III. Ban: The Museum
If iconoclasm is the dismantling of venerated institutions, then Shigeru Ban’s Nomadic Museum (currently erected on Pier 54 in New York, but about to wander off to LA) is, paradoxically, iconoclasm embodied. Although it is monumental, the structure is the antithesis of the Met's Neoclassical Columns, or the Whitney's rock-like brutalism: a series of massive metal shipping containers constitute the walls, while the lofty ceiling is held over them by massive tubular pillars of paper. Despite its cathedral-like solidity, the very purpose of the building is displayed by its construction: the nomadic museum is (as the name reveals) about wandering, about dismantling itself and becoming something else. To paraphrase Heraclitus three times: the museum will stand on the same river for three months but it is never the same water in the river; the museum will relocate around the world but it will never be quite the same museum; museums will continue to exist but they are never quite the same.
This last reason – the changing significance of the same institution in a new context (a new century) – is the reason that Marinetti called for the destruction of the museums. The preservation of a slow and unenlightened past was anathema to the speed-obsessed Futurists but allying with Mussolini ended up allying them with the symbols of Ancient Rome which they despised. Likewise the 1929 foundation of MoMA shifted the paradigm of global art appreciation but the preservation of the new canon in a conservative building in 2005 betrays its past by clinging to it. Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland the only way to stay still is by running fast, and even that is no guarantee.
From the recycled paper of the pillars to the re-used shipping containers (still bearing the names of their last commercial lessees) to the million recycled paper tea bags that provide inobtrusive drapes in the calm darkness of the interior, the museum bears witness to the continuing journeys of goods and materials: they bear the marks of their last journey and their next destination. There is no pretence that these journeys are easy -- this pier is, after all, where the Titanic was to have docked – but the record of the journey is important, however traumatic, banal, or transformative.
Visiting the museum is comfortingly like visiting any other museum in many ways: there is an exhibition to view, there is artwork reverently lit, an aura of hush permeates the building encouraged by the gentle, almost subsonic music that is played. And yet…
IV. What are you looking at?
The photographs that hang luminously from wires seem to be the objects on display. They are large (up to three feet by ten feet) and are generally hung horizontally, although the occasional one is hung vertically. They are rendered on thick, rough, handmade parchment that catches and holds the light that beams down from the dark heights. Their images are arresting: a series of magnificent animals posing with photogenic children and women from the places Colbert has visited (India, Burma. Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Sri Lanka, and Antarctica, among others). Elephants, whales, bobcats, and eagles sit, walk, lie or fly with humans in a serenity that is almost tangible and suffuses the walkway with a sense of the sacred. These panels are indeed magnificent (you can see smaller versions at http://www.ashesandsnow.org) but they are not the resting point of the exhibition.
Indeed, there is no resting point, let alone the structure of the museum – even the material on which the images are displayed draws the viewer away from the image. The thickness and texture of the parchment reminds us of the photograph’s nature as an object; curling gently in space. Not framed in the usual sense of the word, the material often extends a foot beyond the images. There, at the edge of the image, they are framed with patches of excess colour, by the emphasized texture of the parchment or by extra strips seemingly pasted over their edge. The sepia tones of the soft-focus photographs relax into the unbleached background in the same way that the tableaux they present fade into their own desert, sea, or mist backgrounds. There is no confusion of form and field here, but rather a constructive migration of focus through the subject of the image, the substratum of its presentation, the context of its appearance.
The luminosity of the photos draws the viewer’s gaze not only up to the light source in the heights but also down to the final destination of the light on the floor. Stark rectangles of light from the masked spotlights end up on the thick pebbles behind the photographs. The sharp black shadows of the photographs lie in the middle of these lighted pebbles which are otherwise in gloom as they mark, inobtrusively, the limit of the walkable beyond the narrow wooden walkway that leads visitors through the photographs. The pebbles mark a no-go area – the photographs are not to be approached nearer than two feet nor to be viewed from behind. The pebbles, the worn wood of the walkway, the viscous darkness of the hall’s volume, the diaphanous drapes of recycled teabags, the light beams and recycled paper tubes all of these are a tangible part of the exhibition too: a context that, despite its solidity is almost as gentle as the moments captured by the photographs. Instead of the strange and beautiful tranquil collocation of (for example) elephant and boy, the museum locates viewer and art in another, relocated, tranquility.
Although many exhibitions are well lit with a de facto route through the exhibits, few of them feel – as this one does – like a theatrical performance or a religious service. The visitor is expected to move slowly through the exhibition down the nave towards the chancel where, in place of a priest and altar, an hour-long video is playing on another luminous hanging, this time a full-size cinema screen. The photographs are both superseded and complemented by the video which appears to include all the moments captured by the paper prints. The prints highlight moments and present them, the video links them together and also to the soundtrack that echoes the sounds of the rest of the exhibition but also has a gently esoteric narrated framework.
The scenes play in slow motion, beginning with underwater footage of Colbert himself edited in such a way that it feels as though he is underwater for an eternity. The motion of swimmers, walkers, kneelers in the video – human or animal – is dancelike in its grace and gains strength but not weight by the slowness of the playback: stillness in the midst of motion, motion that feels like stillness. Despite its hippy philosophy, mythic scope, and deliberate cycling of action the film “Ashes and Snow” only occasionally becomes pompous. This is epic zen at its best because it links the peacefulness of the external world with the peacefulness of the internal world. It records the need for the moment but it refuses to archive the record.
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Witnessing Marshall Meyer
We Will Destroy the Museums
Dan Friedman on Ashes and Snow
Heart of Pinkness
Our 670 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
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From previous issues:
Are the Ten Commandments Really Carved in Stone?
The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism