Calder's Circus

Part of Exhibition: Singular Visions



of an Exhibit

by Ma'ayan Eckstein

Published on April 15, 2012 , Modified on May 11, 2012

  • Museum: Whitney Museum of American Art

  • Visit Date: March, 2012

  • Description:

    During a recent visit to the Whitney Museum of American Art, I explored the Singular Visions exhibition. The goal of this exhibition, as explained by an introductory text panel, is to invite “visitors to slow down and experience art in a dramatic new way.” Twelve works from the museum’s permanent collection are displayed in their own gallery space. This design allows visitors to examine and explore each artwork in a concentrated and focused way—without the distraction of other pieces. One of the first galleries features Calder’s Circus by Alexander Calder. I spent a majority of my time exploring this piece and in the spirit of the Singular Visions exhibition will focus my review on my experience with this singular exhibit.

    Calder created the characters and performers in his circus out of household items like wire and bottle corks. He designed each figure so that he could manipulate them to perform circus tricks and stunts. There is a clown who spits water and acrobats who loop around a wire suspended above the ring. Calder actually took this act on the road and performed his circus spectacular for audiences in Paris and New York. His performers and set pieces are arranged in anticipation of the next show. Calder’s creations stand at attention beneath a glass box in the center of the gallery. As a slightly short adult I found myself leaning over to get a better look at the details of the scene. But I noticed that the child peering in across from me needed to make no such adjustment. He was the perfect height. I noticed that the two additional display cases set along the wall were also suspended at a kid-friendly height.

    A video shows Calder, himself, playing with the circus. A small bench is set in front of the screen, inviting visitors to enjoy the show. We see a dagger-thrower, a belly dancer named Fannie, and a clown blowing up a balloon through his nose. The video enlivens the frozen performers in the display cases by allowing viewers to see how they moved with the help of their creator.
    The complimentary audio guide also breathes life into the exhibition. Interestingly, it was designed for younger visitors. However, it is easily accessible to the curious adult. The audio invites listeners to locate various performers and then gives information about their design and function. Interviews with modern-day circus performers are woven in throughout the program. The real-life performers tell the listener what it is like to glide across the tightrope and flip around on the trapeze. Circus music plays throughout the program creating a multisensory experience for the listener.

    As I ambled around the gallery I was struck by how conscious the designers of the space were of children. The height of the display cases and the subject matter puts the artwork on their level in an obvious way. And the audio guide supports that. It is as if the curators of the space intended visitors to yearn for the time when they could effortlessly immerse themselves in the wonder and fantasy that is the circus. I certainly did.

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