feeling of body. She is alien in this room. While both sculptures feature a woman “trapped” in her medium, she feels as though she is humiliated at the Philadelphia art museum. At the Rodin Museum, she is among her peers; she does not stand out. She is in the corner of a room that feels as though it is an office, very much out of the center of focus. Her display here is mundane, as if she is simply happy to be included.
These meditations on context help explain my feeling of being born into ruins. It’s not so much that any of these museum objects are “old” though they indeed feel as if they are from a past and alien world. Its the impulse to display them and to, in essence, speak through the way they are displayed.
We are now in the age of information, the light ages as opposed to the dark (light can be blinding, too, when it is powerfully shown straight in the eyes). We are also in an age of perpetual present (meaning the past and the future have collapsed into the present). We have begun to accept the challenging of historical narratives as a norm; there is no longer an agreed upon narrative. We live in a time when the dimension of objects can be interpreted into information: medium has lost the quality of being integral. An object in a museum is not valuable so much for its object-ness but for its historiography (keeping in mind that history is about the present), the information it evokes.
We are in a process of picking up the bits of information left by the past and created in the present and trying to organize them into something that is ours (but which “ours”?). We are beginning to realize an increasing irrelevance of creation and the new importance of contextualization. This change was predicted by Marshal McLuhan when he said learning would be the job of the future (not manipulation of objects, but information). This is a reconceptualization of the artist’s role, as well as the role of any maker.
These are the ruins I’ve felt: a change in how we interact with the material world. No longer as material, physical, but as information.