Doris Duke's Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art

Review

of an Exhibition

by Maeve Montalvo

Published on December 29, 2012, Modified on December 29, 2012

  • Description:

    I did not intend to visit Shangri La. On a grey and sleeting December afternoon I was trudging to the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) in New York to see the much talked about exhibit “The Art of Scent.” I was still shaking off the cold after checking my coat when I was startled by a glimpse of paradise next to the elevators. The electronic map/guide panel had shifted to a scene of a beautiful house perched above a glistening ocean: “5th Floor – Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art.” I was intrigued. The name Doris Duke called to mind celebrity and riches, even if I couldn’t recall whether I knew or had ever known anything about her in particular. And Shangri La? Was this a real place? An ideal? A quest? Whatever it was the picture of warmth and tropical sunshine appealed to my winter-beaten body. I decided a short detour wouldn’t hurt.

    Two hours later I left the exhibition having thoroughly explored every inch of the modestly sized gallery. The exhibition is a study in contrasts, which is partly the curators’ intent. But no contrast was more striking to me than my own reaction. I was entranced by the beauty and magic of Shangri La, the Islamic inspired yet utterly original home created by heiress Doris Duke in Honolulu, Hawai’i; I was simultaneously disenchanted by the disagreement on the part of the show’s creators over what type of exhibition this would be: aesthetic or historical. In the MAD’s online video for this exhibition, guest curators Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins state: “We’ve tried to give people the experience of the house even though they’re not actually there by operating the show on many different levels and many different mediums.” What they have created is a space in which this desired effect occurs in fits and starts but is undone by their allegiance to traditional display practices. The MAD’s “Doris Duke’s Shangri La” is a tantalizing glimpse into an otherworldly place, but it could be so much more if it stepped beyond the safe design boundaries it is adhering to.

    It took two seconds to meet the first disappointment. I stepped off the elevator expecting paradise and was instead greeted by text. Lots of it. Two long, large text panels stretched across the middle of the room blocking me from the rest of the gallery. A long banner hung from the middle of the ceiling, also covered in text. I am not a text-adverse museum visitor by any means, but a striking visual was what had attracted me to the exhibit and I was momentarily overwhelmed – like the prince outside Sleeping Beauty’s castle – by the amount I had to cut through to get to what I desired. I admit I turned away at that moment and very well might have left were it not for what I glimpsed over my shoulder.

    The savior was a photograph by Timothy Street-Porter, the first in a series by him specially commissioned for this exhibit. His captured scenes of Shangri La are the visual highlight of the show and the heart of its ability to transport the visitor into Doris Duke’s world. They are quite large and brilliantly lit on specially built, freestanding vertical lightboxes. The resulting glow is fitting for depictions of a place where the very air seems to shimmer with opulence. These images fascinated me, and I was not alone: I observed many visitors enter the gallery and walk towards their light like moths drawn to a flame. These photographs – about a half dozen or so accompany the exhibition – were also the stimuli for the highest frequency of verbal interaction within family groups and even between strangers in the gallery.

    The power of these large-scale photographs was immediate and universal. They transcended barriers, attracting visitors of all ages speaking a variety of languages. Even visitors who came and went through the exhibit so fast you could have sworn they were contestants on the Amazing Race slowed down or stopped to look at these scenes. These photos truly accomplished the curators’ intent to give visitors “the experience of the house.” Why, then, were they relegated to the side with a physical wall of words before them? A much more compelling start to the show would have been one of these photographs, front and center, accompanied perhaps by a banner stating only the exhibition’s title.

    Sadly visitors are first presented with a barrage of dull colored panels of text that simply cannot compete with the colors and light of the photos and objects. This competition was the central design tension within “Doris Duke’s Shangri La.” There was a battle between the lush beauty of the subject matter and its formal academic assessment. It seemed, in fact, as if there were two related but separate shows taking place, and an absence of agreement or integration between them prevented either one from demonstrating its full potential.

    The first competing style was a traditional art museum exhibit of decorative arts, with individual objects elevated on pedestals or platforms and remarked on for their physical and aesthetic properties. Yet unlike in a traditional art exhibit – this is that failed potential – here there was an almost complete lack of aesthetic or even functional analysis. In the online video the curators express their design intention that visitors would see “these juxtapositions of the very valuable and the not so valuable, the artistically significant and the less historically significant, and not only those contrasts but also between the found and the commissioned.” They were alluding to Duke’s desire to choose objects for her house based not on their monetary or historical merits but simply on that most lasting merit of all: whether she liked them. (Apparently “we liked them” was the same reason these particular objects were chosen for this exhibit; at least that is what I have to assume, anyway, since no other explanation was given.)

    If the curators say this juxtaposition was happening I believe them, but I sure wouldn’t have been able to tell you where it was. To me, unschooled in the Islamic arts, everything looked beautiful. I had no idea what was valuable or not valuable; I had no concept of whether a piece was true to the historical process or not. Every piece was equally displayed. They were displaced from both their original context of creation and from their decorative or functional context within Shangri La. I had no point of reference and nothing to guide me. Furthermore, the simplicity of the accompanying labels was almost laughable. One particularly stunning object – a perfectly smooth, green jade bowl covered in curving tendrils of inlaid gold with red gemstone accents – was titled, simply, “Basket.” I suppose, of course, that it could hold something, but I found it impossible to connect this luxurious item with such a prosaic function. The ends of the handle alone, which were enameled in exquisite detail, would have made any Hermes bag blush. I had so many questions: Did Doris Duke use this “basket”? Was that how it was sold to her? Did she commission it? Was it a gift from the many dignitaries she met with? Was this in her living room? Her bedroom? Her bathroom? I longed for a way to integrate this stunning piece into my understanding of the house. But, as with the rest of the objects on display, I was left simply to admire the piece on its aesthetic merit without any context for its creation or use or any personalization or connection to Duke herself.

    The second competing style was a traditional history museum layout of information, seen primarily in the central text panels (yes, I did circle back to them eventually). These panels interspersed text, architectural renderings, and black and white photographs. Given my frustration with the lack of contextualization on the decorative objects, I approached the panels with high hopes for much more information about Duke and the creation of this magical space. Again I was disappointed. There was information, sure, but it was strangely disconnected from the rest of the exhibition. Leaving objects – and thus the rest of the gallery – behind, this section concentrated on the design of the house and only hinted at Duke’s personal life. Reading through the panels felt like being shown random snippets of a silent film. Photographs of her friends showed Duke smiling, but brief mentions only touched on what they might have meant to her life in Hawai’i. A honeymoon scrapbook of press clippings made by her first husband was a testament to her celebrity, but her own voice was glaringly absent. Most annoyingly, precious space was allocated to several renderings of architectural elements that were never even built, and there was no explanation as to why they were drawn up but not realized. If it wasn’t from lack of money – and that hardly seems like it could have been the case – what was it? Did Duke see the designs and not like them? Were they too difficult to build on the terrain? I learned a little bit about the primary architect, Marion Sims Wyeth, but was in the dark on the true process of the creation of this house. How much of it was collaboration between Wyeth and Duke? How much was her vision? How similar was this to the homes he had created in fashionable Palm Beach? Besides the beauty and the opulence, what was the true story of this house?

    A third show-within-a-show was the display of contemporary artworks by artists who had completed residences at Shangri La. These works, however, blended smoothly with the pieces around them and so did not battle with the rest of the exhibition. Even if I did not understand the cultural and historical references in their artist statements – and, for the most part, I did not – I enjoyed the clear visual ties between the contemporary pieces and their inspirations. One artist, Afruz Amighi, was able to clearly explain her work’s origin in a powerful way. Her creation Rocket Gods (see image 6) used the visual language of the Islamic lanterns hanging nearby to create a thoroughly moving and modern statement. Unfortunately the text label for her piece was so small and far away that I’m afraid few will read it and understand the piece for what it is. One visitor actually asked me if she thought we were allowed to step closer to the text, commenting that she couldn’t see it from where we were standing. And my mother, who saw the exhibit separately, confirmed that she had not read the labels for Amighi’s work because she didn’t think she was allowed to stand there. This inconsiderate text placement and small size is keeping a moving piece of artwork from being properly understood.

    I am glad that I took the detour to see this exhibition. The visual takeaway from “Doris Duke’s Shangri La” is well worth the trip. I left the museum mentally walking the halls of Duke’s home and vowing to locate her biography and to someday visit Hawai’i to see Shangri La for myself. For peaking curiosity, then, the exhibition gets full marks. But understanding? For that I will have to look elsewhere. The curators were trying to capture the experience of being at Shangri La, but blinded by riches they missed the most crucial element for successfully interpreting a historic space: a personal story. They brought the furniture, but they forgot Doris. In the entire exhibition I found not one quote from her, despite the fact that she spent decades crafting this home. Whether omitting her was done out of respect for her desire to escape celebrity or whether it was a ploy to let the objects take center stage I do not know, but the choice does both Duke and the exhibition a disservice. I was glad to overhear a gallery tour guide discussing Duke’s opinions and actions, but sad to know that only a few of the visitors who passed through would get to hear even a part of her story.

    As the show is traveling on I hope that some of these challenges can be addressed. First on the “to do” list: larger text labels. Next up: a reorganization of the existing elements to better integrate the Street-Porter photographs with the objects and furnishings from the rooms they represent. Thinking expansively, I would love to see the curators rework the entire exhibit to more closely evoke the “experience” of being in the house by creating intimate rooms, each based on a theme and integrating stoneware, photographs, jewelry, text, and artwork all at once into a smaller, more cohesive unit. A computer screen with background information on all of the objects – or a ring binder, or even just more informative object labels – would aid the curious. Finally, stronger integration of the technological presence would go a long way and make better use of already created resources. The curators’ video on the website and their cell phone audio tour in the galleries clearly displayed their love for this subject, yet their voices were absent from the writing on the walls (and with the way the guard stared me down as I tried to listen to the tour on my phone, that doesn’t seem like the most popular option either). Rather than relegating their opinions to the more “daring” world of technology and leaving the galleries with only the impersonal and academic, I think they should be brave and put their video and even their own written thoughts throughout the gallery. If they choose to present the objects as unexplained items of aesthetic beauty and hesitate to personalize the exhibition with Duke’s story, then at least they can provide cohesion by justifying their choices through their own story of the creation of this exhibition.

Latest Comments (2)

thoughtful review

by Kathleen Mclean - December 30, 2012

and hopefully the curators will read it and think about your suggestions before they send it on the road

Shangri La

by Kinneret Kohn - January 02, 2013

Maeve – When visiting the exhibit I was struck by many of the same disappointments as you; the aggressive intro text banner, the strangely hidden wall texts of the contemporary artists, and it took me 10 minutes and a museum staff person to find Walid Raad’s contribution to the show. Likewise, I was also struck by Street-Porter’s vibrant photography and Amighi’s piece. You really captured the exhibit well.

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