Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui

Review

of an Exhibition

by David Vining

Published on April 12, 2013, Modified on April 13, 2013

  • Description:

    I visited the current El Anatsui exhibition twice over the last few weeks; once on a weekday in the late afternoon, and once on a Saturday at mid-day. I went back because I enjoyed spending time in the exhibition, and wanted to further explore its nooks and crannies. Overall, the presentation of the work is wonderful and thought provoking. I was also left with some questions about some of the curatorial choices, mainly the inclusion of so much technology and video content. I highly recommend the exhibition, but advise you to skip the iPads, if they are functional, as they did not add anything to my experience of the work.

    Once you make your way to the almost secret special exhibition hall on the fifth floor of the Brooklyn Museum, through the current 18th Century America exhibit (an interesting, accidental, juxtaposition that says a lot about the breadth of the Brooklyn Museum’s offerings) and turn through the unobtrusive and mostly unmarked archway into the first gallery of Monumental Works, you instantly understand what they mean by monumental. The sheer scale of Anatsui’s work coupled with the curatorial choice to fill the wide open space of the first gallery with a suspended work that fills center of the room, draws you into the exhibition and instantly gets you curious about the nature of El Anatsui’s work and what else you will see. Also in this first gallery is a group of (relatively) smaller works grouped in a corner opposite a flat screen television screen playing a short documentary film about the artist. Of all the media attached to the exhibition, this was perhaps the most interesting, but its placement so close to the artwork, and the sound bleed, seemed intrusive, interfering with the lovely private feeling that the blocked off corner location of the group creates in contrast to the wide open entry space. I can only guess that it was deemed more important for me to notice the film than to spend time with these pieces. Also in this first gallery is the first of Anatsui’s tin can lid sculptures on display. It is also set up in a blocked off corner and the placement of this snakelike piece, crawling from the floor up the walls of the room made me wonder for the first time how much the artist controlled the arrangement of his works and how they were hung or set.

    The answer to this question was waiting for me in a wall label in the second gallery of the exhibition. El Anatsui leaves the hanging etc. of his works to the discretion of the curators, seeing the exhibiting of his work as an opportunity for collaboration with the presenters. This idea activated the pieces on a whole other level for me. I was glad to know it early on, and I can only imagine that this attitude both challenged and delighted the exhibition designers. The second gallery holds several of what I would consider more “monumental” tapestry type pieces and also a grouping of giant shopping bags in the center of the large open gallery. The first time I saw the exhibition this grouping did not connect with me, its drab coloring and creased edges in sharp contrast with the vibrant color and soft movement of the pieces on the wall. I wondered if they were where they were for any purpose or merely because it was where they fit. Upon my return I spent some more time walking amidst the group and found myself on a bit of a journey all the sudden and felt that the experience of wandering between these giant sculptures offered a nice and useful change from looking up at the huge wall hangings that filled the rest of the gallery.

    Also on the floor of both the second and third galleries were two more of the tin can sculptures. One arranged in a complex mound and the other as a series of sort of ant-hill shaped structures. The great luster of the pieces when approached transforms into a realization of the jagged and rusted material of their construction in a way that communicated the overarching message of El Anatsui’s process based art more clearly than any of the other works in the exhibition. In addition their arrangement once more got me thinking about the curatorial choices made in terms of shaping the “fabric” of the tin cans. Fascinating!

    In between the second and third galleries were some much smaller works, mostly made of recycled wood. There were more of these in a small room off of the third gallery as well. They show an earlier phase of El Anatsui’s career and I was glad to see them included with his more well-known tapestry style pieces. Noted in the labels I found another bit of information that stuck with me and piqued my curiosity. Almost all of these early pieces were marked as altered by the artist very recently – my assumption from the dates is that the changes were made in anticipation of this exhibition – and I was compelled to look deeper at the pieces and try to determine both how and why he updated them.

    In the third gallery there are two massive hangings put directly side by side, almost touching each other. They are made almost entirely of the metal tops to whiskey bottles and are studies in red and black respectively. Though I understand the reasoning of putting the two pieces so close together – they are certainly related works – the overall effect on me was to lessen the impact of both pieces. The other large work in the third gallery was another tapestry type hanging, also made of El Anatsui’s signature combination of mundane recycled materials, but this one moved. I mean it literally moved. It was in fact, upon closer inspection, mounted on a false wall that houses fans and conduits that blow air through parts of it making it move. Both the fans and the art itself also made noise as the breeze flapped through the material. There was one of the iPads on the bench in front of it and my disappointment in them was confirmed when I turned it on (this one, unlike some of the others was working) and got no insight into the particular piece (as I was hoping) or anything really but a thirty second talking head interview about the artist from a critic or curator. That’s when I officially gave up on the technological elements of the exhibit.

    Despite that disappointment I was thoroughly engaged in the exhibition. It was well attended both times I visited, and the third gallery did tend to get crowded as there was no clear way to exit from it without retreating back through the other galleries, but I was able to enjoy everything even with some traffic flow issues. I highly recommend the exhibit for its contents, and the exercise in curatorial imagination that it also inspires.

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