of an Exhibition

by Katherine Whitney

Published on November 17, 2014, Modified on November 17, 2014

  • Description:

    “Gorgeous” was a unique collaboration between San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Between June and September 2014, 72 works of art from both collections were intermingled in the galleries of the Asian Art Museum. This is one in a series of collaborations by SFMOMA, which is temporarily closed for construction. The artworks spanned dozens of cultures and 2,000 years, and they were exhibited to emphasize their aesthetic attributes rather than their historical or cultural contexts.

    The exhibit was indeed gorgeous. Beautiful objects artfully displayed, in rooms with sumptuous wall colors (which the Asian is known for.) I enjoyed seeing objects that in some cases rarely see the light of day—like an elegant Chinese ceramic female figure from the 1st century BCE. I also was struck by interesting juxtapositions, like Jeff Koons’ “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” in front of a 16th century Chinese screen.

    As I walked into the first gallery, past an engaging video of people on San Francisco streets talking about what they think “gorgeous” means, I entered a darkened room with dramatically light objects of art. Gorgeous. I looked to an intro panel to help me understand what the exhibition was about. Under the header “Inside Gorgeous,” I read “Sleeping Beauty is flawlessly admirable even as she lies still and oblivious." Huh? I read on: “No one agrees on much about the gorgeous, but this much is certain: it never sleeps.” I was confused. The last paragraph of the 250-word label contained some of the tidbits I was looking for: “The artworks were selected to call your attention to your own preferences and assumptions and provide personal rewards, visual pleasure, and a stimulating artistic experience…we offer reactions and thoughts, signed with our names, about how individual curators experience the art. We are wearing different hats this time, as participants in a conversation that very much includes you.”

    In other words: “We’ve chosen these objects not for traditional scholarly reasons, but because we find them gorgeous.” That last sentence was in the catalog (available for purchase in the museum store.) I wish it had been the first line of the intro text on the gallery wall.

    Wearing my label-writer hat, I was intrigued by the authored labels. Curators Forrest McGill and Alison Harding wrote informal and opinionated labels, often in the first person. Many were funny and irreverent. So interesting. So different from what I’m used to reading in an art museum. So refreshing. Here are bits from a label Forrest McGill wrote about a Mythical bird-man from Central Thailand:

    “Full disclosure: this sculpture is included here because it’s a favorite of mine…Among bird-men, this has got to be the handsomest. Look at the elegant plumage rising along the legs and the superb whiplashing tail feathers any bird of paradise would envy…Finally there’s his tender, intelligent face. I confess I’m smitten…”

    Not all of the labels are as engaging as bird-man. But many of them are, and they are fun to read. Others do revert to familiar art-history speak. And many of them are very very long. In many cases a single object got double label treatment when both curators wrote about it. Over time I was overwhelmed by the amount reading I was expected to do.

    This leads me to my major critique of this, in many ways wonderful, exhibition. Although it called out directly to visitors, it didn’t really listen to them.

    Back to the last few lines of the intro text: “The artworks were selected to call your attention to your own preferences and assumptions and provide personal rewards, visual pleasure, and a stimulating artistic experience…We are wearing different hats this time, as participants in a conversation that very much includes you.”

    But how was the visitor included? In this exhibition, there was no place provided for a conversation, unless this was an indirect way of telling visitors they were supposed to be having conversations with each other. There was no talk-back board, no iPads where visitors could share their thoughts and read those of other visitors, no comment cards. Later I went to the web site looking for some kind of beyond-the-museum-walls audience participatory presence. (SFMOMA has done this in the past.) Nothing. Except this declaration: “This isn’t about what the museum thinks, it’s about what you think.” Not quite.

    In addition to making it easier for visitors to participate in the conversation, they needed more help understanding what the exhibition was all about. The catalog was quite clear. Forrest McGill writes “in this exhibition we are trying to keep the focus on what the objects look like and how we react when we encounter them,” and the “challenge for visitor and museum curator alike is to just look, feel, and think, with little to go on but the art object.” Unfortunately, these words weren’t up on the walls for non-catalog-buying visitors to read. They should have been.

    And finally, as a field we know a lot about what visitors do when faced with long labels. They don’t read them. If these lively labels were shorter and limited to one per object, even motivated label-readers like me would be happier.

    I applaud SFMOMA and the Asian for putting on this dynamic exhibition and for experimenting with new ways of communicating with their visitors. Here’s hoping that visitors get to participate more fully in successive exhibitions.

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